Thursday, February 26, 2009

Something Missing

I See You Everywhere
by Julia Glass

Julia Glass is probably best known for Three Junes, which won the National Book Award several years ago. I also thoroughly enjoyed The Whole World Over, which she published in 2006. I See You Everywhere has many of the qualities that I have appreciated in her previous books - believable characters who struggle with real problems, rich descriptions, and plot lines that hold the readers' attention. She knows what she's doing - if I were a novelist, I would want to draw the readers into the narrative as deftly as she does.

However, there is one twist in I See You Everywhere that did not fully gel for me. (SPOILER ALERT) A major character (Clem) commits suicide. Of course, authors have to surprise us, that is part of what makes a story interesting, but this was such a surprise it did not feel real. The character is a fearless, adventurous type who frequently places her body at risk and her safety in jeopardy. That risk taking seems like more of a product of a lust for life and desire to experience it all than it does any kind of underlying despair. Clem does express frustration about the state of the world and the environment (she is a biologist who works to save endangered animals), but that is usually balanced by determination to do what she can and advocate for animals in both her personal and vocational lives. Then BOOM, she is dead and gone. Something in me just did not fully buy in. I think Glass could have given us more clues that would make the death more believable.

Something that troubles me about a lot of current fiction is that so many of the characters are so dismissive of any kind of religion or even spiritual life. Often, when faith is mentioned at all it is derisively, as if it is a fallback position for dummies or a quaint relic from medieval times. I am not looking for pap, or for easy answers (like "Oh, if Clem had more faith she would not have killed herself."), but I think that many writers are missing an opportunity to express the spiritual aspects of the struggles that we all have. There is an allusion to humankind's search for meaning when Clem is thinking of the seeming futility of some of her efforts and she asks herself "Oh, what is the POINT?" It's hard to describe what I am looking for - it is not necessarily God-language and certainly not systematic theology or dogma. I have no interest in the poorly written, agenda driven, formulaic stuff that we find on "Christian fiction" shelves. However, I think writers could make more effort to articulate the underlying yearning that so many people have to believe that there is something or someone else out there who cares about us and is making the journey with us. I think we all want to have a sense of meaning to life, some confirmation that it matters that we are here. I cannot help but wonder if the dismissal of religion found in so much fiction today reflects a dismissive attitude on the part of the writers themselves, which would be very sad. Of course some fiction writers DO deal with spiritual matters, and perhaps they would all say they do - I just think acknowledgement of faith and the role it plays (or can play) in life is lacking.

On another note, I found Louisa a difficult character to like. Talk about uptight and judgemental. Sheesh.

Reverent Reader

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Forever In Your Debt

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
by Margaret Atwood

Payback is a timely read right now, as our entire nation (and, by extension, the world) faces the consequences of out of control debt. Margaret Atwood presents a series of reflections on the concept of debt, including the theological entwining of debt and sin (not to mention in some cases their synonymous nature), debt as an arbiter of human relationships, debt's first cousin revenge (and its extreme form of vengeance and bloodshed) and debt as a literary plot device. Atwood makes a good case (made even stronger by what we are living through now) that the ones who pay the highest price for our collective debt are the most vulnerable in society. She believes that debt is a cultural construct, developed and nuanced from the beginning of civilization, without which society could not function. In other words, we are in debt to debt. It is the engine that powers all the other engines of communal, national, and planetary life.

Atwood makes some good arguments, and Payback is an interesting read because she examines debt from so many different angles. I do not believe, however, that this is the place to experience Atwood's talents as a writer. She has written tons of novels, one of the most famous being The Handmaid's Tale. I have read several of her works of fiction, although not recently, and remember the writing as far better than this. One of the problems is that the separate chapters of Payback were originally written as lectures for a series she did. The book has the feel of someone looking over her lecture notes after the series and thinking "This could be a book." Seems like she bound up her lecture notes without a whole lot of effort at editing them to make them seem more appropriate in the book format. Lectures are different. She certainly did not hide the fact that they had been lectures originally, and I appreciate the fact that publishing the book made her ideas available to a wider circle. However, the summations and recaps that we do in lectures (or sometimes sermons) made the book feel repetitive and hackneyed in some spots.

One of the book's strengths is that Atwood examines debt without the judgemental, punitive tone that so many others associate with debt. ("Why aren't those people more disciplined?"). She points out that many industries make their money from other people's debt and would not exist without it. Instead of pointing fingers at people who cannot pay their rent or utility bills, she calls us to examine the system as a whole - the voluminous debt that we are accumulating as a country and how the wealth of a few is multiplied by the debt of the many. She also examines the huge bill from the planet and the atmosphere that is going to come due in our lifetimes, although her take on the character of Ebenezer Scrooge from an environmental perspective feels a bit forced.

