Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Thinking Against Oneself: Kierkegaard's Godly Satire and the Art of Nonfiction

As a writing tutor, I repeat myself a lot: “Your thesis needs to be a statement, not a question,” I say. “In your paper you are going to answer the question proposed in the paper prompt, not “explore” it, not “consider” it, not hopefully possibly maybe show that such-and-such could be the case,” I continue. “Make a statement. Answer the question.”

When I am not hammering this thesis mantra into students’ heads, I am debating the appropriateness of the use of the first-person “I” in academic writing. The goal of supposed objectivity, as well as residue from high school english composition courses, leave most of the students I work with convinced that they are to remain invisible in their papers. Instead of “I,” they write, “This essay will argue,” and I cringe. Worse still, they turn to the passive voice, and write  “It will be shown.” It will, will it? By whom? By zombies?


Though I primarily teach academic writing, I have some concerns about how it is practiced. I tell students to write in a way that I secretly think is unhelpful at this stage in their education. Rather, I think that they need to wonder before they prove. They need to understand and acknowledge themselves as interpreters, and to develop a voice that converses with the texts that they study.

With regard to Kierkegaard, I have two main concerns in relation to the situations I’ve narrated: first, to consider the tension between exploration and argument in the essay, and second, to discuss the possibility of the nonfiction writer becoming a character in his or her own work, and the rhetorical possibilities thereof. Given this, I will first provide some background on the essay as a literary form, before embarking on a dialogue between Søren Kierkegaard’s The Point of View for my Work as an Author, and contemporary nonfiction writer Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.

I am primarily interested here in Kierkegaard’s use of what he calls “godly satire” and its ability to “deceive into the truth.” By discussing the essay as a literary form, my intent is to show how one can appropriate the fluidity of genre Kierkegaard employs in his philosophical writings to both creative writing and writing pedagogy more generally. The difference between the essay as it is taught in creative writing courses -- what we would now call a “personal” or in some cases the “familiar” essay -- and the thesis driven thing now normative in undergraduate composition courses is unfortunate, if not pedagogically disastrous. At the very least, it results in a lot of boring papers. I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard’s approach to philosophical and theological writing provides a way to bring these two kinds of essay writing into conversation, with broad implications for how young scholars learn to think and write.


So. What do I mean when I say “essay”? The word itself means an attempt or trial, and as such the essay is an adventurous form. It is a process -- a becoming. Beginning with Montaigne, who is often cited as the exemplary model and one of the earliest practitioners of the form, Phillip Lopate explains that the essay is generally not concerned with providing logical proof. It does not read like a legal brief, nor does it even have to have the singular goal of persuading the reader of something -- though it might also do so. There is a fearlessness to it, in that the essayist need not fear refute, for the point is not getting it right so much as thinking it through, issuing and accepting an invitation to surprise. An essay may be as full of ideas as narrative; it is philosophy plus personality. It shows and tells. An essayist of this sort does not sit down with an outline containing an intro, three points, and a conclusion. She may have a sense of where she wants to go, but she invites her reader into her process of discovery. She creates a dialogue along the lines of that which Montaigne’s essay “Of the inconstancy of our actions” describes when he writes:
If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion.
What Montaigne gets at here, and what the essay form specializes in, is the process of thought, the variance, the way we can change our minds as we sift through ideas. The essay also captures the delight in doing so.

Reflecting further on this, Lopate notes that, nonetheless, his own essays,
...always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade (or at least seduce, entertain, distract the reader into amusement, which are other means of persuasion, ones that Montaigne himself was happy to use). Even when I set out with no end in sight, I still am aware as I am writing when an argument is building underneath, and I nudge the prose along in ways that accentuate the architecture. (Lopate 108)
Considering the essay as a process of discovery in this way has pedagogical implications, insofar as it is perhaps somewhat backward to berate students about the need to settle on a thesis when they do not yet know what they think. Why do we put such “unreasonable pressure on students...before they have explored their thoughts on the page,” Lopate asks (108). Furthermore, here we begin to see the Kierkegaardian connection emerge:  Whether he is genuinely sifting through ideas and altering his opinion, or purposefully crafting a persona, on the page this is often what Kierkegaard looks like: that is, like the essayist who appears to be changing her mind. She sets herself up as wondering, yet underneath that she works intentionally -- or does she? You can never quite be sure. In any case, the process is as important as the end point.


