reading aloud

I’m sorry I’ve been so absent, all: I just found this post that I’d forgotten to put up, so here you are.

When I was younger, I hated reading aloud.  I loved to read, of course – I’ve always known that stories carry magic – but I remember sitting in my second grade class as we circled around with Charlotte’s Web and I just knew that my tongue would trip over the words in a way my mind never did and my mouth would get dry and my voice do something I didn’t want it to do.  When I read to myself, I was swept up in the world of the book in a way that mimicked restfulness, and I’d look up from my book with the feeling that I’d just woken from a nap.  Reading aloud, though, scared me.  As I got better, I’m sure I became more cocky about it.

But recently, I’ve realized that there is a specific and dense magic that comes from speaking the written word, a magic that transcends what I’d expected from printed ink on a woven page of pulpy tree.

I think that children understand this magic deeply.  I always love to read aloud when I babysit (once I read a self-abridged version of A Wrinkle in Time), but this summer, something really captivating happened.  I was filling in for a family’s nanny for half a week, and the second day on the job was Homework Day.  Everyone was upset about it, obviously, moaning and half-heartedly scribbling on their math sheets.  The youngest’s only remaining homework assignment was to be read to.

I grabbed an abridged children’s copy of Treasure Island and began to read to him in a hushed voice, glancing up at him every once in a while.  When I started, he was squirming, sliding out of his chair, and rolling his eyes up at the ceiling.  Halfway through, he was looking at me.  When I stopped after the first chapter and started to put it away, he grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye, and said, “Don’t stop!”  By this point, the other two weren’t doing their homework either but had started listening to the story.  One of them had crept around to look at the illustrations.  After lunch, we relocated to the couch, huddling together to read about poor Jim Hawkins.  I did some growly pirate voices and we all giggled over Ben Gunn’s cheese obsession.

We sat for more than two hours and read that whole book, cover to cover.  They never once got bored or wanted to stop.  The story had pulled them tight in a sort of magic, and even when my voice began to dry up they wrapped themselves around each word.  Treasure Island has no deep moral or spiritual truth (upon first glance, at least); it’s an adventure story, but it knows how to speak.  It understands the power of story, and so did the children.  This got them focused like nothing I had ever tried before – no sports break, homework incentive, or movie grabbed them like Treasure Island did.  It was absolutely unbelievable.

I think I finally understand the bardic tradition of the Celtic tribes, why the poets advised the kings and were revered as they were.  I understand how powerful it would have been to have everyone gathered in a castle hall for their Michaelmas celebration, shuffling quietly as they listened to the bard unfold the tale of the brave, perfection-seeking Gawain and a Knight, green from the hair of his beard to his very skin.

As Tolkien best put it, it is a “Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.”

Also this summer, my grandmother, while visiting us, fell and broke her hip.  It was terrible and scary, but she did such a wonderful job recovering.  We would often come visit her to talk and chat, catching her up on everything and discussing different things.  One night, her trigeminal neuralgia was acting up badly, and she was in a lot of pain.  We headed over, and she couldn’t talk.  In half an hour, the nurse could come and give her a dose of pain medication.  I figured I would distract her.  I held her hand tightly, pulled up my story on my dad’s iPad, and began to read.

I got very quiet as I did so, for I was self-conscious of reading words that I myself had written.  I shook it off.  My grandma relaxed perceptibly and smiled at me.  The time passed.  It was crazy, the feeling that filled the dark room, a comforting sort of heaviness that blanketed us.  Before we left, though, we all prayed for her.  I was fervent and earnest, and I could feel that the words coming from my mouth were not my words, and I felt the Holy Spirit there.  It was love I was speaking, just love.  The power of prayer was tangible and suspended, and the next day, Grandma was better than we’d seen her in weeks.

I keep running into the reading aloud.  Oxford’s Keble has a chapel built into it, and it’s absolutely beautiful, with storytelling stained glass and a massive organ and echoey, cavernous ceilings.  In one of my first weeks here, at the urging of the Bursar, I crept into the empty chapel’s side-room.  There was a Bible and a list of the readings for the day, and I read them aloud in a whisper, turning from Jonah to Luke and having the privilege of letting God’s Word permeate the place through my voice.

I wrote a play for Oxford’s Cuppers competition, and that was a completely different rush, the joy of watching people speak your words in their voice and telling them how to act around them.  There would be moments when they pulled something out that was exactly right, better, inventing, embodying an imagined thing.  That’s magic, too, isn’t it?

