Friday, March 16, 2007

Cosmic Plainspeak: A Bit of Back and Forth with Brian Mclaren

Well...Mclaren's one of my favorite people. He submitted to my e-mail questions many months ago, and I'd assumed it would find its way on Lowercase People, but no dice. Here tis. And thanks to Brian for being so incredibly cool. There's a link to his site over to your right:

DD: What's the last musical recording you purchased?

BM: I just purchased a collection of music from a variety of artists from Mali (in Africa) from Putumayo World Music. It's the happiest and most exciting music I've heard in a long time, even though I don't understand one word of lyric.

DD: Sarah and I have been beaming lately as our kids request repeated listens of Bruce Cockburn (you guessed it: "Wondering Where the Lions Are") as we drive around in our minivan. We understand you're pretty batty for Cockburn too. What keeps you going back to him?

BM: Ah, great question. It sounds daft to say "The lyrics and the music,"but that's about it. I guess I could also say "the politics and the mysticism" or "the honesty and the hope" or "the cynicism and the sincerity." I think two of the greatest songs ever written are Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" and Cockburn's "Rumors of Glory" ...along with "Fascist Architecture" and "Understanding Nothing" and ...I'd better stop there.

DD: How funny. We've made a tradition of listening to "Rumors of Glory" on the kids' drive to school each morning. I think I once read where Elvis Costello named Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" as a favorite all-time single. Somehow, simultaneous sincerity and cynicism might name my favorite genre in any medium. Sounds awfullly biblical really. Devastatingly (and hopefully) reality-based. What film earns your highest recommendation and why?

BM: What film in all of history? Wow, that feels like a pretty scary question. In the last year, by far it's "Hotel Rwanda." To me, the film does what good art should do ... it humanizes, informs, moves, disturbs, and creates a longing for something holy. I'm a big fan of stupid movies too, the best of which (to me) is Weird Al Yankovic's "UHF." As for somewhat-oldies ... I'm a big fan of "The Color Purple" and "Mr. Holland's Opus."

DD: Play the sunset!! Any science fiction that's done anything for you?

BM: I often refer people to "Contact" to understand the modern-postmodern transition. It captures the issues beautifully. I actually like Science Fiction a lot ... I'm a fan of several of Orson Scott Card's books. But outside of the Star Trek movies, I'm drawing a blank on any science fiction movies that I've seen. Star Wars never really grabbed me for some reason.

DD: Where should I begin with Orson Scott Card? I've been meaning to give him a looksee for ages.

BM: Ender's Game is a quick read, along with Speaker for the Dead and Xenophobia. But he has a series called "Return to Earth" that's really pretty strange and powerful. And his "Alvin Maker" series is also good. A few things of his that I've read were crappy.

DD: What do you think of when you hear the phrase, "social justice"?

BM: I think of the prophets of the Old Testament telling us that God is sick of all our religious music and meetings, and that God wishes we would do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

DD: Where do you see this happening?

BM: Well, I'm on the board of Sojourners (, and I'm a fan of their work over the decades now. The Catholic Worker movement, the Consistent Life movement, and the New Monasticism movement are all wonderful examples of this prophetic voice. With Evangelicalism now filling the role of America's civil religion (replacing Mainline Protestantism in the 1970's), we really need these alternative visions of what the Christian faith is supposed to be, other than a) a civil religion, or b) an isolated subculture.

DD: Or a special interest group. It recently occured to me that the term "evangelist" ought to mean "multipartisan good news bringer" with an open door to dialogue over whether or not the news proffered by the supposed evangelist is actually good for most parties. I think of Sojourners as a powerful resource for dialogue and a "How To Get Embodied" check list for a demonstrably good news proclamation. So many ways of being pro-human. How do you differentiate between politics and religion?

BM: First, it depends on how you define politics. If you define it as the game between left and right, then they are so far apart I don't have to differentiate them any more than I have to differentiate blue whales from bluebirds. If you define it as how people get to seek to get along harmoniously and productively and wisely, then I'd say politics is an expression of religion. Second, it depends on how you define religion. If you define it as in-groups and out-groups arguing about God, then it seems to be a form of politics (defined as the game between left and right). If you define it as the search among human beings for our highest purpose and meaning, then I'd say it and politics are two wings on the bluebird or two fins on the blue whale.

