Thursday, October 30, 2008

Party 'til the Donkeys Come Home


Win or Lose, We'll Feel Better When We Eat
by Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Washington Post
Food Section
October 29, 2008

Or is it "party 'til the elephants come home"? It all depends on your perspective. I laughed at Jane Black's article, because it sounded so familiar. Election night has a festive feel to it, and E. and I have the urge to have people over. But an election night party is different from a Holiday Open House or a Halloween Haunting or a Cinco de Mayo Fiesta or any other gathering I can think of. We all know that some of the people who are nearest and dearest to us are not people we would choose to spend election night with. For some reason, the conversations that get the most heated and hurtful usually have to do with politics or religion, so often it is best to just not go there. The invitees to the election night party have to be people who will mourn if you are mourning and celebrate if you are celebrating. They have to be willing to stay up until the West Coast polls close and will sweat out the wait on the swing states with you. They have to be the people who will appreciate all the snarky comments you have saved up for this one and only night. In other words, it's a pretty small group. Nevertheless, it's an occasion that calls for some kind of communal observance.

Jane Black's article totally nails the dicey etiquette of election night parties, and she talks about how many local restaurants are getting into the spirit of the occasion by offering uniquely named dishes and drinks like "Obamalettes" and "McHitos" and asking people to "vote" with their order. Different chefs propose "red" menus for Republican gatherings (roasted red pepper soup and braised beef, for example) and "blue" for Democrat (blue cheese burgers and cheesecake topped with blueberries). Either menu sounds pretty delicious to me.

We are returning from a short trip to NYC on Election Day, so we are settling for a small gathering with a few neighbors. We will purchase snack foods in advance and probably whip up a pot of chili. Pretty simple stuff, but festive and communal all the same. We'll bust out a bottle of champagne of things go as we hope, and make do with hot chocolate and comfort food if they do not.

So - what are you doing for election night? Who is coming over or where are you going? What will you eat and drink? This is not a poll of any kind - I'm taking a sabbatical from those. I'm simply curious and glad to find a spot of humor in the election coverage.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No Way Out


Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy

There are so many directions in which I could go, so many themes to contemplate about this book. It may even require a second post at some point. My husband E. and I have an ongoing conversation about what makes a classic book a classic. We have not settled on a precise definition yet - I suspect that we never will - but as I read more books that (theoretically at least) fall into the category of "classic" literature, I have to admit that there is some kind of quality - largely indefinable - that sets these time tested favorites apart from the majority of other books. Part of it is quality of the writing, but that is not the whole thing. Anna Karenina and Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark had the same effect on me. We do not so much read these books as experience them. E. even said that I devoured Anna Karenina. It is hard to explain, but it is as if the writer does not so much tell a story as construct a world, a world of which the reader comes to feel more and more a part. The first couple hundred pages I read at a pretty slow pace, as if I were getting acquainted with the characters and the setting of the story. As I was progressively more drawn in, however, I found it harder and harder to put the book down. I felt truly invested in what on earth was going to happen to Anna and Vronsky, and whether or not Levin and Kitty would find happiness in each other.

As I said, there are zillions of questions that Anna Karenina calls us to explore - class differences in 19th century Russia, the nature of faith and its impact on life, double standards regarding sexual behavior, the endurance of love (or lack of endurance), women's options and roles in Russian nobility, the causes and purposes of war, the causes of despair, forgiveness, reconciliation - these are just a few of the issues that Tolstoy raises in the narrative of this story. Any of them could probably fill up a post on their own. However, the main thing I want to raise today is the question of Tolstoy's intentions. One theory that I read said that Tolstoy deliberately set up a contrast with two of the main characters - Anna's sin is meant to be set up against Levin's virtue, showing that the sinful come to a bad end while the virtuous prosper.

We all know, though, that it's not that simple. I would love to ask Tolstoy what HIS opinion of Anna is. She is an adulteress, and in keeping with the times is considered "fallen" and "criminal." I do not condone adultery, but all the same I found myself sympathizing with Anna. She is drawn to Vronsky because she feels that her life is empty and has no meaning, but given her status and position in society there are not too many choices that she has for ways to fill up her time. Given the cold, mechanical, and distant demeanor of her husband, one can hardly blame her for taking companionship and comfort where she can find it. The contrast that really struck me was Anna's ostracism from society when she and Vronsky go public with their affair, while her brother Stiva is a total rake who sleeps around on his wife all the time and everyone tolerates it with wry amusement. In any case, I find Anna a sympathetic character, but would love to know if I am interpreting the story through my 21st century lens or if Tolstoy intended for us to identify with Anna's growing desperation, loneliness, and claustrophobia.

If you have not read Anna Karenina, but think you would like to someday - stop reading here. I do not want to give away the ending.

