Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, 228 pp.
The title drew me in. (Also, I’ll admit, the Booker Prize Finalist sticker on the cover.) The title made me think this book would have some rich theological insight hidden inside, even if it never mentioned God. Fasting and feasting are such rich concepts for contemplation. The book did follow its title with interwoven threads of deprivation and abundance, although it did not capture my heart and mind as much as I had hoped.
The story is told in two parts, from two central characters. The first part takes place in India, and focuses on Uma, the eldest sister of an aspiring middle-class family. Uma is a bit slow-witted and physically clumsy, but she has dreams for her life. However, at every turn, her parents thwart her aspirations and turn her into a servant in the household. Her prospects for marriage crumble, and she is denied even the simplest pleasures. She is not alone. Nearly all the women in the story are bound in service to men, their own dreams unsupported and unsustained.
The second part takes place in the United States, and focuses on Arun, the youngest child and only boy in the family. The family (especially Uma) sacrifices everything so that Arun can succeed, achieve and prosper. While it seems that he has everything, he longs desperately for affection. During his time in the United States, the land of plenty, he sees the elements of physical and emotional deprivation in American family life, even as he himself goes hungry rather than eat meat with the host family.
The novel is beautiful, intricate and run through with allusions to various kinds of fasting and feasting. At times, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me, like it was a morality tale or parable about abundance and deprivation, rather than a novel. Uma felt more like a real character about whom I cared than Arun did. I yearned for redemption in the story, but hunger won out over satisfaction for both Arun and Uma.
This is a book I appreciated more than I enjoyed, recognizing its merits while never quite falling under its spell.
I am fast becoming a leading member of the Kent Haruf fan club. After discovering Benediction not long ago, I was determined to read more of his work. At the library, they all looked so intriguing I couldn’t decide which one to borrow—so I took home all three. Plainsong was the first one I chose to read, because it was recognized as a National Book Award finalist. It was just as lovely as Benediction had been, and made me glad to have two more Haruf novels waiting on my shelf.
Plainsong unpacks the intertwining lives of ordinary, yet quirky, people in a small town east of the Rockies. (At one point, I became fascinated by where Holt might be, and whether it is a real place. It is a real county in western Nebraska, and the highways described match the highways on the map.) The characters include two young brothers, Ike and Bobby, 9 and 10, left alone much of the time to explore the town and their independence. Their mother is a minor character, afflicted by mental illness and recently separated from them and their father, but their father Tom Guthrie is central. He is a high school teacher who tangles with the family of a student he fails, and has a developing relationship with fellow teacher Maggie Jones. When student Victoria Roubideaux discovers she is pregnant and kicked out of her home, she turns to Maggie for help. Maggie turns to two reclusive brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron to take her in.
Plainsong‘s style and story echo its title: a simple telling of their stories, and how they come together in unison, simple and unadorned. Ike and Bobby lose a bit of their childish innocence, discovering some harsh truths about sex and violence and relationships, but the adults in the story guide them through. Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones help heal one another of broken relationships. Victoria and the McPheron brothers are the most unlikely of partners, and many of their awkward encounters made me chuckle. Still, they were charming and good-hearted, and Haruf has a way of weaving all his characters together such that they are all less lonely by the end of the story.
I was also intrigued by the western setting of the book, with stories about cattle and horses and rural life that offered a unique insight into this region of the country. I have driven through small towns in western Kansas, western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, and I could imagine all the scenes of the story in those locations.
Plainsong was lovely, through and through, with a kind of simple beauty that is only possible by refined, well-worn, carefully crafted prose. I am looking forward to the next Haruf novel in line, and hoping to encounter some of these characters “around town” next time.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 532 pp.
I stumbled into this by impulse and accident, buying Bringing Up the Bodies from the discount bin only to set it aside when I realized it was part two of a series. When my eyes caught Wolf Hall on the library shelf, I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did.
Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell. Set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn, the book covers the subtle machinations of Cromwell’s service to Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry and Anne. Cromwell is usually a side plot in most books on this place and time. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have had countless novels imagining their relationship, personalities and political maneuverings. Likewise with Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), who get feature roles. Cromwell, however, is generally portrayed as the aide or antagonist to these main characters. Wolf Hall finally gives him the spotlight in our imaginations.
The book begins with a brief account of a working class, violent childhood, followed by disclosure of youthful wanderings and military service on the continent that remain shrouded in mystery. He emerges from time on the continent as a wealthy, well-connected, senior advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall imagines how the most trusted advisor to Wolsey could somehow maneuver to become the most trusted advisor to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, which is an unlikely assimilation but true to history.
