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Diving into Quiet

George Thomas Open book test. Get the point? CC BY-NC-ND 2.0There are different types of page turners. On the one hand, there’s The Goldfinch, the latest novel by Donna Tartt, brightly lit with imagery, possessing a smorgasbord of eccentric characters and a plotline that feels like switchbacks on a steep trail. Reading this book feels a lot like surfing, like riding big waves of information but never penetrating the onslaught of new characters, new settings. There’s the intimate existence that the main character, Theo initially shares with his mother, followed by vivid bouts of nostalgia for it, the subterranean, shrouded feel of the antiques workshop where Theo eventually finds refuge, the bright, sparse, and desolate conditions of his father’s Las Vegas house, the padded, snobby wash to his time living with the affluent Barbour family… It’s colorful; it’s rich with variety.

Then there are books that grab and hook you with one singular, powerful theme, like the book Quiet, written by Susan Cain. Quiet functions as a counterargument to the “extrovert ideal”: the notion, much espoused by American culture, that we should all aspire to be the loudest and the most charismatic in the room, because extroversion is the cornerstone of success. Cain points out both the value and the prevalence of introversion as a crucial personality trait with a large role to play within the sea of humanity. I find myself sucked into Quiet for an entirely opposite set of reasons than The Goldfinch — instead of hopping from one colorful, seemingly incoherent batch of characters/locales/plot twists to the next, I’m digging deep, finding my niche in precisely what Quiet has to say. Here are a few of Quiet’s insights that linger with me:

  • To heck with the widespread, if subconscious, perception that if you talk more, you’re smarter. I can’t tell you how many times I default to the role of listener while feeling slightly apprehensive that others might perceive me as dull. Now I know that I have something in common with at least 1/3 of the population who are similarly inclined.
  •  The difference between shy and non-shy introverts is one that fascinates me, and seems important. As Cain defines it, shyness is associated with varying degrees of social anxiety, whereas introversion is a more fundamental state, a preferred mode of operating in the world, an orientation, so to speak. A non-shy person who is in an introvert simply prefers listening, observing. This distinction is interesting, I think, because it touches on one reoccurring aspect of living in a state of introversion: the contrast between the introvert’s perception of herself, versus other people’s external perceptions of her.
  • Cain introduces the idea that cultural differences can account for degrees of introversion and extroversion. Not surprisingly, Americans on the whole are more extroverted than other nations, so even an American introvert might be more extroverted than, say, a Chinese extrovert? Maybe. It’s admittedly a stereotype but one that contains a lot of truth. I love idea that there are entire swaths of the American population who might feel more at home in a society halfway across the globe, especially one that is decidedly non-Western in its values and cultural norms.
  • Speaking of, Cain makes a fascinating, concrete link between American cultural norms and “the extrovert ideal” in pointing out that we are a nation of immigrants. America’s history of immigration, with the verve and risk-taking involved in exporting one’s physical, emotional, and cultural lives to a foreign society, implies that a higher percentage of the country’s population are extroverts. If we don’t literally inherit the temperament of an extrovert, we are left with an immigrant culture that reinforces extroversion.
  • Cain also makes the point that the Christian evangelical movement is one predicated on extroversion. Having briefly joined a Christian evangelical group when I was in college, I can testify to both the allure and the discomfort of a charismatic community in which the faith of the most outgoing members is prominently featured, compelling the community’s quieter members to develop a louder voice. In contrast, Catholicism is arguably a more contemplative, subdued, and ritualistic expression of Christian values, perhaps more suitable to introverts? It’s an interesting question, whether we gravitate toward religious traditions at least in part because they match our God-given temperaments…. I can think of many people who thrive on the bold, ebullient, assertive style of the evangelical church, but when I think about the reasons why I now worship in a Catholic setting, I have to admit that the introvert in me is more inspired and comfortable there.
  • Speaking of institutions that lean heavily toward extroversion, American classrooms: As a teacher, I can certainly attest to the fact that the most “progressive” pedagogical methods tend to uphold the “extrovert ideal” in that they require small group work and discussion. But Cain writes that contrary to popular belief, creative work is best completed alone. As teachers it’s tempting to gauge the success of an activity according to how it engaged the loudest, most assertive, most restless (and potentially disruptive) students in the room, versus the quiet observers. We forget how much creativity is possible in a subdued classroom that emphasizes independent learning and with that, quiet.

