Archive for July 2014
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, 337 pp.
I kept hearing Joshua Ferris on the radio on NPR in recent weeks, but always interrupted—I’d catch an appreciative glimpse from the host or quip from the author, along with the book title. When the title appeared on the “new books” shelf in my local library, it seemed a small miracle. In our small town, I often have to wait a long time for the newest NPR-promoted titles. I grabbed it up, excited to be the first one to take it home to read.
And then I started reading it, and discovered I really didn’t like it. Meeting the narrator, Paul O’Rourke, was like going on a blind date with a guy you met online, only to discover that instead of sensitive and interesting, he’s just a self-centered nerd consumed with his own loneliness, lust, and baseball. He is unable to connect, especially with women, and lacks empathy, which made it impossible for me to empathize with him. At the end of my first date with the book, which lasted for 50 pages or so, I didn’t really want to see Paul O’Rourke ever again.
Yet all that NPR press made me keep going. I realized it was outside my typical style, so I persisted in the hopes that I would be won over. In the end, I can’t say that I liked the book or enjoyed reading it, but I am glad I did bother to finish it. It had its moments, and by the end I found some sympathy for Paul O’Rourke, likely because by the end of the book he became a more sympathetic character.
Paul O’Rourke is a dentist in New York City with an elite clientele, an obsession with the Red Sox, and a terribly needy and disastrous history with social and romantic relationships. His life carries on from day to day, back and forth between his dental practice and his nightly Red Sox rituals, and the narrative we hear of this life is petulant and awkward. The plot of the book begins when someone anonymously creates a website for his dental practice, followed by a strident social media presence. The anonymous “other Paul” begins a prolific public campaign of speech for him, including allusions to a strange new/ancient religious and ethnic sect. At first, O’Rourke is obsessed and angry, but he eventually becomes intrigued and even enamored of the other Paul’s ideas. The experience sends him on a quest for a deeper engagement in life, breaking him free from his strangled approach to relationships and opening him to new possibilities. It is a hopeful story.
I think it was the passages about the experience of being a Red Sox fan that kept me going and made me want to read more. The author captures my own relationship with the Red Sox, before and after 2004.
The single happiest night of my life came in October of 2004 when Mueller forced extra innings with a single to center field and, more spectacularly, David Ortiz homered in the bottom of the twelfth, halting a Yankees’ sweep of the American League Championship and initiating literally the most staggering comeback in sports history, culminating in a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals to take the World Series. It was the validation of all those years of suffering, the cause of an unexpected euphoria, and a total cataclysm. Sometime in 2005 … the unlikely fact that the Red Sox had won finally sank in, and a malaise crept over me. I wasn’t prepared for the changes that accompanied the win—for instance, the sudden influx of new fans, none of them forged, as it were, in the fires of the team’s eighty-six-year losing streak. … I worried that we would forget the memory of loss across innumerable barren years and think no more of the scrappy self-preservation that was our defining characteristic in the face of humiliation in the face of defeat. (147)
He carries on there about becoming the team we’ve always hated, poaching players and buying victory, all the same feelings I’ve had since the Red Sox changed from being perpetual heartbreakers to repeat champions. Winning is great, but it changes what it means to follow my team. Later in the book, he reflects on the end of the 2011 season:
How happy I was that the Red Sox were acting once again like the Red Sox: a cursed and collapsing people. I didn’t want my team to lose; I just didn’t want my team to be the de facto winner. … It was our duty, as Red Sox fans, to root for Boston than it was to ensure in some deeply moral way—I really mean it when I say it was a moral act, a principled act of human decency—that we not resemble the New York Yankees in any respect. (324)
Oh, how refreshing to read someone who gets me about being a Red Sox fan.
So, the book had its moments. Excellent commentary on Red Sox fandom, interesting reflections on postmodern religion and the role of doubt, along with the problems of identity in our social media constructed culture. I may not have enjoyed it, but I finished it—and didn’t regret the time spent.
Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks by Walter Brueggemann, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 165 pp.
I adore Walter Brueggemann’s work, and I will confess to anyone who cares to listen that I think every sermon I have ever preached on a text from the Hebrew Bible has been influenced by his scholarship and pastoral insights. This is especially true of any sermons on prophetic texts, as his original outline in The Prophetic Imagination unlocked those obscure biblical books, with their poetry and lamentation, in ways that finally made them come alive for me.
I heard Brueggemann lecture on the content of Reality, Grief, Hope before reading the book, and recognized immediately the themes he had previously developed in The Prophetic Imagination, Hopeful Imagination and other books. His perspective on the prophets is that their first word calls forth the injustice, sin and loss in the community, prompting grief. Only after the people have experienced lament can they find their way to hope, the prophet’s second word. Reality, Grief, Hope adds a new dimension to the prophet’s task, a new first word before grief: reality.
Brueggemann has observed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, that the prophet must first pierce through the many layers of denial. Before the grief can flow, the people must acknowledge that something has been lost that cannot be regained. In both ancient and modern contexts, the royal ideology of chosenness (the conviction that God will protect the Jerusalem establishment and its leaders) persists long after facts on the ground demonstrate that the temple and its practices will not be protected. The ideology blinds the people from seeing any facts or reality beyond itself, and therefore traps them within a false and failing way of seeing the world, denying the change and the injustice around them.
