What To Do with the Bible

Some people don’t read the Bible enough.  Others read it too much.

Let me explain.

For the former: the Bible is good for you!  It reveals the overarching story of God’s gracious and good purposes for our world that find fulfillment in Jesus, spin forward to us, and culminate in the Lord’s making all things new, just as he always promised.  Learning the sacred scriptures individually and in community locate us in God’s story, which is the story for life, the universe, and everything.  By entering the world of the Bible, skeptics have found faith, sufferers hope, and truly the dead life.

But Christians can also read the Bible too much, or, if I can add some nuance, they treat the scriptures the wrong way.  At liberti, we happily affirm that the Bible is God’s inspired word; it’s not for us to come to the Word as if it were a buffet, picking out what we like and leaving the brussels sprouts for the others.  At the same time, there’s more than one way to use the Golden Corral: sometimes Christians use the Bible to stuff themselves with knowledge and get really, really fat.

Of course the Bible isn’t a random collection of fortune cookies for daily inspiration, much less a fallible record of what a small handful of ancient near Easterners thought about religion (whether as oval-tine or opiate for the masses, depending on one’s perspective)––although we’re glad humbly and honestly to dialogue with any and everyone that would hold these views––but how not to approach the Bible doesn’t answer all the questions.  We shouldn’t read the Word just to gain more knowledge about God, because after a while even good things in the Bible can become empty calories if we’re not burning them in obedience to Christian living and mission.

Like I’ve mentioned, the scriptures draw us into the story of God’s pursuit of a broken world.  He began this quest with our first parents, continued on in the calling of Abraham and Israel, brought everything to a climax in Jesus, and carries forward his agenda for peace through his people the church as we await and reflect the day when the life of heaven––where God-in-Christ already reigns––will fully come upon and transform the earth and cosmos.  It’s the story of God’s Jesus-centered, cruciform mission to our world, and the purpose of the scriptures is to mold Jesus’ followers to carry on this mission.

Reading the Bible to understand how we are incorporated into and must live out God’s mission and been called a “missional hermeneutic”; if you be google and multiply, you’ll find plenty of info about it online, as some really smart people have developed these ideas, even though they’re not really new at all.  (Michael Goheen’s A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story is my favorite treatment of the subject.) You see, we shouldn’t treat the scriptures as a repository of static, timeless truths about the divinity––although they’re certainly and necessarily there––but we encounter in God’s word the dynamic unfolding of the now-revealed mystery of the best news in the universe even as we’re invited by that Word to embody and share that news in our world––all for God’s glory, purposes, and mission.

In other words, if I break it down to a burger and fries: if we listen to a sermon or go to a Bible study where there’s a lot of good stuff about God and Jesus but nothing really about how to live out God’s mission well and in ways that bring God’s flourishing to bear in the lives of others, we better watch our spiritual waistlines.  Because that’s not the way God wants us to read the Bible.

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A Fest of Jazz

Our Man in Lou’sana

Next year, I hope to take a Spring missions trip to South Sudan, where the liberti network partners with local Christians and government officials to do things like dig fresh water wells and support churches.

This year, the liberti network sent your intrepid blogger on a missions trip to my hometown of New Orleans for the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, so that I might in this very space give a report on the natives in their indigenous surroundings.  (Unlike the other liberti blokes that blog, the sheer comparative quality and quantity of my writing has garnered for me a generous travel budget.)

(Most of the previous sentence is untrue.)

And truthfully, the sentence before that one may not be entirely true either, at least the missions trip part.  Substitute “missions trip” for “vacation,” however, and we’re on the right track.

I counted, and although I haven’t lived in NOLA since high school, I’ve managed to make it back for Jazz Fest about eight times since 2004, despite all the hassle and expense involved in making the jaunt.

But I love Jazz Fest.  Typically I’ll arrive in the city on a Thursday evening and have a great New Orleans meal.  I’ll try and get to bed early, because Friday is beignets at Café Du Monde at 9am, park and get to the (outdoor) Fest by 11am, enjoy awesome music of all kinds at ten different stages while eating scrumptious food (for instance, see http://www.nola.com/jazzfest/index.ssf/2014/04/new_orleans_jazz_fest_food_wha.html#incart_m-rpt-1) until 7pm, stumble to a restaurant for a fantastic dinner, and finally regroup in time to catch an act at a local music club until 1am or so.  Saturday is the same, ditto Sunday.  (And boy howdy, was I tired when I flew back to Philly last Monday, although my wife Emily, who was sick along with two of our kids while I was gone, may not have lent me a fully sympathetic ear.)

What’s a good little Christian boy like me doing in Sin City at festival time?  A couple things.  Sometimes, if we live in an unhelpful Christian bubble, folks can forget life is really messed up.  Our art needs to reflect all dimensions of reality, not just the pretty ones.  I may be listening to the wrong bands, but to my ears a lot of contemporary Christian music isn’t honest about the ugliness of the world (or, the average CCM song is only honest about it until the uplifting bridge, after which everything is all better just in time for the anthemic reprise of the chorus).  Philip Ryken in his book Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts has written, “So-called Christian art tends. . . to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false—dishonest about the tragic implications of our own depravity.  Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall. . . Such a world may be nice to imagine, but it is not the world that God sent his Son to save.”  There are a ton of non-Christian musicians (and, of course, some Christian ones) who get this right.  At Jazz Fest a couple weeks ago, I probably heard ten different versions of “St. James Infirmary,” and I loved every one of them, each rendition so cold, so sweet, so fair.  (I remember in 2006 when I walked to Jazz Fest past houses still boarded up from Hurricane Katrina the previous Fall, many of which were branded with spray-painted death tolls that rescue workers attached to every property they entered.  It was heavy music at that particular Fest.)

Because our world is broken, beauty without any pathos is facile.  There is true beauty at Jazz Fest, too.  From brass bands to trad jazz, to bop, to funk, to Cajun, to rock, to country, I hear more musical beauty in that one weekend in New Orleans than the rest of the year combined.  Our souls shrink if we’re missing beauty.  And the best part about experiencing beauty is that because of what Jesus has done, all beauty, no matter how satisfying in itself, is merely anticipatory of what’s to come.  In Simply Christian, N. T. Wright has observed, “God has promised that, through his Spirit, he will remake the creation so that it becomes what it is straining and yearning to be. All the beauty of the present world will be enhanced, ennobled, set free from that which at present corrupts and defaces it. Then there will appear that greater beauty for which the beauty we already know is simply an advance signpost.”  (“liberti” may mean “free people,” but in Christ we look forward to more than that.  As the lyrics of “When the Saints” proclaim, there will be a new world revealed.  Mundus itself will one day be libertus, not to mention cosmos.)

