Exploring where life and story meet!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Save your life, read a fairy tale

Back in the foggy past, before History began, when man was still muddling through the labyrinthine corridors of Legend, back before the Internet, in the dimmest reaches of Time, when boggles and fairies and ghouls still lurked in the deeps of the woods and haunted the wild places just beyond the hedgerow, we were a far wiser race.  We didn't believe in myths like the infallibility of technology, the boundless wisdom and generosity of the government, or the immortality of our current, physical body, rather our forebears knew all three had their limits and had a healthy skepticism of the utopian promises of each.  But we Western moderns complacently and happily forget that we are actually rather helpless specks cowering on the surface of a galactic rock hurtling through space at an extraordinary speed, that tyrants, war, disaster, disease, and death are not just things found in stories, but hideous specters with whom we must share our existence, and inevitably, will overshadow our own short, tragic stories.

Yes, we have extended lifespans, decreased disease and hunger and poverty for a vast swath of humanity, undermined many a dictatorship, increased the standard of living, saved the whales...but with our success has come pride, and intentional ignorance and complaisance.  Man in the days of legend knew he was fallible, fragile, and finite; he lived like he knew one day soon he would die.  We think there is a surgery, an app, a gadget, an excuse, a pill, a diet, a guru, a government program to fix our problems, whatever they be, and that death, if it comes, is a thing little to be thought of or dreaded, an occurrence on par with being kidnapped by a dragon, unlikely to happen and of no major consideration.

A blizzard just shut down the state for three days, for all our vaunted technology, we were at its mercy as we huddled helplessly indoors from the wrath without.  A dear friend's father was just diagnosed with a fatal and debilitating disease.  A recent truck accident killed a young father of four.  We are still vulnerable, finite, fragile, and fallible creatures, we've just managed to push out the bounds of 'civilization and safety,' the pixies and dragons still lurk in the wilds without, they are just farther away, just enough to make us think ourselves triumphant and safe and immortal.  The 'archaic' man knew himself to be at the mercy of time, fate, and chance, that death hulked like a specter over life, and the wise were prepared when finally it pounced like inexorable night.  But we moderns dither, make excuses, ignore it, pretend it isn't there, think some miraculous cure will spring suddenly from the mind of man and spare us the trouble, but it won't.

What can overcome the darkness, chase back the night, fix the broken, right the wrongs, save us from oblivion?  Perhaps the answer is found in the fairy tales held sacred by the benighted residents of bygone days.  Perhaps believing in what modern men call myths is actually the first step upon the road of Wisdom:

"O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel,
shall come to thee O Israel!"

~O Come, O Come, Emmanuel~

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Can you hear the people sing?

What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends. When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honor God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall.
~C.S. Lewis~

I've always loved choral music, both listening and performing, though only a mediocre singer myself, somehow, when combined with a hundred or a thousand other voices, something magical happens, something beyond the mere mathematical.  Back in the days of yore (the end of the last millennium) I was privileged to both hear and perform a little bit of sacred music in such a mass ensemble before it was henceforth banned from the public square, including my college's production of the 'Messiah' with over a thousand voices, and I must agree with the esteemed Mr. Lewis, it was indeed a foretaste of Heaven.  I've also seen (and sung) my share of secular music in such performances, which somehow pales by comparison, for in the end, what are we singing about and why?

There is just something beautiful and mysterious, glorious and deep, beyond the expression of words, but captured, however fleetingly, in the strains of mortal music.  'All that is not music is silence...' an intriguing description of Heaven by Lewis's character Screwtape (quoting George MacDonald).  That is perhaps what I love most about the Advent and Christmas seasons: our fickle attempts to capture the feeling, the wonder of the season musically, be it instrumental, vocal, or some combination thereof.  And it is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our modern age: the loss of that glorious heritage of music and its deeper meaning, without it, life seems drab and two dimensional, when it should be bursting with life and light and color and hinting at dimensions beyond our mortal comprehension.

No wonder people hate Christmas: when you are not allowed to play or sing anything in public that even hints at the deeper mysteries of the season, what is it but just another chance for materialism and over sentimentalization to flout themselves in the public square?  People throw up their hands in disgust and move on, more a Grinch or Scrooge than ever.  I certainly never felt inspired to sing the politically correct, socially acceptable songs approved by a certain choir instructor; they didn't mean anything to me or to anyone else, so why even bother, save to get a passing grade?  For fear of insulting someone, we are denying ourselves and our children some of the most beautiful music ever written.  Music as an art and a part of culture is a dying relic of bygone years.  Just listen to the radio and hear for yourself: everything sounds the same, there is no deeper meaning, little true passion, and even less talent.  Though the aforementioned Screwtape would approve (though strangely the Grinch would not), he's a huge proponent of noise: meaningless, distracting, annoying, mind-numbing noise! Which is the best that can be said for much of modern 'music.'

"Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress."  
~C.S. Lewis, "The Screwtape Letters."~

But there is a whole world of music out there, you may have to search for it, but it is well worth the hunt.  So be a rebel, dig into the past, discover forgotten gems from ancient days, remember what this season is actually about.  Discover the story that transcends space and time and reality as we know it, listen to it as told in perhaps the only language that can give it proper expression, then lift your voice and sing along, for here truly is the reason to sing!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A long time ago, in a village far, far away...

I am not a huge Charlie Brown fan (I find him rather depressing), but his Christmas Special does valiantly strive to find meaning in the glitzy phantasmagoria that is the modern celebration of the 'Holidays' in American culture.  We have so much expectation, such high hopes, as if happiness and romance and miracles and family joy and life crises all magically get better or happen during this interesting time of year.  And when they don't, we come away disappointed and even more disenfranchised with the over-glorification and Christmas-cardification of the season, as if we expect to each star in our own Hallmark movie and are rather surprised when real life doesn't end with a kiss under the mistletoe.

I ran across this little blurb yesterday (full article here) that really struck me:

"During this Christmas season, focus on the small, beauty of your life. So much of an emotionally abusive childhood is marked by misplaced urgency, a lack of reflection or quiet. This Christmas, pull yourself out of despair by celebrating the small hidden beauty. That advice may sound cheesy, but there’s a quiet beauty and joy amid the glitzy, chaotic mayhem. Spend time looking for it."

Especially the phrase: 'a misplaced urgency, a lack of reflection or quiet,' really struck me.  You don't have to have an abusive past or broken family to understand that phrase.  Our whole idea of modern life is so hectic, busy, and frenetic, that we can hardly understand the quiet, the peace, the starkness, the fear, the wonder, the mystery of that first Christmas.  We get little hints and whiffs of it from the words of scripture and the seasonal hymns, but it is something altogether foreign to our modern sensibilities:

'While shepherds watched their flocks by night...'
'Tidings of comfort and joy...'
'It came upon the midnight clear...'
'There was no place for them at the inn...'
'Peace on earth, good will to men...'
'Fall on your knees...'
'Glorious now, behold Him arise...'
'Brighter visions beam afar...'
'The Silent Word is pleading...'
'Ground as hard as iron, water like a stone...'

