19 February 2017


In all our happily ever afters,
there lives this irony.

Love—unconditioned knowing
and valuing another—will involve
all kinds of sacrifice;
Expectations will be shattered,
perspectives reframed,
sexual proclivities restrained;
Love's survival will depend on promises
kept through circumstances

There is a givenness to life;
A giftedness we share...rooted in more
than either self-discovery or denial.

But there is brokenness
in myself and the world,
what Saint Paul called groaning
in creation, a disordering
of my affections, hardness of heart,
tension between things' givenness
and my tendency to seize them.

There is beauty mixed up with
the daily inconvenience of decorum,
that in pornography gets boiled down
to ego and mechanics.

There is a dignity and grace
in friendship and unrequited love
that gets lost when all I know
is “putting myself out there”
or “feeling like a fool.”

Love is the humanizing choice
to which we do not measure up
but come to find costly

12 February 2017

A Yodeler, a Painter, and Two Poets

The song went out to anyone who's ever fallen in love in “a cowboy kind of way.”

That's how Wylie Gustafson introduced “To Her,” a song based on the Badger Clark poem, when he and his band, The Wild West, performed at the Chateau Rive last January. 

To reach the venue, you enter Spokane landmark The Flour Mill at street level, just across from the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. You wind your way to the elevator or the stairs where the historic grain bin construction, 2x4s laid flat one on top of each other, can still be seen. Down nearer Spokane River level, you enter the venue...with its thick brick walls and pieces of the old mill's power train still attached to the ceiling.

If Gustafson's performance is one thing or another, it's cowboy music. He returns throughout the show to the influence of his father singing and playing guitar in the living room and his mother taking the family to church. He sees himself in a tradition defined as much by the western ranching lifestyle he describes in “200 Ton” as by the music in the self-deprecating “Yodeling Fool.”

The band's website describes guitarist Clayton Parsons as a “third generation guitarist” and drummer Tim Lashley as “born and raised in the Black Hills, Home of Western American Poet, Charles Badger Clark.”

Clark was born in 1883, the same year his family moved to South Dakota. The Black Hills Gold Rush had just subsided. He spent four years on a cattle ranch in Arizona near the Mexican border, and published his first book of poetry, “Sun and Saddle Leather,” in 1915. He became South Dakota's first poet laureate, and the cabin where he lived his last 30 years remains a historic landmark.

"Loops and Swift Horses Are Surer Than Lead," C.M. Russell, 1916, Public Domain.

In “The Glory Road” a cowboy ropes a cougar and passes into myth. The Outlaw” draws an analogy between a wild horse and an untamed temper. Clark describes a searing grief in “The Lost Pardner,” and mourns those lost in war in “Smoke Blue Plains” and “Jeff Hart.

...Jeff Hart has drifted for good and all,
     To the ghostly bugles blown,
But the far French valley that saw him fall
     Blood kin to the gulch is grown;
And his foreign folks are ours by right—
     The friends that he died to win.
Jeff Hart rode out of the gulch one night;
     Next morning the world came in.

Though he writes of love, or at least infatuation, Clark, who never married, reasserts his individualism in these final stanzas of “Bachin'.”

...We like to breathe unbranded air,
     Be free of foot and mind,
And go or stay, or sing or swear,
     Whichever we're inclined.
An appetite, a conscience clear,
     A pipe that's rich and old
Are loves that always bless and cheer
     And never cry or scold,
          They don't.
     They never cry or scold.

Old Adam bached some ages back
     And smoked his pipe so free,
A-loafin' in a palm-leaf shack
     Beneath a mango tree.
He'd best have stuck to bachin' ways,
     And scripture proves the same,
For Adam's only happy days
     Was 'fore the woman came,
          They was,
     All 'fore the woman came.

It's an individualism unpacked further in “The Westerner.”

My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,
    And each one sleeps alone.
Their trails may dim to the grass and rains,
    For I choose to make my own.
I lay proud claim to their blood and name,
    But I lean on no dead kin;
My name is mine, for the praise or scorn,
And the world began when I was born
    And the world is mine to win...
I dream no dreams of a nurse-maid state
    That will spoon me out my food.
A stout heart sings in the fray with fate
    And the shock and sweat are good.
From noon to noon all the earthly boon
    That I ask my God to spare
Is a little daily bread in store,
With the room to fight the strong for more,
    And the weak shall get their share.
The sunrise plains are a tender haze
    And the sunset seas are gray,
But I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
    Over me and the big today.
What good to me is a vague "maybe"
    Or a mournful "might have been,"
For the sun wheels swift from morn to morn
And the world began when I was born
    And the world is mine to win.

