Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Blue Balloon

We sat on the T, hot and tired after a morning wandering the streets of Cambridge and the ivy-Hogwarts glory of Hahvahd's campus. It was the final day of an all-too-short vacation.  It being public transportation, the public was present, a sampling of the Boston streetscape.

To my right, my wife.  To my left, a young black teen, maybe thirteen or fourteen, wearing bright red sportsgear, sitting with a large scooter folded between his legs.  To his left, a young Muslim man and a young Muslim woman, she in a pretty abaya, he dressed conservatively.  Neither were Arab.  Malaysian, by the set of their faces.

In front of me, a bearded black man in his late twenties, round of face and torso, casually dressed.  To his right, a young German couple, she slender and angular, he red-blonde and bearded.  They spoke in the quiet percussion of Germanic whispering.  To his left, a middle aged woman, white, her feet in sandals, the hint of bandages beneath.

And between us, as we sat, a blue balloon sat on the floor.

It lolled in the gentle currents of air conditioned train car, lazily wobbling, aimlessly drifting.  The Germans talked.  The young black teen next to me nodded, half-asleep.  My wife rested her head on my shoulder.

The balloon skittered over the floor on a synthetic breeze, and touched her foot.  She went to tap it away.

But her tired tap proved more a kick than a tap, and the blue balloon leapt up.  It booped into the side of the bearded black man's face, then ricocheted into the woman's hair.

 And he laughed, and she laughed.  He bopped the blue balloon back to us.  And we to him.  And him to her.



Back and forth, across the car, four grown-up strangers suddenly playing with a blue balloon.

It came towards me and went wide, and bopped the young black teen.  He was not, as it happens, actually asleep.  He grinned and gave it a gentle kick to the German couple, who tapped it back to me.  And I to them.  And they to the Muslim man, who sent it over to the bearded black man.

Back and forth, all smiling, no-one wanting to be the one who ended the game.

It floated high, and there was a faint hiss, and it was drawn to an air intake, where it stopped, now affixed by the flow of air to the ceiling.

There were smiles, and gentle laughs.  The blue balloon remained, still and quiet above us.

And then we got off the train, and went our ways.

Our life together, I think, needs more blue balloons.

Monday, May 16, 2016


Ruined is an upcoming memoir from Tyndale House, written by the pastor who preceded me at my sweet little church.   A pre-publication galley of the manuscript was provided to me for the purposes of this review.

Ruth has a wonderful gift with language, which I knew from her blogging and her prior writing on the strange dynamics of pilgrimage.  This book only reinforces that conviction.  Ruined is, in turns, wrenching and funny and earthy, horrific and sublime.

It's what Ruth bluntly calls a "rape-memoir."   She offers us the story of her youth in a sheltered, earnestly conservative Christian community, and how the self-understanding that rose from that life was shattered when she and her college housemates were systematically raped by two assailants during a home invasion.

Though it's engaging and artfully wrought, it can make for rough reading.   Ruth casts an unflinching light on both the night of the assault and the significant furrows that violent trauma cut into the her psyche.  Ruined explores the impacts of rape on her capacity to trust, her ability to develop and sustain healthy relationships, and how losing a sense of self--even one falsely grounded--can shatter a soul.  Here, Ruth rightly challenges the "purity ethic" that casts a pall over survivors of sexual violence, and the socially-mediated shame that can stand between victims and their restoration.

Ruined also explores the peculiar dynamics of race and trauma.  The young men who assaulted her and her housemates were black, and even though she'd been raised in a household with liberal attitudes towards race, she is open about the unwanted, irrational fears that created in her.  That "black" was Other in the almost entirely white community in which she'd been raised had an impact on that reaction.  Her soul-struggles to overcome the race-tinged trauma-response to her assault are significant and relevant in a time of increased cultural anxiety about race.

One of the great strengths of the book may be a challenge for some readers.  Her story is deeply interwoven with her journey of faith.  As a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, this is my language, and part of my story.  Her insights into the impact of violence on our encounter with God are valuable, but may be so steeped in my faith that some outside of our circle might struggle with her discussions of theology.  That's her journey, though, and it wouldn't be real if she didn't tell it as it was.  For Christian readers, particularly those who have encountered significant life trauma, Ruined is filled with thoughtful, hard won wisdom.

If you're interested in the impacts of violent trauma on faith, and how faith can help our healing after trauma, you'll find much of value in Ruined.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Liability of Corporate Persons

The recent death of a young woman from an overdose in my small community raised that issue to the front of my mind, which meant a recent article from the Washington Post leapt to my attention.

In the article, there was a sobering statistic.  In 2011, there were just over 4,400 overdose deaths from heroin.  Just three years later, there were over 10,000.   That's tough, and a major shift.