Regardless of your background, your family history, your current circumstances, it is far from foolish to do as both the sagacious Mr. Brown and even a relatively obscure article on coping with the Holidays after emotional child abuse suggest: forget everything and focus on the true Reason for the Season.  Yes, your life is a mess, your family disappoints you, your finances are dreadful, your health is questionable, some crisis is looming, you've lost a dear one, all your hopes and dreams are stillborn, you are so busy and stressed out...that's precisely the reason He came in the first place, no not to fix your checking account, but rather to fix all the brokenness and sin, evil and darkness with which this world is fraught.  Forget it all for a moment, and focus on that child in the manger, let the awe and the wonder and the mystery dwell in your soul, and suddenly the fickle glitz of the season and your own problems matter not at all.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Tis Advent

Happy Advent!  No, it is not the season of the year dedicated to harried and stressful holiday preparations, rather it should be the time of year where we reflect (with reverence and excitement) on the first and second comings of Christ.  This article is absolutely wonderful and timely, though not purely Advent themed, it well sums up this season of the year, and more powerfully, the unfulfilled longings each of us is undoubtedly dealing with and how to neither make them the entire bent of our lives nor utterly destroy them, but rather to deal with them as we ought and thereby enrich not only our own lives but the lives all around us.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

One word at a time

The piano is a far easier instrument to learn than the guitar, even the clarinet is a breeze by comparison, at least you seem to be making progress far earlier: at least the sounds you are making somewhat resemble music, at least in its most rudimentary form.  With the guitar you spend weeks just trying to make the basic chords sound right, not to mention trying to convince your hands, that yes indeed they can bend into that shape and yes, in theory, your fingertips will eventually quit hurting.  Once you can finally play the chords, then you have to try and play them in a certain order and fast enough that a single song doesn't take half an hour or longer.  But it is also strangely rewarding, even if you are lightyears from even playing a simple song, though you can probably play a simple ditty on the piano after the first lesson.  When you finally master that awful F major, you actually feel like you've accomplished something, what, you're still not certain, but you've accomplished something!

Life's kind of like that, regardless of what you are trying to accomplish (or aren't).  Five minutes here, ten there, day in and day out, those little habits soon become instinct and rule our behavior and decisions, whether we are aware of it or not; turning the rudder slightly can send the ship veering miles off course, so it is with our lives.  That's why each thought, each word, each action or inaction, are so important: they become the very stuff of which our lives are made.  The good news is we can drastically change our stories, one word, one thought at a time, and if we are persistent, we will soon have accomplished something, even if it is small at first.  But so too can we sink ourselves by making bad choices or refusing to take action or police our thoughts or habits or activities.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The best of villains

I can't wait to see the movie 'Love and Friendship,' based on Jane Austen's 'Lady Susan' novel, featuring a woman you'll love to hate.  Then I look at my favorite movies: 'Ever After,' and Disney's animated 'Beauty and the Beast,' and I begin to see a pattern: why are all the best villains narcissists? Is it just me or are there villains suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder peppering our favorite stories old and new?  Jane Austen has one in almost every book (Lady Catherine De Bourgh anyone?).  The Bronte sisters aren't immune (Jane Eyre's aunt and the husband in 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall').  Am I just attracted to such personages because of my own history or is there something so captivating and astonishing about such personalities that they have mystified storytellers and their audiences for years beyond count?  I will argue it is the latter, as the villains that are portrayed are fascinating in the extreme, drawing us in, before revealing their true colors and causing us to flinch back in loathing, but still a little regretful when at last the hero is triumphant and justice is served.  Why be just evil when you can be a narcissist?

They are captivating, fascinating, and eerily familiar.  We love them yet we loathe them all at the same time.  Even if they take the official diagnosis out of the Manual of Psychological Disorders (or whatever it is called), the condition is ancient and will continue on into the foreseeable future, whether modern psychologists choose to recognize it or not.  But if you want a truly memorable villain, afflict them with a little narcissism and see what happens.  Take the Star Wars villains for example.  While the mask clad Darth Vader is unarguably cool, most of the others, including the young Anakin, are pretty much not worth mentioning, but Emperor Palpatine endures while various of his minions last for half a movie and then we forget them; there is a reason this guy made it through six movies, a feat rivaled only by a certain odd couple of comedic droids.

The stepmother in 'Ever After' is my mother and Gaston from 'Beauty and the Beast' might be my father.  The writers of those characters did it to perfection, and the portrayal of each I consider some of the best acting I've ever seen.  Rather than just a cookie cutter 'evil villain,' the narcissist is complex, charming, and utterly reprehensible.  Why can't the new Star Wars villain be like that?  Emo-whiner boy really annoys me (just like grandpappy!), but then he is just another minion, we don't know much about the new Palpatine-esque figure (besides that he looks like Gollum); could he somehow have acquired the One Ring?  With all these alternative reality/parallel universe things going on, it just might happen.  Now there's a fan-fiction crossover novel worth reading!

Even Tolkien's Dark Lord (the one villain in all of literature whom we never really meet) is of that persuasion.  How else would Sauron fascinate us so, though we never get to meet the guy?  Now that is master storytelling.  So with all these literary narcissistic villains, I begin to think we all must be aware of the condition and even understand it, even if we haven't had much personal experience: it is strangely familiar, even if we've never personally encountered it or thought much of it.  It is wired into us, from the very first Story, 'ye can be gods,' it is just some of us take it far more seriously than others.  For it is the true narcissist that says, 'can be?  I am!'  Which is the very heart of villainy, and why it tempts and fascinates and repels all at the same time, for at our deepest level, it calls to each of us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Not of this world

No matter which side of the American political spectrum you are on, today is probably something of a shock.  And that is all I will say about politics.  The only solace in the whole mess, at least for a certain obscure branch of thought, is that 'our Kingdom is not of this world.'  It doesn't matter who wins or loses, which nations rise or fall, as C.S. Lewis so nicely put it:

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."

The vast majority of humanity thinks nations and kingdoms are the important thing, but a backwards little sect from Roman occupied Jerusalem, composed originally of uneducated fishermen, came to a rather astonishing conclusion: it is the people that last forever and are therefore important, not the Kingdom or those who run it.

That's something American Christians often confuse: America is nothing in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter who sits in the White House, God will work out His plans regardless of our hopes or fears.  But it isn't just the modern American Evangelical who gets a bit confused.  Jesus's original followers were equally blind, thinking He had come to oust the Romans and restore Israel as a glorious nation, but He had bigger plans, He had a whole world to save.  We need to look outside our own little neighborhood, life, country, and even world, and rather ask, 'what is God's great plan?' rather than dreading what the election or loss of so-and-so will mean.  America and her politics are not at the heart of God's great scheme, rather the turning point came two millennia ago in an unfashionable part of a shabby little suburb of Jerusalem and culminated on a blood soaked hill just outside it.  Even then, God was in the politics, using men's schemes for His own glory and the good of all men.

There is great comfort in that thought: that whoever wins the election and however they rule, it is not outside God's knowledge or keeping.  Our ridiculous little country is not responsible for the fate of the world or the universe, in fact we already know the end of that particular story, no matter that the election turned out in so surprising a manner, there need be no surprises when we finally get to the end of history.  The only question is, have we put our faith in an idol: a political figure, a country, a lifestyle, an ideology that will one day come to naught, or have we put our faith in the One who wrote the Book and the only One who can salvage each and every character from meaninglessness and obscurity?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On meeting the Author

My father lived out the modern American dream: complete and utter devotion to self, pursuing all his own dreams and desires, satisfying all his cravings and lusts.  And he was miserable.  He made everyone else miserable too.  He wasn't an evil man, in fact he was very charming, fascinating, and intelligent, and I wonder what he might have done had he used his gifts for the benefit of others rather than spending his entire life circling the drain of his own ego.  He died recently, giving me a painful glimpse into the bankrupt tale that was his legacy: a grim reminder that each of us has our own tale, and that ours too might come to naught if we live only for our own advancement or amusement.

