Memory

Another selection from AFE.

Worlds collide all the time;
Not with cosmic clouds of dust
Or fire in the sky;
But silently
Within my mind.

Life has often been compared with a journey and it is an appropriate analogy. During its course we may physically move from one place to another, but emotionally it is often more like moving from one world to another. The familiar landscape dotted with the faces of friends is far removed and we are met with the challenge, which we only have half the heart for, to find new friends and support systems. Other times we may cry in joy at the sheer freedom of moving on.

What is surprising is our ability to adapt to change. In the beginning there may be that sense of losing something very precious or the intense relief of leaving something in the past, but quite quickly and almost imperceptibly the novelty is gone and life achieves normality once again.

We are never quite free of our experiences in all these worlds, however, for it is their influence that has shaped us. And the smallest triggering, an old friend met, an old song heard or even a long forgotten smell, may elicit a smothering rush of memories, immersing us into the past. This is the collision of worlds. And then in an instant we are back, blinking in the light of the present day, whispering praise for the Hand that has lead us all the way and will be our ever present help to come.

Intros-How to be Good-Nick Hornby

OK, I am stooping to posting papers. I think this one was a pretty good review of Nick Hornby’s book How to be Good, though, and worthy of posting, if only to draw attention to Hornby’s books. I have only read that and About a Boy. That movie is a favorite, and one which I think raises some substantive questions. Other Hornby based movies include Fever Pitch, which features Colin Firth in a dishevelled, depressed moment as a soccer obessed teacher with father issues, and High Fidelity starring John Cusack. I think Fever Pitch, is being remade in an American setting. How to be Good was a departure for Hornby, of sorts, as instead of having a hapless male as the central character, he has a pretty-together, sophisticated woman as the lead, that is, at least until her husband gets religion, or at least something akin to it….

Neil E. Das
Prof. Jerram Barrs
Cultural and Biblical Hermeneutics
Spring 2004

How to be Good by Nick Hornby

I first became aware of the author Nick Hornby through the film About a Boy, which is adapted from his novel by the same name. The film provided me both pleasure and challenge. The pleasure came from viewing a good story, with humor and poignancy, acted by talented actors. The challenge came from realizing Hornby was raising excellent issues; issues, in fact, which the church should be raising, for which the church should attempt answers. What responsibility do we have for one another in modern society? Where does true fulfillment come from in our individualistic, consumerist culture?

If the discussion of these issues in About a Boy were to be represented as a square, then the discussion of them in Hornby’s next book, How to be Good, is a cube. Indeed, it is the title of the book which is its major theme, ensconced in the story of a couple on the verge of divorce. Their relationship and the complexities of marriage and communication is another major theme. In delving into these related themes, Hornby says much that is true, both in his deftly crafted description of the world and his implied prescriptions as to what the answers might be to the questions he raises. This will be the substance of the first section of this paper. Hornby, however, was not a believer when he wrote the book (one prays that a “yet” may one day be added to this phrase), and though the story brushes tantalizingly close to the Christian faith, it ultimately rejects the faith as the answer to the questions. This rejection calls for a reply from a believer; a reply which is sensitive to the worthiness of the question and questioner. This reply will be the aim of the second section of this paper.

(For full story click “Permanent Link” below)

One of Hornby’s strengths as a writer is his ability to both skillfully describe contemporary culture from the position of an insider and also to subtly call into question its assumptions. His description of intimate relationships, seen in the interactions of Kate and David in How to be Good, is illustrative of this point. Their marriage is on the verge of divorce. She is having an affair, principally in an effort to reestablish a sense of herself as an interesting and valuable individual. This affirmation is something her husband has long since failed to provide. Instead, he is consumed with anger, writing a weekly column entitled “The Angriest Man in Holloway” and a novel, which also mocks aspects of society which he loathes. Hornby’s sensitivity in conveying the internal dynamics and conversational nuances of such a relationship is remarkable. His dialogue and descriptions ring true, sadly for many both inside and outside the faith:

You don’t get conversations like this when things are going well. It is not difficult to imagine that in other, better relationships, a phone call that began in this way would not and could not lead to talk of divorce. In better relationships you could sail right through the dentist part and move on to other topics—your day’s work, or plans for the evening…topics that form the substance and perhaps even the sustenance of an ordinary, forgettable, loving relationship. David and I, however…this is not our situation, not anymore. Phone calls like ours only happen when you’ve spent several years hurting and being hurt, until every word you utter or hear becomes coded and loaded, as complicated and full of subtext as a bleak and brilliant play…I was even struck by how clever we had been to invent our code: it takes years of miserable ingenuity to get to this place. (4)

Nested in this bleak description of a marriage, are some of the questions that Hornby takes up in the remainder of the book. Can a couple recover from such dysfunction and pain? What role does goodness and forgiveness have in the equation? There is also an implied and commendable hope for things to be better, a desire for wholeness; a desire to which not many in contemporary culture aspire.

