Jun 23, 2009

The New Atlantis » Shop Class as Soulcraft

This book is next on my reading list.

The New Atlantis » Shop Class as Soulcraft

Man, my bed side table is getting full. Right now it looks like this (in order from top to bottom):

Hand to Mouth by Paul Auster
Fear of Beggars by Kelly S. Johnson
The Elephants Teach by D.G. Myers
Infinite Jest by DFW


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Jun 19, 2009

Slate audio book club parses Cheever and O'Connor

Check out Slate's audio book club discussion of "The Swimmer" by John Cheever and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor. Lead by Meghan O'Rourke (Paris Review poetry ed.), this dialogue is a bit shallow, but there are some very interesting moments of awkwardness when the commentators struggle with the Grandmother and The Misfit's conversation at the end of O'Connor's story. It is a perfect example of the way in which a lack of religious literacy leads to gross misinterpretation.

The occasion for the discussion is the publication of two biographies, Flannery by Brad Gooch and Cheever by Blake Bailey. Actually, I have a review essay comparing these bios and their subjects forthcoming in the July issue of IMAGE. Look for it on newsstands near you.

Jun 8, 2009

Fear of Beggars

I've been circling this book for a long time: The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics by Kelly S. Johnson. Even though it's right up the alley of the thinking and writing that I'm doing (been doing for over two years now), I've been hesitant to order the book for a couple reasons. 1.) Because I started to question the extent to which theology should be a part of the project I"m working on and 2.) Because though I was hoping to find a connection between the kind of poverty that might lead to begging and panhandling and the kind of voluntary poverty that bohemians engaged in, I hadn't found a solid enough connection yet in my own life and experience.

Well, today, walking through the Wal-Mart parking lot, a young woman and her small son (he was maybe 2 years old, a whole head shorter than my daughter) came up to me and asked for money to get something to eat for her and her son, and to get some medicine for her son's face. The skin around the child's eyes and across the bridge of his nose was dry and scabbed over. I looked down at the woman's stomach. It was clear she was pregnant. The boy didn't speak. He just looked up at me solemnly with big, naive eyes. I looked through my wallet--two fives and a single--and gave her a single. The moment I handed her the money, I simultaneously wished that I had given her more and not given her anything at all.

About a week ago, passing through South Bend, Indiana, where we used to live. We got together for lunch with some old friends, a young couple with two young children. We belonged to the same parish, and before we moved away we spent some good evenings cooking out and playing music on their front porch. They live on the border of a poor neighborhood. Break-ins are way up in his neighborhood due to the struggling economy. Driving to their house this time, after having been away for two years, I struck by how landscape and architecture hold in them codes for poverty and privilege. Small, low-slung ranch houses with peeling paint and uncut grass and shaggy bushes, living room furniture in the front yard stands for one economic situation. Two-story house with big shade trees, a lush, thick green lawn, a hammock and matching lawn furniture on the porch stands for a very different situation. So, grilling out in the back yard, my friend Jonathon tells me an anecdote about how recently while picnicking at a nearby park, some kids came up and asked if they could have some of their food. They shared, but it was an awkward moment for them.

So now I'm going to order Kelly Johnson's book. I didn't fear the woman and her son in the Wal-Mart parking lot so much as I resented having to make the choice between a principled decision to not encourage begging, which is seen in our culture as dishonest and lazy, and a belief that we are called to show hospitality and compassion to the stranger, despite economic status. This is a hard ethic to defend and adhere to when you yourself are broke.