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!.

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Can We Talk About Sexuality?

41BB69XhR3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.” (9)  So says Jill Johnson, one of my co-authors of the new book, Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, just out from Abingdon Press.  But this book may help us to bring our best selves to the discussion.

Living Faithfully is designed to help participants “understand and grapple with various views about the ministry and teaching of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality.”  I’m happy to have been a contributor to this new four-week small group study.  (I got chapter 4.)  A Leader Guide is included with lesson plans for facilitating the study.

The book includes biblical and theological reflections along with information on United Methodist structure and diverse perspectives.  You’ll learn about the Commission on a Way Forward and where the denominational discernment is moving in the next few years.

“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.”

I come to a close in my chapter with the following thought: “Full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and diversity of biblical interpretation are important to explore.  But we may not be able to go far in the conversation unless we first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.” (82)

I pray this book helps to understand an important issue, but more so, I hope it brings people together for deep and fruitful growth as beloved community.

Available now from Abingdon Press, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of United Methodist resources.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Justice

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photo by Alyssa Kibiloski via Unsplash

Any list of contested phrases in American Christianity today is going to include “social justice.”  It’s not just that talking about social justice makes folks uncomfortable.  The prophets were doing that all the way back to Amos and before, pointing out when Israel failed to hear the cry of the needy, failed to protect the vulnerable, and failed to offer legal protection to the powerless.  In such situations, Amos and Martin Luther King, Jr. and all other heirs to the tradition cried out, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, CEB).  No one sits easy on their ivory couches in their ivory palaces when the prophet is crying for justice.

But in the new vocabulary of the Great Divide which has been swallowing up our common language, ‘social justice’ has become something more than uncomfortable.  It has been weaponized for the culture wars and I’m not sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about justice.  Or maybe it’s that we don’t know how we’re heard.

The big moment when “social justice” was invoked for the war came in 2010 when Glenn Beck, the TV political commentator, told Christians:

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

For Beck they were code for a left-wing ideology of redistribution of wealth that was heavily influenced by Marxism.  He also offered a highly-selective reading of liberation theology, and particularly the theology of James Cone, an African-American theologian, that made it seem as if the aim of liberation theology was to divide the whole world into oppressor and oppressed and to insist on a material transfer of wealth from the former to the latter.

Even those who don’t fill out a brief against theologians every time they hear the phrase have come to suspect that they are being asked to sign on to a political agenda when they hear calls for social justice.  The tendency of every conversation to spiral down to a discussion of the current president does not help.  Are social justice advocates saying that I must adopt a particular stance towards the president in order to express my outrage at the hate spewed by white supremacists in Charlottesville?  It certainly seems that way sometimes.

Amos’ image of the plumb line (7:7-8) suggests that human efforts at justice are always measured against a divine standard.  If the wall isn’t plumb, it means the building project has gotten out of line with its intentions.

So let me attempt a definition:

social justice means attuning ourselves to God’s intentions and aligning our selves and our systems to what God is doing.

Doing this work involves prayer, deep dives into the biblical witness, confession, reconciliation, grief, anger, and humility.  It means recognizing that there is no place of purity from which to do justice.  The systems of injustice are mighty and pervade our every action.

249770397_44e015d0b8_mI worry when I hear calls to silence or eliminate those people we deem evil.  The puritanical spirit of the age tempts us with the illusion that everything would be alright if it weren’t for [name your favorite bogeymen here].  But social justice invites us to see the world through God’s eyes – the God who sorrows over the pains of the world, who rages against the darkness, who sees how that darkness is present in each of us, who “delivers us from slavery to sin and death,” and who forms us into a diverse, beloved, ragtag community to be the church.  That community’s plumb line is not defined by a party political platform.

Social justice is not a plot to take over the church.  It’s the call of God to be the church.