Our culture doesn't like death, doesn't like to think about it, prepare for it, or even let its shadow touch our lives.  But it is as natural as birth and breathing, we mortal creatures cannot escape its shadow, except by going through it.  We like to think that science or medicine or technology will allow us to escape that grim specter somehow, or we amuse ourselves with thoughts of immortality on this earth, escaping into fantasies like Highlander or the recent infatuation with zombies, vampires, and werewolves or we imagine Heaven as some sort of hippy paradise, the ultimate commune, wherein life just continues on as ever it has.  We write sanitized, 'happy' obituaries, leaving out the cause of decease and any negative or disappointing facts pertaining to the dead, for undoubtedly the person was perfect and wonderful and a veritable saint and now dwells contentedly in that impeccable commune in the sky.

Yet we demand 'authenticity' in everything else, even our food must be 'pure' and 'natural' and 'simple.' But death, that great enemy of all we know and love, is something to be ignored, avoided, or swathed in benign euphemisms.  But it isn't pretty, nor is it going away.  Life is messy, so why do we pretend that death isn't?  I am not saying we should fear it, nor that we routinely speak ill of the dead, but this pretending that death is somehow pleasant or avoidable or simply an inconvenience or that it rights all wrongs and makes all sinners saints, is ridiculous.  Rather let us address it as it is, prepare for it, live in anticipation of one day having to endure it.  We study for tests, we dress according to the weather, we plan for a baby or a wedding, we have insurance for various 'what ifs,' we save for retirement or a house, we strive to lose weight or get in shape for a marathon, so why is this any different?

It is something of the 'final exam,' after all.  We don't write up nice little summations of someone's excuses for not studying for a test and call everything good, rather they must live with the consequences of their actions and either retake the course or drop out of it entirely.  It is the same with death: we must face the consequences of our actions, no matter how nicely our survivors word the obituary, it will have no impact on our own reality.  Every story will end, we have no say in the matter once we come to the final page, but we still have a chance to change things, we need not fear that grim specter when it comes, rather we can close the book with a wistful tear and at last meet the Author and discover what 'happily ever after,' really means.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What is that to you?

'What is that to you?  You follow me!'

I just ran across this interesting statement the other day, I've read it a hundred times, but each time it strikes me as rather significant, and even counter cultural.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is speaking to Peter, who after a revelation of his own fate, asks what will come of their companion and his fellow disciple, whereat, he is basically told to mind his own business and focus on his own responsibilities, regardless of what is happening to others.  In an age where we are each of us 'competing' for attention, significance, and renown be it Facebook, in the workplace, or on the athletic field or local politics, we are each so concerned with what everybody else is doing that we often forget what we ourselves are about.

It is that way in the stories too, there can only be one Prince, one Princess, or one legendary warrior, but there is a whole host of supporting characters and subplots, which if absent, would make the whole story rather moot and certainly dull, if it even happened at all.  And in our lives as well, who knows what pivotal, though unsung, roll you might be playing at this very moment?  If we are too busy worrying about what so and so is doing about such and such, we can't do our own work well, if we even manage to accomplish it.  The parable of the talents also sums this up well: each man is not judged based on the work of another, but rather upon his ability to do his best with what he was given; the guy with ten talents isn't used to demean or critique the guy with five, but both are called 'good and faithful servants,' only the dude who buried his because he was too afraid to use what he had been given is chastised, if he had earnestly tried like the other guys, even with his little, he too would have been praised.

There are many things I wonder at right now: why was my childhood so lousy, why don't I have any extended family, do I really need all this education in my current role, why do abusive or negligent parents have more kids than they can handle and we struggle to have even one, why is my physical health so temperamental…and a million other things, compared to 'normal' or what I think it should be. It doesn't matter, there might be a reason, but I'm not to know, this is the story I've been placed in and herein I need to do the best I can with what I have, not worry about what I don't.  I heard about some friends of ours, missionary wanna-bes, and finally we know where they want to go.  My jaw dropped, I couldn't imagine going There, but it seems that is where they feel called to go, all of a sudden I felt rather small and dirty and insignificant, they'll have quite the ministry while we'll toil away here at the back end of forever…then it hit me again: 'what is that to you?'  I haven't been called to go There, I know we've been placed Here for the foreseeable future, just because their ministry is theoretically cooler doesn't mean a single thing in relation to our own.  'You follow Me!'

Has your own story turned out far differently than you thought it should?  Are you feeling discouraged, forgotten, insignificant, useless when compared to others?  There is certainly a little rebuke in the statement, but there is far more comfort: we need not worry about everyone else, solely our own selves, and there is a plan and a purpose uniquely made for each of us, if we are willing to take our eyes off of everyone else and follow patiently and faithfully, we will eventually find it.  'Don't worry about anything else, just follow Me.'  But will we?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Of gods and dragons

I saw a ridiculous meme on pinterest the other day, a comic strip presentation of John Lenon’s song ‘imagine’ going on about there being neither a Heaven nor a Hell, wherein a person went down to Hell and pulled the demon from the pit and then ascended to Heaven and brought down the angel, who gladly cast her halo aside.  I get tired of the hippy pipe dream that if we all just pretend to be nice to each other the world will be a happy and peaceful place and life will be great.  What really annoys me about this presentation is that we are not so much abolishing Heaven and Hell, rather we are merely doing away with Heaven and pretending we can build our own here on earth, which 6000 years of recorded history at trying just that has proved again and again is vain.  It is a lie as old as Eden: ‘ye can be gods!’  And what capricious gods we be!  We’d much rather be miserable our own way than happy His way.  It is the same as my four year old telling me he hates ice cream because he’s in a bad mood because I told him ‘no’ about something and he didn’t get his own way: he’s determined to be miserable rather than admit that maybe mommy knows what she is talking about and enjoying his dessert.

C.S. Lewis’s book ‘The Great Divorce,’ is a beautiful (and interesting) vision of just that, with a busload of tourists from Hell taking a weekend holiday in Heaven (an interesting theological exercise to say the least), most are appalled and prefer to return to the miserable and intangible slums of Hell than to accept Heaven as it is rather than as they think it should be.  Most of us have the spiritual maturity of a four year old, at least here in the West where everything is ‘my way.’  Culture cannot fathom why the orthodox church is so stodgy and won’t applaud the currently fashionable sin (each age and generation has its own), insisting that humanity has always been ‘this way’ or should be and therefore their doctrine is obviously wrong and should change, forgetting that the church is far older than most cultures, has survived the rise and fall of countless nations and empires, peoples and tongues, and that whatever is trendy and ‘vital’ today will be utterly forgotten or overlooked two decades hence when a new ideal is boasted abroad as ‘the thing.’  The fads of the Romans are forgotten as are the trendy lifestyle choices of the 1920’s or the 1730’s, but the church remains, and even older than that is the Word, which though it once wore flesh, has neither beginning nor end, neither is it mutable.

