Friday, September 25, 2009

The Legacy of Shame

Those Who Save Us
by Jenna Blum

First off, let me apologize for letting my blog get outdated. I have been away for a few days at an orientation retreat for a pilgrimage that I will be taking to Israel in a few weeks. One of the emphases of the pilgrimage is for pastors to unplug and take a couple of weeks to renew ourselves at the sacred sites of our faith. I can't wait! In the spirit of that breaking away, I did not try to blog while on the retreat. Since I don't have a laptop or a Blackberry, it's not as hard for me to unplug as it is for others. I'll remind my readers when the time comes, but Ex Libris Fides will go dormant while I am on the pilgrimage. We will be staying in hotels that have some computers, but the time to use them is apparently very expensive. Our travel group is going to have a blog about what we are doing each day. If you are interested in following the trip, let me know and I will send you the link when I have it.

Those Who Save Us is a disturbing story to read. It's the second book I've read in the past year about the holocaust time from the German perspective - how terrified many of them were of the Nazis, and the desperate measures that some of them took to survive. The moments of grace are apparent when Germans risked their own lives to help the persecuted Jews. Not all Germans resisted the Nazis, of course. They would never have come to power if there had not been plenty of people who were willing to let them do what they did, and many eagerly participated in the atrocities. There was always, though, a remnant of people who held on to their sanity and who did what they could to help their suffering neighbors.

The relationship around which the whole story turns is Anna's relationship with a high-ranking SS officer names Horst. She becomes his mistress so that she can get more food and stave off starvation for herself and her daughter. The officer also provides a small amount of protection from the madness of the Nazi forces. However, once the war is over Anna has to live with what she did, and the shame never relinquishes its hold on her. She is so consumed with self hatred that she believes herself to be unworthy of love, and she closes herself off from meaningful relationships with her daughter, the man she married, and even potential friends.

How high a price do we pay for our sins? How long do we have to bear the burden of them? I suppose by almost any definition Anna committed sins in her struggle to get through World War II alive, but she also risked her own life over and over again to carry bread to Jews in a nearby concentration camp. Does one offset the other? Unfortunately, Anna had no sense of the possibility of redemption to be found in Christ or in any kind of faith tradition. She initially became disgusted with the German Protestant church for their complicity with the Third Reich (with a few notable exceptions like Bonhoeffer), and never returns to faith or relationship with God.

I realize that Anna is a fictitious character, but I wonder how many of us do what she did. She felt justified in renouncing faith and never going back to it, but I wonder how many people use that renunciation as a way to avoid having to face their own shame before God. If Anna turned her back on God, she did not have to deal with what she had done in the context of who God asks us to be. Sadly, she at the same time forfeited the experience of grace and the possibility of lifegiving reconciliation. That, to me, is what makes the book so sad.

Those Who Save Us is worth reading, but it will stay with you in uncomfortable ways. Sometimes that is a good thing.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, September 17, 2009

She Gets It

The Mortgaged Heart: A Collection of Writings
by Carson McCullers

As a kid, I read a children's historical novel called A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (anyone remember it?) by E. L. Konigsberg. It was about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and began with Eleanor and a couple of other figures from her life sitting on a cloud in heaven discussing their pasts. They also talk about watching other people get admitted to heaven. One says "They just let an English teacher up. He made a beeline for Shakespeare." Another says "They all do." The response then is "I know, but it's still fun to watch." Of course I doubt that this is really how one's entry into heaven really is, but if it did turn out that way, when I got through the gate I would first drop by Carson McCullers' cottage for a cup of tea. There's a lot I would like to talk about with her.

A few years ago, a St. Matthew friend recommended Carson McCullers' debut novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, published when she was only 22 years old. I read it and was moved by McCullers' articulation of the interior loneliness that so many people experience. I mean, she just nailed it. She especially seems to understand the angst that adolescent girls have to live through. She understands them, which is also evident in her later novel The Member of the Wedding. Lonely Hunter is on my short list of favorites, and every time I read something by Carson McCullers, my esteem for her and her work grows.

The Mortgaged Heart is the title of a poem that McCullers wrote, and also of this collection of short stories, essays, and magazine articles that her sister Margarita put together after Carson's death in 1967. Carson McCullers had a life that was in many ways tragic. Her health was always fragile - she began having strokes in her 20s and by the age of 31 was paralyzed on her entire left side. She married the same man twice, a fellow writer named James Reeves McCullers, and their union was apparently a turbulent one. In one of her essays, McCullers describes the primary theme of her writing as "spiritual isolation," and reading through these short stories shows that theme to be pervasive. Again, she just seems to understand the sense of waiting and wanting to be heard and understood that we all feel at times (if we are honest enough to admit it). All the short stories are good, but "The Haunted Boy" just killed me. "Who has Seen the Wind?" was another gut wrencher.

