Reading the Greats—or not

Feeling literary? Looking for inspiration? Tune in to the EBA’s conversation with Marilynne Robinson on Thursday, October 14, 6 p.m. Central, as this Great Author discusses her latest novel, Jack.

Have you read Moby Dick?

It’s not a trick question. I just wonder sometimes how many people have really read it, versus how many just read the CliffsNotes for a high school English test, or how many just say they’ve read it because everyone has. Or thinks they should have.

When I was younger and trying to be literary, when faced with the have-you-read question regarding a popular, controversial, or classic book, I would make a non-committal Mmmm or Hmmm—not an untruth, but a sound that could be interpreted as yes, or as I’m pondering what I might say to you about this significant work. 

The world is different now, and no one is expected to have read anyone else’s booklist. There is no longer a canon, a list of classics that render you uneducated if you have not read them to the point of quotability. Yet somehow, when recently faced with the question “Have you read Marilynne Robinson? Would you review Jack?” I found myself wishing I had steeped myself in her previous novels, wanting to be a person who had, and tempted to make a vague, disingenuous noise. 

I, too, am different now, so I admitted that I had not, in fact, read the previous ones. Many people whose taste in books resonates with mine have loved these books and recommended them, but I missed the boat when Gilead was published; over the intervening years, I got busy reading newer, shinier titles. But considering Jack, I thought taking the plunge into the fourth of the four would at least get me started with this esteemed collection. If I sank with my lack of perspective and needed to get on more solid footing, I could revert to old bad habits from my days of literary pretension and save myself by reading reviews, (or, God forbid, Cliffs Notes) to fill the gaps in my understanding.

To my delight, I discovered that Jack is so deftly constructed that no knowledge of the previous novels was necessary. Elements of the back story that readers need to make sense of the eponymous main character emerge naturally, the way we might recall part of our own story as new experiences cause us to reminisce or fret about encounters in the past.

Jack, the prodigal son of Reverend Robert Boughton, was born in Gilead, Iowa, with clouds from a dark realm surrounding him. To polite, too talented, and too difficult to pin down with rules or mores or even minimal expectations as a child, when this novel opens, he has become a vagrant in post WWII St. Louis. He’s out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but admits he could have, and he’s trying to deal with just being Jack without hurting — or connecting with — anyone else. That’s a big challenge, as trouble manifests around him even when he is most desperately trying to be harmless. Jack is a gifted man: literary, philosophical, musically inclined, well-mannered. He seems only able to use these talents sardonically, which has earned him the nickname Slick.

When Slick meets Della, the warm, intelligent, and upright daughter of an A.M.E. bishop, his carefully constructed world of avoidance and non-connection is radically changed. Recognizing that the persona he has created (or that Fate has created for him) is destructive to Della’s respectable life, he tries to stay away from her. But she has seen through his dark façade and has recognized a soul mate. 

Being a soul mate has no bearing in pre-Civil Rights America, where all that the heartbreaking majority of people on both sides of the racial divide can see is that there is no place, physically, legally, or morally, for a white man and a black woman to have a committed relationship. 

The book is told completely from Jack’s point of view. Della materializes for the reader though extensive dialogue. Both characters, as well as her family, who appear in the narrative, and his, who do not, still come clearly to life. Page after page contains wisdom about the human condition, and in the end, though it is difficult to see it coming after every hard thing that happens, there is room for grace. A nuanced, real, and surprisingly fresh grace. Much like grace appears in our broken world, even today.

Have I read Marilynne Robinson? I’m working on it. After reading Jack, I am eager to read the previous Gilead books. Do I regret reading them out of order? No more than I regret hearing my family stories in overlapping, circuitous ways, where the same story can have a different moral depending on the times, the teller, or the circumstances. No more than I regret having read the Gospel in a piecemeal fashion over the years. Robinson has created a profound world, and wherever we choose to enter it, it makes sense, or it doesn’t, in just the way our real lives—on earth, in the mind, and of the spirit—do. 

If you have read Robinson’s previous books, of course you must read Jack to discover how this bittersweet character spent his prodigal years. And if you haven’t read them, still read Jack. It’s a timely story from the Gilead universe, and it resonates with the racial reconciliation work we are doing now. Though it seems like there is no hope for Della and Jack, there is grace. And though we see ourselves mired in unresolvable tensions now, seeing how far we have come since the time in which their story is set provides hope that perhaps further progress can be made, and further grace experienced.  

And Moby Dick? As for me and my reading list, it may never surface.

To register for the EBA Author Series Conversation with Marilynne Robinson, click here.

To purchase Jack from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
~Martin Luther King Jr.

