For The Someday Book

Archive for July 2010

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, by P.D. James, Simon & Schuster, 1977, 250 pp.

I decided to take a risk and try a mystery novel. I have so many friends who love mysteries as a genre, and sing the praises of P.D. James as the best in the business. I wanted something easy and fun and forgettable. It was all of those things, but nothing more. And a lot more easy and forgettable than it was fun.

This is the first of the Cordelia Gray series, which I figured would be a good place to start in case I got hooked and wanted to tear through the whole series. Perhaps that made it a bit more rocky, since the main character needed a lot of set-up and back story. In this story, she is on her first case as a private eye, hired by a rich scientist to discover why his 21-year-old son hung himself. The story had its twists and turns, but I thought the “whodunit” aspects of it were fairly predictable.

I decided that I like to read for characters and ideas and pathos, not for plot twists and turns. The mystery did not work for me because I did not care enough about the characters. A mystery novel works on cleverness, both of the plot and of the detective solving the case. For me, the cleverness did not carry me through with enough passion to care if the victim was this character or that one, if the culprit was this character or that one.

Mystery lovers: what am I missing? Correct me, cajole me, console me. Why do you love this so much?

Time to move decidedly back to the territory of my preferred genres for awhile. I don’t have any plans to seek out the next Cordelia Gray story anytime soon.

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, by Michael Perry, Harper Perennial, 2002, 234 pp.

This was not at all the book I thought it was. I thought it was a novel when I bought it (I was in a hurry). I was anticipating a story of colorful small town characters with lots of laugh lines and quirky plot twists. Instead, Population: 485 turned out to be a poignant, sparse account of life on a volunteer fire department. Had I known what it was, I never would have read it, much less bought it. But since I bought it, I felt compelled to give it a try, and once I started it I could not justify putting it down.

I have no interest in learning or reading about accident scenes, firefighting techniques or gruesome calls. It all calls to mind a little too easily an ex-boyfriend who was a volunteer EMT, and seemed to talk about nothing else. For the first several chapters, I carried on this conversation with myself:

“Why am I reading this?”

“Because I paid for it. It’s not a bad book.”

“Still, I don’t care about the topic. I have all these other books I do care about.”

“I know, but it’s well-written. And you paid for it.”

“Next time, I’ll be more careful. Besides, it’s edifying to read something outside your normal choices.”

In the end, that’s where I am: it was edifying to read something I would not normally choose to read. Perry’s writing was solid and beautiful. He wove together the information about calls and firefighting techniques to tell the story of small-town life and the meaning of belonging. Population: 485 tells it all truthfully, with humor and interest, but without the slightest romance about the realities of New Auburn, WI. The whole book is artful without being contrived, and Perry feels no compulsion to paint a romantic picture of the beauty of small towns. Instead, the beauty is in the thing itself, the way neighbors and brothers come together and drift apart again, the way life and death go on unabated, the way one can be both an insider and outsider, neighbor and stranger.

What Perry gives us in Population: 485 is a sense of wholeness—the town, its people and his experience of it seem complete, full, satisfied. Those are rare attributes in our consumer-driven culture where we always seems to need more, better, newer, nicer. The book left me with the same feeling—satisfaction.

“Put down the window, so I can see God.”

That’s what B said to me this morning in the car on the way to preschool. “If you put down the window, then you can see God.”

He spent the last week getting his first dose of Christian education outside the home through vacation bible school, so we have been having all kinds of interesting conversations about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the love of God. I figured this would be another untwisting of something he had heard at VBS.

Baffled, I asked, “What do you mean? How can you see God by putting down the window?”

“You know,” he said. “The wind.”

This time it was my words that need untwisting. Everything is literal in his three-year-old mind. The day before, he had inquired about when and where and how he would get to see God. Having not met God in person, he had surmised that God was dead.

I marveled that his young mind could arrive so quickly and easily at one of the great arguments among atheists everywhere. Thankfully, because this is such a familiar point, it has a familiar answer: the wind.

On the way to school the day before, I had answered his question about the death of God with the analogy of the wind. We cannot see the wind, but we can see the effects of the wind on the trees and feel it on our faces. God is the same way—we cannot see God, but we can see what God does, like all the things God has made in the world and the love we feel with one another. I know young children don’t quite understand analogy, but it was the best explanation I could offer without concocting for him a heaven where God lives far, far away. He smiled and giggled and talked about the wind and generally seemed satisfied with the answer.

