Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

It's pretty amazing to see a really high quality fiction writer attempts non-fiction. It can go one of two ways - either it's stilted and formal, like a baby learning to walk a la John Grisham's Innocent Man, or it's chock full of descriptive, inventive prose and non-traditional narrative arcs. The Great Good Thing is definitely the latter. It's almost jarring to see a "Christian" memoir that's also artistically written and engaging for its prose. For that reason alone, this is one of the better books I've reviewed under this program.

Andrew Klavan is a writer of mystery and suspense, as well as a screenwriter, and occasional essayist. This book is his telling of a lifelong journey to Christian faith - from a dysfunctional, nominally-Jewish upbringing through rebellion, atheism, and mysticism, to a baptism in middle age. It's not any sort of conventional conversion story, though, and that is refreshing. Klavan doesn't have any dramatic change of heart, nor does he particularly alter his personality or outlook on life - he simply lives and deals with the realities of life as best he can. If anything, this is a survival tale with a faith-based frame.

I find the uniqueness and honesty in the book fascinating, although without the stellar prose, it probably would not be as rewarding a read. Klavan doesn't provide the kind of detail one typically finds in such memoirs, which makes it difficult to connect to the story. I'd also argue that Klavan doesn't necessarily explain a story of conversion or faith, but a journey to accept and understand love in profound and healthy ways. There's no theology here, but a reckoning of common sense and life experience with an utter intellectual pragmatism. This is a story of one man staying sane and finding peace that just happens to intersect with Christian faith.

Like any relatively new believer, the faith Klavan describes is very personal and therapeutic; it doesn't necessarily resonate with a self-sacrificial, community-centered faith that's more aligned with the gospel - but the immaturity of this faith and the need for growth and development is something that Klavan recognizes and helps to frame the narrative.

Overall it's a book, a well-written one, with some interesting perspectives on life and faith, but it really is the novelty of the piece that makes it stand out. I suspect a book like this gets published because the author already has a built-in audience. Hopefully it will do well enough - and from a new crowd - that Christian publishers will look to non-traditional and alternative narratives to broaden the spectrum of faith journeys to which the reading public is exposed.

If you're a fan of his work or someone interested in Jesus, but not the trappings or dogma of the various Christian sub-cultures, this might be an interesting read. If you like beautiful prose; it's a good choice. If you're looking for some mirror of self-reflection or the typically inspirational story of conversion, you should probably look elsewhere. A good, not great book - but certainly something, I'm sure, that was important for him to tell.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hatchets and Hardball

Disclaimer - this is one of my famous "hot take" posts that shows up weeks after the take has cooled off. I know it's much less likely to get read this way, but I feel like the distance shifts focus from the "hot" to the "take," which, I really believe, is better for everyone. Anyway, I'm trying to stay on schedule with these posts despite the looming D3hoops post-season, and this one was mostly formed already. Here you go:

I cannot bring to mind a policy position of Mike Pence's with which I agree. There may be some, but they're not prominent. I find his political philosophy to be odious, ill-conceived, and frankly, dangerous. Shoot, having run and now serving with Trump, there's a whole lot of reason to question his once potentially upstanding moral character. Needless to say, this is not a guy for whom I've ever had much sympathy.

However, I read the big attack piece from Rolling Stone that came out after the inauguration and I find myself deeply on Pence's side. This is entirely the fault of the author, whose practice here is pretty common, but really offends me as, I guess, a working journalist.

Rolling Stone is provocative and unconventional; they push the envelope in a lot of ways, but, in my experience, they have a long reputation for really good work. The place might have its eccentricities when it comes to style and approach, but I've always found their standards to be above those of perhaps similar publications.

This is a long piece. It details a whole bunch of things Pence has done or said that are probably offensive to the general readership of Rolling Stone. As I said before, I'd likely agree that a lot of his past is not something for which I'd be proud. What irks me the most, though, is that when you've got such a plethora of topics to cover - legitimate topics that Pence himself wouldn't quabble* with on a factual basis - there is absolutely no need to delve into the sketchier issues that could easily be framed in multiple ways.

I get it if you need to pad the story - either it's not long enough or the angle you're going for isn't as well supported by the juicy stuff as the periphery and you need cover. That makes sense. It's less than ideal, but sometimes, with deadlines, you have to make do with what you've got and not with what you'd want. But this piece is long and full of substance, yet they still have to pile on with claims and issues that are more likely to distract from the overall strength of the piece than help it.

