Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert: son of a father, father of a son

What a sad Father's Day this will be for young Luke Russert, who just graduated from Boston College. Father's Day has always played a poor second to Mother's Day in almost every respect: nowhere near the volume of phone calls, cards, or present-buying. The sentiment that surrounds mothers in American culture obscures the surpassing importance of the father in the life of a son. Tim Russert's father, "Big Russ," a sanitation worker and truck driver, was his son's hero. We may be certain that Luke, bereft as he is, will pass on the traits that are being celebrated on television today, none of them more important than the fatherly role that Tim Russert played in the lives of younger colleagues and, especially, the children of colleagues.

A few days ago I cut out a full-page ad for the magazine, Cigar Aficionado, obviously timed for Father's Day. "Compelling journalism for men with refined taste," it says, and then lists its attractions: Drinks, Golf, Watches, Auctions, Gambling, Travel, Cars, Fashion, Resorts, Art, Toys...and, of course, Cigars." It was that "Toys" that really got me. Men just aren't supposed to be grown up. No wonder there is a crisis in boy's education.

I have always been sad that my father never had a son, not because I wanted a brother particularly (my sister is gift enough), but because my father would have been such a wonderful father to a son. Warm, affectionate, wise, nurturing, and always teaching; respected by everyone, a source of advice and help to many; pillar of the church and trusted adviser to its clergy. We didn't celebrate Father's Day or Mother's Day in our family, but if we had, there was not one thing on the Aficionado list that my father would have wanted as a present, except maybe Art--he bought a few humble prints in his day. (Well, he certainly liked Drinks, too, and Travel, but not the kind that Aficionado has in mind.) He had one nice watch, all anyone needs. He liked to receive books and we gave him a lot of books. Most of all he liked to receive and give love to family and friends. It is seriously alarming that our culture gives so little recognition to these defining characteristics of real manhood.

It is this quality of fathering, above all, that we should remember about Tim Russert.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Movie review: a definitive diagnosis of the human problem

We rented In the Valley of Elah and I watched it twice. Partly I wanted to observe the astonishing performance of Tommy Lee Jones as a grief-and-guilt-ravaged military-vet father trying to find his AWOL son, but mostly I wanted to be sure I was right in my impression that it is a powerful depiction of what a war against insurgents does to young men. This movie became known, along with several others treating the same subject, as a movie that no one went to. It is classified as a crime/thriller/police-procedural movie, but it is so very much more than that. I recommend it highly.

The screenwriter and director is Paul Haggis, author/director of the Academy-Award-winning Crash. Thoughtful reviewers have criticized Crash, but it remains a good illustration of the line between good and evil that runs through every person. Haggis is remarkably talented as a writer (I'm not an expert on the directing aspect). The scenes with Jones' wife, played by a haggard-looking Susan Sarandon, are exceedingly well written to depict the way a long-married couple communicates, or fails to communicate. The dialogue among the soldiers sounds authentic. The presence of a tough but good-looking lady detective is a Hollywood touch, yet Charlize Theron deglamorizes herself effectively enough. The location shots are good—a long view of a street in anytown USA, headlights in the dark going by a cheap motel, the dust and devastation of Iraq.

In the beginning of the movie, the Jones character leaves his driveway and, passing by the grade school, sees a Latino custodian raising an American flag upside down by mistake. The patriotic veteran (who creases his pants and makes his bed with corners every day in his motel room), pulls over, gets out of the car, and instructs the custodian not to let the flag touch the ground and never, never to fly it upside down. He explains: "It's an international distress signal. It means we're in a lot of trouble so come save our ass because we don't have a prayer in hell of saving ourselves." Isn't that a perfect description of the mess we are in since Adam and Eve rebelled against God? It could be right out of Romans 5-7.

At the very end of the movie, the father goes back to the school and runs the flag up the pole—upside down.

PS. The most serious flaw in the movie, from my perspective, is the use made of the David and Goliath story (the biblical confrontation took place in the valley of Elah). It is jarring to hear it told as an inspirational story about courage, wrenched out of its theological matrix. I fast-forwarded those two scenes when I watched it the second time.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The New Yorker takes on the perpetual problem of suffering and God

The widely admired critic James Wood has an article in the June 9 issue of The New Yorker about the problem of evil and suffering. It is pretty good as such articles go. Wood, raised as a Christian, understands at least some things about the faith and, unlike the New Atheists, he is polite about it. He's right to say that the enterprise of theodicy (the attempt to explain God and suffering) is essentially jejune. He is also right to say that the Bible depicts an intervening God on every page, a fact that many theological liberals choose to ignore. He's right, in listing the typical responses from average Christians, to brand them glib at best and monstrous at worst. And His "rage against explanation" (David B. Hart's phrase) is commendable.