These are just some of the insights to be found in Quiet. A reoccurring reward of this read — for introverts, at least — is discovering and rediscovering yourself in its pages. I found myself feeling affirmed by the fact that being an introvert accounts for an entire bundle of familiar traits — e.g., preferring friendly social settings versus competitive ones, a strong conscience and a tendency toward guilt, a high sensitivity to one’s environment coupled with a tendency to feel overstimulated in large groups, a tendency toward anxiety, a tendency to emotionally withdraw from conflict, and a “cerebral nature.” This is a non-fiction work imbued with a lot of feeling, and I encourage fellow readers to dive on in, headfirst.

Mark Twain, Mark 8:35

United Nations Photo Operation Lifeline Helps Displaced People in Southern Sudan CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My friend Heidi, who worked as a nurse in South Sudan and kept a blog about her time there, once wrote about how the Sudanese are a refreshing people to be around — they take it as a matter of fact that life is full of hardships, rather than reacting with a sense of personal insult, as is the norm in America. In a culture seemingly obsessed with cultivating the most convenient, hassle free lifestyle, we Americans seem to only wake up to the natural order of things when the real s#%* hits the fan.

This past weekend I saw The Good Lie, a true story featuring actors from South Sudan, Reese Witherspoon, and Corey Stoll. The contrast between American privilege and the Sudanese values of gratitude and compassion, as well as the struggle to make meaning from suffering, are two themes that resonate throughout. Despite a few convenient, even pat plot twists, the story of the lost boys is truly profound, and profoundly Christian. To the extent that their stories are resolved, each member of the group must come to terms with what they have suffered, what their suffering has cost them, and what they can take forward. Here is a brief summary of the boys’ story, as it is captured in the film:

Ethnic/religious conflict suddenly orphans five young boys and one girl, forcing them to walk hundreds of miles across the desert. Four of the original seven find refuge in Kenya only after being turned away in Ethiopia. The violence they are running from casts a long shadow — there is a harrowing scene in which, after joining up with a long line of fellow refugees, the group’s “chief” finds a bullet near a river. He makes the split decision to cross the river rather than follow its path, even though the children are parched and can’t swim. As one boy panics, running toward the sound of gunfire, the rest tread bravely along a makeshift rope, past floating corpses. The chief finally allows the group to take a rest, but of course the soldiers are close behind. This is when the chief tells “the good lie,” a pivotal point at the center of the unfolding drama.

The boys and their sister grow into young adults in the refugee camp, waiting over ten years to get out. You get the sense of what a miserable, stagnant, and depressing place a refugee camp is, despite being a safe haven. At last, the group finds their names on the list of the American-bound, greeted by Reese Witherspoon’s blunt, brash character, Carrie at the Kansas City Missouri airport. As she works her local connections to find the men jobs and a chirpy Midwestern mom helps them set up house, they prove to be comically mismatched to America’s tech-heavy, commerce-driven society. The men are charming with their formal, chivalrous, meticulous ways — reminding their American counterparts that the rest of the world is large and far less insular.

For example, Jeremiah’s own experience of hunger has trained him to live by his convictions, and the Bible — he quits his job at a grocery store when caught giving old food away rather than throwing it in the dumpster. Mamere works two jobs while studying to be a doctor, exuding earnestness and thankfulness — it’s during his literature class on Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that he demonstrates his intimate understanding of “good lies,” in which a lie is produced to provide protection for others, and is therefore justified. The youngest brother, Paul, is the only one who openly grapples with being a guest of the United States, admitting to feeling belittled by a people unacquainted with the suffering he narrowly escaped. He gets depressed and smokes pot, until a confrontation with his brothers provides a catharsis of sorts, and things presumably get better. The film ends with one more “good lie,” connected to the first.

