Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Author: Rodney (page 1 of 14)

Margaret Atwood’s “The Heart Goes Last”

Recently I finished Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last (Doubleday). It’s another dystopia, set in the indefinite but near future, after American society has largely crumbled. It’s a society overpopulated with the homeless, where work is hard to find. The novel begins with its protagonists, the married couple Stan and Charmaine, jobless and living out their car in the Pacific Northwest. Recently a corporation has initiated the Positron Project. Under Positron, participants alternately spend a month in a modest home and a month in prison. In prison they provide cheap (free) labor,  building robots and other goods.

Out of desperation, Stan and Charmaine enroll in Positron. But it’s not all they had hoped for. Soon Charmaine is embroiled in a dark plot that includes euthanizing social offenders. And Stan is fantasizing about a woman other than Charmaine. Both want out of Positron, but they have signed on for life.

Atwood’s story is about their eventual escape, which involves espionage, Elvis impersonators, and sex robots. Needless to say, it’s a rollicking story, punctuated with humor. I wouldn’t say it is among Atwood’s best, but The Heart Goes Last is another solid effort from one of our most entertaining and interesting writers.

When the Dead Talk

Some time after my grandfather died years ago, he came to me in dreams. Most often, the extended family was gathered for dinner. We were all busy laughing and eating, reminiscing and storytelling. Then Granddad would walk in. No one was astonished by his appearance, which was not ghostlike. We welcomed him among us. But he never spoke a word in return. He was mute. The dead may be with us, in memory and spirit, but they are mute.

Or are they? I thought about this on the past All Saints Day. Then we remembered all who have gone before us in Christ, not least our loved ones. In my Episcopal tradition—as in the catholic tradition in general—we petition the dead to pray for us. Perhaps they hear our prayers through God, and not directly. But surely it is not too spooky to imagine that our beloved dead pray for us. That is when and how the dead talk—surrounded in glory, praising God, and praying for the full coming of the kingdom of God on earth and in heaven.

In that respect, the communion of (deceased) saints pray ultimately and eschatologically. Like us, they await the day when they will assume their resurrection bodies. They await the descent of the New Jerusalem to earth. They await the healing and consummation of all creation. So, they pray, and in their prayer they talk. The dead’s voice is stilled for us, but it is not mute.

 

 

Ryan Gattis’s “All Involved”

In the spring of 1992, the policemen who beat Rodney King were acquitted. Six days of riots, with extensive burnings and widespread lethal violence, followed. Now Ryan Gattis has written a novel—All Involved (Ecco)—of that catastrophic aftermath. Gattis’s novel focuses on the effects of so few policemen trying to police such a wide area. As one of Gattis’s characters observes, “Only 7,900 officers and sheriffs police this city of almost 3.6 million, and county of 91.5 million.” By comparison, there were an estimated 102,000 active gang members in the same area. Says another character, “That is not a statistic, sir; that is an army.”

The turmoil created a cover for gang members to settle scores, to murder practically without consequence. All Involved begins with the killing of Ernesto, himself not a gang member, with a brother and sister who were gangbangers. Ernie is brutally beaten, then even more brutally dragged behind a car. What follows are gang wars to avenge Ernie, and then to avenge Ernie’s killers, and so on and so on. All Involved depicts the spiral of violence with devastating specificity and vivid detail that gives names and faces to the statistics.

Gattis concentrates on Latino gangs, and in the course of the book tells stories of  violence from the perspective of a dozen or so characters. All Involved is heartbreaking and revealing, a book that humanizes despite its gritty and often hopeless subject matter. It is a significant glimpse into a world most of us not inhabit and can barely imagine.

Hometown Writers

I hail from the small town of Forgan, Oklahoma, population 400. (As I have been wont to say, the entire population could perish on a single jetliner.) Like many small towns throughout America, Forgan is marked by a love of high school sports. In 1975, the year I graduated, we won the state championship in eight-man football (itself another story for another column). Since then, the women’s basketball team have won state once, and the men three or four times.

