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April 2008

The Manor House

Tonight I drove to Montreat College, a small school on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina. They have asked me to do a review of their Music Business Program, They put me up in a huge old house off their main campus called the Manor House. It's pretty creepy.

I'm alone in the house, apparently. It's one of those old houses that has several staircases leading to an untold number of unpeopled rooms, with bookcases lining the walls, huge banquet rooms, and even a swimming pool in the basement. There are even hidden panels in the walls where during Prohibition former tenants hid the alcohol. It reminds me of what old professor Digory's house must have looked like in "The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe," just waiting to be explored. But I haven't found a wardrobe yet. Come to think of it, maybe it's more like Hitchcock's Bates Inn: the only sound I hear right now, besides that of me typing, is the drip drip drip of the bathroom faucet.

Of course I don't believe in ghosts or disembodied spirits of any form, and yet in some way the former tenants of this place remain, their collective memories only vaguely discernible to me etched in the chipped paint on the walls, the creaks in the hardwood floors, the well-worn books, the slightly out of tune piano, and in the depression in that empty chair, just there, outside my door. They're all here. Long ago this was a home, and then they left, or died, leaving behind only the presence of their absence --- and one day that too will be gone.

I need to stop that drip. If I do, what will I hear then?

This (Wretched) Business of Music

music business One of the bibles of the music business is the multi-authored This Business of Music, now in its tenth edition.  Billed as the "definitive guide to the music industry," the prose is dry and often pedantic, frustratingly anecdoteless, just the kind of thing you avoid reading at bedtime (or maybe you do read it, as a sleep-aid).  And yet there are a precious few light moments in this encyclopedic tome, or more to point, some thought-provoking comments.

On the very first page, for example, there is a quote from sociologist Marshal McLuhan, who said that "The medium is the message."  Though the writers seem oblivious to what the quote really means, as it is disconnected with what follows, it made me realize, sadly, that form has trumped content, that image and sound mark one out as belonging to a particular "tribe," and the lyric has (except in folk music, the poor stepchild of the music family) been neglected.  Being, looking, and sounding like Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) is more important to tweens than that which she sings about.  McLuhan's comment, like his disciple Neil Postman's follow-up work (Amusing Ourselves to Death) has proven prophetic.

In a section on Independent record producers, there is a very helpful categorization of producers offered by Jerry Wexler, renowned producer and former co-owner of Atlantic Records.  Wexler (who ought to know) said there are three types of producers --- the documentarian, the project leader, and the studio superstar.  The documentarian simply tries to capture what is there, unadorned and real; the project leader tires to enhance what is there, to get the best out of the artist; and the studio superstar, as you can imagine, takes center stage.  Every record the studio superstar producer makes sounds uncannily just like. . . him.  For some reason this may be the predominant type in the Contemporary Christian Music business, though I won't name any names.  Maybe the three producer types are really just reflections of personalities in the general culture --- those who simply take it in for what it is (a refreshing kind of person to be around, though quite frustrating if you need to get something done), those who accept what is and yet interact with and try to transform it, and those who simply think they are what is, the kind of people that seem to suck all the air out of a room when they enter it.  All this makes it so critical that the artist matches the producer; two superstars in the studio are incendiary; two documentarians spend a lot of money and get nowhere fast; and two project leaders (enhancers) may lose sight of what it is they are enhancing, lose focus.  What is your spouse?  What are you?  Somehow I sense that the somnolent wanderings of The Grateful Dead and Jerry Wexler's production must have been an expensive marriage.

The chapter on copyright infringement yielded some interesting anecdotes, if only that they were court cases.  There's Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., which allowed Creedence Clearwater Revival's leader to recover attorney fees from his record company.  Oh my.  It reminds how litigation can sap a life.  Fogerty spent years fighting Fantasy, never releasing a record, sounding more bitter all the time.  A little foresight and better advice and he might have seen a "bad moon arising."

