‘Myth’ Revisited

67314_w185I know, I know — I already reviewed this book. But I’m dissatisfied with my review. It doesn’t capture how deeply The Myth of a Christian Nation resonated with me and challenged me. So I wanted to give it a chance to speak for itself by offering an excerpt.

Here Greg Boyd is talking about how the “quasi-Christian civil religion” established in our institutions, official discourse and national self-image actually harms the real thing:

A second thing that happens when we fail to distinguish the civil religion of America from the kingdom of God is that we end up wasting precious time and resources defending and tweaking the civil religion — as though doing so had some kingdom value. We strive to keep prayer in the schools, fight for the right to have public prayer before football games, lobby to preserve the phrases “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and “in God we trust” on our coins, battle to hold the traditional civil meaning of marriage, and things of the sort — as though winning these fights somehow brings America closer to the kingdom of God. This, we think, is part of what it means to “take America back for God.”

Now, you may or may not agree that preserving the civil religion in this way is good for the culture. Vote your conscience. But can we really believe that tweaking civil religion in these ways actually brings people closer to the kingdom of God, that it helps them become more like Jesus? For example, does anyone really think that allowing for a prayer before social functions is going to help students become kingdom people? Might not such prayer — and the political efforts to defend such prayer — actually be harmful to the kingdom inasmuch as it reinforces the shallow civil religious mindset that sees prayer primarily as a perfunctory religious activity? Might it not be better to teach our kids that true kingdom prayer has nothing to do with perfunctory social functions, that true kingdom prayer cannot be demanded or retracted by social laws and that their job as kingdom warriors is to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17) whether the law allows for it to be publicly expressed or not?

In other words, rather than spending time and energy defending and tweaking the civil religion, might it not be in the best interest of the kingdom of God to distance ourselves from the civil religion? Couldn’t one even go so far as to argue that it would be good for the kingdom of God if this civic brand of pseudo-Christianity died altogether? Isn’t one of the primary problems we’re up against in this nation the fact that Christianity has been trivialized by being associated with civic functions? And aren’t we actually reinforcing this trivialization by fighting so vigorously to preserve this pseudo-Christian veneer? Maybe Kierkegaard was right when he stated that the worst form of apostasy the Christian faith can undergo is to have it become simply an aspect of culture. Perhaps it would be a benefit to the advancement of this kingdom if America looked as pagan as it actually is, if the word God wasn’t so trivially sprinkled on our coins, our Pledge of Allegiance, our civic functions, and elsewhere. Then perhaps the word might come to mean something significant to people who genuinely hunger and thirst for the real thing! (From The Myth of a Christian Nation)

The Myth of a Christian Nation

67314_w185During the last election season, I began to realize that I didn’t really believe the presidential election was a religious issue. For one thing, running a country is about things the Bible doesn’t speak much about, like foreign policy and taxes and power management and institutional organization. For another, the political system is flawed and corrupt no matter who’s at its head. There is really no substantial difference between the two major political parties. And finally, no candidate could be said to fully represent my beliefs or views on significant matters. Maybe it took me too long to recognize these things, but I can’t honestly say that I’d ever thought about them before.

I also have begun to notice lately the strange constellation of values and issues represented by some Christians I deeply respect — values and issues that seem contradictory, and problematic as so-called “Christian” stances. Some of them are actually against what the Bible teaches, and others are part of America’s identity but spiritually irrelevant or neutral. All of this is against the backdrop of my simmering dismay over the general tenor and claims of the “take back America for God” camp. So when I saw the title of Gregory A. Boyd’s book, I was intrigued.

I found it to be a challenging and thorough examination of the entanglement of evangelical Christianity with American politics, one which offers an attractive and restorative alternative to the “civil Christianity” all too prevalent in America. Boyd, a pastor, bases the book on a sermon series preached several years ago in his church, and he establishes that true Christianity (the “Kingdom of the Cross”) will never be expressed through an earthly power structure (“Kingdom of the Sword”) because it is counter-cultural. It is not expressed through overpowering others, but through serving — and thus we should be asking different questions and championing different causes than some of the common ones Christians take up. Over the course of the book he takes on a number of tough issues and questions, and I think the last chapter (on Christians and violence) is a must-read for any Christian, though not an easy read. Among other things, it makes some great points about how even those wars that have accomplished good things — ending slavery, stopping the Third Reich — wouldn’t have been needed in the first place if Christians were living as they should — and as if they really believed what they profess.

The tone overall is direct but not abrasive, and because of this I was able to see and acknowledge some of my own blind spots. There are a few interviews with Rev. Boyd over at YouTube, such as this one. As a sample, I’ll close with the author’s own invitation, taken from the introduction:

At the outset, I want you to know I appreciate and respect your convictions. I understand the consternation you may feel, but at the same time, I challenge you to keep an open mind and to consider this book’s arguments. I know how difficult it is to take a book seriously when it confronts one’s most cherished beliefs. I also know that few things in life are as intellectually and spiritually beneficial as forcing ourselves to consider ideas different from our own — even ideas that may irritate and offend.

