Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Calvin Symposium on Worship

Later this week I'll be heavily involved in the Calvin Symposium on Worship, an annual event organized by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. It regularly brings 1400 people, from across the continent and around the world, to west Michigan on the last weekend of January (!). This year the Congregational Resource Guide will be onsite and regularly sharing news and resources from the symposium.

I'll be doing two plenaries and several workshops, but there are a ton of great things happening--more sessions than I can even possibly attend (check out the program). Here's just a snippet of some of the offerings that piqued my interest:

One of the other plenary sessions: Just Worship—Ruth Padilla deBorst (Central America), Mary Mikhael (Middle East), and Jerry Pillay (South Africa), moderated by Scott Hoezee
We will listen to the cry of the prophet Isaiah, voicing God’s call to God’s people regarding the true nature of worship and the inextricable bond between our relationship with God and our relationship with one another, and particularly with the most downtrodden among us.

Christian Worship in 4th Century Jerusalem: Premodern Wisdom for Postmodern Times—Lester Ruth and Carrie Steenwyk
What might an ancient church have to say for renewing our worship today? We’ll look at how Jerusalem in the 4th century worshiped, including descriptions and resources from that time, to think about new possibilities today.

Parachurch vs. Church: A False Dichotomy?—Todd Cioffi, moderator, with Eric Kuiper and Andy McCoy
How should we think about the relationship between the local church and parachurch ministries, especially in regard to worship practices? What should the relationship be between worship “outside” the church and worship “inside” the church? What are the strengths and weaknesses of parachurch ministries? What can the church learn from parachurch ministry and worship? These and other questions will be considered by a panel of scholars and parachurch leaders.

“Blessed is the Congregation That….” Wisdom for Worship Planners Worldwide—Jerry Pillay and Anne Zaki
The sharing of proverbs and wise sayings is a common practice in many cultures, both in oral and written forms. Join this conversation about the gifts, challenges, strengths and weaknesses of local worship practices, guided by the new working statement on worship adopted by the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Learn how your congregation can both learn from and contribute to the international conversation.

Creative Ideas for Using the Psalms with People with Intellectual Disabilities—Joyce Borger and Nella Uitvlugt
The psalms are the prayer book for all Christians and have as much to say to the person with the Ph.D. as the person with intellectual disabilities. The psalms give voice to both the praise and lament of all God’s children. In this session we will look at ways to assist people with intellectual disabilities to enter into the psalms and make them their own, using a multisensory method of music, drama, and visual ideas. This study of Psalms has a broad use within the Christian community.

Faith: Make it Stick—Lynn Barger Elliott
Recent studies conducted by Christian Smith and interpreted by Kenda Creasy Dean tell us an “alternate form” of Christianity has taken up residency in our youth ministries and churches. This corrupted form has cultivated a faith that is “nice,” “convenient” and “undemanding.” The results are a weakened church and an absent generation of young adults. We will explore Dean’s analysis of the current state of youth ministry and her recommendations for youth ministry.

If you're not able to join us, start planning for next year and follow along this year through the Congregational Resource Guide.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Answers to More Questions about the New Calvinism

Here are a couple more video answers to some questions posed by readers at the Brazos Press Facebook Page.

Q from Devan DeCicco: ‎"Calvinism" (as distinct from Reformed) has always been around - you could listen to Calvinist preachers on the radio and read their books. What, then, has caused this resurgence in interest? To which cultural, ecclesiological, theological, political, and other factors would you point?

Q from Mason Slater: Do you think that some of what attracts people to the new calvinism might be not that far off from what attracts others to the emerging/emergent church?
That on some level both are a response to a church that shunned deep thought and hard questions?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Super/Natural: A Response to Berger

