Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016: The Year in Reading

No "bests." No rankings. No claims to objectivity or trendsetting or reports from secret avant-garde gardens of literature.  Just some impressions looking back over a year in reading. (You can see a glimpse of some of my reading at GoodReads.)

Novels that haunt me: 2016 was a pretty incredible year for fiction.  I won't likely finish Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad before the year is out (I just started it), so won't include it here--though so far it is remarkable.  The two novels that have most impressed me--and impressed themselves upon me--are Don DeLillo's Zero K and Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone.

Zero K is poised for the moment--a character study of trust amidst failing states and outsized hopes in technology, taking seriously an enduring religious impulse that characterizes our secular age.  It's conceptual scope is ambitious while it's plot and dramatis personae are focused and minimal.

Imagine Me Gone is a zoomed-in family drama that dives into the ripple effects of mental health, all constructed around a musical motif that generates metaphors and provides a cadence to the story.  Having been a fan of Haslett's short stories, I wasn't sure his gifts would translate into a novel.  Imagine Me Gone blew through that skepticism.  The energy and insight of Haslett's prose more than make the jump to the novel form.  Here's just a taste of a passage I noted:
I took my first pill as soon as I filled the script at the CVS in Copley, a few blocks from Dr. Gregory's office. By the time I'd reached Newton Centre on the Green Line, I couldn't stop smiling. The kind of big, solar smile that suffuses your whole torso, as if your organs are grinning. Soon I began to laugh, at nothing at all, pure laughter, which brought tears to my eyes, no doubt making me appear completely insane to the other passengers. But happier I have rarely been. For that hour and the three or four that followed, I was lifted down off a hook in the back of my skull that I hadn't even know I'd been hanging from. Here was the world unfettered by dread. 

Book I couldn't finish: Anthony Lane Fox's biography of Augustine was positively doldrumesque. Though I took the book on assignment, after multiple attempts, I finally had to abandon ship. Life's too short to read horrible biographies--especially when Peter Brown's bio is right here on the shelf next to it. No one has yet improved on Brown's masterpiece.

Poetry I can't put down: I should note Ocean Vuong's new collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is melancholy and discomforting and yet charged with gratitude and hope.  But there is one poem that has been an absolute game-changer, a poem I bumped into by accident almost but has spun tendrils around my heart.

Like some of the most important books in my life, I picked up this book on a discount table (I'm a long-time believer in "bibliographical providence").  Specifically, I ran into Ted Hughes Selected Translations at Vroman's in Pasadena, one of my favorite shops and an annual haunt.  A fan of Hughes' guttural, earthy, Yorkshire poetry, I somehow had missed this part of his corpus so added it to my stack.  Only several months later did I wade into the collection which ranges from ancient to contemporary poets.  It was a poem by the Hungarian poet, Ferenc Juhász that sucked me in.  It is almost sacrilege to try to describe "The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets" in prose.  Try imagine Pan's Labyrinth as poetry, a 13-page compressed epic in which a mother is calling to a distant son who has fled.  The poem has a cyclical cadence about it, a call-and-response that feels like a litany, unearthing death and debts and all the things that make us sons and daughters. I have re-read it countless times in 2016 and don't expect to stop anytime soon.

A Life: I read some marvelous biographies and memoir this year (Camus; Kissinger; Bruce Springteen's Born to Run; Accidental Life, Terry McDonell's insightful romp through magazines and editing; and more). But it is the heartbreak of Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday that has lodged itself as a thorn in my soul.  I'm still not really in a place to write about it--the beauty and honesty of Zweig's prose and his paean to Vienna amidst the horror and deceit of Hitler's rise.  The displacement; the desecration; the decimation of a culture and a people.  The quotidian evil of war. The erosion of rights. The striving for a cosmopolitan community despite the clamping down of borders and the stomp of nationalist jackboots all around.  Zweig makes you face things you hope he's wrong about: "If there is one new art that we have had to learn, those of us who have been hunted down and forced into exile at a time hostile to all art and all collections, then it is the art of saying goodbye to everything that was once our pride and joy."

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sonic Habits: Thoughts on an Advent Hymn

When it comes to matters musical, I am a rank amateur--a lover without training or expertise; a listener who knows what he likes; a hearty singer without much skill. I'm grateful for a profession in which I can constantly create an acoustical ambience of music to wallpaper my workday.

However, as a philosopher with interest in liturgy, I'm also somewhat attuned to what my friend Jeremy Begbie calls the "sonic environment" of worship.  Beyond the theological and imagination-shaping significance of lyrics, Begbie has taught me to be attuned to musical form as its own kind of lived theology (a while back this spawned a little reflection on Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift).

So today I've been pondering a classic advent hymn, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," that we sang at Sherman Street CRC this morning.  Rooted in the imagery of Isaiah 11 (the OT lectionary reading for this second Sunday of advent), with a bit of admittedly romantic flourish and speculation, it was the tune that grabbed me today.  Our hymnal sets this to a 1599 German tune, Alte Catholische Kirchengesäng (with harmonization by Michael Praetorius).  You can listen to a rendition of it; or here's a snapshot of the tune (from a different hymnal source):

What struck me is how I--and to some extent, our congregation, I think--kept getting hung up on those third half notes (in the first stanza on "from," "of," "when," etc.).  It's like our sonic habits are used to a certain cadence and tempo that keep things moving.  At some unconscious level, we expect the next note to come more quickly.  We're feeling stretched and a bit impatient by those two half notes already and when the third arrives we're sonically impatient. Our inner tempo, trained by the cadences of a frenetic pace that always gets its way, perturbedly tells our tongues: "C'mon already--let's get this show on the road! I haven't got all day."  We want a quarter note but the hymn hangs us up on that third half note over and over again.  We're asked to sing another half note in a quarter note world.

Which is precisely why the tune of the hymn is its own kind of Advent discipline.  The notes are teaching us to wait, to experience the impatience of waiting (again!) for the Judge who is coming--who does "not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy; with justice he will give decision for the poor of the earth" (Is. 11:3-4).

How long, O Lord?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An American Lent

"What are you giving up for Lent?"

This question tells us a lot about American Christianity. While the question alludes to historic Christian practices of fasting and self-denial associated with the penitential season of Lent, the syntax of the question also points out a crucial shift: even our self-denial is an act of self-expression. Our submission to discipline is converted to act of will power.

The sociologist Stephen Warner talks about the "de facto congregationalism" that characterizes American Christianity such that even episcopalian and liturgical traditions become governed by dynamics of autonomy and independence. Perhaps we could equally talk about a "de facto Pelagianism" characteristic of American Christianity such that even those practices of self-denial become mediums of expression and choice. (In my new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, I describe this as an "expressivism" that has captured our understanding of worship and discipleship, in contrast to a more historic appreciation for the importance and priority of formation.)

In a more robustly communal practice of the faith, my self-denial is not up to me. The practices of fasting and feasting are not a matter of choice: they are part of the spiritual architecture of the church. It's not so much that I choose to abstain from meat; meat is not going to be served. There are communal commitments embedded in an environment that takes the emphasis off of my choice and will power and instead throws me into the formative power of the practice.  My participation in the formative disciplines of Lent isn't another chance for me to show something to God (or others).  It is an invitation to have my hungers retrained.