The dichotomy of city and wilderness, old country and new haunts Clark, in poems like “The Old Cow Man” and here in “The Free Wind.”

I went and worked in a drippin' mine
     'Mong the rock and the oozin' wood,
For the dark it seemed lit with a dollar sign
     And they told me money's good.
So I jumped and sweat for a flat-foot boss
     Till my pocket bulged with pay,
But my heart it fought like a led bronc hawse
     Till I flung my drill away....
I went and walked in the city way
     Down a glitterin' canyon street,
For the thousand lights looked good and gay
     And they said life there was sweet.
So the wimmin laughed while night reeled by
     And the wine ran red and gold,
But their laugh was the starved wolf's huntin' cry
     And their eyes were hard and old.
And the wind, the wind, the clean free wind,
     She laughed through April rains:
"Come out and live by the wine I give
     In the smell of the greenin' plains!"
And I looked back once to the smoky towers
     Where my face had bleached so pale,
Them loped through the lash of drivin' showers
     To the uncut sod and the prairie flowers
And the old wide life o' the trail....

This dichotomy persists in the opening lines of “From Town”:

We're the children of the open and we hate the haunts o' men,
   But we had to come to town to get the mail.
And we're ridin' home at daybreak—'cause the air is cooler then—
   All 'cept one of us that stopped behind in jail....

In contrast to Gustafson, Clark does not seem to see himself within a tradition. And here in the last stanza of “The Plainsmen,” Clark seems to know he occupies a moment that will not last forever.

...When the last free trail is a prime, fenced land
     And our graves grow weeds through forgetful Mays,
Richer and statelier then you'll reign,
     Mother of men whom the world will praise.
And your sons will love you and sigh for you,
Labor and battle and die for you,
     But never the fondest will understand
     The way we have loved you, young, young land.

Though the son of a Methodist minister, Clark's idea of God seems essentially material, voiced here by the elements in the final stanza of “The Camp Fire's Song”:

...Poor little primal thing am I,
   Great stranger, yet I mock your lore;
Your thickest volumes often lie
   And these still stars could tell you more,
The wind that sighs across the sand
Or I, but could you understand?
  So wise! so wise!
A puzzled child within your eyes.

"When the Land Belonged to God," C.M. Russell, 1914, Public Domain.

Clark wrote during the same period artist C.M. Russell lived and worked in Montana. Though one does not get from Russell the same threatened individualism one gets from Clark, Russell's “When the Land Belonged to God” reflects themes similar to these last lines from Clark's “God's Reserves.”

...There the world's the same as the day 'twas new,
    With the land as clean as the smokeless sky
And never a noise as the years have flew,
    But the sound of the warm wind driftin' by'
And there, alone, with the man's world far,
There's a chance to think who you really are.
And over the reach of the desert bare,
    When the sun drops low and day wind stills,
Sometimes you kin almost see Him there,
    As He sits alone on the blue-gray hills,
A-thinkin' of things that's beyond our ken
And restin' Himself from the noise of men.

Russell's painting inspired a song of the same title by Jack Gladstone, citizen of the Blackfeet Nation and University of Washington alumni hall of fame inductee:

...The purest gift is not of gold,
but in art that awakens the soul.
As we choose our trail up the Great Divide
to an unknown stage on the other side
We might realign with the scenes of the Big Sky’s unbroken sod...
Where the Land Belongs to God.

04 February 2017

An Uncourtship Story

This post first appeared on The VOICE Conference Blog. This edition is reprinted here with permission from The VOICE Conference.

I searched the Bible for character qualities my future wife should have...and some I should have.

I made commitments to “courtship” when I was 12. I had crushes, accompanied by prayer and journaling. I read blog posts about “being the right one” rather than “finding the right one.” I looked for more character qualities I should have.

If I did what was right, I wouldn't hurt others or be hurt myself, right?

Then I tried to “court” someone.

