The Fallacy of the Fog Machine Gospel

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I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I’m not sure I have ever needed a book more at the moment that it found me. It’s the story of a guilty, angry, oh-so-certain, baptist preacher who drags his wife and four daughters into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the 1960’s.

I carry it to Starbucks during my lunch breaks and allow it to swallow me, emerging 40 minutes later into a world that makes little sense.

It’s pulling, again, at the threads of wealth and poverty, war and power, the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of the Moral Majority.

———–

“Bingo Bango Bongo. That is the story of Congo they are telling now in America: a tale of cannibals. I know about this kind of story-the lonely look down upon the hungry; the hungry look down upon the starving. The guilty blame the damaged. Those of doubtful righteousness speak of cannibals, the unquestionably vile, the sinners and the damned.

It makes everyone feel so much better.”

———-

I close my book reluctantly. My hour is nearly up; the blinking clock and an office-full of expectation calls me back to work.

As I leave, I sip my coffee – or cinnamon, soy latte if we’re being honest – from a re-usable plastic cup, 10 cents off and BPA free. This, one of my little choices that is supposed to help save the world.

I wonder, again, about the men and women who have drug my coffee up from the earth; have sorted through the uncooperative berries to find those ripe for the picking; have shelled, roasted,  and packaged them. I wonder about the hours of human labor that I have bought with $4.29. I don’t know if I have supported workers in a country that desperately needs jobs, or offered another contribution to the gods of power and human enslavement.

I am complicit, an active player in the injustices of the world, and I don’t even know the breadth or depth of it.

———-

“Maybe I’ll never get over my grappling for balance, never stop believing life is going to be fair, the minute we can clear up all these mistakes of the temporarily misguided…Just when I start to feel jaded to life as it is, I’ll suddenly wake up in a fever, look out at the world, and gasp at how much has gone wrong that I need to fix.”

———-

HEB sells exactly one variety of fair trade chocolate chips. They are milk chocolate. So every time I decide to make cookies, I choose between buying fair trade and buying the dark chocolate that I prefer.

I buy the dark chocolate about half the time.

That choice is so utterly inadequate.

I feel swallowed by a problem that I can’t even comprehend.

Like my freshman year of college, when I tried to give up Nestle and Cocoa-Cola products after finding them both on a list of top human rights violators. After a couple months of trying to remember which energy drinks Cocoa-Cola owned and attempting to unwind the web of corporate entanglements, I gave up.

It didn’t seem possible to exonerate myself.

———-

“We have in this story the ignorant, but no real innocents.”

———-

Sometimes, I feel so tainted by my wealth and my citizenship, by the atrocities committed before I was born. I realize that those were not my decisions, that no one asked me, just as no one asked the children of the Congo.

Yet I have benefited from them, innumerable odds stacked in my favor before I ever learned to walk. And still today, I buy Oreos, knowing full well that I just paid for the children harvesting cocoa in the Ivory Coast.

I am not innocent.

The reality sneaks up on me again, and I don’t know what to do with it.

Because I have no honorable way to justify it.

———-

“Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything.”

———-

Then, I read an article yesterday that claims young people are leaving the Churches of Christ because the churches aren’t experiential enough, because there aren’t enough videos or stadium seating.

As though all young people are so distracted by sparkling objects and fog machines that we are destined to follow the shiny veneer wherever it may go.

But in reality, I see a church that will get up in arms and coordinate support when Chick-Fil-A declares its support of “traditional marriage”, but couldn’t care less about that company’s contract with Cocoa-Cola* or the implications of that bed-fellow.

At least a quarter of the children in this city go hungry, and yesterday we received the third straight week of elder selection sermons, this one entitled: Men with Experience.

Young Americans are not leaving the church because you lack a “three projection screen set-up”. They are, in my experience, leaving because your gospel is hollow and self-serving.

———-

“It came as a strange letdown, to see how the game always went to those who knew the rules without understanding the lesson.”

———-

In the book, this preacher comes to Africa bound and determined to baptize every last child in the Kwali River, never mind that several children had been eaten by crocodiles in that river the year before.

He is determined to stand by his principles, to never give-in, to never-not for one moment-admit that he might be wrong.

In the end he baptizes not a single person. And in the process he loses every one of his children, who see only his arrogance and his portrayal of a distant, careless God.

———–

I love the bible. I really do, for all its mess. And in spite of her failures, I love the church. It was, and is, the church who taught me to care for the world.

But I wonder if the American Church isn’t portraying its own distant, careless God. Only this one isn’t screaming in the jungle; it’s singing “post-worship” music on a well-lit stage, broadcasting the same empty from message from every wall of the auditorium.

It’s so frustrating, that they would watch a mass exodus and think “I know what we need: more YouTube videos. That’s what young people care about, right?”

Because the gospel that my church taught (with just the one projector) allows me to hope that I might live in a world where everyone has enough to eat, on earth as it is in heaven. It gives me grace for all the ways I fail, and conviction to keep trying.

I hope that won’t be lost in the production. Because showmanship and crowds and experiences are not the gospel. They are a distraction. The gospel is better than that.

———–

“So what do you do now? You get to find your own way to dig out a heart and shake it off and hold it up to the light again….

I rock back and forth on my chair like a child, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong somewhere, damnit.”

———-

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* I will not even pretend that I understand contracts between restaurants and beverage companies, nor do I necessarily understand the implications of those arrangements. I’m just saying that this company has purportedly done a lot of evil in the world, and no one seems to care.

What do Mumbai, baseball, a selectively utilized pool, and biblical womanhood have in common?

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Last week I alluded to the fact that I am planning to read 35 books this year, and in the comments, Shari asked if I had any specific books in mind.

And honestly, I don’t. My to-read list has at least a couple hundred entries, so I generally prefer to just read whatever wanders into my life.

But I will not leave you empty-handed. Instead, I offer an alternative in the form of last year’s reading list (now broken into 3 parts).

I first gave myself a yearly book quota last January: 30 books in 2012.

I only made it to 28 (and I cheated a little), but I went ahead and upped the ante to 35 anyway. As they say, “If at first you don’t succeed…just aim for a higher level of achievement, regardless of success or failure.” Apparently my approach to goal-setting is a little bit like the life philosophy of Newt Gingrich.

Anyway, we start with YA Fiction and Literary Fiction.

YA Fiction

1. The Fault in Our Stars: John Green – This book was Time Magazine’s Best Book of the Year. And it is beautiful. It is the story of Hazel, a teenager living with cancer, who is still funny and flawed and smart. It is also the story of Augustus, the young cancer survivor that she meets at a hilariously-rendered church support group for cancer kids. I laughed almost as much as I cried, and that, in my opinion, makes a great book.

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

2. Paper Towns: John Green –  In between hilarious pranks and the world’s most frantic road trip, it explores the importance of seeing people as people, not just the objects of your imaginings. Also, it partially inspired mine and Kaitlyn’s fantastic pranking of Dr. Reeves.

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”

“Maybe its like you said before, all of us being cracked open. Like each of us starts out as a watertight vessel. And then things happen – these people leave us, or don’t love us, or don’t get us, or we don’t get them, and we lose and fail and hurt one another… And its only that time that we see one another, because we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs… Before that we were just looking at ideas of each other.

3. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: Ransom Riggs – This. Book. Riggs collects old Polaroids, the ones that get piled into boxes and sold at estate sales or flee markets. So he took some of them, and built a story around them. It’s the best. It has mystery, love, monsters, WWII. I mean, seriously. If you have a young adult in your life you doesn’t love to read, buy them this book. 

“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.”

“I didn’t know what to call it, what was happening between us, but I liked it. It felt silly and fragile and good.”

4. The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight: Jennifer E. Smith – I liked this book okay. My sister said she really liked it though (and John Green really liked it), so maybe it’s just me. But I found the father/daughter relationship to be much more interesting than the romantic one.

“He was a professor, a lover of stories, and he was building her a library in the same way other men might build their daughters houses.”

5. The Astonishing Life of Octavia Nothing: M.T. Anderson – This book is brilliant. It is a fascinating story set against the backdrop of the American Revolution and the African slave trade.

