Monday, December 14, 2015

Not Nearly One Hundred Best Books Read in 2015

         The New York Times and The Globe and Mail and many other press outlets use panels of judges help assemble their 100 “best of the year,” book lists. The lists are comprised only of books that were published this past year. They are designed to have something for everyone in them. They tend to highbrow, reflecting the literate interests of a highly educated minority of people.

         My list, on the other hand, is very personal, reflecting my interests alone. Far from being a hundred-book list, mine must be much shorter, since I only managed to read forty books this year. My list spans books written over the past two-centuries too, mostly because I’ll often read everything I can find in subject areas that interest me. This year that was the Boer War, in preparation for doing research on a distant relative—Pieter Schuil—who died in that conflict. I also read many books that touched on the meaning of life because I am thinking of writing a book in that vein myself.

         And of course, I read a lot of science fiction, mostly because this has been my genre of choice for escape since I was a tween. And this is my nod in the direction of “definitely not highbrow,” although the two sci-fi books I chose for this list are not the typical “read and toss” books I usually end up with from this genre. They were very good.

         So, without further ado, here is my list of “Best Books I Read in 2015: Mildly Annotated.”

Best Science Fiction

         Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This book fits into the very hot post-apocalyptic meme, though not very predictably. It is less about the end of the world as it is a book about the importance of art and beauty, and the hope that drives us to survive. Unlike much sci-fi, this one is beautifully written, too. It is the perfect antidote to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, by the way. 

         My runner up in the scif-fi category would be David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Also well written. Strange. Had to work hard on the willing suspension of disbelief at a certain point. But engrossing, imaginative, layered, and in the end fun.

Best Books on the Meaning of Life

         I read a dozen or more books on this broad theme. They ranged from popular self-help books like The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt to philosophical primers like The Meaning of Life: A Reader, by E. D. Klemke. Only one of these books blew me away: I and Thou by Martin Buber. I was assigned this book for a college philosophy course forty years ago, and I merely skimmed through it then, to get by. Too bad—I really missed something. I loved everything about this book, from its obscurantist argumentation (like that of my hero, Kenneth Burke) to its overwhelming humaneness and insight. The introduction by Walter Kaufmann was worth the price of the book all by itself. Just wonderful.

         The worst book? The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind by Simone Weil, closely followed by her Waiting for God. The former was written for the Free French, during WWII, to help guide reconstruction. Just weird. And while Waiting for God had some fine moments, they were all spoiled by Weil’s directionless meandering punctuated by her senseless starving of herself to death. Reading these two books made me very suspicious of literary elite that wants to suggest she is some sort of literary saint. No.

Best Theology

         Well, in truth, this might be philosophy pretending to be theology, or philosophical theology, but the best—and most challenging—book I read this year was John Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps.

          Love the way it got under my skin. He argues that we should pay attention more to how God insists (perhaps) than we do to God’s existence. Having said so, there is no way that I can sum up the many layers of this work without writing a Master’s thesis, at a minimum. It is rich. It is surprisingly poetic and humorous. It also made me wish that I had a better understanding of Hegel and Kant than my secondary-literature-only background. I also read Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. It is more accessible, written for the Evangelicals who he wants to haunt (his term) with his ideas. Caputo, incidentally, is a major inspiration for Emergent/Post-evangelical/Post-Church Christian Peter Rollins. Rollins books are more accessible but less interesting than Caputo’s. I’d suggest starting with his Insurrection: To Believe Is Human, To Doubt, Divine.

Best Non-fiction

         One of my hobbies is paleoanthropology. I’ve read most of the popular literature from the past twenty years or so, and some more professional books too. The highlight of my summer was a visit to the Cradle of Humanity, the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa—as well as the museum there. This is also the location of the Rising Star cave site where Homo Naledi was recently found—the most exciting thing going right now in paleoanthropology. The most dynamic work being done in this field involves unraveling the human genome, often from ancient bones. The best book I read about this topic, this past year, is Christine Kenneally’s, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures. Besides serving as a great introduction to genetic science, it also discusses cultural and familial transmission of values.

