why modernizations matter

I have a lot of fun with modernizations of classic novels or plays; whether it’s experiencing them or dreaming them up, I’m drawn to them exceedingly. There is nothing more entertaining than watching your favorite characters burst onto the scene of modernity – it’s like they’re entering into our world. When my brother, cousin and I watched Clueless, I don’t think anyone enjoyed seeing the updates to Austen’s Emma as much as I did (and I definitely don’t think the two of them liked me screeching out scenes from the original book). When you pitch a novel into the modern world, you lose all the trappings that distance you from its issues; it’s easy to look at costumes and old language and say, “This happened, but it was in the past, so it doesn’t really apply to my life.”

Let me talk about one of the best birthday presents I have ever received: This year, for my 21st, my family got me tickets to the Dallas Theater Center’s modern performance of Les Mis. I do not say this lightly: not only was it the best production of Les Mis that I have ever seen, but it may have been the best performance I’ve attended, period. The musical hasn’t really changed in its staging since its inception, and that tends to remove the audience; this threw us right into the issues Hugo had been trying to bring to light in the 19th century. The preface to Les Mis says it best:

“so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”

With this production, I was slapped in the face with the realization that these miserable things really do still plague our society. The cast was diverse, desperate and honest, conveying emotion that I didn’t realize the play had left. The prisoners wore orange and the plight of the ex-con is palpable and raw; lovely ladies was a shocking jolt. The poor pushed shopping carts and held “ex-veteran” signs, Valjean had prison tattoos, the students sipped lattes and traded their hipster scarves in for bulletproof vests and Che Guevara caps; the Thenardiers ran a seedy dive bar. The police brutality was so painful and palpable; in the final barricade scene, the faceless police officers surrounded the audience, moving in through the crowd and killing the rebels; it was so personal and awful and topical. I questioned the revolutionaries a lot more this time – in today’s world, what would drive someone to lead themselves and their friends into the mouth of death? – but Gavroche’s murder made me realize what they were fighting for.

More than anything, it did exactly what Les Mis was intended to do: it inflamed my sense of justice and my desire to try to right the societally imposed wrongs that I see in the world. In N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (confession, I haven’t finished) and several conversations with my father have helped me realize that trying to make the world better isn’t optional – as Christians, especially, we are called to feed, clothe, shelter, and comfort our fellow man. It’s not a resume-building volunteerism that should propel us, but a desire to see God’s kingdom realized on earth:

“Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise not to a meek acquiescence to injustice in the world but to a robust determination to oppose it.”

Moderizations are incredibly fun and entertaining, but the point should always, always be to encourage a deeper understanding of the original text by applying it to our own world. The point of so much literature is to touch on modern issues; although they might seem old-fashioned now, at the time they were written, their authors intended them as a commentary on modern society’s shortcomings.

In another vein, I saw the trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Annie last week and was blown away; I didn’t expect to be as excited as I am, but when I saw that they had made Annie a foster child, I was so struck and so glad that they updated the story. In this version, Annie is black, and although some (racist) people were upset, I could not be more glad. In the original version, Annie’s red hair marks her as belonging to a group that was marginalized (more strongly in the 19th century) – the Irish. Today, Annie’s race also places her in a racial group that is still often shown prejudice and unfair treatment; African-Americans have to fight stereotype every day.

Representation is so important; as vital as it is for everyone that all different types of people are portrayed as real characters in media, it affects children most.  When young girls and boys can see themselves in television, books, and movies, it inspires them and gives them characters to identify with. It makes them believe that they can be the heroes of their own stories: Latina girls watching Brooklyn Nine Nine can aspire to be cops, and Asian-American boys watching Up can hope to be as brave as Russell.  With the modernized Annie, thousands of African-American girls and thousands of children in foster care can see themselves on screen and say, my story is important; hopefully, the rest of us can say the same.

Hugo was right – by nature, people are broken and striving, and time will not change that. People have been the same since the beginning, and we continue to struggle between good and evil. This can seem daunting and hopeless, if we let it, but we have to keep working toward change for God’s kingdom. There will always be a story to tell or to retell; hopefully, we will continue to speak out for those who struggle to be heard.

