Friday, July 25, 2008

A Grand Inheritance

My brother and I stood together at the calling hours for my dad a day after his birthday and two days before the birth of my brother’s first child. He had been killed earlier in the week by a reckless driver. The long hours passed and we politely greeted people who we knew well many years ago and others we had never met. We smiled, hugged and made pleasantries. We had long since come up with a half dozen stock conversations with jokes perfected by repeated use. We were tired and sad. Near the end of the night a middle age man reached us and kindly introduced himself and said nice things about Dad. After the standard exchange, however, he told us that he had some ‘merchandise’ that my Dad had acquired and not used yet. Apparently he was holding about $1200 dollars of this ‘material’ that my dad bought and he went to great lengths to suggest that it was some of the very best ‘stuff.’ After opining about the quality of this ‘asset’ he told us to call him when we were ready and we could talk about what we wanted to do with it. Nic and I listened politely. When he was done, we looked at each other, and then one of us said in our well trained funeral voice, “I’m sorry sir. We have no idea what you are talking about.” He looked up in surprise and said, like it was the most natural thing in the word, ‘Semen. I have about $1200 dollars of Bull Semen in my freezer that your dad purchased.’ We struggled to keep a straight face. You see Nic had just spent three years in a nice Chicago suburb and I was a Californian. People we knew didn’t keep bull semen in their freezers. But sure enough, I recognized the man as the gentlemen that showed up a couple times a year with a shoulder length glove to artificially inseminate select cows with the seed of some of the finest bulls in the land. We assured him that we would be in touch and he left. Nic turned to me before talking with the next guest and said, ‘Of all the things I never really expected to inherit, this ranks.’

Bovine Deficit

A couple of days after my father died, they came with a big trailer to take the cows away. Those damn cows. How much had they cost our family over the years? How many fights? How much time together? But as the field stood empty days after Amanda and I came home from the movies to 11 messages on our answering machine, I felt surprisngly alone.

I had been a grown up for some time. I lived three thousand miles away, had a great family and job and hadn’t depended on my dad for anything really except interest in my life for years. So why did the world seem bigger, colder and scarier now? Why did the absence of cows seem like being caught without a coat on one of those legendary northern New York winter days? They say that you will always be your parent’s little boy to them. But it seems like I had been my dad’s little boy in my mind as well. I wasn’t ready for him to leave my mom alone or never meet my children. But I think the biggest shock of it was the jarring impact of full adulthood; of loosing a buffer between me and the world that I didn’t realize I counted on.

The Ogre's Castle

Since I have spent nearly every waking, non-parenting hour this week working, this will be my first week dipping into 'the file' to post some older stuff. After having an e-mail exchange with my high school friend, Taunee, this week about my Dad, I've decided to post 3 short pieces about his death and funeral. This should not be as depressing as it sounds. The last one is actually a humor piece (as Dad would have preferred). But let me use the first one to unpack the title of this blog a bit... Father was killed by a reckless driver just over 5 years ago, 2 days before his 59th birthday and less than a week before the birth of his first grand child (my brother's first born, Abby). My next post will deal more with how this affected me existentially, here I am more interested in a wordview with room for the s@*# of life. You see, I think that any successful world view has to believably encompass two seemingly disparate observations: that our lives are rich with indescribable beauty (see previous post) and horrifying evils. Most religious world views have to deal with 'the problem of evil' because they assert a fundamental purposefulness against which, loss and pain appear to be aberrations. Conversely, secular worldviews have to deal with 'the problem of beauty.' By asserting a fundamental purposelessness, art, beauty and love can be difficult fits. Which brings me to Dad's funeral, my brother and GK Chesterton. Nic used the following quote at the service from one of my favorite books, Orthodoxy (the most exhilarating book that no one reads because the title sounds unbearably tedious):

"For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre's castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening. No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?" GK Chesterton - Orthodoxy

And so there it is. In an age of post modern detachment I am on a quest for a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. White hot anger in the face of injustice and overwhelming joy in grace. Frustration with the darkness in my own heart and gratitude in redemption. The ability to sit at my dad's funeral and hate the world I love.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Surprisingly Familiar Satisfaction