         The reason I was in South Africa this year was to research the life of a distant relative who was executed by an English firing squad during the Boer War—the Pieter Schuil I mentioned above, a first cousin three generations removed. I have Pieter’s diary and a letter that an English chaplain wrote to his parents after the war, describing his last night alive. I’ve written about this story here: Pieter Schuil and Pieter Schuil Two. While doing my research I came across Ingvar Schoder-Nielson’s, Among the Boers in Peace and War. I sought the book out because I knew that one chapter contained an account of Pieter’s arrest and execution. I was blown away to find another chapter about a meandering late-Boer War intelligence-gathering trip that Pieter took with the author. It felt like an unexpected “second visit,” with Pieter. On the whole, the book is a very interesting glimpse at an experience that few of us could imagine—living on the South African veld, fighting the English, losing, and (in Ingvar’s case, at least) surviving.

Best Novel

         I rarely read novels that don’t come highly recommended, so few of them are bad. (One favorite site for recommendations is Joanne’s Reading Blog). This year, however, decided to walk into the best bookstore in Toronto, Ben McNally Books, when I had a few hours to kill, and pick out the thinnest novel I could find. I bought Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. This is a dark allegory written from within the European Evangelical tradition of another time. It was first published in 1842. But what a lovely romp. Half horror, half Jeremiad, and half morality tale. Beautifully written, translated, and fun all the way through. Get it!

         Just before going to press, I thought my runner up would be J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. A book about “modern” South Africa that is deeply disturbing and impossible to put down.

         But last night I finished what might have been the best reading experience I had all year, a book by Lawrence Hill, The Illegal. Coming after the incredible success of his Book of Negroes, I was prepared for a let down. Not at all. I loved the main character, a marathoner. His struggles were believable, and I admired Hill’s social commentary throughout. This book is an absolutely necessary antidote to all the race-baiting, anti-immigrant talk in the USA right now, but also a reminder that we in Canada have only made a beginning at being the welcoming, multiethnic country we’d really like to be. And what a great, compelling, well-written story! A page-turner from beginning to end.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Painful Sermon About Syria and Iraq

            This morning [here at Lawrence Park Community Church], you might expect me to say we should approach the current Syrian refugee crisis with generosity. But of course you have. I’m amazed at how much you have contributed to the United Church’s refugee relief fund this year—over 23,000 dollars last month alone. I don’t really need to dwell on that this morning.

            Or, perhaps you expect me to say that we should do all we can to treat the 25,000 refugees coming to Canada from Syria as if they were our brothers and sisters. The Bible tells us so: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt." But no, I won't dwell on that this morning, though it is true. 

            In light of our New Testament reading from Matthew, you might expect me to say we should grant safe refuge to people that show up at our doorsteps just as the Egyptians showed Mary, Joseph and Jesus. But I won’t.

            What I really want to say is something that has been bothering me for a long time, something that leaves a pit in my stomach.

            What I want to say is this. We—that is our governments in the West, usually with the support of citizens like us—have done as much as anyone else in the world over the past 100 years (and much longer) to create today’s Syrian and world-wide refugee problems.

            To say so is not really controversial if you’re an academic, a historian, a journalist, or a well-informed citizen. But saying so is also very unpleasant, so we don’t hear this too often. But the facts (minus Jewish persecution, Ottoman Empires, crusades, Napoleonic adventures and British responses)—the facts go something like this:

            During World War 1, Western governments split the Middle East into three different spheres of influence—Russian, French, and British—without regard to tribal or religious realities on the ground, laying the groundwork for the irrational borders—including no Kurdish state—that still plague us today. ISIS lists this, for example, as one of the issues it is going to fix with its murder and mayhem.

