26 September 2016

Lady Susan: Her Loves and Friendships

Writing table, Jane Austen House Museum,
Chawton, Hampshire, U.K.
Writer and director Whit Stillman had a harder and an easier task, creating “Love and Friendship” than others who set Jane Austen's works on screen.

Easier because their private correspondence allows the characters and Austen's comic sensibility to emerge less guardedly than if the dialog took place in a drawing room.

Harder because the epistolary novella provides less detail from which to create scenes. The reader's imagination fills in details and character. 

Stillman preserves that effect by cutting forward to each next event, to each next perspective, but translating the story onto the screen means transposing the characters' letters into spoken conversation...with an occasional letter read aloud. So Lady Susan and her confidante, Mrs. Johnson, end up seeing more of each other in the movie.

Austen contrasts the artful, Lady Susan, with 
her sister-in-law, Mrs. Vernon, whose notions of propriety are more deeply rooted, who sees through Lady Susan's charm, and who has compassion on Lady Susan's daughter, Frederica. But in the movie, Frederica and Sir Reginald speak for themselves, and thus a bit of Austen's cultural commentary gets lost in Lady Susan's cosmopolitan amorality.

Mrs. Johnson is an American in the film, and Stillman's ending loses some of Austen's subtlety. But as Matt Zoller Seitz observed, “Most of the time, though, Austen-isms walk shoulder to shoulder with Stillman-isms so gracefully that it takes a moment to realize which author is likely speaking through these characters.”

The source material provides a glimpse of its author that sometimes gets lost in the romance of her other works, and Stillman deserves credit for getting a lot of that on screen.

“Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy in her second choice—I do not see how can it can ever be ascertained—for who would take her assurance of it, on either side of the question? The world must judge from probability. She had nothing against her, but her husband, and her conscience.”

Saint Nicholas Church, Chawton, Hampshire, U.K.
burial place of Jane Austen's mother Cassandra and
sister Cassandra Elizabeth.

23 September 2016

“How-to” Christianity

"Christus," Peter Eugene Ball, Winchester Cathedral,
Winchester, U.K.
In the early 80s, Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles was one of a few places my parents knew that seemed to take the Bible seriously. And being serious people, we enrolled in IBLP's homeschooling program.

I'm grateful for my parents. They love me, protected me, taught me to think. We made choicesnot to have television, to work instead of playing sports. I don't regret it.

Though my interactions with Gothard were few, I do remember being too much in awe. But besides that, besides the scandal, two other things stand out: our expectation of what our choices meant and how typical those expectations were.
Gothard's statement of belief is broadly Christian with respect to spiritual salvation, but his website said his goal is to “provide Biblical principles and concepts of life to guide people in their choices.”

His biblical interpretation—a method that emphasized personal insight, or “rhema"—allowed him to combine ideas from various fields and biblical texts, creating what he called “a new approach to life.”

It also seems to have worked the other way around. Gothard's conferences emphasized lifestyle commitments, marked by prayer and putting one's hand “up and then down.” And this emphasis created a narrative that defined humanity—and most of reality—in terms of behavior and ethical principles.

Using this interpretive framework, Gothard seems to imagine God relating to us more as a jurist to citizens than as a potter to clay. The pressure is on the individual to do what is right so that relationships...and the kingdom of God...can succeed.

The Bible becomes a source of cautionary tales and formulas for successful living. Grace became “the desire and power God gives to do his will.” Freedom became “not the right to do what we want but the power to do what we ought.” Wisdom became “seeing life from God's perspective." A good life involves following Jesus' example and receiving spiritual power.

This narrative makes it plausible to see biblical promises regarding future generations as conditional results of good parenting. Wayward children then become an indictment of their parents. It also becomes plausible to blame one person's immodesty for another person's lust, even though as far as I know the Bible doesn't equate those two.

This is not to say the Bible never describes God as a judge. It's also not to say that parents do not shape whom their children become. It does point out how reading the Bible for how-tos leads to a particular experience of what Christianity means.  

But Gothard's focus on “success in life” and the culture of celebrity whereby he built an audience reflect broader trends

Gothard mastered the “how-to” formula before clickable content. He reached out with birthday cards and newsletters before Seth Godin coined the term “permission marketing.” He built his audience with exclusive conferences and brought in other Evangelicals—Al Smith, David Barton, Ray Comfort.

In a 2007 “60 minutes ”interview, Joel Osteen told Byron Pitts, “...I'm called to help people…how do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? And these are principles that can help you. I mean, there's a lot better people qualified to say, 'Here's a book that's going to explain the scriptures to you.' I don't think that's my gifting,"

When Pitts asked Osteen whether his optimism might mislead those for whom life's problems don't get better, Osteen said, “...I teach that even in the tough times you have to embrace where you are. Know that God's giving you the strength to overcome. You can even be positive in a negative situation and it will help you stay filled with hope.”