And now we come to the vehicle of my remembrance of this post.  My Paradise Lost essay from last week was all about speech: I wrote about God creating beautiful things through speech and Satan perverting them, about a blind Milton speaking his words aloud and fashioning himself into the old recitative epic poet, and I spoke my words aloud to my tutor.

Words are important, living, and active.  God spoke the universe into existence through the force of his speech, creating the universe through a word and through the Word.  The Word has saved our people by becoming like us, by dying for us, by refusing to stay dead.  Do not discount what you speak; God’s words have power, and so do yours.

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Read this: my story (“The Mason Jar”) if you like;  Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories  (you have to)

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music.2

A swift music update for the space between real blogs as I leave for Christmas break! Aw man, has my musical interest taken a few interesting turns.

Passenger, Patient Love.

The thing I love most about Passenger, apart from the raw sweetness of his voice, is the way that he turns songs into very personal stories.  He knows how to get to the real center of things, and he points out problematic societal things while mourning or celebrating the little things.

This song made me cry.  I was sitting on the ground at 2am right before I was supposed to go to England, and at the line, “Though you will not wait for me, I’ll wait for you,” I lost it, because I realized then that that’s exactly what God does for us.  In that moment I felt the weight of my own refusal and the passion of His quiet but persistent grace.  He manifests an unconditional love toward us, and this song transmuted so much of that emotion and barbed wholeness of love that I began to weep.

Bonus: some rappin’, Night Vision Binoculars, Travelling Alone, Holes (profanity!), Let Her Go.

Anais Mitchell, HADESTOWN.

http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/Hadestown/4345264  (They took down the youtube video, sorry!)

Oh my gosh.  Oh my gosh.  I apologize to my friend who tried to introduce me to this folk-opera an entire year ago.  I didn’t listen, but I’m glad I have rediscovered it.

It’s a retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in depression-era America, composed by the lovely Anais Mitchell (Eurydice) with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver as a beautiful Orpheus.  Greg Brown and Ani DiFranco are absolutely perfect as Hades and Persephone.  The lyrics are some of the most poetic I’ve ever found, and the jazz is compelling.  You can’t help but see it played out in your mind.

OneRepublic, Counting Stars.

This is just a fun one.  A compelling beat, and a deep south, deep magic sort of vibe.

Bastille.  As usual.

I may or may not have spent a long time typing out a detailed music video proposition for this song, but alas.

Noah Gundersen, Jesus, Jesus.

(profanity warning, my dear ones)

Oh, songs that made me weep profusely? Let’s add this one in, along with pressing theological questions and issues.

This song is incredibly important.  Please listen to it.  It’s someone who’s struggling through the problem of hardship in the world and the existence of God, understandably.

Ed Sheeran

He’s actually talented??  The way he uses the voice looper is miraculous. (bonus: Wayfaring Stranger)

Fall Out Boy, (oops).

You’re all going to make fun of me (you already have).  I don’t care what you think, really (as long as it’s about me?). Confession: there’s something very hilarious about witty wooing in lyric form (I’m looking at you, John Donne).

I’m angry that no one happened to mention that Patrick Stump, their lead singer, has such an incredible vocal range and massive instrumental intuition.  This band makes me want to dance on my bed or join a revolution, sometimes, and other times (in songs like What a Catch, Donnie), it makes me very sad.  I do this, a lot.  With listening to this band, like I do with so many, I look at the lyrics and the music they make and wonder what drives the person behind the songs.

The problem with being an artist is that they make a living out of taking out personal parts of themselves and exposing themselves to the public eye.  Their job is to make art, but we think it’s to be likable for our personal use.  Fame is terrifying to me, and I think I’ve been realizing lately just how dangerous it is to think a person is not a person.  We dehumanize famous people in two ways, by putting them on a pedestal and by overlooking their own personal needs, emotions, and privacy (paparazzi?).

That has little to do with this band’s music, though, so I’ll just go back and say that Fall Out Boy manages to mix rock and pop and punk and soul in a really cool way – and I love Folie a Deux, no matter what anyone says.