I felt very privileged watching The Good Lie. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and the casting directors — USA Today states that the Sudanese were played by actors “with ties to Sudan, a couple having been child soldiers” — that the refugees were not sentimentalized or aggrandized because of the suffering they endured. Viewing their work is a humbling and moving experience that can’t help but leave you wondering…would I tell “a good lie”? And then, close behind, the Gospel of Mark, affirming that the “lost boys of Sudan” are indeed, found:

“For who whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”


Scene and Heard: Midrashing Saint Paul at Silk Road Rising

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 7.43.39 AMMidrash: a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.

In November, I had the opportunity to see Paulus, a world premiere by Chicago’s Silk Road Rising theatre. The play explores the last few years of Saint Paul’s life, as well as the historic drama between ancient Jews, Romans and the earliest Christians. Written in Hebrew by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, translated into English by Hillel Halkin, and directed by Jimmy McDermott, Paulus embodies what Silk Road Rising is all about: promoting intercultural and interfaith understanding.

The company was founded by playwright Jamil Khoury and arts innovator Malik Gillani as a creative response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, an effort to counter anti-Muslim sentiment with authentic, critical dialogue through theatre. Their project soon expanded to feature perspectives and playwrights across the historic Silk Road, from Japan to Italy. Now over a decade old, the company occupies the basement of The Historic Chicago Temple Building, a neo-Gothic skyscraper housing a Methodist congregation over 175 years old.

The playwright, Motti Lerner, identifies as both atheist and Jewish. He became interested in the Christian figure of Saint Paul because of Paul’s passionate belief in universalism, the belief that a shared faith in God can unite disparate cultures. In an interview with Jamil Khoury, Lerner explains that Paul’s concept of universalism has a unique degree of credibility in a place like the Middle East, where tribalism and nationalism have caused such widespread devastation. With this as a starting point, the play digs deep into related theological ideas, at once cerebral and politically charged. The dialogue almost moves like a debate, immersing the audience in first century questions that feel overwhelmingly familiar.

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The Historic Chicago Temple Building

Set on a thrust stage sparsely furnished with wooden planks, ramps and coarse brown fabric, Act I opens with Paulus’s capture by the Romans, immediately flashing back to his final trip to Judea. Paulus, by Daniel Cantor, is scrutinized from all sides. His bold, idealistic expansion of Jesus’s more literal message, his virtues and excesses as a religious zealot, the implications of his beliefs on the religious establishment — all of these are fundamental, unresolved questions that in some way or another, we grapple with in the 21st century. In many ways, the drama of early Christianity resembles the modern drama of the Middle East, or at least it is shaped by similar forces: colliding religions, histories, and world views, cultural richness tempered by violent power struggles.

Act II opens with a more emotionally accessible scene: we witness the alluring effect of Paulus’s message on Drusilla, the Jewish wife of a Roman procurator, Felix. Designer Dan Stratton uses bright, clear lighting and a piece of teal, backlit fabric to suggest the calm, sunlit beauty of the Mediterranean, a welcome respite from the chaos depicted in Act I, both inside Paulus’s mind and between religious factions. Drusilla greets Paulus by promenading down a ramp in heels and noble attire, curtseying reverently, inviting him to dinner somewhat seductively. At this point, Felix stumbles drunkenly onstage, demanding Paulus’s execution, attributing the deterioration of his marriage to Paulus’s teachings, raving about his wife’s disobedient, disinterested behavior as she listens silently downstage. Drusilla finally intervenes when Felix lunges toward Paulus as if to kill him, justifying her actions in conciliatory terms, saying that it was Paulus who validated their marriage — a mixed union between Roman and Jew — by preaching that religion transcends tribe. She then picks up the theological debate, confronting the Pharisee Hananiah about the rigidity of Jewish marital laws.