“The times, the seasons, the signs may have been mythical; but the sufferings were not… I knew in dark houses, there was torture, arms held down, firebrands approaching the soft skin of the belly or arm; and still – there is screaming in the night; there is flight; mothers sob for children they shall not see again; girls feel the weight of men atop them; men cry for their wives; boys dangle dead in the barn; and we smoke their sorrow contentedly; and we eat their sorrow; and we wear their sorrow; and wonder how it came so cheap.

6. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane: Kate DiCamillo – This is maybe the 12th time I’ve read this book. My high school theatre teacher read it to our class, and it has become the threadbare sweatshirt that I pull out when I just need familiar words.

“Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

“Perhaps,” said the man, “you would like to be lost with us. I have found it much more agreeable to be lost in the company of others.”

Literary Fiction 

7. The Art of Fielding: Chad Harbach – I say by way of disclaimer that this book is for Adults. And it is magnificent. The novel rotates around a college baseball star, his gay roommate/teammate, his mentor/friend, the university’s president, and the president’s only daughter who has just returned home after the failure of her marriage.

“Life was long, unless you died, and he didn’t intend to spend the next sixty years talking about the last twenty-two.”

“She hated the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”

“…a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.”

8. The Marriage Plot: Jeffrey Eugenides – This novel begins on the day of a college graduation and follows the story of three newly-minted graduates. I read it right after I graduated. They felt like me and my friends, if our lives were written by a brilliant novelist.

“He remained heartbroken, which meant one of two things: either his love was pure and true and earthshakingly significant; or he was addicted to feeling forlorn, he liked being heartbroken.”

“College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.”

“If Mitchell was ever going to become a good Christian, he would have to stop disliking people so intensely.”

9. The Virgin Suicides: Jeffrey Eugenides – Eugenides’ first novel. The story of five sisters and their suicides, as told by the boys who watched them from across the street. He’s just a great novelist. Though I wish I had read his books in book form, not e-reader form. Literary novels do not make good e-books.

“In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”

Chucking her under the chin, he said, “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” And it was then Cecelia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a 13 year old girl.”

10. Farenheit 451: Ray Bradbury – In honor of the passing of Ray Bradbury this year, I decided it was high time that I read this book – the one I always saw on the required reading table, but was never required to read. I read this at the height of the 50 Shades of Grey pandemic, and what he says about our cultural preference for constant noise and the discussion of nothing, well it feels that Bradbury can just go ahead and take his seat among the prophets.

“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

11. The Great Gatsby: F.Scott Fitzgerald – Easily one of my favorite novels of all time. I don’t know how I didn’t fall in love with it in high school (probably because I didn’t read it). What a fool I was.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

12. The Catcher in the Rye: J. D. Salinger – Another classic that just never got assigned in high school. I love this book. If you don’t love it, watch Crash Course’s two part series about it. John Green will make you love it. Also, learning that Salinger saw some of the worst fighting of WWII makes this book’s obsession with innocence that much more desperate.

“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”


Well that got really long. So we’ll just take a break here and make this into a series! You’ll get the rest – I promise.

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* You should know, by way of disclaimer, that I rarely read a book I don’t like, unless it’s Christian Non-Fiction (subcategory: self-help with Jesus sprinkles).

This is partly because I have a good idea of what books I will like, partly because I can appreciate many different things about a book (a captivating story or beautiful language or compelling ideas), and partly because I have no qualms about quitting a book if I no longer feel like reading it. So, if it seems like I speak highly of most books, it’s not that I never dislike a book, it’s just that I rarely finish “bad” ones.

The Casual Vacancy: A Review

When I announced that I was reading The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, several people asked me to share my thought when I finished, so here you go!

——

There is a line in the third Harry Potter book where Sirius says to Harry, “The world isn’t divided into good people and death eaters.” A sentiment that cuts straight to the heart of our desire to herald one side as incorruptible saviors and turn the other into irredeemable tyrants. As we age into adulthood, we are forced to wrestle with the world as it truly is, vastly complicated and messy.

But I would argue that the Casual Vacancy makes that point much more strongly than the Harry Potter series ever did. The characters in her previous series tended to fall somewhat neatly into the good and evil categories (with some notable exceptions). But I found the kindness, greed, pomposity, love and selfishness displayed in the people of Pagford to be much more nuanced.

