Archive for November, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

I got my first taste of history in the 1950s. The Great American Narrative was well established. Firmly set. Elementary school texts told the story. Our nemesis, Russia, was a dark place where citizens dutifully reported their comrades for the slightest infraction. Freedoms of speech, religion and the press were non-existent over there on the other side of the world. Dank prison cells were the destiny of those who dared criticize their totalitarian government. Our great American heroes fought for our liberty, and wrote the texts we memorized. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” George Washington never lied. Thomas Jefferson authored that Declaration. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

It would be later that I would grasp the concept of legend. We embellish our stories. Our heroes become, as a matter of course, larger than life. We don’t think of them as saints, but almost. It is the role of higher education to find history in the myths. Historians base their expositions on hard data. Some would rather that the mythologies remain in place, unchallenged. Scholars frequently deal with the angry charge of idol smashing. When a biographer strays from the generally accepted version of a popular story, some will call it heresy. If the facts contradict the folklore, a scholar risks ridicule or worse, censure. Some of us prefer the bronze image to the flesh and blood human being that occupied real time and space. We would rather have Thomas Jefferson the architect of freedom of religion than Thomas Jefferson the slave-owner. We like our legends to be tidy.

So I learned all about George Washington crossing the Delaware and Thomas Jefferson’s feather pen and John Hamilton’s oversized signature but not much about the second President of the United States. I knew his name; and confused it with the sixth President with the odd middle name of Quincy*. But it took David McCullough’s “John Adams” to transport me back to a period in American history I thought was familiar. McCullough spent years pouring through the letters of Mr. and Mrs. Adams, a Massachusetts couple who would leave their indelible mark on the best of American history.

McCullough’s book is more than a story of a great American hero; it is the story of a great American marriage. John and Abigail Adams were both raised on the classics. They studied language and literature and poetry and philosophy and science. From the beginning, they wrote long letters. Their elevated prose, their cherished original phrasing and their passionate precision filled pages with perceptive recollection and keen observation. The letters are rich. They left behind a treasure of insight, informative and fascinating and entertaining, prized even more now, two hundred years after they were written. But most compelling is their devotion to one another. Their engagement continued throughout their life. John’s considerable contribution to the birth of a nation can not be understood apart from Abigail’s perspective; her conscience, her tenacity, her discernment, her wisdom. Their collaboration moved the Congress and the people toward not just independence, but liberty.

I was not aware of Adams’ rise to national prominence, from Boston to Philadelphia. It was a combination of vision and verbal acuity that informed his oratory, tempered by Abigail’s sagacity. He fully engaged the debate on the floor of that Philadelphia conference. He answered the Federalists. He demanded a declaration. He recruited Jefferson to write. He articulated the essence of that great document. He and Benjamin Franklin edited Jefferson’s draft. He had no care for credit. Only outcomes. He negotiated the necessary alliance with the Louis XVI in Paris by Franklin’s side. (Adams despised the excesses of the French, and Franklin’s feckless accommodation.) Adams, Franklin and Jefferson collaborated together in Paris, engineering the constitution of the newly independent colonies. And when the Americans won their freedom, John Adams would be the first to have audience with the defeated His Majesty King George, after a costly war, mending the relationship of the two nations as first ambassador to Great Britain.

So I listened to the McCullough’s audio book while traveling up and down the state. A good book is spiritual food; a sheer delight. The miles pass with purpose. And then I learned that Tom Hanks made the book into a series, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. The two exceptional actors breathe life into the characters, animating the story; living up to the standard set by McCullough’s prose.

Why don’t we write long letters anymore? It is our loss.

And maybe history’s loss, too.

Copyright 2010 Kenneth E. Kemp

* John Quincy Adams was John and Abigail’s son. Also, thank you Mary Strauss. I made the correction… Washington indeed crossed the Delaware… not the Potomac (well, maybe when he went to visit Arlington).

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The Prodigal

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jesus had a knack for fiction.  The Prodigal was no more an historical character than The Good Samaritan, or the frantic woman on the hunt for a lost coin, or the gentle shepherd who left the ninety and nine of his flock of a hundred to fend for themselves while he chased over the ridge after a single wanderer.  None of Jesus’ subjects existed in time or space.  They are, on one level, imaginary; but on another, real.  It has been said that we remember fictional characters more clearly than the men and women who populate our history books.  Good fictional characters make deep and lasting impressions on our hearts and in our minds.  Jesus understood this.

