Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Garage Sale

(Check that loot out. That's sweet loot.)

Phaedra and I enjoyed yesterday one of the great American pastimes: the garage sale. Not only did we purify our garage (thank God), we met our neighbors and talked to very interesting people (one of whom, a vintage 1960s hippie lady, allowed her dog to pee right under a rack of clothes). We also sat in the afternoon sun until we wilted and turned into finely crafted bad attitudes.
We're glad we did it, though. It was my first. There's a lot of work that goes into these things, good gravy, and you have to navigate some tricky garage sale culture issues. But we made mad money (my favorite phrase of the day). We got rid of stuff. We put to practice a principle that hopefully will mark the rest of our lives: simplify, simplify, simplify.
And at day's end, we celebrated our accomplishment by donating all the un-sold items to Goodwill and then getting Thai take-out to accompany our watching of the movie THE KITE RUNNER--which left us thoroughly devastated and in the worst conditions in which to fall asleep.

Here are a few pictures from the day.

Getting things set up early morning. We wanted things organized and we thought about traffic flow. We were aiming for a happy customer experience. We even put on an all-80s and 90s radio station. I've told Phaedra I really want the city of Austin to hire me to re-arrange all its traffic lights. I have a thing about illogical, dumb traffic lights. But for today, we cared only for mad deals on rad steals.
Total thumbs up. I'm off to put up signs around the neighborhood. I've got my backpack full of cardboard signs and the bike pack equipped with hammer and nails. I'm ready to announce good news: a 1 dollah shangri-la.
My padre counting the mad money. Shaun Fox walking off with one of my fine shirts.

Artsy folk inspecting artsy ware.

Eli Santostefano lets me borrow his Speed Racer helmet and shows me how to put three fingers in a very chill way. He does a much better job of chillin' than I do.

One of our many satisfied customers of the day.

Phaedra impressionistically waiting for someone to buy something, for the love of zeus.
Phaedra stands heroically, at the end of a long day, over all un-sold items the color red .

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


"Sin is irrational and idiotic, being both self-destructive and self-excusing. . . . [In the end] we are guilty of our own sin, and it is pathetic, tragic, and obscene just because it is good gone wrong." ~ J. I. Packer

In late fall of 2000 the chapel committee at Regent College asked me to come up with a fresh way to explain Advent to the student body. I'd graduated earlier in the Spring but had stuck around as a teaching associate, which was a fancy title for someone who graded all the bible and theology courses for Regent's extension program. I'd done a few skits here and there--in chapel, at the annual all-school retreat. I was one of the dramatic ones on campus (though, I'm afraid, at times distressingly melodramatic).

Star Wars: Phantom Menace had been released a year prior. I was an unashamed Star Wars fan. Costume parties, plays, sermons, class assignments--I enlisted the movies as often as possible. I had also done a number of impersonations of our faculty over the years: Gordon Fee with his helicopter-flailing arms, Eugene Peterson and his gravely voice, Loren Wilkinson's trollish, subterranean manners.
One person I'd yet to parody: the venerable J. I. Packer. I'd TA'd for him for three years so had had plenty opportunity to observe him.

Packer is a lanky, loopy-limbed Englishman with a mild goofy streak. He climbs stairs two at a time. His walk is determined, mechanical-like. When He teaches, his shoulders are almost exaggeratedly hunched over. He's particular about everything, especially clear-headed thinking and hot sauce. I recently sent him a bottle of "Scorned Woman Hot Sauce" (heat level: 8 out of 10). He told me he'd added it to his vast collection in the refrigerator door. As with any theologian worth his salt, he has an opinion about everything under the sun.

Then it struck me. J.I. is a latter day C3PO. Awkward and endearing simultaneously, he's smart and he knows he is, but he has a disarming way about him, and at the core he's tender-hearted.

I picked out my outfit carefully. Grey polyester pants sinched five inches above the waistline. A blue, short-sleeved Oxford shirt. A thin, straight tie. Brown wing-tipped shoes. And a clear-colored swim cap for my head to approximate the near baldness.

I recruited another student to play a whiny Luke Skywalker, and we acted our way through the Advent-themed skit with great fun. Here is a sample of one of our exchanges.

My speech is staccato, my accent as British as I could muster, and I've just explained to young Skywalker that Advent reminds us what time it is for us as Christians.

Luke: “Ok, I get it, C3PO-JI-Packero, the force really is with me! It’s like the calendar helps me not forget who I am or where I am AT.”

