Stealing Gum

I just finished reading Douglas Coupland’s Gum thief. This book simply adds to Coupland’s already rich reputation for having a finger on the pulse of our culture. I first experienced this author’s talent for pinpointing the attitude of the current times in Life After God. I sat reading on the floor of my brother’s living room in LA, while he slept in the back room. I was absorbed in that book and finished it in about an hour. Since then I have read All Families are Psychotic, Shampoo Planet, and parts of Microserfs and Generation X. In The Gum Thief Coupland writes in an unusual format, using diary entries, letters and a novel as the only form of interaction between characters with no actual dialogue. His story centers around Rodger and his coworker Bethany and their lives, past and present, as they work at Staples, the monster of an office superstore. Through their own and other’s written interactions Coupland explores themes of life and death, love and loneliness in relationships: lovers, mother and daughter, a divorced husband and wife, and of humanities pursuit of success, often accompanied by failure and disappointment. Coupland pinpoints some hard to admit realities that humans deal with. He writes “Your Joan of Arcs and Supermans don’t come around too often. Mostly the world is made up of people like me, plodding along. It’s what people do–plod plod plod. While it kills me to come to grips with the fact that I’m like everyone else, that pain is outweighed by the comfort I get from being a member of the human race” (Gum Thief 256). Everyone wants to be someone, but for the most part people aren’t Leonardo da Vinci and they don’t always end up creating light bulbs or penicillin. Coupland offers a hope that finds its basis in the fact that the experience of being human is a shared thing. No one goes through the pain of failure alone, since the same mistakes have been made before and will be made again in the future. In the first pages of this novel Coupland’s character Roger writes “At least if you’re bitter, you know that you’re like everybody else.” Poor people are bitter, rich people are bitter, everyone is miserable. This certainly carries some truth, and yet, I’m not sure how comforting it is to realize that everyone is sick. Roger’s ‘epiphany’ that “Having the same illness as everybody else truly is the definition of health” (23) does not make me jump for joy. The universality of humanity’s plight certainly brings some measure of comfort: we are not alone. Yet, I would say that our patterns of failure, and periodic feelings of hopelessness, are born out of the sin begun in Adam and Eve and passed down to every single fetus pushed into this world since then. Although our trouble is universal, it isn’t normal. While Coupland offers a visceral and honest account of life now, as it really is, he doesn’t know where to look for hope. It certainly can’t be found among the wreckage of the blind leading the blind, in a world where being sick is universal. Instead the hope must come from outside of this madness. In a review from Entertainment Weekly, Coupland is described as “Dark and cutting about our flourescent-lit times.” It continues, saying, “but there’s also a real underlayer of gratitude here, for the hand that can reach down and unite you in the darkness.” The hand reaching into the darkness is a lost concept in The Gum Thief, There is an obvious need for it, and a longing for an outside something that will repair the problems in the world. However, Coupland’s characters only seem to find solace in one another and the universal nature of the human experience.

I love Coupland’s work and this book is no less brilliant than his others that I’ve had the pleasure of reading so far. He has a magnificent talent for understanding and explaining to people what life is like now, a talent which has been undervalued in most current media. I appreciate the focus on something which is taken for granted by many artists and can offer a view of our life and times that may help us to re-evaluate and live better.

A Confederacy of Dunces

I finally got around to reading this book after it was recommended to me by my brother. I had read Neon Bible because it was shorter and I loved the way Toole wrote that novel and how he worked the end. Confederacy has a similar feeling and was everything I hoped it would be. Toole writes a comedic story about a sort of pitiful, foolish character called Ignatius. The story follows this corpulent, blundering man through different events and attempts to find employment and share his ‘infinite knowledge’ with what he perceives to be a desperate, decadent world that needs him to survive/progress. The main character’s name, Ignatius, also applies to my Torrey Honors cohort group. Interestingly enough as I read this text I was suprised and a little frightened by how much Ignatius Riley seems like a Torrey student. The Torrey Honors Institute is a great books program at Biola University that is, according to its mission statement, “designed to hone students’ critical thinking skills by exposing them to classical texts and using discussion as the primary mode of instruction.” I have been involved with this program since high school and have a strong affinity for their way of teaching. However, there is room for error here as everywhere. Sometimes Torrey students learn and learn and learn, and learn so much that they forget to do anything else, or they forget why they are learning, or they start to think they are better than everyone else which means they don’t have to associate with them. Toole’s Ignatius has his masters degree and is continually quoting Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy as he bemoans Fortuna’s cruel turning of her vicious wheel. He is smart, there is no doubt about that. However, he is also consistently mistreating and misunderstanding real people. Towards the end of the book the character’s mother says, “You learnt everything, Ignatius, except how to be a human being” (427). Although the intellectual capacity is there, Ignatius never makes the jump from head to heart. He has no love, except for himself, and he cannot connect with the real world. This is seen best in one of his conversations with the gay man who calls himself Dorian Greene. He says “I suspect that beneath your offensively and vulgarly effeminate facade there may be a soul of sorts. Have you read widely in Boethius?” The man has no idea what he is talking about and vaguely replies that he never reads newspapers. Ignatius is continually trying to “better his fellow man” when it is not obvious that they even need his help. a thirty-something man who still lives with his mother and thinks that he is the one with something to offer. Dear Torrey students please don’t forget why you are learning! connect your heads with your hearts and hands and live in the world. Do not let learning be all you do but as you learn, do. Let people teach you real life things and don’t be always behind a book. Remember reality and engage it.