The most dissatisfying chapter of the book was the one on agents and managers.  Now this special breed of prima donnas deserves better.  There's so much material to work with!  I didn't work with many, but one I worked with was a crazy alcoholic who sent me hand-typed single page sizzling faxes at midnight with (count 'em) sometimes as many as 50 profanities on a page.  Listen to the understatement of this sentence: "The close and often difficult relationship between artists and managers during the years of active management makes it desirable that the parties involved be sure of their compatibility before entering into binding contracts."  No, no, no.   These "parties" need marriage counseling before working together, and the manager may need a personality profile.  They tend to be controlling, all-consuming players in an artist's life.  There should be a big stop sign here in the book.

I could go on, but I might bore you.  The music business is a lot more interesting than this book, full of sin, wretched in its on peculiar way, and redeemed the same way anything else in this world is redeemed, by the power of love (love of music) and, in the end, by the One who loves His Creation.  I'm shelving the book.  I don't want to think about copyrights and managers, whining artists and super star producers, lawsuits and licenses.  Just give me the music.  Somehow that never fails me, because even the bad music still reminds me of a Music that just may come, some day soon.

Reading Prince Caspian

Prince Caspina I've just completed doing something that I often say I will do but rarely actually do.  I re-read C.S. Lewis's Prince Caspian, prior to the release of the movie on May 16th.  Not only that, I read Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead's A Reader's Guide to Caspian: A Journey into C.S. Lewis's Narnia.  I thoroughly enjoyed both.

If you haven't read the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, it's not too late to start.  These children's stories are remarkably deep.  Like all good stories, they operate on multiple levels, as enjoyable for adults as for children.  I first read the novels when I was introduced to them by my 9th Grade Modern Grammar teacher, an eccentric, slightly strange spinster who read The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe aloud to us, and then encouraged me to read all the books.  I quickly read them, and yet I completely missed the clear Gospel allusions.  When she told me of this, I re-read them.  I have kept reading them every few years, including reading them aloud to both my children.  As Lewis (or was it Tolkien) said, every good book should be re-read every five years.  And yet, reading Prince Caspian again, I was amazed at how much I had forgotten, as well as at what a good tale it really is.

readers If you don't recall, Prince Caspian is about the return of the Pevensie children --- Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy --- to Narnia, called there by Caspian's blowing of Susan's horn.  Arriving there, they find that several hundred years have passed in Narnia (yet only one year in their own time), and the Old Narnia they ruled has been corrupted, the trees asleep (they used to talk), the animals mostly non-talking, and the land ruled by King Miraz, a Telmarine --- human, but not of Narnia at all.  The Pevensies quickly learn what has happened and proceed to journey to assist Caspian in re-establishing a proper rule over Narnia (with a lot of help from Aslan, the lion, Christ in that world).

The book is fantastical in may ways, and yet the most delightful part of it is the characters themselves and the narrative.  It's an adventure, a quest, enjoyable simply on that level alone, and yet it's much more.  It's about faith, the children learning once more to believe in Aslan, to trust him, and in so doing they begin to see him.  It is, in Lewis's own summary, about the restoration of true religion and even the substantial restoration of Aslan's rule and of nature itself.  There's a moving section with Aslan moving through the countryside, awakening the trees, healing an elderly woman, and more.  What Lewis does so well is give voice to our own longing that things be set right.  And yet there is no preaching here, just story, and story told with great attention to particularities, like what the children eat (or don't eat).  It's an enjoyable and quick read, and yet there's much to come back to and savor.

