Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A triumph of the human spirit?

We bought a movie on DVD.  In most households this would not be all that momentous of news, but around here, it is a rather rare phenomenon (I must absolutely love a movie and be willing to watch it 8 times a year before I will purchase it).  On the back it was proclaimed as a 'triumph of the human spirit.'  That tag line sounded strangely familiar and then I remembered where I had heard, I had watched The Prince of Egypt recently and the back of the box said exactly the same thing.  The current movie in question is the recent release of Les Miserables, though the settings and stories could not be any more different, the themes are strangely similar and got me to wondering what all this 'human spirit' triumphalism was all about.  The basic theme at the root of both movies is God's redemptive power at work in troubled human lives, not some strange triumph of the human spirit (whatever that is supposed to mean).

I think I have discovered the one topic in modern culture that is anathema to be enthused about.  These are wonderful movies telling classic stories and beautifully done, yet we are embarrassed to talk about it.  We will talk about our most intimate bedroom details quite unabashedly or make a horribly violent and vulgar movie and proclaim it boldly from the housetops, yet we must not speak too loudly about a beautiful movie that mentions God, instead we celebrate a triumph of the human spirit.  It was interesting watching the 'making of,' as well, it seems even some of the producers/cast didn't really understand the full meaning of what they had done.  They talked about how Les Mis was an example of how oppressed people could find freedom and justice and popped up pictures of confederate soldiers from the American Civil War, people holding occupy Wall Street signs, and lauded the French Revolution.  The movie was splendidly done but it seems some of the makers have missed the whole point!  The student rebellion is merely a backdrop for the drama unfolding between the main characters, it is not a commentary on social revolution and by the way, all the would be patriots were slaughtered, the people did not rise up and revolt but locked their doors and cowered inside, while the story went on and showed how individuals, by God's grace, can be freed from the oppression of sin, evil, and injustice.  Nations come and go, but individuals last forever.  God saves souls, not nations.

A similar misconception is seen in the 'making of' of the Narnia series and The Prince of Egypt, but the movies portray a wonderful Christian message despite the confusion of their makers.  I suppose this is the modern variant of the parables of Jesus, people heard but did not wish to understand so invented their own meanings for what was said.  They expected the Messiah to come a King triumphant and to justify the self-righteous by putting them in places of power, rather He came with mercy, grace, and healing, upsetting the proud and powerful of the day but endearing Him to the poor and downtrodden.  So too, does God still offer healing and grace, yet many, like Javert, would rather throw themselves from the parapets than accept this terrible mercy.

Mark 4:10-12 ESV: "And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The strange obsessions of modern life

Last night I read about a new craze that has me a tad concerned, it is not the subject itself that is disturbing but rather those who pursue it with all 'their heart and soul and mind.'  I was rather fond of it myself back in the Eighties, but then a little girl of six or eight is one who should be enamored of My Little Ponies, not guys old enough to have daughters of their own of that age.  What could drive the American supposedly adult male to dress up as their favorite animated equine and travel hundreds of miles to attend a convention for such aficionados?  It is nothing new of course, but it is a rather odd turn in the long history of idolatry.  The secular humanists can boast all they want that men are derived from slime but I argue that this trend arises not from the genes we inherited from our algal ancestors but from the basic programming hardwired into our souls.

Men were made to worship something, to enjoy community and connection with other people, to have meaning, purpose, and direction in their lives, to have a past and a future, and to live forever.  Why else would we put so much time and energy into so strange a habit?  These individuals may think themselves obsessed with a children's TV program, but they are actually looking for connection, for meaning, for relevance, and for purpose.  The Ponies are just an excuse for community and I have yet to meet a slime mold that would bother to dress up as anything, let alone an equid of any sort, yet these supposedly more evolved creatures do so with relish and enthusiasm!  We all hunger after love, belonging, meaning, and community and it is becoming ever more scarce in modern society, thus are we driven to find new and stranger excuses to gather and have conversation.

The family has dissolved into a 'lifestyle choice,' cutting us off from our past and what historically served as our greatest source of support and community even when the whole world turned against us.  We dare not introduce ourselves to our neighbors or grow too close to coworkers lest they think us weird or turn out to be so themselves.  Religion has become a quaint affectation of the rustic and inept, thus have we turned from any and all gods save the worship of self.  The greatest good has become what is best for me, yet we pursue our own happiness and find it fleeting and vain.  We are miserable, alone, and purposeless!  Our souls cry out for companionship, understanding, meaning, and comfort yet science tells us we are mere accidents in a purposeless world with our only goal to survive as long as possible and pass on our genes.  No wonder depression is at a record high and we gather for the weirdest and most banal reasons!

