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!