C3PO: “No dangling prepositions, master Luke, but yes, you are learning quickly. So to my third point. What is advent anyway, besides a season of catastrophic stress for most students, forcing them to think of Hebrew verbs?--and what is community?--and are evangelicals actually gnostic? Well, then, Advent consists of four Sundays, each of which looks forward to Christmas in anticipation. It is a form of anti-instant coffee: it’s a slow-drip coffee that makes you wait for something better to come."

Packer was present at our performance. I think it he quite relished the caricature of himself.

This past weekend Phaedra was able to meet him at the Laity Lodge where Packer was giving the retreat talks. I had been afraid that I would find him frail. Yesterday, July 22, he turned 82. With John Stott retired and Billy Graham ailing, I've begun mourning early the passing of a great generation, the grandfathers and mothers of neo-evangelicalism.

But Packer was far from giving up the ghost. He still walked as if every destination -- the meal hall, the restroom, the water fountain, the ping pong table -- had great purpose, with a brisk, marching gait. He told his usual stories: of the hole in his head; of the time his parents gave him a typewriter as a gift on his birthday instead of the bicycle he'd always wanted. Because of that disappointing gift, he not only became a gifted writer, instead of Tour de France rider, he also committed himself to a lifetime relationship with the typewriter. He's never once owned a computer, he reminds us proudly.

I can honestly say that J.I. Packer is the theologian who has influenced me the most. I've read only a handful of his books. I'm not crazy about his preaching style. My "prophetic" approach to teaching contrasts sharply with his "catechetical." But I respect him deeply. I respect his character. I am drawn by his pastoral heart. I admire his decision to spend his life writing books for what he calls the "thoughtful lay person." He is a churchman who greatly loves the church, the ordinary people who wander in and out trying to make sense of their lives. His work with Evangelicals and Catholics Together inspires me.

I'll never be a Karl Barth or Wolfhart Pannenberg or Alister McGrath or even, honestly, a James Innell Packer. But I'll be more like a Packer than the rest. I'm grateful for his friendship. He's always been very kind to me. My poor memory notwithstanding, some things Packer has said in class will stick with me for the rest of my life.

"The quality of your relationship with people is an index of the quality of your relationship with God."

"The integration of theology and live (i.e. living that is illumined by theology and theology that is earthed in living) must be a constant goal."

As we were saying goodbye to Dr. Packer on Sunday afternoon, he addressed Phaedra. Speaking in his most gentlemanly, slightly goofy but very precise, C3PO way, he said, "Well, Phaedra. I can say that it has been my very great pleasure to meet you!" With that he gave her a little hug. He cocked his wild-haired eyebrows, smiled, then turned around and marched away to the suburban standing by to take him to the airport.

Monday, July 07, 2008

TS Eliot on the role of Tradition in Art-Making

"And thus happily sent forth, at our best, with good grace and fine wit, on calm noons, in fair climes, are we not God's Machineries of Joy?" ~ Ray Bradbury, The Machineries of Joy

Phaedra and I are starting to get fired up about the Olympics. We've blocked off the entire month of August for the occasion. We're not sure how we're going to manage the period of time we're in Nashville. We'll need to sneak off to sports bars, say we need "alone time."
Last night we stayed up late watching video re-caps of the US swim and track 'n field trials. Michael Phelps is a demi-god. And why is it that all gymnasts are constitutionally cute? I'm memorizing names, stats, bios, PRs, home towns--from badminton to BMX racing, triathlon to trampoline--so I can experience personally the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

This past Friday we celebrated our nieces' birthdays. The theme was cow/flower. Skye (5 yrs) wanted flowers, Bronwyn (3 yrs) wanted cows. Late Thursday night Phaedra and I set up camp on the dining room floor to create a flower costume for me and a cow outfit for Phaedra. We rocked.

I woke early Friday with a jingle in my head which I turned into a 2 minute musical theater routine for our arrival at the party. It was so bad, so good. The girls just stared as we pranced and moo-ed and made royal fools of ourselves. On our way home later in the day, Phaedra and I declared that every one of our kids' birthdays would involve costumes!
We met this afternoon with Eileen Flynn, religion reporter at the Statesman, to talk about our decision to do NFP. She's curious about the apparent trend amongst evangelical Protestants to take on an historically Catholic practice. Good conversation over soy lattes.
Book recommendation: Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo. My Argentinian-born friend Jeffrey Travis, a lover of all things magical realist, gave me Verissimo's novel for my birthday and it was quite a treat, though oh so brief (only 135 pages).
From Publishers Weekly: "Brazilian author Verissimo's delightful novel simultaneously caricatures the complicated codes that comprise detective stories and spins a whodunit of paternity, academic intrigue, 16th-century occultism and orangutans. The action occurs at the annual meeting of the Israfel Society, an eccentric organization devoted to the study of Edgar Allan Poe, which Vogelstein, a sheltered teacher and translator, decides to attend in the hopes of meeting his hero, Jorge Luis Borges."

