Heaven sells…

Heaven sells lots of stuff.  Movies: 36 with Heaven as the title, with hundreds more including Heaven somewhere.  Amazon features 82,409 books on the subject.  In 1941, Helena Rubinstein named a new perfume Heaven Sent. It’s no longer made, which is just as well. It was so baby-powder sweet as to overwhelm the most sentimental of us.

What we as Christians fail to do, however, is sell heaven. In fact, heaven is defined so personally that the variations from those tens of thousands of books doesn’t seem to bother anybody. Mark Twain’s last published short story, “An Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” mocks the traditional white-robed, harp-playing inhabitants of the place sometimes touted in sermons. The Captain comments, “This ain’t just as near my idea of bliss as I thought it was going to be, when I used to go to church.” He’d been dead a while, sailing around the universe as a comet, you see.

Modern art also works us up on the topic. At a Dallas movie shorts event, the final offering was a British film called Gone Fishing. It won awards all over the world and was short listed for an Oscar. At 13 minutes long, there’s not much of a plot. What there is room for, however, is tears: We were all crying at the end.  Not that we necessarily wanted to. We were so moved by the tender revelation that our new friends Bill and Simon have “just gone fishing” instead of dying that we lost control of our good sense. Maybe it was the music.

Therein lies the problem. Heaven is not a place to learn to play a harp. No one is sitting around on fluffy white clouds.  It’s not a beautiful fishing hole in the Lakes District. In fact, heaven doesn’t exist. No, that’s not heresy.  Of course, heaven exists in that it’s where God lives, but none of us has been there yet.  Equating heaven with the afterlife is a mistake. Afterlife is the inevitability; heaven, the reward for a life lived well. We are to meet at the great bar of God, but that doesn’t happen until the end of everything else. Paradise comes first; no harps there either.

Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, wrote a bestseller in 2012 called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife. His next book came out in October 2014: The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife. His scientific credibility was seriously questioned after the first book, but the hunger for heaven is real, hence the sequel. Dr. Alexander’s visit yielded three principles: You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.  That last one is, of course, enough to give pause. If heaven is to mean anything, it must also be realistic. Bad guys don’t get to go.

A better book is Todd Burpo’s account of his son Colton’s experience, Heaven Is For Real. It’s more Biblical and offers some great lines: “Jesus died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.” That’s hard to beat and easily bests Alexander’s girl on a butterfly wing who turns out to be his sister.

Still, no matter how good a book, whether we are believers or not, heaven ought to be more than a marketing tool. An astonishing 72% of Americans of all varieties still believe in heaven, according to a 2014 Pew poll, with a much higher percentage among Christians. We could consider that hopeful.  Accountability still matters.

So, if heaven is for later, why all the fuss? Perhaps we have forgotten what faith means. If we are assured of a meaningful afterlife and know all about it, we’d have two choices: Either we’d rush in (too suicidal), or we would have no real reason to make right decisions (too obvious).

Faith, in fact, is the point. We have to use it to guide our decisions, if we are faithful. If we’re not, we have no assurance that heaven matters anyway.  Doing the right thing doesn’t need a reward no matter what your belief system is. Flowering heaven up with cartoonish clouds and golden harps? It might be a good thing for a skeptic to pause and question, but for Christians to buy in actually weakens the case for faith. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that “Earth’s crammed with heaven…” so we should look closer to home.

The solution is easy: Do the right thing. Whether it earns you a halo shouldn’t matter. Harps? Brutally hard to play. Beauty and rest? Worth waiting for.

 

Pyracantha

The three motivators: fear, duty, love. If we take these honestly, much of what we do is likely out of duty. Such was my attendance at the funeral of the husband of an acquaintance years ago. The service itself was brief, and I knew only a few of the people present. The bishop spoke of the man and his role as a father. I felt detached and preoccupied. Indeed, I felt rather self-righteous at being there at all, one of the corollaries of acting from duty perhaps. But stay with me.

The procession of cars, with others pulling to the side of the road, was moving, and I felt more engaged. As we turned the corner into the cemetery, I caught my breath. A huge row of pyracantha bushes, in full berry, stretched for half a mile against the white brick wall. Cascades of the bright orange berries arched from the tiny, deep green leaves. I began to weep.

