Friday, March 14, 2008

Of Obama and Pastors and Grace

I haven't been cross-posting anything I write for Donklephant. But I feel strongly about this topic and wanted to put my words up here as well. The original post is here and I ask, if you feel like linking to this piece, please link to the Donklephant version. Thanks and here's the post:

As we’ve already covered, Barack Obama has condemned the controversial words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But what now – particularly what now for those of us who aren’t Obama supporters?

My feeling is those who want to use this as a political bludgeon will continue to do so, regardless of what Obama or anyone else says. There is a profound difference between matters of the spirit and matters of the state, but we’ve so often and so purposefully intertwined the two that few can even grasp the difference between a pastor and a political advisor (and that goes for some pastors themselves).

Theology is not my forte, but I know this much: there is no easy reconciliation between the eternal spirit and the transient body. And there is nothing more temporary or less divine than politics. Pastors often wrestle with how our faith should influence our choices as citizens. There is nothing wrong with that. But when they start adulterating theology to achieve political ends, they move themselves and their congregations away from the divine and into the corrupting world of the physical. For some pastors, the move away from the divine is momentary, a sermon here, an off-hand remark there. For others, it defines their entire religious career.

Christians often talk of grace. The concept is both simple and theologically complex. But I think an apt definition for grace is the complete absence of politics, not just of governmental politics but of all the worldly power struggles that so define our lives. Grace is seeing another human not for how they may benefit us or harm us but for their eternal selves, for their equal and equally divine presence in the Body of Christ. From grace comes love as well as compassion, mercy and forgiveness. But there is often very little grace when we twist ourselves up in the political.

Rev. Wright exhibited gracelessness when he said we should sing “god damn America” and when he blamed 9/11 on America’s perceived imperialistic sins. But we should not further that act of gracelessness by continuing to tar Obama with the pastor’s words. The Senator has unequivocally condemned them and has gone so far as to say, spiritually, he believes in universal compassion and he believes that’s what his church teaches.

Religion is attacked often in this country, and people are even attacked for suggesting religion is attacked. But those who attack religion often get it wrong. It’s not religion that’s to blame for intolerance and sins of pride. It’s the politicization of religion that’s to blame. Politics corrupts. But I would like, for once, not to play politics with a man’s faith. Let’s judge Obama for his policies, for his plans for this nation, for his leadership experience or lack thereof. Let’s take his condemnation of his former pastor’s words at face value and move on. If we who lean to the right can’t do that for a religious liberal how do we ever expect those on the left to do it for us and our religion?

Labels: , ,

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Last fall, amidst the kind of “well, what now” crisis of self us 33-year olds are good at, I decided to stop being so damn practical about my career as a writer and just embrace my fiction writing whole heartedly. Being of the cohort who gets degrees, I applied for MFA writing programs.

After polishing my best short stories, writing different personal essays for each school, taking the GRE and begging for recommendations from some of the kindest people in the world, I am now waiting. One rejection tumbled in a week ago, needlessly long and polite. I’d be happy with a 3x3 card with a big YES or a big NO. You’d think a writing program would keep to the old axiom that brevity is at the foundation of quality writing. Leave the long-winded, soft letdowns for professionals who don’t spend 95% of their careers opening rejection letters.

Four more schools have not yet responded. One is the Big Daddy school whose acceptance of me would be both profoundly surprising and fabulously validating. The others are more likely shots, drawing to the flush rather than the inside straight. Any school would be nice. No school would be disappointing but writing ain’t medicine, they still let you do it even without a degree.

It’s the waiting that makes it painful. I’m good in a chase, quick, resourceful, tenacious to the point of being infuriating. I’m pretty good with results too, appropriately humble or stoic depending on the outcome. But I suck at waiting. I fidget, I obsess, I drink, I write blog posts that are neither interesting nor brief. I grew a goatee that revealed my scraggly Irish heritage in full, patchy glory. I shaved it. Now I’m considering abusing the concept of sideburns.

Soon I’ll know what the Great University Readers have decided and I can go on, make plans, stop leaping to my feet the moment the mail smacks into the box. I hope for the best, I expect something less. But I just want to know. I hate living in the in betweens when you can neither prepare nor recover.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mary Ann Meets Mary Jane

This story required me to write that headline before I saw anyone else pounce on the obvious. Maverick Views has really turned into a quality blog, hasn't it?

