Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Undivided Heart

A critical comment on the cover of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent (Picador, 1997) hails, "It is tempting to say that The Red Tent is what the Bible would be like if it had been written by women . . ." This assertion raises all sorts of wonderful literary, philosophical, and historiographical questions. But those questions are so important neither to the book nor to this reader.

The Red Tent moves with the tidal pull of a regal aunt who finally tells your father's story from her perspective. True to how pre-literate agrarian culture must have felt, the narrative sticks to the reader's feet with all the grit, scents, and daily gore of human society protected only by sheets of canvas and its slow mobility. The appearance of biblical characters grown too familiar in the churched imagination of European minds sets the narrator's hook. There is no escape after the prologue: We are pulled, inexorably, soul-seduced, on the shore of the river where Dinah has her way with us.

The radical division of the sexes hinted at by the Old Testament takes on robust flesh in the life of Dinah. Diamant gives us cause to wonder: If the matriarchs were not silent chattel in the real Ancient Near East, is it possible that the patriarchs were not noble, courageous, and strong? Just as the Old Testament narrative gives women over to uncleanness, is it possible the men were brutish, mean, and deceptive? Exploring the poles of human sexuality and relationship opens up a whole spectrum of human experience, including the possibility that the journey of God's people was not direct, but more complex and mysterious. The cleft of doubt yawns wide: As Dinah herself puts it, life means learning to live with a divided heart.

Diamant ushers us with magnificent skill through innocence, loss, pain, and joy. Aside from one laborious passage leading in to Joseph's story (near the end of the book, after we fully trust Dinah), the complex scents and flavors of Dinah's world carry us naturally from one scene to another, hungry for the next encounter even in the mundane activities of cooking and spinning. We learn from Dinah that every relationship exists in perpetual danger of feast or famine, flood or drought; every next conversation could explode with joy or shatter with anger. And each moment, light or dark, affects the balance of the whole.

Perhaps the greatest feat of The Red Tent is its marriage of the Old Testament ethos with the zeitgeist of the turn-of-the-century West: There is no happy ending, only endurance. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there will be another storm against which the sun will shine. This division between rain and light, storm and silence, is the rending of every human heart. It is why the reader can both weep and laugh in the space of three pages, then hunger for the time it will happen again.

This division is why The Red Tent probably speaks the true other half of the bible.

~ emrys

Friday, November 06, 2015

Jury Duty

I recently completed a term as a grand juror four our county court system. This first opportunity I had to serve on a jury proved fascinating and enlightening. In spite of all the middle- and high-school classes intended to teach us the uniqueness of the American legal system, only serving on a jury brought home the reality that the jury--both the grand and trial versions--is the thing that keeps the United States from becoming a police state.

Without a group of peers--united only in the reasonableness of the common person--to assess the quality of evidence behind a charge, nothing keeps police and attorneys from trumping up charges against anyone they please and thereby ruining lives.

An essential part of this system which pivots on the jury is the character and quality of our police force. Ubiquitous human evil notwithstanding, I think our law enforcement does a good job of conforming to both the letter and spirit of the law. They of course put themselves in harm's way on a regular basis, and must be ready to adapt to a dizzying array of difficult and obscure circumstances, ascertaining how to uphold the law and guard safety within a complex world. I thank God that, although as far from perfect as any human system is bound to be, our police forces generally serve the rule of law and not the whims of personal gain or political party.

What surprised me most was the difficulty we reasonable peers had in keeping ourselves tied to the narrow task of a grand jury. Our mission was to determine whether the evidence presented serves as reasonable cause to believe that an accused person committed a crime. We were not to determine the guilt of the accused, "beyond the shadow of a doubt." We were not to play defense attorney (whose role was conspicuously absent from the proceedings), and decide what other evidence might be pursued to establish guilt or innocence. We had to limit ourselves to the evidence given and what it suggested to us reasonable people.

A few times among the twenty or twenty-five cases we heard, the defendant would choose to address us. I  was surprised by how the testimony of the defendant polarized us. Some of us would hear the defendant and come to the conclusion that s/he was guilty. Some of us would hear that testimony and from it begin to second-guess the possible interpretations of the district attorney's evidence. We would begin to seek a "shadow of doubt" on the defendant's behalf. Neither of these pursuits fell under our job description. Only in the rare case that the credibility of witnesses came into play did a defendant's testimony change our course; but how easily we were drawn into the tempting work of a trial jury rather than a grand jury. How swiftly, it seems, we savor the opportunity to play the judge of persons rather than evidence! How often we wanted to say the final word in the case!

Drawing ourselves back, time and again, to our designated course we managed, I think, to do our job in good conscience. I would gladly serve again. In my case juggling jury duty and work was not impossible, though my time with my family certainly suffered deficiency during those four weeks. (Perhaps after my children are out of the house, or after I have retired from my primary employment, I could volunteer to serve as a juror more regularly.)

I believe with even firmer conviction now, however, that serving on jury duty constitutes one of our core obligations as citizens. If I were a defendant, rightly or wrongly accused, would I want juries that rubber stamp the opinions of district attorneys--especially those who bare their teeth quickly so as not to appear "soft on crime"? Would I want jurors examining my case whose first priority was getting it over with and getting back to their mundane routine?

I would rather make this valuable system the best that it can be, which means precisely being one thoughtful person, in a group of twenty-two, for ninety hours every six years. It's not much to pay for a better justice system.

And we twenty-two strangers, thrown together in the secret society of the jury room, bonded in small but important ways. We were generous with our coffee-making skills, took an interest in each other's stories, and one of our number even baked apple crumb bars to celebrate our last day of work together. I speculate that the combination of difficulty and value in our work served to bring us together. Most people I hear talk about getting a jury summons roll their eyes and sigh. I hope that now twenty-two fewer of us will think that way about our duty.

~ emrys

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Imperial Dreams

Few international news arenas garner as much attention in American media as conflict in the Middle East, and especially conflict in the Middle East connected with Israel. So from page one I felt that Ephraim Karsh's 2007 book, Islamic Imperialism: A History, would bring some helpful context to much of the media chatter around me.

The subtitle "A History" has a fascinating multivalence about it. "A history" says that this book is not a policy manifesto. With thorough notation revealing great depth of research, Karsh's text gives the reader an expansive look at the topic from the days of Muhammad up to the first decade of this century. The knowledge brought to bear about Middle Eastern history, literature, and politics reflects what I would expect from the founding director of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College London (among many other distinguished titles). Nonetheless Karsh remains focused on one slice of history; this is not a history of Islam, or Islamic cultures, but rather a history of Islamic imperialism. The focus is on the historical pattern of Islamic leaders seeking to unite Muslims, or Arabs, or the known world, under a single political entity.

"A history," emphasis on the indefinite article, suggests that it would be possible to write another history of the same topic. And many other authors undoubtedly would.

