Reading and weeping

current reading 2Andrew Peterson gave the (virtual?) commencement address at his daughter’s (virtual?) graduation. “The Certainty of Time in Uncertain Times,” The Rabbit Room (June 8, 2020) [link]:

small quotes blueSix months ago things (for me, at least) were kind of chugging along, and no one had ever heard of COVID-19. But in a flash, everything changed. Now our history has a new dividing line: before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus, kind of like 9/11. I used to have a pretty good idea what was coming, but now I haven’t a clue, from one day to the next. I watch the news with a desperate hope that they’ll tell us this pandemic is going to be over in a week, that systemic racism is finally banished from our hearts and our nation, that the world, at last, is at peace. I long for it. Everything feels so crazy that I just want to make some soup and get a blankie and let John Krasinski to tell me some good news.

But to say that these times are uncertain implies that the time before was certain. Graduates, these times aren’t any less certain than a year ago or 100 or 1,000 years ago. The times have always been uncertain.

This is, of course reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time,” from The Weight of Glory (1949) (“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).


Capture
Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7 years old

Adrian Brandon has done a series of portraits in which the subject is sketched in pencil, but the portrait is only partially finished in color:

 

small quotes blueThis series is dedicated to the many black people that were robbed of their lives at the hands of the police. In addition to using markers and pencil, I use time as a medium to define how long each portrait is colored in. 1 year of life = 1 minute of color. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was murdered, so I colored his portrait for 12 minutes. . . .

“Stolen,” adrianbrandon.com [link]. The artist helps us see these subjects as lives cut short. (The short video of the coloring of Marzues Scott is fascinating as an art lesson as well.)


Gary Sheffield describes two encounters with the police in “Do You Believe Me Now?” The Player’s Tribune (June 12, 2020) [link]. It is important, I think, for us to hear these stories from people we know personally, but many of us we “know” and have “relationships with” athletes and actors whom we have followed for years. Their experiences are worth listening to, and are all too consistent with what we hear from our friends. Sheffield writes:

small quotes blueThe unfortunate reality is that my stories aren’t unique. They’re not special or extraordinary, and neither am I. What happened to George Floyd could have easily — and far too often — happened to me or others.

What has made George Floyd’s death a defining moment in this country — what distinguishes it from countless others who were murdered and remain anonymous — was that this otherwise desensitized country actually saw it happen.

Listen, weep, wait to respond.

Returning to reality

O'connor TSOMI have been reading about Flannery O’Connor in Jonathan Rogers, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor (2012), which is excellent.1

During her life O’Connor was often rebuked for the violence in her fiction, but she explained how it was not at all inconsistent with her Christian faith:

small quotes blueI suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.2

I was struck by this, I think, because it seems particularly apropos to our current situation in which our lives have been violently reduced, and much that was extraneous has been torn away from us.

It seems to me that O’Connor echoes C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (p. 81: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”) and in “Learning in War-Time” (The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).

O’Connor, as diligent “sub-creator,” looked for ways that her character might be brought to grace — our creator (and hers) is now doing the same.


1Isn’t that a perfect title? The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a great place to start a study of O’Connor. [Ed. note: It turns out that “the terrible speed of mercy” is a phrase of Flannery O’Connor’s.]

2Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (1961) (emphasis added).

Opiates and opioids

current reading 2You won’t agree with all of his conclusions, but this 10-month-old article and a followup (how did I miss them?) is well worth the time.

small quotes blueBetween 2010 and 2015, opioid prescriptions declined by 18 percent. But if it was a huge, well-intended mistake to create this army of addicts, it was an even bigger one to cut them off from their supply. That is when the addicted were forced to turn to black-market pills and street heroin.

*   *   *

Addiction — to work, to food, to phones, to TV, to video games, to porn, to news, and to drugs — is all around us. The core habit of bourgeois life — deferred gratification — has lost its grip on the American soul. We seek the instant, easy highs, and it’s hard not to see this as the broader context for the opioid wave. This was not originally a conscious choice for most of those caught up in it: Most were introduced to the poppy’s joys by their own family members and friends, the last link in a chain that included the medical establishment and began with the pharmaceutical companies. It may be best to think of this wave therefore not as a function of miserable people turning to drugs en masse but of people who didn’t realize how miserable they were until they found out what life without misery could be. To return to their previous lives became unthinkable. For so many, it still is.

*   *   *

To see this epidemic as simply a pharmaceutical or chemically addictive problem is to miss something: the despair that currently makes so many want to fly away. Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.

Andrew Sullivan, “The Poison We Pick,” New York Magazine (Feb. 19, 2018) [link].