*Edited to add: You can read an excerpt from this book in this post.

Two Ways of Reading

…I believe that most people who read the Bible as Scripture do so in one of two ways: compliantly or conversantly…

Compliant readers are individuals whose basic instinct is to read the Bible trustingly. Those who read this way accept the Bible’s claims, adopt its values, and embrace its assumptions without necessarily giving serious consideration to the implications of their consent. Rather than questioning or challenging the text, compliant readers take what the Bible says — or at least what they think it says — for granted. Their reading is appreciative and accommodating. It is neither confrontational nor contentious. Rather, they embrace the text “as is.”  Therefore, they choose to agree with — and submit to — the Bible’s assessment of things, even when this may be difficult to understand or morally troubling…

Conversant readers, on the other hand, are not constrained in the same kind of way. Rather than simply acquiescing to the text, their fundamental disposition is one of active engagement, sustained conversation, and critical evaluation. Conversant readers are ready to engage the Bible in a genuine dialogue whose outcome is not predetermined by the ideology of the biblical text. While they might agree with the views and values on this or that Old Testament text, they are just as likely to disagree. Conversant readers are discerning readers who accept what they can and resist what they must… Conversant readers do not feel obligated to agree with texts that violate the most basic dictates of human decency, and they are not prepared to remain obsequiously silent…

From The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, by Eric Seibert.

Obviously this passage raises a question: what kind of readers are we? What kind of readers do we want to be? It’s worth thinking about. I would have said I was a conversant reader of my Bible — but after reading Dr Seibert’s book, I realize that I have missed an awful lot.

I would like to include more excerpts here from books I’m reading. I have numerous passages underlined and highlighted for further reflection, but I don’t always get back to them. I reviewed this book earlier this week, but there is always so much more to a book than can be discussed in a review. My Kindle informs me that I highlighted or bookmarked 76 passages in this book! That’s more than I’ll ever be able to quote here. But I’d like to lift a few of them at least to help round out the very limited perspective my review provided, and to stimulate thought.

The Violence of Scripture

“Is this a good story, or a bad story?”

Some friends were over, and the kids were watching Prince of Egypt. They were up to the plagues, before we even got to the part where the firstborn sons are all killed, and before the Egyptian army and all their horses are drowned, when the little boy asked his question.

poeIt’s a good question. I suppose the answer is, “It’s both — depending on your perspective.” For the Egyptians, it was a bad story. For the Israelites, it was a good story — or at least, they seemed to think so. They broke out the tambourines and sang and danced. (Remember when the Palestinians did this on 9/11?) That leads me to believe it’s a bad story for everyone. When we sing and dance over death, we are damaged people.

Lately I’ve felt like a deer in the headlights as I’ve been thinking about the many examples of violence, conquest, oppression, and in general moral atrocity in the Bible. How have I lived with this book for so long without facing it?

If you’re like me, you’ve woven an intricate dance through the Scriptures, perpetually adjusting your orientation so that these troubling scenes are in your peripheral vision. Once in awhile you don’t spin fast enough, and you come up against something unspeakable face to face:

  • Egyptian bodies washed ashore to the sound of gleeful singing (I have sung along with the catchy “Horse and Rider song” that was popular in the 80’s)
  • Foreign priests lured into a temple and then summarily executed
  • Jericho, in which men, women, children, and animals are slaughtered
  • Abraham sacrificing Isaac; Jephthah sacrificing his daughter
  • War — first in a long list of “holy wars” for which God’s will is used as justification
  • Slavery, rape, kidnapping (the virgins of Jabesh-Gilead are taken as prisoners of war and forced to marry the Benjamites)

There are lots of other examples, and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy sets these and many more before us. Author Eric Seibert calls it “virtuous” violence — in other words the violence is depicted as good and necessary in some way. Sometimes God orders it in the text (Canaanite genocide); sometimes it’s written into the laws (capital punishment); sometimes it is more cryptic or ambiguous whether God approves of it or not (Jephthah sacrificing his daughter). In several instances (Ezekiel, Nahum…) metaphors of sexual abuse are developed to illustrate God’s wrath at various cities. (I have to wonder if these texts would have even made it into the canon if they had depicted sexual violence against men.)

If you grow up in the church, you become desensitized. All the tales become fodder for abstract spiritual lessons without your having ever been encouraged to see them at their literal level. Seibert calls it “textual blindness”: “We have grown so familiar with these violent stories, and with certain sanitized ways of reading and hearing these stories, that we fail to notice what they are actually saying.”  I feel a little angry about that official sanitizing. I admit it. None of us probably has to look very far back to see an example of it. As someone who has been fed these tales since childhood, I feel I haven’t been well-served.

