Poet Steve Fellner on the Joys of Insignificance; Pat Strachan on When Not to Edit

Poet Kate Greenstreet blogs at Every Other Day, where she’s compiled an archive of over 100 interviews with contemporary poets about the road to first-book publication and how it changed their life (or not). I especially treasure these tongue-in-cheek words of wisdom from Steve Fellner, whose book Blind Date with Cavafy won the 2006 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize:

I had been sending my book out for many years, and I was crazy determined to get a book of poetry published. I got an MFA and PhD in creative writing. During all this time, I was sending out various incarnations of the book. No one wanted it. It was (and still is) an uneven book, but there were a lot of worse books out there, and I liked sending things out in the mail. Even when you get a rejection in the mail (and I got a zillion of them), it’s always fun to have opened the envelope. It’s like watching the Oscars. Even if the actor you love loses, you at least enjoy the spectacle.

I knew my book would never be accepted by a huge press, but I was completely comfortable with the idea of being insignificant. Still am. The world is nice that way: no one holds insignificance against you….

It’s hard to get readings when your book comes from a small press and you’re an insignificant writer. Again I don’t mean insignificant as pejorative. Most of us are. There’s comfort in being insignificant: you’re free to do what you want; no one is watching you. In fact, I want to write an essay, a meditation about the power and positive consequences of being insignificant. There’s so much pressure to matter in the literary community. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be significant writers who win major awards, but aren’t there any other alternatives to aim for?

I have a friend who is a significant poet and he’s working on his second book. Occasionally, I’ve watched him work, and he is constantly looking at his first book when he writes poems for his second. He wants to make sure his new poems are as good as the first. If I were a significant poet, I would engage in this behavior. But I don’t, because no one is watching me, and as a result, I don’t need to watch myself as closely. To draw an analogy, if you are a beautiful person, the world expects you to leave your house looking attractive, well-groomed. If you’re a person like myself, no one cares if you leave the house wearing dirty socks or if you have a stain on your shirt. You’re free. Significant poets and beautiful people shoulder a great deal more responsibility than the rest of us.

Fellner also encourages authors not to lose confidence in their own vision, with one exception:

I also find it sad that I read so many young poets are constantly changing their manuscripts after not placing in a contest. When everything is so oversaturated and so many contests are run by committee, taking your losing to mean anything is dangerous. Having been a screener for contests, I can say that I’ve seen so many manuscripts look overlabored. You need to let go of your manuscript. There’s only so much you can do.

Unless you have a bad title. Here’s an embarrassing confession: for years I sent out my manuscript and never placed. I called it the dumbest, dullest things! Aesthetics of the Damned was one. Hoaxes and Scams was another.

As soon as I called it Blind Date with Cavafy (all the poems were basically the same ones that appeared under the other titles), I started being named a finalist. And I won pretty quick. After many, many years of bad titles. This is my theory: most screeners, most poets are insecure in making aesthetic judgments. The mention of Cavafy made it clear that I knew something about poetry. The humor of the phrase “blind date” juxtaposed with the literary allusion signaled I was a poet. I am very embarrassed to admit this, but I think it’s true. There’s so much out there, and most people are tentative, they need clues that they’re giving the right book the award. That isn’t to say this is why I won, but I did notice that I started making it past the initial rounds much more often. Choose a smart title. Most titles suck. They’re boring and pretentious and vague.

Read the whole interview and a sample poem from Fellner’s book here. Find out about Marsh Hawk Press’s contest and other new titles, and sign up for their e-newsletter, here.

On a related note, I was heartened by these comments from legendary editor Pat Strachan (formerly of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, now at Little, Brown) in an interview in the latest Poets & Writers:

Q: Do you have any sort of guiding philosophy that shapes your editing?