DD: I remember reading somewhere that they're essentially two words, alternatively treasured and detested, for the same thing. And I found I couldn't quite disagree. I guess when someone says "I'm not political" or "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual," they're often just trying to communicate that they aren't prone to quibbling or being aggressively judgemental. "Spiritual" is the one that bugs me lately, because it often seems like a way of disembodying the devastatingly life-giving, earthbound social criticism of the biblical witness. Do you happen to have any useful uses for the word "spiritual?

BM: Well, I see your point, especially if the word plays into old dualisms like spirit versus body or spiritual versus secular. More sanguinely, I think many people use the word to refer to the parts of their lives that can't be reduced to biology, physics, economics, and cosmetics. But even there, if we create another inward versus outward dualism, we're missing the point - which is that the two interpenetrate, and that both inner and outer worlds are a mess and need healing for the same reasons.

DD: I'll take "spiritual" as the irreducible; that which transcends every mode of compartmentalization. I suppose I especially cringe when folks talk about how they're doing "spiritually" as if it's a separate category from how they're treating people, spending money, or consuming. I guess I also think of it as a marketing term that ends up messing with our ability to think coherently.

BM: Amen on that.

DD: How does George W. Bush's talk of God most differ from yours?

BM: We're both fallen human beings who are prone to pontificate about God in ways that put both of us in the need of much mercy. While I am less prone than our president to equate American national interests with God's will, I am surely wrong and misguided in my own ways too.

DD: Are there any career politicians whose work or voting record you find encouraging?

BM: I think of the retired Mark Hatfield of Oregon and his great legacy as a Republican who voted from a thoughtful life of faith. I'm sure there must be some more contemporary people ... but since I can't think of too many at the moment, maybe that says something. By and large, I have the most confidence in Catholic legislators who are well catechized in Catholic social teaching (not the ones who join Evangelicals as being one- or two-issue voters). I'm hoping more of them will speak out more vigorously in the coming years.

DD: Would you include Dennis Kucinich among them?

BM: I don't know anything about Kucinich's faith commitments, but it would make perfect sense to me to learn that his politics flows from Catholic social teaching. Perhaps we are nearing a day where intelligence and moral reflection are seen as a necessary asset for our political leaders ... not just "likability" or rhetorical ability or the ability to play the game.

DD: Yes indeed. These days, it's almost as if being a genuinely self-critical, person who's eager to discover how much he/she has yet to know would be perceived as a liability. Nobody feels like they can change their mind in public. What do you appreciate most about the work of Jacques Derrida?

BM: I believe his work, contrary to what many folk say, was at heart a moral endeavor, a sustained attempt to show that the "justice" of western colonialism was a fraud and deserved to be deconstructed that a higher justice could possibly show through. I know a lot of people think he was overly mischievous and troublesome in so doing, but as Kierkegaard said, it is not an easy thing to dislodge people who are held in the grip of a cherished illusion.

DD: That's my feeling too. I think it was in a Brueggemann footnote that I read Derrida saying "Justice isn't deconstructible." I found that very helpful in all kinds of ways. What would you recommend as a good start for someone wanting to know more about Derrida or deconstructionism.

BM: I'd recommend Jack Caputo's "Deconstruction in a Nutshell." His "Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida" is also very moving - but not an easy read, as is "God, the Gift, and Postmodernism." On a more popular level, Bruce Ellis Benson's "Graven Ideologies," and Carl Raschke's "The Next Reformation" are helpful. Jamie Smith has a book called "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism" or something close to that - and it is excellent (I just read the manuscript). I'd also recommend people check out a new website - The posting there by Mabiala Kenzo is utterly fantastic.

DD: If you could assign one book to high school Seniors across the country, what would it be?

BM: I think it would be "King Leopold's Ghost." Or maybe David Quammen's "The Song of the Dodo." Or maybe Annie LaMott's "Traveling Mercies," although this one would probably be removed by censors. Maybe I'd give them the Book of Genesis, the Book of Ruth, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Luke in one bound volume.

DD: Have you read any JD Salinger?

BM: His "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters" brought tears to my eyes on many occasions.

DD: With whom would you most like to be stuck in an elevator for two hours?

BM: Jane Goodall Or Desmond Tutu.

DD:What is it about Jane Goodall?

BM: Jane's biography for me epitomizes the postmodern turn, in the best sense of the word. First, you're a detached observer taking notes on chimpanzees in the jungle. Then you name them - you enter into a relationship with them. There goes "objectivity." Then you grow to love and respect them. Then, when one is brutally killed by poachers, you weep for them and dedicate the rest of your life to saving them, protecting them. Then you realize that you can't save chimpanzees without saving the rainforest. Then you realize you can't save the rainforest without changing the way people think and value and believe and live. At that point, you've become (in the best sense of the word) an evangelist, trying to save the world.

DD: That's rather beautifully put.

BM: I also love Jane Goodall because she sees science and faith as beautifully integrated. She sees the wonder and mystery of evolution as God's creation. A friend of mine went to hear her speak about chimpanzees and her work at Gombe, and my friend wept through the whole lecture. "The weird thing," she said, "was that I didn't know why I was weeping. And weirder still, I think everyone in the room felt almost the same way. We weren't sure why we were so moved, but we were." I think the Spirit that was "hovering over the waters" at the world's creation also hovers over places where creation is being honored, respected, loved, and saved.

DD: That’s a very good word. I can’t think of that hovering, brooding-over-the-waters image without think of the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. One particular piece of his, “Pied Beauty,” always makes me think of people who are intersexual (sometimes called "hermaphrodite") and their (I think) redemptively unsettling presence among the more definitively gendered among us. Taken alongside Flannery O’Connor’s “Temple of the Holy Ghost,” I’ve long fancied the possibility of a scene (something of a climax) in a film where a maligned, intersexual person stands up in a gathering (synagogue, church, PTA meeting) and recites Hopkins’ words:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

DD: I suppose it's that part, "Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)" that gets me. In your latest book, you feature an intersexual named Pat who enters the life of your protagonist, Pastor Dan, with words of encouragement, the cosmic plainspeak of poetry, and that disarmingly blessed presence. Could you comment a little on what you had in mind with the character of Pat?

BM: A friend of mine who is a committed gay Christian refers to himself as a unicorn. He believes, before God, that who he is is precious and rare and beautiful, but so many people just want to capture him and "kill" him. We do that, don't we? When something is different – hard to categorize, hard to figure out - we try to cut it to make it fit our boxes, even if doing so destroys the beauty that could have been there.
I think of a neighbor child with Down's syndrome. There is a beauty
in him that is irreplaceable, if we have eyes to see.
That's what I tried to convey with the character Pat. I made her/him
intersexual because I think that before we can successfully understand
or respond to homosexuality, which doubtless involves complex and
invisible matters of brain chemistry or genetics or both in many cases
... we should grapple with intersexuality, which involves obvious
physical features of the genitals.
I often think that we underestimate Jesus' life and teachings; we
focus so much on his death and resurrection. The fact that he touched
lepers, befriended tax collectors, defended adulteresses, and cared
for non-Jews ... tells us that the kingdom of God is about "the other"
being seen as "my neighbor."

DD: Much of your work, to my mind, wants to prioritize God's ongoing love for all of creation (including us human creatures) over whatever issues make us anxious, unlistening, and defensive; letting the world-without-end of God's unfathomable affection frame all our tentative, feverish hashing-outs of issues. I often suspect it's an inability, on our part, to believe that God's love for us is in no way prerequisite upon us believing the right things that keeps us incapable of having good conversations or hearing the testimony of someone whose experience (or anatomy) is a challenge to our thinking. It's as if we subconsciously believe God is made angry or anxious by our own confusion as we project upon God our own quandaries. Somewhere, you describe Pastor Dan (and, in a sense, all of us) as "a mix of fragmentary insight against a backdrop of ignorance." That is such a good word and such a relief. We're called to be human and faithful as we can be within our blessED finiteness and our ongoing, not-knowing-it-all-at-all worldviews. I wish more people had a phrase like yours in mind when they described themselves as "humble sinners." I wish more of us took more pleasure in saying, "I don't know." Any words on that dark, starry backdrop of ignorance? Does _Contact_ come to mind?