Reality must be faced and not resisted. Their rhetoric is designed to break the bubble, to make contact with the facts on the ground—that God is here and neighbor is here—and to notice the links of chosenness in the present and future fates. (23)
Brueggemann describes this phenomenon in ancient Israel, then he describes it in the 21st century of the United States. The roots of the problem today lie in American exceptionalism, and our understanding of freedom as freedom to disregard the needs of our neighbors.
Grief is the path to piercing this ideology and its systematic denial of its own failure. Brueggemann offers an extensive catalog of biblical prophets who address this need, from Jeremiah to the Psalmist to Lamentations. He then summons preachers and prophets today to engage in the same work, naming and claiming the loss of American superiority, privilege and moral certainty.
This converging loss that is beyond denial, concerning loss of political-military hegemony, loss of economic dominance, loss of social-ethnic singularity, and loss of ecclesiastical propensity, has come to amount to a loss of moral certainty and a failure of nerve about the future. In sum, we watch as the world for which we had prepared ourselves and had learned to master is disappearing before our very eyes. (81)
When that sadness and loss remains unexpressed and voiceless, it gives rise to violence and precludes us from imagining new possibilities that might spring forth by the grace of God. The grief is necessary to move into reality and into hope.
Grief can easily give way to despair. The task of the prophet, after piercing denial with reality and unleashing the grief, is to offer hope, so that the people do not fall into despair. That hope comes always from outside the ideology, outside the system and empire. Hope comes from God.
It is rather, the tradition insists, an utterance that arises “from elsewhere,” from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historical possibility by resolve that is not disrupted by the city in shambles and is not restrained by the force of empire. (106)
Brueggemann concludes by insisting that the best possibility for prophetic work today lies in local congregations, where people are known and loved against the forces of empire.
One can see the same practice in the life of a congregation wherein people are known and named, who have birthdays and anniversaries remembered, who have their sicknesses and deaths honored, all gestures that call out an affirmed, empowered personhood. (145)
This counternarrative that disrupts imperial narrative focuses upon particular persons in daily crises, naming, valuing, and empowering persons who have been disregarded, reduced or summarized by the empire. (146)
The work of prophetic imagination has a calling, I do not doubt, to walk our society into the crisis where it does not want to go, and to walk our society out of that crisis into newness that it does not believe is possible. (160)
The church, Brueggemann claims, by living its ordinary life of caring for souls and holding out the good news, is the key to helping people and society move into hope.
Reality, Grief, Hope takes Brueggemann’s existing work to a new level, and lays a new claim upon us as pastors and church leaders to engage the prophetic work of piercing reality, opening grief and proclaiming hope in God. His insistence will not release us, and the scriptures he summons will not let us doubt. As always, Walter Brueggemann brings the Bible alive and with its vitality comes a summons to follow.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Random House Vintage Books, 2009, 669 pp.
This novel is epic–in the traditional sense of the word rather than the modern slang. It is the story of an entire lifetime–two lives, really–with a cast of characters that develop and evolve across four continents and the entire 20th century. Its nearly 700 pages flies by, with every detail coming together into a complete story. The book has everything I love–compelling characters, interesting plot, difficulties (both emotional and embodied) to overcome, and a fascinating setting. I loved it.
The narrator and central character is Dr. Marion Stone, along with his twin brother Shiva. The story begins with their sudden, surprising and dangerous birth to a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, at the Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The narrator then traces back the story of their parents, from their birth onward to their meeting and partnership. Their mother was from India, becoming a nun and nurse whose order sent her on an ill-fated mission to Africa. Their father was an English doctor born and raised in India, who was serving at Missing Hospital to escape his own sorrowful story. At their birth, their mother dies and their father disappears. The story unfolds their lives uncovering the mystery of their parents’ stories.
Meanwhile, they are surrounded by an adoring family at Missing Hospital. Two other doctors, Hema and Ghosh, serve as their mother and father, joined by two nannies/maids, Rosina and Almaz; the hospital’s odd priest/gatekeeper Gebrew; Missing’s director Matron; and even a sister in Rosina’s daughter Genet, born just a few months after the twins. Together they raise Shiva and Marion, alongside Genet, in the midst of an Ethiopia dealing with coups, poverty and more. Both boys are drawn to medicine, but follow different paths. In their late teens, there is a fracture in the relationship between the twins, and the novel reckons with that brokenness and painful reconciliation.
The author himself is a surgeon, and this book could almost be classified as “medical fiction,” if there is such a genre. Verghese writes of the human body, of surgery and illness with great detail and unique insight, but that expertise is partnered with great wisdom about human living. Just a sample few lines from the opening chapter:
We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot. I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. My intent wasn’t to save the world as much as to heal myself. Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but subconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound. (7)
Cutting for Stone is the kind of story I hesitate to share in detail, because each small detail of plot turns back on itself in the story’s resolution and I do not want to give it away. The book requires a commitment, but it is beautiful and wonderful and well worth it. I foresee this being one of my favorite books of the year, with characters and story that are easily forgotten.