Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lifeboat Theology

Last night I was in a mood to reread some Don Miller (the author of Blue Like Jazz). He tells a story in Searching for God Knows What about a time in grammar school, when his teacher gave the class a "values classification" assignment. The teacher told the class to imagine themselves in a lifeboat populated with a lawyer, a nurse, a handicapped child, etc. The boat was sinking with the weight of all the people, and the class had to come together to choose one person to throw out so they wouldn’t sink. Debate ensued, debate over the value of human life, debate over who should live and who should die--in a grammar school class.

If, today, I were forced to defend my right to stay in the boat, my resume would look just good enough to keep me in the mediocre middle of the line. I’m relatively intelligent, relatively good looking, and relatively socially competent. That is, the lifeboat says I am okay relative to a lot of other people around me. That position should give me some relief, but it doesn't. Life in the lifeboat likes to remind me that I'm always on the edge. One wrong word and I’ll be rejected. One missed opportunity and I’ll fall behind. One false step and I'll be damned to hell. That's lifeboat theology at its best.

Christians embrace lifeboat theology just as firmly as everyone else. We just have a different set of credentials. The Christian lifeboat blesses both the suffering servants and the former rebels with good testimonies of their taste of hell. I never ran off the deep end, so my credentials in the Christian lifeboat are pretty much they same as they are for the regular one, mediocre. I’m not bad enough to be loved that extra dose and not good enough to be sainted.

Miller goes on to point out that we lifeboat dwellers all fight in some manner for the right to stay in. Lifeboat theology insists that our rights are the most important things in the world--the right to be loved, the right to be wanted, the right to be pampered, the right to be seen as capable, the right to feel sorry for ourselves, the right to be right. The lifeboat tells me that with my mediocre credentials I have the right to be seen, to be noticed. I am just good enough that I should have an audience, and if I don't then I'm slipping in line. Our rights "prove" we are valuable, and if someone offends them, intentionally or not, we freak out. We know we were made for glory, but we also know we are always close to the edge of shame.

Vikki, (my fellow TriMu) likes to quote Napoleon: "Glory is fleeting, Obscurity is forever." If you look at life from the lifeboat it's a very pithy statement. But it's not true. The lifeboat sounds so right, so true, because we all live there, but Miller says it’s all fake. True life doesn't have a lifeboat at all. True theology doesn't either. God clothes us in his eternal glory despite our feeble attempts to wrap ourselves up in our rights. The Bible says God sees our efforts as filthy rags that leave us naked and exposed to the elements. Our attempts to make glory for ourselves all end in obscurity. In that way, Napoleon was right. But only in the lifeboat. And the God of the universe hates lifeboats, because he is Life. He is True. He is the Way to eternal glory. He is the ocean.

I try very, very hard to agree with Don Miller and get out of the boat. But I like to live in the safe places deep in the bowels of the lifeboat. Every once in a great while, though, I'll dip my toes over the edge, still holding onto my rights with a white-knuckle grip. The water is warm. The boat rocks in a wave. I freak out and dive back in, stroking my vanity with blog entries and new clothes and a winning smile perfected for my bathroom mirror. I pray someone notices that I’m valuable and moves me to a safer place in line. I pray no one notices I’m a failure and throws me out. I pray this to the god of the lifeboat while the God of the universe sends another wave to shake me up again.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Redecorating Your Brain

(Cross posted on The Modern Mythmakers)

With the successful completion of yet another NaNoWriMo by all the members of the TriMu, I thought this entry would be appropriate. Someone recently asked me "How do you go about writing a story?" and you know if you ask a novelist a question like that, you get . . . well, you get a novel.


The idea flies into my brain. It's shiny and cool to the touch. It glows with an inner light that fascinates me. I find myself staring blankly at it while I should be doing real-world things like working or sleeping or driving.

The idea begins to redecorate my brain. It asks to be taken on a tour of my mind, so it can steal furniture from other rooms. It also likes to travel with me and steal from the rest of my life. Feeling insecure at work? Great! Let's put that in the character portraits. Listening to an interesting accent? That will go well in the conversation nook. Reading the story of Jacob's ladder to heaven? Fantastic! Let's make that into a lovely metaphor for the coffee table.

Soon the idea has filled its room in my brain so full we can't see each other through all the stuff. The idea suddenly discovers something. It is claustrophobic.

There is a frenzy to organize. We go through all the idea's junk, trying to find patterns in the piles and piles of objects it has collected. I try to take notes, to categorize, to plot out a diagram of the room as it should look. I write on post-its, 3x5 cards, spreadsheets, but the lists are just as messy as the room itself.

"That's it!" I say. "Let's just start working and see what happens."

The process moves slowly, and my friendly idea refuses to help. All it does is sit there looking sulky. It doesn't shine. It doesn't glow. Every day it begins to look more and more like the proverbial pebble in the proverbial shoe. I match feats with Psyche's mythic moving of the sand pile one grain at a time.

Finally I make the room appear a bit more like a room, and less like an overflowing storage unit. There are picture frames on the wall, empty, but on the wall. I place two mismatched chairs in the corner for a conversation nook. I find the coffee table--no metaphor, though. Where is that blasted metaphor?

Giving up seems like the best option. My brain's a disaster. That stupid idea stole all the best parts of me and jumbled them all up. The idea itself has lost all its luster. I wonder if it was ever shiny at all. The story room is worse than ever. At least the piles of junk held more potential than this. What a waste of time.

I leave the room. Pulling the door shut behind me, I say a soft goodbye to my idea. Then I see it. On the floor, by my shoe. My idea, all dull and tarnished, is carrying the metaphor. The idea holds the metaphor up to the light of the blinking fluorescent bulb. They melt together. They merge. The hallway fills with light as my idea shines again--brighter than before.

Smiling, I pick it up and go back into the room. We have work to do.