Saturday, December 25, 2010

Dangerous Babies

A cooing newborn baby is much less dangerous looking than a man who bursts from a tomb alive after being dead for three days. We "get" babies. Babies are commonplace, and they speak to us of the best that we can be, full of promise and innocence. Dead men who stand up and walk out of graves alive again most certainly upset the normal order of things. Such men threaten to overturn everything. They are dangerous and we really don't like them. Unlike babies, The Resurrected are scary.

Babies, by contrast, seem tame. The problems is that we want to keep the baby as a baby, ignoring the danger inherent within. The baby in the feeding trough may look like any other baby, but it requires a baby of a different kind to become The Resurrected. If we look deeper, we find that the baby is just the beachhead of the Great Invasion. He is not tame at all. He is a dangerous baby. 

This is why Christmas is so much more popular than Easter. It is easier to tame. In trying to tame it, however, we fail to make real sense of the reality of it.

Ricky Bobby in Talledaga Nights merely channeled the zeitgeist when he said:
"Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want... I like the baby version the best, you hear me? I win the races and I get the money...Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little fat balled up fists..."
As usual, N.T. Wright nails the problem in a recent article from Christianity Today. He explains how the first paragraphs of John's Gospel destroy any chance we might have of removing the sharp edges from the baby Jesus figurine. He urges us to "get real and get johanine" about the Christmas story.
Unless we recognize this strange, dark strand running through the Gospel, we will domesticate John's masterpiece (just as we're always in danger of domesticating Christmas) and think it's only about comfort and joy. In truth, it's also about incomprehension, rejection, darkness, denial, stopped ears, and judgment. Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything's all right. John's Gospel isn't about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying "Of course! Why didn't we realize it before?" It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations—and the darkness not comprehending it. It's about God, God as a little child, speaking words of truth, and nobody knowing what he's talking about.
It is normal for the Dad to hand out cigars at the birth of his child. The family and friends celebrate, but the birth of a baby is hardly news. This baby, however -- this God in an Infant -- this is no ordinary child. Only because of this is the birth worth noting two millenia after the fact.


In God's war on death, the birth of Jesus is only the first move of the ultimate strategy of redemption. It was Operation Incarnation. The birth only sets up the theater of operations for Operation Resurrection, which deals the death stroke to death itself. Revolutionary stuff. Revolutions inevitably involve the breaking of things and the overturning of apple carts. That's what the cooing baby was born to do.

Like I said, dangerous.

But it's a revolution of restoration. His breaking is fixing. His overturning is uprighting. It's no less disruptive, but when you disrupt chaos, what do you get? Peace. When you reverse suffering and sorrow, what are you left with? Joy.

So whenever you look at that baby in the manger, hang on. It may look quiet, but he's a ticking time bomb that will blow everything to heaven.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent Meditation 2 - Prepare

There’s a party coming and it’s time to get ready.

At its best, getting ready for the party is almost as good as the party itself.

Clean the house. Set the table. Cook the food – fancy food, hearty food, plain or spicy. Just make sure there’s lots of it and it’s good. Oh, and remember to pull the best bottles from your cabinets and cellars, with lots of glasses and plenty of ice.

Take a bath, polish yourself up, and put on your goin’-to-the-party clothes. Smile and be happy and open the door.

The house will fill with chatter and laughter. The convivial spirit will rise as bellies fill and wine glasses empty. For a moment the ugliness of the world is held off outside the walls and inside you taste just a bit of heaven. It was finally worth all the work and worry of getting ready, because once the party is on, nothing else matters.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But…that’s not always the case, is it?

Have you ever prepared for a party and found that the preparation was not fun at all? Have you ever been overtaken by “guest anxiety?” You work for hours, perhaps days, in a red mist of hospitality rage, trying to whip things into shape, and woe to the poor fool who gets in your way or fails to pitch in to help.It's a soul sucking madness that takes over the whole house and turn the rest of the family into zombie slaves in the thrall of the rabid hostess, made mad by her party planning psychosis.

Sound familiar?

This is what happens when the host begins to think that the point of the party is to prove what a great host she is. Instead of offering the party as an act of joyful love for the sake of your friends, the party becomes (in the mind of the host) the impending day of judgment -- and the judges are your guests.

This is such an easy mistake to make because we love to make everything into a religion where we think that doing things just right will save us. We tell ourselves that its all for the guests, when in fact the guests are just an excuse to congratulate ourselves on what good hosts we are. We turn the party into a religion and in the process miss the whole point of the exercise.

Now in the second week of Advent we prepare for the party we call Christmas. It's a pretty big deal, in case you haven't noticed. In this layer of the advent season we remember when Jesus was coming and look forward to when he will come again. His coming changes everything. So we prepare.

Here is the question: What are we preparing for? The judgment? Or the Party?

Be careful how you answer. It’s a trick question really, because if you are preparing for judgment, if you think you are preparing to be good enough for the party, you can just forget it. It is simply impossible for us to perfectly clean the cobwebs out of every corner of our spiritual house. We can scrub and polish and sweep and wipe, but we can never banish the stains and dust of our fallen lives, but we can never really make it good enough for Jesus.The dirt is just too embedded. The walls too rotten. The carpet too shabby.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no party, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invite him in. On the contrary – that's exactly why we MUST invite him in. You see, this is the Good News. 

Jesus is the guest who, when he arrives, cleans the house for us – top to bottom. Jesus cleans our kitchen, shines our bathroom, scrubs the toilets, washes the floors and deep cleans the carpets. Jesus arranges the furniture, plumps the pillows, puts away all the scattered clothes, polishes the silver and straightens the pictures on the walls. When Jesus arrives he takes your house, and completely remakes it into the best house it could possibly be and then some – spotless, perfect and completely comfortable. Jesus is the original and better Extreme Makoever Home Edition.

Not only that, Jesus provides all the food. More than you could possibly eat, more kinds than you can possibly imagine and better than you ever thought it could be. Whatever food you might have to offer, even if it’s just meager loaves and dried fishes, he will take what you offer and make it into the most sumptuous meal you never imagined.

With Jesus there is no dieting, no diabetes and certainly no anorexia. With Jesus if its feast time then it is time to feast! And when Jesus is in the house, you can bet no wine bottles will ever go empty.

This is Gospel: Jesus brings his own party wherever he goes and nobody – but NOBODY -- throws a better one.

This too is Gospel: Jesus is both the best guest and the most host, all at the same time.

And this also is Gospel: he has invited you to your own party.

So get ready wontcha?.

 Jesus has both come and is yet coming. We are both waiting (preparing) and enjoying his presence now. So prepare out of joyful overflowing love and in prescient thanksgiving. Forget fear and judgment – he has done away with it. Know that when our own preparations fall short (and they always do), Jesus makes up the difference, completely, joyfully, perfectly. 

