This Verbal Tic is Driving Us Crazy, Right?

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photo by Frank McKenna via Unsplash

There are a couple of verbal tics that are reaching peak annoyance right now.  At the low end of the scale, (which runs from “What did he say?” to “Nails-on-a-chalkboard”), is the dulling of the simple preposition ‘to.’  In spoken English the word is gradually losing its “ooo” vowel sound and being replaced with the far less elegant “uh” sound.

The flattening of ‘to’ is often associated with a verbal pause so that a speaker’s thought can catch up with her words.  It’s easy to merge ‘to’ with that perennial oral bugaboo “uh.”  To wit: “So after that, we were going tuh…you know…get some ice cream.”

‘Tuh’ is most noticeable on podcasts and other unscripted media programs where speakers have to think on their feet, but I notice it in everyday interactions, too.  I even it hear it my own speech, which makes all the more annoying.

Much further up the scale, however, is ‘right.’  When I first started noticing it about two years ago, the addition of ‘right?’ to the end of a statement seemed endearing, as if the speaker were drawing me in and inviting me to own the observation with him.  “The popularity of Hillbilly Elegy is a function of urban America’s desire to know more about Appalachia, right?”  Here I’m invited to affirm (or presumably reject) an assertion.

Over time, however, ‘right?’ has infected all manner of statements.  Appended on to the end of a string of facts about which I know nothing, how am I supposed to respond?  When you assert what sounds like a forceful opinion and tack on ‘right?’ I feel like you’re trying to coerce agreement.

Worse, however, is the sense that the speaker needs my reassurance to continue.  ‘Right?’ starts to sound like, “I’m saying this definitively but I may be too forceful, so can you give me some indication that I can keep going?”

How about you go ahead and make your argument and I’ll respond at the end?  You don’t need my agreement to state your case, especially if you’re telling me something that I have no way to evaluate in the first place.  You don’t have to confirm with me every three sentences.  That would be excessive.  Right?

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The Myth of the Cosmic Skybox

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photo by Frank Köhntopp via Unsplash

It has finally happened.  I seriously had the thought that I would not attend an event just because I knew that, two days later, I would receive the dreaded email evaluation.  “It will only take 5-10 minutes of your time,” the email will say.

Great.  I’ll get to it right after the questionnaires related to my last hotel stay, the meeting I attended last week, and the consumer survey from a store I visited in a town I’ll probably never return to.

I know from whence these come.  In their pursuit of excellence and quality, the organizations and businesses need feedback on how they’re doing.  They want to improve at their core mission.  They appreciate my offering tips.  Sharing is caring.

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photo by Damian Zaleski via Unsplash

Yes, but scoring is boring!  Worse than boring, the endless surveys assume that I have a judgment to offer (on a functional 5-point scale) about everything I experience.  And if they just fiddle with their formula enough they’ll be able to hit my sweet spot.

Actually, I DO have judgments to offer.  Ask me to consider for a minute and I’ll be able to find a number of things that could be better.  The towels in the hotel bathroom did look a little worn and threadbare.  The speaker’s mic had a kind of tinny sound.  And come to think about it, the paper towels we bought had an odd perforation pattern.

I could do this all day.

Perhaps that would be helpful to someone, but when it comes to the life of the Spirit, I’m not so sure.  I appreciate churches that strive for excellence in hospitality and worship.  And I definitely notice when its not done well.  But if we’re talking encounter with God, am I really qualified for the job of consumer critic?

Survey Monkey questionnaires, like every online tool of evaluation, are a product of the modern world in which the autonomous individual is assumed to have a cosmic skybox inside them from which she can stand, detached from the earth and context, and cast an all-knowing eye at the thing before her.  It’s not a bad assumption if you just want some feedback on the sound system in the theater, but it’s more problematic if we’re talking about worldviews.

The essential things in this world, (like the deep pulse of the natural world, the complex bonds of family, and the mystery of a holy God), all have their hooks in us before we ever find words to describe them.  To imagine we can understand them fully or stand apart from them enough to pass judgment on them is an illusion.  Not that we shouldn’t use the gift of reason to explore them more fully.  It’s just that these big realities don’t pass before our skybox like a parade.  And we ought not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, as Paul says in Romans 12:3.