Surviving Strange Days: My Interview with Virginia Reeves begins – part 1 of 3

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Virginia Reeves

One of my favorite books of this year has been Work Like Any Other, a debut novel by novelist Virginia Reeves.  My review can be found here.  The novel is a poignant tale of a man who is imprisoned for tapping into the new electrical lines crossing rural 1920s Alabama, an action that leads to an accidental death.  If you’ve read the book you will be interested in Reeve’s reflections on the book in the next two segments of this interview.  Even if you haven’t, I think you’ll enjoy her thoughts about America in these strange days…

One of the things that I have been fascinated with all my life, but particularly now, is just what rural life looks like and how it’s changing and trying to understand it more. Recently I’ve come to find that, especially in this strange political time we’re in when all the normal languages are breaking down, books like yours and literature and poetry are the most helpful things for me at the moment. 

Well I think that that’s wonderful. I love literature. I appreciate all of that and feel very similar—kind of reeling in the after-effects or aftershocks of the election and really feeling like you need to go back to the great works of literature that have sustained me through the years and find all of the good in our country and in the rural parts of our country and remember those pieces of literature at this very strange political time.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_When you look at rural life, what do you see as the big themes in the places that you’re writing about?

Yeah that’s a great question.  One of the criticisms that I have fielded about the book is that it’s revisionist history and that there would never be this white landowner, Marie’s father, who was so progressive in his thinking about race.  I was on a panel with a historian from, I think he was from, the University of Alabama.  We were on the same panel at this beautiful festival outside of Paris and somebody in the audience asked him, because he was an historian and I was a fiction writer, “Do you think Virginia’s book is revisionist?”

He said, “I think it’s plausible because it’s a book about people and no matter where and when you find people they’re capable of anything. They’re capable of greatness.  They’re capable of ugliness.  They’re capable of kindness and horror and injustice.”

I loved that answer and I have to believe that.  I believe that now, in the wake of this election, that it becomes really tempting to generalize and say our country is full of misguided people who elected this particular man to run our country but we are still individuals capable of everything that humanity is capable of.

I think especially rural areas get generalized. That’s very much said about Alabama. I like the idea that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.  You’re always going to find people who share your viewpoint or don’t.  You’re going to find people you completely disagree with or who have a completely different set of morals.  You’re going to find them in cities, you’re gonna find them in the country.  You’re going to find them everywhere.

So I think that would be an overarching idea of mine as far as hoping to push our generalizations a little bit and to get people to question those first impulses and our desires to categorize people as all one type.  We see that in Montana. Montana is such a rural state and we have less than a million people. I think we’re the third biggest state in the country and have less than a million people.  I visited so many tiny towns in Montana that are so rich and vibrant and full of beautiful people and surprising people. So, don’t judge but just sew another layer to our observations.

IMG_6592Your characters in the book, especially Roscoe [the main character], are so resilient and so many terrible things happen to them.  But the feeling that I’m left with at the end of the book is not that he’s been defeated by all this but that somehow he’s found a way to keep going.  He’s found the things around him to keep going and he’s able to see the things that will keep him going. I guess that’s my hope for the country but do you see that as well? I’m thinking of that essay where you say we’ll eventually rally around a new course, do you feel that way?

I have to hope so. I think I have moments where I feel pretty defeated and the news cycle is devastating for the most part. But I have to. On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity. I have to believe that we will rally and even when I disagree with the actions of our government, I look around me and I see so many people, individuals who are doing great things.

I think part of Roscoe’s ability to move on and survive everything he went through were these moments, these data points of kindness.  They feel so small, but it’s like the librarian [in the book] acknowledging his literacy and acknowledging that he has a mind that is an expansive mind and moments with the chaplain and moments with Taylor [the warden], the gift of the dog.  Those feel so minor in the moment possibly but I think if we can recognize those moments of kindness and generosity in others then that’s what buoys us and moves us through.

“On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity.”