OK, anyone who has read this book - did you see it coming? Did you know the end that Anna would come to? I suspected what was brewing, but was still devastated when it happened - I kept hoping she and Vronsky would find a way out of the impasse that they reached, but I think that was the point. Given the social conventions of the time, there WAS no way out. Anna definitely became shrill and paranoid and even ugly to Vronsky, but to me her despair was palpable. Vronsky was not blameless, either, but most of the time was trying to create a household and relationship within which the two could live and even thrive. As it unfolded, though, several times I thought "Someone is going to die." I became more and more sure that it would be Anna. When it finally happened, though, it seemed like such a waste. Here she had sacrificed her relationship with her son, lost all of her so called friends, and even been judged by family members, and for what? To reach a point where she could no longer be with the one for whom she had made all this sacrifice, and to throw herself under a train.

My bet is that Vronsky did not survive either. His mission in going to war two months after Anna's death bore all the marks of (if not outright suicide) a major death wish, which he all but admits to Sergei Ivanovich when they last meet.

I am not yet sure what constitutes a "classic," but you know it when you see it. Anna Karenina is quite an investment of time and energy, but well worth the effort.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Vote for Change


Jesus for President
by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw

I'm the first to admit that this title is potentially off-putting. I do not go in for the Ann Coulter-esque theory of "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity" as a way of dealing with those whom we perceive to be our enemies. I also do not believe that we should assume that our leaders always have to be Christians, or presume that the United States is a Christian nation. Claiborne and Haw, however, have chosen the title with the tension between politics and Christianity in mind. They are not making the assumption that we are to impose the Christian worldview and agenda on the political process. Instead, they assume that the empire is going to compromise the ideals of anyone who is trying to follow Christ. They raise the question "How are we to live?" when following Christ is going to necessarily put us at odds with the state. This is an important book to read right now, in the heat of a critical presidential campaign. Claiborne and Haw remind us that, regardless of the outcome of any given election, our first allegiance is to Christ and all that he hopes for the world.

In some respects, I was disappointed with the book. The first 2/3 traces the biblical story and the people who overturned conventional ideas of power. The authors remind us that God never wanted Israel to have a king in the conventional political sense - they only got one because they insisted, and that was when a lot of the trouble started. This is all good stuff, but familiar territory to anyone who is the least bit biblically literate. I got a little bored with it, as they seem to make the same point over and over again, although it certainly is not a point that I have any quarrel with. The last third of the book is better, as it has a lot of anecdotes and concrete suggestions for living "off the grid" and doing what we can to subvert the power of secular empire. However, much of this is a rehash of Claiborne's earlier (and in my opinion better) book, The Irresistible Revolution.

Nevertheless, it is a hopeful book that serves as a timely reminder that followers of Christ, if we really are following, are going to butt heads with the secular powers. There shouldn't be all this going along to get along. Too often as Christians we think we have to be "nice," when we should be more concerned about living in ways that are just and build up the human family. I have strong feelings about the upcoming presidential election, but this book helped me remember that whatever the outcome we are called to participate in the world that God has envisioned. Sometimes that will mean working within the secular political system, but more often it will mean working outside, subverting the dominant way of thinking and living.

However we cast our ballots on November 4, we all are intended to vote for change every day with the choices we make. We can choose to decrease our rate of consumption of the world's natural resources. We can intentionally reach out to people who think differently from us and figure out how to live in relationship with them. We can be more careful to distinguish between "needs" and "wants." We can choose to be faithful stewards of all we have been given, and share what we have with those who have less. Claiborne and Haw give us lots of creative ways that we can cast these votes and build the kingdom of God here on earth. I thank them for that.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The First Feminist?


Nefertiti:Queen of Egypt, Daughter of Eternity
by Michelle Moran

One problem with historical novels - particularly the ones that go so far back as this one - the lack of written records makes the historical accuracy dubious at best. This novel is set roughly 1350 - 1330 BCE, so there is lots of conjecture. The author acknowledges this in her afterword, and says that she chose the scenarios that seemed the most likely given the information that is available. I'm kind of funny about historical novels - especially when they are about real people - I want some way to know what is factually true and what stuff the author made up to fill in the gaps.

Nevertheless, this is a fun read with quite a bit of good information thrown in as well. The writing is not as elegant and the detail work not as meticulous as, say, a Diana Gabaldon novel (in my mind the queen of historical fiction), but I would certainly read Michelle Moran again. She brings ancient Egypt to life, with all its political intrigue and skewed relationships. It's a colorful story. One of the hinges on which the story turns is religious strife in Egypt - the conflict between followers of the god Amun and those who followed the Pharaoh Amunhotep IV to worship Aten (the sun god). This part is historically accurate - I looked it up. It was interesting to me how even that far back there were bloody battles over who god is and how we should relate to him/her. Something else that jumps out is the shameless manipulation of religion for political power. Amunhotep IV (later known as Akhenaten) claimed to follow Aten because of religious conviction, but as he descended into madness it became clear that changing the nation's god was a way to test his subjects' loyalty and frighten them into submission. Yuck.

