Friday, December 25, 2009

Remember the Feast(s)

Christmas Is Really For the Children

By Steve Turner

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they'd do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there's any connection.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christianity and the Crash

Hanna Rosin's Atlantic article, "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?," has generated a fair bit of conversation. The core thesis is that something like Joel Osteen's prosperity gospel planted seeds of greed that overstretched many--and that subprime mortgage sharks found these congregations to be, well, "prime" targets.

The folks at Immanent Frame have pulled together a little symposium of responses from a diverse array of voices, including my friends Anthea Butler, D. Stephen Long, and Michael Horton, along with other scholars such as Harvey Cox, Mark C. Taylor, William Connolly, and Jonathan Walton, and several others (including me). [We were instructed to keep our responses to 300 words; I see some of my peers had a little trouble counting words! ;-)]

Consider joining the conversation over at IF.

This also lends a new frame to my article from last spring, "What's Right with the Prosperity Gospel?"

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Q&A on "Desiring the Kingdom" at

Over at "ThinkChristian," Nathan Bierma poses a few questions to me about my argument in Desiring the Kingdom. Check it out, along with some of the other cultural commentary at the ThinkChristian site.

Update: A slightly expanded version of the same Q&A is available on the blog of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Top Reads 2009

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, over at What I'm Reading I've begun the annual ritual of reading retrospection, highlighting some of my favorite reads from the past year. I've begun with five of my favorite short stories read in 2009.

I'm hoping to follow up with posts on poetry, non-fiction, and fiction. We'll see...there's a fresh stack of exams sitting here on the desk waiting to be graded, staring at me with an accusatory eye. All the more reason to blog!

Thursday, December 17, 2009


In the midst of grading papers from a Philosophy of Language seminar now past, seeing students wrangle with Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom--with the game-relative nature of meaning, the contexts of our linguistic practice--and looking for any sort of sloth-inducing distraction from this work, somehow Albert Goldbarth's poem, "Sentimental" came to mind. (Perhaps because the overarching question in the course, which I pressed regularly, was this: "What sort of philosophy of language does it take to account for poetry--to account for why we read poetry?")

What counts as "sentimental?," the poem asks. What difference does context make? And why should we think sentimental is simply synonymous with "bad?" Is "sentimental" the charge of cynicism? What if it turns out that sentimentality is part of the fabric of our being-in-the-world?




The light has traveled unthinkable thousands of miles to be
condensed, recharged, and poured off the white white pages
of an open Bible the country parson holds in front of this couple
in a field, in July, in the sap and the flyswirl of July
in upper Wisconsin, where their vows buzz in a ring in the air
like the flies, and are as sweet as the sap, in these rich and ritual minutes.
Is it sentimental? Oops. And out of that Bible the light continues
to rush as if from a faucet. There will be a piecrust cooling
out of its own few x’ed-out cuts. And will it make us run
for the picklier taste of irony rolled around protectively on our tongues
like a grab of Greek olives? My students and I discuss this
slippery phenomenon. Does “context” matter? Does
“earned” count? If a balled-up fidget of snakes
in the underbrush dies in a freeze is it sentimental? No,
yes, maybe. What if a litter of cocker spaniels? What
if we called them “puppydogs” in the same poem in that same hard,
hammering winter? When my father was buried,
the gray snow in the cemetery was sheet tin. If I said
that? Yes, no, what does “tone” or “history” do
to the Hollywood hack violinists who patiently wait to play
the taut nerves of the closest human body until from that
lush cue alone, the eyes swell moistly, and the griefs
we warehouse daily take advantage of this thinning
of our systems, then the first sloppy gushes begin . . .
Is that “wrong”? Did I tell you the breaths
of the gravediggers puffed out like factorysmoke
as they bent and straightened, bent and straightened,
mechanically? Are wise old (toothless) Black blues singers
sentimental?—“gran’ma”? “country cookin’”? But
they have their validity, don't they, yes? their
sweat-in-the-creases, picking up the lighting
in a fine-lined mesh of what it means to have gone through time
alive a little bit on this planet. Hands shoot up . . . opinions . . .
questions . . . What if the sun wept? the moon? Why, in the face
of those open faces, are we so squeamish? Call out
the crippled girl and her only friend the up-for-sale foal,
and let her tootle her woeful pennywhistle musics.
What if some chichi streetwise junkass from the demimonde
gave forth with the story of orphans forced through howling storm
to the workhouse, letting it swing between the icy-blue
quotation marks of cynicism—then? What if
I wept? What if I simply put the page down,
rocked my head in my own folded elbows, forgot
the rest of it all, and wept? What if I stepped into
the light of that page, a burnished and uncompromising
light, and walked back up to his stone a final time,
just that, no drama, and it was so cold,
and the air was so brittle, metal buckled
out song like a bandsaw, and there, from inside me,
where they’d been lost in shame and sophistry
all these years now, every last one of my childhood’s
heartwormed puppydogs found its natural voice.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two to Remember in Your Year-End Giving

My guess is that, like me, you're receiving a barrage of end-of-year solicitations from all sorts of good organizations and ministries who are struggling to continue their good work--particularly in a difficult economic climate. There are many that deserve our support. Let me encourage you to consider just two:

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee is a ministry committed to global justice and mercy in all sorts of way. As they put it on their website, the "CRWRC responds on your behalf and with your help to the needs of people who suffer from poverty, hunger, disaster, and injustice." Consider making a donation today, and perhaps becoming a regular supporter.

As Fors Clavigera readers well know, I'm a big fan of Comment magazine (published by the Cardus Foundation). It is a singular magazine publishing material that is wise, provocative, stimulating, and generous. They are especially important in reaching the next generation with a winsome vision of kingdom-building commitment to shalom. Do consider making a donation to help keep this work going.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Still Hope?

