Thursday, July 31, 2008

Botheration


A Spot of Bother
by Mark Haddon

Am not sure I'm ready to write - with the exception of her memorial sermon, I have had a bit of writer's block since KB's unexpected death. I guess maybe the way back in is to just do it and hope that the words come. Maybe the exercise in itself will be therapeutic.

If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, this is the same author. It's a quirky little book that compassionately (and even humorously) depicts the journey of a man falling into some unspecific mental illness (some kind of panic or delusional disorder, apparently). The Hall family is a little bit screwball, but no more so than many of us if we are really honest about the craziness that goes on in family dynamics. Neither George's wife or his children really know what to do with the bizarre symptoms that George begins to have, but in an odd way their concern for husband/father draws the uneasy group together in unexpected ways. When the story comes to a conclusion, we do not have the sense that all the problems are over "and they lived happily ever after" (does that ever really happen, truly?). We do, however, get a sense of renewed commitment on each family member's part to be present to one another and work through the difficult times. That commitment in itself is gratifying.

Has anyone out there read this? If so, what did you think of the character Ray? I loved how the whole Hall family felt like he was such an inappropriate choice of mate for Katie but then he emerged as the most stable brick in the pile! Definitely a case where we should not judge a book by the cover (if you will forgive the metaphor), although we often do.

One thing that troubled me about the Hall family is their uniform contempt for matters of faith and religion. I realize that the conduct of the church for the past two millenia has been tainted by sin and self-interest (as is the conduct of any individual, community, or institution). This middle-class British family, however, seems contemptuous and hostile to any kind of faith or belief in something that cannot be empirically proven. I fear that this mindset is becoming more prevalent in our society as well. E. and I have certainly run into people who think our line of work is kind of quaint, but they have no idea how we actually spend our time or what aspects of our work we believe are the most important or valuable. What has caused this dismissal of faith and the spiritual life on the part of so many people, when other people are desperately seeking some type of connection with each other and with the Divine? I am aware of all the cultural factors that play into the equation, but wonder how established faith traditions can own up to our mistakes and discover new ways to be in relationship with people, without looking defensive or like we are in survival mode. Any spiritual or relational shift we make is going to backfire if we look like we are only making such a shift to save ourselves.

Well, that's maybe a bit of a digression from the book, but it's what the book made me consider.

Reverent Reader

Monday, July 28, 2008

Tragedy

Here's a question for readers - what do you do when you have something happen in life that is so unexpected and so horrible that the activities that usually give you pleasure suddenly do not?

We found out last Monday, July 21 (about a week into our trip) that my best friend had died suddenly while on a Vision Quest in the Inyo Mountains of California.

This loss is almost too much to take. We came back early from vacation to be at her memorial service. I participated in the service - I had a job to do, which meant I could focus on something and get the adrenaline shooshing and get through it. Today I am utterly empty, deeply sad, and totally exhausted.

I have read less than 30 pages since we got the news, which is unlike me. Usually reading can get my mind off anything. Now I cannot concentrate, as I try so hard to wrap my mind around the fact that she is gone.

Perhaps sometime I will write about KB, about the history of our friendship and all that she meant to our family. Here are a few snapshots: She was one of three clergy who married E. and me. She preached my installation sermon at St. Matthew. She baptized both my sweet boys. She has been with us for every holiday that we have celebrated in our home since we were married. She was wise, tender, caring, open, creative, and hilarious. I miss her terribly.

There was simply no one like her, and never will be.

I had a couple of books backed up to post about when we left. I hope in a few days to come out of the cave and do a few things that feel normal, like blogging and reading. There is lots of unpacking to do first - literally of the stuff that we carted to California and metaphorically of the processing of this horrible loss.

More soon, I hope.

Reverent Reader

Monday, July 14, 2008

Leave of Absence

Hi everyone! This is just a quick note to say that we are leaving tomorrow for two weeks in California. We are attending the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference in Los Angeles first, then having several days of vacation in the San Diego area where we have family.

Am not sure when or where I will find a computer, so don't know when I will post again. But Ex Libris Fides will return ASAP - July 29 at the latest.

I hope you are having a great summer. Be sure to write to me if you read anything fun, inspiring, thrilling, or fascinating.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, July 13, 2008

To Reread Or Not To Reread?