Sadly, what the students I work with are expected to write are not essays in this traditional sense. We operate with a split between composition and the personal essay that is only as recent as the 70s and 80s, according to Lopate, and most courses expect students to stay on the composition side of the fence. Even among practitioners of the essay, in fact, there is some conversation about what constitutes an essay, and the subsets thereof. Essayist Anne Fadiman reflects on the state of affairs in the preface to her collection, At Large and At Small, where she writes, “Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal -- very personal -- essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).” Fadiman’s take on the personal essay understands it over and against the familiar essay, which strikes me as a bit off. Much of what is labeled “personal essay” these days, in the way Fadiman references -- more heart that brain -- is actually more like short-memoir, which is not the same thing as an essay in the vein of Montaigne, and is not what I am talking about here. Rather, Lopate considers the personal essay to be close kin of the familiar essay. He lays out a distinction first between the formal essay and the informal essay, with the personal essay as subset of informal, and the familiar as subset of personal. If there is a difference between these last two, he says, it is that “The familiar essay values lightness of touch above all else; the personal essay, which need not be light, tends to put the writer’s ‘I’ or idiosyncratic angle more at center stage” (xxiv, The Art of the Personal Essay). I bring this up not as mere tangential digression, nor to split hairs about genre, but because this marriage of what Fadiman calls “heart” and “brain” is what I am trying to get at here, and where Kierkegaard fits into this conversation: in short, I think that there is room for more “heart” in my students’ essays.

Still, the informal  or personal essay may be perceived as a quaint, curious thing, easily dismissed by intellectual heavyweights. Lopate writes, “I once shared my introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay with a learned English department colleague who pronounced it ‘charming,’ which I took to mean insufficiently theorized and dilettantish” (To Show and To Tell, 110). The tension between the formal and informal forms can result in what feel like a nice pats on the head to the traditional essayist -- as if one cannot be charming and also intellectually astute. As if it would not be a worthy goal for my students to learn to be interesting.

Delving further into what makes the essay, despite its lack of a thesis or pointedly driven argument, an intellectual as well as artistic exercise, Lopate speaks of purposefully “planting knots” in in the body of an essay which he can then untie along the way in order to move the essay forward. He notes, finally, how one of his colleagues refers to Plato’s Dialogues as, other than Montaigne, “the writings of [one of] the greatest essayists” (111). How could a dialogue be an essay, Lopate wonders, only to conclude that “all good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation” (111). The essayist never lacks for a conversation partner, because she specializes in self-interrogation. She can argue with herself.


I hope that I am beginning to sound Kierkegaardian at this point, though one might wonder what there is to say in comparing a writer as long winded as our dear Kierkegaard with any writer who works in a form as compact as the essay. Length aside, I would venture -- indeed, I might even argue, hesitant as my essayist impulse may be to do such a thing -- that Kierkegaard thinks like an essayist. Furthermore, thinking of him as such has implications for how we teach his work, and how we require students to write about him.

Kierkegaard writes of his work that, “The movement of the authorship is: from ‘the poet,’ from the esthetic -- from ‘the philosopher,’ from the speculative -- to the indication of the most inward qualification of the essentially Christian” (POV 5). His work, he asserts, articulates a path, a movement -- specifically, “the Christian movement” (POV 7). He sets out in The Point of View to explain his process, what precisely he’s been up to with his varied and contradictory authorial voices. He claims that now, here, he will explain his “author character” (POV 26).  Insofar as we determine that we can take him at his word here -- for there are few things of which I am more certain than that Kierkegaard is nearly always messing with our heads -- he presents his own work as an attempt at communication as reflection. His goal is “to deceive,” albeit with the intent that such deception is ultimately revelatory (POV 7). If one is to reach the goal, though, this deception cannot go on indefinitely. It is merely a means of uncovering the truth. Sooner or later one must take a more direct approach, but this directness, this simplicity, is the better for having followed this process of, “in working also to work against oneself” (POV 9). Is he in earnest here? Is he making claims about his work’s intentionality that cannot be substantiated? Possibly. As any essayist could tell you, “intention” is rarely that simple.

