Stranger than Fiction

Becky Chambers has written three exceedingly excellent science fiction novels. I highly recommend them. This past year I read the latest installment in her series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, I had an insight into something that has been troubling me for a long time.

You see, I’m a member of the clergy. And it is hard. It is very hard. It is hard on me. And on my spouse. And on my children. Those are obvious reasons to wrestle with it. While many jobs are hard, not all jobs are hard on your family the way one such as this is hard on my family. But something else was bothering me.

The story focuses on the life of the humans living in the Exodan Fleet. One of the characters is named Eyas and she is a caretaker. Caretakers are functionally like clergy in our contemporary context.  During a conversation Eyas says this:

“‘ The caretaker I encountered that day, he was a …symbol to me. This symbol of fearlessness, of…harmony. He took a terrifying ting I barely understood and he showed me it was okay. It was normal. And that feeling was reinforced by the way adults treated him. They didn’t pull away. They weren’t repulsed. They embraced him- in both senses of the world. He was life and death walking as one, and they wrapped their arms around him and gave him gifts, and by extension, showed me I did not have to be afraid of our reality.’ She paused again. She’d never talked about this with someone outside of her profession, and certainly not to this degree. ‘I am that, now. I am that symbol to others. It’s exactly what I wanted, what I worked for. But there’s this other side to it I didn’t expect. I’m a symbol, yes, but a symbol wearing my face and my name. Myself, but also not. Mostly not. People know, when I walk through my district who I am, what I do. Doesn’t matter if I’ve got my wagon or am wearing my robes. they know. And so I always have to be Eyas the symbol, the good symbol, because I never know who’s looking at me, who needs to see that thing I saw in a caretaker when I was six. It doesn’t matter if I’m having a bad day, or if I’m tired, or if I’m feeling selfish. They look to me for comfort. I have to be that. And that is me, in a sense. That is a genuine part of me. But that’s just it–it’s a part. It’s not–‘

‘It’s not the whole,’ Sunny said.

Eyas nodded. ‘And that aspect of my work, I wasn’t ready for. I never thought about who my aunt’s caretaker was when he went home.’

Sunny held the bowl of his pipe in his palm. The smoke ascended as if he were conjuring it. ‘Sounds lonely.'”

And there is where my story and Eyas’ diverge. She didn’t feel lonely, just incomplete. I feel lonely and incomplete. I can’t have any real friends. I tried, it got messy and bad. And every person I encounter I’m supposed to be leading to Jesus/the church. And so if I can’t befriend people in the church, then anyone outside the church is a potential member and so I’m alone.

And incomplete. I’m a symbol that wears my face and lives my life and has my marriage and my children but I can’t be myself because you never know who is watching. That isn’t to say I would bathe in total depravity but simply that in my vocation, I am judged harshly by others. Fortunately, I’m not worried about God’s judgment.

But it makes this hard. Very hard. And it has me wondering how long I can last.

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2018 Reading

So one of my resolutions for 2018 was to read more. A lot more. I don’t remember the total number of books I put in my reading list…something like 55. But that number is misleading because “one” of those was actually the entire Harry Potter series. I didn’t accomplish my goal…as of today I’ve read 44 books in 2018 (not counting the Bible which I read every year). And yes, some of those were graphic novels (more on that).

I’m okay with falling short because my overall goal was to start reading again like I used to. I used to read all the time. Then that slowly went away. And like brewing and writing, I missed it. I missed a quiet morning or rainy afternoon with nothing more than a book. I missed getting lost in worlds of fantasy, or far flung futures, or the unbelievable events of our own history.

So I approached this list with more flexibility than I normally do in the past. I found some new authors which I liked, and read other works by them that weren’t on their list. I also really struggled with history. I love history. But lately I can’t find a good work of history. I made it through 8 chapters of Potter’s biography of Zwingli and that is pretty much the most history I read. In case you are wondering, I didn’t count that book in my list since I didn’t complete it.

