#6 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: Heartland

Yes, Sarah Smarsh was clearly making a shameless bid for a Top Ten spot on the Heartlands list with the title of her memoir: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. But the editorial staff here at Heartlands can’t be won over by gimmicks. It takes good writing to do that, and Smarsh has that in spades.

Heartland takes a strange conceit–writing in the second person to a child she never had–and turns it into a personal, poetic narrative of growing up poor in Kansas. Smarsh has some fascinating characters in her family tree along with all the anxieties and struggles that go along with rural poverty. She combines that with some great sociological insight about what’s going on 2018 America.

In sum, it’s right up the alley of a website devoted to understanding the current Great Divide and the realities of rural America.

Look for the full Heartlands review, coming soon.

#7 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: The Thin Light of Freedom

History books are always going to find a way to my reading stand. One of the reasons is that I had one of the country’s greatest historians as a professor back in the day. Ed Ayers told the story of the United States, particularly of the American South, with an eye for conflicts, resilience, and human progress through resistance.

Fortunately for all of us, he still does and his latest history, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, is another master work. Starting in the middle of the war and moving through Reconstruction, Ayers uses two communities — Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania — to show how the conflict that was exploding on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Petersburg didn’t end with Appomattox in 1865, but only transformed into a new type of conflict, one that bears uncomfortable resemblances to our current Great Divide.

The Thin Light of Freedom makes it in at #8 on the Heartlands list this year, and not just because Ayers is my old advisor and one of my favorite people to talk to. This is great history everybody ought to read.

My full review is here and you can also read my 3-part interview with Ayers beginning here.

#8 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: Chesapeake Requiem

IMG_3692Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. CNN did a report that got the mayor, Ooker Eskridge, an audience with the President. A social media storm naturally followed. And now Earl Swift has written a magisterial account of a year on the island.

I should probably have mentioned in the criteria for Heartlands Best Reads that writing about the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where I live, will get you points in the rankings for the year-end list. And I may not have found my way to Swift’s book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, if I hadn’t lived here and known Swift. But this is a book that has gotten note far beyond what regional interest would have reckoned. Just this week, The Bitter Southerner ran a feature on Tangier (accompanied by some glorious photos) because of Chesapeake Requiem.

It’s a book that will touch your heart, make you wonder about climate change, and immerse you in a unique and precious community. Plus it’s just fine writing.

Read my full review by clicking on this link.

#9 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: The Sarah Book

In my last post, we began the countdown of the Heartlands Best Reads of 2018. Check out that post for the criteria.

The Sarah Book is a crazy book, continuing author Scott McClanahan’s life goal of making West Virginia look even more offbeat than most folks already believe it to be. It’s scandalous, shocking, heart-breaking, and laugh-out-loud funny, usually all in the same chapter. Be forewarned, but be prepared to see the realities of Appalachia and of the lives of its people in a new light that is as much humane as it is profane (which it is).

Click the link on the book’s title for my full review.

#10 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: Turtles All the Way Down

What does it take to be a Heartlands Best Read of 2018?

—Alex has to have read the book. This is a big limitation right from the get-go, but, hey, it’s reality.

—Excellent writing. Good stories, good prose, good poetry. You won’t get there on the ideas alone.

—A strong sense of place.

—Preference is given to books published in 2018, though a good book from the past will make the list if I’ve read it this year.

—Books that highlight the broad themes of the Heartlands site. This began as a place to explore what’s happening in America, particularly focusing on life and ministry in rural areas. In light of the Great Divide, we now talk about that as “knowing the country whole.” A book that helps illuminate the country as it is or could be is going to get a leg up in this.

–I liked it, even if it didn’t meet any of these criteria. Hey, it’s my site.

So, let’s start the roll out! 

51j8ClOJzoL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Coming in at #10 is Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. If I do say so myself, I loved my headline summary of this book: Teenager Abuses Hand Sanitizer, Finds Self: The Beauty in Turtles All the Way Down. That’s about the size of this Young Adult book. Putting us in the head of a character struggling with OCD and invasive thoughts was a daring choice, but by the end of this story Green has us rooting for Aza and her friends. There are also some big scale meditations on life, the universe, and everything.

Click on the link for the full review.  And look for #9 soon.

Godsend and Our Capacity for God

“I lack the spiritual gene,” the New York Times’ Dwight Garner says in reviewing John Wray’s new book, Godsend: A Novel. “I can grow resentful of novels that lead me into a cave of superstition and wished ignorance and then seal the entrance.” Not that he didn’t like the novel. Garner, (perhaps the leading book reviewer of our day), calls it “a significant literary performance.” But he’s not alone in wondering at themes of spiritual questing in modern literature. 

Our reviewing class seems to be losing its capacity for God.

Hannah Pittard confesses at the beginning of a review of Samantha Harvey’s new historical mystery, The Western Wind, that the novel “is concerned…with man’s relationship to God,” and, as an atheist, Pittard feels unequipped to “speak to Harvey’s religious or political leanings.” The review settles for celebrating Harvey’s obvious writing gifts.