So I feel that in my novel helping my characters and on a personal note I see that around me.  After the election I was a little bit like, “OK, the world’s ending.”  I was a little dramatic when the election first came down and now I go, “OK, we take solace in the people around us and in what they give and their kindness and their generosity and compassion.”

Part 2

Why Books Will Win

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photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov via Unsplash

I’m making a wager that books will lead us to the future.

Heartlands came about as a desire to understand the present age, particularly from the perspective of rural America and rural church ministry.  In the beginning I was trying to figure out why the place where I live seemed suddenly so strange to me.  Things had shifted, and not just because of an unexpected outcome to the presidential election.  We had been shifting for some time and no politician could claim credit for creating the Great Divide.

What we lost was texture.  Red and blue became easy stand-ins for the complexities of our culture and we let the color labels define us.  We latched onto them as identity markers.  Who we are, in all our contradictions and quirks, was less interesting than a convenient narrative that prevented us from observing and thinking deeply.

As I wrote in a piece for Topology magazine, “Rural is Plural,” there was a tendency in some writers from the coastal cities that sounded like they were writing off the heartland.  The reason Heartlands is plural is because there is diversity here, too, that is unrecognized.  So I began to search for the lens and the language that would help me bring it to sight and voice.

The surprising thing is that literature has become one of the most useful tools in that search.  You know—books.  Stories have the capacity to carry so much more freight than other forms of communication.  Good stories don’t force the world into neat categories and simple morals.  Characters in a book should always be able to surprise us because, like real human beings, that have complex motivations that they don’t always understand.  That’s certainly the case for biblical characters.

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photo by Lysander Yuen via Unsplash

So the jaunts this blog has taken into books and interviews with authors like Alix Hawley, Trudy Hale, and Arlie Russell Hochschild, and with the photographer Michael Mergen, have ended up not being diversions but central to the whole project.  Perhaps the best language for an age that has destroyed truth is the vernacular of art, which is groping, not desperately, but confidently in search of new truth.  It’s obvious that the old vehicles have broken down—science, politics, and the like.  But the arts still sparkle – underfunded as they are.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice” — T.S. Eliot

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice,” T.S. Eliot says in ‘Little Gidding.’  So I’ll keep reading and writing, awaiting another voice.  Literature may not be the fluff we have presumed it to be.  It may the gateway to what comes next.

Talking to Anarchists – An interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 3 of 3

By now you know the story, if you’ve been following since Part 1: Blue state sociologist goes to oil patch Louisiana to try and understand the environment and the people of this Red state.  Writes Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Talks with an Eastern Shore preacher about what she learned.  In Part 3 of this interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild we explore the possibilities of bridging the Great Divide.

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsYou say liberals have their own deep story, just like the folks that you were talking to there.  And one of the things that I think about in terms of the Church is how–especially in the ’80s when the evangelical Christian movement became a real political movement–how our ‘deep story’ and the Christian faith felt hijacked to me.  I’m sure the folks in the evangelical wing felt the same about some of the liberal Christianity that came before and has been around since, too.  So, is there potential for stories to link up?  I don’t hope for a common narrative out of this, but I just wonder if there’s a way.  I mean, the fishing trip [discussed in part 2] sounds like a great way to do that.  You start building new narratives just by being in each other’s presence.

Yeah, and to see a search for common ground.  Check out the Bridge Alliance.  It is an umbrella group of some 70 or 80 different organizations that has just popped up.  This is just people-to-people kind of groups with names like Hi from the Other Side, or Living Room Conversations, or Read Across the Aisle.  These are all groups that are trying to get Left and Right together to see if they can find common ground in respectful ways.  I think we can do it.   It’s also something I’d like to see grow through the schools, through churches, unions (in the places where we still have them), to counter the divisive forces which are growing in this culture.

I had somebody from Lake Charles who was in the book.  She was a single mom with her two kids.  They were guests here in Berkeley, and we had a living room conversation here.  The last night, she said, “You know, I’m going to start a living room conversation back in Lake Charles.”  So it can be done.

So, what’s your next project?  What’re you working on now?

Well, I’m still dealing with the consequences, the aftermath of this book.  I’m still giving a lot of talks.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I bet you got a lot of phone calls on November 9th, didn’t you?

Yes, exactly.  I did, and I’m still getting them, and actually talking to a number of church groups.  And people will say, “What do we do?”  So, I have some answers for that and some suggestions.  One of them is see if we can re-establish channels across these divides, because we’re living in a different economic geography these days.

The have and have-nots of globalization.  I think that underlies some of this Blue/Red divide, so that you have people in the South, people on the coasts, and each facing different economic fates.  I’m living in the San Francisco Bay area.  It’s a boom town.  It’s like a gold rush, and they can’t see problems, don’t feel a sense of decline, don’t fear for their fate.  They have problems, but it’s not systemic or global from their vantage point.  But in the rural hinterland, it feels very different.

Yeah, the West Coast and the Northeast Corridor seem farther and farther away from here [Virginia’s Eastern Shore].  The realities are so different.  That whole thing that you point out in the book of people looking at the success of economically successful areas, and feeling like that’s not a narrative for them anymore, is certainly true.

Right.  Right.

Do you see yourself as an advocate for the bridge, or do you see yourself as the self-described liberal that you are—a disciple for that cause?  Or both?

I’m focusing on bridging, very definitely.  I see three pillars of activism that I’d like to see engaged.  One is the defense of democracy and the very principle of checks and balances, an independent judiciary and press.  I think that’s pillar one, and we ought to do everything we can to defend those.  I do feel they’re being challenged now.  I do think that’s the first order of business.

The second pillar would be to totally renovate the platform of the Democratic party, which I think does not really acknowledge or address the anxieties of the people up to now.  I’m very critical of Democratic party.  That’s the second thing we need to do.

The third is to reach across the aisle.  We’ve got friends on the other side and out there, many values we share in common, and issues that we can find common ground on.  I think it’s important to search them out.  So, I’m really focussed on that third pillar, but I see it all as part of what we need as a coordinated effort.

I have been talking to some people that are anarchists here.  They’re violent and they’re terrible.  They’re giving us a huge black eye here in Berkeley.  I don’t know why they’re doing this, setting fires and stuff.  I’m appalled by it.  But there’s a woman who came up to me after I denounced violence at one talk, which I do routinely around here.  She said, “Oh, I have some friends through Facebook.  Would you like to meet them?”  The Black Bloc, they’re called.

I took a moment, thinking, “These are the last people I want to meet.”  And then thought, “No, they’re the first people.”  Yes, I would like to get to know them.  So, that’s another thing that I’m doing.  I’m trying to get them to not be violent.

Well, you’re a brave adventurer.  I’m really grateful for your willingness to bring us along with you in your writing.  So, thanks for the time.

Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 1 of 3

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsCan a Berkley sociologist and a Louisiana oil patch Tea Party member find common ground?  That was the experiment Arlie Russell Hochschild (the sociologist) undertook when she found she was having a hard time understanding the forces that were shaping Red States.  

When I wrote a review of her book about the project, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I was intrigued by the “deep story” she narrated, which she proposed as a way of illuminating the worldview of many rural white Americans.  It rang true to me in a way that feels more universal than the insights in that other popular book trying to explain the 2016 election, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

The deep story Hochschild puts together is marked by a sense that, for the people she talked to, the American Dream of a materially better life is not working for them anymore and that they feel it is being impacted by a government that puts other people (immigrants, Syrian refugees, minorities) unfairly ahead of them.  The deep story also uncovers a resentment at being told how to feel by people “at the front of the line” who seem to have made it.

In this three-part interview, I talk with Arlie, (can I call you Arlie? – she’s very personable), about her journey, her interests, the church, and, because I just can’t help myself, Flannery O’Connor.

What made you undertake this experiment?