Debt is here to stay. Most of us could not own our own homes without the concepts of borrowing and lending. It is not always a bad thing. A cornerstone of Christian theology is our claim that Christ came to pay a debt that was beyond our capacity to repay, for which we who have placed our faith in him are thankful. Whether she intended it or not, Atwood's book serves as a reminder to Christians (and perhaps all people of faith) that one way we can pay a portion of the debt we owe to God for creating us and Jesus for redeeming us is to do what we can to at least make the debt relationships in our world just and fair. For this well-timed and gentle push, we are in Margaret Atwood's debt.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Merciful Anguish

a mercy
by Toni Morrison

As with all Toni Morrison books, I need to read this one again to make sure I really "get it." She uses a lot of flashback and switching of voices and narrators, so it is easy to lose track of where we are in the story. Having said that, though, her words are musical. She amazes me with her ability to piece together a sentence that you just want to read over and over again.

I saw some parallels between a mercy and Beloved. In the latter, a mother kills her daughter rather than have her live a life in slavery. In a mercy, a mother lets her daughter go to a master who seems like he will at least be kind to her and not sexually abuse her. Sadly, though, the daughter (Florens) thinks her mother gave her away because she wanted her owner to let her keep her little boy baby. The mother is a peripheral character in the story, but it hurt my heart to think of real people, hundreds of years ago, having to make choices like that. How awful would it be to give birth and know that your child could be sold away from you and you would never see them again? I cannot even begin imagine it, but Toni Morrison's books create a pathway by which we can relate to slaves as persons rather than just part of the abhorrent institution of slavery that we are well rid of. In my opinion, that human aspect is key - if we recognize "the other" as a fellow human being, we are less apt to revert to past destructive ways. I certainly hope that we are past the place where we would treat ANY human beings like objects that can be bought and sold.

Something interesting about a mercy is that it deals with suspicion and misunderstanding between several groups of people, not just blacks and whites. The dynamics between American Indians and blacks and American Indians and whites are also woven into the story in a way that helps us see that there is always mistrust but, paradoxically, there is hope for relationship between the most unlikely of people.

That is what really moved me about a mercy - the improbable, almost familial relationship between five persons (plus at least three ancillary characters) of different races but all of whom have been rejected in some way by the narrow minded, short sighted, and intolerant. There are "the master" Jacob Vaark and his wife Rebekka, neither of whom envision themselves as slave owners, but who through a series of circumstances (in which they are complicit) find themselves with three. Then there are three women (Lina, Florens, and Sorrow) who wind up with the master and his wife because they have nowhere else to go (I am greatly simplifying the series of events, but you get the idea). These women may not have been purchased on the auction block, but they are essentially slaves because they work for no pay and have no rights and no claim to the land that they work.

This small group of people forms an unlikely sort of family, but everything unravels when Jacob dies of smallpox. When Rebekka falls ill, the three anchorless women realize just how precarious their position is. They have been living under an illusion, feeling as if they have a home. If their mistress dies, they have no way to make a living for themselves, let alone a life. The limited freedom they have had with the Vaarks would likely be snatched away in a heartbeat.

The book's title refers to the split second Sophie's Choice type of decision that Florens's mother makes early in the story. I also think, though, that on a larger scale it refers to lengths to which so many mothers would go to protect their children. I hope that I would do whatever was necessary to make life safer and better for my kids, but cannot imagine a world where mothers have to make choices like that. It gives me great sorrow to know deep in my heart that there are still so many mothers (and fathers too), living on this earth today, who still live in that world.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Clear as Mud

Letter from Point Clear
by Dennis McFarland

"It's complicated." "Things are seldom black and white." "Families are complex organisms with an ebb and flow to the relationships therein." None of these is a new idea, but Dennis McFarland expresses these truths without hitting the reader over the head. His story illustrates familial drama with a lot of tenderness, compassion, and subtle humor. I enjoyed Letter from Point Clear because the characters seemed like real people, not cardboard cutouts or obligatory caricatures. It is not a suspense novel, but you find yourself whipping through it, yet at the same time savoring the details. You really want to find out how these people work their way out of the impasse at which they find themselves.

What impasse? Boiled down: an earnest, young evangelical pastor (who also happens to have the first name "Pastor," very confusing until that is cleared up about halfway through the book) trying to come to terms with his homosexual brother-in-law. Pastor has certain beliefs about homosexuality, but finds those challenged when he begins to know a gay man and like him. His first response is to try to "save" Morris from his homosexuality - first by praying for him, and then by introducing him to someone who has been "cured" of being gay. Naturally, this leads to all sorts of tension between Pastor and his new wife Bonnie (Morris's sister) as well as Bonnie and Morris's other sister, Ellen.

