Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

I tell my students, "If you can't write what you're supposed to, write what you can. It will get your brain and fingers talking to each other, and soon enough, you'll be ready to write what you're supposed to. Write anything. Write about how you can't think of anything to write. Write about how much you loathe my class. Just write, and the rest will come."

That's what I'm doing today by posting on Justin Cronin's The Passage, instead of writing stuff I'm supposed to be working on for Steampunk Scholar. The Passage was my first non-steampunk read in a very long time: when I moved into my office at Grant MacEwan University in early July, I vowed that I'd get back to leisure reading. The Passage was my commute audiobook, and it was a delight. I enjoyed it for its length, literary aspect, long-lived leeches, and lack of linearity. How's that for an alliterative reflection?

Length: This book is epic. It's 36 hours of listening, as opposed to the average of 10-12 hours most audiobooks take. I didn't mind though, as I was in the mood for something long-winded. Some reviews have derided the book for "too much detail," which is a criticism that's begun to bother me. It's like a review of a film which states that "nothing happens." Something always happens, but for addicts of  bombastic-blockbusters and fast-paced page-turners, books like The Passage move too slowly. If that's you, then I recommend approaching The Passage as two books: pre-apocalypse, and post-apocalypse. Or try the abridged audio version from audible. com. For those who enjoy developed characters, and well-wrought, detail-oriented stories, this is the book for you.

Literary: The pre-apocalypse section read like three or four different books. If you removed the viral-vampire-experimentation aspect, the individual stories of each character could have been written as straight fiction, and been quite good. Cronin weaves these tales together masterfully, albeit with a number of what  seem like coincidences. I say "seem," because there's an element of some spiritual power at work in the greater arc of the novel, some force of providence which lends the heroes a helping hand. That isn't to say it's all light and fluffy: Cronin gives the reader plenty to avert their gaze to: favorite characters die, are abused, come to the brink of despair, and you're never quite sure if the outcome is going to be grim or hopeful. This ties in to Cronin's theme of life and death, and the title's reference, both to an actual passage and more frequently, to the passage from life into death. Some detractors have stated this book has no literary value, but I'm guessing their definition of literary means A.S. Byatt, or something involving infidelity and a depressing ending. Cronin is 21st century-literary: literary in the sense that "text" no longer refers only to written text, but visual text as well. Cronin uses smart pop references to the X-Men's Wolverine to convey what is happening to the men undergoing testing, or a small detail of the Powerpuff Girls on a backpack as foreshadowing.

Long-lived Leeches: If you didn't know the book was about vampires, then you haven't read the blurb, or any of the reviews. Cronin's vampires are a great mix of classic bloodsucker along with new iterations. This too is part of the books literary lineage, referencing or paying homage to a number of vampire texts. Again, one can't view this as literary as book. When Cronin references Dracula, it isn't via Stoker, but rather Browning and Lugosi, arguably the most famous, albeit innacurate, representation of Dracula. Cronin provides nods to this classic vampire--the monsters of The Passage glow, but don't sparkle, and would eat the cast of Twilight for breakfast. Neither are they the well-dressed, mannered, androgynous killers of Anne Rice: these share a heritage with the vampires of Matheson's I Am Legend, monsters born of an apocalypse. Like the zombie apocalypse of Romero and more recently, World  War Z, the appetite of these vampires is to consume the planet, leaving it in a state that recalls The Road Warrior as much as it does Stephen King's The Stand.

Lack of linearity: Any one of these aforementioned elements could make for a good read, but what makes The Passage a worthy addition to your late-summer reading list is how Cronin plays with time. Like all good writers, Cronin utilizes one character at a time to focalize the action, at times employing epistolary diary excerpts (which recalls Stoker's Dracula), so that entire events unfold without all the details being revealed. The Passage is revealed one perspective at a time, leaving the reader in suspense as to certain outcomes, especially the fate of characters who are "off camera." At times, he shifts away from one action piece to return to a more mundane aspect of the story. In a lesser writer's hand, this would be infuriating. In Cronin's, it's expert cliffhanging and dynamic play, rising to a fever pitch and then returning to a slower, gentler pace before racing back into the fray.

