Archive for July 2012
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Dell Publishing, 1965, 190 pp.
J. is a huge Vonnegut fan, and we got to talking about this book’s setting in southern Indiana. I’ve read a few of Vonnegut’s novels, and I enjoy their mix of dark subjects with light (almost flip) style, a mocking tone that ridicules injustice. Having lived in southern Indiana now for more than six years, I was eager to hear Vonnegut’s take on his home state.
Vonnegut’s novel tells the story of Eliot Rosewater, the son of fictional Senator Lister Ames Rosewater of Indiana. He is the President of the Rosewater Foundation (his father’s money), and spends his life giving away the Foundation’s money to anyone and everyone who might have a need. He is also a passionate volunteer firefighter. Eliot lives with intense capacity for compassion and love, seeing the need of each person who asks and responding without cynicism.
The plot of the story involves a lawyer, Norman Mushari, who believes he can make a lot of money if he forces the Foundation’s money to transfer hands from the eccentric Eliot to his closest relative, a distant cousin who does not know he is related to the Senator or the Foundation. In order to make this happen, he must prove that Eliot is insane. In the end, through Vonnegut’s twists and turns, the reader is convinced that Eliot is probably a sane man in an insane world.
As always, Vonnegut skewers with humor. Some of my favorites:
Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. … Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. (12)
Hard to believe that Vonnegut wrote that in 1965, and not in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. You could cut-and-paste it into a speech for the Occupy movement.
Later on, Eliot is fighting with his Senator father, who believes Eliot’s generosity is a terrible waste of money. Eliot replies with a brilliant screed about the disparity between rich and poor:
Nobody can work with the poor and not fall over Karl Marx from time to time—or just fall over the Bible, as far as that goes. I think that it’s terrible the way people don’t share things in this country. I think it’s a heartless government that will let one baby be born owning a big piece of the country, the way I was born, and let another baby be born without owning anything. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies. (87-88)
Eliot follows this with a powerful description of the “Money River,” which the wealthy can drink in repose until they are full beyond capacity—yet they still insist on damming up for themselves to acquire more. But you’ll have to read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater yourself to enjoy that one.
Vonnegut’s portrayal of my neighbors here in this corner of Indiana was not flattering, but it was compassionate. His treatment of injustices between rich and poor, however, was ruthless—and I cheered it all the way. It’s maddening to realize that the problems Vonnegut mocked nearly 50 years ago have multiplied exponentially since then.
A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul, Vintage International, 1979, 278 pp.
V. S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, but I was not familiar with any of his work. I like to fancy myself well-read, so when I saw his book featured at the local library, I decided to give it a try. The back cover quoted the Nobel Committee’s presentation describing Naipaul as “Conrad’s heir.” While I trusted that Naipaul would not be bound by Joseph Conrad’s outdated understandings of race and colonialism, I was still a bit hesitant. While I admire Conrad’s craft, I never considered Heart of Darkness enjoyable reading. Having completed A Bend in the River, though, the comparison is apt. Naipaul’s novel took me into the post-colonial world of Africa, slowly drawing me to a lifeworld very different than my own. Then, just as slowly, it drew me out again. And, unlike Conrad, I found joy in the journey.
A Bend in the River is the story of Salim, an Indian born and raised on the east coast of Africa. He buys a shop in a river town in the interior, in the aftermath of a post-colonial rebellion. The novel tells the story of Salim’s slow rise and fall in business, alongside the story of the town’s slow rise and fall. The town’s fortunes, along with those of Salim and the rest of the characters in the town, slowly scrape toward prosperity after the rebellion. A president’s interest creates a boon, and then paranoia and rebellion and destruction. Fortunes rise and fall, again and again.
Salim offers a fascinating perspective. I’ve read books voiced by Africans about Africa, and books voiced by Westerners about Africa, but Salim is an Indian writing about Africa—the citizen of one colony living in another colony, and writing about post-colonial life. Author Naipaul shared this perspective, being of Indian descent but born and raised in Trinidad. Throughout the book, Salim remains an outsider, an observer to the conflicts and customs of Africa. The other characters that he befriends are also outsiders—his house-servant Metty, a boy-turned-man without a tribe named Ferdinand, fellow Indian merchants Mahesh and Shoba, childhood friend from a wealthier background Indar, and Brits Raymond and Yvette. All of them live in this African world without being of it. They appreciate it in different ways, and their own fortunes are tied up in this town at the bend in the river, or in the political powers at work.