I was sitting in my office in the sociology department, U.C. Berkeley, six years ago, and it just came to me that many of the things that I’ve long been committed to and hoped would make a better world—especially for working families that aren’t getting time at home—none of this is going to come to pass in my lifetime unless we really look at a growing movement that feels threatened by the government itself, that isn’t thinking of good government [but instead] is thinking of evil, abusive government.  That’s the right wing, and I don’t understand it.

I decided, “I’m in a bubble.”  In a geographic bubble, in a media bubble—I read The New York Times, The Washington Post—and an electronic bubble.  If you look at the screen of your computer, it gives you yourself back in certain things that are advertised, blogs you read.

So, I thought, “I’m going to get out of here, and try and take my moral and political alarm system off and really permit myself a great deal of curiosity and interest in people that I know I will find deep differences with.  I’ll find an enclave that’s as far right as Berkeley, California is left, and go there and get to know people, and climb an empathy wall.”  It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Really?  How so?

I’ve been a sociologist a long time, but this really taught me a lot.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_You obviously met some interesting characters in the course of your study there.  How did you take those individual stories and work towards that deep story? 

I got to know people and they were very generous-hearted.  [They thought], “Here’s this lady from the coast and she’s in enclaves, and she’s writing a book, and she’s a retired teacher, and she’s worried about the divide.  Well, we’re worried about the divide, too.  So, come on, and I’ll take you to where I was born, take you to the school I went to, show you around town, introduce you to my relatives.”  That happened to me a great number of times.  It was absolutely fabulous getting to know people.

I was just listening all the time, and then putting together all that I was hearing.  I would hear it, I would get on a plane, I would come back here and sit in my study and try to think of how all those beliefs drew on what images.  How is it that we come to feel the way we do about a situation?  That’s how the deep story was born.  It’s basically translating all these different opinions and feelings that I was learning that people had, and translating them into an allegory, a story.

That was an act of my mental process.  Then, I went back and said, “Does this feel real?  Let me try this out on you.  Does this work?  Or does it not really capture what you’re feeling?”  Some people [agreed], just as is.  “Oh, you read my mind,” says Lee Sherman.  Or “I live your allegory,” emails Mike Schaff.  Others would say, “Well, wait a minute.  You don’t have that we’re paying taxes for the people that are cutting ahead.”

So, they would change it.  Madonna Matthews said, “Well, wait a minute.  We got a line.  We move to a different line.”  They would modify the ending, the middle.  So, I put that in, too.  Then, I began to think past the book, “Well, I wonder if other right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere around the world have versions of this.  Is displacement, the fear of that, dread of that, a main motivation?”  Or does this same story have a different endings?

That’s where my mind is now.  I’m really interested in out-groups and in-groups, and how we develop them.  Then, of course, how do we undo them?

I’ll be really interested to see what you find out from that sort of research, because it does seem like the deep story you uncovered has a real American feel to it with the whole belief of “you work hard, you get ahead.” Some might think, “What’s interrupting that story for me as a traditionally powerful person within the South are these people cutting in line in front of me.”

Right.  I think in Europe, though, it’s not falsely entitled insiders that are cutting ahead [in the deep story], but aliens from the outside—Muslims, refugees.  It’s not an insider–it’s an outsider.  I think what’s feared in the South’s deep story are kind of upstart insiders.  So, the nature of the line-cutters can vary across national lines.

I was amazed, reading the book this Spring after the election, how you had the Syrian refugee in there as a character who’s one of the folks that’s a source of fear in the narrative.  That really feels recent.

And Muslims.  There are almost no Muslims in Louisiana.  There’s a tremendous fear of them, too.

Right.  You mentioned an allegory.  Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘Revelation’?

No.

It put that whole story in a new light for me, because–and she was writing in the 1950’s–it’s about a white woman who is coming to terms with the new status of her black neighbors, and feeling like she has been unfairly maligned and shamed in the midst of her story.  But she has this image at the very end where she sees this vision of a swinging bridge reaching up to heaven, and there are all of these folks that she would’ve considered unworthy climbing up ahead of her.