One of the experiences that led me to home school was when my oldest daughter was in kindergarten and heard the Easter story. She exclaimed, “That’s terrible!” and then looked at me very hard, very searchingly. She was looking for confirmation that she was really hearing it right, and that her response was right. It was a teachable moment, an opportunity to affirm her natural sense of right and wrong and her tender heart. The crucifixion is terrible (and some aspects of its traditional western interpretation that emphasize God’s wrath and turning away from Jesus as he dies are equally terrible). But there are lots of other terrible things in the Bible too, and I haven’t named them for what they are. I get all up in arms about the violence people allow their young children to watch in movies, but I remain silent about the battle of Jericho. I am pro-life, yet I haven’t noticed that Abraham and Isaac, or Jephthah and his daughter (for whom no ram is provided), or the numerous children killed in biblical battles, devalue human life on a grand scale.

I believe there has been a level of conditioning that has encouraged my “textual blindness.” But ultimately I have to take responsibility for any callouses on my moral sensibility. Children don’t have that callous. And having children is among the first of the pricks that have pierced mine.

When I look down deep, I see that the way I’ve always dealt with this is by believing that the ancient Israelites simply got it wrong. This belief has been fuzzy and undefined, lurking there and producing cognitive dissonance alongside my belief that the Bible is God’s word (something I still believe, let there be no doubt). How can the God who forbade murder order it on so many occasions? How can the God who was always headed toward redemption of the whole world be so selective about the value of human life in the Old Testament? “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed,” he says to Abraham in Genesis 12. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” Jesus echoed in John 3. How can the God whose ultimate judgment on all violence and killing was pronounced from a cross where he bore it all demand it so many times?

I realize that this sounds like I’m being pretty free with Scripture. But the truth is that I know of no one who doesn’t do this already — who doesn’t write off large chunks of Old Testament morality. Today if a parent kills a child, it is universally condemned. Today when one country invades another because they believe themselves to be entitled to the land, there is an international response. Rightly so. Is this because we believe God’s moral standard has changed? Or because our cultural conditioning has changed?

Maybe it seems to put us in less stable territory to suggest that there are things in the Bible that reflect the human vessels through whom God spoke, but it’s no less stable than it had ever been. If we believe in inspiration of Scripture, be acknowledge a level of cultural conditioning in the human minds through which God works as he conveys his word. I guess this book has made me think seriously about moving the boundaries I’ve placed circumscribing the divine word within the human vessels. It’s a smaller territory than I thought — unless I believe that God’s moral sensibility is accurately reflected in some of these stories.

I am amazed by the humility of a God who is willing to be so misrepresented, willing to work with such desperately misguided and self-involved creatures as we are. In Jesus we see a God willing to humble himself “even to death on a cross.” In Scripture, perhaps we see a God equally willing to humble himself to violence done to his character through our human terms. He overcomes both sets of strictures: the cross, by returning to life; the violence in the Bible, by managing to convey a clear redemption narrative across the whole sweep of history and the intricate and often confusing polyphony of the biblical writers. Though I am beginning to believe he is victimized by having words put into his mouth that he didn’t say in the Old Testament, the events of history (Jesus) and the fulfillment of prophecy (the promised Messiah, the suffering servant) indicate that he triumphs over these limitations and his character is revealed in the person of Jesus. Enough truth gets through to validate the Bible’s overarching message.

I keep veering away from talking about The Violence of Scripture.

Honestly, I’m not sure I recommend this book. It is helpful in a limited way. It locates the hard parts of the Bible very well, and it assures us that we’re right in seeing serious confusion in the moral picture of the Old Testament. Seibert also lays out a number of historical events in which the Old Testament has been used to justify atrocities.

But I part ways with Seibert in several regards. For one thing, what seems to be his primary motivation is preventing further misuse of Scripture to justify violence, whereas my interest is in clarifying the character of God. For another, Seibert’s solution is changing how we read Scripture to “reading nonviolently.” This involves using the ethics laid out in some of Scripture — what he calls its “normative” pattern — as a lens through which to judge what we read, and I’m fine with that. But he also recommends various other “reading strategies” that I am more dubious about: filling in the gaps in the stories with our own imaginative material; using literary deconstruction to make sophisticated analyses of the ancient texts; censoring the Bible for children. (In this last item I wouldn’t argue that all the stories in the Bible are suitable for children, but I favor a developmentally appropriate approach that introduces different parts of the Bible at different ages rather than censorship or rewriting. For instance, at one point Seibert recommends excising the verses where David says God is with him when he fights Goliath, then following up the story with lots of imagining how Goliath might have felt.)

