Grace for the tired out parent

Our first child opened his eyes on this world for the first time at the beginning of October in Northern California. I was on my feet minutes after his delivery, and out walking with him in the sunshine two days after that. Although I had been ambivalent on learning of my pregnancy – we’d been married barely a year and a half; I’d just turned 23, and we hadn’t planned this – every cliché in the book applied: my son was astonishingly beautiful and I loved him fiercely. My grandmothers’ genes made it such that I was immediately back in my regular jeans, and we seemed to be off to a great start.

That is, until our son reached the ripe age of two weeks and decided that he wanted to bail on the whole ‘being a baby’ thing. I have since encountered other babies and children who matched his distinct set of characteristics. Rather than lulling him to sleep, the baby swing wound him up, as did going for car rides. Even rocking and nursing were more stimulating than soothing for him. He was too awake, too alert; too full of desires he was far from being able to communicate to us, or, better, to fulfill on his own. The very day he was able to grasp a butterfly rattle and shake it in front of his face – all by himself! – he fell asleep right there on the floor, contented and happy.

One of the most oft-repeated bits of unsolicited advice proffered to new mothers is “sleep when the baby sleeps,” which is all right when it’s your first baby and you’re not suffering from an anxiety disorder. I never could sleep when the baby slept, because it took such monumental effort to get him to sleep that every little squeak and murmur in our old house or outside it jolted me awake, worried that I’d have to start the whole going to sleep process again: the diaper change, the super-tight swaddling, the strategic pacifier insertion method, the pediatrician-approved wedged-in side sleeping position, and the little womb-sounds device we affectionately called “the swooshy.” After three months of this, I was a sniveling wreck of mature theological insights such as

 “They say children are a blessing from the Lord but I think they’re wrong!

People would ask me how many children we’d like to have in all and I’d just stare at them. Our son was two and a half when his brother entered the scene, and although little Graeme was a textbook ‘easy’ baby, in the weeks and months after his birth I began a slippery slide into postpartum depression. I couldn’t explain what was wrong; why I was so anxious, sad, and scared. And that, too, scared me. I don’t think I even had the energy for immature squabbles with God about whether or not children were really the blessings the Bible made them out to be. I just felt closed off from God, and almost everyone else, too.

"First Time in the Grass," by SurlyGirl. Photo courtesy SurlyGirl via Flickr Creative Commons.
“First Time in the Grass,” by SurlyGirl. Photo courtesy SurlyGirl via Flickr Creative Commons.

{Excerpted from my review of Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s memoir of having two kids — and then twins! — and a bit of a faith crisis in the process. Read it all at Englewood Review of Books — here.}

Bursting With Signifiers of Hipster Cool: A Cranky, Slightly Hilarious Review of the ‘Kinfolk Table’ Cookbook

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Beware the book reviewer who reads and writes while suffering from a cold and an intestinal parasite in one of the ten poorest countries on the planet…

In the new Kinfolk Table cookbook–an offshoot of the hip indie ‘lifestyle’ magazine Kinfolk, recipe contributors (based mainly in Brooklyn, Portland, Copenhagen, and the English countryside) are a mostly young-ish, mostly beautiful collection of creative types: printmakers and photographers and designers of one sort or another; chefs and ‘artisanal’ makers of cheese, ice cream, and syrups. Their homes and gardens are as relentlessly art-directed as everything else in the book and described in rapturous tones: one woman’s home is “brimming with art books and vintage furniture”; another’s is “an oasis of greenery, vintage glassware, and beloved old kitchen items from her family.” The aesthetic is strongly value-laden; in one mini-essay, someone’s grandmother’s “vintage cast-iron saucepot” is said to be an “apt parallel” for the whole family’s way of life. (Thank heavens it wasn’t a vintage chamberpot.) This and other phrases push the bounds of credulity: one home is described as

“a place where a casual evening dinner with friends extends into another day of sipping wine with neighbors on the back porch.”

Sounds cozy and fun, but only if you don’t think too hard about it. Do those friends ever leave after dinner is over? Do the hosts go to bed between dinner and the wine sipping the next day? Are they in fact doing that back porch wine sipping in the morning? Elsewhere, the descriptions go well beyond twee: we are told that we might explore one woman’s garden and “make friends with her bees.” Hold onto your epi-pen and your insulin pump, folks.

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{Read this review in full at the Englewood Review’s website by clicking here. This here is not the best part.}

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.

Overcoming the Presentism Bias in the Blogosphere

As Maria Popova (creator and curator of the popular Brain Pickings blog) pointed out in a recent interview for Copyblogger, online culture “fetishizes the new(s),” forgetting all the knowledge and wisdom that’s come before us.

Popova calls this “our presentism bias,” which is “anchored in the belief that if it isn’t at the top of Google, it doesn’t matter, and if it isn’t Googleable at all, it doesn’t exist.”

As Popova points out, this “presentism” is often a form of arrogance—one that assumes that “no one has ever grappled with the issues we’re grappling with. Which of course is tragically untrue.”

Lewis argues that Christians need “a standard of plain, central Christianity … which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”

In Christian culture, this can translate into thinking that the current “hot-button” theological or Church issues are things Christians have never dealt with before.

