Monday, September 28, 2009

Ahead of Oprah Just This Once

Last Monday (September 21) I met with an interfaith book group I have been leading since the Fall of 2006. We met for our regular monthly gathering to discuss the book we had chosen in August, Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan. If the title sounds familiar that is because just days before our group met, Oprah Winfrey has chosen this book as her next Oprah pick - - - but our reading group was weeks ahead of her! We were ahead of Oprah, just this once!
I have appreciated this group for the quality of our discussion and for helping me read novels I might not otherwise have the opportunity to read. A reading list from our group is found at the end of this piece.
Akpan’s book is probably one of those I might well have missed, but am glad I didn’t. This is not because the book is pleasant reading, but precisely because it is difficult in the way books should sometimes be difficult. This book of short stories has as the setting for each story a country in Africa. Children play primary roles in every story, and the stories are told through the voices of children. The childhood portrayed here is nightmarish and horrifying – a twelve year old prostitute in Kenya, children being sold into slavery by their uncle, young friends separated by an adult world where religion serve as yet another way to divide people from one another, a young man with family roots in two religious traditions finding that he can be persecuted by both, a family torn by ethnic division. While these stories are fiction, they are grounded in the real life stories of conflict- and poverty-ridden countries. Reading them brings a painful, but necessary awareness of how far our world has to go in becoming more just and peaceful place. The stories can leave one in despair about the possibilities for change, but they also inspire a deep determination to help make the world better in whatever way one can. The stories can leave one in despair about the role of religion in the world – religion is often a divisive force, and a violently divisive force at that. Yet the stories can also inspire a deep determination to make religious faith, which can provoke division and violence, a force for justice, peace, compassion and goodness.
When Oprah chooses a book, many people read it simply for that reason. Others probably avoid reading these books just because they have now become so “popular.” This is one Oprah pick I hope is widely read and discussed. As a person of faith, I hope that other people of faith join me in helping make religious faith a force for good in the world, rather than a force for hurt, destruction and evil.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Interfaith Book Group Reading List
Camilla Gibb, A Sweetness in the Belly
Leila Aboulela, The Translator
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Philip Caputo, Acts of Faith
Kiren Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Nathan Englander, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
Mark Salzman, Lying Awake
Dalia Sofer, Septembers of Shiraz
Yasmina Khadra, Swallows of Kabul
Dara Horn, The World to Come
Elizabeth Strout, Abide With Me
Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
Orhan Pamuk, Snow
Marlo Morgan, Mutant Message Down Under
William Young, The Shack
Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
Arvind Adiga, The White Tiger
Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book
Jon Hassler, North of Hope
Amy Tan, Saving Fish From Drowining
Clayton Sullivan, Jesus and the Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church
Uwem Akpan, Say You’re One of Them
Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas (reading now)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Beatles

Praise the Lord.
Praise God with trumpet sound… with lute and harp!
Praise God with tambourine and dance… with strings and pipe!
Praise God with clanging cymbals… with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

From Psalm 150

Part of me has always envied that apparent majority of my generation who seem able to do without models of heroism – who call on no figurehead to spur their own aspirations. Sometimes I think those people see the world more clearly than I do, and are certainly less vulnerable once heroism is exposed as equivocal – as it always will be. But another, more fundamental part of me believes heroism is a genuine and miraculous thing, when genuinely found; that for all the disappointments encountered elsewhere, it’s worth holding dear, when genuinely found. And I know there will never be another thing like the Beatles because there will never again be such popular heroes as they chose to be.
Delvin McKinney, The Beatles in Dream and History, 366

When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, it was the last time a live performance changed the course of American music, and when they became purely a recording group, they pointed the way toward a future in which there need be no unifying styles, as bands can play what they like in the privacy of the studio, and we can choose which to listen to in the privacy of our clubs, our homes, or, finally, our heads. Whether that was liberating or limiting is a matter of opinion and perception, but the whole idea of popular music had changed.
Elijah Wald, How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, 247

John Lennon was killed December 8, 1980 by a man who couldn’t separate his own reality from John’s. I was about half way through my senior year in college. George Harrison succumbed to cancer in 2001. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have released new music in the past couple of years. Still the Beatles live on.

Last week, September 9, 2009, witnessed the release of the entire Beatles catalog on remastered CDs. A mono box set of 11 of the 14 CDs is sold out. The Beatles songs are now part of a video game. The week before the release, USA Today had a cover story on the group and the new releases. A recent issue of Rolling Stone, a publication I subscribed to faithfully while in college, had a cover story on the Beatles break-up, 1969-1970. The Beatles live on.