It reads like a hatchet job. It reeks of angst and bitterness. It's the kind of thing you write solely for people who agree with you. Maybe that's what Rolling Stone has become, but this would upset even if it were self-published on an angelfire blog (which, apparently still exist).

Again, I'm not objecting because I'm a fan of Mike Pence or believe that the tone and message of the piece are necessarily wrong. I don't. I'm offended because it's an example of shooting yourself in the foot, argumentatively. It's bad logic; it's bad case-building; and it's mean. I don't like meanness - and it certainly has no place in reporting.

The biggest issue I took was with the narrative surrounding his campaign spending early on. They do make sure to say that what Pence did wasn't and isn't illegal - he used campaign funds to pay personal expenses, bills and the like. Yeah, it's bad optics, sure, but it's a terrible argument that the guy is somehow hypocritical or crooked. More likely, he was a young guy who couldn't afford to both run for public office and also support his family. That happens. Campaigning, even for small, low-level positions, can be a full time job. As someone who's never made much and occasionally contemplated public service, money is the number one concern. You can't win without it and I don't have it.

Why would we want to make this fact of Pence's past some giant bogeyman just because we don't like the guy? This scenario could and does literally happen to anyone, of any party or no party at all. It's an economic issue that pales, pales, pales in comparison to the giant, clear-cut case you've already made in the same piece. It's like you're saying poor people shouldn't run for office when I'm guessing our government would be far better off if our elected representatives included more people who couldn't afford to be there on their own dime.

This article doesn't bother me on a political level - I have no inclination to really side with either the author or the subject (although, as I've said, I'm no fan of the subject - and I've never heard of the author). It's just bad, inefficient, poorly constructed argument and that offends me as a person with a brain. Why, when there are so, so many legitimate critiques of a public figure, would a writer feel the need to shoehorn manipulated narrative into an already incredibly long piece?

It's not like the article hasn't proven its point well before this point. People are either going to agree or disagree, but that will have nothing to do with the persuasiveness of these last few paragraphs. It just makes you look petty and vindictive and hurts your credibility.

Maybe it's a lesson for all of us. Think, people. Let's not let our emotions or our subjectivities cloud our reason, judgement, or kindness. People are far more divided right now by the way in which we talk to and about each other than any actual policy or ideological difference. Let's not feed the beast. You can be serious and assertive without being mean - in fact, it'll only help your standing and reputation, at least among other people who can see through the junk.

Rant over.

Aren't you glad I waited almost three weeks to put this up. Imagine what the post would've looked like if I'd done it right away! You're welcome.

*No, I meant quabble. I really and truly did. Quibble doesn't cut it here.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Fake News and the Bible

I know a lot of people, myself included, are a bit perturbed by the way in which many prominent evangelical Christian have approached Donald Trump and this election. Since the Moral Majority of the 70's, the GOP has teased conservative Christians with aspirations to power and it's been an easy sell. We had thought, at some point, that the "moral" part of Moral Majority might've meant something, but alas, this election cycle has proven it does not.

However, as I've been thinking about the ways in which people approach politics these days, particularly in the area of news coverage, I've come to what should've been a very obvious realization: evangelicals understand the world the same way they understand the Bible. It should not have been a surprise.

When you reject interpretive tools for studying scripture, relying on a "plain sense" reading that amounts to, "what makes sense to me," there's a very small leap - really more of a shuffle - over to viewing the world the same way. No need to research or investigate factual representations, just decide for yourself whether they make sense or not.

This doesn't just apply to Christians or conservatives, of course, we all, as humans, are prone to confirmation bias. We have to work hard to question those things with which we agree. As much as I try to research the sources of anything I read, I'm much quicker to check those conclusions I like over the ones I don't.

I hadn't thought much about the connection to scripture until recently, though. I believe I am more prone to question a news report, because I've had a lot of training in Biblical Studies, where one is challenged to ask about context, perspective, purpose, and meaning. In practice, I have to work hard to make sure that my biases aren't filtering my interpretation of scripture and that I have some evidence to back up the ways I present it to others. It's a learned skepticism - not necessarily of the material in front of me, but of my ability to interpret it correctly.

