Friday, December 28, 2007

My Year in Review, Pt.1 - Books

2007 was a "down" year for my reading list - only 20 books read, and quite a few of those were rather short (last year at this time I had finished 35 books). My friend A.M.Correa did this "bite-size" review thing on her blog earlier this year, and I thought it was a great idea, and so per her suggestion, here are a few of my favorites from the past year:

Mystery and Manners - Flannery O'Conner - Possibly my favorite book on the art of writing, which for me is ultimately a guide to being a better reader, understanding what good books and good authors should and should not do.
(Also The Complete Stories - a motley cast of characters who are either in the process of being saved, being damned, or being used by God to effect one or the other in some unsuspecting and probably unwilling "victim of divine intervention". A grandfather bashes his granddaughter's head into a rock, killing her, and the only proper response to this is to empathize, and pray as Peter might have as he started to sink in the water, "Lord, help thou my unbelief")

Exclusion and Embrace - Miroslav Volf - Started my year with this, got through the first half, put it down, and am now finishing my year up with it. Simply the best book on the subject of Forgiveness and Reconciliation that I could ever imagine reading. The idea that without the Will to Embrace the Other, true forgiveness, peace, and reconcilliation is impossible...that without wanting to fully embrace the other but rather simply live in "tolerance", where you go your way and I'll go mine, true peace is not possible, but rather the oppressed or wronged in any given situation will, if given the chance, want to become the oppressors rather than simply live in peace. It is a power struggle rather than a desire for peace. Embrace cannot happen until injustice has been addressed, but injustice cannot be addressed truthfully if the desire for Embrace is not there. If I hadn't read Flannery O'Conner this year as well, this would be my favorite book of the year. Highly recommended.

The Death of Ivan Illych - Leo Tolstoy (with introduction by Robert Bly) - A book about a man's slow and unexpected decent into death at a fairly young age, filled with his thoughts and fears and various states of sanity (including a 3-day non-stop scream at the thought of what was coming) as the moment of his death approached. The introduction is worth the read alone, and the book reflects the stuff that I think about most often. A book about our experience with our own death. death death death. What more could you ask for in a hundred-page classic?

The Gospel According to America - David Dark - Simply the best book I have read on the way we talk to each other. David contrasts the "Us-vs-Them" mentality of much "American" discourse with the humble mindset that enters a discussion "hell-bent on discovering where we are wrong, and where the other person is right" (as opposed to the "hell bent on proving where the other person is wrong" mentallity we most often see in public debate). Some will find David to be a difficult read, some a challange to sharper, deeper thought, and some will simply find a breath of fresh air in the recognition that "the way things are and have always been" isn't the way things always have to be. There is a different way to engage in conversation, public or private, than the media presents as normal, and it is a way that has deep roots in the very fabric of American history.

Woody Allen and Philosophy - I just like Woody Allen (in fact, he is easily my favorite film-writer and director), and this book was a fun guide through some of the deeper strains of philosophy so abundant in just about all of his films.

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller - About 10 years ago I read On The Road by Jack Kerouac and thought it was an absolutely pointless account of his travels through America. He just had nothing to say about it all. I'm pretty sure I missed something key to the enjoyment of the book (it is, after all, a classic, and something of a holy book to the Beat Generation). Henry Miller writes a similar sort of account in Tropic of Cancer about his time in Paris, and yet his book was filled with wisdom and poetry and a rich literary experience richly conveyed. Miller's lust for life comes through on every page and is infectious. NOT for the morally squeamish who must discard and discredit a book that contains profanity and vulgarity.

And It Was Good - Madeleine L'Engle - Her death a few months ago prompted me to finally take the Genesis Trilogy down and dig into her meditations on the first few chapters of Genesis. L'Engle's thoughts and meditations on the spiritual life have always been a source of deep and provocative wisdom for me, and this first book of the trilogy was as good as any. I regret never having met her in person.

The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Speaking of death, here is a deeply heartwrenching book written in the wake of the sudden death of the author's husband. Those who criticize this as a cold unfeeling book of random facts simply don't know what it means to empathize with another, to read with compassion, to put themselves in someone else's place. This book has the power to wake you up to those you love around you, to make you aware of the brevety of life and the suddenness with which it can end for anyone around you.

Writings in the Dust - Rowan Williams - A short but excellent meditation on 9/11 and our collective and individual response to those we hold responsible for the tragedy itself, as well as the tragedy of foreign and domestic policy that ensued afterwards in the name of "safety" and "freedom". Reminded me in it's approach of David Dark's book.

a few classics that have been sitting on my shelves, unread, for years, that I finally got around to reading this year:

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky - Dostoevsky takes the reader deep inside the mind of a murderer as he daily struggles to live with what he has done and come to grips with what it means to be this kind of a person. From the outside, in theory, murder can seem an academic exercise, merely a matter of getting all the details right, but after the fact (from the other side of the act), one's tortured thoughts and conscience prove to be increasingly overwhelming, and the murderer becomes his own worst enemy as the million little unforseen details unravel his very existence.
I liked The Brothers Karamazov a great deal more, but this is a much easier(?), less complicated read.

The Sound and The Fury - William Faulkner - The first chapter is "a tale told by an idiot" (a line borrowed from Shakespear), and is probably one of the most difficult chapters in all of American literature. I thought I was doing pretty well with it, until I read the Cliffnotes afterwards and realized I didn't catch a goddam thing! Benji's emotions and thoughts are tangled up and laid bare, and Faulkner takes us inside that mind and those emotions and does what only great literature can do: elicits and awakens compassion in the reader, not by way of sentimental pity, but by skillfully putting us inside Benjy's experience. The use of time in this chapter alone is utterly fascinating, approximating a true understanding of a mind that does not comprehend time or its passing, where all that happens is in a way a part of that ever-present "Now" of eternity. The idiot is probably closer to the reality of eternity that we are. (at the very least, you have to feel for a guy whose overwhelming love for his sister and deep grief over her absence results in his nuts getting chopped off...)
Benjy is, in a weird sort of way, closest in kind to his brother Jason, who is one of the meanest characters ever created in American literature. The similarity of the brothers who are, for all observation, nearly exact opposites in every way, lies in their utter self-centeredness. Indeed, the entire Compson family, in one way or another, seems plagued with this malady, and the outworkings of these narcissistic entanglements are most often tragic in nature. A difficult book to read (one that gets progressively - exponentially? - easier with each successive chapter), one that would greatly benefit from an almost mandatory re-reading or two, which I just unfortunately don't have the time nor patience to enjoy.

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut - a book whose(?) use of time is oddly similar to that of Faulkner's "Benjy" chapter. The idea that one can go back (or forward) on one's time/life line to "relive" was oddly appealing to me. The thought of pining away for some lost moments in one's past would be an unthinkable waste of time, leading one to make the most of every moment, for it will always be there for you to experience the way you experienced it. Except that this book definitely does not believe in the foreign concept of "Free Will". A story of war and it's effects upon the mind. that's my take anyway...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Bible Study

Society today is too violent. From video games to comic books to the nightly news, violence is everywhere. Many Christians believe that if more people would just read and study the bible, putting its words into action, the world would be a safer, more peaceful place. Click Here for a good place to start...a beginner's introductory bible study with commentary of sorts...