At the culmination of the ages, beauty will triumph over evil and ugliness.  In the meantime, we’ll always have Jazz Fest.

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Guest Post: Science and the Reformation

A first: guest-post time!  liberti collingswood fella Carlos Bovell has written this really interesting piece about the 16th century Protestant Reformation and its relationship to science.  Enjoy!

“The Scientific Revolution and the Reformation”

Sometimes the Reformation is presented as being all about theology, but it is important to understand that theology was not the only catalyst for reform.  There were several factors that contributed to the Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One factor in particular is not discussed enough and that’s the role that science played.

Collapse of the medieval system

The collapse of the medieval system was a long time in-the-making. In many ways, it was only a matter of time before the growing ethos of unrest would result in a revolution, fundamentally changing modern Europe’s social and religious landscapes. The fading social order gave rise to a new sense of national consciousness, and with this, the ecclesial unity provided for by the Roman Catholic Church became harder to sustain.

Add to this factors stemming from within the Catholic Church itself, including the moral decline of some Roman clergyman and a perceived ignorance amongst the Catholic priests. There were also factors stemming from outside the Church, such as the advent of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century.

To this developing picture, science can be added as playing an important role.

Copernicus in Antiquity?

It may come as a surprise, but the notion that the sun is the center of the universe is not a modern, scientific view but rather an ancient one that the ancient Greeks advanced. Aristarchus of Samos (b. 310 BCE), for example, proposed what intellectual historian Bertrand Russell called “the complete Copernican hypothesis,” including the idea that all planets revolved in circles around the sun.

However, the theory was rejected in antiquity for several reasons. The main reason was its incompatibility with Greek mechanics. A second reason had to do with the religious and philosophical assumption that the corruptible matter of the earth could not be the same as that of celestial bodies, for they were incorruptible. So although the heliocentric model had been proposed in antiquity, the ancient Greeks were not at the time disposed to accept it.

Eventually, the Christian Church, forming its self-understanding within a Judeo-Hellenistic framework, synthesized the Gospel with a geocentric model and accepted this as the biblical cosmology.

Science and Certainty

What impact did the scientific revolution have on the European Reformations? At least two suggestions come to mind. The first is what intellectuals uncritically began to expect from a “science.” Second, and related to this, is what opinions intellectuals began to form of the Roman Church when its scientific authority (its teaching college) failed to meet those expectations.

For Aristotle, “a science is a deductively ordered body of knowledge about a definite genus or domain of nature.” By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas felt it right to insist that sacred doctrine qualified as a science. Although “science” could refer to any “body of knowledge,” in philosophy it began to refer to knowledge of a very specific kind, that is, knowledge gained through an understanding of the cause. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the “sciences” involved not only discerning the causes but also the attainment of full certitude as a result.

In other words, both thinkers who pursued natural philosophy and those contemplating first philosophy (during the Renaissance, of course, these would have been the same people) were far less conditioned than their twenty-first century counterparts to be willing to suspend judgment on the subjects they investigated.

This is a subtle but important point. It was not that researchers could not suspend judgment nor that they did not suspend judgment, but rather that, as a matter of principle, “Aristotelian science” was now synonymous with the prospect of full certitude, especially with regard to results obtained from a field of study.

Copernicus and the Renaissance

It would take us too far afield to suggest how specific Reformers responded to the circulation of the Copernican view. There is only space here to make a general observation.

We saw above that a heliocentric theory of the heavens had already been proposed in antiquity. Some medieval thinkers, too, thought to try to read the Bible with the express understanding that the earth rotated on its axis. In the 14th century, for example, Nicole Oresme argued that when in Josh 10.12-14 scripture mentions that the sun stopped moving, the meaning should not be taken literally because it is not the sun that moves, but the earth.

Although he could not prove it, he argued that the earth would have had to have stopped spinning, and not the sun stopped moving. He was forced to drop his theory, however. His reading seemed irreconcilable with scripture and his proposal could not achieve exact certitude. A workable hypothesis was not sufficient; the academic culture of the time required that science be certain of its results to count as science.

Copernicus and the Reformation

Given the expectation for certainty, it’s not hard to see that it might pose a problem for the Roman Catholic Church if it could not establish certainty for the matters on which it taught, particularly in the areas of polity and doctrine. The sentiment of animosity that developed against the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., against the status quo) was surely fueled at points by the very idea that the Church could be in error on such a fundamental tenet as the place of the earth (and humankind?) in the cosmos.

Although Copernicus’ work was not formally published until the year of his death (1543), his ideas had already been disseminated during his lifetime via personal correspondence, a private manuscript, and by word of mouth. Given the cultural context, the theological and ecclesiastical landscape was one where a lack of certainty on doctrinal and philosophical matters could be seized upon by Reformers as a rhetorical opportunity for pushing an agenda of reform.

The prospect of rival authorities in polemics and dogmatics to the one established by the Catholic Church was not acceptable (a consideration the Reformers also had to guard against). Rhetoric, polemic, and disputation, all used to great effect in the Reformation, depended on giving an appearance of utter certainty. In a way, the Reformers had their work cut out for them.

From one standpoint, they had to demonstrate with certainty that the Roman Catholic Church traditions were contingent and not certain. By way of alternative, the Reformers pointed to Scripture as being, at least theoretically, the only real source of certainty.

At first, the Copernican revolution was officially espoused by a mere ten academicians. Unofficially, though, various forms of Copernicanism were entertained in the wider culture and indirectly worked as conduits for cultural and ecclesiastical reform. Even if different Reformers focused on different political and theological problems, the idea that the universe is structured in a way contrary to what the Roman Catholic Church officially taught played a role in unraveling the hegemony of the Catholic Church. This helped to pave the way for Christian groups to organize independently as ecclesial communities, some being started by the magisterial Reformers.

Conclusion

By introducing another aspect of uncertainty to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the Copernican model indirectly contributed to the success of the Reformation. The proposal and acceptance of the “new” Copernican astronomy may not have been the main reason behind the Reformation; but it would be just as unfair to say that the Reformation, even in its earliest moments, was not really affected by such a major development in the history of science.

Bibliography

Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Grant, Edward. “Science and Theology in the Middle Ages.” In God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science., 49–75. Edited by D. Lindberg and R. Numbers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Kline, Morris. Mathematical Thought From Ancient to Modern Times. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity Volume II: A.D. 1500–A.D. 1975. Rev. ed. Harpers and Collins, 1975; repr. Peabody, Mass: Prince Press.

Owens, Joseph. An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. Center for Thomistic Studies: Bruce Publishing Company, 1963.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Southern, R. W. Western Society and the Church in The Middle Ages. Pelican, 1970; repr. New York: Penguin.