Life, like scripture, does not provide the easy answers and black/white thinking in which the human mind finds comfort. Forcing ourselves to examine reality, context, and actual evidence usually creates more tension and less clarity. No wonder we shy away from it.

With news or with scripture, the giveaway is a refusal to deal in substance. We might say the media outlet is biased or fake or irresponsible; we might say someone has been brainwashed by education or led astray by the world. In both instances, we fail to address the argument, evidence, or issue on its own terms. This is an ad hominem* attack and it serves as more of a distraction than anything else. It puts the opponent on the defensive and changes the subject of debate.

When it comes to scripture, people are genuinely afraid to get away from that "plain reading," because it moves us from firm ground to shaky. I'd argue that scripture was never intended to be firm ground, but to point us towards a relationship with God, something that is always changing and adapting (the relationship, not necessarily God), because we are changing and adapting. You can't ever have a firm relationship with someone, because none of us are static.

In the same way, I'd argue all our idealism is ever intended to do is form a pathway to dealing with other people. The relationships we have with friends (and enemies) and neighbors necessarily involves us negotiating the chasm of reality. Relationships cannot be static, because we're always changing.

As I said, there is a wider world out there, but, for me at least, this realization, that people are actually being consistent, even if I disagree with their approach, has helped me better deal with those friends and neighbors who've been virtual enigmas the past few months. It may be a gap too difficult to bridge, but at least I believe we have the tools to try.

*The fact that my spell checker suggested "Eminem" might be the word I wanted here probably says more to prove my point than anything in this whole post.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Free Speech and Safe Spaces

Safety is a loaded word. It speaks of an absence of danger, unthreatened. Safety is something we're consumed with in the US - probably to far too high a degree. What we've done, then, is expand the definition of "safe" to include freedom from discomfort - but "safe" and "comfortable" are two very different things - ask anyone who's spent time in a fallout shelter or apocalypse bunker.

What we've taken to heart is the notion that we're unsafe if we're uncomfortable, and that's bad for a whole lot of reasons. Discomfort is good. Very good. It's the only way we change or grow - it's why you can boil a frog if you change the temperature gradually. Discomfort makes us evaluate who we are and where we are and why we are. Discomfort is precisely why we go to college; you can't learn anything without it.

The "safe space" mindset is not unique to college campuses, but it is where you hear it bandied about most often. A safe space is not really what a college campus wants to provide (well, I'm sure some do, but that's more to keep students happy than to really teach them anything). Colleges want to provide a place of respect. Academia is a world of ideas, but it only functions if those espousing the ideas respect one another (even in disagreement).

Milo whateverhisnameis, the alt-right firebrand gets a lot of press for protests and instigation - recently his appearance at UC-Berkeley was cancelled due to damage and danger from those opposing him. The vitriol is not entirely because of his ideas, but also in the way he presents them. He's an antagonist. The medium is literally his message - berating and insulting those people and groups he dislikes or with whom he disagrees.

This is why it's NOT a free speech issue. Free speech is a public right - Yiannopoulos should be able to say whatever he wants (within the established legal framework) without fear of reprisal. Of course, that guarantee is that the government won't act against him for his words; it does nothing to restrain organizations or institutions. Free speech will get you barred from all kinds of places, jobs, and relationships. Those are the consequences of free speech.

Universities and self-congratulating progressives alike are big fans of free speech, but it really becomes a useless tool without respect. I'm sure there's some adequate short-term catharsis for those who get to express their anger and vitriol in stress-relieving ways - and lots of people make money off anger - but it doesn't actually serve a purpose in society without respect.

So, when the members of a community, like UC-Berkeley, for instance, say loudly that they don't want a certain type of speech on campus, it's the schools' job, as an institution of learning (and thus challenge) to go out of its way to defend even what might be termed "unsafe" speech. However, the same community is entirely within its rights to mandate decorum and respect for those given the privilege of addressing the community. It has to work both ways.

Speech is inherently dangerous. Any opinion I give is an opinion. In an age where people can't even agree on facts, opinions are shaky ground. speaking out publicly is vital and terrifying - but it has to be done in relationship, whether one-on-one in a conversation or within a community. For that, there are rules - even if they're unwritten. Even if your opponent has done horrible things, you still need to treat her like a human being who's done horrible things, not as the embodiment of those horrible things.

