“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

Lately, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, after Brianna and I put the kids to bed.

It’s a story about the “unique” people one comes to know during a lifetime in a small community.

Jayber

A key takeaway is this: When no one is a “stranger” we see more clearly that everyone is strange.

But far from being merely a cause for mockery or bullying, peculiarity can spark affection.

Case in point: ‘Ol Ab Rowanberry, with his rifle and his chamber pot.

Yet another sight I used to see [around town] was uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters.

The paragraph is random and ridiculous—and delightful.

The scene continues:

Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and the chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn’t get up. […] I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.

The last line is vintage Berry.

EXAGGERATED?

Some would allege that such colorful depictions of human beings amount to “tall tales” that exaggerate the strangeness.

I disagree.

As a case in point, I recall a similar critique as it was levelled at the southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Conner. In defense of Flannery, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote the following:

Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to [a church like those described in O’Conner’s fiction].

After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Conner ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.

CONCLUSION

What’s the point of these forays into human idiosyncrasy?

Since I’m in the middle of a fiction-writing project myself (MS due in about a month!), one reminder is to “Include a rifle and a chamber pot” in my own way (i.e., Don’t be afraid to highlight the peculiar features that make people interesting people).

But there is also a spiritual lesson to be learned.

For Berry (and for O’Conner), the goal is not to mock our strangeness, but to weave a spell around it so that even oddity can become a mark of beauty and belovedness.

As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [alike]. Growing fond of “old-so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there—[rifle and chamber pot in tow!]—I presently begin to see that there is “something in him.”

This realization also connects with another theme from Lewis’ most famous essay (The Weight of Glory): There are no ordinary people. No mere mortals.

We are all odder and more broken than we look; yet more beloved than we dared imagine.

 


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Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

“I’m convinced,” writes Andrew Peterson, “that poets are toddlers in a cathedral, slobbering on wooden blocks and piling them up in the light of the stained glass.”

The colorful description comes in a book on the beauty and the pain of making things—whether one is a poet, a preacher, a musician, or an artist of some other stripe.

ADORNING THE DARK

I just finished Peterson’s new book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making.

adorning.jpg

I’ve appreciated his work for years.

Despite a voice that (allegedly) sounds a bit like Kermit the frog with a sinus infection, his music has always moved me.

  • Brianna and I chose “Canaan Bound” to be sung at our wedding.
  • My kids loved Peterson’s fantasy novels (The Wingfeather Saga), with Lucy proclaiming them to be even better than Harry Potter. (Not true. But still.)
  • And his entirely original, Behold the Lamb of God, is my favorite Christmas album of all time.

Adorning the Dark is different from these other works. But there are still some helpful lessons for those involved in the creative process.

Here are four:

1. Write the bad ones too

Peterson tells sheepishly how a fan once approached him after a concert with a request for him to write down some songwriting advice on the inside of a CD case. Being a bit tired, Peterson wrote, “Don’t write bad songs.”

Seeing the somewhat snarky inscription, Peterson’s bandmate Andy Gullahorn wrote his own advice: “Write the bad ones too.”

Gullahorn’s insight was not just that one should be kind to fans, but that “quality control” is not the chief skill an artist must cultivate: Output matters too.

The two pre-requisites for getting published are (wait for it…) writing and finishing.

So make something, even if it isn’t great.

Excellence is for editing (and re-writing).

2. Artists need “resonators”

A second take-away is that art nurtures community and community nurtures art.

After being dropped by his record label and nearly bankrupted by the post-Napster death of album sales, Peterson founded a collective called “The Rabbit Room” with a ragamuffin group of Nashville artists.

These friendships not only allowed for cross-promotion between artists; they also provided encouragement, community, and feedback.

I’ve been blessed with fantastic “resonators.”

