Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe

A newborn human is one of the most helpless creatures there is. From the moment of birth, humans cry out to others to give them existence. Who we are is bound up in relationship with others. The sense of identity, the consciousness of self, is formed in these interactions with others who are like us. The child begins to differentiate between self and other to form a more stable sense of self. This differentiation, however, would not be possible without the other. Much of what self is, is owed to others. - Andre Rabe, Desire Found Me

When I received this book in the mail for review, the actual conversation between me and Coffeewife went as follows:

Coffeewife: What's that about?
Me: It's about mimetic theory.
Coffeewife: What's that?
Me: It's...I don't know.

My assumption when I agreed to review Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe was that by reading, I would understand. I think that for the most part, this was the case.

I now know that mimetic theory is the study of the way we unconsciously reflect the desires of others. The word "mimetic" comes from the same word as "mimic," which is meant to connote the ways we learn and imitate others' intentions and desires. It's part of human development, and also how we create meaning and become part of communities with shared values. Rabe presents this explanation in some detail, albeit in an accessible way. He notes that we are not wholly original products of our own making, but rather we are influenced by those around us, particularly those who raised us and from whom we learned our earliest desires. Rabe also explores how mimesis is the source of conflict: those clashing over a common object or cause are reflecting the same desire that is in the other.

Rabe seeks to apply this theory of reflected desire to Christian faith. He first does this by analyzing the way mimesis shows up in various Biblical texts such as the creation stories and the provisions in the Ten Commandments. He presents these first examples both thoroughly and concisely, taking care not to overproduce his thesis. He analyzes what it means to mimic God's desire as being made in God's image, as well as what happens in stories such as Adam & Eve and Cain & Abel when desire is at odds with another's. There is also extensive discussion of the felt need for a scapegoat to ease the anxiety of a community that treasures violence.

The second section, "Developing Stories," presents various common faith themes such as the ways scriptural stories borrowed and changed myths common to their time period, the idea of Satan, and the idea of the need for a Messiah. In each of these, Rabe applies elements of mimetic theory; the ways they may have influenced the creation of these narratives that have been passed down through generations. I admit that I wasn't always clear about the connections he was trying to make; sometimes the presentation of the stories' background seemed to overshadow his application. There was a lot of historical ground to cover beforehand, and I didn't always see the connection. As the section's title suggests, however, the application perhaps wasn't the primary goal.

The third section, "Redefined," begins to reimagine some of these stories and themes in light of mimesis. The main focus in this part is Jesus' death and resurrection, and the meaning of atonement. Mimetic theory was much more prevalent in this section, as it needed to be.

For me, this was a good introduction to the world of mimetic theory, specifically as applied to the faith narratives by which many Christians live. It took me a chapter or two to really get into it due to the subject matter, and there are some formatting and grammatical issues, but as an entry into what is a school of thought that is no doubt much more complex, this was a good beginning.

(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, March 22, 2015

We Wish to See - A Prayer for Lent 5

Faithful God, we wish to see Jesus. We’ve heard so much about the way he offers healing, forgiveness, and fresh starts. We’ve heard about his welcoming of outcasts and those whom society deems dispensable. We’ve heard about his signs and miracles that point to a greater inbreaking reality that is already here, yet still arriving. We’ve heard about his boldness in standing up to religious and civil authority; the hard questions that he asks and the strong words he has for rules and practices that dehumanize and devalue life.

We have heard, and we wish to see for ourselves. We are curious about this man in whom so many find hope. We are interested in the life eternal that he talks about. We are hesitant about his associations and his invitation to do likewise. We want to be a part of his divine vision that seems on the surface to be so unreachable, yet he insists is much closer than we think.

