Tag Archives: Think Christian

The Church of NaNoWriMo

My name is Chad Comello and I am a failed novelist.

I’m in the midst of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which issues a lofty goal for aspiring literary types: write 50,000 words in the span of 30 days, no matter what. Budding scribes of every stripe participate in this movement throughout the month of November, all with the goal of a first draft by December 1. The point is not to make it good, only to make it in time. Quantity over quality. Completion over perfection.

So, in late October, I formulated bullet points for a plot, roughly sketched out some characters and determined a setting that I thought would provide me ample room to flesh out a story over 50,000 words. On November 1, my excitement at starting a new adventure into the fictional unknown quickly devolved into existential gnashing of teeth. After writing for what felt like a long time, I’d only gotten down about 500 words and most of it was filler. Was this what writing a novel was like? I quickly fell behind the prescribed 1,667-words-per-day pace and despaired about my chances for achieving literary glory.

Despite the planning, good intentions and hope I had in my abilities, I failed to live up to the NaNoWriMo creed. But through this experience, I’ve noticed that the movement has, over its 15-year span, become a religious practice of sorts that churchgoers of all kinds would recognize. Like the liturgy of orthodox believers, NaNoWriMo writers commit to daily practice of a writing ritual no matter how tired or rote it seems on any given day. Mirroring Bible studies and church small groups, the “write-ins” that libraries and writing groups sponsor provide a place to foster community, pledge accountability and inspire others along the journey. And above all there exists an ultimate goal, a reason for all the fuss. For NaNoWriMo, it’s 50,000 words of something: a novel, a collection of short stories or maybe the first installment of the next big YA dystopian series. Whatever it is, it won’t be ready for bookstore displays on December 1, but it will be a start.

But what of the faith journey? If Christianity were reduced to a month’s worth of daily quotas to hit, would it still be Christianity? Certainly such dogmatic legalism exists within the faith (within any faith at that), but to me that misses the point. There is indeed a righteous purpose for the sacraments and spiritual practices that infuse a devout life. But in fiction as in faith, I believe the story reigns. Whether through the history of Israel in the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms or the parables of Jesus, Christianity values stories and storytelling for their artistic value and for their utility. The Christian story, which was crafted over a much longer time span than a month, continues in this vein when each of us writes the lessons of Jesus into our own narratives in the form of works of service as well as acts of faith.

My name is Chad Comello and I am a failed Christian. That’s my story thus far and that’s OK. Tomorrow I’ll come back to the table and try again. Though I quickly and easily fail to keep up with the ideal—in writing or in religion—I’m doing something every day to get better. I’ve stopped worrying about how many words I rack up or how many random acts of kindness I perform and instead focus on cherishing the opportunity to write, to create and to do life better than yesterday. Disciples of Jesus, go and do likewise.

Originally published at Think Christian.

The Holy Sanctuary of Public Libraries

As a reference librarian at a suburban public library, I sit at the information desk, waiting to answer patrons’ many different questions. On Friday evenings, the foot traffic slows and a soothing silence descends on my area. Save the soft clattering of the keyboards in the computer lab, it is mercifully quiet. It’s in these moments I realize: I’m in a holy place.

As civil institutions funded mostly by taxes from the people they serve, public libraries are strictly secular. Patrons can use their space and resources for whatever cause, without regard for politics, religion, race or any other category. But, as we know, there’s no such thing as secular. Writing for Think Christian last year, Caryn Rivadeneira made a similar point about the beauty of art museums:

Perhaps it had something to do with the grandeur of the space. Certainly it had something to do with being surrounded by centuries’ worth of wondrous examples of image-bearing creativity. Definitively it had to do with being drawn into works that speak a mystical language, that communicate through brush-strokes or film or clay and yet speak from the artist’s heart to the viewer’s.

When I look around the library on quiet Friday nights, I see the place itself as holy. I see a cathedral of books, each one comprising a distinct identity and yet functioning as one small part of the larger body. I became much more aware of the library as a place after reading Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: An American Commons, a photographic essay documenting public library buildings all over America. The libraries in Dawson’s photographs range from a one-room wooden structure built by former slaves in California to the imposing, Romanesque Revival-style Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania to the sleek, futuristic Central Library in Seattle. Whether old or new, deserted or bustling, each of these buildings, like the books they contain, tells a unique story.

Considering the uncertain state of public libraries today, I can’t help but see their challenges running parallel with those of the American church. Both institutions, rooted in history but now confronted with modernity, are struggling to navigate the tenuous space between orthodoxy and innovation. They hear the same critical buzzwords thrown at them: outdated, unnecessary, old-fashioned, dull. They are debating internally how to attract young people and the unconverted, how to revitalize their diminishing influence amidst cultural and digital revolutions and how to make their missions feel essential in a world abounding with choices.

