Sunday, January 31, 2010

White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

When "The White Tiger," founder of a taxi service in Bangalore, hears of the impending visit of China's Premier, Wen Jiabao, to Bangalore, he writes to the premier to tell him "the truth about Bangalore." The resulting series of letters chronicle Balram Halwai's rise from the son of a poor rickshaw puller to a respected entrepreneur.

Balram grew up in "the darkness," his term for poor India, but through a series of fortunate events, he lands a spot as the driver and house servant of the son of one of his village's wealthy landlords. Living in Delhi, he quietly observes the lives of India's upper class, bribing government officials, visiting prostitutes, mistreating the poor, and going to night clubs. He compares the life of the Indian servant to being in a "rooster coop" and longs to get out.

His cynical, biting observations probably don't sit well with the elite of India, but Balram's story opens a window on the lifestyle and attitudes of India's underclass.  His bosses state that they don't really know much about the caste system; that's something that rural Indians are hung up on.  But clearly class, if not caste, shapes everything they do and the way they view others.

In a way, Balram is a hero for his stepping out of his preordained role and becoming a wealthy entrepreneur.  He spends the whole book justifying the route he took to get there: by murdering and robbing his trusting, naive master.  But as he tells Premier Jiabao, even if he ends up getting caught, jailed, or hanged, "it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant."

A first-time novelist, Adiga tells a darkly humorous tale, taking the reader from the slums of the city to the shining new technology centers, challenging the structures of India's social conventions, both ancient and modern.  Highly recommended!!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America

There are ultrarunners, and then there are ULTRArunners. At the entry level are runners like me, who run the occasional 50 miler with hopes of maybe completing a 100 mile race one day. Then there are the veterans, who regularly race in 50 and 100 mile races. Then there are the runners portrayed in Geoff Williams's account of a 1928 cross country foot race. In an age of dance marathons, flagpole sitting, and wing walking, showman and sports promoter C.C. "Cash and Carry" Pyle came up with the idea to stage a race from Los Angeles to New York. He traveled the country and the world recruiting runners and promoting "C.C. Pyle's first Annual International Transcontinental Foot Race, From Los Angeles to New York." As you might guess, the unwieldy name didn't stick, but the nickname did: The Bunion Derby.

Pyle, a pioneer in sports agency and marketing, managed to gather a field of experienced runners, as well as eager but inadequately prepared hopefuls attracted by the promised $25,000 prize. Some of the runners had run races or exhibition runs of hundreds of miles, some were experienced marathoners and Olympic athletes. Others were not athletes at all, just ambitious men with big dreams.

On March 4, 1928, 199 runners started out in the rain and mud, thousands of miles ahead of them. Williams gathers newspaper accounts, personal memoirs, and historical documents to chronicle the race from its inception to the finish. We learn the back stories of the runners and witness the drama of the race. Runners dropped out along the way, of course, from injury, exhaustion, frustration, mental breakdown, or some combination of all of these.

Williams's account is full of great anecdotes. For instance, two decades before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, Pyle invited African-Americans to race. The black runners faced some opposition along the way. As a Texan I am sad, but not too surprised, to report that some of the worst encounters were in Texas, where the KKK "were enraged that there were blacks running alongside whites. . . . Somewhere between the border of Texas and the town of Vega, a mob tried to set fire to a car full of people shouting encouraging words to Gardner," an African-American runner. The Klan harassed the four black runners throughout the Texas panhandle.

For all the personal side stories, including the hilarious misadventures of Pyle, running from ex-wives, the police, and debt collectors while trying to put on this spectactle of a race, Pyle's Amazing Foot Race is all about the race itself. The distances themselves are numbing. Other than the first leg, a mere 17 miles, and maybe one or two others, the legs were all ultramarathon distance, some as much as 50 or 60 miles or more. And then they'd run again the next day! No days off in this race.
Many runners, especially ultramarathoners, will empathize with the perils of the runners, including blisters, lost toenails, sunburn, frostbite, nausea, sore muscles, etc. If you've ever experience these on a run, imagine the worst you've felt, then imagine getting up the next morning to do it again, and again, for weeks! And the conditions ranged from blazing heat and sandstorms to driving rain and blizzards. It's no wonder that after 8 days and 295 miles, half the runners had dropped out.

