07 November 2005

College Profs Get Free Books

Today the mail folks delivered a heavy white box from Galaxy Press to my desk. I get free books all the time, so this didn't exactly surprise me. Most books I order as review copies, which means I would like to consider adopting them for some course. Some publishing companies with whom I have previously corresponded send me books I haven't requested, though, like Rhetoric: A User's Guide (this sounds terrific, by the way), which I also received today. My personal thanks to Longman for reading my mind; perhaps I'll use this for the grammar class next spring.

I have never, however, corresponded with Galaxy, much less ordered anything from them, so the package surprised me. It also intrigued me: apparently the people at Galaxy package boxes like my Grandma Esther does, with lots of tape. So, after a half hour (plus break) cutting and slicing, the package opened to a letter that started "Dear Educator: We are writing to introduce you to the works of the New York Times bestselling author, L. Ron Hubbard." Enclosed were four books plus a DVD:

  1. The massive tome Battlefield Earth, with a frightening picture of green-eyed John Travolta staring me down from the cover.
  2. Writers of the Future, Volume XXI, which claims to be "The best new science fiction and fantasy of the year" (that's this year, 2005, in case you want to add this to your Christmas wish list) and includes "winning illustrations." I hate to think of Volumes I through XX.
  3. A DVD called "Writers and Illustrators of the Future" that I hereby recommend for the next Springs of Grace Youth movie night.
  4. The hardback To the Stars, whose cover is blindingly silver.
  5. A coffeetable book entitled Master Storyteller: An Illustrated Tour of the Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard that retails for $49.95 ($75.95 in Canada, eh).
I think these trump the free books I got from the Mormons last week:
  1. Why I Believe, a collection of Mormon testimonies from such celebrities as Orrin Hatch, Gladys Knight (no Pips), Won Yong Ko, and Steve Young. Okay, I didn't really know who Won Yong Ko was.
  2. A coffeetable book entitled The Mission: Inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a really lovely picture book indeed.
Now, aside from the fact that anyone can purchase the Scientology books online but the Mormon books do not seem available for typical capitalistic purchase, what's the difference between these gifts? Neither seem proselytizing in nature, though Galaxy Press does want me to consider teaching these books in creative writing or science fiction courses. Both include coffeetable books, though neither will occupy space on my coffeetable. Perhaps I should regift them this Christmas. Watch out, family.

13 October 2005

When I Get Older, Many Years From Now

Since my husband has written on my ten-year high school reunion, I figure I should. So here goes.

The places: "casually mixed" at a tavern, skipped the school tour, attempted a rained-out Revel picnic, finally truly enjoyed the cocktail party at the same place where we had our wedding reception. There's something anticlimactic about having a date at a cocktail party because you and the hubby get all dressed up, go somewhere fancy, the entire time talking with other people, and go home exhausted, wishing the entire time that just the two of you had gone to dinner and sat at a small made-for-two table. But I haven't seen many of these people in ten years (hence the title of the event), so what are you going to do?

The people: more attorneys and more degrees from Ivy League schools and more "So, what are you doing now?" conversations than I care to count, many people married to other people I could have picked out of a crowd as perfect for them, and others married to peculiar people who are perfect for them but unpredictably so. Lots of children, ranging in age from 10 (oh my) to 4 months (and she, super mom, uses cloth diapers). Lots of future politicians, lots of future cool nerds and also just nerds.

The conclusion: musing about the nature of public high school and friendships in general. Of my high school friends and acquaintances, I have remained the best of friends with one, have maintained sporadic correspondence with another, and have occasionally seen another five or so around town or at weddings. Some of these people attended preschool with me and we learned in classrooms together for 15 years, but we never emailed each other in college and I now have better relationships with their mothers, whom I merely see in Target or amid an afternoon run.

Our high school thrust people together because they lived in the same town and had similar intellectual aptitudes, and many of us have a tremendous collective history because of educational backgrounds that go farther than the "Excellence in Education" (insert our founding principal's southern Spanish accent here) we received in those hallowed open-air pavillions. But when we left for the wide world of college (and most of us did), we had the tremendous liberty of choosing our own friends. At college, you develop some of my most lasting friendships from a fairly self-selected group of people, and you only gotten better at selecting companions in the years after. Maybe it's just because you get older and wiser and cooler (not "cool" like you defined it in high school but like real people mean, like "more well-rounded and self-aware").