There is a mystical encounter thrown in near the end, which I will let the reader discover for him/herself. What is intriguing about Letter from Point Clear is its sense of being unfinished. Nothing is resolved when the book ends, but the reader senses that the characters are all simply searching for the next step. They are all trying to break out of old ways of seeing things and assumptions they have carried around, but they are not there yet. However, they seems committed to being in relationship with one another, which I think is the only way hearts and minds ever get changed. This small group of people sees one another at each other's best and at their worst in a short amount of time, and all are affected by the experience.

There are also some ancillary story lines that never get fully explained. Why is Ellen temporarily separated from her husband when the story begins? What was the dead father like, and why does he have such a hold on his children's memory? Clearly there was some dysfunction in the family, but what exactly? At first I found these ambiguities annoying, but then decided that McFarland must have shrewdly let things stand that way, because that is how life is. We seldom can say exactly why things are as they are or why we do the things that we do. It's complicated.

Letter from Point Clear deals with families, faith, biblical interpretation, gay marriage, gossip, addiction, grace, and mysticism - plus there are no doubt other issues that I am leaving out. What makes it a compelling read, though, is that none of these issues is dealt with in an overt way or resolved like a neat, tidy package. There are dangling strings and open loops all over the place when the book comes to a close, but one has a sense that the characters are relying on faith in each other and in some sort of God to pull them through. It would be interesting to see what McFarland would do if he ever wrote a sequel to this. I would read it with great interest.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Without a Trace

The World Without Us
by Alan Weisman

What would it look like if planet earth were suddenly a ghost town - that is, if all human inhabitants disappeared suddenly and nature were allowed to take its course? The World Without Us takes a hard look at this question, and addresses everything from how long it would take for our "indestructible" buildings and bridges to crumble to the impact on the biodiversity of other species to the storage of nuclear waste. Weisman does not rely on his own instincts or personal grasp of the facts - he consults with structural engineers, botanists, zoologists, physicists, paleontologists, and numerous other specialists. This is a fascinating read that calls each of us to thoughtfully consider the home that we are leaving to future generations (and the sad truth that future generations at some point will not exist because of our squandering of the earth's resources).

Weisman's book reminds us what a blip on the radar screen human beings are when our time on earth thus far (approximately 4 million years) is compared to the estimated age of the earth itself (3-5 billion years). The numbers are mind blowing. It is, frankly, a little scary. Most of the time we humans think we have got things all figured out with our incredible technology and our advanced thinking on most subjects. We think of ourselves (and there is some biblical basis for this) as the pinnacle of God's creation. We may, however, only be the pinnacle of God's creation thus far. An even stranger thought - if human beings as we know ourselves were to go extinct but life were still to persist, at some point some form of humanity may re-evolve. In other words we could possibly start over - it weirds me out a little bit to think of a whole "new" civilization 3 or 4 billion years from now finding archaeological evidence that we existed sometime in the distant past.

For much of terrestrial and marine life, human extinction would be a great thing. Scientists predict that extinct species could re-evolve, and that newer, stronger species would develop as well. Our skyscrapers and houses and bridges would rust out and rot and disintegrate in a relatively short time (a couple of centuries), opening up space where nature once thrived, and could again. It is sobering to think of a world without us, especially when we consider how we would get from here (overpopulated) to there (extinct). Weisman theorizes about how the extinction will happen, but for the purposes of his thought experiment he assumes a scenario in which we all disappear simultaneously. He acknowledges that this is unlikely, and says a slow dying out of our species, much like what happens with birds or fish or lichen, is more likely. The thought of us having conscious awareness that we are lurching towards extinction gives me the willies.

It occurred to me as I read The World Without Us that in many ways it would be easier to cling to creationism and the misguided belief the the world is only 6,000 years old. It IS disconcerting to realize our own insignificance compared to the age of the earth, the force of nature, and the size of the universe. It would be much easier to dismiss science outright and dismiss evolution as "only a theory" rather than face the possibility that we are just part of a long chain of being and will not always be here and not always be running the show (as if we ever have been). I see now, though, that to dismiss what science has shown and to take Genesis as literally true (end of story, no ifs, ands, or buts) is to make an idol out of one book of the Bible. Denying that God is still in the process of creating and may have further plans for this planet is also to deny God's sovereignty.