51A7VfV9RNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Too many surveys and I begin to feel that I am more autonomous, more god-like than it’s good for a creature to feel.  More powerful is to stand before the God who knows me and to feel that I am connected to—somehow inside—a reality much larger than I.  How well does our worship, our common life lead us into such a realm?

In her poem “Two Pigeons and One Dove,” Mary Szybist looks at a tree and writes:

“Nothing stays long enough to know.

How long since we’ve been inside

anything together the way

these birds are inside

this tree together, shifting, making it into

a shivering thing.”

The birds don’t need a skybox.

A God’s-Eye View: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 3 of 3

21430607_10155382876155860_7627859225571601695_nA town named Trinity is bound to have some things to say about God.  In this final segment of my interview with debut novelist Katherine James, (whose book, Can You See Anything Now?, was published in October), we dig into the the book and find a Christian vision.  For previous segments, click here.

One of the most striking things in the book to me was, as we’re headed towards the culmination of the book and everybody’s coming to a vigil at the rehab center for the character who is in a coma, you take off to 30,000 feet and start to describe the town from above.  It was such a striking image.  It had the effect for me of moving to the God’s-eye view and seeing these characters, who really come from a whole lot of different backgrounds, as being all in this common journey.

That’s exactly what I wanted to do, and I hope that in the very beginning you see a little bit of that.  Also I think after Pixie, [the character in the coma], falls into the river, I go into it a little bit after that.  So, yeah, I’m going up into God, basically, looking down on the people and pulling all this together and having a plan for all of it.  Also, in the hospital, when Pixie wakes up to the ceiling, there’s this sense that God’s calling her but might allow her to stay.  You don’t really know whether He will or not. So, God is a huge, huge part of this book real. Although it’s in the background of the book, it was in the foreground of my mind when I wrote it.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Well, it is definitely a book about faith and I know your own Christian convictions.  But in the book, the most conventionally religious people in the book, like Etta and Pete, are at a distance most of the time.  The characters that you invite us to get closest to are very skeptical and wounded and hurting, but they are also vibrant and sympathetic.  So, I think you move towards the faith questions or help us understand the depth of characters like Etta only late in the book.  Is that a way of subverting expectations of what a Christian book should be? 

Yes.  Of course, I didn’t set out to write a Christian book and that’s almost what I wanted to avoid. But it’s in my head. It’s there and I couldn’t help but write that way because that’s my perspective.  It’s very troubling, what’s going on right now [in our country], and I wanted somehow to bring down these Christian factions, on both sides.

The truth is that Etta is in a Christian environment and she does do crafts that are silly.  But in the end, she respects and looks up to Margie’s abilities, and she’s kind of in awe of them. And her intellect and she wants to be like her. So, the change happening in Etta…you’re right, I don’t really get to until later in the book, because it begins with Margie and that’s who the book is about in many ways.

Nick, [Margie’s husband], has this view of Christians that’s very typical of the way that the world might see them.  He isn’t as open to her as much as Margie only because Margie is so broken that she’s humble and she’s willing to get to know somebody whom she doesn’t agree with or might have originally been skeptical of.  But, because she’s humbled by her situation, I think she’s open to Etta and very thankful to have that visitor and the fact that Etta would actually take the effort to do it rather than talking about Margie.

I’m not really mirroring the world because the truth is you do have people on the right that don’t have any substance. People on the left, too.  But I wanted to show that frequently, people really do have hearts.  Their convictions might be different, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love.

The book is a lot about left and right.  A lot.  You also have Owen and Noel [two young adult characters in the book].  They have that scene were they have that little argument about pro-life.  That’s just a little snippet.  Are they going to be able to get together in light of this disagreement? Because it’s kind of big.  Or, maybe not.  In the end, you really don’t know. But it’s good to just open that up.

And they struggle with the idea of what goodness is. I appreciated that, too.

Exactly.

