Inside Something: A Poem for a Rainy Day

craig-whitehead-260341

photo by Craig Whitehead via Unsplash

The tea cozy cover of a sunk-in rain.

The vast,

intimidating

sky

shielded by dark clouds.

The low

rumble of thunder.

The wisdom of the rain speaking gently

diligently:

 

“You are inside something.

You are not without love or borders.

All your anxious

wonderings

are contained within this sphere.

Settle yourself.

Learn the lesson of the land and air.

Be here with.”

Alex Joyner

The Power Asks Us to Consider #WeToo: A Review

nathan-mcbride-230552

photo by Nathan McBride via Unsplash

Naomi Alderman’s provocative new book, The Power, is more simply described without the definite article.  Power, and how it infuses human relationships, particularly gender relationships, hums though this book like an electric current.  And just like that current, it can turn fearsome and deadly in an instant.

The Power is an acknowledged heir to Margaret Atwood’s recently-rediscovered The Handmaid’s Tale, right down to its bright red cover.  Atwood’s dystopian feminist novel imagines a world where a neo-Puritan patriarchy has descended on America.  Alderman reverses the dynamic, depicting a future where young women have suddenly developed a new muscle, called a skein, that allows them to deliver an electric charge through their bodies.  Suddenly women have the kind of physical dominance that men have historically presumed and the effects ripple through .

51wVJN7Bu1L._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Four characters provide different windows on the world created by the newly electrified women (and rattled men).  Roxy is the daughter of a London crime boss who avenges her mother’s death and powers her way to become the head of the family business, now as the leader of a cartel smuggling Glitter, a drug that enhances the electrical capacity of women.  Tunde is a Nigerian man who chronicles the rising tide of empowered women and the male resistance.  Margot is a US politician who uses the power like a sheathed knife, rising to the top circles of the government.

Allie, an orphaned Southern girl, takes, for my money, the most interesting journey.  Gifted with healing abilities and guided by an ambivalent mystical voice, Allie develops an alter ego as Mother Eve, a charismatic religious figure who reinterprets Christian theology from a female perspective.

This Eve speaks in the language of the Bible but it is a Scripture that turns old patriarchal readings inside out.  For this Eve, the tree is not an Edenic image of women’s downfall, but the symbol of The Power itself, branching upward, “the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.” (3)  When Allie is installed as an advisor to the queen of a woman-dominated breakaway state in Moldova, she occupies a chapel filled with enameled paintings of female saints and Eve herself “receiving the message from the Heavens and extending her hand filled with lightning.” (252)

Eve knows the old stories about kings taking daughters to slave in the palace.  (Samuel’s warning to Israel about the dangers of a king from 1 Samuel 8 serve as a preface to the book.)  But Eve uses the stories to praise female leadership.  But then Eve/Allie struggles with dark temptations as she assumes ever more exalted status.

Like Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, this book has a frame that adds another dimension to the read.  The Power begins and ends with an exchange of letters between a male author seeking the advice of more connected and experienced writer named Naomi.  Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman) has written a fictionalized history of the period right before The Cataclysm, a event in the distant path that led to the world of female dominance.  This history constitutes the bulk of The Power and it is fascinating to see the woman writer push back agains a history that challenges her preferred narrative.

images

Naomi Alderman

Alderman develops this thought experiment with great thoroughness.  The Power is not a fantasy of wish fulfillment nor does she describe a utopia.  The ripple effects in religion, in politics, in relationships, and in culture are varied and unpredictable.  Women struggle to understand how to use this new power, how to reveal it, how to control it, how to hide it.  Men conform, submit, resist, and curdle.  It’s not a pretty sight.

But in the end the book does what all good science fiction does—it puts our own time in sharp relief and forces us to grapple with the unsaid and the un-dealt-with.  The effect of The Power is to ask its reading audience, men and women, to consider what is essential and what is merely a distortion caused by power relationships.  In an era when the nakedness of power and retrograde gender relationships are both celebrated and resisted in novel ways, this book, with all its brutality, gets your attention.  It warns that if we don’t find ways to see one another, in all our potency and vulnerability, we will always be playing with the third rail—the one that has the power to kill.

As a pastor, I am also brought back to the role that feminist biblical interpretation has played in my own traning.  Much of Mother Eve’s reimagining of religion finds its roots in work done in the 70s and 80s in Christian seminaries.  Like the feminist scholars who helped form me, Eve challenges what counts as orthodoxy and questions whether the male language and imagery of the tradition is essential or merely patriarchal accretion.

FOOTNOTE – Alderman is also behind the popular fitness app “Zombies, Run!”  I’ve been using this for the past couple of years to get me motivated.  She’s a great storyteller in that format, too, and there’s even an episode that includes Margaret Atwood checking in from post-Zombie apocalypse Toronto.  The story, and the sound of hungry zoms breathing down your neck, will keep you moving!

Bray into the Dying Light

Jeanne Finley sees dimensions that I hadn’t seen.

