Sunday, January 22, 2017

Going with the Flow

Upon seeing that the Forward began with a poem authored by none other than William Paul Young (writer of The Shack), I knew that this book would be exceptional. That expectation was not disappointed. Richard Rohr's newest book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation ("with" Mike Morrell, Whitaker House, 2016) makes a new case for embracing Trinitarian theology and its implications for the Christian life.

Following the tradition of seventeen hundred years of Trinitarian theology, The Divine Dance contemplates the grand mystery of one God, three persons, "blessed Trinity." Though not explicitly revealed until page 101, Rohr's book sets aside the promise of rational certitude. And with that mainstay of so much traditional theology, it also leaves reason herself on the sidelines. The book presents an unabashed meditation in mystery, often dancing from one opposite in one chapter (such as immanence) to the other in a later chapter (transcendence). Divine Dance leads the reader through a poetic exploration of Trinity's contours and potential for transforming one's experience of God.

The idea of "experiencing God" forms one of the rhythm-section baselines of the book. Mentioned lightly at points along the way--but ever present as an axiom--personal experience anchors Rohr's theology. He rails (as strongly as a Franciscan contemplative can) against theologies emerging from solely cerebral understandings of God. A Trinity performing a continuous dance of love, he asserts, necessitates a God who is present in and with our whole lives, even bodily, that interact with creation and each other. It is at this point that I found the book most appealing and most refreshing: It offers a hope that God can be not just a Something, but a Someone.

Rohr's view of God's presence in and presence with creation, however, flirts with panentheism. And consummate with the idea that God is present in and with all things is Rohr's articulation of the problem of sin. "Articulation" is a strong word in this case, as the only definition Rohr offers for the problem of sin is an image of "going against the flow." Since God's "Trinitarian flow" is in Rohr's view irresistible, however, "sin" (he often puts it in quotation marks) may not be a true problem, but instead an attempt only to delay the inevitable. The repeated use of the word "flow"--a thing as certain as water moving downhill--conjures for me the image of an old hippie telling the type-A personalities in a self-medicated drawl to "just go with the flow, man."

And the problems with the Church described by Rohr, the raisons d'etre for this book, reflect a generation of Christians who grew up with something quite different than I. Rohr's criticism of the Church resonates with what I have deduced from many anecdotes was the situation of the "mainline" churches in America through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s: rigidity, judgmentalism, legalism. But whether I'm right or wrong in that assessment, most of Rohr's (albeit mild, Franciscan, and contemplative) chastisement addresses problems different from what I see. If anything, Rohr's singular focus on an individual's "going with the Trinitarian flow" ignores the crucial matters of community ethics and the pursuit of justice in an evil--yes, sin-filled--world, and is therefore deficient.

It is difficult to say whether I would recommend this book to friends, except as a foil for discussion about the Trinity and discipleship to Jesus. Perhaps I am not mystic enough. Yet.

Thanks, Chris, for sending this gift which has given me occasion for much fruitful reflection.

~ emrys

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Who's In Charge Here?

President-Elect Donald Trump has all but declared that he will not appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton, as he promised during the campaign. The number of popular and energizing promises that Mr. Trump made before the election which are now being scuttled continues to rise. Some cynical political commentators might say that during the campaign Mr. Trump lied to get votes.

I don’t think Mr. Trump lied on the campaign trail. I think he was acting. Donald Trump was acting aggressive, mean-spirited, and vindictive because he knew (or intuited) that this fa├žade would gain him votes. Like a poker player acting calm with his straight flush in hand, or a negotiator acting like he has the power position, Mr. Trump broadcasts whatever is necessary to make the deal that he wants to make.

Take one step further into this semi-metaphor of acting. Actors do not make films. Writers compose the script, producers arrange the logistics. And directors, as the name implies, really guide the show. Even the best of actors, with poor direction, can turn a good script into a disaster. Actors are lost without a good director.