When you come back to earth in that culminating vigil scene, and it’s the day before the 4th of July, this all-American holiday that we might have used to think would bring us together in some kind of civic religion, the characters and the scene are so ‘typical small town.’ They’ve got plastic coolers and the paper lanterns and the brownies. But, I felt a real kinship with all those characters. They’re bringing what they’ve got and what they’ve got are plastic goods.  They don’t prepare them any more or less for what’s going on than the high art that the other characters have in the face of the mystery.

Exactly.  There’s this thing in the background that they all want. Their goal is the same. Kind of like America in our day and age—our goal is to wipe out evil, to not be affected by evil. But how we get there is completely different.

713640So, Trinity [the small town that is the main setting] becomes this nurturing place.   The name is a pretty dramatic gesture towards the divine. Is it God?

[laughs] Yes. Oh, basically yes, with the going up into the sky and looking down and all that sort of thing.  Very much. I wanted that to be there the whole time.  That there’s this reality that’s so much bigger than our pettiness down here, so far above all these silly things that we argue about. When you know the Ultimate Truth, beyond whether you’re left or you’re right.  He sees hearts and some hearts that look good but they’re terrible, that sort of thing.

There are sections [of the book] that are biblical, passages that people probably won’t pick up.  It talks about the people are like grasshoppers. They jump and something like that. That’s actually a verse somewhere.  [Isaiah 40:22]

[There are other biblical images.]  I would say that one of the biggest things in the novel is water.  Water and Margie and then water and Pixie—in both of those situations it’s very important to me, partly because of baptism and new life in both situations.  Water should have killed them both, but it ended up that it’s the water itself that saved them.

That’s one of the things that drew me into what was going on.  In Margie’s case, ultimately she has this rock that she climbs up on and she was able to stick her face above the water. And then the Mammalian Diving Reflex for Pixie, where she definitely should have drowned and died, but then because the water was so cold, the water actually ended up saving her life.

Both of those things, in the sense that God is that big and if we were to come into His presence, I don’t think that we would be able to survive.  Just like the sun, you can’t get too close or you’re just going to disintegrate.  However, because of Christ, God himself makes us able to approach him.  That’s something that’s very Christian that I don’t know who’s going to pick that up.

Free to Use Dangling Participles: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 2 of 3

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photo by Kelli Tungay via Unsplash

Let’s not put Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), into a box called Christian fiction.  She is a Christian and there are strong Christian themes in the book, but this is not an Amish romance.  James tackles difficult themes like suicide, cutting, and substance abuse with vivid, fully-fleshed out characters.

In the first segment of this interview we talked about her life and her upcoming memoir.  Here we explore the freedom to write and following your instincts.

How long have you been living with this book?

Quite awhile. It’s one of those things where it’s in your head and you write notes and you leave it  alone for a while.  Actually, the first draft, (it was a messy draft), was before everything happened with our son.  So, it would probably be six to seven years ago.  Then, I just let it sit while we struggled through that whole time.  Interestingly, it seems like our struggles with our son informed the book, but the book was written before everything happened with our son.

Wow, that’s extraordinary.  Did you feel that the book was preparing you, in some way, for what happened?

Oh, that’s a really good question. It probably was in that, on a subconscious level, these were the sorts of things that were in my head.  Probably, because, by that time, we did have a lot of kids around our house that were struggling. We met some girls through our daughter. Our kids are all very close to my husband.  So, she would bring strays over to the house and sit them down in our living room with my husband and say, “Alright, you need to talk to my Dad.”  Then she’d sit them down and she’d leave to go to do something. So, my husband Rick would just be there with this girl and eventually they talk.  And I would come in and we’d talk together.  So, it was good. Kids stayed here a lot. Probably because we let them smoke. We were so stupid in a lot of ways.

Tell me a little bit about art and perspective and how that informed this book, because it’s so much a part of the book. You start with that really striking image in the beginning of Margie, one of the main characters, with her head above water following a suicide attempt.  You play with that perspective and then you keep shifting each chapter to different characters. How does your visual art sense play into constructing the book?

Very intensely.  It’s such a part of it.  I imagine the physical feel of things. I think the shape of my memory about the physicality of things, including what things look like is very permanent and perceptive. So I can remember things that way.  Verbally, I remember very little. Even when I read.  I’m a very slow, slow reader. Although I can stall on sentences and paragraphs and just be blown away, and very much appreciate excellent writing, that doesn’t mean that I remember a whole lot.