  • My colleague, Dr. Jerome Van Kuiken, is the smartest person I know, and he provides invaluable critique on everything I write for publication.
  • My wife Brianna reads my blog posts, and she often weeds out the lines that could get me fired and/or tarred and feathered.
  • I also have friendships with folks like the up-and-coming novelist K. M. West, who provides not only encouragement but also a (silent) reminder that there are people out there busier than me who still write consistently—and at a high level.

Art nurtures community. Community nurtures art.

Artists need resonators.

3. Boil it down

After reading Wendel Berry, Peterson tells how he and his wife sold their comfortable suburban home and bought a small, ramshackle cottage on several tree-lined acres near Nashville.

If artists need resonators, they frequently need nature too.

Since the property had maple trees, Peterson Googled “How to make maple syrup.” He was stunned to learn that a person gets one gallon of syrup for every forty (!) gallons of sap.

If you were to taste the maple sap before you boiled it down, which I did, you’d find it hard to believe there’s any sweetness hiding in there at all.

Writing is like that too.

The sweetness often comes in “boiling it down.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up a copy of my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements. For the most part, I am proud of the writing—which is significant since I first hammered it out over a decade ago.

That said, upon re-reading what I’ve published, my overriding critique is that I could have cut a few more words from certain sentences and paragraphs.

I could have lost some empty calories and gained some “sweetness.”

Boil it down.

4. Plant the berries

The most moving story in Adorning the Dark involves a trip to Sweden that Peterson’s family took in 2016 after a season of busyness, burnout, and depression (another commonality of artists).

While abroad, he sought to locate the old stone cottage of his great-grandfather.

After much research, the general location of the ruined house was found, and an ancient local Swede agreed to take the Petersons by bicycle into the dark, thick forest to find it.

[The Swede] explained [through a translator] that he was looking for a certain kind of berry that would tell him where the old foundation stones would be.

A hundred years ago, he said, the berries were planted outside the cottage for food, and long after the house fell into ruin, the berry bushes lived on. If you want to find the remains of a dwelling in a Swedish forest, [he] told us, look for berries.

Lo and behold, they found the berries—along with the home.

The story forms a parable for the kind of art that matters.

As Peterson concludes:

“One day, perhaps, when I’m dead and gone, and my songs and stories lie in the ruins of some old forest and no one remembers my name, whatever good and beautiful and human thing that the King of Creation called forth from me will fall to the earth and grow brambly and wild, and some homesick and hungry soul will leave the well-worn path and say, ‘Look! Someone lived here.

Praise God, there are berries everywhere.’”

Good art is the “berry” that adorns the darkness.

And homesickness leads home.

 


I’m going to open the comments on this one.

Fellow writers, preachers, musicians (etc.): What’s the most helpful advice you’ve found about the creative process?


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College education as a matter of life and death

College education as a matter of life and death

I’m a college professor.

But even I know there are bad reasons to attend a university.

Here is a good one: You’re much less likely to die young.

Note these findings from a 2017 study that tracks changing mortality rates amongst non-college educated white Americans especially. Pay attention to the top lines (labeled “high school or less.”)

Drug and alcohol poisoning deaths

Drug, suicid, alcohol deaths

CORRELATION AND CAUSATION

When reading these studies, it’s important to remember that correlation isn’t causation. It’s not necessarily the lack of a degree that is contributing to a frightening rise in early deaths in certain demographics.

There are many complex factors. But I suspect part of the problem is an increasing deficit of hope in certain parts of the country. And this is being expressed in everything from suicide, to opioid addiction, to a growth in scapegoating ideologies like white nationalism and white supremacy.

Note the stunning comparison between America and other nations:

US mortality compared to other nations

Some good news in the study is that mortality rates (for certain age groups) have declined amongst non whites. The bad news is that the closing gap between racial groups has come more by a precipitice decline amongst non-college educated whites than by improvements elsewhere.

A DEFICIT OF HOPE

The cause, according to the study, is more complicated than a simple look at income.

In particular, the income profiles for blacks and Hispanics, whose mortality has fallen, are no better than those for whites. Nor is there any evidence in the European data that mortality trends match income trends…

The study suggests that the cause of this decline has to do with

cumulative disadvantage[s] … triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education.”