I loved the people I met along the journey of The Passage; so much so that when I ran out of a part of the audiobook one commute, I gave a despairing moan. Cronin writes languorously enough to draw the reader repeatedly into the circle of characters before threatening them with the terrors of this bleak future. Despite death being always just around the corner though, the reader need not fear the carpet being pulled out from under their feet - while death is a major theme, so is hope. Given its considerable length, you might be surprised to find out  The Passage is only the first in a series, but if you're like me, when you turn the last page, flip the last screen, or hear the final words, you'll be wishing for another 766 pages, or 36 hours. It's been a long time since I've been looking forward to "the next installment," and I'm glad to finally be doing so. 

Check out the official site of The Passage with some creepy videos and immersive elements from the post-apocalyptic world of the Virals.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Who Really Goes to Hell: The Gospel You've Never Heard: A devotional approach

I read the first chapter of Who Really Goes to Hell: The Gospel You've Never Heard by David I Rudel while listening to the free download of Trent Reznor's new project, How to Destroy Angels. It seemed an appropriate soundtrack, given Rudel's penchant for incisive jibes about the things many Christians do (or don't do), but few people are brave enough to really talk about. For example, early in the book he makes the footnoted clarification, "By "most Christians" I mean "the majority of the small number who read the Bible at all."" I appreciate this sort of prophetic witticism (an by "prophetic" I mean someone gifted at giving the people of God a swift-but-much-needed-kick-in-the-pants).

I received the book because I'm a member of the Ooze's Viral Bloggers community. We are sent regular emails with opportunities to read books and blog about them. All we have to do, providing there are any copies left, is indicate we're interested in reviewing, reflecting, or ranting about them. Most of these books take an awfully long time to arrive on my doorstep. I'd guess this delay is due to living in the Great White North, as Stateside bloggers usually have their reviews on books written long before mine.

It creates a bit of a panic in me when I receive these books, as I'm already living a densely packed life. To be honest, after reading the Book of the Shepherd I'd already come to the point of vowing not to request anymore books. I'm not a pastor anymore. I have a lot of cynicism about church in general, though much of my distrust of institutional Christianity is leveled at evangelicals in particular. I don't attend church regularly anymore, and I haven't had an interest in reading the Bible in nearly a year. What reason could I have for reading books that are most often targeted at how to innovate the church?

When I received the email that contained a call for David Rudel's The Gospel You've Never Heard, I was in conversation with Courtney Armstrong about speaking at Camp Evergreen's teen Impact week in August. I'd been reminding her that I wasn't a safe bet as a speaker anymore: anyone who Googles my name will find the endless supply of criticism from right-wing fundamentalist websites railing against me teaching contemplative prayer. Those same sites list me as being a leader of the Emergent church, and that means heresy to some conservative Evangelicals. She laughed it off, because I've been speaking at Evergreen for five years going now, and she's no stranger to controversy herself.

I take my speaking seriously though, and felt that if I was going to have anything worth hearing, I'd need to read something that would challenge me, or at least return me to the conversation of faith. This isn't to say I haven't been engaged in it. I discuss my Christianity with friends regularly. We wrestle through how to live Christ since our faith community's dissolution in the fall of 2008. We lament missing the regular services, but are frustrated in finding a new community to worship with (although I'm feeling pretty good about the Urban Bridge, where we've attended a few times now). I talked about faith with my students at King's, Taylor and Vanguard. But I haven't been rigourously engaged in the conversation of faith.

When I looked over the choices at Viral Bloggers and read the blurb for Rudel's The Gospel You've Never Heard, I was hooked. I was really challenged, and dare I say blessed by Brian McLaren's final book in his New Kind of Christian series, The Last Word and the Word After That, which is about the question of hell and judgment. Growing up a Baptist had me scared of hell, but when I became a Christian I wanted to be more interested in being drawn to heaven. I was never comfortable in fire insurance Christianity - I preached it because it was the party line, but was never comfortable with it. When I read Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?and Brennan Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel, I felt relieved. This was what I'd understood the gospel to be when I heard our camp speaker say "It doesn't matter what you've done, God still loves you."

Some of you might be asking now, "How is this challenging you then?" I'm not convinced it will be challenging me. It might be healing for me: I spent most of my pastoral career being controversial and thinking I was cracked. It's healing to read Christian thinkers who remind me that I wasn't alone in my suspicions about North American evangelicalism. Maybe that sounds like I'm reading only what I want, but I'd reply I'm not currently in "be challenged" mode. I'm healing up. When I'm done doing that, I'll take another crack at reading something I don't agree with.