Make sure you understand what I am saying. Get ready. Clean yourself up. Make your place beautiful. Do all the things you would do to prepare for the most wonderful guests - but do it all out of love and thanksgiving for the host, and the party He brings. That is Gospel. 

So for Christ’s sake (really, I mean it literally) stop worrying and get ready to party. Jesus is on his way.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Patience with Fools

When it first came out, a friend of mine commented on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. He did not complain that the Jar Jar Binks character made him want to spew. Instead he complained that this movie continued to reinforce a common theme in today's pop culture -- that if your heart is in the right place, you can succeed without any discipline or preparation, regardless of the difficulty of the task.

He may have had something there. I work with a number of young people at a large national retailer. A few are what I would consider typical youth, using their work experience as a way point on a journey upward. Others, however, will make noise about their plans and ambitions but seem to lack any ability to actually act in the direction of their stated goals. Nice kids, but not real clear on how life really works.

Some of the YouTube comments complain that the author of the video is being mean to aspiring writers. I would say it's fine to encourage those [fill in the blank] who are aspiring even as they work, but we need not have patience with fools. Fools should be slapped in the hopes that it will knock some sense into them.

While I haven't had a conversation exactly like the one in the video below, it made me think of some I might have.



Of course, then there are jaded old farts like me who are working at rebuilding their dreams and plans from the wreckage. C'est la guerre.

(hat tip to Jared Wilson )

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Die Tochter Fotografien

My oldest daughter has been bitten by the camera bug. She has quite the eye for composition and loves playing with the camera every chance she gets. One of the beauties of digital photography is almost instant feedback. While she has acquired a very nice film camera with lenses that she is learning to use, it's just such a hassle to send the film out and wait for it to come back. Then there is the expense. It is much cheaper to experiment on a digital camera. 

Recently she was able to go on a walk in the woods with some friends, exploring the "caves" around Mt. Major. In this part of the country, caves are usually just spaces between large rocks that have fallen from a cliff face. Although they are not true caves, they can be quite large and are still pretty cool to explore
.
At any rate, it was a nice off piste walk, and she got ahold of the camera that belongs to my friend Rick. Here are a few of the best shots.













Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Meditation 1

Lately, I find that seasons pass by almost without my knowing.

I am living mostly day to day, week to week, head down, leaning into the wind, making slow headway against the prevailing forces. Now and again I duck behind a tree or a rock and when I look up, time has passed and things look different. I'm always a little surprised. I can't stay in one place, however, so I put my head back down and continue plowing forward. I don't know how long it will take to reach a land that isn't so windy, but I know it's there.

It's not that I rail against wind anymore. I am learning to accept the wind. Wind is. Perhaps I can even harness the wind. Wind is what I have. I can possibly even learn to love the wind. Wind has it's own fierce beauty. In spite of all that, I will still long for the stillness of a sheltered place.

So I looked up the other day to realize that it's the first week of Advent. Once again I am taken by surprise. When I let myself move beyond the surprise, I find myself taken up in the layered beauty of Advent. Advent is like looking through the glass from both sides at the same time. It is a sort of cubist season where I find myself both seeing and being in the sheltered place even though it has not yet arrived.

I can do this because in Advent we remember what it was like for the Jewish nation to look forward with longing and anticipation and hope for the Chosen One who would lift the boot heel of Rome from their national neck. Of course, the Chosen One did come, but he looked nothing like they expected. Surprise!

In this way Advent becomes a time when we mirror that waiting in our own expectant waiting for the coming of The Chosen One. We expect and hope and long for him to return and deliver us from....what?

Pick your poison I guess. We know the world is one messed up hole. Anybody who pays any attention at all knows that for all it's beauty and wonder and power, there is also something quite wrong with the whole operation. Something isn't working the way it's supposed to. Deep down inside we long to see it fixed. It's a human thing, this longing. We naturally seek the sheltered place.

The followers of the buddha might say that if you can eliminate the longing then you eliminate the problem. It certainly doesn't hurt to cultivate a sense of equanimity about what is. I can say from personal experience that it is generally a good thing to do. But I don't think the longing is the cause of the problem. I would rather say that the problem is the cause of the longing. Anesthesia doesn't repair the broken bone. It merely numbs the pain. The bone remains broken.


In Advent, we are reminded that there is someone who came once to deal with that damage in the most unexpected way possible. He set the broken bones of the world with a profound finality that is really breathtaking to contemplate -- beyond politics or power or money or family or education or anything else that we look for to save us. His method is scandalous, crazy, ridiculous and ultimately the only thing that could possibly work. It makes no sense, but it's the only sensible thing.

Then he moved off (inexplicably) telling us to keep an eye out because he's coming back to finish the job. Apparently, the job is done, but not done. The world is fixed but the fix isn't finished. He'll be back to mop up. When? Who knows?

And so we wait, like the Children of Israel. They returned from exile sure that YHWH's favor rested upon them once more, only to experience repeated domination and disappointment over 400 years. Like them we walk against the wind and seek the sheltered place. And Our Shelter is coming. This is more certain than the rising of the morning sun in the eastern sky. He comes.


This then is one layered layer of Advent -- longing and waiting. We know our Shelter is there. And we know that we can stop seeking Our Shelter. We can sit quietly waiting, for Our Shelter has already found us. Our Hope has already arrived and is yet coming. And his coming is always a surprise.

Monday, November 29, 2010

First Sunday of Advent 2010 - Expectation



Veni, veni Emmanuel!
Captivum solve Israel!
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio,
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel
Nascetur pro te, Israel.

Veni, veni o oriens!
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque noctis tenebras.
Gaude, gaude Emmanuel
Nascetur pro te, Israel.

Veni, veni Adonai!
Qui populo in Sinai
Legem dedisti vertice,
In Maiestate gloriae.
Gaude, gaude Emmanuel
Nascetur pro te Israel.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wood Pile Nov 25

Got a very late start building the woodpile this year. Very late.

I am thankful to have close to 5 cord of wood stacked up, all acquired within the last 4 weeks. The generosity of friends, a willingness to ask around, a fair amount of industrious activity and...voila!

Let's keep an eye on it as the season winds around, shall we? We can watch it slowly disappear as it transforms into cozy nights in the midst of a bitter season.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

vote. don't vote. whatever.

I posted my facebook status today thusly:

vote. don't vote. whatever.

A scandalous sentiment. I was indeed scolded by one of my FB friends, an acquaintance from elementary school who reminded me that our mothers pounded it into us to VOTE. My mother didn't pound much of anything, but I would say that she would certainly look a bit more than askance at anyone suggesting that it is OK not to vote.