Hopefully you're reading my daily contributions at Donklephant. They're a little less leafy.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 07, 2008

You Know the Wild Years are Forever Gone When...

You've spent your evening feeding, bathing and tucking in the children and then relax to an episode of Myth Busters. And it's Friday night. And you didn't even realize it was Friday night until about 10:30. And then you blog about it...

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Snake Oil

I love it when science wins.

Labels: ,

Political Slogans, Clinton's Chances, NAFTA's Success, Texas' Absence

Here are my most recent political posts up at Donklephant:

On the debasement of language in politics here.

On Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning here.

On Texas and protectionism here.

On how the primary campaign ignored most Texas-specific issues here.

Labels: , , , ,

Then We Came to What Exactly?

I have high expectations for fiction. I want stories that are exceptionally well written, offering up a unique way with words as subtle and gripping as the performances of the best musicians. I want deep characters who propel plot and are not merely propelled by the plot. And I want a story that is compelling to read, that is not bleak for the sake of bleakness, clever for the sake of cleverness or so self-possessed as to be terminally boring.

That said, my tastes aren’t particularly divergent from the usual cohort of reviewers and awards panels. I usually like most well-reviewed and/or award-winning books and, if I don’t, I at least understand what other people saw in them. But I am at a loss to explain the acclaim received by Joshua Ferris’ novel Then We Came to the End.

The trick of this workplace novel is that it’s told in first person plural. The use of “we” is apparently designed to make us feel part of this group of characters but it generally made me feel as if the novel had no center, no one character or characters for whom I was inclined to root. Instead, we get a whole novel featuring secondary characters, almost all of whom are petty, annoying, paranoid, frightened little people devoid of anything but the most transient of heroic or even noble characteristics. They are “real” in the sense that they are believable but they are not compelling.

Normally I’d lay a book like this down after 100 pages, but the novel’s acclaimed status as well as the thought that “certainly these characters will redeem themselves” kept me reading. I wanted to find out what became of these people but, at the end, I was disappointed with how little anyone had changed despite the histrionics throughout the novel. I suppose that’s how things are in the real world – slight shifts, small turns – but I expect more oomph from a story. I expect more consequence.

The writing itself is decent with some excellent turns of phrase, some keen observations and some nicely funny moments (although it’s not nearly humorous as reviews would have you believe). But for the most part the writing is flat with all the economy of a Hemmingway but little of the poignancy. The first twenty pages are so devoid of style that I’m guessing Ferris had the good fortune of never having to get this piece by a first reader. If I think “I write better than that,” there’s clearly a problem. My usual reaction to a good book is “I’ll never be that good.”

As for the plot, it’s about an ad agency that’s going under in 2001 and how the tide of layoffs is affecting the staff (the “we”). Maybe to all the reviewers who’ve spent very little of their life in an office, this was a revelation, a peek into the pathetic yet strangely vibrant lives of office drones. To me, it was mundane – even the parts that dealt with life and death seemed somewhat ordinary. I desperately wanted to be moved by these people and their circumstance but I just couldn’t bring myself to truly care. A plot driven by the need not to get fired (or not to stop working) is a weak basis for a story. Our lives have far more dramatic moments, which is why the office novel is a less-than-vital literary subset.

If the novel had received little notice, I probably would have enjoyed it as a nice diversion, some fun little stories about some odd little people. But with acclaim comes greater critique and I can’t say this was a noteworthy work of fiction. Good, sure. Great, not so much.

Labels: , ,

Monday, March 03, 2008

Lovin' this Country

This weekend I went to a wedding reception where the groom was Hindu and the bride was Muslim (the happy couple are both American born, their parents are immigrants). Why was I there? The groom’s sister married my brother (Anglo Christian) four years ago. For more cross-religious romance, I can look to my wife’s side where her Roman Catholic uncle married a Jewish woman (he later converted).

I don’t have to say all of this happened in America. You know it happened in America because where else does this happen regularly and with no fanfare? Not only do these kinds of marriages occur every weekend, they occur without so much as the thought they might lead to violence. Sure, not every family is as warmly welcoming as those involved in my ever-growing list of relations, but our culture supports this blending of peoples and traditions like no other. Being American is not about ethnicity or religion or country of birth -- it's a moral and intellectual ideal to which anyone can subscribe.

At our best, we are a wonderful people with a magnanimous culture. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t take grand events to make us proud of who we are and where we live. Sometimes, just a few cocktails with new relations is enough to make you thankful to be American.

Labels: , ,