For now, I'm looking for ways to challenge the campers, and the opening passages of Rudel's The Gospel You've Never Heard certainly feels like it could be that challenge. I'm likely going to be focusing on the life of Christ at Evergreen (radical, I know! But seriously - how many times did you hear the story of Christ's life in church growing up?), and part of Rudel's focus is what Christ had to say about judgment and hell.

But I don't want to gloss the book. I won't internalize it if I do. So I'm going to take it slow, in a devotional way. Rudel uses a lot of Biblical references, and it occurred to me that I could make this a daily reading in this semi-sabbatical month between jobs. And from time to time, I'm sure I'll blog about it.

For now, I'll leave you with my favorite quote from the book so far:

"Similarly, after you read any of these gospels, you are not drawn to go out and save people from eternal torment in hell by teaching them to believe in Christ. You might come away with many ideas, but "I need to go proclaim Jesus to others or else they will go to hell" is certainly not one of them." (12)

It should come as no surprise to some of you that Rudel's The Gospel You've Never Heard is published by Biblical Heresy Press. Their catch phrase is, "The Bible is best read with your own eyes--preferably open." They sound like my kind of people.

If you're interested in coming along for this devotional ride, you can download a PDF or e-reader format of the full-text of Who Really Goes to Hell: The Gospel You've Never Heard from the book's website.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Not Ashamed

The title of this post is the same as that of Evangelical supergroup Newsboys' first big hit. It was the first of many slogan-styled lyrics the group would pen and broker into a lucrative career. Many of the subsequent tunes would return to the theme of "Not Ashamed," championing the outspoken proselytizing characteristic of North American evangelicalism. It is a Christianity born of perceived persecution, one that assumes a bold demeanor must be adopted to 'win' converts to the faith. This was the Christianity I grew up with, and the one I served as a professional minister under.

As I pass into the final year of my '30s, I am convinced of neither of these propositions. I do not see Christians persecuted in North America unless they choose to be; nor do I think a bold approach the best for presenting the ostensible message of Christianity.

To the first point: I see Christians persecuted when they're being obnoxious, or advocating for political positions that advantage our faith or beliefs over others', or committing acts of public protest that do more to fuel oppositional invective than to "win souls." I have never been personally persecuted in North America. At the worst, NA Christians are inconvenienced. We have to travel to other countries to understand the meaning of the word persecution. The local school board banning public prayer is not persecution, it's an inconvenience. In my last year of high school, I formed a prayer group: our school permitted us to do so. Even if they hadn't, we would have been free to sit and pray together in out cafeteria or on the front lawn. None of us would have been beaten, tasered, or shot. Losing sanctioned time to pray in schools is not persecution: being caned for praying on school property is.

Getting in hot water for getting in people's grill doesn't count either: if you go out of your way to be an obnoxious bugger and someone reacts poorly, that's not persecution. I had an elderly couple 'witness' to me on a flight once--witnessing in this case having something to do with telling me how Obama was a communist and this last election was likely going to be the last. All this was delivered at a volume better suited to a Rugby field than the cabin of an airplane. Had I responded to the elderly man's tirade against the Democrat party with colorful colloquialisms, it would not have been persecution, though if he were anything like some other believers I know, he'd have seen it that way.

In some ways, I've already covered the aggressive approach to 'outreach,' or what I like to refer to as evangelical mugging. My first post-professional ministry social event was my first steampunk convention, and I found myself filled with the realization that I was free to just talk to people, without feeling guilty if I didn't crowbar Christianity into the conversation.

I can already hear some of the responses to this: "but if we deny Christ before men, he'll deny us before the Father." I'm not denying my faith, as I'll explain shortly. Refusing to verbally assault strangers with my opinion on life, the universe, and everything is not the same as denying Christian affiliation, despite how I often feel that much of organized Christianity is like that uncle who does all the really ridiculous shit at weddings: you know he's family, but you wish he weren't.

Despite all this, I am genuinely not ashamed of the gospel. I am still a believer, just not the one I was ten years ago. I am unashamed of what I still think of as, to quote Rob Bell, the best way to live. I am aware of the role my faith has played in some of history's ugly moments, but as I have said before, Christianity does not have the monopoly on sheep or shitheads; those are as well-represented among the atheists as they are among believers.

So on this Easter day, 2010, I'm ending my unsuccessful attempt at regular Lenten blogposts with the confession that I still believe. It's just a very different animal than it used to be.

Is he risen? I'm no longer as certain of that as I once was, but I'm okay with the uncertainty. If God really needed me to prove His existence, the enterprise entire would be screwed. I have become like the father who asked Jesus to help his "poor faith." My faith might be poor, but it's my faith, and I'm proud of it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lent 05: Birthday, Top Ten Lists, etc.