But above all, I see them both as sanctuaries—havens for world-weary patrons and all their baggage. I’m sure a pastor could sympathize with the variety of interpersonal issues public librarians navigate gracefully every day. I’ve had people approach me looking for books about divorce, STDs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and for ways to track down someone who wronged them. But I’ve also retrieved books on weddings, suggested new reads to eager patrons and even helped a woman find an image of, in her words, a “whimsical walrus.” Many people, some with mental disabilities, simply want to talk. This often requires an abundance of patience; when there are a dozen other things you could be doing, choosing to serve a patron in need suddenly becomes the most challenging one. But extending grace on the frontlines of humanity, whether in the pews or in the stacks, is a challenge worth taking.

As a librarian and a believer, I see the struggles of libraries and churches up close. I also see their beauty—as institutions attempting to serve the greater good; as places of study, searching and refuge; and as living archives of our shared cultural experiences. These places can transform us if we let them. All we have to do is walk through their doors and take a look around.

Originally posted at Think Christian.

The Leftovers

As we approach Sunday’s season finale of The Leftovers, HBO’s new series about a Rapture-like occurrence and its aftermath in a small New York town, let’s consider a Gospel story:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.” Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.” And Jesus took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”

Reverend Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) recites this passage to Kevin (Justin Theroux), the town’s troubled police chief, to illustrate how it’s easier to stay silent than to speak hard truths. If this passage is unfamiliar, there’s a likely reason: it’s from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of “secret sayings” attributed to Jesus but not one of the four canonical Gospels.

In the wake of The Leftovers’ “Sudden Departure,” during which two percent of the world’s population vanished instantly, Jamison’s invocation of this unorthodox source seems entirely fitting. The world of this new hard reality, seen through the eyes of the grieving citizens of Mapleton, N.Y., no longer seems canonical, accepted. The rules seemed to have changed, and what once was considered out of bounds is suddenly in play. Thus, what better place for a pastor, who’s struggling along with his parishioners to make sense of the insensible, to seek wisdom?

Indeed, every character we’ve come to know in The Leftovers is seeking something—anything—that offers meaning for what appears to be a meaningless tragedy. This meaning comes in many ways, and sometimes not at all. Some in Mapleton proclaim a radical certainty by joining the “Guilty Remnant,” an eerie organization of religious activists formed in response to the Departure. They dress in white and silently haunt the town to proclaim their faith in God and deny the “Old World Order” that ended with the Departure. The leader of Mapleton’s chapter fervently proselytizes their vision to a new member, echoing the Gospel of Thomas: “There can’t be doubt, because doubt is fire. And fire’s gonna burn you up until you are but ash.”

This zealous certitude contrasts greatly with the experience of other townspeople, who fluctuate between abject grief and resigned agnosticism. People still mourning their losses order life-like replicas of vanished loved ones (at $40,000 a piece) to be used in traditional burials. Others seek out the mysterious power of Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a messianic drifter who has attracted a cult-like following for his ability to remove people’s grief simply by hugging them (after collecting a hefty fee). But mostly what these seekers find are facsimiles, imitations of authenticity that may offer solace but rarely provide true relief from the underpinning dissonance pervading humanity since the Departure.

The series, based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, is produced by Damon Lindelof, best known for his equally enigmatic show Lost. Both series share a comfort with mystery, with asking big questions and sitting in the empty space after the asking, even if answers don’t come or don’t feel good. But I wonder if The Leftovers was misnamed. More than a show about being left behind, The Leftovers is about people who are lost, who wander through the fog of fear and anguish toward whatever can restore normalcy—however incomplete it might be—and relieve their burden of despair.

For this, Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians is apt: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” He doesn’t offer a cure-all for suffering, nor a reason for it—only the motivation to persevere. When the sorrow is strongest, perhaps that’s all anyone can do.

Originally published at Think Christian.

Deep & The Divine Milieu

freedivercropAt one point in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mason asks his father if there’s magic in the world. Probably not literal magic, his dad replies. But then he asks the boy: if you didn’t know what a whale was and someone told you there was a giant mammal that lived underwater with a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through, wouldn’t you find that pretty magical?

I’d say so. But more than that, I’d call it divine. Scientists, I’m sure, would frown upon using a religious word to describe biological processes and characteristics, but I find it quite appropriate, especially after learning about the profundities of the ocean from James Nestor’s new book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.

