June 13th, 2006

ozarque figure

Religious language; three short book reviews....

Three Short Book Reviews

1. Sunday's Silence, by Gina B. Nahai, Harcourt 2001; ISBN 0-15-100627-X.

This is the story of Adam Watkins, a man raised among "the snake-handling Holiness sect in Appalachia" who returns to that environment (after a long absence) to investigate the murder of his preacher father. It's the story of the suspect in the murder -- a very unusual woman named Blue, married to an elderly linguist -- and her relationship with Adam. I ordered the book for its portrayal of the Holiness sect, and was sorry to find that that material was not its main focus; however, I can recommend the book nonetheless. It's interesting, informative, a good read -- and strange. I had read about the snake-handling before; I had not known about the practice of drinking lye and kerosene and arsenic, or the handling of fire. Researched by the author, not just in books but in Appalachia. Here's a small sample from pp. 66-67:

"The preacher went on to claim that the Holy Ghost gave man the power to conquer evil. To prove this he quoted from the Gospel of Mark the words of Jesus to his disciples immediately prior to his ascension: 'And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.'

Little Sam left the church moved by the preacher's conviction and intrigued by the meaning of the words in Mark. ... One morning he climbed atop White Oak Mountain, to a spot called Rainbow Rock, and beckoned the Lord. 'Give me a sign,' he asked. 'Tell me what to do.' There, before him, straight out of the Pentecostal preacher's sermon, was a rattlesnake."

2. Screen Door Jesus & other stories, by Christopher Cook; Host Publications (Austin TX) 2001; ISBN 0-924047-21-6.

I strongly recommend this book; it's what "Christian fiction" (or fiction of any other faith) ought to be. Not every story in this collection is of the same high quality, but they're all good; "Star Man" is spectacularly good, and reading it is an experience to treasure. Cook's ear for the religious language of East Texas and Louisiana is, in my opinion, flawless, and he writes it down in a way that makes you hear it as you read, without being obtrusive.

Here are two quotes from "Star Man," to give you the flavor. Doss and Luther and Little Red, headed home on Christmas Eve, have stopped for coffee at a rural Waffle House in the middle of the night, when suddenly they're confronted by a hydrocephalic small child on a tricycle, the child of the waitress (who has told them that she named her child Star Man).

" 'I bet tha's Star Man,' said Luther. 'Whatcha wanna bet?' He put out a long arm with a forefinger extended and the child gripped it with both stubby hands without expression. Doss and Little Red watched Luther wiggle his finger, saying, 'You the Star Man, punkin?' The child tightened his hold, his blank gaze focused on the tall man's grinning face. 'What I t'ought, yeah,' Luther said, and he leaned out the booth, reached over with his other arm and gathered up the child, pulled him close and sat him on a knee." (page 69)

" 'Reason for the mess, seems to me,' said Little Red, speaking up, 'is cause we got a choice. People go and choose what's wrong, that's the mess. Only Jesus forgives us, and that makes it all right. Long as you believe.'
Luther took off his welder's cap, studied its narrow brim. 'Maybe you right, cher. Maybe so. Me, I'm holding that child tonight... Whole time I'm t'inking, this baby ain't never gonna believe, no.'
'Well, special case like that --'
'And he don't have to,' Luther said, 'pas du tout. Cause Star Man, he is baby Jesus, for true.'
The tall thin man lifted both arms and gazed at what had so recently held divinity, then put on his cap, pulled it snug over his head and walked off toward the rig, saying, 'Baby Jesus, right there in my big ol' ugly hands.' " (page 73)

3. The Purpose-Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?, by Rick Warren; Zondervan 2002; ISBN 0-310-20571-9.

I was reluctant to read this book; my experience with smash-hit bestsellers has been way past disappointing, and the hype over this one was almost too much for me. But I've read it now, and I'm glad I did; I was impressed. Not because I always agreed with it in terms of theology; I didn't. I'm not an evangelical, and I had the usual disagreements; plus there were a few things that actually startled me. But this is a good and useful book that fills a real need, for once (in spite of the fact that it has sold nearly 14 million copies and become an industry, which is usually a bad sign) and I recommend it. I've rarely seen a book so well designed, in cognitive terms.

In my experience the major problem people have -- the problem that stands most stubbornly between them and a good and satisfying life -- isn't that they're wicked. Usually the Big Barrier is that they're totally disorganized. They flounder around, getting nowhere, and the years go by, and they panic. This book, even when the reader doesn't always agree with the religious doctrine presented, will go a long way toward fixing that. It will put a floor under the flounderer.

Warren doesn't write down to people [although I kept wishing that he (or perhaps his editors) would stop hewing to the Evangelical Punctuation Line and throwing in gratuitous exclamation points!!!], and he doesn't drift off into rambling anecdotes and pontifications. He just shows you one way you could get your act together. It's amazing. He defines his terms. He structures his lessons (one a day for 40 days) beautifully. When he says he's going to do something, he then goes ahead and does it. It's obvious even to a casual reader that this is a book based on a lifetime of experience helping disorganized people get their acts together. Here's a sample to show you the style, from page 42:

"Your unspoken life metaphor influences your life more than you realize. .... [I]f you think life is a party, your primary value in life will be having fun. If you see life as a race, you will value speed and will probably be in a hurry much of the time. ... If you see life as a battle or a game, winning will be very important to you. What is your view of life? You may be basing your life on a faulty life metaphor." And he goes on to recommend three choices from the Bible -- life is a test; life is a trust; life is a temporary assignment -- and to discuss each one.

Closing note: It's not fair for me to say that I found some startling bits and not provide at least one example; I won't do that. I was startled by this sentence on page 286: "What we do know for sure is this: Jesus will not return until everyone God wants to hear the Good News has heard it." Which made me wish I had Warren right there on the spot, so that I could ask him whether he actually thought there was someone, or many someones, that God did not want to hear the Good News. Horrible thought, in my opinion....