To help you savor it (only after reading it), utilize A Reader's Guide to Caspian.  In this  book, Ryken (English Professor at Wheaton College) and Mead (Associate Director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton, where you will find Lewis's "wardrobe" and his papers), do a number of things for readers.  Part One is a guided tour through the book, offering short synopses, numerous questions for reflection or discussion, various tidbits of information (like where the names "Cair Paravel" or "Caspian" came from, or why Lewis was so fascinated with mice a/k/a Reepicheep).  On the whole, these guides help us reflect on the book as literature --- something I do not naturally do.  Part Two  of the book is a collection of various background materials --- including very helpful articles on "Are the Narnian Sories Allegorical" (the answer is quite disputed) and "The Christian Vision of Prince Caspian," the later examining how the Christian themes of, for example, providence, faith, and discipleship weave throughout the story.  Finally, there are excerpts of contemporary reviews of Prince Caspian (that is, reviews published around the time of its publication), summaries of critical commentary on the book, a review of the success of attempts to bring The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe to screen, and a guide to using the book with reading groups or with home-schoolers.  All in all, it's a great resource, and, to some extent, you will get out of it whatever you choose to.  I plan on spending a little more time with the questions, reading back over chapters in the next few weeks, as I think it all a help to spiritual growth and a good preparation for the movie.

In conclusion, I commend both Prince Caspian and A Reader's Guide to Prince Caspian to you.  If you read them, the movie will not only entertain but will heighten the insights you already have from this great story.

"Comfort Inn"

Tonight I'm in a Comfort Inn with my wife and teenage son in Williamsburg, Virginia. We're here so my son can participate in a school choir competition. We're chaperones for a day at Busch Gardens tomorrow, and rather than get up at 2;30 and riding with the others up in a bus, we opted for the "comfort" of a motel the night before, a good nights rest. In this case, Comfort Inn is a misnomer. The telephone in the room does not work, the toilet is practically plugged, the door difficult to open, and the room a bit dingy. There are no other rooms available, though.

Have I complained? You bet. Were we in Kampala, Uganda, this would be OK, but not here. The attendants also appear to be incompetent, Frankly, I think I can sleep here, but I sure don't plan to pay.

Now then, there is that Scripture about being content whatever your circumstances. God give me grace. Comfort Inn it's not; let's try for "Contentment Inn."

Wide Angle Radio (Episode Six): Mark Heard's Dark Side

180px-DryBonesDance Although I circled all around the places where Mark Heard traveled while I was in the music business, I never met the man.  He died, tragically, of a heart attack before I had that pleasure.  I met all the people he produced --- Harrod and Funck, John Fischer, Pierce Pettis, and more, but never heard or met the man.  That's my loss.

It was on July 4, 1992 that Mark had a heart attack on stage while performing with Pierce Pettis and Kate Miner, at the Cornerstone Festival, near Chicago. Heard finished his set and went to the hospital immediately afterwards. Two weeks after being released from the hospital, he had a cardiac arrest and died on August 16th of 1992. Before Heard's death, he had released three albums, been included on the Legacy II sampler from Windham Hill's High Street label, and was nearly finalizing a mainstream contract with Bruce Cockburn's label, True North Records in Canada. There was also interest from Sony's Columbia Records label for distribution in the US.  But it was not to be. 

In this episode of Wide Angle, John Fischer, who knew Mark well, speaks of the "burden of the artist," meaning an artist's experience of reality more deeply than the average person --- a burden, whether pain or joy.  Mark was one who felt pain deeply, the weight of which may have contributed to his early death.  As John opines, unlike some, Mark would walk outside and not just see the fathomless beauty of the stars but hear the "groan of humanity and history screaming at him from the sky."  You wonder if life would have ultimately been too much for him.  The show kicks off with his great song, Satellite Sky," a testimony to what he heard in those night skies.

But the "burden of the artist" lives on after Mark.  On this show you hear it in the voice of Karen Peris, of The Innocence Mission, a wistful wondering.  Well, there's much more, including an interview with Bebo Norman, but hear it for yourself, right here.

Expelled: See It Now

240x240_ai Don't wait.  Run to the theatre to see Expelled, Ben Stein's documentary exposing the reasons why the Academy thought police will not allow scientists to teach about intelligent design.  It's well-produced, entertaining, and informative.  Stein travels all over the world speaking both to the many scientists expelled from teaching for even mentioning "intelligent design," as well as to committed atheists like Richard Dawkins, who essentially believes religious believers are idiots.