We have seen what a good actor Mr. Trump is. We know that he can follow the direction of a discontented citizenry who believes that they have been put last on the agenda. We know that he can follow the direction of the real estate market and international business interests. We know that he works well under the direction of reality television rubrics.

In less than two months, Mr. Trump will be the President of the United States. The question is not whether he will be able to act well in that role. The star actor has stolen the show already. The crucial questions are different. Who will his director be? Who in fact will be running the show?

~ emry

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

On Character

A dear friend recommended to me David Brooks' book The Road to Character (Random House, 2015), and she commended it with such strength that I put it on my short list.

Brooks takes up the centuries-old question of how to cultivate strong character. In the introduction he quickly gives up on the idea of teaching character, relying instead on the exemplar, the hero, as the font of maturity and goodness at which the rest of us may drink. In making this decision, Brooks destines The Road to be both intriguing and unsatisfying.

The book intrigues with its explorations of historical figures of deep character. Brooks offers brief but intense biographies of eight famous persons. The way he highlights the peaks and valleys of their lives reveals the vast amount of research and thinking he has done about these figures. His scope spans from the fifth century (Augustin of Hippo) to Bayard Rustin of the mid-1900s. (One could hope that Brooks had increased his geographic scope. He stays in the Western European stream, though examples of character like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi present themselves readily from other parts of the globe.) Brooks reflects in great depth on experiences that shaped these heroes, whitewashing nothing but asserting that all parts of a person's life contribute to their character. Even without the goal of finding a path to character, The Road is worth a read for the fascinating discussion of these eight personalities.

His good-bad-ugly approach arises from Brooks' "crooked-timber" model of human nature. Throughout the book, he laments the loss of past generations' understanding of the self as deeply flawed, sinful, and in need of control. Though Brooks dodges a simplistic definition of "character," every chapter directly or indirectly shows that struggle with one's darkness gives birth to character. And without the struggle--as his critique of author Michel de Montaigne suggests--real character never comes to life. Beneath his writing is Brook's anchor-hold on "moral realism": Humans are complex creatures because there is, in fact, a right and wrong and we live between those sides. The struggle--within and without--to find the right in the midst of the wrong creates character.

The tone of The Road teeters dangerously close to nostalgia at many points. In the final chapter Brooks attempts to soften the charge against our present generation by saying that the cultural swing of 1950s America went too far. Self-esteem and affirmation are all right, he asserts, but too much has been forgotten. Whether The Road is a condemnation of or corrective to our current culture must be left to the reader to decide. Perhaps the struggle of that judgment will be character-building in itself.

The Road leaves the reader unsatisfied. One might expect from any book entitled "The Road to . . ." to provide some sort of map. And in the final chapter Brooks offers "the Humility Code": 15 things that attempt to summarize what the book has been getting at. The list is however bulky and awkward, perhaps because of its attempt to be inclusive, and offers none of the helpful "shall/shall not"s that we expect from a "code." This weakness in the text serves, on the other hand, to illustrate Brook's point.

There exists no code for the development of character. The stories of those who show good character--as famous as Frances Perkins and Nelson Mandela, or as unknown as my grandmother--are the instruction books for wisdom and maturity. And we ought not to neglect the great silent player, unmentioned in much of Brooks' book: the cause of suffering. Suffering itself comes up many times as the agent of character-building struggle, but the cause of suffering seems so often beyond summoning or control. Catastrophe, abuse, illnesses mental and physical, economic hardship--these all serve as crucibles in which character takes shape.

Perhaps great hope for Brooks' beleaguered generation comes from some impending suffering, some revelation of its own darkness, that will call forth the kind of struggle that brought character in the past. All is not lost: If we are indeed made from "crooked timber," then this hull of cultural positivism will soon breach and we will be cast into the tide of hardship to sink or swim. And in the swimming many more exemplars of good character will be born.

Thanks, Phyllis, for recommending this book!

