Friday, April 27, 2007

god laughs & plays - david james duncan

this review has been staring me in the face for months - i finished the book (which took far too long - but it was too rich to read quickly) back during march break, but because my kids were home i couldn't string two intelligent thoughts together to actually write it then. so today i will be writing this and giving it far less passion that i would have (unfortunately) written with at the close of the book - but i will do my best to give it the regard i think it is due.

david james duncan is mind-blowing for me - i don't agree with nearly everything he writes - but it was like sitting down to a celebration turkey dinner - eating the meat and leaving the bones - the meat was some of the most juicy, tender, rich meat that i have ever found. he writes with the passion of a man who has spent much time pondering and in tune with both god and nature and thinking big deep thoughts that spring from that time alone.

thoughts he wasn't churning from others - but from a furnace rooted within himself - i loved the originality of many of this thoughts - thoughts i had never been exposed to and introductions to concepts that are fuel for my own furnace. thank you.

my truly favorite part of the book i have already blogged on here:

benguines

i loved being introduced to duncan's inspiration - meister eckhart and his dear friends the benguines - women of incredible passion, love of god and the heart of being christ to their world. it is one of my life's goals to emulate them, learn more about them and one day begin a benguinage in their honor. duncan's honor of this mystical female touched something subterranean within me and gave a structure to the passion i have to create community and a sustainable, creative lifestyle that truly reaches to the heart of helping those most in need of this life. i truly had no idea that women like these had gone before without being nuns. it truly was life changing for me.

most of the time i read this book i found pencils far away - so i ended up dog-earing my copy of the book so much - the deeper the turn of a corner the more profound the affect the idea put forth resonated with me.

the deepest corner points to the time in the chapter entitled "De-bore-HA!" when this grade-school storyteller realized that loosing his life in the story he told was part of christ's very own words "He that loseth his life shall save it." He also quotes Flannery O'Connor "No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made." And W.H. Auden "To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention - on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol or the True God - that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying."

this gave me back something i had lost. i'm still furnacing what that is, but the beauty of being lost in creation as a prayer to the creator deeply moves me in at a level so deep i have rarely felt it's equal.

the other deep place i found in the book was when he spoke of trying to verbalize a deep spiritual moment of loss in his life and finds words strangely inadequate:
"When I later tried to write of the experience, I ran into a familiar wall: the event had not really been personal, it had been spiritual, and only the spirit has spiritual experiences. So when the limited "I" tries to write of such experiences that the soul and mystery of them vanish and what remains are what Merton calls "itsy-bitsy statues" of a spiritual experience.

I abandoned my attempt. Years passed. Then one day, while I was lost in the effort to create a long work of fiction, a character in my story unexpectedly, almost effortlessly underwent the very experience that I, as an "I" had been unable to capture at all."
this is why fiction is so important. this is why tolkein and lewis had to create another world to tell their stories - this is why we must keep reading and writing and watching the stories, because the truth dwells there in such a safe way that our hearts are able to find it when we are ready. this is why story finds such a sacred place in my soul. it gives voice to the "I" when I am unable to find it alone.

i think too that this is why it is so hard to blog on a trip to africa (mike) or my experience at "the path" at linwood house years ago - those deep places were spiritual, not personal - we find there truths that will filter into and out of our lives in ways that are not intentional. no personal words will do - they would only be 'itsy-bitsy statues' instead of the tribute we long to give them as they have played such monumental places in our lives.

i also blogged the last highlight i want to make here in a post for lisa samson - all of us who have the author buried deep in our souls need to know this truth. duncan understands this and verbalizes it so importantly here that i'm going to quote it again. i truly believe that one of the best ways to live out kingdom compassion and justice is by telling stories:

One of our greatest human traits is compassion, which means, literally "to suffer with another." But this high art is seldom born in an instant as a response to watching the TV "news," or even in response to firsthand experience. More often compassion's seeds are sewn via preliminary magic known as empathy. And empathy begins with a fictive act; What would it be like to be that black girl four rose in front of me? a little white girl wonders in school one morning. Her imagination sets to work, creating unwritten fiction.

In her mind she becomes the black girl, dons her clothes, accent, skin, joins her friends after school, goes home to her family, lives that life. No firsthand experience is taking place. Nothing "newsworthy" is happening. Yet a white-girl-turned-fictitiously-black is linking skin hue to life, skin hue to choice of friends and neighborhood, skin hue to opportunity and history. Words she used without thinking - African, color, white -- feel suddenly different. And when her imaginary game is over they still sound different. Via sheer fiction, empathy enters a human heart.

To be a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, is to immerse oneself in unstinting fiction making. Jesus's words "Love they neighbor as thyself," to cite a famously ignored example, demand an arduous imaginative act. This deceptively simple line orders me, as I look at you, to imagine that I am seeing not you, but me, and then to treat this imaginative me, alias you, as if you are me. And for how long? Till the day I die!

Jesus orders anyone who's serious about Him to commit the "Neighbor = Me" fiction until they forget for good which of the two of themselves to cheat in a business deal or abandon in a crisis or smart-bomb in a war -- at which point their imaginative act, their fiction making, will have turned Christ's bizarre words into a reality and they'll be saying with Mother Teresa, "I see Christ in every woman and man."

True, the ability to love neighbor as self is beyond the reach of most people. But the attempt to imagine thy neighbor as thyself is the daily work of every literary writer and reader I know. Literature's sometimes troubling, sometimes hilarious depictions of those annoying buffoons, our neighbors, may be the greatest gift we writers give the world when they become warm-up exercises for the leap toward actually loving our neighbors. Ernest Hemingway's is the definitive statement about this. "Make it up so truly," he said, "that later it will happen that way." This, I dare say, is Christ-like advice, not just to those practicing the art form known as fiction writing, but to anyone trying to live a faith, defend the weak, or sustain this world through love.


as you can tell, this book moved me deeply. i look forward to reading duncan's fiction. while i can't recommend every thought or premise he ponders and writes on i will highly recommend this book for anyone who longs to write, think deeply on spiritual truth and enjoys the natural beauty of a trout stream from the eyes of one who i imagine finds god there.

disclosure: i was provided this book through adam walker cleaveland's blog pomomusings and triad institutes generosity.

3 comments:

Sarah Louise said...

ooh this is wonderful, bobbie!!

Mike Todd said...

My Dad sent me this book last week Bobbie, so thanks for the review!

I'm looking forward to reading it. It's on top of the pile I'm taking on this next trip.

Dan Morehead said...

Thanks for this...I'll have to take a look at it. Just passing through...