Williams makes much of the diversity of footwear chosen by the runners, and the impossibility of keeping their feet in good shape. I don't think even avid barefoot runners would endorse running 3422 miles non-stop barefoot, but I was amused by Williams's use of this quote from a New York Times editorial in 1878: "It would be impossible to form any accurate estimate of the enormous amount of human suffering that has been caused by boots and shoes." If you're familiar with Christopher McDougall, the author of Born to Run, you've heard him say similar about modern running shoes.
I do wish Williams had included some summary information, such as a chart of the runners' finishing times, the names and hometowns of the runners, and a map of the course. That information is all in the text, but I would like to have seen it in another form. He does include some small pictures at the start of each chapter, but I would like to have seen more pictures. But wait, he didn't have to! At the end of the Acknowledgements he notes a PBS documentary about the race, which has a web site with all that information! Now to get my hands on that video. . . .

As a result of Pyle's financial mismanagement and poor planning, the end of the race was rather anticlimactic. Many were surprised that he actually came up with prize money! (The next year he put on the race again, this time from the east coast to the west coast, but in the end, the winners walked away empty-handed. Wouldn't that be a let-down!)

Here's a picture of a statue of Andy Payne, the winner of the Bunion Derby. His pace averaged a bit over 10 minutes per mile. That's amazing to me. The statue can be seen on Route 66, in Foyil, Oklahoma, Payne's hometown.
Pyle's Amazing Foot Race is a great read. Runners will enjoy it, especially those who love to run long distances. But the book also presents a colorful picture of life in the U.S. between the wars, and, ironically, captures some of the adventuresome spirit of the early days of the automobile and the mobility that Route 66 came to represent. Highly recommended!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Religion Saves and Nine Other Misconceptions

You may have heard of Mark Driscoll.  He's pastor of a large, fast-growing church in Seattle.  I'd seen his name from time to time, but really took interest when I read that there were eight motions at the Southern Baptist Convention last June relating to him!  All of them condemnatory!  One called for SBC organizations to "refrain from inviting speakers who are known to be unregenerate and curse, speak vulgarly and support alcohol."  And Driscoll's not even a Southern Baptist!  I knew if someone irritated the SBC that much, I had to find out more about him!

Religion Saves is based on a sermon series Driscoll preached at Mars Hill Church, of which he is founding pastor.  On the church's web site, they had people vote on questions they had about church, faith, God, whatever, and then vote for the top questions.  Then during the series, they had Q and A sessions, included questions texted to the pastor, for clarification and further questions (apparently he fields questions like this every time he preaches).  Hundreds of questions, thousands of votes, and nine sermons later, this book is the result.  While Driscoll's style includes plenty of humor, off-the-cuff remarks, and colloquial language, I was surprised by the depth and scholarship that he demonstrated as well.

Many, if not most of Driscoll's congregants are young and single, and many of them formerly unchurched, having been immersed in our free-wheeling, sexualized culture, which explains why three of the nine chapters deal with sex.  He writes on birth control, dating, and sexual sin.  In these chapters he is very frank, bordering on explicit (not in a titilating way, but instructionally).  Some of his teaching on sex has drawn the ire of his critics.  But in terms of his actual content, I don't know what the critics can criticize.  He does not compromise, taking the side of sexual purity and obedience to scriptural standards. 

He does use lots of humor, and dedicates a chapter to defending the use of humor.  He points out that the Bible, including Jesus' teachings, is full of various types of humor.  He follows the common biblical model, mocking occasionally sinners, but especially "serious religious types who are legalistic, self-righteous, and sinfully judgmental of other people . . . seeking to expose the folly of fools so that they might come to their senses and repent."  He points out that in a culture where people listen to comedians on the radio, download funny YouTube videos, watch sitcoms, and stay up late for Leno, Letterman, and the like, the language we use to speak to reach them must include some humor.

The remaining chapters deal with more traditional theological topics: predestination, grace, faith and works, the emerging church, and the regulative principle.  Again, I was surprised and impressed by the depth and clarity of his discussions of these topics.  He does tend to use a limited number of secondary sources.  Also, in his desire to provide a scriptural defense of his position, he throws out lots and lots of scripture, in many cases without interpretation or application, so it leans toward proof texting.  But his level of engagement is appropriate for this type of book, and certain provokes reflection.

I started the chapter on predestination thinking I would just skim it; I tire of the arguments one way or another.  But I decided I'd read more carefully, and see what conclusion I come to.  He makes a solid case for Calvinism; he is died-in-the-wool Calvinist.  But in his presentation of Arminianism, I found myself leaning that direction.  This is a reflection of two things: he is fair in his presentation of views with which he disagrees, and I am theologically undecided.  I will have to do some more reflection on scripture and look into some of the Arminian-leaning authors he cites.