McCuller's essays on war and peace, the writing process, and the meaning of Christmas are all excellent as well. In one of her Christmas writings, she describes the momentary deflation of learning that her parents were really Santa Claus. She says that at first this was sad for her, but then she began to see the bright side of it "At first I had, in my childish mind, thought that Santa Claus and Jesus must be related because they were so intertwined in the holiday. But if my parents were Santa Claus, then that must mean that they were related to Jesus, and that was wonderful too." Amen to that.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

He Still Belongs to the Ages

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Honestly, these boneheads who call themselves leaders today could take a lesson from Lincoln (are you listening, Joe Wilson?). The more I read about Lincoln, the more obsessed I become with him, and the more I want to read about his life and character. Team of Rivals is not a traditional biography, although it spans Lincoln's life. Instead, it is a thorough, well-researched look at Lincoln's relationships with his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. The book show us Lincoln's young life and development, but also that of William Henry Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. Goodwin does an amazing job of giving us mini-biographies of each of these presidential hopefuls, and each one was an interesting and brilliant person in his own right.

The book also devotes a lot of attention to Lincoln's relationship with Edwin Stanton, a rather arrogant man who had looked down on Lincoln and majorly dissed him when they were supposed to work together on a court case in the 1850s. In spite of that shaky beginning, Lincoln eventually appointed Stanton to the vitally important position of Secretary of War. Stanton developed tremendous respect for Lincoln and the two became close friends. When Lincoln drew his last breath in the boardinghouse across the street from Ford's Theater early in the morning of April 14, 1865, it was Stanton who uttered the now famous words "Now he belongs to the ages."

Lincoln possessed an incredible capacity to be magnanimous to those who were uncharitable toward him, and he was able to rise above the sharp elbows of political life. He seemed to almost never take criticism personally, and would listen if someone challenged his point of view. When he assumed the office of POTUS, he gave his three closest rivals important positions in his Cabinet, because he believed they were the best ones for the jobs. Henry Seward was made Secretary of State, Edward Bates Attorney General, and Salmon Chase was Secretary of the Treasury. Lincoln had his hands full not only with developing his own relationships with these stubborn and (sometimes) arrogant men, he also frequently had to referee between them and soothe the ire brought about by their competition with one another. He steered the ship through one of the worst periods in our history, and brought out the best in each member of the team.

The person who had to have been the most major challenge for Lincoln was Salmon P. Chase. Chase felt entitled to be POTUS, and believed that the prize should have been his, even though he had made enemies in his career because he was so ruthless and unforgiving. While serving as Lincoln's Treasury Secretary (which he did most capably), he began a bid to unseat Lincoln in the 1964 election. Lincoln dealt with all this with an enviable amount of equanimity and good nature. He seemed to sense that Chase would hang himself on his own rope, but still if it were me I would have a difficult time not responding in anger. Lincoln not only did not get angry, he recognized Chase's abilities and appreciated them. After all of Chase's shenanigans, Lincoln appointed him to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the beginning of his second term. Talk about gracious.

Team of Rivals helped me to understand even more the mystique that surrounds Abraham Lincoln. He was a truly unique person and president. He was not without his personal ambitions and ego issues (but is any of us, really?), yet was somehow able to remain focused and clear-headed under unbelievable pressure. The grace that he showed to his Cabinet members also extended to his military generals (even when they undermined him and the war effort, as General George McClellan did for several months), his family, and even random people stopping in at the White House to seek his help (clearly, things were different then). I believe (as I have written elsewhere) that the process of Reconstruction would have gone so much more smoothly if he had not been assassinated.

It seems serendipitous that there is so much material available about Lincoln right now - we could benefit from our leaders taking a page from his playbook. President Obama displayed some similar magnanimity when he appointed his former rival Hilary Clinton to be Secretary of State, but his example has yet to be picked up by his political opponents. Moreover, his detractors are pulling out all the stops to undermine his work and lower the level of civility in public discourse. I am dismayed by the fear mongering and outright manipulation of the truth that is supposed to pass for dialogue and debate right now. I wonder if Lincoln watches what goes on and shakes his head in sorrow. I imagine him thinking "They can do better than this. They are all Americans." He would be right.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, REDESIGN

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

"This book is not a tree." That's the title to the Introduction of this interesting, thought-inducing, and ultimately hopeful book that calls us to consider how we can move as a people from being "less bad" in terms of our relationship to the environment, to a state of actively promoting its health. Cradle to Cradle contains no wood or cotton fibers. Instead, it is printed on a synthetic paper made of plastic resins and is considered a "technical nutrient" - meaning that its materials can be broken down and used over and over again in an infinite industrial cycle that does not cause any chemical damage to the environment.

William McDonough is an architect, and Michael Braungart is a chemist. They have both devoted their careers to figuring out how to design and produce products that promote the planet's health - they were both involved in a completely "green" building at Oberlin College that has gained worldwide attention. What came clear to me me when I read Cradle to Cradle is that the old mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle" will only get us so far, and not very far at that. McDonough and Braungart point out that recycling substances like plastics and cardboard usually results in a less durable, inferior project from the original. Likewise, reusing something only postpones its eventual destination of the landfill. Reducing the amount of trash we produce, trees we cut down, and chemicals that we release into the atmosphere also only delays the day of reckoning.