Instead of hopefulness and looking for the best in people, contemporary culture is bound up in cynicism and sarcasm. In the book, David undergoes a conversion, which begins with the healing of his back by a Gen X guru called DJ GoodNews, who also takes away his anger. This is somewhat unexplained but serves emblematically as conversion, and leads David to change his and his family’s lifestyle, and also to dramatic changes in his interpersonal relationships and conversations. In fact, over the course of the book the central conflict shifts from Kate’s alienation from and disdain for her insufferably boorish husband to her alienation from and disdain for her insufferably good, and seemingly insipid, husband. Her take on his changed conversational patterns occurs when David and Kate are visiting a couple with whom they had a set pattern of communication, which principally consisted of the husbands spewing vitriol and disdain on just about everyone:

I got sick of hearing why everybody was useless, and ghastly, and talentless, and awful, and how they didn’t deserve anything good that had happened to them, and they completely deserved anything bad that had happened to them, but this evening I long for the old David—I miss him like one might miss a scar, or wooden leg, something disfiguring but characteristic….I had become comfortable with his cynicism, and in any case, we’re all cynical now, although it’s only this evening that I recognize this properly. Cynicism is our shared common language, the Esperanto that actually caught on, and though I’m not fluent in it—I like too many things, and I am not envious of enough people—I know enough to get by. And in any case it is not possible to avoid cynicism and the sneer completely…you are obliged to be sour, simply to prove that you are a fully functioning and reflective metropolitan person. (163)

In the final analysis, Hornby does not quite escape the cynicism he describes, particularly as it relates to the faith, yet it is remarkable that he so accurately describes, and subtly decries, the poison that so tinges the very air of our times.

In addition to his descriptive skills, Hornby also asks questions that could well lead to some prescriptions for society. Prescription is a strong word, and one that is truly anathema to postmodernity, and, so, I do not think that Hornby would be comfortable with such a framing of the issues his book raises. Yet, the questions are valid and good, especially for those of us inside the faith, who, ideally, should have an appropriate framework to assess and act on questions of “How to be Good.”

David’s conversion is not a conversion to Christianity, but a conversion to good works. He begins his good works by giving a homeless boy 80 pounds; then moves on to giving away one of his children’s two computers; then encourages his children to give away their extra toys; then invites his homeless guru to live with them; then devises a plan, together with his guru, to encourage his neighbors to take in homeless children; and the list goes on. He is torn about eating a roast with his family while there are hungry people on the other side of town. He, in essence, immediately acts on anything which he sees as an injustice and which he feels he can do something about. He says to his wife “I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare….I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it” (99).

Throughout the bulk of the book, Hornby has Kate unable to respond logically to any of David’s plans to do these “good works,” as any argument seems petty and morally wrong. Yet, ultimately, it is Kate that wins the day. At the end of the book, David is disturbed and defeated by his and his GoodNews’ inability to be able to enact any real changes on intimate interpersonal levels as they have been attempting to do on societal levels. Kate finally brings the family back into line with more normal levels of middle class charity. Indeed, Hornby seems to believe that this is the best that one can hope for, as extremism simply leads to more dysfunction. In an interview on his publisher’s site, he notes:

I think that’s the bargain we all seem to have made. We have a moral duty to our nearest and dearest and if there’s anything left over we’ll put a few bob in a tin somewhere. I read somewhere that there had been a lot of research done, on ‘activists’ and good people, with a capital G, capital P, and they always found the same thing. The immediate family was in complete chaos; I mean what must it have been like to have been a child of Gandhi? (par. 10)

This, indeed, is a valid point, which has so often proven true, and, yet, I was somewhat saddened by retreat made by Hornby at the end of the book. The questions of how to be good, or rather more specifically how to do good, in our modern world are worthy questions. They need to be asked, particularly inside the church, shaking us out of the lethargy of our consumerist cultures to which we so readily succumb.

