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5000 Books—Post 1: the Idea

Several times in recent years I have thought that a situation would benefit from a community reading project. These occur when a large group in a community collectively reads and discusses a single book relevant to the issues they are struggling with. In the past, everything time I have thought deeply about such a project, I did nothing until the time and my energy had passed. But not this time, or at least not yet this time. What I am proposing is impossible for me to do, but if the idea is persuasive to others, it can be done, rather easily even. 

I want to give a copy of Ernest Gaines’s novel A Lesson before Dying to every teenager, young adult, police officer, and town council member in Ferguson, Missouri who would be willing to receive one. I have come up with the number of 5000 by looking at the census figures for Ferguson and Jennings (the community next to Ferguson with similar demographics). If you would like to know what I find valuable about this book for this purpose, please read my previous blog post about the novel itself.

Earlier today, I wrote to several members of the clergy in Ferguson presenting this idea to them. I haven’t heard back from them, but I am writing this posting early enough that they may not have yet seen the message I wrote. I may also have to persuade them that I am for real about this idea. If I persuade some people in Ferguson to work with me on this, then I will set up a crowd-sourcing fundraiser on some site like youcaring or indiegogo.

Online, I can find new copies of the novel for $7.88 and $8.03 at Amazon and Barnes & Noble respectively. If this idea takes off, I will contact the publisher directly to see what kind of deals we can make about bulk ordering and shipping. Without knowing precise figures, I will set a fundraising goal of $45,000, $9 per copy of the novel.

I am not going to do anything with this idea unless I have partners in the Ferguson, Missouri area. Let’s suppose that I get partners there.

  • I would consider this project a “go” if we can raise enough for 1000 copies, offering them to the high school senior classes on down until the copies have all been distributed.
  • If the fundraiser raises less than enough for 1000 books, then the money will instead be given to community social services.
  • 5000 is my estimate of the number of copies needed to have a copy for everyone I’ve listed above. If there are leftovers at that number, they could be distributed to other citizens of the community who would like to join in to a community reading project.
  • I am reluctant to believe that this effort would exceed 5000 copies . . . but what if it does? I would like to go back to what I didn’t do last year, and distribute some copies to some young people in Fort Wayne along with, potentially, working with First Presbyterian Theater to allow them to attend the upcoming play performance of A Lesson before Dying. Then I would say to let the project radiate outward from Ferguson and Jennings into St. Louis. It’s beyond my wildest belief that we’d ever reach it, but I would consider stopping if this project were to reach 10,000 copies, but I’d listen to the advice of others.

This idea could fail entirely. I don’t think I am the best person to take the lead on something like this—I would rather be a person contributing to something like this. But the idea is based upon what I have seen working with using Shakespeare in prison: If we respect people’s humanity and share stories with them, and let them share themselves as well, then we will live in a better world, one where the troubles in Ferguson and Jennings become less likely.

I see this effort as offering a gift from the contributors to the Missouri communities. If they want it, I think this can be followed up with community book discussion groups. I am fairly certain I can find some professors and others from the Midwest would be willing to go to Missouri for a few days to participate in discussions of the novel.

Now, there’s the basic layout. I don’t know if this will work. It scares me more than any other idea I have ever had, because failure is not only an option but a distinct possibility. But I think I would one day kick myself if, finally, I had never once taken a chance on something like this actually working. So, I will wait to hear a response from Ferguson . . . and we will see what will happen.

A Lesson before Dying

Near the end of A Lesson before Dying, Jefferson is electrocuted. This is not a spoiler. The title of the novel tells the reader there will be a death. The first chapter tells you why: Jefferson has been arrested, tried, and convicted for an armed robbery and shooting which left three people dead, including a white store owner. In 1948 Louisiana, a black man in Jefferson’s situation would inevitably be executed regardless of his innocence or guilt. Yet readers, including my university students, have hoped for some kind of reprieve—a governor’s pardon, a discovery of new evidence, or an oration from an Atticus Finch. Jefferson’s lawyer is no Atticus Finch. He calls his own client a hog, and we never hear from him again after the trial. Everyone in Bayonne, Louisiana knows what is going to happen to Jefferson, how, and why.