Stout, Jeffrey. The Flight from Authority. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981

Wedin, Michael V. “Aristotle.” In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., 44–51. Edited by R. Audi. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Westman, Robert S. “The Copernicans and the Churches.” In God and Nature: Historic Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, 76-113. Edited by D. Lindberg and R. Numbers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

 

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Why community?

It’s not good for us to be alone: we all recognize this to be true, but all too often we feel isolated, and therefore unhappy.

Very rarely will I speak with a person that will tell me, “My family life is great, my childhood was wonderful, I have in my life all the community, love, and relationships I’ll ever need.”  Instead, lack of connection to other people is normally the starting point for conversations about pain, loss, bitterness, and regret.

It would be so much easier for us if we’d just give up on community, but we can’t, can we?  As human beings created in the image of a God who desires and is (by his trinitarian nature) community, we deny our true natures if we isolate ourselves from others.  Not to pursue community is sad sociopathy.

On a practical level, think of your personal struggles and hardships; aren’t so many of them traceable to our (often unfulfilled) need for others?  Numerous of our thoughts, actions, joys, jealousies, lies, fears, and despairs occur because it’s not good for us to be alone.

Our kind Lord knows our frame and in Jesus has undertaken a plan to restore to us vibrant and deep community.  (Community is a sufficiently large aspect of God’s plan for his kingdom and mission that we count it as one of our core values, along with worship and mercy.)  As we read the story of the Scriptures, over and over again we see community as God’s gracious welcome enacted and embodied.  Whether it’s in the Old Testament that Israelites are encouraged to welcome the “foreigner” into their midst, Paul in the New pleading with squabbling Euodia and Syntyche to reconcile or entreating slavemaster Philemon to receive his runaway slave Onesimus as a friend, God shows of his mercy by bringing us back to one another.  Even as Jesus on the cross builds a new family tie between his mother and the apostle John (i.e., “he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’”), God has invested himself in recreating human community all the way to the offering up of his only Son for us all.

Which is also why Christian community is, and ought to be, distinctive.  If the Lord Jesus through his death and resurrection has brought down the “dividing wall of hostility” (Paul’s phrase) between humanity and God, precisely so does the grace of the Lord Jesus, which enables us to forgive and receive others just as we’ve been received and forgiven, operate from person to person and people group to people group.

This is why you should do something as seemingly unsexy as go to church.  By engaging in church community––even if you’re not yet a Christian––you resist the individualistic spirit of our cultural moment, own up to your own need for others, and step into a rag-tag yet grace-driven bunch of people seeking to love each other and our world well.  Real community is nothing less than a savor of the new heavens and earth yet to come.  It’s messy, but it’s glorious.  And Christians: we need to practice what Jesus preaches about community.

(N.B.  This blog post was written for and will run soon on the new blog for the liberti app.  Grab it here.)

(P.S.  You really should know what “N.B.” means.)

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Bruce Springsteen’s “High Hopes”

As people observe all the time, Bruce Springsteen is a lot like Chris Christie.

I just told a fib; Bruce and Chris aren’t likened to one another hardly at all.  But bear with me a moment.

Just a couple of years ago when I was a sophomore in high school, I found myself shoehorned in the back of an SUV, riding home with a bunch of kids after a tennis tournament.  Top 40 radio ticked off the miles for us when all of a sudden a song from the speakers sounded different from all the previous bubblegum pop.  Suddenly I gave an unnecessarily loud shout to everyone else in the vehicle, because I recognized that yelling was an optimum means of being quickly heard: “What song is this?  Who’s singing?”  No one offered an answer until the tennis coach, driving, responded, “Oh, that’s Bruce Springsteen.  It’s a new song from him.”  Thus began my decades long fandom with the Boss, although not five seconds into my brumance was my reverie broken by a coed in the car sneering, “He’s so old.”  I’ve heard that same sentiment registered a couple times since then, sister; Bruce isn’t getting any younger, but then again neither are we.

Next to the Spring of my senior year.  I finally had the chance to buy my first Springsteen album on the day it was to be released.  Never mind that it was 1995’s Greatest Hits, since any fan can tell you that appended to the end of that set were a clutch of newly recorded tracks with the sadly disbanded but miraculously reconvened E Street Band.  Terrified that the Sam Goody at the Esplanade Mall in suburban New Orleans would instantly sell out of new Bruce, but elated that the release day coincided with spring break, I paced outside the music store for a half an hour that Tuesday morning until the steel awning yawned open at 10:00am.  Slightly discombobulated by the marked lack of any stampede, I nevertheless tore to the front counter and breathlessly asked, “Do you have any copies left of Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits?”  My earnestness was countered with a dyspeptic squint as the clerk pawed in the direction of a nearby rack.  “I hate Bruce Springsteen,” he mumbled.  Hurt, I’d recollected myself by the time I returned to checkout, and with all the seriousness of “Badlands,” I intoned, “I’m going to buy this Bruce album, and you’re going to take my money, by which transaction you’ll know that your salary is being paid by a musician you despise.”  I allowed  myself a chortle before I concluded the homily: “It’s like you’re in a Springsteen song and you don’t even know it!”  Satisfied that I’d set this feckless clerk on a lifelong trajectory of moral improvement, I nevertheless chafed as a sauntered out of Sam Goody that morning.  “How could a worker in a record store hate Bruce?” I wondered silently, before narrowing my mind’s eye and ruing, “This would never happen in New Jersey.”  Everybody in New Jersey loves Bruce Springsteen.

Enter Chris Christie, even if a particularly wide berth is required here.  Having lived Jersey for over a year now, I find that my out-of-state friends tend to assume that everybody (or at least a great majority) loves our good governor.  Once you pay the toll to get within state lines, however, you find a different reality.  Christie fandom often gives way to Christie fatigue, apparently.  So it is with Springsteen, and perhaps more so.  I’ll run across an occasional Bruce fan, but for each one of those, I meet 50 for whom Springsteen is at best nonthreatening but more likely deeply irritating.  Much like gridlock on a bridge, Bruce fatigue has gone systemic, and no new album of his can avoid the freighted largesse of his legend.

Tuesday, January 14 is the release date of Springsteen’s High Hopes, his 18th studio album, and I’ll be at Abbie Road in Audubon to pick it up that morning.  At least Bob, Abbie Road’s owner, will understand me.  But sadly, I don’t understand High Hopes.  It’s not a very good album.

