The Taser's Edge


Matterhorn (Grove Press, 2010) by Karl Marlantes

When Matterhorn came out last year, I immediately knew I would read it. I’d love to know more about Vietnam, yes. More interesting than that was the author, Karl Marlantes, who served as a Marine inVietnam and then spent three decades writing this novel.

Unsurprisingly, Matterhorn is an ugly experience. The opening conflict, for instance, is a man getting a leech inside his urethra on patrol; no one but a medic is available to help him, and that’s not the most comfortable of impromptu surgeries. The book shares a lot of its spirit with Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and has a similar effect on the reader. I entered in more fully to both novels because I knew that they wrote out of their authors’ experiences. (For the record, however, Tim O’Brien is better than either Marlantes or Mailer at the actual craft of writing, and I’d re-read his stuff before any other war author except perhaps Hemingway.)

Matterhorn is a big book, and it took me a long time to get into it. I tend to be someone in love with the well-crafted sentence, while Marlantes is more in the powerful narrative school of writing (a la Graham Greene). By the end, however, Marlantes had me stylistically satisfied.

Beyond learning my history and spending my leisure time, I read war novels and watch war movies because, unsurprisingly, I came out of Duke Divinity thinking about Christianity and pacifism. If you read this blog, you’ve heard the following spiel:

Some activists are actually pacifists; some thinkers (Hauerwas included) are actually pacifists; however, no one under 30 is a real pacifist unless they’ve been through something extraordinary. Pacifism is too hard for someone that young to get.

Matterhorn is not an anti-war novel in the sense that Full Metal Jacket is an anti-war movie. Full Metal Jacket says war is evil. Matterhorn says war is unavoidable because the world is fallen. It’s difficult to emphasize how strong of a difference that is, so I’ll try again.

FMJ shows that war is hell through showing what it does both to the “bad guys,” to civilians, and to the “good guys.” That, to me, is what most of the best anti-war art does and claims: War is hell, therefore we need to exercise non-violent means of change. Some of it just says, War is hell, full stop.

Matterhorn, however, says that war is not the problem, but the symptom. You can try fighting the symptom but it will always return because the underlying sickness continues on. The way that the nations and peoples of the world relate to one another doesn’t just make war possible; it makes war inevitable because it’s necessary.

So my question then is, Do pacifism and non-violence get at the underlying disease or are they just symptom management?



Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens

I picked up Hitch-22 from Durham Public Library’s “Non-Fiction New and Notable” shelf along with Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, because I thought reading them back-to-back would be interesting.  Clash of the titans: Hauerwas, Christian theologian criticized for being too friendly with neocons, versus Hitchens, career journalist known later in life mainly for his atheism and also criticized for being too friendly with neocons.   What actually happened is that Hauerwas’ book is great if you like theology, and Hitchens’ book is great if you like history.  Seriously great.  You’ll learn something about the latter half of the 20th century on every page from someone who was there.

Stereotypical (at least to Americans) English prep school background?  Check.  At a Cambridge party where a certain former US president may or may not have inhaled?  Check.  (Hitchens, by the way, has written an entire book on Clinton, its opinions well-expressed by its title–No One Left to Lie To.)  A Trotskist agitator in 1968 and welcomed visitor to Castro’s Cuba just after the revolution?  Check.  Supporter of the removal of Saddam Hussein even without WMDs being found?  Check (although certainly not the way the US did it).

What comes across is that Hitchens values honesty, even when honesty paints a self-critical picture.  I don’t know if ‘virtue’ is a word too loaded with religious meaning, but I’ll use it anyway.  Both Hauerwas and Hitchens are incredibly concerned with seeking the truth and with the virtue of honesty.  Both men come from working class backgrounds and changed their social locations through world-class educations.  Both name-drop like mad in their memoirs.  (This is not a criticism.  I would name drop too if I were best friends with Martin Amis or as-close-a-thing-to-a-friend-as-John-Howard-Yoder-apparently-ever-had.)  Connected with the name dropping, Hitchens and Hauerwas both share a similar strange blend of pomposity and humility when sharing their opinions.  Finally, both Hitchens and Hauerwas have a great sense of being blessed.  Again, perhaps too religious of language for Hitchens, but I am referring to a sense of gratitude for circumstances and/or forces beyond their control coming together to create great lives which surprised them.