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Autumn Descends

October. My favorite month of the year. I don't know why, but I feel so much more alive in the fall. The colours are richer, the air crisper. The heat of summer, which slows a person like me down, fades into the darkening days, and I start to wake up (with the exception of this particular year, when this first week of October finds us in the middle of a week of summer's heat - mid to upper 80's and all the humidity you can't stand). There's something darker, more ominous about October too. Halloween approaching and the decorations all around... the spiders seem to come scurrying out in full force (I kill about 3 a day here at home). Stephen King was always a favorite author of mine, and during this time of the year his twisted tales seem a bit more believable, like maybe among the elaborate halloween decorations strewn across the neighborhood lawns, the walking dead simply have an easier time blending in while they wait for you to pass by, alone. And if, by chance, you don't believe in the horrors that King writes about, you simply haven't been paying attention to the nightly news...

The Cider Mill opens its gates and wooded paths by the river, and I always look forward to taking a book and a journal back to a spot by the water to read and write, to reflect on life and God, in the quiet place of nature that somehow makes me think of Merton and a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani. The taste of Cider and donuts, and the smells in the deep woods always puts me right in the middle of the best time of the year. I have good memories of this place from years past, books I've read in my favorite spot where the tree roots by the riverbank make a natural resting spot to sit and read - Thomas Merton's Conjectures, Kathleen Norris' Cloister Walk, Annie Dillard's American Childhood and Pilgrim, Thoreau's Walden (of course!), To Kill A Mockingbird, etc... Maybe it's just me, but books seem to hold deeper treasures and music drives ones thoughts more intensely in this season of eternal change. The time right before everything around us dies. Winter looms so cold and dreadful, sucking the life right out of summer's stronghold, and in the dying season everything burns so much brighter for one last time.

How many more autumns do I have left in my life? How many more of these seasons will I be able to enjoy? Lord, teach us to live before we die...

Sunday, September 09, 2007


"Death is everywhere… there are flies on the windscreen for a start…reminding us… we could be torn apart tonight"
-Depeche Mode

"If you're afraid to die, you'd best not be afraid to live"

"I want more LIFE...Fucker!"
-Blade Runner

Death can really take the joy out of living.
I don't exactly mean that in the obvious sense. Rather, the awareness of death is an ever-increasing buzz in our heads, and no matter what we do or try to think about, that noise is always under it all, getting louder as the years go by. At some point, that awareness can override our awareness of the life in front of us, the life that we are living right now, with people we love who are alive, with us, right now.

My friend Andrew told me this analogy: when we are born, we are born on a river, and that river is heading towards a huge waterfall. But most of us, early in life, are far enough away from the waterfall so that, to us, it is nothing more than an abstract idea off in the distance. We know it's there, but we don't have reason day to day to think about it. But by the time we get into our mid-30's, we can start to hear the rumble of the falls. We are headed towards those falls, and there is nothing we can do about it. But it's not quite as straight forward as that. The analogy assumes we are all going to make it to old age and then die. But no one knows when they will die (or suddenly suffer from some life-altering misfortune - a disease, a crippling accident, etc). It is more like walking along a wooded path, and you know that somewhere along this path someone is going to jump out from behind one of the trees, unseen, and hit you with a baseball bat or chop at you with an ax or stab you with a knife… you KNOW something like this is waiting for you along this path, and it could happen at any moment. You might survive the blow and have to continue your journey forever maimed (until another attack hits you by surprise), or it might kill you right there. But keep walking, and try to enjoy the woods, enjoy your walk, try not to think about it…

No wonder we live with such anxiety all the time.

A good friend of mine from long ago, someone I had fallen out of touch with for the past many years, killed himself a couple years ago, in his early 30's....
I sat by my grandmother's bedside as she gasped for breath and died in her 90's...
My cousin got Hodgkin's disease last year, cancer, and pulled through, as did another good friend's brother, who had tongue cancer...
And just last week, another good friend passed out at school. He came to and finds he now has Leukemia. It happens just like that...
There are hits, and there are misses. Sometimes we dodge the bullet, sometimes we don't. But the hits seem to be getting closer, like they've penetrated the outer circle of my life. And nobody dodges a direct hit in the long run.

Commercial from God: "There are many ways to die, but only one is right for you." Some people try one way on and decide it's not right for them, and so they go with some other way later on…(let me guess: you'd like to die in your sleep, unaware of what's happening when the time comes, right?) So much of what we do is simply a distraction from this basic fact of death.

I am beginning to think that an over-awareness of impending death is a form of psychosis, and that those people who live as though in denial of death actually have the right idea. A friend of mine told me recently that she never thought about death until I came along (...that sounds about right). She feels like she lost something innocent inside of her because of it. I'm sorry I did anything like that to her, but I have always been fairly certain that wisdom in living is not possible without an awareness of death. Life tends toward the frivolous and meaningless without that focus and perspective. And I still believe something like that, but I also believe that (as Spinal Tap put it) perhaps "a little too much fucking perspective" isn't any better.

I think a lot about the impending death of those I love most. My family - my parents, my brother, my closest friends. I might outlive my brother (if I don't, you should probably go ahead and put me on suicide watch), my friends are hit and miss, who knows, but I will face the death of my parents (and that's if all goes smoothly. That's the best we can hope for). And that thought is so horrifying to me at times that it makes me want to scream. I can't face that reality for too long and still go on with "life as usual". I don't know how to face the fact of death, I don't know how to deal with it, with it's ever-increasing presence in my life. I can't imagine life without one of my parents, or without any of the people I love for that matter. Or without ME for that matter. But somehow parents are the hardest deaths to face beforehand because they are, in all likelihood, going to die in my lifetime, no question. Everyone else I know and love might outlive me, might not. But my parents won't. If all goes "well"…

I recently finished reading Joan Didion's latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about her experience of the year following her husband's sudden death. It is a heavy, sobering account of grief, the process of grieving as she experienced it, and it contains some very honest, intelligent thoughts concerning the experience. The quote that stays with me is the first thing she wrote after her husband died:
"Life changes fast.
Life changes in an instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends…"

"It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell…"

The question of God takes on ominous tones in light of death, because of the accompanying silence, because of the horror we experience in its shadow. God is not telling us why we die (or why we still die, 2000+ years after Christ came to free us from sin and death, why still the horror of death and evil all around us), nor is he offering us guidance to help us through. He is just silent. That is my experience at least, bible or no bible, and the experience of many faithful Christians whom I look up to as well. Sure, we can do mental gymnastics and come up with "reassurances", making ourselves believe that God is speaking to us, but the doubt surrounding such "encounters" strikes me as unbelievably odd. When I talk with anyone I know (or don't know for that matter), I never wonder if I really had that conversation, nor do I wonder who I was really speaking to. But my "relationship" with God, more often than not, seems to be grounded in my imagination. The question is one of Love, and what it means in the face of perpetual silence and the absence of an unshakable experience of God's presence, not just of his existence, but of his love for his creation.

