Feb 17, 2012

Metafiction moments in Left Behind

Except to point out how miserably bad it is, people don't usually talk about the writing of Left Behind. Jerry B. Jenkins wrote the book in about 24 days,* and it shows.

The two most common responses to the book -- even as it sold millions -- were to find the writing bad and the plot unbelievable.

It's interesting, though, how exactly those responses are written into the fiction.

There are moments where, very briefly, the text is metafictional. The fiction is structured to draw attention to it's own fictionality, and acknowledges, with a kind of foreknowledge, the readers' negative response. The text, in a sense, shouts, "YOU!, you are responding in a certain way, responding right now, but that's also a part of the story, too, so don't get distracted -- keep reading."

In one example of this, a character thinks, "If somebody tried to sell a screenplay about millions of people disappearing, leaving everything but their bodies behind, it would be laughed off."

The novel itself is evidence, of course, that such a story wouldn't be "laughed off" before selling in the millions. However implausible the story may be, it's affirmed, still, in a sense, as plausible, because readers are reading.

In these metafictional moments of drawing attention to it's own implausibility, the text takes the disbelief of the readers and absorbs it. The readers' skepticism and disbelief is folded into the fiction. It's taken in, encircled by the story. It makes that disbelief not something separating one from the fictional world of the last days of the novel, but, rather, a key part of that world, a part connecting the reader to that world.

Thus, disbelief is not a reason to stop suspending disbelief, but another part of the story about which disbelief is suspended.

Feb 15, 2012

Seeking a better country, that is, a heavenly one

"All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them."
-- Hebrews 11:13-16

"A number of former members the Observer spoke to said they believed Blair Adams sees himself as a messenger from God. Adam Alexander recalls how Adams used to scream and yell at his congregation in church, on one occasion slamming the pulpit and demanding: 'Never again shall you see my face until you can say: blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'

[...]

"Once he got too old for beatings, John said he had to endure being berated by the elders for two or three hours at a time. 'It's a process that never stops. My dad's in his 50s now and is still being disciplined.'

"John's comments echo those of Christina. 'When we were in Sunday meetings, the screaming and yelling and belittling of people was so atrocious,' she said. 'And at a moment's notice the elders would dis-fellowship you, and suddenly you were seen as an outsider among your brothers and sisters in the church. The psychological impact of this was terrible.'

Former members say Sunday meetings began at 10 a.m. and often lasted until after 3 p.m. Throughout, they would vacillate between positive and negative, and all meetings were conducted by the imposing Adams, standing behind the lectern with his booming voice. 'In the beginning, he’d shower you with love and praise,' John said. 'Then he'd berate somebody on the spot. It would go on and on like this.'

"It was, he said, an intense mix of 'Pentecostal preacher with fire-and-brimstone judgment.'"
-- Alex Hannaford, "Heritage of Abuse."

Feb 13, 2012



Hardcore, written and directed by Paul Schrader.

Rule no. 1: Step outside the noise

I've tried, four or five times, to write about the Catholic bishops vs. the Obama admin. & the fight over the new rule all employers provide health care that provides coverage for oral contraceptives. I have failed, though. There's no post. Nor, I guess, is their going to be one.

I just couldn't figure out how to do it & still follow my own blogging rules.

Since my rules push me regularly to such idiosyncrasies & since some might have expected something on this issue (or another such issue), & this situation made me think of them again this week, I thought I'd take a minute to articulate my self-imposed rules.

Feb 11, 2012

Transatlantic contacts

A new project I'm part of at Heidelberg: The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany. From the blog there:

"All too often, we find, transatlantic contacts are ignored, or, if mentioned, conceptualized only in terms of "early influences" on the English-speaking main protagonists. Rather than understanding the relationship as one between contemporaries, as a give and take, to be thought of in terms of a network, there's a simple, linear narrative of Americanization, according to which European church traditions eventually metamorphosed into something new and distinctively American in the New World."

Read more @ www.jonathanedwardsgermany.org/blog.

Feb 10, 2012

Resistance/adaptation in one Dutch church in 1919 Chicago

"The Dutch," James D. Bratt writes, "also agreed on what 'Americanization' theoretically ought to be. They all believed that sooner or later the 'Dutch Reformed' had to become 'American Reformed' -- that is, that nationality had to be sacrificed to religion."

At first it's so simple: resistance/adaptation.

