Monday, July 27, 2015

Why It's Really All About Scout: On Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchmen

In the hubbub of conversation at the publication of Harper Lee's novel, Go Set a Watchman, a majority of the attention has been on Harper Lee's authorial intentions--did she want the book published or not? Any other attention seems to have been or the racism of Atticus Finch--how could he possibly be one?!

Personally, I think these are not the primary questions, and certainly not the most interesting focus. But I'll return to that in a bit, because first, I need to make a confession.

Here's the confession. I did not read To Kill a Mockingbird in my youth. It was not assigned in any literature class I can remember. As a college English major and a reader of novels, I have always been slightly embarrassed by this lacunae in my reading history. 

So mid-July, on a long family road trip from Northwest Arkansas through Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi, I listened to Lee's first novel, read by Sissy Spacek.  The novel is a revelation. It is by turns perfect, haunting, devastating, and truer than true. I don't know how I would receive it as a reader now if this were my second time reading it, the first time reading it as a youth, but I do know as an adult reader of fiction, it immediately jumped into that baker's dozen of the best novels I've ever read, alongside Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and ???

As soon as I finished reading TKaM, I started in on Go Set a Watchmen. One immediately notices that some of the novel does read like a first draft of TKaM. The [Aunt Alexandria] is identical in both novels. Some summary retrospectives are the same. And so on.

But the most noticeable aspect of this novel, from my perspective, is one seldom remarked on at least in the early reviews of the book.

Here's the thing: Both books are all about Scout!

Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is the protagonist and narrator of both novels (although periodically GSaW shifts to limited omniscient). The center of the books, both of them, is Scout's emotional and intellectual response to the world she lives in. In the first novel, everything we know about Atticus Finch, our opinion of him as a father and as a lawyer, our sense of his culture and intellect, is colored by Scout's youth. Scout is in the process of growing up, and her world forces it on her more quickly than many, but nevertheless, we do not get Atticus in total, from his own perspective, we only get Atticus described by way of his daughter.

I don't know why so much of the commentary on GSaW focuses on Atticus. Perhaps pop culture is always more interested in the flat complexity of men than the complex complexity of women. Quite a bit of cultural analysis would likely bear this out, including examples like the Bechdel Test, which shows how infrequently popular movies include two women who speak to each other. 

One could make a rather compelling argument, I believe, that both of Harper Lee's novels are much more about women than they are about race, or if they are about race, they are novels about the female experience of race in particular. Scout, for example, is a perfect narrator to inhabit the middle ground of racial tensions in the novels. She is a tomboy of sorts, continually maladjusted to the societal norms for white southern women. In TKaM, she is allowed space, at least for a time, to exercise her eccentric ways, but only because she is still a child. Over the course of the novel, gender norms are increasingly foisted on her.

And although TKaM includes incredibly winsome and compelling male characters, such as Boo the heroic recluse, summer friend Dill (inspired by Harper Lee's friend and neighbor Truman Capote), and of course Scout's adventuresome brother Jem, ultimately the most complex and challenging characters are the women: Calpurnia, the Finch's African-American servant, surrogate mother to the children and matriarch in the African-American community; Aunt Alexandra, the morally upright ; and Scout herself.

Scout joins us in our disillusionment. If we are disillusioned in this new novel at the revelation that Atticus has bought into racist propaganda, it is only because Scout herself is disillusioned. In a crucial scene, Scout sneaks into the county courthouse on a Sunday afternoon and observes her father and potential fiancee seated on both sides of a speaker spouting vile racist rhetoric. She can't believe her eyes or her ears.

This is when this second novel really does "pop" as a sequel to TKaM. No one can ever forget, having read it, the dramatic court scene in TKaM. There also, Scout sneaks into the courtroom, in that first novel in order to watch her father defend an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, accused of rape. Scout and her brother sit in the balcony, with the "colored folk," in fact right next to the African-American preacher. 

In this novel, Scout is alone in the balcony, peering over the edge at a roomful of Maycomb's men. Her response to her discovery is visceral. She grips the railings so hard they sweat, and when she finally gets away and to an ice cream shop nearby, she vomits in the courtyard, then goes home and takes to bed sick.

Scout had been raised sideways in a sense, the product of Atticus's chivalrous eccentricities. In the middle of the racist screed spoken in the courthouse, presided over by her father, she remembers a voice from her not so distant past, her father's voice, saying, "Gentleman, if there's one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none."

So, for all of us who grew to love Atticus and his bravery and uprightness in TKaM, this news, that people change, that sometimes people take a turn for the worse rather than the better, feels like a betrayal, even if it is a betrayal by revealing something we already knew. What is violated is not our knowledge of the world, but rather the last shattered innocence of Scout, an ironic innocence born of her worldly journey to New York.

it is as if, for all her sojourning and cosmopolitan experiences in the big city, it is only by coming home to the parochial and local that she finally comes to know the world in all its disappointing capaciousness. Betrayed by her father, by her fiancee, she races to the one last filial connection, Calpurnia, her surrogate mother, and is then and there, in perhaps the most poigant moment of the whole novel, disappointed by her as well.