Just a thought: I think if I were a parent, I wouldn't leave a steak knife in my child's room and simply tell them not to play with it lest they injure themselves or even die from a wound. I think I would keep the knife far away from them. It just seems odd to me that God would leave a tree within reach of Adam and Eve that could result in all this evil and death in the world, and not have at least some sort of guard by it 24-7, at least someone there who could argue the "con" side of eating its fruit while the serpent was arguing the "pro" side. I'm fairly sure the "fruit tree" bit is an analogy for what really happened, but whatever it stands for, the fact is that an all-powerful God allowed it to happen, it has happened under the watchful eye of an all-loving God, and sin and death continue to happen to this very day...
The word "Love". I wonder again what it means when we're talking about God's relationship to us.

(unfinished and to be continued...)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle

One of my all-time favorite authors, Madeleine L'Engle, died on Thursday at the age of 88.

Her writings have had a deep impact on the ways I thought about my faith and how life could be lived in the light of that faith. She was probably the first to make me realize that being a faithful witness to Christ was not the same thing as being a "good commercial for Jesus", that the idea of being "the only Jesus some people will ever see" is an unnecessary (and unbiblical) burden for anyone to carry, as well as a flagrant disregard for the place of the Church, the body of Christ, and our place in it. I was first introduced to her writings back in the early 90's, with the book Walking On Water, which was probably the starting place for most of her readers who hadn't been introduced through her "childrens" books like A Wrinkle In Time, etc. I've collected most of her books of non-fiction on spirituality, her journals, etc, and I am grateful for the impact she and her writings have had on my life and thought.

One of my favorite quotes of hers comes from A Circle Of Quiet, and it's a wonderful antidote to my perfectionist's fears of inadequacy and negative competitive tendencies:
"It's all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I'd never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said, by me, ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way....Good or bad, great or little, that isn't what human creation is about. It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die."

The world has lost a great voice of spiritual reason, truth, and creativity, and I am going to miss her particular way of "saying it, ontologically"...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Even Mother Teresa...

here's a book I am looking forward to very much
There's a bit of controversy brewing about this one among some of her admirers as to whether this should even be published or not (she made it very clear that she wanted these letters destroyed). My personal opinion is that she was hardcore Catholic, and as such was committed to submitting to what those over her "commanded" (for lack of a better word), including this. Denial of self-will and all that... a key part of her devotion. And it was made equally clear to her that these letters would not be destroyed as she wished, and so there is nothing particularly backhanded about this, in my view.
Thomas Merton went through the same thing, as did I'm sure a whole slew of others through the centuries.
I think most people wouldn't want their personal letters or journals to be read by a bunch of people, but I also think the canon of literature is far richer because of the publication of some of those. The writer is many times not the best judge of what should be made public, and cooler, more objective heads prevail sometimes (Kafka, anyone?). These letters are edited, of course - we're probably not going to read something about MT's illicit sex life (if there were such portions in her private writings). But I think her superiors understood the importance of allowing people to read of her struggles with her faith, as a balance to the commonly held (mis)beliefs about her as some sort of unapproachable saint. I personally think it's incredibly important to bring her image back down to reality as "just like one of us". Her life can't be so easily dismissed as "the sort of thing saints do that I, however, could never do". I think her superiors understand that it can sometimes be more damaging to a person's faith if they think that someone like Mother Teresa never struggled with doubt but was always "perfect, inside and out". There are things that are truly personal and probably shouldn't be shared with everyone, and there are things that seem very personal, and yet are beneficial for others to read as well, for the building up of believers and all that, etc...
just my opinion...

"Night thoughts produced by walking in the rain after two thousand years of Christianity..."

I recently finished reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, a fictionalized account of his time in Paris in the early 1930's. In it there is this passage:
"...I can't get it out of my mind what a discrepancy there is between ideas and living. A permanent dislocation, though we try to cover the two with a bright awning. And it won't go. Ideas have to be wedded to action... Ideas cannot exist alone in the vacuum of the mind. Ideas are related to living"
Obvious differences notwithstanding, I was both surprised and excited by what I was reading, because I had posted something here just a week prior to reading this that was along the same lines. I thought it was one of those moments where you feel like things are aligning to let you know you are on the right path. But then after I thought about it, I realized that maybe it wasn't so "coincidental" after all. Perhaps it is just that this Henry Miller book, like all good literature, was leading me along this thought-path the whole time, that it was almost inevitable that I would think something similar to what he was about to write, even though I hadn't yet read that passage. The book itself was informing the thoughts I entertained and followed. The literature I was engaged in at the time had me engaged more than I realized...

(Of course, there's nothing particularly new about these ideas in the first place. All the way back to the first century, Paul says something similar in the New Testament when he writes about not doing the things he wants to do but instead doing that which he doesn't want to...)

The book itself was quite good (is that a feeble-minded understatement?). It is, in fact, a classic - one which was banned for a few decades after it was published. There's a lot of bachelorhood living presented in all it's real rawness (too raw for many), rendered with a poets vision and sensibility, a thirst for a richer experience of life, and a prophet's alarming understanding of the slumber we so easily slip into, from day, to day, to day, to awareness that "The cancer of time is eating us away".

Reading this book, I was reminded of Jack Kerouac's On The Road, a book I hated at the time as a pointless meandering account of nothing worth noting, though he recounts living a similar sort of life in America in the 50's. Henry Miller, however, is well worth the investment, IMO. Miller has something to say about the life he was living and the life he was observing all around him. I probably just didn't get Kerouac at the time, but I found that Henry Miller, in a similar sort of romping account, had much wisdom to offer along the way. I am looking forward to reading more of Henry Miller in the future, as well as the work of one of his most famous "flings" at the time: Anais Nin. Thomas Merton mentions especially liking Wisdom of the Heart and The Collosus, though I think my next book by him will be the "other half" of Cancer, which is Tropic of Capricorn (a similar recounting of his life in New York in the 1920's).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Another quote from Flannery O'Conner:

This one (from Mystery and Manners) reminded me of the (negative) response of some Christians to the Harry Potter books, but it is certainly applicable to forming a reasonable faith-based response to many different art forms - books, music, movies, etc...

(she speaks from a specifically Catholic viewpoint, and names it as such, but this really applies to Christianity under any label. Substituting the word "Christian" for "Catholic" - if you are not of that particular persuasion - will amount to the same thing)

"If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists but insures it...and to convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages they consider obscene. It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don't have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.

It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost."

And I quoted part of this one before, but had I read the whole thing (as I just did today) I would have quoted the whole paragraph:

"There are those who maintain that you can't demand anything of the reader. They say the reader knows nothing about art, and that if you are going to reach him, you have to be humble enough to descend to his level. This supposes either that the aim of art is to teach, which it is not, or that to create anything which is simply a good-in-itself is a waste of time. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards. And this is certainly the obligation of the Catholic. It is his obligation in all the disciplines of life but most particularly in those on which he presumes to pass judgment. Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed. We reflect the Church in everything we do, and those who can see clearly that our judgment is false in matters of art cannot be blamed for suspecting our judgment in matters of religion."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Exclusion and Embrace

I am about halfway through an absolutely amazing book on the subject of forgiveness by Miroslav Volf entitled "Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation". In it, he examines (among other things) the root of conflict throughout the world and history in terms of Identity and Otherness, and why man-made solutions to hostilities always fall short.