Hipster Christianity

Yes, the book’s name is “Hipster Christianity”. No, you shouldn’t let that stop you from reading it. Surprisingly, carrying this hardcover, bright red volume around school with me has raised more eyebrows, brought more questioning remarks and sourced more offhand jokes than anything else I’ve read so far. even though this book was written by the managing editor of Biola Magazine, Brett McCracken, most of Biola’s students have never read it (although most seem to have heard of it!) People’s automatic reaction is, I think, much like mine when I first heard of this book and preformed expert avoidance maneuvers to NEVER read it. They are skeptical after hearing just the title of the book. “Hipster Christianity” seems like a joke, laughable as one girl said of this book. I will say it. I was wrong. I was expecting some sort of pithy, contemporary, relevant and watered down book that claimed to have revolutionary ideas about Christianity and how it was okay to be cool as a Christian. I was convinced I would be done with it in a few short days of reading in between classes. What I actually discovered once I began to read it was a very intelligent appeal to Christians that is contemporary and relevant and anything but watered down, which does contain good ideas about how it is okay to be cool as a Christian (I struggled through this book for a good three weeks of off and on reading). The reason my two descriptions sound so similar is because Brett Mccracken takes the time in this book to rehabilitate the definitions of words like “cool” and “relevant” to mean what they should have all along rather than “re-inventing the wheel” and “upsetting the apple cart”. He shows us what the terms used to define cultural acceptability mean and how they should be redeemed to retain eternal value.

This book is comprised of three parts. Part One: The History and Collision of Cool and Christianity; Part two: Hipster Christianity in Practice; and part three: Problems and Solutions. In Part One Mccraken goes into an in depth definition process of the term “hipster” which includes it history and origins, where it is now, and how it has been adopted by Christians. In the second part he looks at specific examples of the hipster movement in churches and Christian circles by fleshing out what hipsterdom looks like for Christians and what it has produced. In the third and final part of this book Mccracken breaks down why it is problematic for cool, as we know it, and the church to be in collusion and how we should be defining terms like cool and relevant. He also reminds his readers that Christianity is not a product that we are trying to sell and therefore does not require or even allow for a consumeristic approach.

One of the main points to take away from this book is that the church is founded upon lasting and eternal truth. The church is something that does not fluctuate according to the fashions and fads of the time. Mccracken observes a phenomenon in the church which has placed the church on the fringes of how we define ourselves and rather than shaping the culture, the church is being shaped by it. Not only that but it seems to be willingly throwing itself into the hands of the wrong potter. The church is being shaped by the society around it rather than by the God who is at the core of it.

God’s church is the point. Our individualistic society has successfully undermined this truth by infusing people with the idea that the most important person is yourself and that everything you consume and engage in should be for your own sake. This is easy to tell people because everyone is born with an intrinsic desire to be happy and the world says that you can become happy by doing what you want to do. The church cannot coexist with the selfish ideas that the individual based hipster culture propagates. In the problems and solution part of his book Mccrcken necessarily redefines cool not as a consumeristic term but as something that comes from the insides of a person. He writes “we shouldn’t obsess about fitting our image into the culturally acceptable or desirable ideal. Christianity’s appeal comes not from culture but from within–and the minute we start looking outside our own identity for affirmation about our relative relevance, we immediately begin to lose our cool” (246). Christianity is not something that is wishy-washy or changeable, its based on an everlasting and perfect God who always has and will exist. This means that the church is not compatible with conforming to the changes that go on around it in a fundamental way. That is why it gets weird when churches try to morph into something cool in order to appeal to people outside of itself. The attraction or coolness of Christianity does not come from whatever surface ornamentation we can add to it but from its intrinsic value as real honest-to-goodenss plain and simple truth from God himself. Since this faith is not based on the changeable it cannot be mixed with it, as Mccracken says trying to mix Christian and the world’s definition of cool doesn’t work “its ugly! Its like mixing oil and water” (199).

What all of this doesn’t mean is that Christians cannot have fun or enjoy good things like beautiful art for its own sake and delicious food with wine and friends. God created those things for our enjoyment because he really wants us to be happy in an eternal sense that is meant to include our physical faculties. We have been designed to love and appreciate what is good and beautiful because our God created it! What this does mean is that Christians should not look like the rest of the world. They should not be cynical, selfish, arrogant, transient and hedonistic. It is possible to enjoy good things while still living in a way that honors God and thereby brings us joy.

This is an excellent book that will take you some quality time to read and it is well worth it. I struggled a lot with the midpoint of this book because I was so depressed by it. I was reminded of Ecclesiastes where Solomon says that there is nothing new under the sun. It was begining to seem as though there was no reason to try and be original because everything has been tried and because maybe originality was even bad in and of itself! However, I kept reading and climbed out of that pit of despair into the conclusion of this book, which is hopeful and admonishes us to live good lives in God, enjoying good things with the wonder that God has gifted us with. I hope you will decide to read it!