Tell it Slant

On January 13 Alex Joyner posted his stunning new poem, “Sunset in Archer County,” on his Heartlands blog.  Coincidentally, that same day an employee of Hawaii’s emergency alert system issued a false alarm that terrified residents and visitors:  “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII.  SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.  THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”  I read Alex’s poem with that news story hovering over my head.  First the poem . . .

Sunset in Archer County

If coyotes howl at sunset

why do we sit in silence?

Staring at our screens

or dumbfounded by our electrified darlings

we let the miracle pass

unnoticed

day after night after day.

That a nuclear furnace on which all life depends

some millions of miles beyond us

is passing once more out of sight

plunging us into dark from which we could

never recover

and we chose diversion

instead of braying into the dying light?

How…

View original post 519 more words

Sunset in Archer County – A Poem

ray-hennessy-118046

photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash

If coyotes howl at sunset

why do we sit in silence?

Staring at our screens

or dumbfounded by our electrified darlings

we let the miracle pass

unnoticed

day after night after day.

That a nuclear furnace on which all life depends

some millions of miles beyond us

is passing once more out of sight

plunging us into dark from which we could

never recover

and we chose diversion

instead of braying into the dying light?

How unevolved.

The creatures are more wise than I.

 

I want to strip down naked

and join the coyote clan.

I want to skulk beneath a barbed wire fence

leaving tufts of hair to mark the passing.

I want to move lightly over loose rock

and spiky ground

to gather on a height,

there to loose the cry

that would squelch the yearning

lodged in my chest.

Joined in song—this desperate song—

by others of my breed

To note this orange moment

this golden moment

this vermillion moment

this inky moment

this night of the full moon’s rise

Because it may not come again

And where would I rather be on my or the earth’s

last day

than basking in that light

with all my wildness hanging out?

–Alex Joyner

Love Stinks (But it Also Wins): A Delayed Review of Rob Bell

javier-ramos-421849

photo by Javier Ramos via Unsplash

The problem with love is it’s easy to sentimentalize.  O heck, there are many problems with love, sentimentalizing being the least of them.  Love distorts our vision.  Love lets us down.  Love keeps us in relationships we should have left.  Love is a knife to the heart and a passionate madness.  Yes, love is a many splendored thing, but let’s be honest: Sometimes, to quote the J. Geils Band, love stinks.

The problem with Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell is not that the title is wrong.  Christian theology is all about love winning.  I high-fived Bishop James Swanson mid-sermon on the floor of the Virginia Annual Conference last summer right after he said roughly that.

The thing is: we’re not the best judges of love.

41SJcK3PlDLI’m a little late to the game on Love Wins.  It has been seven years since Bell made a splash with this book which challenges the idea that sinners will suffer consciously and eternally in a literal hell unless they find Jesus.  This was the book that led to infamous John Piper tweet which said simply, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  And the following year Rob Bell had said farewell—to the large Mars Hill Church he had pastored in Michigan, in part because of the fallout from his flirtation with universalism.

Bell landed on his feet under the wing of Oprah, who was enamored with Rob’s follow-up book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.  Becoming a celebrity spiritual guide only confirmed the suspicions of those who see Bell as a theological lightweight.  But it’s unfair to measure a man by his Nielsen ratings.

Let’s measure by the book.  And Love Wins does speak to an honest hunger among us to know a God of love.  Bell wants to give a lot of windows on that question.  He uses biblical examples like the parable of the prodigal son and the plight of the rich young ruler.  He pokes holes in the otherworldly theology behind an old, evangelical picture of a cross straddling a chasm between the darkened ‘here’ and the gleaming ‘there.’  He celebrates the kitchen floor conversion of a man who found God in the midst of smoking pot.  There are many ways Jesus can meet us, he concludes.

What Bell doesn’t do is to spend a lot of time describing who this Jesus is and how the Christian tradition has talked about the work of atonement.  “Not his job or his point,” you might say.  He obviously wants to talk about how Jesus’s story is the story of love.  “The love of God for every single one of us,” Bell says on the first page.  “It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.” (vii)

True, that.  But it’s also a stunning, beautiful, specific love that finds its expression in the Christian story centered on a crucified Jesus.  That’s the story that lights up all those other stories that Bell brings to the table.

Arguing about hell is like judging a car by one ball bearing.  Whether you like it or not doesn’t help understand how the thing works.  And you’ll never understand the piece without comprehending the whole.

Bell-1170x779

Rob Bell, Religion News Service

Which is not to say that Bell is wrong about hell.  In his afterword he points the way to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce which is pretty great read and which offers a plausible rendering of what hell is within the tradition.  But the tradition holds the key, tends the light, and marvels at God’s love, which is unlike any of those loves we celebrate in our culture.

And to get a little lyrical about it: We see it as compassion—this willingness of God to go to the far country, to restore the divine image in the works of clay.  We call it love—the greatest love—but it has a character altogether different from any kind of love we know.  Our pale reflections are tinged by fear and grief and pain, sentimentality and need and failure.