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Katherine James

For some reason, I can remember physical environment, images. And then, words would come out of those images.  I always think of Faulkner, because I think that I’ve read somewhere that he started with images.  I could really connect to that.

When I started to write, the most freeing things that anybody told me, (I think it was one of my professors when I was getting my MFA), was that you can do anything you want with fiction.  I was kind of blown away by that.  And I wasn’t sure. “What do you mean ‘anything I want’?”

“Any. thing. you want.”

And I go, “No way! I can have dangling participles?  Which, I don’t know what those are, but I can have them?  I don’t have to worry even about sentence structure if it sounds right?”  It was so freeing and after that is really when I hit the page.  I felt the freedom to keep going because my limitations really did tend to be not really knowing so much.

I don’t think that I’d be a very good composition teacher.  I could definitely teach poetry or fiction and I could teach those things well.  But when it comes to the mechanics of writing—the Chicago Manual style—I would just rip that up because it would really mess with my brain. So, that one statement was really powerful to me. It gave me this freedom to keep going.  Kind of like the Cubist movement maybe.

I’ve always heard that about writing: You learn all the rules so that you can break them.

[laughs] I never learned all the rules. I learned to break them immediately.  That’s why my poetry was so easy.  Sure, I knew how to write a sonnet and all of that, but free verse was big when I really started writing poetry in grade school.  It was really like, “Oh, I really can do anything I want”—I thought that was okay with poetry. But I didn’t know that with fiction that was true, too.  It can carry over into narrative nonfiction—at least these days it can.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Did you just feel that you were just following your instincts as you moved from chapter to chapter in this book?

Yes.  Every writer is so different, but, for me, usually I’ll write the first three chapters or so.  The characters begin to take shape and the environment   From there, I start to have a sense of where I’m headed.  Often I will go all the way to the back, to the last page, and I’ll write it.  I’ll write exactly where I want it to end.  Then I start back where I was before and I know exactly the ending that I want to get to.  So that’s the goal.  I can go anywhere in the middle but I know that’s where I want to end up.

It’s interesting how writers write.  I’ve heard that John Irving actually starts at the end and then writes towards the beginning.  I imagine if you could do that your plot would be phenomenal.

Of course, there are plenty of writers who do the outline or put little stick-up notes all over their desks, or Scrivner on the computer. I’ve tried that, but just doesn’t seem to work as well with me.

Segment 3 of the interview: “A God’s-Eye View”.

Writing and Painting Through Pain: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 1 of 3

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photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

How can we see the world in new ways?  In her debut novel, Can You See Anything Now?, (recently reviewed here on Heartlands), Katherine James uses her background in painting and the difficult passages in her life to weave a story of a healing town named Trinity and the people who live in it.  It’s a small town like many others with the familiar divisions between left and right.  But it’s also a story of people coming together and seeing the possibility for something more.

It’s a great new book and I was happy to be able to interview her recently.  We talked writing, painting, faith, and more.  In the third part of this interview we dig deeper into the book itself.

You’re writing a memoir that’s due out next spring.

Yeah, it’s kind of an intense one. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too hard to write. I guess I can kind of remove myself from situations, but about 4 1/2-5 years ago, our son had an heroin overdose.  He did live through it but it was one of those really bad ones…in a coma and all that.

The timing in our world right now, with the opiate addictions and everything, I just felt like it was time to sit down and write it out.  During that time, there was a lot that went on. My husband and I took in a lot of his friends and helped them out.  It was successful. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. We had no clue. We weren’t a rehab. Everybody was clean by then, but, you know, struggling.  We talked to a lot of them about Christ, and we saw some lives change. We went through a couple of deaths, a couple in prison.  You get the whole smattering of everything. But it was tragic. So, the whole memoir is kind of peppered with the story of our son having the overdose, and going in and being at the hospital, and all that.

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Katherine James

I just finished reading your article about your experience with breast cancer…the “Being Pretty” post in The Other Journal. So, you’ve had a whole lot of ^%#* happen.