Some people practice Lent Lite, by giving up their Lenten experience on Sundays. I haven't been as fastidious with my Lenten work this year as I'd have liked, but it's my birthday today, so I'm going to abstain from writing about religion and Lenten thoughts with something I love, a little gift to myself: top 10 lists.

Top 10 lists were a major facet of when I had the site up, and I haven't really kept up that tradition here at the blog, but I realized today while changing some of my profile information that it had been a very long time since I'd made a top ten list (or two).

So here are my updated top 10 lists, at the age of 39:

Books (Fiction)
1. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
3. Beowulf Anonymous
4. Weaveworld by Clive Barker
5. The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
6. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
7. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
8. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
9. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
10. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

Fiction Authors (based on # of books read by)
1. Clive Barker
2. C.S. Lewis
3. R.E. Howard
4. Terry Pratchett
5. Neal Stephenson
6. Stephen Lawhead
7. Charles DeLint
8. Robert Jordan
9. Charles Williams
10. Dave Sim

1. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings series (Fellowship is my favorite)
2. Pan's Labyrinth
3. The Empire Strikes Back
4. Dark City
5. Moulin Rouge!
6. The Iron Giant
7. The Dark Knight
8. Wall-E
9. Silent Hill
10. John Carpenter's The Thing

Television Series
1. Twin Peaks
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender
3. The West Wing
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
5. Firefly
6. Gilmore Girls
7. Carnivale
8. Battlestar Galactica (new)
9. Batman: The Animated Series
10. 24 (seasons 1-3)

Board Games
1. Dungeons and Dragons
2. Settlers of Catan
3. Arkham Horror
4. Adventurers
5. Middle-Earth Roleplaying
6. Betrayal at House on the Hill
7. Carcassonne
8. Ticket to Ride
9. Dark Tower
10. Talisman

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lent 04: Four of Swords

I got into studying the meanings of Tarot cards back in the late nineties as the result of reading a lot of books on Jung and symbolism, as well as Charles Williams' The Greater Trumps. I use them as devices of meditation and contemplation, a fact I would never have been able to reveal when I first started doing it. It was bad enough I played roleplaying games. To admit I not only avidly studied the Tarot, but also owned several decks would have been career suicide. For the record, I have four decks: The New Palladini Tarot was my first, based upon the classic Rider-Waite deck, and also remains my favorite; The Lord of the Rings Tarot, which I bought more out of Tolkien fandom than anything else; The Merlin Tarot, which has some gorgeous art for the Major Arcana, but the most boring Minor Arcana I've ever seen outside a regular playing card deck; and the Master Tarot, which utilizes both canonical and apocryphal scriptures of Jesus' words and actions in a doubly iconoclastic manner: it's not based on classic Tarot, and let's face it, a Tarot deck about Jesus might be the worst thing a practicing Christian could own in some people's minds.

I'm not interested in getting into an apologetic for why I own these. In fact, at this stage of my life, I don't see the point in apologizing for things I own or do that I've thought about carefully over a long period of time. One of the character flaws I fostered during my tenure as a paid minister was second-guessing. Since I had to defend nearly everything I did (roleplaying, rock music, wearing black), I often doubted my ability to make good decisions. I still did things that were counter-cultural in evangelical Christian circles, but those actions were framed by terms like "loose cannon", "rebel", or "shit disturber". While I'm no stranger to controversy, never lacking the courage of my convictions, my courage was undermined by several factors: I was a youth pastor, I looked young, and I had an unconventional appearance. Youth pastors are often conflated in congregations' minds as being youth themselves. When we advocate for our youthful parishoners, our advocacy is seen as a vested interest (which it is, but so is the senior pastor's interests: whenever I got in trouble with my senior pastors, it was because their older parishoners wanted the pastor to advocate on their behalf). When people think you're younger than you are, you're perceived as lacking maturity. When you have long hair, you get pulled over by the cops for no good reason, so why should anyone trust you in a church?

I digress. This was supposed to be about tarot, specifically the Four of Swords.

The Four of Swords is one of my favorite Tarot Cards. I think it might be the one meant for pastors, or people involved in caregiving. It signifies the idea of retreating, of rest and recovery, of taking time out. As Jana Riley puts it in her excellent Tarot Dictionary and Compendium, it can mean illness in order to recuperate (131). The three swords above the sleeping individual are aiming down, and will cut him if he sits up. The fourth sword is almost saying, "we're not quite at the point where you'll totally burn out, but if you don't keep resting, that last sword is going to join the other three."

