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.