Carl Jung had a clue to the reason why.  Robust fictional characters become, as he called them, archetypes.  They represent something far greater than themselves; they are psychologically, intellectually, existentially, spiritually compelling.  The storyteller is not bound by the scrutiny of historical accuracy.  The careful historian must base the narrative on the existing record.  He or she reconstructs the moment as precisely as possible, eliminating any hint of bias.   The storyteller, on the other hand, lives with none of these constraints.  Fictional characters exist for one purpose only: the story.  Their creator is free to create.  The canvas is blank.  No one ever told Charles Dickens that he got Scrooge wrong.  No one ever complained that there never was a George Bailey of Bedford Falls.  The characters come alive; though they never were.  What we do with these allusions of literature or cinema is entirely up to us.  The interpretation, the application, the identification then, is solely in the mind of the beholder.

So fiction is more like a painting than a photograph.  Storytelling is an art form.  Jesus told stories that live to this very day.  We call them Parables.

They taught me the story of the Prodigal on flannel-graph back when I was a child.  Those teachers took on the assignment to teach us youngsters the things we would not be learning in our public schools.  They taught us the Bible from a cloth-covered board on a three-legged stand with colorful cutouts illustrating the story of the week.  They would move the pieces here and there as the drama unfolded.  It was state-of-the-art story telling, pre-video.  I don’t think I understood anything about wealth transfer or riotous living, but I got the gist of it.  Rebellion happens.  Sometimes, there is conflict between parents and children.  Fathers are sad when their kid walks out, and happy when they come home.  I got that.  But there is far more.

This year, I read Timothy Keller’s Prodigal God along with a collection of guys who meet every other week in the conference room of a law firm.  The whole book centers on this one short story of Jesus found in only one of the four Gospels.  (We’ve come a long way since flannel-graph.)  Keller suggests that the popular title of the story, “The Prodigal Son,” may not be the best name for it (the title of the story is not in the text).  The New York City Presbyterian proposes that Prodigal God is more to the point.  What is so stunning about Jesus’ story is not that the younger brother took the money and ran off to sin city and burned the cash up in record time.  What is astonishing is the father’s patient waiting and then irrepressible celebration at the return of the reprobate.  That is breathtaking.

As Keller points out, the poignant story did not bring the religious establishment to tears of remorse.  It did not prompt them to alter their view of tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners, welcoming them to the fold.  It infuriated them.  They were insulted.  They wanted revenge.  Ultimately, they took it.

“Prodigal” refers to lavish, extravagant, and reckless, as in prodigious.  We tend to focus on the reckless disregard of the son as he thoughtlessly pours his portion of the father’s hard earned wealth down the proverbial septic drain.  Keller suggests that we ought to focus instead on the father’s lavish, extravagant, reckless, prodigious mercy as he wraps his loving arms around the errant boy and calls for an audacious party.

Of course, many of us religious types look on the whole thing, as did the boy’s older brother, with contempt and bitter disdain.  And for Keller, it was easy to fill up a whole book on the larger point Jesus is trying to make: this God we’re talking about is The Prodigal God.  He stands ready with lavish, extravagant, even scandalous grace.

I went into this last week with the study of the parable on my to-do list.  It was scheduled weeks ago.  When I put it on the calendar back then, I did not know we would be living the story out.  A very good friend of mine had a prodigal of his own come home this week.  I watched him respond.  I shared his tears.  He is becoming a real life prodigal dad; like the father in Rembrandt’s immortal painting; like the tender father in Jesus’ parable – the one I first learned about from a flannel-graph board.

Fiction touches down in time and space.

I was there.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010


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Monday, November 8, 2010

You can imagine my enthusiasms back last year, March of 2009 to be precise, when I read the essay on the last page of Christianity Today.

One of my all time favorite authors, Philip Yancey, wrote a piece called “The Dream that Won’t Die” in which he highlights a visit to Hyderabad and a meeting with Dr. Joseph D’souza.  He spoke of the Dalit problem in India.  Nearly one quarter of the 1.3 billion of the nation’s population suffers a shameless racial discrimination rooted in more than three thousand years of religious tradition: the Hindu caste system.  While casteism (as some call it) was declared illegal in 1948 under the first Constitution adopted by the new independent state, the law has not been taken seriously.  It remains unenforced in most states.  Yancey went on with enthusiasm to describe the proliferation of English speaking schools for Dalit children that are a direct and frontal challenge to the curse of untouchability.  Yancey documented the transformation, from hopelessness to expectancy.  From surrender to a full on blitz toward smashing the glass ceiling.  Many are breaking through.