            Before World War II, the West, and especially Britain, supported the rise of the Saudi monarchy. We have supported it through thick and thin since, especially since the discovery of oil there. But, in the words of the New York Times last week, "Born in massacre and blood, [Saudi Arabia] manifests itself in a surreal relationship with women, a prohibition against non-Muslims treading on sacred territory, and ferocious religious laws." The article goes on to point out what everyone knows to be true, namely that, "Saudi Arabia has been the chief sponsor of radical Islamist ideology," and thus, "the birth-place of younger generations of jihadists." As I speak these words, Canada is sending Saudi Arabia billions in new armaments while fifty Saudi's await beheading, mostly for what we would consider minor acts of political defiance.

            In 1953, we—well at least Britain and the USA—overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran to install the Shah’s dictatorial regime, mostly because the democratic government wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. The Shah, of course, was a dictatorial and repressive disaster, and that set the stage for Khomenei’s rebellion twenty-five years later. And we all know how that turned out.

            We have supported with aid—mostly military, Egypt’s last two repressive regimes, those of Mubarak and Sissi. We in the West are largely responsible for the rule of repressive dictators like Saddam Hussein and half a dozen other dictators in countries like Morocco, Syria, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia—all in the interest, it was argued, of peace and stability and profits for us, never mind what it meant for the citizens of those countries.

            When the world rightfully helped Israel establish a State after World War 2, we did so without regard to the Palestinians the new State displaced, creating refugee camps in neighbouring countries that have sparked generations of hopelessness, anger and extremism. There are now five million Palestinians living in camps—and if you think the people living in those camps are going to be a force for peace given their lifelong experience of poverty, hopelessness, and political oppression, you might be wrong. In the meantime, we—including Canada--have mostly winked, and winked, and winked at Israel’s subsequent harsh treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and their annexation of more and more of Palestinian territory.

            Many ISIS soldiers and commanders are former Saddam Hussein soldiers, all of them helpfully fired and left footloose and fancy free by the USA and its allies after the Iraq war. Western military action: bombing, missile strikes, drone attacks—have created scores of casualties and nearly unlimited animosity against the West. You get the picture. It’s as the prophet Hosea said of ancient Israel’s disastrous military adventures:  “you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.”

            And here is the kicker. I don’t have any idea what we can do about it. Do you? I remember, as a child, taking apart a clunky child’s watch I received as a birthday gift. I removed  the back to see how it worked. I took out a little wheel to see how it fit. A spring fell out after it. I tried to put it back in but a little cog fell out. Within minutes all the watch’s workings lay on the table, and I could not put it together again. That’s our Middle East. We’ve tinkered with it and tried to fix it, we’ve hammered away at it and picked away at it and now there is no way we can put it back together again. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall. And all the king’s drones and all the king’s bombs and all the king’s refugee visas cannot put Humpty together again.

            This tears me apart. There is no obvious, good, expert, wise way to fix this. Repentance might be a good place to start, but most political commentators have different ideas.

            Shall we keep on with the bombs and Special Forces on the ground? Or do we dare leave the spoils to ISIS? Stop meddling and let the Middle East find its own equilibrium without our forcing an answer on them they don’t want? Maybe training Kurdish militias help? Economic aid? Sanctions? A warm welcome for all the displaced among all the countries that have contributed to this mess?

            I don’t know. We do not know. There are no obvious answers. But this morning I will not be like the prophets Amos railed against, the prophets who said, “Peace, peace!” when there was no peace and no justice in all the land of Israel or Iraq or Syria or Libya or Sudan or Palestine or Lebanon or Yemen or wherever. I will not use our doing the right thing when it comes to refugees, here in Canada, as an excuse to ignore our complicity in creating this wave of refugees; I will not use my habit of wrapping up a sermon nice and neat and happy as an excuse for ignoring the fact that none of us has an inkling about what to do.

            What I can say is this. Once upon a time, as the story goes, a little baby fled to Egypt, and later back in Palestine grew up to be a prince of peace. It wasn’t easy. It eventually cost him his life. And now, no matter where everyone else in the world is headed off to, we, here, have decided to follow him. And the hard truth is that when it comes to the Middle East, peace in our time might cost us almost as much as it cost Jesus in his.

