Running Heads

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

Author: Rodney (page 2 of 14)

In Praise of Snakehandling

(A Poem)

On Sunday mornings in Appalachia

Christians practice the peculiar custom

of bearing serpents into their sanctuaries.

They lift the snakes from their cages

and take them in their hands and

raise them high, and cuddle them.

To us tamer Christians this custom is beyond the pale,

even though it may have its advantages—

who would fall asleep in such an andrenalinized liturgy?

And is not faith, of a sort, truly tested by

a snake writhing around your fingers, in your face?

Still, we the tame point out, the custom arises

from a specious text that does not

really belong at the end of the Gospel of Mark.

The grasping of serpents, we say,

is a kind of eschatological grasping,

grabbing and claiming too much, too soon.


But lay down the literal snake,

with its scales and dripping fangs,

lay it down.

Consider the Junior King

who marched on Selma and Montgomery

and Chicago and Washington.

Consider the venom he faced

every day for two decades.

Consider the curled-rattlesnake danger he and his followers

aroused and confronted almost daily.

And consider that King did so on

the basis of his hope,

an eschatological hope,

that something resembling justice and peace

might be brought to bear in this world, now.

Isn’t the world a little bit better place

because the serpent of bigotry was lifted from its cage,

borne into the churches, confronted with love and determination?

Before we dismiss the practice altogether, then,

we should remember

King the preacher,

King the activist,

King the peacemaker,

King the snakehandler.

The Art of Book Titling

With so many books available, the deft titling of a book is more necessary than ever to help a book get possible consideration for buying—and reading. We let authors take the lead on the titling of their books, so perhaps it’s worthwhile to offer a few thoughts on effective titling.

Though evocative titles are nice and in many ways appealing, it’s more important to be straightforwardly descriptive of your book’s subject. Even clever evocative titles don’t say a lot, at least immediately,   about what a book  covers.  And in the day of declining brick-and-mortar bookstores, readers do a lot of their bookfinding by performing online (and especially Amazon) searches. So having key words in a title (especially) and a subtitle (secondarily) is important. When trying to arrive at a title, think about a one-sentence summary of your book and its content. Then work back from there to devise a shorter, smoother title. If you can be evocative and descriptive, great. But remember that the descriptive element is essential. For example, John Bright’s classic The Kingdom of God is a straightforward, purely descriptive title. And anyone  wanting to read on research on the kingdom of God will easily find the book in an Amazon search. For a title that’s both evocative or clever and descriptive, I’ve long been impressed with Gordon Fee’s and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It’s clear in what the book’s about, but also has the nice play on the layers of “worth.”

A second consideration is keeping a title short. I’d say no more than five or six words maximum, and only one to three words is always nice. A wordy title is offputting. It subtly (or not so subtly) communicates to the potential reader that the author has trouble with concise expression. Design wise, it clutters the cover. And a long title is  rarely memorable. When working on a title, keep paring it down until you get it to as few words as possible.

One more thought: there’s a difference between a good working title and a good final title. It’s a good idea to have a working title that aids you in writing your book, a kind of touchstone you can go back to as you’re making decisions while you’re composing. In this sense, a solid working title may be clunky and may be long, but is something that can remind you of your central focus and what you’re trying to do with the book. A good final title, on the other hand, should not be long and should indicate the subject of your book, but not fill it out as much as a working title may. So don’t get stuck on a working title. Have it serve its purpose, then let it go. The final, published title needs to be short, preferably punchy, and appealing—as well as, first and foremost, descriptive of your book.

And put that way, it’s not wonder titling is such hard work, trying to do so much with a few words.



Jesus and the Powers that Overwhelm Us

Recently I’ve worked on an upcoming book edited by Kent Dunnington, collecting essays published by Arthur C. McGill. McGill was a Yale educated theologian who taught in his later years at Harvard. He died young in 1980, at the age of fifty-four. He published only three books, all now in print with Wipf and Stock. The best known is Suffering: A Test of Theological Method. 