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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)

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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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

tragedy

When I first set out to write this, I was thinking in purely literary terms of the four genres of expression – comic, tragic, lyric, and epic.  My friend texted me last week after I read the Waste Land, “What do you think the purpose of tragedy is?”

In light of this week’s nearly apocalyptic events, however, I think it apt to discuss, at least a little bit, the purpose of tragedy in literature and in our own lives.

I hadn’t really known the answer to that question before.  I’d read Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, Death of a Salesman, and related to them in a deep, basic way – I could feel the twisting of my gut as the inevitable suffering played out.  And there’s a lot to be said of it – it reminds us of the inevitability of our own mortality, provides us with a cathartic pity and fear so we can better live our own lives.  It shows us that there are forces at work far outside our own power.

All these are important – wildly so.  But there is one more, very simple thing that I realized while reading through Eliot’s Waste Land for the thousandth time: tragedy shows us the brokenness in the world and in relationships, and, by our deep, instinctive reactions to the events, shows us that things were never meant to be like this.

We live in a gloriously constructed world, filled with great beauty and a great potential for love, experience, and happiness.  At the same time, however, I think that we can forget its inherent brokenness – even as Christians, we tend to think that we are basically good, that this world can make us happy, and that we don’t really need anything else but ourselves.

Until, in a week of darkness, a city is bombed and riddled with bullets, a plant explodes and levels everything in its path, a sinkhole opens in the middle of a city, deadly letters are sent to world leaders, an earthquakes shakes miles of nations, and an already hurting country is bombed, its civilians murdered.  Oof.

Seeing this is so, so hard.  I’m not going to go into detail about the problem of pain here, about what God’s doing, or how He could possibly let these things happen.  I don’t know.  Thankfully, I’m not Him.  That can be so hard, and so frustrating, and so painful to see families broken and people grieving and souls hurting so desperately.  But I do know that He’s got a plan in all of this.

I do know that this world was once a beautiful thing, where relationships with God and people could be whole and lovely.  And I know that we sinned, and we used that free will to break that relationship with God – and consequently, everything else fragmented as well.

This is the world that the Waste Land shows us so precisely, a fragmented, perverse, and lost world.  Critics have labeled it as a generational issue with “the modern world”, but there’s a reason we’re still reading the poem.  In our era of flickering images and sound bites and texts and tweets, we’re more fragmented than we’ve ever been before.  Relationships were already cracked, but this constant “connectivity” has widened those cracks until they nearly splinter apart.  We’re more isolated than we’ve been.

But here’s the great beauty of this revelation, this painful truth about our world: it’s where the gospel starts.  We think to ourselves so often that we aren’t that bad and that we don’t really need God.  This realization of the state of our world – more than that, the state of us – leads to either despair or resurrection.

We live in the Waste Land, and we can see that.  But the Waste Land also lives in us, which should scare you.  Eliot’s whole poem hovers on the edge of a knife, between death and resurrection.  The bones of the Phoenician sailor are at the bottom of the ocean, the land is dry and cracked and broken.  But, something begins to stir these dead bones, and the thunder cracks across the sky, waiting.  We hover on a rebirth into eternity.

When we begin to see our own brokenness, we see that we need to be rescued, and that we can’t do it on our own.  As mortals, we will fail, and die, and the tragedy will end with a poisoned sword or a watery suicide.  But God saw this broken world and came down into it as one of us, and he died – and when he rose from the dead to new life, the healing began.

If we accept our brokenness, we can now accept the salvation that’s so freely offered to us.  Eliot did, and was able to find new life in Christ five years after the hopelessness of this poem.  We come to hopelessness so that we can understand hope when it is offered us.  If we live in Christ, we live forever, and we live in hope of healed people and a healed world.

The dead bones of the drowned Phoenician sailor don’t die, “but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange”.  So then do we.  The rains fall upon the thirsty, dry ground, and we learn how to love each other again.  It has to start here, on an individual level, where the Waste Land of your soul is inhabited by a loving, personal God who revives you and brings you back to life.