This history was, I took note early on, written by an author born of parents who moved to Israel under the British Mandate of the early 20th century, attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and attained the rank of major in the Israeli Defense Forces. This personal context might explain why this book, undergirded on every page by such clear and extensive research, evinces a tone of disdain for all things Islamic or Arab. Even the positive cultural attributes of past Middle Eastern societies are treated with an upturned nose. The space between the lines of this text declare that there is nothing good--perhaps nothing redeemable at all--about Islam or Arabs.

Karsh's hammer drops in the Epilogue, ringing in the conclusion built up throughout the book that imperialism is an unworthy fantasy: "if the political elites of the Middle East and elsewhere were ever to reconcile themselves to the reality that there is no Arab or Islamic nation, but only modern Muslim states with destinies and domestic responsibilities of their own, the imperialist dream would die" (p240). The idea that Islam or "pan-Arabism" could unify a people worldwide, says Karsh, is a complete illusion. The only real geopolitical entity is the modern nation-state.

The book raises enough examples of Muslim and Arab leaders behaving poorly so as to secure the prejudices of anyone with a shred of bias against those descriptors. This attitude may be the factor which will keep the book in circulation, especially now that ISIS/ISIL fits Karsh's mold so nicely. But Karsh's assertion that worldwide Islamic unity must surrender to the lines on a map (which same lines are the sole proof of Israel's legitimacy, let us not forget), comes part-and-parcel with another assertion about Islam as a faith. Muslims must "reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism . . . and make Islam a matter of private faith rather than a tool of political ambition" (p241).

Many of us would, I think, agree that an imperialism (of any faith) which seeks to destroy others--like Karsh's historical examples and ISIS/ISIL today--should be dismissed. However, I wonder if privatization of faith and the limitation of social ambition to national boundaries provide a desirable--or workable--solution. I can sympathize with this book's desire to offset the atrocities of past empires, but I don't know that "imperialism," as a desire to influence those currently outside our sphere of influence, is the proper dragon to slay.

To brass tacks: As a Christian I believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all creation and history, the head of an empire both spiritual and temporal. I believe that this is good news, on many levels, to those who hear it. I also believe that in Jesus Christ humanity has been given an ethic of self-sacrificing love which, no matter the present faith of a person or group, is the best ethic to follow.

If I, as a voter and potential leader in my own nation, privatize my faith and allow the nation-state to which I belong to establish its own ethic and priorities, then are we better off? Is it not precisely because I believe my nation-state is capable of reflecting the commands and ethics of my Emperor--who calls us to move outward to others--that I can function and serve in this nation-state?

Though I apply to myself the challenge Karsh makes to "Middle Eastern political elites," one of the fascinating minor chords in this book is its absolution of Western, European nation-states in the dilemmas of the Middle East. He insists, against the common interpretation of Middle East conflict as resulting from Western (imperial?) meddling, that all the conflict and tension have arisen from the choices and desires of Middle Eastern leaders themselves. Karsh even goes to so far as to say that the Western powers, even as they take actions against which Middle Eastern leadership protests, are acting as pawns of the Islamic imperialist machinations of the region. It is as if to say that upon entering the seventeenth-century political enlightenment of nationalism, all societies west of Istanbul (not Constantinople!) washed themselves of any responsibility for problems in the Middle East.

As much as I appreciate having my nation (and not insignificantly the State of Israel in the process) absolved, I am suspicious of such a clear line. I have the impression from my own study of history that international affairs are a tangled web of darkness and light. And perhaps, as Karsh's labors imply (but do not say), the value of a political philosophy is best tested not by asking "Nation-state or Empire?" but by asking, "Does it produce good for those within and without?"

Thanks to Frank Amalfitano for allowing me the blessing of this book from his library. It has been an enriching read!

~ emrys

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reason to Celebrate

I try to respond to all emails that come in with due respect and attention. And I receive an average of 30 emails per day, even after Gmail's spam filter has done its fabulous work.

So it is that I do a little happy dance in my soul every time I whittle down my inbox until I can see all waiting messages on one screen, without scrolling.


~ emrys

Friday, October 16, 2015

Joint Efforts

I discovered quickly that in order to improve the quality of my (albeit amateur) surprise woodworking project, I would need not only a working planer, but also a working jointer. The shop owned by my generous benefactrix contains a commercial-grade jointer. However, a quick look at the blades revealed that, like the planer, it was desperately in need of a good sharpening.

In the process of testing it, I discovered that the shaft of the cutter head knocked horribly. An exploration followed, which revealed a missing set screw, damaged pulley, and several other irregularities requiring overhaul. So began my thorough education in the anatomy and physiology of the jointer.

I never had to deal with retaining rings before . . . and, in fact, still haven't invested in the right tool to manipulate them. I hacked my way through replacing these:

One of the benefits of taking my kids to the shop with me is having a dedicated camera crew: "Daddy, can we use your camera?" So they catch me in the midst of figuring out how properly to set the cutter head:

One glorious liability of having one's own camera crew is that they become bored with documentary film-making and turn the cameras on themselves:

And the crew goes exploring the hidden (and very dirty) recesses of the shop:

But in spite of the journalism going on around me, I got all the parts repaired and made the final adjustments to the jointer. It runs and cuts again, smooth as silk. And I know more than I ever imagined wanting to know about another shop tool.

And my daughter discovered that Bartleby will take a picture through the flesh of her finger. "Daddy, look! The flash makes my finger red!"

Trips to the shop involve all kinds of learning.

~ emrys

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Be a Leader: Stop It!

"Stop it!" That was Dr. Switzer's instruction to his client to help her get over her irrational fear. Every time the anxious thought crossed her mind, she was to remember: "Stop it!" The first step of returning to normal life was shutting up the lie.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford School of Business, says "Stop it!" to the leadership industry. His new book, Leadership BS (Harper Business, 2015), cries foul at the whole juggernaut of leadership training. Reflecting on the ubiquitous panoply of badly behaved leaders (think Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart, Anthony Wiener), miserable workplaces, and oppressed employees, Pfeffer stabs an accusatory finger at the roaring leadership industry.

"Stop it!" he says. Stop buying the ineffective horse-hockey peddled by the industry.

Don't let your leadership derive from inspiration. (It won't work.)

Don't be modest. (Successful leaders can't afford to be.)

Don't be authentic. (Whatever that means).

Don't worry about telling the truth. (The matter is more complex than that.)

Don't make trust your cornerstone. (No one is trustworthy.)

Look out for #1, because that's what everyone else is doing.

In his closing chapter, Pfeffer cites the legacy of Niccolo Machiavelli, an apt move given the thrust of the book. One edge of his thesis--the righteous edge--slices through the pablum of the inspirational leadership industry. He wants the leadership world to stop contributing to the deception that holding up cardinal virtues is anything more than wishful thinking that ruins careers. The other edge--the Machiavellian edge--cuts through the impression that the business world is anything but a shark tank. People are out for themselves, that's how it is: "Get over it" (p192). The sooner we realize that's how the world works, the sooner we can change things.

The subtitle of the book is Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. This suggestive phrase is what really enticed me to buy the book (though I must confess my attraction to a title with "BS" in it). Let's change the system so that leaders behave better, workplaces are more enjoyable, and employees have a greater sense of satisfaction. How do we do that?