[laughs] I know. I’m really hoping we’re out of this. But, at this point, I’m just careful in looking around the next corner, terrified of what’s going to happen.  Yeah, we had that.  It looks like everything’s cool but then, two years or so, really quite miraculously, I caught it early enough. I just happened to feel a lump. It was one of those things where the doctor said I saved my life. So yeah, that was a tough, little journey.

After the tragedy of our son, I could almost laugh the whole way through, honestly.  I was kind of like, “This is nothing.” So, I lose my chest. Who cares about that? [laughs]

Having told me the story of your son’s experience, I can see how that informed the book.  With all this going on, has writing become more important? Or has it assumed a different place within your life…a different size?

No, it has always been there, honestly.  I’m probably good at two things and two things only, really.  I can draw and paint. And I can write. That’s about it.

You don’t want to put me in an office—not because I’d hate it, but because every organized thing, I would just make it disorganized. So, that’s about all I have.

When I was painting, I always had this thing in the back of my mind where I’d rather be writing. With painting and writing, when that’s what you are doing, I feel like that’s the only way I can really focus on anything. You can always go back and perfect it, over and over again. Rework perfection.

With painting, it’s: ‘Quit trying to cover up your messes.’ It’s a whole different thing. That’s why I work with oil, because it all mixes together a little bit. I don’t know if you’ve ever painted…

No, I learned a whole lot about painting from your book.

So, with oil, it all mushes together, which is wonderful. The oil mixes with the oil and you can make this beautiful color that’s nice and smooth. You’re making new colors on the canvas as you paint. In writing, it would almost be as though your sentences were overlapping on each other.  And when you wrote a new sentence, the other sentence would have to somehow mesh with the one before.

So, the memoir is done ? Well, except maybe for the title. [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah, it’s finished.  Honestly, I’ve never written a book that’s non-fiction before. I mean, I’ve written other novels that I just thought were crummy. I never really did much with them, but it was good to write.  I think you do have to write a couple of book-like things before you can narrow in, and say, “Hey, I’m actually going to pursue this one.”

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Can you talk about the personal struggle of writing a memoir?  What was it like to go through that, reliving some of those painful parts of life and joyous parts?

Memoir is a beast for me only because it’s true; I can’t just make things up. It was really hard to have something linear, so that it made sense.  I had too much material.  I had to decide what to put in there and leave out.  So, that was really difficult.

As far as actually writing the thing, surprisingly, I disconnected myself from it.  It wasn’t particularly hard for me to do. However, I wanted my son to vet it, and also my husband. My son read the first two chapters and then he came in and said, “It’s really well-written, but I just can’t keep going on.”  It didn’t hurt him, he just said, “It really hurts me that I hurt you that I hurt you so much.”  Then, he apologized again that he’d ever done that to us. So, that was just really sweet.  Then, my husband felt the same way.  After reading the first few chapters, he had to just gave it back.

Segment 2 of the interview: “Free to Use Dangling Participles.”

Shhh!  Do You Taste This in Prayer?

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photo by Tessa Rampersand via Unsplash

I understand the desire to lift up our neighbors in their difficulties in prayer.  In fact, it’s what we’re told to do.  Paul tells the Philippian church to do just this at the close of his letter: ”Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (4:6)

Lately, though, I have come to feel that we do far too much talking in our prayers.  Our sharing of concerns in corporate worship sometimes feels like the old community news column in the paper where the comings and goings of neighbors were reported in great detail.  So much medical information is shared sometimes that the prayers of the people become one long HIPAA violation!  [The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects medical privacy, is very familiar to health care professionals.]

So much medical information is shared sometimes that the prayers of the people become one long HIPAA violation!

But it’s really not the content so much as the way we pray…the way I’ve prayed as a worship leader…that is getting my attention.

The 4th century desert mystic, Evagrios of Pontos, called prayer “the ongoing conversation of the human spirit with its God.”  No conversation worthy of its name contains so much one-sided talk as the kind of prayers we send up, both in public and private settings.  If we believe prayer is the kind of encounter that can change us, then there must be space for experiencing the silence that is God’s medium.