After the trial, Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, calls upon the area’s black school teacher and insists that he visit Jefferson in jail as he awaits his execution. She wants Jeffers to die a man, to show the local white community that he is not the hog that his lawyer had called him. Grant Wiggins, the teacher, is resistant. He has already lost any hope that his teaching will improve his students’ lives, and he takes out his frustrations by slapping his students with a ruler. He doesn’t see any use trying to help Jefferson be a man just as he is going to die.

Most of A Lesson before Dying is told from Grant Wiggins’s point of view, and readers comes to realize that the novel presents two transformations—of Jefferson into manhood and of Grant into a person who can see Jefferson’s and his students’ lives as worth living and worth struggling for. Both Grant and Jefferson are, in their own ways, self-centered, resulting from adjusting to an oppression which does not repay any emotional investment into others’ lives. About a fourth of the way into the novel, we meet Grant’s own former teacher, and he has been dead emotionally and humanly long before he dies physically. We see what Grant doesn’t yet, that he is becoming just like his own teacher.

Breaking out of self-centeredness requires both men to open up to their people. Jefferson cannot show gratitude to Miss Emma as long as he regards himself as a hog. His opening up is to Miss Emma for love, to Grant for friendship, to his community in appreciation for their support, and to himself—that he has had something to say to this world which has not believed him to be a man. The novel even suggests that Jefferson has opened up to God.

Grant learns that he cannot stand apart, aloof, and alone. His cynicism harms his students and separates him from those he needs and who need him, particularly the women in his life—his girlfriend Vivian, his aunt Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and his student assistant Irene. In the growing scholarship of Ernest Gaines’s works, much still needs to be considered about the his portrayal of women, but it is obvious that Gaines rejects the misogyny evident in the works of other black male writers, such as Richard Wright and Ishmael Reed. Recent feminist critics have begun critiquing the cultural image of the strong black woman, and it may be that most of Gaines’s female characters fit that stereotype. Yet the women motivate the male characters to behave responsibly. Grant would like to receive Vivian’s love and support, but he wants to have it without making his own commitment to her. Nor would Grant make a commitment to Jefferson without Miss Emma insisting that for once in her life, someone is going to do something for her.

With his cynicism and education, Grant also tries to stand aloof from the Christian faith of his community. His foil in faith is the Reverend Ambrose, the Baptist pastor of the church his aunt and Miss Emma attend. Grant has the outward façade of educated unbelief, thinking himself superior to the uneducated minister who rejects worldly entertainment. Grant does not later have a Christian conversion, per se, but he eventually realizes a distinction between the faith which strengthens the Reverend Ambrose and his congregation and the faith used to justify the oppression of his community. Grant concludes that the reverend is a stronger man than he is, and Grant hopes that his cynicism has not been an impediment to Jefferson’s own faith.

When I teach A Lesson before Dying, I often assert that it is a better novel than the much more popular To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s novel is sort of a white dream—it permits white readers to distance themselves from the systemic racism which has supported their lifestyles, so that we can say that we are not like those who shout the n word without being required to strive to be an Atticus Finch. We might conclude that Bob Ewell’s death in some way balances Tom Robinson’s death, but that mistakes poetic justice for justice itself: it is the jury, not just Ewell, who commits the injustice against Robinson. Gaines lets the injustice play out in Jefferson’s execution, never for a moment ameliorating it, as it would not have been in 1948. And finally, in To Kill a Mockingbird, we never hear the black characters speak for themselves about the injustices. For all the adoration To Kill a Mockingbird gets, I have never heard an African American person say that is his or her favorite novel. I wonder why that is so.

The plot of A Lesson before Dying exists in a realm of greater reality, where flawed people have to do things they don’t want to and who change in ways that they would resist if they could. I have been defenseless before this novel. When readers weep with Grant at the end, there is the chance that we understand a little more the oppressiveness of racism and the requirements of humanity. And there is the chance that we are becoming better people as we accompany Grant and Jefferson through their stories.

Damn my own smart self

Memory, ah – and I don’t have a gun

And I swear that I don’t have a gun

No I don’t have a gun [4x]

Twenty years ago, we did not have social media. Memory fails me, but I don’t think we even had the Internet, at least not widely. So when Kurt Cobain shot himself in April 1994, there was a lot of publicity, conversation, and public displays of grief, but most of the public conversation was on old media—television, radio, newspaper, and magazine coverage. It was not all nice. There was some serious nastiness, especially on talk radio. But largely, those who wanted to get heard had to get themselves heard through some traditional outlet.

I had a thought at the time which led to a certain amount of self-examination. I have opened this post with some of the lyrics for the Nirvana song “Come as You Are.” Within a week after Cobain’s death, some Baton Rouge radio station was running a show of Nirvana’s music and played “Come as You Are.” And I remember thinking, “Oh, yes you do.”

Pithy. Snippy. Maybe witty. Completely self-aggrandizing, and completely unnecessary. I am very capable of saying the wrong thing, of using my own sarcasm without a thought to how big a jerk I am.

I happen to love wit and satire. In fact, I earned my Ph.D. by studying a satirical English comedian (Thomas Middleton, if you’d like to know). But good comedy also teaches us sometimes to know when we’ve gone too far. Shakespeare in Twelfth Night and Jane Austen in Emma both show characters whose wit is finally just mean.

It is hard to know sometimes how far is too far, and this is why “Too soon?” has itself become a punch line. Now, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites, the mean witticism has proliferated to the point of a cultural nausea. It’s too much, too soon, and too vehement—as if we must assert our existence, relevance, and superior detachment without regard to any human decency.

Before posting comments online, we may all need to ask if we are contributing to a conversation or simply making obnoxious noise.

Sinning Gods and the Temptations of Christ

This is the text of the message I present for the chapel service at Huntington University on Friday, March 7, 2014. Comments about a professor at Moody Bible Institute are not intended as criticism of the institution itself. The Biblical text for the sermon is Matthew 4:1-11.  

Over thirty years ago, when I was a student at Moody Bible Institute, I had an assignment to write about the temptation of Jesus. In my undergraduate way, I argued that the text of his temptation showed that Jesus could have sinned. I based that interpretation on another New Testament passage, Hebrews 4:15: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

I must confess that I have long been baffled by that verse in Hebrews. My temptations have tended towards acts of envy, anger, hatred, lust, pride, and gluttony. Jesus’s temptation was to turn rocks into bread. What is that? I have never seen the temptation of turning rocks into bread as being tempted as we are, so I’ve often wondered about the unrecorded instances of temptation in Jesus’s life, those times when he had been tempted as we are. When he cleared out the temple of the money changers, did he want to use anything more than his handmade whip? Would he have liked to hit someone with a shovel? Could Jesus have been tempted by physical desire for Mary Magdalene … or for his teenaged disciple John? When Jesus did his miracles, did he ever once think that taking seven loaves of bread and feeding 4000 people would make him look really cool?

We are never told. But if Jesus could never have sinned, I wondered why we would be told about the temptations at all. I suppose that if I could turn rocks into bread, I would get a big head about it. But let’s face it: to be tempted to turn rocks into bread is not to be tempted as I am. At the very least, to my thinking, the temptation had to be at least possible and real for the temptation of Christ to mean anything.