That's when I discovered well-intentioned people treat one another shabbily, even when—maybe especially when—they're trying to do everything right.

Along the way, I heard lots of advice. There were admonitions to be “serious” about relationships. But being “serious” didn't guarantee I wasn't also selfish.

There were admonitions to “pursue” relationship, that relationships take work. This idea pointed out where I focus on myself. But my initiative and effort did not guarantee relationship success.

The shame became the hardest part.

While my friends were getting married and then having kids, I wondered why my relationships would last a while...and not work.

In the two and a half years before I met my wife, Tina, summer 2013, two 8-month relationships came and went—one mostly on Skype that couldn't survive meeting in person, one relationship I ended for reasons I still struggle to articulate.

Even my good desires were all mixed up with something else. I'd think myself in the right...and realize how self-righteous that thought meant I was. I'd decide my life direction didn't match someone else's...and then realize my real reasons had more to do with fear.

So when I met Tina, I didn't experience it as answered prayer. I hadn't thought to pray.

I didn't “love Jesus more,” or receive a “rhema,” or get myself to a place where I had “no will of my own,” though those sound like good things.

Knowing Tina has been more like a sudden rain than turning on a faucet, more like being forgiven than asking for forgiveness, more like grace than anything else.

Now that we're married we need each other's forgiveness even more. And the other's forgiveness makes God's promised forgiveness feel more real.

Maybe that's the point.

Maybe grace is the work we discover God was doing all along. Maybe what we're meant to know isn't “how to live the Christian life” but to behold our Savior.

Photo courtesy of Anita Paulsson

28 January 2017

The Raven: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of Story

In his memoir, "On Writing," Stephen King describes being nearly killed by a motoristalmost a character from his books.
In "The Raven," something like that happens to Edgar Allan Poe.  

Nobody knows just where Poe was before he turned up October 3, 1849, and friends took him to Baltimore's Washington College Hospital. The makers of the movie seem to say he was tracking a serial killer. But as the bodies pile up, so do clues something else is going on.

What surprised me, after I woke up one night and on impulse caught a midnight showing, is how well the movie bears re-watching and how it opened a door to Poe's work that hadn't been there before. 

The movie achieves that effect not because it translates Poe onto screen. There is no biography to translate. And though the movie interweaves with Poe's works, the movie does not explain them.

Instead the filmmakers confront the viewer with the mystery of the story as well as the mystery in the story. It makes one wonder what more one needs to know in order to unlock the meaning of those layers. 

Some will notice Rufus W. Griswold makes the movie victim list, though history records he wrote the biography in the first collected edition of Poe's works...after Poe died. 

Some notice the significance of the movie's use of Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream."

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Poe saw the world as a rational place and the pursuit of art as a rational process. In the "The Purloined Letter" and "Murders in the Rue Morgue," he saw detective work as a deductive process. And it was keen observation and deduction that saved the narrator in "A Descent into the Maelstrom." 

In his essay “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe breaks down the process he used to write his poem, “The Raven.”

"It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

This is not to say he did not believe in emotion or empathy, which we commonly contrast with rationality today. He saw them as the goal to be achieved through the rational process.

He writes, "Keeping originality always in view...I say to myself, in the first place, 'Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?'"

Everything then—from the length of the poem to the vowel sounds he wanted in the refrain and the use of a raven rather than a parrot—served the effect he sought to create.

Perhaps Poe's poetic belief in beauty—the elevation of the soul—which he took to be the central principle of poetry, gives Poe's idea of death its searing quality…as in these last lines of "Anabelle Lee."

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee: —
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea —
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.  

Or, to take a poem not referenced in the film, "Ulalume":

The skies they were ashen and sober;
   The leaves they were crisped and sere —
   The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
   Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
   In the misty mid region of Weir —
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
   In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
   Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
   Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
   As the scoriac rivers that roll —
   As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
   In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
   In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
   But our thoughts they were palsied and sere —
   Our memories were treacherous and sere —
For we knew not the month was October,
   And we marked not the night of the year —
   (Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber —
   (Though once we had journeyed down here) —
Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
   Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
   And star-dials pointed to morn —
   As the star-dials hinted of morn —
At the end of our path a liquescent
   And nebulous lustre was born,

Out of which a miraculous crescent
   Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
   Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said — “She is warmer than Dian:
   She rolls through an ether of sighs —
   She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
   These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
   To point us the path to the skies —
   To the Lethean peace of the skies —
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
   To shine on us with her bright eyes —
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
   With love in her luminous eyes.”

