Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Adam Bede by George Eliot

"It is so very rarely that facts hit that nice medium required by our own enlightened opinions and refined taste! Perhaps you will say, 'Do improve the facts a little, then; make them more accordant with those correct views which it is our privilege to possess. The world is not just what we like; do touch it up with a tasteful pencil, and make believe it is not quite such a mixed entangled affair. Let all people who hold unexceptionable opinions act unexceptionably. Let your most faulty characters always be on the wrong side, and your virtuous ones on the right. Then we shall see at a glance whom we are to condemn and whom we are to approve. Then we shall be able to admire, without the slightest disturbance of our prepossessions: we shall hate and despise with that true ruminant relish which belongs to undoubting confidence.'

But, my good friend, what will you do then with your fellow-parishioner who opposes your husband in the vestry? With your newly appointed vicar, whose style of preaching you find painfully below that of his regretted predecessor? With the honest servant who worries your soul with her one failing? With your neighbour, Mrs. Green, who was really kind to you in your last illness, but has said several ill-natured things about you since your convalescence? Nay, with your excellent husband himself, who has other irritating habits besides that of not wiping his shoes? These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people — amongst whom your life is passed — that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire — for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields — on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice."

(George Eliot, Adam Bede, 175-176)

Friday, November 02, 2012

Autumn Inaugural by Dana Gioia


There will always be those who reject ceremony,
Who claim that resolution requires no fanfare,
Those who demand the spirit stay fixed
Like a desert saint, fed only on faith,
To worship in no temple but the weather.

There will always be the austere ones
Who mount denial’s shaky ladder
To drape the statues or whitewash the frescoed wall,
As if the still star of painted plaster
Praised creation less than the evening’s original.

And they are right. Symbols betray us.
They are always more or less than what
Is really meant. But shall there be no
Processions by torchlight because we are weak?
What native speech do we share but imperfection?


Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
Old robes worn for new beginnings,
Solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
Surrounded by ancient experience, grows
Young in the imagination’s white dress.

Because it is not the rituals we honor
But our trust in what they signify, these rites
That honor us as witnesses – whether to watch
Lovers swear loyalty in a careless world
Or a newborn washed with water and oil.

So praise to innocence – impulsive and evergreen –
And let the old be touched by youth’s
Wayward astonishment at learning something new,
And dream of a future so fitting and so just
That our desire will bring it into being.

[This poem has, I think, been the theme of this last year and seemed especially appropriate to post because it's Autumn and yesterday was All Saints Day.]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Ungainliness of Hope

Hope is so junior high-- so ungainly, so mixed with the child and the adult, the anticipation and the fear. Hope feels awkward and sweet. Hope scares me.

I try to neutralize Hope so that I’m not disappointed. Indifference, or better yet, straight-up pessimism keeps me composed when something goes the opposite way than I hoped. Indifference is so high school; you’ve figured out the sad ways of the world. Indifference is, well, cool.

I’m learning that there isn’t any room for indifference, pessimism, or fatalism within a proper Christian vision of reality. Instead, we live and love in hope.

Hope is not resigned. Hope is not fatalistic. Hope says that ultimately the Judge and King of all will make all things right. Since this is our crowning hope, we have no ground for fatalism and pessimism in anything. We have no right to say, ‘Well, this is just the way the world is, so deal with it.” Instead, we have delight and disappointment side by side, both equally possible and both equally to be brought before the King.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Desiring the Kingdom by James K. Smith

The Reader’s Mood: Pseudo-Professor.
The Environment: This is a good Saturday morning book if I’ve ever experienced one. Sit down next to your kindred thinker; the latter must be prepared beforehand for numerous interruptions in his/her book while you read some thought-provoking quotations. Make sure to come prepared with writing utensil in hand.
The Beverage: French Roast.
The Music: Mumford & Sons (for their eschatological vision, i.e.“there will come a day, you’ll see, with no more tears and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears”) but mix in a little Bach for good measure.

 Smith’s foundation is his philosophical anthropology. He believes that the Christian world has bought into an overly heady, cognitive account of man. Instead, we are ‘liturgical animals”—lovers, more than thinkers. “To be human is to be such a lover—a creature whose orientation and form of life is most primordially shaped by what one loves as ultimate, which constitutes an affective, gut-like orientation to the world that is prior to reflection and even eludes conceptual articulation.” (51) This love, this desiring, could also be considered to be worship. Worship is the essence of human-ness and we are all worshippers; it is just a matter of what we are worshipping. Our practices are what shape our desires; liturgies are those ‘thick’ practices which determine what we love as ultimate—what we worship at the end of the day.