On a final note, Driscoll has been connected to the emerging church movement, and provides a helpful parsing of the different groups in the movement.  He draws a hard line between those who hold to orthodox Christian faith yet exhibit nontraditional styles of worship and practice, and those who wander far from orthodoxy into heresy.  Most in the movement contextualize church, as missionaries should.  "Some churches are on the cutting edge of 1796, with hymns, pews, and a male preacher in a dress."  But some go beyond contextualization to rejection of salvation through the cross, denying the virgin birth, and embracing universalism.

Driscoll gives specific examples of emergent pastors participation in interfaith dialogue, in which they neglect to mention the name of Jesus, while seeming to endorse others faiths besides Christianity as salvific.  He goes on to say "while Christians should have evangelistic friendships with members of other religions, we must never participate in the practices of other religions with its members because they worship different and false gods."  Interestingly enough, the day after I read this, the local paper's religion section featured an article about a "multifaith worship exchange" in the area.  I know the pastor of the Baptist church involved, and have attended there.  His church is definitely in the emergent group, as described by Driscoll, and I am confident they have avoided the off-ramp of heresy that some emergent churches have taken.  But this article did make me wonder what a "worship exchange" looks like.  Friendship, yes, dialogue, yes, but worship together, I don't think so.

Driscoll's book impressed me.  Though I can see where some uptight Baptists might object to his teachings, by doing so they reveal their own cultural captivity.  Rather than making me want to embrace my Baptist roots, these Baptist critics have led me to discover a voice for challenging, culturally relevant, thoroughly biblical and theologically sound teaching.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do

Ed Dobson was pastor of one of the largest churches in west Michigan for many years.  Some time after he was diagnosed with ALS, he retired.  I actually met him once, but, I am embarrassed to say, was probably quite rude.  I was seated with him and Clarence Thomas's wife at a dinner.  This was not too long after the infamous Supreme Court confirmation hearings.  She was charming and wonderful to talk to, and spoke openly about their experience during the confirmation and the importance of prayer and faith through it all.  I admit, I was a bit star struck, and I had no idea who this Dobson-guy-who's-not-related-to-the-Focus-on-the-Family-Dobson was.  So, Mr. Dobson, if you ever read this, please accept my apology.

One day while listening to NPR, Ed Dobson heard an interview with A.J. Jacobs about his book, The Year of Living Biblically.  Jacobs, a nonobservant Jew, decided he would try to follow Old Testament teachings as closely as possible.  Writing more as a humorist than a theologian, he talked about growing his beard and not sitting in a chair where a menstruating woman had sat.  But Dobson read the book and "was deeply convicted by the fact that someone had taken the Bible seriously enough to attempt to live it out."  He began to wonder what would happen if he were to take the teachings of Jesus seriously and live like Jesus lived.  This book is the result of his year.

Dobson learned much about himself and his faith during this year, but for many reasons, he seemed happy to see the year end.  Similary, Dobson's book challenged me in a few areas and I learned a bit about following Jesus from reading it, but I was happy to see the book end.

For a seminary trained, experienced pastor and teacher with a Ph.D., Living Like Jesus struck me as very juvenile.  It almost seemed like it should have been written by one of those 20-something blogger types who get an idea for a book while sitting around drinking with their friends late one night.  He approaches some of the ideas and practices he explores with the naivete of an ignorant young person, not as a Christian statesman.

For example, he explores prayer practices of other denominations: praying the rosary (On a side note, my old boss, Fr. Robert Sirico, makes a cameo here, giving Dobson advice on praying the rosary.), using a Christian Orthodox prayer rope, and using Episcopal prayer beads.  To me this mirrors the tendency of the emergent church (which is populated largely by disaffected 20-somethings) to grasp onto the symbols and practices of liturgical traditions in order to find more fulfilling faith practices.  Dobson uses the prayer traditions of other churches to enrich his own prayer life, and we can learn from his experience as well.  His stated goal, to pray more like Jesus did, led him to these traditions, which, following Jewish prayer, emphasize repetition and scripture, rather than the extemporaneous prayers of most evangelicals, which, I agree, often feature inanity and scriptural ignorance.

Another tendency Dobson shares with the emergent church is to drink alcohol, as if to say, My teetotalling past was unenlightened, and now that I am enlightened I will drink fine wine and beers and ales that you can only buy at boutique groceries.  I don't care whether someone drinks or not; it's not a theological litmus test.  But to say, as Dobson does, that to live like Jesus you have to drink alcohol seems a little silly.  Then again, to say, with many evangelicals, that Christians should never drink alcohol is pretty silly, too.