~ emrys

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Expanding Legacy

Dois Rosser stands as an example of someone who uses immense giftedness for good. A seasoned Christian, capable businessman, and dedicated philanthropist, Rosser's life work has become helping small Christian communities in developing nations build worship buildings and spawn new congregations.

The 2011 memoir, The God Who Hung on the Cross: How God Uses Ordinary People to Build His Church, published by International Cooperating Ministries, presents the highlights of ICM's twenty-five years of Spirit-driven work. The fascinating and powerful stories of generosity, determination, and faithfulness reveal what an exciting calling it is to follow the God of Resurrection into unlikely places.

The book presents a series of vignettes from ICM's work which are poignant, funny, startling, and inspirational--at times simultaneously so. The weaving together of these stories creates the picture of a man--Dois Rosser--and his fellow Christians who will go anywhere, eat anything, and talk to anyone in service to Jesus Christ. With just a little money (by American standards) and a great deal of persistence and prayer, ICM gives Christian communities a hand up to creating their own houses of worship. Part of the "payback" is that these communities covenant to plant several new churches in future years. Thus, in the process of helping to construct hundreds of buildings around the world, ICM has helped to create thousands of new congregations.

Add to this the Mini Bible College translation program, which has worked hand-in-hand with ICM, and the dividends of blessing multiply to an even greater degree.

Even if we call can't be a part of International Cooperating Ministries, would that we all could use our talents to multiply God's blessings in such an intentional manner. This book leaves me wondering how I can be part of such a wonderful legacy.

Thanks to Nancy Croker, member of ICM's Board, for giving me a copy of the book!

~ emrys

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

After Reading Billy Collins' book: Aimless Love (2013)

Poetry Is

like a conversation with my physicist friend
whose eloquent descriptions of molecular interactions
leave me wondering
whether we speak the same language

until I realize
with a big silent bang
as I run to catch up with her words
that the results of her labor

have changed the way I tell time
and have put a global web of information at my fingertips
and in one Oppenheimerian flash
could change the course of civilization,

and I am struck by awe
not at how different we are
but at the eerie perfection with which
she understands the smallest parts
of me.

~ emrys

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Stand Up for Truth

I am fascinated by the current discussion--which description may be giving the participants greater honor than their words deserve--about athletes "taking a knee" during the playing of the national anthem. Though the great emotional charge of black citizens killed by police transfers easily to any event even loosely connected to it, that intensity is not what keeps my attention.

I am already convinced that race relations in our country require continued, sustained attention. I am already convinced that I am not competent to comment on the employer-employee relationship between athletes and their management (and the restrictions that may be there).

I keep chewing on the question of whether it is ultimately good for Megan Rapinoe, Colin Kaepernick, and their colleagues to express social protest in this way. Is their expression "disrespectful"? And, if so, what should I make of it?

Those following the story will be familiar with the response of--to name one thoughtful and outspoken commentator--Bill O'Reilly, which points out flaws in Kaepernick's protest. Most of the same observers will also be familiar with the response of Hrafnkell Haraldsson, which furthers the discussion by suggesting flaws in O'Reilly's argument.

I do not know whether Kaepernick's action was "disrespectful." I do suspect that this judgment arises entirely from personal opinion rather than arguable grounds. As for the goodness of the gesture, I am reminded of some words of John Stuart Mill, whose philosophical work On Liberty seems to resonate with the very ideals for which the American flag stands. He wrote:

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error" (On Liberty, Chapter 2, Leonardo's kindle version location 289).

Kaepernick's action will serve, I hope, to keep up the conversation about race relations in our country. It will also spark thoughtful conversations about the right ways and proper fora in which to protest: conversations that will ring in high school locker rooms, living rooms, and perhaps even on morning news shows. Some may decide kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful; some may decide not to condemn it, but never to do it; some may be challenged to consider what problem might trouble them so deeply that the act would be worth the public scorn. And all those conversations, all those decisions, will touch on the matter of freedom, giving us a "clearer perception and livelier impression of truth."