I read that article last year shortly after returning from Hyderbad myself.  I sat in that same room with Dr. D’souza.  Matthew Cork and I launched our book project.  I embarked on what would become a ten month immersion into the whole movement: reading books, communicating regularly with my new friends in India, interviewing countless participants, visiting folks who shared the vision and mostly writing.  Certainly Yancey would want to talk.

So I wrote a LeaderFOCUS-length letter.  I told the author how I admired his work.  Yancey’s a thoughtful Christian writer.  He asks the big questions.  He shuns the cliché ridden, predictable words and phrases that fill too many so-called Christian books.  (I don’t know if so many “Christian” writers think they need to speak a familiar Christianese to secure their audience or if they are just lazy.  Not Yancey.  He is neither insecure nor lazy.)   He reads widely.  He interacts with the classics.  He ponders cinema and theater.  He is a serious student and keen observer of social, cultural and political trends.  He avoids labels; as he himself is difficult to label.  He is deeply theological, but not polemic, as though he believes he knows better than the rest of us and needs to prove it.   He assumes his readers are thinking along with him.  He respects us.  He trusts us with his innermost reflections.  He takes risks.  This is the kind of stuff I told him in my email letter; and then I made a modest proposal.

Since we share a passion for the transformation of Dalits in India and we admire the same champions who are in country leading the charge, I would do just about anything to get a few hours face to face, I told Philip Yancey.  I’ll pay the freight.  If it means purchasing a plane ticket, so be it.  I’ll go anywhere.  Anytime.  At your convenience, I added, leaving no room for ambiguity.

Then I hit “send.”

It took several months, but a reply finally came.   I understand that Yancey has sold some fourteen million books.  I am one of countless fans.  When he sits down in isolation and writes as I so often do, he knows there will be tens of thousands of readers who will eventually track his line of thought.  He may be sitting alone in a room with his keyboard and monitor recording the tapping of the keys, but he isn’t really.  His readers are right there along with him.  His books are a conversation. So I suspected that my modest proposal has been made countless times by other wannabes who long to connect with a hero, hoping some of that mojo will rub off.

Well, the note ultimately came.  From Yancey himself.  I opened the email with enthusiasm, wondering as I clicked the mouse if my next stop on the browser would be cheaptickets.com; perhaps a round trip to Denver.  I read the text…

“I don’t meet with writers anymore,” it said.  That was about it.  I exhaled.  My shoulders drooped.  I leaned back in my chair.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older.  Maybe I’m just naïve.  Maybe it’s that Dale Carnegie book I read back in Bible school – with a little Norman Vincent Peale and Crystal Cathedral thrown in.  Or maybe it was Life of Brian… “always look on the bright side of life…”

But I’m not giving up.

On October 20 this year, I got a second personal note from Yancey.  Here’s the opening line (verbatim):  “If this is an irritation for you, and DOUBLY sorry if you get more than one of these…  My publisher talked me into forwarding it to folks who have written me.  I promise you that you are not on anybody’s marketing list; I just pulled these from my personal address book.” So, it appears as though I’m still on his list; his personal address book even.  The potentially irritating email was a not-so-subtle announcement of his most recent book, What Good Is God? Truth be told, I was not annoyed.

So within minutes I had my free sample downloaded on my digital reader.  It didn’t take long.  (I love that thing.)  Just a few pages, and I’m hooked.  Religion is taking a beating out there in the marketplace of ideas these days.  Check out the new raft of books by atheists, former evangelicals, burned out millenials, fed-up scientists, weary educators and general cynics.  If you prefer video, browse around YouTube.  Yancey enters the fray.  “What good is God?”  I’m half way through now; can’t put it down.  India, the Dalits and D’souza get a high profile.  When we met again with Dr. D’souza back in that same room last month, he told us about his personal note from Philip Yancey.  They are now fast friends.

So, I haven’t let it go.  Yancey and me… on some cedar deck up in the Rockies taking in the crisp mountain air, glittering aspens, a bubbling creek and the jagged peaks over there on the horizon against a deep blue cloudless sky.  Talk of books, the lonely and exhilarating and painstaking process of word crafting and the liberation of untouchables.

Maybe it’s “The Dream that Won’t Die.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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