Speaker for the Dead

15 April 2012

I’m going to hear about this one, I’m sure, so let me just get the scary bits out in the open right away.  This is a book review of sorts–a very favorable one–of a science fiction novel.  It was written by a Mormon.  It takes evolution for granted.  The Christian characters in the book are all Roman Catholic, and some of them are portrayed quite sympathetically.  Adultery and domestic violence are major plot elements, although the action is implied, not described.  Author Orson Scott Card does his utmost to help the reader sympathize with both the physically abusive husband and his unfaithful wife, an emotionally abusive and neglectful mother — and Card knows what he’s doing.  If your heart’s not carved of granite, you’ll sympathize.  Pietists who don’t know how to read stories will find the experience traumatic and probably ought to steer clear.  Or then again, maybe not.  Not all trauma is bad; a knifing and a surgery are both traumatic, but they sew you up at the end of the surgery.

Ahem.  Anyway, the book is Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card.  It’s the second in a cycle of four stories (in order: Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind), but it stands alone well enough.  You can read Ender’s Game first if you want to, but you don’t really have to.  Late in the cycle, the peculiarities of Card’s LDS theology really come out into the limelight in some infelicitous ways, but Speaker is mostly free of that.  You ought to read it.

Moreover, you ought to read it for its epistemology.

The epistemology is personal, powerful, and simple enough: a person you don’t love is a person you don’t know, and can’t know.  As with most philosophical concepts, it is far easier to grasp fleshed out in story form than it would be in abstract discussion.  If it turns out that you don’t like the epistemology after all, it’s still a very good story.  You won’t have wasted your time.

If you want the abstract discussion, N. T. Wright’s Christian Hope in a Postmodern World makes the same epistemological point pretty concisely.  If you want it fleshed out philosophically and attended by (lots and lots of) footnotes, you can read Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology by Esther Lightcap Meeks.  Wright’s presentation is personable and accessible; Meeks is tougher to handle because she’s writing to fellow philosophers, but she’s very good at what she does.  But Speaker for the Dead is cheaper, and a lot more fun.  Just sayin’.

As Others See Us

15 August 2010

In the final stanza of his memorable poem “To a Mouse,” Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us
An’ ev’n Devotion

Kevin Roose, nineteen-year-old journalist and author of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, has given conservative evangelical Christians a rare gift.  Through his eyes–his raised-Quaker, somewhat left-of-center, normal American eyes–we have the opportunity to see ourselves as we appear to people who have never known a real, live evangelical Christian.

Roose was assisting his boss, author A. J. Jacobs, on a research trip to Thomas Road Baptist Church when he first encountered a group of Liberty University students. The interaction quickly took a turn for the strange…but I’ll let him tell you:

When A. J. left to take notes on another part of the church, I chatted up a group of Thomas Roaders I found in the lobby, two girls and a guy who looked to be around my age.  I introduced myself, told them why I was visiting, and asked how long they’d been coming to Thomas Road.

“We come here every week,” they said.  “We go to Liberty.”

I wasn’t sure whether “go to Liberty” was some sort of coded religious language, like “walk the path” or “seek the kingdom,” so I asked.  I had to chuckle when they told me that “Liberty” meant Liberty University, a Christian liberal arts college founded and presided over by  Rev. Falwell.  I mean, come on.  A liberal arts college run by Jerry Falwell?  How about an etiquette workshop run by Courtenay Love?

But I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, so I asked them to tell me more about their school.

“Oh, I love Liberty!” said one of the girls, an effusive blonde in a green sundress.  She spent five minutes making an enthusiastic pitch, which included statistics about Liberty’s recently opened law school, its top-ranked debate team, and its Division I athletic program.  She told me that Liberty has grown at a rate–from 154 students in 1971 to nearly 25,000 in 2007 (including more than 15,000 taking courses via the Internet)–that few colleges, secular or religious, have ever achieved.

It was impressive stuff, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to know.

“So, what do you guys do for fun?” I asked.

They looked at each other quizzically, then back at me.  The blonde stammered, “I mean, we do different…things.  I don’t really know what you’re asking.”

This wasn’t getting off on the right foot.  Maybe I needed to break the ice.

“Any good parties around here?”

But I got no chuckles, only blank stares.  The guy, a long, lean boy-band type with jutting platinum hair, squinted and peered down his nose.

“Do you know Christ?”

I was new to evangelical argot, so I didn’t know that if a Liberty student has to ask this question, he probably knows the answer already.  The way I saw it, I could (a) tell him I did know Christ, which might not go so well if he decided to follow up, (b) try to deflect with sarcasm again, something like, “Yeah, he’s a friend of a friend.  We really don’t hang out much,” or (c) admit that I was a foreigner.

Too scared for (a) or (b), I chose (c).  I told him I didn’t know Christ, and after he spent five minutes explaining why I should consider meeting him, I said, as gently as I could, that I wasn’t interested in converting.

“Please don’t be offended,” I said.  “It’s just not my thing.”