I believe in engagement. I am not by any means a separatist (and the LORD said 'come on out from among them and be ye separate...) of any kind. Voting is certainly one way to engage in the life of the world we live in. It is a unique form of engagement, and a custom highly developed here in the United States.

I balk, however, when voting is considered a "sacred" duty. Although that term may not be actually used, it is the default setting for most who prize the blessing of democracy. The term may not always be used per se, but it is thought of in just this manner -- a duty that is sacred. To refuse a sacred duty is blasphemous, an outrage against God. I reckon it all depends who your god is.

This is ironic, especially when coming from some who, believing in no god, or claiming to be unsure about the nature of a god that may or may not be, yet still think that the very idea of anything being 'sacred' could have any meaning for them. Even more ironic, however, that those who, clinging firmly to a faith in a Very Particular God, would not stop to think HOW exactly would voting be sacred. If it is, it is likely not for the reasons they are thinking.

For instance, I don't believe you will find anywhere in the Gospels where Jesus encourages us to go to the polls. Nor to stay away. Democracy was simply not a category in which Jews in 1st century Palestine dealt, and Jesus was no different.

Perhaps the closest he comes is when he says to give Caesar that which belongs to Caesar -- but that's taxes. What happens when we ARE Caesar -- or our job is to vote on Caesar?

So how should we think of voting? I refer you to Jared Wilson's blog post on Voting like you are not voting.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Beverage of Gourmets

I have nothing against soda (or pop, as my Michigander friends prefer to call it), I just don't drink that much of it. Like many good things, a little goes a long way.

As a young man, I attempted to drink that quintessential New England beverage, Moxie. Alas, I was too young, my palate undeveloped and immature as it was, could not tease out the lovely and complex interplay of flavors, nor fully appreciated the strength, boldness and audacity inherent in the extract of gentian root. I spurned Moxie for the sweeter and less demanding taste profiles of the more popular carbonated drinks.

Now in my middle age I have come around. Given the choice, I now willingly choose to be moxicated.

I will allow as it may take a bit of getting used to, but so does anything worthwhile. Here is a primer on how to drink Moxie.



Here's a nice spot on other local beverages, finishing with the best.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Day in the Life

Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk recently wrote an astounding piece called Tell Me about Your Day. 

It's astounding for two reasons. First because the suffering of the people about which he writes is deeply deeply moving, troubling and real. Second, because we so seldom stop to think that this sort of thing is going on around us all day long, every day, in the lives of the people we meet at work, on the street and in church. Every day. Everywhere.

This is not the exception, I think. It is more like the common human experience. We just hide it better than most cultures.

This is real life. I am struck hard when I ponder it, aware of how close it is to being my life, and afraid that I lack the compassion to face it in the lives of others.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I'd say that just about sums it up...

My good Texas friend Craig often attempts to needle me when we are having a light dusting of snow up here in NH. He likes to tell me how he is enjoying mowing the lawn with his shirt off, or some such blather as that. I don't get that at all, as I think mowing the lawn is punishment enough -- I don't see why you would want to throw skin cancer in on top of it.

There is a certain smugness that leaks up from those who prefer to live in (what they consider) more clement regions. I'll have none of that. They call them "tropical" diseases for a reason, after all.

My friend Assistant Village Idiot recently pointed me to a very nice list of reason why it makes all the sense in the world to live in New England -- from Sponge Headed Scienceman. I recommend reading it. 

If you don't get it, well...you just stay right where you are. That's more maple syrup for me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

It's Not About You

A few weeks ago, I had another opportunity to speak at a retreat, this time to the student body of Jesse Remington High School. We had a group of about 40 students who gathered at the Horton Center on Pine Mountain, overlooking Gorham, for a few days focused on building their life as a learning community. Yeah. I know. But that's just the kind of school Jesse Remington is.

As with my previous retreat experience, I tried simply to open up the Gospel to these kids, trying to help them see it through fresh eyes. Rather than expound the text, I tried to read the text. Rather than preach the 3 point sermon I worked at telling the 3 chapter story. Rather than set forth the three propositions, I tried to frame 3 pictures of the Gospel from what I hoped was a fresh new perspective.

I say this because when I approach speaking or preaching on the Gospel, I stay away from a scholarly approach because I am not a scholar, a philosopher or a particularly deep thinker. I just don't have the training for it. My approach is more pastoral -- what in this text will feed His sheep?

And even taking a pastoral approach, I still tend to avoid the heavy lifting of exegeting the original languages to make a fine theological point. Again, partly because I lack the training. But even moreso, the most useful thing to feed the flock isn't a new insight into the aorist tense in the original Greek. Nor is it another insight into the Pauline logic of the doctrine of justification.

The most useful thing for feeding the flock is pictures. Clear, powerful, visceral, emotionally charged pictures that teach us about who God is and what he has done.

That's at least part of the reason why Jesus left us with two basic practices around which he builds his church -- baptism and eucharist. These are first and foremost living pictures of him and his grace. Even better, they are not pictures that we merely gaze upon. They are pictures in which we partake -- we are included in the picture.

Chew on that.

I kind of wish I had this video a few weeks ago. I would have shamelessly stolen from it, because it makes the point I worked so hard to make to those students in the mountains.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Affectionate Insults

I just returned from a weekend in the mountains of mountains of NH where I was engaged as the speaker at a Christian men's retreat. Good men. Good times.

I was amazed and delighted to experience that wonderful atmosphere of affectionate insult that pervades the banter of men who have known each other for a long time, and love and respect each other. It might appear, if one were to read a transcript of the event, that these men loved to spite one another. But when you hear the tone of voice and see the expressions on faces, you realize that the deepest insults are also the most loving compliments. I think the term is "good natured ribbing." You only hurt the ones you love.

It's a guy thing.

Our teaching focus was an attempt to uncover fresh perspectives on the Gospel. Much of the material are ideas that I have only recently learned myself, but which has deeply shaped my heart. It reminded me of this post from 2007.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sport or Sporty

Atlantic Monthly online has a great article by Hampton Stevens on Why Cheerleading isn't a Sport, but Croquet is. Brilliant.

There are, as Mr. Stevens sees it, three iron clad requirements for an activity to be considered a sport.
  1. people compete at it
  2. computers can't do it
  3. aesthetics don't count.
I have long complained about the dominance of activities like figure skating, ice dancing, synchonized swimming, and even gymnastics in broadcast coverage of the olympics. I even have trouble with certain skiing and snowboarding events that figure style in the "judging." But I have never been able to express my dislike of such events as succinctly and clearly as Mr. Stevens.

