Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand “Positive Thinking”

Happiness sells. So do books promising a way to help you be happier—especially when they carry the designation “Christian.” In her 2009 book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Under­mining America, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich traces the genealogy of positive thinking ideology back to religious Americans: for example, Norman Vin­cent Peale, author of the 1952 best seller The Power of Positive Thinking, and Mary Baker Eddy, the 19th-century founder of Christian Science. Positive psychology is now profitable quite apart from any religious associations, but one need only peruse Amazon best sellers in “Christian Living” to see that it remains popular in American Christianity.

Books promoting a Christianity driven and defined by positive thinking do not belong exclusively to the corpora of authors like Joel Osteen, Marianne Williamson and Joyce Meyer—all heavy on miracles and material blessings. Ann Voskamp, who describes herself as “just a farmer’s wife,” has created an impressive brand with her best-selling book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are and its companion journals, DVDs, devotionals, photo-illustrated gift books and iPhone apps. Her teaching is simple: start a running list of little things you’re grateful for—“a high pile of freshly grated cheese,” “moonlight on pillows,” “new toothbrushes”—and identify them as gifts from God. Then even tragedies will be transformed into “seeing-through-to-God-places.”

If this sort of thinking leaves you cold, British journalist Oliver Burke­man’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking will be for you just what the title promises. Burkeman introduces a different way to think about happiness: although happiness may be a “worthy target,” he writes, “aiming for it seems to reduce your chances of ever attaining it.”

{This is the beginning of a review I wrote for The Christian Century. Continue reading here.}

Hey, Christians, Even Progressive Ones, Let’s Quit Being Ashamed.

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Recently I reviewed a book that I hoped I would love–Jennifer Ayres’ Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology. While there were admirable aspects to the work (I liked that Ayres spent time with Christians practicing various forms of sustainable agricultural and community food security projects) I was disappointed overall, not least because for someone doing Christian theology, Ayres seems remarkably suspicious of, well, Christian theology, which she claims has frequently been unduly anthropocentric.

For example, she criticizes theologian Karl Barth’s understanding of creation as “the stage on which the drama of the divine-human relationship will take place” of “exaggerat[ing] humanity’s role in the drama of creation, when in reality ‘we are by no means the whole show[.]’” She does not quote or cite Barth directly but relies on another scholar’s critique of Barth, which is unfortunate given that Barth’s Church Dogmatics, volume III, deals seriously with the question of humanity’s right to shed the blood of animals for our own needs and desires, among other decidedly non-anthropocentric creational concerns that complicate the idea that Barth regarded creation as a stage and nothing more considerably.

 Similarly, Ayres cites Lynn White’s influential 1967 article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” as evidence that “theology does not offer an unambiguous ‘answer’ to the problem of the global food system.” I read the article in question, which is filled with claims (which Ayres does not cite) so sweeping and unsubstantiated as to defy credulity:

“Christianity [unlike paganism and Eastern religions] not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham’s 2010 book The Bible and Ecology does not appear on Ayres’s bibliography. Even a glancing look at Barth (or John Calvin, for that matter, to say nothing of the Psalms and Job) casts serious doubt on the claim that our ecological woes stem directly from the Bible or Christianity. Perhaps Ayres wants to avoid giving the impression that she has all the right theological answers, or that she is sufficiently critical of her tradition’s shortcomings, but oversights of this kind only undermine her case.

Why, I wonder, do so many thoughtful Christians ashamed of Christian theology, of Christian history, of Christian thought and action? Of course there is much in our history of which we should be ashamed. But there is also astonishing and inspiring courage, wisdom, and sacrifice that it would be a disgrace to forget.

I hate writing negative reviews. But if you’re interested, you can read it at the Englewood website here.

Once Upon a Time, We Knew How To Die: Katy Butler’s Astonishing New Book

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There was a time when I hoped—and even prayed—that my friend’s death would come very soon.

That’s a statement easily misconstrued, the kind that validates the cliché that “context is everything,” which itself affirms the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes. “For everything there is a season,” including “a time to be born, and a time to die,” “a time to heal,” and, if I may presume to expand on the preacher’s line of thought, a time to refrain from attempts to heal.

