Monday, February 27, 2017

Book Review: Why I Left, Why I Stayed by Tony and Bart Campolo

I have a new book review up at the Englewood Review of Books. This time I review Why I Left, Why I Stayed by Tony and Bart Campolo. An excerpt:

Early in this book, Bart Campolo shares the story of what led to his leaving the Christian faith. During a ride on his bike, he crashed head-first into a tree that led to weeks of recovering his memory followed by fresh realizations related to identity and belief. Among such realizations came one of the biggest: he, the son of a nationally renowned evangelical leader and speaker and with his own long career as a pastor, speaker, and missionary himself, no longer believed in God.

Bart’s subsequent sit-down with his parents to share this news is told from both sides. Bart shares his anxiety and uncertainty about how they would react, and Tony (and Peggy in her contributed foreword) both tell of their dismay coupled with their resolve to continue loving their son just as much as they did before.

Read the rest at the Englewood Review of Books.

Friday, February 24, 2017

February 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for February...

1. This month I read Tranny by Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer for punk band Against Me! She tells the story of how the band came to be and the ups and downs of their development, as well as her concurrent wrestling with gender dysphoria. After decades of personal struggle that included addiction and broken relationships that she eventually identified as her own acting out of her dysphoria, she finally comes out to friends, family, and fans as wanting to transition to being a woman. This was an engrossing read and Grace is as good a storyteller as she is a musician and songwriter. I really enjoyed this.

2. I also read Carol Howard Merritt's just-released book, Healing Spiritual Wounds. Carol details some of her painful experiences with the church, including its response to the abuse she endured growing up and during her time attending Moody Bible College. She uses a great deal of personal story in order to help readers access and deal with their own; to acknowledge deeply felt pain but also to address it through a series of spiritual practices suggested at the end of each chapter. It may serve as a helpful resource for anyone trying to make amends with a past that includes pain at the hands of one's faith community, as well as reconnect with a loving God who wants the church to do better.

3. I watched The Young Pope this month and late last month, a limited series on HBO starting Jude Law as Lenny Belardo, the newly elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Lenny is 50 (relatively young for a Pope), smokes, is going through a faith crisis, has unresolved issues related to growing up an orphan, and begins his papacy as an angry, arrogant recluse. With the help of those around him, he grows into his role while also facing some of his inner problems. The show can be artsy and strange, but that gave it fun and depth. It explores themes of belief, miracles, sexuality, church politics, and personal growth. At times it made me cringe and at times it could be incredibly deep or sweet.

4. To go along with reading Laura Jane Grace's memoir, I've been listening to a lot of Against Me! lately. In particular, I've had their latest, Shape Shift With Me, on regular rotation. Their music in general has been a helpful balm lately. Here's one off their newest album, "Crash:"

5. I've also been listening to the newest album by Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. The band sounds a little more mature and seasoned on this one, the songs more polished and anthemic. The title track and "I'm Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)" are among the ones I like the best, but by far my favorite is "Arc of Bar:"

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pastoral Prayer to Live Differently

based on Matthew 5:38-48

O God, sometimes we hear what Jesus commands us to do and wonder if he really knows what he’s talking about. When he says, “do not resist an evildoer,” or “turn the other cheek,” or “love your enemies,” we think that he can’t possibly know the way things really work. What could he possibly mean by statements like this? Does he know what it’s like to live in a world that is often callous and cruel and selfish?

And he does know. The same one who made these statements is the one who listened to the stories and experiences of prostitutes who were abused, day workers short-changed at the end of their shift, Samaritans shunned for their foreign beliefs, the sick, disabled, and possessed in need of healthcare, and fellow believers who refused to practice the state religion. He heard these stories while so full of your love and so pained by the suffering we visit on each other.

At the same time, he offered an alternative view of how to live by mercy and forgiveness rather than play into the thinking that the only right response is further violence, further fear, further separation. We hear his call to consider such stories with the same divine love with which you hear our own deepest prayers and our most desperate longings.

