Tag Archives: books

A Racist Atticus and a Mess of a Book? Bring It On.

15.-Matar-un-ruiseñor

I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.

Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.

Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.

But I say: bring it on.

Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.

I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.

We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.

But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?

In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.

Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.

As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.

~

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They Wrote a Thing and It’s Awesome: A Review of #WomanInThePulpit

51EX8kPEJjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ten years ago this summer, RevGalBlogPals was born. It began as a loose collection of pastor-bloggers, mostly women, mostly pseudonymous (as was the custom at the time). We began, as all good things begin, with a T-shirt.

Now, RevGalBlogPals is a global network, with conferences, events, meetups, a burgeoning Facebook community, and a director, the Rev. Martha Spong, who is the editor of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments and the Healing Power of Humor.

One of the nagging regrets of the last year is letting the deadline for submitting essays to this collection pass me by. Given my life at the time, it couldn’t be avoided, but after getting to know so many of these women over the past decade, I’m sad not to be a part of this project.

But having their words on my shelf is a gracious plenty.

This book is stuffed full of 50 essays on life, death, the unique gifts and challenges of being women in ministry, and the things they don’t teach in seminary. The essays are the perfect length for picking up the book and putting it down in the midst of a busy life, or reading one selection a week for an entire year, or revisiting them again and again, which I’m sure I’ll do.

I’m still making my way through the book, but there are so many favorites. Kathryn Johnston writes an incisive piece about double standards between men and women in leadership in the sharply-titled “Balls.” Later in the book, Stephanie Anthony’s essay provides a good companion to Kathryn’s as she describes the feeling of not being “one of the guys,” but realizing it’s important to be present for the little girls who are watching us step into leadership.

Deborah Lewis considers “The Weight of Ash” and the full depth of what is many pastors’ favorite church observances, Ash Wednesday. Rachel Hackenberg offers a couple different selections, but “A Prayer for the Plunger” was a personal favorite: “As you eavesdrop on the church council’s argument over new carpet, do you remember your debate with the Pleiades over the color of grass?”

Robin Craig’s essay on how she learned to preach the gospel following her son’s death by suicide is worth the price of the book. Patricia Raube’s glorious meditation about coming out to her congregation brought tears to my eyes. Love wins, people.

And editor Martha’s essays and section headings provide a gracious glue for the book. (I now “see” the RevGals logo in a whole new way!)

You know what though… those are my favorites right now. The beauty of a book like this is that favorites will change as life changes.

I hope you’ll check out this wonderful book. Congratulations to everyone who was a part of it.

~

The title refers to a catchphrase during that first miraculous Big Event, where many RevGals met for the first time: We made a thing and it’s awesome.

My Friends Make Stuff: New Book by Christine Chakoian

41fih44oopL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A friend of mine has a new book out! Huzzah!

Chris Chakoian is a pastor in the Chicago area and a colleague on the NEXT Church strategy team. Her new book is Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.

Cryptomnesia is “the reappearance of a suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience.” Here’s a bit of the book description:

The world is changing, and it is changing fast. Social media friendships, global commerce, online education, populist uprisings, e-books, and smartphones are just a sample of the Internet’s growing impact on our lives. Americans are rapidly becoming more mobile, worldly, and secular—all while it feels like the church we know is being left behind. Growing numbers of “spiritual but not religious” show disinterest in church, and mainline churches fear imminent demise. How do we find a way forward? Ironically, by looking backward.

NEXT Church posted an excerpt from her book a few months ago. Check it out.

And check out the book. This looks like a great, hopeful read for church leaders of all types. Gonna put it on my Goodreads right now.

 

My Friends Make Stuff

Two new books written by friends! Yippee!

First:

blessed_final_one_400Sarah Griffith Lund‘s book Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church will be released by Chalice Press (publisher of Sabbath in the Suburbs) on September 8.  Description:

When do you learn that “normal” doesn’t include lots of yelling, lots of sleep, lots of beating? In Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church, Sarah Griffith Lund looks back at her father’s battle with bipolar disorder, and the helpless sense of déjà vu as her brother and cousin endure mental illness as well. With a small group study guide and “Ten Steps for Developing a Mental Health Ministry in Your Congregation, ”Blessed Are the Crazy” is more than a memoir—it’s a resource for churches and other faith-based groups to provide healing and comfort. 

And book trailer. Wow:

0005908_mortal_blessings_a_sacramental_farewellSecond:

I met Angela Alaimo O’Donnell at Collegeville this summer when I was there for a writing retreat. She is an elegant person and writer—I gobbled up her poetry collection, Waking My Mother, in a single sitting one morning at C’ville.

Her new book, Mortal Blessings (September 30) is sure to be wonderful.

Description:

In this lyrical adieu to her mother, renowned Catholic essayist, poet, and professor Angela O’Donnell explores how the mundane tasks of caregiving during her mother’s final days—bathing, feeding, taking her for a walk in her wheelchair—became rituals or ordinary sacraments that revealed traces of the divine.

With Joan Didion’s grasp of grief, the spiritual playfulness of Mary Karr, and the poetic agility of Kathleen Norris, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell narrates the events that followed her mother’s fall and the broken hip that led to surgery. As O’Donnell and her sisters cared for their mother’s failing body during the last days of her life, they unconsciously observed rituals that began to take on a deeper importance.