Running through this movie is a comparison of what is happening to academic freedom with the Berlin wall, with those who want to wall out free-thinkers who want to follow the evidence where it leads.  This is not some Bible-thumping fundamentalist propaganda piece, nor is it Creation Science, a movement I always had some difficulty with because of its quite literal interpretation of the Genesis account (aka six 24-hour days), meaning it is treated as simply historical narrative with no poetic component, and in its attempt to fit the Bible to science.  These are scientists, some Christian, some not, who simply want to follow the evidence where it leads, and who are quite honest about their biases and presuppositions, something you can't say about many Darwinists.

See it now.  This movie is playing in major theatres, but films like this don't hang around if people don't buy tickets.  Better yet, take a skeptic. Take your kids. Take anyone who simply wants to think.  Find a theatre and time here.

A Rational Faith: A Review of Tim Keller's "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism"

reason Pastor Tim Keller has had a lot of experience talking to non-believers and skeptical seekers.  After all, Keller lives and pastors in the sophisticated urban world of New York City, where a plethora of belief systems are available (or not).  In The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Keller manages to do two things well.  First, he winsomely confronts the questions and arguments raised by doubters, including "There can't be one true religion," or "How could a good God allow suffering?" or "Science has disproved Christianity."  Second, he offers reasons for faith, challenging skeptics to examine the clues for God, the problem of sin, the reality of the cross, and the resurrection.  What I particularly enjoyed about the book is that Keller never overstates his case, always admits truth in skeptic's arguments, and is never shrill or combative in tone.  It's an excellent book for Christians who desire to understand the questions of those nonbelievers they may relate to on a day-to-day basis, as well as for seekers who desire to explore the arguments for faith.

Throughout the book, Keller acknowledges a great debt to the work of C.S. Lewis, and yet Keller is more accessible than Lewis, more American, and more conversational.  There are liberal quotations from Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce, among other works.  Keller also (yet more subtly) pays homage to Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards, his Reformed faith permeating the book and undergirding all that he says.  And yet his writing is informed by his own experience in talking with people, as evidenced by the many quotes from real conversations he has had with skeptics.

When taking on the new atheists --- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others --- he contends that their arguments are based on what some call "strong rationalism," a belief that "no one should believe a proposition unless it can be proved rationally by logic or empirically by sense experience."  As Keller says, most philosophers reject "strong rationality" as an impossible standard to meet.  His approach is that of "critical rationality," which "assumes that some systems of belief are more reasonable than others, but that all arguments are rationally avoidable in the end."  We don't insist on  irrefutable proofs but look for the system of belief which has the most explanatory power, which best makes sense of reality.  This is a helpful distinction that avoids the pitfalls of strong rationality and relativism.

Keller writes pastorally --- with intelligence and warmth.  His arguments are cogent, his prose sufficiently personal and animated to hold interest, and his love of God evident.  I heartily recommend the book.

Festival of Faith & Writing (Day Three Addendum): The Importance of Beauty

The festival ended tonight in a fitting way, with Katherine Paterson's encouragement to create stories of beauty.  Paterson said that "The stories that a culture creates will shape the worldview of that culture."  She used Thomas Aquinas's definition of beauty as that which has integrity (simplicity), harmony (elegant symmetry), and brilliance (clarity).  She feels that we have confused beauty with moral aphorisms, made literature of value only in service of moral education.  The Bible, she said, is full of moral guidance but its theme is beauty. She read Genesis 1 and noted the "good" referred to by God is the beauty of what is made.  Rolo May said "Beauty is born in play."  She encouraged not to go home burdened by duty, but ready for play.

It was really a beautiful contrast to the opening conference address by Mary Gordon, a rather sad perspective that beauty (or stories) has little to do with making us better people.  Katherine Paterson would not agree.  She encouraged me.  I had the sense after all I heard today that writing was too much work, meaning too much toil; really, it's a playground, something to delight in.  Play hard, yes, but play.  Just play.

