“Lands & Peoples” (a recent album by Bill Mallonee), the new Marilynne Robinson essays (“The Givennesss of Things”) and a new novel by Richard Cleary, “Bridging the Abyss” – BOOKNOTES SALE: All items mentioned 20% OFF.

Hide me in the darkness – all that’s lost and found                                                                                  Hide me in the darkness – there’s sure plenty to go around

                  Bill Mallonee                                                                                                                                                     “Hide Me in the Darkness” from Lands & Peoples

lands & peoples.jpgIn his most recent Americana folk-rock album, Bill Mallonee (formerly of the acclaimed Vigilantes of Love) pours his heart on magnetic tape again, giving us yet another “audible sigh.” There are some glorious songs — arguably some of his best, and certainly one of the most lovely (“Sangre De Christos” is a tenderly happy song about the Mexican-American peoples shaped by this famous mountain chain that Paul Simon so beautifully reminded us, in “Hearts & Bones,” are also called the “Blood of Christ Mountains.”)

I’ve been listening and listening to Lands & Peoples (Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers; $17.00) and do not tire of it. Those who know Bill Mallonee’s work will not be surprised to know it is dark, a poetic outcry against duplicity and brokenness, a bit disillusioned, if not jaded. I may not want to concede to the singer’s dour take on small towns, but “I Just Hope the Kids Make It Out” (“it all dried up here years ago; they moved it all over-seas, let us go. No back up plan, baby, it’s all gone south) is one of the most catchy and biting bits of rock I’ve heard in years and I’ve hit “repeat” on that one song more often then I should admit. Also for what it is worth, this new record includes one of my all-time favorite Mallonee songs — he has over 50 albums with hundreds of songs. “Steering Wheel is a Prayer Wheel” brings just enough faith and hope amidst the wandering and wondering. In another song he may be “falling through the cracks” and – in a perfect Neil Young vocalization – dares us to “look at all of the diamonds, look at all of the rust; look at all of the boom, look at all of the bust,” but there is still grace and goodness to be found. 

I’ve been listening to this CD put out with “The Big Sky Ramblers” (which includes his wife, Muriah) because it is musically solid, wonderfully recorded (the acoustic guitar sounds perfectly bill and mariah.jpgcrisp) and lyrically brilliant; I have found that it repays repeated listening and it gives me courage. I value Bill’s artistic take because it doesn’t sound like political preaching, even as he offers sober assessment of the “flags and rhetoric” which under-girds late-model capitalism, mostly through allusive lines and curious storytelling; one of the more obvious narratives is a song about farm foreclosure in dust-bowl era Kansas that could be listened to alongside The Grapes of Wrath. The banker man looking at his gold watch just slays me…

As always, Bill is clever and literate, with striking lyrical moves, from post-industrial halogen glow to a deeply religious song about “Northern Lights and Southern Cross.” “This guitar is stumblin’ drunk and full of stories,” he says. He moves from the personal to the social, from his own soul to the state of the nation sometimes in one quick couplet. And I love the hints at God’s glossolalia that shows up in these songs, a nearly sacramental view of creation that seems to assure us that the “stuff of Earth” somehow reveals a divine presence, if not a divine order. Living under the big sky out West has seemed to deepen his appreciation of the rugged rawness of creation.

In the passionate liner notes, Bill notes that his vantage point is “like that of a concerned traveler, one with an ear to the ground and an eye to the skyline.”  

I listen to this Lands & Peoples album, also, however, because I can’t shake its setting mostly in the American Southwest, which is also the setting of a part of a novel I want to tell you about, a novel written by a dear friend, a serious thinker, a pundit and philosophy prof who himself loves the great outdoors, and sets some of his story in Northern Mexico and some of the desert bridging the abyss.jpglands of the Southwest. Mr. Richard L. Cleary, whose newest novel, Bridging the Abyss (Xulon; $15.99) may not resonate with the stream-of-consciousness/Jack Kerouac influenced Mr. Mallonee, but with themes in his songs of loneliness and tragedy and why there is such evil in our world, and lyrics set in the deserted highways near the Sangre de Christos of New Mexico – okay, I admit I’m also thinking of the stunningly Shakespearean tragedy of our times also set near there, Breaking Bad – it has seemed that for me, at least, Lands & Peoples has been a good soundtrack for this moving new novel.  I will admit that both gentlemen are friends of mine, so I am partial.  I trust that you, too, will enjoy and be troubled by, and finally be edified by these works of art.


how dante can save.jpgI have told you in recent weeks about How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem (Regan Arts; $29.95) Rod Dreher’s spectacularly interesting, intimately confessional memoir about reading Dante to get out of a serious, stressful depression due to a lack of reconciliation among his small town Louisiana family. (See my comments, HERE.) It is the sequel to his beloved The Little Way of Ruthie Liming which I hope you have read.  In this follow-up story after his move to his old hometown he tells of his illness, family issues, conversion to Orthodoxy and Christian growth by way of reading Dante’s Commodia.  He writes,

These emotionally gripping scenes rendered with supernatural artistry reveal the power of great art to transform us. The poet Dante is showing us how stories and images prepare our imaginations for moral instruction by engaging our emotions.

Research psychologists Keith Oatley and Maja Dijikic have shown that people are more likely to be open to new ideas when those ideas are present to them in the form a of a story. But they also found that a work of nonfiction is more effective than fiction if the reader perceives it to have high artistic quality.

Dreher, in a chapter on pride, reveals being especially convicted by the vividly rendered scenes in this canto of the classic poem.  He explains,

        The words and the images in Dante’s great poem worked a conversion within me. Their beauty and truth cracked the stone in my chest and made me confront the nature of my condition.

Listen, as he continues,

        There is no lesson in the Commedia that I had not read of heard before, but Dante incarnated that wisdom in verse that pierced the rocky soil of my heart and planted seeds of truth there, seeds that neither my anxiety, nor my insecurity, nor my anger, nor my weakness, could dislodge.

I know I don’t have to convince you of this, or the value of reading novels, but as I am about to tell you about a novel I enjoyed, it seems good to quote Dreher again, as he ruminates on how this story effected him, and how good art can touch us all.

           Once you have seen yourself in Farinata, in Pier della Vigne, in Brunetto, and in Ulysses, once you have stood with Dante and Virgil on the beach listening to Casella’s song, wanting to abandon the hard road ahead and rest for a while, they become part of you. In their fates you observe – no, you feel – the logic of your own trajectory through life revealing itself to you. And if you take these words and images into your heart, you gather within yourself the will to change the direction of your own story.

I suppose this line from Dreher on Dante is as good as any description of the power of stories, of movies and novels and memoirs. And it is as good as any description of the power of Bill Mallonee’s music for me, too, for that matter. Perhaps his songs (and I could add other artists who I similarly esteem and moved by) and their characters or images don’t usually call me to “change the direction” of my story, but they do give me peoples and pictures who can accompany me on the journey. Lands and peoples, indeed. 


the givenenness of things.jpgOne of the most significant books to come out this year is the new collection of thoughtful essays by Marilynne Robinson, the acclaimed novelist. Her Gilead, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize and its sequel, Home, earned the Orange Prize.  The third in the series, Lila, is now out in paperback and is a must-read for those who have followed these stories. The Givenness of Things: Essays (Farrar Straus Giroux; $26.00) is the title of this new anthology of her non-fiction pieces (the fourth such collection) and its suggestive title implies surely that things, things on Earth, as Colossians 1 might put it, are a gift; this is a serious theological claim that has huge implications, not dissimilar to Wendell Berry’s prominent essay and book title Life Is a Miracle. Of course, if things are given, then there is a giver, and, one could surmise, an order to life in this world.  It is not just Mallonee’s beloved Sangre De Christos or the Northern Lights or the Southern Cross that reveals God, but, somehow, all things can. And more than God is revealed: the creation reveals the ordinances of God, the laws of how the world really is.  God sustains the world, ordering it in certain ways, the Bible maintains, and we can surmise that this is something intended in Robinson’s evocative title.

The dust jacket copy of Givenness…, declares “…cultural pessimism is always fashionable, there is still much to give us hope. In The Givenness of Things the incomparable Marilynne Robinson delivers an impassioned critique of contemporary society while arguing that reverence must be given to who we are and what we are: creatures of singular interest and value, despite our errors and depredations.”

Ahhh, but how do we get there? From the beauty of the Earth to the value owed us? From the insight about reality as a gift to a sense of orderedness; from experience to meaning, from a sense of the appropriateness of reverence to a belief that God is there, and even God speaks?  Is it so that we can determine, in Francis Schaeffer’s memorably book title, that “He is There and He Is Not Silent”? Is there some kind of natural law (to use standard Catholic language) and if so, how do we know it? 