At a Get Motivated seminar in Oklahoma City, 2006, Peter Lowe gave a faith presentation, envisioning God as a source of power for an eternally successful life. It was just before lunch, as I recall, on a day that also featured Rudy Giuliani, Suze Orman, University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops, and stock tips.

And theological commitments don't make as much difference as one might expect. 

Church planters use the language of entrepreneurship to describe themselves. A lot of what we call “missional” today critiques American consumerism but still measures success in lifestyle and behavior. It critiques American individualism by challenging individuals to make a difference. 

And once it becomes plausible to equate platform building with the mission of the church, it becomes less surprising that Time Magazine would mentioned Mark Driscoll as a leader in "new Calvinism" in 2009 and then a marketing scheme to get the Driscolls' book, "Real Marriage," on bestseller lists helped speed the shuttering of Driscoll's Seattle mega church in 2015.

In his book, "Bad Religion: How we became a nation of heretics," Ross Douthat provides historical context, exploring the forces at work in the "Christian convergence" after World War II and in orthodox Christianity's declining influence since. He observes that Americans have not become less religious so much as less orthodox—more inclined to equate righteousness with prosperity, to confuse Christianity with Americanism, to espouse what researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

In his book “Christless Christianity,” Michael Horton critiques Osteen and others. Horton says, “Calling us to accomplish great things for God is part of the hype that constantly burns out millions of professing Christians. Telling us about the great things God has accomplished—and, more than that, actually delivering his achievement to sinners—is the real mission of the church.”

Indeed the irretrievability of lost time, the frequency with which best intentions go astray, and the experience of suffering defy explanation in a moralistic or an entrepreneurial framework. We cannot make wrongs unhappen. 

But Douthat goes beyond pointing out American heresies don't work. He explores the interaction between American Christianity and American culture...and compares both to historic Christianity. 

A friend recently pointed out that I'm not offering solutions, just complaints. He's right. At least in some sense, I might be doing that.

But there's something else too. Call it longing...and a glimpse...of something true in spite of me, not dependent on my performance, more like my parents' love than Gothard's theories, old as Genesis and strange as Revelation, more like a crucifix than a seminar. 

03 September 2016


Mission of the Sacred Heart, Old Mission State Park, Idaho.
Footsteps reaching the park
Walk through the grass
Trying to focus
Cloud textures
Two skaters
Birch tree silhouette

Heart searching for meaning
Meaning for mind
Mind reaching for words
Words wandering
Words working
Words hoping for rest

Trees stirring memories
Words cling to sense
Longing to be shared
Like music
Like laughter
Like lovers just met

06 August 2016

Black and Blue and All

He startled me as I pulled my car door open.

It was cold by Oklahoma City standards. I was headed south to Norman for a recreational league basketball game. He needed a ride north.

But we were headed for the same highway. I sized him up and calculated it was better that he not startle someone else. So I told him how far I could take him, and he hopped in. He had a well-trimmed goatee and wore a brown coat and dark pants. I don't remember much about his story. Something I now regret.

I don't know if my suspicion was triggered by race or the situation. I experienced it like curiosity...and a self-congratulating sense of responsibility and helpfulness.

He asked me what I did.

His curiosity surprised me. We became two men, equals, talking.

I told him I wrote and edited. We only had a mile or so to drive.

Just as we reached the highway where our paths again diverged, he said I should write about affirmative action. I wasn't sure what influence he thought I had.

He said, “No, you have the people.”

I can't think of anyone who in so short a time challenged my perception of myself and others.

I have wrestled with the meaning of race and America's complicated history since Mom read us the story of George Washington Carver. As a kid, I checked out books of western art, first for the horses, then the stories.

Mom wouldn't let us pretend to shoot each other, so our friends' games of cowboys and Indians were out. It was the beginning of a different way of seeing, a way of seeing that grieved those killed and things lost or broken, a way of seeing that gradually opened my perspective to the wrongs others faced. Mom made others plausible.

At age 23, I met a friend who pointed out the whiteness of many home schoolers' lists of heroes. Her point was reinforced when my next job involved researching Sergeant William Carney and the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry and others...trying to find characters and stories that would bridge racial divides...recognizing for the first time the patronizing tone of some things I read...hearing offhand remarks that Martin Luther King Jr. was disqualified because he protested the Vietnam war.