Identity, with any particular group, often leads to a sort of defensiveness against the Other who does not share that identity. Groups have different ideas, values, roots, and various groups find themselves "at odds" with other groups around them because of that difference, a difference which is "always close to, and often the same as, hate". In the name of ethnic "purity", the defensive posture of Identity leads individuals and groups to drive out the Other. The Other must either change to be like us, or be wiped out of existence. One problem with this ideology is that one's Identity is partly made up of one's relation to the other. A great part of what makes me who I am is how I relate to those around me who are not me, not like me, and not a part of my group. Hence, to drive out the Other is in one sense to drive ourselves out.

Volf talks about the Christian response to this conflict of Identity and belonging in the world in terms of the scandal of the cross. If Christians, in baptism, share in Christ's death, and are therefore also raised with Christ, then Christ is the new "center" of our identity, not replacing but rather reorienting (transforming) while reinforcing our own identity around Him and His Kingdom. And this center is one of self-giving love. The scandal of the cross and of this self-giving love, writes Volf, is the all-too frequent failure of such love to bear positive results. It doesn't seem to "work", as we would wish it to. but it is the way we are called to follow.

The Christian is called to be separate from (though not removed or alienated from) his cultural identity. His allegiance is to God's Kingdom, but his uniqueness is not sacrificed because of that, but rather accepted as part of the body of Christ, a body with many different and unique members which all serve a unique function. Both distance and belonging are essential. It is essential to a Christian understanding of our new "Kingdom reality" that we "listen to the voices of Christians from other cultures so as to make sure that the voice of our culture has not drowned out the voice of Jesus Christ". Too often it is too easy for Christians to confuse their culture (and it's perceived benefits) with Kingdom values. Far from being "tainted" by other cultures through interaction (as "ethnic purists" fear), other cultures offer the possibility of enrichment.

A key concept to keep in mind is the fact that, within each of us, there is evil, there is the proclivity toward sin. It is easy for us to draw conclusions of a "good" side and a "bad" side in conflicts, but this division is deceptive. There is a tendency, on the part of any group that is liberated from oppression, to become the oppressors of those they have been liberated from. Conflict continues unabated throughout the world because neither side is really seeking an "end to the violence" (as is so often touted in the media), but rather they are simply seeking to become the oppressors over against those who now oppress them. It is about the desire for power and the frustration that comes from the desire for power being restricted by others.

Volf's insights have deep resonances with each of our lives, collective or individual. We all have "enemies", to one degree or another, and we all need to forgive and to be forgiven. One of the central prayers in Christianity is that God would forgive us as we forgive others. We need forgiveness, and we need to forgive if we hope to receive as much.

Forgiveness, for Volf, is not simply each going their own way without further conflict. This is not real forgiveness, which entails reconciliation. We do not ask of God to forgive us by letting us go our way as he goes elsewhere as well. Rather, we wish to be reconciled to God, to be "embraced" in his love. And so, forgiveness and reconciliation with each other can entail no less. Reconciliation begins, at it's most essential, with the willingness to embrace. This embrace cannot fully or truly happen until the sins committed have been addressed and dealt with, but without the desire to embrace the other, forgiveness hasn't even begun, no matter how "peaceful" the situation may be at present. Sin must be dealt with, not ignored. And ultimately, sin forgiven is sin forgotten - as if it never happened.

At present I am only just over halfway through this book (finished with the first major section, other issues being dealt with in more specifics in the latter half of the book). Even there I can't begin to do it justice in any sort of review. I've barely even scratched the surface of this books depths. Suffice it to say, I can't imagine a better work on the subject of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Action words

For most of my life, whenever I've wanted to get to know someone - get inside their head, see what makes them tick, what inspires and motivates who they are as a person - I've always asked what books they read and what music they listen to. I've always felt that these 2 things would give me a core understanding of what influences a person to be the kind of person they are, what is affecting and shaping their thoughts and emotions, books and music being the two things (in my world anyway) that have the most direct and intimate / personal influence on thoughts and emotions.

But there is a key question that I have neglected to ask people, one that affects who they are more than any books or music could, and that is: What decisions and actions have you taken in your life? I believe a person can best be understood and known by understanding what they have done in their lives, and how and why they have made those decisions and taken those actions.

Two people can read the exact same book and come away from the reading experience with two completely different effects upon their lives, even if both take actions influenced by the reading of that book. This tells me that it is the reader, the person, bringing something to the reading, and not simply the book itself, that is the greatest factor in what that person takes from a book, how that book influences their life. The bible is probably the greatest example of this. Millions of people have read the bible, continue to read the bible (even looking at any one given translation of the bible), and still there are vast differences in how that affects their seperate lives, to the point that they even fight amongst one another over the meaning and application of the bible's words.

And then there are many who take no real action at all based on what they've read, and simply continue to read and read, study even, as an end in itself. Reading is and can be a pleasurable experience, in and of itself, absolutely. Books bring an inner pleasure like few other things can. The cultivation of an interior life is, I believe, essential to a truly happy and fulfilled life. Few things can make it into our inner being the way the words of a good book can. Music reaches past all our defenses and resonates with our very emotions. Our inner experience is made exponentially richer by engaging ourselves in the art of a good book or piece of music. But it is, basically and perhaps essentially, a self-centered activity. Eating food is a self-centered activity as well, so I'm not saying that in the completely negative sense of that phrase. It is necessary. But our outer-life is just as necessary. We need to live the life we are inwardly cultivating.

There is a pernicious belief, not just among Christians, but people in general (readers in particular) that reading is an action unto itself, that if I have read something, I have accomplished something. And to a certain degree, this is true, but in another sense, this is nothing more than the fostering of an illusion. We can come to believe that we are living a certain kind of life, when in reality we are simply reading about that kind of life. Christians especially can fall prey to the belief that reading the bible is a way to live out their faith.

This is similar and related to the notion of salvation that many Christians have in modern times - that salvation comes by giving mental assent to certain propositional truths put forth in the bible, especially those having to do with Jesus...claiming to "believe" in Christ, believing the proposition that he is the son of God, died for our sins, rose from the grave, etc. "Believe" meaning, not its biblical connotation of literally "trust in, cling to, rely on", but the more modern notion of thinking it to be true. Like believing George Washington was our first president. Not like believing a chair will support our weight as we proceed to sit in it (put our trust in it to hold us up, rely on it to work, through the action of sitting on it). We generally don't give much thought at all to whether a chair will support us or not, we just sit down. Many Christians seem to do the opposite with regards to their "belief" in Christ - thinking and talking a lot about it, but not "doing" it. Theoretically, a person could "get saved" in the modern sense of the term, and not do much else than change their mind about certain "spiritual" concepts. But biblical salvation is a changed life, not just a mental change of opinion, and it doesn't make sense apart from repentance and following a new way of living. Action is required. (there's a whole tricky discussion about salvation through works vs. faith here that I'm not going to get into right now. suffice it to say that I believe salvation is a gift of God and not something we can earn on our own, and yet to do nothing is to reject that gift).

Paul says, in that famous chapter on Love in 1Corinthians13, (and I paraphrase): Even if I read all the best books in the world and listen to the finest music, but have not love, I have gained nothing.