I love that part of the Bible, commonly known as the “wisdom literature,” for its keen awareness that what would be hateful in one situation may well be loving in another. I hoped that my friend would die soon because he was old and “full of years”—to use another beautiful biblical phrase—and his suffering had become very great. I would miss him sorely, as I still do, but I prayed that God would grant him what people used to speak of gently as a “good death.”

“Once upon a time,” writes Katy Butler in her astonishingly beautiful new book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, “we knew how to die.” We knew how to sit with the dying and learned from their passing what a good death might look like. Once upon a time, there were books on ars moriendi—the art of dying—and through firsthand experience, stories, and religious ritual, people acquired an understanding of a “good death.”

Butler’s book, which grew from the seeds of a New York Times Magazine article published in 2010, charts the path along which contemporary Americans have largely forgotten or misplaced the art of dying. In Butler’s own words, the book is a “braid”—part memoir, part medical history, part investigative journalism.

At heart of the book lies the tragic narrative of the prolonged suffering of Katy Butler’s beloved father. Jeffrey Butler, a South African born historian who lost an arm in World War II and earned a doctorate from Oxford before emigrating to the U.S., lived a remarkable and full life, but lost much of his capacity for speech, understanding, and self care after a stroke in his 80s. Butler’s mother, Valerie, suffered under the burden that millions of unpaid family members in the U.S. bear: taking care of her incapacitated husband with little outside help—determinedly, loyally, capably, and fiercely, refusing to surrender his care to others.

{This is an excerpt from my latest post at her.meneutics. To continue reading, please click here.}

Three Reasons I Really Did Not Like Michael Pollan’s Newest, “Cooked”

1. The premise feels phony and staged:

Pollan has said that he is “more at home in the garden than the kitchen” (In Defense of Food), but this modesty about his cooking skills is less than convincing to those who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he prepared a highly local meal of wild pork cooked two ways, bread leavened with wild yeasts he captured himself, and a sour cherry galette with fruit from Pollan’s own trees.

This same odd forgetfulness characterizes Pollan’s new book, in which he describes himself as a person who “seldom made time for cooking or gave it much consideration,” a puzzling confession coming from the man who told us boldly in 2008 to “cook, and if you can, plant a garden.” Instead of the competent cook whose culinary plans for his wild boar involved braises and reductions, brining and crushed peppercorns, and roasting over olive wood, in Cooked, Pollan casts himself as bumbling in the kitchen, a novice whose “most successful dishes leaned heavily on the cooking of others.” One could argue that Pollan came to understand himself as a culinary ingénue simply by immersing himself in the wealth of all there is to know about traditional Southern barbecue, the history of pot-cooked dishes, and the science of bread baking, cheesemaking, and fermentation (all prominent in Cooked)—that he came, as diligent students do, to realize how very little he really did know about cooking. But that’s not how he tells the story. No, we are to somehow conjure a Michael Pollan who in spite of his prior evangelizing on the importance of home cooking, never gave much thought or attention to what went on in the kitchen of his own house, and has only recently learned the words to describe what he loves most about bread:

“I especially love the contrast between a rugged crust and a moist, tender, alveolate interior—the ‘crumb,’ as I’ve learned to call it, now that I’ve been hanging around bakers.”

However, Pollan doubts the possibility that he will ever become one of their magical kind; he notes that “in ancient Greece, the word for ‘cook,’ ‘butcher,’ and ‘priest was the same—magieros,” and that it “shares an etymological root with ‘magic.’ ”

“I had little reason,” he writes, “to believe I’d be, or ever become, any good at [baking bread.] To the contrary. I had baked one or two loaves years before with only middling results, and had concluded baking was probably not for me.”

At which point I scratched my head and turned back to The Omnivore’s Dilemma (page 408) and found that not only had Pollan’s bread garnered praise from a culinary professional, he’d also known to refer to the “alveolate interior” of bread as “the ‘crumb’ ” long before he began “hanging around bakers”:

“Angelo reserved his most enthusiastic praise for my bread, which I’ll admit did have a perfect crust, an airy crumb, and a very distinctive (though not at all sour) flavor.”

