Sunday, November 20, 2016

Paradoxical Book Review: Falling Off Cloud Nine and Other High Places

Book Review: Falling Off Cloud Nine and Other High Places

Author: Lorraine Peterson

Date: 1981

Publisher: Bethany House

ISBN: 0-87123-167-0

Length: 159 pages

Illustrations: cartoons by Neil Ahlquist

Quote: “In order to get the most out of these lessons, keep a notebook and write down the answers.”

I recommend this book…to adults. I’d have serious reservations about sharing it with the teenagers to whom it was originally marketed. That's the paradoxical part of this review.

This second volume of Peterson’s “Devotionals for Teens” was designed for use as a Sunday School “quarterly.” It’s accessible to most Protestants—“The teacher will want to add questions and thoughts which are specifically relevant to the particular group.”  Topics include the value of Bible study (“The Most Important Book in the World,” obedience, faith, parents, jobs, family, displays of faith, “Everyday Evangelism,” fortitude, “How to Overcome Evil,” and “Life’s Ups and Downs,” from which final section the title for the whole book was selected. Each “lesson” was written for morning meditation and occupies, if more than one full page, fewer than two full pages; there’s room for blank space and cartoons as well as three months’ worth of lessons.

As with Peterson’s other books, there are points at which disagreement is possible. “Attention, Lone-Ranger Christians,” Peterson says, “You are not so holy, intelligent, and talented that no church is good enough for you…You are not so advanced that you don’t need the advice of other Christians.” This is probably true for most teenagers…then again, churches can be emotionally abusive places, and some teenagers are far enough advanced that, although they might benefit from the advice of more enlightened Christians, they may also benefit from avoiding the company of the Christians they know.

For example, if you have become ill as a result of a contaminated vaccine that you didn’t even need, and rather than see that something the church has generally endorsed has done you harm, churchgoers want to perceive your disease process as a reaction to street drugs you’ve never used and demand that you confess sins you’ve never committed, here I stand to testify…you may become a much better Christian without any further advice from those churchgoers.

If an older member of the church has touched you, in any way that you were less than 100% delighted to receive and reciprocate, run don’t walk.

And if you hear preaching about “the Global Community”…Left Behind was never meant to be literally true, but it’s certainly worth thinking about while you’re waiting to reconnect to a completely different group of Christians.

The emphasis on “obedience” is what really makes me think that Falling Off Cloud Nine is best reserved for adults. Obedience is of course a traditional Christian discipline adults choose for the purpose of spiritual growth. Obedience is also something that far too many people demand from teenagers, in our society. I’m not sure that it’s even possible for Christian teenagers to practice obedience as a spiritual discipline. Few of them have any choice about being financially dependent on their parents; most are, at best, students and apprentices at school and work; and although teenagers are manipulated, bullied, and exploited by other adults besides parents, teachers, and employers, in many unchristian ways, there’s nothing Christian  about obeying those people.

If I’d written this book myself, instead of merely reselling it, I’d advise teens that mindlessly obeying other people (of any age) on matters that are less than life-threatening, like what to wear or which TV shows to watch, is unlikely to lead them into major sin. Obeying rules that preserve peace and order—the literal and metaphoric “traffic rules,” which include the more deeply entrenched aspects of those little house and school rules about how to dress—is charitable.

Obeying rules that adults believe will keep you safe, which are often the ones teenagers hate most, may be a bore and may be unnecessary but it is an act of kindness. Teenagers have made real progress toward spiritual maturity when they move from thinking “I’m having a good time at a party that was scheduled to last until midnight, and others in the car pool want to stay until ten, but I have to be home, in bed, by nine o’clock because my parents say so, because they don’t trust me to make my own decisions” to thinking “I’m having a good time at a party that was scheduled to last until midnight but I want to call my parents and tell them that the rest of the car pool want to stay until ten, so they won’t worry.”

Some other things teenagers may think of as “rebellious” are just plain stupid. If you don’t trust the teacher’s judgment about what s/he is teaching you, it’s stupid to take the class at all, but it’s super stupid to take a class and then not go to class meetings or do class assignments. If you’re taking wages for a job, it’s stupid and dishonest not to follow the employer’s instructions. If you’re living with your parents, it’s stupid to waste your time and energy bickering about their house rules when you could be working toward having a home of your own and setting your own rules there. Street drugs, reckless driving, making babies you won’t be able to rear in a Christian home…some ideas are just too bad to deserve even serious debate.

But then there are the kind of silly little rules teenagers may encounter for the first time in church, or may already have encountered among so-called friends. Let’s put it this way. Read Cat’s Eye, a novel in which a very confused and disturbed little city girl sets up all kinds of rules for how her friend, who gets to spend summers in the country, should behave. Notice that, after Elaine stops obeying Cordelia, there’s a time when it’s good for Elaine and Cordelia that Elaine becomes “the Cat who walks by (her)self.” Yet, later on, there’s another time when Elaine probably could afford to be a real friend to Cordelia without being enmeshed in that kind of emotional abuse again, and at the end of the book Elaine wishes she’d done that. Christians are told to “obey God rather than men.” Christian charity does not mean propping up the sick egos of people who would be better off not having their egos propped up. What it does mean is not always clear.