McGill had a gift for cutting to the bone of the matter, and for writing with acute theological insight. His recurrent themes included the inherent neediness of all persons and an insistence that the power of God is not crushing but donative, at its theological core in the perichoretic Trinity, and in God’s self-giving work through the cross. McGill was impressed with how death pervades all of life, and how the call of the cross is a call to die to self and in service of others.

Dunnington’s essay collection is entitled The Uncertain Center. The following excerpt displays McGill’s ability to synthesize broad swaths of thought, and cut to the heart of the matter. In it he discusses the power of demonic in our lives, and Jesus’ dual responses of exorcism and the work of the cross. It may be important to note that McGill’s deployment of the category of the demonic is not literalistic. For him the demonic are those powers that transcend individuals and even societies, and work destruction in them. Here’s the excerpt.

In this connection I would remind you that two very different approaches to the demonic are presented in the Gospel accounts about Jesus. There is one way of exorcism, where demonic powerfulness is driven away and people are liberated from bondage to disease or insanity. But this way is not given great attention. It does not carry any crucial value. In fact the New Testament makes absolutely clear that no one is going to exorcise the demonic out of this world. On the contrary, demonic inhumanity will increase. The present power and pervasiveness of demonic forces in the world is too extensive to imagine that they will be removed by exorcism.

The other approach is the way of the cross. Jesus calls upon people to take up his cross—that is, in some sense to enter into the arena of demonic suffering rather than to flee from it. This is the approach that receives primary emphasis in the New Testament. But what is this approach? What does it mean to take up Jesus’ cross and to let oneself be attacked by inhuman dreadfulness?

The fundamental issue at stake here is the mode in which we discover the Lordship of God as an actual fact. It is easy to mouth the creed about God being almighty, but in the face of the powers that seem to rule this world such a belief remains unreal. Where and how do we actually discover for ourselves, as the truth of our own existence and of the existence which we share with our fellow humans, that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed the only authentic power in all reality?

The only place we really discover this is where we are being attacked by demonic forces. It is one thing for God to rule by removing these dreadful forces from the scene, in the manner of exorcism. It is another thing for him to vindicate his rule precisely when, and as, these ferocities are in full activity. But what does it mean to say that he “vindicates” his rule at the very moment that the demonic displays its power in full force? What does this vindication amount to? As I see it, this is one of the meanings of Jesus’ death. For on the cross Jesus did not submit to the demonic—that is, did not act as if it, and not his Father, were the master of his destiny. He refused to fear, to defend himself, to imagine that this dreadful destructivity had any final power over him. In short, while on the cross Jesus was sustained in his human way, in his confidence in his Father and in his compassion and care for those around him. God vindicated his rule in Jesus, not by removing the powers of destruction and death from him, but by maintaining in Jesus that supremely human condition of trust and love even while these powers worked their fullest.


Favorite Theological Jokes

Readers who have been to seminary, or had other advanced theological training—as well as those who have not—have probably heard a variety of theological jokes. I’d love to hear from you with your own favorite theological joke. Here, to get the ball rolling, is mine:

What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?

Someone who lies awake at night wondering if there is a dog.

Kindly submit your own favorite (or favorites) in the comments field. I’ll be delighted to publish my new favorites in a later post.

Of Masks for Wizards—and the Rest of Us

This week I was quietly inspired as I proofed David Robinson’s upcoming Cascade volume, Soul Mentoring: Discover the Ancient Art of Caring for Others. In it David reappropriates Gregory the Great’s classic, Pastoral Care. For several hundred years, Gregory’s opus was one of the most admired and reread books in Christendom. Those who have encountered it know that it uses simple but metaphor-rich language to teach about what we now call spiritual direction. For his part, Robinson wants nothing more than to introduce Gregory to pastors, coaches, leaders, and other mentors who haven’t previously discovered him. David does so successfully, drawing on his own wells of metaphors from his own frequent backpacking, gardening, sailing, and other homely but noble endeavors. Here’s an excerpt, a brief chapter on virtue and masking.

Children love dressing up for Halloween, putting on costumes and masks then heading out to trick or treat. In our little beach village, children go from shop to shop collecting candy on Halloween afternoon. Our downtown fills with pirates, goblins, princesses, and fairies. In the evening, all these strange masked creatures gather at the elementary school along with their parents and other townsfolk for a Halloween festival, complete with caramel apples, cakewalks, and carnival games. Then the first day of November comes; kids wake up and head off to school wearing no costumes or masks, instead getting back to the good work of education.

As adults, we still love to wear masks. According to Gregory, we often wear virtuous masks to hide our vices, covering our weaknesses with masks of strength, hoping others will not look behind the surface of our lives. I love the line from The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the green curtain.” In the midst of the booming voice of authority and the billowing flames of power, there he is, the bumbling country doctor from Kansas, pretending to be the great and awesome Wizard of Oz. Toto knows better, pulling back the green curtain to reveal the truth. Part of the hard work of mentoring is pulling off masks and pulling back green curtains.

Sometimes vices masquerade as virtues. A stingy person may try to tell you he is frugal, or a wasteful person may pretend she is being generous. Laziness can be rationalized as compassion, while uncontrolled anger is sometimes passed off as zeal. Rash judgment can parade as prompt responsibility, or tardiness as wise deliberation.

What is needed is a watchful heart to see behind outward appearances to inner truth, and thus help a mentee know the difference between vice and virtue. A wise mentor helps a mentee learn to discern. In this way, vices can be kept in check and virtues allowed to grow. Wise mentors do not overlook vices such as greed or wastefulness, laziness or wrath, rashness or tardiness, all of which bring harm. A wise mentor encourages a mentee to develop virtues such as simplicity and generosity, compassion and zeal, responsibility and wisdom.

Mentoring welcomes the wisdom of those who draw back the green curtain. Mentoring involves the boldness to ask for permission to remove a mask and the discernment to understand what lies beneath. This is best done when mutual respect and trust has been established between a mentor and mentee. Without trust, according to Gregory, a mentee may “sin more grievously” by becoming more entrenched in their vices, not allowing virtue to come into the soul. With discernment and mutual respect, masks may be gently removed, and we may begin to allow our souls to be dressed in such authentic virtues as simplicity, generosity, compassion, zeal, responsibility, and wisdom.


Jesus and the Animals in the Wilderness

Some research this week took me to Richard Bauckham’s Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Baylor University Press, 2011). I was surprised and delighted by Bauckham’s exploration of Mark 1:13: “He [Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” I must admit that, though I am keenly interested in the Bible and our relationship with (other) animals, I had never really noticed the clause that “he was with the wild beasts.” But Bauckham makes much of it, judiciously and compellingly.

Bauckham notes that in Mark there are three non-human encounters for Jesus in the wilderness. The first encounter is one of enmity, with Satan. The third is one of unalloyed alliance and friendliness, with the angels. The second and in-between encounter, with the beasts, is one of neither unrelenting enmity nor straightforward friendliness, with the wild animals, who “are enemies of whom Jesus makes friends.”

Who are the “wild beasts”? Bauckham says that the Greek here refers to wild animals in distinction from domesticated animals, and usually to four-footed animals rather than birds, reptiles, and fish, though snakes can be included. It may also refer to beasts of prey, that is, animals dangerous to humans. From what we know of the zoology in the ancient Judean wilderness, Jesus may have encountered such animals as bears, leopards, wolves, cobras and desert vipers, scorpions, hyenas, jackals, desert foxes, wild boars, wild asses, and antelopes.

Bauckham finds in Mark’s story undertones of  the Jewish eschatological hopes for the healing and reconciliation of all creation, as for example in Isaiah 11:6–9, “The wolf shall live with the lamb . . . The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,’ and so forth. Jesus’ being “with the wild beasts” is rooted in the phrase einai meta tinos, “to be with someone,” and “frequently has the strongly positive sense of close association or friendship or agreement or assistance.” Thus “Mark 1:13 depicts Jesus enjoying the peaceable harmony with wild animals which had been God’s original intention for humanity but which is usually disrupted by the threat of violence.” What Jesus establishes, in his christological role and in early Mark’s context of the inauguration of the kingdom of God, is the representative “messianic peace with wild animals. . . . Jesus does not restore the paradisal state as such, but he sets the messianic precedent for it.”