All that being said, I did want to give some awards out. The authors will never know. But maybe it’ll help you one rainy day when you’re trying to decide what to read.

Best Book (I read) in 2018: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor.

This was definitely NOT what I expected. I had the sequel, Do We Not Bleed on my list and so I read this when I discovered that well, it was the first book in the “series.” This book was written in the 1st person perspective, which is very challenging to do and remaining engaging. But what makes it even crazier, no pun intended, is the narrator is crazy. So as he describes things, you never actually know if it is real or not. He talks about the voices he hears, and then we hear them too. He occasionally will drop mention of a hallucination. For example, a giant catfish follows him around. He’ll casually mention it is there. Half a sentence. That’s all.

The author is also a thoughtful Christian. And he weaves his faith into the narrative so that crazy and faith become one some times. For example, “I wonder what Pratt would say about that catfish. Was it remembered or manufactured? Transubstantiation or consubstantiation or mere symbol?”

Daniel Taylor is a wordsmith. He writes sentences that make you just pause and wonder at the thoughtful beauty of it. I knew this from the first chapter. Look at how Taylor introduces the two main characters: “We live together now on a rented houseboat in the Mississippi, in the shadow of the Wabasha Bridge in downtown St. Paul. Kind of an oxymoronic place—out on the river, like Huck and Jim, but going nowhere, towered over by government and office buildings on the far bank. Illusory freedom. It’s not a big old tub, as houseboats go. Two tiny bedrooms up top over a fair-sized living room and galley kitchen below. Engineless, like me, neither houseboat nor occupant seaworthy.”

Taylor also did a great way of bringing his faith to bear on the novel. But most definitely not in a preachy way. In fact, much of it was obtuse enough that people who weren’t Christian may miss it. Such as a reference to a hot dog suspended before an open mouth and a reference to the “already but not yet” which every theologian uses to describe the kingdom of God. Or this, “There is a full moon low in the sky and its light splashes across the waters, squandering beauty on a sleeping town. I try to see riverboats paddling up the river, steam whistles screeching. I try to see women in hoop skirts, bales of cotton, and running boys, me and Huck among them. I am not successful. “Why … why are we stopping here, Jon?” “Oh, just to stretch our legs and look at the river.” “Yes, this is like the Jor … the Jordan River. There’s a picture of this in my … my very own Bible.” “I wish this was the Jordan, Jude. God knows I could use a Promised Land.”

His casual weaving of biblical references into the narrative challenged me with how integrated my worldview and knowledge of the Bible really are. I mean I like to say I have a biblical worldview, but do I? When a murder mystery that most definitely isn’t “christian” can make you ask those questions, you know it is a good book. And this was a very good book. In fact, I’d say it was my favorite book that I read in 2018.

Best Devotional of 2018. Letters to My Children by Daniel Taylor. So the first two books that made my awards list weren’t on my initial “to read” list at the start of the year. The joy of being flexible. After enjoying Death Comes for a Deconstructionist so much, I did some research on the author and found this book. Out of a fear of a too sudden death, the author decided to write letters to his children about a variety of things: suffering, vocation, marriage, friendships, etc. The wisdom contained in these letters is rich and worth dwelling upon for many years. As I peruse my highlights, this little gem speaks to me on this evening so I’ll share it with you: “So why when we prayed for Mr. Cuendet did he get well, but when we prayed for Uncle Clinton, God took him to heaven instead? I don’t know. God never promised to tell me why everything happens the way it does. But he did promise me that anytime I wanted to talk, he would be happy to listen. And in a world where so many people feel they are all alone, that’s a pretty great thing to know.” I’ve already quoted this book this year more than everything else I’ve read combined!

Best Science Fiction book I read in 2018: Roadside Picnic by Strugatsky Brothers. So…this one wasn’t on my original list either. Oops. Anyways, I love science fiction. It is, without a doubt, my favorite genre. And I’ve got oodles of “best science fiction books of the century” lists and somehow, this one was never on them. But then when I learned of it, it seemed like every Grand Master and Grand Madame of Science Fiction couldn’t stop talking about it. Funny how legends can hide in plain sight.