John met Paul in June of 1957, two years to the month before I was born. Nevertheless, the Beatles music has been a part of the soundtrack of my life. I remember hearing “I Saw Her Standing There” on a 45 owned by an older second cousin when I was still in grade school. My sister, in junior high, ordered an album through Scholastic Books, and on that album was “Blackbird.” I was probably about ten. While I was in junior high and high school, there was a persistent rumor that the Beatles would get together again for a concert or an album. It never happened. There was a joke about musically obtuse people during those years – “He didn’t know Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings.”

What was it about this group that captured our imaginations so, and still does? There is the music – wonderfully catchy, beautifully harmonic, played with joy and sensitivity, creatively written and exceptionally well-played and produced. Some have speculated that the Beatles arrived in America when needed most, in the grief-filled months following the assassination of President John Kennedy. Maybe they assuaged our grief and brought a life-force, a spirit, to our land. For many of us, their music remains indispensible – just look at the kind of things people still write about them - - - changed the face of popular music in a way no longer possible, embodied a certain heroism. They were not perfect people, but their music was (and is) joy and delight. They sought to use the platform of their music to send messages about peace and love – na├»ve, maybe, but who can fault them for that?

I recall in one of the summers of my youth staying up late watching “the late movie” on television and seeing an ad for a Beatles compilation. After playing snippets of so many songs that were already familiar, a British voice over was heard - - - “There’s never been a group quite like the Beatles.” I think that disembodied voice spoke truth. Their music still brings joy and dancing, and for me, also evokes praise, even praise of God.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, September 7, 2009


Being a pastor, I am occasionally asked why I quote other people in my sermons, rather than simply engaging in an exposition of the Bible. I believe I use quotes from others as an integral part of my exposition of a biblical passage, use them to dig deeply into the meaning of a passage and the meaning of a passage for our lives. Some will also ask why my blogs don’t focus more on the Bible. I have two blogs, this one, and one on which I post my weekly sermons, sermons which dig into Bible passages to ask what it means to be a person of Christian faith today. So I use this blog to share thoughts that, while shaped by my engagement with the Bible (because my whole life is thus shaped), take a freer form and frankly engage cultural sources as much as strictly religious sources.
Recently I discovered this quote from St. Augustine which strengthens my case for my approach in preaching and writing. Every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s, On Christian Doctrine 2.18.28. I like to find truth in a wide variety of sources and enjoy having truth come at me slant.
William James: I have always held the opinion that one of the first duties of a good reader is to summon other readers to the enjoyment of any unknown author of rare quality whom he may discover in his explorations (“A Pluralistic Mystic”). William James is well-known, and by me well-loved, but inspired by James and Augustine, I share a few quotes from authors who may be less well-known to those of you who stumble across or into this blog now and again.
The capacity for pathos toward oneself, the capacity to acknowledge and accept one’s suffering as real and poignant and, sometimes, unjustified, is important and constructive. A sense of pathos represents a coming to terms with our relative helplessness in the face of many aspects of our lives…. Genuine pathos entails compassionate acceptance of suffering caused by events and forces outside our control. Without pathos, we delude ourselves into denying our finitude, our limitations, our mortality. But accepting the limited control we have over our own lives is difficult, and genuine pathos teeters always on the brink of what we might term “pitifulness”: victimology and self-pity. (Stephen Mitchell - the psychoanalyst, not the translator and anthologist, Can Love Last, 167, 169). This is not an argument for irresponsibility, which would be a species of victimology and self-pity, but a case for compassion toward oneself in a world where we do not control everything.
Freud was to discover that the ways we protect ourselves tend also to be the ways we imprison ourselves. (Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness, 62-63). We need a sense of security and safety, but what we use to construct that sense can become the bars which constrict our lives. Life is an on-going struggle to balance pathos with our need to act to improve our lives and the world; and an on-going struggle to balance security with adventure. I believe God is One whose Spirit is always inviting us to compassion and adventure.
To love God with all your heart, soul, might and to feel the heartbreak at the center of existence, and the deeper joy, working within the storm, in the feel of feelings, the feel of life, the feel of one’s life (Michael Eigen, Conversations with Michael Eigen, x. Eigen is a writer I have discovered in the past year and I find his work incredibly rich and insightful. He is a psychoanalytically-oriented therapist who writes about God, the Bible, the mystic as well as about therapy and psyche).

With Faith and With Feathers,