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Be as Uninteresting as You Can Be? (Thoughts from David Foster Wallace)

I stumbled across this David Foster Wallace interview from almost 15 years ago.

A few of my thoughts are at the bottom after the snippet.


DFW: No one is asking questions about the connections between how we live, what we drive, and the things that are happening [in the world].

INTERVIEWER: Are there means of rebellion [from the status quo]?

DFW: There are people doing it all over the place…The people I know who are rebelling meaningfully don’t buy a lot of stuff and don’t get their view of the world from television and are willing to spend 4-5 hours researching an election rather than going by commercials.

The thing about it is in America, we think of rebellion as this very sexy thing that involves action and force, and my guess is the forms of rebellion that will change anything meaningfully will be very quiet and very individual and probably not all that interesting to look at from the outside.

I’m now hoping for less interesting than more interesting.

Violence is interesting. Horrible corruption and scandals and rattling sabers and talking about war and demonizing a billion people of a different faith in the world – those are all interesting.

Sitting in a chair and really thinking about what this means and why the fact of what I drive might have something to do with how people in other parts of the world feel about me isn’t interesting to anybody else.


Here’s the full interview.

Whether you agree with DFW or not, it seems strikingly applicable to our world, perhaps particularly this week.

Parts of it also strike me as complexly-privileged, specifically the ability to “wait it out” with quiet, uninteresting, rebellion.

But I am especially struck by the gravity of the “interesting” and how it plays out in the stories of our world.

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Being Consumed: A Vision for Economic Discipleship

At Open Door, we’ve been making our way through a series of teachings, practices, and conversations related to economic discipleship based on our desire to follow Jesus in all things, including our money and finances. It’s been a challenging, inspiring, and forward-pressing journey that’s hitting home for a number of us and inciting really good questions and opportunities to live into and practice new answers.

One of the resources I found myself coming back to over and over again in the last couple months is William Cavanaugh’s Being ConsumedCavanaugh’s work (especially Torture and Eucharist) has been particularly formative for me as I’ve considered the ways we’re shaped and formed by the systems surrounding us and the invitation to choose a way of formation and life outside-and-yet-within those systems.

I posted an overview of Being Consumed on the Open Door blog but am cross-posting it here as well.

William T. Cavanaugh is a Catholic scholar who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago and has written extensively about formation, liturgy, and the way we are shaped by the culture that surrounds us. His book Being Consumed is an incredibly helpful guide for thinking about how we’re shaped by economies and what faithful discipleship looks like in the 21st century world. It’s a bit heady at times but constantly moves back to practical, everyday questions, examples and stories of an economic way of being faithful to God in the world.

Freedom and Desire

In Being Consumed, he addresses the way capitalist, consumer-driven economies shape and form those residing within it. He explores the ideology of free-market economics, and suggests, contrary to their name, free-markets are not actually free. Because they create, shape, and perpetuate desire in such a way that maintains a certain status quo, their end goal is freedom, but only in a very limited sense of the word fitting within the market-shaped and -enforced rules and norms of society.

In contrast, Cavanaugh explores the work of early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, who (Cavanaugh suggests) names that true freedom is “fully a function of God’s grace working within us. Freedom is being wrapped up in the will of God, who is the condition of human freedom” (8).

Connecting freedom and desire, Cavanaugh distinguishes between arbitrary desire and intentional desire. Arbitrary desire is desire for desire and consumption’s sake (e.g. the economy is in trouble, buy something – anything!) or for a shallow end (I have a deep longing and no idea how to fill it, I’ll try television). Intentional desire is shaped by a vision for the ultimate purpose or goal, a desire not divorced from a vision for greater/ultimate meaning and purpose.

Consumption and Participation

“Consumerism is an important subject for theology because it is a spiritual disposition, a way of looking at the word around us that is deeply formative” (35). Unique to our American context is detachment. As a country, we’re more in debt than almost anyone else and, as individuals, we save less than almost anyone else. We continue to, ourselves, produce less and less of our own ‘stuff’ and instead consume what others are producing, and our system is designed such that those who are doing much of our producing are invisible to us.