For Lopate, as discussed, the use of contrariety is at the heart of the essay. “Let us begin with the assumption that the essay feasts on doubt,” he writes, “on self-doubt, ambivalence, contradiction, and paradox” (Lopate 64). This is a characteristic he calls “Thinking against oneself” -- a process that sounds much like the Kierkegaardian idea cited above, namely, to work against oneself. The essayist is mischievous in this way -- messing with your head by exploring the nooks and crannies of her own. For Kierkegaard, this thinking against oneself takes place via pseudonyms, full-fledged characters he creates for himself. Here, again, Lopate’s description of the essayist is illuminating. He argues that characterization, perhaps often assumed to be the domain of fiction writers, is a key component of the essay. One must turn oneself into a character on the page. “The art of characterization,” he writes, “comes down to establishing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and introducing variations into the system” (To Show and To Tell, 18). Doing so is a way of creating some distance from oneself, “to see yourself from the ceiling”(18). The essayist must create a memorable/compelling narrator, must dramatize herself, must highlight her own ambivalence and internal contradictions. “The reader must find you amusing,” he writes, “amusing enough to follow you, no matter what topic you propose” (22). There is a strategy in Kierkegaard’s work of “esthetic incognito” -- a sense in which he understands himself as “a kind of secret agent in the highest service” (JP 1858-1855, 6192) -- and uses the esthetic to his advantage. He assures his readers that we needn’t be concerned by his use of deception, however, for one can “deceive a person into what is true” (POV 53). He is not lying; he is making a point. And it is through this seeming lie that the truth can be revealed. He goes all in, not merely considering conflicting points of view, but becoming them. As Lopate instructs the essayist, “You must get in the habit of inviting, not censoring, the most far-fetched, mischievous notions, because even if they prove cockeyed, they might point to an element of truth that would otherwise be inaccessible” (Lopate 24). This last line seems to me to speak to the heart of the confusing pseudonymous dance Kierkegaard enacts, for what is writing in the way that he does if not wild? Brilliant, but strange? Lopate would likely say to embrace such an impulse.


It is all well and good to note such similarities between Kierkegaard and Lopate’s description of the essay, but why should this matter to us? Why is this thing Kierkegaard calls “a godly satire” good, or perhaps even necessary? (POV 17) Why ought one attempt to “deceive into the truth”? (POV 7) For that matter, what if we do sum all this up as the author simply changing his mind? (POV 29) Does it matter whether he really changed his mind, or was merely acting? Here looking at Kierkegaard’s work from the angle of creative nonfiction becomes particularly fruitful. Like the essayist, who crafts a given piece to take the reader through a tangle of ideas, to lead her to a specific thought or feeling, a certain revelation or sense of delight, each move is purposeful. In creative writing we call this craft. It’s not something philosophers speak of -- or at least not in my experience. But it is at play in Kierkegaard’s authorship, from word choice to imagery to characterization.

This matter of craft is central, as is the role of human personality in analysis. When considering a thinker often characterized as the “father of existentialism,” it stands to reason that the human subject, in all her malleability, would be visible. Lopate writes:
Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If ‘we must remove the mask,’ it is only to substitute another mask. The hope is that in the end, when an essayists lifework has been accumulated, all these personae will add up to a genuine unmasking. (The Art of the Personal Essay, xxviii)
There is a sense in which it is only by embracing our own varied masks that we can reach the place vulnerability in which such genuine unmasking can take place. Kierkegaard wholeheartedly embraces this contrariety which is so characteristic of the essayist -- so much so that he doesn’t merely play the curmudgeon for a paragraph or two, but creates entire personas with authorships of their own which he can variously interact with, contradict, or affirm. Ultimately to read one of these characters without consideration of the others may even leave one with an incomplete understanding of the point of the given persona. The dialogue, the conversation, is only half-finished if you don’t consider one voice in comparison with others. Which voice is really Kierkegaard’s voice?

All of them -- even those we might argue are speaking words he doesn’t believe. The essayist will play devil’s advocate to herself if need be, whether she has really changed her mind or not.


The question arises, then, as to what it means to be an author in this way. As Kierkegaard asks, is it “to be an x, an impersonal something that, by means of printing, addresses itself abstractly to thousands upon thousands but itself is unseen, unknown, living as secretly, as anonymously, as impersonally as possible, presumably so that the contrast between the enormous means of communication and being an individual human being does not become obvious or glaring”? (57). I think not. In all of this, I hope we might see an invitation, quite simply, to squash this business about being invisible in our work. Not only is it an act of self-deception to think the individual is not present anyway, despite our efforts, but we also destroy the possibility that our collective intellectual work might actually be strengthened by the well-defined and clearly articulated voices of individuals. Revisiting the essay itself as a form, along with a kind of Kierkegaardian posture of authorship, creates potential to infuse life and accessibility into academic writing in way that moves it out of the academy and into public discourse and communal imagination.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Uprooted and Sent

