Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Memories of Brett Foster

Brett Foster taught the first class I took at Wheaton College: ENG 215 – Classical and Early British Literature, a 9:15 AM class I stumbled into between 9:15 and 9:22 AM on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during the fall of 2006. I remember writing a rakish poem about one of my roommates in the style of Chaucer for an assignment. A couple days after we turned in our poems, Brett read a few of them out loud, including mine. He praised my poem until he reached the final couplet, at which point he criticized it for closing with an awkward slant rhyme (“times”/”realized”) that basically torpedoed the whole thing. I was elated.

His classes were highly interactive. The students who learned the most came prepared to throw themselves into roiling, expansive conversations. I was not yet a good student in those days and my preparation for Brett’s class was consistently lackluster, but I was struck by Brett’s love for his subject, as clear and instructive to us as his obvious expertise. He offered both light and heat: a way of seeing, but also a way of living. 

I didn’t take another literature class at Wheaton, falling instead into philosophy, but Brett always remembered my name and greeted me whenever we passed one another in the hallway.

We occasionally ran into each other at bookstores around town. The Half-Price Books on Army Trail Road was a place we both favored for its large selection. He was always eager to discuss recent finds with fellow enthusiasts. I’ve seen few people demonstrate a joy as pure as his in the discovery, collection, and endless reading of books.

He was generous in introducing me to his peers and colleagues and inviting me into conversations at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing in 2014. I attended a session of his, a panel on translation that also included John Wilson and Sarah Ruden, and got to listen to Brett dish on Dante’s jealous contemporaries. We talked afterwards for a few minutes. He reveled in the cheeky insults of the forgotten poets and further exposited some of the cultural and social rivalries that fueled their disputes. When he really got going, he turned his head and looked past me, smiling and nodding as he talked. I skimmed along the surface of what he said, peering down at him miles below as he bounced from idea to idea with joy.

In the spring of this year, I published an article about a writer I love in a magazine I love, a magazine to which Brett has often contributed. He emailed me after it was published to let me know that he enjoyed the article and wanted to be kept apprised of my literary pursuits. It was a short email: a small, good thing. It helped me to feel welcome—like I belonged—and I don’t think I succeeded in articulating how much it meant to me in the reply I sent him.

I didn’t know Brett well, but what I do know of him I am confident to say. He was a lovely, generous, and brilliant man; he cared for many people and expressed his care for them in tangible and specific ways; he was an encouraging and patient teacher; he was a beautiful poet. I thank God for him.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Holy Relics Compendium

Once upon a time, I wrote a weekly-ish column that was all about evangelical Christian cultural ephemera. I was very pleased with a number of the pieces, but my interests have led me away from the column for the time being, and I don't think I'm going to be able to bring it back in any regular form.

I would very much like to turn these pieces into a book someday, complete with beautiful photographs of small-town churches and the things one finds in them. I want to write a handful of final pieces in this vein, ones that I've been saving up, wherein I swing for the fences and try to muster all my powers to say something meaningful and interesting about the most central and common features of evangelical life. The book would be very pretty. A coffee-table book, maybe. I'd hope that it would be a gift for Christians looking for interesting things to say and think about their way of life at our peculiar point in history.

Till I can get someone interested in such a book, however, I'm left with the pieces I did write. They're all available online still, but haven't been easy to access from a central location. That's what this post is for.

Below, you can find links to all of the published installments of Holy Relics. I hope you enjoy these. I've also included links to guest pieces that friends wrote for the column in its last days; one of them is a good-natured parody by a very talented fellow writer for the site. I *loved* writing this column, and hopefully have many more pieces to write in this vein. When I get them published, I'll put up links to them on this page.

Thanks for your encouragement and support with this little project. Anyway, here're the links, arranged chronologically:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

March/April Writing Recap

In case you're interested, here are links to two recent pieces of mine that I'd love for you to read.

Germanwings and Evil is a meditation on the recent Germanwings tragedy and the privative nature of evil. It's short—a tangential riff on Terry Eagleton ended up getting cut during revisions—and much more direct than most of the stuff I write. It's also my first contribution to First Things' First Thoughts blog. Hopefully it will not be the last. 

Who's Afraid of Shirley Jackson? is an article I worked on for quite a while, and I'm fairly pleased with the results. It can be found online via the link above, and you can also read it in the May/June print issue of Books & Culture. The piece traces a Freudian theme through Jackson's novels. If you've never read her or are only familiar with her legendary short story "The Lottery," I hope to convince you to pick up one of her longer pieces of fiction. They're dark, funny, and elegantly written. 

Currently I'm also working on a review of Atul Gawande's excellent book Being Mortal, and should soon be posting a link to a review of William Giraldi's beautiful and propulsive thriller Hold the Dark. When those go up, I'll try to remember to post the links here.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014: Year in Reading

Unsorted, uncategorized, un-reflected upon, here's a list (as complete as my memory can make it out) of books I read in 2014, as well as books I'm currently reading and intend to finish. I have a lot to finish. If you want a snap opinion or recommendation for any of these, let me know!