In Jay Neugeboren's review of Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life (Other Press, 2009), which tracks Greenberg's (relatively late) emergence as a "writer" (in his early fifties), Neugeboren makes the following disclosure, reflecting on Greenberg's tale:

"I found myself noting that I had myself accumulated, by my count, 576 rejections before I sold my first story, and more than two thousand rejections on eight unpublished books before I sold my first novel. What keeps writers going, as it does Greenberg, is a sense that though, when rejected or ignored, we may feel such things intensely, we learn not to take them personally."

Strangely encouraging...

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Wendy and Lucy"

Kelly Reichardt's film, Wendy and Lucy, is a mesmerizing adaptation of Jon Raymond's story, "Train Choir." Reichardt well captures Raymond's Pacific Northwest--a solitary, derelict region, yet populated with quick conversationalists and in-breakings of charity, bringing to mind other Oregon films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or even The Postman (indeed, Will Patton makes a showing both in Wendy and Lucy and The Postman).

I was particularly struck by how Reichhardt takes ownership of the short story as a film. From the voyeur-like opening slide of the camera, long peering at Wendy and her dog Lucy from behind the bushes, Reichardt is a master of suspense on a thread. Indeed, the film regularly points up how thin our securities are--how little stands between us and either danger or destitution. (For example, what looks like the insecure exposure of sleeping in a car can, by the end of the film, look like a veritable fortress compared to the alternatives.)

The very sparsity of the film is also short-story-like (yea, Raymond-Carver-like). Michelle Williams (as Wendy) carries an entire story on her back, wearing the same drab apparel for the entire film. Reichardt never lets the camera give us one of those sprawling, breath-taking panoramic views of lush Oregon hills. Instead, she takes a vow of cinematic chastity and poverty. The environs of the story are equally drab and depressing--which is just to say that Reichardt's camera honestly looks at--honestly sees--the delapidated, broken-down strip malls and car ports of our gutted towns and imploded rural spaces. The only thing that has a shot at beauty in this film are the relationships.

Reichardt also resists the easy supplement of a score: there's no soundtrack save Wendy's occasional humming of a few bars that, from the opening shot, bore their way into your soul as chords of enchanted melancholy. There is a discipline to her visual story-telling which is remarkable.

And she manages to pull off this discipline without falling into either Joyce-Carol-Oates-ish violence or Hollywood's uplifting cliches. As a result, she doesn't buy into the lie that so-called "reality" is only monstrous and merciless. Instead, she makes room for charity--but without falling prey to our sitcom-induced desire for resolution.

An excellent film.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Race, History, and Christian Intellectuals

I'm currently reading J. Kameron Carter's book, Race: A Theological Account with an interdisciplinary group of faculty from across the college (and the seminary). Much to ponder here, and it will take me til next spring to digest it, but I couldn't resist sharing this gem from the end of chapter 3 (on Albert Raboteau, author of the groundbreaking book, Slave Religion). Throughout the chapter, Carter is pursuing fundamental questions about what history would (or should) look like for a Christian intellectuals, and then expands the scope of his question in this way:

"What would it mean to refuse dialectical intellectual arrangements altogether, arrangements that allow us to neatly but insistently sequester the dispositions of faith from the dispositions of the modern academic, and then rewrite history, do literary criticism or philosophy or sociology or political science or what have you as Christian intellectuals? What would the intellectual life then look like? How would [Raboteau's] Slave Religion have to be rewritten? But more to the broader issues of this book, how much more would the pseudotheological backbone of whiteness be broken for the sake of the redemption of us all, were we to escape the intellectual dispositions of whiteness and the ambiguities of blackness that it creates?" (p. 156)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

We Learn to Love

Comment magazine, one of my favorites, recently ran a poetry contest--more specifically, a rondeau competition. (Those from commonwealth nations will recognize a familiar rondeau in John McCrae's, "In Flanders Fields.") The contest invited entries focused on the theme of education for their 4th annual "Making the Most of College" issue.

In my tentative poetic scribblings, I've increasingly felt the need to be disciplined by form, so I thought this rondeau exercise would be a good discipline. Well, turns out I was awarded second place! My poem, "We Learn to Love," appeared in the September issue of Comment and is now available online.

We Learn to Love

We learn to love in family,
Protean school of charity,
its mundane halls and humble space
parochial tutors of grace,
an intimate academy.

Then leave behind simplicity
for a sagacious faculty,
unaware even in that place
we learn to love.

Love at the university?
Where learning’s a commodity?
Despite erasing every trace,
schooling of hearts persists apace.
Apprenticed incrementally,
we learn to love.

Friday, December 04, 2009

"Rethinking the Secular and the Religious" at the University of Guelph

Those in southern Ontario might be interested in my upcoming lecture at the University of Guelph, "Rethinking the Secular and the Religious: Explorations in Postmodern Philosophy and Fiction."

January 21, 2010, 7:00pm
War Memorial Hall, The University of Guelph

Here's a brief description from the website:

To the surprise of many who expected the steady triumph of secularization, "religion" remains an important feature of our globalized world. Even the emergence of the "new atheism" and a secular fundamentalism are features of this resurgence of religion. This presentation will argue that we need to reconsider our assumed distinction between the "secular" and the "religious." Drawing on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Charles Taylor, I will argue that if we understand religion, not as a certain set of doctrines and beliefs, but in terms of practice--as "liturgy"--then in fact much that we consider "secular" is actually religious. I'll illustrate this using the fiction of David Foster Wallace.