Tree of Codes

tree-of-codes Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Tree of Codes, is an unusual work. As opposed to creating a novel from scratch, Foer takes his “favorite book,” The Street of Crocodiles by the Polish-Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz, and cuts away that text to create a new novel.
 
It is a unique idea and raises the philosophical questions of what makes a novel, what is authorship, and even what is morally acceptable in taking work from others. Foer gives no authorial credit to Schulz, presumably because he sees this as his own work. This may actually be deconstructionism taken to its logical extreme.
 
In order to do this, Foer has worked with a publisher (Visual Editions)  to present the novel with the full pages, but every page is die-cut to show only the words he has chosen. The result is a book with tree of codes insidemany pages, but few words. As a work of art, it is interesting to see. As a literary work of art, it is an interesting experiment.   
 
But does it work? As a novel, no. The text he has kept is clearly constrained by what is already in the Schulz’s novel, so he is trapped within that structure. He can re-imagine the words in different ways and with different uses, but he cannot escape the structure. As such, he must create a story which can be found within a limited text (if we think of all texts as limited by their scope). He does not succeed in creating a full story.
 
I struggled with a way to summarize the book (best shot: son sees father’s demise at the hands of his mother), so I went in search of what others say. This was not a scientific survey, but a look at what a good Google search would bring up. Not surprisingly, almost everyone focuses on the physical safran-inside-tablebook or the idea behind the physical book, but not the narrative itself. Why? Because the narrative is not nearly as strong as the idea behind it.
 
It can be better viewed as a work of poetry, but with lines like  “Weeks passed like boats waiting to sail into the starless dawn, we were full of aimless endless darkness,” it even fails in that category.
 
This is a book worth looking at, and because it is short, go ahead and read it. But it has been noticed not for what it contains, but how it was created. When the act of creation exceeds the creation, then it says little for the creation itself.

Underground Nest

 

underground nestKathleen Maher’s novel centers around the dissolution of the proto-typical American family. Mom, dad, son, daughter. Dad is the breadwinner, a former Eagle Scout and Boy Scout supporter who teaches Political Science. The kids go through the normal growing pains, although the son does follow dad up the Boy Scout ladder. Mom stays home and lives a housewife existence rarely seen today. The daughter rebels — at times.
 
Not surprisingly, the “underground nest” of the title tells us that just beneath the surface, a nest of hornets await. Zach Severins is the dad, and beneath his perfect surface is an obsession with himself and what others think of him, a tendency to find sex outside of his marriage, and eventually a long-term relationship with a woman who moves in the top circles of Washington D.C.
 
Eventually, the surface collapses and we watch as Zach’s perfect life is exposed for the lie it is. To avoid giving away too much of the plot, suffice it say that everything unravels. The result is that Zach is forced to reexamine himself and given the chance to redeem his life. The novel ends before we see if a promising beginning is followed through, but I’m not convinced that two years down the road, he would not be in a similar situation.
 
The story is interesting and Maher moves the plot along quickly and deftly. Where it suffers is in the characters, a group of somewhat two-dimensional people who must have more going on than what we see. As a result, the reader is often surprised at what is happening. After they separate, Zach and his wife, Beth, have an ongoing “angry sex” routine, but from we know of Beth, this seems out of character. Even the children seem to move in and out of anger faster than the normal teenager who finds out their dad has been having an affair.
 
Still, the novel raises questions about how we live our lives, and takes the side of living the well-considered life. It does so within a scenario many of us will recognize, which makes the possibility of actually taking some away from it all the more likely. 

 

A Grace Revealed: How God Redeems the Story of Your Life

Jerry Sittser understands a grace revealedpain. He understands loss. He understands grief. But more importantly, he understands that our life is a story of redemption, of connection to the person of Christ. While we cannot forget, nor should we forget, our painful times in life, we need to know that the God’s story for our life is not over.

This is no mere glib, theological chatter. Sittser’s family was in a car hit by a drunk driver nearly 20 years ago. In an instant, his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters, was gone. Three generations of women gone all at once, and Sittsler suddenly finds himself the single father of two daughters and a son — all young.

Sittser wrote about the incident four years after it happened, in “A Grace Disguised.” He now returns with more distance from the event. But what makes this work so powerful, is that Sittser is not writing a memoir, but using his story to tell the story of God’s working out our redemption. “This book will not tell a sweet and simple story about tragedy leading to triumph. Still, I hope it will tell a redemptive story.”