Shirley Jackson - The Bird's Nest
The Haunting of Hill House
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
The Sundial
James Baldwin - Another Country
Christopher Beha - Arts & Entertainments
Kyle Minor - Praying Drunk (my blurb)
Leslie Jamison - The Empathy Exams
H.P. Lovecraft - At the Mountains of Madness
Paul Elie - The Life You Save May Be Your Own
Shusaku Endo - Silence
George Saunders - Tenth of December 
In Persuasion Nation
Marly Youmans - Glimmerglass
Marilynne Robinson - When I Was a Child, I Read Books
David Foster Wallace - Both Flesh and Not
Christian Wiman - Once in the West (poems)
Penelope Fitzgerald - Human Voices
Mary Szybist - Incarnadine (poems)
John Darnielle - Wolf in White Van (my review)
Ernest Hemingway - A Moveable Feast
Denis Johnson - Jesus' Son (reread)
Christian Wiman - My Bright Abyss (reread)
Michael Chabon - Maps & Legends
Joseph Mitchell - My Ears Are Bent
Joe Gould's Secret
Alexander Theroux - The Primary Colors
Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian
Judy Oppenheimer - Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson
Jeff Sharlet - Sweet Heaven When I Die
Jacques Derrida - The Gift of Death
Gene Luen Yang - American Born Chinese
Aaron Belz - Plausible Worlds (poems) (my review)

In progress:

Michael Schmidt - The Novel: A Biography (my blurb)
Atul Gawande - Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Joan Didion - Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Roberto Bolaño - The Savage Detectives
Between Parentheses
Gregory Wolfe (Ed.) - Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE
Michel De Montaigne - The Complete Essays
Virginia Woolf - Mrs. Dalloway
Sarah Ruden - Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time
Miguel de Unamuno - Three Exemplary Novels
Fred Sanders - The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything
David Bentley Hart - The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
John Cheever - The Stories of John Cheever
Felix Ó Murchadha - A Phenomenology of Christian Life: Glory and Night

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Broken Link to the Past: James Franco on Tom Bissell and Zelda

James Franco rarely bothers me anymore, but last night I saw a few paragraphs he put up at VICE about a 25-minute screen test he did for Blood Meridian some four years ago, and it made me angry. Blood Meridian is a beautiful and brutal book. I don't know whether it can make the jump to film. Someone with a creative vision on a level with McCarthy's own could, maybe, use it as source material to create something similarly disturbing and awe-inspiring for the screen, but that person is not James Franco. He's gone and done it anyway, though. Because he's James Franco, and he's made of money, and he can go and do anything he wants and then put whatever that is in front of an audience and they will watch it, or eat it, or read it, or do something else with it. Because he's James Franco.

In light of this I decided to post a thing I wrote about him a while back. This piece is at least a year and a few months old, and I wrote it in anger about one of the first installments of Franco's column at VICE. I've lightly edited it for clarity and what-have-you. Have at it:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Holy Relics: The Christian Flag, B-Side

Each week for Holy Relics, my column at Christ and Pop Culture, I analyze some bit of evangelical cultural ephemera. This week the Christian flag is on the docket. While my main piece is up at the site, I thought I'd use this space for this week's B-side: a series of surrealist vignettes. 

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to Jesus Christ, its only Son, one state and three governmental branches; I pledge that it was born of a virgin, suffered under the British Parliament, was taxed without representation, was crucified, died, and was subject to wanton quartering; on the fourth of July it was raised from its shackles and now lives at the right hand of God; it is coming again in glory to arm the living and burn the dead.

* * *

A bloodied Christ hops off the cross and punches a centurion in the face. He seizes a spear and then a white garment from the soldiers who were about to cast lots for it, and this garment he ties to the upper third of the spear. Waving this improvised banner over his bruised visage, he looks into the camera. “I want you,” Jesus says, “for the Lord’s Army.” Letting out a war cry, he leaps into the air and is immediately upon the soldiers, whose eyes are wide with terror at the Son of God in his strength.

The screen goes black as the VCR clicks and whirrs. “And that, kids,” the Sunday school teacher says, “is where the Christian flag comes from.” The children cheer and toss their chocolate Easter bunnies into the air before rushing the enlistment table to become missionaries.

In the sanctuary down the hall a half-asleep man is in the throes of a waking dream. The pastor’s rousing message has bypassed the level of conscious thoughts to sink directly into his lizard brain. Visual flotsam slides over his retinas and produces images of threatening shapes that loom behind the pulpit. “Christ calls us to take up the cross,” Pastor Mark says into his microphone, his helmet pushed back over his forehead, “and that the gates of hell shall not stand against his Church.” The roar of propellers drowns out his voice. Smoke rises from empty choir seats. The rafters shake and dust falls all around. 

Behind the pastor, two flags loom. The somnambulist in the pew has an eye on each and in the half-awake haze of his mind they combine into a single one. “…the upward call of CHRIST” cuts through the noise, and the dozing man jerks awake. Two flags stand again distinct.