For years my favorite part of living out west was the hiking and backpacking. Living hours from some of the greatest backcountry in the world and less than a day from most of our country's National Parks was the highlight of our move out here and we took full advantage. When we finally decided to have our first child (a mere 9.5 years into our marriage) we actually picked up the pace. In the 3 years before Charis joined our family we did extended hikes or backpacking trips in Glacier (my personal favorite), the Canadian Rockies, Olympic, Cascades, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Lost Coast, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Yosemite (several times). (This gives me an excuse to post gratuitous backpacking photos.)

We knew that we would enjoy the parenthood life stage and were not mourning the loss of our extended newlywed phase. We just knew that one of our favorite activities would be on hold for a decade or so and we tried to get as much of it in as possible. When 'we' actually got pregnant I started to take existential steps to embrace the new season. I even wore my special, REI, $10/pair, hiking-only socks for other athletic purposes as a personal act of moving on. I was thankful for the life stage we had lingered in but ready to start something completely different. What surprised me was how existentially similar the experiences were.

There are several reasons I love to backpack. I am a big fan of the exercise vacation. I am goal oriented to the point of personality disorder. I enjoy the air, the sounds and the solitude. Amanda and I once covered 15 spectacular miles along the High Sierra trail and encountered more bears than people (final score: bears 1, humans 0). But mostly it is the experience of transcendence. The proximity to bigness. There is a familiar emotional response that comes from staring up at the shear mass of El Capitan, peering out over the jagged peaks of the Palisade range or watching the sun come down over the watery pacific horizon. It is the feeling of transcendence...the strange and terrifying comfort you feel when the confining walls of the ego are shattered and you are overwhelmed with otherness. When there is something else so grand, so lovely, so original you, for just a moment, have an accurately sober self assessment.

But, for me, this was the great surprise of parenthood. It is flush with these same moments. I had expected that in trading backpacking for parenthood I was trading up, but for a qualitatively different experience. What I didn't expect was that my favorite moments of parenthood would remind me of my favorite moments in the mountains. The beauty and wonder of our daughter affects the same experience of joy in transcendence. (This gives me an excuse to post gratuitous Charis photos.)

John Piper believes that our desire to experience the transcendent through sunsets and mountains is a clue to our fundamental nature. We are existentially wired to desire to be near that which is qualitatively greater than ourselves. He actually expands the realm of greatness to include sports. This is why we watch the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Olympics. The reason that I, as a completely heterosexual man, am so drawn to the power and beauty of Kevin Garnett is because I desire the experience of fundamental otherness. I want to celebrate greatness. I have a base code level desire that seeks satisfaction in greatness. I was designed to worship. Lewis famously calls these temporal passes with transcendence 'the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.'

I have always found backpacking satisfying because the greatness of the geologic anomalies we protect as monuments become conduits of worship. I am awed by their bigness and by analogy (or syllogism) I am more awed by their creator. The surprise of parenthood is that I find it satisfying and worshipful in precisely the same way.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What the Church can Learn from the Hollywood Writers Strike?

The screen writer’s strike came and left leaving us mostly nonplused[1] but leaving behind a few mildly interesting lessons:

1. Goateed, hipster picketers fail to generate the blue collar solidarity that usually accompanies labor disputes and all attempts to compare Hollywood types to coal miners or auto workers disintegrate into comic self parody.
2. Americans are so dependent on visual media that they will tune into repeat programming with nearly 80% loyalty verses new content, divesting the creative class of any bargaining power.
3. People who have lots of money did not get lots of money by sharing it with those who made them lots of money.

But as we learned far more than we cared to[2] about the inner workings of original content programming, one lesson for the church loomed above all others. All quality original content is generated in community. When content is produced by an individual quality can not be sustained. We learned that our culture’s premier orators are pretty average when required to summon their own material.

