Imagining the Kingdom

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship WorksImagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith

[I]f the gospel is going to capture imaginations and sanctify perception we need painters and novelists and dancers and songwriters and sculptors and poets and designers whose creative work shows the world otherwise, enabling us to imagine differently—and hence perceive differently and so act differently. (163)

Growing up I was often confused and conflicted about worship, and I was very nearly an early casualty of the “church music wars.” Choruses came into my life in a big way when I was young, and though they left me frustrated and uneasy, it seemed equally useless to argue for hymns. Arguing about music seemed pointless because both sides were beginning from differing premises. Worship was either a commodity to consume or a means of didactic instruction: was there better theology in the hymns or greater emotional (and thus “spiritual”) resonance in the choruses?

Choruses or hymns—either way, it was still all about me. I remember feeling a hunger for worship—for something—that pushed me out of the spotlight and yet still did something fundamental to me that wasn’t just the addition of a certain feeling or information. I had lots of conversations with youth leaders trying to help me sort this out. (And it was patient mentors who kept me searching for answers within the Church, who made it clear that my questions were okay and that Christianity was big enough for me to find my answers within.) They explained that some people connected more emotionally and others connected more intellectually and that I just needed to find the right means of connection for me.

Part of me still agrees with this to some extent. I am an epistemological post-modernist: I hold that there are multiple ways of searching for and engaging with truth. I know enough of the history of human thought to recognize the validity of such a claim. But at the same time I felt (and continue to feel) there is something objectively lacking in much contemporary evangelical worship and that simply saying some people are too “intellectual” for worshipping that way doesn’t really work. Moreover, I think some of our forms of worship are doing active harm to those who practice them.

This is where James K. A. Smith’s second volume of his Cultural Liturgies series, entitled Imagining the Kingdom, becomes so incredibly helpful—for those who can wade through the philosophical apparatus Smith constructs to make what seem like largely intuitive points. Smith examines the importance of forms of worship. Worship, he believes, is missional—it’s a call to action. But, as he spends most of the book explaining, the mistake most evangelical Christians make is assuming that humans are rational actors, that we act primarily on the knowledge that we have. If this is the case, then experiencing Christianity would be absorbing knowledge through hymns, sermons, Sunday School, etc. But this is not the case. Instead, worship, according to Smith, should be the education of our imaginations.

[P]erhaps the mind of Christ is also something that is acquired through practice and formation, something that emerges as a result of sanctification rather than an informational deposit. (114)

Smith marshals a host of psychologists and philosophers to argue for a philosophy of action based on something deeper than intellect, based on our “embodied knowledge” and habitus. He discusses this in a few different ways, but his argument at the core is one I think most would agree upon: that our cultural forms predispose our perceptions on a largely unconscious level and that every day we act on these assumptions prior to conscious thought. These “lenses” or “frameworks” (and Smith has to bracket a lot of his expressions in scare quotes throughout the work) Smith argues are shaped in two primary and related ways: through “embodied knowledge” and through narrative. The first is based on the fact that our bodies learn over and above our minds huge amounts of social and cultural cues that unconsciously effect our actions. He uses the example of learning to properly hold a fork or eat at the table. That physical habits embodies a whole spectrum of cultural and social knowledge that we learn by “feel” rather than intellect.

I “think about” the world second; first I’m engaged in it as an actor whose motivations and ends are practical and largely “unconscious.” It is habitus that is “the basis of perception” and all subsequent experiences. Indeed, in some significant sense, experience is only possible because of habitus. (83)

In regards to narrative, Smith argues that the stories were are taught (and the stories we embody) also inform our actions prior to conscious thought. The panhandler on the street, for instance: our initial, unthinking response is shaped by whether we have imbibed a narrative of personal responsibility and American opportunity or a narrative about generosity and the value of all as children of God. That narrative shapes our perceptions themselves, not simply how we chose to act on those perceptions. It is narrative that trains our emotional perceptual apparatus to perceive the world as meaningful. (108) Narrative is the unconscious framework structuring our perceptions prior to though. Story is the lingua franca of incarnate significance. (160)

[W]e have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination. Moreover, because of this neglect and our stunted anthropology, we have failed to recognize the degree and extent to which secular liturgies [consumerism, nationalism, egoisms] do implicitly capitalize on our embodied penchant for storied formation. (39)

If all that is the case (and much of the density of this book comes from Smith meticulously building up this case in a rigorous fashion that unfortunately makes it largely inaccessible to the audience I think he’s aiming for) Smith argues that the role of worship is to shape our habitus, to form our embodied knowledge and structure our narrative—not simply by giving us knowledge but rather by having us participate in physical practices that form our perceptions on a deeper level than intellect. Worship shapes the imagination. That means that the forms of worship themselves, especially our physical postures, are important. They are not (and this is critical for Smith) neutral “containers” that can be whatever form (traditional or contemporary) needed to most effectively carry the important stuff, the content. No, the forms themselves embody and articulate perception and postures and aesthetic awareness that shape the worshippers.

[I]f we aim to form Christian actors and agents of renewal, then dispositional deflection requires sanctifying perception—for it is our bodily comportment (praktognosia) that constitutes the world in which we are called and moved to act. To shape perception is to transform action because we transform the “world” in which we find ourselves. . . . We need nothing less than a Christian imagination. (157)

This is where Smith’s argument finds its teeth, but unfortunately it comes very late in the treatise. And, just as most readers will likely agree with Smith’s emphasis on the importance of non-intellectual factors to shape perception, I think many readers would follow Smith here as well. We all knew this on some level, once upon a time. We were taught that you dressed a certain way on Sundays and that you behaved in a certain way in the sanctuary. You spoke in a certain tone. You didn’t run in church. We learned the rubric of reverence before we had the intellectual tools to understand it, and by so doing we understood certain things about our relationship with God on a deeper level than conscious thought. Yet somewhere along the line that embodied knowledge, that habitus, was thrown out because it was seen as legalistic, as divorced from the important stuff: the knowledge about Christ, which could just as easily (and perhaps more “effectively”) be delivered by a preacher wearing jeans and flip-flops.

But Smith’s point is that we have indeed lost something, that the forms are not neutral. I wish he would have gone into more detail here, as this is I think where his argument finds its application and could be a prophetic voice for the larger evangelical church today. He gives basically one example, which again is familiar to most of us, the idea of the consumerist form of worship being considered a neutral package in which to deliver knowledge of Christ but actually and unconsciously forming us to view Christ as simply another commodity to be consumed. I could add my own example from my own experience: the form of worship as emotivist appeal, training us to think of worship as both a form of performance and entertainment and shaping us to view our narrative with Christ through individualist, emotivist lenses.

Wide swaths of contemporary Christianity have bought into a specious form/content distinction: we have assumed that Christianity is primarily a “message” and is thus defined by a “content” that is distillable from historical forms. Along with this distinction comes the assumption that forms are basically just neutral containers for the message, selected on the basis of taste, preference, or cultural relevance. . . .[W]e begin to approach Christian worship as an event for disseminating the message and thus look for forms that will be fresh, attractive, relevant, accessible, and so on.
. . .[S]uch strategies are inherently “intellectualist,” both because they reduce the gospel to a (propositional) “message” and (because of that) completely miss the formative power of the forms themselves. Because such “relevant” paradigms are unwittingly intellectualist, they fail to appreciate that we are liturgical animals shaped by practices that work on our cognitive unconscious. And so they also fail to appreciate that these forms are not neutral; the forms of the mall or coffee shop are not just benign containers that can carry any content. These forms are already “aimed and loaded”: they carry their own teleological orientation and come loaded with a complex of rituals and practices that carry a vision of the good life. So while we might think that reconfiguring worship to feel like the mall is a way of making Jesus relevant and accessible, in fact we are unwittingly teaching worshipers and seekers to treat Jesus like any other commodity they encounter in the mall, because the very form of the mall’s (“secular”) liturgy unconsciously trains us to relate to the world as consumers.

I think Smith is largely correct in his evaluation, but I wish his treatment would have been one that was aimed for a more popular than academic audience. Most Christian thinkers who make it through this book would agree with Smith, but most worship leaders who really need to grapple with the concepts he’s laying out would likely be turned off by the length to which he goes to make them academically rigorous. The appeal to the forms of worship here and their urgency for the Church is real, but it gets rather lost (ironically) in a thicket of intellectual discourse, despite James’s valiant attempts to connect the concepts throughout with examples from contemporary poetry, literature, and film.


Lighthouses & Keepers

Lighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its LegacyLighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its Legacy by Dennis L. Noble

Something about lighthouses captured our family’s fancy this past summer, and we found ourselves visiting as many as we could along the western coast of Lake Michigan. Their appeal is aesthetic, certainly, the romance of the shoreline and a lost time passed. But the amount of history—of commerce, technology, transportation—they represent is also significant, and I remembered a colleague who, in the early days of my PhD program, suggested that the history of the US Lighthouse Board would be a good topic for a dissertation, one on which there was still a great deal to be done. After spending some time this summer exploring lighthouses, I figured it might be time to revisit this idea, so I started looking for material. And it turns out the only recent book-length treatment on the topic is Lighthouses & Keepers by Dennis Noble, a survey of the history of the US Lighthouse Service. The book provides an outline of the contours of this history that any more detailed study would be built upon.

Basically, the narrative of lighthouses in the United States goes something like this: the construction of lighthouses in Colonial times and the early days of the republic was haphazard and poorly managed. Their construction and supervision was linked with the collection of customs, and supervision of the lighthouses (or “aids to navigation”) was under the fifth auditor of the US Treasury, a man by the name of Stephen Pleasanton, who would control lighthouses for over thirty years, beginning in the early 1800s. The problem was that besides having no maritime experience, Pleasanton was primarily focused on keeping his political bailiwick as economically lean as possible. Noble claims that Pleasanton, along with his primary contractor, was responsible for retarding the development of lighthouses even as they proliferated on both coasts and the Great Lakes. This growing crisis, which Noble talks about briefly in terms of rising cost to life and commerce because of poor aids to navigation, precipitated the founding of the US Lighthouse Board in 1852.

This is where a detailed study could really sink some teeth into the narrative and provide context. What was the popular, contemporary feeling regarding lighthouses, or were there particular incidents that swung public and government opinion toward founding the Board to address the issue? Noble credits the Board with transforming lighthouse management in a manner of years from “a service of political appointees, with haphazard accomplishment” to a professional government service. How exactly was this accomplished? Part of the explanation, according to Noble, was the composition of the Board, which included civilian scientific representatives (like Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute) as well as army and navy officers. Part was also the fact that the Board issued detailed instructions for keepers, standardizing equipment and procedures. Part of this was technical innovation as well, with Noble treats briefly in discussions of oil and Fresnel lenses. But all of this discussion in Lighthouses & Keepers is generally superficial, simply one chapter in a longer overview of the Lighthouse Service, which came into being at the Board’s recommendations.

Noble has chapters on all aspects of the Service, not just lighthouses. He discusses lightships (which had a unique history on the Great Lakes), buoys, fog signals, and tenderships (ships that provided service and supplies). All of this provides a snapshot of aspects of the work of the Service, before it was disbanded in 1939— or rather, merged with the US Coast Guard, which again would be an interesting period to examine because, as Noble discusses, Coast Guard were enlisted officers whereas keepers were almost entirely civilian, so the merger of the two organizations inevitably led to some friction. Lighthouses, perhaps more than any other iconic structures, seem to embody history, and Noble’s book is an excellent (and perhaps really the only) way to access the institutional history behind them.

One Summer: America, 1927

One Summer: America, 1927One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

At some point, Bill Bryson apparently became interested in something that happened during the summer of 1927, probably in relation to baseball, so he did what any good writer would do and went to the library to begin reading newspapers from that period. He quickly realized that apart from Babe Ruth’s amazing season, there were lots of other incredible things happening, not least of which was Lindberg’s first solo transatlantic flight.

You can see Bryson in action as a reader himself, as he drops hints about his methodology throughout the book: he alludes to headlines and how many pages were devoted to specific stories at specific times. When characters (known or unknown today) appear, he delves into the secondary literature to place them in context.

And we are persuaded. There is no doubt about it, crazy and amazing things were happening in the summer of 1927, and Bryson’s verve and prose make this popcorn history at its best. It’s accessible, fun, engaging, and at times genuinely insightful. And it even does something important: it gives a new perspective of a different time in our nation’s history.

Of course, with any historical snapshot like this the problem is that stories keep wandering out of the frame. We get, for instance, exposes of Coolidge and Hoover and their respective administrations, as well as clues and forecasts leading up to the stock market crash, but of course most of that action and context happens off screen, as it were. When it comes down to it, the only things that are firmly within the summer appear to be baseball and the immediate aftermath of Lindberg’s flight.

Some of the things Bryson covers consists of primarily context (like the advent of talking pictures and its influence) without any conclusion (like what happened with Ford’s Model A, which Ford had shut down all production in that summer in order to create). But all of that is fine, because Bryon’s not writing a historical treatise. He’s writing a story. A story about a single summer with tons of information, tons of fantastic characters, and his familiar vantage of being pleasantly delighted and bemused with everything he’s discovering.

Beginning to Pray

Beginning to PrayBeginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom

What we must start with, if we wish to pray, is the certainty that we are sinners in need of salvation, that we are cut off from God and that we cannot live without Him and that all we can offer God is our desperate longing to be made such that God will receive us, receive us in repentance, receive us with mercy and with love. And so from the outset prayer is really our humble ascent towards God, a moment when we turn Godwards, shy of coming near, knowing that if we meet Him too soon, before His grace has had time to help us to be capable of meeting Him, it will be judgment. And all we can do is to turn to Him with all the reverence, all the veneration, the worshipful adoration, the fear of God of which we are capable, with all the attention and earnestness which we may possess, and ask Him to do something with us that will make us capable of meeting Him face to face, not for judgement, not for condemnation, but for eternal life.

Beginning to Pray is a slender book, but it’s slender in the same way a blade is slender: it can still get into the cracks of your heart and pry them open. The book is conversational, a short treatise on prayer written by the Orthodox archbishop Father Anthony Bloom. It does not have a central thesis except perhaps this, which is carried in much of the ascetic tradition of Orthodoxy: that prayer is difficult and that it must be directed inward at one’s own heart. That it is a dangerous labor that cannot be entered into lightly. That there is a cost.

Perhaps the most innovative point of the book (from the perspective of a former protestant) is that Bloom says prayer must be aimed into one’s own heart, that the door to the kingdom at which we must knock is within us and that we have to aim our prayers into our own hearts like an arrow. Prayers are not launched into the sky, hoping to hit God. He is closer than we know. So Bloom says we aim them into ourselves, hoping He meets us at the doorway of our heart. With that in mind, prayers must be words that are true and that can cut deeply. They need to be sound and strong, to get past the deadness of spirit and our own internal deafness. They have to pierce. Where does one find such prayers? They can, on occasion, be written, and (according to Bloom) they can very rarely be extemporaneous. But mostly they need to be mined from the scripture and the traditions of the Church.

The other aspect of prayer that Bloom emphasizes is the practice of silence. To truly be able to pray, one first must learn to be silent. I had a privilege this past summer of a three day retreat, alone with a lot of spare time, and among other things I read this book and savored (and attempted to practice) the invitation to silence that it extended. I immediately began a re-read upon returning back home into the hectic, busy world, but I found the words that before had been an invitation now seemed almost a rebuke. Prayer must be hemmed with silence, Bloom says, and the silence that is not simply the lack of noise. It’s built up through time and practice. Yet such a thing seemed, upon returning home, pretty distant and unattainable.

You need time with this book. I don’t feel I can do it justice in a summary, and I don’t really need to, as the book itself is brief and accessible. Instead I’ll just pull out a few of Bloom’s most relevant quotes:

On humility in prayer:

Humility [from the Latin ‘humus,’ fertile soil] is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold out of every seed.

On letting go of expectation and desire:

Outside the realm of “right,” only in the realm of mercy, can we meet God . . . Everything we taken into our hands to possess is taken out of the realm of love. Certainly it becomes ours, but love is lost . . . [A]s long as we have nothing in our hands, we can take, leave, do whatever we want.

On prayer and action:

We must each take up our own cross, and when we ask something in our prayers, we undertake by implication to do it with all our strength, all our intelligence and all the enthusiasm we can put into our actions, and with all the courage and energy we have. In addition, we do it with all the power which God will give us . . . Therefore prayer and action should become two expressions of the same situation vis-a-vis God and ourselves and everything around us.

On praying continually:

If we could be aware . . . that every human meeting is judgment, is crisis, is a situation in which we are called either to receive Christ or to be Christ’s messenger to the person whom we are meeting, if we realized that the whole of life has this intensity of meaning, then we would be able to cry and to pray continuously, and turmoil would be not a hindrance but the very condition which teaches us to pray.

Alien Phenomenology

Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a ThingAlien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost

What else is there, here, anywhere right now? Anything will do, so long as it reminds us of the awesome plentitude of the alien everyday. (134)

I have been interested in things for a long time. I remember on a visit to an art museum as an undergraduate being fascinated by a scuffed section of worn wooden floor in a corner that I thought deserved as much attention as the exhibits. It seemed to carry such a weight of narrative. Likewise at a conference in Wisconsin I found an old, painted heat register in a corner of a museum next to a forgotten chair, and I was struck by its quiet gravity. For me, objects became a way of connecting to the stories that had washed over them like waves. Who else had seen, touched, forgotten this?

I am attracted to environments in a similar same way: who has been here before? Wandering through the empty halls of the Union League Club in Chicago or the streets of Oxford or Venice, the details of pavement or chipping plaster or window or stone seem so heavy, so linked to human stories and remembering but so resolutely independent of me and my own. My photography often seeks to highlight these details.

In the natural world that human touch is more distant, but especially in my Midwestern home it is never absent: who else has walked this way or will again? Who else is weaving prairie, trail, ash tree, railroad embankment, rutted farm road, wind-turbined horizon, and cumulus into the human story?

All of these considerations though are intensely anthropocentric. I find significance and beauty in these things because I’m constantly linking them to the human narrative, even when they strike me primarily due to their distance to my own personal narrative: I’ll never know all the details of this particular grove of poplars or this weathered barn, but they would have no significance at all if I wasn’t here to wonder about them. Would they?

For Ian Bogost, this is just another example of our tendency to view everything through a correlationist lens: to see the ontological significance of things from an anthropocentric view. Bogost sees this reflected in both the scientific endeavor (which seeks to harness and utilize the universe for human use) and the humanities (which evaluate everything according to the human narrative):

[B]oth perspectives embody the correlationist conceit. The scientists believes in reality apart from human life, but it is a reality excavated for human exploitation. The scientific process cares less for reality itself than it does for the discoverability of reality through human ingenuity. Likewise, the humanist doesn’t believe in the world except as a structure erected in the interest of human culture. Like a mirror image of the scientist, the humanist mostly seeks to mine particular forms of culture, often suggesting aspects of it that must be overcome through abstract notions of resistance or revolution. “Look at me!” shout both the scientist and the humanist. “Look what I have uncovered!” (14)

I don’t know that I buy Bogost’s critique of the scientist, as I think it’s often the scientific endeavor that yields insights that do the most to challenge our anthropocentric views. For instance, during a show about exoplanets in the planetarium years ago, thick with scientific descriptions of stone and surface temperature and wind speeds, a friend of mine asked not the how do we know question of science but the what does it mean question of philosophy. What does it mean that there are these physical places where rocks are being weathered and clouds are drifting through skies that we will never experience? We want to maintain that they are physically significant (I might even say holy, in the eyes of an orthodox Christian materialism). But they are outside the mediation of mankind. This is part of my fascination with Bogost’s philosophical view, known as object oriented ontology (OOO): it seems a compelling way to grapple with some of these questions. What do I do with the reality of objects that have no bearing whatsoever on the human narrative?

Bogost’s work is short, compelling, and more engagingly written than any piece of philosophy I have read in a long time. I won’t be able to do justice to his treatment, which also provides a helpful introduction to the handful of other philosophers that are pursuing this line of thought. In short, Bogost argues for a flat ontology, a way of perceiving the world in which objects and their relationships are given as much ontological significance as possible, regardless of their relationship with the human perspective:

In a flat ontology, the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top. (17)

And quoting Harman: object-oriented philosophy holds that the relation of humans to pollen, oxygen, eagles, or windmills is no different in kind from the interaction of these objects with each other . . . For we ourselves, just like Neanderthals, sparrows, mushrooms, and dirt, have never done anything else than act amidst the bustle of other actants. (39)

There are some obvious issues with such a view, for one thing the apparent paradox that Bogost never really qualifies what he means by “thing,” so that at times he’s talking about discrete physical objects but at other times he discusses ideas or even systems or institutions (“criminal justice system”) that are human constructs. It’s difficult to see how one can argue for the independent significance of objects that clearly only arise through the human narrative itself. Likewise, it’s hard to take seriously a philosophy that discusses how objects might perceive each other or that tries to deconstruct objects into their smaller units when those units at times only have conceptual existence in the human mind.

To be fair, Bogost recognizes both the alienness and the difficulty in his task, and he qualifies much of what he is doing as speculative analogy or even poetry, with an intention more of challenging the way we think about the world than arriving at actual insights on the nature of things.

Speculation isn’t just poetic, but it’s partly so, a creative act that beings conduct as they gaze earnestly but bemusedly at one another. Everything whatsoever is like people on a subway, crunched together into uncomfortable intimate contact with strangers. (31)

This is why Bogost’s work is interspersed with poetry, which ironically returns us to the anthropological centricism of humans interpreting their universe. Yet that’s okay for Bogost, as long as we recognize the creative endeavor of attempting to interpret the universe but without stubbornly maintaining ourselves at the center. It’s a sort of philosophical, ontological Copernican revolution, and its results of course will inform our poetry and our expression, as Bogost provides multiple examples of.

Bogost more than anything wants us to be aware, to appreciate the things for themselves, as he appreciates antiquated computer systems not simply for what they represent about human ingenuity or design but because (as offered in some of his most compelling examples) they have intrinsic value and they are worth the effort expended in analyzing their function for its own sake. Bogost is an engineer-mystic, and he writes what a philosophical treatise should be at the core, a discussion of things that are, of ways to see the world.

Object oriented ontology is compelling to me because it emphasizes the reality of the world, of distant galaxies and the axial spin of the quaking neutron stars in those galaxies, the condensation of methane and the whorls of cloud and the fragmented feldspar on the moons of gas giants in those galaxies—the reality of those things outside the reach of my own knowledge. A flat ontology says they are all equally significant, utterly regardless of human cognition. They must remain alien, as alien and unknowable in their essence as the plastic molded Lego lid or the woven textile couch cushion or the jadite cup and saucer beside me. They have their own existence, yes, but also their own unknowable stories, tensions, and relations beyond me. And why not? I am after all one who rides largely unaware of the processes in my own body and mind, a sliver of consciousness in a rambling, unknown house. Everywhere there is wonder and ignorance.

Bogost again, quoting lines by Zhdanov:
Either the letters cannot be understood, or
their grand scale is unbearable to the eye—
what remains is the red wind in the field,
with the name of rose on its lips.

Yet I can’t go as far as Bogost because I can’t give up the human role of mediating the universe, of the primacy of human experience. Aspects of OOO suit my ideas of an orthodox Christian materialism but at the same time undermine the theological role of humans. Every person brings you Christ. Every place, every object, holds God. This might be where the flat ontology of Bogost is at odds with an orthodox Christian materialism. They agree that all is significant, but OCM says because everything is holy, where OOO simply says because everything is.

Son of Laughter

The Son of LaughterThe Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner

The beautiful always surprise us. Everything else in the world we expect as we expect weariness at the day’s end and sun at waking. (171)

I’ve read a bit of Frederic Buechner, though not nearly as much as he deserves. Godric remains a favorite. In that novel, I especially love the way Buechner writes the prose with a cadence that makes it feels like I’m reading a poem or a song.

This latest, Son of Laughter, was recommended by a good friend, and it tells the story of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, the son of Isaac (whose name means laughter), the son of Abraham, who was a friend of God. The story is familiar—or at least the bones of the story are—to anyone who has read the Old Testament account. But what is truly wonderful about this book is the way Buechner takes the familiar Sunday school account and restores the foreignness and the strangeness that our familiarity with the story has worn away.

Buechner takes the reader back to the earthy, alien, near-savage, almost pagan reality of a dusty tribe of desert nomads who have a peculiar relationship with an unusually singular deity. And he does this while remaining true to the source material yet simultaneously resisting the urge to color the entire account with an obvious Christological teleology (as would no doubt be the case in your standard Family Christian Bookstore retelling).

Instead Buecher tells the story of a tribe learning about this deity they call only “The Fear,” trying to understand (in the midst of great pain and violence) what the Fear’s promise that they will grow to be a great “luck” to all the people of the earth means to them. Along the way, Buechner’s perspective continually reverse-telescopes the view of Jacob and his situations, reestablishing distance between our world and theirs. Surprisingly, this helps explain some things (like circumcision) that seem inexplicable to our modern sensibilities.

The moon is a shepherd with a pitted face. He herds the stars. (56)

The narrative becomes strained in the second portion of the book, where the reader moves from the perspective of Jacob/Isreal to follow Joseph’s time in Egypt. Buechner still tells the story through Jacob’s perspective, which enhances the dream-like distance. Yet this portion remains integral to the story, because the consummation of the promise is so wrapped up in what happens to Joseph in Egypt.

The book ends without any sentimental reassurances about God or his promise to Israel. In fact, in one conversation Jacob admits to his son that the Fear’s promise is only for the living and that Jacob does not know what the Fear has in store for the dead. Buechner leaves the reader with only the glimmer of a greater hope on the horizon. Along the way though, he expertly shows the story of the patriarchs through eyes that make them simultaneously incredibly alien and richly alive.

The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted. In return it is only the heart’s trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless. (184)

The Dancing Bees

Dancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee LanguageDancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language by Tania Munz

In his retirement, my father has begun keeping bees. Last year he had four or five hives, and if you let him he will talk to you for hours about the structure of the hive and the division of labor and the life cycle of the bees as he worked to naturally control the pests that threatened them. This year he is trying to go even more natural. He is not purchasing the domestic hives that seem less resilient to colony collapse disorder but instead is catching wild, native swarms. Learning along with him, I’ve come to realize how much of our agricultural system depends on the work these millions of bees do. I joke with my dad that he has a hundred thousand pets, though of course there is no way to keep them all straight as they fly in and out of the hives.

Yet that’s exactly what Karl von Frisch did in his studies to discover and understand how bees communicate with one another. Tania Munz’s study of the life and work of this Austrian naturalist is a surprisingly effective combination of my father’s hobby with my field of the history of science. Munz offers an accessible and somehow universalizing account of an individual who may not be well known to the wider public. Through an exploration of his career and influence, Munz explores not only the skill of a naturalist and the theoretical questions of communication among animals but also what life as a scientist was like in Germany during the Second World War.

Karl von Frisch discovered the “dance” of bees at their hive to communicate food finds with other bees. This might seem like an esoteric and rather minor discovery, but it had huge implications for the study of animal communication and the debate as to whether animals could actually think or simply acted on impulse and instinct. But Munz’s work and his directorship of a laboratory in Munich were threatened with the rise of the Nazis when it became known that he had Jewish great-grandparents on his mother’s side. One of the most fascinating aspect of Munz’s story is the narrative of von Frisch and his allies navigating the dangerous and complex Nazi bureaucracy to try to save his work and career. Ultimately, Frisch’s work was declared vital to the Reich, and Frisch began studying a parasite that was decimating bee colonies and threatening German agriculture.

Munz has done a fantastic job of interweaving the personal and political with the scientific. In the midst of her narrative she provides a series of “Bee Vignettes” illustrating different aspects of life in the hive and the history of apiary science. Just as fascinating as the portrayal of the rise of Nazi power and the war’s effect on working scientists like Frisch, Munz outlines the careful experiments Frisch performed to discover and then confirm the bee’s form of communication and how Frisch communicated this proof to other observers. The work is a powerful account of how field work is done, made even more compelling by not ignoring the things that were happening in the background. After the war, Munz explores how Frisch’s unique position (as a one-quarter Jew persecuted by the Nazis though still allowed to continue his work) helped him repair scientific relationships between Germany and other countries, particularly the United States.

For me though, Munz’s work was less important for the story it told than as an example of how to tell the story. The work balanced careful treatment of the science with understanding of the context in which it was done and returned a figure who might otherwise be obscure to a primary role in the development of theories of animal intelligence. My only regret was that while it did all this with an eye to Frisch’s personality and life, it was less biographical than one might have hoped. We learn about the beginning of Frisch’s career and his childhood, but we’re left with only a sketch of his final days, and though we’re told his wife struggled with depression we never get a complete domestic view. Though the world outside his lab affected his work and is handled deftly in Munz’s treatment, the domestic sphere was certainly just as important and was treated much more superficially.