Festival of Faith & Writing (Day Three): Tools

Some people come to the Festival of Faith & Writing just to meet writers.  They don't write; they read.  They want to see the shape of the person who actually crafted the story.  I'm a little like that.  Today, Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy and, more recently, The Used World, which I read, was signing books in the campus store.  I like Haven's books, but I was too self-conscious to get in a line with 30 other women to get my book signed.  But I did get a look at her, and Zippy doesn't look like I thought!

Far from just listening to authors, today was a day of mechanics, of tools for writing.  A morning session on editing featuring writer Shauna Niequest and Zondervan editor Angela Scheff was humorous but of limited utility.  It was like the banter of two Valley girls.  Yet I did glean four important truths: write vocationally (set a time and do it); edit everything; find a structure (outline your book, even if you do it last); and never write and edit at the same time.

A literary agent, Chip McGregor, gave a very informative talk on developing a book proposal:  big idea, great writing, and a platform.  It was full of details, humorous anecdotes, and good tips.  Crucial: include a sample table of contents to show scope and sequence.

In the afternoon, I listened to Eric Taylor, a historian who wrote a book called The Last Duel, tell how he did historical research.  I figured it might be helpful to a project I'm working on.  It was.  He said that determining how much research was necessary was a continuous process, circular, as he would write some and then determine what he needed to know more about.  Later, he also discussed how to make historical narrative interesting, how to build suspense and create excitement.

But the best of the day for pure inspiration was Daniel Taylor, who told us how to find and tell our master stories, the stories that define who we are and tell us how to live.  He moved me to tears with a story he told about dancing with a girl who had polio when he was a kid, of how that moment defined how he came to view human beings as valuable.  I bought the book from which the story came, Letters to My Children, and had Daniel Taylor sign it.  I love that story.

And that is just about the end of the Festival of Faith & Writing for 2008.  Yes, there is a lecture by Katherine Peterson tonight called "Stories of Beauty," and I'm sure there will be insights from that, but I have reached saturation level.  It's time to do something.  It's time to write.  In the end, it is, after all, just work.

Festival of Faith & Writing: Day Two (An Earthquake)

I didn't exercise this morning, but I was awakened by an earthquake.  I didn't know it at the time of course, but I sleepily noted the time of 5:39 a.m. on my bedside clock, filed it away and rolled over and back to sleep, and later, finding out about the quake in southern Illinois, realized that I had been gently rocked awake by a readjusting earth.  It brought to mind one other time, in the late Sixties.  I was sitting with my family in our small country church at Wednesday night prayer meeting when the lights began shaking, the pews vibrating, and awe came over us.  I thought it was the rapture.  I thought it was our ticket home.  But not yet.

There's been a bit of rapture here in Grand Rapids, here at the Festival of Faith and Writing.  There's been the gentle nudge from God's hand, a tremulous awakening.  To what?  To the idea that I can actually write, might actually write something worth reading, that people do it all the time, and yet to the hard, cold truth that it's not sexy, not grand, but just plain hard work or, as Rob Bell said tonight, just "pure, undiluted slog."  It requires "constant, pragmatic attention" someone said.  I'd have to say that after 23 years of practice that being an attorney is a lot, lot easier than being a writer.  The only reason to do it is because you love words, or because there's something you have to say that you must say or you think you'll go crazy, or maybe something you just find so interesting that you have to think that maybe someone else should be interested in it as well.

This morning Mischa Berlinski, a journalist turned novelist, author of Fieldwork, told us a fascinating tale of a zombie in Haiti, an absolutely true story and one so compelling that he is writing about it.  Brian Doyle, in an engaging talk in which he made us deliberatively laugh as loud as we could and later sing Amazing Grace, whose "small, true stories" made us laugh and cry, drew us into the genre of the personal essayist, telling us that "there are an ocean of stories all around you."  You just have to listen.

Just before lunch, Yale historian Carlos Eire told us of his memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, a story of his childhood in Cuba just before Castro came to power and just before and after the 14,000 children were airlifted out of Cuba to the United States.  He wrote for four months, unedited, from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00-3:00 a.m., and sometimes all night, until it was completed.  He is a soft-spoken man who never saw his father again after the airlift, who was seared by injustice but spoke of it with grace.  I bought his book.  He signed it.  It's like blood on the page.

After lunch we listening to a dialogue between two essayists, Alan Jacobs, author of The Narnian, and Robert Finch, who wrote The Iambics of Newfoundland, a book I did read and admire but which I had a hard time staying awake for.  This was a different take on essaying than that of Brian Doyle, saying that it's not the place to tell your story (like memoir) but a place to communicate about a shared interest, that there is "a displacement of the personal in the service of the essay."  They said the essay is the antidote to the soundbyte; it cultivates the habit of mindfulness.  You write in essay not to tell about yourself but to tell about something you are interested in and think others must be too.  That all sounds too dispassionate to me.

Did I say that it was a beautiful, sunny day of 75 degrees here in Michigan?  We walked to the chapel talking about architecture, me from ignorance, Andy from knowledge.  We want to write a book on faith and architecture and place, or something like that, and we talk this way every now and then.  Maybe we'll do something about it one day but. . . I don't know, it's more fun to talk about doing it.

In the chapel is a special service of music by the Calvin College concert choir, Capella, singing the words of poets, interspersed with the readings of poets.  I think they were burning incense for the experience.  Could that be? Or was it just the overwrought perfume of the woman in front of me?  Never mind.  It was effective.  The voices were amazing, the poems musical though not often immediately accessible (except for George Herbert), and the visual images projected on the screens useful for contemplation.

In the evening we drove out to the mega Sunshine Community Church for a lecture by Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, a Canadian from Quebec, a uber-secular place.  Martel wrote his novel in India about a character who seemed to be Hindu, Muslim, and Christian.  He moved from being a believer in reason alone to being fascinated by faith, and yet we concluded that it was an immature faith, one that could say things like "how could all these Hindus be wrong?"  and "the word 'truth' should not be used when referring to things that are not empirically verifiable."  You have to hope that he will grow in his understanding of the important, exclusive claims of faith in Christ and not forever live in some kind of syncretistic limbo.

At 9:15 I begin listening to a very engaging Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, a pastor of the emerging church.  By this time my tank is full and I slip out, realizing that I can't hold another thought.  But this I took out, a quote from Theolonius Monk: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." 

Enough talk about writing.  Just do it.  Just write something.  Feel the quake?  Feel that gentle nudge?  My surface is being realigned.

Festival of Faith and Writing: Day One

Never, ever, ever again will I take the 6:00 AM flight.  This morning my friend Andy and I left for three days at Calvin College's Festival of Faith & Writing, a bi-annual fest for readers and writers of literary fiction in Grand Rapids.  I've always wanted to go to this eclectic gathering, but flying out at 6:00 AM is ridiculous.  I set my alarm for 4:00.  However, my body deemed it wise to wake me at 3:00.  I suffered the effects of my foolishness all day --- and yet it was a good day.

Grand Rapids turned out to be surprisingly warm.  By the time we arrived at registration, I had shed my coat and was wishing I had brought shorts.  It was sunny and warm at nearly 70 degrees.  Over 1900 people are registered for this conference.  Looking over the crowd, it was abundantly clear I was among writers and bookish folk.  Many wore glasses.  They looked studious.  Many looked like the folks you meet in used book stores.  They probably smell like old books, speak in flowing prose, and can wax eloquently on contemporary writers such as Updike, Chabon, and Strout, their latest book names bandied about like familiar friends.  I felt somewhat at home among people who love words.