Ours is a culture where people rush to tweet articles even before they’ve finished reading them, and in the Christian blog and Twittersphere, many of us find ourselves feeling like Rachel Held Evans, who recently confessed to feeling a bit out of her depth when called upon to comment on theological matters and the current state of the church at Christian colleges and on CNN: “[I’m] upsetting apple carts I didn’t even mean to upset, apparently making theological statements I didn’t even know existed.”

This idea reminds me of an essay of C.S. Lewis’ introducing a very old book by a third century church father, Athanasius of Alexandria. Presciently—almost as if he were aware of all the heated blog-and-Twittersphere battles over women’s roles in the church, modesty, sexuality, sovereignty or the atonement—Lewis argues that Christians need “a standard of plain, central Christianity … which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”

And to put controversies of the moment in their proper perspective, Lewis argues we need to read old books.

We need old books not because they are necessarily better or somehow infallible (“People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we,” Lewis writes, “but not the same mistakes”) but because to read only new books is to join “at 11 o’clock a conversation that began at eight,” and thus to be unable to understand fully all that is going on.

The New Testament itself is in deep conversation with the Old Testament; it’s difficult to understand the former without the latter; Christianity is a conversation that has been going on for two thousand years.

We can’t even hope to wade into deeper waters in thinking about faith if all we’re reading are the writings of the moment.

As someone who’s still trying to wade into deeper waters, I asked a few experienced readers what resources they would recommend to Christians who’d like to avoid “presentism” in their own reading and thinking about faith, and I’d like to share some of their insights for those of you eager to move beyond the shallows.

{continue reading at RELEVANT}

Tired of “Smug Advice, Hackneyed Words, and Silent Judgment” from Christians?

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Then you should read this book.

My grandmother had been languishing in her dingy apartment, drinking herself to death, for decades. Despite what was obvious to the rest of us, my grandmother persisted in the delusion that she knew better than any of us, and rebuffed all our attempts at intervention. When some people from Alcoholics Anonymous came to talk to her, she listened politely and later dismissed the encounter with, “the poor dears are so sincere,” as the ice tinkled in its tumbler of pure vodka. My grandmother spoke in a sort of fake Hollywood/French/British accent to disguise her impoverished, Yiddish-speaking upbringing. She was convinced that she knew better than everyone how to live, an illusion she could maintain only by keeping everyone away, including her family. Because it only took one look at her wizened frame and yellowed skin to see that her idea of herself didn’t match up with any reality that others could see. Looking at my grandmother; hearing her voice over the phone, I became convinced that facing reality, however ugly or harsh, was to be valued far above any masks that might prettify the truth.

So it makes perfect sense to me that the worst day of Laura Sumner Truax’s life was, in a way, the best day of her life. On the day that the judge flatly declared her marriage to be dissolved, she bolted not one but two Sara Lee coffee cakes and a “nice big glass of red wine.” By opening the book with this story – an anecdote of binge-eating that most of us would hesitate to share, in which she also makes it clear that she was the party unwilling to seek reconciliation in her marriage – Truax shows that unlike Blanche DuBois, unlike my grandmother, Truax faced the difficult truth about herself while there was still time for her to live her life in an entirely different way. It was the “best worst day” of her life, because it was the day when the outward image of perfection she’d scrupulously maintained came off for good; the day she saw herself for who she really was: “it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t holy and it wasn’t good,” she writes, “but it was real,” and it made her realize for the first time “all that had been fake and futile.” And “one real thing,” wrote the incomparable Robert Farrar Capon, “is closer to God than all the idols in the world.”

On that “best worst day,” Truax cried because of all the “smug advice, hackneyed words and silent judgment” she’d bestowed on friends who had failed. Truax was a Christian well before her marriage and divorce, but her faith had taken a legalistic form; she had believed that “pious actions would make me more holy, more lovable, more…special to God.” The problem, she explains, is that all these “pious actions” were motivated by fear–fear that she was not good enough, which prompted her to try to earn the approval of God and others by maintaining an outward image of perfection. But, just as my grandmother perished slowly in her apartment, keeping us all at arm’s length, preserving the fiction that she knew better than all of us, artifice and dissimulation bring us slowly but surely to isolation. Religion, Truax suggests, is perhaps no less implicated than Madison Avenue advertisers in perpetuating the promise of perfection that keeps people in isolated, futile pursuit of perfection: “our churches,” she writes, “have been really good at setting up new laws, feeding us with the expectation that if we obey the laws then new life will follow.” She paraphrases Philip Yancey, who once said that God was never looking for perfection, but for people willing to “go toe to toe with him.” In this way, Truax gently offers an invitation to those who may or may not be pursuing God at all, or who may have pursued a spiritual life only to find the pursuit as phony and futile as Truax once did. She invites us to experience the “filling, flooding love of Jesus [that] allows us to change,” while keeping a humble realism that flies in the face of the conversion narratives many of us are familiar with: “there is no life is peachy since I accepted Jesus into my heart.”

{Read the rest of this review at Englewood Review of Books}