Yet Cavanaugh recognizes “there is no question about whether or not to be consumer. Everyone must consume to live. The question concerns what kinds of practices of consumption are conduce to an abundant life for all” (53). So the choice is not whether we consume or do not consume. Instead, we must ask the right questions about what our participation and consumption in the world looks like.

Abundance and Our Place the World

Cavanaugh suggests our default way of interacting in the world is as a tourist“detached from all particular times and places…[craving] what is different and authentic…the tourist can go anywhere, but is always nowhere” (74). In contrast to the always-but-never-present tourist, Cavanaugh points to the paradox of Jesus who is both fully universal and particular: “Christ is the infinitely integrating one who makes room in himself for everything truly human” (78).

Cavanaugh writes that, as followers of Jesus, “we cannot stand back from the world and survey it; we must simply take our role in the drama that God is staging and give ourselves to it” (81). We do not become fully universal/particular in the same way that Jesus is, but we point to him with actions that “‘realize’ the universal body of Christ in every particular exchange” (88). Examples given include types of co-ops, fair trade, and community-supported agriculture.

Miscellaneous Snippets and Quotes

What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things. (34)

Many people do not see their work as meaningful, only a means to a paycheck. One’s labor itself has become a commodity, a thing to be sold to the employer in exchange for the money needed to buy things. For many people, work has become deadening to the Spirit. (38)

We desire because we live. The problem is that our desires continue to light on objects that fail to satisfy, objects on the lower end of the scale of being that, if cut off from the Source of their being, quickly dissolve into nothing. (90)

Possession kills eros; familiarity breeds contempt. That’s why shopping itself has taken on the honored status of addiction in Western society. It is not the desire for any one thing in particular, but the pleasure of stoking desire itself, that makes malls the new cathedrals of Western culture. (91)

The Eucharist tells another story about hunger and consumption. It does not begin with scarcity, but with the one who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly…The Eucharist effects a radical decentering of the individual by incorporating the person into a larger body. In the process, the act of consumption is turned inside out, so that the consumer is consumed. (94-95)

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Remembering Martin, Remembering Malcolm

Having just finished James Cone’s Martin and Malcolm and America, having just watched Selma, and having been listening these last months as continued racial tension is expressed, aggravated, and not resolved in our context, I’m thinking today not just about the past – about how far we’ve come and how much has been overcome – but about the present and how far there is to go.

As I learned of the civil rights movement, I always saw a stark and strict contrast made between Dr. King and Malcolm X.

One was non-violent, one was violent.
One was Christian, one was Muslim.
One was seeking integrated peace, one was seeking separation.
One incited hope, one incited hate.

Cone’s book and the film Selma both demonstrate that, to some degree, while Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X traveled different roads, as their work progressed, their paths were converging. In Selma, this is shown subtly by a meeting between Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X. Cone teases this out further, suggesting the two grew in admiration and recognition of other despite their public distance and even that they were each a necessary corrective and companion to the other.

Cone writes:

Martin and Malcolm are important because they symbolize two necessary ingredients in the African-American struggle for justice in the United States. We should never pit them against each other. Anyone, therefore, who claims to be for one and not the other does not understand their significance for the black community, for America, or for the world. We need both of them and we need them together. Malcolm keeps Martin from being turned into a harmless American hero. Martin keeps Malcolm from being an ostracized black hero. (315-316)

So as we mark the birthday of Dr. King, I’m continuing to listen to his words along with the words of Malcolm X. To do otherwise seems to miss a necessary way forward in the midst of our continued struggles with race, class, inequality, segregation and a pursuit of justice in America.

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Do You Trust Your Own Soul To Speak Truth?

parker-palmer-black-and-whiteOver the last few months, I’ve been reading Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. I often read books quickly: skimming for ideas and thoughts that will stir creativity, capturing the big picture while discarding the rest.

A Hidden Wholeness has taken me over a year to get through (I actually found a coffee shop receipt from the day I started reading – July 8, 2013). It hasn’t taken me this long because the book is long or dense (it’s not) but because it’s deep and provocative.