But what is this love which is just doing its work—not out of necessity but out of some grand unicity—its beauty of a piece with its eternal wholeness?  It is love because God is reconciling all things to Godself in Jesus Christ.  Of course, we experience this as love—of the unmerited kind that so captivates us and makes for tender parables of prodigal sons restored and dead children brought back to life.  But Christ is just doing his job.  ‘Today and tomorrow I am with you and on the third day I’m in Jerusalem.’

This is the mundane job of the divine—to knit together what is wounded and to blaze a trail where there is no way.  But it comes with purely superfluous flourishes—touches that are in no way required.  A tear at the tomb of a friend.  The sensual pleasure of bathing in nard.  The intimacy of a mother and child.  Bread passed around a table and a shared cup.

Is it any wonder we reduce it all to love winning?  Rob Bell has the same instincts.

Spelunking: The Journey of Prayer

felix-russell-saw-234596

photo by Felix Russell-Saw via Unsplash

In here

is a cavern

vast and brilliant

Where old songs echo off ancient walls

and fresh water drips down to do its

long work of creation.

In here

the illusion of sterility can confound you

as if no life stirs,

no light illumines,

no generative communion draws

souls to one.

But in here

vistas open regularly

wild creatures rut and roar

the cave becomes a canvas

for a righteous riot of possibility.

‘In here’

eludes our best technology.

There is no cell reception in the depths.

And so we sit in silence

waiting for the Other’s face to compose

and hunger gloriously in the gathering glow of Her.

–Alex Joyner

Beloved Numbskulls – Athanasius on Saving Face

Flight_into_Egypt_(coptic_icon)

Icon of the Flight into Egypt – via Wikimedia Commons

‘Here, belovéd numbskulls, is a little picture: You gather,

one presumes, what must be done when a portrait on a panel

becomes obscured—maybe even lost—to external stain.

The artist does not discard the panel, though the subject must return

to sit for it again, whereupon the likeness is etched once more upon

the same material.  As He tells us in the Gospel, I came

to seek and to save that which was lost—our faces, say.

St. Athanasius, ‘His Image Recovered,’ translated by Scott Cairns

Crossing into Mythical Mexico with Cormac McCarthy: A Review of The Crossing

IMG_6686

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t need any more accolades from the likes of me.  His reputation as a great American writer seems pretty secure.  But as a recent convert to the ranks of his fans, I have to say of The Crossing – wow.

That’s probably sufficient.  I’m not going to be an equal to his prose and the writer in me just wants to lay down the pen and acknowledge the master.  But perhaps just a few more words.

The Crossing is the middle volume in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.  Throughout I was wondering what direct connection there was between this book and its predecessor, All the Pretty Horses.  The indirect connections are certainly there.  ATPH has a pair of teenaged protagonists in mid-20th century America discovering the world and themselves in cross-border expeditions with horses into northern Mexico.  The Crossing has the same, and you might be tempted to think that McCarthy is just writing the same book twice.

But the storylines don’t intersect, (though I understand that Billy Parham, the main protagonist in The Crossing, will meet up with John Grady Cole from the first book in Cities of the Plain).  And if there was high-spirited adventure and romance in ATPH, there is much more bleakness and scattered pieces of a narrative in The Crossing.

51UeFuwmXaL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_You can see some old ancestors in The Crossing—Don Quixote, The Odyssey, Flannery O’Conner, Faulkner—but what McCarthy does with them is absolutely unique to him.  There is a pregnant wolf who makes the first crossing from Mexico into New Mexico and becomes the focus of Billy Parham’s unexplained quest to return her to the mountains from which she has come.  There is Billy’s long sojourn in those mountains following the violent end of that quest in which he is immersed into a Mexico still scarred by the terrors of the Revolution, now some two decades in the past.

There is Billy’s return to New Mexico to discover his parents slaughtered and the family horses stolen.  Billy’s reunion with his brother Boyd and their journey back to Mexico to try and retrieve what has been lost.  A 14-year-old girl who becomes an unlikely companion.  Adventures with ruthless horse thieves.  A grievous injury.  Encounters with a blind veteran and a circus diva.  And in the end Billy is left on his own to return back home.

After failed attempts to enlist as World War II is beginning, Billy knocks around ranches picking up jobs before making one last crossing.  This time, his brother and the girl have entered the realm of legend.  Billy digs up Boyd from a desolate grave and carries his bones back to the States, but not without one more encounter with deadly thieves and one more metaphysical conversation with gypsies carting around an airplane fuselage.

What this summary doesn’t capture is the beauty of McCarthy’s writing and his supernatural gift with description.  You will get lost in the particulars, but you will know the terrain with intimacy.  And it is that deeper knowing that this trilogy keeps pointing to.  To know in a place the story of earth, heaven, and humanity itself.