McDonough and Braungart make a persuasive case for going back to square one - creating products that are either "biological nutrients," (meaning that they easily reenter the water, soil, and air without depositing toxins), or the previously mentioned "technical nutrients" that continually circulate and remain useful. Some of their proposals seem a little far fetched, but I am not an engineer, and architect, or a chemist. They are probably no more far fetched than an automobile was 150 years ago. I am glad there are people taking the long term view regarding how we can do better and leave the planet better than we found it.

On the one hand, Cradle to Cradle is overwhelming and scary. It wigs me out to think about the chemicals in clothing, furniture, cars, and food. But the book also makes me optimistic. There are phenomenally bright and creative people who are dedicating much of their energy and time to designing and making things that will lead to a brighter, healthier future for all of us. That is something to be excited about, and I look forward to learning more about their work.

Reverent Reader

P.S. I will say that the synthetic paper does not absorb the ink from highlighter pens as well as wood based paper, and it doesn't take ink from regular pens at all. So it is hard to make note of the best parts, but that is a small price to pay for saving some trees.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

First, about my title for this post - this is the 200th posting for Ex Libris Fides! I actually wish I were able to post a little more often - I hope at some point to go back to occasionally writing reflections on articles that I read, instead of only books. But, we do what we can, and I still think 200 is a milestone to be celebrated, so YAY!!

Anyway, if you are a reader of fiction, and if you like thought-provoking, moving, socially aware novels that make a point without getting preachy and that also tell an amazing story, then you MUST READ The Help. It is a compelling, honest, wrenching look at the relationships between white women and their black housekeepers in Mississippi just prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Stockett has drawn believable characters, and they mirror the complexity of real life human relationships. Not everyone is the same. There are some racist white characters who are truly repulsive, but some are just clueless and some are every bit as appalled by racism and Jim Crow laws as the black people. In different ways, everyone is caught in this unworkable system that demeans the black people and in the long run does not benefit anyone. The sad part is that some of the well-intentioned people do not know how to envision society differently, they are trapped in the way things have "always" been.

What The Help does so well is make the reader aware of some of the cognitive and spiritual dissonance that accompanied segregation. Some women required their housekeepers to eat on separate dishes, and use a separate bathroom (one built outside that no white person would use). At the same time, these same women would trust their black servants with the sacred task of raising their little white children. One character, Aibileen, describes the pain of loving these kids and knowing that the time will come when the children realize the difference between black skin and white skin and will no longer relate to their caretakers the same way.

Two of the main narrators in The Help are black character, and Kathryn Stockett is white. In an afterward to the book, Stockett describes the trepidation with which she wrote. She did not want to presume to describe the thoughts, experiences, and feelings of black people, but she believed this was a story that needed to be told. Stockett also lovingly describes the black woman (Demetrie) who raised her when her own mother was unavailable, and says that it was her relationship with Demetrie that made her want to look more closely at these complicated interactions between Southern whites and blacks. Posthumously, she thanks Demetrie for taking care of her and for forgiving her whole family for the way things were at the time. The combination of the novel and Stockett's personal reflections is really powerful.

This is one of the best novels I have read this year. I hope many people will read it, give thanks for the progress we have made, and think hard about what still needs to change.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Big House on the Prairie

Little Heathens:Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

If, as a child, you were captivated by the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, my bet is that you will enjoy Little Heathens. It is a memoir of a young girl who grew up on an Iowa farm in a large, single mother family. The family was cash poor, land rich, and phenomenally wealthy in terms of resourcefulness, humor, and the community of extended family. When I was a kid, I loved the descriptions in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books about "how to do stuff." Kalish's book is equally full of homegrown wisdom and resourceful solutions to everyday problems.

Kalish's childhood was characterized by hard work, but she writes with no self-pity. Instead, she has fond memories of the way the kids made their own fun and even made work fun. Without being overly preachy, she conveys a security and sense of well- being that she developed on the farm and that have obviously sustained her well into her old age. There is a little bit of the "kids today don't know what real work is" stuff, but she really keeps that to a minimum. Mostly she just makes observations about how different those times were and how some values like thrift, resourcefulness, and commitment are worth hanging onto.

Even though her memories are mostly happy ones, Kalish does not idealize her childhood or adolescence. She acknowledges that her mother was fairly closed, not affectionate or tender. Children were expected to do as they were told and not to question why or to explore things on their own. She sometimes felt isolated, even in the midst of a large and boisterous family. One thing that really came home to me was the sheer amount of work it took to prepare hearty meals for a large family three times a day. There was no running to the Safeway for a roasted chicken or pre-made potato salad. The women of the family spent most of their time just keeping everyone fed and keeping the kitchen ready to start the next meal. It sounds exhausting to me, and I'm someone who likes to cook.

Little Heathens is a fun read - lots of good information but also a great deal of humor and wisdom. It's like sitting down with your favorite grandmother and hearing her stories of the way things were. I can remember hearing similar stories from my grandmother on long car trips. This depression generation (sometimes called "The Greatest Generation") is a valuable resource, and they will all be gone before too much more time goes by. Thank goodness that some people have preserved their memories for us to enjoy again and again.

Reverent Reader