I would have to say, where Hauerwas’ memoir made me want to be a theologian, Hitchens’ makes me want to be passionate for the truth.  Those at least shouldn’t have to be too far apart from each other.

And now, an excerpt which doesn’t particularly relate to or illustrate anything I’ve written (from p. 352 of the hardback):

“Hitch: making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic,” as Martin Amis once teasingly said to me.  (Adorno would have savored that, as well.)  Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young.  Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food.  Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure.  Drink when you are in a good mood.  Cheap booze is a false economy.  It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain.  Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night.  (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.)  Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company.  Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available.  Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.  It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don’t know quite why this is but it just is.  Don’t ever be responsible for it.



Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas

This book so makes me want to be a theologian.  It so makes me want to trust God, because at its heart, it is a book about how God faithfully forms us into saints and witnesses to the person and work of Christ.  Really admirable.

I came to Duke Divinity in 2006 having not read a word of Hauerwas, having barely heard his name.  While at Duke, I took a class with him, read one of his books and a handful of articles.  Other faculty also made clear their opinions on his work.  But reading Hannah’s Child reminded me once again how much Hauerwas has shaped Duke Divinity and every student who goes through it.

It’s certainly interesting to think of myself as part of his legacy even though I am by no means a disciple.  On his most famous stance for instance, Christian pacifism, I can only say I ‘lean toward’ pacifism and don’t feel capable of making a ‘decision.’  Furthermore, I don’t think it any accident that Hauerwas came of age as a theologian and came to embrace pacifism during the Vietnam War while Reinhold Niebuhr came of age as a theologian and came to reject pacifism during World War II.  Those are wholly different circumstances in which to understand what Christianity means for those who live in this world.

On another core piece of his work, a return to the virtue tradition, I love many of his ideas and find myself often repeating his emphases and language as I describe my own conception of how Christians become Christian, but I find that he lacks an overt pneumatology which I believe any account of the Christian life needs.

When I have been inside Hauerwas’ work for any length of time (2 books and 1 course), I have always had a vague sense that I can’t quite get on board wholeheartedly.  In the case of Hauerwas’ book with Charles Pinches on the virtues and Hauerwas’ class on the virtues, I came to the conclusion already mentioned: he leaves out the needed piece of a description of the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the case of Hannah’s Child, the part that leaves me unsettled is that I am a naturally introspective person reading a memoir by a man who at least claims to eschew introspection, and who provides an account of his life in which he says he is too busy for introspection even while doing it.  Furthermore, although the book is subtitled, A Theologian’s Memoir, it would just as aptly be named A Theological Memoir.  Duke graduates, whether they love or hate Hauerwas’ work, are ‘supposed to’ reflect on the world around them through a theological lens, and this is exactly what Hauerwas does here.  I personally wonder, however, whether one of the largest self-deceptions possible in self-reflection is exactly that assigning of theological meaning to our life experiences.  (Conversely, theological reflection can also be one of the best practices in our lives.)

My current mental review of the book compares it to Augustine’s Confessions.  Both it and Hannah’s Child could bear the subtitle, A Theological Memoir.  Both speak of the work of God as at times despite us and at times entirely indistinguishable from our own work in the world.  Both invite me to loosen my grip on trying to control the long-term or the day-to-day of my life, even toward the admirable goal of seeking God.

I would highly recommend this book, but with the caveat that if you know some contemporary theology you will get much more out of it (something which could also be said of knowing some theology when approaching Augustine’s own ‘theologian’s memoir’).

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Update: Theophiliacs tells me this–“originally Hauerwas had wanted the subtitle to be ‘A Theological Memoir’ rather than ‘A Theologians Memoir’ but Eerdmans didn’t think it would sell well.”



Tuesday Reading Roundup, Week 8

1. Cane by Jean Toomer–The back of the book quotes somebody saying, “Cane is an important American Novel.”  Personally, at just over half way through, it may well be great, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a novel.  Unless I’m missing something, which is possible, it’s more of a series of prose and poetry vignettes.  I began reading it months ago, and stopped in the middle.  I would like to finish it.  We shall see.  Spring “Reading Week” (Duke insists on not calling it Spring Break) is next week after all.

2. Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann–Still plugging away at it.  Marvelous book, but I have nowhere in my normal scheduling to place a book which is neither wholly for pleasure nor for school, and it’s getting to the point that the tag cloud to the right of my site is making it seem like I read a ton of Schmemann.  Not the case, visitors.  I have read very little of him over a very long period of time.  That cloud is also over-the-top with Hauerwas.  I’ve read less than a book by him, too.  Y’all will be hearing from Schmemann throughout Lent, just as I seem to be.

3. Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix–I was supposed to have read the first half for last week and then to finish it off for this week.  Clearly neither of those things is going to happen.  But, the tiny bit I have read is quite interesting.  The guy actually is a trained psychologist, after all.  That’s Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. to you.

4. The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord by T.D. Jakes–I said last week that I was surprised by how much I liked the book.  That ended at about 35 pages in.  Questionable biblical exegesis, overly conservative gender assumptions and gender role assignments, and terrible prose.  That’s not to say that there aren’t good points in it, because there are many of them.  And I’m still not finished with it yet.  I have to write a review on this or Hendrix’s book for Wednesday.

5. Upside Down: The Paradox of Servant Leadership by Stacy T. Rinehart–Rinehart (surprise: he’s a dude) is coming to speak at this month’s Anglican Missional Pastor training thing, at which I have to preach.  Eep.  At least if I don’t like his book and he doesn’t like my sermon, it will be a nice trade-off.  Self-psychoanalytical moment: Why would I be approaching this book with such a negative attitude?  For one, the president of Moody Bible Institute provides praise on the back.  What has Duke done to me?  I never even slightly considered Moody myself, but I have been good friends with a couple really good people who went there, and I never used to despise that brand of Christian conservatism.  It (this stance in me) is ideological, and I don’t like it.  And now returning to Tuesday Reading Roundup…I do have some hope–I’ve had good luck with the couple NavPress books that I’ve read, this book is with NavPress, and Rinehart was a vice president with the Navigators as of the writing of the autobiographical blurb.

6. Supreme: The Story of the Year by Alan Moore–This one’s as close to a normal superhero comic as I’ve read since I got a free issue of X-Men at BagelFest as a kid (actually, it might have been Zack’s issue, and I think it talked about the importance of recycling), or perhaps that Power Team comic in which they fought a gang with lots of paperclips in their faces, and in which the Power Team won over evil by wielding a bulletproof Bible (the same version, The Sword, that the Power Team would sell you).  Anyway, that’s not to say that it’s normal at all.  Apparently Supreme was an existing superhero (according to Amazon, a super-violent rip-off of Superman) before Moore took over in 1996.  Moore reinvented Supreme as a new revision of the old character who has to travel to his past in order to recover from his amnesia.  As a new version of an old hero, this Supreme doesn’t know about his past, because it’s not his past, but the past of a different Supreme.  As Moore tells the story, the book alternates between sleek and shiny computer-aided graphics and a retro look from the thirties or forties.



Tuesday Reading Roundup, Week 5

Sometimes I find myself planning out blog posts just for the sake of blog posts.  For instance, this afternoon I thought about posting a couple short essays I wrote for Happiness, the Life of Virtue, and Friendship.  Then I realized, “No, that would be boring.”  So I spared you.  Yes, you’re welcome.

1. Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer–You already know some about this book if you read my posts about it last week.  What has been great about reading it is that my imagination has never been fired by the idea of church-planting.  Now it is.  I’m finding that I do find a lot of the ideas exciting and that my imagination has some room to run around in them.  The question in my context now: Why liturgical Anglican churches?  Can such churches truly meet unmet needs in communities in the US?  Again and again, this book points me to the need for a robust ecclesiology (theology of the church) as a prerequisite for church-planting.  I think Stetzer falls short (and I think that’s because he’s Southern Baptist).  I’ll need to hit the books to develop that further.

2. Christians Among the Virtues by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches–A familiar favorite.  This week–reading about Aquinas.  This has been a really good read and a useful secondary resource.

3. Putting on Virtue by Jennifer A. Herdt–Again, a repeat.  Again, for the same class–Virtue, the Life of Happiness, and Friendship with Hauerwas.  It, too, is a secondary resource for this week’s reading of Aquinas, but I haven’t yet cracked it.

