From the Kindle Shelf: Home

From time to time I have thought of doing more book reviews in this space, or at least commenting on some of the things I’ve been reading. That thought lies behind a new category of occasional posts to be offered under the heading “From the Kindle Shelf.” If there is interest, perhaps I’ll establish a separate blog page on which several of you can offer up some thoughts on what you’ve found on your Kindle, Nook, or whatever. Let me know if you have such interest.

Today’s post is not so much a review as a set of observations gleaned from a novel written by Marilyn Robinson, simply entitled Home. The book itself is a slowly moving account of a ministerial family in the midwest, set in the middle of the 20th century. Its power, however, is in Robinson’s development of characters–especially of the afflicted, tormented soul of Jack, the presumed misfit of the family. His is a story, only partially but effectively told, cast in a way that proves hauntingly descriptive of failed attempts at self-understanding in a (dare I say it?) postmodern world.

I was first introduced to Robinson’s writing at the suggestion of a former student (thanks, Lisa). That introduction was by way of a very different genre, specifically a cultural-philosophical critique Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. In this work, Robinson proves to be an extremely capable interpreter of philosophies both openly expressed and covertly distributed through contemporary culture. The unsustainable concept of the self, she argues, lies behind the inability of today’s drifting, aimless souls to find a home. The novel, I strongly suspect, is her alternative way of saying the same thing.

One could argue, I suppose, that the ending of Home is too abrupt and that the story itself becomes a bit repetitive. But since I’m even less of a literary critic than I am an economist, I won’t go farther with those thoughts. What I do find compelling is that, as with any good novel, is that there are poignant passages here and there that stand on their own as captors of the human condition. One such passage is the following:

“That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindness because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.”

Our world is full of people who display such “destitution of feeling and purpose” in so many cleverly disguised ways. Some of them are in our churches, masquerading as saved souls. What is there in the good news to change them? What hope is there of finding a home? How would home be recognized in order that it might be embraced? And what specific wantings are there, and what is their alleviation? Of what has “nature” as perceived deprived people?

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Markets, Crashes, Economies–Could It Be?

By now we’ve been told about the stock market, the possibility of a double-dip recession, runaway deficits, etc. Not only in the U. S., but in western Europe as well, as the lists of nations with financial crises continues to grow. We have heard expert after expert tell us about fundamentals, underlying pressures, systemic budgeting flaws, and a host of other terms most of us understand about as well as we can decipher airline pricing strategies.

I’m neither an economist nor a prophet. So I don’t know what’s ahead, though like most people my age I admit to a certain uneasiness about the prospects for retirement at a “normal” age. My limited knowledge of how financial markets operate and of how consumption-oriented we have become does not give me great optimism. We have an economy that only thrives when people buy a lot of stuff, far beyond what they need. And the last thing most of us really need is more stuff. On the prophetic side, I have had no angelic visitations with words from on high giving direct insight into what is happening, where we ought to go, who is going to pay what price, or what specific violation of God’s will has been transgressed.

But I do wonder. I wonder whether it is possible that God is tapping us on the shoulder, or perhaps smacking our fingers to get our attention. Such talk is dangerous, perhaps even subversive in some people’s’ minds. We all remember with a wince how Jerry Falwell came out with his ad hoc reasons for God’s allowing of the terrorist attacks of a decade ago; we also endured the self-appointed after-the-fact prophets of doom and judgment declaring the tsunami devastation as divine judgment. Not before the event, which might have made such claims somewhat credible, but after it was all over and the relief work motivated by God’s love had already begun.

Yes, I do wonder. Though I’m not a fan of the ever-present prophecy movement, which reads signs and tea leaves in light of yesterday’s news and tomorrow’s speculations without confronting its own mistaken and unfulfilled earlier pronouncements, is it really out of the reach of Christian imagination to believe that Christ actually WILL come again? Would that return be likely to include warnings, such as natural disasters, international turmoil, and internal collapse caused by people who will not acknowledge any legitimate authority, all doing what is right in their own eyes?

I don’t expect a prophet; there’s a good biblical reason not to look for one, related to God’s own declared plan for speaking to the inhabitants of this planet. See Hebrews 1:1-3, which tells us that prophets were God’s instruments of choice in “former times;” He now speaks through the Son. His word to us through that Son is life, hope. If I hear that correctly, God’s message to us in disasters is not the disaster itself, not the devastation; it is in the hope to be found in the midst of the tragedy. There are times when God’s judgment is the playing out of consequences of unwise, sinfully motivated choices–and perhaps the economic woes of the present are just that. We should be attentive. And we, as the Body of Christ, should be beacons of hope within whatever suffering may yet come about–by living together with a different set of priorities, a communal sense of true love for one another, a different set of lenses for evaluating the worth, prospects, and gifts of people. Come to think of it, that just might be prophetic after all.

What prevents us from being communities of hope in our churches? What kinds of messages should we send about a better way, and how should we send them? Or are we too caught up in playing the same blame game that political parties are playing? Share your thoughts, please.

Presidents Sing Kum-Ba-Yah?