This novel is indeed a tightly-woven tapestry, a work of art in which each strand lies alongside the others to form a picture that can only be understood by stepping back and looking at the whole. Reading this book demands attention and concentration, but it is not a struggle. Unlike so many books about post-colonial Africa, Naipaul does not emphasize the cruel and the bloody, although he does not shy away from the harsh realities of violence, poverty and political upheaval. Rather than talking about suffering in Africa, Naipaul talks about life in Africa, especially for outsiders. I definitely want to read more from him, as he explores other places formerly in the British Empire.
As I posted in an earlier, more personal reflection, I recently attended the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church of my childhood and youth, after having been a part of the United Church of Christ for nearly 20 years. One of the things that struck me in this brief mixture of my personal past and present is that both churches claim “United” in their title, a designation that is very important to their identities. However, I realized that “united” means something very different for each church, and their faithfulness to being united takes shape in unique ways.
The “united” in United Church of Christ speaks to our passion for diversity, inclusivity and openness. Our heritage (and our name) lies in the creation of a new denomination 55 years ago, from four distinct Protestant branches of Christianity. From the beginning, we did not have or ever expect unanimity. Our motto, drawn from Jesus’ prayer in John 17, is “that they may all be one,” and we covenant to live together as partners in spite of our differences and disagreements.
The “united” in the United Methodist Church also grows from a merger, but of a different sort. The Evangelical United Brethren shared Wesleyan practices and Arminian theology with the Methodist Church, and they united in 1968 to form one church in the heritage of John Wesley. They are bound by shared practices of class meetings, the quest for personal holiness and the social gospel.
When I was at the Virginia UMC meeting, I heard speaker after speaker emphasize that word, “united,” almost as much as we do in the UCC. It also became quickly apparent to me that that they were using that word to evoke a very different image of unity. The “united” of United Methodism is about a shared fidelity to the theology and legacy of John Wesley. It is about a commitment to follow his disciplines (“methods”). It is about loyalty to a way of life and to the authority of the church and its leaders. This unity emphasizes the importance of the body, its theology and identity, above that of any one individual’s ideas or customs. Their unity cultivates the virtues of humility, loyalty, faithfulness and discipline.
At my friend’s ordination, she received a certificate detailing her ordination lineage: “John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke, who ordained Francis Asbury,” who ordained someone else and someone else in a straight, direct line to the current UMC bishop who ordained my friend. It was an inspiring thing to see, but it also made me realize how different our understandings of ordination are. There could never be such a document for me, or any of my Congregational colleagues. We have to have more than one clergy present, but all those present participate, along with the entire gathered congregation. Our authority does not come from a lineage handed down over time, but from a congregation that calls us up and out.
To be united in the UMC is to be a branch of a distinguished oak tree. The tree is formidable, alive, holy. It provides shade and comfort and strength and orientation. Much like John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The tree grows from one root (Christ, as preached by Wesley), and the church is united because they are all branches of the same tree. Their unity grows by strengthening the tree, and making sure not to be cut off from the nourishment of the root. The signs of unity and wholeness are the growing tree, bearing more fruit.
The “united” in the United Church of Christ means something very different. Instead of a solid tree, I imagine us like a big tent. Our unity comes from welcoming more and more people into the big tent with a giant “y’all come!” As the family picnic grows, we throw up a few more poles and a few more yards of canvas to make room for the new folks. We set up extra chairs and scrounge for more plates. Nothing matches–not the tables or the silverware or even the tent fabric. Most people bring their own chairs to rest in, but we still all mingle together. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it feels like we have very little in common except our commitment to be welcoming and to make sure everybody has a place in the tent. But we are united, no matter our diversity, because we will keep making room for one more, and we won’t cut people off as long as they want to be in the tent with us.
Rev. Oliver G. Powell famously described the UCC in 1975 as ”a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix!” We are proud to be united with one another, and we work hard to keep growing the tent so that more people can join the party. We are united not by a shared history or theology or lineage, but by our stubborn refusal to leave anyone out and a fierce commitment to one another as fellow followers of Christ. Our unity cultivates the virtues of hospitality, diversity, partnership, flexibility, openness and inclusivity.