The Imitation of Christ says: "Certainly, when Judgement Day comes we shall not be asked what books we have read, but what deeds we have done; we shall not be asked how well we have debated, but how devoutly we have lived"

Life is action taken, not just thoughts thunk. Thoughts do absolutely affect our actions, but they have to become action, they have to make it out to our real lives, otherwise it is like a bodybuilder who sits and does nothing but eat the best foods and the highest quality protien shakes but doesn't actually work out. That person, like us, will get fat and bloated if what he is taking in isn't put to use in what he does with it. Yea I say unto you, it is even likened unto a car sitting at a gas pump, always being filled with gas and never being started or driven... (sorry) :-)

so... what decisions have you made and what actions have you taken that have made you the person you are today?

I have spent the greater part of my life collecting the best books and music that I have been exposed to and could find, and have amassed a drool-worthy library, but as I sit here and look around at all these wonderful books and CDs that I have spent the vast majority of my life reading, listening to, and collecting, I can't help but think that maybe I've missed something - like the point of it all...


Here it is, the middle of the freakin' summer, and I've only read 7 books this whole year. The last thing I finished was Flannery O'Conner's Complete Stories, and that was 2 months ago. By this time last year I had read over 20 books. And so the pendulum swings...

I'm not in step with the whole Harry Potter craze. Don't get me wrong, I love those books, but I'm about 3 books behind now. and those are some thick mofos. I have about 10 other books I'd like to finish before I get to those. maybe this fall I'll try to catch up... In the meantime, I'm in the middle of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer - a book that was banned upon its release for indecency and obscenity, for decades we free Americans weren't allowed to read it. I'm not sure how that all works, but it obviously didn't. Does censorship ever do anything but the opposite of that which it sets out to do? I'm also reading Flannery O'Conner's Mystery and Manners - an excellent book of non-fiction, mostly dealing with the subject of the art of writing, novels, Catholicism, and the meeting of religion and literature. great stuff which I will be quoting here soon...

If you're any good at math, you've figured out by now that I've been back from Cornerstone for a few weeks now. It's been a fairly busy month for a slacker like me, so I haven't had the time nor the energy to sit down and write. And as Annie Dillard says, if you let the work go for even a day, you'd better come back at it with a chair and whip in hand... this here post is one of them "I forgot how to do this and so I'm gonna practice a few lines" posts. I'm still not sure if I ought to be writing for a reader or just for myself. I know you're reading this, dear reader, but I think I'm supposed to pretend you're not there if this is to be anything worth its purpose. Self-consciousnes is the enemy, the twin brother of everydayness...

I'm writing this at 6am, and I've noticed that summer birds sound different upon waking than spring birds do. This sacred hour of the dawn (or, as I like to call it, bedtime) changes with the seasons, and I've never noticed this before. Spring birds at dawn are probably one of my favorite sounds, indicating that the long dead winter is finally really over, and the resurrection from the dead is maybe still possible...

speaking of which, for some reason the passing of Tammy Faye both shocked and saddened me. Seeing her last interview made me gasp once again at the horror that is death. The life had literally been sucked right out of her, and she was nearly nothing more than a talking corpse at the end, and listening to her awakened the constant struggle within myself to come to grips with a God that allows us to know such horror. If I have doubts about the existence of a hell in the face of a loving god, I simply have to ask, why this hell now? 2,000 years later, after Christ came to save the world from sin and death, and we are still dying in the midst of evil all around us...

I'll try to post something more detailed about Cornerstone at some point soon, along with a few other stoney ideas I have rattling around in my head...

Saturday, June 09, 2007

the fight for equality on a New York bus

On the busses in New York, I saw something that surprised me: the very best seats on the bus have a sign on them that says "if a handicapped or elderly person gets on the bus, please give this seat to them". Perhaps someday true justice might prevail as a given in our society, but for now we have these signs. It is my hope, my dream (to borrow from MLK), that someday, when an elderly or handicapped person steps onto that crowded bus looking for one of those seats, that someone will have courage - the courage of a Rosa Parks - and say ", I'm sitting here!" Then our society will start to know true equality across all dividing lines...


Thursday, June 07, 2007

The difference a day makes

Today I am sitting in front of my computer, at home, on a day that is threatening to hit 90...
One day ago I was in the middle of a 13 hour drive home...
The day before that, I was having coffee at Cafe esperanto, walking around the heart of Greenwich Village, after listening to a recording of Maya Angelou tell us about the Big Bang in a Death Star looking contraption in the Natural Science Museum, this after going bookshopping in SoHo and Brooklyn Heights - the latter being where we ate lunch outside at a french restaurant and then walked down to the water walkway and sat looking out at the Statue of Liberty to our left and the Brooklyn Bridge (which we had walked across last year at this time) and Empire State Building beyond that to our right, New York's skyline across the water directly in front of us...
The day before that, I was spiraling my way down the Guggenheim, followed by a walk through China Town and Little Italy, ending up on Spring Street (the place Dar Williams sings about) for pizza at America's first pizzaria (so they claim)...
The day before that, I was at a Broadway play watching Kevin Spacey (along with the guy that plays "Myles" on Star Trek) put on a heartwrenching performance of the Eugene O'Neil play, "A Moon for the Misbegotton", followed by dinner at the Greenwich Village Bistro while watching a local jazz band, then walked many blocks in the blowing driving rain to get back to a bed...
The day before that, I was looking at original paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Hopper, etc... at the MET.
The day before that, I was giving my brother a hug after we arrived in the city, and later went used book shopping on St. Marks street and ate what proclaimed itself to be New York's finest cheesecake in the East Village...
The day before that I was in the middle of a 13 hour drive there...
The day before that I was sitting in front of my computer, at home, on a day that was threatening to hit 90...

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Alone (a moment)

Alone, in a room lit only with the flickering of a dozen burning candles, a man stands and slowly dances, his arms extended, curved, holding in their emptiness nothing more than a ghost, the memory of that which he once held most dear. The only real love of his life. But she is here with him no more. Perlman's violin plays the melody that stretches the ache within him beyond mortality. The song he danced to, with her, in this very room, amid these very candles, times beyond count, every one distinct and precious to him, more so than his very own breath. He would give up that breath if he could, gratefully, in the longing of his desire, an exchange in time, to have her here for one more song. One last dance, again.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Look over there, on the right side. See that big pile of book covers? those are 50 of my favorite books, randomly chosen and in random order. Pretty cool, huh? I even uploaded a couple of those covers myself (Merton's Conjectures and MacDonald's Day Boy Night Girl). That must mean I have a rare edition of those books if no one else put those covers up yet. or it just means no one has cared as of yet. either way, Library Thing is cool. I'm not gonna pay for the service or anything because I'm broke, but you should. 25 bucks for a lifetime membership to make an all-you-can-eat list of books. I'm limited to 200, so my list will ultimately be my top 200 (similar to my first blog entry waaaayy down at the bottom of this tower of entries). This thing even tells you who else has a library similar to yours. You can meet people who read the same stuff you read without ever having to go to the bookstore like a nerdy stalker saying "hey baby...whatcha reading there?" to some freaked out stranger. People relinquish their privacy voluntarily around here. it's a virtual voyeurs paradise. [end commercial announcement]

UPDATE: after all that, I had to delete the code from my template because, for some reason, it started giving me problems - my blog would only load up to the bottom of the "stack" of book pictures. If you want to look at the books in my library, you can go look me up at Librarything (user name Brookd), or you can come over and look at them "live and in person". but you can't borrow any, so don't even think about it!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Heal it up ("'cause the years have not been kind...")