There are no unambiguously good people in that little English hamlet, and while they might at times wish for a Hero to vanquish evil, they, like those of us in the real world, must rely on broken people working within broken systems. And as in real life, many of her characters are simultaneously self-destructive and pitiable.

While many loved the fantastical world she painted at Hogwarts, I would argue that her greatest strength has always been her keen insights into the complicated incitants and motivations of human behavior. A strength she uses deftly to point out the desperate need for empathy and humility. In a world that enjoys painting broad strokes, laying blame, and ignoring inherent inequality, (particularly when it comes to discussions of poverty and drug addiction), Rowlings’ book is a gift that neither condemns nor acquits its characters.

There is a line early on when a mother says to her son, “You must accept the reality of other people.” Though they may be greedy, selfish, short-sighted, or weak, they have their own experiences and beliefs which have shaped them. You can not escape their humanness; they are not simply caricatures of your prejudices.

Rowling uses her characters’ numerous faults to bring searing social criticism through some thoroughly unlikable people, which has disappointed some critics. There is a belief among many readers that for a novel to be “good”, the story should be fun and the characters should be “relate-able” (read: likable). While Harry Potter certainly fit those constraints, The Casual Vacancy does not*. And I think that change gives it a raw and honest voice that is needed to address issues of marriage, sex, adolescence, fidelity, domestic violence, and addiction.

The novel is fiercely dark at times, and I found myself emotionally un-done by the tragic turn the novel ultimately takes, partly because the pain and injustice it portrays are all too real. This is not a story that offers neat conclusions. In contrast to Harry Potter’s epic that gave its heroes the happy ending they deserved, The Casual Vacancy refuses to tie up its narrative with a shiny bow. Instead it leaves the readers with painful questions that we must learn to answer ourselves.

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*As John Green said about Holden in The Catcher in the Rye: “He isn’t the person you want to be or the person you want to be with. But he is the person you secretly know yourself to be.” I think that applies here, too.

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A few notes:

1. There is one character painted as an undiminished saint: the man who dies in the first two pages. Another interesting social criticism.

2. David once accused HP of being absurdly unrealistic, because it is narrated entirely from the POV of a teenage boy, and doesn’t mention sex once in seven years. This book does not have that problem. This is not 50 Shades of Grey – none of the sex is meant to be titillating, as Rowling said in an interview “people have sex in this book, but nobody really enjoys it”. But if you don’t wish to read frank talk about human thought and action regarding sex, don’t read this book.

3. One of the most dislikable families in the book reminds me pointedly of the Dursleys. It’s like they moved from London to Pagford, and refer to Harry as their estranged daughter to avoid talking about him.

4. As some criticisms have said, there are A LOT of characters, and everyone’s related somehow to everyone else. I found them difficult to distinguish at first, but that didn’t last long. If you can manage it (I couldn’t), read the first section of the book in one sitting; I think it would help solidify the individual relationships and characters.

5. The last quarter of the book is the very best part. I enjoyed reading the whole thing, but I couldn’t put it down when I got near the end.

Promiscuous Reading

Do you ever happen across a phrase – just a quick marriage of two or three words your mind had never brought together – that exacts an epiphany of self-realization?

“Yes!” you cry, “That’s me! Now I know myself!”

Some labels you have to fit yourself around, add caveats and amendments. They’re too expansive, too restrictive, too one-size-fits-all. It’s like the first homecoming dress you pull on in the dressing room at Nordstrom: it fits, it’ll do; you’re not embarrassed to be seen in it. But the excess fabric falls just a bit too far onto the floor and the shiny polyester feels a bit abrasive. But you’re told the blue brings out your eyes. If you’re fifteen, you buy it anyway.

And sometimes, that’s the best you can do. But sometime later, maybe in college, sitting in a crowded lecture hall or even a church auditorium, you experience that singular exuberance of finding words that so totally compliment your beliefs or quirks. Those jeans you pulled off the shelf in a moment of desperate hope, mold to you like a hand made $5,000 suit, no tailoring, no concessions, just a perfect fit.

I had one such experience today while reading Micha Boyett’s blog*. Because guys, I too, am a promiscuous reader.

The phrase seems to have been coined over at the New Yorker by Mark O’Connell, who suffers from (read: thoroughly enjoys) the same affliction. And I thank him for it.