“How would you design a Christian flag?” the youth pastor asks the youth in the youth room. Hands go up, suggestions are made. “Yes, that’s good. Fortunately, you guys, we already have one that suits us just fine.” He reveals the flag, which had been standing obscured behind a projector screen in front of a wall covered in brick wallpaper. “The white is for Christ’s purity, the blue for baptism, and the red for the blood shed on the cross, which is inside the blue box here. The white is also for surrender. It’s a pretty neat flag if you ask me.” The brass cross atop the flag pole gleams under the fluorescent tube lights.

“But who’s surrendering here?” Tim asks. “Are we surrendering? Is God? Is the Church? If our flag is next to the American flag, is the Church surrendering to America? Shouldn’t it be a color like green instead? You know, for life and growth and living things? But like, what is a flag, anyway? A nationalistic totem? A military device with a very specific rallying function? A symbol of a nation-state? Is it okay for the Church to appropriate the visual language of nationalism, militarism, and battle for the church? What about how the pledge to the Christian flag echoes the pledge of allegiance? Also, why do they stand at the same height? What about the interposition of a symbol between us and another symbol, which is the cross itself? What’s wrong with that symbol? Why hasn’t someone nailed down the exact dimensions for that canton? Plus, like, why is it so dumb looking?” By the time Tim finishes asking his questions everyone else has left, and he is alone with the back half of a spray-painted Camaro and a Skillet poster.

“LOL what kind of idiot could believe that something comes from nothing??? I’ll tell you what kind a DAWKINS KIND LOL. Please remember to bring logic/reason to the logic/reason fight next time, Ath315t.” User COL.1.17 clicks “post” and waits. Christ will be victorious on the internet, he thinks. Minutes later his mouth forms a frown around a straw poking out of a Mountain Dew can as he reads the first three replies to his comment. “These NYT types,” he says to himself, spelling the acronym out loud, “they just don’t know when they’ve been more than conquered.”

Christus Victor marches across the world under a banner so large it unfurls across entire fronts in the war with the powers of the world. This is by design; the better for his soldiers to see his sign in the absence of himself. He holds a bright sword aloft and rides out upon his white horse. The world will be overcome once more under the shadow of the cross-spangled banner. The legions of the Lord are legion, and they are marching. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Liberal Arts in the Woods

A fresh crop of undergraduates has matriculated at my alma mater, and for the past two weeks I guided a group of eight of them through an intensive transitional program set in the beautiful northern woods of Wisconsin. Eight bright-eyed dudes, laden with books and rumors of books and myriad anxieties, scrambling up a 12-ft wall under the benevolent gaze of me, their bearded leader, silently cheering for them.

We ate meatball subs and debated the proper shape of Christian witness in politics under canoes lashed to the ceiling of the dining hall. We pondered the unfathomable depths of the love of God on a pontoon boat, which 20 minutes of effort helped to anchor in the shallows near the lake's bank under a patchwork cover of pine tree shade. We talked about community sitting cross-legged in cool dirt, stood up to brush off our behinds and hike back to camp. As campfire smoke filled our jackets and fleeces we talked Dostoevsky, transubstantiation, metaphysics, and dating. I commented on academic paper formats and the school's language requirements while picking marshmallow out of my beard.

I helped to build the cabin they slept in. We built it lincoln-log style from some kind of kit one year when I went north for spring break to read and work. During the long winters, the snow muffles everything but the sound of the wind across the frozen lake. It is possible to build a fire in the middle of the ice, a couple hundred feet from the nearest shore. Standing in its glow, looking at a darkening forest above the buried banks while the sun goes down, it can feel as though you've reached the edge of the world—where eternity clips time, as Annie Dillard says.

In late summer, the sounds never stop. Bugs and outboard motors, shouts, rifle retorts, backfires, fireworks, campfire crackles, leaves rattling like a cascade of rice across a counter, deer suddenly bounding through the woods in front of you, birdcalls. It all floats on a light wind, the organic counterpoint to the mechanical city hum I've become accustomed to.

We walked over acres of forest and grass, turning over ideas and perspectives in the workshops of our souls and burning off extra energy in a steady chatter. Hymns sung next to a sputtering Hobart lifted the dishwashing room into the celestial spheres. Our puckered hands slung food waste and scrubbed baking sheets. The damp that spread through aprons into t-shirts was holy water. We may as well have been wearing robes and tonsures. God smiled upon us, likely in amusement.

Of course, you have to come back to earth sometime. Those students are about to begin their freshman year; our wonderful faculty advisor is already busy advising his new advisees. The engine is about to turn, and within a few weeks, Wisconsin will likely seem distant in history. That doesn't matter, though. What happened will prove its relative value over time. I'm just glad to have been a part of it, whatever it will mean in the long term. Embodied, thinking creatures that we are, I don't know of a better place to start a liberal arts education than in the woods along the banks of Long Lake.