My hat is off to you sir. Well done.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tribal Weather, Man

Politics and government are expressions of culture. This is as true of politics as of any other sphere of human life including, but not limited to religious practice, war-making, law, science and it’s close cousin philosophy, economics and business, architecture, and all forms of art and craft.

As such, I am not especially interested in commenting on a given days political events. I usually merely observe and note my own thoughts to myself. I am much more interested, however, in noting prevailing currents, winds of change, forecasts of upcoming societal weather which can be discerned in the higher clouds of the cultural skies.

My friend Assistant Village Idiot has long been using the concept of Tribes as a model for understanding the cultural weather. He recently posted a link to a very insightful essay in the American Spectator on the nature of today’s “ruling class” along with some excellent commentary – with more of his own commentary to come.

The language in the American Spectator article is the language of "class," as opposed to AVI's use of the term "Tribe." They are both talking about the same idea. I think "Tribe" is the better term here, but the way Dr. Codevilla describes it in his essay is thorough and revealing and well worth the read.

Go to AVI's blog and also look at his writing in his Tribes Collection.

If Bob Dylan was right that “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” I would say you might need a bigger weather map to see what’s coming down the jet stream.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Going Off the Air

As mentioned in a previous post, our church home for the past seven years since moving back to NH is going off the air. That may strike you as a mixed metaphor (a home and a TV broadcast), but confusing images seems suitable. The event is so jangling, so dissonant, that the only way to describe it may well be to compare apples to elephants.

I found myself driving home from work tonite realizing that soon, for the first time in a long time, I'm going to have to think about where, and with whom, I will be worshiping on a Sunday morning. For many people I suppose that an odd choice (I suspect most people don't worry much about what to do on a Sunday morning), but it makes sense when you realize that throughout my adult life my most meaningful relationships have always been found through the churches we attend. Work relationships were good, because I get along with most everyone. But the friendships I formed at church have always been the most important and significant. It has been at church that I formed the most foundational aspects of my identity, and at church that I perform what I believe to be my most important labor outside the work I do with and for my family.

 Tomorrow is the day we throw the going away party.

We will gather for a final worship service, to hear the Word, to share the Meal, to make our offerings together. Then we will gather on a high grassy ridge overlooking the Merrimack Valley and have a picnic. We'll eat, and there will be talking and laughing, likely some crying, and more eating and talking. We are good at talking (and eating), so that also fits.

We have plans to meet again periodically through the summer on Wednesday afternoons, as has been our custom over the past years, but these will not be worship services. That part of our fellowship officially ends tomorrow.

I'm still unsure this is right. I think it is, but feel it isn't, and I don't know quite what to make of that. I have no fear or worry about the future. I am confident that it will turn out all right. I just don't like the way the notes are sounding right now. The chord seems all wrong and I can't sense how the composer will resolve the piece.

I have given some thought to why this is all happening. Stay tuned. Analysis later.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Black Kettles and Ebony Pots

There is no doubt the situation in the Gulf of Mexico is deplorable. Awful. Terrible. Disastrous.

And BP screwed up. Monumentally.

But....

These congressional dog and pony shows make me want to throw up. Documentaries often seem to like talking about how back in the day, hundreds of people would show up for a public hanging. It was great entertainment. Of course, today we don't do that because we are so much more sensitive and civilized than our primitive ancestors of 120 years ago.

Instead we pay actors to pretend to be violent.

And we watch our elected officials publicly and loudly flog the nearest dog they can put their hands on. Millions gather via the glowing screen to see the officials strut and pontificate -- as if they had nothing to do with it.

Here's the problem. BP screwed up, but the oil is on our hands. They were just the delivery boys.

We need to stop being so self-righteous about where our petroleum comes from.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Backwards soduM idnarepO

I suppose I have missed most of a classic blogging opportunity.

Later this month, our church is intentionally closing its doors. The action is not a sudden spur-of-the-moment thing, but the result of much prayer, study and discussion. It has been discussed openly and directly for about 2 years now, and would have made great blog fodder. Such a blog might not have the wide appeal as, say, cooking your way through Julia Child's cookbook, but it still would have been a unique chronicle of an unusual event. Now that we are a few weeks away from our last official worship service, it seems a little late to start. I guess I won't get rich from writing a book about it.

I spent the evening with some good friends planning the last three worship services. As usual the discussion ranged widely, coming back to the task at hand often enough to get the planning done. The problem we faced was very much about how to plan these with the proper focus ( on Jesus, not on our church) and with the proper tone (not telling people what to feel, but going about the business of worshiping God and letting the chips fall where they may).

Although we believe, for a variety of reasons, that this is the right thing to do, it still strikes a false note. It seems things should work out differently, that the Holy Spirit should be pulling some kind of spiritual rabbit out of the ecclesiastical hat right now. It's such an odd thing. Who ever hears about churches closing? It all seems so backwards.

But then...I guess a lot of things God does seem pretty backwards when you think about it. Seems like its just part of the old Modus Operandi. Who am I to argue.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An Incomplete Manuscript

"What we must notice at this stage is that, both in the Old Testament and in the New, the present suffering of the world – about which the biblical writers knew every bit as much as we do – never makes them falter in their claim that the created world really is the good creation of a good God. They live with the tension. And they don’t do it by imagining that the present created order is a shabby, second-rate kind of thing, perhaps (as in some kinds of Platonism) made by a shabby, second-rate sort of god. They do it by telling a story of what the one creator God has been doing to rescue his beautiful world and to put it to rights. And the story they tell…indicates that the present world really is a signpost to a larger beauty, a deeper truth. It really is the authentic manuscript of one part of a masterpiece. The question is, What is the whole masterpiece like, and how can we begin to hear the music in the way it was intended?

The point of the story is that the masterpiece already exists – in the mind of the composer. At the moment, neither the instruments nor the players are ready to perform it. But when they are, the manuscript we already have – the present world with all its beauty and puzzlement – will turn out to be truly part of it. The deficiencies in the one part we possess will be made good. The things that don’t make sense at the moment will display a harmony and perfection we hadn’t dreamed of. The points at which today the music seems almost perfect, lacking just one small thing, will be completed. That is the promise held out in the story. Just as, in one of the New Testament’s greatest claims, the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdom of God, so the beauty of this world will be enfolded in the beauty of God – and not just the beauty of God himself, but the beauty which, because God is the creator par excellence, he will create when the present world is rescued, healed, restored and completed."