Nefertiti is a character that we love to hate. She colludes with her husband's (Amunhotep's) reforms so that she can stay in his good graces and increase her own security. Even when she realizes that her husband has gone crazy, she continues to enable his diplomatic disasters and self-glorification because he is her ticket (and her family's) to power and immortality. To be fair, though, this is the way things were for women. We all know they had next to zero power in their own right, and were seen as pawns by their fathers and brothers. Nefertiti is selfish and manipulative, but she also plays the hand that she is dealt, and really has no other choice. Chattel covered in jewels and gold is still chattel.

It is probable that Nefertiti ruled Egypt on her own for at least a brief time after her husband's death. So, we have to give her some credit for her shrewdness and courage. You go, girl.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Haiku Fun


Zen Ties
by John J. Muth

This book is one that both my boys really like - I highly recommend it as well as John Muth's previous children's book Zen Shorts. Both books feature the same main characters - the giant panda Stillwater and his three young (human) friends Michael, Addy, and another little boy whose name escapes me at the moment (surely you will forgive this lapse of memory, as I am sleep deprived). Zen Ties has the added character of Stillwater's young panda nephew, Koo. Koo speaks in Haiku, although Muth is pretty liberal with the syllable rules as I understand them for that type of poem.

Zen Ties is a particular favorite of G's (my two-year-old), who has picked up what our pediatrician this morning called "the bug of the week." It is brutal - fever, sore throat, and vomiting. In sympathy for him, I composed the following haiku to describe what our night together was like:

Spooned protectively
Around a feverish toddler
Whoosh! River of puke

(strip, soap, redress, repeat)

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Power of the Book


The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

For all you preachers out there - read this one. It will preach. In fact, I've already featured it in a Sunday sermon, and could possibly see featuring it in one of my "Faith in Fiction" sermon series that I often do in the summertime. Even if you are not a preacher, there are lots of other reasons to read this. The writing is subtle, compelling, and vivid. One trick that Zusak uses is to mix sensory metaphors - something like "His eyes sounded like a screaming cyclone" or "She tasted the shriek of the approaching bomb." At first, I found this a little distracting, but came to appreciate the technique - it was as if Zusak had found a way to express how humans are, with all our separate parts and senses, one holistic being. In a strange way it also made the images clearer. It's hard to express, but I could taste the bombs.

The two themes that emerged for me from The Book Thief are 1) the power of reading, writing, and words to change lives and (eventually) the world and 2) the increased intensity of experiences of grace, truth, and beauty when they are shown against the stark, ugly backdrop of human sin. The main character, Liesel Meminger, is a broken child who finds her life transformed when she learns to read at the age of 10. Her wary, mistrustful personality also begins to change as she experiences consistency and kindness for the first time under the care of her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany during the first years of World War II. Most of the people of a small suburb of Munich, Molching, initially go along with Hitler's ideas. Some do so just to protect themselves and their families, while others really do believe his ghastly lies. As time goes on, however, and the Nazis get more and more desperate, the people are living with two sources of fear - the repression of the Nazis as their policies encroach steadily on the freedoms of all people (even those who toe the party line), and also the terror of Allied bombs falling near their village on an almost daily basis. In spite of the fears and losses, however, Liesel blossoms as a human being during this time.

In the midst of so much tragedy, Liesel experiences stability and kindness for the first time in her life. She learns what it is like to have friends, and to engage in the cherished activities of childhood like playing outdoor games and climbing trees. She has opportunities to give to others, to learn how to be a daughter and a friend. A sense of our common humanity is awakened within her when her foster parents begin hiding a refugee Jew at tremendous risk to themselves. It is as if Liesel is the microcosm of the changes that take place within the whole village as they begin to unify. They find subtle ways to resist the Nazis, and more overt ways to support and care for one another. Woven throughout all of this is the role of books in change and relationship. For example, Liesel begins reading out loud to her neighbors when they are confined in the air raid shelters. The reading calms the fears of the people and also draws them together as they wonder "what will happen next."

There are so many instances in The Book Thief of reconciliation, self-sacrifice, and truth-telling. It's a wonderful, hopeful story that shows us there is always evidence around us of God's presence and God's mercy, if we only know how to look for it.

However, be warned. The book ends with a whole lot of tragedy and a little bit of hope mixed in. The narrator warns us throughout the narrative that bad things are coming, so it's no surprise, but it still is hard to cope with because by the end we are so attached to the characters. You will miss them when they're gone.

Reverent Reader

Friday, October 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Ex Libris Fides!