On the positive side, it certainly sounds great.  If the 80’s and 90’s saw Springsteen cut albums of often stirring songwriting saddled to monochromatic sonic palettes–hence the not unmerited “all Bruce songs sound the same” complaint–beginning with 2002’s The Rising, the Boss has almost entirely enlisted outside producers to add variety and texture to his songs.  Even when the material has been subpar (or abortive, as in the unfortunate case of Working on a Dream), recent Bruce albums have consistently comported themselves with engaging music.  Ron Aniello, the primary producer of High Hopes, has taken the raw material of these songs and added flourishes (a banjo or fiddle here, a drum loop or bagpipe there) that may very well surprise anyone burdened by Bruce fatigue.  The title track is actually a little funky–check out the horn chart that kicks in after the first verse–“Heaven’s Wall” contains both a gospel stomp and a gospel chorus, and “Frankie Fell in Love” (the album’s best song, and not coincidentally the most exuberant and seemingly effortless) somehow channels both doo-wop and honky tonk in an under three minute package.  Of course there are echoes older material on High Hopes, and how can there not be, such as the train track rhythm and keyboard of “Down in the Hole” recalling Born in the USA’s “I’m On Fire,” but nothing on the new album plays as mere nostalgic pastiche.  Mix in some Irish-inflected folk rock (“This is Your Sword”), industrial metal courtesy of Tom Morello (rerecorded versions of older tunes “41 Shots” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”), and moody synth pop (“Harry’s Place,” also cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”), and you have Springsteen’s most stylistically diverse (and possibly for that reason sonically satisfying) offering since his second album, 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.  Which is saying something.

But the lyrics suck.  It’s been remarked that success is the kiss of death to comedians’ remaining funny, because no one anymore will tell them to pare down their material in order to make it better.  I can picture, similarly, Springsteen demoing the songs on High Hopes to his musical cohorts and being met by a chorus of, “This stuff is boss, Boss!” before high fives are exchanged, cutoff vests are donned, and beefcake poses struck.  Au contraire: my bossdom for an editor!  Granted, it’s unwise to judge a song by its title, but would you say the chances are good that numbers called “Hunter of Invisible Game” or “This is Your Sword” would come across as lyrically heavy handed, overcooked, and embarrassing?  Well, does Courtney Cox look good with short hair?   QED.

The great strength of the first two decades of Springsteen’s writing was his specificity of detail.  It’s not just any girl in “Jungleland” but one sitting on the hood of an old Dodge and drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain; the way off the straight and narrow in “Atlantic City” begins with “meeting this guy” and “doing a little favor for him”; whatever promise life might offer to the protagonist in “The River” ends with his receiving a union card and a wedding coat.  Instead on High Hopes, writerly details have been subsumed by an endless procession of “faith,” “strength,” “courage,” “righteousness,” “darkness,” “blood,” and “dust.”  Not coincidentally, the stronger songs on the new release are the most concrete, like the Vietnam lament that focuses upon “The Wall” at the Vietnam memorial or the old bottle of wine left on a hotel room table in “Just Like Fire Would.”  (Incidentally, if I could switch into my pastoral hat for a moment, one of the brilliant aspects of the Christian story is the way that the universal is bound up in the particular, and vice versa.  Faith, righteousness, darkness, blood, dust, and so on aren’t merely abstract constructions but come together in the person of Jesus, the crucified and resurrected king.  As a result, the Christian hope is both bracingly large and also practically embodied.)

Fans have puzzled over the provenance of High Hopes in that it includes a mixture of rerecordings of previously released material, newly polished outtakes, and–gasp!–three covers.  In my opinion,  the problem with the covers isn’t that they’re on the record but that they’re better than many of the Bruce originals.   I’ll take the young Bruce with the rhyming dictionary, which he admitted he used for his first album, over Bruce the bland generalist every time.  Meanwhile, I suffer through the “biblical imagery” of “Heaven’s Wall,” which consists of a chorus line of “raise your hand” repeated 384 times plus a random smattering of bible trivia sprinkled in.  I raise my hand to question what the song is at all about, besides the lifting of an upper appendage.  Even the details imbued in “Harry’s Place,” a song about a small time pusherman, are ostensibly half-baked under closer inspection: Bruce concludes the tune by singing portentously, “If he didn’t exist, it’d all go on just the same/Nobody knows his number, nobody knows his name.”  It’s not a coda on the level of “this is the way the word ends/not with a bang but with a whimper” but an effective closing couplet nonetheless.  The astute listener, however, will remind Bruce that we in fact do know the name of this drug dealer; he’s already been called “Harry” numerous times throughout the track, and helpfully his name is in the title of the damn song.

Alas.  To balance my negative assessment of High Hopes, I do respect Bruce as an artist that this late into his career he still seeks to make music that is relevant, edgy, and popular.  Most acts his age have given up, haven’t they?  Oldies like Dylan, Neil Young, Clapton, and Van Morrison have retreated into an endless string of genre exercises, Sir Paul apes his own past, the Stones release cynical product only to keep touring, Billy Joel just tours.  Surely one can’t be as successful at rock and roll as Bruce without a commensurately large ego, but I can’t think of anyone that shares Bruce’s vintage who also presses so relentlessly to make music that’s important and new.  Aside from cult artists like Nick Lowe or Leonard Cohen who never really experienced mega-success, Paul Simon is the only other musician who comes to my mind that can match the late-career drive of Springsteen.  (From the other direction, U2 is close behind Bruce in tenure and in desire to make Big Statements, but the Boss is in a different, better category altogether.  It’s my job to know these things; I can explain over a beer, if you buy me one.)  Nevertheless, High Hopes fails transcend its cobbled-together origins and cohere into a single, purposeful record.  I’ll see you on release day for the next one.

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I Do Not Want to Fight the Culture Wars

The issue of how the church interacts with culture has perennially energized and dogged Jesus’ church throughout the centuries.  While most Christians, and Christian movements, would seek to positively influence culture, we’ll disagree about how best to achieve that goal.  Many of us will also cringe as we see some Christians doing (hopefully well intentioned but) dumb things in the name of Christ, and we’ll agree with many skeptical and secular approbations of them.  Still, to paraphrase an old phrase from church history, What hath Jerusalem to do with Washington and Hollywood, Main Street and Wal-Mart?

A recent and helpful book that provides needed critique to much of the church’s forays into Christ-and-culture territory and points a way forward is James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World.  For starters, the volume amounts to a massive critique of Christians’ efforts to do what the title suggests.

Hunter is a Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia.  One of the real strengths of To Change the World is that it takes a historical-sociological perspective on how cultures actually transform over time.  In other words, while we may talk a lot about culture change, how does, and has, that really happened?  Are churches seeking to transform culture for Christ employing means that will achieve that end?  Hunter contends that many Christian efforts to change the world for Christ not only fail to hit the mark but may also do more harm than good.

Marshaling a vast array of voices from Christendom, Hunter observes that the contemporary church employs three primary strategies in order to alter culture—converting hearts through evangelism, populist civil/social movements, and political activism.  While he would allow that Christians should seek to share their faith with others and peacefully to engage in the socio-political process, Hunter demonstrates from every period in Western Civilization since the Roman Empire that cultures have never changed through those means.  Hunter writes:
The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates that this theory of culture and cultural change is simply wrong and for this reason, every initiative based on this perspective will fail to achieve the goals it hopes to meet. . . The hearts and minds of ordinary people are. . . relatively insignificant to change cultures at their deepest level.
As an alternative view of how cultures shift, Hunter claims,
Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production.  In light of this, the cultural economy of contemporary Christianity has been strongest, in the main, where cultural leverage is weakest—on the social periphery rather than the cultural center and in tastes that run to the lower-middle and middle brow rather than to the high brow. . . Thus, for all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.
These are heady words from Hunter, and the case he builds is persuasive to me.

There’s one other aspect to his critique of the church that bears repeating.  He notes that while many typical Christian causes may have some limited merit (although not always), the means by which these causes are put forward are never neutral.  In fact, Hunter argues, the occasional vehemence of Christian advocacy, which he documents exhaustively, can be interpreted as simply another will to power that seeks to establish its own claims by vilification of the “other” and by aspiration to dominance:
The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians. . . unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry.  By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through the discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.
Yowzers!  This certainly isn’t liberti’s way.  Thankfully, I don’t know any Christians personally that are “corrosive” by any stretch, but are they out there somewhere?  What would youtube, or our skeptical friends and neighbors, observe?  (And don’t forget: Mr. T says, “I pity the fool that pursues functional Nietzscheanism under the guise of Christian witness.”)

So how, on the other hand, ought our people and churches to engage with culture?  There are more questions here than there is space to answer, but we begin with the cross, where Jesus turned the very idea of power on its head and demonstrated by his crucifixion and resurrection a way of victory through service, weakness, sacrifice, and faithful presence.  As ones freed to be truly human through the grace of Jesus, we dream of a better world and seek it by the Spirit of Jesus.

In a short story collection by Edna O’Brien called Saints and Sinners, a sexually abused woman wonders, “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for the others. What a firmament of love ours would be.” There was this man named Jesus; he was also God himself. Jesus possessed memory, courage, and love for us, bringing good news of a new city and for cities full of broken people. Jesus for the joy set before him recognized the dream of a city as a promise, and for the cross set upon him recognized the promise of a city as a dream. As our warrior-deliverer, Jesus brings peace, a peace that recalls God’s original intention for creation and witnesses to God’s good future that has already begun. Now God’s shalom—his kingdom peace of beauty, forgiveness, healing, and harmony—has been unleashed upon the world, as surely as the last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St. John, tells us of a garden city yet to come that will envelop the world.

Jesus beckons that people follow him, and his followers that they seek the peace of the city.  This is culture change at its most audacious.  The Lord Christ gives his people every resource for his mission, and we receive the courage to remember, the audacity to dream, and the resolve to serve. Jesus’ grace operates in our world to repeal the fall, overturning the broken spiritual, psychological, relational, and social dimensions of our world. Including where are congregations have been planted: as the kingdom comes to bear upon our region, what a firmament of love ours would be.

The mission of all of the liberti churches is to live, speak, and serve as the very presence of Jesus in our areas.  To that end, lives of worship, community, and mercy are the are the sine qua non of what Jesus calls us to do, and by God’s grace the heartbeat of the liberti churches. We believe that this type of life is the one that truly fulfills the longings of the human soul, brings flourishing to a broken world, and unites people as no other message can. We do not pursue a different world, but a freer one.

(FYI: this article will have appeared as a post in liberti’s new app.  I’ve cross posted here, and I hope that you enjoyed my savvy deployment of the future perfect tense in the previous sentence.)

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Why Plant Churches?

liberti began as a single congregation in Fairmount ten years ago.  it soon added Northern Liberties as its second worship location.  That additional church is now liberti east in Fishtown.  Currently in the liberti network are these two churches plus liberti center city/main line, liberti harrisburg, and liberti collingswood.  Planting churches is central to who we are.  We’re always looking, praying, and striving to start more.

Why?  Because starting churches was crucial to the development of early Christianity, and the church since has always been at its healthiest when multiplying.  It was Jesus’ primary call, and we read the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles—the account of the first Christians—as a story of churches planting churches.

We need more churches even in a context like North America, where you’ll find the proverbial church on every corner.   For various reasons, newer congregations are consistently better able to engage with religious skeptics and new residents in any given area.  New churches don’t always have all the bells and whistles of more established congregations, but they’re often lighter on their feet and can quickly adapt and connect with changing ministry contexts.

This has certainly been true of my year (and counting) in Collingswood, New Jersey.  The very novelty of starting a new church has opened to me many conversations with folks that normally wouldn’t want to talk about church at all.  I’m regularly asked by people who wouldn’t consider themselves religious, “Jim, you’re starting a church?  Do people still do that?”  (My favorite response so far to hearing that I’m planting a church has been, “A new church?  Did you find a new messiah?”)  I’ll then probably explain that pastors haven’t yet gone the way of the wagonmaker, the milkman, and the travel agent, and that we wish to be a fresh expression of the historic Christian faith.  We want to be a church that is a safe place for people to explore spiritual realities, a community that is welcoming to everyone and serves the common good.  I’ll add, “And in the process of trying to do good things in our area, perhaps some people along the way will begin to follow Jesus and know the freedom of being written into God’s story of redemption and rescue for our world.”  Often the conversation will conclude with my conversation partner saying, “Huh.  I’ve thought that I’m way past doing anything with church, but maybe I’ll check you out.”

(FYI: the liberti network of churches is preparing an app that will include blog articles from different liberti pastors and staff.  I wrote this short piece for the app but figured I’d cross-post here.  Content is king!)

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“The End of Your Life Book Club”

The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe

I get annoyed at people who complain about e-readers in favor of “real” books.  The inner eyes roll whenever someone opines to me, “I just can’t let go of the feel of a real book in my hands,” or, “Words on a printed page are just sturdier,” or, “If there’s no physical heft, it’s not a book.”  In response, I offer you my Gob Bluthiest, “Come on!”  Do we thoughtfully abstain from movies because the actors aren’t really on stage in front of us?  Should we harumph out of a party because the host has the temerity to play digitized music for us, in lieu of live band members getting sweaty?  Next time you move, I’ll help with everything but the book boxes.

 

(Disclaimer: I apologize to all of you who over the years have told me that you’re a non e-book person and have met only with my approving grunts and gazes.  Chalk one up to politesse.  Sorry about that.)

