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, died.  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 FBI by 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 Horses by 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!

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#5 The Crucifixion

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Fleming Rutledge is having a long-overdue moment in the wake of her 2015 book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I finally finished it in 2017, qualifying it for this list, and gushed about it in my review, (which you can access through the title link in the previous sentence).

Rutledge sees her book as an exercise of religious imagination, drawing together biblical and theological images of the atonement and exploring their significance.  “The principal purpose of this book,” she says, “will be to strengthen the reader’s surmise that the cross of Jesus is an unrepeatable event that calls all religion into question and establishes an altogether new foundation for faith, life, and a human future.” (2)

I credit this book with drawing me back to a love of theology, primarily because Fleming doesn’t insist that such a pursuit be done at the expense of beauty and literature.  In fact, she insists on such things.

This is my top theological recommendation these days.  Solid, comprehensive, generous, and insightful.  With the occasional quote from Flannery O’Conner, Dostoevsky, and MLK.  An easy pick.

We’ve Got an Open Door Problem


photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

I’ve always been a little worried about our open doors.  When the United Methodist Church adopted the slogan “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” some twenty years ago, it captured a sentiment that many United Methodists have about themselves.  Whatever else we may be, (and that’s an area of great contention), we have been the broad middle, accepting and celebrating a wide variety of peoples and viewpoints.

When the planes hit the towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, our then-new slogan had just been unfurled on a giant billboard in Times Square.  In the aftermath of that attack and in the wake of the other scares of that awful fall (anthrax, the elusive sniper), the whole tenor of the country changed and the impulse was to close every door and to go into lockdown mode.  Our openness stood out in prophetic contrast then and that slogan helped us adhere to our faith in the One who made himself vulnerable and who, in his crucifixion, “broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us” [Ephesians 2:14].

But there were always dangers in the slogan.  One was that it might get confused as a mission statement—as if openness was our reason for being.  In that case, openness might as well be emptiness because the slogan doesn’t speak to its source.  Open hearts, open minds, and open doors are a byproduct of a vital faith in Christ, not an end in themselves.  What we’re about is the worship of a God who is making all things new and one sign of that is that walls are coming down.

515pkTRb55L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A larger danger was and is that the slogan might be taken for a description of how things are rather than as an aspiration of what we hope to live out.  Fleming Rutledge goes after this in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ:

Congregations are claiming for human beings what is possible only for God.  No congregation can include everyone.  No self-identified inclusive and welcoming church can live up to this assessment of itself.  Many a person who has attended a church advertising radical hospitality has come and gone from church coffee hours without being greeted by anyone…The congregation that makes a place for torchbearers with Downs syndrome might fail to embrace an unwashed, unmedicated, disruptive man off the street…Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves as diverse, welcoming, and all-inclusive, the fact remains that no one and no group can be, in this life, all-embracing.  (576-7)

If the danger were just false advertising, we might just tweak the slogan: “Mostly open hearts, minds, and doors.”  Or better yet, choose another one.  But Rutledge points out that the problem is ultimately theological.  We are overestimating our potential to do what only God can do and has done.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t be about the work of hospitality.  Lord knows we could use some freshening up in how we acknowledge and include new people, and all kinds of people, in our churches.  But we could also use some real honesty and humility about our need for God in order to understand how openness happens.


photo by Tim Marshall via Unsplash

John Wesley invited the same danger when he talked about Christians moving on to perfection.  When you separate such language from a bedrock trust in God’s work in Jesus Christ, it sounds like Wesley is putting his faith in human efforts.  But Wesley understood the ways that the we are warped by slavery to Sin and Death.  He knew that human work was always done in the light of Christ’s prior work on the cross to free us, despite our lack of potential, to nevertheless follow where he leads.

All of this to say, that the slogan needs some grace.  Grace that will allow us to stop using it as a weapon to needle our brothers and sisters for not living up to it.  Grace to accept the freedom God gives us, not just for earnestness, but for joy and wonder.  Grace to not attempt to be more than we are called to be.

For generations, we have tried to be too much as a church—social scientists, political theorists, psychologists, urban planners, non-profit charities.  And all-inclusive at that.  God bless our curiosity and ambition.  But God forgive our forgetfulness and lack of faith in the centrality of being a Church living out of the deep well of its faith in the crucified and risen Christ.  It is enough.

Back to the Cross: The Inclusive Vision of Fleming Rutledge


yY623rKO_400x400If the theology podcast Crackers & Grape Juice has any redeeming value*, (and Lord knows they have interviewed some questionable characters in their brief existence—primary evidence: their January interview with me!), it is the recurring “Fridays with Fleming” segments that have introduced the Episcopal priest and theologian, Fleming Rutledge, to a wider audience.  With her Tidewater Virginia roots resonating in her every word, Rutledge makes an enthralling and poetic conversationalist, touching as easily on literature and the arts as on theology.