With this in mind, Smith undertakes an ‘exegesis’ of the liturgies of the mall, the military-sports complex, and the secular university, demonstrating that they are, in fact, religious institutions vying for our ultimate loves. He critiques the ‘worldview’ model, because, while it has certainly been helpful and a step in the right direction, it has no radar to pick up these clearly religious, but not ideologically articulated liturgies. Smith then exegetes the church’s liturgy (whether or not it is high or low church), demonstrating how our practices carry—even when unsaid—a strong counter-liturgy which shapes and trains our desires for the heavenly kingdom. Smith then unpacks, in the final chapter, the implications for a Christian college education.

I resounded with this book for many reasons. In college, ‘worldview’ talk was ubiquitous, but I think we had an intuition it just wasn’t quite enough. I found Smith’s view to be extremely helpful, namely, that worldview vocabulary, while definitely good, does not do full justice to the reality that we are desiring creatures—‘liturgical animals”—not just walking minds. It’s been helpful in how I think about myself. I often conceive of myself as only a ‘walking mind’ and get frustrated sometimes that even though I know something cognitively, I can’t seem to just think myself into another practice. Instead, this book has given me a vocabulary to understand why actually doing things fundamentally shapes my desires and trains me to habits of virtue. It makes me think more deeply about my practices. In that line, Smith reminded me of Wright’s After You Believe. This book has also added to my increasing conviction that a more intentional liturgy--enacting the practices of the church throughout history--is more effective for shaping our desires for the kingdom. 

Saturday, January 07, 2012

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

On Thursday, I read 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith. It had been almost a week since I had gotten my self-prescribed dosage of fiction and I was feeling imaginatively anemic. This book was just what the doctor (a.k.a. I myself) ordered. I was first introduced to Alexander McCall Smith by an audio version of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I knew I would like his writing style; unfortunately, we were driving late at night to Ohio and needed something more fast-paced to keep us awake. So, I plan to finish reading that one now, especially after I enjoyed 44 Scotland Street so much.

Smith originally wrote 44 Scotland Street as a serial for The Scotsman newspaper. So, the chapters are all very brief-- 3 or 4 pages in which he tells he tells little life snippets of the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street and their neighbors and colleagues.  The style reminds me of literary bumper cars, where one chapter's main character bumps into another character and that chapter ends and a new one changes to that second character’s point of view.

Well, Smith begins the story with the apartment-searching endeavors of 20 year old Pat—a sweet, artsy, second year gap student (for some ignominious reason we never discover). She meets Bruce, the handsome rugby player, a bit too preoccupied with his clove-scented hair gel, obliques, and full-length bathroom mirror. He leases the room in his apartment at 44  Scotland Street to the aforementioned Pat, who already has a vague job at an art gallery working for the diffident and nonchalant Matthew. Along the way, Pat meets their curious and wise anthropologist neighbor, Domenica. She is also introduced to poor little Bertie—the 5 year old boy forced to learn Italian, read W.H. Auden instead of A.A. Milne, and play a saxophone as big as him by his thoroughly modern mother, Irene, rabidly convinced of her son’s superlatives.  And these are just a sampling of Smith’s fascinatingly ordinary characters.

I would say that’s the loveliness of this little book—it’s filled with charm, wit, irony, kindness, wisdom, and utter ordinariness.  It’s nothing special. It could be any old apartment with any neighbors. It could be my apartment building. And this is a quiet brilliance because it evokes something like, “Maybe those people who are my next door neighbors are just as interesting and odd and well, even wonderful as those people."

What I will remember from this delightful book is a moment with Pat and Matthew, her art gallery boss, as they are standing in front of a painting. I think it encapsulates the perspective of the book:
 Pat looked at him, and noticed the way that the hairs lay flat against the skin of his wrist, and the way that one of his eyebrows was slightly shorter than the other, as if it had been shaved off. And she noticed, too, his eyes, which she had never really looked at before and the way the irises were flecked with gray. And Matthew, for his part, suddenly noticed that Pat had small ears, and that one of them had two piercings. For a few moments neither spoke, as each felt sympathy for the other, as the same conclusion—quite remarkably—occurred to each: here is a person, another, who is so important to himself, to herself, and so weak, and ordinary, and human as we all are. (210)

