Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Human Condition

I don’t know what it is about Starbucks that makes me want to write. I think it is the smell of the freshly ground, deeply roasted (my non-Starbucks friends would say . . . burnt) beans. Maybe it is the wacky anthology of music (Roy Rogers, Bob Dylan or East Indian music like today).

I came here today to read . . . not write. After writing a long blog entry here Sunday afternoon, then deleting it a day later, I was ready to swear off blogging for a while.

But, today I want to write about what I’m reading.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a “meeting” here every Saturday morning with my son (and other kids if they are in town) to read and discuss our books. I’ve always been an avid reader of philosophy, theology, science and adventure travel. My sons . . . all of them . . . have been great readers of novels, usually the classics. In January I took on the mission to read all of the top 100 English novels. I’ve read about 8 so far.

I have never read non-Christian novels since high school. The reason was because I was my dualistic thinking. I never saw any value in fiction. I mean, how could I spend my time reading a story about something that never really happened while the rest of the world is going to hell . . . and not necessarily in an a hand basket?

I finished work early today as my last patient couldn’t get their health insurance’s prior authorization in time for the visit. I was in no hurry to go home to big empty house. BTW,I did hear from Denise this morning. I had a call on my cell phone. It was an awkward time as I was talking to a patient about her serious depression (and suicidal ideation) when my cell phone rang. I went to turn it off only to see this 13-14 digit number. She made it to Kenya but was exhausted. It was 7:20 PM there and she was going to bed.

On my drive here, in the misty rain, with the top down on the jeep (and the seat of my pants soaked), I was listening to NPR’s All Things Considered. They were talking about poetry and the ideal that poets can not support themselves from their writings . . . but must have day jobs. One poet, who works in the cooperate world, made the comment that it is too bad that she, and other authors, can’t support themselves by their writing. Writing, she went on to say, “Has a tremendous value in helping us to know and understand the human condition. Therefore poets should be paid the way the cooperate world pays its executives.”

Yeah! I thought. The “human condition.” That’s why reading novels are so important.

It is odd then, that we Christians, who serve the true, living God, should be the ones who both know and expose the human condition, but we don't. Christian literature is so screwed up. It is wrapped around AVOIDING the human condition at all cost, in exchange for the idealized human condition. For the same reason, Thomas Kincaid (art of an idealized world) sells best among Christians while abstract or even disturbing art forms are avoided.

Today I just started Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. I always like to read (on line) the background of a book before I read it. I’ve read a few of Fitzgerald’s other books. I would never have appreciated them in my previous life.

He wrote this book during a dark time in his life. He was broke. His wife was in an insane asylum in Baltimore and he was alone . . . cranking out Tender is the Night on an old type-writer. The reviewers comment that the book reflects his depressed mood.

People accuse me of being on the dark side too much or being critical. But I am not. The world is full of darkness and that is exactly what Scripture says about it. We do not survive this world by using Christianity as the “opium of the people.” But we live in reality, navigating the dark corridors with a hope . . . not necessarily a smile, but a sincere hope. We are forgiven. We will live forever in a new and better earth. There can be no better news than that. But in the meantime, we are flesh and blood. We feel sad. We feel hurt. We feel depressed. We live in the human condition.

The reviewers said that Tender is the Night is full of adultery and even incest. How horrible. The only thing that is more horrible is the reality that that, like it or not, is the human condition. I have known of both . . . even among my Christian friends. These issues would never be the topics of Evangelical novels.

I really like Frank Schaeffer for several reasons. First of all, I’m a big fan of LAbri. I also have some connection to Frank’s family, as I spend many a nights in a living room watching movies or discussing books with his mother planted on the couch. She was too old at the time to contribute much to the discussion (she is back in Switzerland now suffering from dementia).

But even among LAbri, Frank is now a black sheep. I really believe the real reason is that he has the courage to be very honest. He writes, now, down on the first floor . . . next to reality.

His first controversial book (which is hard to find now) was Sham Pearls before Real Swine. I was doing some soul searching at the time and the title grabbed my attention. I didn’t realize that Frank too had become disillusioned with Evangelicalism. His mother gave me the book (an author’s copy he had sent his mom). I don’t think she read very much of it. Of course she loves her son but as she handed me the book she made the comment that “Frankie is an angry man.” Looking back I see that Edith, as a wonderful woman as she is, lives on the Victorian side of the looking glass . . . Frank on the Mad Hatter’s side.

I am thankful for Frank’s Calvin Becker Trilogy novels as a bridge between the Evangelical sugar-coated books to the dark classics. Franks writes brutally honestly. I can see why some within LAbri (and the Evangelical world) despise him as a traitor.

Side Bar:(to illustrate the point) A lady from our church just came into Starbucks. I went to a party at her neighbor’s house a week ago because her neighbor works with Denise. I made the comment to her, “Hey I was next door the other night at Carla’s party.”

My friend had frown on her face. “Well, I would never be caught at Carla’s parties. I’ve heard the F word before so I don’t have to go out of my way to hear it again.”