The opening session was by Mary Gordon.  It was not an upbeat start.  Gordon is obviously not a Christian, at least does not profess to be, and is somewhat conflicted about her Catholic upbringing.  The best she could admit to was not faith but "hope in the possibility of possibilities."  She took issue with John Gardiner's view that good fiction makes us more moral people, and yet she admitted that good writing may help us become more compassionate as we grow more attentive to the people and world around us, realizing some of its complexity.

Later in the day, I attended a humorous and yet instructive seminar by David Athey, author of the forthcoming Danny Gospel, about the lessons he learned from writing his book.  It took him 18 years.  He became fascinated with the idea of the "holy fool," the believer who is almost (or perhaps is) mad in his belief.  In the end, I was awed by the amount of revising he did, literally ripping up his work at times to try and get at what needed to be said.  I was struck by his sense that this was the book that God had called him to write, no matter what, and the persevering nature of his quest.  I bought the book, had him sign it, and told him he gave me hope and faith.

Then I attended a dialogue with Davis Bunn and Francine Rivers, both enormously successful writers, Bunn in the genre of the thriller novel, Rivers in the retelling of biblical narratives.  Both have written for the Christian market and mainstream market and discussed the differences.  Bunn said that his goal in writing for the mainstream market was to bridge the gap --- to bring Christian truth to the nonbeliever without any preachiness.  Rivers is, in contrast, firmly rooted in the Christian market, but I found her purpose more message-laden (and thus suspect) I really liked her emphasis on being rooted in scripture and guided by the Holy Spirit, as well as how all her stories begin with a question she has about faith.  There's hope for the Christian novelist!

Finally, the main lecture Thursday night was by Michael Chabon, author of The Yiddish Policeman's Union.  Chabon is an articulate Jewish writer, funny, witty, and thoughtful.  I really identified with his sense of exile, of not having a homeland.  Whereas Chabon created a homeland of his imagination, as Christians we are exiles seeking our homeland in heaven.  Andy and I mused on what the language of heaven would be --- Yiddish?

We skipped the poetry slam, the movie, and the late night discussion.  We opted for sleep.  We'll discuss the language of heaven later --- or not.

Live, Pray, Consume

In today's devotional from Ravi Zacharias Ministries, "Consuming Church," Margaret Manning laments the pervasive consumerism of society and its infiltration of the church.  She says:

consume But what has a consumer-driven mentality done to the way in which we participate in and view the church? Our casual language about “church shopping” belies one of the more subtle impacts. No longer do we see the church as the organic representation of Christ’s body, Christ’s mission in which we are joined as “members,” but we are instead “shoppers” examining who has the best product. How many programs does this church offer? What about the quality of the music program? And how about the preaching? Is it relevant and does it speak to my life, my circumstances? Do I leave Sunday worship feeling better and happier?

I know this is a danger, and perhaps it's an old story.  Church marketing techniques are well-known, and often success is measured by "sales," that is, people in the pews, but I am concerned more with what to do about this tidal wave in my own life and, beyond that, for culture at large.  When consuming is how I was reared, is what I know, is what is preached to me from every billboard, TV screen, movie, web page, and urinal (yes, ladies, they even put ads in there), how do I unlearn what has become a way of life?  And beyond that, how does an economy like ours return to an emphasis not primarily on consuming but on producing and saving?  I often sense that if I do not continue to spend, the economy will grind to a halt, if we don't keep borrowing money and spending then the GNP will sink, and we'll end up in another Great Depression.

But then I know I haven't a lick of economic sense.  I haven't the slightest idea what to do about the economy, how to get us out of this enslavement to consumption.  All I know is that it can't be right, can't be all there is to living in the world. 

Take stock. Look around.  There are a lot of things that bring joy and pleasure in life that you didn't pay for, that you can't buy.  Maybe I just need to look at those things more --- the moon above the pine trees, my family moving through our home, sunlight through a window, a cardinal on the feeder, the chatter of the neighbor's children playing, crisp air, and unmerited grace.  The things I tend to love so much pale in comparison. 