Earlier this year, Garner also failed to fully grasp the theme of religious desire running through Jamie Quatro’s excellent Fire Sermon, seeing the protagonist’s spiritual hunger as merely being “starved for religious talk” and her meditations on sexual and religious desire as exercises that “set off the pretentiousness alarm that rests, like a smoke detector, at the top of one’s mind.”

With all due respect to the great Garner, to get at what’s going on in these books the reader needs to abandon the cingulate gyrus, “the top of one’s mind,” and get to the brain stem. Maybe the gut. That’s where you can really feel the impulse to faith.

Having said all that, you could read the remarkable Godsend as a story of the failure of faith. It’s right there in the title: Is Aden Sawyer, the California-born jihadi at the center of this story, the ‘godsend’ that her new mentors call her? Or rather is her ultimate disillusionment a sign of God’s end—the last of a string of failed guides?

What John Wray captures well, and plays with so well, in this taut coming-of-age novel are the themes of adolescent vulnerability and idealism, courage, and the tragic way in which conflicts perpetuate themselves long after their origins are forgotten. In this case, it is Pakistan and Afghanistan circa 2001 that provide the backdrop for Aden’s journey into radical Islam.

Before leaving the U.S., Aden is scandalized and suffocated by her wealthy, troubled parents, particularly her father who teaches Islamic studies with a scholar’s sterility. Her way out is through Islam, to which she commits herself fully. Ultimately she jumps on a plane to Karachi with her friend, Dexter, who has some family connections there. 

Disregarding the danger, she wraps her chest with a bandage and, Yentl-like, passes for a boy to enter a remote madrasa to study the Quran. The war across the Afghan border seeps into the school, divides Aden and Dexter, and ultimately leads her, quite willingly, into the ranks of mujahideen. But there’s something different about Aden, or Suleyman, as she’s called among the fighters. 

Despite her willingness to do brutal acts in support of the cause, Suleyman is suspected of being effeminate, perhaps a “Kandahar boy,” with all the salaciousness that implies. She is at constant risk of being exposed.  A relationship with Ziar, a charismatic warlord, offers her some space for honesty and protection, but the walls continue to close in, culminating in all sorts of revelations during an American bombing run on an Afghan town as the U.S. response to 9/11 begins.


John Wray

Wray has forged this story from reporting he did on John Walker Lindh, a figure you may have forgotten even if you followed coverage during the early days of the Afghan War. Like Aden, Lindh was an American convert who found his way to the battlefields of Afghanistan. If you remember him at all, perhaps what lingers in your mind are the post-capture photos of a dazed, bearded young man apparently resigned to his fate. Lindh experienced the full range of horrors to arrive in those pictures.

Aden experiences horrors, too. But the biggest journey she takes in Godsend is an inner one. Wray respects her gritty resilience, her vision of where she wants to go, and her willingness to sacrifice everything to get there. He also recognizes the way her faith motivates her and the characters around her. The Islamic leaders she meets are as varied and morally complex as people the world over are.


John Walker Lindh

But ultimately neither Aden nor Wray can find the God that they seek. There are beautiful descriptions of snow and sun on far-flung mountains, the quiet rhythms of ancient communities, and the wild swings of adolescent relationships. But is God in the mix? 

Dwight Garner may be off the hook for not getting the spiritual fervor here. For all of its importance to the plot, Wray seems not to be too interested in the religious quest. But enjoying this incredibly well-written story of an American abroad in the midst of one of the world’s most difficult conflicts, you will sense that God is not far from the page.

As God is not far from any story of what it means to be alive.

How are You Going to Tell the Story of Your Ministry? 3 Questions

“How are you going to tell the story of what God is doing in your ministry?” It’s often the forgotten question in planning, but it may be one of the most crucial. Failing to tell the story in a compelling way often leads to confusion about the mission, apathy, financial struggles, dispirited volunteers, and gingivitis. (I might have added the bit about gingivitis.)

Being able to tell the story with conviction means knowing why you are in ministry in the first place. Think about your church or ministry and answer the following questions:

  • What makes this work that we do so essential that you would give your time, money, and heart to it? 

  • How will lives be transformed by our doing it? 

  • Where have we seen God at work in doing it?

What you uncover in answering these can then become an introduction to everything else you might want to say. Instead of making an end-of-the-year budget appeal, start by reminding yourself and your hearers of why you give at all. Instead of holding up a sign-up sheet for an upcoming event, talk about why this event is happening at all and why you are excited about it.

Paul’s letters are a model for this kind of story-telling. They often end with concrete instructions: Pray without ceasing, be hospitable, give to the needs of your brothers and sisters in Christ, etc. But the instructions only come after Paul has reminded them of what God has done for them in Jesus Christ and what God’s future looks like. 

So, how ARE you going to tell the story? Inquiring minds want to know!

Silence, Poetry & the Salvation of Seamus Heaney

 A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light

The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)

Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)

And so silence is what he offered the poet.