            Even though, for now, we don’t know what to do.

Monday, November 16, 2015

John Caputo's "Theology of Perhaps."

         I am reading a very difficult but wonderful book.

         The book is John D. Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps.

         The book is difficult because after finishing each paragraph, I have to read it over again. It takes a long time to get through a chapter, and time always feels like the one thing I don’t have enough of.

         The book is difficult—painfully so, sometimes—because it is about me for about 80% of my life, and I don’t like what I see there. I grew up with what Caputo calls the “militant logic of omnipotence, the imperial logic of onto-logic and theo-logic.” And so, from Caputo’s perspective, throughout my career I’ve written and spoken, “the theology of an agent-God, [that] requires ventriloquists, people, up to now invariably men, who authorize themselves to speak in the name of God.”

         Caputo is right. I used to be so sure, so quick to tell others, so on guard for the benchmarks of orthodoxy, so free and easy with my “Christian” perspective on everything from politics to education, so eager to write editorials in the imperative. It’s what church leaders do.

         Many events in my life eventually conspired to rock my certainty. I’ve written about some of them before: travel to places like Hiroshima, Rwanda after the genocide, and Haiti; and relationships with people from other races, ethnicities, and classes all telling the same stories about white privilege, structural racism, and the power of wealth for the few. I started reading widely outside of the pool of approved Christian scholars I was schooled in. Teaching the Heidelberg Catechism kept me asking myself, “really? How can anyone be so sure?”

         Caputo’s book is difficult. It isn’t that the vocabulary he uses is unfamiliar. I understand the common sense meaning of Caputo’s favourite words, words like, “insistence,” or “perhaps,” or “existence,” or “event,” or even “prayer.” It is just that how Caputo uses these words stretches the contexts I’m used to, or sometimes turns them upside down. Reading Caputo is like the experience I had this summer, as a speaker of basic Dutch, trying to understand the Afrikaans speakers of South Africa. I think I get it, I think I get it, but then I don’t.

         Caputo is also hard because he’s a prose poet, using literary tools like rhythm and assonance and repetition to make his words sing. Along the way, though, his words become more evocative than definitive (if definitive writing was ever really possible). 

         Ultimately, Caputo writes in a different paradigm while still using theological and philosophical language that’s half-familiar. It’s disorienting. Thomas Kuhn famously said (something like) communication across different paradigms is incommensurate—that is, that people working and living in two different scientific paradigms couldn’t understand each other. When I read Caputo I do so with ears and mind trained in one paradigm straining to understand with a heart that has landed in another. It takes patience.

         But reading Caputo is both difficult and wonderful. Wonderful because he says things that suddenly break through my fog and move me: “What we call in Christian Latin ‘religion’ may be thought of as offering hospitality to God . . . and then keeping our fingers crossed.” Or this quote that made we smile and ache both: “No one who reads the New Testament slowly would ever come up with a theory that associates God with ‘natural law,’ not when irregularity, interruption, and lawless miracle are the very occasion of the appearance of God.” Every page of Caputo is full of these opportunities to stop reading and meditate instead.

         His book is also wonderful—for me—because it is heuristic. His writing inspires new ideas for preaching, and for thinking about old problems—like the problem of evil, or the problem of using Greek philosophical categories to talk about God in the creeds. His book also inspires all sorts of flights of fancy that may or may not go anywhere. He reflects, for example, on how the church fathers—always suspicious of the flesh—wondered of what use teeth or sexual organs or digestive systems could be in heaven when surely we would not need such things anymore. That got me to thinking about Jesus’ saying that in heaven we will be like the angels who do not marry. Is there an alternative interpretation of these words that doesn’t cater to the church’s historic suspicion of the flesh? God, after all, actually created that flesh, according to the Genesis myth. Could it be that in heaven we're all friends with benefits with everyone? That we could love others with perfect agapic selflessness, erotic pleasure, in a companionable manner? In such a heaven, marriage might be an outmoded and unnecessary institution!  We could enjoy the heavenly banquet and then romp. Sure, these are silly theological meanderings—especially if you’re no longer sure about heaven—but these meanderings also suggest that theology can sometimes be a playground rather than a battlefield.