Bonus: The After Life of the Party, Sugar We’re Going Down, I Don’t Care, Life on Mars cover, What a Catch Donnie, The Take Over the Break’s Over.

calvinism, Christianity, and the weight of the gospel

I’m studying 14th-17th century literature right now at Keble– I can hear you all groaning.  I was wary, but it’s actually been incredibly interesting.  I’ve learned a whole lot (I hope).  Of course, you can’t talk about this time period without breaching the subject of the different Christian sects of each time.  I, honestly, have loved this: I have been able to write my essays on God’s grace and mercy.  I have been able to commune with John Donne (my love) and attend lectures on religion in the Elizabethan era.  I was assigned Augustine for reading.  But a few weeks ago, our class on Calvinism hit me like a load of bricks.

Let me first clarify.  The class was on 17th century Calvinism, and it brought up a lot of uncomfortable things.  Calvin believed that man’s free will would cheapen God’s sovereignty, and so God controls everyone; he also chooses his elect and rejects the reprobate on seemingly arbitrary whim.  Because of this, you can never really know if you’ve been saved or not, and you can never know if you’re going to heaven or to hell.  According to Calvin, God even causes the rejected to feel like they have experienced God’s grace and Spirit.

This mentality wreaked havoc on the people of the time period.  They assumed God was punishing them for sins or for their own reprobate status; people even convinced themselves that, although they believed in Christ, they were still going to hell.  I’m not saying this was Calvin’s intention; I’m just saying that regardless, this is how it was taken by people of the 17th century.

Can God fairly and justly punish someone who He controls completely? This is when I realized that my greatest fear is not a nonexistent God; my greatest fear is that the universe is ruled by a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.

Do I believe this? I don’t think so.  If God were not good then our idea of order and justice and morality would be a sham, and the fabric of the universe would unravel.  Do I wrestle with questions I will never be able to answer on this earth? Yes, constantly.

The reactions of my classmates were telling.  They responded to the cruelty of Calvinism in a way that triggered their moral outrage, their sense of right and wrong.  And perhaps we can cite this same sense as evidence of a loving and justice-seeking God.  God, of course, does not have to follow the rules we make up for him.  But my heart sank as they spoke of these concepts as nonsense and rubbish, as they conflated this with Christianity and with Christ himself.

I cannot believe they are the same thing.

The constant fear of hell that Calvin expresses is not Biblical. Romans 10:13 tells us that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”; 1 John 3:19-20 that “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” We have assurance in Christ – John has even written: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  We are confident and assured – we know.

But I still came out of that class with a realization: regardless of Calvin, and regardless of what others believe, people will still go to hell.

It haunted me for days. It still is, honestly.  That day I sent frustrated messages to my parents as I tried to reconcile these concepts of agency and sovereignty.  I sat on my bed at the thought that my classmates, the strangers I pass on the street, the homeless man on the corner, the musicians behind each song I listen to, the friends I share my life with – that they could all be barred from heaven.  And I wept.

I think this is the proper response.  A friend told me that when we draw close to the heart of God, we become grieved for the same things He grieves for.

I don’t know how all of this works.  I hate that people have to go to hell.  I don’t understand how, if God can harden people’s hearts to keep the Israelites in slavery or soften them to accept the Holy Spirit, he can’t just do this for every human being on earth.  I have heard of dream-vision conversions, and I can’t understand why God will not send them to every living person on this earth.

But I trust him, and I think that this deep, heaving grief is also God’s response when we refuse him.  I think that free will has to exist, because without it, love cannot.  Without it, we have no choice to accept or reject.  But I trust God because I believe these things about him: that He is sovereign, and that He is good.

I trust that I cannot fathom the idea of hell as he can. I trust that he, as the ruler of the universe, knows better than I do.

I’m sorry if this feels like a cop-out.  I know it must.  But the simple truth is that I do not understand, I will not understand, and I will mourn.  And as we follow these truths out to their logical conclusions – as we struggle with these things – we act on where they take us.

We cannot simply weep over the non-Christians in our life and in our world.  We cannot mourn them as though they have already been damned.  There is hope for every human being in Christ, and we are mandated to share it: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16)

This is the scariest part.  There is a piece of me that does not want to post this, because if I do, I become a hypocrite if I don’t tell others of the grace and glory and beauty of Jesus Christ.  So that’s probably a good reason to put it up here.

