Thursday, April 29, 2010

Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley is a modern master of political satire.  I'm not sure he has the brilliance of his father, William F. Buckley of National Review fame, but he channels what brilliance he did receive into highly entertaining political fiction.  Boomsday tells the story of a 20-something activist who foments a rebellion against baby boomers.  What starts as a blog calling on young people to raid gated communities and tear up golf courses grows into a full-fledged political movement promoting legislation which offers tax incentives to people over 70 to commit suicide.  This "voluntary transitioning" would solve the social security solvency crisis, freeing up resources for the younger generations.

The unlikely romp has plenty of twists and turns and random connections between characters, but Buckley makes it work.  He holds nothing back with his Dickensian character names and his skewering of just about everyone.  An equal-opportunity offender, he spares no one the barbs of his humor.  The Christian Right and the pro-life movement get special treatment in Gideon Payne, founder of SPERM, Society for the Protection of Every Ribonucleic Molecule.  He is a Baptist, from the South, of course, but the Catholics have the smooth-talking Vatican emissary who, living on a not-so-sacrificial budget in a Georgetown mansion, preys on the grieving widows of rich lay people, convincing them that the Lord would be pleased with their generous gifts to the Church.  The pompous press, with their thinly disguised Sunday talk shows, and especially the den of Washington lobbyists, are roundly ridiculed as well.

Boomsday is full of some great one-liners and riffs on the ridiculous nature of our political culture.  Buckley mocks pointless political junkets: Preparing for Congressman Jepperson's visit to Camp Turdje (the d is silent) in Bosnia, Cass's captain muses, "Fact finding. . . . The fact is we don't have any more facts left.  We ran out of them about a year ago.  Still they come in search of them."  He skewers the practice of "presidential commissions" where ideas go to die while the commissioners issue self-important statements and the administration can claim that they diligently pursued a solution or resolution to whatever the commission was convened for.  His portrait of Washington culture and processes may be skewed, but it sure is funny.

The biggest target, of course, is boomers, self-indulgent, pampered, and retiring too early.  Through their lobbying group, they seek tax breaks on Segways and botox, tax breaks for their ever-grander mausoleums, and other privileges.  Many of Buckley's criticisms ring true, but he fails to adequately address similar faults in the selfish, self-indulgent attitudes of what he calls the Whatever generation.  They certainly could use some good skewering as well.

Buckley raises the question of the future of social security in mocking, hilarious way, but he has clearly done his homework.  Like all good satire, once you stop laughing at how ridiculous the story is, you think, "Wait a minute, this is a real problem, and I don't think anyone in government has a solution for it!"  What are we going to do?  I hope for all of our sakes that someone comes up with a better solution than voluntary transitioning.  In the meantime, for a good laugh, pick up Boomsday.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Runner's Rule Book, by Mark Remy

A few months ago, I noted (here) a review in the Star-Telegram of Mark Remy's new book, The Runner's Rule Book: Everything a Runner Needs to Know--and Then Some.  Remy, an editor at Runner's World, has a great sense of humor and definitely knows the world of running.  Any reader might find some humor in Remy's rule book, but those of us who are runners, or have been around road racing, will laugh out loud as they recognize themselves and the crazy people they've run with.  You might even learn something, too!

Rule 1.1, Have Fun, and its follow-up, Rule 1.2, Expand Your Definition of Fun, introduce the tone of the book.  I don't know how competitive Remy has been as a runner, but these rules remind the vast majority of runners--those of us who will never be in the Olympic trials and who run marathons knowing they will be way, way behind the winners--that it's all about having fun.  In that light, I need to heed Rule 1.44, One Day a Week, Run Naked, by which he means, without a watch, GPS, or headphones.  I get a bit particular about recording my runs, even when they're terrible, and could use that advice.  I would be better off if I lived up to Rule 2.44, Becoming a Human Metronome is Fun.  I have a terrible time keeping track of my pace without my GPS; I would love to be able to run a mile and predict my pace.