One strength of the book is Dobson's honesty and humility.  He does not hesitate to reveal the difficulties he had maintaining his commitment at times, and points out that while he struggled with some of the superficial elements, such as eating kosher, keeping the Sabbath, and wearing the right clothing, those practices only emphasized the greater difficulty of living like Jesus in the heart.  Also, his struggle with ALS is a strand that emerges throughout the book.  I admire the faith and strength with which he faces the disease.

I do have to address his take on politics.  By way of background, Dobson worked at Liberty University and was close to Jerry Falwell.  Dobson often acted as mouthpiece for the religious right, and still supports much of what they stood for.  So he's no liberal, and no stranger to politics and political theory. So during his year of living like Jesus, he's faced with choosing for whom to vote, and decides that he will choose the presidential candidate who best reflects Jesus' teachings, which he boils down to : treatment of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed; treatment of one's enemies; and commitment to peacemaking.  He ends up going against his pro-life convictions and votes for Obama, and seems quite pleased with himself that he's shocked many who know him.

Again, this seems so juvenile.  First of all, he downplays the issue of abortion by saying that to be truly pro-life, one must consider the plight of widows and orphans and strangers and the poor, and be pro- their lives, too.  But I am not comfortable with minimizing Obama's and the Democratic Party's view that abortion is OK just about whenever, including murdering living babies who have survived a botched abortion.  Second, Dobson isn't asking whether the candidate reflects Jesus' teachings, but whether his policies do.  Do I want policies that reflect Jesus' teachings?  I know that I should give a coat away if I have two and my brother has none, but does that mean that if I have political power, I can coerce all owners of two coats to give away a coat to those who have none?  The coercive power of the state is not in line with the teachings of Jesus, so it renders the point moot.  The question should not be which candidate's policies most reflect the teachings of Jesus, but which candidate's policies would foster the kind of environment in which people are free to follow the teachings of Jesus?

I didn't hate this book, but I sure was disappointed.  It should be read on the level of entertainment.  Dobson tells some amusing stories, altought they're not as amusing as he thinks they are.  The writing itself is disjointed, a conglomeration of journal, mini-sermons, and essays.  On a devotional level, it's not totally without value.  The greatest point I took away is the challenge to pray from the scriptures.    He also made much of Jesus' tendency to associate with sinners.  Dobson is right that much of church culture today prevents or discourages Christians from venturing outside of their Christian circles.  I wish he would have spent more time on that kind of living like Jesus and less time on kosher food and prayer beads.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Return of the King

My audio journey through Middle Earth has ended with great satisfaction.  Evil is defeated, the king gains the throne, the heroes win the day.  What a wonderful story.  Tolkien, in his brilliance, gives us the bad guys to hate--the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings are really, really bad--but he also gives us bad guys to relate to.  The story doesn't simply deal with the forces of evil on the empire level, but the forces of evil within us.

Of course, the clearest internal struggle, which runs through all three books, is the temptation to power that the ringbearers have to struggle against.  We saw how possession of the ring transformed Gollum; how Bilbo kept the ring for years without succumbing to evil, but not without escaping effects of the temptation; how Frodo (and, briefly, Sam) bent under the weight of the ring as it became more burdensome the closer they got to Mount Doom.

Other characters struggled against the power of Mordor.  In The Two Towers, Theoden, king of Rohan, was held under the spell of Wormtongue, Saruman's agent.  Gandalf broke the spell, and Theoden became a great leader in the War of the Ring.  Similary, Denethor, the Steward of Gondor (essentially the Stewards had acted as kings in the absence of the true king, Aragorn and his ancestors), secretly communicated with Sauron, hoping to become king.  He despair at not becoming king and his grief at the loss of Boramir, who was slain by orcs while defending Merry and Pippin, led him to succumb to Sauron's lies, ultimately driving him mad.

Finally, in a long sequence not portrayed at all in the movies, we see the power of evil take a foothold in the Shire.  After the destruction of the ring, the defeat of the forces of Sauron, and the coronation of  Aragon as king, the hobbits take their time returning home.  They stop by Isengard to check on things.  Treebeard and his entish friends have torn down Saruman's mechanistic, sterile projects and restored Isengard's former glory, and have kept Saruman and Wormtongue locked up in the tower of Orthanc.  However, Treebeard, the softy, eventually let them go, thinking they were powerless.  Gandalf had destroyed Saruman's staff, taking away much of his power, but, as Gandalf pointed out, he still has the power of his tongue.