Mantel’s storytelling is wonderful, and even after 532 rich pages, I still wanted more. She portrays Cromwell as the smartest man in every room, a scholar with a kindly heart and a desire for grace. He is willing to do what is necessary to accomplish the goals of his master (or his own, which are never quite explicit); however, in spite of about his bloody past as a soldier, Cromwell avoids violence as his tactic, unlike More and the King. In every other portrayal I’ve seen, he is mean-spirited, cold, calculating and harsh. In Wolf Hall, I liked him immediately. He is still calculating, but aloof instead of cold, and winsome in his humor and intellect. His Reformation tendencies emerge as a desire for knowledge, of the scriptures especially.
I can’t wait to dive into Bringing Up the Bodies, and I am already enjoying the miniseries version of Wolf Hall currently airing on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Wolf Hall is a great read.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 261 pp.
Oh, Marilynne Robinson, how you move me! I think she (and especially her character Rev. John Ames) has become one of my favorite theologians in recent years. I have treasured the first two volumes of this trilogy, Gilead and Home, and waited longingly for Lila to finally be available.
Lila completes the trilogy with the story of Lila Dahl, the late-in-life wife of Rev. John Ames, a wanderer with an unknown past. In the previous two stories, she is a mystery. Finally we hear her own voice, and Robinson reveals–in her careful, slow way–Lila’s complicated past. Like Ames and Boughton, hers is a story of loneliness and isolation. Unlike the men, who also had to cope with disappointment, Lila never had any expectations for her life, so her struggle is not so much with disappointment as with emptiness. Her loss is not of an imagined future, but of any comfort and companionship at all.
Everything that happens here between Lila and Rev. John Ames is familiar to readers of Gilead and Home. She comes to church and he baptizes her. They meet and talk in their stilted way. They are married, and soon she is pregnant with his child. What we learn in this book is Lila’s perspective on their relationship, and the intricate back story that leads Lila to Gilead and breaks her heart open to love. Her story begins in poverty and abandonment, grows into love and wandering and being an outlier with Doll, the woman who raised her. When she loses Doll, she loses herself and falls into the realm of violence and abuse. Yet she escapes, she finds redemption, and together with Ames finds a frail happiness she can hardly believe is real.
As always, Robinson offers a deep sense of poetry and theology, even though our main character is not a preacher. Below are a few gems I want to remember.
She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret. (93-94)
The next four passages are words spoken by Rev. John Ames, and they sum up much of my own theology.
I really don’t think preachers ought to lie. Especially about religion. (99)
Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)
“If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe.”
“Well, but that’s what you want to believe, ain’t it?” (Lila)
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” (143-143)
‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that the blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ (223)
I mean, just, wow. That’s how I feel the whole time I am reading these books. The aching beauty, the grim loneliness, the frail joy, the probing faith, the way she captures the contour of the soul moves me every time. If you haven’t yet read Robinson’s trilogy, get to the library now and get started. These books will stand among the great works of 21st century literature, I’m certain.
Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013, 133 pp.
My credentials as an avid reader are well established by the very substance of this blog. I love to read. I read a lot. I love to talk about books, to invest in them and dissect them and commit them to memory. Professionally, I am a preacher. When I read the title Reading for Preaching, I placed my book order without delay. I thought this book was written for me.
While I enjoyed Plantinga’s book, I quickly discovered it was not written for me. Plantinga makes a compelling case for why a preacher should endeavor to regularly read, especially novels, biographies, poetry and journalistic narratives. I am clearly already sold, and a quick skim through the long lists of reviews posted here will show that I most frequently turn to those precise genres (except poetry, which I should read more often). For example, Plantinga thinks it unrealistic for a preacher to read as many as six “classic novels” each year, and offers hope that preachers will read just one.(41-42) While all my fiction reading is not “classic novels,” I definitely read a lot more than that already.
However, Plantinga does offer great perspective and insight about why reading matters–for me and for other preachers. He begins with the obvious: reading is a source of illustrations for sermons. There is nothing worse to me than a tired, canned sermon illustration, and Plantinga urges preachers to “dig up your own stuff.” (22) He points out the ways that reading can make preachers more attentive not only to the possible illustrations in texts, but events in everyday life that might illuminate the gospel. Reading also serves to “attune the preacher’s ear,” to help a preacher register how best to speak to a given audience. Plantinga identifies a variety of dictions a preacher might use–from tuxedo formal to tank-top casual to upscale colloquial or business casual (49). Each one pitches the message to a particular setting, designed to speak appropriately and engagingly to the audience at hand. Reading a variety of dictions helps the preacher recognize and develop the right tone for his or her own congregation and message. He recommends children’s literature as an especially good tool.
