Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Reading: Less Than the Sum of its Parts

(reflections on nonfiction by Malcolm Gladwell, THE TIPPING POINT (2001), and WORLD OF WONDERS (1972), the third novel in the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies.)

Even at 6 a.m., the heat and humidity are still oppressive.  But, I'm up early fretting about homework schedules, so that means summer's long over.   Time only to give due consideration to the last two books of the season.

Our faculty read THE TIPPING POINT looking for possible applications to our middle school.  Can we engineer a positive trend by appealing to a few charismatic trend-setters, or by paying attention to small details, or by having a memorable message?  Yes.  Can each of those methods fail?  Yes. 

THE TIPPING POINT contributed its title to our vocabulary, so that I've heard the phrase countless times in analyses of politics, the economy, and popular trends in the years since it was published.  Beyond the cover, Gladwell tells a dozen or so good stories in which a seemingly small adjustment to some behavior spreads like a virus through a whole community.    The agents of the virus are "Mavens" who collect knowledge about consumer goods or whatever; "Connectors" who retain names and interests of hundreds of acquaintances; and "Salesmen" who use persuasion and personal charisma to draw others to a product.

From these, he tries to tease out some general rules.  These are, one by one, interesting and useful.  One salesman, for example, operates by having a ready reply for the would-be customer's every doubt (You can't afford it right now, but can you afford to wait?).  The "Broken Windows" change in policemen's policies in New York seems to have worked wonders, turning the city from crime-ridden and sleazy to its present Disney-fied squeaky clean feel.

But each of his general rules works only when some other general rule doesn't apply.  A virus won't work if the context isn't right, for instance.  That's true for a sexually-transmitted virus that stops spreading when cold weather inhibits bar-hopping.   Theology students preparing a sermon on the importance of caring for strangers literally stepped over needy strangers planted in their route to the lecture hall, so long as the context was that the audience was already there waiting for the sermon.  It's a good illustration of something we all know from experience.  Nothing works, he tells us, if the trend (object, concept) isn't "sticky," and it's "sticky" if it's useful, repetitive, appealing, chemically addictive ... whatever.

Think of it as a manual, and the book is a failure.  Think of it as a collection of loosely - related anecdotes that sometimes give ideas to a teacher or any other social engineer, and it's just fine.

Excited to re-read the FIFTH BUSINESS (see an earlier posting, here), I eagerly dusted off my old 1980 paperback editions of the other two novels in the trilogy.  In brief, the three novels follow out the lives of the boy who threw a snowball containing a heavy stone at another boy who ducked, and a third boy who popped out of his mother prematurely when that rock hit her in the back of the head.  Diminishing returns.  THE MANTICORE, I wrote previously, was a fascinating essay to illustrate Jungian ideas of universal myths that have personal meaning to each of us.   The evolving relationship between patient and analyst gave that novel a forward drive to carry through its discursive narrative.  WORLD OF WONDERS begins as a kind of creepy Huckleberry Finn story of a little boy who escapes home and is set adrift in a nasty carnival side-show called "World of Wonders."  The boy, now a master magician and film actor, tells his story to the film crew.  Once that story is over, it moves to the young man's apprenticeship with the last of the Romantic actor-managers in England.

We appreciate the details of life in the carnival, life in the old-fashioned theatre, life in the provinces of Canada.  But however much Davies strains to create dramatic tension between the tale-teller and his audience, the way he did pretty successfully in THE MANTICORE,  he doesn't achieve it, here.  Reading it became a chore, and the final chapters seemed redundant.

I recall feeling that way in the 1980s, and I also recall feeling that his next trilogy, beginning with REBEL ANGELS, was better, and his earliest trilogy, beginning with LEAVEN OF MALICE, was best of all.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Names and James: Homily for St. James' Church

(Homily delivered July 31 at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, at a celebration of St. James' Day.)

Good evening, and happy St. James’ Day!  This is the day when we celebrate the saint who is our namesake.