In other words, factories and mines closed; and it was no longer possible to get a good job without education (see also my treatment of this theme in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy).

The way of life within the rust belt changed, and frustration over a world that no longer exists fueled a rise in opioid addiction, race-based populism, and scapegoating. (Picture the late Weimar Republic but with fentanyl in place of Zyklon B.)

CONCLUSION

The solution to all this is far more complex than simply telling young Americans to “go to college.”

But as I head back to faculty meetings today and to classes next week, it’s worth remembering that the completion of a college education is more than just a privilege or a foregone conclusion: For some of my students, it’s part of the difference between life and death.

 


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Cut these words for better writing

Cut these words for better writing

Scot McKnight has a helpful post (here) on “No, no” words for writers. These are terms that are often overused and lead to clutter.

So if you’re a writer—or a student typing papers for my classes—listen up! 🙂

Scot’s post builds on a book by Benjamin Dreyer (here), in which a challenge is issued:

Go a week without writing

very
rather
really
quite
in fact

To which Scot adds

just
so
actually
of course
surely
that said

It’s not that these words should never be used.

Note my use of “So” above (#Can’t_Stop_Won’t_Stop). But in most cases, they should be cut faster than a University of Kansas grad at an NFL training camp.

THE EDITOR THAT GROANS WITHIN US

I’ve written previously (here) about the helpfulness of a “firm but patient editor.” And I likened that role to the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life.

That post came to mind again as I’ve been editing a manuscript in preparation for a December deadline (Eeeek!).

To be blunt, the“No-no” words are lighting up my page like Christmas lights. Here’s an example of how I was able to cut eleven words (or word parts) from two short sentences.

eleven words

Not a single nuance was lost, which means every one of those words was bloating my book like empty calories in a bag of Doritos.

My favorite book on writing is the classic by William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

In his words

“Writing improves in direct ration to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

Indeed.

So take the challenge.

And check out Scot’s blog if you’re interested in issues of Bible and culture. It’s great.


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The church as echo of the press

The church as echo of the press

On September 10th of 1939, just as Great Britain was declaring war on Hitler’s Germany, C.S. Lewis got into an argument with his local vicar. The polite disagreement centered on an extra petition that had been added to the church’s morning prayer.

“Prosper, O Lord, our righteous cause.”

As Lewis put it in a letter to his brother, Warnie:

“I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous—a point on which He may have His own view.”

In place of the line about “our righteous cause,” Lewis suggested a petition composed by Thomas Cranmer while England was at war with Scotland in 1548. This prayer asked for the ability “not to hate our enemies” and for “a speedy wearisomeness of war … that we and [they] may … praise thy most holy name.”

To many, Lewis’s objection may seem strange.

After all, his small island nation was literally on the verge of being overrun by Nazis! So how could stopping Hitler not be “just”!?

Some rather obvious motivations for the’ complaint can be ruled out immediately. Lewis was no pacifist; he had been a badly wounded war hero from WW1; and he would later affirm his support for the Allied war against the Nazis.

But in explaining to his brother why he had taken exception to the vicar’s prayer, he added this:

I see no hope for the Church of England if it allows itself to become just an echo of the press.

JUST AN ECHO OF THE PRESS

Eighty years later, Lewis never could have imagined the advent of Cable News, social media, Russian troll farms, fake news, and Twitter bots. Or perhaps he could have; read volume three of his Space Trilogy (That Hideous Strength).

He could not have fathomed the extent to which different factions of the church, either liberal or conservative, Right or Left, would become mere ciphers for the different factions of “the press” and the political Machine. Or perhaps he could have; read The Abolition of Man.

For Lewis, the takeaway was this: Even the most “just” of national causes can pose a threat to Christian faithfulness and mission because it causes us to give unqualified allegiance to something or someone other than Christ.

And by all accounts, the sin of nationalism—and it is always a sin—is rising around the world.