However, there are some problems with his essay-review (the book he is putatively reviewing is Bart Ehrman's God's Problem). Like so many other essayists on this subject, he does not dig deeply enough into the best of the Christian tradition. If he has read Hart's peerless book about the issues raised by the tsunami (The Doors of the Sea--Eerdmans), he does not indicate it. He seems to think he has discovered something new when he says that the story of the woman taken in adultery was not originally part of the Gospel of John (in the ineffable words of Dick Cheney, "So?"). And he has little to say about the central place of the crucifixion of Christ.

I have been working on a chapter about this intractable problem of evil and suffering, the greatest of all. I have finished the first draft. It has taken me two years. The problem remains the great unanswerable dilemma of existence. There is no satisfactory "answer" to the problem. For Christians, there is only solidarity, resistance, and witness. Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa comes closest. Here is the link to Wood's article (I don't know how long it will remain accessible to non-subscribers):

Monday, June 02, 2008

Why read?

The capacity to receive symbol and metaphor without forcing a literal or rationalistic interpretation upon a text is a great asset for anyone seeking to understand the Bible, but I think this gift is more rare in our culture than it used to be. We live in an age where the reading of poetry and literary fiction has precipitously diminished among the general population. Children are no longer required to learn poems "by heart," and as everyone knows, cyberspace has become so absorbing that young people are bored by the quieter pursuits that in every preceding generation were both pleasing and habitual. I’m told that Eugene Peterson thinks that everyone studying for the ministry should spend the first year reading the classics, a most worthy suggestion; it may be questioned, however, if this would not come too late. The training of the mind’s ear needs to start a lot earlier, preferably at the parents' knees, but failing that, certainly in grade school.

I have had these thoughts for a long time, but was moved to put them in print when I got deeply into my chapter on the substitution motif in the book I am writing about the Crucifixion of Christ. I have come to believe that much of our difficulty today in interpreting the meaning of our Lord's death is related to a literal-minded reading of the Scriptures. Some of the Church Fathers were guilty of this occasionally, most famously when they likened Christ on the cross as bait to catch the devil.[1]

The late great Raymond Brown complained that every Christmas some reporter would call him and ask him "What really happened?" and would not listen to his attempts to expound the Christmas gospel. Perhaps we cannot expect anything better from the workaday journalist who is just out to get "the facts." But the most literal, most unsophisticated of all today's interpreters is Bishop Spong. He thinks that the ascension story has to be read in terms of a two-decker universe or not at all. He and those hapless reporters are not alone, however. Countless people seem unable to give themselves up to a story, asking only, "Did that really happen?" (with the secondary meaning, "Did that really happen exactly as described?") One can only suppose that they have had little experience of the joy and wonder of inhabiting, for instance, a fairy tale. Alan Jones took Spong to task about this some years ago, and Thomas Cahill writes more recently, "Spong lacks the subtlety required to engage in the necessary task of 'rethinking' that he sets himself. He certainly knows how to be 'outspoken and controversial,' as his dust jacket proclaims, but he is tone deaf to the deep meaning of many of the passages that he tackles so 'boldly'." (Desire of the Everlasting Hills, 327)

Being tone deaf to deep meaning is an unhappy deprivation. Antidote: read to the children from day one! Goodnight Moon has been a blessing, and on from there, not only with Maurice Sendak but with the oldies—A Child's Garden of Verses (Stevenson), the real (French) Babar, the real (English) Winnie-the-Pooh, the first three Mary Poppins books (before the author went "spiritual"), Howard Pyle's Robin Hood and King Arthur, Treasure Island, the Norse myths, the Little House books, Madeleine L'Engle, and the rest of the wonderful, politically incorrect list. (Well, maybe not Little Black Sambo…and Dr. Dolittle might need a tad of explaining, but how impoverished a life without the Pushmepullyu!)

PS. A historical note, discovered last summer while I was reading my family's extensive trove of letters:
My great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War and was separated from his young son for four long years, wrote back anxious letters about the child's education. He was to learn many poems by heart. He was not to be forced to read anything he did not enjoy. And the three books that the father sent to be read and reread above all were (guess!)-- Robinson Crusoe, Aesop's Fables, and the Arabian Nights. (The boy, my grandfather, grew up to be professor of history at the University of Virginia and a noted raconteur.)

[1] Gregory of Nyssa was the primary exponent of this idea, but it is found in other Fathers as well. Luther picked it up also, but the exuberance with which he develops it makes clear that he does not mean it literally. (Neither did Gregory, for that matter.)