And then, this morning in the car, his request: “Put down the window, so I can see God. You know, in the wind.”

I realized I didn’t need to untwist his conception after all. I just rolled down the window, and glanced in the rearview mirror to see him laughing and smiling in the back seat, hair flying in the wind. Yes, that is God alright—I see the Holy One too.

First Christian Church, Columbus, IN. Designed by Eliel Saarinen. Photo by revjmk.

The First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana is an imposing edifice of concrete block, one of the first churches in the country designed with contemporary architecture. Like most churches, the front is adorned with an enormous cross, the dominant symbol of Christianity and the central fixture of many Christian churches. What is unique about the cross on the front of First Christian Church of Columbus is that it is off-center.

At first, I did not notice. My eyes and brain gazed at yet another enormous cross, and assimilated the cross to its rightful place at the center of the building. Even when someone pointed it out to me, I still had to look at it for a moment before I could take it in.

What does it mean to decenter the cross?

The cross is not neutralized or hidden on the face of the church. Indeed, it dominates the front face of the building. Neither does the cross, though enormous and prominent, overwhelm the other facets of the church. The off-center cross invites attention to the space around it.

The decentered cross has the effect of making room for something more. The cross is monumental, but it is not a fixed point upon which all else focuses. Situated slightly to the side, the cross seems to make way for the resurrection. It beckons you to notice the empty space around it, and the church life it announces. The decentered cross is not the end or the goal or the center—it is the beginning of new life, an opportunity for God’s resurrection and a call to sacrifice in order to build the Kingdom of God on earth.

The decentered cross reminds me that the true power of the cross of Christ is that it decenters us. It displaces us from our self-centeredness and challenges us to look toward the needs of others. It replaces strength with weakness and violence with peace. It overcomes the power of fear and death.

The cross of Christ is always decentered, and decentering. It always points beyond itself to the resurrection, and it always upsets the balance of power. Whenever I contemplate the cross, I feel God’s pull dislodging me from selfishness and returning me to wholeness. Decentered and decentering, always.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, Harcourt, 2003, 546 pages.

I’m not big on romance novels, so this book did not attract my attention for a long time. Its billing as a love story made me think of fawning girls, juicy kisses, pining hearts and all that other mushy stuff—not anything to hold my interest. Finally, a trusted friend who knows my taste gave me a recommendation, and I was desperate for something escapist to read quickly during vacation. This was a great choice.

This book is a lot more than mushy love stuff. It is an amazingly well-crafted intersection of two lives, one of which does not move chronologically. Henry DeTamble is a time traveler, against his will, and his life intersects with Clare Abshire from the time he is twenty years old. However, because of his time travel, those intersections take place from the time Clare is six years old into her adulthood. Because their lives are so intertwined, neither Clare nor Henry hold the entire story of their lives—they each only know parts and pieces, and their partner must forever be helping them by giving them the whole picture.

Throughout the novel, I kept comparing their unusual relationship to a more traditional one, and I see connections everywhere. I think all of our relationships, especially those that continue over many years, help us to fill out our memory and understanding of life’s events. J and I have been married for 13 years (tomorrow!), and we act as mirrors and memories for one another. One of the greatest gifts of marriage is to have a witness to your life. We go through things together, and we see each other change and grow. We remember our younger selves, and hold on to pieces of memory and self for one another. This is not so different from Henry and Clare.

The novel itself is a beautiful, intricate construction. Niffenegger somehow manages to assemble all the pieces of their lives—Clare’s chronological movement with Henry’s jumping about—into a cohesive whole. No detail or element of plot is irrelevant or neglected. The author deftly winds up every loose detail into a complete and satisfying story and ending. There is a sense of genius in the construction.

Most importantly, though, I just enjoyed reading it. I read the whole thing in 24 hours, and enjoyed every minute of it. I loved all the characters, and wanted to spend more time in their world. It was a great escape novel, with enough to keep the mind churning after turning the last page.

I wrote a few weeks ago about an extrovert’s vacation, and my struggles as an introvert taking extroverted vacations. This week, at long last, I had the opportunity for an introverted vacation. It was wonderful.

I drove a mere hour away from home, leaving behind my church, my husband and child, and all obligations to talk to other people. I wandered around a fascinating little town, and took a bunch of photographs for future blog posts. I checked into a hotel for two nights, watched two movies and a bunch of bad shows, finished one book and read a 530+ page novel cover-to-cover. I ate lunch at a restaurant each day, where I was polite but refused to engage in small talk with the servers, even though I was eating alone. I also took a local architectural tour, which happened to include several retired clergy. I did not “out” myself as fellow clergy, because I did not want to engage in conversation that went deeper than, “isn’t that building interesting?”  I would slip quietly into my hotel room each evening about 5:00, armed with snacks and reading material, and not reappear again until breakfast.