There is no right or wrong, better or worse in these different understandings of “united” churches, but I imagine that we often talk past one another when we speak of our practices of Christian unity. Both cultivate important Christian virtues. Both also foster challenges and even vices. I imagine we could both learn much from one another, for the purpose of uniting all Christ’s followers as one, whether tent or tree.
The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: The Life and Legacy of Elder Shuban Stearns, by Elder John Sparks, University of Kentucky Press, 2001, 327 pp.
This book was a gift to me for participating in a friend’s wedding. An odd gift, I know, but perfect. I was just moving to the area at the time, and they know a book is always appreciated. It just took me nearly seven years to get around to reading it. Even though reading through the genealogy of various Baptist church sects was a bit of a slog, I’m glad I did.
This book tells the story of Elder Shubal Stearns, a Baptist convert-turned-preacher from Massachusetts in the colonial era, who migrated to North Carolina to found a community of churches there that are important ancestors to modern Appalachian churches. He started his own Sandy Creek Association of Baptist churches that practiced footwashing, communion, tightly-controlled groups of churches, “Holy Tone” cant in preaching. Stearns himself was a powerful figure, with his association founding dozens of churches across North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina in the pre-revolutionary era. Stearns converted hundreds and ordained dozens of preachers in his mold.
Sparks traces out the many factors influencing Stearns development and conversion from New Light Congregationalist to Baptist, then examines the unique strain of Baptist belief in the Sandy Creek Association. He offers a biography of Stearns pieced together from multiple, scattered sources, trying to construct a single narrative of his person and preaching. However, Sparks’ tale does not begin with Stearns’ life, nor does it end with his death. With the passion and fervor of a genealogist uncovering his family tree, Sparks gives a detailed account of each preacher’s legacy, and each church’s splits and reunions with various doctrine. This is the story not of a man, but of his influence, traced meticulously through personal accounts, church histories and theological debates.
While Sparks does make some leaps and assumptions about attitudes and causalities in his account, his case is strong and it is fascinating. He has his own agenda within the Baptist realm, speaking out against a competing origin story about “Old Landmark Baptists” that claims to trace its roots all the way to Wales. While I was not interested in this argument about Baptist history, I learned a lot about the history of various church splits in Baptist, Calvinist and Pentecostal circles. The final chapter examines seven denominations active in the Appalachian region, and documents their connections (and disconnections) from Shubal Stearns’ Sandy Creek Association. The book contains many minute theological distinctions that sometimes make me roll my eyes, but it was also eye-opening for me to get an insider’s perspective and astute analysis of the differences between these various sects with connections to Appalachia.
This was no light read, and there is no overcoming a certain tedium at the genealogy of churches preachers, but Sparks’ style was warm and engaging. I enjoyed the book, and I learned quite a bit.
Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner, HarperOne, 2012, 244 pp.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book as a gift from the author via an offer at RevGalBlogPals back in the spring.
When I read Mudhouse Sabbath a few months ago, part of what charmed me about the book was the freshness of Lauren Winner’s faith. She had the energy and glory of a new convert, even though she had been a Christian for years by that time. Like all those new to our faith, Winner was able to reveal for us an outsider’s perspective on what made Christianity so wonderful, along with suggestions for its continued improvement. Mudhouse Sabbath seemed full of a lover’s passion and free of cynical doubt.
With Still, Winner confronts her first crisis of faith in her Christian journey. The book itself is all about that difficult crisis, a narrative exploration of what happens when doubt and sorrow and cynicism threaten to undo one’s relationship with God altogether. In the preface, she writes, “In my case, as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die, too. God had been there. God had been alive to me. And then, it seemed, nothing was alive—not even God.” (xv) I believe anyone who has led a life of faith has experienced these times when God feels absent, and I have come to understand them as simply a part of the marathon course of a faith journey. There is even language in our tradition to talk about these difficult stretches—wilderness, desert, dark night of the soul. For Winner, however—perhaps again displaying the insight and heart of a convert—this seems like a new and abject experience. Her response is to probe deeper and more passionately, and we receive the gift of that quest in Still.
