On Guns and Breakfast and Getting Shot: Or, why there is a difference between encouraging imagination and actively fostering it.

I woke to the smell of bacon and coffee, familiar and pleasant and full of the promise of a new adventure. Rolling out of my sheet, I tossed my legs to the floor and dragged my boots towards me with my right foot. I slipped into the jeans draped over the foot of the bed and put the boots on. A crooked, bent white hat hung from the bed post, a red and white flannel draped beneath it. I slung the hat cockeyed onto my matted hair and quickly buttoned the shirt. The gun, a fully loaded white handled revolver, rested under my pillow. I retrieved it and fastened the gun belt around my waist, dropped the pistol into the holster, and yelled, “morning sunshine, let’s get a move on!”

The dining room was empty save for the cook, a 30-something lady with shoulder length hair and a generous smile. I leaned against the counter and ordered a plate of eggs scrambled, half a dozen slices of bacon, and whatever was strongest to wash it down. My companion – the aforementioned sunshine – did the same and we settled in for the kind of homemade breakfast a cowboy doesn’t find on the trail.

“Much obliged”, I said.

“Where to today boys?” she asked.

“Wherever the trail takes us” one of us said not wishing to give away any more information than was necessary. “Wherever the trail takes us.”

“Who you chasing this time?” she asked. She was nosy, but friendly and a good cook and so we conversed. “Could be we’re being chased this time.” My companion looked up from his breakfast and grinned. “Could be”, he agreed.

“It is that kind of world, ain’t it”, she said.

“Some days.”

“Well, boys, eat up and don’t forget to get something for lunch. I wouldn’t wish that dusty trail on any man, hungry or not, but might as well make sure the hungry part is out of the equation.”

I nodded.

“Okay, let’s go”, I said to my companion. “Let’s get the horses.”

My companion was not one to hurry through a breakfast as good as that one so I left first, slipping my arms into my vest as I walked. I retrieved my rifle and saddle bags from the bunkroom and went to the corral. The horses – one white, one brown – were antsy and eager to move on. I saddled the paint and climbed aboard and waited for my companion. Some time passed before he emerged from the hotel and he was rushing, his uncinched holster flapping against his leg as he ran. I had been growing annoyed at his tardiness and told him so. He muttered something back I couldn’t hear well as was his way when I grew overbearing.

“I s’pect they’ve gone that way,” I said pointing towards the mountains to the west and he said, “S’pect so” as he dropped his black carbine into the sheath settled against his saddle. “Let’s go.”

And we went, not yet ten years old and bouncing towards some unknown adventure. As we rode away, the cook looked out from the kitchen window and waved. We tipped our hats and I said, “we should have grabbed some cookies.”

“I wonder what’s for lunch,” he said, then yelled, “look out! There they are!” and fell from his horse.


The Branches That Make The Flowers Bloom

There are certain moments that transcend existence. Or rather, there are certain moments that make existence transcendent, moments you identify years, maybe even decades, later as life-changing, where you look back in wonder that you were there, that you were a part of it, that you saw it and felt it and shook your head at the magic of seeing and feeling it, that you look back at grateful to have been there at that time in that place, to have been alive at a time that allowed you play a role in it, even if only to experience it as viewer. I’m talking about the kind of moments that you try to explain to others (but usually fail), that become stories you repeat again and again without ever having to embellish them or make them bigger than then they were because they were simply that great, moments that you remember with a grateful shake of the head and a grin even when othersdon’t, or can’t, understand.

Usually these are big moments: maybe the moment you said “I do” or the day your first child was born or the day you converted to…well, anything. But many of these moments are subtle, delicate waves on the ocean of a lifespan, moments that can barely be measured except for how they change you. You may be the only one who remembers them, who knows why they are meaningful. You might be the only person in existence who remembers the moment at all. You may be the last keeper of a moment that, whether it is remembered or not, will race on into eternity bearing with it meanings beyond the scope of human understanding. But you, at least you, if only you, have a glimmer of understanding, or recognition, and therefore also of appreciation. This is the kind of moment that can never be planned for or expected. You can hope for it, even pray for it, but until you have experienced it you can’t know what to pray for. Sometimes this is a moment you share with others and that you remember together with a knowing nod, the kind of moment borne only of corporate experience.