51m8Rds-bhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_We’re uncomfortable with such disengagement.  How long do our silences last these days before we reach for our phones or some other form of distraction?  Evagrios, even out in the Palestinian desert, knew a similar struggle.  “The devils will surely suggest distracting matters, desiring that your mind will search them, and suspecting failure in prayer you will know chagrin, and lose confidence,” he said.

But silence is worth the risk.  Sure, I have run down my to-do list in the silence that was supposed to be prayer.  But God has also spoken powerfully through that silence.

“Practice genuine patience, and your prayer will always taste of joy,” Evagrios says (as translated by the great poet, Scott Cairns, in the book Love’s Immensity).  Unburden your busy mind to the God who listens…then…shhhh!  Can you taste it?

Finding God in a Small Town: A Review of Can You See Anything Now?

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photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

You could hardly imagine two more different artists than the ones you meet in the opening pages of Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now? [Paraclete, 2017].

There’s Margie, who paints vivid canvases, attributing personal characteristics to still lifes, sketching nudes, and doing a grand scale work featuring ovens that make her daughter think of Sylvia Plath.  Margie, who explores and struggles with depth and negative space in her attic studio, her life, her family, and in Trinity, her small, upstate town.  Margie, who chooses drowning as the method for her latest suicide attempt because it is “metaphorically appropriate in light of the lungs filling with liquid and air bubbling upward like packets of life that pop at the surface” (5).

Then there’s Etta, her churchgoing neighbor, whose painting tends toward tomatoes and rooftops.  Her work is folky, adorned with rusty nails and wire, accessible, and easily reproducible.  She has a front porch with a Cracker Barrel rocker and she reads popular Christian books to help strengthen her marriage.  Her cooking tends to Crock Pot recipes and hot dog casseroles.

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Katherine James

The artist behind these artists is Katherine James, who has fashioned a richly-textured, sharply-observed book that deserves to be in the hands of everyone who grieves over the divides of our day, longs to feel God’s presence in the land of living, and who imagines unlikely friendships.

Margie and Etta are not the only characters in this book, but their friendship is emblematic of James’s vision.  It begins when Margie, fresh off an MS diagnosis, canoes out to a swimming platform in the lake on a crisp, fall morning, ties a rock to her leg, and slips into the waters only to find that the lake is more shallow than she expected.  After several hours of floating with her head above water, she is rescued from her humiliating predicament and returns home.  Etta drops by the house with a basket of bran muffins a few days later and over the course of time  Margie finds that she has many more chapters left, not only with Etta, but with her therapist husband, Nick, and college-aged daughter, Noel, as well.

James’s strangely hopeful book drops in at a difficult time in our American narrative.  It’s not that her many well-defined characters don’t have struggles.  They do.  Opioids, family dysfunction, cutting, and a horizon of lowered economic expectations—they’re all here.  The inescapable cultural and political divide of Trumpian America is always in the background.  And the threat of death returns in another incident in the waters, when Noel’s troubled roommate, Pixie, visiting during the Thanksgiving break, slips beneath the ice of the town’s river.

Even so, things are being restored in Trinity.  Noel and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Owen, find their way past old divisions and emerge from a day (at the lake) as lovers.  Pixie’s odd father, Pete, comes to town to care for her, and finds a kind of faith.  When he shares with Nick and Margie his simple trust in God to raise his daughter, Nick resorts to his rationalist reservoir.  “There’s a lot to be said for religion,” Nick says, though he himself can’t say much for it.

Yet the whole exchange takes place in a warm kitchen over beer and fettuccini, hinting at a kind of communion all the characters are longing for.

“I’m homesick,” Noel says as she watches her mother paint through her pain.  “Even when I’m home I’m homesick.” (282)

Katherine James,  the painter, uses her artist’s eye to give her work shifting perspectives, moving deftly between characters in each of the short chapters.  She brings us up close to sensual details, which we pass each day.  The sad, “gray plastic fountain [in the nursing home] that had a stream of water over a shelf of yellow-stained plastic and them emptied into a little pond with a rock in the middle, and then pumped back up to do it again” (285)?  I’ve seen that fountain.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames can also soar into the heavens to see the world with the eyes of God, nowhere more effectively than in the climactic vigil that ends the book.  When the skeptics and the true believers gather in a nursing home parking lot, they bring their coolers and pick food from aluminum trays that sit atop folding tables.  Even their greatest attempts at spiritual connection are surrounded by the trappings of American consumer culture.