But while some of us were engrossed in sports, others were obsessed with words. At least three published writers (including, humbly, myself: look for my first foray into fiction coming soon, The Second Baptism of Albert Simmel) have in recent decades come out of Forgan and its rural environs. This week I finished reading the Forganian Samuel Hall’s Daughter of Cimarron  (Ashberry Lane). Sam is a little older than my mother, so I didn’t go to school with him and I don’t know him personally. But it was a pleasure to read his novel, the fictionalized story of his mother settling into life on an Oklahoma farm right in the middle of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Sam did a solid job of writing from a woman’s perspective, and describing in vivid detail the hardships the pioneers of the area faced.

Perhaps the most successful of Forgan-based writers has been John Erickson, who worked for several years as a ranch-hand outside town. From his experiences, he created the series of Hank the Cowdog, a canine who faithfully (and often amusingly) helped his rancher-masters. The book series was later developed into a Saturday morning cartoon series for children, and ran for several years.

We can’t compare to the success of writers of the small Alabama town that produced Harper Lee and Truman Capote. But it’s notable that a town as tiny as Forgan can produce writers out of proportion to its size. What accounts for this? Surely, in no small part, love of talk and oral storytelling in small towns, and the tendency to gather regularly with extended families and hear about the past in all it challenges and humor.

 

Why Do Republicans Want to Govern?

There’s a strange thing about Republicans who want to serve in federal government. This includes the many Republican candidates for the president, the strongest office in the federal government. With the demise of moderate Republicans, most if not all Republican candidates for the House, Senate, and Presidency talk about how they want to shrink and in some cases eliminate government (think of Rick Perry, in the 2012 elections, wanting to eliminate three regulatory agencies, even if he couldn’t remember all three). Not to put too fine a point on it, but why do these Republicans want to serve in a government they say they hardly believe in? Their scorn for government raises questions about their ambition to be a part of it.

What would we think of an aspiring doctor who said she wanted to eliminate much of the practice of medicine? What to make of a would-be banker who said banking should be shrunk “to the size where it could be drowned in a bathtub”? Or a house-builder who set out to build as few houses as she might possibly could? For that matter, what about a book editor whose goal was to produce fewer books every year? (I know what my bosses at Wipf and Stock would make of that!)

So here’s a question that should be asked in the next interminable Republican presidential debate: If you hate federal government so much, why do you want to be a part of it?

The Inadvertent Hilarity of American Civil Religion

American civil religion, at least as many American patriots would like to conceive and practice it, is incoherent. And inadvertently hilarious. I think of the famous statement attributed to Eisenhower: “America needs a religion, and I don’t care what it is.” The problem is arriving at any such religion that has theological substance and consistency, and yet is “capacious” and non-specific enough to include Americans of all faiths (and no professed faiths at all). American civil religion at first had to take accounts of varieties of Christianity, then of Christianity and Judaism, then of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and a spate of panoply of Eastern faiths.

It seems that those who now must urgently want to profess an American civil religion are many conservative Christians. Yet, American civil religion has always had trouble including Jesus Christ. The political scientist Samuel Huntington has noted that American civil religion allows for the employment of the word God, as on the nation’s coinage. However, “two words . . . do not appear in civil religion statements and ceremonies. They are ‘Jesus Christ.'” Put more strongly, “the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.” Yet here is more inadvertent hilarity, for what is Christianity without Christ?

Maybe Christians need all the humor we can get, but I think we should seek our levity in other places. Better, by far, to recognize that the church is the one true polity of Christianity. Then our relationship to other polities (not least nation states) can be one of a loyalty that is bounded and checked by our higher allegiance to Christ and the Trinitarian God. Christians can live without a civil religion to any nation state. It has even been tried, and not found wanting.

 

Abbreviations and Abbreviated Biblical Knowledge

To state the obvious, we live in a culture increasingly unaware of the Bible and its contents. Theological and popular Christian publishers have long relied on some general biblical knowledge. When quoting the Bible, the custom is to parenthetically abbreviate biblical book titles after the quote. But recently I have had some authors who say their readers don’t know or understand these abbreviations. These authors are asking to use the full name of biblical books in their references.

Of course, this is not an issue with academic publications—there we can still assume more than enough technical knowledge, on the part of readers, to continue abbreviating biblical text names. But with popular books, I think my inquiring authors are on to something. Many casual (and somewhat biblically illiterate) readers won’t know that “Gen” means Genesis, “Exod” denotes Exodus, or “Phil” indicates Philippians.

So far, I have advised these authors to retain the abbreviated references in the body of their books. But I have instructed them, per their concerns, to include abbreviation tables at the front of the books that lay out abbreviations and the corresponding full titles of biblical books. At the same time, I wonder if there will come a time when (again, for popular books) we will use the full titles within the bodies of our books. And that time may come sooner than we think.

 

Clement Meets the Chattering Class

Our deeply conflicted US culture is marked by commentators who hold fast to their own ideological convictions and, as often as not, violently attack those who disagree. Fox News is a main and oft-cited example, though it is unclear where Fox will go in the future—the median age of its viewers is sixty-nine. From another point on the spectrum, this week brought news that MSNBC continues to struggle for viewership, and will switch away from opinion shows to more “straight” news coverage. It’s easy to tire of the whole affair, wherever your own political convictions fall, and call for a pox on all houses.

I recently came across the following comments from Clement of Alexandria. From them, it’s not hard to guess what he would make of our own chattering class, and to imagine an alternative.

If two people are engaged in conversation they should speak in measured tones. Yelling and shouting is what idiots do. Talking in a whisper so that the person cannot hear is the mark of a fool.

In conversation we must not let ourselves be seized with the desire always to interrupt in order to show off our fatuous superiority. Everything ought to lead to tranquility, as in the words of the greeting, “Peace be with you.” And, “Do not answer before first listening (Eccles. 1:8).

Let us avoid being pompous or long-winded, or too hasty or too slow. Let us not talk for too long nor use too many words.

A chatterer is like an old boot. When all the rest has been used up, there is only the tongue left and that hurts the chatterer more than anyone else.

 

The Futility of Violence

This week I’ve been proofing a manuscript by a wise and widely-read Episcopal priest, Gary Commins. Commins’s upcoming book with Cascade is If Only We Could See. A work in theological spirituality, it explores mysticism and activism dialectically, showing ultimately how mysticism and activism are not at odds, but complement each other. Along the way, Commins frequently examines Niebuhrian realism and the way of nonviolence, especially in Merton, King, and Gandhi. Here’s an excerpt in that vein, arguing that violence ultimately turns in on itself and accomplishes what it attempts to prevent.

Violence calculates means and ends. It exults. It is quick. It is irreversible. Nonviolence is a seed growing secretly. It grieves. It takes time. It endures.

King took this invisible path in the late 1960s when nonviolence had lost its fleeting cachet. King did not merely take the obvious, if controversial, antiwar stance—he opposed all violence. In the mid-1960s, abetted by the martyred Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and the Black Panther Party, the ideological debate among African Americans, ever mirroring the dominant culture, tilted toward violence as self-defense or as a means to justice. It was not only a foreign and foolhardy war King objected to. He rejected that supposedly revolutionary violence popular in urban and academic settings. To oppose violence in the African American community in the late sixties was tantamount to advocating a nonviolent response to Japan after December 7, or to Al Qaeda after September 11, or to any and every Simon Legree any and every day of any and every year. To oppose violence was to be seen as passé, an Uncle Tom, a Judas. Yet King says:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Two decades earlier, shortly after World War II, when the triumph over Nazism seemed to place a crowning wreath around the myth of violence, Howard Thurman argues not only that history shows that people never tire of proclaiming the presumed blessings of violence, but also a simple reality: violence never works. Violence, he says, is deceptive because it seems “efficient” and “effective.” In reality “it stampedes, overruns, pushes aside and carries the day.” It is “the ritual and the etiquette of those who stand in a position of overt control in the world.” People “resort to violence” because they are unwilling to be patient or unable to be creative.

This twentieth-centuryAfrican American testimony echoes George Fox’s message to Cromwell. In hindsight, reassurance about Quaker nonviolence seems redundant, but some contemporary continental Anabaptist sects had embraced the purported purging force of violence, and Cromwell, like all of England, was suspicious of the Friends. So Fox told him, “The Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move toward it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against anyone with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.”

Whenever revolutionaries or warriors or academics or religious leaders propose violence as a solution, they lose sight of the infinite value of each life. Jesus declares that all that is holy rejoices in the salvation of one person (Luke 15:7, 10). The Talmud argues that to kill one person is to destroy a world; to save one person is to save a world. The intrinsic value of each life is the essence of Ivan Karamazov’s protest: the suffering of one child blots out the goodness of creation. Every violent death is a sacrifice to Moloch, the triumph of Mars, and a holocaust. Every cruelty is as toxic as Chernobyl, polluting planner, perpetrator, witness, and victim through time and space.

Merton and King reject violence as the quintessential destroyer. Nothing else so irreparably obliterates the innate value of human dignity. No other human activity so desecrates the spirit. Nothing else we do is so primly, proudly, and bloodily Manichean. No other extension of politics by other means (von Clausewitz) is so bloated with a mythology of redemption. Ideologies of violence argue that we can diminish evil by destroying life. The logic of calculating Caiaphas in urging Jesus’ execution (John 11:50) is the cornerstone of every war, every witch trial, every act of terrorism, every revolution and counterrevolution. Every war is thought to be the war to end all wars, yet every act of violence contains within it the seeds of the Final Solution.

 

Sarai Walker’s “Dietland”

Sarai Walker’s debut novel, Dietland (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt),  is, to paraphrase one reviewer, a feminist manifesto disguised as a beach read. The story concerns one Plum Kettle, a twenty-something woman who weighs 300 pounds and works in New York for a teen-girl-aimed magazine called Daisy Chain. To be more precise, Plum answers emails from readers to Daisy Chain‘s editor, Kitty Montgomery. This she does in the persona of Kitty. But there’s a disconnect. Kitty’s magazine deifies thinness and conventional beauty. Her cover girls are rail-thin and urgently appealing to the male gaze.

Plum herself is a serial dieter and alienated from her body. She has a closet full of clothes for a thin woman, dreaming of the day when she will fit into them—and fit into a culture obsessed with thinness. She lives in a future that will never come, and in the meantime spends her days in a coffee shop answering Kitty’s emails and her nights alone in Brooklyn apartment.

What changes Plum’s life, and lifts this novel to another level of social critique, is her encounter with Verena Baptist. Verena is the daughter of a woman who made a fortune on a weight-loss program called the Baptist Diet. She sees her mother’s program as fraudulent, and now uses the wealth gained through it to write books and otherwise debunk expectations that women should be as thin as the celebrities who model clothes, appear in movies and television shows, and adorn magazine covers.

What’s more, as the novel advances, it appears that Verena and her colleagues may have connections with a feminist terrorist group that calls itself Jennifer and, among other things, kidnaps accused rapists and drops them from an airplane. Plum wonders what she’s got herself into. I won’t say more and spoil the suspense of the novel.

Dietland features well-drawn characters and a compelling plot. And it’s often funny. But it’s also a savvy and penetrating critique of the way our culture sees (and fails to see) fat people. (On her website, Walker urges reviewers to use the word fat  and says it’s preferable to overweight  or obese. There and in her novel, she makes a move similar to gays who reclaim the originally derogative queer.) The book is a call to thought, and maybe to action.

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