Suddenly, pyracantha meant “Daddy,” and he was gone. (I think many women in Texas call their fathers that well into adulthood.) At the house where I lived from the time I was 8 until I left for college at 18, and where the family lived until my father died eight years later, a large pyracantha bush grew near one corner, to the right of the driveway. For decoration, it conveniently brought forth berries in time for Thanksgiving. It was often my job to gather in the berries for a modest table arrangement. Not that we had a lovely centerpiece: some mounds of berries and leaves in melamine saucers didn’t make much of a statement. Although melamine has made a resurgence with great color and style, ours were pale and faded, never pretty, just cheap.

The berries were poisonous, my father always reminded me. Of course, I took his word for that. Many years later I learned that with a quick wash, the berries can be made into jelly. Somehow, my father’s knowledge about the danger was comforting, for by this I understood that he cared if I came to harm. (He also prized a poisonous wild green called poke sallet, which grows in my yard some years. I have never eaten it as an adult although I do know how to prepare it.) We never played with the berries, never considered smushing them or throwing them against each other or the house. If Daddy valued something, it became almost sacred, or forbidden. Tradition held sway, for he loved what he loved and we all knew what that meant.

At the cemetery, for the dedication of the grave, I felt renewed in empathy for this family, sorry that I’d forgotten our unspoken kinship. My tears were real, for them as well as for myself. My father had expertise in the yard, as well as a difficult life inside the house. He did his best to protect us from more than poisonous plants, most often from ourselves. Grief for his loss was never so poignant as at that funeral to which duty brought me, at which love taught me.

10 Top Reasons

Top 10 Reasons to Read Mansfield Park This Summer

First, I want to introduce Interabang Books, a new venture located at Preston and Royal catty-cornered from Central Market. They have a story time Wednesdays at 11 a.m. Authors will be coming in to talk about their work. The owners themselves are flat-out interesting. Because you’re reading this, I don’t need to explain the importance of local, independent book stores. Please go!

Let me assure that I was not reading Jane Austen at birth or even in college. Loved the movies that were popular, but didn’t read the books until a friend convinced me to. Mansfield Park isn’t my favorite—that goes to Persuasion. And I rather actively dislike Emma; please don’t yell at me. In this list, I want to share what I believe are good reasons to read this profoundly moving novel. I believe it will be worth your while…

10. It’s her most modern book. There is no entail to worry the family, as in Pride and Prejudice and no difficult inheritance that relies on the generosity of an older son as in Sense and Sensibility. The themes of this novel reflect conflicts that, while perennial to the species, play out in ways that a 21st century reader would understand. Inappropriate flirting (and more) leads to shame. Loose living leads to disability, socially and physically. The phrase “modern manners” occurs, and much weight is even given to the idea of modernity in design. Historically, Austen was popular in her own day but disliked by the Victorians, who found her works “passionless and parochial.” Her books were out of print by 1820 and didn’t become popular again until the 20th century

9. You probably haven’t read it. Of the six novels, it’s the second longest and the most serious, enough to put some readers off. If you have loved any of the other works, however, this one adds a depth you’ve been missing without knowing it. Emma is slightly longer, but her charm beguiles. Northanger Abbey is satire. Although published posthumously, it was Austen’s first completed novel. If you’ve read anything, Pride and Prejudice is most likely. New is good.

8. Go for the underdog. Fanny Price, the heroine, is the least liked of all the Austen heroines. She is neither beautiful nor rich (Emma); she is not high-spirited and bright (Elizabeth). Elinor and Marianne enchant in their own ways. Anne Elliott, while disregarded by her family, offers insights into the “older” heroine who nears spinsterhood at 27. Catherine is a sweet girl, but her novel is a parody, which reduces her role, in my mind. Fanny allows readers to learn about her from the time she is only ten years old until she marries. We see her struggles and learn to appreciate her strengths more than any of the other heroines. And the hurdles are real.

7. In a word, virtue. Fanny has it in all aspects of her character. She keeps her standards high even when threatened. If you think virtue is boring, then you haven’t watched a young woman attempt a life maintaining it while all about her others are losing theirs. Yes, this makes Mansfield Park a Christian novel, but never with a hint of preaching or pontificating. As Joyce Kerr Tapley writes in Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, “A characteristic of Jane Austen’s work that suggests a Christian sensibility is the theme of the beautiful as the good.” We could all use a bit of that these days.