Calpurnia's own family member has recently killed a pedestrian in an auto-accident. The promising young African-American driver will now have to go before a court, and Atticus promises to defend him, but two things are different. First, he is guilty rather than innocent. Second, he is going to be defended not by the Atticus of Scout's childhood, but the Atticus of the present. 

So Calpurnia, always so open in her affections with the children in TKaM, willing to let them in on the world of the African-American community, is in this scene guarded in the extreme. It's hard to know if she is angry, or despairing, or afraid. For whatever reason, when Scout goes out to Calpurnia's home to visit and hopefully console her, Calpurnia puts on her "company manners." She speaks to Scout as if she were any white Southern woman. Scout cries, "What are you doing to me?" To which Cal replies, "What are you all doing to us?"

In that moment, Scout realizes she is included in the category she had never considered. She is white. Calpurnia treats her not as her child, but as a white woman. It is movement backwards, rather than forwards. It is sad to the point of weeping.

All the promise of TKaM, of which there was a little, a seed, a hint, is killed by the revelation that racism has become in the Maycomb of the 50s not so readily exercised but just for that reason even more vehement. It has escalated, gone underground, viral, ferile. 

Perhaps the reason so much of the conversation around Harper Lee's new novel has focused either on Atticus or Lee is precisely a kind of distraction or misdirection. If we talk about these things, we can avoid the truths that Lee's new novel reveals. If I were to say what those were, I'd say they are two. First, the truth is our culture still doesn't know how to hear the feminist experience of race well. Second, we do not like to imagine that race relations in our nation can move backwards rather than forwards. We are a nation that believes in progress, after all. How dare Harper Lee's new novel illustrate our own backward leanings to us?

Just today I saw the Pew study of racial diversity by religious group, and peering over the edge of the balcony at the results, I feel just about as sick as Scout did at that meeting. My own denomination sits smack at the bottom, less diverse than almost any other group. I can't look at this list and blame others. I'm completely complicit in it. I have primarily served as pastor at churches that look exactly like the demographics cataloged in it. I grew up in one also. If I am sick, it isn't because of a specific betrayal, but because of a communal drift this chart illustrates. 

Like Scout, it has taken me this long to even begin to see how white I actually am, and how unaware I have been of these implications. Like Scout, it means I'm tempted to flee, or go home, as if both those impulses, to run to the house that no longer exists, or abide in a far away I can't create, were the same impulse.

And in the meantime, I find Scout in both novels a worthwhile companion for this particular kind of Anfechtung, and great pleasure and thankfulness in the opportunity to continue to journey with her.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Best 15 Books About Being a Pastor

There are many great books about pastoral ministry. Memoirs and autobiographies are particularly well-suited to this task. I offer this Top 15 list of books for supervisors and interns to consider reading together during the course of the year. All of them are rich in wisdom, grace, and faith.
1) Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr: Notes from Niebuhr's early years as a pastor (1915-1928) in urban Detroit, this book has been formative in the careers of at least two generations of pastors.

2) Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discover, Richard Lischer: Before becoming a professor of homiletics, Lischer was the pastor of a small rural congregation in southern Illinois. Open Secrets details his first three years of ministry, witnessing the joys and challenges that come from transitioning from university to parish life.

3) Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, Heidi Neumark: Neumark spent nearly 20 years serving a Lutheran congregation in the South Bronx, and this book details that incredible journey of faithful ministry in a challenging urban setting.

4) The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor: These are Taylor's early reflections on ministry as an Episcopalian priest, followed by 13 sample sermons from her exemplary career as a literate and thoughtful preacher.

5) Wheat That Springest Green, JF Powers: A humorous novel about the making and remaking of a priest.

6) A Pioneer Churchman, J.W.C. Dietrichson in Wisconsin 1844-1850: I'm probably biased, because this is the founding pastor of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, where I once served, but this travel narrative gives a profound sense of the early immigrant church and the role of the pastor in that context.

7) Under the Unpredictable Planet, Eugene Peterson: Peterson weaves his own story into many of his books, and he has written lots of wonderful books on the pastoral ministry, but this may be the most refreshing, especially for pastors learning to self-differentiate.

8) The Pastor: A Spirituality, Gordon Lathrop: Again, although not strictly a memoir, this book arises out of Lathrop's long wise look at the pastoral ministry from the perspective of liturgy and the catechism.

9) The Country Parson, George Herbert: This is the the classic of the genre, and though it is sometimes difficult and very distant in time and tone, it is worth the time.

10) Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: More a memoir and theological treatise on Christian community than the life of the pastor per se, this book about the underground life of the seminary Bonhoeffer led during the Third Reich is seminal, and worth reading many, many times over.