I experienced a moment like this several years ago when I was living in Dubuque, Iowa in an old creaky house with an unfinished attic and a damp basement worthy of any good low-budget horror film. There were five of us, bundled against the frigid winter, a laptop our only source of light and half burnt tobacco products our meager source of warmth. Something played softly through the surround-sound my house mate had jerry-rigged, nothing I can recall specifically except that it was atmospheric ambient noise.I t was probably early Sigur Ros or Derek Webb or U2. One of the three is a good guess.

As we sat we talked about books, sort of, movies occasionally, how cold it was although we didn’t wish it to get warm. As I recall we wrote a bit and read some until the laptop died and we could only sit in the dark and wonder at how hot a bowl of half-smoked pipe tobacco can get. That in itself can make for a transcendent moment. Even in the smallest of things.

But as we sat there I was struck by the magnitude of such moments. Not that any specifically meaningful thing happened but rather that what happened was more meaningful in it’s simplicity than almost any other kind of thing could have been at that point in our collective existences. We were – or least I was – molded by simple moments such as these, moments of being together. I was changed, altered forever, made into something altogether new by the moments like this and on this night I began to see it happening, I began to know that I (dare I saw we) was being planted and growing, that I was, if I can take the metaphor another step, being fertilized.

Now, here’s the thing. Our live are made up of moments that change us. Our lives are an ebb and flow of inciting actions and climaxes, again and again and again. Just as our DNA consistently changes so do we as individual souls change. We are planted and fertilized over and over from the moment we are, well, planted at the outset to the moment we become fertilizer in the end. But what set this moment apart was my conscious realization that that moment would render me forever altered. That after that moment – and every moment like it – I could never be the same. And with that realization came another understanding.

This is what friendship does, I saw. This is what camaraderie does. This, I understood, is why we pursue relationship and we should pursue it and why when we find it (when we find relationships that help us grow in a healthy fashion) we feel honored to be, as CS Lewis’ put it, in the company of our betters. This is why we do – and should – pursue friendship. Even in the smallest, most commonplace moments we are changed by those with whom we are friends. And thus, I further realized, the who with whom I am friends matters more than the what. It matters what actions the players take if the players are worth being fertilized by (if you’ll continue to pardon the metaphor).

There are, I came to understand, few things more precious than friendship. And I’ve since come to see that those things that can be considered more precious than friendship – marriage, for example, parenthood, the church – are only variations on the relationships one finds in friendship.

So moments such as this and what they help me to understand are not commonplace at all but rather they are the kind of moments that are as transcendent, in their own way, as the day I said “I do” and the day I found out I would be a dad. These days are enormously influential and important days in my life, days I will remember joyously until I die. But perhaps simple moments like the one I experienced in that cold attic – and the realizations that accompanied it – are just as life changing in their own transcendent way. They are the kind of moments that make the larger moments possible. They are the branches that make the flowers bloom.

Reviews & Recommendations, The Modern Times

On labels, categories, and “Hipster Christianity”

Brett McCracken’s suddenly semi-controversial and certainly thought provoking book, Hipster Christianity, has been making the proverbial rounds as bloggers, editors, and book reviewers begin to consider the questions it raises and the implications of its thesis.

It seems to me they are, largely, missing the point.

For a basic introduction to the book, click here.