There's cultural pressure on white people not to be racist—a word I've tended to associate with white supremacists. And we fear being called racists. So some of us scurry for the safe, logical idea of colorblindness.

This is also why a member of a minority who brings up racial issues—or who might have mixed feelings about #bluelivesmatter—seems “angry” or “racist” to a lot of whites.

That's why I felt so confused the night a bunch of us were at a steakhouse and a black friend and a Latino friend started joking about certain physical characteristics. What struck me then was that it wasn't fair. I couldn't make that kind of jokes, and I didn't have a category for my friends other than racist, since they drew distinctions based on race.

If I understand him, this is close to Robin DiAngelo's definition of “white fragility.”

pixabay.com (Public Domain)
I did not intend to feel superior that night, but there are many ways the power dynamics favor members of a majority, and in this kind of world, my friends are always aware of race. I, on the other hand, am largely unaware...until somebody points it out. Then I don't know what to do.

Cultural contexts and experiences lead all of us to have blind spots...and privileges. My German and Swedish immigrant ancestors had mostly economic obstacles to overcome. So their descendants tend not to have to think of race. We don't have to moderate our feelings when we express support for the police after five officers are murdered in Dallas, even though two black men died at the hands of two other police departments in the previous few days.

We have to think of money. I know what it is to feel economic limitations, like some things are not possible because we lack money or connections and lack the experiences required to relate to those who have them. The middle class friends I've discussed this with haven't understood.

But African Americans have traditionally had other and greater obstacles to overcome—slavery in the past...segregation...the threat of violence...and the sense the justice system is stacked against them. It isn't white lives that have systematically or historically been in danger from American institutions...and it hasn't been white middle class communities that feel deeply alienated from their police departments. So using statistics to say the rate of police brutality against blacks and whites is actually the same...completely misses the point.

At the same time, there's little thought about what whiteness means...which is a two-edged sword. Whiteness becomes simultaneously “normal” and also an invalid set. I don't say “empty” because it does have content that's ignored. And I say “normal” because this content gets smuggled into conversations in the shape of our assumptions.

Grandpa Paulsson immigrated from Sweden in 1928. My dad remembers his accent. Several aunts still go on about Swedish things, and one of my uncles initiated me by putting a piece of pickled herring on my plate at Christmas.

Mom's family's habit of opening presents on Christmas Eve turns out to be a German thing. And there was that time in Germany the buffet server greeted me in German instead of English, a moment more special for its rarity.

My point here is that whiteness is a range of things, that aren't universal. Many of them are wonderful to share, but we should understand when, as Lecrae recently pointed out, some of those things feel as foreign to others as...I don't know...the presence of Mexican flags at an immigration rally.

This is also where American individualism lets us down. We envision problems and solutions at the individual level. We want to treat other people as equals; so we imagine everyone is like ourselves...on the inside...where it matters. Unfortunately, that approach works about as well as thinking all the world speaks English.

Regardless of when our ancestors came to America, whether they were here before Columbus or whether they owned slaves or were slaves, we all inherit our shared history. But there are stories we won't know unless someone tells us.

In his Billboard essay, Lecrae called for humility...on all sides.

I write as a white guy. We need to listen...humbly...to let others interpret themselves.

There will come a time to talk together about what the stories mean. But first we listen.

That feeling of confusion, anger, even shame—tied to something unchangeable, interwoven with all our assumptions and experiences, separating us from others—can awaken us to a swath of human experience we only intermittently encounter.

Sometimes, I think, humility feels a lot like grief.

30 July 2016

A Gentleman's Guide...to Comedy

Just after the ensemble's “A Warning to the Audience,” Montague Navarro (Kevin Massey) begins by telling how he learned of his mother's disinheritance...because she loved a Castilian musician.

Robert Freeman and Steven Lutvak based “A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder” on Roy Horniman's “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.” Their work won best musical at the 2014 Tony Awards and is playing in Seattle this weekend.
Navarro's new relatives, the D'Ysquiths, all played by John Rapson, turn out insufferable in all ways Edwardian nobility is insufferable to current sensibilities—social conventions, imperialism...banking.

Freeman said in the program interview, "...they're all loathsome in different ways, but in kind of the same way, in their attitude toward the little people, and their arrogance, which is silly. They are all silly people too."

And they all end up dying to hilarious effect...often as much from their silliness as from Navarro's opportunism. One is an inebriated clergyman, one an arrogant womanizer, one an entitled, gay beekeeper, one a vegetarian health nut, et cetera, et cetera. Their silliness is very up to date.

But there are two things taken seriously, namely love—or one popular conception of it, between mother and son and the etherial part of love between lovers that isn't institutional or physical—also, getting one's due. And, though I'm not sure this is how one thinks when setting out to be funny, it seems like taking these things seriously allows everything else to be funny.

It's a deconstructed Oliver Optic, believable because of the initial injustice and because director Darko Tresnjak and the cast tell the story on a stage within a stage, visualizing several different sides of the story.

The protagonist appears to some a picture of virtue and industry...even while relatives keep dying...and he keeps getting richer and ends up with a wife and a mistress.

“As time has gone by,” Lutvak said in the same interview, “I realize that what we are, in a way is a very low comedy in a very fancy box....”

Clever and thought provoking, as much from what it takes seriously as for what it finds funny.

15 July 2016

To the Meaning

A year ago last May my wife's occasional depression didn't go away.

At 17, I had a suicide plan. It involved grandpa's .22 and an irrigation canal. For several months at 31, I struggled to put in a full 40-hour week.

This wasn't that.

One friend set an appointment with the doctor. I asked another friend to recommend a therapist. We hoped something would “work.”

We learned to make flexible plans, to say we'd try to be there, to turn back if something was too much. 

August 30, Tina contemplated suicide.

I tried to think of something to do...to change...to help. Her mother came to visit. Tina's therapist sent literature—what helps and how to stay healthy in the process. We discussed the difference between self-harm and suicide. Friends reminded me to rest.  

One night some other friends talked Tina out of buying razor blades...via text message...while Tina wandered the super market.

My experience kept me from being shocked at Tina's pain. But nothing prepares a person for the not knowing what each day will bring, the uncertainty whether what you say or do gets through, the pain when a loved one harms herself, the helplessness. 

October 5, the folks at work had ordered pizza, I'd just sat down for lunch. My phone rang. I headed home, picked Tina up from therapy, and we went to the hospital. They asked a lot of questions and offered her a place in a voluntary stabilization program. She spent 5 hours there and called me to pick her up.

I locked up medicines...and knives...and scissors. Her mother came and helped us out again. I don't know how we would have made it otherwise. I couldn't have kept working like I did. 

My folks sent food and came to see us. I wrote e-mails, asking friends and family members to pray. Friends brought food. Friends came for visits.

All the questions Tina asked, I was asking too. Why so much pain? Why did God give us depression when we thought we might be having babies? 

Some think these questions mean, “What's the benefit?” They say, “God is teaching you something,” or they try to find some other silver lining.

Some translate the question, “What's going on?” They might say, “brain chemistry” or “development.” There's some insight here. Or some might say, “There is suffering in the world because of sin....” There's some insight here too...and a lot of other questions, such as how much power God has, whether he's good, and what he's thinking of.

I wonder if the bigger question—one nearer what we really want—is meaning. 

Joshua Seachris of the University of Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion suggests that what we want is a framework or a narrative to make sense of...things...what Seachris calls “existentially charged elements of life.”

In “Man's Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl argued the search for meaning is man's primary motivation: “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” 

Meaning, Frankl argued, is always there, is unique to the person and even to the situation, and is discovered “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

Between her darkest hours, Tina put together care packages for other hurting people. She cried when friends' babies passed away. She quit church and Christian music. But Broadway still reached her with something...not exactly hope...but something...and that was hard to do. 

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Tina started getting stronger, even though she wasn't feeling stronger. We bought Jim Brickman tickets when she thought she'd like to go. It was worth it just for the possibility. Colleagues bought us tickets to see Mannheim Steamroller. It was the first time we'd been out in quite a while.

In February, she started wanting her life to change...instead of only wishing the pain would end. 

She entered a 3-week program. We both learned a lot about expressing needs, dealing with anxiety.

What does all this mean?

I don't know. We're still on this journey. But this question might lead to wonder...rather than despair.

09 July 2016


As in a dream
surrounded by familiar things
familiar faces, and some new
familiar situation
stripped of sense.

Strange new words
one new face
asks if I'm okay
I say, “Fine.”
Rising, nameless urgency.

not understood
heart twisting, squeezing
Get up!

Cast out
it's dark
some small relief
I'm in a basement.

murmuring, buzz
distance, hiding
from the singing crowd
the rising menace.

Footsteps approach
bringing shoes
I had forgot
a smile
pauses the crescendo.

I try to breath.
He asks if I'm okay.
I nod.
The swelling song
breaks over me again.

I writhe
no words
one word
comes through the curtain

An admonition
as from a sermon.
Wait, there's a door!
Too bright outside.

The singing
rises faster
closing in

Wake up squirming
not knowing:
in the world?
or in my head?
I try to breath.