A: Not a guiding philosophy, but I do think it’s extremely dangerous to mess with a novel structurally, because it’s close to poetry in that it’s almost pure consciousness. The way it comes forth from the writer is the way it should probably be, even though maybe the beginning is unclear or not enough action happens in this part or whatever. With a literary book—I hate to say literary, but a piece of serious fiction that isn’t genre fiction—I try to stay away from structural suggestions because they can be very damaging. One big change can make the whole house of cards fall apart. So with literary fiction I really try to stick to line editing. I also think the less done the better, and I consider myself a fairly heavy editor. But I do as little as I can do, because a work of serious literature is a very fragile construction.

I personally have something of a schizophrenic relationship to editing. As the editor of the Winning Writers newsletter, one of my tasks is selecting subscriber poems to feature in our “critique corner” with revision suggestions and possible markets for their work. However, as a writer, I have always belonged to the Howard Roark school of aesthetics: I’d rather blow up the building than incorporate someone else’s changes to the blueprint.

This rugged individualism is harder for me to maintain now that I’ve shifted from poetry to the novel. I can see all sides of a poem, whereas a novel is too big for me to get my bearings. It’s the forest rather than the treehouse. So I’ve begun seeking out advice, both about my work-in-progress and about the craft of fiction generally, which often leaves me more confused than before. How do I know whether someone else is right? Sure, she’s a reader, but is she my reader? Would she naturally pick up the type of book I’m writing, if we didn’t know each other? On the other hand, if I’m more selective about whom I ask, aren’t I predetermining the result by seeking out people whose answers I can predict?

And so once again I find myself between the Scylla of legalism (must get the RIGHT ANSWER!) and the Charybdis of radical doubt.

Poem: “The Common Question”

My poem “The Common Question” appears in Issue #11 of The Other Journal, an online review of Christianity and culture. The Other Journal features scholarly essays, creative writing, and artwork; themes change with each issue. Currently they are accepting submissions on Education.

Also worth noting in Issue #11, “The Atheism Issue,” are Randal Rauser’s essay on the proper roles of apologetics and personal testimony in making Christianity seem plausible to a skeptical audience, and Somanjana C. Bhattacharya’s article on how activists are pressuring Craigslist to stop running “erotic services” ads that sell trafficked women and children.

The Common Question 

    “What does Charlie want?” – John Greenleaf Whittier

Oh, the unfairness of being myself.

There ought to be a rule.

So many days as a little boy, so many days as a deer, a centipede, a Masai warrior, a wealthy old lady with too many rings, on an ocean liner.

And as a blacksnake, a woman with cold red hands hanging laundry, a boy picking dried corn out of the dust, a thirsty fox.

Myself even, or especially, on a good day: unfair, unexplained.

I want to be God, only without His mailbag.

Just an instant to see the plan from His mountain.

Then I could lie down satisfied in my reasons.

Because this world I am in is not the world.

And never will be more than my racing-away circumstance, my rain barrel.

Filled by the weather that happens here and leaking into the soil where the man of the house set it down.

George Herbert: “The Flower”

Today in the Anglican calendar we commemorate George Herbert, one of the great 17th-century metaphysical poets (1593-1633). According to the thumbnail bio at The Daily Office, he spent most of his short life as an humble and well-loved parish priest in a village near Salisbury, England. His reputation rests on a single book of poems, The Temple, that was published after his death by his friend Nicholas Ferrar. Below, his poem “The Flower” testifies to the dizzying emotional highs and lows of the spiritual life and how God’s constancy alone brings peace. I find it comforting that even a great Christian poet like Herbert had the same struggle for equanimity as the rest of us.

The Flower

    How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring; 
    To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasures bring.
        Grief melts away 
        Like snow in May, 
    As if there were no such cold thing.

    Who would have thought my shrivled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone 
    Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
        Where they together 
        All the hard weather 
    Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

    These are thy wonders, Lord of power,
Killing and quickening, bringing down to hell 
    And up to heaven in an hour;
Making a chiming of a passing-bell. 
        We say amiss, 
        This or that is: 
    Thy word is all, if we could spell.