Marilynne-RobinsonCROPPED.jpgMarilynne Robinson offers seventeen essays that examine the ideas that have inspired and informed her: Calvin, Locke, Bonhoeffer and Shakespeare, for instance. As one writer put it, “her peerless prose and boundless humanity are on display… exquisite and bold.”  And then this: “The Givenness of Things is a necessary call for us to find wisdom and guidance in our cultural heritage and to offer grace to one another.”

Well, this is huge: a renowned and respected Calvinist novelist who is known in the highest literary circles (published and respected in The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and the like) whose prestigious publishers say that it is “necessary” to find “wisdom and guidance” in order to “offer grace.” What sort of cultural moment generates lines like that from New York publishers?

Her first essay starts with the glory of the humanism that emerged from the Renaissance, but ends up critiquing the neo-Darwinism that resists claims about meaning and transcendence.  This is not the first time Robinson has reflected on the implications of neuroscience and evolution and scientism. She is incisive in her critique of certain notions, found on the right and the left, or so it seems to me, among fundamentalists of science and religion, insisting that behind this “infinitesimal nuancing” there is mystery.  Do I hear an Amen?

But she does not stop there.  There are chapters about grace, servanthood, proofs, value, metaphysics. What is “realism” in this world, how ought we to think about “experience”?  What does the Biblical phrase “Son of Adam, Son of Man” mean? This is a multi-faceted, diverse set of significant, intellectual essays, and they push us to ask the biggest questions we can ask, although she is no evangelical preacher. She is careful and dense, and not so prosaic, but I am not ashamed to be simple: a question floating around all this is, simply, if there is a God, does God speak and make it clear “how then shall we live?” And if not, how do we determine what is right and what is wrong? In a culture that has rejected a sense of a God who speaks and the authority of God’s revealed Word – heck, in a church where in many quarters such things are routinely denied or qualified to death – how can we know what is right and wrong?  Can we?

“I’m hoping to turn in one good day,” (but “Losing streaks take no pity on the meek”) Mallonee wistfully sings in one of the moving songs on Lands & Peoples.  But what is one good day? How in the world do we know?

You may think I’m drifting towards the stupid question of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”  I hope you know I tend towards the practical and have little time for abstract intellectualism or vain philosophical ramblings.

But this question — without a God who has given us some standards of what is right and good, how do we know that war or rape or whatever is truly wrong? — is not silly. Dostoevsky insisted that “if there is no God all is permitted.” It is a grand question of modernity, it is the existential quandary of our times, and it is at the heart of the postmodern turn (who’s view of truth, who’s view of good and right, who gets to say?) 

This is the exact question that haunts Richard Cleary’s new novel, Bridging the Abyss, a gripping crime/adventure tale set in the underworld of sexual trafficking and inner city ministry.

This big question – what is really right and wrong in a secularized society? — was a theme of his somewhat more heavy-handed previous fictional effort, the 2012 In the Absence of God. In that big in the absence of God.jpgnovel, there is a violent criminal on the loose on a college campus, and the professors in the story must come to grips with their own assumptions (not to mention the reading assignments they give) about the nature of right and wrong, ethics and truth and what is truly true. Can a prof claim to agree with Nietzsche and Sartre saying that there is no meaning and therefore no ultimate truth and yet say that the rapist on the loose is truly wrong to exercise his power? Can one say there is no universally binding right or wrong, but participate in the campus anti-war movement, condemning war as immoral? Can one believe in intelligent design – the observation that even at the molecular level there appears to be an orderly design so complex that it could not have happened by “chance” as Darwinists insist – and yet be a serious scientist, and what might the implications of this view of science be for social ethics and cultural studies and this discussion among colleagues about right and wrong on campus? The various characters – collegiate athletes and their coaches, young students and their teachers, an inter-racial dating couple – engage in this campus drama with plenty of coffee shop conversations about what we can truly say about right or wrong.  They each grapple with the question of what a world looks like if God is considered mostly irrelevant.  You can read my BookNotes review of this stimulating, philosophically-oriented thriller, HERE.  (And, of course, there is a link there to order it at our on-line discounted price.)

