Flunking Sainthood

Jews gather at the "Wailing Wall" -- a remnant of the destroyed temple -- and recite passages from Lamentations

Actually, no. That title was just a teaser. There really aren’t any fun moments in the Book of Lamentations, which is why I had to make my own with the Twible.

As you’ve probably guessed, Lamentations is a bit of a downer. Walter Brueggemann has described the book as Israel’s post 9/11 wrestling. Just like America had to confront a lot of sudden insecurity about itself in the wake of 9/11 (Did we bring this on ourselves? Why do “they” hate us? Why would God let good people die?), Israel during the exile found itself dealing with questions it had never addressed before: Why did God let the Davidic dynasty fail when He promised that would never happen? What did we do to deserve this? And how are we going to carry on from here and worship God without our temple, priests, and sacrifices?

Not surprisingly, Brueggemann said that Lamentations scholarship has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last decade. I find this fascinating: a book that had been ignored for long periods during America’s confident days of Empire is now quite suddenly relevant again.

Mitt Romney: The Next JFK? Not so fast.

I have an article today in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, tackling the question of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and how it fits into American political history. Now that the Republicans seem to be holding their noses and voting for him instead of continuing their desperate search for a Romneydote, the question arises: If Romney is the Republican candidate, will he be the JFK of Mormonism, breaking barriers and bringing a once-derided religion into the mainstream?

I am not persuaded. But as I indicate here, there may well be a role for him as Al Smith.

Is it worth it to pray every day?

I’ve been editing a superb book recently by Lynne Baab on spiritual practices. (Called Joy Together, it’ll be out in the fall.) After exploring what congregations and churches can do to grow with God together by trying contemplative prayer, Sabbath-keeping, fasting and the like, she poses an important question: why do we do spiritual practices at all?

She mentions a sort of backlash against spiritual practices that has been occurring as some recent writers worry aloud about the legalism that can result when people try to accomplish certain things for God. Here is Methodist bishop Will Willimon on the subject:

My worry is that attention to practices deflects our attention from the living God. With the focus on practices, Christianity quietly morphs into a species of unbelief; we take revelation into our own hands. . . . The idea that we must do something for God before God will do anything for us, the concept that my relationship with God is sustained by my actions or feelings or inclinations, the notion that “religion” is something I do rather than God’s effect on me—all these ideas appear to be lurking behind the contemporary discussions of practice.[i]

Although I can respect Willimon’s concern that some people will try to seize hold of spiritual practice as a form of control, I don’t agree at all that these practices deflect attention from God. On the contrary, they offer the possibility — some more than others, obviously — of focusing our attention on God more precisely and intentionally.

I don’t keep the Sabbath fully, but when I do carve out that time and space to have a weekly time for rest and worship I feel that I’m open to God in a way that I’m simply not on the other days of the week. I don’t keep the Sabbath to “take revelation into [my] own hands,” but to set aside a space so that maybe, just maybe, I will be able to hear God’s revelation if and when it comes.

Baab quotes Henry Nouwen about this: “In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.” I don’t have the most disciplined spiritual life, but Nouwen’s idea rings true to my experience. Discipline, ironically, leads to spontaneity. Here’s to more of that in 2012.

[i] William H. Willimon, “Too Much Practice.” The Christian Century, March 9, 2010, 24.

I caught an interesting episode of the Diane Rehm show today featuring Lori Andrews, author of I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did,a new book releasing today about social networks and the rapid erosion of privacy. Andrews and fellow guest Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (and an obvious foil for Mark Zuckerberg!) very reasonably presented the case for stricter privacy laws.

Andrews in particular argued for an “opt in” approach whereby consumers would need to go out of their way to allow third-party companies to collect and sell their information, with a single sort of clearinghouse agency that would enable consumers to do this one time and with one action. This is radically different than the way it is done now, when companies often don’t need our consent to gather and sell even the most private information about us, and the burden is on us to opt out — which we have to do Whac-A-Mole style, one company at a time.

But what impressed me more than their arguments (which I did not always agree with) was the way both guests handled the loose cannon of the episode: author Jeff Jarvis, who comported himself just about as rudely as I’ve ever heard a professional guest behave on NPR (excepting politicians, of course). He accused the host of setting up a straw man about this all being about the extreme notion of our credit card numbers being posted online. He then proceeded to set up a straw man of his own, suggesting that the other guests were Luddites who could not appreciate the value of the public sharing that the Internet provides — a social good that, of course, no one was disputing.

Jarvis not only missed the point of the discussion, but he repeatedly interrupted the host and the other guests, refusing to listen to anyone else’s perspective. You could almost hear him rolling his eyes like a teenager. On Twitter in real time he posted, “Diane Rehm using the most hackneyed & ridiculous privacy argument: I don’t make my credit card # public. A non sequitur.”

I can only imagine how humiliated his publishing house must feel, especially his publicist, who successfully booked him on one of the nation’s most thoughtful forums for discussion and then must have cringed as Jarvis bit the hands that fed him, then bit again.

I was surprised by all this, having heard Jarvis speak once before about a book I enjoyed and learned from, What Would Google Do? It was hard to reconcile this arrogant attack dog with the forward-thinking innovator who wrote that book.

Vibrant public discourse calls for disagreement, even vigorous disagreement, but it does not sanction superciliousness. Badly done, Jeff Jarvis. Badly done.