To me the elephant in the room with a book like this is, who needs a holy book if you know better than it does? Who needs a holy book that has to be censored and heavily superscribed with your own enlightened editorial judgments and additions? And who, certainly, needs a holy book that can’t be understood without the techniques of postmodern literary theory? At times Seibert assures us that there is much to be appreciated in the Bible, and he speaks from a believer’s perspective. But overall I found his attitude toward it to be too condescending to be of much use.

The-Violence-of-ScriptureIn the end it’s the Holy Spirit — who, we believe, inspired the biblical writers in the first place — to whom we must appeal for help in understanding his book. I don’t believe these matters are intellectual so much as spiritual. God will help us to push all the way through to meaningful answers. (He has already begun to do this.)

I can look back and see what I believe to be a long accumulation of answered prayers in my life, many of them prayers for understanding. But one stands out. It was when I was in my twenties and had gone through a period of rebellion, and now I was repenting. I regretted the way I had spent that year and realized that I couldn’t make things all better; such damage as was done, was done. But God forgave me. I remember crying off and on for several days in a curious combination of grief and joy, sorrow  and grace. It’s the most real, most powerful marker in my spiritual life. A church kid, I saw my sinfulness at last. And I knew God’s love and grace. That’s who he is: he is beyond intellectual precept or emotion, and he gives us his Spirit to meet us, to provide for every need of our souls. Surely one such need is for wisdom regarding his written word, and I believe he is the one who clarifies all that’s confusing or false.

Lent begins today. I guess what I’m giving up is some of my security in how I think of Scripture. I’m giving it back to God. I am probably giving up some of my security in my community too, because these are very uncomfortable issues and questions for evangelicals. These are the kinds of questions that can lead one to stumble in their faith. Yet I still believe a faith that never works through them is ultimately in more danger. God asks for more than mere intellectual assent; he asks for our trust. That’s what makes it so important to face these questions honestly. God is big enough.

You Are a Writer

I downloaded Jeff Goins’ You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) for free on my Kindle a few days ago. It’s not a long book, but it’s one that refreshes and refocuses and inspires.

The main thing a writer does, Goins points out, is write. So what are you waiting for? The book outlines some of the reasons writers don’t write, such as waiting to be chosen, or not believing that they have anything to say, and offers a dose of encouragement and practical motivation. It also suggests a few practical steps writers need to take.

Blogging plays a part in Goins’ vision. This is part of establishing a platform to connect with an audience, he explains. Other forms of social networking and marketing also figure into his ideas about how to chart a course toward developing as a successful writer. He is direct about some of the protests people may feel about self-marketing, and writes in a warm, understanding voice about the challenges and hopes of the journey.

It was a timely read for me. I’ve been thinking seriously about abandoning blogging altogether. It takes time that might be invested in my family or in different kinds of writing projects. It has formal limitations; I don’t want to write anything too long, or too personal, on my blog, whereas the best writing often delves deeply and at length into topics close to the heart. It also has served in some ways as a buffer against aspects of my own situation — my own sense of isolation as a stay-at-home mom without any real, functional community to be a part of — that might be more painful if I weren’t engaged in the pleasant distraction of online writing.

Years ago, when I committed myself to break free once and for all from bulimia, I remember being apprehensive about the gap it would leave: all that time spent in dietary issues would now weigh on my hands. What would fill the space? Ultimately, good, real things filled the space — relationships, new interests and experiences, familiar tasks performed to a higher standard because I was not distracted by the black hole of my eating issues. I have wondered what might fill the space blogging would leave behind, and I suspect it’s quite possible that the same wonderful results would come into being.

But the fact remains that blogging has this great feature: it has made me write, more than I ever have in any other medium. I have stacks of half-filled notebooks in my house from my pre-blogging years, their empty pages testifying to my sense of the pointlessness of writing just for myself. Blogging has made the concept of an audience real and immediate in ways that my notebooks never did, thanks to the comments section and the opportunities it has opened up for me to connect with other writers through their blogs. And now, after five years of it, I have many pages worth of finished articles on all kinds of topics, and a record of events and readings that I can navigate and consult much more easily than than my old notebooks allow.

One of my concerns lately has been that blogging has isolated me further by semi-satisfying my desire for friendship. I feel like I have some genuine friends online, but they don’t live nearby. I’ll probably never meet them. Does this keep me from taking the initiative I need to take here in the “real world” on this side of the keyboard? I’ve never found it easy to be outgoing; does this introvert-friendly style of communicating keep me from taking some necessary risks?