Remy covers etiquette with groups, at races, and on a track, clothing do's and don'ts (I especially liked Rule 3.11, You Can Always Take Off Clothing, and 3.13, When In Doubt, Wear Gloves and a Hat.), and bathroom advice ("If you see a porta potty with no line, use it.  Even if you don't need to."  "On a long run, it's always better to have a bit of toilet paper and not need it, than vice versa.").

As Remy points out in the introduction, these aren't rules that will be found in the USA Track & Field Competition Rules Book.  But novice and veteran runners alike will enjoy his compilation of common sense, received wisdom, and good fun.  Enjoy!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Have a Little Faith, by Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom got his start as a sports writer, but he's better known to the general reader as the author of the inspirational books Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, both of which were made into TV movies.  Have a Little Faith is in the same genre as Tuesdays With Morrie. 

Albom grew up in suburban New Jersey, where his family is actively involved in a local synagogue.  Since leaving home, Albom has not actively practiced his faith, but the rabbi, Albert Lewis, asked Albom to do his eulogy.  That led Albom to spend hours and hours with Lewis over the next several years.  As their friendship grows, so does Albom's appreciation for the rabbi he knew as a child but never really knew.

Lewis served this congregation for generations; it's the only placed he ever served.  Albom's reports of their time spent together bring out Lewis's wisdom and teaching in such a way that make the reader long to sit at his feet and listen to stories.  Their conversations range widely, encompassing questions big and little.  As a Jewish man married to a Christian, Albom is especially interested in the question of inter-religious relations.  Lewis tells the story of an early episode in his tenure.  After an ugly encounter between a priest from the parish next door and one of the synagogue members, the priest (at the insistence of his superior) and Rabbi Lewis walked arm in arm around the parish schoolyard, during recess, in a demonstration of the fact that the two faiths can coexist.  Albom asked Lewis, "But what if someone from another faith won't recognize yours?  Or wants you dead for it?"  Lewis sagely replied, "That is not faith.  That is hate."

Lewis always had a ready answer, or at least a question to make the questioner reflect.  Full of wit, always singing, and loved by all, Lewis left a deep impression on Albom and everyone with whom he came into contact.  Lewis did not hold back when Albom asked him the secret to his happiness: "Be satisfied.  Be grateful.  For what you have.  For the love you receive.  And for what God has given you.  That's it."

During the time Albom was meeting with Lewis, he also met Henry Covington, pastor of Pilgrim Church and director of I am My Brother's Keeper in Detroit.  This inner city ministry, a church and homeless outreach, was struggling, poor, and small, but full of faith.  Covington's story, though very different from Lewis's, inspired Albom in different ways.  Covington had been in and out of prison, immersed in drugs and crime, when he became a Christian and began serving others.  Albom initially met Covington to investigate the ministry, to determine whether his foundation would give them a grant.  He got to know Covington, visiting him on several occasions and attending services at the church.  He eventually wrote a newspaper column about their having the heat turned off because of their failure to pay the gas bill.  It didn't help that the roof of the old church had a gaping hole.  That little bit of publicity brought interest and money to the ministry, and now the church has a solid roof! (Read about that here.)

Albom's storytelling skill and sensitive portrayals of Lewis and Covington draw the reader into a rare circle of friendship and shared faith.  Have a Little Faith reminds us of the treasures that can be found talking with the regular people around us.  We might be inspired by the biographies of great leaders or historical figures, but these two clergymen, common men by the standards of history, possess and convey the kind of greatness that really matters, impacting the lives of people around them.  There are volumes to be written about our neighbors, the family in the pew behind us in church, the family who runs the dry cleaners I go to, the bus driver who picks up my daughter every day.  I know those books will never be written, but Albom reminds me that if I take time to listen, I might hear some stories worth remembering and will likely learn a few things about living life.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sin Bravely, by Mark Ellingsen

The title of Mark Ellingsen's recent book caught my eye: Sin Bravely: A Joyful Alternative to a Purpose-Driven Life.  I wondered if this would be a satirical jab at the Rick Warren empire.  I figured the author wasn't a Christian, but was a secular comic.  Turns out that Ellingsen is real live seminary professor at an actual Christian seminary!  And if I remembered my theology a little better, I would have recalled that the title is actually from a quote by Martin Luther.  In an oft-quoted letter to Philip Melanchton, Luther argued against the idea that we can achieve purity, to live without sin.  "Be a sinner and sin bravely, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more bravely, for He is victorious over sin, death, and the world."  Similar quotes and themes can be found in several places in Luther's writings.  Neither Luther nor Ellingsen advocate sensual hedonism; both require some fleshing out to clarify what they mean.