This is how our own fairytale begins: “and the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth...therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!  But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”  Now that ancient serpent cannot ascend again into Heaven, but he has taught us that we might bring Heaven down, or ascend thence ourselves, or build it here on earth, but he is ‘a liar, and the father of lies,’ and have learned nothing since Eden fell.  We stand here, clueless as Eve or culpable as Adam, thinking that our own tale will somehow be different.  But we cannot reach nor make Heaven on our own, rather Heaven has come down to us, that ancient serpent is not unopposed, but he is no less crafty.  The fairytales have it right: do it (whatever strange or bizarre task is set you) exactly as instructed or prepare to be turned into a donkey or lost forever in the wilderness or to have the mountain vanish away in a puff of smoke, ne’er more to be seen.  But we don’t believe in fairies anymore, much less understanding the meaning of our oldest tales.

I’ve lived in that ‘happy family,’ that pretended everything was great and wonderful and perfect, and it wasn’t Heaven, it was certainly Hell.  But I didn’t know it, not in the midst of it, but now that we’re broken and imperfect and messy, I can catch glimpses of that far off country, like snatches of music heard faintly in a dark land.  That comic wasn’t wrong in bringing the demon up to earth, they are quite at home here, but it was all wrong in thinking the angel happily laid aside his halo and joined hands with all creation in bland and meaningless song, he did come down, but rather he took up his sword.  It is only we foolish mortals that think we are not in a war; what sillies we must look, thinking to join hands and sing inane songs in the midst of a war zone and call it Heaven!

Our vision is too small.  C.S. Lewis once compared the idea to a child of the slums, content in making his mud pies in the streets, who refused a holiday at the seashore because he could not fathom anything better than the reality he knew.  We can easily imagine Hell, but we cannot fathom Heaven, any more than that indigent child the sea.  We wish to avoid the former without wishing to attain the latter, no wonder we are discontent.  But if we are of a bold and adventurous spirit, we can set out in quest for that strange, fey Kingdom, though the path be narrow and the gate small, for even in the tall tales, it is but few that go in search of adventure or risk everything for a needful cause, who despise the 'broad path,' and those upon it, content in their own seeming wisdom.  But we all long for an adventure, just look at the stories that even today captivate our hearts and minds.  Everyone hopes the fairytales are true, and they are, but we balk at the idea that we are actually living in one and must accept the responsibility of stepping out the door and hastening off in search of the hidden Kingdom.  We'd much rather lie comfortably abed and listen to the tale, rather than to go out and make our own.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Words, words, words, can there ever be too many?

'Words, words, words!' rings Hamlet's timeless answer to the insipid question, 'what are you reading.'  But in this day and age, perhaps the better question is 'what are you writing?'  In the age of blogs, social  media, and the ebook (letting anyone easily publish a book), we are truly drowning in a sea of things to read.  This was an interesting read, and I agree with the author to a point, in that your writing may in fact be dehumanizing you, if you are doing it solely to gain followers or make money or otherwise profit by it or if it is taking over your life and soul and identity, it is certainly a problem.  But writing can also be a cathartic, a way of knowing yourself and your reactions more, which is probably why journaling is so highly recommended to suffers of all sorts of mental, emotional, or spiritual malaises, but it is when you take that journal and make it public, living and dying by the responses thereto, that it becomes problematic.

Which is why you should write for a blog with no followers, it is just like private journaling, right?  Probably not, but I think it is a actually a good thing to have a variety of reading material and viewpoints available, if only we know how to winnow the wheat from the chaff.  For all the dross out there, every so often you stumble across something precious that might not otherwise have seen the light of day in a former era when only a limited number of editors and publishing houses and news outlets controlled our literary fare.  Obviously, it requires a bit more discernment and taste, and we must browse through endless gibberish to find it, but if you are a writer, now, more than ever, your work is accessible to others; each and every reader is now an editor, personally selecting what they will consume.  May each of us do our best to produce nourishing and tasty fare, whatever our genre or platform!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Secret

Do you ever wonder how spiderman feels?  He has these awesome powers but can't share it with anyone and his social life is a disaster because super villains keep popping up and threatening those he loves.  I sometimes feel like that, except I don't have awesome super powers to make the awkward silence a little more interesting.  I hate it when people ask, 'how are you?' I have to lie and smile and say, 'great!' because they can't handle the truth.  Worse, you feel like you're trapped in one of those stories where the villagers think their mysterious benefactor is actually the villain, while the true villain sits back and laughs maliciously at his handiwork while plotting their destruction.  It isn't even some horrid mistake from my past; I had no choice in the matter at all.  How many times have I heard people delivered from drugs and violence and sexual transgressions 'boasting' of their freedom and redemption far and wide but I can say nothing without angering the villagers thereabouts.

As a child of abuse, I never had a happy Christmas but I've always been drawn to the Christmas hymns and loved the season anyway, and in finally starting to learn the guitar and piano, I now understand why.  They are full of minor chords.  One of my virtual instructors said a major chord sounds bright and happy whereas a minor chord sounds sad.  But it isn't sad, it is deep and mysterious, yes tinged with sorrow, but hinting at something beneath it, something greater, something wonderful, beyond the comprehension of men.  The shadow of the cross looms over the manger as the Fall mars creation, but beyond them both is something incomprehensible, something deep and mysterious and holy, well worth our most reverent awe and fear.  Something deep in a world gone shallow.

There was another man with a secret; He was God.  They called Him a drunk, a bastard, a lunatic, a heretic, a foreigner, and thought Him possessed.  And now with the Christmas season looming and the annual scandal about to break forth of whether Santa is PC or a nativity display is unconstitutional while the mall speakers ball out 'Santa Baby' and inane songs about snow and chestnuts, we need not be surprised, it is just the latest generation of those who think Him mad.  But they are right to fear it, it is dangerous, this secret, the old songs whisper it, their haunting, mysterious chords echo within our souls, 'deep crying out to deep,' as it were.

When my own soul aches, when my own secret seems too much to bear, I can turn to One who has a secret of His own, for which the world reviled Him, but which brought forth something so wondrous the world cannot comprehend.  I'll take comfort in the old songs, the banned songs, the dangerous songs…'nail, spear to pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you, hail, hail, the Word made Flesh, the babe the son, of Mary!'

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Of jam and sermonating

I think I've been a minister's wife too long, either that or I'm ready for the Women's Conference speaking circuit.  I made peach jam the other day and all I can think is how nice of a sermon illustration it is!  I've never made jam before, but I couldn't resist the beautiful peaches on sale at the grocery store, so I brought them home, dreaming of crisps and cobblers and jam.  I had no pectin, but happily found a recipe online calling for simply sugar and lemon juice and peaches, even better I could use the whole peach: no waste or peeling!  My frugal, simple heart was in heaven.  I cut up the fruit, pureed it, added the sugar and lemon, and began stirring over a very hot burner.  It was a hot, sticky mess, something like a churning cauldron of lava, but after covering my kitchen in sticky ooze and burning myself a few times, I figured it would be well worth it.  I tried my hard won, beautiful jam…all I could taste was the lemon!  My beautiful perfect peaches had absolutely no flavor and what could I do with two quarts of lemon jam?

I bemoaned my sad fate at church the next day to a friend, and instead of condoling with me, she rather decided to be my fairy godmother, saying she had a bunch of peaches going soft and would happily donate them to me if I'd like, and they were wonderful sweet, juicy things.  I figured they might add a little flavor to my pathetic attempt at jam making, so I accepted.  They were the sorriest bunch of fruit I have ever seen: soft, brown, a few moldy.  But I took out my knife and hacked out the good flesh, discarding the rest, and they were excellent fruit, just past their prime.  I used the same recipe, except there was no churning lava this time, just a vigorous and smooth boil, no burns, no mess, and the loveliest jam!  I thought for a moment to mix the two, but then I would have a gallon of mediocre jam, instead I opted to toss the former on the compost heap and save the latter, in all its pristine tastiness.

