Thursday, April 29, 2010

My Gut Says...

by Allegra Goodman

"My gut tells me..." does NOT cut it in the scientific world. That is the overarching message in this page-turning novel by Allegra Goodman. Goodman has managed to take the rigorous protocols of scientific inquiry, the tedious process of replicating experiments, and the politics of grant applications and combine them into a juicy read. I do have an ever-expanding interest in science and the scientific process, so it could be that I just read this at an opportune time in my own development as a reader/writer/pastor/thinker, but I could hardly put it down. It reminded me of some novels I have read about academia and the politics therein (Straight Man by Richard Russo comes to mind, as does Moo by Jane Smiley), only Intuition is less of a satire and more of a workplace drama that raises serious questions. Those questions ultimately have an effect on people in the "real" world outside the classroom or the laboratory who are desperately waiting for the development of new drugs and treatments for debilitating and terminal illnesses.

Intuition is about a researcher who believes intuitively that a certain virus can be useful for treating cancer. He is so blinded by his own good intentions AND ambitions that he cuts corners on scientific process and protocols. In the short term, he gains a lot of recognition for the lab he works in. In the longer term, he and his lab are disgraced when other labs cannot replicate the supposed results of his experiments. At the end of the novel, the skeptics are vindicated, the entire staff is sadder but wiser (also humbled), and most of the players are recommitted to following established processes for testing out their theories.

I am all for scientific rigor, especially when lives are at stake. I do wonder, though, what place intuition has in that process, if any. As a pastor, a lot of my work is instinctual, and I rely a lot on my gut. I have been told that my instincts are pretty good, and I think my intuition is a God-given gift. My guess is that there are scientists out there who have some intuitive gifts that the process squelches. Of course instincts should always be backed by scientific confirmation, but in this competitive environment for grant money, and the pressure on clinicians to publish something "significant" asap, is it possible that there are sound intuitions out there that never get pursued because there is not the time or the money to do so? In the long term, who loses in a process like that?

I don't have easy answers, but I do wonder if there is a place for research that is less of a sure bet but that might have major benefits in the future. Anyway, Intuition will keep you reading, and keep you thinking.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

No Place to Be

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey
by Isabel Fonseca

Duke of Egypt
by Margriet de Moor

My sister-in-law introduced me to Margriet de Moor, and the jury is still out for me. I'm going to read at least one more of her books to see if she is someone whose work I want to follow closely. de Moor is Swedish, but of course I read an English translation of her book. There is a certain cryptic-ness about her writing style that bugged me a bit - there is a simmering anger between one of the main characters and his father-in-law, but the reader has to put clues together to figure out the source of the animosity. That cryptic feel is sort of like William Faulkner, with the added awkwardness of this being a translation, so you wonder if there is just something you are missing because of cultural idioms or subtle nuances that do not come across the language barrier.

Nevertheless, the story itself is good. For many years I have had a certain fascination with the Romany people of Eastern Europe, better known as "Gypsies." Many people have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that the Roma were also a group targeted by Hitler for extermination. The main story of Duke of Egypt is about a Roma man who marries a non-Gypsy, a woman horse breeder and trainer. There is an interesting storyline about how they raise a family and navigate their different social mores and world views. Joseph, the Gypsy, leads a pretty conventional life, but cannot always tame his wanderlust. Lucie, his wife, is more or less resigned to his hitting the road each summer and traveling with his family of origin. Joseph does not do anything really bad on these extended road trips, but he misses the life of storytelling, singing, extended family, and horse trading in which he grew up. He has to get his annual "fix" if he is to tolerate life on a farm the rest of the year.

Joseph and Lucie are an interesting pair, but I was really more moved by what I would call the back story of Joseph and his people. Through flashback, Joseph recalls the centuries of displacement and mistreatment of his people, as well as his own family's wanderings. There is a certain amount of wandering that is part of the Roma culture, but de Moor depicts very poignantly how a lot of their movement is forced. They might temporarily settle in a place and even set up a camp, intending to stay a few weeks or months, only to be visited by local police and told that they have 24 hours to move on. Apparently, the Roma are not really accepted anywhere, even the ones who engage in respectable work like shoe making, or the ones who travel with appropriate permits and other paperwork. That constant rejection was what haunted me about this book, as well as the evidence of ongoing contempt for the Roma people that goes back generations and continues to be a factor in their wandering even today. It is one thing to move around a lot by choice, and another to live on the move because there is no place for you to be.

Years ago I read a non-fiction history of the Romany people by Isabel Fonseca called Bury Me Standing. I'm going to have to pull that out again, I think. If you have no prior knowledge of Gypsy life, I would recommend reading Bury Me Standing before Duke of Egypt. Both give us insight into this little understood and much maligned group of people who are God's children as much as any of the rest of us.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Missing Piece

The Lacuna
by Barbara Kingsolver

If you loved The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible, or any other of Barbara Kingsolver's acclaimed novels, you might be disappointed with the first 100 pages of The Lacuna. Stick with it. This novel is different from anything else Kingsolver has written. The characters are tougher to relate to than Taylor Greer from The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven. It is not the glorious meditation on the natural world that she gives us in Prodigal Summer. The Lacuna is more like a historical novel with a lot of artistic license thrown in. The book is difficult to describe, but it picks up power as it moves along, and the last 100 pages are terribly moving.