That's been my March. I got sick right after that last Lenten post, mainly due to unhealthy stress created from a deadline for an article I should never have taken on. I stayed sick because I tried to keep teaching, as well as working on final edits for another article, as catching up on the marking I didn't do while I was writing the article I shouldn't have taken on. I'm feeling much better now: this past weekend my wife and I went to San Francisco on a research trip, and the humid air did me a lot of good. Being back on the dry prairies has been somewhat detrimental, but I'm not flat on my back with swords pointing down at me anymore.

Lent is a season of retreat and rest. We're driven into the desert to engage in Four of Swords work. As Sharman-Burke's entry on the Four of Swords in the Tarot Dictionary puts it, "A time of rest or retreat after a struggle: a quiet period for thinking things through, a slackening of tension and a relaxation of anxiety."

We could call it sabbatical time. The sort of time I rarely got when I was engaged in paid ministry, save for my last appointment at Holyrood Mennonite, where they let me have the month of December off the year Gunnar was born. That's incredible when you consider what that means: they gave me time off at one of the busiest, most high-profile times of the church year. More churches should take a cue from that. But then again, more pastors should too. It's not just that churches don't give their pastors time off, it's that pastors think they can't. Despite second-guessing our actions in paid ministry, we also end up with God-complexes. Eugene Peterson explains the importance of Four of Swords thinking in the chapter titled "Prayer Time" in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. He defines Sabbath as "Uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week we take ourselves far too seriously." He goes on to say that Sabbath is time to "detach ourselves from the people around us so that they have a chance to deal with God without our poking around...They need to be free from depending on us" (73). I like this idea, which I break down simply to saying, take a break - the universe will continue to turn without your help.

I need to be reminded of this, as my recent turn in health clearly demonstrates. I often think of the Four of Swords as the card that says, "lay down now, or you'll be doing it for quite a while anyhow." In the wake of the article I took on that I shouldn't have, I've vowed to tone things down: no more than one active article at a time, since I'll likely be doing edits to several simultaneously in a month or two. There's a Lenten practice if there ever was one.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lent 03: The Book of the Shepherd

I recently received The Book of the Shepherd by "The Scribe" as part of my participation in the Ooze's Viral Bloggers, so I'm going to make my review of it my Lenten confession of the day.

Given that it's likely scribes who were responsible for editing disparate oral traditions into the various cogent scriptures the major religions of the world currently adhere to, it's appropriate that The Book of the Shepherd has only "the Scribe" listed as its author (though a quick perusal of the copyright information will give you the author's real name). Imagine that someone saw it as their scholarly duty to take all those pithy emails you receive about peace, or love, or spirituality, the ones that often come with a Power Point presentation set to music, and felt that there was  need to amalgamate these into a single, coherent narrative. Now imagine that after they're done, due to the way in which the Internet acts as a disseminator of modern folklore, this book is well received as a book of spiritual guidance. Imagine they've packaged it in a nice little hardback with a cover graphic that makes the slipcase look like vintage leather binding, already letting the reader know that this book contains ancient wisdom (which in this era, email forwards from five years ago are). Imagine this, and you've imagined The Book of the Shepherd.

I like fables. I like parables. I love allegory. None of these are easy to write, contrary to popular opinion. The majority of short didactic narratives are either excessively heavy-handed or cloyingly sentimental. The Book of the Shepherd is the second. It's the result of a trickle-down from the pop-spirituality of the 80s and 90s into the mass-email forwards of the early twentieth century, made into one little book that feels old world, but is so ultimately new world that it fails at having the sort of authority other texts like it do.

Parables and fables work well when they're short. As either of these, The Book of the Shepherd fails by going on too long, giving too much character information. It starts to approach being a modern work of fiction, but because it's trying to hard to be didactic and teach us something, it never achieves the believability or relatability of character modern fiction requires. And we can't call it allegory, because the characters aren't symbolic in the way allegories demand. So I'm not sure what it is. What I do know is that I can't recommend it, for the same reason I wouldn't recommend The Celestine Prophecy.

