The Usual Revolution

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Review: The Virtue of Dialogue by Christopher Smith

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Our Christianity is broken. We try frantically to hide this like a boy who broke a window with a baseball while his parents were out. We shuffle in front of prying eyes, a smile cresting our guilty faces and our hands behind our backs, white-knuckled around the scuffed white leather and fraying laces of the offending object. It doesn’t much matter that the broken glass glints up from the lawn; we spread our smile as much as we can and hope that everything seems as normal as ever.

Almost every one of us is a degree or less away from a local church that has suffered from a split of some kind. The church I grew up in saw a number of members leave when I was young because their Calvinism differed from the theology of the head pastor. Friends of mine recount when their childhood church broke because the youth minister was fired over a conflict. Or it was the worship pastor, or the assistant pastor, or the children’s pastor, or because the church decided to switch meeting times, or decided to stop serving coffee in the mornings.

Perhaps I made a few of those reasons up, but I do know I would leave a church if it went coffee-dry.

Joking. Maybe I wouldn’t.

Whatever the inane reason is that we leave our church communities, it certainly happens all the time. In fact, threatening a split seems to be how individuals in a community now tend to voice their dissent. If I had a penny for every time I head something along the lines of “If they do this, I’m done. Gone,” or “The Whoevers are pretty upset with the way Pastor So-and-So is taking the church. They’re talking about leaving,” I could probably buy myself an ice cream cone.

Pennies don’t go very far. But it would be a mighty big ice cream cone.

We, as inheritors of this commercial individualized Christianity that permeates the United States have realized that the most potent power the community has over the leadership in a typical church are our numbers. It is rather disappointing that we would choose any method to exert power over members of our community, especially the threat of a break in relationship. Contemporary Christianity is so focused on numbers, and the money that drips from those numbers, that losing people to another church is terrifying. Pastor’s compare success based on the membership numbers of their churches. A split means, in terms of the Christian subculture, that a pastor is not doing his job as well as he could.

Every time I hear something akin to threats of leaving, I wonder how many more times it has been said from one person to another, be it over the phone or over text or email, then I wonder how many times it has been said amongst the community as a whole, with the hurt and the offending parties there, able to speak and reason together. I doubt ever.

When Chris Smith, in The Virtue of Dialogue, steps into the story of his hurt and fracturing congregation sitting down in a circle to simply talk to each other I feel both very excited and very apprehensive. Churches need this, yes. Talking, fighting, working things out, these are all parts of a healthy relationship. I know this, and yet I still get a shooting fear rising up within me: we can’t do that! People will get mad at each other. They will yell and blame us and leave the church and then we’ll have even less money! It was then that I realized how broken my own Christianity was.

This is where Chris’ new e-book triumphs. Englewood commits to having a regular conversation about issues weighed down with tension, and they carry on through everything rough. He admits that it was not the easiest thing to do at the beginning. The section where he explains some of the reasoning behind this is excellent:

“What would have been a tense conversation anyway was amplified by the deep fragmentation of our recent history. Like so many Western churches, we had nurtured a culture of individualized faith. Thus, when we gathered the individuals of our church community for conversation, they brought with them not only a divergent array of theological, social, and political convictions, but also deep emotional attachment to these convictions. Additionally, we found ourselves part of a broader culture that was rapidly losing the capacity for conversation…”

All of these things and made the conversation quite messy. Chris says that people yelled, walked out, and even left the church. All of the initial fears I had about meeting for dialogue were right there. They all happened to Englewood, and there’s no way it was pleasant to participate in.
Yet they survived. And now they are one of the best examples of intentional Christian community that I know of – at least from what I have seen. Their conversation, as terse as it might have been, caused them to grow closer as the body. This, in turn, enabled them to fully recognise their part within Christ’s mission in their community. In order to get to this point they had to endure a lot of pain formed mostly through volatile arguments and people deciding it was best for them to leave.
This is vital for a church community. It is one of the most powerful steps that we can take towards healing our brokenness, even though it can seem counterproductive. After all, the community is trading a certain social pain for another, more intense and blatant, and it is still risking people walking out the door and never coming back.
However, I think the brokenness that leads to that first type of pain, the brokenness that causes people to threaten to leave when they are just upset, goes a bit deeper than our problem with churches fracturing. The splits we hear about or experience are a symptom of a much larger issue. We, despite all of our talk concerning love and community, really have no idea how to really love or to live intentionally with each other. In The Virtue of Dialogue Chris explains that the Englewood community found themselves finally learning how to really love each other after years of painful conversations, even though such an achievement was not even something they were looking for.
The love and togetherness that are possible within a conversing community can only be found beyond the advent of a certain amount of pain and heartache. Usually these times will see people leave. Yet there is a marked difference between threatening to leave without dialogue and leaving after. There is a healthy state therein that we rarely see within our churches.