4. Treatise on the Virtues by St. Thomas Aquinas–The man himself arrives.  I’ll be reading this for the next two weeks.  Hopefully all this virtue stuff in my Hauerwas class will start making sense (and coming more directly from the primary sources, something which it has as yet failed to do).  I still remember how confused I was the first time I tried to read Aquinas, with absolutely no instruction as to his organizational method, in undergrad.  Derrida was an easier read.  Now somehow Aquinas doesn’t seem as difficult, at least once I get into the rhythms of his organization.  Of course, the fact that it is Tuesday night and I have yet to start reading probably bodes ill for my finishing the assigned portion for this week.

5. Deliverance by James Dickey–Famous poet writes lauded novel which is made into Burt Reynolds/Jon Voight film.  It’s always annoying to pick up movie tie-in edition paperbacks, but this is a new low–bare-chested Burt is never a good thing.  Four friends set out on a wilderness adventure in north Georgia.  Things go horribly, horribly wrong.

6.  Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann–Okay, so it’s a sham.  I’ll never start it, and I’ll always make it look like I read Orthodoxers.

7. Generation to Generation by Edwin H. Friedman–A modern classic on family systems (is there any other kind of classic on family systems theory?) within church and synagogue.  I’m told it’s good.  I’ll find out tomorrow before class.

And as for tonight?

1. Walk Pru.

2. Finish the rest of Stetzer’s book.

3. Quickly clean up some houseness.

4. Watch a yet-to-be-determined movie with Dave and possible more folks.



Tuesday Reading Roundup, Week 4

My blog traffic has been abysmal these past few days, but my posts have been mostly cheating (videos and prayers–what?!), so I can’t blame anybody but myself.  At least there’s this beloved staple, which I can’t do without a bit of a personal touch.

1. Perspectives On Marriage edited by Kieran Scott and Michael Warren–For tomorrow’s class, I got to read about cohabitation vs. marriage.

  • First was a report on Cohabitation and Marriage by the National [US] Council of Catholic Bishops.  (You can probably guess that on the topic of cohabitation, they’re agin’ it.)
  • Then we moved onto an article by Kieran Scott, “Cohabitation and Marriage as a Life-Process,” in which he describes a history of Christian marriage.  Although his history is abit fuzzy (no real solid dates, for instance) sex after betrothal and before marriage was commonplace and expected in other eras.  He goes on to argue that the current system–no sex before marriage and then flip the sex-is-okay-now switch at the wedding ceremony–is too abrupt of a process.  I would say that he’s right on that count.  I’m just skeptical about his idea of reinstating betrothal today.
  • A couple other articles that I’ll skip over…
  • And finally “Sex, Time, and Meaning: A Theology of Dating” by Jason King and Donna Freitas, in which the authors lament the state of a theology of Christian dating.  They are right that evangelical Christians have a sorry track record.  I can attest to that from the late 90s and early 2000s.  But as much as I hate the mentality of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and others, I think these authors are overly harsh in their reading, to point of distorting those books’ views.  And honestly, I didn’t know it was possible to be too hard on them.

2. Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer–Confusingly, this is the second edition of a book by a different title, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age.  I’m not sure what to think about the significance of the fact that this book is listed in many places as basically The Bible of Church Planting, yet Duke Divinity Library has no books at all by the author.  Is that a judgment of the validity of his work?  Or are new churches totally uninteresting to the Christian academy?  Or might the faculty of Duke Divinity and its library have no knowledge of church planting literature?  Let me know if you can think of other possibilities.  At any rate, I have to read it for this month’s Anglican Missional Pastor meeting, Friday next.  (I flipped Friday and next because it’s Anglican, you know.)  I’m hoping that my well-tuned critical unit can keep it down a little bit.

3. Becoming Married by Herbert Anderson and Robert Cotton FiteFor Duke CPE, I already read one book by Anderson, entitled All Our Losses, All Our Griefs.  Despite the cheesy titles of pastoral care literature, it’s really amazing stuff, and I feel entirely illiterate in the area, after five semesters at a top-tier divinity school.  (Perhaps the problem is that I went to a top-tier divinity school.)  But, to the point, this book is awesome.  The title refers to the fact that “becoming married” is a long-term process, not just a ceremony.  All kinds of family systems theory and psychology, which is incredibly helpful, although thus far lacking in theological insight.  One thing that is distinctive is that the authors insist that the personality inventories which are so common in Christian premarital counseling (and beyond?) are very limited in their usefulness.  While such inventories can pick up major incompatibility and personality issues, they fall short, because people entering marriage are often still growing as human beings and certainly in relationship to each other.  More helpful, insist Anderson and Fite, is a genogram, basically an in-depth family tree.  When we can see and discuss our family backgrounds, we can begin to talk better about what the new family will look like.   All this genogram talk makes me want to blog about it, but until then, see what Wikipedia has to say about it.

4. Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches–Honestly, the readings I am doing this week were due two and three weeks ago, but I find myself, for the first time ever, having a bit of time to go back and catch up on the stuff I missed.  Huzzah!

5. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann–Discerning readers may notice that this first appeared two weeks ago, and then disappeared for last week.  That’s because I have yet to start it.  But Lent is also yet to start, so I’m safe.  The problem may be that I have nowhere in my schedule to read this.  As interested as I now seem to be in theology and such, I still can’t see this as “fun reading.”  Probably that’s a good thing.  I’m fine with being odd, but maybe I’ll hold off on that kind of odd.



Tuesday Reading Roundup

1. A Bit on the Side by William Trevor–A book of short stories by an English writer whom I’ve seen compared to Chekhov in several reviews.  All kinds of “best living short story writer in the English language” stuff.  A few years ago I read his novel, Death in Summer, and I have to say that it was awful.  A mystery with no suspense.  I’m really not sure how to describe what went wrong with that novel.  But I’ve complained about it to a few people, and then Mom told me that his short stories are much better.  This is a Christmas gift from her and Dad.  I own far too many unread books, and thus I work to read books that I receive as gifts.  Part of this is because it bothers me when I gift books to people (as I always do, albeit a little tempered by Holly’s helpful wisdom since we’ve been married), and then they never read them.  So, part of my gratitude for this particular gift is to read it as soon as possible.  Lovely short stories here, giving good evidence that you don’t have to have much plot in order to write something gorgeous.  Little wisps of stories and very nice reading.  Especially nice since the short story format works well with the chopped up bits of time I have to read during the semester.

2. Great Lent: The Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann–Okay, so I haven’t yet begun this book.  Part of Tuesday Reading Roundup is to set the reading plan for the week ahead, and starting this book is on the agenda.  Schmemann is an incredibly well-known and well-respected Orthodox scholar.  He is especially known, at least in Protestant circles, for his work on worship and the sacraments.  Why am I reading it now?  Because Lent is not too far in the future, and I just have never gotten Lent.  Might this year be the year?

3. Mimesis by Erich AuerbachActually, I’ll only be reading the first chapter–“Odysseus’ Scar.”  This is for Introduction to Midrash.

4. Reflected Glory: The Spirit in Christ and Christians by Thomas Snail–The title probably explains as much as I could tell you about this book.  I’m reading it for Jeremy Begbie’s Spirit, Worship, and Mission class.

5. Beyond Companionship: Christians in Marriage by Diana Garland and David Garland–A book for Christian Marriage and Family Across Cultures.  All I would note is that the title is important–“Christians in Marriage” not “Christian Marriage.”  Dr. Acolatse, who is teaching the class, insists that the former is a better choice of words.  That might be a separate post sometime, as I’m not yet convinced that she’s right.

6. Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader by Kieran Scott and Michael Warren–Since mentioning this book last week, I actually did read a couple articles–a history of marriage within Judaism and Christianity as well as articles on specifically Protestant theologies of marriage (as this book seems to be Roman Catholic in perspective) as well as Jewish and Muslim understandings of marriage.  This also needs to lead to a separate post at some point on the issue of a Christian standpoint on gay marriage, one based in the history of church-state relationships with the institution of marriage, a history regarding which I at least had not been aware.

7. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle–As I’m finishing out this time through the work, I’m sure I shall return to it.   Incredibly rich and important, it certainly has earned its status as a classic.

8. Christians Among the Virtues by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches–You’ll see this a lot from week to week, as it tracks throughought the class I’m taking with Hauerwas this semester–Happiness, Virtue, and the Life of Friendship.

I must say that I’m finishing up this list for the week, it seems a bit daunting.  Losing last Friday to being out of town and today due to the flu is not going to help, either.