As hard as we try to instill goodness into people, this world will still be broken while Satan roams it.  Does this mean we should stop fighting against the brokenness, accept the evil in the world, and give up? By no means! The devil has no power where God is concerned.  He can only bend what is already good and try to break what God has already created.  We can fight against him.   And sometimes it’s awful.  But we have the hope of an empty tomb with us, and that is more powerful than any desolate, hollow Waste Land.

My prayers for safety, justice, and deep healing are with Boston, West Texas, China, Iraq, Iran, and the rest of our world.  May God bless and renew you.

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Read thisThe Waste Land, T.S. Eliot ; Mark 13:8 ; my other friend’s post

death

About a month ago, my father gave me a copy of my own will to read over before we left for my great-aunt’s funeral.  Suffice it to say, I did a lot of thinking about death that weekend.

It was a lovely service, but then came the moment that I always dreaded.  I hate looking into the casket and seeing the waxy, lifeless body of the person I had once known.  Their features are fixed in place, caked with a garish sort of makeup, and you can tell that there is no spark there.  “It doesn’t look like her,” I whispered to my father.  “That’s because it isn’t,” he returned.

That’s why I hate looking in there.  I understand why it happens, as a final farewell and to give closure to the grieved.  But you can tell when you look that something has left.  Everything that made up their personality, their tiny quirks, opinions, and Great Loves has gone.  Their soul has left that flimsy, mortal shell and entered into eternity.

A storm was brewing on our way to the funeral, ominous in the distance.  It split the sky into dark and light geometrics on our right, fading from black to white on the left.  We were in Oklahoma, and it looked very honestly as though some of the clouds would touch down.

My family was worried.  My brother hates tornadoes.  I turned to him and asked him what the worst thing that could happen was.  “Uh, we all die a horrible death?” he replied.  I met his eyes.  “Is that all?”

Because for the believer, death does not hold the same dreadful power that it once did.  It’s a crossing over from one dimension to the next – the vehicle that takes us (in a Narnian vocabulary) to Aslan’s Country.  “Death opens a door,” says C.S. Lewis, “out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

We no longer fear death, because all it can threaten is a better life than the one we have known here.  Eternity with God lies on the other side, and it is magnificent.  As someone once pointed out to me, life on earth is as close to hell as the Christian will ever be.  And if life here is so beautiful even despite the decay and depravity of this world, can you imagine what heaven will be like?  This world is but a dim reflection of the next, and eternity is being in God’s presence forever.

Just as we need not fear the consequence of death, we can also have faith in its timing.  And that’s scary, too, because there’s so much we want to do here, so many people we’re connected to, and so much life we want to live.  But I have realized this: if God takes me, then He will be even more glorified in my death.  If I die tomorrow, it simply means that my time here is finished and that my work here is done.  As long as there is still breath in my lungs and blood running in my veins, I have a mission.  The only reason I am still alive right now is because God has not finished with me here.

This summer I was driving my friend back to her house, moaning as we hit our third red light in a row.  She answered, “Maybe God just wants us to spend more time together.”  I laughed.  “No, seriously,” she said.

I think I forget how much of my life God has planned out.  He is a God of big pictures, but He is also a God of precise details.  There are so many reasons why we could have hit those lights.  What if we would have gotten in an accident if I’d gone through – and died?

I wondered then with shock – how many times has God saved my life without me even knowing?  How many details, breaths, or decisions could have resulted in my death had they been even slightly different?

My mortality stares me in the face at times like these – at funerals, during car rides, at night when I stare up at the shelves above my bed.  But I can stare back, unafraid and unangered.  I do not despair at death because I know that there is life beyond its threshold.  And it hurts, and the grief is almost too much to handle, and we don’t understand why God has Death take our loved ones when He does.  All I can say is that He knows better than we do.