One does not have to read In the Absence of God to enjoy Bridging the Abyss, although one of the characters that makes a small appearance in Absence is a major character in Bridging. If you read Cleary’s Absence of God you will recall that he is, after all, a former science teacher and college philosophy professor, and he wrote that book to open up conversations about this fundamental philosophical question.  Can ordinary people who haven’t read Plato or Kant, Camus or Kierkegaard, Derrida or McIntyre or Charles Taylor, enter into the large quandaries of ethics and secularization?  Cleary’s novel hoped to entertain even while it taught and I maintained that it did both.

bridging the abyss.jpgBridging the Abyss offers a better developed plot, with much more action, and the characters are more interesting than those in In the Absence. This is, it seems, the product of at least a few matters.  Firstly, I suspect that Cleary has just practiced his craft as a fiction writer more, and this third novel is better than his first two; as a former high school science teacher and current college philosophy teacher (not to mention political pundit at his on-line Viewpoints blog) he is not primarily an artist or fiction-writer (although as his bookseller, I happen to know that he has read widely in the great classics and knows great literature better than most.) So he is honing his storytelling and is learning to be a little less didactic and teacherly and bit more allusive and artful as a novelist.  I think you will enjoy this story, captivated by the fast moving plot and the truly interesting people.

It does seem obvious that in this new novel, Cleary wants people to be entertained. For those of us who enjoy late night theological arguments in the dorm room or local pub, his previous book was certainly interesting – listening in on these characters as they parried and debated was a hoot, and intellectually stimulating, as well. But it was perhaps a little short on plot and character development and bit heavy on the long conversations.  (Dick and I have had these long conversations, in person and via email, so he gets it honestly!)

Bridging the Abyss, however, is really full of action and pathos and page-turning thrills which makes for a better read. Of course it keeps coming back to this central insistence — if modern people dispense with God and believe life can go on as before, valuing goodness and beauty and meaning and human dignity – they are living a conceit. There is no sturdy reason or basis for acting as if this or that is truer or better.  Dostoevsky was right.  We are staring at a huge abyss if we are only honest enough to admit it.  The title comes from a realization that one of the characters in the story voices in his own struggles with this very question.  The cover photo aptly shows an abyss.

Unless, unless.  Unless there is an older truth – deeper magic, in Lewis terms – that tells us that there is indeed more to life than meets the eye.  There is more. There is a God and God has spoken and we can deduce right and wrong, or at least notions of the good, the true, the beautiful. There is an order to the givenness. The abyss is real, but it can be bridged, and the gospel of Christ is the most reliable answer to our existential quandary.

The dialogues between the main characters in this new story are realistic enough, but they do circle back to these tough religious questions. In Bridging the Abyss, though, these are not college teachers in the faculty lounge.  These lively characters in Bridging include frantic, grief-stricken Baltimore parents whose daughter has suddenly disappeared – we learn that she has been abducted by a deadly serious cell of sexual traffickers and she is most likely bound for a perverse Saudi sheikh. Their questions are more urgent then most of us can imagine.

Unknown to the parents, or their caring inner city pastor, whose own story is wonderfully told, there is an under-the-radar group of former Navy SEALs doing a vigilante-style rescue of the captured and trafficked children. (Does the FBI know about these guys? Are they complicit, at odds, in some sort of “look the other way” cooperation? Who are the good guys and who is to be trusted? Why are they doing this undercover work?) The former soldiers and law enforcement men in this group are believable – especially if you watch light TV shows like Burn Notice or read the more serious spy stuff like the Jason Bourne novels and the like. Who knows if there are real units doing such investigation, search and rescue ops like this, but Cleary makes it ring true and it is fascinating.  He is a profoundly moral man, and refused gratuitous language or violence, even if a bit rougher language might have made it seem more realistic.  But, still, be warned: the episodes of the plot itself, kidnapping, sexual trafficking, shootouts and (maybe?) torture and connections to drug cartels are vivid.  (Reading Bridging the Abyss will be a bit heavy and disturbing if one has only read Amish fiction or Christian romances, of course, but it is nothing compared to the grueling scenes of the standard crime or CSI shows on TV these days.  If you watch Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds you know what I mean.

And, I might add, the book’s plot, interesting as it is, and surprising as some twists are, is not deep or literarily sophisticated. It’s a good story and a fairly quick read, not ponderous or obtuse.

Some of the plot of Bridging the Abyss is about the missing girl and the vigilante rescue unit.  Much of the plot is more domestic, about the anxiety and prayers of the people in the Baltimore neighborhood and the church. Baltimore cops and local thugs and the neighborhood pastors all show up as the day-to-day ups and downs of raising a family in a transitional neighborhood in a big city are described, and as the realities of the crisis become known.  Caleb and Patty Hoffmeyer are the parents of the missing Alicia; Caleb’s brother and sister-in-law (Willis and Marie) are the classic religious skeptics who are walking through this family tragedy with them. They are grateful for the outpouring of concern from Caleb and Patty’s church friends, but find the faith behind their actions to be a bit naïve.