N.T. Wright in Simply Christian:Why Christianity Makes Sense. Harper Collins hardcover p 47.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Giacometti Code

Tip of the Hat to my friend Eric Plantenberg for passing on the link via facebook.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Goodnight Internet Monk

My life is full these days. I move from one job to another, working to bring in enough money to keep the family boat afloat. I take very little time off, and what I do take off is usually dedicated to hanging with my wife and/or the chilluns. Most of the writing I do these days is not for fun, but for profit, and that leaves little time to post to these pages. I don't suppose it matters much in the greater scheme. I don't suppose I have so many regular readers that it's much noticed.

Nevertheless, and event recently passed that I would rather have taken time to mark on this blog. Michael Spencer, aka The Internet Monk, died from cancer a few weeks ago.

Michael's work on his blog at www.internet monk.com has been especially helpful to me over the past few years in my continuing journey to slay the dragons that continue to invade my little kingdom. The center of his writing was a call to Jesus-shaped living, as opposed to church-shaped living. That was his way of talking about the gospel of grace that Jesus embodied and lived. By drawing a clear bright line between Jesus and the church, Michael invited criticism, but I think more often that not he was spot on. And he relentlessly applied his Jesus-shaped lens to a wide range of life including some very difficult and thorny real life questions. It wasn't about abstract philosophy, but about flesh and blood discipleship.

I join many other people in my thanks to Michael for his work, and for those who seek to carry on his legacy through the website.

For those of you who have not yet been introduced to Michael Spencer, I suggest you read the excerpt from Michael's book Mere Churchianity. It is being published soon, posthumously.

Here, Michael discusses who he is writing the book for. It seems to me that he has discovered an unreached tribe, hidden from or ignored by vast numbers of church people, and has aimed his message deep into that unsurveyed segment of the evangelical map.

But I’m not writing to church members who are happy where they’re at or to Christians who are heavily invested in the success and propagation of the church as an organization.
I’m writing instead to those who may still be associated with the church but no longer buy into much of what the church says. Not because they doubt the reality of God, but because they doubt that the church is really representing Jesus. I’m writing to people on the inside who are about to leave or have already left. I’m writing to those who are standing in the foyer of the church, ready to walk out, yet taking one last look around. They haven’t seen the reality of Jesus in a long time, but they can’t stop believing he is here. Somewhere. And they’re unsure what it will mean to strike out on their own.

Mere Churchianity is written for people who have come to the end of the road with the church but who can’t entirely walk away from Jesus. In the wreckage of a church-shaped religious faith, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth persists and calls out to them. I’m talking to those who have left, those who will leave, those who might as well leave, and those who don’t know why they are still hanging around.

And I’m writing to the outsiders who might be drawn to God if it weren’t for Christians.
This is very typical of Michael's writing. Unsparing, willing to drag into the light the skeletons most people would rather not talk about. He calls it likes he sees it. There are lots of people that fit this bill, but much of evangelical pop-culture has no idea how to engage with them.

I never knew Michael, but I will always appreciate him and his work. I look forward to sharing a beer with him when the world is remade.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Periodically Speaking

In my younger days at the University (lol) I would often spend time browsing the periodicals at the library. I would often come across The New Yorker Magazine, take it down and riffle through the pages. Somehow, I always got stuck on the "Talk of the Town" section and never seemed to get past it. In those days, before I had ever spent much time actually living in a city, I was generally anti city life, as a matter of principle. Coming from a rural background, and a family where my mother was afraid to drive into town on Friday nights because of the traffic -- town being Concord NH, a city of perhaps 30,000 in that time -- I had been raised with a broad distaste for the urban. A visit to Boston was a major undertaking, carrying a frisson of danger and peril from crazy Boston drivers, inscrutable maps and the unwashed mass of humanity driven to life in concrete warrens and asphalt deserts. Now after having lived for several years in Detroit, if I don't prefer urban life, at least I can speak from personal knowledge that it's not as bad as I had been raised to think.

New York is of course the City of all Cities. While for some, like Garrison Keillor, this seemed to make it an object of great fascination, I approached anything to do with that sprawling human hive as vaguely suspect from the start.  Yet I had heard someplace the The New Yorker was a great literary magazine, worthy of attention. So I would open it and begin to read The Talk of the Town column which resides toward the front pages.

Reading it now, with the wider perspective that comes with age and experience, I find some of the items in TOTT to be interesting and engaging. At the time, however, it seemed more of a parochial account of a certain narrow segment (perhaps the stem?) of New York to which I did not relate well. I would read of art openings, charity events, business and social gossip of the highly placed and highly falutin', all taking place on streets and neighborhoods that were names on the page, but not places in my mind. Now I have learned just skim the section, lighting on articles of interest, and letting the rest go. But in my early earnestness I tried to read it all through until I got bogged down and just gave up. Because I stopped there and went no further I really didn't find the excellent articles that lay further in.

Not too long ago I recently rediscovered the New Yorker in a waiting room. I was floored by the writing, and dismayed to think of what all I missed out on. The article that grabbed me was about uncontrollable itching. Yes. You read that right. I have since discovered many other that contain fascinating stories on people and events in a broad cross section of human culture from all over the world. Fascinating and compelling. I have since read many other articles from various issues. I am now a convert to the New Yorker.

I guess that the days when The Grand Periodicals like the New Yorker defined the literary style and direction of our culture are gone. New fiction is comparatively rare in the magazine landscape, limited to those like TNY that have a strong tradition of fiction that they feel they must uphold. Nevertheless, I get the sense that their heart really isn't in it. Most are almost exclusively bent toward writing that is flavored heavily with journalism. It would seem that the news story, in various forms, is the defining literary style of our time. That's not necessarily bad, but I suspect that it ain't what it used to be. Even so, it's still pretty good.

Perhaps I was just too young to appreciate TNY back in the day. I wonder if I just persevered beyond the Talk of the Town to mine the rich lode of full length articles further in if I might have fostered a greater appreciation. After all, I am predisposed.

You see, I love magazines, all kinds, but especially the ones with fewer pictures and lots of text. I like in-depth explorations, broad and beautiful descriptions of people, places, times and events. I like that even the longest articles can be completed in a half hour but the good ones will leave my brain buzzing for days. I like good strong evocative language, and analysis that nudges my noodle toward new perspectives. And I like that sort of thing in large doses. That's the kind of magazine I really like.

But I'm really not that picky. If I had the time and the money, I would subscribe to dozens. New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Harper's, Weekly Standard, Mother Earth News, Mother Jones, Utne Reader, Time, Newsweek, Wired, Inc, Fast Company, National Review, Outdoors, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Christianity Today, First Things, New Oxford Review, just to name a few in no particular order.

And that doesn't even begin to touch the special interest rags on topics like history, martial arts, guns, physical culture and physical training, science, technology, hiking and outdoors, hunting, farming, forestry, and so on.