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
May 17, 2015: Seventh Sunday of Easter
Psalm 1, John 17:6-19

My favorite yoga pose is the tree pose. I love the experience of shifting my weight to one leg, finding a center, imagining my foot sending strong roots deep into the earth to hold me, as I raise my other foot, resting it against my calf muscle. I love to breathe deeply and reach my arms out and up, stretching my fingers skyward. On a good day -- one where I’ve found and held that elusive balance -- I’ll wave my arms back and forth as if swaying in the wind, trusting my roots to hold me steady -- flexible, able to give when the wind rushes in, but made strong by roots mostly invisible beneath the soil.

Psalm 1 compares the righteous to trees, the unrighteous to chaff driven away by the wind. This time of year especially this growth metaphor suits, as trees bloom and spring gardens start to bear fruit. It’s a season of newness, of life.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, the Psalmist writes.
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on [that] law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

My college chaplain used to reference Psalm 1 when I was frustrated by the season in which I found myself. As a student at a Christian college, more often than not this frustration stemmed from pressures to “do something” for God, and for the world, while slow hours of study left me feeling guilty, as if perhaps I’d gotten off that path of righteousness and was instead lollygagging with my nose in a book. I imagine many of us have experienced something like that during a season of waiting, or education, or illness, or other seemingly fallow seasons.

No, he preached to me -- this work would bear fruit later. I was in a season of deepening roots. In seasons without visible fruit, the tree is still alive, is still being faithful to its tree-ness. The work we do during such seasons is “doing something,” it’s not just sitting around, twiddling our thumbs. And so we can learn to look forward to other seasons, and take more pleasure in rooting ourselves, in finding a place to stand and sway.

I’ve been thinking about this passage, and my college chaplain’s message, lately because this is the season in which college towns so often have to say goodbyes. Every spring -- not only spring, but especially spring -- we say goodbye to people leaving the triangle. When I first moved here wasn’t so hard. I was recently uprooted myself, I was the one who had left others to come here. But each year our roots grow deeper, each year we live in a place with particular people our love for them will grow, if we let it, if we cultivate it, as we do here each Sunday and in small groups and in so many other small moments of life together throughout our days, weeks, and years.

But seasons come to an end, and sometimes “fruit” looks like a new job or a new home in a far off place. Sometimes our delight in the Lord and in God’s gifts, God’s call upon our lives, leads us away. As the gospel passage today from John reminds us, we do not belong to this world -- and so, rooted as we may be in God’s ragtag community of the faithful in this world, we remain nomads, following God through the wilderness.

Indeed, shifting metaphors, the last verse of Psalm 1 assures us that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous. The paths we tread when we go out from here each Sunday, but also those longer roads that lead to other splits and turns we cannot yet foresee. We may be called to be rooted like trees, but we are also supposed to be movable, with the promise that God watches over our paths. We are not driven about forcefully by any wind that blows; but we do move, step by prayerful step.

“I am not asking you,” Jesus says in John’s gospel, “to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world...as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us, so we send each other.

Part of our lives together, this tension between rootedness and mobility, is the necessity of acknowledging our limited claims upon one another. We cannot make one another stay when God calls us elsewhere. We share the gifts of the spirit together for a season, in this little corner of the world, but we don’t belong to the world. Neither are we driven aimlessly when we depart a place. Rather, we leave as those who are sent, with a purpose rooted in God’s love, rooted in righteousness, even when we can no longer be rooted in the literal ground of this particular place.

We have said goodbye to many people over the last year, and those goodbyes aren’t over yet. Sending loved ones off after seasons of work and education and growth here in Chapel Hill and Durham never gets any easier. Indeed, I think it gets a great deal more difficult every time. Sometimes I joke that I want to move too, just so that I can go somewhere that people won’t leave me so often. It takes a long time to put down roots, though, and I’d rather not pull mine up, even if being the ones who stay is hard. Being the ones who stay is another kind of calling.

Being the ones who stay means welcoming new faces into our communal life, new friends and new seasons. It means being a place that nurtures and cultivates relationships knowing full well that, one way or another, we are likely to say farewell eventually. It means trusting that our leaves will not wither with each departure, but that God is faithful to those who find “delight in the law of the Lord.”

And so we stay, and we send, and we pray together when God calls people elsewhere that God would protect them, watching over their paths even when their steps lead away from us.