When I was a minister, I was supposed to tell people to avoid reading The Celestine Prophecy because it was New Age. But that wasn't the reason I'd tell you to avoid reading it. I'd tell you to avoid reading The Celestine Prophecy for the same reason I'd tell you to avoid reading Left Behind or Atlas Shrugged: they're poorly written works of didactic fiction. The Book of the Shepherd is another. Most of the time, when an author tries to hard to tell me how to live, he sacrifices his chance to tell me a decent story in the process. There are exceptions to this, but they are few and far between.

Writers risk us missing their point when they work towards the sort of moral complexity and ambiguity a good story demands. The more simplified the moral strata, the less I can buy in. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains one of the best allegorical pieces of fiction because you can miss the Christian message. It can be appreciated simply as a great piece of children's fiction. I don't have to "get" something out of it to enjoy it. Writing like The Book of the Shepherd is only worth reading if I think it holds the keys to my spiritual well-being. Since its mostly just a collection of bumper-sticker spirituality, I'd recommend anyone interested in this sort of spiritual path to Google Scott Peck or Thomas Moore, read the wikipedia articles on them, and save yourself the bucks. 

I would like to add as a postscript that anyone referring to this book as a fairy tale has no clue what a fairy tale is. I will also recommend a few of my favorite allegories, parables, and fables that have a strong spiritual aspect to them:

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
"Barrington Bunny" from The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images by Martin Bell
The Singer by Calvin Miller

On the subject of spiritual reading, I'll close by posting one of my favorite writings The Book of the Shepherd wishes it was in the tradition of: Walter Wangerin's "The Ragman":

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing in my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for.
    Hush, child. hush now, and I will tell it to you.
Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear tenor voice: "Rags!" Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.
    "Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!"
"Now this is a wonder," I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?
    I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn't disappointed.
Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.
    The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.
   "Give me your rag," he said gently. "and I'll give you another."
He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.
    Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.
    "This is a wonder," I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.
    "Rags! Rags! New Rags for old!"
    In a little while, when the sky showed gray behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.
   Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.
    "Give me your rag," he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, "and I'll give you mine."
    The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood -- his own!
    "Rags! Rags! I take old rags!" cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.
    The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.
    "Are you going to work?" he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: "Do you have a job?"
    "Are you crazy?" sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket -- flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.
    "So," said the Ragman. "Give me your jacket, and I'll give you mine."
    So much quiet authority in his voice!
    The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman -- and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman's arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on, he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.
    "Go to work," he said.
    After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.
    And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider's legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.
    I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.
    The little old Ragman -- he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And I waited to help him in what he did --but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.
    Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope--because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.
    I did not know--how could I know? -- that I slept through Friday and Saturday and its night too.
    But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.
    Light--pure, hard, demanding light--slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow or age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.
    Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: "Dress me."
    He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him.
    The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lent 02: Alone in the wilderness

I'm mostly alone in the wilderness, and I like it that way.

I have never been naturally gregarious. I was a shy child who hid behind his mother or father's leg at social gatherings. I was afraid to ask for ketchup at fast food restaurants. I spoke out in environments I deemed safe: classrooms, the company of close friends or family, the comfort of my own home. By contrast, I never feared being onstage. I remember playing "Jesus Loves Me" on a toy guitar in front of the church when I was 4 or 5. Couple this with often being the teacher's pet, and school became a safe zone for me - in my desk, or at the front of the class. So while I'm naturally introverted, I'm extroverted on a stage of any kind.

To put it bluntly, I like people when I'm standing in front of them, talking at them. I'm less comfortable being close, and talking with them. I became professionally gregarious and agreeable to work in paid ministry. When that ended, I realized how much I dislike getting to know people. How much I don't want to meet any new people. I used to try hard to meet people. Now I just avoid new relationships. I still prefer the safety of a small circle of friends and my family.

Along with our kids, we recently attended a community league celebration: families standing around, people being friendly. When I was a minister, I felt the need to meet and greet at these events. It was my Christian duty. Growing up Baptist exacerbated this. As a branch of evangelical Christianity, Baptists are expected to "be a witness, shine the light, share their faith, etc." So when I attended social functions, I saw being sociable as part of my religious identity. Problem was, I didn't always like the people I was talking to. I smiled and laughed and got to know them anyhow, which was exhausting.

There were days as a pastor that I felt like a spiritual hooker. I was paid to go for coffee or lunch or whatever and listen to people's problems. I didn't like all of these people. Some of them drove me nuts. And yet I smiled, and nodded, and was everyone's good friend. Some of it was genuine, but mostly it was a professional persona I adopted. That might offend some of you, but it's the truth. It's true for a lot of ministers. I know this from late nights at conferences and camps, speaking with other people in ministry.