We wish to see Jesus. So many others do as well. We lift some up to you now… (Prayers of the people)

O God, as the days of the Lenten season begin dwindling, we know that darker days lie ahead. As we anticipate Holy Week, help us not just to see Jesus but to follow him as one who embodies hope for your world and for ourselves. Amen.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Vintage CC: A Post About God

Sometimes I go back and find a post that I don't think about very often, and gain an entirely new appreciation for it. This post from August 2012 is one of those.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, everything was formless; a swirling, chaotic void. But God interacted with the void, shaping and ordering it. God commanded the light and the darkness, the waters and the sky and the land, the birds and the fish and the animals, and eventually humanity. God took that swirling primordial soup and fashioned something from it. And God called all of it good.

Was God finished? Did God never create anything after calling it all "good?" No. God kept creating, shaping, and ordering. Stars and planets and entire galaxies formed, and some eventually burned out or began again after ice ages or collisions. God created a dynamic universe, full of novelty and change, our own galaxy expanding and contracting, our own earth experiencing shifting plates and the circle of life that is basic to all of existence: life, death, rebirth. Change.

Humanity, it turned out, is a dynamic species. We learn, we've developed, we've advanced in technology and knowledge. Some may argue that we haven't advanced in wisdom, others--maybe the same ones--will argue that we've certainly advanced in sin. As we've discovered how we may ever better make use of this world's resources, we've also discovered how much more efficiently we may oppress each other. And as we've come to value our advancements for good or for ill, we each in our own way have elevated some of them to god status: money, power, violence, technology, and on it goes.

In one case when this was so, God was on a mountain with Moses. Moses, it turns out, had been on this mountain for quite some time. He'd been on that mountain with God for so long, in fact, that the Israelites began to worry, or forget, or become bored. They decided that they wanted a new god, one that they could see and that would bring them joy. So with the help of the priest Aaron, they fashioned a calf out of gold, saw that it was good, and began to worship and revel.

God saw the calf and decided then and there to wipe out these people, this fledgling nation, for their disobedience. God decided to start over with a different people; God would find a new nation through whom the world would be blessed.

When Moses heard it, he stood up to God. He said, "You made promises. You made a covenant. They're not keeping their end at the moment, but you must not forget your end. You brought these people out of Egypt, and it can't be for nothing."

God looked again at these people dancing, singing, drinking. God looked at this aspect of God's dynamic creation and still saw that it was good even though they'd taken their own path. This was always a possibility: this turning away, this disobedience, this waywardness, this elevation of the wrong thing.

And God changed God's mind.

In the Hebrew: "repented."

Turned around.

Reoriented.

Refocused.

God changed what God was going to do.

The people didn't get off scott-free that day. They still had to answer for what they'd done. But it was due to God changing in order for that to happen. Rather than being wiped out, God changing made it possible for them to change and for their formation to continue.

Some want to believe that God only seemed to change God's mind that day. Or that maybe God was just testing Moses' leadership or had set up the people to teach them a lesson. But none of that is in the story. The only detail that is actually in the story is that God changed. Those that have certain theological interests to protect try to argue otherwise, read back into what's written, quote confessions at length as if sheer density of words will make up for what they want to be there but isn't.

But all that is there is that God changed.

In this shifting, dynamic, expanding and contracting world, there are new ways for God to remember God's promises. There come new ways for God to apply these promises in the midst of three-dimensional situations filled with joy, suffering, healing, wonder, anger, injustice. There is no one way to address the swirling mix present in each moment. There come new ways for God to interact and keep covenant with this creation which God still calls good.

The concern is that if God changes, then there is nothing constant about God. If God is not outside of our world, not the great Immovable Mover, then it's not really God. And in a world that is always shifting, always changing, seemingly every bit as chaotic as it was before creation began, we cry out for something constant, sure, and steadfast.

Is there anything constant about God? How can it be otherwise?

There are things constant about God. Two chapters after the golden calf incident, it is proclaimed that God is a God of steadfast love. Constant, unchanging, steadfast love.

God's love for creation is constant. God's concern for redeeming what seems lost and restoring what seems broken is constant. Every situation calls for this love and concern, but not every situation calls for it in the same manifestation. At times the Israelites needed love in the form of manna to eat, at other times they needed love in the form of being forced to face their idolatry. Love does not look the same in both of these instances. God needed to change in order for love to be made known.

