Sometimes the angels that have ministered most deeply to me, however, have been authors--novelists I've never actually met. Maybe this is, at least in part, because in my growing up years I hardly ever told anyone in real life what it was like to live in a hermetically sealed family where violence and alcohol shaped our daily uncertainties, and respectability dictated our public face. Books were a private source of comfort, providing both assurance (others also had crazy families, and survived!) and a rich source of fantasy.
The older I got, the more I allowed real people into my world, but I never abandoned books. After all, books didn't care if you cried your eyes out. How would Anne Tyler even know that, reading The Accidental Tourist, I lost it when I read how her hero's murdered son came back to life in his dreams? But it was as if Tyler was one of those angels who provided a path back to the human community, human solidarity, when all I thought I wanted in my grief was perfect isolation.
More recently, another fictional murder victim touched me deeply through the literary device of an observation post in heaven from which she watched her family and friends coping with their wrenching loss--and her killer covering his tracks. Susie Salmon was fourteen when she was murdered, and so was my sister.
I saw precious few signs of hope in the first years after her death. Years later, I had to smile when I heard that the mother of the man, Tyrone King, who killed my sister tried to give my father Gospel tracts in the courtroom where her son was on trial for murder!
All along I'd wanted to stop dreaming about my sister coming back and explaining the "misunderstanding"; it was vital to say goodbye to her on that level. But all my adult life I've also wanted her not to be forgotten. And those tearful hours reading Sebold's novel, and pausing to think about Ellen and where she might now be, were among the times I've felt closest to her since our violent separation.
My most recent experience with a literary angel ministering to this deep grief--and my determination to remember--happened just a few days ago. William P. Young's novel The Shack has raised controversies among some Friends pastors, some of whom defend this book passionately and some of whom charge it with silliness at least and serious heresy at worst. An unstamped note in a mailbox invites grieving father Mack to meet "Papa" (God) in the very place where Mack's daughter had been brutally killed by a serial murderer. Papa turns out to be a black woman. And God loves to cook as well as talk theology. The other members of the Trinity are also given more or less unstereotypical portrayals--but more than that I dare not say for fear of spoiling the book for you.
Honestly, I don't understand why some church people are so nervous about the grace-over-law emphasis of this book. It's completely framed within the paramount importance of personal relationship with God. There's no question of God saying "anything goes," but here's the central proposition of William Young's book: within that trust-filled relationship, marked by knowing fully how much God loves you, the fruits of the Spirit will flourish, including self-control. Apart from that relationship, the rules that some find so reassuring come across to me as intellectual bullying dressed up in a pseudo-spiritual black leather binding. And when I think of what some of the heroic defenders of biblical normalcy have been able to swallow in today's American political context--illegal invasion, torture, indefinite detention for years, to name a few--I'm ready for an evangelical bias towards grace. Maybe when we see our country staggering from the awful effects of stressing grace and experiencing the overwhelming love of God, we'll need some stern literary countermeasures. In the meantime, let the debate continue!
(Losses, part one.)
I'm not the only one who asks, "What is it with tears?"
For one homicide victim--at Abu Ghraib--there were more smiles than tears. But how real were the smiles? Errol Morris takes a second look at a notorious photo.
Bill McKibben, "The defining moment for climate change."
Poetry of Bill Jolliff: two poems that made me want to read more.
The Bible in Linux: So far I've been using GnomeSword as a reader, but most of the available Bible modules are public domain or nonstandard. Two versions, NET and ESV, seem excellent, but I miss NRSV and NIV and the Message. The NET notes are especially helpful.
Pam Ferguson confesses that she peeks into other customers' shopping carts. "It is time for a new diet."
Sue Foley's voice is incredibly matched for the electric blues guitar--sometimes it sounds like she plays her vocal chords with a slide. Judge for yourself on "Queen Bee":