What happens, then, if my opinion is that you're worthless; if the free speech I am exercising is that you are, in fact, not worthy or deserving of respect? That's the dilemma. Typically, the whole purpose of these antagonists is to point out the hypocritical moral problem that comes from denouncing someone for denouncing someone. It's an insensitive piece of performance art against which there is no real rebuttal. It's a lose-lost proposition.

Unless, of course, a community is committed to community, to respect. A guest speaker does not show up willy-nilly and take the stage. There are negotiations; a relationship is constructed. If both parties cannot agree to the ground rules, there is no way to proceed. In these instances of real conflict, generally both sides are at fault; each fails to meet the other in the middle and we end up with chaos.

To me, the middle ground in any relationship must be respect. Even if I decide you're unworthy of it, I must still give it, or there's no point to anything. It is this sacrifice, inherently dangerous, uncomfortable, "unsafe," that allows us to be challenged, shaped, and changed. You won't like it - no one does - but it's all we've got, unfair as that might be.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Fighting Injustice with Injustice

It seems we're prone to this. Whether it's filibustering a Supreme Court nominee to protest the filibustering of a Supreme Court nominee or punching someone who just punched you, "an eye for an eye" is alive and well in the world. We might talk about "being the bigger person" when we're speaking hypothetically, but its often another story when we're in the thick of reality. The problem, though, with "being the bigger person" is that we necessarily have to label the other as "less than," which it turn makes it easier to harm them. A vicious circle.

I'm really disturbed today. Yesterday, inmates at the James T Vaughn Correctional Center, a prison about 20 miles from my home, housing minimum, medium, and maximum security inmates, took several employees hostage and after the building was secured, one hostage was found dead.

I know several people who work in that facility. I don't think any of them were involved in this incident, but it certainly brings things home. I do not condone violence or kidnapping, threats or anything involved in this action. At the same time, it's not so simple as bad people doing bad things. It is part of this vicious circle. People in our society act out; we put them in jail - a system and process designed specifically to dehumanize them; they react, sometimes violently; they are responded to with violence. What I see here is: injustice; injustice; injustice; injustice. No one is right and everyone is wrong.

Prisons, like police, or the military play into a national (and probably human) narrative of good vs bad. The good guys need to beat the bad guys so order can be restored. Now most of the people I know who actually operate within those systems understand the real and structural problems that create this scenario - and if they can't see avenues for change, I don't want to presume to know something from the outside.

I do know it shouldn't be this way. I don't believe people change because they're punished; they change because they're loved. Consequences are a real part of life, society, relationships; I don't mean removing those, but we, as a human race, need to do a better job of addressing the real consequences of bad actions in redemptive ways.

I'm troubled by this because I abhor violence. I'm troubled because these inmates lacked the creativity to deal with their very real concerns in healthy ways. I'm troubled because our society, us, we lack the creativity to deal with anti-social behavior in healthy ways. It's a travesty, but a travesty all around.

I'm most troubled, however, by just how easily I'm willing to ignore the situation. When we first moved to Delaware, I worked to put in place what practices I could to shape and form my life in the image of Christ. Being of the Wesleyan tradition, I tried to use John Wesley's admonitions as a guide. He spoke often of spending time with the poor - for a time, I volunteered in a local organization, working with and for the poor; I need to do better there. He spoke of the importance of education. I've been involved with the local school district in a number of capacities: mentoring, tutoring, serving on committees, even substitute teaching. John Wesley all but demanded his followers go once a week to the prisons, as a way of loving and caring for those locked inside.

I'll admit I tried. I contacted the chaplain, twice, with no response and gave up. I looked for other volunteer opportunities, but the information was difficult to parse and I gave up. I called to see if I could visit inmates, but they don't allow even clergy access to prisoners without some prior relationship. I gave up.

If anything, this experience has shown not only how inadequate our human systems are at dealing with hurting people, but at just how inadequate I am at living the life I claim to live. I'd like to say I will change - that I will find a way to connect with the prison population and be invested, because there is no way to be a part of a change without being present - at the same time, I don't have a lot of confidence I will follow through all the way. I'll try, I'm sure, but will I fight for it? I don't know.

This is one of those times when spirituality makes total sense to me. When human systems and human beings lack the power and ability to do something right, our only hope is something greater than ourselves. I am inadequate. We are inadequate. I believe strongly, though, that the creator and sustainer of the universe longs to do impossible things through us, inadequate or not.

Lord, help my unbelief.