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Hello Again

I have decided to come back to writing on this blog, as I simultaneously quit facebook for a while. I think that the latter trains me toward distraction and contributes to patterns of hummingbird flightiness; it undermines my concentration and intentionality. I get so busy being distracted. It’s a small thing and, I think, even an embarrassing thing. But, I’m learning that it’s those little decisions reiterated over and over that etch into my core and contribute to overall postures toward life.  I like to pretend that facebook is petty and inconsequential in my life—because, I think it should be—but, well, I’m more addicted than I like to admit. (And, if I were speaking this, you would hear that last admission in multiple, halting, unfinished sentences. )

I’m currently reading Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith. He states, “habits are inscribed in our heart through bodily practices and rituals that train the heart, as it were, to desire certain ends. This is a noncognitive sort of training, a kind of education that is shaping us often without realization. Different kinds of material practices infuse noncognitive dispositions and skills in us through ritual and repetition precisely because our hearts (site of habits) are so closely tethered to our bodies. . . It’s as if our appendages function as a conduit to our adaptive unconscious: the motions and rhythms of embodied routines train our minds and hearts so that we develop habits—sort of attitudinal reflexes—that make us tend to act in certain ways toward certain ends.” (58)

I will probably write more about Desiring the Kingdom and should note that he is addressing much bigger issues than facebook—namely, a proper philosophical anthropology which informs the way we think about Christian education and worship. Nonetheless, I’ve ‘inscribed’ on my heart ‘habits’ of distraction through that little click on my bookmarks. If my account were not disabled, I would have already checked facebook a few times, followed by my email, skimmed through a few blogs, and BBC world news. I just don’t want to be that kind of person—easily distracted, incapable of sustaining a train of thought. So, while blogging may not be the ultimate means toward that kind of thought, it helps me to write down what I think and adds extra incentive to write well when someone could potentially critique me.

So, people-who-read my-blog-but-won’t-know-I-posted-because-I’m-not-putting-it-on-facebook, I’m back!

Friday, October 07, 2011

Uncomfortable with Jesus

The only thing I remember from my college biology class is reading Lee Stroebel’s Case for a Creator. And then, the only thing I remember from the book was a testimony from a scientist, whose name I now forget. Every time I read one of the Gospels, I recall what he said and I again agree with him. Here was the gist of it: “If the Jesus of the Gospels were fictitious, then I would want to worship those who made him up. “

Jesus startles me. It doesn’t matter how many times I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—I am left uneasy, keenly aware of an energy, a goodness that I cannot predict or control. Jesus does not fit into my ideal of goodness and love; he efficiently shatters any marble statue I shape for him in my mind. Those static print words on a page bear witness to one who electric-cracks with dynamic, shocking love—decisively counter-intuitive to my paltry ideas of love. He is the cold water on my face to wake me up from dreams of reality.  I am not comfortable with him, but I love him.

I am not comfortable, but I love that he delighted in the faith of those who didn’t wait in line, but pushed or tore holes in the roof on their way to him, confident that he would heal. I am not comfortable, but I love that Jesus gently rebuked the one who dutifully served and commended the one who neglected duty and sat at his feet. I am uncomfortable, but I love that he defended and rejoiced in the prostitute who anointed him with ridiculously expensive oil out of her ‘excessive’ love. I am uncomfortable, but I love that Jesus broke the law of righteousness in order to do righteousness. I am uncomfortable, but I love the parable of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the Sermon on the Mount. I am uncomfortable with the way that Jesus saw to the heart of the matter—whatever was keeping anyone from following him—“let the dead bury their own dead,” “deny yourself,” “go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.” He sees to my heart and that makes me uncomfortable. He is certainly not safe or tame, as C.S. Lewis said, but he is good.

We read Graham Green’s novel The Power and the Glory in high school and this statement by the “whiskey priest” has always haunted me: “ ’Oh,’ the priest said, ‘that’s another thing altogether—God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us—God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.’ ”

Carravagio, The Calling of St. Matthew
I feel this when I read the Gospels.  I am scared and fascinated by this Love, by this Jesus. If he were fictional, he is so counter-intuitive and yet so unquestionably good that I would worship the one who made him up. Nonetheless, I do believe this is the one on whom God set his seal of approval, vindicating his life of self-giving love by raising him from the dead. The Jesus of the Gospels compels me. Whenever I doubt, I come back to him, and I again affirm Peter’s words, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn. 6:68-69)