Perhaps people leaving following healthy dialogue is a good thing. We should bless them and send them on to a different community they would better serve. It’s not easy, and certainly will not always go smoothly, but with a state of dialogue such as that which Chris explains in this book will encourage better health and more abundant love. If anything, he – and the Englewood community – show us that intentional dialogue is a significant step towards breaking the commercial and individualistic status quo that runs rampant throughout churches. With that, we can step out into vital methods of change within our neighborhood.

Buy The Virtue of Dialogue on Amazon

The Englewood Review of Books

Slow Church

Thanks for reading,

Sam Edgin

Colbert on a Christian Nation.

Colbert on a Christian Nation.

Forgive the obscene use of Papyrus.

An excellent article on Colbert’s comedic development and the impact he is having on our culture can be found by clicking on the above image.

Review: In Earshot of Water: Notes From the Columbia Plateau by Paul Lindholdt

A review of
In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau.
By Paul Lindholdt.

Review by Sam Edgin.

Read an excerpt of this book… ]

IN EARSHOT OF WATER - Paul Lindholdt

I sit here and I type away with my thoughts shifting every now and then towards the steady flow of Indiana’s White River, not four blocks east of where I sit. I fault Paul Lindholdt. His new book, In Earshot of Water: Notes From the Columbia Plateau revels in a constant presence of water, be it fresh, contaminated, frozen, still or flowing. Yet the book it not really about water. It is about conservation, about the last strongholds of American ecology in the Pacific Northwest clinging dearly to the land they have held for centuries in the wake of industry, development, and technology. Sometimes it is even about the way they win. Lindholdt dances softly through his essays, often mirroring his considerations of the natural with events in his own life which bring him close to it. It is a subtly beautiful exploration into the relationship of humanity with ecology, all told in deeply personal prose, as if the reader were sitting beside Lindholdt’s sons for the campfire story times he mentions throughout the book.

In Earshot of Water is an arrangement of fourteen essays that explore the “wild nature” of the rural Pacific Northwest in which Paul Lindholdt lives. They follow each other in no particular order, one commenting on post-industrial clean up of ravaged wetlands and the lax government regulations that allowed such a thing, and the next reflecting on the travels and work on Theodore Winthrop, whose celebrations of the natural landscape he ventured through in the 1800’s were marred by his treatment of the Native Americans who guided him. Lindholdt uses an entire spectrum of approaches to study the struggles of the natural with the human and industrial. Sometimes looking at the wild through the lens of history, and other times through politics, sociology, science, or art. He uses every angle to approach this wilderness he finds so stunningly beautiful, effectively ensuring that most everyone will understand his love, at least in some measurable way.

Lindholdt is an English professor at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. Lindholdt is strongly tied to the histories and futures of the natural areas that fill its pages, and the book jacket does little to hint at the way Lindholdt’s writing will introduce you to himself. These ties allow the reader to meet and get to know the man who is writing about them through the ways in which the paths of his life have crossed with nature. It is the odd jobs he has worked, the deaths he has endured, and the journeys he has had with family and friends that guide the reader through each struggling natural area. We meet his children, ride in the car with his wife, and mourn with his mother and siblings. Friends are the personal subject of some of the essays, and others mainly concern stories told to him by people who were once in his life. Lindholdt lends his heart to these essays, and not only his heart for the wilderness of his Pacific Northwest, but also for the people who have made a significant impact on his life.

That heart that he inserts so liberally into his writing is one of two reasons that make In Earshot of Water a notable read. The other is his prose, clear and approachable without sacrificing a certain descriptive eloquence that has become so difficult to find in most literature. These elements make this a book worth sharing, one that you recommend to your friends and family after the first two chapters.