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
   Said — “Sadly this star I mistrust —
   Her pallor I strangely mistrust: —
Oh, hasten! — oh, let us not linger!
   Oh, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
   Wings until they trailed in the dust —
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
   Plumes till they trailed in the dust —
   Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied — “This is nothing but dreaming
   Let us on by this tremulous light!
   Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendor is beaming
   With Hope and in Beauty to-night: —
   See! — it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
   And be sure it will lead us aright —
We safely may trust to a gleaming
   That cannot but guide us aright,
   Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
   And tempted her out of her gloom —

   And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
   But were stopped by the door of a tomb —
   By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said — “What is written, sweet sister,
   On the door of this legended tomb?”
   She replied — “Ulalume — Ulalume —
   ‘Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
   As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
   As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
   On this very night of last year
   That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
   That I brought a dread burden down here —
   On this night of all nights in the year,
   Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
   This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,

   This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir."

Whatever effect director James McTeigue and writers Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston were going for, they created a place where Poe—his life, death, and works—come swirling together with their attending questions and meanings.

20 January 2017

On the Occasion of a Wedding

I woke, dreaming of brides and grooms,
Moses and shrubs, strange, unconsumed,
Souls shocked by unexpectedness.

Called to experience by name
Deliverance begun, unearned,
In promise given and received.

Rooted in ancient history,
Promise-created memory,
Lived faith before these witnesses.

Amid laundry and forgiveness,
Joy, sorrow, and forgetfulness,
Find hope...your unexpected rest.

15 January 2017


She hangs on the wind
Over wild rye and greasewood;
Quail zip through the brush
Leave frosty tracks on the ground.
Her tail, wings catch. They...escape.

07 January 2017

Confession Regarding an Election

Saint Martins Saint Francis Episcopal Church, Rockport, Wash.
I grew up in the warm glow of Ronald Reagan's optimism. Or that's how I remember it.

The shock on Mom's face when Reagan was shot etched itself into my memory...along with the relief when he survived.

We listened to James Dobson. We subscribed to World magazine. We read biographies of Jonathan Edwards, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver.

We found in American history a precedent for Christian activism. We saw ourselves as heirs to a religious heritage that shaped the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And we believed both traditions taught us to see slavery and segregation—no less than abortion—as blots on our national conscience.

We also had the sense that Christians were losing their cultural influence

In “A Christian Manifesto,” published in 1981, Francis Schaeffer wrote, “The basic problem of the Christians in this country in the last eighty years or so is that they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals. They have gradually become disturbed over permissiveness, pornography, the public schools, the breakdown of the family, and abortion. But they have failed to see this shift away from a worldview that was at least vaguely Christian toward a worldview based upon the idea that final reality is impersonal matter or energy....”

That sense of decline and Schaeffer's diagnosis, though I read it later, defined the attraction of conservatism.

I remember running across the backyard on election night, 1994, pumping my fists, “G-O-P, G-O-P.”  Quietly...so as not to disturb.

I worked phones for Ellen Craswell's gubernatorial campaign in 1996. I listened to Rush Limbaugh while working on the farm. I donated to George W. Bush's election campaign, and most of the people I worked and worshiped with in Oklahoma are Republicans.

That seems like a long time ago.

The battle Hobby Lobby fought over the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate and fears the supreme court's 2015 ruling on gay marriage might marginalize those holding a historic Christian view of marriageconcerns laid out by David Harsanyi—intensified many voters' distrust of Clinton.

As Clinton supporter, Joan Williams wrote in the Harvard Business Review, Clinton...
epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables.” 

Some voted for Trump...or Clinton...out of a two-party risk assessment, believing one or the other would do less damage. Some chose not to vote.

Many went well beyond risk assessment.

The Trump supporters—primary voters and social media apologists—I talked to seemed to want a strongman, someone “who could win,” someone who would “fight fire with fire."

Jerry Falwell Jr justified his continued support for Trump on the grounds that voters are electing a president, not a pastor, which sounds a lot like a campaign promise to appoint a certain kind of supreme court justices...somehow compensates for cheating building contractors and bragging about sexual assault.

