Doug Gay, a colleague who teaches Practical Theology at University of Glasgow, recently posted a citation on his Facebook page from Alastair Gray’s stunning 1981 novel Lanark that gave voice to much of what I been wrestling with for the past two weeks. For those not familiar with Lanark, it is reminiscent of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses with echoes of William Blake’s poetry, Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, and George McDonald’s Lilith and splashes of Irvine Welch and David Foster Wallace. Like Joyce, Gray is tearing away the facade of society and looking deep beneath the images toward a deeper notion of what is really animating life. Like Joyce’s Dublin, Gray sets much of his wanderings in an unsympathetic repose of Glasgow in all its decay and longing. Rather than trying to universalize humanity in abstraction, he instead drives us to the particular, the intimate and the real. The central character in the first two books is named Lanark who akin to Joyce’s characters is a persona in constant transition. Lanark’s name changes to Thaw in the second two books for no explicit reason but this further goes to illustrate the liminality of identity. In this passage, Thaw ponders the lack of imagination for people in the city of Glasgow and the cost of this lack of imagination

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, “If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.”

“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in painting, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. what is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or a golf course, some pubs connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

While I had visited Glasgow prior to moving there, I didn’t imagine life in Glasgow nor how I would reimagine the world because of that city and its people. Yes, I thought about my life in the university as a research student, serving in the Cathedral as an Assistant Minister, and relationships we would be establishing. But I never considered how this city with its poverty, its joy for living, its working class and upper class sitting side-by-side in the Tinderbox on Byers Rd. or singing the same songs at a Partick Thistle game would cause me to reimagine how I was to live, to serve, and even to believe. Over the six years we lived in Glasgow, my imagination shifted in ways both subtle and dramatic. Seismic shifts in how I saw faith, life and the resources I would draw from to make meaning in the world. Like Lanark’s Thaw, I only allowed myself to consider Glasgow as a parody of sorts – a place Belle and Sebastian made music, where AL Kennedy wrote her novels, and launching pad from which to see the Highlands and Islands of the Celtic twilight. What I didn’t take into account was that I would grow to see that much of what I learned was deeper than a renewed reason and was really a transformed heart. But this always comes with a cost and part of that cost was seeing and listening to the world in different ways, seeking out conversation partners that would not be valued (read: not authoritative) by some, and even dreaming of a world that was not the world of others.

This morning our church reflected on the stoning of Stephen in the book of Acts. In chapter 7 Stephen, one of seven deacons of the followers of Christ, is charged with sedition and treason (“We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God” – Acts 6:11) and as such is sentenced to death before the Sanhedrin. Chapter 7 of Acts is Stephen’s grand sermon where he challenges the lack of theological imagination of those who consider themselves stewards and guardians of the faith. He rolls back time to recount from the very foundations of the faith that there is an expansiveness and wideness to God’s working in the world that is now ushering in a new way and depth that not only continues on all the God has been doing, but will increase it even further to the very ends of the earth. Stephen is so passionate about this vision he has that he essentially turns to the so-called guardians of the tradition and utters these words:

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” – Acts 7: 51 – 53

With this Stephen is put to death with stones emblematic of the cold, hard, unchanging and unbending hearts that surrounded this first martyr of the renewal movement now called the Church.

I find a lot of commonality in Stephen and Thaw and will admit that after the past few weeks wondering whether we live in a world where renewal and change will ever come to the venerated institutions that guide and manage our public discourse, our view of the Good, our vision for humanity and even the so-called orthodoxy as to what passes as true faith and right belief. I wonder with Thaw if all that we sometimes truly offer the world around us is more of the ‘same’ – the repeated refrain of old sayings that are safe and don’t cause mischief, the repose of the theologically rigorous yet little of the prophetically bold, the caution of partial activism that only serves to justify my life yet offers little enduring justice for others, and an economy of sacrifice that is measured carefully and with restraint and therefore costs me so little as to seem like a fad rather than faith. And yet here is Stephen, pounding out the faith story to the point of death and taking no prisoners along the way. Here is Stephen, caring so much for the future to be realized in the now that he will stand at the gates of power and no longer be silent. Here is Stephen, not even an apostle of the Church and merely a deacon, willing to engage the collected powerful and remind them that faith is only seen in what we release from our grasp and not in what we guard and protect at all costs.

There are times when people need to reach ever deeper into their hearts and ask with all sincerity whether the world is truly that which they ultimately desire and for those that we call our neighbors.

Is this all – as Alastair Gray’s Thaw muses in relation to Glasgow – that we offer the world and ultimately all we offer ourselves? Are we so tied to the way things have been that we cannot hear the worlds of prophesy when they knock on our door and preach to us truth?



This summer I give a lecture for the Kindlings Fest 2010 Arts and Faith conference on Orcas Island.  For those who follow the Kindlings Muse podcasts on iTunes, you will know something of the focus – an opportunity to talk about cultural questions of meaning with folks in a relaxed setting.  The monthly Kindlings Muse program is hosted at Hales Brewery and Pub in the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle on the second Monday of each month.  If you are in the area, be sure to come down and join us!

