By LeRoy Lawson
How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem
New York: Regan Arts, 2015
Water to Wine: Some of My Story
Spello Press, 2016
High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery that Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society
New York: HarperCollins, 2013
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009
Today’s column is about discovery, with what happens when the lost becomes found—and the high cost of the finding.
Let’s begin with Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem. The title promises too much, of course.
You know Dante Alighieri’s story, as told in The Divine Comedy. At midlife he finds himself hopelessly lost; his life is not turning out at all the way he planned. Rescue comes in the person of the Roman poet Virgil, who takes him under his wing, leads him down the circles of Hell to its very depths, then upward through purgatory into paradise, where the beautiful Beatrice completes the pilgrim’s education/redemption journey.
It’s not just Dante’s story, though. It’s everyman’s. Certainly it’s Rod Dreher’s. In fact, that’s the problem with this book. It’s too much about the author’s frustrations, neuroses, and family crises and not enough about “the wisdom of history’s greatest poem.” Dreher cherry-picks from Dante’s classic the way some Bible readers cherry-pick the verses that say what they want them to say, proof-texting their way to self-justification.
In this day of total self-revelation, as the author tells us far too much about what is wrong with his father and his sister and his whole family and his former church life (as contrasted with the utopian church he’s currently a member of), my disappointment grows. I love and am challenged by Dante’s masterpiece and hoped I’d find here an introduction I could pass on to friends, especially friends in midlife who are seeking, as Dante’s pilgrim is, the light.
This isn’t that book.
The Mystery of God
Brian Zahnd’s Water to Wine: Some of My Story offers more help. He, too, is lost in midlife, which will strike some as strange because Zahnd’s a pastor. Not just a pastor, but a highly visible, highly successful pastor.
I’ll let him speak for himself:
I was halfway to ninety—midway through life—and I had reached a full-blown crisis. Call it garden variety mid-life crisis if you want, but it was something more. You might say it was a theological crisis, though that makes it sound too cerebral. The unease I felt came from a deeper place than a mental file labeled “theology.” I was wrestling with the uneasy feeling that the faith I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery, weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the faith I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. And I had always been utterly fascinated by Jesus. What I knew was that the Jesus I believed in warranted a better Christianity than what I was familiar with. I was in Cana and the wine had run out. I needed Jesus to perform a miracle.
What serious Christian—in the pulpit or the pew—has not at one time or another ached for “a better Christianity than what I was familiar with,” desired something other and deeper than can be found in the latest “how-to” conference, something far removed from the pragmatics of American success-oriented, struggle-denying,
In his search for that other, Zahnd turned to the ancients to learn more about praying at fixed hours using prayer books (praying the words of others, finding release in what has already been said and savored), in contemplative prayer, and in exploring what saints in earlier centuries found so enriching.
What appealed to me as a loyal son of the Stone-Campbell Movement, with its emphasis on baptism and Communion, was Zahnd’s discovery of what these say about the incarnation of Christ. There’s something mysterious about God taking on human flesh and dwelling among us that can’t be reduced to arguments or proof texts, that requires symbol and rite.
“Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true?” he asks. “Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth. . . . I was awakening to the cost of real faith.” As one who spent several years hanging out with seminary students who want more than anything else to be, in that timeworn phrase, “honest to God,” I felt a kinship with Zahnd’s search. His answers aren’t always my answers, nor my students’, but he asks the right questions.
The Facts about Drugs
Professor Carl Hart’s High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery chronicles a search and discovery of a far different kind. His was not a midlife crisis like Zahnd’s or Dreher’s. Hart was born into crisis, an African-American in one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods. This son of poverty now teaches at Columbia University where he specializes in research on drug addiction. High Price tells how he got there.
By all normal accounts, he shouldn’t have. He only tolerated school because it gave him the chance to play sports. College was for children of privilege, which, where he comes from, means white. So he entertained himself with booze, drugs, and sex. He lived on the edge.
One of the many stereotypes Dr. Hart blasts in this memoir is that drugs are the primary problem in poor and minority communities. Yet another is that crack cocaine is deadly powerful and once tried almost impossible to leave alone. One more is that this is obviously the black man’s curse.
Hart comes to his contrary opinions through two types of experimentation: laboratory, where he studies the chemistry of drugs to understand their potency and effects; and personal. It’s his own story, interwoven with his clinical and laboratory conclusions, that makes High Price such a compelling read.
As a teenager and adult, Hart was no abstainer. He sampled everything—regularly. Yet he didn’t become addicted. Why, he asks, didn’t he, when so many of his peers did? He explores factors such as opportunities (to partake, to reject, to escape stifling circumstances, to grow), family support or lack of it, and even luck. He is not a religious man; his journey of discovery will unnerve as well as enlighten the sheltered reader.
We have had a little experience with drug addiction in our family, and as a pastor, I have seen its devastating effects, but the commonsense view that various drugs are instantly addictive and the single source of a culture of violence is simply not true, Hart says. His personal experience and the results of his research have led him to conclude that the whole “war on drugs” is misguided. It damages people in disadvantaged circumstances. It deprives its victims of hope.
Hart is not defending nor promoting drug use. He is simply pleading for a dispassionate reading of the facts. You may not agree with his argument, but if not, you’ll want to be certain you also base your opinion on facts, not prejudice.
The Poetry of a Mortician
This theme of discovery takes us all the way to the grave. In The Undertaking, poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch muses wisely on what he has learned in preparing corpses for burial and their survivors for carrying on a meaningful life without them.
The funeral director’s motto, “Serving the living by caring for the dead,” aptly describes Lynch’s vocation in his small Michigan town. If the mortician’s trade could make us all as wise as this man, we’d be well advised to change vocations. He writes with a mortician’s no-nonsense grasp of the details (embalming, answering emergency calls, upholding the surviving, serving the community), sharing the whimsical and sobering insights his labors have taught him.
My body is not ready for the services of Lynch the funeral director, but my soul wants to hear more from Lynch the poet.
LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International.