The second half of Plantinga’s book talks about the importance of reading as a source of wisdom for the preacher. While scripture remains the preeminent source of wisdom, other literature also provides a great deal of wise insight into the human condition. He highlights the way literature can open us to a variety of worlds and life experiences beyond our own:
The preacher wants his program of reading to complicate some of his fixed ideas, to impress him with some of the mysteries of life, with its variousness, with its surprises, with the pushes and pulls within it. (95)
Plantinga also points to the ways that literature and journalism can help us explore good and evil, sin and grace with a more complex, nuanced understanding.
The whole book is rich with appreciation and encouragement for the life of preaching, and the importance of sermons in the life of Christian worship. For example, he remarks:
The unpredictability of the preaching event gives no one license to wing it. Faithful preachers work hard on their sermons, understanding that although a fruitful result may be God’s gift, hard work is the preacher’s calling. After all, it is audacious to speak for God. (43)
It is a bold and humble task we do as preachers, and I cannot imagine undertaking it without an army of words behind me from other authors. Plantinga’s argument for the importance of reading did not move me because I am already convinced, but this book did encourage me to see my indulgence in good fiction not as a rest from quality reading, but a different kind of endeavor at building my theological and emotional vocabulary for preaching.
I finished this book and felt much better about setting aside the latest book from a consultant on church leadership, returning instead to the public library, where I checked out nearly a dozen new books, a mixture of quality fiction, history and biography. Now, to read them all!
A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.
I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.
They don’t call it heartache for nothing.
I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.
We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.
We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.
Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.
We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.
“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.
Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.
“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.
In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.
The broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.
“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Dutton Books, New York, 2012, 318 pp.
I admit I just wanted to see what all the buzz was about with John Green. I started with Looking for Alaska, not willing to even begin a book about kids with cancer if it was just going to be some sappy tear-fest. When I met the voice of John Green in Looking for Alaska, I couldn’t wait to read the next thing–even if it risked making me cry for days. The good news is: it didn’t. Yes, I cried, but mostly I smiled, and I think I even smiled while I was crying.
The narrator of the story is Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer. The story opens with her attending a support group for teens with cancer, where she meets the gorgeous and charming survivor Augustus Waters. What follows is a simple, youthful love story between the two star-crossed lovers, with their love binding them together through (and in spite of) the reality of their cancers. They bond over Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, with an unanswered cliffhanger, and they journey all the way to Amsterdam to meet the author. Hazel and Augustus are charming as individuals and as a couple, and their story is beautiful and engrossing.
What is most impressive is the way John Green creates a world for these two–a world dominated by their cancer, but not limited to it, and he finds space for them to exist as human beings beyond their diagnoses. His humor (and therefore the characters’) is irreverent and occasionally biting, with no tolerance for saccharine sentimentality or easy answers. Green and his characters demand depth and authenticity, and they provide it in return.
The novel is packed with beautiful observations about life and death, pain and suffering. Here are some examples I want to remember. First, in response to a plaque in the Waters’ house that says, “Without pain, how could we know joy?”
This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate. (35)
When their friend Isaac loses his girlfriend and his sight, he goes into a destructive rampage of tears. Augustus observes: “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” (63)
Hazel describes herself as a grenade to those who love her. Because she knows that she will die and cause them so much pain, she wants to protect others (and herself) from loving her. (99) If only Hazel’s experience was unique! How many people in this world refuse to let themselves be loved (or to love others) because they fear that the danger inside them will explode and harm someone?
Then there is this exchange:
“You’re a hard person to comfort,” Augustus said.
“Easy comfort isn’t comforting,” I said. “You were a rare and fragile flower once. You remember.” (145)
As teens who know death is near, they spend a lot of time contemplating its reality and meaning. Augustus has even researched the numbers. There are seven billion living people, and 98 billion dead people, which means that there are fourteen dead people for every living one. Augustus contemplates a plan for each living person to remember 14 dead ones, so that everyone can be remembered.(151) It made me think about the cloud of witnesses, hovering around us and cheering for us.
The Fault in Our Stars is packed with wisdom and insight, with honesty and wit. I loved every page, even the sad ones, and there were many more pages overwhelming with joy than with sorrow, which is pretty much the book’s message–we love even though we may suffer for it, because the goodness of love far outweighs the sorrow of loss.