The last paragraph of Pfeffer's book begins, "I'm not sure what will make a difference in the leadership crisis that cost leaders their careers and provide too many employees with enervating work environments" (p220). He just knows that what the current leadership industry provides is not doing the trick. But how to enact positive change is a mystery.

Leadership BS makes an excellent case for reframing our understanding of business leadership around verifiable research and common sense rather than naive inspirational fluff. The numerous stories of good leaders getting the shaft endeared me to Pfeffer's truth-telling cause. But his description of self-interest as the necessary platform for business culture, though perhaps true, does not leave this reader with much hope for better. Perhaps Pfeffer can't see a solution to the leadership crisis because, given his foundation, there isn't one.

Perhaps changing the culture with which Pfeffer has become exasperated will not happen because of a magic technique, business plan, or organizational structure. Perhaps it will come from changing the definition of success It struck me that Pfeffer runs in, and writes about, circles of leaders who make salaries with six or seven figures and have a capital "C" and "O" in their titles. When success is defined by a title that starts with "Chief" and an exorbitant income, then perhaps the business philosophy of an Italian Prince is inevitable. (And one is left to wonder whether medieval Florence had a higher or lower employee satisfaction than current U.S. businesses.)

Does "getting real" about leadership woes mean giving up hope for good leaders and good business?

(By the way, one can view the fabulous performance of Bob Newhart as Dr. Switzer on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow0lr63y4Mw)

~ emrys

Friday, October 02, 2015

Real Fairy Tales: Hans Christian Andersen

If you sit through all the credits after the film Frozen, you will read the statement that Disney's latest princess blockbuster is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Snow-Queen." I know that Disney has mastered the art of seducing twenty-first century viewers; but Andersen wrote in the late nineteenth century. I wondered: Just how much of Andersen's story was preserved in the adventures of Elsa and Anna?

Barnes & Noble sells a hardcover tome entitled Classic Fairy Tales (2012) which, though not stated to be "complete," is a thorough 697-page collection of Anderesen's fanciful stories. Reading through them all is a journey often strange (as mice questing to make "Soup From a Sausage Peg"), sometimes witty (as the lesson about pride in "The Emperor's New Clothes"), and occasionally laborious (as the drawn-out plot of "The Marsh King's Daughter"). The style, translated from nineteenth-century Denmark, quite reasonably takes some getting used to. But once the reader falls in with Andersen's cadence, his writing is easily followed.

Disney fairy-tales these are not. The vast majority of Andersen's tales do not end in a "happily ever after." Take, for instance, "The Little Mermaid." Instead of Disney's nuptial sail into a regal sunset, Andersen paints a painful scene of noble suicide, with a strange metaphysical twist. Like so many other Andersen tales, the denouement is death (as in the famous "The Little Match Girl" and less famous "Story from the Sand Hills"), inviting the reader to consider her own mortality and eternal destiny. Rather than lifting up redemption in the form of human love and romantic free-will, Andersen's stories reflect on death as the universal human experience, then point to the Christian message of eternal life.

What makes these "fairy tales" is not their optimism about mortal life but rather their insistence that beyond the thin veil of human experience is another world. Animals can reason and talk like humans (as in "The Story of the Year"); metal and stone objects have personalities (as in "The Money Pig," reminiscent of Disney's Toy Story); the commonest items may be magical (as in "The Galoshes of Fortune"). A glimpse through the gossamer curtain is a journey into the depths of reality, whose fathoms give insight into human dealings on the mundane surface.

That journey into a different, wondrous world may be the thread that stitches all of Andersen's tales together. To read his stories one must be ready to go the distance in imagination, or sometimes in plain geography. Many of the tales read like the fireside embellishments of a well-traveled uncle, mystifying young listeners with his adventures abroad. From a few of the yarns one might even be able to knit cogent maps (as in "The Ice Maiden," a zigzag narrative through the crags of Switzerland). Another world--through the veil or just down the road--waits to be discovered, if only one will risk danger, misfortune, and death to experience it.

Success and happy endings are God's reserve to grant or keep, according to Andersen. Only adventure for adventure's sake, travel for learning's sake, and suffering for wisdom's sake await the one who crosses familiar bounds. But even acknowledging the shadow behind the curtain, reading these classic tales might still inspire the twenty-first century reader to pierce the veils of life and discover the wonders beyond.

Andersen's Snow Queen is a chilling metaphysical kidnapper, nothing like the misunderstood Princess Elsa of Frozen fame. Kay and Gerda, the heroes of Andersen's original, do live happily ever after, but only because of the invocation of Jesus in pious verse. The ice-witch remains an unexplained phantom, beyond understanding or control. And perhaps this alteration of the tale is most telling for us. The enemies of the Disney tale are misguided parents, mistaken siblings, and a misogynist prince--human elements overcome by human love. Gone are Andersen's fairy depths, in which dwell forces beyond our ken and control.

Disney has mastered the art of seducing us with the pleasant diversion we have come to expect. But by giving up the dark depths of Andersen's fairy world, perhaps we lose what is most important in his tales: the haunting mystery and transcendent wonder waiting just behind the curtain.

~ emrys

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Great Grandparents

There is a joy in their greeting borne of long absence. There are always gifts in their hands--not necessarily big or flashy, and often pre-approved by the parents, but carefully and lovingly chosen. They have the knowing calm of experience to face what exasperates the middle generation. And sometimes they laugh at what infuriates us parents--because they know that in the long run, we'll laugh, too.

They are grandparents. And done well, grandparenting is one of the greatest gifts to the world.

I have heard the grandparenting philosophy known as "spoil 'em and give 'em back," and have come to despise it.

Our children do not have those kind of grandparents. They have grandparents who relish every story heard and told by the wee ones. They have grandparents whose loving patience exceeds that of their parents, but will put up with no more unacceptable behavior. They have grandparents with gentle voices and enveloping embraces.

These grandparents see in their grandchildren all the come-uppance that we parents earned in our childhoods, but keep their reminders kind, with a twinkle of the eye.

These grandparents are great, and we are blessed to have them in the lives of our children.

Thank God for great grandparents!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Adventures in Rest

They discovered that the old apple tree growing on the other side of the creek had a host of fruit. Small, but with that Granny-Smith kind of bite.

"These are good! Let's get a basket so we can have them for snacks!" says the elder, bubbling over with excitement.

"Yah!" says the younger, "Les get baskit!"

We pick a couple of dozen. Correction: I pick a couple of dozen, while the other two argue over the basket, eat the proceeds, and get distracted, all in thirty-second cycles.

She lets out a gasp. "Daddy! Look! There's another one up there!"

It's true. Our property used to host a whole orchard of apple trees. It still does, technically. But they've gone untended so long, no orchard would want them.

"Where?" says the younger.

"See, up there? With the red apples on it. Daddy, let's go up there!"

"You do realize that means we have to cut a path through the weeds." Moment of diabolical parental anticipation: I had been procrastinating on hacking my way to that very tree earlier this week.

"Let's go get the tools!" says the elder.

"Me too!" says the younger.

