Except for a few jokes about the Mennonite town I grew up in, and the Mennonite college I attended, I tend not to say much in these parts about my own experience of religious faith.![][1]I'm going to make a brief exception for this particular installment of the blog, for reasons I think should soon be clear.And this is what I'm going to say: I don't hew very closely to the beliefs of my upbringing. I'm sure that's maddeningly vague; sorry.But I leave the door open to a return to, for a lack of a better word, orthodoxy; I figure I've made a journey to my present status in life, there's always the possibility of journeying back.There are several artists I know of who have kept me open to the idea of making that return: Johnny Cash and Sufjan Stevens are chief amongst them - artists who are able to capture the fragility of humanity AND the mysteries of faith in a single fell swoop. I add to their ranks Marilynne Robinson - and her wonderful novel, ["Gilead."][2]A synopsis: A dying 76-year-old pastor writes a letter to his young son, whom the pastor will not get to see grow to manhood. Along the way, the pastor dwells, ahem, on the mysteries of faith - and ultimately discovers that there is much more to life, and the lives of others, than he could possibly suspect.This synopsis makes the book sound like some treacly "Tuesdays with Morrie" retread, but I resist that interpretation. If only because of the writing - quiet, restrained, but precise in its observations:_In the old days I could walk down every single street, past every house, in about an hour. I'd try to remember the people who lived in each one, and whatever I knew about them, which was often quite a lot. . . . And I'd pray for them. And I'd imagine peace they didn't expect and couldn't account for descending on their illness or their quarreling or their dreams. Then I'd go into the church and pray some more and wait for daylight. I've often been sorry to see a night end, even while I have loved seeing the dawn come.__Trees sound different at night, and they smell different too._It's a type of writing that has a devotional quality - no surprise: the protagonist is a Congregationalist minister, and Robinson herself has served as a Congregationalist deacon - but that shouldn't dissuade the prospective reader: The book is also leavened with doses of good humor. But it is devotion that suffuses the novel, through its protagonist. He is a faithful man, but he has arrived at his faith honestly, having survived his brimstone-breathing grandfather, his Quaker-loving pastor of a father, and his atheist brother - and the brother's books, written by German philosophers. Our hero reads these books; unlike our caricatures, he neither throws the Bible away nor burns the German books. Instead, he incorporates what is useful into his own outlook. Our hero, it turns out, is a man who neither rejects intellectualism nor idolizes it.I don't know what lesson is to be found there, for any of us. What is striking, at the end of the day -- and all our battles over faith and rationalism -- is the humanity, and humility, of our hero.This book is written loveliness, pure and simple. Johnny Cash would understand. [1]: http://archives.umc.org/uploads/images/myspirit_book_gilead_250h.jpg [2]: http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780312424404-5


j_d 16 years, 2 months ago


The opposite has happened to me. I have found that as I have gotten older, I have less and less use for religious faith.

That's probably a little more mercenary than I mean to be, but there you go.

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago

Hmph. I don't have a good response for this without revealing more of myself than I'd like.

My own fault: I opened this door.

The problem with book reviewing is that it is a subjective act; you necessarily reveal some of who you are when describing your interaction with a novel - and this was such a profoundly wonderful novel that I wanted to share some of my experience.

Shorter description: "Gilead" for me lives in that narrow-but-nearly-unbridgeable gap between faith and the loss of faith. I can stand on either side of that divide and admire the craft and beauty contained therein.

(Note to self: Let JohnB at BlogMeridian handle all future discussions of the intersection of art and faith...)

It now occurs to me that this discussion is best had over beer, with the sort of people I'd naturally have a beer with.

So... anybody up for beer?

Aufbrezeln Eschaton 16 years, 2 months ago

What amazes me is how you blog without spilling your guts all over the screen, a talent I don't know if I'll ever manage. . .

Sure, I'll do some beers.

j_d 16 years, 2 months ago

Beer me.

Sorry about the threadjacking. What, you mean you wanted to talk about the book?

thetomdotdot 16 years, 2 months ago

"...with the sort of people I'd naturally have a beer with." Does this include prizewinning poets to which you owe tshirts?

Owing to Dotdots self referential tendencies (deeper than mine, akshlly), I have to tell you, man, I LOVE beer.


Aileen Dingus 16 years, 2 months ago

I'm up for beers. I'm continually amazed at the wonderful conversations I can have with friends regarding religion, as long as we're all open to the unknown and willing to accept that what works for one doesn't work for another.

And I'll put that book on my list. :) I'm about to run out of stuff I haven't already read, so this is good timing!

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago

Dotdot: I still owe you a T-shirt? I'm mortified.

That said: I'm up for a gathering of religion/book talking over beer. Given my weekend schedule, early Saturday afternoon works best for me.

Anybody else?

OtherJoel 16 years, 2 months ago

Perhaps. I have tax stuff, wallpaper scraping, and yard work to do this weekend, but I will probably be ready for a break by early afternoon.

Aufbrezeln Eschaton 16 years, 2 months ago

Actually, Joel, I think you owe me a Tshirt, too. Slacker!!!!