My professor at Moody did not see the temptations this way. In fact, in his comments on my essay, he labeled the view I argued for as heretical. It was the first time in my life that any argument I had ever made was called heretical. This professor’s argument was that God cannot sin, that sin is the opposite of all that God is, that Jesus is God, and that if Jesus could have actually sinned, then he could not be divine. To this professor, the purpose of the temptation narrative was only and entirely to demonstrate Jesus’s divinity, not to show that he could have any real potential interest in turning stones into bread. If there is a lesson for us in the temptation narrative, according to my professor, it is that we should resist temptation following Jesus’s example; the point of the narrative is that Jesus quoted Bible verses to face down temptation.

Memorizing scripture is not, by the way, a bad idea for resisting temptation. Following up on my recent writing about anger, I have been working on James 1:19-20: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” It is good advice when you want to rage against something posted on Facebook.

However, years after getting that essay back, I realized that the professor himself overlooked something: A sinning god was normal during the time of Christ. As I have reviewed several ancient mythologies, it seems that all of the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, and Canaanites were sinners. Think about these examples:

In Babylonian mythology, Apsu had been the ruler of all the gods and of the underworld oceans until he was killed by the god Ea. The god Anshar is both brother and husband to the goddess Kishar. Marduk the creator god, torments the goddess Tiamat, and fights a war to gain supremacy before forming and populating the earth.

In Greek mythology, Zeus had lovers both female and male, both divine and human. Dionysus, the god of wine, had the human Pentheus dismembered when he tried to prevent people from worshipping him. The god Apollo was vengeful and had multiple lovers. Most of the sinning Greek gods were taken up by the Romans.

The gods and goddess of ancient Canaan included Molech, who required human sacrifice by burning, Asherah, the queen of heaven, who seems to have been prideful, and Chemosh, the destroyer, who permits his worshippers to become slaves when they anger him.

Christians sometimes think that ancient peoples created sinning gods to excuse their own sinful behaviors. However, as we learn about the sins of the gods, we find that their wrongs were often committed against their own worshippers. How many of you have read the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex? In the story of Oedipus, we find that his fate is set by Apollo’s hatred even as he is an infant. Nothing Oedipus can do will free him from the doom Apollo has determined for him. Sinning gods are terrifying; their worshippers may never rest in certainty about their relationships to their deities.

The third temptation of Jesus is for power. To review, “The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Here we may wonder if the devil actually has possession of all the kingdoms of the world in order to give them to Jesus. What other Bible passages show is that the devil has authority, but not ownership, over this world. We see this every time Satan is called the prince of this world or the prince of the power of the air. Jesus rejects the devil’s offer, not by asserting his own ownership, but by asserting that he worships another, his Father. The answer to a temptation for power is not an assertion of a counter-power, but a surrender of power, an act of Jesus’s submission to his Father’s authority.

The question still remains what Jesus’s temptation has to do with us. Let us consider: our Old Testament reading for today, Psalm 32, is a confession of David, a king, of his sin. Many commentators read Psalm 32 as a confession for David’s sin with Bathsheba. That is not certain; however, we may assume that David’s sins generally could result from an abuse of his authority as king, whether it was his having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed or his having a forbidden census taken.

The temptations of Jesus are the temptations suitable for an ancient god. We might easily expect a Zeus, a Baal, a Venus, a Marduk, or an Asherah to accept any of the temptations and bargains that the devil offers to Jesus. Jesus’s temptation is scaled to his divinity. He is being tempted as a god. He resists it as a person, in his humanity, not by asserting his divine authority, but by submitting his humanity to the authority of his Father.

I, in my humanity, cannot resist a temptation scaled for a deity. Thank God, I’ll add, that none of us will ever face a temptation to rule the entire world. Even smaller, human-scaled versions of the temptation to rule just a portion of the world always lead to genocides and wars, such as we are seeing today in Syria, the Ukraine, the Central African Republic, and Venezuela.