My primary access to this phenomenon was through my regular consumption of the work of Jon Stewart, who struggled to fill his 23 minutes, four times a week. It was often painful for both of us. Stewart would openly check his watch to see how long a particular gag had taken, pleading with time to pass more quickly. Friends and commentators suggested that others (Lettermen, Leno, Kimmel et al) faired even worse.

But this got me thinking. If someone as brilliant as Stewart can not fill 93 minutes of content per week (even with the help of the other non-writing actors) how can we reasonably expect the average pastor to pump out inspiring sermon week after week when, for most, it is only about 20 to 30% of what they do. The marketplace is a pretty good machine for churning out optimal solutions to a range of problems. The pulpit is the centerpiece of post-reformation Protestantism (whether that is Biblically justified or not). Preaching is the primary original content the church produces. We should optimize its development. We should consider the benefits of generating content in community.

Lest I be accused of the unpardonable sin of pragmatism, let me build a brief theological case. Content by community seems like it could be a pretty easy pill for the church to swallow. After all, community is central to the Christian experience. As Eugeene Peterson says, “You are not yourself by yourself.” Christians believe that connectedness is fundamental to humanness. We call ourselves the body, a fundamental metaphor of interconnectedness. Every prescriptive text on leadership in the New Testament talks about a community of interdependent teaching leaders. And finally, our anthropology requires us to view our own skills, ideas and talents with skepticism and to desire the corrective influences of others.

Still, it seems that post-reformation Protestantism has this picture of the heroic pastor slaving in solitude alone in the study. There are a couple pastors out there that can consistently make it work. Driscoll and Keller come to mind. But both of them have significant time carved out[3] for prep and even then, Driscoll has no fear of repeating the same joke for the 8th time[4] and Keller is probably preaching on ‘the gospel’ again this Sunday.[5] Most preachers, even exceptional ones, simply cannot be profound, inspiring, entertaining, insightful, carefully exegetical from their own reading and experience week after week, 45 weeks a year. Almost no other profession requires that. And, those that do, do so in community[6].

So how about it? Pastoral writing staffs. This might look like 3 to 8 lay individuals that study the passage 2 weeks before and are responsible for providing 3-5 fragments under the headings: Observations, Interpretive Points, Illustrations and Applications. The orator builds his/her own message and synthesis but has quality bits to draw from that would have taken a great deal of time to find and might come from a different perspective that resonates with the listeners (since they also work outside the church). Or better yet, can you imagine the sanctified chaos of a weekly ‘writer’s room’ (say 1 hour, Tuesdays, after work) where the ‘writers’ pitch angles, illustrating anecdotes and points of application and riff off each other giving the orator a productive ferment from which to draw and hone a message. And, as a bonus, they’d never go on strike.

[1] Particularly those of us who consume >90% of our visual media through DVD’s.
[2] The entertainment industry is becoming increasingly self referential as they turn to themselves for content and find themselves more interesting then we do. We are getting a lot of new content about the entertainment industry (e.g. Studio 60, 30 Rock, Extras). Studio 60 didn’t fail because religious America has no sensibility for the transcendent art of Alan Sorkin. Studio 60 failed because we are interested in Sorkin’s art not Sorkin himself. (That, and we have a polemic tolerance threshold for our art).
[3] One standard suggestion involves putting in one hour of prep time for each minute of speaking.
[4] And to his credit, it is usually still funny.
[5] Though, to his credit, it will be fantastic.
[6] Political speech writing is another example.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Why Clutter the Blogosphere with Yet Another Moo?

When it comes to recently deceased comedians I am far more of a Mitch Hedberg guy than a George Carlin guy. Mitch oozed genius while Carlin gave off more of an aura of method, personal intensity and blue collar work ethic. But there is no doubt in my mind that my approach to the creative act is much closer to the workman like Carlin than the genius Hedberg so I read this interview with great interest, as Carlin described his process in detail shortly before his death. I found the basic outline of his process reminded me of two writers I deeply respect: Blaise Pascal and Jonathan Edwards (the one that wore the wigs not the expensive haircuts). It goes something like this:

1. Never allow a thought or observation to go unrecorded. Carlin used post it notes. Edwards famously filled many many notebooks when notebooks weren’t cheap. Pascal, more like the former than the latter in this case, opted for tiny scraps of paper.
2. Have a good system in which you revisit these observations and group them, turning multiple insights into narrative fragments. Carlin used a Mac. Edwards, again, with the notebooks. And Pascal famously, and more idiosyncratically, used needle and thread to group his little scraps of paper.
3. Weave these pericopes into a cohesive piece of work.