Harrison Shepherd is the character at the heart of The Lacuna. Other major characters include Mexican artist Diego Rivera, his wife the painter Frida Kahlo, Communist leader Leon Trotsky and (later in the story) a secretary named Violet Brown. Kingsolver took a risk, in my opinion, but making people who really lived major characters in a fiction book. I kept stopping to look things certain events up to see if they were really based in fact or if Kingsolver was making all of this up. As much as I could tell, the historical stuff was amazingly accurate. Leon Trotsky DID live with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo for a time, and he DID have an adulterous affair with Kahlo. Trotsky WAS assassinated by Stalinist goons in Mexico.

Kingsolver takes these historical events and observes them through the eyes of a young boy who cooks in the house of Rivera and Kahlo - Harrison Shepherd. Harrison is a wonderful character, but he has to be one of the most isolated people I have ever read about. I don't want to spoil the story for those who want to read it, but I will say that Kingsolver really makes us think about how the march of time and the unfolding of significant events between nations affect ordinary people who are just trying to live life and maybe form a few lasting relationships. Even though much of The Lacuna centers around political affairs between the United States, Mexico, and the Soviet Union, there is equal time given to the way that Harrison, with his trusting and apolitical nature, gets caught in the middle of forces and conflicts way beyond his control.

The ostracism that Harrison faces in the post-World War II years, when the United States in on an anti-Communist witch hunt, is hauntingly narrated and truly frightening. The McCarthyites take an already lonely human being and tear apart the few fragile connections that he has made with other people. The one person who remains a friend to Harrison is his stenographer, Violet Brown. In his farewell letter to Violet, Harrison (a gay man who certainly had no romantic interest in her) says that they have had "a great love," that no one has been more important to him than she has. That was when I cried.

One definition of a "lacuna" is a missing piece in a historical record, a hole in a traceable chronology. The word as a title for the book makes sense on a couple of different levels, as the reader will see. The book as a whole, though, is possibly Kingsolver's way of gently saying to us that we rarely (if ever) know the whole story. Best not to judge another until the missing pieces are filled in. And maybe not even then - how do any of us know how we would respond to a situation unless we were in it?

Read this. It may not be as lyrical as some of Kingsolver's other writing, but it is a great story told well. This is her first novel in about 10 years, and it was well worth the wait.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Eternal Mystery

Eternal Life: A New Vision
Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell
by John Shelby Spong

I think Bishop John Shelby Spong will be remembered as a man whose ideas were ahead of his time. He has long been revered or vilified (depending on perspective) for his openness to homosexual leadership in the Episcopal church, his liberal interpretation of scripture, and his aggressive challenge of theological orthodoxy. I agree with a great many of Spong's ideas, and find him engaging even when I do not. Eternal Life is likely his last book, as he states in the preface. He is close to 80 years old now, and doubts that he has the time left to exhaustively research another topic and bring a book on it to fruition. I hope he is wrong, though. I would like to continue to hear from him, as so many of his thoughts are liberating and energizing.

Having said that, I do not think Eternal Life is his best work, even though it is clearly the product of much work and thought. One of the issues is that there are several sections that are largely a rehash of the theology he articulated in his previous book A New Christianity for a New World. Friends of mine for whom Eternal Life was their first exposure to Spong were enthralled, but a lot of it felt repetitive to me. Another thing that bugs me is that Spong way overgeneralizes about people, what we believe, and why we believe it. He creates an unassailable argument when he says that humans only believe in the traditional notion of a personal God because we are frightened and insecure and need someone to take care of us. He says that we praise God in order to "manipulate" God and beg God to do what we want. I would describe my theology as fairly traditional, yet flexible and open. Very few doctrines are deal breakers for me - if I found out tomorrow that the physical resurrection of Christ did not happen, I would continue to love God, love Christ, and show up for worship the next Sunday. Likewise for the virgin birth. I am convinced that other faith traditions have at least a portion of the truth. So, I am not a rigid ideologue by any stretch of the imagination. However, I often feel dismissed by Spong's construction. Moreover, he says that all of this human neediness is mostly unconscious, if not entirely so. When I argue with Spong in my head, I practically hear him saying, "See, you really are a mess like I say, you just don't know it." On the one hand. he's right. I'm a mess. We all are. But I don't think it makes me a theological child to think that something/someone out there cares. Maybe that Being cannot solve my problems, and that is part of the way things are. But I trust that Being to sustain me through whatever comes my way.

Spong points out that the West has opened itself more to non-traditional theology and is more willing to jettison our former ideas of a supernatural, theistic God than some of the developing world. That is probably true, but the reason he gives for that is that "the West has engaged the intellectual revolution more than any other part of the world." I think this is a strategic mistake. Whether he intended it or not, such a statement comes across as "We in the West are just smarter than those poor souls in developing countries. Once they expose themselves to our ideas they will see that we are right." This is unfortunate, because many of Spong's ideas are on target and deserve a hearing - but the quickest way to alienate people is to say that they are not smart, or not intellectual.