Faithful God, we know something of how harsh things can be. And we admit that at times, we are afraid. Show us the way to be faithful among imperfect people and circumstances, to help bring more grace into others’ lives. Amen.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book Review: Blessed Are the Weird by Jacob Nordby

Being creative is the only way we can ever feel fulfilled in life. This means turning our lives into unique works of art that reflect our desires and passions. It also means marching to the beat of our own drum. This book celebrates the weird ones who teach us to do that--who show us that it is not only possible but is also critical to our own survival. - Jacob Nordby, Blessed Are the Weird

Sometimes the premise of a book seems like such an obvious homerun that you can't fathom not finding it enjoyable or engrossing. But a book is more than a premise and thus must depend on more than the idea that led to its creation. The building of the case; the development of the central concept is what separates a book with a good premise from a book with a good argument. And at times when I sit down to read something knowing it has the former, I am sometimes left scratching my head afterward wondering how it never became the latter.

Blessed Are the Weird: A Manifesto for Creatives is a book with a good premise. At times it has a good argument. But I can't necessarily say that it is the sure thing that it seemed to be when I started. I wanted to go ahead and say that up front. And obviously now I need to explain myself.

Jacob Nordby's central thesis is that highly creative people--the "Blessed Weird," as he calls them--are among our most precious human resources. He is careful to define who these people are and who they are not, arguing that the type of weird person he is talking about is more than the person who dyes their hair blue and gets a nose piercing to get attention. He takes great pains to differentiate between weird for weirdness' sake and the one who truly has little idea how to relate to others. This second group sees the world differently and can't quite get themselves to fit into the boxy worldview with which most others are content. And so they instead turn to various forms of artistic or intellectual expression as their outlet for saying what they mean because straightforward prosaic conversation doesn't suffice.

So far, a decent premise. The Introduction and first chapter lay out this working definition very well and prepare the reader for what is to come.

Chapters 2 through 8 each focus on a different group of the Blessed Weird: poets, troubadours, mystics, heretics, and so on. But for me this is where the execution starts to waver. The subheading for chapter 9, "For they teach us to see the world through different eyes," summarizes what the seven chapters before it say. Nordby describes the particular function of each group's chosen medium, which is a slight variation on "they help us see things in a new way." By the third or fourth chapter in a row doing this, the development of the premise becomes quite repetitive.

Fortunately, the book makes a shift at chapter 10 to asking the reader how they might discover or unlock their own Weirdness for the sake of helping others see the world differently. There's much more nuance in these later chapters, which lists characteristics of a Blessedly Weird Person, why it is important for one's own sake and for others' sake to express one's Weirdness, and overcoming a fear of failure, among other general topics.

The book is much more adept at fulfilling its purpose at this point. For me parts of these later chapters were reminiscent of Brenda Ueland's classic If You Want to Write, which argues that if you write, you're a writer, and thus you shouldn't be afraid to be who you are. Nordby makes a similar case for why we shouldn't shrink from our Weirdness but instead embrace it no matter what. One of his clearest calls to this effect comes as he describes French aristocrats living by the mantra "nobility obliges;" a recognition that one's gifts and resources came with a responsibility to use them for others' sake. Weirdness, in this regard, is a calling, and comes with an obligation to live into it.

Overall, Nordby develops his premise quite well. It is a bit bogged down in the beginning with one too many descriptions of particular Weird groups that essentially say the same thing, which may cause some to opt out before getting to the more helpful stuff. In that sense, the development of the premise ends up a bit uneven. Had the author opted to skip those chapters or summarize them in a single one, the book would be much stronger. They're optional as far as I'm concerned. Once you get past them, there's a good argument to be made.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Pastoral Prayer to Do Hard Things

based on Matthew 5:21-37

God of the impossible, we confess that we think most of what you call us to do is way too hard. We hear Jesus’ call to love our enemies, to pray for those who have wronged us, to reconcile with people we have problems with, to guard our hearts and minds against intentions that lead to sinful behavior. Most of this sounds like it’s only meant for people who are much more holy than we could ever hope to be. How can we act as disciples when we have been conditioned so much to approach others with suspicion, fear, and caution?