Fundamental to McCracken’s point is the truth that if church is too enamored with “cool” than its necessary emphasis on the gospel will be diminished. That this is true seems unarguable and so I won’t touch on it here.
Yet, McCracken’s most insistent critics, especially the always insightful and admirable Jeffrey Overstreet ( who, like McCracken, has been a film critic for Christianity Today), are primarily concerned with the idea that McCracken defines “hipsterdom” and then perhaps too broadly suggests that people who bear the characteristics that define said hipsterdom are, in fact, hipsters. In response to gospel.com, Overstreet blogged this:

I haven’t had time to read it all yet, so this isn’t a review. But the “hipster” characteristics described in the excerpts of this book I’ve read so far — the music preferences, the styles, etc — are embraced by many people I know for many reasons, many of them sincere, authentic, even admirable. To slap a label on the lot of them as if they’re all alike is, I’m afraid, misleading and damaging.

I have a problem with the logic of this criticism.

While it is true that McCracken does define the world of hipsterdom (as he should), even tracing its history and heritage and the many characteristics that most often define people who consider themselves hipsters – or are considered by others to be hipsters – such a definition does not necessarily suggest that people who bear those characteristics are always hipsters.

Overstreet is rightly saying that just because someone listens to a kind of music most hipsters listen to does not mean he is a hipster. But McCracken wouldn’t disagree. Essentially, I think the disagreement is over nothing, created ex nihilo so to speak. A fallacy, if you will. McCracken sets out to identify and report those characteristics that can be most commonly attributed to various kinds of hipsters. He doesn’t suggest that just because one has those characteristics means one is a hipster.

Overstreet specifically mentions a quiz/test on the book’s website that, in a lighthearted and, I thought, clearly ironic fashion suggests that it can help determine what kind of hipster you are. Overstreet rightly suggests that such a quiz cannot “tell me who I am.” He writes:

If I see an online quiz that claims to show me whether or not I am a “Christian hipster,” I’m going to ignore it. I don’t believe a checklist can tell me what I am, why I make the decisions I do, or whether or not I am selling out. It will probably only *encourage* [asterix his] me to look to such surveys for self-definition, to worry about what I *look* like to the culture around me.

But this surely was never the intention of the quiz. Such a tongue-in-cheek quiz, for such a book, by such an author as McCracken, is not designed to define a person. Rather, it is for someone who is interested in seeing, in a humorous way, what kind of hipster they might beaccording to the specific definitions the book presents. The flaw in Overstreets criticism, in my mind, is in the suggestion that McCracken, or his quiz, means to lump anyone into anything. After all, if you head over to the site and take the quiz, I think you will find that, with the slightest honest tweak to any number of questions, you are any number of hipster incarnations.

The book seems to have three main goals: to trace the history of the various incarnations of hipsterdom, to define what it often looks like in our current culture, and to question what role it ought to play within the culture of our churches. How can McCracken be expected to write such a book without first defining his terms according to a criteria he deems most appropriate? The fact is that there is such a thing as a so-called hipster subculture, that it is widely considered “cool,” and that is a large and ever-growing subculture within the Christian church. And as Overstreet writes in the same blog post, the discussion must be had and it should inspire us to “think about our choices, our sincerity, and our priorities.” But if it is to be had we must, we absolutely must, define out terms – something McCracken sets out to do in this book.

To that end, as a tool, labels are useful, as are categories. That’s why they exist and why they are and ought to be used. They are organizers, tools for definition (which, as Aristotle argued, is the necessary first step in any argument). And, I would argue, McCracken uses them as nothing more.

To suggest that most so-called hipsters (a term he consistently and rightly says is slippery at best) tend to like certain kinds of clothes, art, food, lifestyles, etc is no different than suggesting that most African Americans tend to vote democrat and most white evangelicals tend to vote republican. It’s fact. Statistic. Both are true, as is the fact that most hipsters prefer a specific sets of lifestyle choices. McCracken is not saying, however, that all hipsters like the same kind of music, clothes, etc., just as studies do not suggest that all African Americans voted Democrat, etc. Most do, though, and one cannot study cultural trends, as McCracken is doing, without observing the broader consistencies of a demographic.