No Toxic Fish

Giving shouldn’t just feel good; it should do good. Dr. Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help and How to Reverse It explains the difference in the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on Thursday, August 12 at 6:00 p.m. Central.

We’ve all heard the adage “Buy a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” It’s good common sense: give skills rather than gifts. But until Bob Lupton published his book Toxic Charity in 2011, the good works and generosity of churches, schools, and charities often didn’t connect with this concept. How many of us have been involved in Christmas Drives that gathered bicycles and new dolls for underprivileged children, or bought presents off a list for everyone in a family? How many parties have we been to where the price of admission was a toy for a needy child? And what makes us feel better than a day spent working with colleagues at a food bank, processing meals for hungry families? It feels good to care for others; it feels good to be generous. How could that be toxic?

When I first heard the title of this book, I found myself getting irritated: What’s the problem with being generous? People can make an issue out of anything these days. But after that initial knee-jerk, I read further. And I realized the connection between the old fish-saying and Lupton’s message. Toxic Charity isn’t about suppressing the urge to help those in need in our communities, it is about how to actually help them.

He begins by describing what he calls “The Scandal,” which is the situation where charitable giving is being wasted or is harming the people it is intended to help. At the time of writing this book, Lupton had worked over forty years in inner-city Atlanta and around the world trying to create models of urban renewal that actually served the poor. He worked with every type of helping organization that exists—churches, corporate volunteers, entrepreneurs, government agencies and individuals. There is no shortage of people desiring to help: according to Lupton, almost 90% of American adults are involved either personally or financially in the charity industry.  The upside of helping is well-established.

But the outcomes are unexamined. “The food we ship to Haiti, the well we dig in Sudan, the clothes we distribute in inner-city Detroit—all seem like such worthy efforts. Yet those closest to the ground—on the receiving end of this outpouring of generosity—quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping.” While that seems surprising, Lupton goes on to explain that the heart of the scandal is that this type of giving creates dependency. It destroys personal initiative. And he gives many examples of charity that has caused communities to stagnate or even regress. The aid received becomes “the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.”

On the surface, it’s a very sad thought. But the strength of Lupton’s message is that it takes us beneath the surface. He details the difference between the type of aid a community needs when it is in crisis—after a storm, an earthquake, or another tragedy—versus the type of support it needs to face chronic problems. He explains how human nature affects both ends of the charitable spectrum. It is easier to collect old clothes and drop them off than it is to work with people to create a thrift store that they can run and that allows them to regain their dignity. It is easier to give people food than it is to work with them to create a food co-op where they have responsibility and ownership for the care of their own community. Aid agencies often aren’t able to shift their actions from “crisis relief to the more complex work of long-term development.” And when that transition is not made in a timely way, “compassion becomes toxic.”

In his experience, Lupton has seen example after example of charitable relationships that soured because the basic formula of giving and taking creates imbalance. His book provides a mission statement for healthy compassionate service, in the form of an oath, and he explores the principles outlined to create redemptive rather than toxic interactions between those with resources and those who need them. His examples are sometimes shocking—mission churches that have been painted ten times in one summer; demanding “vacationaries” who pay exorbitant sums to “help” by doing work that has to be undone once they leave; churches that spend tens of thousands of dollars on mission trips for their members to lay tile that will need to be ripped out when the community they mean to serve has real needs the money could address; and many, many more examples of both groups and individuals who suffer from the outcomes of toxic charity. But as he explains the power dynamics of the giver and the receiver, and reiterates the difference between crisis and development, it is clear how situations like these would evolve time and again if we don’t change the model.

Once we recognize what healthy helping can look like, we need to recognize that it can be challenging to move beyond what he calls “us-based giving.” People on both ends of the formula will push back. It’s harder to get someone to come and work than it is to get them to come in and get a handout. It is harder to form relationships with people whose situations are different than ours than it is to write a check. We need to focus our efforts and move from betterment to development. It is obvious that it is harder to teach someone to fish than it is to go to the store and buy a box of fish sticks, but the book goes into the nuances of very specific types of charitable giving and service, outlining both pitfalls and solutions.  

Lupton paints a clear picture of what will happen if we don’t realign our charitable impulses with actual outcomes.  When I finished, I realized that my initial irritation was defensive: It’s scary to enter into relationships with people who are needy, but it is what we are called to do. If our intention is to truly help people, we need to do it in a way that helps them, rather than provides a quick fix for them and a helping-high for us. To modify another old expression, the road to hell is badly paved by well-intended, unskilled volunteers who didn’t take the time to understand or work with the people they were trying to help. Lupton reminds us that our intentions can be used for good. There will always be need, and we are always called to help. But we need to be honest about the situation and about ourselves before we decide how to proceed. Although it’s not a new book, it has new relevance now as we reconsider many of the relationships and attitudes in our communities. Reading Toxic Charity would be time well-spent before beginning or continuing any outreach program. Everyone deserves the opportunity to catch their own fish.