Perhaps it’s because the book I read before Deep was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, a meditation on the earthly omnipresence of the divine. Consistent with the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Teilhard, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, saw the natural world’s evolution not in conflict with the eternal Divine, but convergent with it. Thus the “divine milieu” is not just in heaven but on earth too, manifest in the world around us. Deep, though a study in scientific phenomena, aligns in fascinating ways with the spiritual phenomena described in The Divine Milieu.

Consider the “master switch of life,” a term that refers to the physiological reflexes in the human body that are triggered when we enter the water and intensify the deeper we go. This transformation, writes Nestor in Deep, “protects our organs from imploding under the immense underwater pressure and turns us into efficient deep sea-diving animals.” But this isn’t an automatic switch. It requires intensive training, coupled with total peace of mind and body, to fully realize its power and unlock the so-called “doorway to the deep,” the point at about 40 feet down where the ocean stops trying to spit us out and instead draws us down. Surrendering to the immersive power of the ocean is the only way to survive.

Likewise, writes Teilhard in The Divine Milieu: “The man who abandons himself to the divine milieu feels his inward powers clearly directed and vastly expanded by it with a sureness which enables him to avoid the reefs on which mystical ardor has so often foundered.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the freedivers Nestor meets all describe their underwater experiences in spiritual, almost mystical terms: “transcendent, life-changing, purifying. A new shimmering universe.” They could see new things in a way that a life on land couldn’t fathom.

The ocean, like the world itself, seems suspended between the tangible and mysterious, the clearly natural yet utterly magical. Nestor’s book is an ode to the people who inhabit that space in-between, who plunge into the unknown to push the limits of human understanding, like theologians of the sea. (Is sea-ologians a word? It should be.) The water beckons us to explore, to contend with the mystery of the divine as Paul does in Ephesians 3:18-19: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

A dive into the water, taken on faith but also with a clear mind, transforms and renews us all. Only when we’re in over our heads, holding our breath as we’re baptized into the deep, do we really live. Sounds like a divine milieu to me.

Originally published at ThinkChristian, August 2014.

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House Of Cards

As the second season of House of Cards begins Friday, it’s worth remembering that the Netflix political drama last left us with a prayer.

In last season’s finale, Frank Underwood, the politician who has schemed his way through a twisted plan of revenge, enters a church, gets on his knees and looks skyward. “Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back,” he says. “Although, given our mutual disdain, I can’t blame you for the silent treatment. Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience.” He then looks to the ground. “Can you hear me?” he implores. “Are you even capable of language or do you only understand depravity?”

Finally, Underwood concludes to the camera: “There is no solace above or below. Only us. Small. Solitary. Striving. Battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.” As he exits the church he lights a votive candle in an array of lights. Then he blows them all out.

Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, doesn’t just inhabit the darkness; he creates it. And it’s darkness, along with the dirty deeds done in it, that haunts House of Cards. Set in Washington, D.C., the show follows the devious dealings of this veteran Democratic congressman, who feels betrayed by the newly elected president’s failure to appoint him Secretary of State. Embittered by the rejection, Underwood and his wife (Robin Wright) set the course for a new destination: the president’s cabinet.

“Through sardonic fourth wall-breaking asides to the audience, Underwood gives a play-by-play of his master plan as it takes shape, turning viewers into co-conspirators of his Machiavellian machinations. His ambitious plot soon ensnares Zoe (Kate Mara), a young and roguish reporter, and Peter (Corey Stoll), a freshman congressman with a sordid past.

The show’s pilot established D.C. as a place where the high-minded ideals of politicians and journalists belie a shadowy, noir-like underworld. Compromise — both political and moral — will come, like it or not. Underwood is a key player in this world, using his persuasive prowess to bend people his way in his insatiable quest for power.

But every one of Underworld’s power plays has a cost. Taking a step toward his sinister goals often means trampling whichever friend or foe is in his way. Peter was the most tragic victim of Underwood’s unchecked ambition in the first season. It was Zoe, Underwood’s former obsequious bedfellow, who by the end of the season broke free from his stranglehold and began, however unknowingly, to shine a light onto the darkness.

The teaser trailer for the second season shows Underwood taking the oath of office as the new Vice President, but he clearly learned nothing on his climb to the top. “One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name,” he says. “Democracy is so overrated.” Underwood mocked heaven and hell back in that season one finale. Yet if he had opened the book next to him then, he would have found a passage in Isaiah 14 that served as a word of warning to the king of Babylon, a ruler whose pride and arrogance would lead to his downfall:

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.

Frank Underwood is his own conquering hero, but he now has much more to lose. House of Cards looks to continue the ongoing story of darkness versus light. Will Zoe expose Underwood’s deceit? Or will he climb even higher up the ladder? If pride, as they say, comes before the fall, then we’re in for quite a ride.

Originally published at ThinkChristian, February 2014.