Winner speaks of this difficult season as the middle of faith, with baptism or conversion at the beginning and eternity at the end. The book unfolds an awakening about this middle time. Initially, she is thrust there by the death of her mother and a divorce with her husband, so it feels like a place of affliction. By the book’s end, though, her wrestling has helped her make peace.
Perhaps middle tint is the palette of faithfulness. Middle tint is going to church each week, opening the prayer book each day. This is rote, unshowy behavior and you would not notice it if you weren’t looking for it, but it is necessary; it is most of the canvas; it is the palette that makes possible the gashes of white, the outlines of black; it is indeed that by which the palette will succeed or fail. (190)
The middle of spiritual life is indeed that gray place of everyday faithful living, sometimes disrupted by despair and punctuated by occasional glimpses of glory. Somehow those moments of transcendence make sense of all the rest.
This book would be an ideal read for companionship and comfort for anyone navigating a crisis of faith. Like the Psalmist, Winner gives voice to our aching need and hurting heart when we feel “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and she keeps to the prayer of faith, “you are my strength, come quickly to help me.” (Psalm 22:1, 19) Winner brings that same passion to this difficult part of the journey as she does to the joyous parts, and that, along with her eloquence, makes this a helpful addition to the spiritual library.
When I read Still, it was out of season for my life. I was in a place of strong communion with God, and so I did not connect with it in a visceral way. I imagine I will return to this book when I again feel lost in the middle.
Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference, the church of my childhood and youth. I was there to celebrate the ordination of my best friend since junior high school, and it was the honor of a lifetime to share in that special moment of the laying on of hands with her. That visit also brought me back in touch with dozens of people that I had known and loved. I got to see women clergy who had inspired me to ministry, old pals from high school and college, pastors of my home church, camp counselors I worked alongside over several summers, my campus ministry chaplains, former Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, the pastor who officiated our wedding, and even a few old boyfriends (and their parents). My parents were there too, and for the first time in many years I found myself best known as their daughter.
I left the United Methodist Church and found my way to the United Church of Christ almost 20 years ago, in my final two years of college. I felt angry and wounded at the time, and it was a painful separation for me. I had experienced my call to ministry in that community. I felt known and loved in that body. I loved all those people that had shaped me, but God was calling me out. I stayed connected to people until I left for seminary in California 15 years ago, which was the last time I saw most of these UMC friends. This trip back for the ordination blended the experience of a high school reunion with an odd glimpse of the road not taken.
What struck me most, the whole time I was there, was how much I felt out of place. The experience was entirely internal, because everyone there greeted me warmly and welcomed me home. I was surprised and delighted to see how many people recognized and remembered me, even though I had been gone so long. I had an amazing time catching up with everyone, hearing about their ministries, exchanging pictures of children and grandchildren. We had found each other on Facebook in recent years, so that made the reunion even more meaningful. Most of my old friends shared my theological and social concerns, so there was no tension or inquisition about why I had left. The difference between us is that I had left the tribe.
And, at the risk of alluding to Frost one too many times, that has made all the difference.
The first time I walked into a UCC congregation, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being at home, among “my people.” Even though I had known real love and community and faith formation in my United Methodist upbringing, I discovered in the United Church of Christ that I fit in effortlessly. My theology and ecclesiology were not outsider opinions—they were core values. The vision of Christian mission in the UCC matched my own vision for my ministry and my Christian life. Rather than a reaction against the church of my childhood, my departure was more about being drawn into another one. I had found my tribe.
Returning to my United Methodist roots for this occasion allowed me to share my deep appreciation and love for those who nurtured me in the faith. The pain of old wounds had faded for me a very long time ago, but this reunion provided a time of healing. In the intervening years, my old friends have been drawn in and formed by their tribe, shaped and molded in accord with the values of Wesley’s great heritage. At the same time, my UCC tribe has been shaping me in the ways of Reformed and Congregational life. That is the role of our tribes—to form us. I felt out of place in that gathering because I was out of place, having been shaped for 20 years by a different tribe’s values and practices. I am grateful that I have not spent all my energy fighting that formation simply because I was in the wrong tribe.
I am equally grateful for the way my former church loved and cared for me, for the shaping gifts of their tribe to me and for the powerful witness and ministry they offer in the Christian community. I delight in seeming my friends come alive within the shaping influence of their tribe, even as I claim, with joy, a different path. Thanks be to God for my tribe, and for theirs.