But what about my own temptations, for any and all of the power I can reach? I do not think that the third temptation, for power, is the last temptation of Jesus in the Bible. Let’s look at one other encounter between Jesus and the devil, in Matthew 16. Right after he has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Peter seems to become a temporary spokesman for Satan himself. Let us read from verses 21-27:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

I would propose that we consider this a fourth temptation, this time not of Jesus in his divinity, but of Jesus in his humanity, a temptation to choose not to die, a temptation we may all understand humanly. And here is where we connect with our God who was tempted, but without sinning. We learn from him that our souls are worth more than all that we may have in this world. And we learn, also, that to follow Jesus means to lose our desires to win in this world by our own power. I conclude, then, that this is how Christ, resisting real temptations we will never face, shows us the way to resist the temptations we always face. 

Wreckage and Depression

I have wondered whether or not I should admit this, but here goes.

I get depressed from visiting the prisons.

Years ago, I struggled with intense depression, and people who remember me from Moody Bible Institute would recall that I was suicidal then. This depression is not that kind of depression, thank God, but there is a degree to which visiting the prisons is a frequent encounter with tragedy.

Last Tuesday was a great day for Shakespeare at Pendleton. The men were enthusiastic and willing to take chances. They were on their feet, performing a part of Coriolanus, 2.1. We followed that with a conversation between a group of Huntington University students I had with me and the men. One of the men just took my breath away with his exposition of the character of Coriolanus.

It was all beautiful … but what makes it tough for me is the abiding realization that that beauty, that those insights, that the efforts the men are putting into learning the play–all of this stays within Pendleton. That man who gave the exposition on Coriolanus will never have the opportunity to take what he can do to the outside. And I think about the tragic wreckage of our lives, which Shakespeare has transformed into the beauty of Macbeth, Shylock, Othello, and Coriolanus. Why do lives take the tragic directions? Why are we wrecked?

This depression is not constant–though it is impossible to write about it without feeling it. It is certainly not going to convince me to quit going. In fact, I am not depressed while I am at the prison; I get depressed when I think about the prison and about the circumstances of the men’s lives there. The depression is the price I pay for the privilege to be involved there. I don’t mind the price. The depression is frequent, but not deep. However, I did not expect it to be part of this effort.

For now, I think I am coping well with the depression, even as I admit that I have it. However, I know how to recognize when it does get deep, and if it does, I will probably see a counselor. I’ve seen one twice before in my life, and if I should need to do it, I can see one again.

Anger Porn

Image

A few weeks ago, a Facebook meme was going around of a sign for the Orange Church of God condemning skateboarders, artists, addicts, occupiers, and vegetarians to hell. Every time the meme got shared, the comments were angry, cynical, and outraged. There go those hateful evangelicals again.

The problem with this meme is that it generated real anger against a fake church. The Orange Church of God does not exist. So the meme serves only the purpose of creating anger. It is anger porn. 

Like lust, wrath is categorized as one of the seven deadly sins. The seven deadly sins are primarily sins of thought, foundational motivators to the sins done in action. The seven deadly sins are also pernicious, related to proper needs and desires taken to extremes. Greed is a disordered desire for wealth. Gluttony is a disordered desire for consumption. Lust is a disordered sexual desire. Wrath is a disordered desire for protection or for justice. The desires are natural and proper. The sin occurs when the desires take a disordered control of our actions. Just as pornography stimulates lust, so also anger porn stimulates anger because, well, we just like to be angry. 

Just as porn caters to every fetish, anger porn caters to every political and religious demographic–conservative, liberal, libertarian, evangelical, atheist, pro-gun, anti-gun, Occupiers, Tea Partiers, and so forth. The recent Coke commercial, the reaction to the commercial, and the reaction to the reaction have all been anger porn.* Much of the discussion of gay marriage, pro and con, has been anger porn. We have entire cable stations providing anger porn 24/7. 