But for now, I will have to content myself with various free back issues of whatever I can find in waiting rooms and libraries -- occasionally even picking the odd issue out of the mixed paper recycling pile at the local dump. Hey...I'm recycling. You got a problem with that?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Despising the Body and Longing for Resurrection

At some point we began to assume that the life of the body would be the business of grocers and medical doctors, who need take no interest in the spirit, whereas the life of the spirit would be the business of the churches, which would have at best only a negative interest in the body. In the same way we began to see nothing wrong with putting the body - most often somebody else's body, but frequently our own - to a task that insulted the mind and demeaned the spirit...


Divided against each other, body and soul drive each other to extremes of misapprehension and folly. Nothing could be more absurd than to despise the body and yet yearn for its resurrection. In reaction to this supposedly religious attitude, we get, not reverence or respect for the body, but another kind of contempt: the desire to comfort and indulge the body with equal disregard for its health. The "dialogue of body and soul" in our time is being carried on between those who despise the body for the sake of its resurrection and those, diseased by bodily extravagance and lack of exercise, who nevertheless desire longevity above all things. These think that they oppose each other, and yet they could not exist apart. They are locked in a conflict that is really their collaboration in the destruction of soul and body both.

Attributed to Wendell Berry but the source is unknown

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Now that's a pushup

I just love watching this.



I would love to be able to do the planche pushup, and the planche to handstand. I'm toying with the idea that if I gave myself 2 years to train for this, I could do it. Why 2 years? To make allowances for the fact that I have a very full life with not a lot of extra time to dedicate to training. I've done some reading but need to do more research about the way to approach it.

It would be wicked cool.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Peace Train

I'm going to totally co-opt this song by Yusuf Islam (nee Cat Stevens). This certainly wasn't what the author intended, but this is what I hear when I listen to this song.

Listen to it. This is a great performance. But, this time, every time he sings the word "peace train," replace your mental image of a train with an image of the resurrected Jesus.

All the hope, all the longing, all the joy that this song encapsulates is not just a misty dream. It is concrete and real and embodied (not personified -- embodied) in the resurrected God-Man called Jesus Christ. His resurrection is just the mighty Locomotive of Life leaving the station, bringing the whole creation along with it, us included, on the way to the World Remade.

Jesus is the Peace Train.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Don't Be Afraid




And the resurrection of Jesus issues the surprising command: don’t be afraid; because the God who made the world is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and calls you now to follow him. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just a matter of believing that certain things are true about the physical body of Jesus that had been crucified. These truths are vital and nonnegotiable, but they point beyond themselves, to the God who was responsible for them. Believing in this God means believing that it is going to be all right; and this belief is, ultimately, incompatible with fear. As John says in his letter, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4.18). And the resurrection is the revelation of perfect love, God’s perfect love for us, his human creatures. That’s why, though we may at any stage in our lives grasp the truth that God raised Jesus from the dead, it takes us all our life long to let that belief soak through and permeate the rest of our thinking, feeling, and worrying lives.”

Sometimes this process isn’t just a gradual thing; it may involve sudden crises. There’s a hidden chapter in the life of St Paul, which is usually ignored by those who see him either as the heroic missionary or the profound theologian, or possibly the misguided misogynist. Acts doesn’t mention this hidden chapter, but in our second lesson we heard Paul himself speak of it. At one stage of his work in what he called Asia, and we call Turkey, he says that he went through a horrendous and traumatic experience which seem to destroy him totally. ‘I was so utterly, unbearably crush’, he writes, ‘that I despaired of life itself; indeed, I felt as though I had received the sentence of death’ (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). And a good part of the second letter to Corinth actually grows out of this experience; the brash, proud Corinthian church had wanted Paul to be a success story, and he had to explain to them that being an apostle, and ultimately being a Christian, was not a matter of being a success story, but of living with human failure–and with the God who raises the dead. That’s what following Jesus is likely to involve.”

(NT Wright, Following Jesus, 68-69)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Invited to Participate



[T]he Gospels never say anything like, “Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death” (not that many first-century Jews doubted that there was); or, “Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die” (most people believed something like that anyway); or better, “Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised at the last.”
No: insofar as the [resurrection] is interpreted in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it has a very “this-worldly” meaning, relating to what is happening here and now. “Jesus is raised,” they say, “therefore he is the Messiah; he is the true Lord of the whole world; therefore we, his followers, have a job to do: we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world.”
It is not, “Jesus is raised, therefore look up into the sky and keep looking because one day you will be going there with him.” Many hymns, prayers, and Christian sermons have tried to pull the Easter story in that direction, but the line of thought within the Gospels themselves is, “Jesus is raised, therefore God’s new world has begun, and therefore we, you, and everybody else are invited to be not only beneficiaries of that new world but participants in making it happen.”


From Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened by Craig A. Evans and N. T. Wright, originally posted in Christianity Today’s article Easter, Unedited

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Unveiled



"The resurrection completes the inauguration of God's kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating thet God's kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven."

"The message of Easter is that God's new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you're now invited to belong to it."

— N. T. Wright

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Colonize Earth with the Life of Heaven


“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.”

N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why would they persist?


The historian is bound to face the question: once Jesus had been crucified, why would anyone say that He was Israel's Messiah? 



Nobody said that about Judas the Galilean after his revolt ended in failure in AD 6. Nobody said it of Simon bar-Giora after his death at the end of Titus's triumph in AD 70. Nobody said it about bar-Kochbar after his defeat and death in 135. On the contrary, where messianic movements tried to carry on after the death of their would-be messiah, their most important task was to find another messiah. The fact that the early Christians did not do that but continued against all precedent to regard Jesus Himself as Messiah, despite outstanding alternative candidates such as the righteous, devout, and well-respected James, Jesus' own brother, is evidence that demands an explanation. As with their beliefs about resurrection, they redefined messiahship itself and with it their whole view of the problem that Israel and the world faced and the solution they believed God had provided. They remained at one level a classic jewish messianic movement, owing fierce allegiance to their Messiah and claiming Israel and the whole world in His name. But the mode of that claim and the underlying allegiance itself were drastically redefined. 


The rise of early Christianity, and the shape it took in two central and vital respects, thus presses upon the historian the question for an explanation. The early Christian retained the Jewish belief in resurrection, but both modified it and made it more sharp and precise. They retained the Jewish belief in a coming Messiah but redrew it drastically around Jesus Himself. Why? 


The answer early Christians themselves give for these changes, of course, is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion.