Her final way of dealing with that image and how disturbing it was for her is to say, “Put that bottom rail on top.  There’ll still be a top and bottom.”  And it just struck me that this is a very old narrative that you’ve uncovered.

Yes.  Thank you for flagging that for me.  I’m going to read that.

Part 2–Churches & Dysfunctional Government.

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.

Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters

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photo by Lumvox via unsplash.com

Isn’t this just another academic squabble full of sound and fury but signifying not very much?  The recent controversy at Duke Divinity School regarding a faculty training, (the details of which were helpfully outlined by Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed), could be seen as just one more piece of evidence that the Great Divide is roiling even progressive-friendly environments like mainline seminaries.  But this matters because one of the things worth defending about the journey that theology went through in the late 20th century is the hard-won acknowledgment that context matters.

What happened at Duke?  One way to look at it is that a well-meaning effort to increase awareness of historical and institutional racism through a two-day faculty conference was seen by a disgruntled conservative professor, Paul Griffiths, as one more liberal harangue that distracted from the real work of teaching theology.  “I exhort you not to attend this training,” Griffiths said in a ‘reply all’ e-mail to the faculty. “Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty.”

Griffiths, who had been having other issues with the administration, especially the new dean, Elaine Heath, went on to say, “Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. … Our mission is to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste.”

This matters because one of the things worth defending about the journey that theology went through in the late 20th century is the hard-won acknowledgment that context matters.

There are any number of things that could be said about this incident.  I’ll stipulate the following: I have been to far too many bromide-laden conferences and heavy-handed training sessions that result, despite intentions, in hardened barriers and confirmed prejudices.  We are heavily defended against things that challenge our worldview, and this is true across the spectrum.

I have also been in magnificent sessions, in seminary and mandatory trainings after that, in which my understanding has grown, my behavior has changed, and the course of my ministry has been altered.  Some of that was through my openness to the material, but I credit more the education and skill of the presenters and facilitators.

So, looking at this, admittedly from the outside and with no warrant besides what I read in the papers (intertubes, whatever), Prof. Griffiths’ dismissal of an optional training seems too easy.

Having said that, I also feel that Dean Heath’s reply went a little beyond the pale, implying that Prof. Griffith’s email violated an understanding that to “express racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.”  Is that what he did?

Again, I am operating on the basis of emails we probably shouldn’t be privy to and without the whole story.  But I note that exchanges between people with lots of words at their disposal can get extravagant very quickly.

Exchanges between people with lots of words at their disposal can get extravagant very quickly.

But this is not about an email spat.  It’s about reducing theology to “reading, writing, and teaching about the triune Lord” as if that is an exercise that takes place in a vacuum.   We are always in a conversation with our tradition.  Scripture and the witness of the saints questions us and puts us to the test.  And the lived experience of the pilgrim people of God brings its own questions to scripture.

To pretend that we are not incarnated persons in service of a God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is like putting on blinders.  We need eyes to see and our eyes are compromised by the sin of racism and by the other distortions that come from being human beings in unjust human societies.

To pretend that we are not incarnated persons in service of a God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is like putting on blinders.

Twentieth century theology produced two great movements that reoriented us to this reality.  Karl Barth and some of his disciples reclaimed a Christ-centered theology and the language of the church, which had become distorted by two centuries worth of efforts to make it reconcile with the Enlightenment.  And liberation theologies reclaimed the beating heart of a passionate God who takes human existence, context, and the suffering of the cosmos seriously.

Twentieth-first century theology doesn’t belong to either of those movements.  They have their own limitations and blinders.  But we need both impulses to move forward – a commitment to living in the language of the faith and in the incarnate body of Christ in the world.

I have high hopes for Duke and our other theological institutions.  They matter.  For theology and for the church.

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.