We justify our uses of anger porn because we believe we are right. After the recent creationism debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, a few social scientists observed that its likely outcome is only to solidify the previously-held biases of the viewers, rather than to persuade anyone to change his or her mind. That debate was classic anger porn, resulting in entirely predictable scorn and derision from every side

Anger porn works, I think, just like regular porn–the more we use it, the more justified we feel in the rightness of our anger, and so we use it even more. Thus, whether we hate the homosexual or whether we hate the homophobe, we justify our anger to ourselves and hate our enemy. Quite contrary to Christ’s exhortation to love our enemies. Consider that when people kill others in the heat of anger, they always feel an initial justification in the act. 

Because anger can come from a legitimate desire for justice, we would do well to remember the exhortation in the epistle of James: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19, 20). No matter how righteous one’s anger, the anger itself cannot be the end. 

“Anger’s my meat,” Shakespeare wrote. “I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding.” Try not looking at the things which make you angry all the time. 

 

*The Coke commercial referenced above was aired early in 2014. It presented “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages. When I have said that the commercial itself is anger porn, my reasoning is that I believe the Coca-Cola Company anticipated and expected the angry response. I have no objection to the content of the commercial as such, but I think we should pause long enough to ask ourselves how the advertisement is Itself a commercial ploy. What is the calculation involved in the idea of motivating anger to generate sales? 

The Temptations of Publicity

Fame makes a man take things over.
Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow.
Fame puts you there where things are hollow. Fame.

Credit: David Bowie

I have said that Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is his play on anger. But taken together, all of the Roman plays–Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus–can be said to consider the subject of fame and power. Let’s observe that the power of fame ends badly for all of the protagonists. 

I doubt that I approach anything like fame, but as of this writing, that interview I’ve done for the Red Letter Christians blog has been shared over 1200 times. Though there will be a new person featured next week, I doubt the interview has run its course yet. I have two upcoming speaking engagements, a possibility of at least three others yet to be scheduled, and the prison where I volunteer has sent out its own press release to several large media outlets in Indiana. 

When I was asked to be an interview subject for Red Letter Christians, I had two reservations. First, we may observe the well-known people who have already been interviewed for that page: John Perkins, Brenda Salter McNeil, Jim Wallis, Rachel Held Evans. Shane Claiborne is a regular contributor. I don’t think of myself as commanding the public attention that they have. However, I got over this reluctance when I realized that I did not know anything about a number of the people who have been interviewed for the same weekly feature. I do hope that no one would suppose that I think I’ve done anything to compare to the work of John Perkins. 

Second, there is the title of the page itself, the “Red Carpet.” As I’ve looked through the blog, I find it generally careful about language. But a red carpet is culturally associated with the establishment of fame (or, the fame establishment), the self-acclamation of awards shows. Here’s the purpose the site gives for the Red Carpet page: 

[W]e want to introduce you to 21st century Red Letter practitioners who are living out the words and witness of Jesus. Our hope is that this series of interviews will encourage, inspire and equip you to live as faithful citizens of the kingdom he ushered in.

A description like that seems to invite a person into intense scrutiny–”From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). It is more than I can claim for myself that I am “living out the words and witness of Jesus.” 

However, it is true that I am motivated by Matthew 25:39-40:

‘When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

I think always of the unusual opportunities I have had to visit and work with prison inmates, and I hope to do so for years to come. Therefore, if what I am doing does indeed help to inspire and equip others to get involved in the lives of inmates, then I want to share my work. 

Publicity is not a bad thing of itself, but I am susceptible to the temptations of publicity. A writer wants to be read. An activist wants her activism to succeed. I like being “liked.” And the minute that that becomes the point, I have become like the Pharisee, who prays in public about how happy he is that he is not like the publican–I will have already had more reward than I deserve. 

So next week, I will return to Pendleton, ready to work with about twelve men on the second half of act one of Coriolanus. We will probably talk some more about masculinity, a subject we began with last week. I will watch several men perform a part of scene ten and we will discuss it. And all of this will be the point. If ever my time with the inmates becomes secondary to the publicity, then you should help me to keep my focus on what is important. 

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