A Rounded Jesus: A Review of Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, by Anne Rice

cana One of the challenges in fully absorbing and appreciating the setting, characters, and dialogue of Scripture is our own disconnect with the pre-modern world in which Jesus lived and moved. Without serious study of ancient history, original languages (Greek and Hebrew), and, perhaps, archaeology, the characters in Scripture can sometimes appear flat rather than rounded, not fully human, not fully like us.

In The Road to Cana, the second installment in Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord series (the initial offering was Out of Egypt), the author attempts to remedy this by filling in the interstices of Scripture while remaining faithful to the words of Scripture. While any such attempt is fraught with pitfalls, in large measure Rice succeeds in presenting a Jesus who is very human and yet, at the same time, divine and without sin.  It's not that we need such writing to help us read Scripture rightly, as the message of the Gospel is perspicuous.  Nevertheless, well-done retellings such as Rice's make unfamiliar what has become too familiar and, thus, too flat to us.  We can return to Scripture with new eyes.

The Road to Cana begins during the last winter before Christ's baptism in the Jordan and concludes with the miracle at Cana.  There are even remembrances of earlier periods of his life.  One likely controversial portion is Jesus' (or Yeshua's) love for a woman in Nazareth, Avigail, with whom he was tempted but did not sin.  It was a healthy reminder that Jesus was fully human, and yet Rice never allows Yeshua to lust, desire to possess Avigail, or entertain for long any intention of marriage (though he experienced pressure to marry).

Another portion some reviewers have remarked on is Jesus' temptation in the desert.  Rice has Satan appear to Jesus as a look-a-like, only Satan has a fine robe and beautiful features.  Wouldn't that be a temptation --- to be yourself and yet be godlike?

There's much more --- John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, aunts, uncles, cousins, and brother James; prose that is descriptive but driven along at a good pace by Jesus himself, the narrator; and a real Christ, human and divine, full of emotion and yet full of divine portent: "I've entered history for the whole of it.  And I won't be stopped.  And I go now, disappointing you, yes, and to what village and town I head next, I don't know, only that I go proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is on us, that the Kingdom of God is with us, that all must turn and take heed, and I will declare it where the Father tells me I must, and I will find before me the listeners --- and the surprises --- He has in store."

You can object to it on principle (and yet be consistent and reject all literary and film depictions of Jesus).  You can quibble over details and nuances.  But Anne Rice, recent convert and former novelist of vampires, has given us a rounded Jesus.  And I'm thankful.

Why I Am Not OutWalking

DSCF0027 If you have wondered about my silence for the last two weeks, wonder no longer.  I was busy.  I took a vacation to my favorite place on Earth, Tucson, Arizona, and this time I decided to give the camera and computer a rest and just soak it in.  And it was great.  I saw rabbits playing hopscotch in back of my hotel room, Border Control agents with six bedraggled illegals handcuffed alongside a dirt road on the outskirts of Arivaca, 12 miles from the Mexican border, for the first time in all my hiking of canyons nearly walked right over a four-foot long rattlesnake, swam laps in a pool while the sun rose over the mountains (something I never, never do here), ate mesquite grilled steaks (best ever) at Lil' Abners, a dusty bar and restaurant which used to lie in the desert outside Tucson but now is surrounded by housing developments of Marana, ate sopapillas and honey (not just any sopapillas but those of Casa Molina which are like large, hot, fluffy pillows), made possibly my 50th trip to Pima Air Museum with my son, where you can get close to an SR-71 (Blackbird), possibly the coolest plane ever built, and I worshipped at a wonderful church, Catalina Foothills Presbyterian, where we sit on the front row (also not what I do at home).  There's more, but enough for now.  The stories have to wait.

I love the desert.  I can tolerate rattlesnakes and scorpions.  I love steaks and Mexican food.  I like living outdoors, taking my meals under the sky or stars.  All of that beats the heck out of blogging in front of a computer screen.  But stay tuned. . . . I'll be back.