An hour later, we're half way there:

Burdock, it turns out, is a fascinating opponent in a first-grader's summer imagination. We have to hack through a great deal of it. One would think we were slaying dragons.

Another hour later, and we've been to the Red Apple Tree. (And we have found the other two Green Apple Trees right next to it.) These are sweeter, more of a Fuji or Gala. Perfect for "ruining one's dinner," as we often say:

When one has a belly full of wild apples, there is no better activity than digging in Daddy's Bridge Renovation Site. After a lesson in not sitting where someone else's shovel is flinging (bloody nose), seats are found side-by-side. And there is silence in the yard for a whole fifteen minutes:

"No work today," my calendar said. Sabbath.

The sweat in my clothes begs to differ. It can beg away, though--because labor this fun can't count as work.

~ emrys

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why Parents Should Volunteer At School

Last month I signed up to serve as a parent chaperone on my daughter's class trip to the nearby Discovery Center. I figured I might be the only dad to sign up; it turns out I was the only parent from her class. This means that I was put in charge of four kindergarteners. "In charge" means "try to keep up and make sure none falls from too great a height." 

The class had a "lecture" (I use the term in its elementary sense) on bubbles. Part of the experiential learning that followed included bubble ink. "Have you ever blown bubbles with a straw in your chocolate milk?" was the intro. The idea was to froth up a bowl full of colored water, then press paper on top and make a print. But really, when kindergarteners get license to do what their parents have been telling them for three years not to do at Denny's, they just want to . . . blow bubbles. Lots of them. Until the bowl overflows in a Kilauea of multicolored surface tension. Until this parent, who unwittingly volunteered to "oversee" this activity, found himself spending most of the time sopping rainbow rivulets of water off the table.

The payoff for all that sopping was watching as my wee merry band discovered the Pirate Ship and treasure chest filled with Pirate dress-up costumes. When they had decked themselves out and set their hands to the rigging, I made a serendipitous discovery: A bunch of kindergarteners will focus and stand still for a moment if I ask them to yell, "Aaargh, me hearties!" Instant attention and coordination!

I try not to take many pictures of my children. But when, without prompting, they strike poses on a pirate ship, I cannot resist.

Color, sound, energy: joy!

~ emrys

Friday, June 19, 2015

Plane Old Work

I'm working on a surprise woodworking project. Thanks to my brother Chris, I have beautiful hardwood boards, but they need to be planed to specific thicknesses. This requires a planer.

I am blessed to have a friend who is very generous with her wood shop, and that shop includes a commercial-grade planer. However, the planer is a 1985 model, bought in 1988. Unintended consequences of the generous lending of the planer are much amateur use (like my own) and not a lot of maintenance. Sara and I used this planer to make the strips for our butcher-block counter top five years ago, and found that the blades had dulled in the middle, causing a crown effect on the planed boards. My current project has little tolerance for such irregularities. Upshot: I needed to sharpen the blades.

Thanks again to Chris (who has more experience with shop tools than I), I got schooled in how to remove and replace planer blades. I handed them over to a local guy who sharpens blades (thanks, Larry!), and brought them back for replacement. However, since I want high-quality work out of this planer, I wanted to make sure the blade adjustments were also high-quality. 

How to make sure the knives were set properly? Although the manual had been saved, the knife-setting key had been lost. This tool is used to make sure that the blades stick out just far enough from the cutterhead to cut wood without breaking the blades. Could I get a replacement key?

After some googling and phone calls, I discovered that the company that made this planer was bought out by another, which was then bought out by a third firm. After a chain of transferred phone calls, I got to Steve, who knew exactly how my model of planer worked and how to repair it. Steve told me both that there was no way to get a new key and that newer knife-setting jigs were available. My knowledge of power tools just keeps expanding--of necessity. Thank God for old-school tech support with a lot of experience!

Thus I found myself in the market for magnetic knife-setting jigs:

After a week for delivery and 10 minutes of tutorial on youtube, I set the knives in the cutterhead. So far so good.

Due to the amateur beating this planer took over the last 27 years, other parts of the planer were also out of whack. So, following the instructions in the manual, I manufactured a gage block, found set screws, and stumbled my way around the underbelly of this Rockwell steel beast. The last piece of the puzzle was finding a feeler gage. Thanks to a friend with a full set of automotive tools, I was ready to evaluate gaps of 0.040". After that it was a matter of following directions.

After about 10 hours of labor to make calls, hunt down tools, learn the machine, and make adjustments, the planer performs like gangbusters. See the auspicious spray of fresh shavings from my test runs:

I'll probably only need an hour of work from the planer for my surprise project. But I find it quite satisfying to know that this old beast is back to tip-top performance, and I've learned quite a bit about another niche of woodworking.

Thanks to Bobby and Mike for their continued generosity with the shop!

~ emrys

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Word of Adonai . . . Thanks be to Elohim!

I have an ongoing project to map out the contours of Christian understandings of inspiration of Scripture. The latest cartographic work I consulted was Karin Hedner Zetterholm's Jewish Interpretation of the Bible: Ancient and Contemporary (Fortress Press, 2012). Since Christianity emerged from the womb of Judaism, I thought it wise to survey the field of how our spiritual ancestors viewed the Scriptures.

Zetterholm provides the perfect intro to Jewish biblical interpretation for someone like me. I knew that Jewish religious life centers around interpretation of and obedience to Torah; and I knew that these interpretations in the historical moment of Jesus of Nazareth formed the crucible from which Christianity poured forth. But right about there my knowledge ended.

Zetterholm's book opened up before me both the wide diversity and the common pith of Jewish scriptural interpretation. Along the way, I received helpful insight into the difference between present-day denominations of Judaism (such as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform). Zetterholm also elucidated in accessible terms the ever-present quandary of Jewish religious life: with so many rabbis interpreting Torah--and disagreeing with one another from the get-go--how does one know whom to follow?

I appreciated the book's ability to handle the wider, more abstract issues at play and then pair them with specific illustrations. The salt of rabbinic examples flavors the text so that I could see the methods of interpretation at work. Zetterholm defines her terms well, and does not assume too much about the scholarly background of the reader. Occasionally I had to check back on the definition of a term--which I positively expect from books of this kind--but not so often that I felt hobbled. And of course the footnotes and bibliography, if I wished to know more, could keep me engaged for a lifetime.

Perhaps most pertinent to my own quest (and therefore most immediately satisfying to read) was Zetterholm's description of how different groups within Judaism have handled Torah as what "the Lord spoke to Moses and said." Rabbinic tradition, which began to coalesce in the same period as Jesus of Nazareth lived, also had to answer whether the voices of the rabbis were inspired by God, and if so, to what degree. (Christians have a parallel, though I think it is rarely named. They must decide which pastor, preacher, or theologian to follow when grappling with difficult texts. Shall I cleave to Calvin? Wesley? Joseph Prince? Joel Osteen? Even those of us who beg for a primitive application of the bible end up following someone else's lead.)