The years pass by and nothing seems to change. Dreams slip away, dreams we once considered central to our identity. Those dreams die, and now our identity is centered on death. We are dead inside, clinging to the dreams of another lifetime ago. Wanting to move on, we feel stuck, wanting this to work out before we move on to the next. But this never does, and now we see the end in sight of a life that has never really begun. Youth seems only a moment ago, and it always does, for everyone, until the very end. Look in the mirror and who do you see? One day, an old person you barely recognize. Where did my life go? What did I do with the time I had? Does anybody ever really have a good answer to these questions? I don't, and I suspect you barely do either. Life is nothing but a dress rehearsal. We learn our lines after the play is over. We stumble and struggle until then. Or we don't. and in the end, it really doesn't matter, does it? We all get to be dirt in the ground. Unless you believe in a God who grants an Afterlife or a Judgement, Condemnation, Reward, Heaven and Hell. And the Resurrection. And why do we think anything will be different then? We are deaf and dumb, as in stupid and ignorant and lost. And God is saying...nothing.

The deaf claim they've heard Him and the blind have seen His Glory, and the twisted tongues of the mute and mentally ill tell us exactly what we must do to be saved, as they are. They tell us what God Himself has said to those who have no ears to hear and shown to those without sense or sight or mind. And they are right, they know, for they are empty and forsaken in this world, and they have nothing left but the word of God to cling to, to hope in and rely on. The rest of us have it all figured out and are safe and secure in our place on this sinking stinking ship. We know we are sinking, but at least we know something. They know nothing and so cling to nothing and so can be pulled out more readily. Death is as nothing to them that have already died.

Look around you. Who makes you squirm? Who do you hate? Who do you avoid? Who is just plain weird, a nuisance, a pain in the neck and a thorn in your flesh? Who would you rather do without in your life? Who would you not miss if you never saw them again? Look closely. That person is quite possibly God's agent, saving your very soul.

(Or maybe they just need a swift kick in the ass)

Pick up a dead and dried out twig, good for nothing but fire kindling. Stick it in some sand, and water it every day, care for it, until it blossoms into a beautiful tree. In this way you will learn how to be like Christ. The twig may never bloom, but you just might end up coming back to life.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Calvin's Festival of Faith and Music 2007

Last weekend I was in Grand Rapids for Calvin's Festival of Faith & Music. This is the younger little sibling of the writing festival they have every other year. My friends David Dark & Sarah Masen were participating in the festival again this time around, and it is always good to see them and take in the profoundly moving work that they create, as well as just getting the opportunity to talk with them a fair bit now and then throughout the weekend in between activities. David was the keynote Speaker on Saturday, and it was certainly one of the best talks I've heard him give yet. His seminar later that day was a nice continuation of sorts, bringing in bits that he didn't have a chance to get to that morning (the bit about Tom Waits saying there's no such thing as non-fiction being one of the best parts. Only God is capable of speaking in non-fiction. Whew, that's good!) . Unfortunately, one of the people who raised their hands to ask/share something during the Q&A somehow got the idea it was ok to take over the seminar and (ironically during a comment on "silence") just kept talking and talking and taking precious minutes away from the little time David had left. That's the chance you take I guess when you open things up to the floor. David's usually at his best in dialog with others, but a buzzer or a gong wouldn't have been a bad idea.

Sarah gave a rare late-night concert on Friday, and it was just good to hear her sing again. She even had some newly recorded music for us product-starved fans (her last CD came out around 6 or 7 years ago). In a display of obnoxious rudeness, the new band (Son Lux) that was on before her was only supposed to play for a half-hour, but instead decided to drag it out for well over an hour, putting Sarah after 11pm (which was fine for me, but a lot of people just can't hang that late, especially after a full day of festival goodness). I enjoyed talking to David during that in-between time, and enjoyed Sarah's set when she finally came on. "The River" was probably my favorite.

Lauren Winner was another favorite of mine speaking at the festival, giving a keynote on the first day (Friday), and a seminar right after. Lauren can be a bit hit-or-miss for me sometimes. When she's on, and taking things seriously, she can bring intelligence and unique insight to the discussion, but when she's off, or sidetracked, she can be downright annoyingly goofy (to me anyway). At last year's Writing festival, during her seminar entitled "My life as a reader" (which just sounded wonderful to me), she spent half the time talking about kids books, reading nearly an entire children's book to us, complete with pictures. Not exactly what I was hoping for (though the first-grade teacher sitting next to me was pretty stoked about it). This year's keynote got a little bogged down at the beginning with needless (pointless?) statistics regarding Christians and their participation in the Arts (though the overall speech turned out to be rather good). And at her seminar having to do with the music that is a part of her spiritual autobiography, she only shared 4 songs, 2 of which I found utterly annoying and somehow forcefully quirky. Like she just couldn't stand to be straightforward with the question. She did turn me on to an old Emmylou Harris CD though, when she started the session out with a song from Cowgirl's Prayer that was just the sort of thing I love in music that expresses one's faith (specifically, music that expresses faith in a non-CCM way). As a side note, I learned that Lauren is very hard of hearing, which I found interesting, especially since my own tinnitus has been acting up quite a bit lately (someone take the tea kettle off the stove already, the whistling's gonna drive me crazy). Hearing loss is probably just below blindness on my scale of panic-inducing fears.

Andrew Beaujon (author of "Body Piercing Saved My Life") was there as well, sharing with us his impressions of this whole christian music subculture from a non-Christian's viewpoint (a view we might do well to listen to more often, just to see if what we're doing is really something that can be called "Christian" in any meaningful sense of the word. "Christian" is something the people of the early church were called, not a label they applied to themselves). Something interesting he mentioned that I would also agree with is the fact that Christians need to take it easy sometimes, don't forget to enjoy life and have fun, and not beat themselves up all the time wondering if this or that bit of music or media is "ok" to listen to. Lauren Winner, in her keynote, said something to the effect that you have to ask the question, "is this truthful?", to which Andrew responds something like, "I don't know if Steve Miller Band's The Joker is truthful, but I do know that it's a kick-ass song!". He also talked about his experience at Cornerstone Festival while writing the article that became the book. James (webmaster extraordinaire for Sarah Masen and TimeBeing), who was sitting next to me for most of Beaujon's talk, mentioned to me that he went to Cornerstone once, and what an odd experience it was. when I asked him why, he said he had always heard it compared to Greenbelt fest, and when he got to Cstone, the first thing he asked was "ok, where's the bar?"

Sufjean Stephens was playing 2 concerts on Friday evening, the first of which was for festival attendees only. I'm not particularly fond of Sufjean (his music can grate on my nerves, actually, and I almost poked my eyes out and ran screaming the first 2 times I saw him in concert - at Calvin no less), and so I decided to sell my ticket. After the concert had started, and everyone was inside that could possibly want a ticket, I sat outside by the front steps and lamented the fact that I was unable to find a buyer (hoping to get 20 or 30 bucks for it. Both shows were sold out, and Sufjean is the big thing these days). As I sat there contemplating what to do, a guy in a fedora hat walks up the steps, by himself, I say hi, he asks "you wouldn't happen to have an extra ticket to the concert would you?", and my heart suddenly fills with gladness. "I do" I say with a grin dawning on my face. He stops actually a bit surprised at what I've just told him, expecting it to be a long shot at this point, even needing to verify what I just said. He then asks if 40 dollars would be alright… Yes. Yes it would. We exchange, and I walk away about as happy as I've been all weekend. I still have a hard time believing how perfectly that worked out, like God sent him right to me. the timing was just too weird (I would have left in another couple minutes, the concert already going for about 10, and had only sat down there a couple minutes prior, no one else really around). and that just about cut the cost of this weekend in half for me.

