A Different Way

November 17, 2015

For years my friend Fred Prudek has been telling me about the Moravians, an early Protestant missionary community that he much admired. I more or less rolled my eyes. Then, in the providence of God, our daughter moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which was and is the American center for Moravians, and since I am the kind of person who finds history fascinating, I’ve had little choice but to learn about the Moravians.

They established Bethlehem in 1741, coming from Germany to preach the good news to native Americans and to colonists. They lived communally and earned the respect of their fellow Europeans through their skill in various trades, as did other pietist groups that came to the new world with a distinctive religious point of view. What stands out today, however–and did in the 18th century as well–was their respectful treatment of the native Americans.

You can read it in their letters and written accounts, but where it shows most is in  their cemetery. Very recently I walked through that acre of green land in downtown Bethlehem. Leaves had covered the ground, and Popie and I had to use our feet to scrape off each gravestone to read who had died there. They have small gravestones set flat in the ground, all about the same size and all level with each other. Most remarkably, the races are buried together quite promiscuously–Indians, Europeans and Africans. Here is Andrew, a Mohican, here David, one of the first missionaries, here Thomas, an African. Among the 18th century graves there are many native Americans and quite a few Africans. They are all treated the same, and all mixed up together. That may seem trivial, but show me another graveyard like it. (Fred tells me that at another Moravian colony in North Carolina, the local settlers forced the Moravians to dig up all the Africans and move them in the 1830s.)

Through the Revolutionary War the Moravians had extensive, positive interactions with tribes living nearby. Moravian missionaries were welcomed to live in Indian villages, and quite a number of Indians chose to follow the Christian way the Moravians offered and exemplified. (When they did so, they usually moved to a new, separate quarter. There was clear choice involved.)

These hopeful beginnings were all blown away by the ferocious, violent, acquisitive colonists. War waged against them drove the native Americans away, and spoiled any possibility of a different kind of relationship–the kind exemplified today in the Moravian cemetery.

Baby Born in Bethlehem

November 10, 2015

Here is a recent picture of Amaro Hobbes Olid-Stafford, born on Halloween night at 11:51, weighing nine pounds and nine ounces and measuring 23 inches. You would never guess it looking at his mother Katie in this picture that she had a very rough delivery, and needed two units of blood after she tore an artery. I am profoundly thankful that she and Eduardo didn’t have any romantic ideas about home delivery.

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Here is what Amaro looked like on the first day of his new life. My favorite part was watching our daughter hold him and laugh: a deep, welling-up laugh of joy.


Jesus Lived Generously

October 14, 2015

That’s the title of the sermon I preached Sunday at Healdsburg Community Church. It’s on the feeding of the 5,000 as recorded in Mark, and I found quite a lot to think about there. It’s a provocative (and unsettling) commentary on how I respond to needy people–an ancient, contemporary issue. You can listen here.

Proud Papa

September 30, 2015

Yesterday I received a copy of our daughter Katie’s first published book, Narrating War in Peace: The Spanish Civil War in the Transition and Today. She dedicated it to me! I’m sure any parent would be very proud of their child publishing a book, but for me, as a writer, this is a very wonderful moment.

The Appeal of ISIS

August 13, 2015

You shouldn’t miss the NYT article on sexual slavery under ISIS. For me it demonstrates, even more than mass beheadings, the systematic evil of this would-be state. Sexual slavery is a planned, systematized, regulated practice—and a religious practice at that. It describes ISIS members praying before and after raping young girls they hold as slaves.

A complementary piece is Roger Cohen’s column musing on the appeal of ISIS. He notes ISIS’ “unquenchable appeal” to an international clientele. “It is clearly tapping into something deep,” he writes, and adds, “Perhaps that something is at root a yearning to be released from the burden of freedom.”

For some ISIS’ appeal may be sex and violence, the chance to be cruel and triumphant. But the West offers a fair opportunity for sex and violence too. Cohen is probing something deeper: a revolt against the West’s determined drive to extend near-absolute freedom to every choice: whom to marry, when to divorce, when to die, whether to have sex, and with whom, and so on. He quotes novelist Michel Houellebecq, who sees France facing “a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be.”

Right now the loudest voices (and the most successful politics) belong to two extremes: the advocates of order, such as ISIS, and the advocates of freedom. But I think humanity’s true home is in a bounded freedom. This is the image of Eden, in which a garden is set out in the larger world, which human beings are to keep and explore, while not coveting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Even if you agree that we are meant to flourish in a bounded freedom, it’s no small thing to figure out how to set the boundaries. The politics are bound to be fractious. Whatever is done, is bound to be wrong sometimes. Nevertheless, it helps if we keep that image clear in our minds, and try to build our lives around it. We are meant for freedom—creativity, innovation, exploration. We are meant also to avoid the temptations of the absolute, set right in the center of the garden where we pass them by every day.

Another Take on Atticus Finch

August 5, 2015

A friend sent me this review of Go Set a Watchman. It’s really about what it’s like to live in a racist society after you become aware of how wrong racism is, and yet find yourself involved and implicated in it by the people and the society you love. This, the author Ursula Le Guin suggests, was the young Harper Lee’s subject, until an editor derailed her and set her to write a naive, white-liberal-self-congratulating book. She thinks the failed, earlier book (the one just now published) was actually a lot more truthful than the beautiful and famous later book.