I appreciated Peter Berger's mention of my new book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, over at his blog at The American Interest (HT: to my friend, Harry Lew). The context or foil is Rudolf Bultmann's oft-cited (and much maligned) claim that underwrote the project of demythologization: “It is impossible to use electric light and radio, to call upon modern medicine in case of illness, and at the same time to believe in the world of spirits and miracles of the New Testament." It was just this sort of dichotomy that also underwrote the misguided "secularization thesis" (R.I.P.). But as Berger goes on to note, this claim has been "massively falsified":
The world today is full of millions of electricity- and radio-users who have no difficulty believing in spirits and miracles—and not only in the less-developed regions of the planet. To be sure, there is a sort of official secular worldview, supposedly based on science, that is propagated by the educational system, the media and (to some extent) the law. But huge numbers of people are capable of, as it were, holding two worldviews in tandem: Yes, much or even most of the time, reality is a closed system of causal relations. I go to my doctor, assuming that he will diagnose and treat me as “a case” in such a system. But I make very different assumptions when I also pray to a God who is not bound by this system, and who can intervene in it either directly (“miraculously”) or indirectly (via the actions of my doctor). In other words, Bultmann flunks as an amateur sociologist or psychologist of modern man. Given this fact, what he actually proposes is that we should find the mythological worldview “impossible”—which is a very different matter.
Berger sees Pentecostalism as the most blatant counter-evidence to Bultmann's thesis. As he rightly observes,
For quite a few years now I have been fascinated by and studied the worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, whose worldview precisely fits Bultmann’s definition of mythology. My interest has been that of a sociologist of contemporary religion. Pentecostalism has no personal or theological appeal to me. But more and more I have come to see that Pentecostalism, broadly speaking, is becoming the norm rather than the exception of world Christianity. The demographic center of Christianity is shifting to the Global South (Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia). In contrast with the Global North (Europe and North America, where indeed many Christians live in a “demythologized” world), Christianity in the Global South is characterized by a massive supernaturalism. One could say that more and more Christians in the world today are becoming “Pentecostalized”, way beyond the churches that explicitly define themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic. What is also happening is that this type of religion is becoming more sophisticated intellectually, as an inevitable consequence of social and educational mobility.

I'm encouraged that Berger sees a growing theological and intellectual maturation in global pentecostalism. He cites the work of my friend, Veli-Matti Kaerkkaeinen, but should have also noted the important work of my dear friend, Amos Yong. And I was encouraged that he sees Thinking in Tongues as further evidence of these trends:
The other book is Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, by James Smith, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan, another significant Evangelical center. Smith makes an argument, both erudite and feisty, which directly challenges the “naturalist” (precisely “demythologized”) assumptions of contemporary philosophy.
My only addendum would be a slight caution: Berger is right that I challenge naturalisms of various stripes. But from the context of his discussion, one might thereby conclude that I argue for a "supernaturalism," whereas in fact the argument in the book (particularly in chapter 4) is also a critique of supernaturalism--or more specifically, what I describe as "interventionist supernaturalism." My point is that implicit in pentecostal spirituality is an ontology that eschews both naturalism and its contrary, supernaturalism, offering instead an "enchanted naturalism," a sense that nature is en-Spirited. In other words, implicit in pentecostal spirituality is an ontology that challenges the nature/supernature distinction. (Thus I suggest there are some surprising resonances with la nouvelle théologie.) Perhaps one could say that within a consistent pentecostal worldview, the cosmos is not "interrupted" by supernature; rather, nature is always already "porous" (following Charles Taylors' account of enchantment in A Secular Age, p. 35).

The upshot is still consistent with Berger's claim and concerns, but I think it offers a more nuanced account that avoids letting pentecostal spirituality seem merely like ressentiment vis-a-vis naturalism.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Incarnation is Local: On the Poetry of John Rybicki

Comment has just published my article on the work of local poet, John Rybicki. Here's the opening snippet:

I was chaining my bike outside Literary Life, our local treasure of an independent bookstore, and was delighted to run into Rick and Brenda Beerhorst, our resident neighbourhood artists and activists who have been catalysts for redemption and joy right here in the southeast corner of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We were all there to enjoy a reading from a local poet who was unfamiliar to me. Rick, with a hint of desperation in his voice, was leaving a series of messages for his friend John, but I was eager to get inside for the reading, which would begin at any moment.

Just before I excused myself, a wiry, somewhat gnarled character made his way up the sidewalk, his white T-shirt a mess of dirt and oil. Rick seemed to sigh in relief. "Where have you been?" he asked, perplexed and just a little perturbed. And pretty soon I realized I didn't have to rush into the reading: here was our poet, John Rybicki.

This image of the poet-as-auto-mechanic is indelibly inscribed in my mind when I think of John Rybicki's work. Indeed, it is the perfect context in which to hear him, for the connection and contradiction is embedded in his oeuvre as well. Consider, for example, "Tire Shop Poem," in his marvellous collection, We Bed Down Into Water (with a cover graced with a Rick Beerhorst engraving). The poem ends with a flourish of lyrical delight that pulls holiness from the middle of the workaday, finding the music in the mundane (do yourself a favour and read this out loud):
I catch his dare and rubber roll
a tire up my calf and pop

the center cap, clamp and spin,
hammer lead weights onto rim

after dizzying rim. I lug nut smash
and flick the pry bar from one hand

to the next. Fred Astaire in a
tire shop, where we slap our boots

across all that slop to outdistance
fire, outdistance that burning bush

that follows us everywhere.