Some tried to distance themselves from Trump's personal morality and still support his presidential campaign because his “worldview” was “closer to scripture,” as John MacArthur put it. MacArthur also made an argument based on the risk of Clinton winning the election, but he left unclear how "the art of the deal" fits into the biblical narrative.

An over reliance on great individuals has grown up around presidential politics—perhaps understandable, given Reagan's and Obama's stature and recent presidents' use of powerand this idolatry has now reached full flower. 

In his speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump dispensed entirely with modesty and said, “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”

There were other voices. 

World magazine called for Trump to step aside as it did for Bill Clinton in 1998. New York Times columnist and Catholic Ross Douthat pointed out "An Election Is Not a Suicide Mission." President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary R. Albert Mohler Jr. laid out exactly what was at stake in this "excruciating moment." Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, drew fire from Trump and other evangelicals

As far back as the end of the 1992 campaign, the idea of journalistic objectivity had crumbled to the point New Republic's Fred Barnes could argue “an important line was crossed.”
Evidence—and accusations—of media bias have grown since then. But as conservatives turned to talk show hosts and bloggers, and as the Fox News Channel started up in 1996, objections focused less on fairness—or even civility—and more on discrediting the other side.

In the last 10 years, social media algorithms increasingly surrounded us with voices similar to our own, and pundits on both sides have hurled whatever came to hand across growing divides. Everyone the left doesn't like ends up with Hitler's mustache, and everyone the right doesn't like's a socialist or worse.

But this isn't the media or social media or fake news stories doing this to us. Those things take the shape they do because we lean that way to start with. 

Mutually assured radicalization.

The first problem with any political agenda is that it's political, and those tend to become about the power and the tribe. 

But compromising moral credibility for an agenda undermines our moral stand on everything, including the agenda.

If we conservative Christians hold religious freedom an inalienable human right, then national security might be one good reason to regulate immigration, but it does not justify the imposition of a religious test for Muslim immigration or free movement.

If we accept, as William Blackstone wrote, those rights granted to humankind by God are inalienable, and if we hold the Declaration's “pursuit of happiness” to include the right to support one's family, then undocumented workers from Latin America are guilty of something more like exceeding the speed limit than robbing a house and don't deserve to have their families torn apart by deportation.

It's possible to argue various ways these ideas might work out in policy, but asserting the human rights protected by the Constitution only apply to Americans is nationalism, not Christianity.

The other problem with a political agenda is that it's an agenda.

Agendas allow us to salve our consciences by voting for—or condemning in blog posts—this candidate or that party without knowing our neighbors. We can imagine ourselves pro-life without doing anything to help young women in crisis, without dealing with the fallout of sexual assault, without experiencing a loved one's long, slow deterioration, without extending hospitality to immigrants or refugees...without loving our neighbors in any number of less dramatic ways.

I don't recognize the party or the movement I grew up in. And I'm angered...that misogyny and nativism will now be so strongly associated with conservative Christianity, that it will likely be harder to express an orthodox Christian view of human sexuality, that it will be harder to engage with thosefellow believers, like Jemar Tisbywho feel betrayed.

And somewhere in that statement lies my idolatry—my faith in politics or in the groups I belong to—and my failure to love my neighbor

This is my confession...taken from the "Book of Common Prayer"...

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name.

21 October 2016

I Want to Live

Though we inhabit sorrow, pain, and toil,
Oppressed by things we think we should do well,
I want to rest, hunger, thirst, and wander
And need and wonder and not be alone.

Though we walk through loneliness and shadow
And fight these broken battles in our brains,
I want to try and touch and go and see
And breath and taste and make and come to know.

Though fear seizes the heart and shakes the mind
Strangling the light and breathing in despair,
I want to glimpse the sacredness of life
And be surprised by music and by truth.

Though death whispers to us it's false relief
And sometimes drives all other thoughts away,
I want to hold your hand and not let go
And talk and choose and feel and live...with you.

02 October 2016

Lady Susan: Love and Friendship

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 translate Jane Austen's works to screen.

Easier because
the epistolary novella allows the characters' attitudes 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 Austen's effect by cutting forward to each next event, to each next perspective, but translating the story onto the screen also 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 for 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 can get 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.