But what caught my eye was the datapoint they included after that.  If you count all opioid overdoses...meaning, you include overdoses on the prescription opiates manufactured by Big Pharma...the 2014 death toll rises to 28,000.

More than twice as many Americans overdosed on legal narcotics than on heroin.  Which makes me think.

The focus of the article was the growing trend on the part of law enforcement to accuse those who provide the lethal substance of murder.  If a boyfriend or a wife provides heroin to an overdose victim?  They're accused of murder.

If this is going to be policy, then I wonder how that relates to the corporations that manufacture most of the narcotics in this country.  Because oxycodone is no different from heroin.  Their pharmacology is functionally the same.  They are just as addictive, and just as dangerous.  They are simply legal heroin.  And heroin, when first produced, was legal.  Thanks, Bayer.

Prescription narcotics are also a clear, direct, and profit-driven gateway to heroin.  They create an intense and sustained addiction that is, for the addict, indistinguishable from other opiates.  That addiction, unless very closely managed, compromises the integrity of human beings.  It actively eliminates human freedom, the ability to choose or not choose that is at the essence of our moral nature and our God given liberty.  Once you're hooked, you're significantly compromised.  Only with the most massive of efforts can you break those chains.

So.  If corporations are people, as the law of the land now indicates, perhaps we should run with that.

If you are a person, you have rights.  But if you have rights under the law, you must also be liable under the law.  You cannot have one without the other, claiming the protection of the state without granting the state full authority over your person.

If we have corporations producing a substance that is radically addictive and has a dangerous therapeutic index (the effective dose/lethal dose ratio), then perhaps it is time to consider these organizations as persons.  Meaning, if we'll incarcerate a human person for the crime of providing a lethal overdose, we should also incarcerate the corporate person responsible.

Meaning seizing assets.  Meaning holding C-suite denizens collectively liable as representatives of the corporate person who claims rights under the law.

Persons, after all, are morally accountable.  They have full, not limited, liability.

Let's say it like we mean it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Glowing Up

I heard the term shared, as my sons talked.

"Glowing up," they said, and so I asked what it meant.  It is, apparently, in the parlance of the younglings these days, the way you describe the transition from the clumsiness of early adolescence into the full flower of young adulthood.  Baby fat falls away.  Braces come off.  Bodies mature.  And you "glow up."  Both of my sons have, certainly.

I remember that transition myself, as I went from a gangly, bony, pasty-fleshed stick of a child to being a gangly, bony, pasty-fleshed stick of a man.

Um...right.  I'm not the best example.  But the principle remains.  Ugly duckling becomes swan.

Glowing up happens.

There's a funny thing, about glowing up.  It doesn't have to stop.

Oh, the "growing" part stops.  And then things sag, and wrinkle, and ache in the morning.  The light of youth wanes.

But the brightness that matters never has to stop building.  The glow never needs to wane.

It can, of course.  We can become hardened and jaded.  We can become angry and bitter, as the mass of old wounds and resentments becomes an armor of scars around our souls.

We can lose our creativity, our joy, our delight in each day, trudging through life in a joyless slog.

Or we can come out of the fiery crucibles of life stronger.  We can embrace the wisdom that has been hard won over decades, deepening our understanding of ourselves and our compassion for others.  We can find deeper contentment in each day, in the simple pleasure of encountering life anew.

Our light can become all the brighter.

Because though youth may have its charms, nothing glows brighter than a well-aged soul.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Revolution, Incorporated

It's a peculiar flavor combination, or so it seems to my palate.

On the one hand, the American left wing.  The focus of that portion of our nation's political spectrum lately is racial justice and justice for Elgeebeeteecue folk.  The classical understanding of leftism tends to also include a distaste for the profiteering oligarchs of consumer corporatism.  Decadent capitalist swine....

On the other hand, global corporations.  The transnational entities create systems of profit and production that leap across boundaries of legal structure and accountability.  They control both the means of production and the media through which all communications occur.  They have been immensely, triumphantly successful in the era following the collapse of radical socialism and with the globalization of trade.  Their triumph has come with a radical cost, a deep polarization of wealth in the hands of the corporate elite.

These would seem unlikely partners.

And yet, lately, it seems that there's a peculiar synergy between the two, or at least an effort on the part of the latter to co-opt the former.

Like, say, when the CEO of a major tech firm makes a big splash by coming out.  And sure, he's the one who designed and spearheaded the transfer of all production to China to maximize profits and minimize wages.  But gosh and golly, he's so brave!  Wow!  Such a progressive corporation!

Or, say, last year's Confederate Battle Flag hubbub.  Having picked up on a spasm of social-media consensus, major corporations dropped products (t-shirts, memorabilia, of Hazzard) with that emblem within a single day of it getting legs.  And then they made sure, through their communications/public relations departments, that the world knew about it.  Such warriors in the battle for racial justice!  Such bold progressives!