Read the rest of "The Incarnation is Local."

Monday, January 03, 2011

Favorite Novels in 2010

5. James Frey, Bright Shiny Morning. OK, let me explain a little back story here: first, I found myself sequestered in a Target store, looking for anything to distract me. Second, anyone who has lived in Los Angeles can attest that the cover image on the hardcover of this book intangibly captures the strange light of a crystal-clear L.A. morning. So then third, when I opened the book looking for distraction, within a few pages I was hooked by Frey's colloquial minimalism, though this is probably partly due to nostalgia: the novel describes spaces in L.A. that used to be home for me. So this novel was a way of returning. But for a novel that's probably mediocre at best, Frey does an excellent job of capturing the overwhelming ugliness of Los Angeles--something that would surprise those who know it only from its glitzy PR tentacles in Hollywood and television. Frey is a cartographer of the strip mall geography that is southern California, and an anthropologist of its underbelly.

4. Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow. An aging hedonist reconsiders an Italian bohemian romp in the summer of 1970, zooming out to assess the so-called "sexual revolution" on a larger scale--all constructed around the story of Narcissus as told in Ted Hughes' rendering in Tales of Ovid. The perfect platform for Amis' cutting humor and curmudgeonly criticism. The image of the "pregnant widow" is itself suggestive of a strange transition: impregnated by a father no longer alive, the impending child will emerge in a world fundamentally different from the one in which he was conceived. The novel is perhaps at its best when it morphs into a reflection on aging.

3. Rafael Yglesias, A Happy Marriage. I read this after hearing Yglesias on NPR, and in light of teaching a course on marriage, family, and singleness. It is the story told from two ends, cutting back and forth between two periods until they converge: the beginning of their marriage and the end of his wife's life, dying of cancer. The mechanics of this back-and-forth work very well. But the "novel" tracks frustratingly close to Yglesias' own experience with his dying wife so I found myself constantly falling into the trap of reading it as if it were a memoir (sort of the inverse of Frey's Million Little Pieces). Furthermore, on the mechanics front, while this is written in the third person, we don't get any interior insight into any characters except Enrique, the husband. So this is turns out to be a Bob Dole narrator, Enrique talking about himself in the third person. This might also explain the blurring between memoir and novel: Yglesias perhaps thought shifting to an omniscient narrator makes it a novel, but this narrator is still functionally Enrique (aka Yglesias).

But despite those frustrations with form, the story is an honest portrait of the slog that is a marriage, with all its frustrations and joys. Enrique steps up when it counts and unfortunately only learns what it means to be married in the final moments of their story together. We are made privy to Enrique's unfolding revelations of the gift he's been given in Margaret, and one begins to see why marriage is a sacrament.

2. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Finally. I knew Freedom was on its way, and came to appreciate the friendship and collaboration between Franzen and DFW, so that also got me intrigued. Overall, I'd have to say I was disappointed with Franzen as a stylist (why am I always still looking for Updike?), but was impressed with his narrative abilities. Having come to Franzen from Wallace, the structure seemed pretty pedestrian, but when you step back and compare to others, there's some creative framing of time, and the discrete narratives focused on characters (first Chip, then Gary, then Enid & Alfred, finally Denise) are brought together in a satisfying way in the final "act" as it were.

I think what most sticks with me is Franzen's ability to capture the essence of "midwesternness." While Enid & Alfred embody this, one also sees how this "midwesternness"--its sense of duty, its repression, its guilt--infects even the children who've made it to the coast. You can take the child out of the midwest, but...

1. Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story. My favorite read of the year. As I said earlier: A quirky, prescient story set in the not-too-distant future. Comprised of the diary of Lenny Ambramov, interspersed with the "GlobalTeens" (aka Facebook?) communications of his girlfriend, Eunice Park, the book extrapolates from our current cultural trends to imagine the future dystopia of what will be left of the United States, or more specifically, New York City. It is a world where people are publicly identified by their Credit Ranking, where nation-states have been replaced by corporations (compare Atwood's Year of the Flood, and where the United States has become entirely enfolded into China (with sections parceled out to Norway).

Shteyngart's social commentary is oblique and allusive, again projecting from our current cultural habits into an imagined future. One might describe it as the ubiquitization of a Facebook sensibility, where everything is made public--our Credit Rankings are displayed on "credit poles" that line the street; our emotions and thoughts are made public on äppäräts dangling from our necks; and nothing is left to the imagination as all the young women are wearing transparent "onionskin" jeans.