Ellingsen does engage Rick Warren, about whom he has a few good things to say.  But he demonstrates how Warren's popular teachings and the Prosperity Gospel movement, as exemplified by Joel Osteen, are derived from a Puritanical works theology and feed into the Narcissism of American culture.  These movements, in Ellingsen's estimation, boil the Christian life down to, on the one hand, what do I have to do to measure up to God's standards, and on the other hand, how will it benefit me to follow God?  It's all about self.

I think he's a little unfair to Warren (I'll let him bash Osteen and the prosperity gospel all he wants).  I think my religious programming may be too strong to completely reject Warren's perspective.  I was raised in a tradition that was perhaps too moralist and Revivalist, as well as highly individualistic.  I heard a lot about right and wrong, and about what I should be doing.  The Christian life is about a personal relationship with Christ, I should have a personal quiet time, I need to confess my sins and repent.  All of that is true, and Luther and Ellingsen would affirm those statements, but they would say the self-centered, individualistic, moralistic perspective is incomplete.  We are sinful creatures and will never live up to the standards set by these kinds of teachings.  "Purpose-driven living (as well as the quest for prosperity) is likely to nurture lives of guilt and meaninglessness. . . . The life of brave sinning . . . is a life of grace turned over to God."

Ultimately, brave sinning means a reliance on God's grace rather that on works.  We must acknowledge our own sinfulness, and agree that everything we do, no matter how good or well-intentioned is ultimately tainted by our concupiscence, or the selfish human desire tied up in our original sinful nature.  Brave sinning, Ellingsen argues, is not "permission 'to do your own thing,'" but "a word of permission to do God's 'thing' joyously and with reckless abandon."  Any good that we do is made good by God's grace, since our motives are irrevocably tainted.

Brave sinners don't need to burden themselves with legalism or moralism.  A love relationship with God is like a good marriage.  In marriage, "all sorts of good, warm, and loving things happen among the partners. . . .  No one makes you do those loving things. . . .  The relationship does not depend on such deeds; it is based on love."  In the same way, brave sinners, in love with God, go through life with a playful attitude, a God-centered awareness that any good they do is because of him.  Ellingsen cites extensive neurological research to demonstrate that this kind of God-centered, playful attitude triggers "pleasurable chemicals providing sensations of happiness."

I do like Ellingsen's overall point, drawing us away from a self-centered Christian life to a more God-centered one.  But I think he neglects the importance of discipleship, study, and a teaching community.  Consider the marriage analogy: first of all, if a couple has never seen a good example of a healthy marriage--their parents fought, divorced, or were never married--the will likely continue unhealthy, unhappy habits as well.  Ultimately, people revert to selfishness and have to work against their own self-centeredness in marriage.  Those who can't or don't end up divorcing or living in a loveless marriage.  In the same way, the Christian can, for a while, say "I will live joyously with reckless abandon in following God!"  But that can only last so long before our selfishness steps in.  Discipleship, tradition, the examples of other Christian, careful study of the Bible, all guide the Christian in his walk with Christ.  Books like The Purpose-Driven Life can play an important role in helping a Christian keep his eyes on Jesus.  Of course, it can easily force someone into a self-centered, "What more do I need to be doing?" kind of attitude.  But in the context of a Christian community it can be a useful guide.

The bottom line that I took away from Ellingsen's book is that I don't need to beat myself up over not measuring up.  I've read The Purpose-Driven Life and many other devotional books.  Some have helped me more than others.  Most leave me feeling inadequate, with a sense that I can't do enough.  That's right--I can't do enough!  But I don't need to beat myself up over it!  The Christian life is not about what I do or don't do, it's about joyfully living in a love relationship with Jesus.  I can move in boldness, knowing that I'm going to sin along the way, but also knowing that God's grace covers me.