I know people struggling with mental illness, others with addiction, still others with regret. God relates to each in a particular way to bring healing, restoration, salvation. But there is no one static path through these problems. Imagine reading the Four Spiritual Laws to someone in rehab struggling through alcohol withdrawal. Imagine trying to guide a schizophrenic through AA's 12 Steps. Imagine constantly hammering away at the one feeling regret constantly reminding them of what they're trying to resolve, or tiptoeing around the one who refuses to do so out of concern for their comfort. Would any of these be appropriate or truly loving?

Even proposed treatments and programs need to be adapted to the individual's story in order for the journey back toward wholeness to be taken. Some may argue that it takes the same kind of faith, the same kind of belief, to save. But whatever our suffering, whatever our struggles, whatever our golden calves, God relates to each of us in perfect, unchanging love in order to give us what we need most.

God changes some things in order not to change others. God may relate to people in different ways, but showing the same, steadfast love in all.

And so it continues in God's dynamic creation, which God still calls good.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why I'm Giving Up Aspiring to Be a Writer

I have been keeping this blog for over 10 years. That's a long time and a lot of words. Near the beginning, it wasn't something I took too seriously.

But as tends to happen, I started reading other blogs. Some seemed similar to mine: light reflections on ministry or daily life or whatever passing thought that popped into the person's head and demanded sharing.

Other blogs, however, were Serious Blogs by Serious Writers. Each post clocked in at thousands of words and garnered hundreds of hits and had dozens of comments and were leading to Serious Book Deals and Serious Feature Articles in Serious Magazines.

This all caused me to want to be a Serious Writer, too. A Real Writer. Not just one who played around on his little internet toy but who'd be scoring some of those same articles and books.

Just to show how Serious I was, I started mentioning it in my bio. I'd list myself as an "aspiring writer" or "writer wannabe." Something that said to the world that I wasn't there yet, but if you kept paying attention, I'd make it someday. I'm going to keep aspiring and pining and working and striving to be a Writer.

Lately, it seems like colleagues are signing book deals left and right. Just in the past few months, people I know have shared the good news of sending their contracts back, ready for the next step. This, too, has motivated me to keep aspiring, keep driving toward the big goal, and I, like them, will be a Writer, too.

In 2010, I attended the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville. Lauren Winner, a Real Writer, was speaking. At one point, almost as an aside from her main point, she said to us, "You who are in ministry are in one of the professions that demands the most writing. Between sermons and newsletter articles and guest columns in local newspapers, you're writing all the time. So stop saying you want to be a writer when you grow up."

The truth of that didn't hit me until a few weeks ago, when I thought about the last 10+ years that I've spent in this internet space. I thought about the articles that have made it into cyber or print magazines. I thought about the contributions to books. I thought about the couple of posts that have gone viral. I thought about the strong desire to get up every morning and think about what new thing I want to say here that transcends any short-term mental block. I thought about how I can't not write, whether through my work or on this blog or in my Moleskine notebook. It's a compulsion that transcends status and page views and publishing dates; something that I need to do whether those things are factors or not.

I thought about all of that, and decided to quit.

I decided to quit pretending that I haven't been a writer for the past decade. I decided to quit "aspiring" and being a "wannabe," because I'm already there. I decided to quit measuring my status as a Real Writer against a bar that only I set up for myself to begin with. Even if I still hope to achieve certain goals, they won't make me a Real Writer.

They won't make me a real writer, because I already am one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: Faraway by R.K. Kline and Daniel D. Maurer

Looking back, I know that my existence has been defined most of all by those events of my fourteenth summer. I divide my life into two: the periods of time before and after those summer months of '75. I didn't intend for it to be this way. But I understand now that the Kevin before 1975 doesn't exist within me anymore. Sometimes it feels like he's out living a normal life in a parallel universe. He's got his own normal story. But I'm left with mine. - R.K Kline, Faraway

Late last year, I read and reviewed a book by Alisa Jordheim called Made in the USA. It included a series of firsthand accounts from victims of sex trafficking, as well as some pointers on how to assess whether someone might be a victim themselves. The accounts were shocking not only due to their abusive elements, but how they started and where they took place. In one form or another, every story started with the trafficker earning the victim's trust, either themselves or through a liaison of some kind. And they all took place in Ordinary America: rather than in the scary back alleys on the wrong side of the tracks, most took place in subdivisions and in other places that would be considered safe and normal.