May we be like those trees, with roots that go down deep to streams of life-giving water. May our fruit be sweet and plentiful. May we share it freely, widely, and with all who are in need, for it was never ours to keep.

Friday, May 15, 2015

It's Friday Again

HAPPY FRIDAY! Let me start by saying people are great and my Kierkegaard campaign is almost -- almost -- completely funded. Seriously. A handful of readers could put it over the top, no problem. So thanks. And if you’ve been thinking about contributing but putting it off, now is a good time. Let’s finish it up. You rock. Click here.

Now, links! My internal monologue this week was focused on infrastructure and economics, with some bits about criticism/praise thrown in, and these links reflect that. Here are the best things I read this week:

John Cassidy on transportation infrastructure in the United States. Sobering, and extremely important in light of this week's Amtrak crash.

The Writer as Merchant by Jim Ruland on Lit Hub. Keep a place by the fire for me, will ya?

The Assistant Economy, by Francesca Mari in Dissent Magazine. I know Susan Sontag was incredible, but I'm kind of glad I wasn't her assistant.

Mallory Ortberg on How to Accept Compliments and Handle Praise. “8. Carefully wrap yourself around the leg of whoever praised you like a frightened cat, and force them to drag you around with them wherever they go for the rest of their natural life.” I feel that.

The Complete List of Insecurities by Britt Appleton, which is both funnier and more serious/sad than I anticipated when I first clicked the link. If you need me, I’ll be here worrying about chillness, card games, and current events...among other things...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Abide in Love

Note: This sermon was given on May 3, 2015 at Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship. I cannot reproduce the rich discussion we had together about the text after I spoke that morning, about the specific walls we encounter in our own communities and lives, and the ways we are learning to break through them, but I hope readers will find opportunities to consider those questions on their own.

1 John 4, the passage we are focusing on today, is deceptively simple, in that while is sounds easy enough, it’s actually quite complicated when it comes to our lived experiences. Statements about love, like “Love wins,” for example, sound well enough on a bumper sticker. Christians repeat again and again that we are to love one another, love is from God, abide in love. Love, love, love. Love can become our go-to description of Christian ethics. “You just gotta love…” And while I suppose I basically agree with that, if our text today tells us anything it is that love is more difficult than we sometimes want to believe. And love – this kind of love – finds its beginning and end in God. “In this is love,” the author of 1 John writes, “not that we loved God but that [God] loved us.”

So the question remains: what does love really mean, according to 1 John? What does love actually do?

My pastor in Chapel Hill says every preacher really only has one sermon that she or he preaches over and over again in different ways, and I have a hunch that mine might be about this word, love. And, if love really is some kind of summation of the gospel – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself – then I suppose I can’t apologize if I come back to it again and again. It is an inexhaustible topic, because as followers of Christ this is what we’re called to spend our lives doing: learning to love one another, as an outpouring of the love God has for us. Becoming people who love, as well as learning to be loved ourselves, is lifelong work. Perhaps that is why it comes up in the bible so often.

1 John 4 is a passage that rings familiarly in my head, but as I meditated on the text this week I kept coming back to two particular things: first, the idea that love abides – “abide” not being a word we often use, in my experience. Second, the assertion that “perfect love casts out fear.” So I first want to invite you all to think with me about what it means to abide:

To abide can mean to accept or bear (even abiding someone or something unpleasant), or it can mean to stay or live somewhere, to remain or continue. These last are what comes most readily to my mind when I read 1 John. We are called to live in, to continue in, love. It’s a sustained sense of being in a place – a place of love, perhaps a community of love.

As I tried to think about what living in love like that means, a book I am reading right now gave me a glimpse. In Wanted, Chris Hoke shares stories from his life and work as a chaplain in a small county jail, and as I read about his work there and about what pulled him in and kept him in that unlikely community, it struck me that what he found there was a place to abide.

See, contrary to what most of us probably imagine for a jail chaplain, Chris implies that what kept him coming back was his own loneliness. He was looking for friends – looking for love, and for God – looking, it seemed to me as I read these stories, for a place to abide. And he tells about what he found – or, perhaps, who found him. I won’t do a disservice to the book or the lives shared therein by trying to summarize it, though I definitely recommend reading it and letting those stories speak for themselves – but I do want to share a couple moments and what I think they might illuminate about our text from 1 John.