Nevertheless, Go Mustangs! Even if you smirk when you say it, you must have some kind of group cry for a ten-year reunion. Just because we never said it for real doesn't mean it isn't true. After all, we were a "performing arts" school and the Mustangs were really metaphorical for the angst we all felt at being anti-stallions, each of us a "small hardy naturalized horse" after intellectual prowess, which meant squashing wild athletic losers. Do note, however, the great attempts by our soccer teams (girls' soccer began my freshman year) and tennis and, of course, fencing (it's a lifetime sport, people, even if I'm not spending my lifetime still doing it). If we had had a real mascot, it would have gotten more rally for the debate team and Model UN than for athletic contests.

05 October 2005

Festival of Faith and Writing: Here I Come

Calvin College's biannual Festival of Faith and Writing is officially brewing for next April and I need to go. Not only will my favorite Irish Catholic novelist be there, but my favorite Greek Orthodox poet will be there, and my new favorite hornrimmed nonfiction writer (Lauren Winner, mentioned below) will also be there. Plus other people of faith and writerly affections.

Their Call for Papers invites attendees to write on festival writers or themes, like literary representations of the transcendent or the role of religion and writers in the public realm (from policy to art). I have a couple of ideas: something connecting Winner and sexual violence, or some literary consideration of alienation that suggests it is good when it reminds us that this world is not our home. But if you have suggestions, feel free to post them; I'm all eyes and brain.

29 September 2005

The Narrative Genesis of Rita: A Credo

So Centenary shut down when Rita threatened, presumably (you'd think I'd have an "in" to the reasoning here since I work in the big man's office, but I don't) because they worried about losing power because of her great winds. Easier to shut things down before chaos has opportunity to ensue than manage chaos once it ensues. On the other hand, the sunny and clear weather that Monday and Tuesday brought the Shreveport-Bossier area sure did seem fine for class going, and my canceled Richard III last Friday night left me in a blank-verse bind.

Nevertheless, 2 days off = 2 days off. I celebrated by cooking and reading, among other things. . . .

Cooking: baked linguine, poppy seed chicken, chocolate pie, mom's sweet potatoes and apples, mom's stew. Hardly anything in the world makes me feel safe and warm (even if it's 90 degrees outside) like the smell of my mother's stew simmering all day long.

Reading: Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Colossians, and Lauren F. Winner's Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity. The first book is in preparation for Centenary's book club meeting this Friday at Java Junction. The second book is what I'm teaching the college chicks at 7 am every Thursday. And the third book was a gift that has now officially made Lauren F. Winner my favorite Christian female writer; in fact, she might be the only one I think is actually good. Sure, you can find lots of female writers out there, and many write decently enough. You can also find lots of Christian writers out there, but few of them write decently at all.

Winner has a strong theological foundation for her discussion of the contemporary church and the communal nature of sex (yes, she really argues this, and it's rather compelling), our current phobia about discussing real issues and engaging in hard accountabilities with the Christian community. That foundation is the story of God, for which He made everything visibile and invisible. It's the narrative of redemptive history that heralds Jesus as alpha and omega, hero and lover, Word and redeemer.

I've been noticing that story of Jesus' supremacy lots lately in Scripture and in the world, and I've been telling and retelling that story often, with practical application not only to sex and sexuality but to typing and technology, magnolias and mathematics. After all, Katrina and Rita have made me love God's story, the one Paul sings in Colossians 1:15-20, more than ever before:

The Messiah is the pre-existent lord: He was before anything else, and He is lord regardless of everything else. The Father designed creation to demonstrate His lordship--the image of God suddenly had stuff to be lord over, and He ordained a time within redemptive history when that image of God would take on flesh and become the only perfect human being, living in stark contrast to the rest of us fakes. He lived like we were all supposed to live because the fullness of God dwelled gladly in Him, and He died for our sakes so that we could be reconciled in peace with the Creator, so that we could be alive to righteousness, so that we could actually be the real human beings we were made to be, so that we could share the inheritance of the saints in light, so that the Messiah is shown as having preeminence over all things.