And it does. Sittser is inspirational not in that he, twenty years later, he is “handling” the tragedy well. Instead, he inspirational in how he seems himself in the context of a larger story, and he trusts God’s authorship. This is not a self-help book, it is not called, “Using God to Feel Better About How Bad Life Is.” It is about redemption. “Redemption involves the story of how God reclaims and restores us into a living relationship with himself so that we can become the people that God has always intended us to be.”

Sittser organizes the book in way which focuses on redemption as a story. Chapters are about characters, “Scene and Setting,” “Plot,” “Author,” and other story devices. The Bible itself is explored as a story, and in six of the most amazing pages I’ve ever read, he summarizes the entire Bible by relating it as a story. Sittser focuses on scripture for what he explores, and he quotes scripture (often at length) to show the story of redemption. So many books today, including Christian books, spend more time quoting other authors than returning to the source, which makes this book so strong, theologically speaking.

This is not surprising. Sittser is a professor of Theology at Whitworth College (and, I was pleased to learn, a fellow alum from Hope College). He has a unique gift for be theologically grounded, but clearly able to write for the layperson. And his unfortunate credentials in suffering create an authentic voice.

On a very personal note, this was a profoundly moving book for me. Myself a father of four, I am also the parent of a six-year-old who has been battling cancer for nearly three years. There is no longer much hope that this will be cured, and we have wrestled with this reality. I have written openly and honestly about this process since the outset, and many people have said, you should write a book. Well, Sittser has written the book I would want to write, and done it far better than I could ever do.

I knew at the outset that his voice would be one I understand. “God has written and played the key role in the story of salvation, which promises to redeem our stories….This glorious story of redemption turns on the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Savior of the world, who came into this world to make us new, which he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. It is all his doing, a gift of pure grace. But we must receive this gift and make it our own, like children growing into adults.”

That last line challenges us to not feel sorry for ourselves, but to accept God’s grace and trust in his story. How many of us have wasted our lives, filling it with bitterness over real and imagined tragedies, instead of recognizing that God is not done writing our story. But we need to accept that gift, and accepting gifts requires humility. Some people are blessed with a natural humility, others learn it the hard way, but those who never see themselves in a larger context, who center their world around themselves instead of God — well, there is the true tragedy in life. A stepping out of the story God is writing.

Sittser shares the story of a woman who, after many years of struggling, decides to meet the man who murdered her brother. And she tells him as she leaves, God wants him to know that “It is not too late to become the man that God designed you to be.” Our stories are not over.

Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus

who is this manThe essential premise of John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, is that Christianity has had a great impact on society. Hardly earth shattering news. Somehow, Ortberg seems to think this legitimizes Jesus for the world, but, of course, it does not. A Christian will not point to the lived out faith as proof that Jesus was Christ, but instead focus on Jesus. Ortberg does show ways the influence of Christianity has spread, but he tends to focus on the all the good ways, instead of the evil. He gives passing mention to some errors, but if you want to focus on the role of Christianity in the world, you have to address the Inquisitions, Christian support for slavery, Christian countries warring, and countless examples of individual misuses of Christ’s teachings.
One thinks of Gandhi’s reply to why he rejects Christ.  “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Which is one of the few quotes in the world which does not make it into this book. Ortberg strings quote after quote after quote together, quite often from four or five unrelated sources, on a single page. Sometimes they relate, sometimes they do not, but you want to hear more from Ortberg and less from everyone else. These are broken up by some very bad, classic “preacher” jokes which are often forced into the text.
Clearly, I found this all annoying. What he does have to say of value is what you would pick up in any history of Christianity class or text. Now, let it be known that I’m in the minority here. This is book is very popular and has spawned many study groups. If it succeeds in getting people talking about their faith, there is something going right. And many may argue that I get Ortberg’s goal wrong. An arguable point, so feel free to disagree in the comments.
And just when it seems that all hope is lost for the book, I do find some saving grace (pun intended) as  Ortberg turns his attention at the end to the three essential days in Christianity: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Here we get a glimpse of what Ortberg has to share if he quits quoting others and writes his own thoughts. His reflections on each of these days are simple, but strong. Especially interesting are his thoughts on the Saturday, when no hope existed. If you are looking for devotional reading for Easter Weekend, use these three chapters. As for the rest, spend time instead with a good history of Christianity. And never confuse Christians with Christianity — we are stumbling lot seeking the perfection of Christ, but always falling short.