Chris shares about the friendships he formed with men in jail, connections which were raw, vulnerable, physical, as they held hands and prayed, as they embraced – these tough guys, who loved getting hugs from the chaplain. And then he talks about what changed when the county jail “caught up” to the rest of the prison system by instituting a no-contact policy. The ability to touch one another was taken away, creating a barrier – in some cases a literal barrier of plexiglass that stood between him and friends he now had to talk to through a little phone, a wall in place he could see through but not cross. But, also, invisible barriers when he could be in a room with people he was not allowed to touch.

Chris’s story got me thinking about how such barriers prevent us from abiding with one another, and in so doing, from abiding with God. And – here, again, coming back to the text, it seems like most of the barriers we live with, the ways we are cut off from our neighbors, stem from fear – which the second part of our text that I want to focus on.

Fear is the enemy of love, according to 1 John. And love is that which banishes fear.

We – whether “we” is our government, our communities, or us as individuals – construct barriers to protect ourselves from that which we fear. We build walls so that we cannot see the things – or often, the people – that scare us. We are like my cat, when she burrows her face into a blanket at the veterinary office: If she can’t see the thing that scares her, perhaps it’s not really there.

But of course it is. And, while my cat perhaps has good reason to be a little nervous about the vet, the vet is also good for her, vital to her thriving life. I think that often we are hiding not from real danger but from the possibility of love – messy, challenging, vulnerable sorts of love, but love nonetheless. Our fears, the author of 1 John implies, cut us off from God – a refusal to abide with one another is a refusal to abide with God. A refusal of love. When we cut ourselves off from one another, we cut ourselves off from the source of life.

The text closes with a hard hitting assertion: those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

How, he seems to be asking, can you claim to love God – who, let’s face it, is not always easily discernible – when you don’t see the people right in front of you? When sometimes you willfully look away? When we put up walls – sometimes literally – between us and our neighbors? Between ourselves and our fellow children of God?

1 John addresses the reader as beloved. It names us as loved, and calls us to bear with one another, to stand in the same space, to inhabit the world together, and to look at one another without blinking, without fear. I do not think the author expects we will like everything we see, at least not at first – but love drives out fear, and looking on one another with God’s love cannot help but propel us past our divisions, and together, toward God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Roundup!

I'm a couple days late on last week's link roundup because I was traveling all day Friday. The Orlando airport promised me free wifi, but alas, it proved unreliable. In any case, I'm back in North Carolina after a good week in Michigan (I'll share my sermon from Kalamazoo Mennonite later this week), settling into my summer schedule. If you haven't yet, check out my crowd funding page for my Kierkegaard project here. A couple of contributions have come in the old fashioned way, via paper check, so I am now 80% funded! The remaining $245.00 should be a snap, right dear readers?  Thanks for reading, and contributing as you're able.

On to the links!

I love these yoga photos from around Chicago.

Joanna Harader on the MCUSA Executive Board resolution.

Jessica Valenti on padded bras. “Is it really women’s responsibility to hide the well-established fact that most of us have nipples, or is it men’s not to be such damn oglers? You know we have them under there, after all. Can’t we all just give up the ruse?"

A great essay from an adjunct who also works in a grocery store.

This NYT piece about the young black activists who’ve been building a movement online and in the streets since August. Unfortunately the author didn’t highlight Johnetta Elzie’s work as much as it should have, continuing the trend in downplaying the black women who are are the forefront of the moment. The article is a great profile of DeRay Mckesson, but should also send you scurrying to follow Elzie on Twitter.

Alana Massey’s thoughtful take on being culturally Christian.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Baltimore and nonviolence as compliance.

And finally, a recipe for coffee ice cream. I haven’t made it yet, but I will do so as soon as I make my post-travel grocery run.

Friday, May 1, 2015

May Day Links

I’m keeping it brief this week because I’m in Michigan for my brother’s college graduation. (Congrats, little bro!) It’s sunny and warm on my sister’s front porch in Grand Rapids, where I’m working Sunday morning’s sermon for Kalamazoo Mennonite. The semester is over, and I’ll be taking a few days vacation starting Monday.

Reading
Jessica Valenti on why going without make-up isn’t radical.

Hannah Bonner on white privilege and active resistance. She writes, “to be passive and an ally is not a possibility”

This week I re-read two different pieces by Amy Laura Hall that have contributed to how I think about that thing people refer to as “sexual ethics.” I recommend both: A Christian Vagina Monologue and Pregnancy as Punishment.