Obviously this tale is ripe for exploitation: the salt losing its savor, new wine in new wine skins…feel free to write your own sermon(s) but I shall limit myself to a metaphor of what is truly valuable and good, despite outward appearances.  Those store bought peaches were so lovely, but at heart they had no flavor and thus no value, sadly akin to many of the shiny souls we adore or wish to emulate.  Those ugly, mushy, brown peaches are a perfect analogy for fallen man: past his prime, sad to look upon and think about, but not without worth, if it can be dug out and perfected through sorrow, trial, and perseverance, much as it took the knife and heat to make proper jam, but no matter how sad that fruit, it was not without hope, as are we, but will we submit to the process and allow ourselves to be redeemed or will we rot into mushy uselessness?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Finding Nessie

I have been to Loch Ness, I saw the 'Nessie 2000' exhibit which said she might be a boat wake, an otter, a seal, a log…recently I saw a photo purported to be the legend herself, but whether it is real or not, whether it is Nessie or not, I can't help but feel that a real picture of Nessie or Big Foot or aliens or fairies or ghosts or whatever is something quite undesirable.  I am a very scientific person, but I also believe in fairies, even if I am fairly certain they aren't real, in our world at least.  Come again?  There is just something about Nessie and Big Foot and unicorns, or at least the potential that they might be out there, that adds mystery and wonder and a greater sense of significance to a day cruising Loch Ness or hiking the Pacific Northwest.  A world without fairies is a very dull world indeed!  And if we should happen to get a picture of them, or some other incontrovertible evidence of their existence?  It would just be another species to record in the biology books, ah, a Unicornus unicornus, I've always wanted to see one, maybe I can see a moose next…

But when there might be a mermaid you just missed glimpsing alongside your boat or a fairy dance somewhere in that moonlit wood, it adds a magic and a splendor missing from our hectic, predictable, drab day to day lives.  Perhaps that is why we can't prove God or He doesn't just step out of the closet and say 'hello!'  And why we are told to have hearts like children, who have not yet lost their sense of wonder and can therefore not only enter, but can truly see the Kingdom of Heaven.  That's the magic of faith, the wonder of hope!  If we know everything, see everything, understand everything, what then are we left with?  It is the mystery, the wonder, the revelation, the guessing, the chase that keeps us young and gives us a reason to keep getting out of bed of a morning, no matter how many times we have done it before, for who knows what the day may reveal?

The Israelites saw God, or great manifestations of His power at least, in their dealings with Moses, any scientist among them could not help but being convinced by the data, yet they would not believe!  They grumbled and complained and eventually it destroyed them.  And later we were told, 'blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe!'  It literally turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).  How strange people are!  We don't like facts and figures and graphs or cold, hard data, we want fairy tales and mysteries, something to tickle our fancy and tease our sensibilities.  What is this longing for Nessie, this hope that she might be real?  Nothing but the 'eternity written in our hearts.'  We know this humdrum mortal world isn't our true home, that's why it doesn't satisfy or long make us happy, that's why tales of elves and goblins are as old as humanity; we've always known they are real, but we've become too 'wise' to believe in the any longer, hence our discontent.  But you are never too old to start believing in fairies again.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Getting out of the picture

I spent an afternoon on Loch Ness once, it was beautifully mysterious, the play of light and cloud over deep water; I can see why people believe in Nessie.  What I glimpsed there, I lived for several days on our recent Alaska cruise.  Between the shadowy mountains and the startlingly blue water, the ever present mist and cloud, and the haunting light of dawn and evening, one felt as if you had somehow slipped out of the sphere of this world and found another, mysterious, solemn, joyous, ancient but ever young, untainted by the sorrows and sins of men.  It was wonderful, I spent long hours on deck just watching (and photographing) the play of light on the water, despite drizzling rain, cold, and a vigorous wind.  It was a strange contrast to life onboard the vessel.  I've never been cruising before and felt as if I was trapped in a floating mall/informercial encased in all the gaudy splendor of a carnival where physical health, gourmet food, abstract art, and expensive trinkets were the be all and end all of life.

We were cheap, we booked an inside cabin with no windows and happily we weren't quartered next to any live chickens, but we certainly didn't have access to a private balcony.  I thought I would have to fight the other plebs for a spot on deck to bird watch, sight see, and photograph, but strangely, I had most of the boat to myself, aside for an occasional selfie taker who seemed to think the scene unworthy of memorializing without themselves in the picture.  It seemed a very commentary on our western culture, unable to step away from gazing at itself long enough to bask in the splendor around it.

There was only one time I had to fight for my spot, it was when the entire cruise ship sailed down the Endicott Arm to give us a glimpse of a glacier.  I was out first thing in the morning, but was forced under cover by the constant drizzle (you can't see or record anything with water on your lens), but happily found a spot where I could open a window and still get good pictures.  There were half a dozen hearty souls (out of 3000) doing likewise, but eventually the horde came to pay its respects at the last moment, oohing and aching and snapping photos (selfies mostly) with their smart phones before heading inside for an early lunch while the boat turned around and made its way out of the fjord, missing the best part of the journey through the ghostly light of dawn.

Why does it feel like life (at least modern western life) is perceived as just that: a cruise on which you are a prime passenger and entitled to all these 'ooh' moments but in-between you can just kick back and relax and complain over any little thing, not having to work or grieve or sorrow or toil, but supposedly happy and content the whole time.  I don't even know why most people were on that boat, they missed the very reason to go!  You can buy a watch or a purse or eat snails whenever, but how often do you get a chance to float through the mist with great and shadowy heights on either side with water as blue as a September sky beneath you while every moment the light dances and plays over the water and in the ridges of the hills, in and out of cloud and shadow, mist and rainbow.  It was wonderful!  But the gaudy shallowness of the cruise itself called them away from all that: it is cold, it is wet, maybe when the wind doesn't blow so much they cried.  But I was there, I got a picture with it in the background, check it off my bucket list, what do I go see next?

Is that how we see God?  He's there, glorious, splendid, huge, wonderful, awful, we'll snap a selfie when life gets a little scary, but otherwise He can just stay there, unseen, unheard, unnecessary, just as long as we are as happy and unbothered as we deserve to be, but then something happens, and it is His fault, we'll blame Him, we don't deserve this after all!  I just want to be happy and live my life my way. But it isn't your life, no more than those haunting mountains and eerily blue water are yours.  They are yours to enjoy, but they are not enhanced or benefited by being caught in a snapshot with your face in the fore and pasted on your social media site.  Rather get your silly head out of the picture, be humbled and awed before the vast natural beauty before you, let it remind you of Him who wrought it, the Artist who dreamed it up and gave it birth, the same who made you!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Remember your hat!

All the old tales seem to imply that the hero was designed for the quest or vice versa, but life rather seems to be more falling into something rather haphazardly or simply slipping into it gradually, hardly noticing that you have begun until you are in the middle.  That is perhaps the hardest lesson of growing up: learning that 'your story' isn't so neat and clean and straightforward as the stories lead us to believe.  You have a story, you have things to do in your life, but until you can see it from one end to the other, edited as it were, to leave out all the dead ends and idle time, we only frustrate ourselves by trying to make sense of everything while in the midst of it or repining that things aren't happening 'as they ought.'  It is also wise to remember that sometimes the completely unexpected will eventually turn out to be the most important part of the plot.  We all like to plan and dream, but we must leave room for a bit of spontaneity and unlooked for adventure, or we may end up with a dull tale indeed.  Just because where we seem to be going isn't in our plans or our ideal, doesn't mean it is a bad, indeed, it may prove to be vital to the plot; the key to a life well lived is learning to walk down an unexpected turning in eagerness, rather than with dread and dragging feet or running in the opposite direction.