Bathing her each morning was a kind of baptism, the nightly feeding of pie took on a Eucharistic significance, trimming and polishing nails became a kind of anointing. Beyond the seven there are the myriad sacraments they made up: the sacrament of community via cell phone, the sacrament of wheelchair pilgrimage around the nursing home, and the sacrament of humor and laughter. Mortal Blessings: A Sacramental Farewell is a deeply human portrait of loss balanced by the surprising grace found in letting go; it will resonate with any spiritual reader but especially caregivers and those currently in grief.

What are you reading and/or making these days? I’ve been taking a break from writing lately in favor of knitting and baking muffins. Yes, I’m ready for fall.

What Novelist John Green Teaches the Church about “Reaching” Young People

HERE COME THE FEELS!

BRING ON THE FEELS!

If you’re a fan of John Green (and if you’re not, what’s your problem?), you’re going to want to check out the New Yorker profile, THE TEEN WHISPERER: How the author of “The Fault in Our Stars” built an ardent army of fans.

John Green is like Colbert to me: someone who’s extremely good at what he does and who brings a joie de vivre to his vocation. I can’t help but root for him.

The church is awash with concern these days about the so-called “nones”: people who are not affiliated with any religion, who may (or may not) consider themselves spiritual but not religious… many of whom are in the millenial generation—aka many of John Green’s fans.

How can we “get” more young people? churchy people ask. Is there a way we can “appeal” to them? The format of the questions reveals their purpose—to find more members so that our churches won’t decline and die.

Guess what? Young people don’t care to be our institutional life insurance.

(Neither do 42 year old mothers of three, actually.)

That said, being interested in young people isn’t necessarily opportunistic. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, and young people are our neighbors. (So are old people, married people, single people, LGBT people, poor people, Muslim people…)

Jesus also calls us to serve, and that’s something that motivates millenials a great deal. (As the saying goes, they love Jesus; they don’t love the church.)

So. In the spirit of connection rather than conversion, friendship rather than membership, partnership rather than fixing, here are some things we can learn from John Green and his tremendous appeal.

He isn’t trying to “reach” young people. Green reportedly hates being called the “teen whisperer,” which is to his credit. His crazy popular vlogbrother videos were not started as some calculated attempt to build his fan base. (Well, not primarily with that purpose, though you can’t argue with success.) Rather, he and his brother Hank started them in order to play with the online video format, which was pretty new back in 2006. They created something winsome and irresistible and the fans thronged to it.

Do we in the church see millenials as a means to an end? 
What are we doing that is winsome and irresistible? 

~ 

He takes young people seriously and learns from them. The Fault in Our Stars is filled with wickedly good dialogue, pitch-perfect one-liners and deep wisdom. Some have criticized him for this because “Teenagers don’t really talk like that.” I read somewhere that Green doesn’t try to duplicate the speech patterns of teens. He tries to write the way teens sound to themselves and one another—clever, weird, and wise, assured sometimes and sharply insecure at others. It’s like teen-speak, boiled down to its essence. You have to love and admire and understand young people to pull that off.

Also, the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars was inspired by an actual teenager with thyroid cancer, Esther Grace Earl, whose experience helped shape the book. Four or five times a month, Green talks on the phone with kids who have cancer, sometimes through Make a Wish, sometimes not. He is also fluent in social media and engages folks on Twitter and Tumblr. And once every few months, he Skypes with teens who are struggling with serious illness.

Is your church present where young people are present, whether online or in person?
Are you cultivating actual relationships with them, not so you can bestow your wisdom,
but so we can all grow together?

~

He’s created a tribe. There are traditions and catch phrases and a shared history—not all of which were created by him. (This is important.)

Last year I checked out a John Green book from my local library and when I got it home, out fell a note that had been tucked into its pages: “Hey, nerdfighter! Don’t forget to be awesome!”

DFTBA is very big with this tribe.

And there’s a focus on giving to others. Esther Day is a holiday that Esther Earl asked people to observe on her birthday. According to the New Yorker, “Her idea was that it could become a celebration of non-romantic love—a day when you’d say ‘I love you’ to people who don’t often hear it from you.” And check out the Project for Awesome that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy causes.

How does Christianity help people (of all ages) become a part of something larger than themselves? (Hint: as the Project for Awesome demonstrates, they don’t need us in order to feel this. Still, what is our distinctive gift in the midst of the broader culture?)
And are people encouraged to bring their own energy and ideas to the table, or are we the keepers of our traditions and norms?

~

He’s a learner. Check out his Crash Course videos. In these, he (and Hank) are teachers, but he comes at his topics with the posture of a student. And my kids love his Mental Floss videos in which he tests out various lifehacks:

Do we have all the answers, or are we willing to learn?

~

He employs humor with substance.  From the New Yorker profile: “In a post advising boys on how to charm a girl, John jokingly said, ‘Become a puppy. A kitten would also be acceptable or, possibly, a sneezy panda’—an allusion to a popular clip on YouTube. But he also said, ‘If you can, see girls as, like, people, instead of pathways to kissing and/or salvation.'”

As communities of faith, do we offer meaning and substance… while taking ourselves lightly?

~

He loves the grand gesture. Again, the New Yorker: “Many authors do pre-publication publicity, but Green did extra credit: he signed the entire first printing—a hundred and fifty thousand copies—which took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder.”

Which leads to my final question for the church:
When’s the last time you undertook an extravagant gesture for the sake of this world God loves?