They glanced at each other, all three a little mystified.  Not my thing?  How could it not be my thing?  They didn’t browbeat me, but I had definitely made them uneasy.  We made a little more small talk, and then, since church was starting, we parted ways with nods and hesitant half-waves.

The weirdness of the encounter stayed with him, and at a time when his fellow students at Brown were weighing the merits of cross-cultural study abroad in Munich or Barcelona, Kevin Roose found himself contemplating a semester at Liberty University.  The idea grew on him, much to the dismay of his nominally Quaker parents, gay-activist aunts, and generally left-leaning family.  While he did ultimately win their assent, the ongoing tension between Roose’s arch-conservative Liberty surroundings and his liberal family remains one of the central conflicts of the book.

Recalling the awkwardness of the Thomas Road conversation after he admitted to being an outsider, Roose decided to try to pass for an evangelical Christian, and after a weekend crash course administered by a sympathetic ex-evangelical friend, he packs his car and sets off to school.  This decision sparks the second major conflict of the book, the ever-present ethical dilemmas of an undercover participant-observer.  If his struggling seems at times a bit sophomoric, we would do well to remember that he was, in fact, a sophomore, and that these are the dilemmas of a fundamentally decent guy who can’t do his job without lying, and doesn’t like lying to his friends.

And he does make friends.  From the rebellious Jersey Joey to newly-converted football player Paul to future youth pastor Zipper, Roose introduces us to the kaleidoscopic array of students that he comes to know and love, and we with him.  Most of them are denizens of Dorm 22, the men’s dorm where he lives, but we also meet Aimee, a bubbly socialite, (and clearly not Roose’s type),  and Anna, the smart, sassy girl he dates for a while and then avoids, afraid that she’ll uncover the truth about him.  Rounding out the cast are professors, pastoral staff members, and of course, Jerry Falwell himself–“a complicated guy,” as Roose finally puts it to his dad.

We’re with him every step of the way for four months: learning to pray, perfectly chaste dates, men’s dorm hijinks,  creation science classes, a missions trip to Daytona Beach at the height of spring break, prayer meetings,  discipleship sessions where a concerned pastor helps him stop masturbating, singing in the choir at Thomas Road, his interview with Jerry Falwell for the campus newspaper…Roose chronicles it all.  Along with a deftly written record of what happened, we get a running commentary on how it all looked and felt to an outsider.

Roose is sensitive and clear-headed throughout, and not at all demeaning.  I highly recommend this book, particularly to folks who live in the “Christian cocoon.”  It’s easy to forget what you look like to an outsider, and if it hurts sometimes, well…”The kisses of an enemy are deceitful, but faithful are the wounds of a friend.”  Roose is not a believer, and politically not an ally–but he is a friend, and we ought to listen.

I’ll let you discover the many  joys and lessons of the book for yourself, but there’s one I want to point out here.  Roose finds himself regularly put off by the raging homophobia that he encounters in his environment.  He is responding, in part, to the simple and eminently biblical idea that homosexuality is a sin, and this is not something that we can avoid or apologize for.  But he is also responding to his roommate’s bone-deep, violent hatred of gay people, the use of “fag” or “gay” as all-purpose insults, and the blind fear of cloistered Christian kids who’ve never taken the time to get to know a real, live homosexual.  As a result, the whole thing comes off to him as simple bigotry and intolerance, and his effort to deal with the internal conflict this spawns in him forms one of the major themes in the book.  Roose is repeatedly rattled by the dissonance between the loving, caring, fundamentally moral character of his friends and (what he sees as) their bigotry on this one issue.

Which is to say that as a whole, the evangelical world is failing to make its case.  We are not successfully articulating a coherent, comprehensive vision of human life in the image of God, and our view of homosexuality as a coherent part of that.*  If we were, then our condemnation of homosexuality would be visibly of a piece with our whole life-affirming, biblical ethic, instead of striking a sympathetic observer as an arbitrary fly in the ointment.  Part of the reason we are failing is that most evangelicals don’t have a coherent, comprehensive view of life.  Another part of the reason is that within the mainstream Evangelical community, it has been socially safe to hate homosexuals, in the same way that it was once socially safe in white Evangelical circles to hate black people.  Some of the perceived bigotry, in other words, is actual bigotry. We need to clean up our own house on this point, and sooner rather than later.

For those willing to give a sympathetic observer a fair hearing, there are many more observations and lessons to be had…but I’ll let you read the book for yourself.

*If you’re looking for a place to start, try this article.

A Serrated Edge, Part II

30 June 2010

Some while ago I recommended Doug Wilson’s fine little volume A Serrated Edge. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, it is a sterling defense of mockery and sarcasm as biblically appropriate means of communication…at times.  Must reading in our lily-livered age of Precious Moments figurines and sappy politically correct fears of hurting anyone’s feelings.

I once again commend the book to you heartily.  Buy it and read it — you won’t be sorry.

But some of you aren’t going to buy the book.  It would be nice if you could — for free — get your hands on a good chunk of related material, just to get your feet wet, as it were.  And for those of you who’ve read it…I know you want more.