Because you see, I can’t commit to a book. A flit between them easily, finished or not, without apologies or remorse: a memoir at lunch, historical fiction after work, then perhaps some theology before bed. Sometimes I’m bored or disinterested. Usually, I just get distracted; I walk through Barnes & Noble and glossy new hardbacks call out to me like sirens. So I curl up with a new book, promising to return to the freshly shelved edition as soon as I’m finished, but inevitably this one, too, is interrupted.

They all get finished eventually; I’m not heartless. But it is never a clear, linear progression from chapter one to epilogue. My journey through a book of Christian discipleship is fraught with detours through the forests of Narnia and a meandering foray into Dickins’ London. Atticus Finch’s closing arguments must pause to make room for one of Gatsby’s parties.

My iPad is my great enabler. Every book just a tap and a swipe away. I just purchased Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and it’s just lovely. But then I found David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for just $5.00. And it’s calling to me, waiting just behind the light-printed words I’m reading. Its intelligent and obviously emotionally complicated author just adds to its appeal. I’m trying to stay strong, but the fascinating stories of the children of Mumbai might be set aside for 1700+ pages of dense prose.

The great exception is YA novels. Those are quick, staccato bursts, beginning to end, that dot the landscape of my tangled literary maze.

And that’s the way I like it.

Just to prove my point, here are the books I’m currently reading:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Prayer
  • The Poisonwood Bible
  • The Magician’s Nephew
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • Some marriage book I can’t remember the name of because I loaned it to David, and  he left it in Tulsa
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • The Know-It-All
  • Till We Have Faces
  • The Art of Fielding
  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Some of them I’ve been reading for years. The Poisonwood Bible I think I’m going to have to start over because I can barely remember what was happening. And I like them. I really do. I haven’t gotten around to finishing them.

With books, as in no other area of my life, I make no commitments, no promises of fidelity. I simply let my reading heart lead me into the chapters of any and every book it desires.

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*If you’d like, Micha links to a diagnostic guide of reading styles. It calls me a “multi-tasker” but I think we need to be more honest with ourselves than that.

David, incidentally, is a pure chronological reader. Which is why he has finished The Origin of Species, along with every book (one per week) that was assigned in his Senior English class. I think he judges my promiscuity a bit. :)

Free lunch & great books

Yesterday, I started feeling that itch: a longing to get swept up in a story, the desire for a fast and furious love affair with a really great novel.

I’m trying to read 30 books this year. It’s not a ton, but I liked the idea of having a goal, and it’s totally manageable with moving, wedding planning, and starting a new job. But it’s been about a month since I finished my last book (Fahrenheit 451), so last night, I downloaded a book I’d heard great things about: Gone Girl. Big mistake.

I stayed up two hours past my bed time reading it. It’s the kind of book I would have carried to school and read blatantly in the middle of class. Because it’s that good.

I’m new at this employment thing, but I figured I probably couldn’t get away with sitting at my desk and refusing to work while I lost myself in the glowing pages. (Not that the thought didn’t cross my mind.) So, this morning I decided to forgo my usual lunch trip, and eat a granola bar at my desk in  order to take full advantage of what is now reading hour.

My favorite diet: a book so engrossing that eating no longer seems worth the time.

But then the news circulated around the office that one of our vendors bought lunch for the office. There is definitely such a thing as a free lunch. It comes in the form of corporate schmoozing, and it’s a great thing.

And on top of that, one of the lab guys brought these cookies. Oh. My. Gosh. They tasted like thin mints, except thicker and chewier and chocolaty-er*. They tasted like heaven. If I see him up here, I’m going to tie him up and demand the recipe. Because asking nicely is for people who are way less serious about their cookies.

Obviously, my granola bar was destined to lay forgotten, but I had been looking forward to reading my book all morning. So while everyone else gathered in the conference room, I channeled my middle school self, and took my plate back to my desk where I could read in peace. I do not regret it.

On an unrelated note, I just dropped my headset and apologized to my phone in front of one of the IT guys. (What? You don’t ask the forgiveness of inanimate objects? Just me?) He was nice enough to pretend not to hear me.

*According to spell-check, that is a real word. And that is how it is spelled. Sans the “e” that I think belongs there.