Faraway: A Suburban Boy's Story as a Victim of Sex Trafficking by R.K. Kline and Daniel D. Maurer (whose Sobriety I've also reviewed) is a more in-depth account of sex trafficking and victimization. It is a story that took Kline decades to muster the courage to tell, but it is yet another important look into how children and adolescents get pulled into such a life.

Kline begins with a little background: a typical white middle-class family in Florissant, Missouri in 1975. Florissant is just outside St. Louis, and a neighboring community to Ferguson. He is in many ways an ordinary 14-year-old: he goes to school, hangs out with friends, plays at the local park, and so on. At this age, he has already discovered that he is gay, which causes him a great deal of anxiety about what will happen if his family finds out, as well as how to explore and make peace with this part of his identity. He has a few friends who turn out to be gay as well, and they are mildly helpful, but it is when he meets a boy named Tim that he thinks he's made a big breakthrough in figuring out who he is.

Unfortunately, Tim is a front person who brings potential victims to a pimp named Ray, and this is what happens to Kevin. Ray first lures him in with promises of having fun together and airs of serving as an older mentor and lover, but once Kevin is hooked, he is forced into turning tricks with two other hustlers, Stevie and Squirrel, in Tower Grove Park in St. Louis.

The first striking aspect of this narrative, aside from a 14-year-old being victimized in the first place, is how Kevin is drawn into the life to begin with. In both Made in the USA and Faraway, this part of every story is something I personally will always find shocking. That someone--at times even a family member--will first earn and then betray trust in order to make money off the abuse, degradation, and devaluation of another human being will never lose its visceral affect for me. What Tim and then Ray do to coax a confused 14-year-old into "the life" is a demonstration of how innocently these stories begin, and also how quickly they can turn.

The heart of the story in many ways is the bond between Kevin, Stevie, and Squirrel. These three boys, pushed into this predicament not only by Ray but also by circumstances such as desperation and poverty, become genuine friends and look after each other as such. There is more than one occasion during the narrative when the only reason Kevin agrees to work for Ray again is so that he can see the other two, to make sure they're okay and, somewhat ironically, to experience authentic relationship. Stevie and Squirrel truly are the two main reasons Kevin makes it through the summer.

One undercurrent to this story is the role of denial. Fearful of what might happen if his family, friends, school, or anyone else might do, Kevin keeps his sexual orientation to himself, even as he has so many questions. He repeatedly states that his parents in particular drop enough hints of their disapproval of such an identity, which keeps him from turning to them for guidance. There were also indicators that Stevie may have been pushed out of his home by such an attitude. Near the end of the book, Kline rather pointedly makes the case that it is such a cultural stigma persisting even today that helps trap many young gay boys in trafficking, because they aren't sure of safer options prior to their being assimilated.

Again, Kevin's story happens right under the noses of everyone. His family just assumes that he's spending the night with friends when out working for Ray. In fact, he leads two completely different lives: one in Florissant and one in Tower Grove, and nobody in his home life is the wiser. As one for whom St. Louis is a special and treasured place, to see so many familiar areas as the background for this story helped illustrate the point that sex trafficking doesn't happen Out There, but in places we know and call home.

Kline's story does well to illustrate the ways in which sex trafficking is the result of systems of poverty, ostracization, discrimination, and denial. As Jordheim also notes in her book, victims of trafficking do not choose this life, but are forced into it. That is no less the case for gay youth who are told to leave their families or who otherwise are given no safer alternatives. Faraway is a powerful call to awareness of how we as a society have created this problem ourselves.

(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.)