Perhaps, it is enough that Hornby raises the questions. Kate comes to a balance of what is involved for her to be good, which includes purchasing things which enrich her soul:

Maybe I can’t live a rich and beautiful life, but there are rich and beautiful things for sale all around me, even on the Holloway Road, and they are not an extravagance because if I buy some of them then I think I might be able to get by, and if I don’t then I think I might go under. I need a Discman and some CDs and half a dozen novels urgently, total cost maybe three hundred pounds…And I could shave even that pitiful amount down. I could go to the library, and I could borrow the CD’s…but I need the Discman…I want to be able to block out every last trace of the world I inhabit, even if it is just for half an hour a day. And yes, yes: just think how many cataract operations or bags of rice could be bought for three hundred pounds. And just think how long it would take a twelve-year old Asian girl to earn that in her sweatshop. Can I be a good person and spend that much money on overpriced consumer goods? I don’t know. But I do know this: I’d be no good without them. (304)

It seems that any conscientious person, Christian or non-Christian, must balance similar concerns, coming, admittedly, to divergent and highly personal conclusions. Upon reflection, this is a good lesson to school and subdue traces of legalism and fundamentalism in myself, which reflexively seek universal norms for such issues, none of which are specifically provided in Scripture.

What Scripture does provide clear teaching on, however, is the larger question at the center of the book. It insists, indeed, that no one can “be good,” and that our attempts at goodness outside of the context of a right relationship with God appear to God as filthy rags. Hornby is principally interested in the horizontal, sociological dimensions of goodness. An individual’s Christian faith must incorporate this dimension in order to be genuine, but must be preceded by teaching on how one becomes good in the vertical, or spiritual dimension, between God and humankind. Hornby brushes up against this dimension, even having his central character visit a church and converse with a vicar. Yet, Kate, and one presumes Hornby by proxy, does not find any answers there. The sense of guilt is only horizontal, it seems. The Christian insistence that it is our sins in relation to God which is the central problem of our existence is not addressed. Nor, is the forgiveness that Christianity maintains is offered for those sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ addressed; a forgiveness that, ideally, should overflow into horizontal, human relationships as well, bringing healing and life.

Throughout the book Kate insists that she is a good person given her profession as a General Practitioner. Yet, this insistence is constantly undermined by her own reflection that she has committed adultery, inwardly mocks her mentally unstable patients, often hates her husband, and sometimes her children. David and his guru, too, come to this dark self-knowledge. Despite their attempts to do good socially, they are inept at mending personal failures. Kate comforts the guru, GoodNews, after a dismally failed attempt at reconciling with his sister, which has ended with a series of four letter words:

Who are these people that they want to save the world and yet they are incapable of forming proper relationships with anybody: As GoodNews so eloquently puts it, it’s love this and love that, but of course it’s so easy to love someone you don’t know…Staying civil to someone with whom you’ve ever shared Christmas turkey—now there’s a miracle. (275)

It is forgiveness for this type of failure for which Kate goes to church, “For all the shitty things I do” (241). Yet, she finds the church wanting. There is no epiphany, no engagement with God; in part, it must be noted, because no such engagement is sought. Kate returns home to cobble together her familial and professional relationships as best she can, giving as much as she feels she can offer, seeking to find contentment in this. The last lines of the book drive home Kate’s spiritual state clearly, and, for me, very sadly. After a cathartic rain storm, which brings London to a stand still and serves as the breaking of the fever of the questions raised by the novel, Kate makes this observation about her decision to stay with her husband and work at their family life. Her husband is leaning out a window, struggling to unplug a stopped up drain which is leaking:

He’s wearing jeans, and Tom and I grab hold of one back pocket each in an attempt to anchor him, while Molly in turn hangs on to us, purposelessly but sweetly. My family, I think, just that. And then, I can do this. I can live this life. I can, I can. It’s a spark I want to cherish, a splutter of life in the flat battery; but just at the wrong moment I catch a glimpse of the night sky behind David, and I can see that there’s nothing out there at all. (305)

My personal reaction to this line is instructive. I read it again and again to be certain of what I think it articulates: unbelief. I then process strong feelings of disappointment, both because my worldview is not affirmed and because of sorrow at the sad conclusion that I feel Hornby has come to. Finally, I accept this as his view (a rather obvious conclusion for most, which I, being a recovering fundamentalist, often come to with difficulty), I appreciate all the fodder for thought the book does offer, and resolve to strengthen my commitment to enact and witness to my own belief in the true answer to the questions of “How to be Good.”

Dr. Clive Marsh, the Secretary of the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church in the UK, wrote to Hornby suggesting “that he is really on the hunt for a secular spirituality” (par. 15). Hornby wrote back saying the following, “Obviously I have touched directly and indirectly on the subject of spirituality in my books and though I think you might be stretching a point here and there it is something that interests me. The last sentence of How To Be Good is, I think, recognition of a need for something to replace Christianity” (Marsh par. 16). Marsh then asks:

What’s striking is that the sense of a loss of ‘out thereness’ has been around for a very long time. Why is it that we haven’t tackled it better as a Church, especially in our dealings with those beyond the Church?…Notions of ‘out thereness’ evolve as culture changes. The fact is that at the moment, the sense of loss, or the sense that other ways than religions are dealing with it a bit better, are very prominent. (par 20)

Sadly, I agree.

Finally, it may be that Nick Hornby has not have given the church and Christianity an entirely fair shake. That question I cannot answer. What I can do is pray that the Spirit of God may draw him to Himself and, for my own part, believ
e in the one who is “out there,” who is my Goodness and wellspring of any charity of my part.

Works Cited

  • Hornby, Nick. How to be Good. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001
  • Hornby, Nick. Interview. “Talk.” Nick Hornby. 2001. Penguin UK. 7 Apr. 2004.

http://www.penguin.co.uk/static/packages/uk/articles/hornby/

  • Marsh, Clive. Keynote Address. “Christianity in a Post-Atheist Age: Sex, Work, Shopping, Christian Doctrine, Entertainment, Art, Sport.” Methodist Conference 2003. North Wales Centre, Llandudno. 27 June, 2003. The Methodist Church. 7 Apr. 2004.

http://www.methodist.org.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.content&cmid=692

Retreat II

A weekend ago I went to a L’Abri retreat in the Ozarks. L’abri, by the by, is a wonderful place to take some time off to think through questions of import that you might have. Great conversations, some physical work, great lectures, excellent aesthetics, and tea. Go.
For those familiar with L’abri, you might be interested in their Jubilee Celebration celebrating 50 years of work and ministry, with some excelent speakers (including Jerram Barrs, Chuck Colson, and Os Guiness) and musicians (including Over the Rhine and Brooks Williams).

Retreat

Here is a selection from AFE that reflects on rest as metaphor for salvation, or perhaps a benefit of salvation, which we experience so intermittantly now, but which is a wonderful promise for the future. This poem was inspired by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s wonderful Cedar Campus, which was so enjoyable to retreat to with friends as a college student. And I spent a long time in college in various incarnations. You don’t have to be a college student to go, though. Check out their Family Camps and Valentine’s Day Weekends and cabin rentals. I highly recommend it.
This poem is a bit hard to read with its repetition of “gentle,” but I think that that works to emphasize the point. Of course, in a gentle way.
cedar reflection

gentle waves lapping on the beach
breeze rushing gentle through the trees
gentle blue meets grey of choppy swells
at the horizon of my view
and friends stand gentle at my side
with gentle, glad or thoughtful talk
or silence rich and meaningful

and God is near
and whispers healing, soothing, gentle words
as praises rise for blessing and care so evident
and hearts are filled with joy and rest and gentle love
and long to stay the hand of time
prolong the sabbath,
end the journey
and savor more this sample of that final rest

but beyond the horizon of my view
beyond the ships that ply the lake
and bear witness to a greater world
are countless lives that never taste the Rest at all
and gentle words and gentle sights and sounds
drown in the curse of fallen life

The God of all wisdom has commanded one day in six to be a Sabbath rest. For the people of Israel there were various other sabbaths to be kept. God even commanded that the land be rested every seventh year, set apart unto the Lord, with no crops to be planted that year.

By the time of Jesus’ advent into the world, the Jewish leaders had added numerous legalistic laws onto the Sabbath. Jesus, the Rest-giver came to liberate us from the burden of Law, proclaiming that, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus, however, came not to do away with the Law but to fulfill it. He did not come to do away with the Sabbath but to restore it as the gracious gift of loving God freely given, unattached to any strings of legalistic works. And much more than that he provided for us a greater Rest that is to come.

It is this Rest that is the hope and joy of every Christian and is experienced whenever His children gather in community to glorify and enjoy God. These retreats for now, however, are merely a foretaste, there is still of work to be done, for there are those who know nothing of the Rest at all, for whom life drags on in weary hopelessness. It is out of love for these that we must return again and again from times of refreshment to bring others into the gentle love of God.