         Caputo has a serious program that constantly breaks out into laughter. He challenges me with refreshing ideas like the notion that God needs me (rather than just me needing God), or that using the language of substance and essence (rather than insistence) to speak of God is fundamentally wrongheaded. I’m searching for something in all this to build on, a bit worried that Caputo might be better at deconstruction than construction. In fact, he is. But once he’s done, there is something new there that whispers to me. If only I knew what it was.

         Caputo is a very difficult, but wonderful writer!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Gospel According to the Blue Jays

(So I wrote this sermon for fun, during the Blue Jays American League Pennant series with Kansas. I got the idea from John Van Sloten, who did the same in Calgary--thanks. Naturally, I wore a Blue Jays uniform to church that day. Several people requested that I post it. So here it is!)

I wrote this sermon on Thursday (October 22), as I almost always do. However, since the theme of the sermon was, “The Gospel According to the Blue Jays,” I was at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed.
That Thursday, after all, the Blue Jays were merely behind in the series with Kansas, three games to two. I didn’t know—as I do now—whether they would win the last two games in Kansas City or lose one of them. I didn’t know, as I sat down to write, whether I would be writing about a World Series-bound team, or merely a runner-up for the American League pennant. (Of course, I know now.)

            As I was thinking about my conundrum, I came across a Facebook post that was all about Blue Jay faith. Listen:
I have seen a man come back from season ending injury to dominate in September. (Stroman)

I have seen a bringer of rain end a 22-year old playoff drought. (Anthopolous)

I have seen a .500 team fight back and win a championship. (The Jays)

I have seen two 11-game win streaks. (Jays again)

I have seen a 20-year-old rookie shut down some of the best. (Osuna)

I have seen two of baseball’s greatest talents pull on my jersey. (Price and Tulo)

I have seen the 7th inning of game 5. (Bautista, mostly)

I have seen the bat flip that electrified a country. (Bautista, totally—let’s take a look at that, in fact)

I have see a team come back from a 3-1 deficit. Kansas City did it to us 30 years ago. A little payback is in order.

I have seen an incredible team play an exciting season and I am grateful to have experienced the 2015 Blue Jays.

And it’s not done yet!


            So, as I sat there at my desk, on Thursday, I tried to believe. Bautista will come through again! Tulu shall keep hitting! I thought maybe I could make such belief the point of this sermon. Faith should be strong even when times are tough, you know? Believe enough in the Jays and that will make it so. The trouble was, I didn’t believe, whole-heartedly, at least. What if the Blue Jays didn’t win? What if I came to the pulpit with a sermon that insisted, “believe,” but that faith turned out to be totally misplaced? Does God award the pennant to whichever team has the most believing fans? Probably not.

            So as I sat at my desk I was a bit sad that I hadn’t chosen to write a sermon entitled, “The Gospel according to the Liberal Party of Canada.” By last Thursday I knew how that one turned out. I wouldn’t have needed any faith for a sermon on that theme.

            Anyway, this back and forth got me to thinking about being a sports fan—or, at least, what it is like for me.

            The truth is, I’m a bit of a fair-weather fan. Not because I don’t love baseball all the time, but because I can’t stand dramatic tension. Not in movies, not on TV, and certainly not in sports.

            So, for example, if there is a TV-show or movie where the guy is getting up the courage to kiss the girl, I have to leave the room. I can’t stand the tension of “maybe-yes,” and “maybe-no.” Or, if there is some dramatic irony that suggests the hero is going to do something stupid, like make his girl-friend mad, or miss meeting her for dinner—well then, I leave the room. I can’t stand the tension.