There is an answer, there is a liquor to slake our deepest thirst.  The urge still remains though we try to fill the void with innumerable misguided keys that do not fit the lock or deny that it is there at all.  The thirst is not the problem, it is a quite natural and intentional part of our being, but rather it is the liquids we imbibe to quench it.  The thirst is natural yet we convince ourselves that any liquid will do when it only makes things worse, like drinking sea water to quench our physical thirst.  C. S. Lewis once wrote, "we castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful," and this is just such a case.  We deny we have a soul, thus emasculating our sense of anything beyond this mortal sphere, and then cry out in misery when nothing can sooth our broken hearts.  We will do anything and everything to fill this void except that which will actually fill it yet strangely nothing seems to work.  Repainting the wall will not fix the faulty wiring, you must strip away everything and look to the wires, their connections and attachments, and fix that which is frayed or worn.  We try to put a nice coat of paint on a deteriorating house and wonder why the property value remains low.  We must look at the roots of the problem and fix it at the source.

We were made for a purpose and we are wired to desire certain things, yet in our own seeming wisdom we have wandered away from that which we need after that which we think we want only to find ourselves lonely, aimless, and miserable.  Gathering with others for any reason may help soothe our need for community but it will not fill that annoyingly persistent void in our souls.  We were made first for communion with God and then with our fellow men.  Only therein can we be content. 

An excellent judge of character?

I love a good story and when someone with the right touch can bring that story to life on the silver screen, it can be a thrilling experience but if the wrong hands get a hold of that material, it can be tragic.  I love Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and was thrilled when both Lord of the Rings and Narnia came to the local theatre, and overall the recent renditions of the films were very well done though I was disappointed with the new version of Prince Caspian.  Why am I bringing this up ten years after the release of Lord of the Rings?  I am rereading the actual book and am reminded of the poor depiction given to one of my favorite characters.  I remember when the movies came out that I was very much impressed save for one character: Faramir.  In the book he is a noble, considerate personage, but in the movie they make him very nearly an impulsive, rough villain who only renounces the ring and its bearer after a close call, whereas he dares not even look upon it in the book and treats the hobbits with as much grace and hospitality as one can in the wilderness adjacent to the enemy's territory.  Much the same happens in Prince Caspian where the whole movie focuses on the 'heroes' fighting amongst themselves like petty children, which is never a feature of the actual book.  There is certainly doubt and fear, but there is never jealousy and bitterness.

I suppose I should not complain overmuch as the movies are actually fairly true to the books, but some of these characters become very nearly friends and it pains me to see them misconstrued before an audience that likely will never read the books and thus never know the characters behind those on the screen.  I suppose the same can be said for each of us, for others cannot read the book of our hearts and the people they see for brief moments each day may be nothing like the character that truly dwells within, thus we should be slow to judge others based on external features.  At least there is One who can read and know our hearts and love us for who we truly are rather than for what others take us to be!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

On books and the world's ability to contain them

"Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." John 21:25 (ESV)

I have always loved this little snippet from the tail end of John's gospel, but a rather sacrilegious thought occurred to me as I read it anew this morning...what if this bit of scripture were applied to e-books?  We are in the midst of a phenomenon, previously any one wanting to get published must survive the passage of the gatekeepers of the major publishing companies which is a miraculous feat worthy of an epic poem in commemoration, but now anyone with a word processor and an Internet connection can get their book in print!  There are literally millions of new books virtually published each year and the number grows exponentially by the day.  Perhaps we have entered a day that the apostle never dreamed though I am sure he would be appalled that though we have the technology, the content is not as he would envision it.  He would see all the words and deeds of Jesus recorded yet we have a blinding plethora of topics and writing styles, so much so that one hardly knows where to begin in their search for 'a good read.'

There are pros and cons to this phenomenon as with all that happens under the sun.  Any aspiring author can now realize the dream of having their words in print but this also brings a torrent of poorly edited or written manuscripts to the public for consumption and they may well choke on the first bite and fear taking another. It also makes it much harder to find a good book amidst all the clutter of mediocre and poor books.  Though it also makes it possible to find a great author who otherwise might never have been published.  It is a brave new world in literature and if wise, bibliophiles may well grow drunk on this flood of literary potential, but ware lest we become sick from imbibing too many poor works.  But we can always take comfort in the fact that a book that has survived for hundreds (or even thousands) of years is likely well worth consuming.  John need never fear that his own words will be washed away in the flood of recent literary innovation for, "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." Isaiah 40:8 (ESV).  The e-book universe may well be a tower of Babel, but at least there is still sense found in the classics if ever you weary of the Dionysian festival of modern and e-literature.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On believing in unicorns