It is the heart, the emotion that is so palpable throughout the book that gives Lindholdt’s essays their weight. If the reader were not able to so acutely feel as Lindholdt feels as he paddles Puget Sound or waits on a beach, plastic glass of wine in hand, for the green flash as the last rays of the sun vanish, In Earshot of Water would be little more than tiresome ramblings about not wanting to shoot a bear or a nuthatch pecking on the side of the house.  I imagine it would read somewhat like an environmental science textbook spliced together with a personal journal. This emotion is quite potent, enough so that it could make reading this book, which is relatively short at about 146 pages, take longer than expected. I often found myself closing the book and sitting back, dwelling on the impact of what I just read, only to pick the book up again and re-read that section. Lindholdt is truly a wordsmith, and his words convey his emotion excellently.

No part of In Earshot of Water would have the impact that is does without Lindholdt’s prose. His style begins to evoke comparisons to Hemmingway and Thoreau, with his love for nature bleeding through each word, reminiscent of those great wilderness writers. Yet it is never too flowery or overblown. It is, possibly, best to classify it as a descriptive prose. In Earshot of Water is as much an exercise in wordsmithing as it is a discussion of conservation and nature. The episodes and scenes mentioned above spring to live as his words dance before the readers eyes. The book is vibrant, painting pictures with words as colorful and detailed as any photograph.

As he ventures through each essay, occasionally he will drop rhyming couplets into the end of a paragraph, meant to highlight whatever point he happens to be in the middle of making. It is a beautiful way to use the medium. Most places, taking that step would be only distracting and jarring. Here, Lindholdt somehow figures out how to use the distraction of suddenly rhyming sentences to his advantage.

Heaping praise aside, Paul Lindholdt takes his passions – for the wild, for family, for words – and blends them into a book that is a reflection on the beauty that exists within those passions. It is emotional, contemplative, and at its very core a masterful experience in literature. It is worth reading just to see how Lindholdt ties different essays on nature and humanity together by tracing the underlying existence of water in each. It is a book that should be read in dual appreciation, for the nature and humanity that he describes and for the way in which he describes it.

In Earshot of Water:
Notes from the Columbia Plateau
.
Paul Lindholdt.
Paperback: U. of Iowa Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

[This was written for and first appeared here, at the Englewood Review of Books (@ERBks)]

Rand vs. LOTR

I saw this in a comment thread for an article on TIME:

From Wikipedia,

Paul Krugman alluded to an oft-quoted quip in his blog: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Doubtless, it is amusing, but as someone who has never read Ayn Rand I feel like I am unsuited to actually comment well on this issue of the “Randization” of congress. However, we should compare the elements of Rand’s philosophy – especially those concerning the supporting of the upper classes (the “producers”) and marginalization of the lower (the “looters”) – to scripture:

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

-Isaiah 10:1-2

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;

-Isaiah 58:6-8

Humorous quotes from Wikipedia aside, Rand’s philosophies now being espoused in part by congress don’t seem to mirror the idea of scripture. What are we supposed to do with that?

Mark Driscoll, Jay-Z, and Christian Leadership

My first article for Decapolis was just posted. Click through the link and head on over to the site to check it out. Let me know what you think.

Announcing…

In an effort to renew my passion for my photography, I just started up a tumblr on which I hope to post a new photo every day.
It’s pretty exciting and all, so you should probably check it out. Also, you should probably tell all your friends and tell them to tell their friends.
That is, if you like the photos.
Enough babble, here’s the link:
http://smedgephotodaily.tumblr.com

Futbol as a Western

This post on PBH3 made me realize why I’ve so enjoyed watching the World Cup every day since it has started.

You see, you watch 90+ minutes of a soccer match and witness maybe two goals. To those who are accustomed to sports like American football or basketball, this is ridiculously tedious. Who really wants to watch a ball kicked around for an hour and a half without any guarantee of a climax?

But I see it as amazingly beautiful. The way the team works, the complexity of ball trajectories, the constantly building tension, all these work together to make an experience that transcends most other sports. In fact, the futbol match is not entirely unlike a classic western. Take some of the best of Sergio Leone – unrivaled films like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West (my personal favorite), films which thrived on broad, sweeping vistas interspersed with frenetic action at the very climax of tensions. These made their mark on the film industry as the leaders of a now-almost-dead genre, and they are still dearly loved.

I adore movies like those, as boring as they may seem at times, and I similarly adore each match of this World Cup in South Africa. The beauty is not in the accumulation of points, but the effort it takes to get there and the tension built therein.

I like that I finally understand.