The story also tackles the identity issues of the 1.5 immigrant generation: Lenny the child of Russian Jews but raised on Long Island; Eunice the daughter of Korean Christians, raised in southern California, transplanted to New Jersey. And in the midst of all of this, Lenny works for a company that is sorting out the science of immortality. Fertile soil for philosophical and theological reflection.

The novel combines strong narrative force with exquisite attention to detail. There are a couple of mechanical moves late in the book that I found lazy and a bit disappointing from a formal standpoint, but these don't obscure its strengths. I hope to write much more on the novel elsewhere.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Favorite Nonfiction in 2010

Most of my "professional" reading (which I don't usually chronicle here) falls into the "nonfiction" category. So my reading "for pleasure" tends to be thinner in this area. But here are five standouts (with one hat-tip to a professional book worth mentioning):

5. David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. I'll give one shout out to a theology book--as I noted earlier, this is a masterpiece that will need to be digested for a generation.

4. Thomas Wolfe, The Story of a Novel. This little tome--really an extended essay--was mentioned in the introduction to a collection of Wolfe's letters. And then lo and behold I came across it at MacLeod's Books in downtown Vancouver (if you're ever in Vancouver, do NOT miss the chance to visit MacLeod's). In it Wolfe, in his inimitable blend of charming narcissism, recounts the story behind and around the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, a wending tale of drama and relationships. And in the midst of this I was taken aback by a passage which instantly explained why Look Homeward, Angel had become so important to me:
"From the beginning--and this was one fact that in all my times of hopelessness returned to fortify my faith in my conviction--the idea, the central legend that I wished my book to express had not changed. And this central idea was this: the deepest search in life, it seemed to me, the thing that in one way or another was central to all living was man's search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united" (p. 39).
While critics would seize upon this as evidence of Wolfe's Freudian modernism, I hear in it an Augustinian parable.

3. Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. This is a strange book: really just a cumulative, chronological assemblage of news clippings leading up to the entry of the United States into World War II. A haunting, non-theological refutation of the so-called "What about Hitler?" refutation of pacifism. While I think Baker is somewhat given to a rather utopian notion about the "effectiveness" of pacifism, he nonetheless recounts why and how World War II did not have to be, and how the Allies were certainly not concerned with saving "the Jews."

2. Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. A solid collection of Smith's prose (some of these essays will be familiar to readers of Harper's and New York Review of Books). The long concluding essay on David Foster Wallace is as insightful as it is controversial, and "The Crafty Feeling"--on the craft of writing--is worth the price of the book all by itself.

1. David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. It was strange to read this a month after reading Wolfe's The Story of a Novel. This is almost the DFW equivalent: Lipsky, commissioned to interview Wallace for Rolling Stone, spends five days with him at the conclusion of the book tour following the release of Infinite Jest. There's a price to pay to enjoy this book: you will end up pretty much detesting the parasitic Lipsky, fawning over Wallace while at the same time trying to keep up with his genius, trying to feel like "the writer" that Wallace has just become. But tolerating Lipsky is well worth it for what amounts to a lit geek's wet dream: hangin' out with David Foster Wallace who has to be one of the most lovable creatures of late 20th-century fiction. It's like he never lost that Midwestern accessibility and earthiness. (Indeed, something like this becomes a theme of conversation: "It's way beter for me to be living in Bloomington," Wallace recognizes.)

It will be no surprise to hear that Wallace's conversational voice is as supercharged as his writing. And in his various riffs you get to hear the sorts of original metaphors and neologisms that cut to the heart of things--like when he talks about the rare kind of book that activates "that kind of stomach magic" that makes you say, "God damn, it's fun to read. I'd rather read right now than eat"--or when he talks about the force of music that gives you "an erection of the heart" (some way, some how, that is making it into the sequel to Desiring the Kingdom!).

By the end of it, you'll feel like Lipsky: sorry it has to end. Which is also how we feel about the life and writing of David Foster Wallace.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Favorite Poetry in 2010

5. Sherman Alexie, Face. I'm a late comer to Alexie, but was immediately hooked. Granted, in the vein of Billy Collins, Alexie is probably one of our most accessible poets, but without the schmaltz of, say, Mary Oliver. I found this collection sincere and searingly honest, opening up worlds for me that would otherwise have remain unexplored territory.