Or this year's corporate embrace of transgender rights, as the remarkably stupid "bathroom laws" cause one conglomerate after another to abandon the benighted states of America that have chosen to single out one tiny minority.

Or, say, the corporatization of Pride Parades.

Or the tendency of progressives to glom on to the media narratives of industry, as obviously manufactured "controversies" are used to pitch both products and celebrity culture.  Did you know that a couple of racists on twitter had an issue with there being a black stormtrooper?  Did you know that our latest ad campaign featuring a same sex and/or interracial couple caused a couple of trolls to write mean things in the comments?

See our progressive film!  Buy our progressive clothing!  Fight the power!

On the one hand, corporate responsibility guess it's a good thing.  But on the other?

I wonder if, perhaps, this trend is not entirely as pure as the driven snow, or as wondrous as the night sky.


And I wonder more, and more deeply, about the commitment of corporate America to LGBTQI/Q+ rights.  It's not so much that I don't share those values, although I'm increasingly troubled by the clumsy and amorphous acronym that defines fairness towards those whose gender identity falls outside of the statistical norm.

Instead, I find myself thinking that perhaps the reason queer-folk politics are so quickly heaved front and center into our national conversation is that they pose no threat whatsoever to the heart of power.  They hold bigotries and biases, sure.  But the tiny minority of individuals who hold economic sway over our culture are not challenged or threatened by gender issues.  Not at all.  So long as you can sell folks things, and keep wealth concentrated?  It matters not at all.

Let's talk about bathrooms, and marriage, and keep progressives and traditionalists at one another.  Let's not talk about globalization and the scrambling desperation of a gig economy.  Let's not talk about the displacement of farmers from the land, or the end of crafts, or the destruction of American industry.  Let's not discuss the way the 'net economy has accelerated wealth being drawn to power.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Limits of the Gospel

I talked with her face to face a handful of times, not enough to really get to know her.

Through the latticework of interconnection that shapes a town, there were others in our congregation that did know her.  You knew her far better than I did.  But though I reached out to her a couple of times, my interactions were too fleeting, too far removed, abstracted through social media.

I'd sat with her in the social hour, listened to her as she spoke of her life.   She'd come to a bible study, once, and sat there trying to stay awake.  You could feel her lostness, a muted frustration hanging about her like a cloud.  She'd had a kid, then another kid, sweet little ones born into chaos.   She'd struggled to find work, to find her place, to find a path up and out.  That path just never surfaced.

Because between her and the way out there was, evidently, the heroin.  It's a beast of a substance, that narcotic.  Not the worst.  Meth is worse.  But heroin, like all opiates before and after, drains a life, sucks it down into a vortex of synthetic pleasure, supplanting the organic pains of existence with itself.  And then it smothers the joys of life, too, and all feeling, until there is only heroin.

The news of her overdose was not a surprise.  It flitted across my social media consciousness as friends tagged her orphaned Facebook identity, which is how our brave new world tells us of death these days.

What more could have been done?  I do not know.  People who knew her could have had her arrested, I suppose, hard-knocking her into recovery.  But our system of retributive, punitive justice would not have worked for her healing and restoration.  It would have made re-entry hard, and staying clean hard, and everything hard.  Sometimes hard is necessary.  I'm just not sure, though, that it always works to the benefit of a recovering addict.

And what of the church?  What more could we have done?  When she came, she was welcomed.  We talked with her.  We were her friends.  We neither judged nor condemned, and made it clear she could always have a place here.  When she needed direct and material help, it was given.  The door was open.

I suppose we could have gone and banged on her door, been intrusive, pressed up into her life.  We could have heaved her bodily into the healing circle of a 12 step program.

But those programs, like our faith itself, only work if a struggling soul is ready to embrace them.  They cannot be imposed.  They must be chosen.

And those are the limits of the Gospel, the most that we can do.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Library

The bible is not a book.

It isn't, it really isn't.  Having spent a nontrivial amount of time with it, having dedicated my life to the study and promulgation of its sacred narrative, I just can't think of it as a book.

Because it isn't.  We get the word from the Greek τὰ βιβλία, or ta biblia, which is the plural for "the books."

It's a collection of books, spanning thousands of years, two evolving languages, and multiple cultures.  It contains histories and poetry, music and legal documents, stories and philosophy and correspondence.  It has been carefully gathered over thousands of years, text added to text, the collection slowly coming together, coalescing around a theme.

The Bible is not a book that God wrote.

The Bible is a library that God curated.

Now, there are some amongst my historical-critical brethren and sistren who might take issue with that.  The process of works coming into canon was overseen by human beings.  It was complex and organic and messy.