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago

Well, the rule has always been: Come to the NewsCenter and I'll get you your T-shirt. I wasn't actually going to, you know, go out of my way.

lawrencekid 16 years, 2 months ago

Joel, great timing. I go to a school similar to where you attended (same conference, I'm pretty sure the kcac is all the same school different locations). I just got back from a conference about the integration of faith and the arts where sufjan played (I think my heart stopped about three times during his preformance) and spoke (as well as neko case--everyone should go to her show friday at liberty). Anyways I'm not sure what I am getting at but I've been meaning to pick up that book for awhile. Now that you have suggested it I'll have to check it out. I'm always down for my two favorite subjects: beer and religion. If anyone is at Henry's tonight feel free to wish me a happy 21st I'll probably be there most of the night...

thetom 16 years, 2 months ago

I know the rule, but driving downtown to a strange building into a wasps nest of people I don't know and asking for a free tshirt is a bit demeaning for a prizewinning poet, don't you think? Lording it over you every few months is much more gratifying. It reduces to a choice between my shameless and your shame.

The whole parallel universe of scheduling flexibility opens up for me when there is a place for my kids to play or entertain themselves (park or something). Is that even possible?

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago


Depends on where we have our beer, I suppose. Anybody have suggestions for a ... kid-friendly bar?

Lawrencekid: Happy b-day. Was that the conference that Emmylou Harris also played at? I saw it advertised in Paste and admit to being intrigued...

leslie 16 years, 2 months ago

Geez, Joel, nothing like killing a discussion before it even gets off the ground.

As for venue suggestions: back patio of the Replay. Count us out, though.

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago

I know. The wiser thing would've been not to start the discussion at all....

lawrencekid 16 years, 2 months ago

yeah it was. Fabulous lady, fabulous life, fabulous preformance, and above all fabulous attire. She is now sporting silver/grey hair, wore a silver dress, and silver cowboy boots. I don't know if she has it recorded anywhere, but she played a song about johhny cash and june carter cash, it was very nice. The whole weekend provided lots of fodder for the discussion you guys are throwing around; but I agree with you Joel, its kind of an intimate thing I don't blame you for keeping it to yourself. I really actually respect the fact that, although, I have been reading your blogs for a while you have not shown a hint of personal opinion. But I must admit it

lawrencekid 16 years, 2 months ago

that last fragment wasn't supposed to post...

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago

"I really actually respect the fact that, although, I have been reading your blogs for a while you have not shown a hint of personal opinion."

I'll take that as a compliment; thanks.

The tricky part of being a journalist who blogs is that blogs are an opinion-driven medium, while being a news reporter and editor requires you to more or less stifle public expressions of personal opinion - the facts are what's important, not what you think of them, in my business (or, at least, that's the ideal we set for ourselves).

So I've tried to walk the line veeeeery carefully. I doubt that I've done it perfectly, and wandering into a subject like faith is, frankly, just asking for trouble.

The advantage to the discipline that my job usually imposes is that I find that I'm able to talk -- and like -- people across a range of beliefs, even when I'm not on the job. Lots of people don't listen to or like each other anymore, it seems.

That said, I will offer an opinion: Emmylou Harris turned 60 this week -- and I still think she's one of the most beautiful women in the world.

lawrencekid 16 years, 2 months ago

haha, yeah I knew it was kinda roughly phrased, I'm glad you got my point.

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago


2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pig?

Anyone? Anyone?

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago

"Bourgeois Pig." Right off 9th/Mass.

matahari 16 years, 2 months ago

The blogs have gone from numbingly boring to meeting at the pig to discuss religeous beliefs? Yawwn

thetomdotdot 16 years, 2 months ago

There's an elusive beauty to the level of rudeness that matahari here demonstrates. Kind of like dropping into a conversation long enough to sat "blah blah blah". On the one hand, its the kind of stuff you hone to a fine point in junior high school, on the other, it excites a pity toward the individual's lack of substance (and their emabarassing display of the the result of too much time behind the bong), but on the third hand is a sick pretentious pseudintellectual jeoulasy.

Joel 16 years, 2 months ago

"slick pretentious pseudointellectual"... Dotdot, sure you're not talking about ME?

Anyhoo, I figured that since matahari was dropping in on the blogs to tell us how boring we are on the blogs, he-she would be first in line at The Pig on Saturday. Just for consistency's sake.

thetomdotdot 16 years, 2 months ago

Akshly sick modifies "jeoulasy" which is a freudian corruption indicating the jealousy that burns the heart of the pretentious pseudo-intellectual while someone else takes the liberty of rudeness that they, despite their best efforts, lack the capacity for.

I was talking about me. I suspect that there's not much pretention or pseudo in your intellectuality.

Kiss kiss.

Anyhoo back to ya, I'll be flying a kite on Sautrday afternoon, so drink one for me; and concede the fact that were I there, I would be right and you would be wrong.

leslie 16 years, 2 months ago

dammit, tom, I have books to return to you.

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