I found her comment so strange. It never crossed my mind that I should go to Carla’s to just “to hear the F word.” Actually, I was there for two hours and can’t remember hearing a single “off color” word. However, I did hear many amazing stories about peoples’ lives like a guy who set the motorcycle speed record at Bonnieville back in the 70s and a guy who had spent his life fishing on the Bering Sea.

Anyway, back to my main point.

I see Frank as someone who just could not pretend any longer and had to come home . . . to the real human condition. But, he seems to still have the hope . . . as do I.


Anonymous said...

Hi Frank Schaeffer here: Thanks for the interest in my writing. I'm grateful. Best, Frank


MJ said...

Hi Frank,

You seem to be everywhere I don’t know how you keep up the pace. If I known that you were going to read this I would not have written with such haste . . . and I would have use even more flattery.

Tom S. said...

I was listening to NPR’s All Things Considered

In many evangelical circles you would be considered a heretic for listening to, or even mentioning NPR! Probably my favorite radio station by the way!

"Well, I would never be caught at Carla’s parties."

I'm sure Jesus would have been there - probably would have brought a nice bottle of wine! I'm sure there would have been murmuring - did you hear about Jesus, hanging out with sinners last night! Sometimes I wonder what Bible conservative evangelicals read. Jesus a teetotaler, turning wine into grape juice - give me a break!

And as for your friend who lost his son, and had to rebuke the devil after breaking down in tears. So sad that he thought that being biblical meant stuffing his feelings. I wonder how he would interpret Jesus' weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus?

MJ said...

Tom S,

Yeah, NPR is great. I love the BBC too, but I can't pick it up very often (except late at night).

Regarding the lady and the party, well I wouldn't have mentioned it except that the church lady walked by and spoke to me as I was writing that blog.

I think the reason my wife never looks at my blog is that she hates it when I sound critical. I think I point out things, like this lady's comments, not because I go around digging for evangelical dirt. But because I'm so appalled when I hear it. It is like, "Are we still thinking this way?" I mean, most of the time I assume that evangelicals have moved beyond that point (so I am really an optimist) but when I hear these statements it grabs my attention.

It is in the same way that when I hear a racist joke (usually from one of my hillbilly relatives) it grabs my attention because I shake my head in disbelief that we are still at this point.

Jaimie said...

Yeah, sorry about taking down your blog. I know I had a lot to do with that. I just get so honest about honesty! Plus, I worry about possible realities I might find myself in... it's a weird kind of empathy.

I write. I would call myself a writer, since I write about 800-1,000 words a day... pretty good for having a day job. I've written a novel, a screenplay and a teleplay (TV Pilot). Anyway, all that to say:

I can't stand Christian literature either. It's unrealistic; it's describing the world how it isn't. Christian authors would say "We're describing the world how it should be, in order to inspire people," but only God knows how the world should be. What they're putting out is just bizarre. It isn't God-ly and it isn't real, it's... bad art.

Besides, when Christians talk about building a perfect reality in order to inspire the imperfect, I think of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and Alec Guinness consuming himself in showing the Japanese the indestructibility of the British spirit. What happened in the end? Well, Alec went crazy. But I'm talking about the Japanese officer. He was broken. He wasn't inspired. He wanted to kill himself.

(Ergo: Christian lit makes me want to kill myself) :P

Good literature lets us learn. Real characters make mistakes for us, and we can learn from them and avoid those mistakes. Real characters let us vicariously lead a hundred lives, and we come out wiser for it. I could go on and on. I don't really have the time. I'm editing my novel at the moment. :P

It's good to read a blog about the crappiness of Christ-lit though.

MJ said...

Jamie, You're funny. I wouldn't say you took it down. You know how it is. You get in these honest moods, where you don't mind spilling your guts. Then in the morning you start to wonder if your words might hurt someone. I do have kids that stop by this blog now and then.

I really like your insights into writing.

I had about book once about Christian publishers (what they want, requirements etc.) I was amazed by some of the most conservative ones. No sin could be mentioned. Besides sin, no bad habits could be mentioned (smoking).

Steve Martin said...

It seems your friend from church has a little self-righteousness problem.

Anyway, you'd think she'd want to be around "real" sinners that she might have a chance to get in a word or two (if the opportunity arises) about Jesus to one of these F-Bomb throwers that she is afraid of encountering.

You, on the other hand, have a great attitude!


Anonymous said...

Augh. I wrote a huge comment on your last post...but.... I come back now and see that it never made it. I hate it when blogger does that. Wah.

I loved Sham Pearls. Some great thoughts in there, especially about the Bible being a book about REAL (G rated, PG rated, X rated, etc) people...gritty, raw, REAL.

It is the strangest thing. We, who follow a Christ who became flesh and blood and called it good, do our ever lovin' best to stay AWAY from that messy flesh and blood. We divide up heaven and earth, at the very same time reverencing a prayer that says, "On earth as it is in heaven." We take the Lord's Supper, intended to showcase the joining of Deity and skin, and turn it into a ceremony demonstrating the dirty nature of man (I remember being taught to make sure I'd asked forgiveness of all my sins before taking the bread and the cup, else I would be made sick or even killed).

Ack. :) It's all so very simple, but the last thing it is is "easy." I find myself wanting to complicate it at every turn.