Returning to the Shire, the hobbits discover that Saruman had used that power to establish a tyrrannical regime over the Shire.  Some power-hungry hobbits, aided by a large band of "ruffians," men who had taken on orc-like qualities, were ruling the Shire like petty dictators.  Many trees had been felled, houses torn down and replaced with blocky, grey shacks, mechanical mills belched smoke, and filth and clutter prevailed.  The good produce of the land had either dried up or been taken over by the "chief" and his gang.  After facing the heart of evil, the four returning hobbits would not tolerate the reign of evil, however petty, in their beloved Shire.  They lead a rebellion which quickly puts down Saruman's devices and begin to restore peace to the shire.

Most of us will never have to face down pure evil, like Frodo did, falling under the eye of Sauron, or like Aragon and his army did at the Black Gate of Mordor.  But the influence of evil always creeps into our lives, through our own greed, the lust for power, vanity, etc.  In The Lord of the Rings, the heroes of the story overcome evil by supporting each other, but working together, and by maintaining focussed integrity in the face of temptation.

These stories can be read on many different levels, by all different ages, with a wide range of interpretations.  I have said before, the audio performance on these CDs is brilliant, bringing the story and characters to life.  The Lord of the Rings rightly sits as one of the great works of 20th century literature.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Lover's Quarrel with the Evangelical Church

Warren Cole Smith, no evangelical outsider, doesn't have a lot good to say about the state of evangelicalism in the United States.  A long-time figure in Christian journalism, he has seen the American church up close and personal for many years.  In A Lover's Quarrel, Smith's criticism of the church can be boiled down to this: in a half century of rising cultural and institutional prominence, evangelicalism has very little to show for its efforts.  The number of parachurch ministries, the number of megachurches, the availability of Christian books and music, and the amount of Christian radio and TV broadcasting have all exploded, yet the number of people attending church has remained steady, if not declined, and the overall culture does not reflect a stronger Christian presence.

Smith describes the symptoms of the problem with evangelicalism as follows:
  • The New Provincialism.  Evangelicals have lost all sense of history and tradition.  Just as a Texan might think that all things not Texan have little or no value (rightly so, of course), the modern evangelical church believes that all things not of the moment have little value.
  • The Triumph of Sentimentality.  Evangelicals have a "false notion of the world as it is."  We "replace a biblical God with one we prefer."
  • The Christian-Industrial Complex.  Evangelicals have made an industry of ministry.  Discipleship and ministry have taken a back seat to perpetuating institutions and generating profits.
  • Body-Count Evangelism.  Parachurch ministries and crusade evangelism have fostered a focus on numbers, where "people become statistics" and "true salvations become opportunities for not for joy, but for bragging."
  • The Great Stereopticon.  The church's rapid embrace of technology has turned the focus to entertainment and minimized the role of preaching and teaching.
  • Christianity's Next Small Thing.  The rising prominence of short-term missions has wasted countless resources and misses the importance of church planting, discipleship, and indigenous leadership.
If you have been around evangelical churches at all, you probably recognize some, if not all, of these in your own church experiences.  However, if you're like me, you can also think of many exceptions.  While reading this, I kept thinking of those studies that show the most people have a very low opinion of Congress, but like their own congressmen (thus reelect them), or who decry the low quality of public schools, while holding their local campus in high esteem (thus continuing to send their children to pubilc schools). 

Smith is particularly hard on megachurches.  He cites statistics which demonstrate that as the number of megachurches has grown, actual church attendance in the U.S. has remained stagnant or even declined, and the number of churches that close down increased.  Thus, he argues that megachurches typically draw not from the unchurched, as they claim to, but from members of other churches.  On top of that, the "seeker friendly" emphasis of many megachurches, "constantly focused on outreach [rather] than spiritual formation, . . . ensures that every generation would have to be reevangelized, since the current adult generation does not have the spiritual training or maturity to raise its own children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord."

He does name some names, and demonstrates how some large churches, such as Willow Creek in Illinois, wield wide influence.  But I can't help thinking he's missing something.  Surely he found megachurches that are exceptions to his rule?  I can think of some churches that fit his description, but I can think of plenty of others which do a lot right.

The whole tone of the book is critical.  A lover's quarrel will have plenty of criticism, I suppose, but if you don't want it to turn to divorce, you'd better have some grace and willingness to come together.  Smith doesn't have much constructive to say in light of his criticisms.  Yes, he argues, smaller is better, and church planting is a more natural and effective way to reach the lost than building larger and larger churches, but  the book leaves me with a negative taste in my mouth.  To be sure, many evangelicals will be challenged by his criticisms, but without a more constructive message, his words fall on deaf ears.