In the years since leaving paid ministry, I've reverted to introversion. I'm still professionally outgoing with my students, but that's a different thing. They don't expect me to love them, or pray for them, or be a spiritual exemplar for them. I just teach them how to use commas, and read Dracula, and think critically. There's less of a burden on me (I'll try and remember to talk about what my friend George calls the "God burden" in an upcoming post), because we have a professional, not necessarily emotional or spiritual relationship. Sometimes I become friends with students after they're done being my students. But I don't feel any pressure to do that. It just happens naturally. Like friendships should.

I don't want to proselytize. I don't think it helps, really. I think the biggest impact of people on my life were people who were just being genuine friends with me.

For the time being, whatever the reasons might be, I'm focusing on my family first, and a few close friends second. I don't have time to be the friend to everyone I used to have to be. It's one of the reasons I left ministry. I was great onstage, but terrible once I stepped down. I could fake it, but that's not right, and I knew it. This is where the church has it wrong. They hire great speakers, great facemen, when they should be hiring great shepherds, people who really, genuinely care.

I know at one time I really did care, but I lost most of that somewhere along the way. And I'm not terribly sad about that right now. And maybe that's another post, for another day. The fact that I'm really not ignoring you, I'm just trying to pay better attention to the circle I'm in.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lent 01: Into the Wild

Lent is about wilderness journeys: Israel wandering, David fleeing, Jesus tempted. Friend and colleague Penny Nelson preached her first sermon this week, and was kind enough to let me share a portion of it redefining the wilderness experience:

So often, we think of the wilderness as that dark, empty space—the void, the tundra, the desert. The wilderness is frightening because it’s viewed as being empty. But it isn’t empty—it’s almost always full of possibility. The wilderness is a transitional space—a place that is great for change because it allows the emotional and mental space for new ways of thinking and being to develop. The wilderness is full of choices—which way do I go? Which path do I trust? Where do I want to come out? I think this is what Jesus saw as he entered into the wilderness—this vast space was full of possibility for learning, and renewal, and growth.

I like this idea. I'm pretty comfortable with wildernesses, seeing as grew up in one. The topography of my hometown is the same as a desert. I did a lot of meditating while walking through the coulees in and around Medicine Hat, though I probably wouldn't have called it meditation at the time. Prairie winters are a hell of a wilderness, beautiful and deadly. That's the wilderness - pretty, but stay in it for too long or without the right gear, and you're dead. So I like going into the wilderness as a place of possibility, a place of beauty, but we can never forget that the wilderness is also a place where we can die.

Penny and I met while she was taking courses in religious studies and I was a T.A. for those classes. I was the former minister moving through religious studies on his way to an academic career. She was the student moving through religious studies on her way to a career as a minister. As I learned early on, religious studies and theology are not the same thing. Theology trains people to be epistemologically rigorous believers, while religious studies seems to breed atheists who read the Bible a lot. As a result, theologians who enter religious studies tend to take a spiritual shit-kicking, especially if they want to do more than defend their faith to the ostensible heathens who teach these classes. Both Penny and I wanted to really learn the material. To absorb the viewpoint of the religious studies department at the University is to risk standing at the precipice that overlooks the chasm of disbelief.

I've always been an advocate for the hermeneutic of suspicion. Blind faith is still blindness. Some of my best friends are atheists, or people of other faith persuasions. I've told people, if your faith can't take a walk with a Buddhist in a Hindu temple, then it's not much of a faith. That is to say, if you live your Christianity in a Christian bubble, then you'll never know how strong it really is. It's like a Jesus exo-skeleton against the Kung-Fu of the world - it keeps you safe, but it isn't really you. I have always needed to know if I really believed what I said I did. So I dragged my faith into the wilderness regularly.

Religious studies was one of those wildernesses. And in many ways, I'm still getting beyond the hangover it gave me. I'm very thankful for the academic rigor men like Willi Braun, Jon Kitchen, and Wayne Litke submitted me to. I'm indebted to them for helping me think about religion in ways I never had before. I no longer consider 'spirituality' to be some better form of religion. It's just another form, whatever the adherents of spirituality may say to salve their conscience.