            Baseball is full of this sort of tension. I love watching a home run. I love watching the bust-out inning. I love a Tulowitzki-Goins-Smoak double-play. But I can’t stand to watch a game where Toronto is one run up and Osuna is pitching in the ninth. I turn it off. Too much tension.

            So when it comes to the Jays, I’m always on the knife-edge. I can’t stand it when they’re failing, or threaten to implode, so much so that I turn my back and try to ignore them.

            And living with this uncertainty, this ambiguity, this two-sidedness is really what faith is all about.

            Do you remember that Facebook post I read at the beginning of this sermon? It finished with one word, “believe.” It was almost as if the post was saying, “if you have enough faith, good things are going to happen. Just believe harder and the Jays will go all the way.” But that is exactly what faith isn’t. It isn’t a tool for getting what we want.

            Real belief, real faith recognizes that there are some things we cannot know with certainty. Faith recognizes that there are some umpires who will make lousy calls, that there are some days the bats will go cold, there are some days that pitching arms turn to rubber—and we can’t change that. Faith recognizes that life is lived on a knife-edge, where both good and bad things happen to people who may or may not deserve it.

            So faith—even large amounts of it—can’t make the Blue Jays winner, or Kansas City losers. But then, what’s the gospel according to the Blue Jays if it isn’t “have more faith if you want to win?”

            Well, I think I’d put it this way. Baseball is a spectator sport, mostly. There are only 25 guys—they are all guys—on the Blue Jays playoff roster, but 49,000 fans in the stadium, and millions more in TV and Internet Land. It’s a spectator sport.

            And, we can actually learn good things from watching this sport. We learn about teamwork, as in a double play; about sacrifice, as in a sacrifice bunt or fly. We learn from watching baseball, about leadership, about taking hiring risks, and about what it takes to succeed at something we love.

            And while we watch, we have fun. We cheer and laugh and groan and do the wave and jump in our seats and shout while, hopefully, not throwing beer cans on the field.  But it’s a spectator sport. And there is nothing wrong with that.

            On the other hand, life itself, a life of faith, is not a spectator sport. It is, rather, a long race, one for which the Apostle Paul says we need to train to succeed. He uses very strong language to describe the race of life: “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disquailified.” Life is a race, full of any race’s uncertainties, something we train for, that we spend ourselves on, that we work hard at in order to win. Baseball is entertainment, but life is not a spectator sport.

            So what is it that we’re really training for? Well the Bible—and every religion, really—is absolutely clear on this. The game we play is love. The purpose of our lives is to love neighbours, fellow Jays fans, even Kansas city fans—but more to the point—the least, the last, the most needful in our society: our children and parents, our first nations and immigrants, our nannies and environment. Life is not a spectator sport—it consists of loving others whenever we can, whatever our job is. That’s real faith, lived on the knife-edge. We don’t know whether or not what we do for others will make them winners or not, but we do it because Jesus said this is what we do when we really live, rather than watch from the sielines.

            So the gospel according to this blue Jays fan, is this: believe, as the Jays poster says—but don’t believe by sitting in a recliner in order to be entertained. Believe to do, do the right thing, by way of your neighbours.  

            And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying so to take the fun out of life. You see, the secret of the gospel according to this blue Jays fan, is that if you live like Christ and for your neighbor—well, it’s an adventure. It’s a blast. There’s no life like it! Even given the uncertainty.

            I wrote this sermon on Thursday night. I didn’t know how the Jays series would turn out. But in a way, that’s how it is with life. We’re all in the middle of the series, and we don’t know how it is going to turn out, humanly speaking. But unlike fans of the Jays, who can really make very little difference in the outcome of the Kansas City Toronto plays by believing, we can all make a huge difference for how our lives—and the lives of our neighbours—turn out. Because when it comes to Biblical faith, we’re not spectators, we’re in the game, however it turns out. We’re lovers.