Zetterholm also interprets, in rabbinic terms, the teachings of Jesus and Paul of Tarsus. While skirting the quagmire of theology, the book recognizes that Jesus and Paul both handled Torah in ways that fit within rabbinic traditions. This treatment reminded me, once again, that the means of their interpretation may provide helpful clues to the nature of the faith we see presented in the New Testament. In other words, not only the conclusions of Jesus and Paul but also their interpretive means may be instructive to the Church that reads them.

I don't think that I began Zetterholm's book anticipating a solution to Christianity's dilemmas regarding Scripture. But I certainly didn't receive it. I did receive some comfort in misery, I suppose: In many senses, Jews and Christians sail in the same boat when it comes to the ground of their hermeneutics. On the other hand, I feel challenged: if we, as Christians, believe that Something unique and cosmos-changing happened in Jesus Christ, then does that Something alter how we view written, historical revelation? Ought we to be, in our interpretation of the Scriptures, just another Jewish sect who happens to have a different mechanism of atonement? Or are we set apart somehow, even in this, from Judaism and every other religion?

The quest continues . . .

~ emrys

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Small Group Resource: Forge Guide on Mission

Our adult Sunday School class just finished this season's class, using a little small-group resource entitled Mission: Living For the Purposes of God, by Scott Nelson (InterVarsity Press, 2013). It is one of a series of five small-group guides (the others are Community, Power, Vision, and Culture, under the series head Forge Guides for Missional Conversation).

I love the thrust of this little guide, which pushes readers and participants toward discovering how they are called to move into the world for the gospel. It encourages looking outward at what the world needs, what the world is suffering, and how we can articulate a Christian response to that need and suffering. It focuses meditation on a single scripture passage (in the case of this guide, 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:1), making that text the inspiration for six weeks of discussions.

At least it's written for six weeks. The guide assumes that a group will have 90 minutes (at least) during a session, and will be able to move swiftly through questions and readings. Our group usually has about 45 minutes, because of how our Sunday morning routine is timed (or not timed). And because of our personalities and familiarity, we don't work through books like this very quickly. So we took a few months to make it through four sessions in the book.

We all felt challenged by the topic, and certainly informed and better equipped by the conversation that rose out of the book. But a couple of things have led us to choose another resource for our class in the fall. First, our group prefers working out of the bible in a more verse-by-verse fashion. The sparseness of scriptural reading and repetition of similar questions in this guide did not suit the character of our group well. Second, the open-ended, abstract questions did not generate as much discussion as I expected when I (rather excitedly) first discovered these guides. For instance, one challenge from the book is "imagine what it would look like for your whole group to be all three vocations: the community, messenger, and servant of the kingdom of God" (p53). When we encountered questions like this, it took us more time to work through the meaning of the question than to answer it once we (sort of) agreed on what the question was asking. That work might be fruitful, but not on the level intended, I think, by the guide.

Perhaps for a small group bristling with creative energies, who has already decided that it wants to spend extra time and energy on personal mission, this book might be more suited. For us, we will turn to a walk-through guide to the book of Acts published by Zondervan, when we get back together in September.

~ emrys

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Abortion and the Apostolate

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes that in the sequence of those who met the risen Christ, he was one "untimely born" (1Cor15:8). In his monograph from Gorgias Press, Abortion and the Apostolate (2014), Matthew Mitchell tackles this mysterious metaphor. His helpful analysis of the Greek term ektroma (abortion, exposure, unwanted child) and compelling discussion of the text reveals that Paul probably refers here to his unwanted status as an apostle. Mitchell makes a solid case for viewing Paul's calling and ministry as an unwelcome addition to The Twelve Jerusalem apostles.

Mitchell's discussion of the pertinent Corinthian and Galatians texts and their historical context occupies only 63 pages of his 220-page monograph. Most of the remainder deals with a second-level analysis of the work of Pauline scholar F. C. Baur and the academic reception of his work to the present day. Precisely on this issue my interest in Mitchell's work suffers a steep decline. As an exegete, preacher, and pastor, I may have different goals than Mitchell's intended audience ("Pauline specialists, the broader community of biblical scholars, and classicists and ancient historians of the ancient Mediterranean," p. x). Whereas Mitchell's work on the biblical text will certainly inform my handling of it, his lengthy navigation of academic perspectives helped me little. In fact, given the title of his text (and the rear cover, which led me to purchase the book), Mitchell's engagement with scholarly complexities seems more of a digression from what might be more helpful work: instead of what could have been a unified monograph, Mitchell has produced a schizophrenic duograph.

Symptomatic of this split intention are his words on page 211, when the book is nearing its finish: to "begin to explore the connection between the pre-Damascus Paul's zeal and the post-Damascus Paul's mission brings the issue of his attitude toward the Law too much into play if one is interested in discussing his conversion." After pointing, several times over the course of his book, to the tangled knot of Paul's conversion as a crucial problem, Mitchell's dodging of the issue seems strange to me. His bravado and conviction in addressing an even more tangled knot--that of scholars' continued enmeshment with F. C. Baur's work--reveal that Mitchell ought not to fear complex matters. Why dodge the most fascinating issue in current Pauline studies?

As someone who does not frequently read scholarly monographs, I admit the possibility that this category of work has implicit rules or purposes to which I have not been initiated. (As a speculation, perhaps a novel approach not only to the biblical text but also to scholarly history is required of Mitchell's kind of work.) Or, in a turn of ivory tower allegory, I wonder of Mitchell is trying to draw a parallel between Paul as the rejected (but ultimately essential) apostle and Baur as the rejected (but ultimately indispensable) Pauline scholar. This parabolic interpretation of the monograph would certainly fit its tone.

With respect to the pragmatic needs of this reader, however, 160 more pages of work on the relationship between Paul's conversion, his view of the Law, and his rejection as an apostle would have been exciting and helpful. The more I read Paul, and try to use his words to inform our present-day faith, the more I see these issues coming to the fore. To assert, for instance, that Paul's Damascus Road experience allows him to dodge the requirements of an apostle named in Acts 1 is to allow post-resurrection mystical experience to change the direction of the Church. And the fact that Paul's new definition of apostleship is enshrined in scripture adds urgency to the matter. May the risen Christ personally enlist new apostles in every generation, whose calling will redefine long-standing traditions of law and grace? How does Paul's experience and theology, authoritative as it is for so much of the Church, lead us to answer?

These matters unfold from Mitchell's work. I hope that as he begins to publish works for wider audiences we may find him plumbing not only the murky depths of scholarship but also the mysterious depths of scriptural interpretation.

~ emrys

Friday, May 08, 2015

Grudge Match

The cover has the look of a pre-Modern Tyson v. Holyfield poster: the profile of John Calvin, 16th-century Reformer, nose-to-nose with John Wesley's, his younger Anglican counterpart. Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice (Abingdon Press, 2013), is Professor Don Thorsen's cutting compare-and-contrast between the fathers of Calvinist and Wesleyan streams.