I will confess that I feel uncomfortable telling other people about Jesus.  I’m scared they will avoid me, and I’m scared they will shy away from preaching and proselytizing.  I’m terrified.  But I can’t hold my own discomfort as more valuable than the lives of my brothers and sisters.  If you love someone – really love someone – you are compelled to show them the cure for eternal death.  Penn Jillette, an atheist, says this:

“If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

I know this is really heavy.  It’s been weighing me down.  But to forget would be folly.

My fellow Christians: hold me accountable.

My non-Christian friends:  I love you so dearly.  I do not want you to die.  I love you deeply, and that is why I tell you this:

We’re sinful.  When God gave us everything, including our very lives, we rebelled against him.  We chose death.  But God does not want us dead.  God is love itself, and God enacted this plan – he saw us in our suffering and sent us a remedy.  Jesus came to earth as God in human-skin so that he could take the penalty that we deserved.  He died – God took on the pain and death of humanity – for love of us.  We’re humans, we’re nothing compared to an eternal God – and yet he loved us.

He rose again from death, he defeated death itself.  For you.  And here’s the deal, now – we are offered grace.  We are offered redemption and future perfection and life with a wonderful and life-giving God.  If we take him up on the offer, we have to give up some of our idols and sins.  We have to serve God instead of our friends or careers or desire for money or fame or pleasure.

But it’s worth it.  I can’t express how much it is worth it, how content you can be when your worth is derived from the love God has for you instead of from your own accomplishments.

Ask me about this.  Tell me how weird this sounds, how improbable it is, tell me honestly what you think and why you cannot consider it.  I’ll tell you how much it’s worth it.

Peace, my friends.  Thanks for sticking this one out.

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sick (part ii)

When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t get out of bed.  My limbs felt like they were made of the iron that I lacked, and every time I moved I was crushed with a wave of dizziness and nausea.  I feel a little better after eating, sure.  But I’m leaving the country on Friday, so I’m a little nervous.  This isn’t a surprise, though, due to the fact that I ate too little yesterday and my iron levels, which are supposed to be 13-150, are less than 5.

I’ve been tinkering with the idea of writing this post for a long time now, and it’s ironic that this has given me the space I need to write it.  I talk to very few people about it, so this should be part confession and part discussion.

I can’t ever remember being truly healthy.  We’ve been trying to solve my health issues – stomach problems, low immune system, occasional anemia – for a lifetime.  Sometimes, it was fine.  Until last year, really, it was under control, and I didn’t really think about it.  But there would be days when I would wake up in the middle of the night so ill that I could not sleep.  I felt so frustrated, as though I was trying to calm my body like a crying child.  I would take the shaking and the pain and throw medicines and food at it.  I would throw up my dinner involuntarily at five in the morning, not understanding, and weep into my hands in anger as I watched the pale, blank sky and listened to the premature chirping of the birds outside my window.

I realized just recently the effect that my body’s had on my understanding of the relationship between the body and the soul.  I’ve always put such a heavy emphasis on the soul over the body, regarding the latter as broken.  This past year, I’ve getting pretty tired of my physicality.  It’s only in the past year or two that I’ve realized that there will be a resurrection of the body as well – John Donne’s helped me broaden my understanding immensely.  I’m trying to bypass the hatred and betrayal that I’ve felt to my corporeal form for so long.

This summer, I was finally diagnosed with celiac disease.

There was a week in between the autoimmune test’s positivity and the diagnosis where I thought a lot about what it would mean to know, and what it would mean to actually start getting better.  I thought I would have a sort of identity crisis.  Not in a basic theological way, of course, but in the details.  Celiac is genetic; I’ve had it for my entire life.  I broke out in eczema, one of its symptoms, when I was three days old.  Before I had a name, I had been identified by this disorder.  Did I sleep so much because it was part of my personality, or because of the fatigue? How much of me has been shaped by this? And who would I be without it?

I shouldn’t have worried so much.  Not much has changed.  In part, I’ve realized that celiac’s diagnosis makes a lot of sense.  All of the symptoms I’d been experiencing over the years stemmed from this one disorder.  Here’s how it works: people with celiac can’t digest any sort of gluten, which is a key part of foods like wheat, rye, and barley.  Because we can’t digest it, it slowly wears away at the digestive tract, causing inflammation, pain, and malabsorption.  This malabsorption leads to fatigue and deficiency in things like B-12 and iron.

