Sunday, October 25, 2015

WSJ's sorry take on Marilynne Robinson's new book

I have been awaiting Marilynne Robinson's new book of essays, The Givenness of Things. It is due to be delivered to my kindle this week. So, I was drawn to a review of it in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. Expecting a positive reading of her work, I was surprised to find a hatchet job. Does the WSJ have an axe to grind against Robinson or is it just the author of the review, Barton Swaim. Swaim was a speechwriter for Mark Sanford the South Carolina governor who famously said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail while secretly visiting his mistress/soulmate in Brazil. Swaim's thin volume was an interesting diversion on a cross country flight. It is a light, entertaining somewhat inside look at what life was like working for the eccentric, conservative governor. I would not consider Swaim's authorial skills in the same league with Robinson. Thus, it was surprising to read that Robinson's essays were "essentially lazy productions", "frequently ambulatory to the point of aimlessness." This is quite remarkable. I have several copies of Robinson's books on my shelves which I go back to from time to time. I had forgotten Swaim's book until I read his review. It is like a middle school quarterback critiquing Tom Brady's throwing mechanics.

Several times Swaim complains Robinson is so ambiguous in her writing style as to be  unclear. Swaim admits to frustration. I can see how he might be frustrated, too. I would be, as well, if a writer had to spell everything out for me. When she writes, "Martin Luther King's educational achievements would no doubt disqualify him from respectful attention in certain quarters as President Obama's do him", he charges her with unclarity. I have no trouble hearing her point and I think most of her readers will get it. Similarly, he denounces the "unashamed racism that has emerged in public life in recent years" and Swaim claims no clue as to what she means. He may not agree with her but I think he knows exactly what she means.

Swaim makes a big deal of Robinson's assertion to be a Calvinist. She doesn't really know what it means he says and she may say that just to draw attention to her writings, he charges. As anyone who has read her essays knows she has been saying and writing about Calvin's influence on her thinking for years.

I don't know why Swaim was the attack dog for the WSJ. Was it because President Obama recently stated Robinson is one of his favorite authors? I suspect that may be it. If not, it would be interesting to know what Swaim really thinks. He is not clear. In the conclusion of his article, he cleverly uses one of her self-judgments before she makes a point, "my thoughts on this subject have not been entirely formed," as a way of referring to her whole work from his point of view. After reading his review I would say, does it matter what Swaim thinks? I have read Swaim and I have read Robinson and he is no Robinson!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bonhoeffer today

I finished Charles Marsh's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which came out last year.  I have read a few Bonhoeffer bios and several of Bonhoeffer's books. Life Together and Cost of Discipleship are favorites. I tried Ethics and I didn't get it, seemed too ethereal to me which is funny because it was probably his most human, down to earth book. I want to go back and read it now after I finished Strange Glory, Marsh's book.

In the past couple weeks the President of Israel sounded like he was saying Hitler was not such a bad guy he just got some bad advice from a Palestinian who planted the idea in his head to exterminate the Jews. Ben Carson seemed to say there never would have been a Holocaust if the Jews had fought back. If their views are widespread, Marsh's book needs to be required reading.

Bonhoeffer has been claimed as a Christian hero for his resistance to the Nazi's attempt to take over the church in Germany for it's own ends. Bonhoeffer spent a year and a half in prison and then was killed. That's the story many Christians know but there is much more to it. Bonhoeffer grew up in an upper middle class home where his parents and siblings were well educated. His father did not care about religion while his mother made sure the children had a Lutheran religious foundation. They went to church on the main Church holy days but Bonhoeffer decided he wanted to become a theologian when he was 12. He had solid theological training and an early friendship with Karl Barth. He started a small seminary for pastors in training for the confessing church (those who did not believe the Reich Church was a true church). He mentored many pastors who tried to follow their calling outside the state church. He wrote theology. Life Together and Cost of Discipleship were early books which his later thinking went beyond. What challenged and changed his thinking was coming to terms with how his church - the Lutheran State Church- could abide the great evil taking place in his country and do nothing, in fact, even support it.

Ethics grew out of this struggle and he wrote much of it while in prison. It is a reworking of theology - what he knew about God. How the God of the Bible was at work in his day. It seemed as if God had abandoned the church or it had abandoned him. God was no longer in the church (the confessing church was a failure too). So Bonhoeffer, the trained Lutheran theologian, for whom Christ was the center of the church now saw the church had no center. Christ was missing. Where was he?

Facing a crisis that caused many in Germany to lose their faith, including some in Bonhoeffer's family (his mother had a breakdown), Bonhoeffer found Christ in the world, in the poor and suffering and found his faith strengthened through prayer and quiet and living a righteous life as much as he could.

Bonhoeffer's faith in the church died but his faith in God did not. God was not in his state leadership and he was not in his state church but he was in the gifts of every day in the midst of this horrific tragedy Bonhoeffer was living through. Christ shows us how to be truly human. He is revealed in our humanness. Often in the poverty of it.