It’s newsworthy here because it involves a local college president and the president of the United States. And because my wife and a few good friends are graduates of the college.

The president of Elizabethtown College has been invited to the White House to receive accolades for initiatives engaging E-town students in the wider community by participation in various service projects. That’s nice–really. What makes this a bit different from other attempts to display the character of college kids as something more than self-absorbed party animals is that the program is intentionally built on a multi-faith platform, placing students of various religious commitments side-by-side in the projects to be completed. Apparently, the White House staffer who took note of this thinks it more worthy of attention when Wiccans and Muslims distribute food alongside Christians and Jews than when one of the other of these groups does it alone.

It is quite clear that it is not the doing of good things for struggling people that matters to President Obama. It is the multi-faith aspect that is being highlighted at the photo-ops which accompany the visit. Translating this, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president is making a statement of what religion in America ought to look like. So much for the myth of separation. The “unofficial” position is that religious faiths are to be noted for their willingness to forget about their distinctive beliefs and lauded for their charitable spirit–provided it is exercised in company with others who disagree about the matter of what is true. As long as we can sit around the campfire and hold hands, it’s all good.

Several thoughts run through my mind as I think about the issues raised in this event; not all of them can be easily distilled into a coherent conclusion. I’m very interested in responses to any of the thoughts below–again, noting that they may conflict with one another.

1. The president is really out to set the tone of religion in the nation, and it is to be affirming of religion in general, but not in the specific. The more one insists on a connection between his or her faith and the truth about the world, the less welcome that voice will be. And the same tone seems to be hummed by the college president, who is elated over the presence of all faiths among the student body at a Church of the Brethren school–not to convert them, but to encourage them in their present practice.

2. When it comes to accomplishing the relief of suffering, the immediate effect outweighs the particular motives of those involved in the providing of that relief. And maybe in the process, Christian participants will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the Hindus and Muslims the superior grounding of faith in Christ.

3. All good gifts are from the Father of Lights. They should be shared with any who need them, regardless of any faith at all. Keep all the discussion of those things out of the relief work entirely.

4. When all faiths are viewed as equals, what is really being affirmed is agnosticism, if not atheism. There are undeniably incompatible beliefs about the way the world works, the character of the divine, the nature and purpose of human life, and the direction (or lack thereof) in which the world is heading. To say that these do not matter is to take none of them seriously and so to adopt a practical, if not a theoretical atheism. When all faiths are believed to be saying the same things, none of them are really believed to be saying anything; so score one for the atheists.

This list barely scratches the surface. I’m anxious to read how anyone might respond to it and what might be added.

Retooling

Yes, it has been a long time since a new post has appeared on this blog. A short break turns into a longer one without actually deciding to make it so. It just happens.

How many times do the unintentional things determine the courses we take, short and long term? It happens to persons, to families, to churches–even to nations. After all, did anyone in Congress set out on a mission to create the staggering debt with which the country is now saddled? It will all work out–it always does, right? So we can spend tomorrow’s prosperity on things we’d like to do and to have today. We wanted, admirably enough, to take care of the weakest among us; we wanted to assist the cause of freedom (whatever that is) in other lands, for other people than out own. So we created the welfare programs, sent spaceships into the heavens, devised new weapons and more efficient ways of deploying them–and all of them became goals in themselves, untethered from a singular vision of what a nation ought to be in the first place. But no one decided to let the means become the ends; it just happens. And we only notice this when the things we now must do interfere with the things we need to do if we are going to be what we set out to be in the first place.

We tell our children they need an education; and we’re right. But along the way we notice that there are barriers for some children in their attempts to attain the education they need. So we channel our efforts toward removing the barriers, only to find that we eventually erect so many more of them that we don’t know where the road is or where it was that we were going. We didn’t set out to do it; it just happened.

Churches are certainly not immune. We have become quite proficient at creating programs and events intended to meet the demands of serving Christ more effectively in the world. So the church(es) came up with things like sunday schools, youth retreats, which became camps and retreat centers, youth programs, mission societies, campmeetings, etc., etc. Each of these as well became an end unto itself. No one wanted it to go that way; it just happened.

Individually, we set goals for ourselves–or at least we have some idea of what sort of person we want to become. For the Christian, this of course has something to do with renewing the image of God in which we were all intended to live and which we are called to reflect. And we, too, have a remarkable tendency to get caught up in the activities that were thought to be instrumental in developing that character, sometimes to the extent that the activity itself becomes the goal. So we pride ourselves in having completed x number of years of daily readings of the scripture and going to God in prayer, of never missing sunday services except for serious illness, of giving a consistent percentage of our income to the work of the church, etc. We didn’t intend to focus on these as accomplishments in themselves, but sometimes it just happens.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. Keep in step with the Spirit. I know I need a lot of help in doing things this way; and I know that I am prone to resisting the assistance. Anyone else out there like that? The first thing we might want to do about it is to find more tools, but I don’t think that’s the answer. Anything but God’s own Holy spirit–not the things he uses, but the Spirit himself–can eventually become something that takes us from that kingdom focus. Perhaps we need to think more of being tools than of using them in our following of Christ. That would be retooling, I think.