I now own a guitar, a guitar with no strings and a missing bridge.  I have no desire to play the guitar, but there it sat in a corner of the flea market and I knew I should ask about it.  $2?!  I was willing to part with $5, so rather astonished, I took it home and began researching how to make it functional.  I don't know what will come of it, but it will certainly be an adventure, perhaps a dead end, but an adventure nonetheless!

I don't want to go to Alaska either, especially in a floating tourist trap with 3000 other people!  I don't like crowds, I don't like strangers, I'm claustrophobic, my stomach doesn't do well with food not cooked at home, I'm very much a homebody except for a few adventures to certain scenic natural areas within driving distance, so why do I want to go on a cruise?  Good question, but that's what is going to happen in just a few days.  The scenery will be gorgeous, I'm sure, and once I'm there, it will be fun, but right now the dread far outweighs the excitement.  But we're going and that's that.  And yes, it will be good for me, and may even be the highlight of the decade, but it is the adventure currently set before me and endure it I must.  I don't think our travel insurance gives us a refund for 'cold feet.'

So what is your adventure?  What are you dreading or ignoring or scoffing at?  What are you hoping will happen or are waiting for that may never be realized, on which you have focused all your dreams and hopes and ambitions, putting life on hold until that fateful day?  Don't put life on hold, go down those seemingly insignificant side paths, live while you're waiting, and even if it doesn't happen, your life won't have been pointless and you may even find what you were looking for where you least expected to find it!  But unlike Bilbo, remember to take your hat and pocket kerchief!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Dryad of the playground

We don't usually hang out at the park like so many other caretaker/kid combos in my four year old's age bracket, as we have quite an adequate yard and do plenty of adventuring as a family, but a quirk in our routine gave us half an hour to kill downtown so rather than driving home, we went to the park.  It is a really nice park, considering that we have no trees in this part of the world save at this particular park.  There are several huge cottonwoods giving enough shade to mimic a forest while some elderly but charismatic cedars, twisted into peculiar shapes, are frozen in mid-dance upon a carpet of thick green grass (another oddity), seemingly ignorant of the requisite 'safe' playground equipment standing in precise military formation not a stone's throw away.  Whilst the child sported on the ergonomically approved paraphernalia, I held tryst with the trees.  It was wet and cool and sunny and might almost have been a morning of early spring rather than the very end of summer, such was the fineness of the morning.  I crept about, barefoot of course, on the wet grass and watched the dancing sunlight and shadows, remembering my own childhood, for these indeed were the very companions of my youth: sunlight and shadows, dew and mist, and the cool of the morning.

It was a quite a contrast to the brightly colored but highly ordered, governmentally approved play area; the former is most certainly poetry whereas the playground equipment is not only prose, but the prosiest prose, perhaps an instruction manual for assembling something large, bulky, and consisting of innumerable small parts.  Then I marveled at and pitied the children whose sole knowledge of the natural world must indeed be just such brightly colored behemoths, garish and sweltering in the full sun, knowing nothing of the wind in the leaves, the whimsical play of light and shadow and wind, the rich smell of damp earth and growing things, who have never had the chance to wonder at the deepest mysteries of this peculiar and achingly beautiful thing we call life.

Playgrounds are not bad, neither are safety precautions, but when taken too far, when childhood is reduced, as it so commonly is in our modern world, to a list of can'ts and don'ts, an ever broadening expanse of rules and regulations, warnings and cautions, no wonder our children think the world flat and dull, preferring to escape into some virtual reality where they can be or do anything, explore and learn, without a glaring yellow caution sign taking all the joy and spontaneity and wonder out of the moment.  I should have understood what I was getting into from the first, from the warnings printed all over the infant carseat, destroying the cute pattern of blue and grey forest animals with garish yellow and orange patches informing me that my child would probably die if I used the car seat and would certainly die if I didn't.  That is what modern sensibilities have done to our whole world.

We can't have a book without a trigger warning.  We can't have a speaker on campus who might say something offensive to somebody, therefore they daren't say anything at all, which makes the whole speech pointless.  We can't even say that the child adding two and two and getting three is wrong, because it might hurt his burgeoning self esteem, rather we pat him on the back for effort and send him smilingly on his way to graduation where he still can't add two and two, but he sure thinks he can and that is almost the same thing, probably better!  Does anybody else ever think they are living in a parody movie, that they are going to wake up and discover that it was all a silly dream at any moment?

To be ruled by feelings, by the fear of everything, is not living, nay it is hardly existing.  The world is dangerous and messy, it isn't easy or simple, it cannot be controlled, as much as we like to pretend that it can, but it is also mysterious and wonderful and splendid and breathtaking, at least if we can forget to take selfies for a few moments to actually gaze upon it.  To paraphrase a certain Beaver, 'it isn't safe, but it is good,' it was once pronounced to be 'very good,' and though we've managed to mess it up dreadfully since those words were spoken, it still remains a source of awe and inspiration to this day, if only we have eyes to see it and nerve to risk it.  Will you watch the fairies dance or perhaps bespy a unicorn some misty morn; will you watch the skies for a dragon or simply marvel at moon and star?  Life is ever so much more interesting if you believe in fairies, but most people are either too practical or distracted to even consider the possibility, but then I doubt fairies believe in warning labels either; if one must be a myth, I'd rather have fairies!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Of an unhappy ending and great literature

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books, but I am gaining a new appreciation (and adoration?) for Jane Austen and her various works, from her hysterical and fabulous 'Love and Friendship' written in her late teen years with the timeless advice to 'run mad as often as you wish, but do not faint!' to the much maligned (by modern critics) practical, sweet but timid Fanny (note to self, never name a heroine Fanny!) and the patient, long-suffering, but faithful Anne and the ruthless Lady Susan (I really want to see the new movie, titled 'Love and Friendship' but based on the 'Lady Susan' book).  I need to delve back into 'Emma' and 'Sense and Sensibility' yet, not to mention 'Northanger Abby,' but I've recently perused 'Mansfield Park' and 'Persuasion' again with a much better appreciation of both book and author.

There is no argument that Miss Austen is a literary genius, but there is something far more beautiful hidden in her words than her sheer brilliance, which makes each work a timeless and beloved treasure, proved by the fact that she is still a household name 200 years after her death and her works are some of the most adapted to and beloved of cinematic productions.  I once watched the movie 'Becoming Jane,' which is supposed to be based on Miss Austen's life and disappointing romance, which made for a rather unhappy ending, as all Austen movies must end with a happily ever after, but this one obviously didn't, but if Miss Austen had had her happily ever after, would we have had ours through all her beautiful and thoughtful writings?  She manages to delve deep into the very heart of love and sorrow and suffering and unfulfilled longings and hopes deferred or dashed.  Her heroines are flawed, they suffer, but ever they do the right thing, clinging to virtue though it seems like to be the end of all joy, only to realize it was but a stormy twilight before a glorious dawn.