In sum, “Mark’s image of Jesus with the animals provides a christological warrant for and a biblical symbol of the human possibility of living fraternally with other living creatures, a possibility given by God in creation and given back in messianic redemption. Like all aspects of Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God, its fullness will be realized only in the eschatological future, but it can be significantly anticipated in the present.”

How exciting.

What to Do When You’re Committed Soviets, Raising a Christian?

FX TV’s The Americans has an ingenious premise. Elizabeth and Phil Jennings are two Soviet spies embedded in the Virginia suburbs during the Reagan years. Much of the show is standard spy shenanigans: there are kidnappings, surveillance missions, and many lethal confrontations. That part is done well and provides suspense. But the difference for the program is the depiction of what it’s like to hide in plain sight in the suburbs. Thus the Jennings dine with neighbors, become close “friends” with the FBI agent who lives across the street,  run a travel agency, and go about raising their two children.

It’s the subplot about the children that interests me here. Phil and Elizabeth’s fourteen-year-old daughter Paige is invited by some peers to a church youth group. She loves the companionship, and soon she’s reading the Bible clandestinely. Of course, the kids don’t know that their parents are Soviet spies. They think they’re just part of an ordinary American family. It’s not said that the Jennings have raised their children as atheists, but somehow Paige senses that her parents won’t be happy with her newfound religious enthusiasm. There’s a great scene where Elizabeth catches Paige huddled up with a Bible in her bedroom.

Soon Elizabeth is raging to Phil about how Paige is being brainwashed. You can hear Marx shouting about the opiate of the masses as a subtext. Here the viewer’s placement in 2015 and the show’s setting in the 1970s contributes to a nice irony. As we (the viewers) know, the Soviet eschatology petered out. Who looks the most brainwashed now?

Paige insists that the church gives her meaning, and something bigger to live for. The church she’s attending is a socially activist Protestant congregation. Paige participates with the church in a protest at a nuclear manufacturing plant. It’s not long before she wants to be baptized.

It’s a dilemma for the two committed crypto-Soviets. What to do when you’re raising a daughter who’s a Christian? The Jennings complain to one another, but eventually roll with their daughter’s desire to be baptized. After all, they may be spies, but they want to be good parents. They even invite the pastor over for dinner.

The subplot about Paige’s Christianity  is still unfolding on the show. We’ll see how it turns out.

An Alarming Development—Serial Em Dashes

My headline for this post is a bit tongue in cheek. Developments in grammar and punctuation may not really rise to the level of “alarming.” This despite the convictions of one typesetter I knew long ago, who assumed grammar came straight from heaven and on occasion wept at grammatical violations. But in any event, I’ve noticed lately in three different manuscripts under edit an innovation worth comment, if not necessarily alarm. I’m calling it the serial em dash.

The serial em dash occurs when a writer uses three or more em dashes in a single sentence. Here’s an example of my own construction: “One church we studied—St. Barnabas Episcopal—based its politics in the act of the eucharist, while another—First Baptist of Richmond—centered its politics more on the sermon and its contents.” And here’s a second example: “The chancellor—he had been awake half the night—came downstairs—in an angry mood.”

In more than thirty years of publishing, I’m only now seeing the serial em dash employed, and recently I’ve seen it used by at least three writers. I’m not sure why it’s developing—perhaps it’s only sloppiness and unawareness with writing and punctuation conventions.

In any event, no more than two em dashes in a sentence is the convention. Especially in my second example above, it’s clear that the use of the serial em dash makes the sentence confusing. It causes the reader to stumble over which clauses exactly go together, and it could be cured simply by removing the last em dash (the one before “in an angry mood”).

Parentheses may also be substituted for the em dashes in cases when two or more objects of the sentence are in reference. So my first example might more conventionally read: “One church we studied (St. Barnabas Episcopal) based its politics in the act of the eucharist, while another (First Baptists of Richmond) centered its politics more on the sermon and its contents.”