I grew up in the tension that Wiman talks about here. As a Methodist child I remember a lay witness mission where penal substitutionary atonement and the Sinner’s Prayer were wielded like hammers on the nails of our hardened hearts…as if this were the only language necessary to get us to the desired end. And how often since have I been in services and programs where I begged for other words, ANY other words, to get at the hunger and desire I felt in my soul! Begged because I also knew, from Methodist preachers newly minted by 70s-era seminaries and the neo-Hippies of the Jesus Movement that there was so much more to feel and say.

Christian Wiman has crafted a testimony to that hunger in his exquisite new book, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art. The title comes from a poem by A.R. Ammons, whom Wiman heard at a “disastrous reading” when Wiman was “a virgin of poetry readings” and an undergrad at Washington & Lee. In that reading, Ammons labored for a scant ten minutes before stating to the audience, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this,” and returned to his seat. After some cajoling he returned to the podium only to give up again some minutes later. “‘Enough,’ he muttered finally, and thudded his colossal body down beside his wife like the death of faith itself.” (6)

But this episode at the beginning of Wiman’s book is not really the death of faith at all but the beginning of a lively engagement with poets like Mary Oliver and Mary Karr, A.E. Stallings and C.K. Williams, most of whom find their faith in fleeting moments. “Glimmerings,” Heaney calls them, and they “are what the soul’s composed of” (89). And far from lamenting that these artists aren’t singing a full-throated rendition of a pale Chris Tomlin song, Wiman celebrates their obscure journeys and graspings after deeper encounter. He quotes Abraham Heschel’s definition to bolster this spiritual expedition.  Faith is, Heschel said, “primarily faithfulness to a time when we had faith.” (34)


Christian Wiman

Wiman’s book is many things: a dialogue with poets and poems, a meditation on art and its ends, a survivor’s guide to mortality and death. (Wiman has lived with life-threatening cancer in recent years.) But his thoughts on calling and vocation are most appealing to me at this stage in my life. Thirty years after my ordination, the stories and quotes I have often used to share my ‘call story’ have ossified into markers pointing back to a time when I thought following God was about a clarity and surety I didn’t have. Annie Dillard’s weasel, in her story “Living Like a Weasel,” going for the eagle’s jugular and locking into that fixed point of life was (and is) thrilling.

But Wiman celebrates the caution and provisionality of speaking about things like love and truth and God. And he recognizes that, however much we would yield to a call, there is a danger in claiming it too fiercely:

It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” (Wendall Berry) (10)

Not everyone will get this. Part of us will always go marching with the flaming zealot whose single-minded devotion makes an easy Guideposts devotional. But for some the way of the artist will sing more deeply than an earnest praise band.  “What I know is that poetry is not enough,” Wiman says, “Yet it’s not that simple. For the paradox—the vital, fatal fact at the heart of human existence—is that with art, as with every truly creative act in life, you must act as if the act itself is enough.” (112)

If that fidelity to art’s long journey toward, if not to, God appeals to you, this book will soothe your soul. Even as it will definitely quicken your hunger.

One Last Crossing with Cormac McCarthy: A Review of Cities of the Plain

We got John Grady and Billy Parham back for the last crossing. John Grady was the romantically-inclined teenaged horse whisperer from All the Pretty Horses. Billy Parham was the beleaguered teenaged ranch hand who seems always to be helping people get home—a wolf and his dead brother, Boyd, in The Crossing. Cormac McCarthy brings the two characters together for the final act in his epic Border Trilogy—Cities of the Plain.

The elements that made the first two novels so rich are here. There are the thick descriptions of terrain and those who work within it. There is the romance and deep wisdom of Old Mexico. And there are signs that America is changing in ways that are sapping its soul. One of the final encounters takes place on a concrete batterwall beneath a highway overpass in an Arizona landscape that is all inhuman geometry.

But the trilogy seems to be losing a little steam, too. It comes alive in set pieces as when the cowboys track down a pack of wild dogs in the desert. The epilogue recalls the mythical philosophy of The Crossing. John Grady’s infatuation with a Mexican prostitute and knife fight in the service of that love hints back at the grand romance of All the Pretty Horses. But things are worn and cracking now. Even McCarthy’s Spanish sections are less vibrant and rely on a kind of Anglicized Spanish that rings hollow, especially when it’s being exchanged between Mexican characters.

Maybe it’s just because its 1952 now and America is becoming disenchanted. Mexico, too, for that matter. There are cars on the landscape now and lights in the cities on the plain. You’re grateful to take one more ride with these characters but you miss the days when the journeys went deeper into the land and the people they met had more complexity.

It’s been a great journey. These books are a treasure. You hold this last one like Billy clings to a tin cup on a stob that he finds by a spring beneath a cottonwood tree. “He’d not seen a cup at a spring in years and he held it in both hands as had thousands before him unknown to him yet joined in sacrament.” 

There is life-giving water here. There is a connection with something deep in the land and the peoples who cross it. It’s lament and thirst all at the same time. But as the dedication says, “The story’s told/Turn the page.”