Movie rec: THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED. It's a typical Disney sports inspirational flick, but we relished it all the same. Except for the low budget animation work on some of the golf action, the story of Francis Ouimet, the 20-year old caddie who beat the British legend Harry Vardon for the US Open championship, kept us engaged to the end. Shia LaBeouf plays the title role. I was impressed with how self-restrained both the script and the direction were. Two thumbs up.

If you want a good peek into African-American culture, we highly recommend STOMP THE YARD and DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN. Phaedra and I continue to rue the loss of hip hop/break dancing opportunities in our childhoods. We know we'd be hot if we had started early enough (though Phaedra throws down plenty when we hit the dance floor and it's mostly I who have the catching up to do).

And for a three thumbs up: PLANET EARTH. We are totally digging it. Some of the creatures God has designed, in the ocean deep especially, are completely wacked out.

The Mission America Coalition has created a new National Arts & Entertainment Ministry Network: Check it out here. Michele Wood of Hollywood Connect looks to be a key leader here.

Ooh. Phaedra just baked Parmesan Peppercorn French bread. Mmm. She is La Rock Star of my corazon.

And now to T. S. Eliot. At the ACT conference this coming August I'll be talking about fundamental disciplines for the artist. Without the fundamentals we flounder, lurch, or force our way through life. With them in place, everything flows as it should. I'll focus on three fundamental disciplines: a spiritual, a relational, and an artistic.

With the artistic discipline, I want to explore our relationship as artists to tradition. I'm not exactly sure what route I'll take, but it'll navigate between these two assertions: "Read your tradition well" and "Read outside your tradition." By "read" I mean not just book-reading but whatever it takes to know your artistic tradition: seeing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching, studying, examining, in short, the whole sensory (and analytical) apparatus.

If you're a filmmaker and desire to be a great filmmaker, collect a list of the great films through the ages. Watch your way through the list, regardless whether you personally think they're weird or boring, or whatever. Your job is to learn them--learn what makes them "great." Watch for patterns. Modern hyper-sensitivities notwithstanding, a classic isn't a classic for no reason. See Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guiness, for a fine introduction to the idea of a classic.

If you're a playwright, read the classics--Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw, Brecht, Stoppard, Mamet, et al. You sit yourself down and read them, drink them, eat them. Same with poetry. Same with calligraphy. And R&B music. And Tango dance. And all the arts. Too many believer artists I know don't want to do the hard work of learning their own artistic tradition.

But the second assertion may interest me more, "read outside your tradition." When we asked Eugene Peterson in our "Biblical Spirituality" class many moons ago what we could do to deepen our spiritual life, he said just that: Read outside your tradition. For me that meant reading anything beyond the small circle of 20th century evangelicalism: AW Tozer, Oswald Chambers, Elisabeth Elliot, Yancey, Packer and whoever the community deemed spiritually legit, such as Lewis and Tolkien, and most of the classics of literature. Most. But not Catholics. Not Orthodox. And probably not anybody during Medieval Christendom (wasn't that the dark ages?).

So that's where I started: with the "not's." I dipped my toes into Nouwen. I lingered over Kallistos Ware. There were the Vatican II documents. There were the mystics. Suddenly Christendom became scarier and more fantastic than anything I ever knew. I grew quieter on the insider. I felt my smallness. My mind began to understand why I believed what I believed, though it also grew increasingly frustrated--so much I couldn't comprehend!

Slowly I felt my spiritual skin thicken, become healthier, more resilient. My eyes became bionically far-sighted as I began to see so much more. Issues that had agitated in my early college days no longer bothered me. I discovered all these kindred brothers and sisters in the 18th and 11th centuries I never knew existed. The 5th century felt like it was down the block instead of a million miles away in a fog of vague otherliness. It was other, but not that other. I found my tribe: my Great Tradition family.

If I could tell artists only one thing to improve their art I'd tell them this: study the classics in your tradition. And as much spare time as you have, study the classics in other artistic traditions. They will teach you everything you need to know to become a deep artist and a skilled artist. They will help you find your place in the large community of artists that stretches across time and place. What we need is a rich imaginative soil. The classics will till that soil over time.

Eliot addresses some of these ideas in his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," penned in 1919. We believer artists, especially in the evangelical church, do well to pay attention to Eliot's exhortations. I copy here a few excerpts. The whole essay can be found in any good library near you.

T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles any one else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet's difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.

Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity. [italics mine]

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, "tradition" should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.

It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. . . . [italics mine]

To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement. . . .

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice . . . .