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Filtering by Tag: brad fruhauff

An Acolyte of a New Liturgy

Brad Fruhauff

bleacher_bumsI’m starting to get it. The spirituality of baseball. The miraculous has happened: the Cubs have won the World Series.

Consider me an acolyte of this liturgy. It’s taken me a long time to warm up to it. I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, i.e., a Cubs fan by birth. I never quite got the game, but I learned both to hope for the unimaginable and to guard my heart against the usual.

I guess I’m cynical that way.

And then we got into the postseason. Then into the conference championship. Then there were only four more wins between us and history.

In fellowship we watched on the edge of our seats, tearing the hems of our garments, when at the eleventh hour failure suddenly seemed possible.

And then, the heavens opened. The powers that be called for an interruption to the conflict. We waited, catching our breath. We reflected on what victory would mean. We prepared for the possibility of defeat, of facing the next day with our messianic hopes crushed.

Was it something divine that guided our brave, tired warriors’ arms? Zobrist the Constant. Montero, spiting the odds. (Don’t bet against Montero.) Bryant. Rizzo. Suddenly it was over and we were hearing words no living person has ever heard.

Their struggle is a whole city’s reprieve from the grave. Their victory vindicates a century’s hope. It reinscribes the future not as “next year” but as “anytime.”

Go Cubs.


Reasoning with Myself

My left brain tells me it’s a lot about psychology. Baseball, more than any other sport, is a perfect storm of intermittent reinforcement. Most sports have constant action, constant movement, progression up or down a field. Baseball mostly has a guy throwing a ball either well or poorly and another guy mostly not hitting the ball. When the guy does hit it, maybe 90% of the time someone catches or throws him out.

It’s a game where mostly nothing happens. It’s structured on disappointment.

Until something does happen. Until disappointment becomes a single base, then a runner on third, then a scoring run. Hope is rekindled. Why? Because So-and-so was throwing against My Boy? Because I was drinking a Chicago beer? Because my friend’s wife hasn’t washed her Cubs jersey since the series started?

The drama of the game depends on rare, seemingly random moments of excitement drawn out over long spans of time. That’s well-known as the best recipe for reinforcing behavior, and it contributes, I think, to so much of the superstition around it.


Despite Myself My right brain doesn’t care about the intermittent reinforcement schedule. Doesn’t care about how little relationship there is between me and anything to do with the Cubs outside of geography.

I still got caught up in the drama. I still cheered for Ross’s home run, for just about anything Zobrist did, for Rizzo tagging Lindor as he raced back to first. I still felt that mystical participation for which there is no philosophical justification.

Because it really is spiritual. Not that the Cubs have effected anything beyond a social salvation, but because we’re spiritual creatures seeking fellowship. Seeking hope. Seeking the concrete emblems of the drama we feel, deep down, belongs to our lives together.

These Marvelous, Speaking Bodies

Brad Fruhauff

people-690953_960_720These bodies, how they speak. How they signify, the mouth still. How their poise and rhythm scores a city sidewalk, their movements trace meanings on the moist air that separates us.

In high school my speech teacher stood before us in his green sweater vest and red knit bow tie and said, “You are never not communicating. Even the attempt to not communicate tells us something about your mind, your mood, your personality.”

My willful spirit revolted, my puzzler brain set to work on this conundrum, but it was insoluble. A hermit in the remote Amazon under a vow of silence has already told us what matters most to him.

Today I pulled my son behind my bike in a trailer, my oldest son riding his bright orange Schwinn several lengths behind us. Holding my arm so, I signal to all around me that we are turning right. Holding my arm so, we are turning left. I point, my son tightens his line along the right side of the street, or against the endless stacks of parked cars. I hold my palm out and point it down; we both slow to a stop.

Even on quiet streets, my senses busy themselves recording and analyzing the world around me. The breeze, faint but essential. The patches of shade cast by oak and maple trees. The grey fist of cloud that must be spitting these few drops of rain. The dog-walker on the sidewalk. The SUV up ahead with its blinkers on. The pickup truck that just turned onto the street behind us. It’s a leisurely, pleasant ride, but it remains my job to keep these boys safe, to preserve the patina of recreation, security. Things work out. We’re always okay. The world is safe and wonderful.

I cross streets slowly, standing on my pedals to make myself tall and obvious, while my son scurries across beside me. The cars notice my peculiar behavior, my odd performance. They consider, they look about, they see the child with me, and they wait for us.

Sometimes the boy lags, so I coast to the middle of the road and wave for him to come along. I can see the drivers turn their heads to seek the addressee of this gesture. My little performance instantiates a homely family drama, invites them in. They look, they see. A dad and his kids out for a ride. Perhaps not unlike they used to do. Perhaps not unlike they will do later today. We all pass safely.

If you showed us a statistic about how much of our social fabric depends on unspoken assumptions, nonverbal gestures, glances of acknowledgment, a nod of the chin, we’d never believe you. It’s too irrational, too loose to analyze, to impossible to quantify.

Some intolerable pragmatist within us would counter that everything has an explanation in self-interest, in the denial of death. Those unwritten laws that bind us to our fellow humans comprise merely the unanalyzable surplus of existence, what matters only after we meet the needs of the day.

I don't think it is Pollyanna-ish to reject the logic of exchange as a metaphor for reality. To reject the cynic’s certainty that suffering defines what’s “really going on.” It’s Pollyanna-ish to accept these views and still to believe we can survive on our sunny dispositions.

It’s a bold, countercultural act of faith to believe that the world is gift, abundance, relationship, story. Every time we step out the door we are like the bird that hops from its nest, certain that with an habitual gesture some invisible force will sustain it, and not wrong to think so, though the world spins it toward its center.

Without that force, we would be little more than a car dealer’s wind-blown dancing stickman, flapping without meaning. And yet, miraculously, even the dancing stickman says, “I am here.”