We must not allow our prayers and posts and sermons to be outsourced to siloed and self-serving merchants wearing “press” badges. For when we flip the media “credentials” over, the epigraph is almost always the same:

“Prosper, O church, our righteous cause.”

I see no future for the “church” of England that becomes just an echo of the press.


 

Credit for this correspondence from Lewis goes to Alan Jacobs’ book: The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.


 

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On abortion and “argument by meme”

On abortion and “argument by meme”

In the increasingly heated debates over abortion, the following meme has been making its way around the inter-webs.

Kbell2
Don’t fault KBell for the missing apostrophe. #LetItGo

“Men shouldn’t be making laws about women’s bodies.”

In so many cases, I agree.

I have no desire to tell anyone (not least women) what to do with their bodies—so long as their bodily-choice does not involve depriving other “bodies” of their basic human rights.

THE TROUBLE WITH MEMES

But, of course, even this most basic of caveats cannot survive what I will now dub: “The meme-ing of the American mind” (i.e., the reduction of all ethical and political issues to a snappy bumper sticker that carries emotional freight but almost zero argumentative rigor [on another example, see here]).

To be clear, I would love to see the percentage of women increase in all branches of government, including courts and legislatures. And I have written forcefully about what I take to be the misogyny and sexism of certain evangelical “darlings.” The problem is real.

But the idea that laws are only valid if passed by someone who shares your “body-type” is just absurd. By that logic, only roosters could outlaw cock-fighting; only pit bulls could decide the fate of Michael Vick; and only female fetuses could have legal opinions on abortion.

Hogwash.

ALL LAWS REGULATE A “BODY”

A second faulty assumption in the meme is the implication that one can do whatever one wants with their own flesh and blood.

This too is nonsense.

Speed limits constrain what you can do with your body while driving an automobile.

Rape prohibitions regulate what you can do with your body when it comes to sexual consent.

And libel rulings say what you can legally publish with your body if it turns out to be knowingly false, defamatory, and damaging to others.

To repeat, every law in existence is designed to tell humans what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. Every. Single. One.

And that includes the ruling known as “Roe v. Wade”—a judicial fiat handed down by an all-male court. By the logic of the meme, “Roe v. Wade” would also be invalid, since it involved a bunch of old men issuing a decree that involved the “bodies” of both born and unborn women!

How many fetuses served on that judicial bench?

Should we then amend the viral claim as follows: “Non-fetuses shouldn’t be making laws about fetuses”?

CONCLUSION

The primary concern for any law is simple: Is it just for all parties?

And the bar of justice ought to mean that my bodily right to swing my fist ends where my neighbor’s nose begins. Hence the crucial question on abortion is precisely that once asked of Christ: “Who is my neighbor?”

Does that human category include those not yet born?

Whatever one decides on that final question (see my view here), it would better if both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advocates chose to have this debate in a way that acknowledges (1) the real issues at stake, and (2) the real value of both the unborn and the pregnant women placed in difficult situations.

We can do both.

That will mean support for pregnant moms, improved adoption processes, a willingness to listen, and grace for those who have already had abortions (a group often overlooked).

All that is possible, but it will require something more than memes and blog posts* to accomplish it.

 


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But the anthem was recognizable

But the anthem was recognizable

I’ve always loved this line from Steinbeck (East of Eden) on the raucous brand of revivalistic Christianity that sought to “save” the American West.

Somehow it manages to be both an insult and a compliment.

They fought the devil, no holds barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable.

The churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time…

The sectarian churches came in swinging, cocky, and loud and confident. … The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. … And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built.

they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt (East of Eden, ch. 19:1).

It is far easier to (1) see only the church’s stains, or to (2) excuse those blemishes without recognizing their full seriousness.

Steinbeck does neither.

In his view, even this prancing, fighting, farting form of frontier Christianity had value; because while the “players” were often misguided, there was enough truth and beauty to make the anthem recognizable.

 


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