As such, my identity is now in Him; my story is His story. The story of how I came to be doesn't begin with Temple, Texas, and my dad's old Monte Carlo, and how my parents could see the Scott and White Hospital from the end of our street, and how they drove to a small town and bought the chair that's now in my living room the week when I was born. Rather, the story of How I Came to Be is the one summarized above--that starts with the preexistent lord and ends with the preeminent lord, that writes me as just another glorious page in the exaltation of God.

Everything I do needs that filter. Jesus is the narrative genesis of everything from waking to sleeping, breakfast to dinner, food to leisure, academia to work, vocation to ministry, cosmos to romance, flora to fauna, sex to chastity. I need to think about reality through this story: the reason I do x or y is because Jesus is lord of everything.

Funny thing is, Katrina and Rita know that better than I do. Hopefully Rita's two days' vacations have shoved me into some better thinking and living than last week.

02 September 2005

Hurricanes will Howl

My favorite science writer and altogether swell guy Mark Fischetti (who juggled eggs over a 2005 Centenary graduate just to prove a point--very cool) published an op-ed entitled "They Saw It Coming" in this morning's edition of The New York Times. Read it all the way to the bitter end, where you will find the last paragraph a bittersweet finale.

The upshot of his final sentence makes me fervent for education and action. We have so much to learn from Katrina and her refugees (so many thousands still waiting for refuge) about economics, sociology, race relations, welfare, public health, engineering, the oil industry, homeland security, charity, nursing homes, the elderly, rape, murder, love, blood banks, city government, national politics, war, and volunteerism, to name a few. So let's learn.

31 August 2005

New Orleans Drowned

Northwest Louisiana has only heard the whispers of a people needing help.

Evacuees have come to my own corner. Around 200 students from a sister university (Dillard, in New Orleans) arrived in the Centenary College Gold Dome at 5 am Sunday after one of their busses overheated and burned everything on board (no students injured, but laptops and all belongings lost); yesterday a bus left for Dallas and another for Chicago, ferrying students back to their homes as Dillard closed indefinitely. Those who live abroad or around New Orleans will need more long-term solutions, so Centenary has started collecting funds to help provide those.

Across Shreveport, everything that can become a shelter has become such and shortly filled. There's an unsurprising blood shortage. Gas prices have shot up. My mobile phone has decreased coverage and calls get dropped fairly frequently. But I can't imagine what will happen to those who must find housing and food, having lost their roofs and jobs, for however long it takes them to pump Lake Ponchartrain out of the civil engineering debacle that is New Orleans. "The scope of the catastrophe caught New Orleans by surprise"? Why wasn't Mark Fischetti's October 2001 Scientific American article "Drowning New Orleans" posted on every door in that town?

Of course, the rich will always be with us, but I'm not sure about the poor. New Orleans' levee first broke in one of the city's poorest sections--where the economic situation of its nearby residents meant it didn't get fortified as well or as often.

Hitting the news this morning: New Orleans hospitals must evacuate their patients. Those with private insurance surely arranged their own care outside the city, but the poor had no recourse. The city has no power and no drinkable water, so the hospitals run on generators, but Charity Hospital at least has its generators in the basement, and the basement has flooded, so patients on respirators must be physically bagged by the nurses and doctors who have remained. It's likely the least experienced who must care for those war zone sick. I wonder how many will be lost.

And that's only the beginning of the health epidemic.

And then there's Mississippi.

In northwest Louisiana, though, the last two days brought a slightly cooler temperature and beautiful clouds. I could hardly rejoice for them, even as I remember the sovereignty of God remains my steady hope. Until He redeems the creation for the age to come, I'll sing Anne Steele's old hymn:

"Dear refuge of my weary soul,
On Thee when sorrows rise
On Thee when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies."

11 August 2005

We are on a global desert, and violence in marriage is our desiccation.

Today, The New York Times published Sharon LaFraniere’s troubling article “Entrenched Epidemic: Wife-Beatings in Africa.” Just to get us situated, note how LaFraniere concisely states the problem with this example: “About half of women interviewed in Zambia in 2001 and 2002 said husbands had a right to beat wives who argue with them, burn the dinner, go out without the husband’s permission, neglect the children or refuse sex.” In short, it seems that sub-Saharan Africa suffers violence because of a global misunderstanding of God’s design in sexuality and marriage.

Though there’s a heap worth saying about the social urgency this article stirs in me, I simply want to make some observations here about what two of the interviewed men say. At the very least, they reveal fear that results in the particular degradation of their wives and the general diminishing of marriage as a glorious display of God’s character and an ideal symbol of His greatest unifying work. Observing this fear and hating its result (particularly, politically and culturally condoned marital abuse) will point us to a pressing need: we must understand and delight in our Lord, especially in His design of marriage, so that we might love Him and hasten toward holiness.

First, listen to Kenny Adebayo: “If you tell your wife she puts too much salt in the dinner, and every day, every day, every day there is too much salt, one day you will get emotional and hurt her. . . . We men in Africa hate disrespect.” Adebayo lacks self-control ironically because he fears losing control (over his wife particularly) and losing respect (from his culture generally). He blames his wife for all this, justifying his emotional outbursts and violent behaviors by the persistent presence of superfluous sodium chloride in his diet. If only it were so easy. Truthfully, he does not beat his wife because his wife pushes him over the edge; he beats his wife because he loves violence and hates gentleness, because he loves himself and hates God.

Now consider Emmanuel Osibuamhe. The journalist carefully observes him pacing, increasingly angry the more he thinks on his marriage. He says that consistently beating his wife was wrong, but listen as he speaks: “You can’t imagine yourself beating your wife?” he says. “You can’t imagine yourself being pushed to that level? But some people just push you over the edge, and you do things that you are not supposed to do.” Like Adebayo, Osibuamhe offers his wife’s defiance as reasonable cause for his violence. He loves himself more than God’s design for marriage.

Now, to be fair, perhaps Mrs. Adebayo does maliciously refuse to change her salt shaking. And perhaps Rosalynn Isimeto-Osibuamhe deliberately agitates her husband. Wives have unusual and intimate access to their husbands’ buttons. But no matter how insipidly wives provoke their husbands, we can justify no resultant violence whatsoever, whether subtle emotional isolation or knives to throats. This is not because human beings deserve better treatment or even because those women’s stories break my heart but because God is supreme and deserves all worship.

In fact, God has designed marriage gloriously, and undermining that design indicates a great idolatry. If God has fashioned human sexuality in general and marriage in particular so that He might display Himself and describe His relationship with people, then to violate that image with selfish motives and personal abuse reflects misplaced worship. Indeed, God invented marriage so that we would have language and imagery displaying the strange intimacy of His covenant with an unapologetically faithless people (1).

Consider, for example, how in Hosea’s minor prophecy God compares the adulterous whore Gomer to Israel. She even uses gifts from her compassionate and tender husband to pay others so they will agree to her prostitutions, and yet God tells Hosea to go woo her and pay any outstanding debts she has, because this is how he will treat Israel when Israel is like Gomer. And she will be. We will be. Everyday even God’s chosen people are like Gomer, faithless and fearful of everything but our perfect heavenly husband.

God designs and defines marriage as He does to demonstrate His jealous and unending commitment to a faithless people, making them whole and blameless for His glory. So may Adebayo and Osibuamhe and every sub-Saharan African and everyone the globe over repent and speak with Israel: let us take with us words and press on to know Him. He is my everything—my evergreen, my cedar, the dew for my lily—and I will love nothing else.

(1) Piper, John. “Sex and the Supremacy of God: Part I.” Sex and the Supremacy of God. Ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005. 26.

03 August 2005

Ah, the strangler fig. It's better than a hypotenuse.

You've got to love symbiosis: all an ecosystem's components working essentially and thoughtlessly together for a gorgeous whole. Like the Trinity, and like the Church ought to be. Take for biological example the Amazonian environment that brings us the Brazil nut tree. PBS recently featured a show on just that.

The destructive force of the strangler fig captivated me most here. How susceptible the Brazil nut trees are to those strangler figs: seeds left as if by accident send inevitably malignant roots down the bark, taxing its host of all nutrients to parasitically swell itself. Only after decades of slow growth does the end become apparent: the original tree has completely disintegrated, but the vines stand as a stoic shell.

PBS says the fig looks then "like a hollow monument to this epic struggle," but I disagree: the tree never put up a fight but just got overtaken by a slow and deadly constriction. The human heart can similarly find an inevitable end, especially under the strangle hold of worry. Only the powerful theology of God’s nearness can nip that anxious vine from our hearts.