 

Sadly, however, I’m not the codger I aspire to be.  Behind me as I type are bookshelves filled with books that tell stories, but not only the ones contained inside them.  Every volume I’ve read is linked to when I read it and, just as importantly, with whom.  Consider:

— It isn’t simply that ten years ago I found Robert Stone’s Bay of Souls to be his weakest novel, it’s that my brother and I discussed the novel over Leffes at a tiny bar in the 4th arrondissement during an aureate afternoon the likes of which are always found in Paris but only rumored elsewhere.

— Cormac McCarthy novels recall a dusty back porch in Texas where I explored his “Border Trilogy” with a dear friend.

— Ditto Graham Greene: there’s Graham, but there’s also Jeff and the gin-and-tonics we poured in an effort to recreate the existential crisis stared down by befuddled, 20th century British diplomats.

— A new friend gave me some Italo Calvino last fall, so I consider Six Memos for the New Millenium with him in mind.

— My wife Emily and I have books that are ours, together; I don’t mention them here.  — Whenever I’m back with old comrades from high school, an insertion of an undulating “kill the pig, cut her throat, spill the blood” enlivens any dull stretch of conversation.

Without books on shelves, I lose much of these stories.  Memories are tactile.  Maybe I should ditch my Kindle.  (So you see, my approving grunts and gazes at you who are book luddites really aren’t disingenuous, after all.)

 

Books are totems to lives shared together, ciphers marking our place in a greater fabric that must mean something before the dying of the day.  They’re stories that are already written but nevertheless write new ones for us, and ours into others’.  The tragedy of Crooks in Of Mice and Men (“S’pose you didn’t have nobody.  S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books.  A guy needs somebody—to be near him.”), or at least one of them, is that he was forced to read alone.

 

The End of Your Life Book Club, a featured book at Collingswood’s Book Festival this year, is a book about books, plus all the big stuff like people and family, life and death.  It’s a memoir written by Will Schwalbe that that centers upon the conversations about books shared between himself and Mary Anne, his mother dying of cancer.  Both lifetime readers, Will and Mary Anne sit together in hospital waiting rooms, beaches, and homes while commiserating about what they’d just read.  It was shortly before the end of Mary Anne’s illness that Will decided (with his mother’s permission) to collect their exchanges into a novel.  The books they share are touchstones of communion, remembrance, celebration, and construction.  “[The novels] reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books,” Will writes, “and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and a son entering new worlds together. What’s more, books provided much-needed ballast—something we both craved, amid the chaos and upheaval of Mom’s illness.”  The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful story.

 

Mary Anne Schwalbe lived from 1934 to 2009, and roughly two years before her death she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.  Many of us, if we were writing of our mothers, would present them to the world as extraordinary, but truly Mary Anne fit the label.  In addition to having served as admissions director for Harvard and Radcliffe and having held other positions at different universities and schools, she was a tireless advocate for women’s and refugees’ rights around the world, visiting countless distressed regions and later founding the Women’s Refugee Committee.  Will portrays his mother as a person of deep compassion and energy.  I wish that I could have known her.

 

The End of Your Life Book Club focuses on the months in which Mary Anne struggles with cancer.  Through the good days and bad, the latter of which eventually outnumber the former, Mary Anne maintains an honest outlook that acknowledges death and yet holds to a gratefulness and optimism that anchors herself and those around her.  She had lived well, and so does she die.  (If I could give any critique to Book Club, it would be that the grace with which Mary Anne bears her declining health is at times difficult to believe—I occasionally found myself waiting for her to say, “Soon return to Dagobah, I must.”  I would have been just as interested to grapple with a narrative about dying from someone that was less sanguine about one’s own demise.  However, since this is a memoir and if Mary Anne genuinely was this saintly, I can’t fault an accurate accounting of her.)

 

Still, Book Club isn’t only about dying, or even chiefly so.  Mary Anne and Will read and talk about so many different books (Joan Didion, Marilynne Robinson, Herman Melville, Alice Munro, et. al.) that to take them all in is thrilling and dizzying.  Through showing (but not telling), Will details how all of the different texts in the book club add to his and Mary Anne’s sense of humanity, whether by way of confirmation, inspiration, or challenge.  Will also notices that books they share allow him to grow in his knowledge of Mary Anne; he learned more of her through the book discussions (and the time together that the conversations engendered).  At one of her last doctor’s visits as Mary Anne fills out a “Do Not Resuscitate” form, Will is surprised to see that legally, his mother is “Mary Ann,” lacking the final “e” that she and everyone had always used: “And her middle name was Ann. Without an e. I’d never known Mom’s real name.”  Will then knew.  We likewise are given a window into the life of someone remarkable.

 

Will also affords us a view from which we’re able to appreciate why books are so important to us in the first place.  Gorillas, dolphins, unicorns, and Shetland ponies may communicate with one another, but none of them read.  We do, and we should.  An effect of my reading Book Club was that I resolved to read more books and waste less time on facebook, espn.com, and backstreets.com.  (Well, maybe not that last one.)  Isn’t it strange that if using the internet and social media tend to dehumanize us, reading books does the opposite?  Facebook has words and is about people—and nothing against facebook, I’m jus’ saying’—but if I veg for an hour or two there, I’m ready to be an extra for Walking Dead.  On the other hand, pushing through Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the same amount of time gives me courage to persist in the human experiment.  Through books, we know better, and are better known.  Will and Mary Anne’s joint consideration of scores of novels draw each closer to the other.  He observes towards the end of his mother’s life,

When I looked at Mom in that moment, I saw not a sick person, but not quite the same Mom I’d known all my life. After reading so much together, and after so many hours together in doctor’s offices, I felt I’d met a slightly different person, a new person, someone quirkier and funnier. I was going to miss my mother dreadfully but also miss this new person, too—miss getting to know her better.

Reading is a fundamentally relational activity.  We relate to text, to author, and to each other through the mediation of words.

 

Book Club succeeded as well in making me want to choose better and more challenging books to read.  I’ll keep a few of my sweet tooth, literary peccadilloes, but I need to cut out some narrative junk food.  Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read silly things; we only need to find the right kind of silly.  Will at one point in his novel assumes that Mary Anne would sneer at the works of Lewis Carroll, but she retorts,

Lewis Carroll is definitely not silly. It has silliness, but it’s a wonderful, fascinating, complicated book. I’m talking about those novels where the characters aren’t really interesting and you don’t care about them or anything they care about. It’s those I won’t read anymore. There’s too much else to read—books about people and things that matter, books about life and death.

I want to read about people and things that matter and wrestle with life and death.  It would make me a better person.

 

What’s on your bookshelf?  Will may sound a bit portentous when he observes, “We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one,” but he’s not wrong.