11) Hannah's Child by Stanley Hauerwas and A Broad Place by Jurgen Moltmann: Two of our greatest living theologians have written wonderful autobiographies, and they help place the work of a a theologian in the context of life in a way that will bear fruit for thoughtful readers who care about theology.

12) The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber: So you are considering being a pastor for the first expedition to a new planet, and pastor to extraterrestrials? This is the book for you.

13) Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry: Ok, this isn't a memoir, it's a novel, and it isn't about a pastor, it's about a barber. But I'm telling you, you might learn more about being a pastor from this book than any other book on the list.

14) Gilead, Marilynne Robinson: This is a novel, but it actually is about a pastor, or more properly, it's letters from an aging pastor to his young son.

15) Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Will Willimon: This is kind of like the comprehensive handbook for pastors, and the accompanying volume, a reader, is worth acquiring and reading together with Willimon's textbook.
I'm sure many pastors would list others (when I was in seminary, a big one was The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz), and I'd love to hear what they are. In the meantime, I imagine anyone can find at least one book on this list that is worth digging into and living with this next year of ministry and study, and I would love to hear what you learn as you do so!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Lutheran Pastor Reads the Pope's Encyclical: On Care for Our Common Home, Part II

Pope Francis lifts up five inter-connected concerns for the care of our common home. Each of these are also concerns shared by Lutherans, so I offer links to resources on each:

1. Biodiversity:
2. Water:
3. Climate:
4. Social decline:
5. Global inequality: Reformation observances three year focus,

He writes, "It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet's population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impress that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage.... this is due partly to the fact that many professional, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development... today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."

Here once again the pope is offering reasoned argumentation bringing the plight of the earth and the plight of the poor together, over against the powers. He is incredibly repetitive about this, because there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. When awareness is lacking, you have to say the same thing over and over again to raise awareness.

Notice also that the pope writes to "all people of good will." He is an excellent communicator in a secular context. He speaks from his own confessional position, to all, without compromising his own commitments or denigrating those who do not share his faith. He holds his faith lightly, openly. He is modeling the new evangelization he has called the church to engage.

In fact, instead of apologizing for writing a "secular" encyclical, he makes the exact opposite apology.
"Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?" 
Pope Francis believes that intense dialogue between science and religion can yield fruitful results. He also believes it is important for him to offer his own faith perspective in the wider context of a conversation for all people of good will, precisely in order to be authentic to who he is, what his faith, within that overall conversation.

If you enter a conversation, you come as yourself. He comes as the pope. So "the gospel of creation" is integral to a wider statement on the care of our common earth, and so it will be that gospel of creation to which we will turn in the next post.

Read the first installment in this series here:

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Lutheran Pastor Reads the Pope's Encyclical: On Care for Our Common Home, Part I

"Many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest" (12-13)
It's hard to write compellingly about Christian faith and the environmental crisis. Christians, who find endlessly interesting things to say about the church, the Trinity, and human being, come up short when analyzing the "book of nature." 


That the pope would author an encyclical on the environment caught at least some prognosticators by surprise, because from their perspective, this is the pope stepping outside his area of expertise. The environment is for scientists to analyze. The pope is to focus on the care of souls.

So the pope's first task in this encyclical is to convince readers that the topic is worth their time, and worth the attention of an encyclical letter. 

He makes this argument well.

First, theologically we are called to consider the environment because "the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since 'the book of nature is indivisible,' and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that 'the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence'" (6, quoting John Paul II).

Second, consideration of the environment has been elevated by many church leaders, not the least of whom are his two predecessors, John Paul and Benedict, but also the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew (who Francis names specifically, anticipating talks in 2020 towards the sharing of full ecclesial communion), and Francis's namesake himself, Saint Francis, perhaps the patron saint of all who care about ecology.
"I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God's creation and for the poor and outcast."
This quote brings up two themes central to Pope Francis's theology. He hopes to connect with non-Christians. He is one of Christianity's greatest living evangelists. His previous apostolic exhortation took as its primary theme the call to evangelization.

Francis's focus on evangelization has as its energizing center care for the poor. This is also illustrated in his encyclical on the care of the earth. Repeatedly, when he mentions concern for God's creation, he immediately then mentions the poor. For Francis, there is an "inseparable bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace." He is especially appreciative of those who "tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world's poorest."

I wish this specific point were more widely publicized in all the press around this encyclical. To my mind, it is the most focused theological locus in the encyclical. Francis cares about climate change because he cares about our common earth, and he cares about our common earth and how we care for it because poor stewardship of the earth harms those who are poor more than another part of the human population.

So why does our interest in the environmental crisis wane? Why are Christians on average less articulate about ecology and faith than many other aspects of faith? In the next section of the encyclical, the pope begins a close consideration of the science of climate change, beginning with an analysis of what he calls "rapidification." We will turn to this in the next installment.