Thursday, November 20, 2008

Worst Impulses

Mystic River
by Dennis LeHane

First of all, apologies to my fellow readers for the lag between posts. I was in Oklahoma for a couple of days last week, celebrating the life of a beloved friend who left this life on November 1. Then came back to a busy time at work and a croupy kid (he's better now). Anyway, somehow the blog got put on the back burner for a few days - but I'm still reading and now have a nice little backlog to catch up on!

Mystic River was a critically acclaimed movie a few years ago that I never got around to seeing - maybe now that I have read the book I will rent the movie. At its most basic level, Mystic River is about three guys who are childhood friends, but then a tragic event pulls them apart. They all grow up and continue to live near each other - two are even related by marriage - but "the thing" continues to haunt each one of them and cast a shadow over any relationship they hope to have with each other (not to mention their spouses, children, and other people who are important to them). It also seems to me, though, that the novel expresses the ongoing struggle we have with our innermost worst impulses. Each of these guys wants to see justice done when things happen that are wrong, and intellectually they know right from wrong. Because of their past, though, they have the desire to take justice into their own hands, and bring it about by brutal means. Sean, the only one who does not turn criminal, runs in the opposite direction and becomes a homicide detective. But he too struggles with his need for vengeance and retribution, he just gets there by more subtle means than Dave or Jimmy.

Mystic River is an honest book, but I must confess that I kept waiting for a little more hope, a tad more grace - a moment when someone would choose to take the high road and not perpetuate the cycle of sickness that began when these guys were little kids. However, I think LeHane does a good job of articulating the contrasts that so often lie below the surface of human beings. A hardened criminal can be the most devoted family man, someone who will put his own life on the line for his kids. A grown man fighting the impulse to abuse as he was abused can at the same time be a tender husband and patient father. People are complicated, and rarely all bad or all good. That is no news flash, but LeHane draws us into the story so well that we learn that lesson (again) in ways that we will go back over again and again in our minds.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Fair Minded Effort

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
by A. J. Jacobs

Was not sure what to expect from this book, but it made my husband E. laugh out loud several times, so I picked it up at a moment when I needed some levity. However, I started reading it with a sort of defensive feeling. Jacobs is open about the fact that he is ethnically and culturally Jewish, but theologically an agnostic at best. That's his business, but I was a little apprehensive that the book would be a hatchet job, a "See, there are contradictions all over the place in the Bible, so how can you believe any of it?" kind of feeling. I'm of the mindset that people who do place their faith in scripture's authority can point out all the quirks and foibles and contradictions that they want to, but people who are not invested in the faith, who tear the Bible apart just to make Jews and Christians look dumb should take a hike. I was glad to see that the book was very open minded and respectful of people of all faiths.

Jacobs makes a really good-hearted and fair effort to take the Bible seriously and understand how the laws and regulations, no matter how absurd they seem, might have made sense at the time they developed. Because he comes from a Jewish background, he spent much more time in his biblical year absorbing and attempting to follow the Hebrew laws than the teachings of the Old Testament. That approach also made sense because there are so many very specific OT laws. Jacobs read a lot of biblical commentaries and theology books in his quest to understand the Bible at a deeper level, and he does a good job integrating the nuggets of information he picked up into the narrative of his year. It's very readable and funny, but there is not much new information for people who have been studying the Bible for years and years.

Jacobs soon discovered that there was no way he could follow ALL the laws ALL the time. There were simply too many to remember, and some of them canceled each other out. He does point out the places where the Bible contradicts itself, but he does so with good humor and genuine interest in figuring out what is the "right" thing to do. One of The Year...'s great strengths is that Jacobs weaves his biblical musings in with everyday things that he and his wife were struggling with at the time - parenting, infertility, finances, time management, etc. and shows how his increased reliance on the Bible's teachings influences decisions that he made in all these spheres of life.

Jacobs writes about how he decided to tithe his income for the year that he was "living biblically." Since he was not part of a faith community, he tithed to charities that he had carefully researched and believed were doing tremendous good in the world. He was surprised to find out how rewarding this part of the experiment was, and I love how he describes it:

"I settle on several organizations-Feed the Children and Save Darfur among them-and donate about two percent of my income-that's as much as I can do in one shot. When the email confirmations ping in, I feel good. There is a haunting line from the film Chariots of Fire. It's spoken by Eric Liddell, the most religious runner, who carries a Bible with him during his sprint. He says 'When I run, I feel God's pleasure.' I know-I'm agnostic. But I feel God's pleasure. It's a warm ember that starts at the back of my neck and spreads through my skull. I feel like I am doing something I should have been doing all my life."