Just for a change, I am throwing a question out for my readers to chew on. Today was the last day of a four-week sermon series that I worked up on "Faith and Fiction." I chose books that had moved me in some particular way and wrote sermons that connected them to a biblical scripture. After each worship service in the series, we had a group discussion about the book and/or the sermon for anyone who chose to attend. This was the second year I had done this series, and many in the congregation really seem to enjoy it. I give a couple of months of advance notice what the books are, and there is an enthusiastic group of readers who really get into it. It's a lot of fun.

Something I have noticed about my own experience with this series, though. I always reread the books before I write the series sermons. I love reading the books a second time - I enjoy them even more and seem to find even more meaning in them than the first time. This brings me to my quandary - there are so many books that have been important to me and that I would like to read for a second or even third or fourth time. BUT, there are also so many things out there that I am itching to read for the first time that there is no way I will ever get to them all. So many books, so little time! My Amazon Wish List is where I keep track of things I am hoping to read "someday," and at present it has about 250 books on it. Not to mention the stack of things waiting to be read here at home and on my desk that probably numbers 25 to 30 books. Curses on the Washington Post Book World!

This is a serious issue for avid readers. With time being such a limited resource, are we better off reading new stuff or going back to the tried and true? As a kid, I was a total re-reader. I read all of the Little House on the Prairie series at least five or six times. Little Women I have probably read 10 or 12 times, seriously. And who could forget Anne of Green Gables? It may be my most read book of all time - I am sure I have read it at least 15 times. But, as I have gotten older and time has become so much more of an issue, I reread much less than I used to. And I think there is some loss to that - we pick up so much more when we are not racing to see what happens at the end. Nevertheless, besides the ones I have chosen for the sermon series, there are only a few that I have gone back to and read again. I may reread certain sections for a sermon illustration or something, but rereading a whole book is rare. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter and John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany are two that come to mind that I have read at least twice and maybe three times. I am sure there are more, but not too many, and none that I have read so often I can recite the dialogue by heart, as I could with some of my childhood favorites.

I suppose as with so many of life's questions, the key here is balance. We benefit from staying up on current books, but our lives are also enriched by going back to treasured books and reading them again. Jane Eyre is one I want to get back to - I read it at fourteen and have forgotten a lot of it. E. read it about a year ago and could hardly put it down, he liked it so much. So - what are some books that you read over and over? What is your opinion on the question of rereading versus reading things for the first time? DISCUSS.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jeay Bhutto?


Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West
by Benazir Bhutto

As I read this book, it became increasingly clear to me what a tragedy Benazir Bhutto's assassination is, not just for Pakistan, but for the world. According to the book's forward, Bhutto had the in progress manuscript for her book in her briefcase when she re-entered Pakistan on October 18, 2007 after eight years in exile. That very night, there was an attempt on her life in which 179 people were killed. She managed to survive another couple of months, but was assassinated the following December 27. With her going, I think we lost one of the world's best hopes for progress towards world peace.

Bhutto is the exact opposite of the Muslim fundamentalist extremists who dominate the news and who planned 9/11. She knows her faith very well - she spends the first chapter of the book outlining the history of the Islamic faith and world, as well as how the differing sects within Islam came to exist. She also lifts out Quranic evidence that so-called "Western" values (such as peace, reconciliation, and tolerance) and systems of government (namely democracy) are not ours alone - the Quran not only permits these values, but actually promotes them. In Bhutto's opinion, the fanatics and extremists have hijacked her faith and twisted it into something that is totally unrecognizable to her and to the majority of the Islamic world. The sad thing is that the reasonable voices get drowned out by the lunatics - as often happens with the widely varied Christian groups here in the United States.

Bhutto builds a strong case that the real battle that the world is facing is not a clash between Islam and the West. Instead it is a battle within the Muslim world for the soul of their faith. If the extremists who have twisted the Islamic faith into an oppressive nightmare win that struggle, then we are all in trouble. Bhutto believes, though, that such a war is far from inevitable. Her words are the most hopeful I have read in a long time about the possibility of reconciliation in our world.