    O that I once past changing were,
Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!
    Many a spring I shoot up fair,
Offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither: 
        Nor doth my flower 
        Want a spring-shower, 
    My sins and I joining together:

    But while I grow in a straight line,
Still upwards bent, as if heaven were mine own, 
    Thy anger comes, and I decline:
What frost to that? what pole is not the zone, 
        Where all things burn, 
        When thou dost turn, 
    And the least frown of thine is shown? 

    And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
    I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing. O my only light, 
        It cannot be 
        That I am he 
    On whom thy tempests fell all night.

    These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide: 
    Which when we once can find and prove,
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide. 
        Who would be more, 
        Swelling through store, 
    Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.

Charles Wesley: “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown”

An ongoing paradox of my spiritual life is the interplay of willpower and surrender. I am flung back most heavily upon God when I reach the limits of my moral or intellectual abilities to solve some problem. At such times I must learn to quit thrashing around and trust that God will reveal the way forward in His own good time. I have an aversion to inactivity, which always feels to me like edging close to the precipice of depression. Yet, as anyone who’s practiced meditation can testify, rest is not the same as passivity or inaction. Stillness is hard work! That’s where the willpower comes in. Not to batter my way bull-headedly through my problems on my own, but to cling with all my might to the promises of God, and refuse to be distracted by subtle doubts and speculations. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2)

Richard F. Lovelace recently sent me a link to this classic hymn by Charles Wesley, a presentation of the gospel through the metaphor of Jacob wrestling with the angel, which to me expresses the perfect balance between God’s action and ours:

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell Thee who I am,
My misery and sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal
Thy new, unutterable Name?
Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell;
To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

’Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue
Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
Though every sinew be unstrung,
Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling I will not let Thee go
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

What though my shrinking flesh complain,
And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak, then I am strong
And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God-man prevail.

My strength is gone, my nature dies,
I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise;
I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face,
I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

I know Thee, Savior, who Thou art.
Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart.
But stay and love me to the end,
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The Sun of righteousness on me
Hath rose with healing in His wings,
Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee
My soul its life and succor brings;
My help is all laid up above;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness I
On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move:
Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Sing along at CyberHymnal!

Painted Prayerbook Sketches Journey of Faith

Artist Jan Richardson, whom I discovered through the Image Journal e-newsletter, blogs about faith and the creative process at The Painted Prayerbook. Her meditations on Bible readings from the Episcopal lectionary are accompanied by simple yet rich abstract paintings and collages that express her intuitive response to the text.

Recent posts that resonated with me include The Red Circle, about setting aside the ego in order to discern when your work is complete; and Transfiguration Sunday: Mum’s the Word (Maybe), where Richardson asks how the artist knows when, and in what medium, to tell a story that is important to her:

…In the absence of being able to build physical dwellings, the disciples would have wanted, I suspect, to construct a story about their mountaintop experience: a container of words, at least, that would help them hold and convey what had happened to Jesus and to themselves. Perhaps anticipating this, Jesus enjoins them not to tell what has transpired until after his resurrection. It’s one of the only times that Jesus, a man of action, urges them to wait. This is not for revealing, he tells them; this is for you to carry within you, to ponder, to conceal until the fullness of time.

Perhaps like Mary with the child in her womb.

It was important that Peter, James, and John have that mountaintop experience. It wasn’t important for them to tell the story, not yet; that wasn’t the point of their outing. But the experience would work on them, shape them, and continue to transform and perhaps even transfigure them. The knowledge they carried would alter every future encounter: with Jesus, with their fellow disciples, and with those to whom they ministered.

The story of the Transfiguration calls me to remember that there are times for revealing and times for concealing. There are seasons to tell our story. And there are seasons to hold the story within us so that we can absorb it, reflect on it, and let it (and us) grow into a form that will foster the telling.

As a writer and artist and preacher, I don’t claim to handle that line between revelation and concealment with consistent finesse. But I’ve figured out that one of the core questions in discerning whether to share an experience is this: Whom does the story serve? Does my telling it help you reflect on your life and how God is stirring within it? Or does it merely provide information I think you should know about my own life because I hope it will impress you and induce a response that serves me more than it does you?