But Jane's tale did not end with a kiss and a roll of the credits, rather she died at a fairly young age and never knew the romantic bliss her heroines enjoyed, but had they been real daughters many hearts?  I do not think so, though books have the advantage of being and remaining the creatures the writer births, whereas people have a tendency to make their own decisions and assert their own wills, to grow and change throughout life, whereas Miss Austen's words are still the same as those she set to paper two centuries ago.  She has not only captured what it is to be human, with all our innate foibles and follies, virtues and evils, but what it is to be a virtuous woman in a jaded, cynical, materialistic world, to remain staunch and firm in the face of loneliness, rejection, betrayal, misunderstanding, and scorn, to stick by your guns when all the world thinks you foolish or mad, refreshing indeed in the age of social media!

I do not wish for anyone to suffer, but it is an innate part of our existence and a vital part of our growth and character development, the question is how do we face it?  Do we grow angry and bitter, blaming fate or others for our circumstances (whether they are due to our actions or not), or do we accept them as graciously as we can, letting them mold and shape our characters, improving what we can, enduring what we can't.  Had Miss Austen not been trifled with by her own Wickham, would her writings resound with so many to this very day, probably not, had she grown angry and bitter and cynical, they likewise might have perished rather than leaving a lovely legacy to console and inspire countless thousands of young woman into the distant future.  While in her lifetime her writing did not accrue their deserved fame or devotion, what came after would astonish her completely, I think.  Though she died barren and a spinster, of little renown or fame or wealth and of little account as the world has it, I think her legacy far greater than that of a host of forgotten kings or rich men now moldering in crumbling tombs.  No matter how the world defines success at this moment, it gives one pause to wonder what our own legacy will be, will we be faithful and constant, brave and patient in our own trials and suffering, and what will come of it after we are gone?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Excellent Article

If you are reading merely for the sake of your bucket list, or because you think you ought to, or to impress your nerdy friends, here's a great article on reading for the story's sake:


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

As go the stories

I don't usually do too much on the pop culture front, save an occasional movie review, but as it is the modern form of storytelling, I can't completely ignore it on a blog devoted to just that.  I ran across this article with a theory as to why Star Wars seems to be beating out Star Trek in not only fiscal rewards but in fan devotion as well, and it is an interesting point, but I think it goes a little deeper even than people getting tired of being lectured at by what should be a rollicking story.  Story isn't just a diversion, it is the very essence of what it is to be human, a way of communicating and understanding, hoping and remembering, wishing and regretting, wondering and fearing; it transcends culture, race, time, nation, gender, age, religion, politics, and everything else that separates us.  Like music and laughter, while we may not have the same taste, it is something that unites us and speaks to everyone of the human persuasion.  Thus a good story is innately human: it laughs and cries, there is doubt and hope, fear and regret, darkness and light, good and evil, life and death, love and sorrow, it explores some deep crevice of the human soul: of what it means to be human and alive, to live and breath, ultimately what it means to be.

I was something of a scholar of both franchises in my youth, before both sagas rewrote the tale.  It was something of a blow to learn that everything that happened before the launch of the new Star Trek movies was actually an alternate reality and with the relaunch of Star Wars, apparently all those books I read never happened either.  But they are both interesting 'worlds,' with a vast array of characters and plot lines to explore and both succeeded often enough in telling a good tale that people were hooked and thirsted after more, but both also had their sore thumbs and awkward teenager stage that we'd all like to forget as well.  Personally, I prefer Star Wars to Star Trek, especially after the reboots of both, but I was hardcore for both 'back in the day,' but now simply revisit the sagas from time to time as I might drop by on some former friend of my youth when I am in town but think little of otherwise.

What Star Wars does well and Star Trek only occasionally succeeds at is the pursuit of the mysterious, it has a mythos and a reality beyond what we can see, feel, or smell, there is a Something there that gives meaning and purpose to the story and characters, rather than being a mere fable suggesting how we ought to live but giving us no inclination as to why.  Whether the viewer is religious or not, whether they think there is such a thing as the 'supernatural,' they are still human and have an innate sense of 'something more,' a thirst for meaning and purpose and that their life too is a story of significance with a rational arc, any story that fails to recognize that innate quality is inevitably doomed to die for it will not resonate with its consumers.

The Star Wars prequels failed because they got so focused on the sociopolitical/bureaucratic maneuverings of the Republic and Jedi and Sith that they failed utterly to realistically portray the struggles and fall from grace of the pivotal character, which formed only a poorly acted subplot to all the battles and action and political schemes.  In a good story, no one cares much for nations or organizations or factions, we care for the characters and what comes of them.  That is one reason modern movies aren't drawing the attention or interest that they used to: there are no good stories or characters any more, there is just more and more action or a more 'cutting edge' social or political statement.  There is much 'entertainment' and very little enlightenment.  It may be the same reason I prefer old books to anything of modern advent.  There's no core, no heart, no meaning or purpose; there's no point.

Star Trek always did best when it wrestled with some aspect of what it is to be human, when there was some purpose or quest for which the characters must risk themselves for the benefit of others, rather than growing preachy and politically correct and stodgy and curmudgeony and stiff and inflexible, telling us how to live rather than why.  Star Trek V is probably one of the worst movies ever made, yet I love it, not just because it has great corny dialogue, but because it has heart, it isn't afraid to wrestle with the big questions, and the main character has so much charisma and enthusiasm you can't help but be drawn in despite the ridiculous plot and awful effects.  When they forget about the Prime Directive and trying to make a political or social statement, they do well, otherwise it is just another episode of 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood' set in outer space.

It is the contrast we see between the incarnations of Tolkien's signature works brought to cinematic life: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit both had their movie trilogy, produced by the same team.  The former was beloved and esteemed while the latter was a joke.  And it was not for lack of talent, as was the downfall of the Star Wars prequels' Anakin Skywalker, for they had some excellent actors who were never allowed to act.  While the original story (in my opinion) was weaker in The Hobbit, there was still plenty to work with.  But they focused so much on action and adventure and frenetic activity that it made absolutely no sense and we had no time to come to care a fig about any of the characters or their quest.

Even in literature, a great saga can fall flat on its face when it takes itself too seriously and forgets what a true story is actually about.  There are several extensive and popular book series that I never finished, though I was engrossed at the beginning, because they became too weighted down with their own importance or got lost in a morass of meaningless detail or had no coherence when it came to their own particular worldview, and I am one of those readers that would stay up until nearly dawn (with a full class schedule the next day) to find out what happens next if it was a good book.

Every great saga will have its successes and its blunders, but perhaps the scariest thing of all is that we, as individuals and a society, seem to be losing our ability to appreciate a good story, that we take the pablum out of Hollywood or on TV and think it is all there is or can ever be.  We forget the tales of old, that were tales indeed, and rather sit down with bleary eyes in front of the fifteenth reincarnation of a particular series and think nothing of it, for we do not think at all, we are merely receptacles for information, and whatever is poured into our hearts and heads is quickly replaced by the sixteenth and seventeenth incarnation of something else.  We no longer taste and digest and linger over a good tale, rather we are just a pipe, a conduit for mediocre entertainment, glancing at it momentarily as it rushes by, already intent on the next 'great' thing to come flowing past with all the speed of modern data.  We fear the stories are losing their humanity, but I fear the tales have lost their humanity because we are losing our own.  Ware lest the salt lose its savor!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The world's greatest paradox

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis's 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader' where a nasty little boy becomes a dragon (the scene in the movie is also well done) and must eventually shed his 'dragonish skin' to become not only a boy again but his true self, but no matter how hard he tries, how many nasty skins he sheds, he just can't do it on his own, he needs the Lion's help.  It is an excellent metaphor (Lewis's intention?) for 'dying to self,' or 'taking up your cross' as it were.  We take what we think is our life, and nail it to the cross daily, only to find that it wasn't our true self, but rather an imagined, twisted, writhing thing of slime and ash, and finally we slay the vile creature only to find another, nearly the same, just beneath it.  We hate that false self yet we love it, much like Tolkien's Gollum, twisted and miserable from years of keeping the One ring.

We must fight that false self, we must endure the shame, the misery, the sorrow, until it lies dead at our feet, but we can't do it ourselves, we need to let Him slay the beast, and then and only then, can we discover that He loves us through it all, even at our worst, for the ugliness of Calvary is found in every quivering soul, but so too can its glory be ours, but only by enduring the cross, only then will the words, 'to gain your life you must lose it,' make sense, only then our we truly free.  'His yoke is easy, His burden light,' but it is a yoke and a burden still, but one far lighter and less grim than any the world has put upon us, but we must set ours down to pick His up.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A story too large or a reader too small

C.S. Lewis is perhaps my favorite author (or maybe it is Jane Austen, any who…though I have many favorite stories written by various other personalities, he is the one author (besides the esteemed Miss Austen) that I enjoy everything he has written, fiction or not).  I love that he is obviously a genius, but writes in such a way that almost anyone can read it and understand and yet find it interesting, but I think I met my match in 'That Hideous Strength,' the third of his 'Space Trilogy.'  I've read it before, and until now I never really appreciated it all that much, not because the book isn't worth a read, but rather that the reader's mind was too small, I was not ready for such a challenge.  It seems I needed a far more classical and philosophical education before I could tackle this so-called fairytale.  A thorough knowledge of Arthurian Legend, Latin, the fairytales of George MacDonald, Medieval Literature, Greek Mythology, the history of Numinor (Tolkien anyone?), Middle English, Philosophy, poetry…singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages (oops!, there's Jane Austen again)…and a thousand other disciplines are of immense help (thankfully organic chemistry and calculus are not required, I'm a bit rusty) but not required.

The last book I tackled that gave me such trouble was Chesterton's 'The Man Who Was Thursday,' and not even the experts agree on the meaning of that one, so I don't feel too bad.  I love Chesterton's humor and wit, but sometimes I just can't seem to understand what he is saying, but my how he says it, whatever IT is!

Did I like it?  I'm not sure if I can answer that question.  I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that question!  Does my opinion even matter?  I think it is a bit above my ability to like or dislike.  It reminds me of dark chocolate as a child: I loved milk chocolate but thought the dark was nasty, but as I have grown up and my tastes have matured and deepened, I love nothing more than dark chocolate, it is an acquired taste and though I've never acquired a taste for fermented beverages, fine cigars, or coffee, I would assume it is very similar; I am still a child as compared to this book.  It is a complex book, mixing a variety of genres, philosophies, and styles, tackling any number of topics, sometimes deep, sometimes trifling.  Narnia is milk chocolate, Screwtape is semi-sweet, this is a very rich dark.  If you are looking for a book to make you think or to go 'aha!' or to savor or to ponder over, to expand your literary horizons as it were, this is certainly such a book.  How's that for a straight answer!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Practical Parenting and Peter Pan

I once heard that being sick is your body's way of forcing you to take a break (obviously from someone who has never heard of germ theory, just kidding!, stress makes you far more susceptible to illness by weakening your immune system), but it sure is a lousy vacation.  We've had the plague at our house for the last couple weeks, besides the necessities of life, I really didn't feel like accomplishing anything, leaving me time to actually read.  It has been a very long time since I visited either Middle Earth or Narnia, and it was a very enjoyable trip.  What amazes me is that every time I reread a favorite book, I come away with something new every time, exactly like spending time with an old and dear friend.  For some reason, I'm really fascinated by the idea of family, childhood, and character development of late (probably because I'm dealing with just those issues myself).  My attention was specifically drawn to Eustace Scrubb, probably the least loved character in all of fiction, introduced in C.S. Lewis's 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader,' and actually the most recent movie version of that book does an excellent job with that specific character, though I'd avoid the cinematic version of 'Prince Caspian' if you have any regard for the book.

In Lewis's words:

'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it…they [his parents] were very up-to-date and advanced people.  They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers…he [Eustace] liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators…but as I said before, Eustace had only read the wrong kind of books.  They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.'

As the story unfolds, poor Eustace finds himself in the middle of a fairytale and an adventure, neither of which he wants, but desperately needs.  He began the tale as an abominable sort of creature and by the end of the book, he is actually a person, and one you don't mind taking on an adventure or two.

Now Eustace is one extreme and Peter Pan is another.  I read 'Peter Pan' once and it rather disturbed me.  The idea is a nice one, at least in a story, and has captivated generations, but I'm not sure how many people would actually like to live in Neverland, the Neverland of the book, not the one romanticized in countless movies and spin-off stories.  Eustace has a life deprived of parental love and affection, lacking any magic or mystery or fun.  Peter Pan is a little boy without parents at all, left to an eternal childhood of freedom, but he's alone in a dangerous world with no chance of growing or changing or becoming anything better or even different.  There must be something in-between having no childhood and an unending, meaningless immaturity.  To quote Lewis once more, 'even in this world of course, it is the stupidest children who are most childish and the stupidest grown-ups who are most grown-up.'  I think that pretty much sums up both Peter Pan and Eustace's parents respectively.  But what then is the answer?

There are very few cases where I recommend a movie over a book, but in this case, 'Hook,' is a beautiful exception.  The tale follows a grown-up Peter Pan, now an uptight lawyer with a family he doesn't have time for, played to perfection by Robin Williams, whose journey and transformation is not unlike that of Eustace.  It manages to capture all the magic of childhood without losing sight of the fact that the magic doesn't have to die as you age, rather it only gets deeper and more mysterious and wonderful as you do, unless you lose it or kill it by trying to keep it or yourself from changing or you never believed in it in the first place.

Now you may consider all this bosh, for we also hear that 'it takes a village to raise a child,' and what is so important about parents and family and fun and mystery and magic and wonder after all?  It is all highly impractical!  That is just the sort of thing Eustace's parents might say and the sort of people that make suggestions to certain government agencies that perhaps parents should not be allowed to read bedtime stories to their children because there are children who don't have parents to read them bedtime stories, which puts those unfortunate children at a disadvantage, therefore no child should have a bedtime story and thus all are equally wretched!  I then ask, where then is 'the village' that is supposed to be raising these children, why is 'the village' not reading bedtime stories to 'their' children?  'The village' doesn't care, but parents do (or should) and that's why parents raise children and not a government agency.

Or you might say, what is so wrong with loving childhood and wanting to pursue its ideals your entire life?  It depends what you mean by the ideals of childhood, if you mean an undying sense of wonder, an open and loving spirit, an eagerness to see what the day might hold, a happiness in small things, by all means pursue these ideals, but if you mean a selfish focus on what you want and enjoy and like completely indifferent to the needs and wants of everyone else around you, then certainly not, has that idea not already consumed an entire generation that has now entered its third decade of life and stills lives with their parents?  Let our hearts grow wiser rather than just older!  Only then can we inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.