Spong works as hard in Eternal Life to prove that things like the bodily resurrection of Christ and the virgin birth DID NOT, COULD NOT happen as the most rigid fundamentalist does to prove that they did. He is no more successful in disproving than they are in proving. Spong's greatest strength is that he opens us to mystery. He leads us to consider alternative possibilities, as well as acknowledge that any view of God that we have will naturally be influenced by our own needs and desires. We will never fully know who God is until we meet God face-to-face (a metaphor that Spong would probably abhor!), but we can learn pieces of the truth from one another. Just bringing us to that place is a real gift, and one of the things for which future generations of seekers will thank him.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, April 15, 2010

No Place Like Home

The Four Corners of the Sky
by Michael Malone

My twin sister E. and I have had a couple of conversations about Michael Malone's work. He has written a number of novels, and of the three I have read, Handling Sin is by far the best - way out in front of the others. E. says that the greatness of Handling Sin has ruined Malone's other books for her - they are inevitably a disappointment, because they do not measure up to the masterpiece. To a certain extent, I agree with her. On the other hand, if I can put my love and loyalty for Handling Sin aside, there is still much to be enjoyed about Malone's other books, including The Four Corners of the Sky. Malone has a knack for creating likable characters who are believable even when they get into absurd and unbelievable situations.

The Four Corners of the Sky is loosely (very loosely) based on The Wizard of Oz. It involves a journey in which a vulnerable character discovers strengths that she did not know she had, and also learns the value of relationships. Without being preachy, Malone also causes us to examine pertinent questions such as "What makes a family?" and "What constitutes forgiveness?" Malone does all this in the context of a crime caper/quest/love story hat stretches the imagination but also makes us laugh and occasionally choke up. The blatant references to The Wizard of Oz (much of the story is set in "Emerald," NC) and the extended "aviation as life" metaphor both get a little old sometimes, but that is really a minor quibble with what essentially is an engaging, well told story.

No, it's not Handling Sin. But it is the type of book that it is fun to immerse yourself in for a week or so. Malone has a way of drawing us in and making us care what happens to the people whom he has created. He does it with a healthy dose of humor, which is always good. Definitely worth reading. If you are heading to the beach this summer, save this and read it under an umbrella in the sand, looking up at the waves now and then. It is better than most "beach books," but will relax you and make you smile.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Evolving for the Common Good?

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why Nobody Saw It Coming
by Paul Hawken

If you need a little boost, a hope "shot in the arm," read this. It is several years old, and I think Hawken has even written a follow-up since the first Blessed Unrest was published (if my information is correct, the second one is called Blessed Unrest as well, but with a different subtitle). I for one get terribly discouraged at times by the selfishness of the people in the world, the corruption of the political process, the lack of interest in the common good, and the shocking lack of civility in public debate. These are just a few of the things that get me down, but you get the idea. Hawken is realistic about the world's problems, as well as the sinful nature of humanity that has led to the inexcusably wide gap between the rich and the poor and the possibility of the death of the planet for which we are supposed to care. He does not sugar-coat anything. He also, however, has traveled the world extensively, looking for signs of hope and encouragement.

Hawken raises the possibility that humanity is actually evolving to be more altruistic, less selfish, and more engaged with the wider world. If we believe in Darwin's concept of evolution and the survival of species that have certain characteristics (opposable thumbs? hairy nostrils?), Hawken's idea makes a certain amount of sense. His thesis is that we will evolve (and are evolving) to care more about each other and our planet, because this is the only way the human race will survive. Just the idea lifts my spirits. No matter how hard some of us try to use all the earth's resources now and not think about future generations there just might be a natural God-given process that can save us from ourselves. That does not mean that things won't get a lot worse before they get better, and I suppose there will always be elements of selfishness within each of us, not to mention the possibility of corruption. However, if Hawken is right, over time the "better angels of our nature (to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln)" might win the battle more often than not. Wouldn't that be something?

Hawken also uses the metaphor of the body's immune system to describe the vast number of organizations and networks springing up across the globe to combat every ill from child trafficking to poverty to plant and animal extinction. He spends a lot of time on the analogy, describing how cells in our immune systems "network" with each other, carrying messages about how to heal a body's ailment. Hawken makes the point that the whole connected system of (mostly) nongovernmental organizations operates in much the same way. Small organizations with limited budgets can receive assistance from larger ones, and large organizations can rely on smaller ones to be in direct contact with people in need and find out what is going on "on the ground." In these largely informal and undocumented ways, all who are striving to leave the world a little better than we found it can strengthen one another's mission.

Often I feel like my own puny efforts to provide hope in our community (and the world community) are nothing more than spitting into the ocean of the world's despair. They would be if it were just me who cared. But millions of people care, and are doing what they can, where they are, to heal the planet and each other. Recognizing that our efforts are all connected and part of a larger picture was a lift for me. At some level, we already know that we are all connected. However, the way Hawken expresses that connection is refreshing and will give many who are concerned the juice to fight another day.

Reverent Reader