There are the people who believe in unicorns and then there is everybody else.  I feel very sorry for the latter, for they have no hope, nothing to search for, no reason to 'be.'  There are no rainbows, fairies, or magic in their dull, grey world that goes on straight and unswerving to the drab horizon.  It is much like a modern novel in which all sense of plot, adventure, character, and virtue have died.  Of course I do not mean that one must literally believe in unicorns, but rather that one has dreams, hopes, an imagination, a sense of wonder and anticipation about the world about us, a certainty that anything might happen in this 'ordinary' world we take so much for granted.  This is the zest of living today and forever.  It is seeing a sunrise and wondering what miracles might happen today, what beauty lies in the hours to come, rather than ignoring the glaring rays as we gulp down our morning coffee and rush out the door to sit in traffic only to sit endlessly at a windowless desk and return home to sit in front of a loud and vulgar entertainment device before going to bed and starting all over on the morrow.  How can we be content to merely survive and plod on day in and day out, simply putting in our required time in this meaningless drudgery called life when deep down we long, 'to take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea?"

Our whole culture seems intent on stifling this native joy in living.  We have pills of every variety guaranteed to numb or cure any malady.  We have diversions galore to render our dreams pointless.  We have countless virtual friends to replace those demanding real ones.  If your 'real' life is drab, invent a whole new existence in the technosphere!  Don't like the spouse and kids?  Dump them and start all over...no problem, no guilt!  Feeling old?  We have a supplement or surgery for that!  It is all about how others perceive us and how we want to perceive ourselves rather than being what and who we really are.  All these diversions and quick fixes cannot cure purification of the soul, which is the real malady afflicting every member of the human race.

We have this idea that our bodies should live forever when it is in fact our souls that go on when our frail flesh gives out.  We do everything in our power to feel young, beautiful, popular, rich, powerful or whatever our mortal desires might be but we cannot fight against the inevitable march of time and decay.  We cannot find joy in the temporal but only in those things that last forever.  We must learn to cultivate and beautify our souls, to sow gardens that will bear fruit in a timeless morning.  We can ever be young at heart, to have young and beautiful souls rather than trying to patch up a slowly decaying body that must one day inevitably die.

Wanting to live forever is implanted in our souls (Ecclesiastes 3:11), it is as natural as breathing.  Wanting to live forever as a teenage super model is absolutely ridiculous.  God wants us to grow, to mature, to gain wisdom, and live justly with charity and kindness and patience.  These are the things that last forever, not fame, fortune, or power.  These are beauties that will never fade with age but grow more wondrous within time and beyond it.  But first we must remember that we have souls and that we do not merely exist as an accident of space and time.  We have a future, a purpose, a hope, a joy that knows no bounds, but we need to abandon all those worthless things the world deems of value but which block out access to true joy.  We need to start believing in unicorns again.  We need to live as if this life is not all there is.  Little children know the secret as does He who calls them to Himself.  As He calls each of us.  But will we listen or continue the dreadful plod. 

Luke 9:23-25 (ESV): And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?

Monday, August 5, 2013

On the edge of ruin with friendly books

"You do no know your danger, Théoden," interrupted Gandalf.  "These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and the remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience." J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers.

I was rereading a favorite story the other day and ran across this amusing little interlude.  The amusement comes because everyone has an aunt or a neighbor or a landlady or a coworker that answers to this description.  I discover such a one almost daily whenever I have to talk with someone on the phone at work.  It should only take a few minutes to get to the gist of the problem but it seems the life history and family tree and assorted personal crises must first be told (in triplicate) before we can get to the real question which is almost always completely unrelated to the ten minutes of autobiography I have just had to endure. 

I think that is why certain books feel more like old friends than a collection of words on paper, a good author is someone who can take the unfamiliar and exotic and make it seem like a chat over the backyard fence (do people still do that or has the text message destroyed this age old gossip method?).  I like certain works within the sci-fi/fantasy genre but am repelled by others and I think this 'familiarity' has a lot to do with it.  Just as I dread sitting down and watching certain movies or chatting with certain people, so too do I dislike books that don't at once make me feel 'at home' and 'involved.'  If a book is distant or arrogant or indifferent, just like people, it drives me away and ne'er the twain shall meet.  Draw me in, involve me, make me feel that I have known this book (or person) all my life, and I am yours!  Never trust a haughty book.  Only old friends and friendly books need linger long beside my hearth.