Here is a link to the lecture I gave on Emerging Adults and how technology is shaping young people into what MIT scholar Sherry Turkle terms “the tethered self” – the lecture reflects on JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as a lens for how teens read the Gospels to some of Jeffrey Arnett’s work on Emerging Adulthood to the ways “electronic co-presence” through technology is re-framing identity formation:

[click here to connect to the Kindlings Muse website and stream or download the lecture]

Like so many people this year, I have been swept up into the world of Lisbeth Salander and the Millennium Trilogy of the late Stieg Larsson that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Needless to say, the books follow a fairly predicable pot boiler thriller formula akin to a Scott Turow, Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel: an innocence protagonist is thrust (whether by chance or fate – you choose which *you* think organizes our lives) into a deeper world of deception and  intrigue than typically meets the innocent eye.  In the midst of this awakening to the darkness of the world that lurks just below the surface, the hero’s journey takes on the classic bildungsroman tradition of German Romanticism where a gathering of companions occurs to assist the protagonist in their journey of self discovery, healing, and building of courage to take on and overcome the evil (“All the Evil” as its called in The Girl Who Played with Fire)that only they are equipped to deal with.  In the midst of this journey, the protagonist will face a choice – either to run from their fated journey toward redemption of both world and self and try to remain in their seemingly safe world that existed prior to being chosen/thrust into this dark world…. or they will choose to face down the dragons, the beasts, the evil of the self and world and risk losing everything – life, love, hope – in the name of redemption.  It is a tale as old as time to be sure and this latest iteration found in the world of a Swedish cyberpunk computer hacker and a washed up magazine journalist is written in the well-worn genre to be sure.

But there are thousands of thrillers published every year – what has made this trilogy such a global hit?

I think in many ways one of the reasons is that Lisbeth Salander (in addition to being one of the most evocative female protagonists in popular fiction – a mix of Alias’ Sydney BristowBuffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly’s River Tam with photographic memory and serious ink) has ripped the curtain back to show our worst fear in the 21st century and exposed the truth of the world in which we live:  there is no such thing as forgiveness as we had previously hoped or even imagined because now that our lives exist in cyberspace, our sins can never, ever be erased. Lisbeth Salander is the bearer of the apocalypse in so many ways: the idea of ‘starting over’ is a novelty of an age where people could forget their past by burning a box of letters from old lovers, throw away pictures, move to another state and begin again.  To think that only 20 years ago the quaintness of a movie like 1991’s City Slickers offered up a world where after your life had spun out of control you could have a “do over” and start again – new life, new love, new future.  That world is as antiquated as Western Union delivering a telegram to your door.  In the Millenium Triology, Lisbeth Salander shows us the truth:  there is no “do over” as we might have imagined.  Everything you have ever written online is always there, every picture uploaded and tagged, every whimsical thought benignly put onto Facebook, every video caught on a phone and loaded onto YouTube, every email pinged back and forth sits on a server somewhere as a ticking time bomb just waiting for a person to hack into it and pull a file together.

In his July 19th article in the New York Times entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting“, Jeffrey Rosen shows us the unforgiving landscape of the digital age in all its starkness:

[The question for all of us is simple:] how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever. With Web sites like LOL Facebook Moments, which collects and shares embarrassing personal revelations from Facebook users, ill-advised photos and online chatter are coming back to haunt people months or years after the fact. Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

Strangely enough, one of the comforts I find in all this “exposure” is that it is long overdue that we learn that, in the end, forgiveness is ultimately never about forgetting.  As someone who came through 80’s evangelicalism and its view that God forgave us in a way akin to a divine Etch-A-Sketch: we ask for forgiveness and that prayer somehow shakes God up and down vigorously and leaves a clean slate so total that somehow God can’t ever access our past ever again.  From Aristotle’s view of the soul as the ‘unscribled tablet’ from “Περί Ψυχῆς” (De Anima or On the Soul) through to Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes and John Lockes’ Tabula Rasa and onto City Slicker’s mantra of the “do over” there is a perpetuation of forgiveness as equivalent to forgetting.  To be honest, perhaps that is the true prayer of our hearts – that what we desire isn’t forgiveness anyway but merely forgetting on the behalf of God and others.  How many of us choose to move on from the regrets, losses, flame outs in our lives with a ‘year zero’ approach – never speak of the past again… this is the new day…

Forgiveness is something so much more profound than mere forgetting. For one reason, forgiveness means we are forever changed in our redemption where mere forgetting is leaves us in the sameness of our brokenness.  Sure, we make a break with the past in forgetting, but we are still the same without any deep and abiding shift in who we are and therefore only ready, willing and able to make the very same mistakes and errors over and over in some sick and twisted version of Bill Murray’s 1993 Groundhog Day (which coming out only a couple of years after City Slickers signals to me that the “do over” mantra perhaps didn’t have the purchase we had hoped).  But forgiveness never forgets but is rehabilitating and unflinching in its gaze upon all that we have been and become and never lets us settle on the ease of walking away from our past nor merely getting everything back ‘as it was’ after we say “I’m sorry.”

[SPOILER ALERT]

This was the genius of Jeff Bridge’s Oscar winning turn as “Bad Blake” in last year’s Crazy Heart. As a drunk and relationally derelict fame-faded country singer, Bridge’s Bad Blake burns through bottles of whisky and serial relationships as an attempt as ‘forgetting’ as forgiveness over and over and over again.  Yet when he stumbles into the relationship with a young women and her son whose love not only won’t allow him to forget his past, but also shows him that life worth living will cost him more than his own self-despair and loathing. When tragedy hits and causes a reckoning, Bad Blake loses everything but instead of trying once again to forget he begins the journey of forgiveness that alcoholics know in ways that so-called sober folks can only guess.  To stand up at AA meetings week after week and introduce yourself as an alcoholic is an act of forgiveness and the furthermost thing from forgetting as it gets.  Like a communal Lisbeth Salander, AA meetings hold up evidence of where and what you have done and we stand before the collected evidence and acknowledge that while the fact of our failings remain, the bigger story is the faith of forgiveness that wraps its arms around our failings with all the blood, sweat and tears of our past included and walks it into the light of day.  The fact that Bad Blake ends the film without the girl he loved because the damage done was too great is a testimony that forgiveness also means we don’t get the world as we wish all the time… but healing and redemption is still worth it.

Let Lisbeth Salander dig away… what is forgotten can still be forgiven.