I have returned to life feeling centered and rested. This is what I needed. This has freed me to write again. I could have stayed all week. It was a true introvert’s vacation, a vacation from people, to spend time with myself and with God.

An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God, by Erik Reece, Riverhead Books, 2009, 224 pages.

I read this book on the recommendation of a church member currently seeking a new path back to faith after a tragic loss. He said it had spoken to him of a different kind of faith, and I was curious enough to read. Besides, I always love a good spiritual autobiography.

This book was not at all what I expected. There were parts I loved, parts that bored me, parts that intrigued me, parts that moved me, and parts that I found simply amateur and naive. This book is not-quite-equal parts autobiography and American religious history. Reece recounts his religious journey as the son and grandson of a fundamentalist preacher, his grappling with his father’s suicide and his attempts to find a faith beyond fundamentalism. He also traces a line of a particular American faith that runs counter to the Puritan fundamentalism he was raised with, drawing a line from William Byrd to Jefferson to Whitman and Emerson to James and Dewey to Dr. Lynn Margulis. He even finds a way to argue that the Gospel of Thomas is the key to finding a true American gospel.

Here’s what I loved: Reece’s resurrection of and perspective on these great American thinkers and their faith. He points to two key factors among all these American poets and philosophers: their connection to the natural world, and their pragmatism about finding a faith that works to make the world a better place. He made me want to read Emerson and Whitman again, in depth. I agree with his call to panentheism, a faith that sees God at work in everything around us.

Here’s what bored me: Reece offers yet another critique of atonement theology, a harsh critique of Pauline Christianity and fundamentalism. He find Jefferson, Whitman and the Gospel of Thomas scandalous to this Christianity, and argues that the kingdom of God is all around us in this life, not just something we await in the next. Many Christians (and I count myself among them) crossed this bridge a long time ago, and the critique seemed stale. I’ve seen it done much better elsewhere.

Here’s what intrigued me: In addition to creating a desire to reread Emerson and Whitman, Reece introduced me to Dr. Lynn Margulis, and I wrote extensively of my intrigue with her work in another post.

Here’s what moved me: The final chapter brings together all the pieces Reece lays out for an American gospel. He connects naturalism with a new reading of the Genesis creation narrative, which results in a pragmatic demand to build the kingdom of God on earth. He imagines this as an aesthetic experience, where religion is beauty and beauty is religion. It was a beautiful portrait of faith.

Here’s what I found amateur and naive: Reece treats the newly-discovered Gospel of Thomas as proof positive that his version of Christianity is the true faith. Using the argument that the Gospel of Thomas is older than the other gospels, including a huge reliance on the Q hypothesis, Reece draws a distinct line between Pauline Christianity and the faith of Jesus. While Reece’s arguments are plausible, it is his certainty and his need to prove himself in history that I find amateur and naive. Biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to these same studies speak with far less certainty, and put far less personal faith in their conclusions. I want to urge Reece to ground his faith somewhere outside any particular theory of the earliest Gospel or the historical Jesus.

This is where I think Reece’s book got under my skin a bit: he does not realize (or at least does not acknowledge) that there is an entire history of Christianity, even an American Christianity, that already agrees with his conclusions. This fills me with both frustration and pity. Frustration that he did not acknowledge the other stream of American Christianity that is working to build the kingdom of God here and now, that launched the Social Gospel movement and worked for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the quest for civil rights, just to name a few examples. In Reece’s book, my kind of Christianity is frustratingly absent as a significant force in American history.

But I also feel pity, because Reece’s journey is highly personal, and it seems like he has never met a Christian from outside the fundamentalist circles. It is a painful and lonely journey to lose one’s faith community while holding on to faith, and I am sad for him that he had to reinvent his own faith without a community of support. I want to invite him to the United Church of Christ, and tell him that he’s not alone.

In the end, the book is a mixed bag. I recommend it for that last chapter alone, which is hard to grasp without reading the whole, and is so rich with faith and perspective. It moved me, frustrated me, bored me, intrigued me, inspired me.  Most of all, it left me wondering about the church member who recommended it to me. What was his experience? What drew him so strongly to this text? I need to ask him.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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