But Goins makes an interesting point. Becoming a writer isn’t just about the ideas or the writing. It’s about networking and building relationships. “There is a relational part of this job of being a writer that you need to embrace,” he explains, “even if you’re the most introverted person in the world.” It’s not only in the face-to-face world offline that this happens, but anywhere a writer tries to connect with an audience or a potential publisher of her work. This means that a blog is not necessarily a refuge from risk. It can happen there as well as anywhere; and, perhaps, I can grow here as well as anywhere — as a writer and as a whole person. It’s an interesting thought.

The author has a blog called Goins, Writer, where he makes the book available as well as offering loads of practical inspiration and advice. If any of this sounds interesting to you, I suggest you check it out. As I read this book, I remembered my freshman composition teacher in college. She was always sparing with criticism and lavish with praise, and once a classmate pointed out, “When you think about it, what we need the most is to write if we want to improve as writers. And that’s what she encourages us to do. She doesn’t pick us apart; she makes us want to write.” This book operates the same way. It’s just what the doctor ordered.

Introvert Power

From a young age, most of us are taught the value of social skills. We learn how to introduce ourselves, how to smile and be polite. We are told to be friendly and make friends. These are all useful abilities to develop. But how many of us are taught the value of solitude skills? How many of us are taught to protect our boundaries, to foster imagination, to be alone? How many of us are encouraged to withdraw from social activity and nurture the life of the mind? (Laurie Helgoe, Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength)

In all honesty, I read Introvert Power because it kept coming up on the same search listings as the book I’m waiting for: Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It will be released on January 24, and in the meantime this one was available.

It proved to be an interesting read. I’ve never given that much conscious thought to my inner introvert. In college, everyone took the Meyers-Briggs personality test several times, and I got different letters each time. I think I just concluded that it didn’t matter very much.

Laurie Helgoe points out that we all have introvert and extrovert tendencies, but one tends to be dominant. As I’ve been reading and thinking, I’ve realized that there may have been different tides at different times in my life, but these days it’s the introvert who has the upper hand within. As a stay at home mother, and a home schooling mother on top of that, I feel it keenly — that feeling Bilbo Baggins puts so concisely in The Fellowship of the Ring:

Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.

Introvert Power is a good discussion in the pages of which I recognized myself many times. It’s quite readable; though written by a psychologist, it’s not jargony or overly technical, and at times Helgoe is even a little earthy in her style of expression.

She talks about some interesting things, like the need to withdraw and take a retreat now and then. I realized that this is why nature study has been such a delight this year; it has that feeling of sabbath, of stepping out of the closed cycle of school routine in ways that ultimately contribute great things to the girls’ (and my) education, but in a more relaxed, quiet, observant way.

Helgoe also devotes sections of her narrative to asking her reader to imagine what their ideal space would be — whether a room of your own, or a personal retreat center. At first it seemed a little trivial to me, but then I started dreaming a little. I married late, and I remember well the feeling of coming home to my apartment on Friday night and bearing the burden of my social life. I might be invited somewhere. But I might not. There was no guarantee that I would have anyone but myself around unless I took the initiative, and to me that was a burden. I think of married life and family as a great blessing.

But on the other hand, I don’t have my own room anymore. That was a fun part of being single — everything looked exactly the way I made it look, everything stayed where I put it. My living space was my own externalized mind. Now all my space is shared. This is not likely something that will change; I’m not going to wake one day and find a small cabin out back with heat, electricity, a desk and books and comfy chairs and warm colors and nature art on the walls and notebooks and pens and the smell of pine and… so on. But it was fun to think about how I would furnish such a space. In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to have a doll house that I could furnish with collectibles and wallpaper and the whole nine yards, and maybe that’s an expression of the introvert’s desire for freedom to create that Laurie Helgoe is talking about. I’m not sure why it was freeing to think about something I can’t have, but it was.

There are things in the book that I didn’t feel I needed: strategies for dealing with extroverts in conversation, creating introvert boundaries, strategies for how to handle invitations to parties. I don’t feel discriminated against in an extrovert society; I’ve always felt there’s a mix of people around me. But in some ways Introvert Power helped me to recognize some ways that I still, even at this stage of life, try to put myself into a different mold than is natural for me.

It was a fairly quick read, but an interesting one that made me think about subjects that probably wouldn’t have crossed my radar any other way. It helped to reinforce our decision this year to cut back on activities and spend more time reading and exploring together in our home school. And in at least one small way, it’s influenced my behavior already: when my husband and daughters were at sports practice, I spent some time at the library reading and writing in my journal, being alone in a public space. Usually I stay at home to read… and fall asleep on the couch. :-) I’m glad I took one of Helgoe’s suggestions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself doing so again.

If Jesus Were a Parent

We’ve been reading Hal Perkins’ If Jesus Were a Parent: Coaching Your Child to Follow Jesus in a Sunday school class for a couple of months. It’s a book that has stimulated some very lively discussion and strong feelings of all kinds. I wasn’t going to try to write about it here, yet I find myself wanting to find some order in my responses to the book. So here goes.