For someone wrestling with the big historico-theological questions, the book provides a solid review of the various themes operating in the thought of Calvin and Wesley. It covers sovereignty, scripture, predestination, grace, salvation, spirituality, the church, and ministry from the perspective of each theologian. Alternating between each Reformer, the book reveals a deep well of research into these writings which have had such an impact on the history of Christian thought. Thorsen's work encourages the reader to reflect with gravity on how one's theology impacts one's Christian practice, and vice versa. No matter the setting, or the heavyweights brought as champions, this reflection always bears good fruit.

I opened this book expecting a neutral theological assessment, but received instead an endorsement of Wesley over Calvin. Once I perceived this bias, the rhythm of the book made more sense. Thorsen's ostensible goal is to help Christians avoid Socrates' "unexamined life," which goal I cherish as well. However, in its concluding remarks the book's attempt at a balanced tone tips openly in the direction hinted at in every chapter: "If you want to become more intentional about conceptualizing your Christian beliefs in ways that fortify--rather than weaken--biblical teachings and your Christian living, then I strongly encourage you to learn about, reflect upon, and then follow Wesley's theology and ministry" (p126). I can only imagine the Genevan Reformer's response to a 21st-century professor suggesting that Calvin's writings "weakened" biblical teachings and Christian living!

An area left unexamined by the book is how the historical circumstances of these two greats may have shaped their systematic (or, in Wesley's case, semi-systematic) theologies. It may have been necessary, for reasons of space, to deal only with their writings, but human authors do not compose in a vacuum of objectivity. I found myself wondering, often, whether a Calvin writing in 17th-century England would have written more like Wesley; or whether a Wesley would have been possible in 16th-century Geneva. Entertaining this question opens the door to the possibility that our theologies--no matter how rigorously derived from the Bible--are conditioned by our circumstances. If this is the case, then I wonder how useful it is to pit one historical figure against another.

In many places, Calvin vs Wesley reveals clearly the similarities between Calvin's and Wesley's thinking. The strength of these similarities suggests to me--who has read some of Calvin but none of Wesley--that much of the contrast between the two is nit-picking in support of a Wesleyan bias. I hold this suspicion lightly; Thorsen's work is thought-provoking, challenging to me as a practitioner of Christian theology, and I am happy to leave a complete assessment to another scholar more familiar with both fathers of Protestantism.

With Thorsen's driving aim for his readers I whole-heartedly agree: Our theology ought to line up with our practice. If we believe in Jesus Christ, we ought to live as if we believe in him; and airtight theological rationalism will not stand in for sincerity of ethics. For helping me to examine this connection in my own life, I am thankful for this book.

And thanks to Ben Shaw, colleague and fellow student of the scriptures, who brought this book to our group of rabbis for study and discussion. I am enriched.

~ emrys

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

You, Too, Fans

I just finished a massive tome of interviews and photos entitled U2 By U2 (2006). I enjoyed getting such an in-depth chronological look at the growth of U2's music and career as a band. For those will only a passing interest in the Fab Four (who, ultimately, cannot do what they do without a host of others), or for those who are only interested in the music, this book will provide way too much.

But for those of us who like drinking from the fire hose, it's perfect. In the midst of vast amounts of autobiographical data about the band's struggles and relationships, there are little gems of humor, like Edge's assertion that it's never a good idea to let Bono play lead guitar. The book reveals how four awkward Dublin teenagers could become super rock stars and, at the same time, remain four awkward boys trying to figure out how to play together.

When the house was asleep and I couldn't, this book gave me an entree to the dream land of impossible arcs of musicianship, fame, and living poetry. Well worth the read to me, and might well be for you, too.

~ emrys

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dancing with the New Testament

As part of last week's Study Leave I took up Stephen Neill and Tom Wright's The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986 (Oxford UP: 1988). This thorough review of scholarly work surveys the big names of New Testament criticism, exegesis, and theology from a century which still undergirds so much current thinking. I read with joy and wonder the ability of Neill and Wright to summarize, honor, and criticize--the latter always with the humble reserve of OxBridge scholarly culture--such a vast landscape of literature. I appreciate their honest recognition that the work of New Testament studies brings the persistently human in contact with the persistently divine, so that in spite of the excellent quality of the labors of the Ivory Tower a certain incompleteness always remains. But I am enriched from having received Neill and Wright's engagement, often very personal, with these labors.

At the end of the book--which, we must remember, is a survey rather than a thesis in itself--Wright draws our attention back to the very source of Enlightenment criticism, from which all the scholarship surveyed here grew. The insistence of the Protestant Reformation on the "literal sense of scripture" gave birth to all the critical tools of evaluating the text we have in the Bible. The use of these tools leads us, however, to a realization the Wright describes and which resonates with my own experience: "we find that this literal sense points us beyond itself" (p445).

Throughout the book, Neill and Wright drop hints that historical criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and the rest of the members of the critical family have not (at least as of 1986) gotten to the matter of Jesus' resurrection, the Easter moment. Questions of "the historical Jesus," raised by all Three Quests (maybe there's a Fourth Quest by now), have only skirted this primary historical criterion of faith. Even the review of E.P. Sanders' novel idea that Paul had a "participationist eschatology" (p427) does not bring up the strange event of Paul's conversion, which hinges on a Resurrected Jesus encountering Paul personally.

I find the academic work described so masterfully in this book profound and greatly helpful in my own vision of what it means to be an interpreter of the New Testament for today. But it seems that this work keeps its distance from the experience to which the New Testament itself testifies: a Resurrected One who speaks with the voice of God to persons in every generation. Perhaps this is a necessary limit of the scholarly task. Perhaps Wright humbly recognizes the proper bounds of this task, when at the very conclusion he seeks to describe New Testament interpretation in the metaphor of music with its melodies and harmonies. Criticism bounded, as it must be by reason, may not be able to grasp the essence of the New Testament, any more than one can grasp why a shift from a major to a minor chord changes the mood of a melody. One may simply require experience and participation to understand. (This is not to cast doubt on whether Neill and Wright have such an experience, but only to recognize that experience may not be welcome in the scholars' colloquy.)

One thing remains, on which this book and I agree: We must continue to grapple with the New Testament, to wrestle with it, to dance with it, to sing its melodies and improvise its harmonies. After all, it is the story of Jesus Christ, and by faith in him it is also our story. I thank God for such a chorus of thinkers who continue to offer us their meditations, that we may be built up and equipped for our good works.

~ emrys

Monday, April 27, 2015

Living Color

Yesterday, April 26th, more than 5,000 people gathered at our local community college-cum-SUNY satellite campus for a fun run called "Color Run." The 5K "race" includes getting sprayed down at half-mile intervals with brightly colored corn starch. By the end of the 3.1 miles, participants have been doused in orange, pink, yellow, green, and blue dye. (The dye works its way out of skin in about a week, and out of blonde hair in a month or so--I'm told.) I call it a "race" because the throngs are so thick that runners can't manage more than a jog, and walkers are really just sauntering. A better way to describe it is a fast parade of people who have finally found an excuse to wear their loudest, most brightly colored ensembles and get messy. Here's a shot back at the first mile:
Sara, Gwendolyn, and Kerri did the Color Run together. Gwendolyn had trained for this over the last few weeks; finishing a three-mile walk on her own feet was an accomplishment. Here is the triumphant trio coming out of the last splash of color (but before the penultimate glitter station):
~ emrys

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Right Questions

I have for some time struggled with the contours of what we Christians call the "inspiration" of the bible--"inspiration" being a term pulled from 2 Timothy 3:16. Though I have been unable for a long time to put words to my quandary, I generally sensed a disconnect between the plain text of the bible and descriptions of the bible, common in the circles I run in, which use words like "inerrant" and "infallible" to describe our sacred texts.