Reverend Loren Holt is the pastor that a character in In the Absence of God had visited and he is known (briefly) in that book as a reasonable, good man. In Bridging the Abyss he is one of the main stars, and his well-informed but humble faith and his hard but meaningful inner city ministry is beautiful to behold.  Loren and his wife Olivia have had quite a journey themselves, and their own story informs their own pastoral care for the Hoffmeyer’s and others in this tragic drama.

There are a few surprise plot twists that I should not mention, and some characters about whom more is revealed later in the book.  It is hard to describe this in detail because there is so little I can say without spoiling the fun of the ride.  You must read this for yourself to learn about the vile Carlos and Luis, about John and his team of renegade activists (working their ops under the name CSR.) You will be delighted to realize something about a small side story with a kid named Keyvon and a huge plot twist involving, well… nope, I’m not going to say. If you are used to mysteries and thrillers, I suspect you might see it coming, but it’s a blast either way.  I’m not going to spoil it. They don’t call ’em “page turners” for nothing.

dick cleary headshot.jpgKudos to my friend and nearby neighbor Dick Cleary for working so hard to bring some of the most important questions of our age – voiced in readings he has done from the likes of Charles Taylor and Albert Camus and Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, not to mention recent atheists like Dawkins – in an easy-to-read, hard-to-put down, adventure yarn.

I do not mean any criticism to say this is not as profound or lyrical as this year’s award-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – one of the best novels I’ve ever read —  and will not be on the best seller lists as will recent novels we carry such as Jonathan Franzen’s Purity or the new take on the life of David by Geraldine Brooks (The Secret Chord.) It is not Gilead, Home, or Lila, not by a long shot.  But if you want a captivating story, vivid, interesting characters who are living through horrible tragedy and finding hope and purpose through it all, the lives of the Hoffmeyer’s and the Holts and the Baltimore police officers and informants and the brave CSR squad may inspire you. The conversations they have — what is true, how do we know, could the gospel be the answer to this existential human quandary of knowing what is right and how to live well, and if we can figure it all out — will be an enjoyable read, will stimulate your own thought, and even will serve you in your own interest in apologetics. 

Cleary enjoys making up these tales, recounting these fictional philosophical and theological debates, and although I’m sure he would firstly want you to enjoy getting to know his characters and taking this fictional journey, he’d be most happy if through listening in on the dialogue in In the Absence of God and Bridging the Abyss you would feel more sure about what you believe and why you believe it. Learning how to press this honest question about the moral consequences of a culture which has cast God away and how to present a durable answer that can be offered to contemporary seekers is surely one of the benefits of reading these dramatic stories.  In a world of sexual trafficking and urban racism and religiously-hostile intellectuals and all sorts of inner anguish, these kinds of personal stories can help.

And, if the songs on Lands & Peoples are any clue, there is much anguish even for Christ-followers in this world that often seems forsaken. But as Bill Mallonee sings, in one of two desperate songs with baseball allusions, there can be new resolve in finding purpose, discerning meaning. Maybe it is so for many of us: “ever since my eyes beheld your beauty and your grace, I’m going to swing with everything I’ve got.”  Yes, even in this “sad, slow crawl” we can swing with all we’ve got.  It matters. It matters because there is meaning and purpose and some kind of order in this fallen world, if only we have eyes to see and the moral resolve to act on it.

Just as Dante clarified this for Rod Dreher, Bill Mallonee knows and reminds me. It is why none of his sad songs on his rootsy albums with raw acoustics and fuzzy feedback and Dylan-esque harmonica are finally depressing. Mallonee ends his latest set of allusive story songs with a bit less overtly redemptive hope than is found in Cleary’s Christian novel but both the Lands & Peoples CD and the Bridging the Abyss story are clear: there is hope in this hard world, and we can know something about the goodness of God’s creation order which impinges upon us because it is real and true and good.

As Marilynne Robinson puts it, in a characteristically Calvin-esque phrasing, there is a givenness to things.

lands & peoples.jpg the givenenness of things.jpg

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CD Lands & Peoples Bill Mallonee     regular H&M price $17.00  —  our sale price: $13.60

The Givenness of Things: Essays  Marilynne Robinson  regularly $26.00 — our sale price: $20.80

Bridging the Abyss  Richard L. Cleary   regularly $15.99  —  our sale price: $12.79



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