Dr. Lupton will be in conversation with the Rev. Dr. David Barr, Associate Rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN, as part of the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on Thursday, August 12 at 6:00 p.m. Central time on Zoom.

For the link to the conversation, click here.

To purchase the book from The Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.
~Robert Louis Stevenson

Anne Lamott Always Shows Up for Us

The prolific author’s latest book provides a booster shot of spiritual courage. She’ll be discussing it with us on April 8, 2021.

The flaps of Anne Lamott’s latest book, Dusk Night Dawn: on revival and courage, ask, “How can we recapture the confidence we once had as we stumble through the dark times that seem increasingly bleak? How can we cope as bad news pile up around us? Where, Anne Lamott asks, ‘do we start to get our world and joy and hope and our faith in life itself back…with our sore feet, hearing loss, stiff fingers, poor digestion, stunned minds, broken hearts?’” These are big, good questions.

I have more questions: How do you review an Anne Lamott book? How do you explain this verbal life-force to someone who may not already be familiar with her? How do you catch a cloud and hold it down?

The New York Times bestselling author of Help, Thanks, WowSmall VictoriesStitchesSome Assembly RequiredGrace (Eventually)Plan BTraveling MerciesBird by BirdOperating InstructionsHallelujah Anyway and many other fiction and non-fiction books, Anne Lamott is a successful writer by anyone’s definition. Words pour out of her. While a large proportion of these words are about herself, her stories of single-motherhood, writing, alcoholism, activism, and Christianity have resonated with readers for over three decades. 

When asked why she writes, she told the Dallas Morning News, “I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.”

Anne Lamott is nothing if not self-aware. With dead-eye accuracy, she writes the books she wants to read. They are good medicine, but they are difficult to describe individually. They even dress alike. Her latest book, Dusk Night Dawn, is packaged like all her books since Help Thanks Wow: It’s a slim volume with two color printing, gift-book binding, pretty endpapers and a single excerpt on the back cover. She does not need to be endorsed by other writers; rather, what she writes just needs to be packaged beautifully and presented to her adoring audience.

Despite the sameness and the foregone conclusion of success that this formula suggests, I’m part of that audience. I love Anne Lamott’s writing. I have all her books, and I’ve gone to hear her speak every time she’s come to town. But it’s tricky trying to individuate this latest book. In many ways, Dusk Night Dawn is just like Help Thanks Wow, or Hallelujah Anyway, or any of her other books in this vein. They’re each a stream-of-consciousness recounting of episodes from throughout her life, with a few images and individuals anchoring her thoughts. This one, written after her recent marriage to Neal Allen and during the last presidential term adds these topics, polar opposites that both lead her to deep rumination, and still covers single-motherhood, writing, alcoholism, activism, and Christianity.

If you haven’t read any of her previous books, I have no idea how you might respond if you jumped into this massive oeuvre with Dusk Night Dawn. If you have read Anne Lamott before, of course you need to read this latest. While you’ll be interested to hear about how her online dating worked out, you’ll have the same reaction to her writing that you’ve had before: you might think she needs more editing; you might think she’s prophetic; you might wonder where she’s going with some of her anecdotes, only to find yourself pondering them like a good parable several days later. Or you might skip the literary judgement and declare this new book just perfect. Because, more than anything, her constant message to readers is how deeply we are loved by our Creator, even in the darkest night of our unedited, rambling imperfection. Even, and especially, when the world seems like it’s falling apart. Nobody’s looking for perfection; we just need to show up for each other.

The Anne Lamott quote on the back of the book says, “Yes, these are times of great illness and distress. Yet the center may just hold.” Dusk Night Dawn is sub-titled on revival and courage. But isn’t all her writing about revival and courage? While she struggles every day to show up for her life, her center has clearly held. It hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s held well enough for her to create a multitude of books about her journey, books that help us better understand where the center of our own lives should be and help us show up, for ourselves and our dear ones.

So, yes, we are older. Yes, our joints are stiff, and we’ve been stumbling through a heartbreaking year, even if we were lucky enough to find or hold love in it. And yes, this book looks and reads a lot like her books that have come before it. But don’t let that keep you from reading it. It’s the same, but it’s different. The parables stay the same, but we change. There’s still more to understand.

As always, she’s tangential, irreverent, charming, opinionated, and brutally honest. Reading her, book after book, is like sitting down with a thoroughly modern Maria (When I’m with her I’m confused, out of focus, and bemused, and I never know exactly where I am. Unpredictable as weather, she’s as flighty as a feather. She’s a darling; she’s a demon; she’s a lamb. She’d out pester any pest, drive a hornet from its nest. She can throw a twirling dervish out of whirl. She is gentle; she is wild; she’s a riddle; she’s a child; she’s a headache; she’s an angel…she’s Anne Lamott.) How do you explain her remarkable verbal magic?

How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? Read Dusk Night Dawn. Or, if you’re not already familiar with her work, go back to Operating Instructions or Bird by Bird and get to know her and her people from the beginning. Each book layers richness on the last. You can’t read about Anne Lamott: you have to experience her books for yourself. You might not be able to explain just why, but chances are you’ll feel revived and more courageous afterward. And isn’t that what the sub-title promised?

Anne Lamott will be featured in the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on April 8 at 6 p.m. Central. Join us to experience her irrepressible wisdom by registering at the link here.

To purchase Dusk Night Dawn from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.
~ Henri Nouwen

Blessed, Indeed, Are the Cheesemakers

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains Jesus’s teaching so clearly, it’s as if centuries of varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. Join the Episcopal Booksellers Association in conversation with her on February 11, 2021.

When Amy-Jill Levine was in first grade at Job S. Gidley Elementary School in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, her teacher led the children in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Our Father prayer. Recalling that ritual in her latest book, Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Levine says, “So after pledging loyalty to ‘liver tea’ and singing about the ‘donzerly’ light, I’m sure I was not the only one in the class who bowed my head and prayed, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name…Lead us not into Penn Station…’…Little children have much to learn.’”

When it comes to the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer, as we Episcopalians call it, Dr. Levine has much to teach us. Sermon on the Mount approaches chapters 5-7 in the Book of Matthew that most of us consider familiar ground and shows us in the most enthusiastic and loving way that our understanding (at least as a lay reader) is not much more accurate than her interpretation of the “dawn’s early light” was back in first grade.

University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jan Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts, and Sciences, Dr. Levine is the first Jew to teach at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, and her list of degrees and accomplishments is long and impressive. She brings all her education and experience to her deconstruction of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which she begins by saying “is not a sermon. It’s a series of discrete teachings, each of which could be the basis of a sermon, a lecture, a community study, or a personal meditation.” She suggests that Matthew needs marketing help, and that what we call the Sermon on the Mount (and he never did) should be called something like “A Sampling of Jesus’s Greatest Teachings.” And then she uses her knowledge of Jewish practices at the time of Jesus, her understanding of the Torah and the New Testament, and the range of translations of the bible to deepen our understanding of every significant phrase in these chapters.

Her book is not long—six chapters cover The Beatitudes, The Extensions, Practicing Piety, Our Father, Finding Your Treasure, and Living into the Kingdom. Each of these chapters is packed with thought-provoking, knowledge-based, exciting ideas. Though her erudition is apparent, her work has a strong sense of joy. She is able to laugh at herself, the religious establishment, and outdated interpretations of what Jesus was teaching, while remaining respectful and non-judgmental. She connects the holy with history, head, and heart: reading her book feels like engaging with a remarkable professor—one so sure of her material that she can explore new ideas even as she teaches, one who is delighted to share her knowledge because she has experienced it as life-changing.

Each chapter is an exploration. Sometimes she detours into her own experience or delves into playing with language, and as she does, she remarks on the richness of the Matthew’s writing. She leaves the reader with the hope that future books will further explore these paths that she glimpses down as she moves through the elements of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Jesus that she presents and his messages that she explains come though so clearly, it’s as if centuries of discolored varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. We still recognize the beloved subject, but now we can see it as it was intended to be seen. It seems so logical—if we are to accurately understand Jesus’s lessons, of course we need to understand who he was as a Jew, who he was teaching, and what language they were speaking. 

In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” the crowd hears Jesus say, “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.” Some past translations and interpretations of the Book of Matthew have left us with some ideas that are just as inaccurate. After reading Sermon on the Mount, we not only know specifically what Jesus means when he uses terms like “Peacemakers,” we also come away with a practical understanding of how to apply these powerful teachings in our own lives. Blessed are both cheesemakers and peacemakers and blessed is Amy-Jill Levine for so generously and articulately sharing her learning and experience to shed new light on this important section of the New Testament. 

To register for the EBA Authors Series discussion with Dr. Levine on February 11, 2021 at 6:00 p.m. Central, click here.

To purchase Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, click here.

To see David Hockney’s vision of the Sermon on the Mount, click here.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
~Marcel Proust