Many of the posts yet to come this Lent will likely return to this confession. It's not really fully explained yet, but in short, it's that I think it's both healthy and dangerous to enter the desert, to enter the wild. It's the place of refining faith. You might grow stronger, or you might lose it entire. That's the risk you have to take, to know
how deep your roots go. I no longer remember who originally said it, but you only live as deeply as you believe.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lent 2010: Confession

So I've been agonizing over what to do for Lent.

People often ask me why I practice Lent at all, being a Baptist by my upbringing. The main reason I do it is I like the structure the liturgical church year gives to my life. This has been especially important, since the Gathering, the church I was involved with for its ten-year life span, folded in the fall of 2008. Since then, my family and I haven't really attended church much. You might say we've been taking a break, recovering from over-involvement in church work between the Gathering and my last five years as a paid pastor, which ended in 2007. At any rate, without a church home, I've felt listless, like a wanderer. Perfect for the Lenten theme of Israel in the desert. I'm definitely in a desert period.

But I struggled this year with what I would "do" for Lent. I haven't always given things up, although the years I did without video games, coarse language, and especially the year I gave up giving unrequested advice were positive experiences. Other years, I practiced reticence, listening only to music with uplifting lyrics, doing a spiritual discipline. Really, it's only a matter of focus, because often doing something positive results in the jettisoning of something negative.

This year I asked friends on Facebook to give me their opinion on what I should do, and while many were very helpful, none felt like they were building me on my journey. I mean, Lent is criticized for being an empty ritual, and it can be if all you're doing is giving up coffee because "you're supposed to." I adopted Lent as a practice, and have the option of not practicing it. Last year I didn't give up anything, as I was too damn busy with my full time school work and full time teaching to afford giving anything up. I really didn't have the wiggle room. So I guess I gave up Lent for Lent last year.

Today it hit me. I don't journal anymore. So I'm journaling. But I'm journaling here at Gotthammer, blogging about where I'm at spiritually. A season of confession, with the blog as the booth, me as confessor, and the priesthood of believers and everyone else listening.

To be clear, I have no intention of airing my dirty laundry. My past is past. But I thought I'd air my current desert thoughts. I found it comforting when Real Live Preacher aired his so many years back, and I thought that, given this point of flux in my life (moving into a full-time paid teaching position at Grant MacEwan University in July), it was a good time to reflect on how I'm living my faith in the wake of leaving paid ministry.

Fifteen minutes a day is all I'll give myself. I've only got three minutes left today. Concise confessions. Maybe I'll miss a day or two, but I'll be here for most of Lent, reflecting on what it means to be a Christian when you're no longer paid to be one.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Top 10 of 2000-2010

1. Lord of the Rings: The movie I was waiting for since grade four.
2. Pan's Labyrinth: I spent a year writing my thesis on it. I'd damn well better have liked it.
3. O Brother Where Art Thou?: Homer's Odyssey in the Depression years - George Clooney falling out of the train at the start sold me.
4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: While the most recent was the best, this will always be my favorite, for childlike nostalgia.
5. Moulin Rouge!: A gorgeous looking cinematic anomaly which shouldn't have worked, but did.
6. Dark Knight: The best superhero movie of the 21st century.
7. Wall-E: Pixar's best film can be viewed as children's movie, eco-statement, homage to SF, or theopoetic commentary on contamination and purity.
8. War of the Worlds: This movie remains one of the most chilling adaptations of Wells' book, and a stellar commentary on the post 9/11 world.
9. Silent Hill: A highly underrated movie with rich thematic depth.
10. Erin Brockovich: Julia Roberts' best role ever, and a great David vs. Goliath storyline.

What strikes me as particularly amazing, is that I could go back through the files from the Gotthammer website, which I started nearly 10 years ago. Before that, I have no record of what I thought the top 10 films of each year were, because I wasn't a blogger. 10 years ago, people weren't blogging per se. No one owned an Ipod. Mp3s were the hottest new technology. I didn't own a DVD player. 10 years ago, I was just recovering from the biggest crash of my life, and entering into a multimedia developer's program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. 9/11 hadn't happened yet. I didn't know who Harry Potter was. None of my writing had been published. My first band was over, and I hadn't started the next one. My children were years from being born. Lord of the Rings as a film phenomena was just a rumor. I had no idea that in a decade, I'd have left my first career behind, failed at my second, and moved onto a third. If you had told me I'd be studying steampunk for my PhD, I'd have said "steamwhat?"

I have no idea where the next 10 years will take me, but if the ride is as good as the last 10 have been, I am very excited. As Tennyson said, "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."