The premise is brilliant. And there seem to be no other books that have come up with anything like it or attempted to copy it sense.  Aliens visited earth. Several spots around the world. They were there briefly and then left. The places where they touched down have been profoundly changed.  And that doesn’t even begin to describe what I mean by profoundly changed. The dead are reanimated. Children of people who venture into the zones become inhuman as they age. Physics go bonkers in the zone. And people called Stalkers sneak into the Zones to steal technology and sell it on the black market while the governments of the world try to protect the zones and figure them out on their own. The story follows one Stalker in one zone who is a master at going in and finding new technology.

The title comes from the idea of a roadside picnic. Imagine a large family decides to have a picnic in an undisturbed area. Their bodies flatten the grass. The picnic blanket they lay down changes the ecology of the region. The build a fire ring and roast hotdogs. The heat of the fire, the left over stones, the ash from the fire change the landscape and are left behind. Then there’s the trash. Maybe a child’s toy was left behind. A watch fell off. An earring came lose and fell to the grass, lost forever. And we are….the ants who lived in that spot. That’s where the title came from and why the Zones are so profound. The aliens had a roadside picnic on planet earth and it changed everything forever.

Finally, the best graphic novel I read this year was Vision Vol I & II by Tom King. Ever since Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, the graphic novel has become a legitimate medium for not only some great stories, but for some great philosophical explorations. Tom King nailed it with his take on The Vision in Vol I: Little Worse than a Man and Vol II: Little Better than a Beast. The underlying question of Vision is this, “How far would you go to try to live a normal, American, life?” You just want to fit in. You want the two kids. The house in the suburbs. Even the dog. But you aren’t a white, middle class, American. You’re Vision, an android (or synthezoid) created by Ultron and capable of destroying the Avengers. But you just want to fit in. How far would you go, what would you compromise, to live the Suburban American dream? Dark, depressing, and eye opening on our quest for normalcy.

So there ya have it. My 2019 list is just about finished. I anticipate it being as fluid as this one. And hopefully I’ll read even more book in 2019 than I did in 2018.

 

American gods

I’m currently working my way through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Though I have long been a fan of the cinematic adaptations of his books, this is the first time I have actually read Neil Gaiman. I wasn’t sure what I should expect but I didn’t expect this. The book is weird; not China Mieville weird, but weird nonetheless. The basic premise is that the gods people have believed in over the millenia do exist. But they somehow are brought into existence through our faith and when we no longer believe, they are left in this weird, immortal, limbo. America is filled with the old gods, like Odin, who immigrants brought with them. These old gods are now being squeezed out by the new gods of American culture.

But while the premise is interesting, it lends itself well to some introspective thought on what is America and what defines Americans. Gaiman explores this somewhat through his main character’s extensive traveling with Mr. Wednesday (Odin):

“It’s almost hard to believe that this is in the same country as Lakeside,” he said.

Wednesday glared at him. Then he said, “It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”

“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.

“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment; it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the green-back, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.” 

Living in a Tri-State region, I’d have to agree. While there is much that unifies us, there is a tremendous difference in culture between the populace of the three states. In addition, being a transplant, I have an outsider’s perspective on where I live and it is very different from where I’m from.

So what does unite us? Gaiman makes the case that Americans are a very religious people: we worship lots of different gods. I’m always happy when I find something in pop culture echoing the Reformed faith. As John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols”  We worship our government:

“As they passed their first signpost for Mount Rushmore, still several hundred miles away, Wednesday grunted. “Now that,” he said, “is a holy place.” Shadow had thought Wednesday was asleep. He said, “I know it used to be sacred to the Indians.” “It’s a holy place,” said Wednesday. “That’s the American Way—they need to give people an excuse to come and worship.”