Saturday night my friends Lee and Carrie drove the 2 and a half hours to Calvin just to catch the last concert of the weekend, Neko Case and Emmylou Harris (who were both interviewed separately that afternoon on stage). We first ate at Panera's, then went to the packed auditorium for a great double bill. Unfortunately Calvin had to hold the show in the Fieldhouse (which is nothing more than a full-blown gymnasium). They have a legendary sounding stage at the Fine Arts Center, but it only holds about 2,000 people, and they couldn't financially afford to bring Neko and Emmylou in without being able to sell more tickets to the show (tickets were included with registration, which sold out, hence all tickets would have been for festival registrants only). Bleacher seats suck, even with the cushion things they were renting that Carrie got for us all. I never figured out how to work the damn thing (there's a back you're theoretically supposed to be able to lean back on), and I got a splinter straight under my fingernail trying.

After the show and fest were over, we went out to TGI Fridays with our friend Dave who lives out there (as we usually do after these Calvin events) and spent the late night hours eating unhealthy food and arguing about music. Good times. The next morning after checkout, we all met again at the IHOP for our traditional bon voyage breakfast. I stuck around and went to Schuller's books with Dave and Stacy after that for coffee, while Lee and Carrie headed home to fight Wrestlemania traffic downtown to see a show at the State Theater. Dave bought a big old stack of some of my favorite books, which was fun to pick out and watch him buy. Once the storm started to hit, I decided it was time to head home too, thus ending a great weekend at a Calvin Fest once again. Next year is the Writing Festival, and that's the one I look forward to the most.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A quote from: John Barth

"When you're lost, the smartest thing to do is stay put till you're found, hollering if necessary. But to holler guarantees humiliation as well as rescue; keeping silent permits some saving of face--you can act surprised at the fuss when your rescuers find you and swear you weren't lost, if they do. What's more you might find your own way yet, however belatedly."

Thursday, March 15, 2007

of endless book browsing

One of my favorite things to do with my free time is to browse bookstores. I prefer browsing used bookstores, but because they generally close so early, I usually find myself perusing the stacks at Borders or Barnes & Nobles. Book shopping is something I do a LOT... too much in fact. The truth is, I probably spend more time shopping for books, browsing and buying, than I do actually reading books. This is not good. I think the reason I have this problem is that there are so many books I want to read (thousands, really), and the task is overwhelming to me. The realization that I will not have enough time in this life to read all that I want to read is discouraging and depressing. On average, I can usually only get through about 20-24 books a year (though this last year I set a new personal record, having read -i.e. finished - 35), and I probably buy about 50 a year. needless to say, my ratio of books read to unread is way off. lopsided. unbalanced. sick.

Why do I do this? I was thinking about this the other day when I was (what else?) walking around Borders looking at all the books I wished I could buy and read (I have actually held books in my hand that I already owned, almost regretting that fact of ownership because that means I really truly can't buy it right now, even though I want to feel the rush once again of buying this beautiful book that holds so much promise) (I told you I was sick...). I think the prospect of actually reading everything I want seems so unattainable that I do the next best thing. If I can't read them all, at least I can look at them all, even purchase them to have in my own library. I can at least own all the books I want to read, even if I never get around to actually reading them. This I can do, this is easily accomplished (easy, that is, if one doesn't consider paying the credit card bills). I can take them home, look at them, open their new pages and smell them (much to the chagrin of a certain friend whenever I do that when she's around), handle them, read a few lines here and there, and in general live under the illusion that somehow owning them is similar to actually reading them. I become familiar with a lot of books without going through the slow process of actually reading them all, one by one. I feel some sort of pride at having attained the library I have, some sense of authority regarding books I have no real right to claim authority on.

Books have to catch me at just the right time, otherwise they can potentially be a chore to read. And this is the worst way to read a book, out of a sense of obligation or "should", and not because it has captured your attention and motivation. A few months ago I skipped out on reading a book (that I have every intention of reading one day) for an online discussion group, simply because I just wasn't "feeling it" at that time.
I like having many unread "potentials" on the shelf that will be there for me at just the right time. Thomas Merton was like that for me (to a degree few books ever realize). When I pulled Love and Living off the shelf and read those first lines, my life was changed. If it had not been there on my shelf (where it had been sitting for quite a few months unread) at that late hour of the night, that moment would not have happened with the same level of impact.

So far this year I have only finished 3 books, 2 of which were pretty quick reads (one of those didn't even make it to a hundred pages). At this time last year I had read about 8 or 9 books. needless to say, this isn't shaping up to be a record-breaking year. Just last week, however, I finished reading Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", a book that has been sitting on my shelf (and near the top of my "must read" list) for about a decade. I felt a sense of literary accomplishment after that, even if it was only my third book in as many months. I'm currently finishing up a book of collected speeches given over the years at Calvin's Faith and Writing Festival, called "Shouts and Whispers". I was even at a few of these. I also read the first (major) section of Miroslav Volf's "Exclusion and Embrace" a few weeks ago, but stopped to take a breather. I think that book must be the best theological discussion on the matter of forgiveness and reconciliation. I can't recommend it highly enough. I've been working somewhat on a review of the book, but I can't seem to avoid the temptation to rewrite the book in summary form, which I just can't do. Volf doesn't waste a single line in the book, each paragraph continues the thought and argument, and there is little to no excess or "summary" to be found. He doesn't insult the readers intelligence by restating what he's already said. Some books I've read (especially in Christian circles) could have been better as essays, or pamphlets instead of a 200-page book. Exclusion and Embrace is the exact opposite. It's all meat and essential...

I'll wrap this unfinished ramble up now. just wanted to reconnect with the blog world here, which I've neglected for a couple months now. It is hard to remember that I don't need to write a graduate thesis every time I sit down to do one of these. In fact I don't have to do that ever. But you, the reader, intimidate me, and I want to impress you with my great wisdom and perfection. So, as a counterbalance to my unchecked ego, here is an entry that has neither of those things. if you don't like it, you can go f...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Singing in Tongues

Cocteau Twins and Sigur Ros have created music that reminds me of the sort of songs that might be heard in Narnia, music sung by Heavenly beings...voices that can be heard but are yet incomprehensible. We aren't yet ready for a full grasp. I can't understand the words, nor can I express in words what they are singing about, and yet I feel like I understand what they are conveying, they resonate deeply within me. Stop to analyze or examine what I am listening to lyrically, however, and comprehension is elusive at best.

A Quote From: Julio Cortazar

"For me, literature is a form of play. But I’ve always added that there are two forms of play: football, for example, which is basically a game, and then games that are very profound and serious. When children play, though they’re amusing themselves, they take it very seriously. It’s important. It’s just as serious for them now as love will be ten years from now. I remember when I was little and my parents used to say, “Okay, you’ve played enough, come take a bath now.” I found that completely idiotic, because, for me, the bath was a silly matter. It had no importance whatsoever, while playing with my friends was something serious. Literature is like that—it’s a game, but it’s a game one can put one’s life into. One can do everything for that game."