First, the good. I love Perkins’ emphasis on the heart. Those of us who are Christians want more than anything for our children to know the Lord, but that won’t happen merely by imposing external rules and structures, or by taking them to church, or even by getting them to memorize Scripture. It will only happen if they meet Jesus, and this is an encounter of the heart — as is the entire Christian life. Perkins’ approach to parenting involves a lot of heart-level interaction and returns again and again to the need for parents to know their children — to invest in the relationship starting very early with one-on-one time and discussion. The goal of parenting is to introduce our children to Jesus, and to teach them how to listen to his direction as they live and work and make decisions. I found much here that was practical and helpful and inspiring along these lines.

Perkins sets the bar pretty high, but I didn’t mind that. I did, however, wear out about 2/3 of the way through the book. The same thing happened to me when I read John and Stasi Eldredge’s Captivating. Great, inspiring, challenging stuff, and by the time I was 2/3 through I was exhausted. I had absorbed all I could absorb for the moment; I had enough to work on. So I plowed through the last third because, of course, I’m a book-person, and that’s what we do: we finish the book. But I was already saturated.

On top of that, there were aspects of the book that were controversial in the class. Many folks seemed to think that Perkins was presenting himself as perfect: “If Jesus were a parent, he’d be like me.” I didn’t really mind that he was good at this parenting thing. But I did feel that at times there was a missing link somewhere, a bridge between the real world of day-to-day, relentless, repetitive, often monotonous trivia of parenting and the ideal ends described here.

Part of this goes back to the subtitle equating parents with coaches. I’m not sure I agree. I think parents and coaches are very different animals, actually. Coaches have the luxury of distance; they go home to their own bed to sleep at night, and they probably get whole seasons “off” to regroup and re-evaluate. Parents don’t. We’re at it 24/7, and there is precious little objective distance till the children are grown and out of the house. So while I like the coaching metaphor, I’m not sure it really works for me.

Besides the sense of a missing link, and perhaps related to it, is the sense that Hal Perkins can be rather tone-deaf. That’s what they call it when it characterizes a politician: someone who is proclaiming his views loudly, but seems to miss the fact that he’s put his foot in his mouth. There were examples given in this book from Perkins’ own experience that were intended as models to emulate, but which seemed to reflect failure of which the author was oblivious. All of us fail sometimes — we’re indecisive, or heavy-handed, or we have bad timing — and we can be gracious when others do. But when others fail, and then say of that failure, “You should follow my example in this,” it falls pretty flat.

Finally, there is the title itself, inviting speculation on “if Jesus were a parent.” He wasn’t a parent. We are not given the gift of his actual example in the role of a parent. I’m reminded of an episode when my daughters were younger and one of them had received a “WWJD” bracelet at some event or other. I walked past the room where both girls were surveying a disaster scene of legos scattered to the four corners of the earth, every toy from the toybox dumped, and a fort constructed of bedding, and heard my oldest (then around 6) say, “What would Jesus do if he saw this room?”

“He’d tell us to clean it!” exclaimed my youngest (then 3).

“Or,” said Older Daughter speculatively, “he might send an angel to do it!”

It capsulized for me the problem with “what would Jesus do” thinking: such speculations can end in mere wishful thinking. And even when we are walking in relationship with him, I don’t know as I am ever comfortable “speaking for” him in quite such a blatant way.

The title beckons us down the road of “leadership principles from Scripture.” But while these may form some guardrails for us in our parenting, the heart of walking with the Lord is not simply emulating his principles, but interacting with him in the moment-by-moment business of life, submitting our minds daily to the stern light of Scripture. “If Jesus were a parent,” he would live as he did when he walked the earth: in continual seeking of God’s will, and in a humility that’s always shocking — especially apparent in this season when we consider the vulnerability and poverty of his first entrance into the world. This will look different in different families. I see Jesus with his disciples as deeply caring, and willing to answer all their questions. But I never see him being intrusive with them in the way some parts of this book seemed (to me) to be suggesting.

In the end, it’s a mixed bag, like so many books are. There are truths here that make it well worth reading, and the fact that it made the class wrestle and haggle is hardly a point against it. It means it was engaging and challenging, and it opens up consideration of the issues we care most deeply about as Christian parents. I recommend it, and I recommend reading it with other parents, as I’ve had the privilege and blessing of doing. The class has been a rich experience and was the ideal setting for processing this book’s exploration of the fearful and wonderful territory of Christian parenting.

The Poisonwood Bible

There are currently 1,545 reviews of this novel already listed at Amazon. What can I possibly add?