Benazir Bhutto wrote this book with clarity, honesty, and a great deal of passion. She clearly wanted progress and democracy for her own homeland - she devoted and ultimately sacrificed her life for that cause. I am sure she is a cracked vessel, as we all are. I remember reading about corruption in her government both the times that she served as Pakistan's Prime Minister. However, the Pakistani government was so eaten away by corruption already, and the attempts to undermine her personally and destabilize her government were so ceaseless, that in all fairness it was probably hard for her to remain totally clean. My guess is that she did the best she could, and her love for Pakistan and her people is evident. She did not have to go back, but she did, and paid the ultimate price.

This is a valuable book to read for anyone who wants to understand the history of the Muslim world and the Muslim relationship with democracy. She gives brief histories of many of the Muslim countries and the tenuous holds that some of them have on freedom. She argues vehemently against the assumption that Islam and democracy are somehow inherently incompatible. Bhutto is critical of the West, especially the United States and Great Britain, and the ways we have have contributed to creating the chaos that characterizes so much of the Muslim world. She is equally critical of the Muslim countries, though, saying that at some point they must step up and take responsibility for their future. She is gracious throughout her book - one has the sense that she is obeying the Christian command to "speak the truth in love."

In a brief afterword to her book, Bhutto's husband and children write how much they miss their wife and mother, but also how proud they are of her and the way she lived her life. Each of them is determined to continue her mission of building a democracy in Pakistan, and they believe that as long as people everywhere are committed to the ideals that she believed in, then she is never really gone. They close with the Arabic words "Jeay Bhutto" - "Bhutto lives." Does she? We can only hope so.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, July 6, 2008

To Ur Is Human


Sarah
by Marek Halter

Hi, reading friends. Sorry about the slowdown between posts. Couple of reasons. One, I have been re-reading some stuff for a "Faith in Fiction" sermon series that I am doing. Sometimes I post on a re-read, other times I don't. Have not really found what works in those cases. The second thing is that we went to NYC for a few days to visit family (hi there, T. and S.). We had a great time - visited the Children's Museum of Manhattan and spent a good chunk of the 4th in Central Park, picnicking and hanging out in one of the big playgrounds. Enjoyed some good meals and walks with T. and S., splashed around in the hotel pool, and in general had a wonderful time. We capped off the visit with ice cream and watching fireworks on T. and S.'s HDTV.

I finished this book right before we left for NYC. I'm still trying to figure out what I think of it. The guy has taken the basic story of Abraham and Sarah and embellished it, filling in things that we do not know about them for the sake of an interesting narrative. It certainly is that - he makes Sarah (then called Sarai) an infertile priestess in the temple of the goddess Ishtar who flees her luxurious life in the royal city of Ur to run off with her peasant boyfriend, Abram. He also imagines a tryst between Sarai and the Egyptian Pharaoh that drives a wedge into her relationship with Abram (this part is loosely based on a story actually in the Bible when Abram passes Sarai off as his sister to try to protect himself). In the end , God's promises to give Abram a son and make him the father of many is fulfilled in the birth of Isaac.

I realize that the biblical stories are in many cases short on detail, and that much of our task is to imagine what life was like for pivotal people like Abraham and Sarah. I certainly am no biblical literalist, but I kind of felt like this guy let his imagination run amok. I realize that a story does not have to be literally "true" to communicate truth about God and our relationship with God, but he seemed to wander so far afield that it muddies the original story. I think I prefer something like The Red Tent, which is also set in biblical times and is about an actual biblical character. The Red Tent fills in gaps in the story, but sticks close enough to the original narrative that it does not seem implausible.

In an interview with Halter at the end of the book, he says that he thinks Sarah is a "modern" woman who used what she had at her disposal (namely her stunning beauty, which in a fantastic twist Halter says is miraculously "untouched by time," I guess for the purpose of making sex between two nonagenarians believable) to get what she wanted (a child). Feminist that I am, I think this is reading too much into the story. Isaac's birth is a miracle of God's grace - Sarah had the good sense to go along with the plan, but I am not sure there is enough evidence in Genesis to warrant Halter's take on it. Nevertheless, this is a pretty entertaining read. If it sparks someone's interest in becoming more familiar with our ancestors in faith, that is a good thing.

Reverent Reader