I am about halfway through Chris Hoke’s Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders. As many who know me well could tell you, I have strong (and often negative) opinions about the proliferation of so-called “spiritual memoir” these days (not because I don’t like writing about spirituality, or memoir as a genre, but for other more complicated reasons I plan to write about in the next couple weeks). But I heard Chris read this week, and his book is the real deal. Wanted is beautiful and challenging, and I recommend it to you.

Listening
Dear Sugar Radio, Episode 2: The Stories We Tell. Wounded Feminist’s letter, and Cheryl and Steve’s response, hit me in the gut -- in a good way.

Watching
President Obama talking about Baltimore: “If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could; it’s just that it would require everybody saying, ‘this is important; this is significant.’ And, that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.” That’ll preach.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Lesson from Meinrad


I’ve been thinking a lot about this story that Meinrad Craighead tells in the documentary Meinrad Craighead: Praying With Images:
"I couldn't decide what I wanted to be. A Trappist monk, so to speak, or Dorothy Day. So I wrote her a letter. “Dear Dorothy Day, I am a young artist,” I mean this kind of letter, “I want to dedicate myself and my work as an artist to the church and the work in the world and so on.” She wrote me a letter and said--and this was so fantastic--she said "My dear, the first thing you should do is think only in terms of doing your college education, and feed the hungry by being an artist.” And that was a massive impact on me because then it wasn't about me making pictures, it was about me making pictures that somehow were supposed to feed people!"
Feed the hungry by being an artist. That is what Dorothy Day told her?! I have felt the tension Meinrad alludes to here -- I have asked these kinds of questions about what I am to do, what I am to be. For me, vocation is a complicated notion. If pressed, I would describe myself as bi-vocational, but my work life actually implies something of a tri- or even quadrivocation (which is most certainly not a word, and shouldn’t be, because four vocations is too many).

This time last year I was, predictably, exhausted. The end of the semester does that when you’re an academic. I wrote this piece about longing for the freedom to create, and about the financial instability of the writing life. I have tried, in the year since, to make some changes to my work life to find a better balance (despite my continued reluctance to make “balance” a central value). I have continued to learn the fine art of saying “No” so that I might say “Yes” at the right times. I have become more of a hermit, because as Zadie Smith says, you must protect and the time and space in which you write, even from the people you love most. In that vein I am also learning to be more intentional about relationships, and the ways I want and need to engage with the communities in which I live my life.

I am trying to figure out how to survive as a writer, because I think, like Meinrad, this is one way in which I can feed people.

The crowd funding campaign I have going on right now has been a strange experience. I was hesitant to even do it for a couple reasons: First, I have not been socialized to ask, and you can’t do a crowd funding campaign without asking repeatedly. Second, the lefty part of me is frustrated that this has become the culturally acceptable way of funding everything from creative projects to medical bills to college education. I actually think that, rather, we should put policies in place that make college affordable. Also, that everyone should have access to affordable healthcare to begin with. And finally, that just as we pay for other goods and services, we ought to be willing to pay a little bit for art, music, writing.

That is not the world we live in though, so I have psyched myself up, and asked. Meinrad in the back of my head has helped me to do this, but I will not stand here and deny the feeling of shame attached to asking. I will not hide the part of me that still wishes deep down to be an island unto myself that needs no external support. I also know that impulse relies on a false sense of reality, and values I reject.

And yet there is also this: each email that comes in informing me of someone’s contribution awes and humbles me. My work as a writer has always been supported by my community in intangible ways. Without my family, friends, church, yoga group -- all the people who know and love me and keep saying to me, especially when I get discouraged, “Keep going, we need your words” -- I don’t really know where I would be with all of this. I feel, in the most simple terms, empowered -- I am empowered by your trust and commitment to keeping me fed and clothed while I go about my work. I am empowered by your participation in the messy economy of the arts. I am empowered by the simple fact that you read the words and sentences I string together.

I have been most struck by the fact that nearly every contribution has come from someone I consider a friend -- or, in a couple of cases, someone I hope I will be able to know as a friend in the future. It feels weird to receive money from friends, but it is a blessed weirdness. I have said before in various places that though I write for myself, alone at my desk -- though I crave solitude, though I love being lost in a sea of words on the page -- I also write for, and in some sense with, others. I am more aware of that now than I have ever been, and I am grateful.

[In case you were wondering, no, I have not reached my goal yet. If you want to contribute, you can do so here.]