It is easy, from academic abstraction, to make the mistake of desacralizing that process.  It was all just politics, one could think.  All just human beings, doing what they do.  And on one level, it was.  Yet I trust within that process that God was at work.   Our sacred library was shaped by souls standing in encounter with their Creator, and wrestling together to shape meaning, finding the outlines of a transformative narrative writ in the sinews between texts.  That is how the Spirit works.

The process by which the Bible came to be was powerfully, profoundly real.

As are all sacred things.  Like the life of a child.  Like laughter.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Pseudonymity and The Apostle Patterson

One of the more challenging things I face as I try to present my historical-critical-mystical perspective on scripture to others is explaining pseudonymous texts.

Only seven of the texts in the bible that are purportedly written by the Apostle Paul, for pointed example, are likely to have been written by him.  The remainder are by individuals writing in his name, who are doing so for a range of different reasons.  It's to convey his theology, or to use his authority to bolster their own, or to give provenance to a message.

But we have trouble with this, in our modern ownership-society sensibilities.  An author is pretending to be someone else?  Piggybacking off of another's name?  It feels like plagiarism.  Like cheating.  Like it's faintly nefarious, a copyright violation.

I try to explain that this was common practice in the ancient world, that it was hardly an unexpected or negative thing.  But folks often still don't buy it.

Then I came across a little bit of pertinent data from our era, more specifically a pungent factoid about the most published author in all of AuthorLand: James Patterson.  Patterson is everywhere.  There's a rack of his books at the local Harris Teeter.  He's the Bestseller di tutto Bestsellers, with over three hundred million sold.

He also doesn't actually write most of his books.

He did, at first.  But when he caught fire, he started subcontracting out his ideas to other writers, who would write "with" him.  Meaning, they start with a general idea Patterson had, and someone else entirely writes a novel based on the outline he gives them.  That's how he can crank out 15 books a year.

Those James Patterson novels may say they're "by" him, but they aren't precisely his.  He's the brand, the franchise, the provenance.  But not, technically speaking, the "author."  Not in the way most people think.  I'm not troubled by that, honestly.  More power to him!

And I wonder, in the way I wonder such things, if that might not be a useful contemporary illustration for how a book can say it's written by Paul, and yet not be written by Paul.

Perhaps we can best contextualize pseudonymous authorship by imagining Paul, the brand.

Paul, the franchise.

Paul, the part...of the bestselling book of all time.  With his name, in all the books, even if he did subcontract out on occasion.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Moral, The Good, and the Clockwork

It was the strangest moment, in what was something of a peculiar evening.

It was family movie night, adult and older-teen-child edition.

Times have changed since we'd settle in on the sofa with little boys and microwave popcorn, ready to watch some animated Disney output or to giggle over a MST3K episode.  This was different.

Meaning my wife and I took our sons out to a midnight movie at the local art house cinema, where the four of us went to watch A Clockwork Orange.

I realize this might not be standard fare for pastors and their families, but my younger lad's a Kubrick fan and my older son has an appreciation for craft and art, so, well, seeing it on the big screen seemed a must.

It had been decades since I'd seen it, but it's a potent enough film that much of it remained.  It had Kubrick's pacing, careful, slow, and deliberate.  The frustratingly hyperkinetic palette of every modern filmmaker was completely absent, even as the movie explored themes of sexualized brutality.  It felt oddly calm, abstracted from the horrors it presented.

I remembered all of it, but as we left, my wife noted something that hadn't popped for me when I saw it in my youth.

It was the character of the priest, the chaplain in the prison.  He was a little fire and brimstone, perhaps, fiercely presenting his decadent charges with a vision of divine justice.

But in a dark and relentlessly cynical film, he was the only person who seemed to genuinely care about the good.  It matters to him whether the thuggish Alex DeLarge has free will, whether he is given the right to choose good or evil.  When a potent mix of chemicals and aversion-based behavior modification is used to torture Alex into being unable to commit violence, it is the priest who challenges the blunt Skinnerian consequentialism of the method.   Watching Alex abused and unable to respond with his usual gleeful rage, the priest objects to the "success" of his "treatment:"
"He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice"
It was not what I'd expected.  Here, in one of the most deeply cynical works in the history of film, directed by one of the most notoriously cold auteurs to ever sit in a director's chair, a Christian character who is not a cookie-cutter hypocrite.

The priest is, in point of fact, the only one holding up the idea of goodness as a meaningful category.  The the film as in the book...rejects the whole premise of the world as "clockwork."    He is the only clearly moral character, presented without comment or snark, through Kubrick's coldly dispassionate lens.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young disaffected agnostic, I missed that amidst the cinematography and the ultraviolence.  But now, now that I find myself older and in that role?

It's surprising.  Perhaps even oddly heartening.

Which was not what I'd expected, in watching A Clockwork Orange.