In our day when the church is confused about what it is and what it's mission is, Bonhoeffer warrants a close study.

Friday, October 16, 2015

David's story

I'm teaching a class at our church on First Samuel this Fall. It has been a good study. I recommend the commentaries by Bruggemann and Goldingay especially. It's not my first time in First Samuel but it's amazing what I've missed over the years! The story of David is a finely textured, many layered story. It's as good as any novel, or better. That's why I was quick to order Geraldine Brooks new novel when I heard about it. It was waiting for me when I got back from our trip north. The Secret Chord is a novel about King David. I love Brooks' writing and People of the Book is one of my favorite books. I am not finished with it but I am disappointed in her attempt to write about David.

David is one of the longest stories in the Bible. There is a lot we know about him. Brooks tries to fill in those parts we don't know. I don't think she succeeds. She fills in the back story of David's childhood and his relationship with his father, Jesse. She uses a fictionalized interview with David's mother who we never meet in the Bible. It doesn't work. The interviewer is the prophet Nathan who is charged with writing the King's biography. Nathan is the one voice in First Samuel who speaks truth to David. In Brooks' telling of the tale, David saved Nathan's life and he became a member of David's staff. This is not the Nathan of the Bible who is not afraid to tell David he is a sinner. In Brooks' book, the encounter between David and Nathan after David's affair with Bathsheba is far less dramatic than what happened in First Samuel.

Complicating Brooks story is her decision to use a transliteration from the Hebrew for the names of people and places. Readers who are not familiar with the Old Testament will be at a loss. Brooks also puts modern jargon in the mouths of the characters of First Samuel. I checked out the origins of some of our favorite four letter words and I am pretty sure they were not in use in David's day. So, it is jarring when you come across them in the text. It works against the credibility of her story.

Most of the conversations in which we learn about David's back story are wholly made up. His brother, Shammah, has no love for David and it is through him we learn about some of the secrets of David's life. Michal, Saul's daughter and David's first wife, does not think highly of David either. From her we learn about the love triangle between Jonathan, David and herself. While possible, it is not very likely and not suggested in the text or in most commentaries I consulted. The story of David and Jonathan, a powerful and important chapter in David's story, is about trust and covenant more than friendship.

That is what Brooks misses most. In her focus on telling David's story she leaves out the sense that First Samuel is not about Samuel or Saul or even David. It is about God and the unfolding of the story of salvation. In the end it matters less what David said or did than what God's word is.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mom at 89

We have just returned from a week up North visiting my Mom who is 89. She has been on the move this past year from her own home to an assisted living facility to the hospital to a skilled nursing home and now to an enhanced assisted living facility where she is on the memory unit. The memory unit is really a lack of memory unit for the people living there are living with varying degrees of memory loss. We saw my Mom on her first day on the unit. My sisters had moved her to this new place the day before. She asked my wife to take her back downstairs, she did not know why she had to come upstairs when she liked it so well downstairs. She did not remember where she had come from or who had brought her "upstairs". She did not remember that we had visited her three other times in the past six months and had moved her a couple of those times. She did not remember my brother had visited her a month before. She remembers some things mostly old things. She recalls a couple names among her many grandchildren and great grandchildren. She used to send a card and gift to every one for their birthdays. That was only a few months ago she was doing that. Her bones got brittle and she got infections and her lungs filled with pneumonia. She has been on a plethora of meds which change whenever a new doctor intervenes. This does not help her confusion. Her careful hygiene and grooming has gone although she still asks how her hair looks. She likes to eat especially ice cream but she has no interest in her morning coffee and oatmeal. Her paper has been cancelled. She has no tv. I have no idea what is going on in her mind as she sits in her chair looking out the window. But, I don't think she does either. She lives in the moment. I am trying to learn that, too. The things that mattered so much to her, and she was a worrier, now do not cause a moment of concern. Her possessions, of which she had many and favorites, have dwindled to a few pictures, some flowers and a chair. No books or Bible which she read daily close by.  Her crystal clear blue eyes sparkle from time to time and she easily smiles at you. Known for her feistiness she can still put you in your place. Her day is waiting on someone to visit or take her to an activity she doesn't really care to go to. There are times when she cannot figure out why you are there. There are lots of things she cannot figure out these days. She is not in pain and she is in a place where the staff are respectful and friendly.

It has been tough for the caregivers principally my two sisters who live close by. There have been so many decisions and conundrums to work through. We are relieved she is in a good place now although the trip to get to this place seems unbelievable.

People will say when they have gone through a tough time that they can't wait to get on with their lives. You hear it all the time. I have said it. I have also thought a lot lately about what it means. Life is not a series of projects that we pick up and take on one at a time, Virginia Stem Owens says. Life goes on not as art but as a continuous wave, she says.

Learning how to care for someone who is dying means learning to live with not knowing how much longer you can hold out. It means living in time differently like you are floating along on the current (Owens, Caring for Mother).

This is life. Life is not a series of episodes that we choose to experience or not. My Mom taught us a lot over the years. She is not done teaching. I am still trying to learn from her.