I have found in the writing of James Barr (Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, Westminster Press, 1983), work which formulates with precision the questions I have done only roughly myself. And, of course, being a Regius Professor at Oxford, Barr has gone much further. In this book he describes in clear and readable detail some of the necessary boundaries and possible horizons of our understanding of scripture.

The book presents a series of lectures, which makes the content at once more accessible and, I think, less deep than I ultimately wish to go. One of the regrettable features of the book is, in spite of its title, that it spends a good deal of time on criticism, a good deal more on canon (especially in critiquing the school of "canonical criticism"), and not nearly enough time on authority. Though I appreciate the precise attention to the landscape of canon and criticism, my present goal is to find a proper understanding of authority.

The authority of the bible is of singular importance to Christians, of course. But as soon as we declare that it has some authority over our lives, questions abound. Particularly poignant to me is how the New Testament, so interested in relating an experience and stunningly uninterested in establishing a new written law, can be seen as an authority for the Church. How can one affirm the authority of a text without somehow diminishing or setting aside the authority of the One to whom it points?

A good beginning. On to the next read.

~ emrys

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Church Rules

Two Sundays ago, the following exchange happened, on paper, in the church pew during worship. The players: Kerri is a beloved friend of the family, college student, and wise mentor to my precocious 6-year-old daughter.

It's amazing what can be said in the silence of pen and paper.

"Dear G: Today is Sunday, April 12th, 2015, and your bony bottom is squishing me. However, even though your dress is itchy beyond belief I still love you very much. Love, Kerri"

"Dear G: I love you. Sit on your own buns. Remember church rules. Love, Mom."

I love the women in my life.

~ emrys

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Falling Off the Edge of Theolo

There is an old Hebrew koan: "What conclusions can be reached by doing theology with a Buddhist?"

In his 2009 book, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian, Paul Knitter lives out this question.

Knitter's book serves first as a personal memoir. His intimate revelations--deeply candid, often anxious and sometimes tortured--will resonate with readers who have become dissatisfied with rigid and exhaustive categories for Christian faith. Knitter's self-reflective journey serves a practical theological purpose: to crack the shell of historical Roman Catholic theology with the non-theistic tools of Buddhist teaching. He does so with the expertise of a man steeped in academic Roman Catholic discipline who is at the same time well trained in Buddhist thinking and practice.

As such, for those exploring the interfaces between Christianity and Buddhism Without Buddhism will prove an invaluable resource. Knitter's deep knowledge of Christian doctrine allows for a complex and thorough comparison with the ancient Asian philosophy. The book wrestles with the big questions of Christian theology: theodicy, trinity, the effect of prayer, divine and human justice. In spite of the book's often over-apologetic tone (concerned as it is not to give offence to either Christians or Buddhists), its thinking is clear, informative, and on some points persuasive. I am certain that for many of Knitter's generation--Baby Boomers who still struggle to emerge from the perceived cocoons of pre-1970s structures--Without Buddhism will offer a breath of fresh air and a new engagement with religious thinking.

As I read this tortuous journey from Christianity to Buddhism and then (maybe) back to Christianity, I was struck by a paradox lurking largely unspoken beneath the text. The book's starting point, like Knitter's journey, is a problem with Christian theology: the water in which Knitter spent so much of his life thoroughly immersed. Buddhism, on the other hand, is at its root non-theistic. While Christian practice of emptying the self compares well with Buddhist practice, doing theology with Buddhism seems comparable to a dog asking the hemlock how to wag its tail.

In Christianity, theology is distinct from the scriptural witness, confession, and experience. The weaknesses in Christianity which this text attempts to address with Buddhism are chinks in the armor of Christian theology. As the book often admits, many (non-papal) strains of Christian theology, confession, and practice do not suffer the problems of Knitter's theological training. This is especially true of mystical sects of Christianity. The existential edge from which Knitter fell into Buddhism was not that of faith per se, but the precipice of theology.

Because of its theological starting point, Without Buddha constantly wobbles (Knitter's terms: "passes over," "passes back") between worldviews, producing difficult questions. Is there such a thing as evil, or not? Is Christ a person, or just a spirit of non-self? Does justice meaningfully exist such that it may be pursued? Of course, vacillations on such crucial points as these fit nicely into one of Knitter's persistent themes: seeking oneness in duality, that which is both one-and-not-one. In spite of Knitter's clearly positive interpretation of his journey, this reader is unsure whether the tensions in the text are necessarily creative or simply fraught.

Among the many other questions raised by the book, the reader must wonder if another book, "Without Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) I Could not be a Christian," could be written (especially if Knitter's wife were Muslim). To cast the net more widely, might we soon be reading "Without Confucius I Could not be a Jew"? Does Knitter's book suggest implicitly that, at least theologically, every religion is insufficient without all the others? Does it point us to a reductive or historical humanist position on religion?

We are told in the introduction (page xi) that Knitter feels his understanding of Christianity is necessarily incomplete without reflection on other religions. This lens shapes the entire book, and Knitter's calling as Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture is evident. As the title suggests, the book describes his synthesis of Christian theology and Buddhist teaching. The synthesis, for Knitter, is so complete that he finally asserts, "To have one without the other is to have neither" (227). That is a strong statement for the necessity of syncretism--at least for Knitter.

This reader, taking personal privilege here, has found that attempting to follow Jesus faithfully leads to all sorts of creative conundra around questions of oneness, duality, the nature of evil, pursuit of justice, and the nature of heaven (to name a few). Coming home to one spiritual spouse (to use Knitter's metaphor) has proven to be richer and more challenging than sharing the marriage-bed of faith with multiple partners. So, it seems to me, one of the overarching questions in Without Buddha does not suit the case.

For the challenge, and passion, and thoughtfulness of Knitter's work I am thankful. And thanks to my brother, Chris, for blessing me with this book as a gift. I thank God for you!

~ emrys

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Quality On Tap

I'm giving public kudos to the manufacturer of an increasing number of our faucets: Aquasource (http://www.aquasourcefaucet.org/). Because of idiosyncrasies in our home, we've had to make two repairs to a faucet we bought three years ago. All it takes is a call to their customer service department, and a new part is on the way, at no cost to us. 

Better yet, I describe the problem ("The handle on the faucet is getting harder to turn, and water has been dripping underneath the sink when the cold water is on") and customer service identifies the problem and sends the part ("You need a new ceramic three-way valve. We'll send you one. What's your address?).

When the part arrives, I call the same number and have patient, knowledgeable tech support to help me through the repair process (still at no charge). For a reasonable cost, the faucets are reliable and good-looking. We get them at Lowe's.