One of the reasons that I love The Book Thief so much is that its narrator, Death, is not depicted as evil, but as tired, sad, and haunted by humans.  Death is only the messenger, and he is an old friend.  He tips his hat in my direction and I nod in his, knowing that he does his job without spite.  He takes each soul and carries it gently at its perfectly ordained time. I watch him pass, and he acknowledges me, and I know that when the day arrives when he comes for me, my work here will be finished, and I will have nothing to fear from him.

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Read this: 

“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.”

“Crossing the Bar”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

neolithic monuments, the avengers, and God

On our very first day in Ireland, when our nascent jet lag was quickly worsening, we visited Knowth, a section of Neolithic monuments found in Brú na Bóinne.  They’re some of the oldest structures in Europe.  Neat, right?  And internally, the structure of the tombs looks just like this:

Knowth – symbol at center

There’s a cross in the very center of the tomb, which was very possibly a religious meeting place for the ancient Celts.  Accident?

I think it’s like those proteins in your body, Laminin, that hold you together on a molecular level – they’re cross-shaped, too.  The very structures that keep your body connected and functional reflect the very thing that keeps us connected and functional.

And I don’t think that these burial grounds are a coincidence either, because I don’t believe in coincidences.

There are repetitions in life, things that cycle over, and why should we pay attention to them if they aren’t meaningful?  This symbol might have been just another way that God prepared the hearts of the Celts to receive Him, like in the case of St. Brigid. (Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints and also the name of a triune Celtic goddess.  The saint used this connection to help explain God to the people of Ireland.)

He’s left his marks all over this world, and he’s actively moving within it.  And I forget! How could I?  But the last time I prayed was last night, asking God to help me get some sleep.  Like there’s nothing more important to talk to God about.  He, and all of Christianity… It’s so important, so powerful, and so deep, like ancient magic, as Aslan would say.  And we undermine it.  Thinking of the violence in Ireland between Protestants and Catholics is heartbreaking, because both claim to be Christians, but they’re killing each other over religion!  Of course it mostly has to do with the English/ Irish hostility, but it’s always summed up as Protestants vs. Catholics.  And God is bigger than that.  He’s bigger than squabbles, rituals, cathedrals, and we humans who try to get to heaven on our own.  And thank goodness, because who would be willing to serve a small god?

I’ve seen the Avengers twice now, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Yes, they were awesome, and it was fun to see the dynamics of the new team, but they also brought up a lot of interesting questions about power, kingship, and who is fit to rule – especially with Thor and Loki.  I was acutely reminded of the brothers, Edmund and Edgar, in Shakespeare’s Lear.  One of the very first things Loki says (after killing a few people) is that he’s come with glorious tidings, to free the people from freedom.  And that sounds awful.

Later on, in Germany, he proclaims that “it’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation”. And although this is coming from the mouth of a crazy, villainous, mass-murdering Norse god, he’s absolutely right.  It’s true.  We will always serve something, no matter what – ourselves, our jobs, other people, our obsessions.  We are never free.  That’s terrifying.  But here’s where Loki twists it.  He wants to be the one to rule, and that isn’t right either.  That is what serving a small god looks like.

In response to Loki’s adamant declaration of power, an old German man refuses to kneel, saying that we weren’t meant to be ruled by men like Loki.  And that’s precisely right.  Yes, we were made to serve, but not just anyone.  We were made to serve a perfect, living God who loves us more than we can imagine or reciprocate.  God doesn’t look like Loki, or even Thor, even though the “god of thunder” points out that a good leader understands he is not above his people.  Thor was right about ruling, in this case: a ruler can’t think himself better than his subjects, because people should be treated equally, and power in man’s hands quickly becomes corrupt if not wielded with humility.

But God is no tyrant, and He is better.  He is what’s best for us.  It’s not prideful, because it’s true.  It’s beautiful, how he rules.  And it makes sense why we can’t be Him, and why we are hard wired in our very cores to serve.  We yearn for God, and not just to serve as a slave, but to love and be loved as a child.

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Read this: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17

King Lear, or any of the history plays… or tragedies, for that matter…

See this:  Avengers!