But the man on his bike, hauling a trailer, says so much more: “I am a father, riding down the streets of my city with my children. I beg your patience as we pass, just as, I hope, I will one day wait for you.”

And I have been the driver in the car, brought to a harder stop by the appearance of the bicycling family, suddenly made aware how absorbed I had become in my own agenda, to the exclusion of my care for the world. The father watches me, understands that I have seen them and will wait, gives me a quick nod with his chin. “Thanks, buddy. We’ll be on our way, now.”

And they pass like ducklings, picking a path to a place they hope, with good reason, to arrive at safely, where they will greet a loved one with the gestures and touches that both ground us and lift us up.

Christ in a Corset at Comic Con

Brad Fruhauff

DSC_0006 N.B.: Follow links at your own discretion; some content may be unsuitable for work or children.

My boys were enthralled with playing Super Smash Bros. on an old Nintendo 64, so they didn’t notice the black-bearded man in the long, bleach-blond wig, white halter, cape, and white g-string pulled up over his basketball shorts (imagine a dude in this). It was my third Comic Con, so I knew to expect a range of costumes and costume quality, but this was the first where I noticed the cross-dressing cosplay they call “crossplay.”

If you go to Comic Con, you’re going to see some stuff, and it will teach you something about how you see—especially as a male. Imagine if every fifth woman you saw was squeezed into Harley Quinn spandex or Catwoman leather or some suit that projected her bared chest out for the world to admire. One needs to watch one’s thoughts.

There were impressive male costumes, too, like Captain America, Mr. Freeze, or Cardinals Iron Man. And there were playful, elaborate costumes like the Charizard with extendable wings or the 8-foot-tall, Ewok-piloted AT-ST with articulating legs, or even the girl in the BB-8 dress on white and orange roller skates—not to mention any number of winged, intubated, or grotesque characters I didn’t know.

I’m ambivalent about taking my young boys—four and seven—into these situations. Most of the time they don’t seem to notice the more unusual or “adult” costumes since they are distracted with the Pokémon and Storm Troopers. When I asked, afterward, if they’d seen anything they didn’t understand or if they had any questions, they shrugged and kept eating their graham crackers.

What would I say, anyway? I don’t quite understand a lot of cosplay, much less crossplay, despite my penchant for choosing female video-game avatars or my fondness for Spider-Woman and Wonder Woman.

Frankly, a lot of cosplay seems garish and in poor taste to me—and I’m not a big fan of camp. It doesn’t ruin my time or offend me; it’s just not what I would choose to look at, certainly not to do myself.

I get that it’s about transformation. It’s like Halloween in HD. For a brief time you get to participate in the existence of another persona, you get to alter your habitual way of being in the world, even if you don’t look great doing it.

But it really started to click for me when we passed a group of four very large women corseted up in gothic leather with plenty of ties and laces. Their hair and makeup was blue and black, their skin pale, their breasts almost obscenely bulging out of their tops, and there they were, sitting in a circle on the floor with their hot dogs and their plastic bags full of toys and comics like it was a normal thing to do.

If you clicked through any of the links above, maybe you felt that mixture of contempt for “the nerds” and envy at their dedication to their passion. It’s easy to feel superior at Comic Con, but if you are at Comic Con, then you’re the nerd in someone else’s eyes.

But I didn’t see nerds in that circle of busty, hot-dogging Goth girls. I saw regular people searching for the story that would make their reality match their inner sense of their universal significance.

That’s not vanity, that’s the imago Dei in them. Aren’t we all destined for something greater than earning a paycheck and consuming entertainment media? Whatever their errors, the “nerds” understood the importance of belonging to something greater than themselves.

Maybe heaven will look a little like Comic Con: a mass of society’s oddballs glorified in unexpected ways by grace. The challenge of being a good artist—or human—I think, means trying to see that shimmer of Heaven through the cleavages in the present.

Ted Kooser is a Decent Poet

Brad Fruhauff

Your reader is right there on the other side of the table, politely and patiently listening to you.      —The Poetry Home Repair Manual

Dear Mr. Kooser,

I guess I’d say I’m a struggling young poet. Struggling in the sense that I’m still trying to figure out how to write poems. Young in the sense that I don’t have a book, yet. A poet in the way people call themselves poets until they’ve got a book, after which they generally just call themselves writers. I’m also a Midwestern boy, like yourself. Maybe that’s why your work has been resonating with me, lately. Or with a part of me.

I’ve seen the truck in “So This is Nebraska,” though I grew up in the burbs. Every once in a while we had cause to drive a little out beyond the clutter of the Northwest Highway to where, not very far away, there were still patches of wheat and corn and soy fields among the trees, with a two-story farmhouse nearby with some old metal chairs, a picnic table, and often as not a tire swing out front. Get a little farther away from the highway and you see the fields where someone left a tractor, or a plough, or, indeed, an old Ford pickup truck that has come to belong there as much as the oaks and the prairie grass.

But I was a kid who played on the giant slide. I never much liked my hometown. I always wanted to get away to “the city,” by which I meant not New York or LA or even Chicago but just a medium-sized city.

I wound up in Grand Rapids, then Portland, Oregon, then the little college town that butts up against Chicago but has its own inner life. I’ve been content to read about the big, dark cities in Superman and Batman comics, which, I know, only present certain mythic visions of the city, perhaps like you present a mythic vision of the country.

Is there such a myth of the suburbs? Should there be? The poetry of the suburbs can be often entertaining, often even profound, but rarely, I think, mythic without descending to satire.

Where am I going with all this? You see how your kindly, wise voice makes me reflect upon myself, makes me want to circle back to the things that make me me? That’s why I’m writing to you, because you seem like a decent poet, by which I do not mean to damn with faint praise but to praise with faint words. I see so little decency anywhere. I mean not just online or in the news or in politics, but in our television dramas and comedies, in our novels or poems or memoirs. I see people trying to be decent in specific parts of their lives, but few of them trying to be altogether good and decent.

You describe writing a poem as a conversation with an audience whose time and perspective one ought to respect. It’s so decent of you. When I was in school, that was considered a rather naïve way to read or write, though I believed in it. I still do, I think.

I hope a decent poet is also a decent man, but at least the man must have decency in him to write with decency. You aren’t actually naïve. You know the world changes, you know people do violence to one another. You just don’t get overly vexed about your inability to control how the world adapts to your presence in it; you don’t even seem to expect it to.

You’re like John Ames in Gilead, loving the world because you feel your tenuous relationship to it. Maybe Robinson had read your work before she started writing that quiet, beautiful, celebratory book. Probably not, but it’s a pleasant thought to me, because you’re a writer worthy of such a book.

To a Midwestern suburban boy like me, a decent man can’t quite be compared either to a mountain or a monument or to the dense mass of a bull in a field, though they all suggest themselves. Rather, reading you makes me think of the water tower at the top of the hill behind my house. We could see that water tower sometimes from a mile or two away if we got up high enough, and it always told us where home was relative to where our adventuring had taken us. It wasn’t the prettiest water tower, or the biggest, but it was ours, and it stood sentry over much of my childhood. They also serve who only stand and wait—or write.

Thank you, Mr. Kooser.




Brad Fruhauff

Photo by Sara Reid - Flick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsThere had to have been an episode of The Cosby Show where one of the kids meets a hero and is disappointed; I guess I’m not a big enough fan to remember clearly, despite the hours of it I watched growing up.

In my mind it’s Vanessa, who gets backstage tickets to a concert. When she and her friend get to the after party, the band just wants to drink, smoke, and generally carouse, and the good Huxtable child leaves early. I must have seen that story a hundred times as a kid. Celebrities, 80s TV taught us, were unpleasant people when the show ended.

Permit me to clear my throat archly.

Now that some 40 women have accused Cosby of raping them, it’s hard to pretend it’s not what it seems. The guy probably did some ugly stuff. Repeatedly.

Just like Vanessa at the backstage party, I feel hurt. A part of me that believed in the basic goodness of that show and the people who made it has been crushed.

Nobody (I hope) is saying that this hurt compares to that of the 40 women, but I can’t speak for them. I can only speak to the little corner of this scandal that really hits home for me.

As it happens, my wife and I were six seasons into rewatching The Cosby Show when all this started. And we were loving it. The humor holds up pretty well, but it’s also comfortably familiar, a reminder of our childhood when the world seemed smaller and simpler.

But what does it mean to put away childish things? It can’t mean the cynicism that more or less embraces the brokenness. And anyway, shall we really call the optimism of The Cosby Show childishness? Simplistic, perhaps, at times sentimental or trite, but surely also an admirable model of a family who tries to do right by one another, of parents who apply firm discipline with compassion, of a couple who love and respect one another.

I know some people will try to expunge Cosby from their lives, unable or unwilling to forgive his crimes—and I get that; rape is ugly and unconscionable. Emotionally, I won’t be ready to go back for some time, myself.

Analytically, however, I can imagine some future when we will click on the show in Hulu and begin the work of aesthetic healing. Art, for all its continuity with life, never bears a direct relationship with it. I’ve seen indignant bloggers impatiently insist that Bill Cosby is not the same as Cliff Huxtable. Fair enough, but then the reverse is true, too. What Bill Cosby did as Cliff Huxtable exists beyond the actor’s life in the realm of art.

Wayne Booth accounted for this discontinuity by positing an implied author between the real person and the work he or she created. He was well aware that real persons could be guilty of sins seemingly incompatible with writing your favorite book. In the act of creation, he thought, an author inhabits his or her best self, the parts of the self we all wish we could always be but can only sometimes actualize.

Scripture, too, as we are quick to forget, teaches that we have all sinned mortally and, by rights, should be beyond redemption. It doesn’t really matter that you didn’t do what that guy over there did. And it ought to teach us humility and grace rather than the politico-ideological purism that substitutes for moral thinking online.

Eventually, I think, to watch The Cosby Show will not feel like a tacit “pass” for his crimes. Eventually we’ll watch it and remember the good that those people did in creating that show. We will not forget or minimize the actor’s faults but maybe we will begin to forgive him for his deceptions. Like mature Christian adults, we’ll praise what is praiseworthy and mourn what is broken.

The Almost Theology of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Brad Fruhauff

"MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D." by Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons “The only [religious story] that stuck with me was something Sister McKenna said, . . . ‘God is love.’ It’s simple, and a little sappy, but, that’s the version I like. God is love; the thing that holds us together. And if that’s true I don’t think he’d punish you for making a mistake. I think he’d forgive a mistake.”

      —Skye (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S1.E9)

Because I love a lot about the new Netflix series Jessica Jones, I was all the more disappointed when it resorted to cheap shots the first time Jessica encountered a religious person—a Catholic woman who seems to thank God that her son is home, now, albeit strapped to a machine because a villain stole his kidneys. Jessica doesn’t say anything specific to the woman, but it’s clear the show views her faith with derision.

And maybe it should, since she has some confused theology. But theology wasn’t the point; faith was simply a narrative device, and it’s disappointing to see that in an age of “tolerance.”

It reminded me of the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I cite above. It’s a much more mainstream show, and yet it probably does better at taking persons of faith seriously, if not faith itself. Skye, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, makes this speech to Hannah, a Christian woman who believes God has abandoned her to be haunted by demons because of an error at work that killed four people. Hannah, like most TV Christians, has some bad theology, and Skye’s response almost looks like good theology. One wants to say, “Yes, God is love. Of course he’d forgive her.”

Of course, she wraps that truth in a fallacious elision of God and love. Surely, as the ground of our being and source of our love, God does in some sense hold us together, but Skye hardly means all that. The important part of her speech, rather, is where she says, “that’s the version I like.”

Our sin natures will not always like what’s true, so this is really more bad theology. Still, to writer Jed Whedon’s credit, he takes spiritual concepts like guilt and atonement seriously. In the climax, we learn the “demons” are really an admirer named Tobias who has gotten stuck between dimensions. Tobias admits he caused the accident and has been trying to atone by protecting Hannah, and he begs her forgiveness.

Here’s where it gets weird again, but still in interesting ways.

Agent May has her own guilt, a story that haunts her even as other agents mythologize it. She intervenes to help Hannah and Tobias, but when Hannah says, “Only God can forgive you,” May chimes in,

“And he won't. You can’t undo what’s been done. That will be with you forever. But trying to hold onto this life, clinging to the person you thought you could be: that’s hell.”

We know that's the last word because it concludes the action of the climax and, we learn, it is what Coulson (read: dad) told her after her own traumatic choice. It needs to be said that this gets the gospel all wrong in its attempt at tough love. May’s right that Tobias can’t save himself, but stoic resignation is not God’s way.

However, if a popular show is going to have a Christian character, and if it’s too much to ask that that character’s faith is not simplistic, superstitious, or downright scary, then I at least appreciate the way S.H.I.E.L.D. treats the religious characters with dignity. They deserve closure and reconciliation, however screwy their notions. And that has moral power and aesthetic integrity.

Give Me Batman, Mostly

Brad Fruhauff

Photo by Matias G. Martinez / CC BY 4.0 I want to play along with our pop culture superhero obsession, I do. I've seen the movies and the TV series, I've read several dozen superhero comics. My boys pretend to be the Flash and Captain America. But at the end of the day, I don't care that awful much about Superman or the Avengers or even Spider-Man. Give me Batman.

Mostly. I do have a thing for Wonder Woman, and I've developed an affection for Spider-Woman that's kind of hard to explain. I'll watch the next season of Daredevil and I’ll follow Arrow until it jumps the shark. My interest in those characters, however, is pretty limited, even casual. But Batman? I'll read pretty much anything with his name on the cover.

For me, Batman has the most spiritual narratives. I'd venture to say that, in general, D.C. excels Marvel in exploring the hero's soul, and no soul is darker than Bruce Wayne's.

Bruce Wayne suffered the ultimate psychic injustice in witnessing his parents’ murders. That fact, combined with the Gothic setting and the hard-boiled tone (a descendent of Gothic), makes for a hero not just up against incredible odds but against a fundamentally unjust world. Every criminal is his parents’ murderer. Every supervillain embodies the pervasive moral evil at the heart of us all. Other heroes live in worlds where most people are basically good. Batman, like the hard-boiled detective, lives in a broken world and knows he’s as broken as anyone, but he fights tooth and nail to do good anyway.

Arguably, Batman’s mythos is the most nihilistic in that it depends the least on luck, i.e., on something happening just in time because the good guys always win. Batman wins because he spends his free time thinking of and planning for every contingency; he wins by sheer force of will. And, yet, it remains the most spiritual precisely because it takes the pervasiveness of evil so seriously and because Batman opposes absolute evil with moral absolutes: criminals must answer to the law; no killing.

I think that’s why fans often favor him over Superman, and why in Justice League stories Batman somehow manages if not to be the key hero to somehow still be right. Superman, as Frank Miller showed in The Dark Knight Returns, is too public and thus can become co-opted by national governments. Wonder Woman is an outsider. The other guys are aliens or simply lack adequate cool. Batman stands for the capacity of the individual human to do what’s right in the face of insurmountable odds.

I’m aware of the merits of other heroes, and I’m sure you can point to a storyline here or there that’s worth reading, but I have my doubts that any other superhero story can really look into the abyss like Batman can. Iron-Man’s cool. Hulk’s anger mirrors our own inner rage. But for the icon of the human fronting an evil world, give me Batman.

Why Alexie was Right to Be Wrong about Yi-Fen Chou 

Brad Fruhauff

9 Fruhauff September It’s been about a month since people were outraged by the Yi-Fen Chou/Michael Derrick Hudson thing (read more here, here, and here). A white guy pretending to be Asian merely to game “the system” has clearly made a moral error, and of course the fires of Internet outrage were quickly kindled, and of course whatever kernel of justice that outrage began with quickly turned ugly and arbitrary as that ire blasted its easy target.

I like to mull and ponder, so the online tinderbox rubs me the wrong way even when it has a point. I also have little faith in the state of public discourse right now. But if we believe in democracy and the public square, if we Christians care about both racial justice and the integrity of the arts, then I suppose we contribute once in awhile, especially if we want to see more civil, measured discourse than we usually do. So, here goes . . .

My own sense is that Hudson was certainly wrong, but that Sherman Alexie was also wrong to have been influenced by the poet’s name. It’s just that Alexie was wrong in the right way, whereas Hudson was not.

What I mean is that we have a real history of racial injustice in this country that requires redress but that our efforts to redress it will necessarily be imperfect and possibly incur further injustices.

Consider Alexie’s criteria for selecting the “best” American poems, which aim for an objectivity defined against his existing preferences and according to a more or less familiar desire for fair representation. There’s nothing objectionable about his list—I had similar aims when I was poetry editor for Relief—but they do highlight the difficulty of really choosing “the best” when that term encompasses more than just the work itself, which is to say when the term refers not just to poetry but to the social context, America.

Alexie admits that Hudson was right; the Chinese name influenced his decision—not his appreciation of the poem, just his application of his criterion of diversity. He himself calls it “nepotism,” by which he means the privileging of an ingroup member over an outgroup one, and he understands the connotations of injustice. That is, he admits to committing an injustice but saw it as preferable to an alternative injustice.

And, honestly, I think that’s fair. We live in a fallen world where we do our best to correct past mistakes but cannot control the consequences of our choices. Once Alexie made his choice based on his criteria, to reject the poem on the basis of new information would only have muddled the issue by making it seem all about identity, which truly would have brought the other poems under a distracting scrutiny. The volume needs to be about poetry first, as much as possible, though it can never be about only poetry.

To be clear, I believe it is legit to imagine oneself in other identity positions as a writer or even as an ethical human being, but we’re not talking about an artistic choice; we’re talking about a blatantly cynical attempt to garner attention by co-opting an identity with perceived advantages and without regard for the lived experience of that identity. Hudson didn’t “reveal” anything about the world of poetry that we didn’t already know or that Alexie himself wouldn’t freely admit. It’s not even clear he had any such critical aim in mind.

Instead, he perpetrated a further aesthetic injustice by making us think the important question was what to think about him as opposed to what to think about the poems themselves. Because, as Alexie testifies to, there is always plenty to get upset about in any Best American volume, just as there is much to enjoy. So, go ahead and buy the book and read Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, but don’t stop there. Justice requires you give the other poets a fair shake.

Hamlet, Hipsters, Irony

Brad Fruhauff

homens-e1347382625816 I credit my students’ ever-active brains with shaping a recent class discussion such that I found myself having to ask, “Do you really think Hamlet’s irony is like a hipster’s?” We had been finding the subtle contrasts between the type of the Shakespearean fool and Hamlet’s foolery under the guise of madness. We had established in a previous class that Hamlet’s wit was highly ironic, like Lear’s fool’s, but that it was perhaps even more ironic in that Hamlet does not require his wit to be effective. He gibes Polonius, who famously suspects, “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” but he never confirms what that method might be. He mocks his old school-buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after he comes to distrust them, and when they confess their confusion, he simply shrugs it off: “A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.”

It was this indifference to the effect of his methodical madness that seemed to suggest the comparison to the hipster’s aimless irony for the sake of irony. Now, I was torn about this. As a teacher, I appreciated their inventive contemporary connection. But I actually like irony — it suits my temperament — and I had just started to think that I liked Hamlet’s brand of holy foolery.

This may be hard to get in our earnest age of online outrage and self-righteousness, but I actually think irony is a powerful tool for the Christian. When directed back at ourselves, it allows us to participate in a sick society, to hold up to mockery what merits mocking, but also to avoid setting ourselves up as the standards of good or the arbiters of morality. To harangue like Hamlet — or in some gentler fashion — is to offer your audience an alternative explanation to the uncomfortable possibility that you may be speaking truth, i.e., that you’re nuts, or grumpy, or whatever.

In Hamlet’s case, his feigned madness comes off as a plausible way to respond to being called to an act of violent justice in a thoroughly perverse world. His is a nearly pure irony that enjoys its own insight aesthetically, for the beauty of the thing, rather than morally, for its effects.

Nonetheless, we determined as a class that the hipster’s irony is aimless compared with the Dane’s. To the extent that we can talk about “hipsters” as a coherent group, their irony stems not only from a sense that the world is broken but from an unwillingness to actively propose an alternative. They instead form para-cultural pockets of affinity who collectively opt out of all available social options. Hamlet feigns madness, ironically, because he cannot just opt out but must respond to his circumstances as son and heir to a murdered king. His irony stems from a knowledge that he will at last choose some alternative and from a desire to be as disruptive as possible until he can muster up the determination to do so.

But, interestingly, he does not quite get the chance to choose his course of action. Rather, events unfold around him, and he has to respond in the moment. Just before the final scene, his duel with Laertes, he explains to Horatio that he accepts he cannot manipulate events to suit his own ends. Instead, he must be prepared to act on what he knows is right: “the readiness is all.” Some years later Milton would similarly suggest that “they also serve who only stand and wait.” We do not always have the courage bred of conviction, and irony may be a legit stance until we discover it, but Hamlet shows us that irony cannot be an end in itself. There’s no drama to it, and where there’s no drama there’s no story, and certainly we must be a people who believe in story.

A Little Experiment

Brad Fruhauff

NL-351235-2 At Relief we’re always interested not just in great writing, but in getting that work into the hands of ordinary church-goers—no English degree required. But while plenty of people think of themselves as novel readers or even nonfiction readers, very few people think of themselves as poetry readers; the poetry people are always presumed to be in some sort of world of their own. But this summer I decided to try a little experiment and run a church small group on reading contemporary Christian poetry.

The good news is that it worked. Mostly. Some of what didn’t work wouldn’t have worked with another kind of small group either. But the fact that it worked at all was, frankly, a little surprising. As I think back on the experience, I’ve learned a few things I’ll try differently next time:

  1. Go for it. I just submitted the idea without asking anyone. The church leadership was very open to it, and a lot of people were pleasantly surprised by it.
  2. Set the bar high and your expectations low. That is, aim for as many people as you can hold, and ask everyone you can, but don’t be surprised if there is more enthusiasm than commitment — especially during the summer months.
  3. Meet somewhere comfortable and quiet. A café can be nice but still noisy, and people are more likely to come out to someone’s home, anyway.
  4. Choose a convenient weeknight. Most of us, including myself, had a hard time making every Sunday evening, for a host of reasons. Folks are a little more likely to be in “go” mode on a Monday through Thursday.
  5. Find the right pace. This will be slower than you want to go and probably a little faster than the group thinks it wants to go. Hopefully this means most people will have the time to read during the week and that you’ll usually leave feeling like there was more to say (which will be true). We usually read 12-20 poems per week and actually talked about 3-4.
  6. Empower your group. We began with Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem as a nonthreatening entrée into reading poetry, but anything you can do to permit people to respond honestly and candidly is important. I tried to model honest inquiry and authentic enjoyment as well as openness to ambiguity and mystery. It wasn’t easy for everyone, but we generally avoided the anxiety of the “right”
  7. Don’t teach, but do lead. I didn’t come each week with any real agenda other than to help folks enjoy poems I also enjoyed and to learn how they responded to new poetry. Thus, I didn’t feel the need to lecture at them, though I sometimes did explain concepts or trends when relevant. What I did try to do, however, was to hold us all accountable to the text. I’d let us wander on a tangent inspired by the text, but if I felt someone was misunderstanding or getting a little loose with their reading, I’d call us back to the text to make sure we had solid footing. Occasionally, I’d see that I was misreading.
  8. Our Community Life pastor always reminds us that small groups succeed when their leaders pray. Pray of course for the needs of your group, but pray, too, prayers of praise for the beauty of the written word.

(Painting by Edward Coley Burne-Jones)

What Communicates

Brad Fruhauff


When my two-year-old wants a drink he says, “Up. Up.” When he needs my help with something, he also says, “Up. Up.” “Gra-gra” can mean motorcycle, cracker, airplane, or Grandma. When he says “Oosh” he may mean he wants juice or that he wants to put on his shoes to go outside. If he goes, “Zha-zha,” he may be talking about his sitter, Andrew, his favorite person, Suzie, or the Frozen soundtrack. He refers to himself as “Unh-unh,” but he may do so to indicate that he wants the same treat his brother just received or that he wants to walk in front of the stroller. About the only things he says that don’t have multiple possible meanings are “Mama,” “Dada,” and the sign for hungry.

The wonder of raising a child is that all these things actually communicate. They don’t always work smoothly or without confusion and false starts, but they usually, ultimately, work—I eventually figure out the proper interpretation of his sounds and my son gets his needs met.

Working at a Christian college, I think a lot about interpretation. Protestant thinkers, in particular, are very concerned with interpretation because it seems to represent a problem of getting at the truth. James Smith, in The Fall of Interpretation, engages some major figures for whom interpretation was not part of the original creation and will not be a part of the restored creation. For these thinkers, we don’t want to interpret; we want to just know. Interpretation doesn’t produce the certainty that we want to base our lives upon.

But Smith argues that interpretation would seem to be part of being a finite creature, and though Heaven may entail the conferral of eternal life, it doesn’t obviously entail the conferral of infinitude. To become infinite would be to become equal, intellectually, to God. It doesn’t sound right when put that way, does it?

Part of the trouble is training our minds to get away from a propositional truth and into something different that still preserves the authority of truth. The medievals thought our propositions about God were at best analogically true, that is, were true enough but unable to express the whole truth, but since the scientific revolution, we have wanted to have a propositional truth that was adequate and complete.

Actual language use teaches us otherwise. In the relatively trivial truth that my son wants popcorn or to ride the swings, what communicates does so not because we have found a precise and complete language but because we have worked out a language game within the context of our relationship. The truth of his needs extends well beyond his ability to express it, but we make up for that through knowing one another.

That word "context" was a big problem in the late-70s/early-80s when Jacques Derrida appeared to suggest that, because context can never be finally pinned down, meaning itself is impossible. Smith patiently explains that Derrida never actually made any such self-contradictory claim, but that he in fact was emphasizing the risk of communication, namely, that it won't communicate. Consider how many of our jokes are about failed communication or miscommunication. Every attempt to speak to another exposes our speech to interpretation, but amazingly it works more often than not.

Comedians make us laugh at miscommunication because it is, at times, a source of anxiety and insecurity. But I'm not sure it has to be a scary idea for Christians, however. Extended to the Bible, it suggests interpretation depends on our relationship with God and with the Christian community rather than the direct communication of the translated words. Don't we already believe that? Maybe the problem is that we feel like God is the two-year old saying, "Oosh," and we're stuck trying to figure Him out. Maybe we should assume we are the ones going, "Gra-gra," and have faith that God is able to interpret our ill-expressed needs.

More Popular Than Jesus

Brad Fruhauff

portrait As I prepare to host some friends for a 50th anniversary screening of the The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, I've been thinking about that period in history when people went so nuts that John Lennon could suggest The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Beatlemania really was something like a religious experience; kids acted as if rock and roll could save them.

Some American Christians responded to John's comment by burning their Beatles records and banning their songs from the radio. Today Lennon might only get some "Farewell, John" tweets, some blog posts about our anti-religious culture, and then some counter-responses trying to rise above the fray by suggesting there might be some truth to the idea.

I also imagine a facebook meme, in black and white, of Jesus in a collarless Beatle-suit being chased by adoring fans down a London street over the word "JESUSMANIA." This would be an inevitably ironic reference to the opening scene of Hard Day's Night, which, if anything, dramatizes the very phenomenon that sparked Lennon's comment. And it's hardly even drama; the film used actual fans and The Beatles themselves were amateurs, so what we get is not just a New Wave realism but nearly cinéma vérité. Nor are we over The Beatles; witness the number of tribute bands, or the continual release of repackagings of their music, or even The Beatles Rock Band. I myself avoided them until college precisely because "everyone" was into them, but when I actually started listening, they quickly won me over. I can't imagine myself getting flushed and sweaty and screaming just for being in the presence of the Fab Four, but maybe a part of me is fascinated by that ecstasy, that longing for a fantasy of total freedom. I rarely have that in music, art, or faith. In fact, I suspect it, like they did in the 18th century, of "enthusiasm."

After all, rock and roll channels a liberative, individualistic, often sexual energy that the Church will always be in tension with. Rock says: It's all about you. If it feels good, do it. Christianity says: It's all about the Christ. If it pleases Him, do it. That will never be a popular line.

Christ also said to cut off your hand if it offended you, so it's not entirely far-fetched to think it better to burn your Beatles CDs than to burn in Hell, but we also know to suspect absolutes: some people might need to trash their CDs, but that doesn't mean we all do. It's not necessarily The Beatles that should concern us but our relationship to them. If they really were more popular than Jesus, that couldn't be their fault (nor should it probably be very surprising).

What's strange (or not) is how we look to things like rock groups (or politicians or self-help gurus or Bachelors) to save us. It's the old "you have to serve somebody" line. The Beatles' broad appeal enables them to offer an attractive version of the self as acceptably erotic and rebellious. You can't found your whole life on that, but you can enjoy it for what it is for the brief time you're engaging it if we understand the difference between enjoying and idolizing.

If you've never seen the film, the anniversary is a decent excuse to enjoy a movie characterized by creative cinematography, an anarchic sense of humor reveling in wordplay, a reflexive system of metaphors for celebrity, and really fun music. I have to think God likes us to enjoy these things so long as we don't depend upon them.

Will There Be Stories in Heaven?

Brad Fruhauff


The question, "Will there be stories in heaven?" became an issue for me only when my son was two or three and we started letting him watch a limited amount of TV. Now, this isn't a post about why we let our kid watch TV, even though that would likely get a lot of hits. This is about all these nonviolent alternatives to G.I. Joe and Transformers that are, frankly, dreadfully dull.

Take Caillou, which is maybe an extreme case but is for me the epitome of dull children's programming. Nothing happens! Even in shows I kinda like, such as My Big, Big Friend or Pinky Dinky Doo, nothing much really happens. It concerns me to think that somehow the violence is what makes the difference. It would be tantamount to saying that sin is necessary for interesting conflict and thus for narrative itself. And if that's true, and if one day all sin will be redeemed for good, then it's not clear what our lives will look like—what our very identities will consist in—without story.

I hope it's not strange to say our identities depend on story. Even God tells us who He is through stories in Scripture, and the primary way we know who Jesus himself is is through the stories of the Gospels. Can we imagine ourselves, purified, but without stories, especially without new stories?

Is there narrative without sin and the violence it entails? Most of our Bible stories presume it, even those about Christ. There's much to be said on the subject of violence/nonviolence in children's TV, but I want to focus on when narrative gets "interesting."

In the tedious plots of Caillou and shows like it, there is often no real moral dilemma and thus no real stakes. A child may care a little about whether Caillou makes it through his dentist appointment, but they won't care as much as they will about whether Wolverine defeats Juggernaut again. The stakes in the Wolverine battle are simply higher and so overcoming the conflict means more. It is important that Juggernaut is evil or wants to commit evil acts and that Wolverine is a force for good competent and powerful enough to counteract that evil.

My son even likes the villains. I have decided not to freak out about this. Villains are powerful, and for a time, anyway, they get to do more or less whatever they want. Their wants are, as with many sinful wants, pretty limited and kind of stupid—a fantasy of total freedom. For a kid, this is pretty attractive, even as it is also scary. You don't want Juggernaut or Magneto to get his way in everything, but you might like to get your own.

Of course, some Caillou plots are more staked than others. Going to the zoo is pretty boring, going to the dentist may actually be kind of interesting. It taps into our finitude and our fears of pain and illness and of the body torn or violated. Even an adult may be interested in how a child comes through a dentist appointment. The problem here really is something like ignorance, but more than this, it is about real risk, about something that is legitimately frightening.

A stake in a narrative conflict, then, isn't necessarily the same as a sin or the possibility of sin. It is some part of our understanding of ourselves as human beings that is put into question or to some test. Conflict in this sense does not require an active evil force to drive it.

But it's more complicated, still. The Christian understanding of evil denies that evil is a thing, anyway. We call evil that which falls short of or lacks the good. Our whole broken world is evil in this sense. Narratives about scaling mountains or getting trapped in ravines or being attacked by a bear are part of this kind of evil that is not active but is clearly not good.

The enlightened response to natural evil is to say that we misname it, that the world "is what it is" and we shouldn't moralize it. And it's true we tend to view the world solipsistically, as if the universe were designed for my personal benefit and must be somehow broken if I am not entirely content. However, it is possible to have faith that the (recreated) world can become a true home for humans generally without requiring that it meet all my desires individually, in which case this world is still not what it could be—or am not yet all I could be.

So let's imagine a revised creation in which humans have access to what they need not only to survive but to thrive (which may already be the case) and where we live so in the light of God's glory that we not only clearly perceive the good but also understand how desirable it is and pursue it joyfully and eagerly (which is emphatically not the case). Can we imagine narrative conflict here?

I think we must still, at least, have the old stories. If we remain in any way finite, which is to say, still human, though living eternally, then we will still need stories to make sense of things with our limited brains. Perhaps stories will be like little breaks from the reality of God rather than glimpses of it. And perhaps hearing the stories of people who erred and had to be brought back may inspire some occasional poor souls to rebel in their little way—the stories would still be open to bad interpretations, after all.

But if we continue to develop the gifts we've been given in meaningful work and relationships, then we will still desire things, and we will still find parts of the world resisting or creating obstacles to that desire, and these will be the seeds of new narratives. Desire, in a world that is not merely there for my benefit, only indicates the ability to imagine something more, and for a finite creature with an infinite soul, we can always imagine something more.

The possibility of narrative in eternity depends in a real way on the doctrine of God's abundance. If God is infinite and his creation is infinitely abundant, then finite creatures cannot cease to find new adventures in exploration and discovery of this abundance.