Thank you, Mr. Kaepernick, Ms. Rapinoe, and so many others, for driving us to consider the issues that really matter.

~ emrys

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Certainty Craving Disorder

Now the commentators (not the journalists, I think--there is a distinction) are calling for both candidates to publicize their medical records.

Let's set aside for a moment (in a move similar to suspension of disbelief) that there is no law that in order to run for president a candidate must publicize his or her medical records.

What are the commentators looking for? When they blame imaginary "voters who want to know," what are they accusing voters (like me) of wanting? What information would help me to make a better (distinguish, please, from the vacuous "more informed") decision on election day?

Perhaps if I knew that one candidate had suffered pneumonia four times in the last fifteen years, I would deduce . . . what? Perhaps if I knew that one candidate was taking medication for high blood pressure (but that the numbers were presently "under control"), I would deduce . . . what?

I expect that, with medical records in hand, the commentators will parade before us medical experts (suitably vetted to deem the opposing candidate's cholesterol to be nearly fatal), and then it will fall to us not only to judge the candidate's positions on issues but also to judge their physical fitness for the next four-year term. As if I didn't have enough filtering to do already.

I can't wait until Congress passes a law requiring candidates to reveal the contents of their genome--I will be able to make a much better decision, then!

Privacy issues aside (see line 2 above), this frenzy grows out of an assumption that medical history is an accurate predictor of near-future vitality. This assumption is false. While individuals are wise to chart a life course based on the general trends of their medical history, an electorate that guesses whether its candidate will become physiologically unable to govern sometime in the next four years is foolish. There is no way that we can meaningfully predict the future health of our candidates, no matter how much medical information we have.

Your job, dear voter: Ignore it. Ignore the frenzy, attend to the issues, listen to the debates.

If you really are concerned about the candidates' physical durability; if you really do fear that your vote might go to someone doomed to the grave in the next four years; if you want to make sure that good governance will go uninterrupted through the next term; then make sure you vote for a good vice-presidential candidate.

~ emrys

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Clarifying Tool

Sometimes a little help to cut through the verbal clutter is in order. I found this quiz, which calls for me to get clear on my stance on issues first, helpful in aligning my issue choices with a presidential candidate:

Still much more reading to do, but this helps narrow the field a bit.

I'm hoping I can find a similar site for congressional candidates . . . though that may be too much to ask (given the number of candidates). We'll see.

~ emrys

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Frozen and Empty

Jessica Valenti's Sex Object: A Memoir (2016, HarperCollins): heartbreaking. Valenti recounts a harrowing, life-spanning series of encounters in which she is abused, depersonalized, and objectified. Even if her case is extreme, anyone in twenty-first-century American culture must encounter it with horror. A grotesque cavalcade of perverts, miscreants, aggressive boyfriends, and silent watchers--many of whom qualify as "normal people"--leaves the author of Sex Object empty except for fear, and frozen before the possibility of genuine love.

The world around Valenti is inexorably evil. That evil devours the souls of girls and women by making their bodies the expendable tools of self-satisfaction. The ubiquity of the darkness makes every relationship part of the spirit-killing trap: "If we have no place to go where we can escape that reaction to our bodies, where it is that we're not forced? The idea that these crimes are escapable is the blind optimism of men who don't understand what it means to live in a body that attracts a particular kind of attention with magnetic force" (kindle location 898).

I lived some of my life on the other side of this shadow, these crimes. I helped, over many years of my life, to perpetuate the objectification of girls and women with my own beliefs and actions. It has taken me a long time to realize the dark truth of Valenti's experience--which I'm sure is the experience of many more women than we can guess.

