Archive for November 2012
Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, Alban Institute, 2010, 139 pp.
This is the follow-up volume to Merritt’s Tribal Church. Tribal Church mapped out the contours of the next generation, describing with insightful detail the cultural promise and pressures facing Generations X and Y. I finished Tribal Church frustrated that it did not offer as much wisdom as I had hoped about how to be engaged in ministry within this new cultural reality. Reframing Hope picked up where Tribal Church left off, and started to paint a picture of ministry in a new era.
Merritt’s gift is not a program or a plan of action for ministry. Instead, she is able to draw a portrait, an evocative image of what ministry can look like with a new generation. Instead of spelling out “do this, don’t do that,” she carefully draws out the places that hope is found and Christianity is alive anew. In broad strokes, she points out areas that need attention and reformation: authority, community, means of communication, the way the Gospel is told, activism, connection to creation and spirituality. The picture as a whole is still blurry, because we are still figuring out what this new Christianity looks like, but Merritt provides concrete anecdotes that are hi-res clear.
Merritt does an excellent job of distilling and naming subtle changes in understanding for our generation. She gives voice to things that seem vague and unnamed. One compelling example is her description of power and authority:
In a new generation, reliable information does not radiate from a central power; rather it moves underground, through networks, streets, relationships and friends.
Someone recently asked me where I look for information, insight and new ideas about ministry. I realized that there are very few authors or leaders that I turn to as authorities. Instead, I most admire my young colleagues in ministry, whom I connect with through the 2030 Clergy Network. They are my most reliable source, and they are available to me via social media.
Merritt also offers wise words about the impulse toward community.
We retain the cynicism that remains wary of institutions, yet we are weary from radical individualism. … A new generation is longing for authentic community, a place that nurtures our spiritual lives and develops deep concern for one another. We look for groups that understand the need for both individual responsibility and communal action.
Amen and amen. We realize that we cannot make it on our own, that we need one another, and that life together is richer and more full. Yet we do not turn to institutions to provide ready-made community. We are looking through institutions to build community that is authentic, intense, small and demanding.
Merritt’s book maps out the ways the historic church can be meaningful, relevant and life-giving for a new generation. Her reflections are deep and beautifully written, demanding contemplation rather than programming. It asks the church to orient itself in ways that are spiritual but not radical, so it can be a place of welcome and filled with hope.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 2008, 555 pp.
This novel is a thinly-veiled fictional portrait of Laura Bush. While the names and locations have been changed, little else in the story line has. The main character, Alice Lindgren, is a middle-class girl who meets up with a wealthy party-boy bachelor, Charlie Blackwell. Like Laura Bush, she causes a car accident in high school that kills a classmate, she works as a librarian, and she differs from her husband by being pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. The Blackwell family is nearly a mirror for the Bushes: a compassionate father in politics and domineering mother, a giant summer home compound, raucous brothers, wealth and privilege. Charlie Blackwell went to Princeton instead of Yale, but he was a cheerleader, turned alcoholic, turned major league baseball team owner, turned born-again Christian, turned governor, turned president, with all the personality traits of George W. Bush.
The book starts out with an interesting imaginative perspective, hearing Alice’s voice and her understanding of her life’s choices. It is entertaining to merge Alice Blackwell and Laura Bush in your imagination and wonder if Alice’s words and perspective might be shared by Laura. There are several plot developments that do not parallel the life of Laura Bush, which add interest and intrigue. The first 400 or so pages were good, but not great.
However, the book went on about 100 pages too long. Once the family hits the White House, Alice’s narrative voice is like a blow-by-blow commentary of the Bush presidency. Alice comments at length on all the major events of the Bush presidency—the election challenges of 2000, September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Karl Rove, even Cindy Sheehan. (Rove and Sheehan have different names, of course, but little else is different.) I found it at best dull and at worst ridiculous to read an imaginary Laura Bush’s perspective on all these events. While I kept reading to see how Alice’s story would wind up, I found the running commentary on recent history uninsightful and way, way too long.
Overall, American Wife gets a “meh.” Not bad, not poorly written, but not all that exciting either.