Your good news for us is that your forgiving and gracious Spirit doesn’t give up on us, and calls us not to give up on one another. Through Jesus you reveal how generous you intend to be with those whom you’ve created, and you empower us to reflect that same love to each other. You move us beyond our grievances, guardedness, and grudges, and readily bestow the courage and humility that we need to do so, if only that we respond in kind to one another.

O God, help us to do the impossible. Help us to let down our own hesitations in order to be faithful, which includes difficult acts that ultimately lead to a world more whole and gentle and grace-filled. Amen.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Vintage CC: A Dream Before Valentine's Day

As the title indicates, I wrote this before Valentine's Day, in February 2010. It came back to mind as I've been thinking on themes very similar to it lately, although I haven't organized my thoughts well enough yet to write about it. But stay tuned, because I think I am planning to give it a shot in the next couple weeks. In the meantime, maybe you're anticipating Valentine's Day in one form or another, whether with a newly discovered love or years or decades into a relationship. I hope this provides fodder for how you think about the day, and about love in general.

I had a dream last night. I had a couple, actually.

The first was about the Batman movie from 1989. It was before Jack Napier became the Joker, and he was arguing with that dirty cop Eckhardt. I was a non-participant in fact I was just making dinner with the movie on in the background.

And then I went from one '80s movie to another, as suddenly I was in Back to the Future Part II. At first, I was a non-participant in this one as well. I watched as Marty dropped the sandbags on the three guys waiting to jump the other Marty who was onstage playing Johnny B. Goode. And then when the onstage Marty is finished playing, he meets his parents in the stairwell.

At this point, I was a participant. Suddenly, I was Marty. And it was no longer Marty's parents, but my own. My parents didn't go to high school dances together. They grew up about 700 miles away from each other. Plus I think that when my dad was a senior in high school, my mom was in 7th grade or something like that. So if real life logic were applied to this dream, it just wouldn't work.

Nevertheless, here I was talking to the high school versions of my parents, glad that they had gotten together and that I wouldn't be erased from existence.

That's when I noticed two things. First, I noticed the music. It wasn't that Back to the Future orchestral stuff, it was something else. It was something slower, still strings-based, that sounded like just a simple walk up the scale, yet more anticipatory, like it would eventually build to something if you listened to the whole thing on the soundtrack. And there was a woman's voice, not singing any words but just singing the notes overtop of the violins. It's like if you waited long enough, this music was more than just an interlude.

And that made sense, due to the other thing that I noticed. I fully realized that I was talking to my parents at the very beginning of their relationship, and in light of what I knew about the decades that were to come, it hit me differently. It wasn't just a moment to think about how nice and cute it was that they'd gotten together and how weird it was that I was talking to my parents as high-schoolers. I was in this Hill Valley High School stairwell wishing them well, but also with the knowledge of how often they'd need to move, my dad's fight for his life with Crohn's early in their marriage, the crappy behavior of church people, my mom's discovery of a youth ministry career, their meeting their first grandson.

I was fully aware of all of that stuff as I talked to this teenage couple. The music was thus very appropriate, because something was building, yet it would build so gradually over the next 30 years or more. But when you're a couple in their teens you don't see that. You probably aren't thinking that.

I left that stairwell crying, just thinking about all of that. I left thinking about the amount of work and patience that would be needed after this little moment of sweetness. And for some reason Coffeewife was suddenly there, and I yelled, "I've seen this movie how many freaking times, and I've never cried at this part!"

We sometimes focus too much on those beginning moments, where everything is new and wonderful. At the time, that's all we have. But if we let it, love builds to something more. It builds to something that involves big life-changing decisions and moves involving careers and kids and finances and maybe some hard things about health. I mean, yeah, there are dates and flowers and wine and weekends away and whatever, but those aren't the only things. They're not even the most important things.

We have this picture of us from a fraternity formal where we're both like 18 or 19, all dressed up and pretty and smiling toothily at the world. Every once in a while I want to reach through that picture and yell, "You have no idea what's coming! You'd better be damn serious about this, you schmuck."

And the good thing was that I was. More or less. I figured it out eventually. Or I have it more figured out than I did.

I'm glad my parents did that, too.