4. Scott Cairns, Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected. I have a dirty little confession to make: if a lot of Christians like a poet, I tend to avoid him/her like the plague. Yes, yes, I know it's stupid and sophomoric and obnoxious. But I've just seen too much Luci Shaw in chapel. For a long time, unfortunately, Scott Cairns fell into that category for me, until someone gifted me with a copy of Compass of Affection. Mea culpa: I should have been reading him long ago. None of the tired cliches I worried about. Indeed, not even the "spiritual" fixation I expected.

3. Jeanne Murray Walker, New Tracks, Night Falling. Ditto for Jeanne Murray Walker. And mea culpa redux. Walker and I were both teaching at Regent College last summer. I was immediately charmed by the person, and then when I had the opportunity to hear her read from these poems, I was captivated. Several of these poems were constant companions through a difficult summer. "Adam's Choice" is probably my favorite but I can't find it available online. Fortunately another favorite is, "Staying Power":
In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside to the yard and question the sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can't go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I'm focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It's the attention, maybe, to what isn't there

that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they've found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which—though they say it doesn't
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.

Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God's not fire, say anything, say God's
a phone, maybe. You know you didn't order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don't know who it could be.

You don't want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.

2. Michael Robbins in Poetry, December 2010 (The Q&A Issue). This was a late discovery for me. While I was initially skeptical of the very premise of the Q&A issue (if you want to know what a poem means, don't ask the poet; read the poem), but Robbins' feisty charm only deepened my delight with his semantic energy lexical play. Give yourself permission to lose yourself for a moment in "I Did This to My Vocabulary" (and then listen to Robbins' thoughts about the poem):
The moon is my alibi. My tenders throw hissy fits.
My scalp’s at the foot of the precipice.
My lume is spento, there’s a creep in my cellar.
You can stand under my umbrella, Ella.

Who put pubic hair on my headphones?
Who put the ram in Ramallah?
I’m just sitting here spinning my spinning wheels—
where are the snow tires of tomorrow?

The llama is burning! My heart is an ovary!
Let’s chase dawn’s tail across state lines,
sing “Crimson and Clover” over and overy,
till wonders are taken for road signs.

My fish, fast and loose, shoot fish in a kettle.
The boys like the girls who like heavy metal.
On Sabbath, on Slayer, on Maiden and Venom,
on Motörhead, Leppard, and Zeppelin, and Mayhem . . .

1. The Best American Poetry 2009, edited by David Wagoner. It might seem odd to extol one of these stock anthologies as a top pick, but this is just a downright exemplary collection--an almost perfect collection, given the constraints of the series. Wagoner does a masterful job of pulling together a widely representative collection, including both senior and junior poets, stars and up-and-comers, as well as poets from a wide range of regions in the United States. In other words, none of the typical New-York-centrism here. And thankfully, this isn't another anthology of "the best of recent MFA graduates." The reader should carefully consider the "Contributors' Notes and Comments" (45 pages worth!) to gain an appreciation for the breadth represented here. Wagoner also valorizes online publishing by selecting poems that only previously appeared in e-magazines. I'm guessing avant garde aficionados will think their favorites are under-represented; I wish I could muster the sympathy to agree with them.

I can't recommend this collection highly enough. You'll find favorites like John Ashberry and Albert Goldbarth and Bob Hicok, as well as less familiar names (at least to me) like Bruce Bond and Jennifer Grotz. At the risk of doing injustice to others in the collection that deserve attention, let me note just one, Grotz's poem, "The Record":

Kisses, too, tasted of iron
the year we lived in twilights. They tilted warily
like bags of groceries I’d carry up the stairs
to find you in boxers, the smell of coffee mixed with vinegar
from the bowl of pickle juice you soaked your fingers in
trying to hurry the callouses. We trafficked in the grief
of incompatible day and night, we stretched the hours
as best we could, but mostly we practiced
a kind of starving, excruciating to recall
how hard we tried. I’d unpack the groceries
and tell you about the day, and after dinner
you’d pick out a tune on the guitar
(it was the year you apprenticed to the blues).
Before each night shift, in uniform and socks,
you’d climb into bed and hold me until I fell asleep.
Then you would slip quietly out.
and when I dreamed, I glimpsed the gods in you,
I dreamt you were Hephaestus with the iron forge,
the sweat covering you when you jogged home
was holy, it was the sweat of the whole city,
even the roses, even the bus exhaust.
The mind circles back like a record spinning,
a little molten, a little wobbly, a record
shiny as your black hair, a record player
crackling and stuttering over a scratch, an urge
to ask forgiveness even though it’s dark now
and you’ve already forgiven me.