We look at immigrant groups and their religions with this as the basic set up. The way the pieces work. And then we ask, in a given case, in which direction religion is working. Is it adapting, and aiding adaptation? Or is it a form of resistance?

It works well enough.

The secret, though, which isn't really a secret, is that this model of immigrant's religion is really only really interesting when it's not either/or but both/and. When the model is working, but working in weird ways. When it compounds or doubles back on itself, and it's a good model, still, for what's happening in a given immigrant group and understanding their religion, but just keeping track of those pieces that move takes significant mental focus.

The Dutch Calvinists -- who, Bratt says, were culturally poised to have "'melted' into American society," and in many ways did, but still have had a history "heavy with a sense of antagonism and displacement" -- are a really interesting example of this.

Consider just one Dutch Calvinist church: The First Christian Reformed Church in Engelwood, Ill.

Feb 6, 2012

A feeling of faith rebellion stirred

"Mr Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn't carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr Tench's heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly towards them. One rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn't find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr Tench went on across the plaza.

"He said 'Beunos dias' to a man with a gun who sat in a small patch of shade against a wall. But it wasn't like England: the man said nothing at all, just stared malevolently."

-- Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Feb 2, 2012

Hazarding a picture: a survey of U.S. religions right now

(Revised and updated from Jul 29, 2011)

Note: To end my "Introduction to American Religious History" class, I am giving students a quick, sketchy survey of the religious landscape in the US today. Most freshman-level textbooks tend to have a metanarrative and give a teleological account of American religion(s), and they also tend to place that telos about 10 years before the book came out. Recent text books, e.g., often stop the story with information that was current in the 90s, with an addendum concluding around the time of the terrorist attacks of 2001. I wanted to take my students past the telos, so to speak, and bring them up to the messy present with this brief overview of what's happening now, even up to as recently as the day before the class.

I preface the survey with three warnings:

Warning 1: this stuff is so recent that there’s no consensus on what’s actually happening. Or what’s important. This is, then, a kind of hazarded guess. This is what, in journalism, they call a “first draft of history.” It’s what I *think* is going on, and scholars will revise it (and I will revise it) in ten years, a hundred years and so on.

Warning 2: because this is a hazarded guess, my own position in the world is more problematic. I naturally know more about some things going on right now than I do others – some moves in the religious worlds, right now, I have a thorough understanding of, others it’s more cursory. This is always true, re: limitations and the problem of positionality, but if we’re talking about the Civil War, say, I have the same kind of access to every side, all the positions are more or less equally available to me through documents, etc. With the current moment, I have a lot of access and a lot of ways of knowing what’s going on in some places, where other places are very closed off. I tried/try to note that when that happens.

Warning 3: this makes these groups look static, where really they're dynamic. One of the most interesting things about religion in American right now is the high conversion rates. Though the size of a given group might remain constant, that big picture hides the movement. People are joining these religions and leaving these religions everyday. Presenting them as groups also hides what they have in common. This values differences over commonalities, where we could easily reverse that, and there might be good reasons to reverse it too. At least we can note, if we did this the other way, different things would appear clearer and more pronounced.

What I generally want to do is look at the various religious groups in order of size – smallest to largest, according to Pew's religious landscape report – and with each one give something that has been public about them recently, like a news story, and then, to the extent that I could, say what I think is going on within the faith community, marking the internal struggles or tensions and the forces at work. What I'm trying to give a sense of here is 1) the cultural position of a given religion and 2) any movement or tensions that might give us a sense of what's happening next.

This is now, so it's messy, obviously, but that's part of the point, part of what might create interest for further study, and part of what, really, I want my students to be wrestling with.

NATIVE AMERICANS - .3
Native American religions -- the plural being very important here -- are most often depicted today as struggling to preserve an authentic tradition, and to defend it from encroaching White-American culture or from White-American appropriation and commoditification.

This gets really tricky really fast. Not least because "authenticity" is problematic just as an idea. It's also the case that those who would package it and commodity it, who sell it, are telling exactly the same story about "authenticity" as those who oppose them do. That is, even at it's most commercialized, this spirituality is being sold in terms of "tradition" and "authenticity," and those terms are obviously highly contested.

Here's an example of a "non-traditional" sweat lodge, a Native American religious tradition being made available to non-Native Americans. Note how, though it's non-traditional, it's talked about (sold) in terms of a tradition: