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Review – A Most Wanted Man

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John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man (2008)

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John Le Carré is a master storyteller. His prose is detailed, melodic, and, most of the time, gripping. He’s best known for the masterful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which brings the reader into the decades-long chess match between British intelligence and the KGB.

A Most Wanted Man is Le Carré’s first step in writing a novel for a world shaped by the war on terror rather than the Cold War.

It is, in many respects, a dystopian tale in which none of the characters emerges uncompromised or pristine.

In his Guardian review, Hari Kunzu notes that Le Carré: “depict[s] a bleak world in which the clarity of ideology, morality, patriotism, professional duty and personal loyalty [dissolve] into a fog in which his characters flounder, groping for some sort of basis on which to live and act.”

In this respect, it much like his other books where, even the venerable Smiley, is marked by a moral stain in the form of his indifference to the depredations of his wife.
The story centers on the fate of a young, physically and psychologically damaged Russian by the name of Issa. He comes to the attention of a young German lawyer, Annabel Richter. Richter represents undocumented aliens and helping them to claim asylum and find a new life in Germany. Young and idealistic her vigorous professional concern is fueled by the pain of her recent failure with another client, one returned to almost certain death in a land he escaped.

Issa has arrived in Germany by an illegal and circuitous route. Claiming to be a devout Muslim, he has come to Germany in possession of a name and an account number and key that he claims will enable him to have the financial resources both to give generously to Muslim charities and study to become a doctor.

Enter jaded ex-pat banker Tommy Brue. Brue is the head of a family bank that has a closet full of questionable accounts. These “Lipinzaners”–named for the famous horses–are full of dirty money with origins in the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of gangland capitalism. One of these accounts exists for the benefit of a Russian officer whose affair with a Chechnyan woman has Issa as the issue.

Even as Issa attempts to secure his status in Germany and to fund his education, a new set of characters is watching from afar. Gunther Bachmann and his colaborers in German intelligence are hunting for Issa whom they believe to be a radical Muslim and a national security threat.

Issa makes an unconvincing radical. As I read I found myself thinking of Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Indeed, like Myshkin, he is a character both puzzling and filled with inconsistencies. He is passionate in his vocal allegiance to Islam yet his belief is simple, lacking even the most rudimentary doctrinal knowledge. He loathes the west but loves classical music.

As Kunzu notes,  “At [times Issa] is little more than a cipher, a faint echo of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, a “monk with coal-dark eyes” who speaks in a wildly uneven linguistic register, sometimes childlike, sometimes incongruously using words such as “malodorous”.”  He continues, “Issa is another incarnation of a familiar Le Carré type, the loose cannon, someone whose psychological precariousness and social disconnection make them disruptive of the established order – and useful to the puppeteers of the human soul who run the intelligence services.”

In reading A Most Wanted Man we enter a world that is morally gray. Black and white have blended into one another and all that remains is differing shades of a single color. Le Carré does a masterful job of bringing to life the strange experience that befalls a person when he somehow, intentionally or otherwise, enters into the parallel universe of espionage and counter-espionage. Strongly recommended.

Sources:
Hari Kunzu, “Trapdoor to the Secret World,” The Guardian (26 Sep 2008).

 

Come to Me, a poem

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When Jesus said to ‘come to me,’
he didn’t mean present a list of merits,
or achievements, or a chronicle of good things
done well, as though by them
we might commend ourselves to him
who is good beyond good.

No. Those bidding words were offered as a wine-
soaked sponge to those dying slowly on the cross
of self, where they go who seek to prove
themselves in the court of good opinion and
public morals, the theatre of the law.

To those alone, who say ‘kyrie eleison,’ does the
medicine of gospel grace do its work–moving
from palate to throat to heart
where it settles in, breaks down the walls
of calcified self-righteousness that hinders our
fully knowing the savior’s love–his fathomless
grace that unmakes sin till it is no more.

In bread and wine we drink this draught
of grace and in it find life anew–
deeper than we dared to dream.

Maundy Thursday 2016

Towards a theological vision

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vision1.pngI remember the scene well. I was in the chapel of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem. I was chatting with two concerned parishioners. They were concerned over conversations happening within the congregation related to important issues like human sexuality and denominational affiliation. Their concerns seem to waver between a concern that discussions of homosexual practice made too much of sexuality and, simultaneously, that they made too little of it. A better alternative was, in their thinking, a posture of “live and let live.”

I understood their concern. We are, after all, more than whom we love. At the same, it’s true that we’re not less than those things.

As a congregation, it turns out, that in talking about sexuality and denomination we were actually talking about something deeper and more substantial than either. We were talking about our theological vision, the significant and yet oft-ignored foundation out of which ministry flows.

As a member of the PC(USA) I had become very comfortable speaking in theological terms ( using catchphrases like “freedom of conscience,” “priesthood of all believers,” “mutual forbearance”). Originally those phrases had content. Over time, however, I began to feel that they had become signs or symbols that signified I was safe, respectable, and able to toe the company line.

It was understood that, for example, freedom of conscience was intended to extend, particularly and peculiarly, to those occupying theological ground to the left of the tradition rather than those to the right. It’s easier to deny the divinity of Christ in the PC(USA) than to deny that women should hold church office. To my mind, one of these beliefs is an order of magnitude more significant than the other.

Don’t get me wrong, virtually all traditions have this sort of insider language. It’s not different in the Covenant Order of Evangelicals where my ordination credentials belong today. What becomes problematic is when words and concepts are used in the absence of shared meaning. Traditions fall apart when that happens. It stands to reason.

And yet we’re significantly more inclined to discuss concrete issues than theological vision. This is a critical error that results, at best, in paralysis, and, at worst, in schism. It turns out that when we disagree about all sorts of important things like the nature of humanity, what constitutes the good life, the purpose of the church, the nature of grace, the nature of suffering, and others, we’re actually disagreeing about theology and our theological vision.

I pointed this out to my conversation partners. The reason, I said, that we have to come to some sort of consensus on these issues is that the views represented present mutually-exclusive visions of God, grace, and humanity. Our views differ in regard to critical questions like what does God require of humanity? who is God? what is grace?

The answer to these questions presents a theological vision. Vision drives ministry. We’re not always conscious of the vision that undergirds what we do. In fact, more often than not our theological vision is a nest of presuppositions submerged beneath and eclipsed by our Christian experience.

A Puritan Christmas

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When Christmas was illegal

It’s the time of year when friends in high church traditions start posting memes about how the Puritans canceled Christmas. It’s true. Christmas was illegal (at least in England) for part of the 17th Century but was restored when the Protectorate ended and Charles II ascended to the throne. It was banned in Massachusetts for a longer period of time. Given the centrality of Christmas in modern consumer culture, this seems almost unthinkable.

We’re tempted to see this as a war on fun or something more sinister.

We all like to chuckle at the image of an austere Puritan standing with crossed arms staring down Christmas revelers in the name of humorless religion. We may wonder, however, if there’s more to the story? Was the move to limit Christmas celebrations simply a case of theologically-informed grumpiness?

Two explicitly theological reasons for Puritan objection to Christmas included the lack of biblical warrant for its observance and its connection to earlier pagan festivities. Beyond this, the merriment associated with Christmas goes beyond what many Americans are familiar with.

What Christmas looked like

A little research into Christmas observances during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods in England reveal practices that are fairly alien to many of us today. In some ways, Christmas celebrations were more akin to modern Mardi Gras than to Christmas in the United States today.

It becomes easier to be sympathetic to the Puritans when you conjure up images of Mardi Gras more than singing “Silent Night” by candlelight.

Begging and Indulgences

The poor took the opportunity to get some coin to enable their revelry. Stephenson notes:

In Roman Catholic times special arrangements were made whereby the poorer people found it easy to collect money by begging, which was to be applied to the purchase of masses for the forgiveness of the excesses to which they went during the Christmas revels.

Rowdiness

Critic of Christmas, Philip Stubbes, describes the festivities associated with Lord of Misrule (which some argue is connected to Roman saturnalia):

First, all the wilde heads of the parish, flocking together, chuse them a graunde captain (of mischief) whom they inrolle with the title of my Lord of misrule, and him they crown with great solemnities, and adopt for their king. This king annoynted, chooseth forth twentie, fourtie, threescore, or a hundred lustie guttes like to himselfe to wait upon his lordly majesty, and to guarde his noble person …. Thus all things set in order, then have they their hobby-horses, their dragons and other antiques, together with their baudie pipers, and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devils Daunce withall: then march this heathen company towards the church and church-yarde, their pypers pypyng, their drummers thundering, their stumps dauncing, their bells jyngling, their handkerchiefs fluttering about their heads like madmen, their hobby-horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng: and in this sorte they goe to the church like devils incarnate, with such a confused noise, that no man can heare his own voyce. Then the foolish people they looke, they stare, they laugh, they fleere, and mount upon formes and pewes, to see these goodly pagants solemnised in this sort. Then, after this about the church they goe agine and agine, and so foorth into the church yard, where they have commonly their summer haules, their bowers and arbours, and banquetting houses set up, wherein they feast, banquet, and daunce all that day, and (peradventure) all that night too.

Cut the Puritans some slack

I’m not a historian and my point is simply that Christmas in contemporary America is actually pretty tame. It bears little in common with earlier iterations, likely due to Puritan influence. We don’t associate begging, drunkenness, partying, rowdiness, and sexual profligacy with Christmas.

At the same time writers like C S Lewis convincingly cast such practices in a more positive light through fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia. The appearance of Father Christmas and the midnight dance of the Centaurs seem, somehow, an appropriate acknowledgment of the goodness of creation rather than an abuse of it.

In the end, I think we need to cut the Puritans some slack. At the same time, we do well to recognize that matter matters and God has given us a good creation to enjoy.

——————

Resources:

Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomy of Abuses. (1583). https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-anatomy-of-abuses-by-philip-stubbes-1583

Stephenson, Henry Thew. The Elizabethan People. New York: H. Holt, 1910. Shakespeare Online. 27 Dec 2019 < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shkchristmas.html >

 

What comes after failure?

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What comes after failure is up to you.

It may sound cynical and perhaps it sounds overly stoic, but how we respond to failure means more than the fact that we failed. We all will fail at something, and the sooner we make peace with that the better our lives will be.

I appreciated this episode of the HBR idealcast on the topc of failure: take a listen.

Some highlights:

I think, you know, what we also find is that there are essentially two groups of people after failure, right? One group stay down, manage to stay in but the other group of people we did observe that there’s a higher attrition rate in near misses after in the next 10 years. So this means failures can be devastating in a career, it actually highlights the fragility of a scientific career.

“So the major discovery of this study, a very surprising conclusion, namely a the discovery of tipping point between success and failure. You know, as people fail over and over these two groups of people can be actually quite similar in terms of their learning strategies or their characteristics.

But depending on which side of the tipping point they are in, they could actually experience fundamentally different outcomes. One group of people, if you’re below the tipping point and may be failing over and over, you try to get up and try again, but over and over you’re not learning enough to actually achieve success. This is what we call a stagnation region. You’re trying over and over, but you’ll fail to learn enough to initiate an intelligent pattern with the improvement.

On the other side of the tipping point, which is above this threshold, people fail over and over but they get fail faster and faster to eventually approach success. So this creates a quite a surprising prediction because what it means then is first of all, not all failures lead to success.

If you take these two groups of people, what you will find is that in the beginning, in their first failure, they essentially have the same kind of a performance and the same kind of characteristics. But as they fail over and over, they start to become a very much distinct two group of people because they’re in the two sides of the tipping point.

And that’s the finding that motivated us then to test this prediction systematically from three rather disparate datasets. The first data sets is the NIH grant database we mentioned earlier. Second example is the start-up domain where we look at the innovators that are involved in a startup venture and that didn’t work out, and then try again later involved in another startup venture. And maybe that didn’t work out either. And eventually you’re in a start-up venture that actually achiever initial public offering or high value mergers and acquisitions.”