Monday, June 30, 2014

Honest Storytelling... But Not Too Honest

Just telling the facts, just giving the minimum details to an event does not always make for a good story. Actually is seldom makes for a good story. Case in point, Hester Rumberg’s non-fiction work, Ten Degrees of Reckoning: A True Story of Survival. In this work Rumberg retells the harrowing events of the Sleavin family, the tragedy that befell them while they were at sea, and the mother’s (Judith Sleavin) struggle to survive and reclaim a sense of life. It is a powerful and gripping story that begs to be told for many reasons. It tells of gross corporate negligence, of the frustration of the court system on the national and international level, of one woman’s strength and hope, and of the beauty that can be found in a family. There are many reasons to tell this story and many ways that it can be told. In each and every way the truth, the facts, the basics of the story can be maintained while holding up a nuance of the narrative. Sadly, I do not feel that Hester Rumberg does the story justice.

Rumberg, a physician by training and a sailor by hobby and passion does a good job gathering the details, learning as much as she can, sharing as much of the details and the back story as she can and does a fine job in this pursuit. Yet in spinning the web, in telling the story, Rumberg falls short. All the details are there, the facts are present, but the narrative core is missing making this a mediocre work.

It should be said that Rumberg is a friend of Judith Sleavin, and someone that Sleavin trusts to tell the story. Rumberg should be applauded for shouldering the mantel of telling her friend’s tragic story. This is not an easy task. Yet something is missing.

Rumberg is not a writer. She is not a journalist. She is not someone who has practiced the art of writing, of telling a tale, of finding and fleshing out the story. True to her training as a radiologist, she looks at the story and tells what happened, but that does not pull out the story.

One story has many facets. Think of the four different stories of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They are in the later part of the Bible in case you weren’t sure). These are all working with many of the same facts, many of the same bits of information and yet all offer slightly different pictures of Jesus. One goes into great effort to connect the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of Moses and the Prophets. Another shows how the person and ministry of Jesus is one that goes beyond the rules and expectations of Judaism to include outsiders. Another offers a more “spiritual/mystical” view of Jesus’ teachings and ideas but one that does not diminish Jesus’ humanity. In the Bible we have four stories of the same person. Overlapping facts. Overlapping details, yet each one offers a different nuance in the narrative.

This does not make one “true” and another “false,” but is honest and true to the subjectivity that is going to be present whenever one begins to tell a story. Even if the story is autobiographical, it will still have nuance and bias. This is a reality to journalism, to storytelling, and is important to realize and embrace. The trick, so often, is to decide what your "bias" is going to be, what the angle of the story will be, and then to fully embrace it. That is good storytelling and as long as one holds to the facts it is also "truth-telling."

There is a story to tell in this book, and it is a good and powerful story. Scratch that. There are many stories to tell, and they can be good and powerful. What one needs to do is to take a chance, embrace a story, and then, without apology, tell it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Listen, Read, Play

In a recent episode of my podcast I am joined with the Rev. Tom Wiles to discuss using Jazz in reading and interpreting scripture. You can listen via this link or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes under "twelve enough"

Monday, June 02, 2014

Down With Original Sin!

I recently found an article on the Associated Baptist Press pointing to Albert Mohler’s use of Original Sin as an explanation for toddlers’ bad behavior. Mohler was responding to a Wall Street Journal article that discussed aggressive behavior in 2-3 year old boys and girls. Mohler’s response: it is the fault of original sin.


Very helpful.

That must be why many Southern Baptist are baptizing their children before the age of 5. The kids are brats, they are brats because of original sin, therefore if you “wash them of their sins” via baptism they will no longer be brats. But that doesn’t seem to work. Instead what you end up with is a 3-year-old who is now selfish and angry and wet and not fully understanding why they were forced underwater. That will make for great therapy sessions in the future (and when is that no different from infant baptism?).

What does it help to tell people that their kids are acting out because of original sin? Instead of helping it seems to take away any hope for the parents to teach their child the behaviors of sharing, empathy, fairness, etc. It is saying that no matter how much you try your child will always act out because they are born rotten. Unless, of course, you hit your child because “spare the rod” and all that crap, and a good beating will set the child straight. Mohler is quick to tell us that “time-outs” wont work but says spanking is. Based on what theology? This is an arcane kind of logic that leads to more therapy.

Let it be said, there is never a good reason to hurt, hit, beat, or use any kind of capital punishment on a child. It does not help or beat the sin out of them in any way at all. That is just stupid. Spanking is stupid (are you angry at me yet?).

What kind of message are we sending when we tell people that they are born bad, rotten, evil, broken people. Yes, we are all born with tendencies to be selfish, hurtful, prideful, envious, mean, and cruel. We are also born with tendencies to be gentle, compassionate, loving, merciful, and in general good. Often time children are a mixture of all of these things in a single moment. That is what makes them so much fun.

What kind of message are we sending that says we believe in a God who holds us responsible for someone’s misguided decisions based on the hissing of a serpent thousands of years ago (i.e. the Adam and Garden of Eden story)? This is a God who just cannot let it go. What does it further say that the only way this God will stop blaming us for what someone did thousands of years ago is to demand a human sacrifice, and that the sacrifice be his own son (who is also him, but not so much because atonement theory favors Jesus more as the son then as God incarnate… do I smell a heresy?).

Can we please move beyond the idea of original sin? Can we please excise it from our lexicon of Christian theology, tear it out of our Sunday School books, stop teaching it, pushing it, and basing our faith and commitment to Christ on it? Let the cruel, inhumane doctrine of original sin fester in the heap of theological ideas whose times have come to pass with: biblical literacy, patriarchy, the notion of the elect, damnation, and hell (and I am sure that there are others… are you angry at me yet?).

We are born searching, yearning, and desiring relationships. We are born with an original need to be in communion with others and with the divine. Part of being human is learning how to be in a relationship that gives and takes and grows together. Sometimes toddlers are just cranky, or mean, and are still learning how to be a good person. Sometimes grown people are still learning that as well. Maybe some day I’ll learn how to like and respect Mohler’s writings; while he keeps pushing his outdated, and dangerous and bad theology, respecting and liking Mohler will be difficult to achieve.

Who Is This Jesus? Listen In

Ever wonder what it means that Christ is fully God and fully human? I discuss it with Fr. Anthony Perkins in my most recent podcast episode. You can find the show-notes here, the episode here, or find it on iTunes under "twelve enough"

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Blame Game

A review/reflection of Stephen Puleo's book Dark Tide

What is 15 feet high, travels at 35 miles an hour, and is sweet and sticky?

If you guessed “lollipop rocket ship” than you are wrong and need to get your head checked. But if you guessed molasses on January 15, 1919 in Boston’s North End then you are correct. Give yourself a star.

Stephen Puleo’s book Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 is the only definitive work on this tragedy, and it is good. Puleo spends time investigating not only the events themselves as well as the aftermath, but the threads of the American experience that are connected to this bizarre disaster. For example he spends time considering the story of the anarchist movements in America in the early 20th century as well as the experience of Italian-Americans in that time period (there was considerable overlap between the two). It is a good historical work that not only tells the story of Boston’s North End, but of an aspect of the American experience

Now for another question:
What has no height but looms large, never moves but is always just beyond reach, and is dark and foreboding?

If you again guessed “lollipop rocket ship” then you seriously need to get your head checked. Really, there is something wrong with you. But if you guessed scapegoats then either you are really, really intuitive and smart, or you read ahead and cheated. No star for you!

Scapegoats are those persons, things, ideas that we used to cast blame, to hold up as responsible, and to assuage ourselves of any guilt. While Puleo does not mentions the notion of scapegoats in his work, the idea holds a strong narrative thread. As labor conditions worsen and workers rights have yet to be articulated in the early 20th century, anarchists were one of those groups that rose to give voice to the frustration and despair that many workers in America were feeling. It is true that many also gathered with communists, with socialists, and with other leftist dissenters. Many represented immigrant communities which had little or no voice in the political system or with the powers that be. Many were involved with worker’s strikes, protests, and rallies. And sadly, many were involved in violent activities damaging property, wounding and sometimes killing people. Puleo sets the backdrop of the anarchist movement in the early 20th century without taking away from the main story including the trails of Sacco and Vanzetti. They are not portrayed as great people, but are not portrayed as the cause of all that is wrong with all that is wrong in the world. Yet that is what happens in the trail that takes place after the accident in 1919. In the trail the company that was responsible for the giant molasses tank make a fervent argument that it was an anarchist who placed a bomb in the tank causing the destruction and the death. The anarchists become the scapegoat.

Such an argument is not surprising as it is something that we continue to see today. If something goes wrong we look to the group that we have been taught to distrust and blame them first. Terrorists, gang members, kids, ants, Republicans, Democrats, ranting preachers, and others all get on the list of people that we like to blame and use as the focus of our ire. The problem is that when we do this we are often allowing ourselves to be distracted from some of the deeper, more complex nature of the problem. We can be lulled into a false story that a company built a great molasses tank that was a symbol of the strength of American Industry but then some evil and nefarious men who didn’t want to see America succeed snuck in a blew up the tank not caring about the loss of innocent life. Or we can look at the story that Puleo offers that tells about the lack of a political voice in the Italian community, the nature of the North End of Boston, the lax regulation and oversight from the government, and how a drive for profit can lead people to cut many corners at what turned out to be a great expense.

We continue to create scapegoats today. We say that public schools are so bad because the kids are bad or the parents are bad or the drugs are bad but do not speak to the inequitable funding via property tax or the history of redlining and highway creation destroyed many neighborhoods and thus their schools. We say that one political party or another is the cause of all that is wrong in the world but do not speak to the ways in which companies fund both parties in such a way as to keep the common interest out of the political process. Even in churches we say that it is the music or the preaching that is the cause for people staying or leaving but do not speak to the ways in which the general approach to church and faith has become a secondary (or lower) aspect of peoples lives… including those who still claim to believe.

Scapegoats are easy. Scapegoats are quick. Puleo shows the depth that each problem offers and the richness that can be found in a thoughtful investigation.

Down with Scapegoats!

Those jerks.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Listen and Learn

I have just posted a new podcast episode here - I discuss learning and education in a Christian Context with the Rev. Paul Robeson Ford. Foucault is mentioned more than once making it wholesome. It is good listening!

you can also hear the podcast on iTunes under "twelve enough"

Monday, May 12, 2014

Unsung Heroes

A review/reflection of Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen is crazy. I’m not making this up or being pejorative. He describes himself as a crazy s.o.b. His craziness comes out in his telling of his journey to and through the Iditarod in his book Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod.

The book details his beginning love of dogs and sledding, his mad desire to run the Iditarod, and the surreal experiences he encountered in his first running of that iconic race. Paulsen’s book is well written, clear, and often self-effacing. He interjects humor well and does not overplay the dangers or difficulties that he faces. While the writing style tends towards the elementary he does a fine job keeping the reader’s interest and pulling the reader through the race. It is a good read about a major human and canine accomplishment that is not steeped in ego. Especially in the genre of “accomplishment” stories the lack of narcissism is refreshing.

Yet something is missing. In this book Paulsen refers to his wife often but not in depth. She is the wise watcher, the person who observes Paulson as he struggles to prepare in what seems to be a detached manner. She is supportive, she is caring, and at times she is concerned, but we do not have a picture of her with any kind of emotional depth. We do not hear if she was angry with Paulsen for putting the family through the financial stress and mental stress in the planning and preparation. We do not have any insight into their relationship; they do not argue or fight or disagree over Paulsen’s demonstrations of insanity. When Paulsen sleeps with his dogs his wife seems to express indifference.

Add his child to the picture. Paulsen says that he has a son, but it is not clear if his son was born before or after this first race. His son is only mentioned a handful of times and only in passing. Thus while on one hand Paulsen gives us a book about a man’s quest to race, finding himself, overcoming his fears, connecting with nature, etc. On the other hand if you look closely you find a story of a man and his dogs with his family in the background, almost forgotten.

There is a trite, bumper sticker saying that goes “behind every good man is a great woman.” This is supposed to be a coy way of celebrating the presence and activity of women in the world. I do not think it is as helpful as some may purport. It is coy and curt but it also celebrates the silence, the quiet support that many women are expected to offer to their spouses. Such a quiet, behind-the-scenes support means people will tell the stories of the “great men” with a quick reference to the woman who then is not celebrated for her strength and presence in the story. It suggests that the woman’s place is in the background.

I imagine Paulsen’s wife could tell her own story. She could tell a story of helping to tend the dogs, of watching her husband go on a ridiculous journey again and again, of the financial strain, of taking care of their son without Paulsen’s presence (I can only assume but do not know), and of wondering what place she has in her husband’s life – especially with all of those dogs around. Paulsen’s wife has a story. I think this is a good and interesting story and would be worth telling.

There are a multitude of good and interesting and worthwhile stories that are not told because they are painted not important or central or valuable. Yet I argue that this is far from the truth.

Behind every great and exciting story there are many other important and exciting stories that are unsung and unheard. These are the stories that need to be lifted up. These are the stories of mothers and wives or workers and grunts and others who are often overlooked and forgotten. Without the forgotten workers, the dedicated supporters, and the sacrificing helpers, the greats would never achieve their greatness. Rather than telling the story of the “hero,” tell the story of those who make the heroes happen. It is very likely that those stories are more real and more powerful. Celebrate the silent presence that is integral to greatness!

Monday, May 05, 2014

Podcast Episode - History, Tradition, and Identity

I've posted a new podcast episode where I am joined by the Rabbi Amy Levin and we talk about the importance of history and tradition - give it a listen via this link, or on iTunes under "twelve enough" Enjoy!