Then go read David Zahl, “Grace in the Age of Fentanyl,” Mockingbird (Feb. 28, 2018) [link]:

small quotes blueThis gospel, if it is to be actual good news, must address men and women whose hearts and bodies are infected with all manner of trouble, bereft of hope, who see God as an exacting cop (if at all), not a loving father who meets us where we are, in our shame and sin, with mercy, help and the spirit of adoption.

Thankfully–and miraculously–it does. The gospel in the age of fentanyl is the same gospel as ever, the message about the God who intervenes upon us with outlandish charity, at a cost to himself, offering life eternal to those who’ve been checkmated by the here and now. Not one who gives hope to the hopeless, but who is hope to the hopeless.

Amen to that.

A gentleman and a novelist

Walter_Sullivan_FSWI just had the experience of reading a novel written by one of my professors at Vanderbilt University.

Walter Sullivan (1924-2006) introduced me to many of my favorite books, including Brideshead Revisited, The End of the Affair, War in Heaven, and “The Four Quartets” in a class he called “Angelic and Demonic Themes in 20th Century Literature.”  We also read The Spire and, I feel certain, some Flannery O’Connor. He was a marvelous teacher who started by teaching the basics of the Bible so that the class had a common language to discuss the modern works.  I have often wished I had spent more time working on “The Four Quartets” while I had opportunity to draw on his wisdom.*

Long Long Love

It turns out he wrote three novels and last night I read The Long, Long Love [link].**

It is the story of Horatio Adams, a man strangely incapable of accepting what happiness comes his way because of the pain and fear which distracts him.

It is a moving and lyrical book:

“I wondered about that, Horatio. What happened to us? Why did things work out the way they did?”

“Why?” I said. “Nobody ever really knows why. There are a thousand reasons for every turn of every day.” I pondered this a while, knowing it was true. Thinking that not only did God know about the fall of the sparrow, but that only the mind of God could know all the reasons why the sparrow fell.

Recommended (don’t expect any tank battles).

*Thomas Howard’s The Dove Descending (2006) [link] is the best substitute I know of.

**Sullivan had written it about twenty years before I met him.  How sad that I did not read it until more than twenty years after he died.  It is still in print.

Worth reading

Three stimulating articles, without any obvious common theme except the most common of all — a fallen world with fallen people in it:

current reading 2
“Ultimately, God is still good. And he is still enough.”  Bekah Mason, “Finding My ‘True Self’ As a Same-Sex Attracted Woman,” Christianity Today (June 2017) [link].

“I am capable of any sin. And God loves me in spite of my sinful nature.”  Sanya Richards-Ross, “My Abortion Broke Me, God Redeemed Me,” Christianity Today (June 2017) [link].

“What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right?”  Malcolm Gladwell, “Thresholds of Violence,” gladwell.com (October 19, 2015) [link].

But still, there is always the offer of God’s grace.

Between Mr. Coates and me

50c0c9d1dLast week I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015). Actually, I listened to it, and found it a powerfully unsettling book.

I had no knowledge of Mr. Coates and no preconception about the book except that in some sense it was about race. The book is (sort of) a long letter to his son about what it is like to be a black man in America. (“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”)

I say “sort of” because you have to put aside even that vague description very quickly. Mr. Coates would remind us that in any society there are those whose aspirations to achieve “the dream” will necessarily involve putting some people — identified by color, ethnicity, gender, language or some other characteristic — at the bottom of the well. I think he would say that in 2016 in America that characteristic is still often race.

Mr. Coates tells his son stories about his experiences and about those of his friends and acquaintances.  Some are touching and some are extraordinarily upsetting. No one could listen to his account of the death of Prince Jones without horror, shame and outrage.

One of the recurring themes is that the fragility of “the black body”:

We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. A year after I watched the boy with the small eyes pull out a gun, my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.

It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.

I am convinced that Mr. Coates is telling me truths I need to hear.  I am not sure that Mr. Coates tells me what any white American can do to ameliorate the evils he describes. It is better to hear truth than to block it out, of course, but that is not enough.

What is enough?

Mr. Coates declines to believe in any otherworldly justice, though he seems to concede that there have been times when the church has been one of the few refuges for the black body. As I listened to him in the midst of Passion Week, though, I thought that Jesus, certainly, voluntarily offered his body to be destroyed by the system of the world as a sacrifice for all of us.

This is not a “good read,” or an “interesting study.”  It seems to me to be an important book that has challenged my assumptions and beliefs.  I hope and pray that I will allow it to change the way I act and live, and that God will help me to understand what is enough.

 

 

Passion Week

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross.The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world.  But each time after a while I have had to turn away.

9780857215932And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.

John Stott, Through the Bible through the Year 269.