N.T. Wright "Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins"

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Turning Point



“Without the resurrection there is one way of telling the story; with the resurrection there is a whole other way. Without the resurrection , the story is an unfinished and potentially tragic drama in which Israel can hold on to hope but with an increasing sense that the narrative is spinning out of control.
Without the resurrection, even the story of Jesus is a tragedy, certainly in first-century Jewish terms, as the two on the road to Emmaus knew very well. But with the resurrection there is a new way of telling the entire story. The resurrection isn’t just a surprise happy ending for one person; it is instead the turning point for everything else.
It is the point at which all the old promises can come true at last: the promises of David’s unshakable kingdom; the promises of Israel’s return from the greatest exile of them all; and behind that again, quite explicit in Matthew, Luke, and John, the promise that all the nations will now be blessed through the seed of Abraham.”


–N.T. Wright, "Surprised by Hope" (New York: Harper One, 2008), 236.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Point of the Resurrection

"The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom."

N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Signs of Spring

The frost heaves were bad this past month. After a couple weeks of abnormally warm temps, the roads are starting to calm down a bit. Both my truck's suspension, and my spine are grateful. Besides which, it is not easy to dodge the bumps, work the clutch, shift AND not spill the coffee on your lap.

Whatever you do, don't put the cup between your legs. Just sayin'

Also, town meeting was last Saturday. I was unable to actually attend. Instead, I stood in as temporary Girl Scout Leader overseeing the sale of Girl Scout Cookies outside the meeting. Filling in for my sick bride. As town meetings go, it apparently lacked the entertainment value of some past years. 31 warrant articles dispatched in a mere 3.5 hours.

Now the floods are here. 3 days of torrential rains. Rivers cresting over flood stage. Roads washing out. Neighborhoods evacuated. No need to declare a state of emergency, says the Governor. The SOE from the windstorm 2 weeks ago is still in force. Now that's a relief.

The blue lines are running to and fro in the woods, carrying that precious sugar sap down to the old fashioned plastic barrels so the farmers can lift them onto the flatbed with a propane powered forklift and bring them to the sugar house where the water will be boiled off by a heat from a mini nuclear reactor core. Don't worry, it doesn't give off any greenhouse gases, so it won't contribute to global warming.

And finally - mud.

Just another typical New Hampshire spring.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Canned Goods

My friend Wendy has begun a lovely little blog called "Little Farm in the City" about her experience as...well....as so many things. I encourage you to visit.

Her recent post is on ratatouille, and how it seems to her like eating summer. Her writing reminded me of a song by Greg Brown called Canned Goods. It really is a beautiful and evocative song.

Peaches on the shelf 
Potatoes in the bin
Supper's ready, everybody come on in
Taste a little of the summer, 
Taste a little of the summer, 
You can taste a little of the summer 
my grandma's put it all in jars. 


Here is a very passable rendition I found on You Tube. You can also listen to Greg himself doing it on Last FM or Lala.com


Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Unexpected Stain of Grace

Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Arthur Foye, the father of an old friend.

Well, more than an old friend really. An old girlfriend. My first kiss, in fact.

If my calculations are correct, her father was a minister of the gospel for something like 52 years. I came to know him when I was a 17 year old half man / half punk. I remember being embraced by the family, and I remember their house as a place of love and joy and acceptance. This is, of course, in complete accord with everything that was said about Art during the service yesterday.

I would estimate that there were at least 300 people in attendance, in spite of bad weather that has plagued the state over the past week. The spirit of the gathering was not downcast or melancholy. We certainly mourned his passing, and many will miss him greatly, and yet the pervasive mood was one of joy and hope, with a generous portion of humor.

I have been thinking throughout the past week of his personal impact on me. It is a curious thing to think about now, some 30 years later, because I am certain that I was not much more than a blip in his life, some skinny kid who hung around his daughter for a year or so. We did not have many actual one to one conversations between us. I was much more likely to sit down and chat with Joan, his lovely bride. We certainly had no deep conversations about Jesus, or theology, or scripture, or anything like that (that I can recall), which even then was bread and butter to me, as it was to him.

Yet I remember meeting them for the first time as I arrived to pick up his daughter to go to a movie. I was anxious to make a good impression and communicate that I intended to take very good care of their girl. I recall an amused look on his face. Possibly even approving, but as a young man in that situation, I may simply have been hoping for the best.

As time went on, I have memories of celebrating New Year’s eve with the Foye’s, and of their inviting my Mom to join us. This began a friendship between them, which lasted until my Mom died last year. I am so grateful to Art and Joan for their kindness and support to my Mom as she went through much trouble over the last few decades of her life.

I remember eating with them, as he would preside at table – that long, long table in their New England country kitchen. Food was plentiful (important to a teenage boy) and good, conversation bright and studded liberally with laughter. They welcomed me into their family with ease and grace and I always felt welcomed there, even after I was no longer dating their daughter.

I remember visiting the summer Church camp where Art was Director for many years, soaking in the sense of fun and joy that he brought to what I know now is often a pretty tough job.

I remember watching as they cared for, suffered with, and struggle over their children. I remember being struck forcefully by their example of open and total love in all circumstances.

And then through the years following, as I had occasion to visit, we would chat amiably and he would be off to some meeting or another while I would stay for another piece of coffee cake, just thankful for the chance to hang out in their kitchen. If spirit can affect things, then that table must be saturated with love and hospitality.

Looking at all this on the whole, I find myself a little bit surprised how much influence Art and Joan and their home and their family have had on my life. My association has been long but really on the fringes of their lives. Nevertheless, the experience of having been with them, the memory of that time, the knowledge of who they are and that they are there has never left my mind or my heart. Truthfully, I really cannot say that I knew him well. Yet by building a house inhabited by gospel values, and by letting me into that house, even for a brief time, Art and Joan have had a profound impact on my thoughts, my choices and my life. Although it is difficult for me to account for the powerful effect of such brief acquaintance, I am joyfully grateful for it. I am a better man because of it.

It is rather as if grace had such a profound hold on their lives that it simply couldn't help but leak out all over those who came near them. Even now, I still bear the beautiful stains of that grace, and those lovely colors have not washed out. I can only imagine what brilliant colors his life must have lent to those he knew well, and who worked with him regularly.

May the love of God the Father, the peace of Christ, and the joy of the Holy Spirit continue to dwell richly within the memory of Art here on earth, as we await with joyful anticipation the reunion to come when the world is made anew.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

And Now Vampires...

My friend Ron pointed out that not only are Dragons being misappropriated by the popular culture, so is the vampire. To this I must shout an Amen.

The vampire myth goes way back, but as far as I can tell became prominent and common in modern western circles with the publication of Bram Stoker's novel. Having read that book and performed in a chamber theater production of a theatrical adaptation of the book (as Jonathan Harker, the hapless solicitor) I have a powerful appreciation for the story and it's layered exploration of the human condition.