Indeed, the fact is that the vast majority of people who listen to the Arcade Fire or The National, who wear “superfluous” scarves in the summer in LA, or who attend church in bars or clubs with coffee shops and “sex talks” tend to be a part, in some way or another, of the hipster sub-culture. To observe this is simply not the same as making a sweeping declaration about the character of the individual people who are a part of such things; it is an observation McCracken has no choice but to make and upon which he has no choice but to build his arguments.

And he is not judging the hipsters as individuals, nor is he, in point of fact, judging the movement itself so much as he is, after considering the reams of evidence such as it exists, judging the influence of modern hipsterdom on the modern church.

And he is right to do so, for if “cool” manages to overwhelm the gospel in our places of worship and community then why go there anyway? We have other places for that.

It’s not that there isn’t a place for hipster culture in our churches. But it must be just that – relegated to it’s rightful place, alongside politics, rock music, and business-savvy marketing.

What do you think? I could be wrong, no doubt.

In no way do I mean to disrespect Mr. Overstreet. I consider him my very favorite blogger and film reviewer and a leading light within the world of Christ-led art-makers. I offer my thoughts humbly and with the acknowledgment that he is much wiser than I.

Reviews & Recommendations

Book of the Week: Ancient Highway

Bret Lott is a writer I admire very much, and whose memoir on a life spent writing, Before We Begin, I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying. His prose is poetic and his vivid stories are rich with meaning and anyone who loves the movies (or the “flickers” as they are called in this novel), the poetry of early and mid-century Americana, or stories based upon the complex history of a single family will find Ancient Highway a must read.

Leif Enger, Wallace Stegner, Alice Munro

DESCRIPTION: “From the bestselling author of Jewel and The Difference Between Women and Men comes a haunting novel of home, family, and the pursuit of lost dreams. Ancient Highway brilliantly weaves together the hopes and regrets of three characters from three generations as they reconcile who they are and who they might have been.In 1925, a fourteen-year-old boy leaves his family’s farm and hops a boxcar in a dusty Texas field, heading for Hollywood and a life in the “flickers.”In 1947, a ten-year-old girl aches for a real home with a real family in a wide-open space, far from the crowded Los Angeles streets where her handsome cowboy father chases stardom and her mother holds a secret.In 1980, a young man just out of the Navy visits his elderly yet colorful grandparents in Los Angeles, eager to uncover his family’s silent history.For the Holmeses, a longing for something else–another place, a second chance–seems to run in the family DNA. From Earl’s journey west toward Hollywood glory, to his daughter Joan’s wish for a normal existence away from the bright lights, to his grandson Brad’s yearning for truth, this deep-rooted desire sustains them, no matter how much the goal eludes them. But ultimately, in each generation, a family crisis forces a turning away from the horizon and the acceptance of a reality that is by turns harsh and healing.Inspired by stories of his own family, Bret Lott beautifully renders the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary faith in a mesmerizing and finely wrought tale of love and letting go.”

EXCERPT (via Random House):


He’d heard it already, the cold and steady promise way off, building and building but still way off, not yet even to the trestle over Rogers Creek. But coming.

He pulled closed the door off the kitchen quiet as he could, his hand on the knob and twisting it so as to ease the latch with no noise at all, and it seemed a kind of good luck sign to him, that no-sound to help him on his way.

He had his good clothes in the pillowcase, the white shirt and stiff denim dungarees and the yellow tie he’d taken from Frank’s things the day after he passed, and though he’d never worn the tie, only kept it like a secret fact out of Frank’s life that no one else would ever know, he was sure he’d look good in it when he went for his first screen test.

That’s what they called them, he’d seen in the magazines he’d read. A screen test, and his blood quickened at the thought of that, a test to see if you could be on the screen. A test he was certain he would pass, knew he would pass.