 

Make no mistake, however: The End of Your Life Book Club is often crushingly sad.  We know from the beginning that we’ll not reach a happy ending.  Mary Anne dies, and that impending event shadows on every page.  I assume I’m not alone among Schwalbe’s readers in that it was impossible for me not to read Book Club without considering my own aging parents, after which an already impossibly heavy subject became so much sadder.  When Will comments, “Mom almost always smiled—but when she was happier than usual she beamed. Her cheeks, just under her eyes, would crinkle, and her smile would encompass her whole being,” I think not only of Mary Anne’s smile, but those of my mom and dad, and at the singularity of each.  I think of the countless other details that only one’s children will remember about a parent, and that many of those once exacerbating markers of identity are becoming forlorn warnings of what’s soon to be no more.  Very near to her last day, Mary Anne attends a gathering for which “she’d put on one of her favorite blouses and a turquoise scarf and her pearls.”  Any author can write a detail like that about any person, but it’s different when you’re describing your dying mother.  The blouse that you may have considered fussy, the scarf outdated, and the pearls overdone suddenly transform into the most beautiful objects in the world.

 

And can I say this, that death sucks?  It really, really does.  Schwalbe is correct to observe that “more than anything, we are a pretty awkward society when it comes to talking about dying. It’s supposed to happen offstage, in hospitals, and no one wants to dwell on it too much.”  At the same time, the very reason that we prefer to sweep death aside is that it’s so horrible.  You can’t Botox the Grim Reaper.  As a pastor, I’m occasionally asked if I’ve ever officiated a “bad” funeral.  I understand what the question indicates: a bad funeral is one where the death is particularly tragic, early, sudden, or horrific.  My response to this question begins with my allowing that the churches that I’ve pastored have all skewed fairly young in age, so I’ve done far more weddings than funerals.  So I’m lucky, I guess.  Moreover, on the surface I’ve never had to speak at a “bad” funeral, but here’s the thing: all funerals are bad funerals.  There’s always a despondent child, or spouse, or parent, or friends, always lament, always heartbreak, always confusion, always anger.  Not for nothing does St. Paul call death “the last enemy.”  Book Club does well not to ameliorate the abyss that death simply is.

 

I’ll wrap up by offering a few thoughts on Book Club from a Christian perspective, which hopefully doesn’t seem strange for a Christian pastor to do.  You may be familiar with the Gospel according to St. John.  It’s the last of the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, written towards the end of the first century.  Most scholars would agree that the other three gospels were written while many eyewitnesses to Jesus would still have been alive.  John’s gospel is later and in some ways more deeply reflective.  John famously starts his gospel with the declaration, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”

 

What’s up with that?  In the centuries before Jesus, Jewish and Greek theologians and philosophers had developed the idea of the divine “logos” (or “word”) that serves as a kind of metaphysical blueprint for the entire cosmos.  It’s the foundational principle or rationale for life, the universe, and everything.  In a daring gambit, John appropriates this concept of logos and applies it directly to Jesus, the “he” of John’s gospel prologue.  Christians have often taken the beginning of this fourth gospel as a statement of Christ’s divinity—which, as a Christian, I hold as an article of faith—but I believe that there’s more going on here than that.  John could have found any number of ways to stress the divine nature of Jesus, but he specifically chose word.  To me, we can glean from John’s gospel that behind all of our words stands a Word from which all of ours flows.  Our words and stories, therefore, are not merely an exercise in our painting language games upon an ultimately mute interstellar canvas.  Instead, because there is a deeper, sturdier Word, our words gain anchor, value, permanence, and even nobility.  Soon after the opening of Book Club, Schwalbe writes, “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”  I believe this to be true (and bracing) at many levels, but the reality of the Word causes this statement to be true, completely.

 

What’s more, what if this Word—and remember, words at their most pure are also the most ephemeral—was in human history married to the material and contended with the last enemy, the brute physicality of which would seem to render even the most powerful words silent?  What if that Word was defeated by death but in that act conquered the conqueror and gave new songs, new words to a hobbled creation?

 

Will and Mary Anne in The End of Your Life Book Club together read John Updike’s Tears of our Fathers, a passage of which reads,

The list of our deceased classmates on the back of the program grows longer; the class beauties have gone to fat or bony-cronehood; the sports stars and non-athletes alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead. It continued: But we don’t see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children—the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes. We hear the gleeful shrieking during elementary-school recess and the seductive saxophones and muted trumpets of the locally bred swing bands that serenaded the blue-lit gymnasium during high-school dances.

Updike here evocatively describes both the ravages of age and the buoyancy of the human spirit.  Through the Word, a loving God knows us not as our brokenness deforms us but as new, if not as we once were yet as we will be.  There will be new words.

 

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“Tree of Smoke”

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

With the newest adaption of The Great Gatsby soon arriving at a silver screen near you, I’ve been interested to see various opinions of the novel appearing across the internet: it seems we agree that Gatsby is a great novel, but many of us didn’t enjoy it very much.

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke—the 2007 National Book Award winner for fiction—may have given me a similar, Gatsby-esque experience.  Before Tree of Smoke, I’d read a tragicomic book called The Imperfectionists; I enjoyed reading it but regretted that I had.  Tree of Smoke is the opposite.

Could it be, however, that I’m only succumbing to the hubris inherent in wanting to enjoy important fiction?  Johnson’s tome has all of those telltale signs.  It won prestigious awards, ran on very long (700+ pages), lacked a coherent plot, jumped wildly between major characters and time periods, and ended with an irresolute sense of ennui.  Send in the clowns!

But not so fast.  There’s a difference between books that ridicule who we are (read: The Imperfectionists) and others that grieve over it.  The former type dehumanizes us, but the latter yields a quiet sobriety that brings us back to our better angels.  One of the characters in Tree of Smoke observes, “I know from experience that life is suffering, and that suffering comes from clinging to things that won’t stay.”  I find that to be a bitter axiom, but probably a true one.  Realistically, if our world is broken, what alternative do we have to clinging to things that won’t stay?  Better to cling and then lament than not to need at all.  Watching sports will only take us so far.

The Vietnam War provides the backdrop for the entirety of Tree of Smoke, although the novel is not really about the war.  Instead, Vietnam becomes a projection of our conflicted psychology that removes us farther and farther from our unified selves.  One soldier in the book wonders out loud, “It’s just stupid, man. Have you looked around yourself lately? This isn’t a war. It’s a disease. A plague.”  The late 20th century’s allegorical cave.