I am also struck with horror at the possibilities opened up by Sex Object for my children--a young girl and a young boy. I am terrified by the prospect that either of my children--and, increasingly, any of the children around me--might have to endure even a slight fraction of what Valenti has endured. My daughter could be a victim like Valenti; my son could be a perpetrator like so many she describes. I am now sitting with the question of how to illumine the darkness around us.

The end of Sex Object surprised me with its abruptness. I did not expect Valenti to end with a sure-fire prescription for change. I was not sure even to hope for a list of suggestions. I did expect encouragement, perhaps a plea, perhaps even a direct chastisement (consonant with the tone of the book) to fight for change: a "dear reader" challenge. Perhaps its subtitle, A Memoir, was supposed to exempt it from those expectations. Or, perhaps the book was intended to leave us in a dark and doubtful place.

Or perhaps I tend to look too much for hope. I heard almost none in Sex Object. The "endnotes," a profane litany of evil responses sent to Valenti's past work, provided the frost on a frozen and empty vessel. In my aching search for hope, I observed two things about the narrative of Sex Object.

First, I did not read about any positive community around Valenti. Family, friends, teachers, colleagues--and of course boyfriends--were sources of fear. If positive, supportive, consistent voices might have done something--no matter how small--to counter the vicious violence of her sexualized world, Valenti was deprived of that possibility.

Second, the seeming antidote to love's destruction--genuine, tender care and love--does not work quickly or readily. Valenti writes about encountering kindness after years of perversion: "Being treated nicely felt wrong somehow, as if we were acting out what a relationship should be rather than being in it" (location 1334). As I read along and got invested in Valenti's story, this stuck in me as an excruciating conundrum: to be so twisted by evil as to be unable to recognize good. (It reminds me of Jesus' blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.) Recovery from objectification must then be a long road--perhaps too long a road for this book to trace.

~ emrys

Friday, September 09, 2016

Things That Matter

The few times that I have been exposed to network news yielded the even fewer times that I have heard the commentary of Charles Krauthammer. But those few times have made me think more deeply about the topics at hand. So I borrowed my mom's copy of Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics by Krauthammer (Crown Forum (Penguin Random House), 2013).

Krauthammer's duo of complimentary gifts is witty concision and brilliant incision. He cuts to the quick, as a physician of ideas and therapist of words, to find the core and source of the issue at hand. And though his book touches on various and sundry topics--science, ethics, and baseball for instance--the "driver of history" is, for Krauthammer, politics.

He is a dedicated, wise, and articulate conservative. "Conservative" here refers not to a sweeping desire to keep things the same, but holding fast the twin anchors of individual liberty and limited government. Krauthammer's conservatism draws from his pen--ever more starkly evident in this book as the pages turn--stinging criticism of the Democratic party and American Liberalism, especially the kind he sees in the Obama administration. (Given Krauthammer's clear capacity in the book to praise strong individuals, I am surprised at the lack of support for the Bush presidencies. Perhaps he did that more in other venues.)

Krauthammer's articulate demarcation of the boundaries and ideals of conservatism and liberalism have forced me to examine my own values. I don't know whether to call myself a liberal or a conservative (socially, politically, or academically). But now I must wrestle with Krauthammer's compelling arguments. They are arguments which, like all the best arguments, call attention as much to their premises as to their conclusions. And just as the assertion that "politics is the driver of history" is an article of faith, liberty as greatest good and American exceptionalism (historical and existential) are articles of faith. What do I believe about human liberty, and a nation's role with respect to liberty? Is the United States of America exceptional in a meaningful sense? What is the character of its exception? And how does that shape my actions as a citizen?

Most importantly for my current position in the global scene: For whom do I vote in November?

I am weighing a thought that occurred to me as I finished the last essay in Things That Matter: perhaps a good (or the best?) criterion I can use as a voter is not whether I agree with all the policy and personality traits of a candidate. Perhaps a better, or more fundamental, criterion is whether a candidate believes the way I do about what America is supposed to be.

These are beginning thoughts. More to come, I'm sure.

~ emrys