EX LIBRIS FIDES TURNS 1!!!

I knew the date was coming up, but just had not really focused on it yet. Then this morning J. at A Church for Starving Artists made reference to her third "blogoversary," which prompted me to go back and see when the first posting of Ex Libris Fides was. Turns out it was one year ago today. Wahoo!

I'm still having fun writing it, hope you all out there are still enjoying reading it. Sorry there has been a lapse this week - I have been reading a really good novel (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak), that would be easy to just blow through because the story is so good. However, the writing is so subtle and compelling that I have forced myself to go slowly so as not to miss as much. Just finished it a couple of days ago - more posting about it over the weekend sometime.

Anyway, Happy Birthday to my blog! Have a piece of cake to celebrate (or take a book to your favorite kid and read it to him/her).

Reverent Reader

P. S. Also want to wish my brother-in-law and fellow book lover D. and Happy Birthday today!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Overwhelming


The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
by Naomi Klein

It is difficult to write about a book with such a huge amount of information as The Shock Doctrine. This was recommended by several of the speakers at the PCUSA Peacemaking Conference that I attended last July. I am glad I read it, even though it is a sobering and scary book. It is meticulously researched and well-written. Another factor in the difficulty in writing about it is the climate in our country right now. Like it or not, we are embedded in a capitalist culture, and to point out any of the flaws in the system puts one at risk of being labeled a "commie" or "someone who hates America." I am not a Communist (nor a Socialist for that matter), and I love this country as much as anyone. However, to think we are blameless in creating the economic chaos in the world (and here in our own country) is to place our heads in the sand.

What Klein does is give us a brief education on the economic theory of Milton Friedman - someone whom we could fairly call a capitalist fundamentalist. His mantra was (he died in 2006) deregulation, privatization, and drastic cuts in social spending. He was famous for coining the phrase "It is impossible to do good with other people's money." He taught for years at the University of Chicago, and he had disciples come from all over the world to learn about his economic theories. They then went home (to Latin America, Russia, South Africa, and China, among other places) to impose Friedman's doctrine as quickly as they could. Of course the results were always the same - massive loss of jobs, mind blowing inflation, and the shredding of any kind of social safety net for the most vulnerable people.

After she outlines Friedman's theory, Klein traces 35 years of economic history through the various countries that implemented Friedman's ideas, usually in a cold turkey, overnight way. Naturally, the result was economic chaos. What is really disconcerting to read about is the hypocritical way the United States has acted about democracy. We claim to want other countries to enjoy the same political freedoms that we have, but in numerous countries we have stood in the way of democracy when elected leaders did not want to conform to the Friedmanite economic agenda. I have written before about my puzzlement about this - we seem willing to provide arms, funding, and international recognition to any lowlife as long as they are not a Communist (or even a Keynesian).

Klein also shows, through documentation and interviews, how the "Chicago School" of economists recognize that the "easiest" way to force through sweeping economic changes is to implement them when people are reeling from some kind of trauma (a military coup, a tsunami, a terrorist event) and are too disoriented to even realize what is happening until it is too late, let alone protest what is going on. Furthermore, in many cases (Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Poland, and Russia, for example) people are kept in a state of terror by the threat of torture, abduction, and death. When people are this frightened, they lose the will to fight back. Even sadder, this type of extreme capitalism is not beneficial for the vast majority of people. A handful of people get fabulously wealthy, and everyone else just gets poorer.

Maybe I am naive, but it is hard for me to grasp the idea of people lying in the weeds and waiting in a predatory way to impose the economic policies of their choosing. I would be reading along in Klein's books and would just think "This cannot be true." But her sources are reliable, not crazy conspiracy theory types. It is disheartening to think that so many players on the world stage are unconcerned with the common good - I thought working for the common good was what leadership was all about. Silly me.

As I say, I am no Communist, even though some would probably call me that just for reading the book in the first place. We all know the excesses committed by Stalin and other Communist leaders - it seems that all systems, no matter how idealistic they start out to be, get corrupted by human greed and, yes, sin. Our mistake here in the U.S. has been to think that capitalism is immune from that same type of excess. The Shock Doctrine cautions us against that type of blindness, and helps us see that any kind of economic system, if allowed to run totally free and unchecked, is likely to go awry in awful ways. Extremism in any guise is not a good thing.

Klein ends her book on a much needed hopeful note, citing examples of Latin American countries and other places that have begun to recover from Friedmanism. It is heartening that more recently some countries have refused to capitulate to economic "reforms" being forced upon them. In spite of the mess that we have made of the world, I continue to be optimistic about humanity for the long haul. Maybe I am naive when it comes to the world of economics, but I remain hopeful that we can find a middle ground between fundamentalist capitalism and the repressive specter of Communism. God help us.

Reverent Reader