Silly Songs with Neil

OK, this may be approaching the bottom of the barrel, but here is a product of a period of time when I was a rather too eager Ebay user (buyer not seller) and was also trying to write some song lyrics. I don’t even know which of my imaginary bands could even record this masterwork. My friend Jeremy did actually make some music for this, but, alas, we have been too busy to get into the studio. You know, touring and all that.
Ebayland
Verse 1
I’m clicking through this online store
I’ve got all I need but I want more
A CD burner would be nice
If the bidding stops at a decent price
But I can’t wait. Hey, I know how
I’ll shell out my clams with Buy it Now.
Now Paypal, he’s a friend of mine
He cuts the crazy waiting time
I used to wait while checks would clear
So, ship it now! I want it here!

Chorus

Yeah, I’m living large in Ebayland
Now, there ain’t no milk and honey
But who needs that when deals are good
And you can always borrow money.
Verse 2
I need some Reeboks in size eight.
So I can lose a lot of weight
Some super-metabolic-burner
So I can be a head turner.
But better still, I have a plan
More suited to an online man
I know they say that True Love Waits,
But if I just could bid on a mate
She’d be here soon, I’ve got Paypal
And I could wed my Ebay Gal.
Chorus
Verse 3
Now I’m only joking. No, really
An Ebay bride? That’s just silly.
But I can still renew my quest
Get more stuff to make life the best
You know my cable modem’s smokin’
So I won’t ever be left out hopin’
I coulda, shoulda won the bid
Beaten by some technokid.
And if I am, well, what the hey!
There more stuff listed everyday
Chorus
Verse 4
It’s crazy, though, with all this stuff.
You’d think that I would have enough.
To fill this empty gaping hole
That is the center of my soul.
But with each new delivery truck
Its never closer to being filled up
And Paypal could not ever store
The price to make the payment for
The Thing to fill its odd-Shaped space.
And Ebay cannot list His grace.
Second Chorus
So get me out of Ebayland.
I want some milk and honey
The deal you make to me is good.
And, I can’t touch it with my money.

Broken Poem

As noted before, this segment is for poems that don’t quite work. If you have suggestions for a fix, post away. There are several bits that may be clunky or opaque. I think the last stanza is a bit cheesy, except I really like the last line. This is a “broken” poem in more ways than one. As I post it now, there has been significant healing since the time when it was penned, with thanks to God.
traffic reports
living in the suburbs
she in the city center
i hear the commentaries on woe
of a thousand mini dreams deferred
of smooth commutes
subsumed in loss and fumes
i do not feel that pain
as i roll through barren fields
through barren towns
their dreams forever deferred
to loss and rust
i only feel the pain of hearing names
of streets and ways
that intersect her world
that take her places
and then to home
i too have streets and ways
that i take
and a home
i just need to get a map
to find some place to go
and find some way
whenever I cross the river
to stop dreaming of old bridges

Ringbearers III

Reviewing the blog, I realize that I never did post my complete sonnet cycle about the ringbearers from the Lord of the Rings, leaving out, of all people, Frodo. The previous poems were posted in October if you want to review them. Here are some imaginary conversations that fit into spaces in the story.

Bilbo to Frodo in Rivendell
My dear Frodo, I did not ever dream
To be my heir would mean so dark a road.
But adventures are never as they seem
In tales, wholly self-chosen. The load
Unsought is given, then sealed in our choosing.
But with the load the Unseen Giver also gives
Graces and Beauty to soothe the losing
Of homely things. So take now as you leave
Fair Mithril for without, and for within
Fair memories of sunlit days and friends,
Of glorious Elder Days, of Elves and Men
In darkness fighting for a brighter End.
Despair not. Whisper with your final breath,
If Night falls, Gilthoniel, A! Elbereth!
F R O D O
Galadriel to Frodo in the Shire
Dear Elf-friend we meet well under these trees
That bloom in part because of sorrow borne
By you and of the love and toil of he
Who, tender, bore you up, who soon will mourn
That you cannot savor the fruits of joy
Which bloom in field and hearth since Elven-home
Has stretched to bless the Shire. For pain alloys
Each joy you feel vicariously alone.
But know, your pain has brought you close to me.
You feel the holy ache we feel who knew
Undying Light beyond the Sundering Seas.
You will be healed. The root of Melkor’s fall
Will die and Iluvatar be All in All.