Book Review: Travelling Mercies

I was originally drawn to reading something by Anne Lamott after seeing potent quotes from her referenced in other works. Things like:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

So while I was in Boston for work a few months ago, I saw her memoir Travelling Mercies for only $2 at a really fine used bookstore just off of Harvard. Now, Lamott is like no one I had ever read before: A liberal, dread-lock wearing feminist activist. I’d spent most of my life growing up in the company of conservatives who wouldn’t touch an author like this with a ten-foot pole. So here is the part where I say my eyes were opened and I gained fascinating insight into a different perspective on faith… Except that I can’t say that. Actually, I wasn’t all that impressed. Lamott is a funny and ironic writer and some of her stories from the book were enjoyable to read. I think she clearly has a handle on the fundamentals of who Jesus is and the nature of grace. Nevertheless, I tired of her frequent detailed descriptions of how bad her drinking problem was before she found Jesus. I don’t think I need to write anymore about it since this one reviewer on Amazon described it very accurately:

About midway through the book, Lamott reads a review of a lecture of hers that described her as “narcissistic”, and that, I think, hits the nail pretty much on the head. It’s not that one cannot find inspiration here, or humor, or compassion; the main difficulty in Traveling Mercies is that the essays are so consistently self-absorbed as to miss many of the lessons she could have learned were she able to get beyond herself even a little bit. So we have her chalking up as a minor miracle her being able to play the `bon vivant’ with a fellow air-traveler who happens to be of a religious and political persuasion at which she would normally have sneered; it never seems to occur to her, however, that were the shoe on the other foot (as in: “I actually talked to a feminist today, and even though she’s spreading Satan’s lies, she really wasn’t all that bad!”), the essay would have read as intolerably patronizing.

Anyway, the next book like this that comes along will need to be a little more highly recommended. There is so much to read and so little time!

Prerequisites to discussion

One thing that I loved about N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God is how carefully he goes about the discussion, especially when it comes to the language he uses. Before he dives into 600 pages of history, he spends a whole chapter defining some of the words words that we use frequently. This excerpt on “history” was enourmously helpful to me. (I’ve condensed several pages into one paragraph, so this is just a quick summary):

“History” can be used to describe several different things or ideas:

First, history as an event (any old event).
Second, there is history as a particularly significant event.
Third, there is history as provable event.
Fourth, and quite different from the previous three, there is history as writing-about-events-in-the-past.
Fifth, and finally, a combination of 3 and 4: history as what modern historians can say about a topic.

Confusion between these senses has of course bedeviled this very debate about the so-called ‘historical Jesus’, the phrase being used by some to mean Jesus as he actually was (sense 1), by others to mean what was significant about Jesus (sense 2), by others to mean that which we can prove (with a lot of documentation) about Jesus, as opposed to that which we must either doubt or take on faith alone (sense 3); by others again to mean what people have written about Jesus (sense 4). Those who have take the phrase in sense 5 have often rejected the Jesus not only of that sense but, apparently, of the previous four as well.

The pseudo-gnostic historian on NPR last week was mostly interested in history in the 5th sense.

Taking the explanation seriously

…the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself.” (That is, that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.)

-C.F.D. Moule

This weekend (it was Easter weekend), Terry Gross on NPR interviewed a Jesus scholar. Of course he went on an on about how the resurrection didn’t actually happen, but was the hope of the early apostles “projected” on reality. Kind of a modified gnostic view. He emphasized how he didn’t like non-Christians making the question of the resurrection a dichotomy of actual vs. metaphorical. He preferred literal vs. metaphorical. See, it really did actually happen (metaphorically).

Geesh. Were do they dig these people up? There is a significant list of brilliant Christian historians and scholars who actually have an orthodox view of the resurrection, and with many good reasons behind it. But no, we can’t possibly give them air time. Only whack-jobs allowed.

I was griping about this out-loud on my way to the grocery store and my daughter pipes up in the back:

“Daddy, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, I don’t like the guy on the radio.”

“Oh. OK. Daddy, can we get a cookie?”

You could fill a lot of books…

You could fill a book – a lot of books – with things Dad doesn’t know. And they have!
-Remy, Ratatouille

Well, I’ve been plowing through all my notes on N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. It reminds me again of how minuscule my own biblical and historical scholarship really is. I’d grown up going to church and reading the bible every day (or at least most days). I’ve read through the whole thing several times and certain sections of it (like much of John) more than I can count. I’d heard lots of sermons on Jesus and the resurrection. I’d even heard some teaching that tried to fill out the picture with some “outside” material like writings from Josephus. I guess I always had been taught or imagined this great BIBLE from 2000 years ago… and then not much else was written worth reading until the reformers came along.