When I was diagnosed, I was upset.  Having celiac means devoting constant attention to what you eat, because even a little bit of gluten sneaking in can wreak havoc on my whole system.  Gluten comes from the Latin word for glue, and so sometimes, it feels a little bit like I’m coming apart without it, but I’m learning to navigate it.  I may put up a page on this blog with a few tips for the newly diagnosed, or make a separate post on celiac advice.  The strangest part was this: the worse I got, the more wheat I ate.  I thought it was making me better – I saw it as the one thing that was ‘safe’.

For twenty years, I poisoned myself, thinking it was the cure.  If that doesn’t have theological implications, I’m not sure what does.  As humans, we crave the thing that kills us, and we turn for comfort to the very thing that will ultimately destroy us.  Even sin can be beautiful to us, drawing us into a comfortable dependence and our ultimate demise.  The things that are good for us are painful at first.  However, the more I eat the foods I can, the more disgusting the others seem.  The more we live with God, the more repulsive sin will become to us, and the healthier we will become.

So here’s to figuring out painful things, and moving in the direction of getting well.

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p.s. I’m fine, guys.  Haha.  This was a little dramatic. Do not worry.

being human

[being human: the presence]

In my last post, I talked about the dangerous way in which paranormal romances overemphasize the other-ness of characters who aren’t human.  This time, we’re going to look at the flip side, focusing on the way that relatable super-human characters struggle to stay human.

Because the best stories with inhuman characters remind us what it truly means to be human.

The idea really struck me as I sat in front of the biggest movie theater screen of my life, watching the newest incarnation of Superman battle it out against General Zod.  My thoughts about Man of Steel’s wasted potential are another story; I came out of it dwelling on a single thing – Clark Kent’s humanity.  I’m fully aware that Superman is about the farthest you could possibly get from a human being; however, this movie really made me realize that, at the heart of it all, Superman was raised as a human.  He might be an alien, but he grew up in Kansas.  And it’s his humanity that saves him.

This movie, and so many modern renditions of superheroes, has focused not on the powers, but on the flaws.  Modern-day superheroes can’t do everything.  As comics have progressed from the Golden Age, they’ve gotten progressively darker, more brooding, and grittier.  Our heroes become flawed.

Superman still has to save the day, but during the battle scenes, we flip back and forth between him and all of the normal human beings struggling to survive an apocalyptic scenario.  His powers do not ensure his survival – Zod has what he has physically.  The difference? Superman thinks – and feels – as a human being.  Zod wants to be a god.  Superman doesn’t, and because of this, he can become a bridge between two worlds.

The concept of a character that is at once man and another creature is not new.  I have a confession: I have watched entirely too much Teen Wolf lately.  Please shoot me a message if you need me to defend this show to you (I know it looks awful).

At its surface, Teen Wolf is a show about a high schooler who gets bitten by a werewolf and inherits all sorts of powers and problems.  As it progresses, though, you realize that the main character, Scott, isn’t the only hero (and doesn’t even become one for at least a season).  Everyone who supports him, protects him, and reminds him of his human-ness keeps the show going – especially his best friend, Stiles.

From the very start, I recognized Stiles as the true hero of the show, the way that the supportive Samwise Gamgee is the true hero of Lord of the Rings.  In a show full of supernatural creatures, werewolves, and werewolf hunters, Stiles stands at the center, fully human.  He can’t do any of the things that his friends can do – and that’s why the show needs him to keep everyone anchored.  His weapons are his sarcastic wit, his loyalty, his kindness, and his bravery.  Even though he is so much more fragile than the rest of the characters, he keeps up with his friends, reminding them of their humanity and risking his own life for their sakes.  He is the one who consistently pulls Scott back from the brink of animalistic abandon, reminding him who he is and reminding him the reason to remember to be human.  The toll it takes on him is severe as he struggles with panic attacks and massive stress.  And that really makes him braver than everyone else, because he has so much more to fear.

Our new supernatural heroes might need someone to encourage them in their power; however, more than this, they need someone to pull them back and keep them human.  We don’t want to look up to our heroes anymore; we want to relate to them.  We want to see them struggle with the power that they have and see that, beneath it all, they are a human being given a mantle.  We want to look at them and wonder, what would I do in this situation?

This is why something like Twilight has it backwards.  The whole time, Bella idolizes Edward.  She wants to love him, but more than that, she wants to be like him.  And in the end, if I’m not mistaken, she gives up her very soul­ – the most human, eternal, God-given capacity we have – to turn into a different creature entirely.  She sees nothing in human beings.  But even though we’re fallen, broken, fragile things, there is still something ultimately beautiful in being human.