Well, here’s your chance.  A little while ago I ran across John Frame’s detailed review of A Serrated Edge.  To which Doug Wilson published a detailed response.  Both of these items are available for free online at the links above.  Whether you’ve read the book or not, you will profit from reading this interchange. (The more astute observers will notice that I’m about 3 years late with the notice on this one. What can I say? Wilson writes faster than I can keep up with; I haven’t begun to conquer his backlist, especially if we’re counting online stuff.)

And a hint for the folks at Canon: Whenever you get round to reprinting the book, throw these two in as an appendix. The book will be much better for it.

Updated audio

30 June 2010

I’ve had some complaints that my recording of my plenary session at GES this year suffered from such poor audio quality that it was hard to understand.  Part of that is my recording setup, and I can’t fix that part.  Part of it was the mp3 conversion software I was using, and that I can fix, and I think I have.  I have taken down the old one and put up the new on GES 2010 page.

GES Conference 2010

25 April 2010

I spent the better part of this past week at the annual GES conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Lord blessed us with a number of good speakers, and the mood of the conference was phenomenal.  I got a strong sense that the majority of the attendees really desire reconciliation within the Free Grace movement.  This is a marked change from when I was last there two years ago.  That, for me, was the highlight of the conference.

Some other personal highlights:

  • Bob Swift’s session on the Johannine prologue was both simple and very, very deep.  It goes well with Jim Reitman’s “Gospel in 3-D” series, which presents some additional refinements.
  • Dan Hauge’s workshop on 1 Samuel.  He aimed to equip us to teach 1 Samuel and convince us of the value of doing so.  It worked.
  • John Niemela’s presentation on Hebrews 12:14 was very good.  His thesis: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord (in you).”
  • I had the privilege of presenting a plenary session on Hebrews, and a workshop on worship.  You can find them both here.
  • My good friend and future co-worker Joe Anderson came to the conference, and we partnered up for some serious psalm-singing (more info here).  Monday night we spent working on matching lyrics and tunes, Tuesday night we spent a few hours in a corner of the Riley Center with a few friends, singing, sharing, and praying until midnight or so.  Wednesday night the same, but with a very good conversation about worship dance…and a little actual dancing, even.
  • We also got the chance to introduce psalm-singing to the whole conference in the main session after lunch on Wednesday, and in the prayer time.  That was a lot of fun, and very well received.
  • The fellowship was outstanding, as always.  Made new friends, reacquainted with old ones, and got to meet an online friend and fellow worker in person for the first time, which was a real pleasure.
  • Jim Reitman (knowing that my presentation would be discussing unity in the body of Christ) brought me a t-shirt that said “Ask me about my dysfunctional family.”  Priceless.

A good time was had by all — as far as I know — and I’m looking forward to next year.

Peter Hitchens Speaks

31 March 2010

Christopher Hitchens wrote a book titled God is Not Great, which, in the way these things go, led to a series of debates with Doug Wilson, which led to a book, a debate tour, and eventually to the excellent documentary Collision, which you should see.

In part as a response to his brother’s book, but also as a response to the new atheists generally, Peter Hitchens has written The Rage Against God. Gorilla Poet Productions has produced a short trailer and an 8-minute author interview. Watch them, especially the latter. Note particularly the way in which Peter Hitchens came to Christ.

That’s how we’re going to have to fight this battle. Gear up.

How to Criticize Popular Fiction

24 March 2010

1998 saw the publication of the first Harry Potter book, and a firestorm of Christian criticism followed.  Christian parents who months before had lovingly read the Chronicles of Narnia to their children at bedtime banished Harry Potter because there were witches in it.  Some Christians, sensing the tension, banned Narnia as well.

In all the yowling, Christians paid very little attention to the fact that J. K. Rowling singlehandedly created an entire generation of children that wanted to read.  Christian critics paid even less attention to the fact that although the shelves of their local Christian bookstore groaned under heaps of schlocky Christian fiction, children could apparently tell the difference between lousy stories and well-written ones, and preferred the latter, in droves.  Embarrassing, that.  How come the Christians weren’t producing any good stories?  Our last runaway pop-culture hit was…what?  The Chronicles of Narnia?  Been a while…

In addition to being hugely unaware of the log in its own eye, the criticism was, for the most part, just bad.  Shrill.  Embarrassing.  Obviously written by people who hadn’t an ounce of sense about how to write, or how stories work, or how to read them. Philistines and yahoos, to put it bluntly. Hacks.

Of late the guns of Christian literary criticism — if it can be called that — have been aimed at the Twilight phenomenon, and the overall tone is not a whit improved.  It therefore gives me enormous pleasure to point to a bright spot on the horizon: a Christian literary critic who is Doing It Right.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is how literary criticism ought to be done.  I am referring to Douglas Wilson’s ongoing review of Twilight, the most recent installment of which went up Monday. You can find the reviews, which proceed chapter by chapter, on the Credenda website. If you’re a skip-the-book-and-see-the-movie type, there’s even a (brief) video version, available at Canon Wired. (Update: there’s a part two to the video.)

But read the reviews.  Seriously.