(From: The Paris Review, Issue 93, Fall 1984)

Monday, January 08, 2007

N.T. Wright

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a handful of talks by N.T. Wright (Bishop of Durham) at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Let me say right off the bat (for those of you who might be hoping for some actual substantive content) that I won't be able to say much about the actual talks here. For the most part I think I understand N.T. Wright while I'm reading or listening to him, but I feel he is just out of reach of my intellectual grasp, and so to try and sum up what he was talking about at any given moment would mostly just come out in some variation of "it was good and stuff", and so I'm not even going to try. He was speaking as part of The January Series, a month-long event at Calvin where they bring in a different speaker just about every day in January to speak for one hour at lunchtime, free and open to the public. I left the Detroit area around 7:30AM, my friend Carrie following just about 20 minutes behind me (we drove seperately because I was staying the night there and she was coming back home). We got there around 10:30, which turned out to be plenty of time (we were the first in a line which didn't really start forming until about 11). Thankfully she stopped to get subs for us and we had a great lunch before the lecture. We were able to sit up in the front row of a packed house (1000 seat auditorium)(we realized while sitting there anticipating the lecture that we were truly geeks). His lecture that afternoon revolved around one of his latest books, Simply Christian. Afterward we stood in line for booksigning and met N.T. himself. Rounding out the rest of the day was a meal at Paneras, bookshopping at Barnes & Noble, and then some more at Schullers along with some early evening tea, and then hanging out with friends for the rest of the evening.

Earlier in the week I found out that N.T. was doing an all-day seminar on Saturday, and I no sooner decided to go to that as well than registration was closed. I discovered, however, that there would be a few spaces left if I just came and registered on Saturday morning, so that's what I did (hence my staying overnight on Friday). He spoke in the chapel, a morning and afternoon session (with Q&A afterwards), on the sacrements of Baptism and the Eucharist. (These sessions will all be available online at Calvin's website soon, and the Friday lecture is up there now.)

All in all it was a great 2 days of teaching by one of the preeminent biblical scholars of our time. My friend Andrew said this of Walter Brueggemann, and I would say it's true for me of N.T. Wright now, that hearing an author speak and getting a sense of their personality and approach has a way of making an otherwise complicated text suddenly more accessible to understanding. I'm looking forward to reading more of Bishop Wright's work now, including Simply Christian (which he brought alive in his first talk), and one of his newest books on Evil and the Justice of God. That last one sounds pretty good and stuff...

Monday, January 01, 2007

For Christmas I beat a cancer patient and took his money

This past year my cousin was diagnosed with cancer (Hodgkins) and has spent the majority of the year going through the hell of treatments. This cousin and I have had a yearly Christmas Eve tradition, ever since we were kids I believe, of playing pool when our family gets together on that evening. We usually play for a few bucks a game, and usually we end up alternating years as far as who ends up winning by the night's end. And this year happened to be my year (despite my cousin's lame quips about "you know I have cancer, right?" and "how can you do that to a guy with cancer?" etc. etc.). He's going to be fine, and I needed the money, and as an added bonus, I get to tell people that's what I did for, you know, Merry F*cking Christmas and all that...

On the gift-getting front, I actually did rather well for Christmas, opening a huge treasure chest of a box from Amazon, filled with books books books. I got more books from a good friend of mine, and as if that wasn't enough, I went used bookshopping on my way back from dropping my brother off at the airport. all told I've added 17 new titles to my shelves in the past week! One of those books is by a very respected author, Czeslaw Milosz, who's name I just learned how to say (from that book), and despite how cool his name looks in print, I will be rather hesitant to tell people in real life when I'm reading him, because it just sounds rather silly (CHESS-wav MEE-wosh). I feel like freakin' Elmer Fudd or something...

What was in that big box?
Thomas Merton - Cold War Letters
Henri Nouwen - Love in a Fearful Land
Charles Bukowski - What Matters Most...
Charles Bukowski - Betting on the Muse
Allen Ginsberg - Collected Poems 1947-1997
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews
Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations
Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits
Shouts and Whispers

and then I bought used:
Franz Kafka - Letter to My Father
Leo Tolstoy - A Confession (etc..)
Nabakov - Speak, Memory
Thomas Mann - Death in Venice

and then my friends got me:
Frederick Buechner - Secrets in the Dark
Thomas Merton - Asian Journal
Thomas Merton - Dialogues with Silence
Pema Chodron - Wisdom of No Escape

and now I have to figure out where in the hell I'm going to store all these books. But that's a good, fun problem to have, one that I hope will continue to get worse as time goes on...

My brother and his girlfriend were in for the week after Christmas as well, and we had a great time visiting and some good conversations, but that will all have to wait for another entry (one that I may or may not make public). I think I'm done blogging for tonight...

Beautiful After Midnight

Just over an hour after the strike of the new year, I stepped out into the relatively comfortable night air and went for a walk around the neighborhood. I was struck by how beautiful the sky was this night, the sun shining brightly from the other side of the world on the nearly full moon overhead, rendering my flashlight useless, causing the midnight clouds that passed by to glow white in the late night, and vividly demonstrating what the term "midnight blue" really looks like. If it wasn't so early in the night, I could have believed that dawn was breaking through, and I couldn't help but think that this is how Anne Rice's vampires see the world in the nightime hours. A few hours earlier, I finished a book by Ronald Rolheiser about rediscovering a "felt presence of God". One of the things he suggests we need is to once again approach the world around us with the awe and wonderment of a child, rather than as the same old same old. I felt something of this "caught off guard" wonderment as I went on my walk looking mostly up at the sky. I've taken a lot of nighttime walks in my life, and rarely does one get a beautiful bright night like this.

I was also reminded of a song by UnderCover that Ojo Taylor wrote after his mother had died, "The Moon And The Blue Around", one that has always touched me deeply and reminded me (once again, as UnderCover always seems to do) to not take those I love for granted, to sit still for a moment and truly share life with loved ones before they are gone, to "listen closely to their eyes". I always think of my own mother when I hear this song, and of the hardships she has had to endure throughout her life, and also of the hurt and hardship I will have to endure when she is gone. Depth in relationships takes a depth of courage - to be vulnerable, to be open and engaged and fully present, to take initiatives and risks (mostly to one's ego or personal walls of protection). It is this depth that I strive however feebly to attain. And however often I may lose my focus or resolve, there are those moments (if I am open to them) that will remind me and bring me back to at least the possiblility of awareness of what is truly real, what really matters in this life.

Treat her nice
Treat her to ideas you designed
She's been hurt before
I would gladly take her to the summer in my arms
I would gladly take her if I could

The moon and the blue around
We can find and play
After we have looked down
Moment seized, now silent, past

Speak to her, speak to her
In kindest terms
Listen to her
She's heard lions roar
Let me listen slowly to ideas she designed
Let me listen slowly to her eyes

The moon and the blue around
We can find and play
After we have looked down
Moment seized, now silent, past

Take good care
Take good care of my beloved's time
Innocence becomes her anyway
I would gladly keep her through the winter
If I could
Listen slowly to her lovely eyes