Myself, I appreciate books written from a child’s perspective. That’s what To Kill a Mockingbird is: a child’s memory of her father, the epitome of goodness. Children see their fathers as heroes in a way they almost never do as adults, but the child’s perspective is a valuable one. We could do worse than to see the world through the eyes of a little child.

There is also a more adult tale to be told, far more complicated and troubling. As a matter of fact, no white man in Harper Lee’s society was ever as good as Atticus Finch. I say that having read a great deal of civil rights history. I am aware of only one or two candidates for the Good White. Almost invariably those who sought to be Good (and there weren’t many of them) got hounded out of town.

Today, when we have become alerted all over again to the persistence of racism in our society, we need both children’s tales and adult tales. We need to hope, and we need to deal with complex reality.

Creating Wealth

August 3, 2015

Can I register my disapproval of a phrase that crops up in business stories more and more? It’s “creating wealth,” as a description of what entrepreneurs (and business people generally) do. As in this story from The Guardian: “Creating Wealth: how artists can become inventive entrepreneurs.” Or an interview with New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, headlined, “Is specialized job training the key to creating wealth in New Orleans?” Or a recent story in The New York Times: “But if Mr. Modi is serious about creating wealth from India’s waste….”

There are some points in favor of the phrase: it emphasizes the creativity of capitalism, and it’s usefully generic, on the level of phrases like “building the economy.”

What I disapprove of, however, is its emphasis on wealth as the end product of business, instead of useful products and services. Granted that some people in business don’t care what they do so long as it makes them rich. But that is typically an attitude of people in non-creative service industries, like much of finance. It is what rentiers and speculators do. It makes some people rich by making other people poor.

If you want to be an entrepreneur, I doubt it serves you well to focus any large share of your attention on getting rich. You want to focus on a specific product or service that will make you rich by providing a concrete good. This is the business of entrepreneurs: creating Uber, creating the iPod, creating Amazon.

To focus on “creating wealth” is the King Midas mistake. You think you get rich by magically turning things into gold, but you discover that if the whole world is gold, you become desperately poor. Focus on useful products and services, and you may become rich; focus on becoming rich, and we may (societally) become impoverished.

So artists who want to get rich should focus on becoming better artists better serving art lovers; New Orleans should focus on streamlining business formation and providing good education and creating safer streets; Mr. Modi should focus on effective recycling policies. That’s the creativity of capitalism; wealth is a byproduct.

Os Guinness and the Art of Persuasion

July 23, 2015

Christianity Today has posted my interview with Os Guinness, talking about his latest book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (InterVarsity Press). Guinness is a thoughtful man who has some worthwhile things to say.

Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby

July 21, 2015

I’ve been fascinated by the upset caused by Harper Lee’s new rendition of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, her followup to To Kill a Mockingbird. Evidently Atticus does not come off as quite so morally heroic, and that bothers people.

To which I want to say: Atticus Finch is a fictional character. Another novel that uses his name is just another novel, and another character named Atticus Finch has nothing to do with the first Atticus Finch. The character in To Kill a Mockingbird is his forever; it was complete when Harper Lee published the book.

I think this way because I’m a novelist. I love novels, but I know that they are illusions, carved out with careful intentionality by their authors. Novels may tell you some important truths—I believe they do—but they do not create lives. Only God does that.

My wife explains to me that people long to believe in heroes during these dispiriting times, and Atticus Finch is a hero. I take her point. How many characters in modern fiction can one see as genuinely heroic? I am having trouble thinking of a single one, besides Atticus Finch. Perhaps the upset over Atticus represents people who want heroes left alone.

Okay, I get that, but could we focus on defending heroes whom we know to be real people?

My thoughts about fictional heroes apply almost identically to the trouble with Bill Cosby. Of course, it’s upsetting that Cosby has turned out to be a wretch. (Or is that too kind a word to apply to a serial rapist?) But there are many serial rapists in the world. The particular trouble with the idea of Bill Cosby, serial rapist, is that we believed he was such a nice man. We believed, in fact, that he was our friend. Naturally we feel betrayed.

But that feeling of betrayal is based on a hopeless and willed naivete. I will contend (and here I rely on my experience as a reporter, not as a novelist) that the public figures we read about and see on TV—the athletes, movie stars, politicians, preachers and even scientists—are just as much fictional characters as Atticus Finch. Enjoy their performance, and draw inspiration from it, but resist the temptation to think you know anything about the real person behind the performance.

I’ve had a few experiences of this, with Christian celebrities who were widely believed to be wise and saintly characters, and whom I came to believe (from personal encounters) verged on the psychotic. Unless you know people personally, and know them well, you have no idea what they are like. Their public persona is an image, as carefully crafted as a character in a novel.

Bill Cosby of public life—let’s call him “Bill Cosby”—was a lovely old curmudgeon, funny and wise and delightful. “Bill Cosby” represented a projection of something that the real Bill Cosby wanted to be, and perhaps in small portions could be. But “Bill Cosby” has no more fallen than Atticus Finch. And you don’t know the real Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby wasn’t your friend. Thankfully.

Disappointment with God: Naomi’s Story

July 13, 2015

Here’s an audio link to the sermon I preached on Sunday. It’s a sketch of Naomi (in the book of Ruth), her bitterness and disappointment with God, and the way in which God reached into her situation. The sermon lasts 23 minutes, and I think it’s pretty good!


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