We worship technology and television. Even Media is a goddess in Gaiman’s book. Shadow is confronted with the god of tv in a hotel room when Lucille Ball starts to talk to him out of the tv:

“It’s not Lucille Ball. It’s Lucy Ricardo. And you know something—I’m not even her. It’s just an easy way to look, given the context. That’s all.” She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.

“Who are you?” asked Shadow.

“Okay,” she said. “Good question. I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”

“You’re the television? Or someone in the television?”

“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.”

“What do they sacrifice?” asked Shadow.

“Their time, mostly,” said Lucy. “Sometimes each other.” She raised two fingers, blew imaginary gun smoke from the tips. Then she winked, a big old I Love Lucy wink.

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. “You could say that,” she said.

So imagine my surprise when yesterday, while watching Anthony Bourdain’s show Part’s Unknown he made a keen observation. This observation came while visiting Las Vegas and it had to do with another god we have come to worship. His commentary starts at around the 1.05 minute mark. Truly, if anything shows it, this scene shows us what “the kingdom and the glory” we have come to worship as Americans.

All of this leads to a pertinent question: when we worship something that doesn’t give life, are we truly living? In American Gods, the main character Shadow is confronted with this conundrum by his dead wife. I’ll end with their exchange:

“I’m alive,” said Shadow. “I’m not dead. Remember?”

“You’re not dead,” she said. “But I’m not sure that you’re alive, either. Not really.”

This isn’t the way this conversation goes, thought Shadow. This isn’t the way anything goes.

“I love you,” she said, dispassionately. “You’re my puppy. But when you’re really dead you get to see things clearer. It’s like there isn’t anyone there. You know? You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world.” She frowned. “Even when we were together. I loved being with you because you adored me, and you would do anything for me. But sometimes I’d go into a room and I wouldn’t think there was anybody in there. And I’d turn the light on, or I’d turn the light off, and I’d realize that you were in there, sitting on your own, not reading, not watching TV, not doing anything.” She hugged him then, as if to take the sting from her words, and she said, “The best thing about Robbie was that he was somebody. He was a jerk sometimes, and he could be a joke, and he loved to have mirrors around when we made love so he could watch himself fucking me, but he was alive, puppy. He wanted things. He filled the space.” She stopped, looked up at him, tipped her head a little to one side. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings?”

He did not trust his voice not to betray him, so he simply shook his head. “Good,” she said. “That’s good.” They were approaching the rest area where he had parked his car. Shadow felt that he needed to say something: I love you, or please don’t go, or I’m sorry. The kind of words you use to patch a conversation that had lurched, without warning, into the dark places. Instead he said, “I’m not dead.”

“Maybe not,” she said. “But are you sure you’re alive?”

Malarkey

Earlier this week news broke that Alex, a boy who was in a terrible car crash and subsequent coma, did not end up spending time in heaven as he claimed. The boy, who has the unfortunate last name of Malarkey, made the whole thing up. However, this should not be surprising. In the few places in Scriptures where we gain glimpses of heaven, it is not a comforting place. It is a place where awe and terror are so seamlessly one that it is hard to distinguish between the two.

In a story I saw later on in the week on this story, it appears the poor boy was taken advantage of. The above linked article has his mom claiming he has never been paid for the book. But while the substance of the book was malarkey, the boy did say something true when he recanted:

“When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.”

Wow. Now that is a remarkable statement. A few observations that I’d like to point out.  First and foremost, the nature of revelation.

Protestant Christians happen to believe that revelation came from God through the Holy Spirit and was made clear through the Holy Scriptures. That is to say, the Scriptures are the first, middle and last word of God. Any further revelation is not to be trusted, especially if it contradicts what is found in heaven. Even if a boy should die and go to heaven and have amazing visions or an angel should appear with a fantastic message–if it is different than what Scripture has already made clear we should not believe a word of it.  The apostle Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church in Galatia (1.8): “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

I don’t know if what Alex wrote contradicted Scripture or not: I haven’t read his book. I haven’t read any of those books. I don’t need to, I have this book called the Bible.