Also among my top list of favorite books are the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. Her vampires are certainly of a different order than Count Vlad Dracul, but also layered, complex, dangerous and yes, evil. Yet their evil is not as simple as Dracula's. It is not the monochromatic malevolence of the monster, but more of a reflection of the evil that lives in the hearts of all humans. These vampires struggle with all the questions that we humans struggle with, but along a parallel track -- and that makes their struggle in some ways easier to empathize with. It helps us see their nature -- both good and bad -- more clearly. These vampires are undoubtedly plagued with a curse, and that curse, although it has completely changed their destinies and natures, it also grants them certain kinds of blessings.

Lewis dealt with this sort of "problem" briefly in his introduction to the Screwtape Letters. There is a problem in writing of the Adversary. The temptation is to make him flat, one dimensional, pure evil. But really, you can't. It is not possible. He is dangerous because he is (for instance) intelligent, witty, attractive, etc. Intelligence and all those other qualities are  good things in and of themselves. You can't say that bad creatures cannot have good qualities, for then they would largely cease to be.

Of course that tells us something about the nature of evil and our condition. Evil cannot create of itself, it can only pervert and ruin that which is good by twisting it and bending toward evil purpose.

In Anne Rice's books, you see this complexity exquisitely played out in her vampire characters. Yet while you sympathize with her characters, you don't find yourself desiring them. They are attractive at a certain level, but certainly repulsive. They seek redemption from their condition, but must also accept that they are killers. Their survival requires the shedding of blood -- and it never stops. Ultimately they are doomed by their appetites and tied to the earth. She uses them as more than just symbols. As I said, they are a mirror which Ms. Rice holds up to our faces so that we can see ourselves -- and the view is not pretty.

Now comes Twilight and it's ilk.

Again, I am writing having neither read the books nor seen the movies. I probably will do one or the other or both eventually. I'm not on a crusade, nor will I cordon myself off from their "impure" influences. I know that my ignorance and inexperience opens me up to criticism. Very well. Have it it. Instruct me. But first I will have my say.

These dimly lit vampires seem to be of a different ilk altogether from either Stoker's or Rice's. They strike me as childrens' vampires. Granted, they are for older children, who will be attracted to their barely suppressed sexual longing, and will identify with their anxiety for love and belonging. I say they are childrens' vampires because it seems they are treated as if they were simply people of a different color or culture. When faced with such differences, popular culture tells us we should behave toward them like children. It's as if we were all young girls, staring longingly at her toothy paramour, thinking:

"If we only understood them, if we only took the time to listen to them and get to know them we could see that really, they are just like us. Can't we all just get along. Really? Because he is soooooo cute, and I think I  would really like to have his little vampire babies."

So they seem to be childrens' vampires, and girls' vampires as well. They seem all to be of the type that will have the adolescent femme swooning. The POV of the stories is that of this girl, who operates as the universal archetype of verging womanhood in all of us. Perhaps that is meant to be a corrective for ages of paternalistic masculine symbolic domination. OK. Whatever. I'm still not sure it's really a good idea.

As much as I love teenage girls, both (once upon a time) from the perspective of a teenage boy, and (more recently) of the father of a soon to be teenage girl, I think we must admit that teenage girls, as a group, tend to have a rather peculiarly astigmatic view of reality.

Is it possible that by positioning us all as teenage girls, we are pulling the fangs from vampires too? As literature, what do these stories show us about our own natures, our own condition? I'm not sure I agree with Mr. Wilson (who occasionally has been known to overstate his case) but he does offer one possible view I cite as an example.

I am not alarmed. This sort of thing is to be expected, and as I get older I will find more and more opportunities to decry how the world is just going to heck in some kind of basket or other. I don't like to read too much into such things.

But I do feel like something is being lost here. I don't guess it is the end of the world, but I find myself asking when the symbols of evil are all tamed and domesticated, how will we find new ways to look into the dark jungles of the heart that are full of all manner of wild and authentically terrifying beasts? What pictures will be use to see ourselves and know that we need a way out? What mirrors will aid us to see our need for that redemptive heart surgery?

I guess we will see.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Fungibility of Symbols

There is a movie coming out soon called How to Train your Dragon.

Just in the interest of full disclosure, I haven't seen it. I probably will eventually (can't remember the last time I saw a movie in the theater although I LOVE going to movies). I am reasonably sure that it is cute, somewhat clever, and at least mildly entertaining in that Hollywood  *nod nod, *wink wink kind of way.

Having said that, it also troubles me and makes me just a little miffy.

For centuries, possibly millenia, in most civilizations that I know of, dragons are beasts to be taken very seriously. In western civilization, the dragon has been a symbol of wickedness, of sin, of the presence and power and danger of evil. The dragon is a foe and one that must be slain lest it lay waste the kingdom. It is a wily and cunning enemy, skilled in wordplay and deceit. It is powerful and difficult to destroy. It despoils green and fertile and ruins the beautiful and innocent.

Even in Asian culture, where the dragon is not necessarily evil, it is still an exceptionally powerful force, one that must be reckoned with carefully, and not taken lightly.

But...it seems we have become too sophisticated for such symbols. Or rather, too sophisticated for the meaning of the old symbols. So we keep the old symbol and we castrate it. Keep the fangs, the scales, the wings, even the fiery breath. That's all solid comic potential. But let's take away all that danger and all that stuff about evil. Dragons are just reptiles after all, and probably misunderstood.

That's it. They are "misunderstood."

Well, our Christian Fathers did it. They took yule trees and made them into Christmas trees. They completely ripped off the Roman cross, the ultimate symbol of imperialistic power, and co-opted to use as the symbol of the New Kingdom of God. Jesus himself turned the Passover meal on its head, establishing himself as the New Pesach. OK, so such shifts in meaning aren't new.

But each of those cases remade the symbol into something More Powerful, more mystical and more dangerous than before. You might still think the symbol is wrong (as the Jews certainly do regarding Jesus appropriation of Passover), but you can't deny the power of the new thing. But this training your dragon business is just taking a good strong symbol, tearing out all the bones and guts, draining all the blood, stuffing the carcass full of lime jello and making it dance.

What worries me is that we think everything is life is "trainable." When something seems wrong we think the problem is that we aren't educated enough. The bad thing is just some kind of misunderstanding. And we go on thinking that until., just a little too late, we realize that the cute little dickens we laughed at and thought was so cute is about to burn our house, kill our family and grind us to a paste between it's jaws.

There is evil in the world, and to convert every symbol of evil into a cartoon won't make it go away, or make it less dangerous in reality. It just makes us easier to eat.

Well...I'm sure it's a fun movie. I'll try not to grind my teeth too much as I watch it.