I wondered for a long time if I was wrong about this.  I know that we have fallen into sin.  We work evil and tend toward selfish actions.  We’re traitors, living in darkness and choosing fear, pain, and death.  On our own, we cannot do anything at all.

All of this is true.  And yet, we have been created in the image of the eternal God.  At the start of all things, God once called us very good.  Wisdom says in Proverbs 8 that, at the creation of the world, she

“was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.”

And although we have fallen, each of us holds in our hearts the potential to be restored.  And that’s a humanity that should be protected.  Eric Metaxes explains it in his biography, Bonhoeffer:

“It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny.  It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom – that was what it was to obey God… Earthly bliss and humanity belong to God, not in any cramped ‘religious’ sense, but in the fully human sense.  Bonhoeffer was a champion of God’s idea of humanity, a humanity that He invented and, by participating in it through the incarnation, that He redeemed.”

Jesus didn’t become human just to try it out, or because of anything good that we’ve brought about.  He came to redeem us and restore us, and the rest of his creation, to its former place.  Superman was conceived of as a messianic; how much better is the way that our God has become human to save the world and bridge our way!  Our very human-ness can become something lovely when tempered to God’s plan.  We have the capacity to see beautiful things and understand that something meaningful hums beneath them.  We were created with human bodies and human souls, and God delights in us when we serve Him (more).  What a word delight is!

Being human means having to serve something.  It means being weak and unable.  To be human is to be vulnerable.  Unlike Stiles, who tries to provide for his friends out of his own strength, it means relying on something else.  I had a long talk with my dear friend after she got back from Togo, and she told me several stories that will stick with me.  Her tour guide had told her that his grandfather, like many of the people there, was an animist, worshipping different gods who gave him the power to do terrible things, like force people into the ground.  I’ve heard similar stories from people in Burma, whose relatives could see creatures or levitate objects.  That’s the thing about Satan – he makes people feel powerful when really they become enslaved by him.  and here’s the interesting part; when these people become Christians, they have to give up all that demonic power.  In Christ, they don’t have supernatural powers.  The things they do (healing, etc) are not done in their own power, but in the name of Jesus.  In Jesus, they are called to be utterly human and vulnerable, having to rely on God for their strength.

In a way, being human means being shackled down by all of our flaws, confusion, and powers that turn out to be burdens.  But it also means being given the ability to be free, the ability to search for truth and to desire real relationship and real beauty.  It means having the chance to choose rightly, and having the chance to be utterly restored by a God who created us in His own image in the first place.  We are weak; but our weakness is God’s strength.

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Read this:  Romans 8:9-11 (here)

Stories warning against playing God: Superman, Jurassic Park, Frankenstein

teen fiction vs. real love

[being human: the absence]

As I was planning out my next post (which should be around sometime soon), I realized that there was an article I’d written a few months ago but had forgotten to put up here.  It goes very well with the theme of the next one – what it means to be human – so I thought I’d present them in loose connection.  When supernatural stories extol the glories of non-human creatures, we can become muddled in what it actually means to be human.

Earlier, I saw a Facebook ad for yet another teen-novel-turned-movie.  I wonder if it’s any good, I thought.  What followed was a dinner’s worth of entertainment as my friends and I read its cheesy quotes out loud.  I considered it harmless entertainment, the equivalent of a dime novel or an amusing television show.

However, as I continued to peruse the teen romance section, my laughter began to subside as I realized it wasn’t as harmless as a poorly-worded sentence or characters clearly designed for self-insertion.  When it comes to how we look at love, these books are warping our perceptions in a disturbing and even dangerous way.

If you walk through a typical “paranormal/dark romance”, there’s a formula that applies for nearly every book.  The protagonist is a “normal” girl, klutzy and a little socially awkward.  All of a sudden, a dark, broody, devastatingly handsome boy swoops into her life (who may or may not stalk her or watch her sleep at this point).  He seems to hate her, but secretly, he’s just fighting his profound attraction to her and has to keep it a secret for (x) reason.  There’s a deep, sudden, sometimes literally electric connection, and they are plunged into a passionate romance that seems oddly serious for two teenagers.  Enter a possible love triangle or vague villain, and we’ve got our story.