Palmer’s premise rests on the idea that there is an undivided and integrated life within our grasp if only we make space to listen to and trust our soul. In contrast to life lived in wholeness and integration, Palmer speaks of the “lost ones:”

The lost ones [those who have become divided from their very soul/self] come from every walk of life: clergy and corporate executives, politicians and people on the street, celebrities and schoolchildren. Some of us fear that we, or those we love, will become lost in the storm. Some are lost at this moment and are trying to find the way home. Some are lost without knowing it. (1)

Rather than listening to our soul – the voice within – we’ve been taught to deny, ignore, betray, silence, and withhold trust from that sacred space inside. And yet Palmer says “we can reclaim our lives only by choosing to live divided no more…a choice so daunting that we are unlikely to make it until our pain becomes unbearable, the pain that comes from denying or defying true self” (37).

In order to hear, listen, and trust our soul and move towards integration, an undivided life, Palmer suggests practices that can move us forward on this journey (none of which are quick, easy, cure-all gimmicks or sales pitches):

  • Believing that within our soul resides a wise teacher.
  • Finding community which allows us to speak and be heard, a space Palmer calls “being alone together.”
  • Listening deeply and engaging creative exercise that further deepens our listening.

A few years ago I began some serious wrestling with the notion of original sin, and specifically the way that idea has shaped and formed the way I perceive my own value and worth. In this piece, I asked if we are children of God or children of the devil, and if there is a way we can be both? Here’s a snippet of that inner-dialogue, which gets to the heart of what Parker Palmer addresses in A Hidden Wholeness:

Are we born children of the devil? Utterly depraved. No good thing – no good thought! – can come from us. We are reprehensible monsters, not only capable but destined for evil. Our ancestors were created in God’s image, indeed, but that image has been so shattered and tattered that we dare not even think about it lest we find ourselves trapped in our overconfident arrogant state. There is nothing in us worth redeeming, making the grace of redemption nearly unbelievable.

Are we born children of God? Created as things of beauty, reflecting our creator’s own image. Unique amongst all creation with magnificent potential, bringing unmatched joy and satisfaction to God. Through no fault of our own as well as through terrible faults of our own, this image is distorted, faded, and shadowed. But, at our core, this image can still shine through, reminding us and others of the created glory and beauty of all humanity awaiting redemption. There is something in us worth redeeming, marked for redemption by the unmistakable grace of creation.

I’ve continued to ask these questions and wrestle with these ideas without coming away with a simple answer, but I’ve found deep hope in the asking and wrestling. And as I’ve come to appreciate, trust, and listen to my own soul – trusting my created-ness – I’ve found myself better attuned to listen and trust in the Creator and Jesus, the firstborn of Creation.

I’d be curious to hear from you:

(How) Do you care for your soul?
(How) Do you create space for your soul to be heard?
(How) Do you trust your own soul to speak truth?

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The New Jim Crow (Reading Reflections, Part 2)

I’m continuing to read and process through Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. Here are some continued thoughts – largely ideas and statistics offered by Alexander that I’m taking special notice of and lingering on.

The first reflection I posted followed Alexander’s historical narrative of race relations in the United States; in the next two chapters she moves to a discussion of the current criminal justice system in America.

Some terminology:

War on Drugs: a declaration and collection of anti-drug policies championed by the executive branch leading to harsh mandatory sentencing, increased searches (with or without warrants), and federally-funded/incentivized militarization of police.

Mass incarceration: It is worth repeating that Alexander is not simply looking at people in prison, but those who are caught up in the criminal justice system at all levels (those who are detained, in parole, probation, etc. in addition to those in prison)

And some quotes from Chapters 2 and 3:

“Despite the fact that most drug arrests are for nonviolent minor offenses…the percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences has quadrupled” (59).

“Up to 99 percent of traffic stops made by federally funded narcotics task forces result in no citation and that 98 percent of task-force searches during traffic stops are discretionary searches in which the officer searches the car with the driver’s verbal “consent” but has no other legal authority to do so” (70).

“[Madison’s Capital Times] explained that in the 1990s, Wisconsin police departments were given nearly a hundred thousand pieces of military equipment…justified to city councils and skeptical citizens as essential to fight terrorism or deal with hostage situations, [but] were rarely deployed for those reasons but instead were sent to serve routine search warrants for drugs or make drug arrests” (77).

“Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales…Between 1988 and 1992 alone, Byrne-funded drug task forces seized over $1 billion in assets” (78).

“Never before in our history have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe” (86)

A few thoughts:

As the situation in Ferguson has continued to unfold, the protesting voices are naming Ferguson as a microcosm of a wider, systemic issue. The voices speaking out against the protesters seem to suggest Ferguson is an isolated incident – one man, one police officer, one situation. From all the conversations I’ve had, these are the two most common “camps” people find themselves in (realizing that there are, of course, radical positions stemming from both of these).

Michelle Alexander’s picture is nothing less than a widespread, systemic issue in our law enforcement and criminal justice system. Even if you took the racial thread out of her argument, the narratives of implementation/enforcement and statistics comparing sentencing in the USA compared to global norms are still pretty shocking. Though as I mentioned in my first post on this book, Alexander’s work is intended to name mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not simply an unjust or unnecessary obsession with fighting drugs.

Her work continues to push into statistics, research, and accounts suggesting this is not simply a widespread, equal-opportunity injustice, but this amounts to the new Jim Crow. I think there’s still work to do in order to communicate across the two camps mentioned above. How do we not simply continue moving forward with the status quo if our population is so divided on whether there is, indeed, any kind of systemic issues at play in all this?

Thoughts? Questions? Oversights? Objections?

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The New Jim Crow (Reading Reflections, Part 1)

A group of us at Open Door are moving through a Circle focused on the black-white race divide in the East Bay.

One of the resources offered to provoke thought and conversation is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. As I read through it, I’ll be posting some of the thoughts, quotes, and questions I encounter.

First, some foundational terminology:

Jim Crow: Historically, the series of laws and policies allegedly implemented to maintain social and economic order (“separate but equal”) in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction

Undercaste: “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (13)

Racial caste system: “a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom” (12)

Mass incarceration: – Broader than our physical prison system, Alexander talks about mass incarceration as encompassing the “larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13).

And some quotes from the Introduction and Chapter 1:

“The plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so.” (13)

“The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.” (53)

“Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order – this time the civil rights gains of the 1960s – a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century…banished to a political and social space not unlike jim Crow… The mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate.” (56-57)

A few thoughts:

Though Alexander harshly criticizes Republican policies (driven to extremities by the rhetoric and posturing of campaign politics), she also labels Clinton as “more than any other president” responsible for creating “the current racial undercaste” (56).

This book is not playing the game of partisan politics/ideology so much as critiquing the entire enterprise of empire as it’s played out throughout American history. It’s a pretty scathing assessment and I’m unsure (and eager to see) how Alexander proposes solutions and steps forward in the midst of a system that is seemingly being described as irreparably broken.

Thoughts? Questions? Oversights? Objections?

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There Are No Lakes Till Eternity (On Reading Rilke)

We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most
intimate. From images that are full, the spirit
plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled;
there are no lakes till eternity. Here,
falling is best. To fall from the mastered emotion
into the guessed-at, and onward.

Rainer Maria Rilke, To Hölderlin

Poetry lends itself to reading between the lines and finding meaning that may or may not have been intended by the author. This is true of poetry in general but certainly and particularly true of Rilke.

Rilke wrote in the language of German and the language of a mystic, neither of which is my native tongue. So when I read his works they are translated once by a scholar from German mysticism into English mysticism and then a second time as I translate Rilke’s mysticism into some grain of truth or beauty that I am capable of comprehending and wielding.

The nature of this dual-translation is such that I’m never sure if what I find true and beautiful is actually Rilke or something that emerges in the long journey from Rilke’s written words through the translator’s pen to my mind. Or both?

But I’ve been dwelling all day on the above-quoted section and find in it a deep truth of the human condition. Despite our deepest desires for safety and shelter, life rarely permits us to linger. Even when we find ourselves in a moment of fullness – saturated with meaning and emotion and love and beauty – it is fleeting, and then only an image of fullness rather than true fullness, which does not exist on this side of eternity.

To live is to fall into the guessed-at, and onward.

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