And yet “view the town like an eagle,” and you see a great river of people on a quest.  “The trees are pine near the water and into the air they emit a nostalgic smell, a backwards whisper reminding people that they can’t get at something they know is important…The day is still and hot and the people are waiting.  The people are like grasshoppers and they wait.” (305-6)  Like God, you can’t help but love these troubled, searching people.

Don’t come to Can You See Anything Now? with the expectation of composed piety.  Katherine James has seen hard times and her writing displays the searing quality of those experiences.  There is beauty, but whether you can see it now is always an open question.  God and faith are here, but they appear in the way they do in real life, in quiet, unexpected ways and always on the provisional ground of the present day.

This is a deeply Christian book, and it is excellent Christian fiction.  It’s also just plain, unqualified, excellent fiction approached with real heart.  Go, see what you can see.

My interview with Katherine James is up now!.

Taking Hospitality Out of the House (& Keeping Worship Weird)

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Photo by Julio Casado via Unsplash

Preachers are fond of quoting Annie Dillard’s devastating critique of worship as she experienced it in a traditional church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to whence we can never return.  —“An Expedition to the Pole” in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)

To me the better line is her under-the-breath horror as a make-shift folk band comes to the front to lead the Sanctus:

“I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny.”

But no matter.  Either quote will do and Dillard’s withering words are good medicine, even 35 years hence.  Though Dillard herself recognizes that, even if we had more appropriate worship wear and the most excellent of music, we would still be unprepared to meet the living God.

21w56ZraclL._BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been thinking about Dillard as I consider what it is that we are asking people to do in worship.  At best practice churches, we hand visitors coffee and feed them doughnuts.  We put friendly faces at the door and make sure that they are greeted by at least five different people.  We make our bulletins visitor-friendly and we are sure to highlight entry points to the congregational life in our announcements.  We don’t assume they know what the acronyms mean and we print the Lord’s Prayer in case it is unfamiliar.  We have good lighting and clean sanctuaries, free of dustbunnies and spiderwebs.

The truth of the matter is that most churches, as much as they try, will never match the expectations of hospitality that have been set by the commercial spaces we inhabit.  We’re not going to out-hip the coffee shop or exceed the bright, cleanliness of Whole Foods.  And the sanctuary is not going to mimic the comforts of home.

I’m not making an argument for abandoning the practices of radical hospitality.  The habit of welcoming is essential to a body that believes that it may be thereby “entertaining angels unawares” as Hebrews says.

But the culture that surrounds the church has diverged so sharply from the culture of the church, that a more effective hospitality is embodied in going into those other, non-church spaces to be a real human person there.  To be a real-live Christian in the wild.  It’s an old saw now, but the days of setting a shingle out in front of the church and saying, ‘Y’all come,’ are long gone.  It’s more about going out and saying, “I’m here.”

Which means that worship is freed from its anxious superficiality to be an encounter with the fire that tells who we are.  Why pretend that the worship space is as non-threatening as an aisle of Wal-mart when it summons us into the presence of a fierce and holy God?  We are immersed in the idolatrous identities offered to us by our screens and other inputs.  Where can we practice being something different and where can we learn what it means to be splayed out before an all-consuming Presence?

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In her magisterial book, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015], the theologian Katherine Sonderegger ponders Moses’s burning bush encounter with God and highlights its earth-shattering implications:

“It is a wonder that Scripture does not end here, at this blinding fire.  It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness.  For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject.  This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (222)

I don’t want to seduce the world to church by promising that we are all a few tweaks and life hacks away from perfection.  I want to be in a place that reminds me of the “end” Sonderegger talks about.  A place where I am told that the distance between what is and what should be is a chasm that can’t be crossed short of total surrender.  And yet that salvation is closer to me than I am to myself.

I want to keep worship weird.