Am I generalizing? Sure.  There are some gems in the teen section that deal with real-life issues, beautifully written histories, and a more balanced view of love.  However, they are few and far between.  As a real, live teenage girl myself*, this is an issue that worries me, especially when I notice that the Classics section in my local Barnes and Noble has been moved to accommodate the newest Paranormal Romances.

What are these books teaching?  It isn’t “just a story” because literature carries a heavier burden than that.  It pumps more fuel into the cultural engine of perception and expectation and shapes the way that we think about our world, for better or for worse.

The relationships described in these novels might seem exciting, but they definitely aren’t healthy.  In reality, you will be disliked without that aloofness masking any great affection.  The idea of stalking or very forcefully approaching the girl is written off as romantic in the books due to the fact that the two are “fated” to be together.  In reality, though, that’s called “breaking and entering” or possibly “assault”.  It’s assured us that behind the broody, mysterious stranger lies a deep secret.  If you’ve ever read Wuthering Heights you know that this isn’t a new invention, and although this kind of person might seem interesting in novels, they’d probably be a dangerous partner in reality.  These novels continue to perpetuate a culture in which violence against women is written off as romantic; it’s possible that young readers, internalizing these themes, will mistake abuse – whether physical or emotional – for “secret” affection.

Additionally, teen romance novels focus on a relationship centered so heavily on physical attraction that the personalities or character qualities of the characters are diminished or even destroyed.  These authors, as Faulkner would say, write “not of the heart but of the glands”.  Here, love is built on nothing but the lovers’ baseless passion for one another, and in reality, a relationship spun like cotton candy out of sickly-sweet infatuation quickly dissolves when faced with any sort of storm.  Metaphors aside, half the marriages in our country end in divorce.  When books like these are telling us that in order for love to be real, it must be electric and filled with drama, is it any wonder we end up confused in reality’s romantic endeavors?

As the two begin to say things like “you are my life”, they become so mutually obsessed with one another that their relationship is the only plot point that matters.  And while romance is an important part of life, there’s more to our own stories than a relationship with our significant other – our relationships with God, our jobs, our callings, and our adventures.  The kind of love depicted here might seem selfless because it’s other-obsessed, but upon closer inspection, the character is operating out of his or her own desperate craving for relationship.  As humans, we tend to idolize things, and this does not exclude worshiping other people.  When we derive all our meaning from another equally fallible human being and expect them to be as perfect as the characters we envision, they won’t be able to fulfill that need.  They will disappoint us, fail us, and let us down.  We are human.

I think this is why such a huge percentage of the love interests in teen fiction are inhuman creatures, whether that describes vampires, werewolves, angels, or demons (which presents a whole different brand of theological stickiness).  Because they aren’t programmed to fail like we humans are, they can be perfect, finally fulfilling the void that we’ve felt in our lives.  Young adult fiction is overflowing with supra-human partners because, as humans, we desire a personal relationship with a perfect, protective Divinity who can finally grant us the fulfillment and purpose that we seek.

If we want to know what true love really looks like, we should not look to paranormal romance; instead, we should look to this Divinity who came down and sacrificed himself for us.  When we become filled with God and worship Jesus instead of our significant other, we’re freed to participate in a relationship without the pressure of perfection.  For followers of Christ, we can look at a relationship as a partnership of two people striving toward the same goal – to glorify God – and reacting gently, sacrificially, and intentionally with one another.

Although it requires physical attraction (Boaz first found Ruth attractive before he fell for her, and take a look at Song of Songs) romantic love doesn’t center on that, but looks at the heart – the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).  It isn’t other-obsessed but other-serving.  It doesn’t need to be forceful or dramatic because there is freedom and grace.  Take a new look at the oft-parroted 1 Corinthians 13.  Love may not always be dreadfully exciting, like when your spouse leaves hair in the shower drain or forgets to flush the toilet.  But truly caring for someone means seeing them for who they are, flaws and all, and loving them in spite of it.  That is, after all, what our God does for us.

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Read this:  Jane Austen. The subtlety of her love stories is dazzlingly refreshing (and perhaps an acquired taste).  Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey are my favorites.  Ask me about it!
John Donne.  Is Austen too chaste for you? Donne (the cad!) strikes a glorious balance between body and soul with his witty, sacred, and profound poetry.  http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm (Take a special look at “The Extasie”, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, and “Holy Sonnet XIV”.

*I was 19 when I originally wrote this! I’ve just turned 20 a few weeks ago.