I'm not sure this is entirely satisfying, though it's the best I've got for the time being. It may be that I am still too broken to appreciate how satisfying narratives of discovering God's goodness could be when my and others' understandings and hearts have been perfected at last. I only have the current stories to go on, and perhaps 90% of the time I find them intolerably naive and egotistical. There's too much darkness in me to have much patience with easy narratives of encountering the light. But that 10% of the time when it works for me, well, then I feel a profound compulsion toward the light, a deep desire for my own story to end that way, at least some times, and this desire seems beyond reproach, even essential. Whatever happens in eternity, we can have no stories here without that desire to find our hearts' true home.

(Painting by N. C. Wyeth)

The Eyes the Window, The Mind the Poem

Brad Fruhauff


The Eyes the Window by Marci Rae Johnson (Sage Hill Press, 2013)

I'm a smart guy, but I'll admit to liking poets who tend to take a little more direct approach to their work. If I feel a poet intentionally creating obscuring prisms or building brick walls of her erudition, I tend to lose interest. Such poets are either engaged in some other conversation than that which interests me, or they are not trying to engage in a real conversation.

Marci Rae Johnson's The Eyes the Window is a rare exception. One actually senses that Johnson is literally feeling through the poetry, and yet she remains always just out of reach. It's a fascinating collection that makes you feel at once a witness to intimate moments and a stranger outside of true intimacy.

The first of the book's three sections introduces the "thought problem" of existence, or, more specifically, of consciousness. In the tradition of the Modernists, and before them the modern philosophers, Johnson begins with the mind reflecting upon itself, alone and therefore unable to substantiate its own existence:

To be. Infinitive. From the Latin infinitas as in the mind of God, the universe the space before and after. —"Showing Existence or Condition"

The self cannot, it seems, be in the infinitive. Memory, for instance, is too spotty and changeable. Johnson's search for the stable places of the self recall Stevens's "poem of the act of the mind." This is a book of somewhere's, maybe's, and could be's. Significantly, it is a book of desiring, and of desiring relationship. "To be loved" seems an attractive, plausible way to be.

But again, Johnson's work is so ambivalent. She writes in impressions and isolated thoughts that read something like watching Persona or L'Avventura, somehow working together into a whole through the desiring self. The reader stands right beside the speaker of her poems, breathing on her neck as she watches the waves on a lake outside her window. She confesses her desires, confesses her ambivalence, and then seems to recant her faith in everything she just said.

Is existence possible? Is love possible? In the second and third parts Johnson develops two journey narratives, one by car and one by train. Are these metaphors for the stale motions of a disintegrating love, or play spaces where love is possible just before it is impossible again? There is a heaviness to it all, and so many episodes of missed opportunity that I want to read it as the former, but there is such pathos in the desire that I want to believe these poems attempt to honor the brief moments of connection rather than mourn all the absence.

Johnson unabashedly commits the affective fallacy and contorts the world to projections of her own mind or emotions. These are poems in search of a real outside the self, after all, so it is appropriate that they presume a hyper-subjectivity. But this also allows her to playfully turn the banal into the beautiful. Quantum physics serves to multiply the possibilities of romance, road signs become subtle metaphors for poetry or for stages of relationship, and even Google suggests the conceptual poem, "28 Results for 'I.'"

Get this book and read it on a quiet morning with a cup of coffee. It will get inside you and linger and, what would not be the worst thing, unsettle you.

(Painting by Rene Magritte)

Relief Issue 7.2 Thinks You're Pretty Smart

Brad Fruhauff

The Picture Book 1939 by A.R. Middleton Todd 1891-1966

As we get ready to print 7.2 (debuting at the Festival of Faith and Writing next week), I've been noticing how many of the pieces ask so much from the reader. If art is, or can be, a difficult pleasure, then I think you'll enjoy issue 7.2, but in that Relief-y way that isn't satisfied with pat answers or disingenuous questions.

Of course, this means that the issue as a whole, which is to say our authors, think that you as readers are pretty smart and can handle some uncertainty, some openness, and some unrestrained wonder—if you're into that kind of thing. The teacher in me wants to make sure you're not among those who sell themselves short. Most people are better readers than they think; as often as my students say they're "not smart enough" for the poems or short stories we read, but when I ask them for their responses, their questions and gut reactions are often right in line with what the piece invites and evokes.

I'll highlight just our Editors' Choice recipients to give you an idea of what to look forward to. In fiction, Amy Krohn's "Master of Light" reads like memoir, it's so full of those inarguable facts that are so indifferent to its heroine's fantasy. Not only that, but Krohn manages to pull off an entire story in second-person narration without it feeling in the least like a cute gimmick. Her story asks "you" to think about what it would mean if your farmer husband suddenly turned missionary and left you behind. The answer "you" come to is both easier and harder than you might expect.

In CNF, Angi Kortenhoven shares an encounter with one of her own students, years later, seeing all his potential being rubbed away by the banalities of daily life. Kortenhoven ends on a bitter note, clinging to hope almost in a plea to the reader to nod in affirmation. She's not offering hope, but asking you whether you can find it in yourself.

Finally, in poetry, Bob Denst adds a subtle twist of playfulness to scenes that are ultimately about great beauty and sometimes sublimity. His "Wildland," in particular, powerfully reverses the normal questions we ask about God's actions or will when natural disaster strikes.

These authors represent some of what I love most about what we do at Relief, finding the stories and memories and metaphors that represent the mysterious or ineffable without trying to tame it.

(Painting by Henry Lamb)

“Royals:" Disappointing pop… or am I the classic overthinker?

Brad Fruhauff

Sometimes I think I’m not the intended audience for things like pop songs. I overthink them. I start to reflect on the words and the “message.” Most recently, the more I replay Lorde’s “Royals” in my head (and it’s the kind of song one replays in one’s head), the more disappointed I am with it.

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