And my name is Scott Smoot.  That’s how I’ve always been introduced to you through the years, whenever I’m your guest pianist, or whenever I’ve brought news from the Vestry or the Rector Search Committee. 

But my driver’s license calls me William.  So do my insurance card, and my registration with this church.  And when I sign my name, it’s W. Scott Smoot.

My dad is to blame for this confusion.  Dad chose my first name, and he also chose not to use it.   I’ve always had to explain this to teachers and officials.  But the name has had the advantage of tipping me off to telemarketers:  If they ask for William Smut, I can hang up.

When I was in my twenties,  I finally asked my dad why he gave me a name that he never intended for me to use.   He got a gleam in his eye.  “I wanted you to have that initial W.,” he said  “like W. Somerset Maugham.”   That was a literary lion in the mid-twentieth century, a playwright, essayist, story – writer and novelist, my Dad’s favorite. 

But Dad never had told me that W. Somerset Maugham was my namesake.   Dad never said, “Son, I want you to be a writer.”   So how come I was the ten year old who stayed inside to type stories while the other boys were out playing ball?  How come, to this very day, my first thoughts each morning are about a story or a play that I could be writing, or a homily that I should be writing?   Somehow I grew to fit the name.

Living Up to Our Names
I won’t embarrass anyone by making you raise your hand.  But nod your head if you feel that your parents in some way influenced the course of your life by the names they gave you. 

I’m guessing that some of us have had names to measure up to. I went to high school with a guy named Manley, and you couldn’t help but measure him against his name.  Children of celebrities have had trouble living up to their famous family names.

Some of us have had names to live down.   The classic example is in Johnny Cash’s song about the absentee dad who made sure that his boy would grow up able to stand up and fight, by naming him “Sue.”   I once knew an atheist who named her son Darwin.  She explained that she was protecting him from what she called “cute little Southern Baptist cheerleaders.”  Last time I saw the boy, guess who he was dating?

In the Bible, names are signs of destiny. “I have called you by my name and you are mine,” says the Lord.  The angel tells Mary what to call Jesus before she has even conceived him.  Then there are the names in the Bible that change to mark a new relation with the Lord:  Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul. 

In our culture, it’s not easy to choose to change your own name, except for entertainers, and for  women who take the husband’s name in marriage. 

Our Church's Name
Now, we never chose the name of our church.  Our name was chosen for us in 1842 by our founding father, William Root. He led Bible studies for railroad workers in Marietta, but he had attended St. James’ Church in Philadelphia. 

This makes me think that we could easily choose a new name for our church.  After all, we didn’t choose the name, and we’re not really named for a saint, but for another church.  This might be a good time to think of a new name, since we’re in a time of transition, looking for a new rector. 

What other saint might be more appropriate?  In a homily a couple weeks ago, Tim Raasch pointed out how Saints Mary and Martha represent the contemplative spirituality of one sister, and the active hospitality of the other.   That certainly seems to describe two strengths of our congregation.   But the Episcopal Church of Sts. Mary and Martha in Buford GA could probably sue for brand infringement.

So what other saints might fit the way we are?  I’m amazed at the skills of people here who are good at building and making things – so we could adopt the name of Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.    Or we could go with Sir Thomas More, patron saint of lawyers?

We could buck tradition and go for a new-style corporate name, something catchy that would look good on a web site.   I was thinking, maybe, in big friendly letters, Prayers R Us?  Or maybe, something with an exclamation –point after it, like, Spiritco!  At the risk of rubbing a sore spot, here, I think we might streamline our current name, the way BP streamlined “British Petroleum.”  What could be more twenty-first century than SJx!

You all don’t look very excited.  Maybe, like me, you have a feeling deep down that St. James fits us somehow.  Perhaps, before we take such a radical step, we should look at what we know about St. James and see what it is we’re living up to.