Now, not all Christians feel this way. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in non-biblical revelation. This non-biblical revelation can be summed up with the word “Tradition.” That is, the teaching of the church. But their teaching is more in line with the historic faith because they still trust what the Bible says as being true.

However, there are major religions which “trust” the Bible while believing in non-biblical revelation. Specifically, heavenly or angelic revelation. These religions are Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints. Actually, if you study Mormonism and Islam, you’ll discover that they have quite a bit in common starting with how they were formed: Joseph Smith and Mohammed had an angel from heaven appear and let them know there was more to their faith than what the Bible had revealed.

This is why Galatians 1.8 is so important–a Protestant would not fall for Mormonism, Islam or any other teaching that adds to Scripture because we know that even if that teaching comes from an angel–it isn’t to be trusted.  So kudos to Alex for coming clean. Remember–if it doesn’t add up to Scripture don’t believe a word of it.

Gin again?

A Reformed evangelical author/pastor posted this on FB. Since Gin is my favorite, I thought I’d share.

11 Perfectly Good Reasons To Drink More Gin

image - Flickr / Tomas
image – Flickr / Tomas

1. Gin contains natural ingredients.

Of course, every gin is made with a different combination of ingredients, but besides the main berry, juniper, gin can include coriander, sage, cassia, nutmeg, rosemary, and angelica root. It’s like a much more fun version of the paleo diet…right?

2. Juniper berries are jam-packed with health benefits.

The main ingredient in gin is taken by many people as a daily supplement due to it’s medicinal properties. It combats infection(gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria), renal insufficiency, bad coughs and lung congestion, and can jump start a late period.

3. It’s a natural remedy for arthritis.

The stuff that helps chronic conditions is found in gin and cantherefore help with loss of tone in tissues and organs, as well as joint pain, gout and rheumatoid arthritis. Many people haverecently started to eat gin-soaked raisins at night as a homeopathic formula to keep inflammation at bay.

4. It can help eliminate wrinkles in your skin.

Alcohol, in general, contains antioxidants, but the added juniper-boost aids your body in regenerating cells, which in turn is great for maintaining smooth, line-free skin.

5. It fights kidney and liver disease.

Gin contains diuretic ingredients, which eases kidney filtration and therefore helps get rid of bad bacteria.

6. A gin and tonic can help prevent malaria.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get shots before travelling, but the cocktail was used in the days of the British Empire to prevent catching the disease that was ravaging both its colonies and colonizers. Quinine, which is used to make tonic water, was consumed religiously by English colonial people in order to stay healthy, and it didn’t take too long for people to realize that adding a bit of gin would make the tonic water a little more exciting.

7. Your digestive system will thank you.

The bitter herbs contained in gin can cause increases in digestive enzymes and stomach acid secretions, which helps break down food quickly and improves digestion.

8. It fights cancer.

The high antioxidant levels in gin help to “neutralize free radicals in the body,” which are some roots of cancer. These same kinds of benefits are found in fad drinks like kombucha, but wouldn’t you rather skip the ‘buch and get tipsy?

9. It won’t jeopardize your waistline

Gin happens to be one of the least calorific types of alcohol atabout 97 calories per 1.5 ounces. Since your digestive system is being revved up by the juniper, you’re also less likely to bloat and develop a urinary tract infection as it helps flush out toxins. That’s the kind of cleanse we can get behind.

10. A decent gin will not cost you an arm and a leg.

11. Frank Sinatra liked it. How much more classy can you get?

Ups and Downs

The Washington Post has created a hilarious, and disturbing, compliment engine. Drawing on Joe Biden’s memorable, and inappropriate, compliments and statements during his tenure as Vice President you can now be personally complimented by him! Check it out, it is hilarious and fun.

And just in case you think I’m being partisan, nothing beats the original: the Martin Luther insult engine. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Luther was the most quotable person in history. And many of his quotes are hugely inappropriate. Check it out and enjoy being insulted by the great Reformer.