No one likes to envision the process of human extinction - except perhaps the members of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), who say that we should save the earth by stopping reproduction now and living out our days on a progressively less crowded planet. It's an extreme solution, and one that would never happen, but one that if carried out would likely provide a better end for us all than what is coming if we do not change how we occupy the planet. I hope that we can learn to live here with respect for all life and for the life in whatever form that will come after us. We also must recognize and accept our place in space and time, without elevating OR diminishing that place.

Reverent Reader

Monday, February 2, 2009

Grace-Full People

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy
by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher

We got a Wii game system for Christmas, which we all love to play with. It has proven to be a good opportunity to begin teaching our older son S. about sportsmanship, because initially he is not very good when he starts trying to learn a new game (neither am I). When he gets frustrated, E. and I remind him that to get good at anything you have to practice it over and over. It has to become habit. No one expects him to get a high score at a game he has never played before. S. and I have to learn to be gracious losers, because E. has more athletic ability than either of us, and picks up the games much more quickly than we do. But oh the victory when we finally beat him at something...very sweet!

But I digress. It is the need for repetition, for making a conscious effort at something until that effort becomes unconscious, that Amish Grace reminds us of. The writing in Amish Grace is a little plodding at times, but my sense is that the writers (all three are scholars of Amish history and culture) are not going for musical prose. They want to tell a story straightforwardly and shed light on a way of life that is unique. Both of these they do very successfully. The fulcrum of the story is, of course, the tragic shooting that took place in a one room Amish school in October 2006. Five little girls were killed, and another five tragically wounded. The shooter was a non-Amish local man who was known in the community. After killing the children, he committed suicide.

When the Amish school shooting occurred, many people in the US were astounded that within hours of the tragedy, members of the Amish community were reaching out to the killer's family and offering words of comfort and support. The Amish also were clear that they forgave the man who did the killing, Charles Roberts. It is difficult to wrap our heads around this kind of grace, when we live in a culture that seems to have a bottomless thirst for vengeance. The authors of Amish Grace show us that forgiving was not a "decision" on the part of the Amish people - anything other than forgiving was not an option. It simply did not occur to them not to forgive. Their history and way of life are so steeped in humility and mercy that extending grace is just part of who they are - they did not see themselves as especially magnanimous. They believe that they are doing what any follower of Jesus Christ would do. They have practiced forgiveness to the point that it is woven into the fabric of their lifestyles and personalities.

Amish Grace gives us some helpful insight into the process of their forgiveness. There were non-Amish journalists and op-ed writers who at the time said that the Amish forgave "too quickly." But as one Amish woman expressed it: "The first step of forgiving is expressing the will to forgive." They do not see forgiveness as something that happens instantaneously and is done. It is clear that forgiving was not simple or easy for them. Many in the community - especially the parents who lost daughters - struggled with a long time with feelings of rage and grief (no doubt they still do). However, the Amish people make a clear distinction between forgiving and forgetting. They see forgiveness as understanding that all people are children of God and bearing no one any ill will, but they do not feel that forgiving someone obligates us to have a relationship with them. In fact, several Amish acknowledged that it was probably easier to forgive the shooter because he himself had died. They did not have to cope with him continuing to occupy the same planet that they do. Furthermore, while Amish forgive they do believe that the state has the responsibility for criminal prosecution and that the state should fulfill that responsibility. had the killer lived, the Amish would not have felt any cognitive dissonance between forgiving him as a fellow human being and believing that he be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and pay for his crimes.

Other people, in the aftermath of the shooting, wondered why the Amish went to the killer's widow, Amy Roberts, as well as to his parents, and said "We forgive you." People raised questions about why the Amish would offer forgiveness to people who were not culpable for the crime, but were victims themselves. The Amish have a broader conception of what it means to forgive. They did not hold Charles Roberts' wife or parents responsible for what had happened, but they wanted to make it clear that they understood the awkwardness of the situation in a small community and that they held no grudge against Roberts' family. The Amish even went to far as to give some funds that had been donated to their community to Amy Roberts so that she could begin to rebuild her life. In one of the most powerful statements of forgiveness, about 40 Amish people attended Charles Roberts' graveside burial service.

The Amish believe in living a simplified life, but they are complex people. Amish Grace calls all of us to examine our own beliefs about forgiveness and to think honestly about what we could and could not forgive. I can think of some grudges that have slithered around in my own heart for way to long. I know the Amish are not perfect - I recently read a troubling article about a large number of puppy mills owned by Amish. In spite of their simple ways, though, in many respects they are much more evolved than the rest of us. As theologian Diana Butler Bass expressed it: "How would things have been different if the Amish had been in charge after 9/11?" We could argue over if things would be better or worse, safer or less safe, more or less secure. One thing we know is they would be different.

Reverent Reader