The main character of the book, to the extent that there is one, is Skip Sands, a CIA psy-ops agent whose role in the conflict becomes increasingly unclear.  Skip’s uncle, simply referred to as the “Colonel,” is a semi-rogue operative in the area; the novel begins with Skip serving his country by aiding him.  Soon after, Skip merely helps his uncle as the U.S.’s interests (whatever they might have been in Vietnam) recede from view, after which Skip finally serves no larger interests than his own.  (The “Tree of Smoke” itself is the Colonel’s master plan for spying against the Vietcong; however, although the Colonel calls the Tree of Smoke his “guiding light of a sincere goal for the function of intelligence,” the Tree of Smoke comes to represent the wisps of everything ambiguous about the war.)  The fascinating aspect of the arc of Skip’s moral decline is that he ends up crossing the line specifically because it doesn’t look like there is one.  None of us simply decides one day to be a monster; it grows on us.

Skip eventually is executed years following the Vietnam War for running guns throughout the far east.  Days before he faces his firing squad, he writes to an ex-girlfriend, “After I left Vietnam I quit working for the giant-size criminals I worked for when I knew you and started working for the medium size. Lousy hours and no fringe benefits, but the ethics are clearer. And the stakes are plain. You prosper until you’re caught. Then you lose everything.”  The author has already shown us, however, that Skip had lost everything long before he lost everything, even if (scarily) we’re not sure just when that first loss occurred.  Still, we cling to what won’t stay, and therefore we suffer for Skip while we avoid the mirror.

We encounter other people in Tree of Smoke, most notably two brothers who grew up in poverty in the Southwestern United States and are turned into savages by Vietnam, but the reality of death so thoroughly pervades the novel that it becomes a character in its own right.  (Remember how I said that this wasn’t a fun read?)  Often in Tree of Smoke’s jungles, death merges with the mud, the puddles, the humidity, the tangles.  “When death was around,” one grunt recalls, “you got right down to your soul.  These others felt it too.”  Maybe as a pastor I have to deal with death more frequently than most, but don’t we all feel death crowd in, at least sometimes?  We want to disagree with the Colonel who at one point warns his crew, “I tell you this sincerely: there’d better not be a man at this table who in any way fears death.  It’s all death anyway.”  But we’re listening to him.

The problem is not only that we can’t escape the seriousness of the question, but that somehow we know we shouldn’t.  The heaviness of the darkness is lost on most creatures, but not to us.  One person in Tree of Smoke stares out into evening and writes in his journal, “Night again, the insects are loud, the moths are killing themselves on the lamp.  Two hours ago I sat on the veranda looking out at the dusk, filled with envy for each living entity—bird, bug, blossom, reptile, tree, and vine—that doesn’t bear the burden of good and evil.”  We can try to drown out the tolling bells and the burden of good and evil, but it would be a less than human existence.  Hello, bug zapper.

Tree of Smoke ends strangely: it closes with Skip’s ex-girlfriend, who is just a minor character, stepping into center stage for the first time (after 700 pages!).  Perhaps Johnson’s focus straightforwardly shifts to her because she outlives all of the other actors in the novel.  The final sentences of the book portray a sense of desperation along with a concept previously unexplored in Tree of Smoke yet often conspicuous by the emphasis upon death as its photo-negative.  As the curtain falls, Johnson writes, “She sat in [a large group of people] thinking—someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone’s soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can’t remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who’ve ruined their health, worshipped their own lies, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved.”  Before these last words, who in Tree of Smoke said anything about being rescued?  But it’s another human question.

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“The Imperfectionists”

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

It’s not often that reading a novel makes me angry—who gets mad at books?—but Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists made me angry.  While working through the book, I occasionally greatly enjoyed it, but it all curdled in the end.  The Imperfectionists caused me to wonder why I read fiction in the first place.  I watch movies, TV, and sports to escape, but those media plasticize me if I overdo it.  I swim in books to remember how to feel deeply, and The Imperfectionists only stirred me up like a bad Phillies game.

Set in the latter part of last decade, Rachman details the decline and fall of an English-speaking, International Herald Tribune-style newspaper (albeit without the New York Times backing) in Rome.  Various and mostly American expats shuffle around the deck in an effort to rescue some dignity while the vessel sinks, and Rachman relates the story of the paper through interlocking chapters that each focus on a different person from the news office.  (For this kind of structure, think Olive Kitteridge, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, etc.)  The characters in The Imperfectionists tend to be well articulated, and you’ll find nothing unpleasant about Rachman’s writing style.  However, most of the actors are quite petty and distasteful, which wouldn’t bother me, except that it doesn’t seem to bother Rachman, either.

Let’s read books about people’s lives falling apart—I prefer sad books to happy ones because they feel more real—but let’s agree that the disintegration of souls is something to lament, or else why note it in the first place.  From the publisher whose star falls with the demise of the paper to a foreign correspondent that writes increasingly empty pieces, The Imperfectionists depicts characters burning down their own wicks.  All well and good, but as I read through every person’s perfectly fitting collapse, an overall archness pervaded the novel in such a way the volume finally came across as an ironic tease.  (In order to keep readers from any lingering questions as to how completely these characters break down, a convenient summary list of the dramatis personae at the book’s conclusion supplies us with the disagreeable, off-camera denouements for each one.)  If too-perfect happy endings are trite, so are the immaculate sad ones.  Tragic novels, or even tragicomic ones like The Imperfectionists, require a measure of warmth and compassion for its characters or else it all just seems mean.  We appreciate the lovable drunks, but not the nasty boozers.

Case in point is a chapter in which the newspaper’s CFO fires one of her editors but believes that the fired editor doesn’t know that she herself gave the order.  The CFO then finds herself next to her ex-editor on a transatlantic flight in which his gentle manner and optimism about future job prospects attract her.  A naturally withdrawn divorcee, she over the course of the flight begins to imagine yielding herself to another in love for the first time in years.  After the flight, the two eventually drift to a hotel room stateside, and the former editor seduces the CFO until she sits naked on the side of the bed, beckoning for him.  Only then does his voice harden and he asks, “Why did you go and get me fired?  Explain me that.”  Chapter’s end.

I don’t dispute that we can be that bad, but only that we’re actually that good at being bad.  For the chapter about the CFO and the editor, if Rachman wants to demonstrate that a human being can’t fire another without consequences, I’d be interested to read that story, but not one where the comeuppance isn’t nearly as believable as the “crime.”  As the novel progresses and more lives dissipate—we read how crazy a crazy hoarder really is, about a man who can’t relate to people but whose canine best friend dog dies suddenly, and so on—I felt less and less sorry about what was lost, but more cheated: I prefer my nihilism less facile and tidy than The Imperfectionists.   Maybe the joke’s on me, but I get mad when I feel like I as a reader care more about the characters than the author.  I’m the one on the edge of the bed.

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