6. Parents and parenting are frequent topics for Austen, and no less so here. Education and behavior find common ground, and lessons from either could be applied fruitfully to the rising generation. The Bertram girls have been mis-educated. The family, except for Edmund, of course, wonder if Fanny has any intelligence at all. Their treatment of her as stand-in parents sets an example of what not to do.

5. More specific than family relationships are those between siblings. We see brothers in other novels, of one generation or another, but the time frame, length, and depth of Mansfield Park allows for development not seen elsewhere. Fanny loves her brother William, and watching her affection and care for him forms perhaps the most tender aspect of the book.

4. The book is better than the movie. Isn’t that always true? No, per this list. But the movies made from Mansfield Park are awful. The blurb at Amazon calls the 1999 version a “fun and sexy comedy.” A newer version made for British television in 2007 stars a pouty Billie Piper, blonde, never smiling and with little to say. Piper followed this work with four years playing a call girl; she was also on Dr. Who a lot. Mansfield Park hasn’t been made well yet. No Mr. Darcy leaping into his lake, alas. Here, just beautiful writing. (Bonus: A great British television miniseries based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South will satisfy if you need a movie. The novel is unreadable, so you don’t have to feel guilty. The period is Victorian, Industrial Age, also different than Austen, but wonderful.)

3. It will make you think differently about your heritage, especially if your ancestors are British. Spoiler alert: First cousins will marry. And it wasn’t at all unusual in the 19th century. Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein married their first cousins. Yes, it’s still creepy to many people and illegal in Texas, though not California and 25 other states. Go figure. So when some contemporary work is described as edgy, you can hold your own.

2. Men read Austen, you know. If you first give up that she is a romance writer, which indeed you must, then you will see her appeal to men of all sorts. She is writing about people, perhaps with better insight than anyone else ever has, and men (who are people too) need to know about the other ones as they engage in business or government or construction or whatever.

  1. What if it is the best novel yet written? Austen has been compared to Shakespeare in her artistry; he didn’t write novels. She’s been compared to the great Russian novelists. I might argue that Faulkner is doing virtually the same things she does, in a vastly different neighborhood. One caveat: Once you read Mansfield Park, if you like it, everything else will pale in comparison. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

 

On This We Agree

Last week was not an easy one. An old dog we’d raised from a puppy had to be put down. Although I hadn’t expected to be so sad, I was. After all, she’d been suffering for over a year, longer than the vet had expected her to live. But still. Yes, the stillness. Enough of that. I considered writing about it, with the title “Living with a Dying Dog: Five Lessons.” Too maudlin for a Monday. I also have a piece ready called “Ten Top Reasons for Reading Mansfield Park This Summer.” Enthusiasm for that seemed limited from my Jane Austen scholar friend. Maybe later.

So it became achingly obvious I had to do something more obvious. On Saturday I met with a Famous Person who had the same idea about trying to find a way for people on different sides of the political spectrum not to scream at each other but to find something on which to agree. The FP invited me to send the assistant my Dallas Morning News article posted here recently (which I did find) and my other materials. This week’s blog, then, is what I’m sending. Yes, the FP may be able to help, but so might you. Please send any comments, suggestions, contacts, or ideas along.

On This We Agree began as an idea for a website on which people could discuss not their differences but their common ground here. Full disclosure: I don’t remember when or even if I bought this site, but it looks like what I wrote. The problem with the web-based idea is that I don’t know how it would work or how it would look. While in San Antonio recently, I heard an ad on public radio for an organization called I Dare to Listen. You go to the site and take a challenge regarding how you might be willing to change something you’re doing, either listening to another opinion or opening your mind. It’s not clear that there is anything else to do, but it is worthwhile to look at.

Another recent idea is a board game. Many years ago, I was introduced to The Ungame, a non-competitive communication tool invented by a woman who had a medical condition that required her to remain silent for several months. She learned her children often just needed her to listen but not to respond. I’ve played it with children, and it works. As a former Trivial Pursuit aficionado and Candy Land cheater, I have to admit it is different. One conservative friend decried the idea of any more “getting along.” This game has its place, and I recommend it. I can visualize a game called On This We Agree in which people “bury weapons,” figuratively at least, and proceed around a board using the Jonathan Haidt moral foundations matrix: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Each has its opposite, of course, but this framework also works. It could be fun.