Now I'm eyeing the upstairs bathroom hardware and wondering how long before I'll have it in the budget to change those . . .

~ emrys

Sunday, February 01, 2015

I'm a Dork

I scanned the shelves of our local Rotary book giveaway kiosk. Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl by Rachel Renee Russell (2010) caught my eye. My daughter is now a beginning reader, which means that in the blink of an eye she will be picking up teen fiction. I might as well get a taste of what will be on the school library bookshelves. (The back cover of Dork Diaries states, in understated print, that "this edition is only available for sale . . . through school book clubs and school book fairs.")

The formatting of Russell's book captures the adolescent imagination with its hybridizing of hand-printed typeface on notebook paper and Japanimation cartoons. The latter add humor and poignancy to the repetitive, predictable drama of an adolescent girl's life. I must be clear here, for the drama of adolescent life was for all of us repetitive and predictable: projecting our anxieties on friends, trying to lie to our parents, over-expressing or stuffing our emotions at precisely the wrong times, and fretting over who would go to which dance or party with whom. Russell's character, Nikki, who journals about pedantic youth with the articulate erudition of a college English major (Will my daughter know and use the word "sashay" in seventh grade?), goes through the whole roller-coaster of tweenager life in 279 pages.

It's a page-turner: Will Nikki stay on the good side of her friends? Will Nikki's nemesis (MacKenzie Hollister) completely ruin Nikki's social life? Will Nikki and her BFFs (yes, txt-gen abbreviations are retained for authenticity) rescue the school Halloween party from disaster? It's all the drama you'd expect from the life of a tween "dork." (That term must be clarified, here, as a purely self-referential moniker. All the characters are pretty Anime twigs, the girls indistinguishable except for slight differences in hair style.)

Once, though, Russell peeks with us into the abyss of adolescence. After snubbing the cute boy who is (we intuit) about to ask her to the dance, Nikki writes, "WHY was I acting so crazy? WHY was everything so confusing? WHY was I hurting a person I really cared about?"

Good questions. Of course, tween fiction can't begin to render a response. Even beginning to entertain these Big Questions violates the rules of the genre. Wrestling with the angel of angst must be put off, our existential needs receiving only the bone of a BFF group hug and . . . well, I don't want to spoil the whole ending. But it's fair to say that Nikki isn't yet ready to crack the cocoon of middle school. Which makes me wonder . . .

Does this book have any function besides mindless entertainment? One approach to recovering from difficult events in our lives is to tell our experience to others. In the telling, so one gathers, there is healing. Through the telling comes the therapy. The "Aha!" moments arise from putting to words one's remembered reality. Is there similar value, for tweens, in reading Dork Diaries? Or is it literary bubble gum? To return to the small print on the back cover: Does this genre have educational value?

Or--I continue to wonder--perhaps the value is in my reading such books with my children. Perhaps discussion of whether we should emulate the lives we read in such fiction will provide enrichment and growth. (In which case, God help me if my daughter really likes this material!) Maybe the task is to use the narrative as a mirror for my kids' own lives. Are you really a "dork" because your brain suddenly starts hiccuping around that boy?

A third (non-exclusive) option: Maybe series like Dork Diaries will serve as reading exercise for my kids. Genetically, odds are high that they will become bookworms. And not every book can be The Catcher in the Rye. Maybe one just needs sometimes to read as a way to zone out of the day-to-day world. Maybe my kids will read just for entertainment's sake on occasion, and nothing more. Like . . . bubble gum.

And maybe they'll come away from it knowing words like "sashay."

Thanks, Ms. Russell, for making me think. Now I'm going to put my nose back into some writing on comparative theology.

~ emrys

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Scripture, History, and Interpretation

With fundamental questions about interpretation of the bible continuing to surface in our congregation and denomination, I decided to go more into depth with the scholarly work on the subject. I picked up an e-book edition of Behind the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation, Volume 4 of the Scripture and Hermeneutics series, editors Bartholomew, Evans, Healy, and Rae. (The year . . . I can't find the year on the title pages of the e-book. What the ? 2003, I think.)

First, a comment on e-book reading, as this is my first textbook length book read in electronic format. I found not knowing where I was in the book by the weight and thickness of the pages disorienting--or, better put, fatiguing. Many times when I've read dense scholarly works and come upon a section that drags, I think to myself, Well, it can't go on for that long, because there's only this much (perceived by my fingers holding the pages) left in the book. I couldn't do that here. Even with the page numbers labeled at the bottom of the screen, I felt like I didn't have a handle on how much I had read and how much I had to go. I never realized before how important this sense was to my process of reading.

On to content. The contributors to this volume reveal a vast depth of research and knowledge in the field of hermeneutics, history, and philosophy. I gained great insights into the impact of thinkers like Spinoza, Duhem, and Troeltsch--though, taking as long as I did to read this text without a book club, I already feel myself losing the ability to articulate what I read! I had many "Aha!" moments when I recognized within myself patterns of interpreting scripture that come from these modern and post-modern currents of philosophy and their associated views of history and hermeneutics.

The format of Behind the Text, an interaction of scholars with each other's essays in the same volume, made for compelling arguments tempered by thoughtful critique. At times, it also made for some repetitiveness, though for someone not immersed often in this level of discussion that redundancy could be helpful. (I don't use the adjective "Troeltschian" often.) Even when the going was tough because of the high-powered academic writing style, my labor was rewarded by greater understanding.

The capstone of the book was the final article, written by Stephen I. Wright, entitled "Inhabiting the Story: The Use of the Bible in the Interpretation of History." His first insight, which put into words something I sensed reading the rest of the text, was that most of the work so far had been "on the defensive" for historical-critical interpretation of the bible. Coming from the conservative realm as texts published by Baylor and Zondervan are wont to be, I think the milieu of this slice of the academy is generally suspicious of or hostile to the historical-critical method. While I found this apologetic work enlightening for its elucidation of the philosophical contours of historical-critical method, I personally have always assumed the method to have some validity. Wright's pointing to the elephant in the hermeneutical room allowed me to take a deep breath and realize my relationship to this gaggle of articles.

Wright's second helpful insight was his move from "whether the bible should be interpreted with a critical historical eye" to "how shall we use the bible critically to interpret history?" As someone who does this every week--nay, every day--I engaged his closing article with relish. His descriptions of the work of figurative interpretation of the scriptures resonated with my own regular hermeneutical work, and stretched my thinking around new facets of how that work is done.

For any scholar--academically credentialed or not--interested in getting a better handle on the issues of interpretation that arise from the problems of history, this book is worthwhile. It is a reminder that even before we--and I'm thinking especially of pastors and preachers like myself now--begin to think about interpreting a text, we have already made philosophical decisions of which we may not be aware. Part of the value of reading this book, for me, is becoming aware of those decisions and exploring whether I want to make different decisions in the future. What do I assume about history? What do I assume about how God acts in history? Do I want to continue assuming that? If I don't, how will that affect my speaking about and speaking from the scriptures?

~ emrys