Grinding through Bishop Wright’s tome was like growing up in the backwoods and reading all the books in our tiny public library and then being thrown into the atrium of the Library of Congress. Wright fills out the context of Jesus’ ministry and the early church’s understanding of him by meticulously pouring through many period writings, including:

The Apostolic Fathers
1 Clement
2 Clement
Ignatius of Antioch
Polycarp: Letter and Martyrdom
The Didache
The Shepherd of Hermas
The Epistle to Diognetus

Early Christian Apocrypha
The Ascension of Isaiah
The Apocalypse of Peter
5 Ezra
The Epistula Apostolorum

The Apologists
Justin Martyr
Minucius Felix

The Great Early Theologians

Early Syriac Christianity
The Odes of Solomon
The Acts of Thomas

Gnostic Stuff
The Gospel of Thomas
Epistle to Rheginos
Gosple of Philip
Other Nag Hammadi Treatises
Gospel of the Saviour

I am sad to admit that the only one of these author’s or writings that I had even heard of was Polycarp. Wow. And after all that, the core narrative in the Bible is still the same. I think it has even more meaning having read the testaments of those early Christians who clung to it, just as we do. They may have had understood it differently than we do now (some more than others), but we worship the same risen savior!

Ambition and Church Leadership

I must admit, I’ve always been somewhat perplexed about church leadership. That is, there are lots of different kinds of pastors. Some stand out as the “cool” people in the community. They were the visible movers and shakers ever since junior high. At other times, the pastor can seem like the dorkiest person in the room, and I’m not just talking about generational differences. Others are scholarly and couple (or overshadow) their pastoral ministry with brilliant teaching or writing careers. I’ve seen some very incompetent people suddenly feel “called” to jet off to seminary. Everyone around them shakes their heads.

Being a pastor in America (I don’t know about the rest of the world) seems like this odd paradox of being in an important position of influence and also making next to nothing in terms of wealth. I’ve known many pastors that have honesty worked very hard for their flock but also had to work side jobs (driving school bus, cleaning offices, keeping rentals, etc.) just to keep their family afloat. What is up with all of this? Is being a pastor something do be desired, or does it largely suck? What actually motivates people? I’m confused.

A recent post by CPA offers (I think) some really keen insight into all of this. (emphasis is mine):

So what accounts for the similarity between the “alpha male” ethos of a conference of Southern Baptist pastors and that of a high-powered law firm?

I would say, both are outlets for the ambitious of their community. This is, frankly, the weirdest part of being an adult convert to the evangelical community: realizing that all over the land, many driven, competitive, ambitious kids grow thinking the way to respect and power is to become . . . . a Baptist (or other evangelical) pastor. (But understanding this is useful for understanding, for example, the position of lamas in traditional Tibet, or mullas in the Islamic world.)

For those in the [mostly liberal] mainline world, the idea that religion would be an outlet for ambition, competition, and drive is just bizarre. In the mainline world, those who are driven, ambitious, and competitive go into law, business, or politics. In that world, religion as a career is, almost by definition, the province of the shy, the self-doubters, the bookish, and nerdy. And that is true whether the career cleric is male or female.

In the evangelical church, the pastor is preaching down at his sheep, for whom he is the leader of their social universe. The pastor’s role is as a leader, a commander. And the ambitious boys in that world want to be the pastor, because that is leadership.

In the mainline church, the minister is preaching across, or even up, at parishioners for whom he or she is at best only one voice among many. The minister is an adviser, or a therapist, or counselor, offering words of counsel to the leaders and led of society. And the office attracts those who don’t want to be leaders, but instead stand apart from leadership. The jocks go on to earn big money and make big decisions; the shy and bookish go into the ministry to warn them every Sunday of the dangers of ambition.


Is there actually a beer worth drinking? The jury is still out on that, but the only real candidate is Guinness.

Guy Kawasaki visits the very neat Guinness brewery, the most popular tourist attraction in Dublin.

Church Relevance

A friend of mine, a young pastor who recently started a church, talks to me from time to time about the new face of church in America-about the postmodern church. He says the new church will be different from the old one, that we will be relevant to culture and the human struggle. I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing.

– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, P. 111

The resurrection power of Christ healing the brokenness in people’s lives will always be relevant to all descendants of Adam on this earth. Cool web pages and trendy music are a medium of communication, just like books or a street sign.

Have you seen people passionate about their street sign? Probably not. That would be silly right? Books. Yes. Music, definitely. Be passionate about the gospel.