2. He makes it seem like home cooking and baking is something almost no one can really do:

The Michael Pollan of In Defense of Food (2008) was happy enough to let us simply play around in the kitchen to the betterment of our bodies and souls (cf. Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, 1966), the Michael Pollan of 2013 seems to be engaging in a literary form of the extreme Food Network performances he writes of with faint disdain. Is Pollan’s goal for us all to feel as if we’re rushing things if we sauté the onions for ten minutes instead of a “half hour at least” or if we bake homemade bread with (gasp) commercial yeast instead of a natural levain? While he intends his extreme Slow Food project to lodge a protest against “the total rationalization of life,” he (perhaps unwittingly) makes the whole endeavor of cooking seem a lot more esoteric and difficult than it is. It’s not hard to imagine that many people will put down Cooked believing themselves incapable of making a good meal, simply because they can’t, like Pollan, devote several years to casual apprenticeships with expert brewers, bakers, pit-masters, and chefs.

3. He is way, way too enamored of microbes, and way too nostalgic in general.

It sure is easy to bewail things being too clean and free of friendly microbes when you live in Berkeley, California and have the resources to seek help should your fermented cabbage wreak (ormore accurately, reek) havoc on your body, and to rhapsodize about all the benefits of friendly bacteria from fermented foods that “our ancestors” ate, but, come on now. We may be living in a more “toxic” (or toxically sterile) environment than ever, but we in the developed world at least are living longer and longer and longer.

Overall, Cooked is a well-written account of a decent cook becoming a better cook–and a guy who doesn’t seem to get out of Berkeley enough, or to read enough about the history of epidemic disease.

{Read my full review at Books & Culture}

Books (And Authors) You Can’t Get Out Of Your Mind

I have a long history of becoming pretty obsessed with a particular story or book. I am only slightly embarrassed to confess that I collapsed dramatically on the carpet of the bedroom of my high school years weeping when Fantine died in my first reading of Les Miserables. It is slightly more embarrassing to confess that I really enjoyed the drama of collapsing and weeping over a book. Months later, when my mother and I went to see the musical on Broadway on my 16th birthday, we wept dramatically together on the train ride home. The next day I went to a record store (remember those?) to use my birthday money to buy the Original Broadway Cast recording of the show, so that I could do more listening and weeping.

This week (and last) the book I’ve been obsessing and crying over is Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, and the author is David Rakoff.

Rakoff said that as a child he was “tiny, articulate, and vibrating with anxiety and fear,” which also describes the child version of me pretty well. I was actually quite easygoing much of the time, except I would lie awake poking at my abdomen and thinking that my intestines were cancerous growths. Also, once, I read some really scary junk mail from some crazy group which said  the Holocaust was nothing in comparison with what the Bible predicted would one day happen to Jews (like me, because Hitler didn’t care if you were baptized or if you had a goyische father as I was and I did), and that kept me over-alert, waiting for the sound of goosestepping, for months. (I think I was seven). All that to say: I can really relate to so much of Rakoff’s writing.

This week on my blog, I want to introduce you to some of my favorite bits of David Rakoff’s work: nothing like a formal review here (but look for that elsewhere–I’ll tell you when), just some tidbits. I’m aware that he’s not for everyone; his language and subject matter is not always ‘family friendly,’ shall we say, but there is so much good in Rakoff that I feel compelled to share.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from his first book of essays, Fraud:

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On his strange lack of memory surrounding his cancer treatment at age 22:

“What remains of your past if you didn’t allow yourself to feel it when it happened? If you don’t have your experiences in the moment, if you gloss them over with jokes or zoom past them, you end up with curiously dispassionate memories. Procedural and depopulated. It’s as if a neutron bomb went off and all you’re left with are hospital corridors, where you’re scanning the walls for familiar photographs.”

On the curiously peaceful and un-cranky atmosphere in the new Princess Margaret hospital where he was treated:

“When medicine is socialized, when you have true universal health care, when everyone’s treatment is the same regardless of socioeconomic station, those strong-arming attitudes of entitlement just aren’t part of the vocabulary. This atrium, this lovely space in a hospital with a world-class reputation, is actually the equivalent of a state hospital. That American sense that someone somewhere else is getting what you’re not, and the attendant demands that go along with that perceived injustice, well, it’s just not in the equation here.”

And on the necessity of a sense of humor:

“Not being funny doesn’t make you a bad person. Not having a sense of humor does.”