Em dashes suggest in the reader’s mind and scanning a  significant slowing down or pause. Parentheses connote less of a pause. So using em dashes where parentheses might better work can make the reading more clunky. And, as we’ve seen, em dashes misused can confuse rather than clarify a sentence.

All considered, a word to authors: if you’re tempted (for whatever reason or lack of reason) to use three or more em dashes in a sentence, don’t. There are other and better tools to hand. Let’s bury the serial em dash before it takes on even more currency.


The Heresy of American Exceptionalism

It’s been a few weeks since the National Prayer Breakfast, where President Obama made his remarks that various religions, Christianity included, are liable to extremist abuses. But the remarks still reverberate, particularly on the Right. From there, for instance, Rudy Giuliani recently challenged Obama’s patriotism and complained that Obama is not an American  exceptionalist. “With all our flaws,” Giuliana said, “we’re the most exceptional country in the world. . . . I’ve never felt that from him.”

Despite Giuliani’s insinuations, President Obama has labeled himself an American exceptionalist. He has said, “I believe in American exceptionalism,” though not one based on “our military prowess or our economic dominance.” Rather, “Our exceptionalism must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values, and our ideals. We are at our best when we are speaking in a voice that captures the aspirations of people across the globe.”

Obama has made even more circumspect remarks about American exceptionalism. He has said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Though that’s a letter perfect statement of a proper patriotism (each person honoring his or her country just as we honor our parents without assuming others don’t also consider their own parents superior), it would no doubt give critics like Giuliani the heebie-jeebies. They want America to be understood as uniquely superior.

Actually, something like Obama’s exceptionalism may be understood as theologically defensible. It claims no eschatological role for America. But the stronger (dare we say extremist?) view of American exceptionalism is decidedly objectionable. Abraham Lincoln, of blessed memory, took a misstep of this “stronger” sort when he declared that America is  “the last, best hope of mankind.” Lincoln’s view was echoed by Ronald Reagan, who declared, “In a world wracked by hatred, economic crisis, and political tension, America remains mankind’s best hope.”

On the contrary, Jesus Christ is humanity’s last and best hope. And the social, political locus of that hope is not any nation-state, but the church. Lincoln and Reagan, in that light, promulgated something of a heresy. As we move closer to the another presidential election and the culture wars again heat up, we may be hearing much more of this heresy. Beware.

Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See”

Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner), has been atop the best-seller chart for several months. I finished reading it last week. Though it’s set in the turmoil of World War II, it’s really a novel about childhood—its wonders and insecurities. Most of the novel bounces back and forth between the perspective of two characters: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl whose beloved father is a locksmith; and Werner, a German boy with an extraordinary aptitude for gadgets, and especially for radios.

To accommodate and overcome Marie-Laure’s blindness, her father carves scale models of the Paris neighborhood in which they live. He also takes her on walks during which they count the drainpipes they’re passing. By such means, the girl learns to navigate her neighborhood and achieve a measure of independence. Meanwhile, she reads Jules Verne in braille and marvels at the wonders of creatures that her scientist-grandfather discusses on a radio program. Later, she’ll be especially fascinated with snails—and Doerr’s description of this fascination is shimmering and engrossing.

Werner grows up adoring his younger sister, Jutta, who shares his obsession with radios. The boy adeptly disassembles and reassembles radios. He and Jutta listen to broadcasts through long, enchanted evenings. (One of the broadcasts they most prize, we will later learn, is the same broadcast beamed out by Marie-Laure’s grandfather.) Eventually Werner is drafted into a Hitler youth program, where the brutal training forces him to grow up fast, and where his facility with radios serves him well.

The war overtakes both of our characters. Marie-Laure and her father are forced out of Paris to the countryside. Werner is sucked into the maw of the war in East Germany and Russia. Finally, in some of the novel’s sweetest passages, Marie-Laure and Werner meet offer one another succor and aid. By now they are in their late teens, but they are still so much children. And still they are seeking wonder.




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