How do you discern what and where to share about your life? Whom do your stories serve? Do you have a story of transformation that could help someone else? Is it time to tell it? Is there work that God still needs to do within you so that you can tell the story in the way it needs telling? Whether revealing or concealing, how are you continuing to become a dwelling for the presence of the God who transforms us?

New Poems from “Conway”: “City Limits” and “Streets”

My prison pen pal “Conway” returns with new poems that move deeper into surreal territory. I like how he’s moved away from his reliance on Gothic-horror imagery to more subtle and original metaphors. I sent him poems by John MiltonCarl Phillips and Ariana Reines this month, so look for even stranger poems in the weeks ahead.

We’re currently seeking a publisher for a chapbook of his work. If you have a lead, please comment below. Meanwhile, some selections:

City Limits

Exploring her every nook & cranny:
This neon-lit City of Angels
carefully, I pried open
a glass eyed time-piece
sand slithering arteries of Grit
became avenues of dead stars
mixed among flotsam and jetsam once again

A globe-lit recalcitrant flame
Lamp-light of our dark-voided space
sucked into a whirlpool
siphoned through
a pocket-knife sliced Garden hose
Fuel, for a stolen car’s joyride
So lonely for comfort; Yet so alive…



Delay this intrepid LIFE (left behind)
hand-washed away, by years of silent cheers
watch as sunsets-strip away the pain
while your splendor is too keen to withdraw
abstain or restrain, streets of my youth…

The streets I grew-up on, may flee
But, they will never leave me
I know those black veins, pumping red
trees pulsing green
congested traffic trailing lights through the foothills…

They freely flow, like: A mother’s breast
request of issue hushed
producing life, as the sore cries out for more
Time, to ingest floppy kisses, of silt & smog
Tastes that clog this breast with memory…

“too brilliant” in the scheme of things; So I thought!
Yet, looking back now, it seems I’d caught
a hint or glimpse, of troubles to astonish
as shocking as this may sound
I chose to stick around; I could have Run…

Support Soulforce “Right to Marry” Campaign in New York

Roses fade and chocolates disappear (especially around my house), but certain Valentine’s Day gifts can make a lasting impact. This month, young adult volunteers from the progressive interfaith organization Soulforce will return to New York State to ask business and community leaders to support full marriage equality for same-sex couples. Last year, Gov. Eliot Spitzer introduced a gay-marriage bill that was passed by the state Assembly in June, but the Republican-controlled Senate did not let it come to a vote. To donate to the Soulforce Right to Marry Campaign, click here.

Also, because we love Hugo and chinchillas are cute, click here.

Carl Phillips: “Parable”

There was a saint once,
he had but to ring across
water a small bell, all

manner of fish
rose, as answer, he was
that holy, persuasive,

both, or the fish
perhaps merely
hungry, their bodies

a-shimmer with
that hope especially that
hunger brings, whatever

the reason, the fish
coming unassigned, in
schools coming

into the saint’s hand and,
instead of getting,
becoming food.

I have thought, since, of
your body — as I first came
to know it, how it still

can be, with mine,
sometimes. I think on
that immediate and last gesture

of the fish leaving water
for flesh, for guarantee
they will die, and I cannot

rest on what to call it.
Not generosity, or
a blindness, trust, brute

stupidity. Not the soul
distracted from its natural
prayer, which is attention,

for in the story they are
paying attention. They
lose themselves eyes open.

Read more poems from Phillips’ collection Pastoral (Graywolf Press, 2002) here.

PEN Prison Writing Contest Winners Posted

The PEN American Center, a writers’ association that defends freedom of expression and other human rights, offers an extensive Prison Writing Program that mentors incarcerated writers and promotes their work through readings and publications. The winners of their 2007 writing contest are currently online.

I was especially impressed with J.E. Wantz’s first-prize essay “Feeling(s) Cheated“. Part memoir, part political analysis, this piece describes the author’s treatment with the antidepressant Paxil. Wantz asks tough questions about what the individual, and society, gains or loses by medicating the symptoms rather than addressing the causes of sorrow, anger, and shame. When does medication become a crutch, as well a cheaper alternative to rehabilitating the prisoner? What is the true self, and at what cost are we willing to experience its emotional highs and lows?

