Chasing the Panther and Finding One’s Self: A Review of The Which Way Tree

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

You might say that Elizabeth Crook has written a classic boy’s adventure.  The Which Way Tree is narrated by 17-year-old Benjamin Shreve, who tells the tale of an epic panther hunt in Civil War-era Texas.  There are renegade soldiers, larger-than-life characters, chases through the Hill Country and a magnificent, terrifying beast.

But this is also the tale of a girl.  Benjamin’s younger half-sister Samantha, (always known as Sam), is, like her mother, stubborn, resilient, and possessed of an animal determination.  When the panther (we would call it a mountain lion today) makes a late night visit to the Shreve home, Sam’s mother, an African-American woman married to the children’s white father, goes into gory battle with the cat after it attacks Sam, hacking two toes off the panther before losing her life.  Sam is left with hideous scars and an obsession to get vengeance.

It would take too much of the joy of this book away to reveal more of the particulars, but suffice it to say that the panther returns after the children are orphaned and a pursuit across South Texas ensues that involves Clarence Hamlin—a stupid, evil man, Hamlin’s wise uncle—Preacher Dob, Mr. Pacheco—a stylish Mexican, and a panther dog named Zechariah.  It’s a rollicking ride and the telling of it gives Benjamin a chance to emerge as a writer, since the story unfolds in a series of “testaments” to a benevolent and encouraging judge.

There are hints of other great works here.  The most obvious is Moby Dick, an allusion made explicit by Benjamin’s continuing references to The Whale, which is one of the few books he has read, it having been tossed up to him by Union prisoners held in the bottom of a canyon in exchange for corn.  But the journey with a primal young girl across 19th century Texas has also been done recently by Paulette Jiles, another Texan writer, in her wonderful 2016 novel, News of the World.  And of course, there are the Western boy’s adventures as a backdrop, too.

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Elizabeth Crook

Even though there are some familiar elements, Crook has fashioned something uniquely hers here, too.  Her young characters have agency and power that the adult characters both nurture and respect.  She challenges racial presumptions and hints at the more fluid race relations in frontier Texas.  And she is wise to the ways of the human heart.

There is also a rough Christian spirituality at work here, voiced most often by the old preacher, but also, in good Screwtape fashion by the evil Hamlin, as well.  In a previous post I talked about the striking image of the Which Way Tree, but when the preacher comes to talk about Sam’s obsession with the panther, he sees how the animal is part of Sam’s struggle with the world.

“Her whole life, she has wanted to kill the panther,” Preacher Dob says.  “The Bible says where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.  If the panther’s hide should remain our little girl’s treasure, her heart will lie under a uprooted tree, beyond the edge of all she has ever known in her life, and far out of reach of them that cares for her…She is called on to walk off from this river and take nothing that she brought to it.  That is a hard thing to do.” (251)

If I were only going to read one Texas book this year…  Ha!  Right!  Listen, I know I’m a sucker for things Texan, but The Which Way Tree transcends my peculiar obsessions.  This is a first-rate read that will stick with you.

**Full disclosure: Little, Brown and Co. gave me a copy of this book to review.

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

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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.

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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.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, lies dead.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBIby David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horsesby Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!