Nothing. Yet I’ve just had my own personal experience of the book nonetheless. I blog partly to come to terms with reading experiences, and after such a weighty, sprawling, powerful novel as this, I feel the need to come to terms — or to find the terms — to describe and remember it.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible centers on the family of missionary Nathan Price. In 1959, he takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo planning to impose his warped version of the gospel on the village of Kilanga. He has a knack for making enemies: we learn that his mission is not sanctioned by the mission society of his denomination, and his family has not gone through any of the necessary preparations for living in Africa. The challenges of nature and culture, the political instability of the Congo’s rebellion against Belgian rule, and above all Nathan’s graceless and bitter gospel lay the groundwork for trouble that comes to a head about halfway through the novel. The second half traces the ways the different members of the family react and live out their lives over the next several decades.

We never see inside Nathan Price’s mind, but the other characters — his wife Orleanna, and his daughters Rachel, Leah, Ada, and Ruth May — narrate their own stories. As we rotate from one character’s perspective to another’s, we quickly develop a feel for their personalities and experience their steep learning curve. I marvel at Kingsolver’s character creation; each is distinctive and convincingly realized.

By turns, The Poisonwood Bible made me weep for the pain humans cause, marvel at the beauty of African culture, and wonder over the sometimes heavy-handed political and religious commentary Kingsolver puts into the mouths of her characters.

If I had to choose one overarching theme, it would be the unreliability of knowledge. The history of the Congo (now Zaire) testifies to the conquesting spirit, and the ignorance, of various European entities from Portugal to Belgium to the United States. I felt similar to the way I felt after reading The Kite Runner, a novel about another nation that has suffered under a chain of exploitive foreign rulers. The Prices (at the beginning) reflect the glib optimism of Americans who equate westernization with salvation, and they have no appreciation or understanding of the history of the region they are entering. In microcosm, they act like other nations that have imposed their foreign ideals on the Congo, the story seems to say.

Yet when Leah, who by the novel’s end has become an expert of sorts on Zaire, tours an ancient Congolese palace with crushed human bones worked into the mortar, she reasons that it might have been some kind of reasonable means of population control. Ada, too, reasons that the practice in Kilanga of taking twins into the forest and leaving them there at birth may be similarly motivated. Are we expected to take their speculations seriously? Are we expected to see these forms of murder as somehow reasonable or moral? I hope not. Human understanding, the novel seems to say, is always fatally limited — whether it’s that of exploitive national entities like the Portuguese, who felt it was justifiable to enslave Africans because of mistaken assumptions about race and non-European ways of doing things; or that of Ada and Leah, who are ready to justify an equally despicable chapter of Congolese history out of strong nationalistic feeling.

The politics are not easy to sort out. The novel suggests that the U.S. played a significant part in sabotaging the Congo’s attempt at democracy, supporting a corrupt regime instead. I have had only a superficial knowledge of this, and I ought to learn more. Ignorance may be bliss, but for the characters in this novel it quickly becomes impossible as they are swept into the sometimes unwelcome awareness “walking a mile in someone’s shoes” — or living a year in someone else’s country — can give. But their comprehension of the large events going on while they are in Kilanga — rebellion, democratic election, corruption — is shadowy at best. They arrive with an uncritical acceptance of the trumpeted American values, but eventually they become aware of all kinds of subterranean motives at work at the international level. Understanding of the world, we’re meant to see, is tentative at best.

I felt the tragic weight of this limitation most heavily in the tale’s religious storyline. Nathan Price is a caricature of the evangelist convinced he knows it all, and he has large tracts of the Bible memorized. But he has no idea at all of the Bible’s culminating themes of love, forgiveness, or mercy. He is fixated on the ritual of baptism, and he serves a vengeful, angry God who holds us all to an impossible standard of righteousness. His wake is littered with souls bludgeoned by his personal ideals, and there is no credible counterweight to this brand of Christianity in the novel. The only alternative offered is Brother Fowles, Price’s predecessor at Kilanga, who makes a brief appearance to question the translation and authority of the Bible. As Leah explains, Brother Fowles advises her to

trust in Creation, which is made fresh daily and doesn’t suffer in translation. This God does not work in especially mysterious ways. The sun here rises and sets at six exactly. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly, a bird raises its brood in the forest, and a greenheart tree will only grow from a greenheart seed. He brings drought sometimes, followed by torrential rains, and if these things aren’t always what I had in mind, they aren’t my punishment either…

This reminded me a little of sacred reading in Thomas Merton, which I posted on here. I have no problem with seeing Creation as a manifestation of the character of the God who made it. But I believe the Bible is a form of revelation too, one we needn’t despair of understanding with God’s help — no matter how many times it has been misused and misunderstood throughout history. No one in this novel really gives voice to that hope. But that’s probably just the natural outcome of the spiritual abuse Nathan Price dishes out — total disillusionment.