Our Namesake
In today’s gospel (MT 20:20-28), James tags along with his brother behind his family name, “Zebedee.” We’re told in a note that the name means, “Thunder.”  When your dad’s name is Thunder, you probably get a lot of teasing from the other kids on the block.  The men in the neighborhood always tell you, “Your father was a really great man, very tough.”  Then they have to add, “So, when are you going to be more like him?”   Their mom certainly storms in to make sure they get the attention due such a name.    I imagine James is blushing, and saying under his breath, “Aww, Mom, you’re embarrassing me.”  But I don’t see that he steps up to stop her, either.   No wonder the rest of the apostles get mad.  

But Jesus stays calm.  He has a test for James and his brother.  “Are you able to drink from the cup that I am about to drink?”  The brothers aren’t sure what they’re agreeing to, but they are Sons of Thunder, and they’ve got to live up to that name.  They say, “We are able.”   Jesus is referring to that cup mentioned later at the garden of Gethsemane, the one that he wishes could pass from his lips, the bitter cup of martyrdom.   He sees in James a young man who will indeed make a stand and suffer the consequences.  

We’ve seen that quality in James before, when he was a fisherman, working all night without catching anything.  Jesus called out to him to cast his net on the other side, and the haul was great enough to tip the boat; but when James reached shore, he left the catch behind, and followed Jesus.  Son of thunder indeed, he’s impetuous and determined. 

But with his mother there, asking for special treatment, the other guys get mad, and Jesus rebukes them, saying those wonderful words at the core of Christian life, about how the greatest must be the servant of all, how the first must be the last. 

Tonight’s reading from Acts (11:27-12:3) tells how James, our namesake, lived out those words, drinking the cup that Jesus drank:  serving the Lord, he was the first of the apostles to die for Jesus. 

Now, there are other traditions and stories about James.  We know that he was a missionary who established the church in what we now call Spain, earning the love and gratitude of the natives there.   There’s a story that he resurrected a boy who had been hanged for a crime that he did not commit.  It was five weeks after the event, and people rushed to tell the boy’s father the good news.  The father, who was eating dinner at the time, bitterly said, “My boy is no more alive than this roasted bird.”  According to the story, the bird stood up on the plate, spread its wings, and flew away. 

After King Herod put James to death by the sword in 44 AD, legend has it that the saint’s body was airlifted from Jerusalem by angels, and deposited in a rudderless boat off the coast of Spain at Compastela.   Ever since then, Christian pilgrims have made their way to Compastela, to the church of St. James, or, in Spanish, Santiago.  They carried with them the symbols of our church: a traveler’s bag to carry necessities and a scallop shell to lift water from streams along the pilgrim’s way. 

Is our name a good fit?   Right now, this very month, is a good time to ask that.  The Rector Search Committee has put out a survey, and we are looking for your answers to questions about our church as it is now, and as we hope it will be.  

James answered the call of Jesus, no questions asked, without regard to cost or risk.  I know people at this church who’ve made open-ended commitments of time and resources.  Could this be true of us all?

James learned a lesson about becoming great through service to others.  Are we servants of the Lord?  Do we take turns serving each other?  I see on our survey a long list of committees and guilds.  Could more of us be involved?

James established a church among the needy in Spain;  I see our well-established ministries of Wonderful Days, and Reach Out Mental Health.  I know that we sponsor a church in (Ma – JEL – i- ko).  Is there more we could do?  Could more of us be involved?  

James is the patron saint of pilgrims, who leave their fishing, their business, their day to day lives, to worship.
Is worship central to our church in that way?  Is it central to our own lives?  We have a group here called the Pilgrimage who make their spiritual journeys without leaving the confines of this building – are we all aware of this group?  Could more of us join them?

This is a good time for us to ask these questions.   If a name is something that we grow into – well, let’s keep growing into ours.   Happy St. James’ Day!

[See my page Those Crazy Episcopalians! for other reflections on the church, scripture, and the writings of others who deal with these topics.]