Besides Haidt, Stephen Covey also has a matrix for communicating. He’s famous for his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, but he also worked on conflict resolution using an Indian talking stick. The stick is symbolic of learning to listen without interrupting. A group of psychologists led by William J. Doherty does something similar called Citizen Therapists for Democracy. This idea is less concrete than a game but easier to implement with groups.

Next is the idea of conferences. Pierre Goodrich’s foundation Liberty Fund hosts a group of people simply to discuss liberty as it applies to a certain set of foundational readings. These days, most are economic or libertarian, but I attended two, one in Dallas and another in Seattle, based on literature. The benefits are amazing: roundtrip airfare, lovely hotel, all meals, and a stipend. Just to sit and talk or simply listen. No paper to write, no evaluation, no commitment of any kind really other than to listen. Obviously this takes a lot of money, but it could be done in local venues without all the bells and whistles.

The American Field Service originally was an ambulance service in World War I. It broadened into a scholarship program in France and then after World War II became the world’s foremost student exchange group. Two similar groups are a rural/urban exchange in Kentucky and The Friendship Force. Both support the idea that we learn best by living with and befriending people of other cultures. The British run a group for Israeli and Palestinian children called Children of Peace. The same could work for liberals and conservatives. Surely.

This may be too many ideas to consider. Or too few. Rarely have I felt so passionate about a project, however. Not for glory or money or any other reason, I want to see it go forth. Thanks if you can help.

DON’T SCARE MY FRIENDS

Today I believe I must write about fear. Not because of the really large beetle that was crawling up my dress yesterday. Not because of anything that happened to me recently that I’m not willing to repeat. Two people dear to me had experiences over the weekend that suggested this topic, and as I’ve thought about it, I have some conclusions that I want to share.

In May 2015 I wrote about hate for the Dallas Morning News. There aren’t any comments because people just emailed me directly; yes, a bit of hate mail. The article also discusses fear but only lightly. A good discussion of fear can be read here; of the five fears from which all others come, my bug comes in at #2: fear of mutilation, which sounds worse than what I felt yesterday, but that’s nothing compared to what happened to others.

First, a friend posted on FaceBook that she and the other black person with whom she was traveling were stopped for a traffic violation. She was reporting the event as it happened, with all sorts of friends in on the drama. The problem? Being in Missouri, Confederate flags, “Celebrate the South” banners, “Secede the Union” banners everywhere. Nothing happened, thank goodness, and the troopers were not threatening in any way, she later told me. She ended this post this way: “We survived. Simple mistake corrected. The point? The fear.” She’s right. That is the point. None of this was helped by the Branson show called Dixie Stampede she and her friend attended, part of which involved the crowd being divided into North and South groups for competition. Reviews call the show “incredibly racist,” which would make anyone uncomfortable, regardless of race. My friend was embarrassed to be there. I would have been, too.

Second, a certain recent election has left some people distraught and beyond. Indeed, one might say half the country has suffered from some degree of anxiety. My church magazine had an article in March about the difference between normal anxiety and an actual disorder. It is clinical as well as spiritual and concludes with some specific advice not to judge, not to say “it’s all in your mind” kinds of things, and not to say “don’t worry.” Among lots of other good things. I think the timing was important. So when this other dear person reported not being able to sleep because of yet another round of tweets and a video ad by the NRA that makes a pitch for an “us-against-them” scenario, I decided to make an appeal:

DON’T SCARE MY FRIENDS.

My plan is to send this to the several groups involved. But I have a personal appeal as well, related to last week’s appeal to think. If you, yes you, dear reader, are doing something that frightens someone, please stop. What might that be? You name it: drinking too much, smoking at all, driving too fast, using harmful language, not seeing the doctor, taking drugs, overeating, undereating, flying the Confederate flag…the list seems endless. If it is scaring someone you love, stop it.

Full disclosure: I went to a junior high named Robert E. Lee. Our team name? The Rebels. I just checked, and it’s still the same. In truth, I had never thought about it much until today. They get the blog post too, and an appeal to consider a change. I am a Southerner. I can’t help that. I’m a conservative. Not really a choice, given the world as it is. But I can speak out about fear, both locally and globally. Let’s all take that “Love one another” thing seriously.