There are some really beautiful passages in the book, and the frustrations I felt in reading it have been constructive ones. It’s a book that asks searching, troubling questions and creates a sense of personal connection to a land and its people. I understand why there are 1,545 reviews already trying to put its impact into words.

Praying for Strangers

There are so many ways a book like this could go wrong. It could be super-saccharine. It could be self-righteous, or narcissistic, or overly introspective. It could be pushy. But in telling the story of a year in her life — the year her two sons were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, and she made a New Year’s resolution to pray for a stranger every day — author River Jordan walks the path of authenticity, earns my liking and my trust, and inspires me.

Praying for Strangers introduces us to the people Ms. Jordan met in the course of her journey, giving us a glimpse of their stories and describing their reactions when she let them know she was praying for them. More than a call to prayer, she felt also a call to boldness in letting each day’s stranger know that they stood out to her in some way and she would be thinking of them and praying for them. Their reactions were almost always positive. With respect for them, Ms. Jordan shares some of their struggles and reflects on the ways her experience of meeting and praying for each one challenges and humbles her.

Occasionally as I go about my business, a face stands out to me and I pray for the person — the beleaguered mother with the cart full of children in the checkout, the grim-faced librarian coughing into her sleeve, the person lost in thought and sipping tea by the window at Barnes & Noble. But to approach them and introduce myself and tell them? To ask their name and whether there’s anything I can be praying for? That would be new territory, to say the least.

It was new territory for River Jordan, too. I found myself relating to some of the people she prayed for. But most of all I found myself relating to her. She is no more a spiritual superhero than I am, and she is not a natural extrovert either. Yet she manages to step out of herself into a new kind of compassion, and the experience yields rich insights into herself, humanity, and prayer in general. Prayer, she muses at one point, “is perhaps one of the greatest human connectors in this world. A chain that runs from one carbon life-form to another, an unseen force that makes a strong vertical leap into the mysteries of the unknown. The place where they might be captured, opened, and answered.”

If I have any reservation at all about the book, it’s that at times, Ms. Jordan’s tone can take on a bit of a New-Age, humanistic tone. There is no attempt to anchor her comments on prayer to a biblical context. But this didn’t lessen the book’s power for me. I feel a little bit like I do when I read Frederick Buechner: “Is this author believing something different than I do, or just shunning the usual language and cliches? Is he tentative because he’s on the fence, or is he just more careful with his semantics than others?” Ultimately, I guess it’s obvious that I concluded we’re on the same page in the substance of our faith. Some of the tentativeness I sensed actually makes the important point that you don’t have to have to be SuperChristian, you don’t have to have all the answers, in order to step out of your comfort zone and care about others.

All of us meet people in need, all of us want to help, but we don’t have great human or material resources at our beck and call. This book reminds us of what we can do for one another by appealing to the good and generous Father of Lights. Reading it has been an encouragement to me, and I’ve found myself looking harder at the people I meet. I’m grateful to Sherry for bringing it to my attention back in April.

There is a book trailer featuring River Jordan talking about Praying for Strangers here.

Dragons Galore

It’s Edith Nesbit all the way this week. Well, for the purposes of this post, that is — I’m writing about Edith Nesbit. In our reading we’ve zipped about among some other writers too, but I’m focusing on just Nesbit because The Book of Dragons is the first time I’ve been won over. My previous forays into Edith Nesbit have been so-so, but she is definitely growing on me.

It started last week when Amy recommended this picture book version of The Book of Beasts. Our library had a copy, but I saw that The Book of Dragons, of which this is the first story, was a free (and instantaneous) download on the Kindle. I wasn’t going to be able to get to the library for a few days, so I read the story to the girls on the Kindle. Big success. My youngest (7) emitted quiet exclamations next to me several times, responding to the story’s humor and absurdity and suspense.

Since then we’ve read the next two stories (there are eight in all). All of them feature dragons. All of them are stand-alones. Here are the things I notice about Edith Nesbit:

  • Breeziness — sentences that pile up clauses until you’re out of breath. At first glance it seems careless, but it’s intentional and creates the effect that she’s improvising — making up a story out loud.
  • Comedy that comes from her mixing of the extremely practical and ordinary with the utterly fantastic.
  • Absurdity.
  • Children with problems to solve. They are ordinary, and though they end up doing heroic things they never lose their ordinary trappings.
  • Dated — yet the language and references to things specific to her place and time haven’t been a hurdle to my daughters at all.
  • She doesn’t talk down to children. I’ve heard it said that she writes for adults, really, but judging from the girls’ response I’d say she knows children quite well.

Nearly a week later, we were able to get to the library, and we picked up both The Book of Beasts and the physical Book of Dragons. The Kindle gives books an abstract quality, and with this story it includes no illustrations. But what interests me is that the stories have been enough in themselves, even in this form. There is apparently something very magical and appealing about Nesbit’s tales.