BM: -- Jamie Smith, a theologian at Calvin Seminary, wrote a tremendously
helpful (to me) book with IVP called "The Fall of Interpretation." He
explores what you (very aptly!) describe as "blessed finiteness." To
think that I as a creature get to have a unique, once in a
universe-time perspective on reality - including God - is quite
stunning. Being limited to a single perspective, in this way, isn't a
limitation; it's a gift. It means I need other people and have much
to gain from them, and I have something to offer them too. I don't
think it's stretching things too far to say that a tree growing on a
mountain in a corner of Guatemala also has a unique perspective, a
unique slice of experience, possible to it and no other created thing
that ever has been or will be in the universe. It enjoys (in whatever
way trees enjoy) a unique slant of sunlight, a unique climate, a
unique kind of soil, a unique set of companions or relationships
(birds, people, lizards, whatever). And the same could be said for
every member of God's amazing community. It takes my breath away as I
think about it.
It's great you mention Contact because a kind of secondary theme in
the film - after the theme of loneliness and our search for connection
and a place in the community of creation - is the theme of humility.
We finally discover other intelligent life, and we learn that we're
pretty low on the intelligence scale! Sir Isaac Newton's so-called
laws, it turns out, only describe a narrow slice of reality, and that
slice is bounded by mystery. How funny to look back and think that we
had found the keys to everything, when really we found the keys to a
very small closet in a very big mansion.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Sifting through the madness for the Word, the Line, the Way

(sarah here) had a moment out. read this and wanted to share it. it makes me think of van gogh and trying to get at something utterly heartbroken in the hopes for something new. or something old come alive. or just anything come alive. anyhoo, here 'tis.
"A new language?"

"Yes. A language that will at last say what we have to say. For our words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident that our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality. Hence, every time we try to speak of what we see, we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are trying to represent. It's made a mess of everything. But words, as you yourself understand, are capable of change. The problem is how to demonstrate this. That is why I now work with the simplest means possible –so simple that even a child can grasp what I am saying. Consider a word that refers to a thing – ‘umbrella’ for example. When I say the word 'umbrella,' you see the object in your mind. You see a kind of stick, with collapsible metal spokes on top that form an armature for a waterproof material which, when opened, will protect you from the rain. This last detail is important. Not only is an umbrella a thing, it is a thing that performs a function –in other words expresses the will of man. When you stop to think of it, every object is similar to the umbrella, in that it serves a function. A pencil is for writing, a shoe is for wearing, a car is for driving. Now, my question is this. What happens when a thing no longer perfoms its function? Is it still the thing, or has it become something else? When you rip the cloth off the umbrella, is the umbrella still an umbrella? You open the spokes, put them over your head, walk out into the rain, and you get drenched. Is it possible to go on calling this object an umbrella? In general, people do. At the very limit, they will say the umbrella is broken. To me this is a serious error, the source of all our troubles. Because it can no longer perform its function, the umbrella has ceased to be an umbrella. It might resemble an umbrella, it might once have been an umbrella, but now it has changed into something else. The word, however, has remained the same. Therefore, it can no longer express the thing. It is imprecise; it is false; it hides the thing it is supposed to reveal. And if we cannot even name a common, everyday object that we hold in our hands, how can we expect to speak of the things that truly concern us? Unless we can begin to embody the notion of change in the words we use, we will continue to be lost."

"And your work?"

"My work is very simple. I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. The brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. You have only to open your eyes to see it. The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts. The whole city is a junk heap. It suits my purpose admirably. I find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things. Each day I go out with my bag and collect objects that seem worthy of investigation. My samples now number in the hundreds –from the chipped to the smashed, from the dented to the squashed, from the pulverized to the putrid." "What do you do with these things?"

"I give them names."

- Paul Auster. City of Glass

sending love and hope to all reading with a sci-fi "wah-wah-wah-wah" sound, wishing for the technology to make it travel for real. everyone's so so important.