Beneath the gentility and on the page, however, Rutledge is a lucid and systematic thinker who has a preacher’s knack for communicating difficult theological concepts.  That’s nowhere more present than in her 2015 book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  It is a massive tome filled with footnotes, but every page and every note is worth it for the comprehensive journey the reader takes with a gifted and entertaining author.

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Rutledge’s primary conviction is that the cross of Jesus Christ stands at the center of the Christian story.  Her primary worry is that, in our efforts to divert our attention from the cross—its violence, the way that it has been captured by a narrow, individualized, evangelical message—we have lost the richness and fullness of biblical motifs that would help us understand why it is so central.  “No one image can do justice to the whole; all are part of the great drama of salvation,” she says.  “We need to make room for all the biblical images.” (7)  And so she does.

You will find here sacrifice and substitution, the themes that make many mainline theologians nervous, but you will also find a thorough-going apocalyptic vision that reclaims Christus Victor language, not as an exclusive lens for seeing the crucifixion, but as a dominant one.  Rutledge finds her way to this by reviewing Paul’s neglected language of the Powers and by taking seriously the cosmic conflict of God and the Devil.  “Most biblical interpretation in the modern age has been done as though there were only two dramas personae,” Rutledge says, “God and humanity—thereby demystifying the New Testament, which presents three.” (377)  Rutledge wants to have us be witnesses to the invasion that is taking place in the Incarnation as God confronts the powers of Sin and Death.

Rutledge has heavy-hitting theological partners on her side – Karl Barth and David Bentley Hart, but she has Flannery O’Connor and Ralph Ellison as well.  Her argument is for inclusion of voices and against the flattening tendencies of so much post-Enlightenment discourse.  “Much of today’s literal-mindedness is doubtless owing to the fact that fewer and fewer people read novels and poetry,” she says. (211)

So the authors and theologians mingle with the preachers in these pages, all seeking something more than a pristine plan.  There are no innocents in human history, Rutledge emphasizes frequently.  “An eight-year-old can see more clearly than some of the rest of us that well-meaning programs for improving the human species are not going to accomplish much besides making the designers of the program feel good about themselves.  We don’t need a program; we need deliverance from this whole cycle of violence and vengefulness.  Humankind needs to be saved from itself.” (308)

It is for this reason that Rutledge comes to an appreciative evaluation of the theme (biblical!) of substitution.  Surprisingly, she quotes a passage in Barth that brings home the implications of the motif with psychological insight:

“It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong…We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves.  It is therefore a liberation that…[in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.” (519)

In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.  Freed from being innocent, we are capable of participating in a story that is ultimately not about us, or perhaps more accurately, far more than only about us.  It’s about a God who goes the distance, to Death itself, and thereby raises the dead.

In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.

There’s far more here.  Evil, hell, the wrath of God—she tackles them all.  But there is poetry and light and fodder for a hundred sermons and more.  This is equally important and lovely.  It makes this book great.

*There is actually much to recommend Crackers & Grape Juice and its 4-person hosting crew of United Methodist pastors – Jason Micheli, Taylor Mertins, Morgan Guyton & Teer Hardy.

You’ve Got the Wrong Enemies

jerry-kiesewetter-195442One of the most distressing things about the Great Divide, as we’ve come to call the chasm separating us in so many arenas, is the way we seem compelled to create an enemy out of our opponents.  I know that I am getting sucked in to an argument with more heat than light when I hear people explaining, “Well, you know this is what the right wing believes,” or “You know this is how liberals think.”  And then we go on to explain the thinking of “the other side” for them, usually with the greatest stereotypes we can muster.  I had to stop getting news headlines from several online services because I realized they were just feeding my ire and my fire.

It’s not that we don’t need enemies, it’s just that we’ve chosen the wrong ones.  “We are not fighting with flesh and blood,” Ephesians 6:12 tells us, “but against powers, against principalities, against mighty powers in this dark world.”  And no, I’m not talking about your favorite political bogeyman there.

515pkTRb55L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Our arguments have a tendency to go apocalyptic quickly these days, but if they were truly apocalyptic, we wouldn’t be imagining the worst that our opponents could do.  We would be trying to discern the spiritual temperature of the times.  Because the apocalyptic world view, as Fleming Rutledge talks about in her latest book The Crucifixion, is not one that imagines the destructive potential of human actions, but one that places those actions within the context of God’s activity and God’s timeline.  The real question is not, “How are we going to end it all?” but “Where is the realm of God, God’s new thing, being revealed?”

The way our perverted apocalypticism is revealed in the church is in the absence of a sense that anything is at stake when we gather.  When we sink into old worship forms that merely feed our nostalgia or persist in doing things simply because of our inertia, we lose the imperative that comes from being truly enlisted in a spiritual adventure which requires the full armor of God.  Signing on for service in Christ’s corpus is about a fight to the death confrontation with the principalities that have enslaved one and all.  And that’s a fight God wins.