Wantz recounts a traumatic encounter with a volunteer preacher who denounced antidepressants as Satanic. In this man’s view, mental illness was a demonic possession that would be cured if one’s faith was strong enough. This inaccurate, shaming message cut the author off from a sense of God’s forgiveness, though the challenge also motivated him to wonder what emotions he was so afraid of experiencing without the drug.

When I was a teenager I wasn’t prepared to deal with the emotional quagmire that lay before me like a quicksand minefield. I was too tied up in other people’s views of who I should be. Other people condemned me because I was not like the saints of old. They wanted to shape me into their idea of what a good moral person should be. Their inability to consider that maybe they didn’t know what they were talking about never entered their minds. They were right; everyone at church, at youth group, and at summer camp thought the same way. Everyone in my world, limited as it was, told me who I was supposed to be. How could they all be wrong? My mind and emotions were at war. A war I could not win without help. In the psychiatric field I believe that this is called a cognitive dissonance. Ten years later I was introduced to Paxil. The drug helped solve none of the key issues, it merely put them on hold.

But did I need the drug for ten years? Or would a much shorter time period have been appropriate, maybe the original six-month trial period? A drug that was meant to be a stop-gap emergency measure had become a lifestyle. It had become a habit. Did the Band-Aid become the putative cure? My body consumed the substance daily, building a dependency.

An October 2005 article in The Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Lincoln’s Great Depression” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (adapted from his book entitled Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness), examined and found a man who was tormented by melancholy, to the edge of suicide. The author’s argument is that Lincoln’s struggle from within his depression focused his statecraft in ways that were essential to addressing the specific challenges of both the war of secession and the contentious debate on slavery. But, as the author explains, all of that arose from Lincoln’s approach to living with his depression. He did attempt medical remedies that we can now conclusively say did not help, and in fact may have harmed. He tried tablets of mercury, cocaine, and infusions designed to induce violent diarrhea, to name a few. Today we see all these remedies as “snake oil” in the battle against depression, but the medical establishment of the day trumpeted their efficacy, much as the current TV commercials do for every conceivable malady anyone with disposable income could have.

Lincoln worked with his depression and is now, inarguably, considered one of this nation’s best presidents. He didn’t overcome, rise above, or surmount his melancholy. He never gave a glowing testimonial about how he found God or a drug that miraculously saved him from the clutches of the demon depression. No, he had a different approach. The author tells us that Lincoln requested a copy of the eulogy given at the funeral of his 11-year old son, Willie. Shenk says, “He [Lincoln] would hold to this idea as if it were a life raft.” The idea is that “ . . . with confidence in God, ‘our sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing’ it is good for us that we have been afflicted.” His depression was not a demon to exorcise; it was a fact of everyday life necessary to live with.

What explains the judgmental attitude that some Christians have toward depression, as described in Wantz’s story and this RELEVANT Magazine article by Laura Bowers? In a culture that is hyper-sensitive to any signs of Christian hypocrisy, where evangelism is met with suspicion or indifference, I for one certainly feel pressure to pretend that my faith makes me happy and functional. Turning to drugs looks like an admission that Jesus isn’t enough. If the product doesn’t work for me, why would anyone else buy it? I’m not just the president of the Hair Club for Men, I’m also a satisfied customer! 

The flip side of this judgment toward others is shame about one’s self–the exact thing the gospel is supposed to free us from, which should be a sign that this attitude is un-Christian. When I am depressed, I am afraid that it undermines my credibility and makes me unlovable. Depression reveals how much power I’m still giving other people to determine my self-worth, when I “should” be getting that from God’s unmerited love. I put “should” in scare-quotes because these days, that expectation feels like just another demand to which I can’t measure up, i.e. another source of depression.

How do I get from here to there? Maybe I don’t. Yesterday I prayed, “God, thank you for making me a melancholy person, because that is how you made me, and so you must have a reason that is for my good as well as the good of others.”