Jacobs comes down to the place where many of us find ourselves - we realize that we cannot take all of the Bible 100% literally. We ALL pick and choose what we think applies and does not. Jacobs just asks us to be aware that we are doing it, and he points out that one does not have to take all the Bible literally to appreciate its beauty, sacredness, and truth. Many of us have heard that or said it before, but Jacobs says it very well.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Big Question

The Shack
by William P. Young

I felt like I needed to read this book, because it has gotten so much attention. It has topped the paperback bestseller lists in recent weeks, and lots of fellow readers have spoken about how inspiring it was for them. Frankly, I am glad to see a book like this succeed in the commercial market because it says to me that people are concerned about questions of faith and seeking meaning in their experiences. That is a good thing. Also, even though the writing is not great, it is not nearly as schmaltzy as much of what is classified as "Christian" fiction. Young makes a fair attempt to articulate the situations and questions that we all cope with, and for that alone the book is worth reading. He does not tie everything up in "neat" theological packages - he acknowledges life's ambiguities and allows them to stand while at the same time expressing God's goodness and God's love.

Another refreshing change about Young's approach is that he does not follow the typical patriarchal pattern of giving God a long white beard and a Darth Vader voice. The personas that he uses to depict the various parts of the Trinity are varied in race and gender, and he deftly shows how the main character, Mack, relates to the three persons of the Trinity at different times, when his needs and questions are different. By structuring the story as he does, Young is able to give the reader an idea of how, if we pay attention, we can integrate relationship with God into our daily lives and into the most seemingly mundane parts of the day.

The Shack is a sincere attempt to deal honestly, without platitudes, with The Big Question - why do horrible things happen to good (or even innocent) people, if God is good and loving? I'm not sure the book completely answers that question, but then I also do not think that the question CAN be satisfactorily answered in this life. Some of it is mystery, and we just have to learn to live with that. However, Young has tackled the question and faced it with integrity.

As I said, I believe The Shack's popularity shows that there is spiritual hunger out there, and I applaud Young's effort to fill the vacuum. However, I do get concerned that so many think that Young's approach is so new or unique. My experience of the mainline Protestant church has been that for quite awhile now we have been trying to open peoples' minds to different images for God and move away from the punitive, vengeful, capricious Daddy God that dominated theology for so long. However, people are buying this book and talking about it as if they have never heard these ideas before. I'm sure some of them haven't. But can it be that these ideas are new to ALL of them? If so, what's up with that? How are the mainline Protestants failing to communicate God's love and mercy and diversity? Or is it just that a moving story that puts these ideas into a tangible form is less abstract and makes more sense to people than dense doctrinal debate? Feel free to discuss, as I am curious and more than a little troubled about this.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Talk About a Nightmare

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

I remember saying to E. once when I was expecting our first child that I did not know which would be more painful - to be the mother of a child who got picked on and bullied by their peers, or to be the mother of a child who would pick on and bully another. This book is the uber-asking of that question, and it comes down on the side of how awful it must be to have a child that seems to have no empathy or conscience.

Kevin's mother, Eva, is coping with guilt because she was never sure if she even wanted kids, and then when her son is born she is unable to connect with him. To be fair, she makes some effort, but Kevin never responds to her. Eventually she begins to shut herself off from him, resigned to the fact that they will never have a relationship. After Kevin commits a horrible crime right before his sixteenth birthday, she has to face her own role in what happened - she is blamed by the press and by the parents of his victims for his actions, and much of the time she blames herself.

The underlying question throughout the story is "Is Kevin just a bad seed from the get go or does his mother's distance turn him into a murderous psychopath?" The question is never resolved, and shouldn't be. I found myself reading the story with a growing sense of horror. I love my kids more than I can say, and I wanted them desperately, but I think most (if not all) mothers have that secret fear before they bear or receive their children that they will not be able to bond with them, that the connection about which so many mothers rhapsodize will not develop for them. That's got to be the ultimate mom nightmare, and here is Eva living it. I tended to sympathize with Eva through most of the story, although she is selfish and at times difficult to like. Kevin struck me as manipulative and malicious and dangerous early on (but the way Shriver structures the book, we know what he has done from the beginning, so he does not start with a blank slate).

Another major dynamic through the story is the relationship between Eva and her husband Franklin, and the way Kevin plays them against each other. All two parent households know how quickly children learn that game, but few carry it out to the extent that Kevin does and with such devastating results. One of the many tragedies of the story is the wedge that Kevin becomes between his parents. You want to shake Franklin because he is such a clueless fool, but then your heart aches for him because he is trying so hard to build a family that conforms to his image of a "happy" one.

This is a compelling story that holds out a faint hope for some redemption in the last couple of pages. It's hard to read because there is so much bitterness and sorrow for all the characters, but especially Eva. She deals honestly with the little discussed problem of loving a child who is difficult to even like. Characters like Kevin give us a renewed appreciation for the unconditional love of God, who loves even those whom we in all our humanity cannot.

Reverent Reader