(Note: If it seems like a stretch to compare a contemporary comedian that I don’t even think was that good with one of the greatest theologians and one of the greatest scientist/poets that ever lived, well, it is. But I have recently taken Mark Driscoll’s advice to study comedic method as homiletics training since they are the only ones in our culture that do anything remotely like what a preacher does.)

I love blog culture. No fewer than 15 of my friends blog regularly and I really enjoy their updates and reflections. But until recently I have thought anything I might add to the blogosphere would certainly be redundant. To steal a line from my brother (something you will become accustomed to if you end up reading regularly) from many years ago, ‘just another moo’ in the cacophony of the herd. And most of these friends that write serious philosophical blogs are disappointed at how infrequently they get read. Here are three reasons I changed my mind:

1. I have recently realized that most serious bloggers use the pressure of their (often scant) readership to motivate them to make step 2 (above) happen with more regularity. So that even if they are infrequently read, blogging makes their other writing and speaking significantly better.
2. I am much better at step 2 than step 3 above. I live and die at the level of fragment. As a multidisciplinary generalist and intellectual eclectic, my primary contribution to any conversation is connection between seemingly disparate observations. The chance to get feedback, by way of comments, on level 2 content (and maybe level 1 if I ever produce a Bill Simmons ‘Rambling’ or a Nietzsche ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ type entry) is just too valuable to pass up.
3. I didn’t want to be left out.

Plus, I’ll be preaching regularly this coming year and wanted to be able to say, ‘for more, check out my blog.’ So there it is. I am going to try to post ~once/week, supplementing down weeks with essays and poems from ‘the file’. I’d also point you to my Amazon Reviews (link in upper right). Until now they have been my primary presence on the web and I intend to keep them up. Thanks for reading.

By way of preview, here are some things I am working on:

Linkin Park: Our Generation’s Dostoyevsky
Enough with Paul: De-centering Acts for the Church’s Role Players
Stewart Yes, Colbert NOOOOoo: Deconstruction vs Irony
What the Church can learn from the Hollywood Writer’s Strike
Why I Like Obama and McCain and am Not Confused
Social Components of Plausibility Structures
An ‘Epic’ Limerick about a Viking and a Visigoth

cow photo from

Monday, July 7, 2008

Colplay’s Lyrical Rorschach

Coldplay's latest has set a new record for album downloads and unsurprisingly so. They are a very good band and seem to be just getting better. But their first single from this album is (perhaps unintentionally) the most interesting piece they have ever released. Viva la Vida is an intoxicating meditation on power and loss. But the most interesting line turns up twice in late refrains:

"For some reason I can't explain,
I know St. Peter will/won't call my name."

The reason I find this line particularly interesting is that I can't tell if Chris is saying will or won't. His lyrical ambiguity is perfectly honed to generate a powerful lyrical rorschach. I went back and forth between will and won't and finally sought the wisdom of the masses through everyone's favorite informational life line, Google. I found the confusion to be wide spread with people taking hard positions either way and others believing different words were used in each verse (which instigated a secondary, intramural battle regarding order).

It does appear (for the benefit of those of us who subscribe to an authorial intent hermeneutic) that Martin has adjudicated the debate. If his hunch proves true St Peter won't be calling his name. (Parenthetically, this is a meaningless statement since there is no biblical evidence that St Peter will be playing any direct role in eschatological events - but we all understand his medieval metaphor.) But I think that far more interesting than what Chris thinks about St Peter's name calling is what each of us thinks he thinks. Are we comforted by vague sentimentality or emboldened by cavalier indifference or affirmed by confusion? What does how we fill the Coldplay madlib say about us?