He had a few copies of the magazines in the pillowcase, too—two Photoplays, one Motion Picture—he’d somehow managed to keep as secret as Frank’s tie, and there were sandwiches in there, wrapped in wax paper and made not but a minute ago. He’d tiptoed his way to the kitchen in the dark, sliced off thick hanks of bread on the butcher block, then found in the icebox a couple leftover slices of ham, slathered the bread with butter from the crock inside the icebox too, then got the wax paper from the drawer beside the stove. And he had two dollars in his pocket, maybe enough for whatever other food he’d need for the three or four days he figured it would take to get to California.

He was ready.

He was going.

Bret Lott is the author of twelve books, most recently the novel Ancient Highway, (Random House 2008); other books include the story collection The Difference Between Women and Men, the nonfiction book Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, and the bestselling novels Jewel, an Oprah Book Club pick, and A Song I Knew by Heart. His work has appeared in, among other places, The Yale Review, The New York Times, The Georgia Review and in dozens of anthologies. Born in Los Angeles, he received his BA in English from Cal State Long Beach in 1981, and his MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1984, where he studied under James Baldwin. From 1986 to 2004 he was writer-in-residence and professor of English at The College of Charleston, leaving to take the position of editor and director of the journal The Southern Review at Louisiana State University. Three years later, in the fall of 2007, he returned to The College of Charleston and the job he most loves: teaching. His honors include having been named Fulbright Senior American Scholar and writer-in-residence to Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel; having spoken on Flannery O’Connor at The White House; and being appointed a member of the National Council on the Arts. He and his wife, Melanie, and live in Hanahan, South Carolina.

The Creative Process

There’s Something To Be Said For A Little Intentionality

There’s something to be said for intentionality, for doing something with purpose, with direction, with energy.

There’s something to be said for meaning what you say or do or create.

A few years back, when I was living in Dubuque, Iowa, a college town on the banks of the Mississippi, I grew close to a group of guys who today I consider among my best of friends. They stood by me at my wedding, and I in several of theirs. And we certainly have stood together on less glorious occasions, as friends should.

Our friendships were built, I have no doubt, upon shared creation, shared exercise, and shared devotion, each driven and possible only through intentionality.

It was with intention that we created together, that we gathered for nights of shared creation – and critique. It was with intention that we walked late into the night simply for the sake of being, and talking, together. And it was with intentionality that we prayed, sang, cried, and rejoiced together – devoted to one another as well as the God who saw fit to bring us together.

And while our friendships may well have blossomed without said intentionality, it seems unlikely that they would have been the same.

Purpose is binding.

It is true in friendship, in work, and certainly in marriage.

Each, like writing, demands a certain measure of intentionality of us, a certain measure of purposeful effort. To maintain good friendships in the midst of the busy-ness of life we must make the effort to stay in touch, the states (of mind too!) between us notwithstanding. To work well one must, of course, be intentional about the work one does. And marriage, I have discovered in my 14 months of (mostly) bliss, most certainly demands a great measure of purpose.

And if I am to be a good writer – or critic, or reader – I must gather up my energies and with what purpose I can muster I must enter into the act of creation with intentionality.

I must continually make the effort to sit down and write, to put pen to paper and practice. I must work at it.

I’m not, I admit, good about this.

But, just as my friendships won’t maintain themselves, and my work won’t do itself, and my marriage won’t sustain itself, my writing absolutely won’t create itself ex nihilo, like some blob from an imaginary swamp of ideas.

And what would be the point of that anyway?


The Art of Telling the Truth: Comparing Photography and Storytelling

My wife, Bethany, is a photographer, and a few weeks ago we were sitting out on our porch, enjoying the summer breeze when she said something that I found really profound. She told me how one of her college professors told her that, contrary to common belief, photography as an art form is much more closely related to storytelling than it is to, say, film (or even painting). I was struck by how meaningful – and true – this is.