Teenagers are likely to encounter those ego-boosting rules in conflicting sets: “Socializing with people who might be seen as a rebellious youth ‘gang,’ wearing the styles or speaking the slang associated with their ‘culture,’ is wrong because ‘those people’ are doing bad things and are likely to lead you astray…Not socializing with ‘those people’ or wearing their styles or speaking their slang is wrong because it means you’re rejecting your roots, thinking you’re better than other people who are like you, trying to pretend to be something you’re not…”

When I was a teenager, my mother was truly disabled by hypothyroidism. One of the symptoms was a sort of attention-deficient brainfog...and a felt need to force everyone else to function, or non-function, on the same level of chaos in which she apparently existed. She didn't want to have rules or chores; she wanted to be able to interrupt whatever anyone else was doing by screaming for the person to run to wherever she was and do whatever had popped into her head. Mother’s mind was not functional enough for her to explain ahead of time what she wanted anyone else to do, only to complain if anyone did anything. 

From time to time the thought would cross my mind that a normal mother in a house that looked the way ours looked, at a given moment, might appreciate some help with, perhaps, folding the clean towels. My mother wasn’t normal. If I ignored the towels I might be able to finish the book I was reading in peace. If I folded them I’d have about five minutes to read before my mother would scream for me. “I know you meant well, but I wanted those towels folded this way and now we have to fold them all over again.”

Obviously this was not the way Mother had had a successful business, before she became so ill. Neither was it the approach to work we wanted to learn, or the one Dad or even Mother wanted us to learn. It was a disease process. Like most disease processes, it was annoying. There was no question about “obedience” to any moral or spiritual principle. What Mother thought, or rather felt in her disease, that she wanted was “obedience” to a disease, and there was—and there remains—some question whether it was really in her best interest if anyone saved her a single step. Hypothyroid people always feel tired and may or may not show any immediate benefit from exercise, but if they are being helped, then they will be helped by exercise.

Obviously my family wasn't nearly as dysfunctional as those where the teenagers might reply to “When your parents ask you to do something, they deserve a cheerful, ‘Okay, I will,’ followed by instant action” (Falling Off Cloud Nine, page 69) with "Y'mean when they're too drunk to drive, so they tell me to drive, which I'm not even old enough to do alone, to the store and get more liquor?" At least I could love and respect and usually even obey my poor, dear, sick mother; the moral conflict only kept me from feeling cheerful about it. But the possibility does exist, even for teenagers: obedience to mortals, even parents, may not always be a good thing.

The question of obedience to God rather than mortals goes far beyond teenagers’ relationships with their parents. As a young teenager I heard that growing up involved rebellion, and I knew whom, or what, I wanted to rebel against. Take the fashion industry as it was in the 1970s, for instance. Take it down to the dump and burn it, please! Or take the old books and old teachers from which girls were still learning, even into the 1980s, that any height over 5’3” was “too tall” and any score above 110 was “too smart,” and so on, and girls unfortunate enough to be tall, smart, strong, brave, or whatever, needed to stunt and shrink themselves to help boys feel “adequate.” 

Big Business, Big Government, the military draft, the sexists and racists and miscellaneous haters of the world, rape-terrorists and rape-terrorism, pollution, and war were real enemies. Against them I wasn’t sure that it was possible to be rebellious enough. Those enemies had set up all kinds of rules by which richer, older people were bloating their greed at the expense of my generation, and I could see very little possibility of any good ever coming from anyone’s ever obeying that set of rules. Nor do I yet.

As a Christian I live in a sort of mild and peaceable rebellion against all the would-be tyrants in this world, and it’s often seemed to me that one of the most useful things an older person “told” me about the teenage years was the fictional paradox set up for a fictional character in a whimsical science fiction story my not-yet-pen-friend Suzette Haden Elgin wrote, around the time I moved out on my own: “And if you stand against him, there will be great trouble. And if you do not stand against him, there will be great trouble. And no matter what happens, it will be a long, hard time.” Adolescent hormone surges would produce teen angst even if these conflicting sets of rules didn’t. Buckle your harnesses tight, Nephews, and brace for a bone-rattling ride.

All adults really have to tell teenagers, although we might be more specific in a one-to-one conversation, is: as long as you don’t cause any births or deaths, you can probably survive the rest of the mistakes you will inevitably make.

It seems to me, at age fifty, that humans would be better off if all of us made it a rule to abstain from trying to compel or force or obligate anybody to do anything. If, apart from defending our own lives and families, we just left other people free to do whatever they jollywell felt like doing, and, if we didn’t like what they were doing, we just walked away. (In cyberspace that’s easy to do, which is why a lot of us are here in cyberspace.) If, apart from enforcing house rules for our own homes and performance standards for students and employees, we admitted that the last thing a reasonable adult could want would be for anyone to “be obedient” to us. Why add the moral burden of miseducating them to our existing load?

Adults and some teenagers—probably not all—can share the snarky humor in Screwtape’s advice about tempting the young man to mistreat his mother in The Screwtape Letters; that’s one bit of Christian counsel I remember as helpful—when I was sixteen. (I don’t know that it would have been of any use when I was thirteen.) For that matter, whether people believe in literal devils or not, all Christians should understand that the Evil Principle gains ground when Christians waste their energy on quarrels with one another. Teenagers should even be starting to feel some empathy for adults, some preference not to inflict pain.

This leaves Falling Off Cloud Nine as a good book for the parent, teacher, or supervisor of teenagers. Try reading it seriously, as if its advice were meant for us adults, at our stage(s) of life. At least it should remind anyone over age 25 of what teenagers have to contend with. For that purpose, at least, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Lorraine Peterson no longer needs the dollar she'd get if this were still a Fair Trade Book. You can probably find a better price online than $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. Feel free...though you can also add a copy of this book to a package that contains one or more Fair Trade Books, and pay only the one $5 shipping fee, which may make this site's price more competitive. But I do recommend that adults go back and think long and hard about our traditional advice to Christian teenagers to practice "obedience" as if it were one of the classical Christian virtues rather than merely a discipline. This can so easily become a stumblingblock for any teenager who notices how many conflicting ideas older people demand that s/he obey.