Preston Yancey has a blog. He is sometimes arrogant and pretentious there, and that annoys me. Even more annoying, though, is his habit of apologizing for his arrogance in skillfully crafted essays that force me to forgive him and keep reading his blog. I’ve been reading it for almost two years now. He keeps growing, artistically and spiritually, and it’s getting difficult to be condescending toward his condescension.
Thankfully, he wrote a memoir in his early twenties, so there’s that.
He’s just so stupid good with words. I keep trying to figure out why that irritates me, why I don’t just fall into it like I do with Billy Collins or—oh, I don’t know, Preston’s wife Hilary. He’ll be typing along, saying something profound about grace, and then he’ll mention studying iconography of the Middle Ages, and I’ll be like, “A-HA! White privilege!” because I get all of my insults from the Internet.
Basically, I think we should share our stories, unless we are younger and better writers than the people listening to our stories.
I’m trying to listen anyway.
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I had to read Tables in the Wilderness twice. The first time I got lost in the rhythms of things, the way Preston Yancey roams through past and present tense, the thematic returns, the cadential syntax. Then I realized I had no idea what he’d actually said, so I had to go back and be way less precious about the whole thing.
My synopsis, according to The Second Reading: There once was a Baptist teenager who went to a university where he read books and started a church. Kind of. The church didn’t work, and he started taking his spiritually confused self to an Episcopalian service. A number of people came into and went out of his life. He dated some. He met his wife, ignored her, then met her again. He wrote things and read things and talked and listened. He learned.
But I oversimplify.
“God has become an abstract principle,” Yancey writes in his first chapter. “God is there the way calculus is ever truly somewhere; on paper it makes a certain sense, but in the practical, everyday application of going about a life, it doesn’t really come up as something I’m inclined to think about and respond to.”
The story doesn’t begin there, but the book does. Here is the puzzle of Tables: God is not what I had thought.
Early on, Yancey describes the method of reading used in Baylor University’s Great Texts program:
“We had to own the perspective of the work we were holding and had to critique only in so far as the text allowed us to. We were not looking for universal truths or sweeping statements, but a judicious assessment of what exactly this particular people from this particular time in this particular place were offering us.”
Yancey is a scholar, and the evidence is everywhere, from the works he quotes to the way his experiences become quotes themselves. But the study techniques he applies as a scholar are just as useful for his work as Dante’s or Milton’s. Memoir holds narrative loosely, navigating the tension between vulnerability and self-indulgence, and it would be easy to read Yancey’s Tables as a means of showing off how much he knows when in fact, he’s doing the opposite.
“I found that I spent a lot of time thinking about God and talking about God, but slowly any formal or informal dialogue with God felt more pointless than it ever had before.”
I wonder, sometimes, about the ways we define prayer. Sunday school says, “Prayer is talking to God,” so we begin by doing just that, before meals, before bed, bless the missionaries, help my brother be nice to me. Soon we graduate to “Prayer is conversation with God,” two-way communication. We must listen to as well as talk to God, whatever that means. The Bible? Our feelings? The preacher? Some songs? When we interact with God in art or nature, is that prayer? What about when we acknowledge grief or injustice?
Yancey wades into these evangelical definitions with a liturgical sensibility. As he studies classical literature and Episcopalian observance, he demonstrates the continual labor of so many faith journeys: reconciling personal experience to external instruction and transcendent truth. His tables in the wilderness are the places where our human constructs meet with the mysteries of God.
If I were a reviewer, I would talk about how the end gets imprecise. The metaphors are a bit mixed, as if he’s trying to tie up all of the book’s symbolism in the last chapter. But that’s the problem with a memoir. It’s the story of a life told by someone who’s still living it, so there isn’t an end, not really.
There are lessons on top of lessons in Tables—but I learned the most through its language. At one point, Yancey says the reason he writes is “to share with you a vocabulary for the beauty you have seen, so that you can tell me about it, so that you can tell me that God is beautiful.” He is an advocate of both words and silence, of living in and around them, of using them well in our endless conversations about God and true things and our places at the table.
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So that’s what I’m reading. What are your thoughts on . . .
. . . memoir?
. . . spiritual identity?
. . . the vocabulary of faith?
And . . . what are you reading?