Do I feel better today? Do I have to?

Jesus Won’t Make Me a Supermodel

As research for my novel (what a good excuse that is), I’ve begun watching the fashion-industry reality shows on Bravo. I’m sporadically following “Project Runway”, since I haven’t warmed up to this year’s contestants, but my real addiction is the ultimate bitch-fest “Make Me a Supermodel“. I could do without the manufactured interpersonal drama, especially this week when they all ganged up on Katy because she was eating carbs. Honestly, I’m just interested in the clothes. (I was pulling for Holly a couple of weeks ago because her Christian principles made her uncomfortable doing a soft-core photo shoot, but since then, she’s been just as catty as everyone else.) 

For maximum cognitive dissonance, I’m currently reading Gregory Boyd’s Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God. Boyd argues that Christians should be characterized by nonjudgmental love, rather than by willingness to make moral pronouncements. Only an omniscient God can truly understand all the factors that go into another’s virtuous or sinful behavior, and only God can pass judgment unbiased by ego-defenses. Since the Fall, we compulsively divide people into “good” and “evil”, but these judgments are always in reference to our own psychological needs, not the truth. We set ourselves up at the center of creation, where only God belongs.

Boyd recognizes that there is a need to hold sinners accountable, for their own good and that of the community. However, he says that the church should not be in the business of listing categories of sinners who are excluded from fellowship (he singles out Christians’ mistreatment of homosexuals here). Instead, accountability should occur within loving personal relationships, such as a small group within a church, where the message and remedy can be tailored to the individual’s needs. 

So what does this have to do with Katy and Holly? “Supermodel” may be an extreme example, but the everyday business of life is all about judging. We choose one book over another, one type of car, one career, one job applicant, one church. And when we put our own creations out there, be they sermons or shoes, we know that someone else will be approving, rejecting, or misunderstanding the value of what we do. How do you function, how do you stay motivated to strive for excellence, unless you judge? But how do you love yourself and others unless you suspend judgment?

It’s awful that Katy’s housemates make fun of her for snacking. On the other hand, leaving aside the unrealistic weight standards of today’s fashion industry, if she wants to be beautiful, she needs to stay in shape. “Fine,” a serious spiritually minded person might say, “this just proves that the fashion industry is stupid and evil.” Well, let me tell you, the poetry world is no less competitive, it’s just that the stakes are so low that the whole thing seems kind of cute, unless you’re a poet. Should I stop writing poetry because in order to improve, I must evaluate my own work harshly and compare it to the greats?

I like Boyd’s preference for interpersonal, individualized accountability. As he observes, moral abstractions distance us from one another, subverting the primary command to love. However, the church also has a social role, which is complicated in a fallen world. Must accountability be confined to the private, individual level so that we can live wholly in grace? Where is the dimension of social justice? As an institution in the world, the church cannot be neutral between good and evil. That would be like hoarding grace for ourselves, preserving the nonjudgmental purity of our interactions within the church at the expense of speaking up for those outside.

Moreover, because sin still exists, we need to have some categories of “sin” and “not-sin” or else accountability has nowhere to begin. This is where Boyd’s approach to homosexuality, though an improvement over the evangelical mainstream, still falls short.

It’s magnanimous of him to say that we should extend fellowship without discrimination to gays and transvestites along with obese people, greedy people, racists, prostitutes and murderers. (Just as an aside, why are “prostitutes” always named as the sinners in that transaction rather than the pimps and johns who enslave them?) But if he’d added blacks to that list, we’d all be offended, even though it’s equally true that churches should avoid racial discrimination.

There’s a crucial difference between flaws that we graciously overlook and neutral characteristics. The former, we separate out from the person in order to maintain our relationship with him. The latter is part of who he is. In practice, a solitary gay person may not notice the difference, but it’ll soon become clear that his spouse and adopted children aren’t accepted on equal terms as the other men’s wives and families. Being gay is not something you only do in private. (Then again, in this great land of reality television, what is?)

That’s why I’m rooting for Ronnie.