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Drusilla’s moving defense of universalism has the adamant, personal tone of many modern-day religious debates. It is one of many moments where the playwright suggests his admiration for Saint Paul, suggesting the virtues of Paul’s expansive, progressive religious view. In the same interview, Lerner states that Paul’s spirituality is eye-opening for Jewish audiences “not only because he was born Jewish and died Jewish, but because his ideas present an important theological and existential option which is as valid today as it as in the first century.” He gives the example of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might benefit from Paul’s radically open, pluralistic stance.

For Christian audiences, the story of Paul is less revelatory. His emphasis on heartfelt faith over adherence to specific commandments is built into Christianity, as is a secondary cast of corrupt Pharisees. However, the play also challenges this perspective, taking a scalpel to the oft-repeated, bluntly shaped narrative of the Temple Police and illuminating the humanness of their dilemma. Dramatizing a familiar story shows how Paulus’s preachings posed a tangible threat to the survival of Judaism, and how the Pharisees simply fulfilled the expectations of any religious establishment, fearful of change, trying to survive.

The fear of the Pharisees is made palpable by the character Hananiah, a former ally of Paulus, whose slow-building panic is skillfully depicted by actor Bill McGough. At first, he is exhausted by Paulus’s restless ways, wearily reprimanding him, saying that he loves him like a brother, much to his own annoyance. When Paulus is tried before the Pharisees — actors shrouded in cloth on either side of the stage, beating drums and sighing into microphones to suggest the roar of the crowd — Paulus manages to win, perhaps with his old friend’s help. But Paulus’s relentless preaching reveals the strength of his will, leading Hananiah to rebut him in an increasingly shrill, panicky voice: “But what will happen to our people without the commandments?” In the end, it is Hananiah who procures his arrest, wincing and shielding his eyes when Paulus’s Jewish servant Trophimos becomes collateral damage.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 2.31.45 PMThen there is the battle within Paulus himself. His unresolved questions are explored through conversations with the resurrected Jesus and an imaginary Nero, the Roman emperor. Jesus is played by Torrey Hanson as a concerned, restrained observer who comes and goes at pivotal moments. He mostly chastises Paulus for devaluing the Jewish commandments in his impatience to spread the gospel, countering Paulus’s zeal with cool, reasoned theological arguments. It catches your attention, watching Jesus pause and witness the liberalization of his own message, and on a different note, you wonder why he is wearing sunglasses — do the sunglasses cast Paulus out of his field of vision, or are they meant to more generally assert Jesus’s elevated, divine status? Meanwhile, Glenn Stanton as Nero wanders blithely in and out of Paulus’s head at vulnerable moments, strumming a ukelele and singing catchy, ironic tunes like “it’s no easy job to be God.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 8.21.54 AMAs a piece of theatre, I found Paulus to be somewhat stilted, although the actors gave convincing, at times moving performances, and the music and sound effects were used cleverly in an intimate space (go Chicago storefront theatre). It’s easy to label the cerebral nature of Paulus a flaw, but perhaps it is a stylistic and cultural difference that risks getting lost in translation. Lerner’s framework for Paulus is the Hebrew spiritual practice of midrash: meditating on scripture by entering into it and filling in unspoken perspectives. To fully appreciate this play, one has to appreciate that the vision of the playwright extends beyond theatre, as does the mission of Silk Road Rising. Both the play and its theatrical home affirm theatre’s central role in the presentation of ideas, a call for unity and universalism that I’m pretty sure Saint Paul would identify with.

[Photos: “Gijs Van Vaerenbergh – Reading Between the Lines Church 03.jpg,” Forgemind Webuse 0008, CC BY 2.0, “Chicago Temple Building, Chicago,” Antoine Tavenaux, CC BY 3.0, “Mosque and Church,” Jonathan Gill’s photostream, CC BY-NC 2.0, “Saint-Paul,” Antiquité Tardive’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Empty Stage,” Max Wolfe’s photostream, CC BY 2.0]

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