After all, the same elements that make a photograph good are some of the same elements that make a story or novel good: a keen eye for detail, an empathy with subject matter, an understanding that there is great, deep meaning even in the simplest of things. Certainly, each art form is differentiated by very specific elements, or skills. But even those differing elements function the same way within their respective art forms. For example, a photographer’s use of light and shadow to accentuate an object in such a way that creates specific meaning, or mood, functions in much the same way that a beautifully scripted sentence does. A phrase wonderfully turned is to the novel or short story what light cast through lens is to photography. They are the practical “objective correlatives” to their forms. That is, they are elements through which meaning is created – and depicted, understood.

And consider the way that a wonderful photograph can capture your emotions, your imagination, your heart. Why do we stand in museums and galleries for hours, taking in photo after photo, or perhaps standing in front of a single photograph until it releases us from its spell? I would suggest it’s because such works of art are telling a story that, for one reason or another, attaches itself to some synapse inside us, some emotional magnet from which, like a novel whose pages we turn and turn, chapter after chapter, we simply cannot detach ourselves.

The creation of a photograph, like the creation of a story, demands from an artist a certain measure of dedication to the way things are, to reality, to the world as it is, or could be. People are a certain way, they do certain things, they must do certain things. People make certain faces, or gestures; they stand in strange ways, or unique ways; they stare or eat or kiss or run or sleep or work in ways that only a human being can. And it is the job, the duty, of the photographer to capture this law of nature in all its grand, beautiful singularity.

Of course, it is the job of the filmmaker, the painter, or the sculptor to do this too. But artists in each of these fields are allowed a certain space for invention. That is, they can alter the natural order of things. The filmmaker can change the world in which the story exists and the painter can alter the way color interacts with canvas. Even the sculptor can change the way the human body bends or twists. But the photographer has only one moment, only a single opportunity to capture the world as it is. And to do so he or she must have a storyteller’s eye, she must see the way a storyteller does, with a dual perspective: with an eye for the way things are as well as an eye for what the way things are means (which is closely related to empathy).

Like the storyteller who understands that the detail of each description and the structure of each sentence is crucial to capturing and depicting meaning, the photographer must see each speck of pixel, each inch of light and shadow, as crucial to the depiction of meaning. And, for that matter, both sorts of artists must understand – and act upon – the truth that anything (any shadow, any misplaced word) can alter completely the meaning portrayed in their work.

The stakes are high.

Naturally, therefore, necessarily even, the artist assumes a certain level of responsibility. Both to his work and his own intentions, but also to the truth of reality. What the photographer photographs is, so to speak. That is, it exists. The artist can never escape this fact. It will haunt every pixel of every shot, every shadow, every line and face and pose.Walker Percy wrote that good art “discovers and knows and tells, tells the [viewer/experiencer] how things are, how we are, in a way that the reader can confirm with as much certitude as a scientist taking a pointer reading.” So the role of the photographer – and his duty – is to display the truth of (a) reality. To do otherwise is to create from a fundamentally relativistic perspective; it is essentially to assert that reality is meaningless, that it isn’t good enough, that the things that make up the human experience lack drama and color. It is to suggest that the things that capture our imaginations and our emotions are worthless.

Indeed, may I go so far as to argue that such art suggests that the handiwork of God is incomplete?

I don’t mean to diminish the fantastic role that imagination can and should and must play in art – and even faith. The imagination can flourish even in a world where the laws of nature reign, even in a world that operates according to the truth of reality.

The most obvious way a fictional world can be planted firmly in the ground of reality? True depictions of the relationships between good and evil, love and hate, redemption and damnation. Each is meaningless without the other, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, and so it is the job of the artist to truthfully depict each.

The photographer has just a single moment to capture a snapshot of reality. Each shot, no matter how rapidly taken, captures a new moment, a new piece of truth, a new story.

The storyteller has a different set of tools, but his job is the same. For Truth is Truth, and no man can make otherwise.

Be therefore,
Show, therefore,
Create, therefore