You never know…

This morning one of the readings made me wail and lament my mixed motives and weak efforts as a disciple of Jesus,

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (I Corinthians 2:11-15)

But God’s mercy is great where my works are puny. My book, through a friend of a friend of a friend, found its way to a pastor in Texas. Even though his is not a family with autism, God used one of the reflections in the book to help him find the Scripture on which to build his most recent sermon. And it helped him in a week that presented challenges to him, personally, and to the people he serves.

Here’s the sermon. I thank God who, in the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, uses our efforts above and beyond our limitations as he makes us ready for an eternal reward.

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GoT: Fast Food Tolkien or Reheated Tim Burton?

George R. R. Martin’s books that spawned HBO’s Game of Thrones are manifestly great storytelling. They create a world that his readers look forward to entering again and again and hate to leave when real life intrusions yank them out.

I mean, I’m assuming that’s the case because that’s how I interact with fiction. I haven’t read the books and I keep up with the series, an obviously successful distillation of the books, as much by reading Monday reviews as by watching the Sunday night broadcasts.

I did catch a bit of Season 7, Episode 6, and was hooked by a conversation between Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington),

Dondarrion: The enemy always wins. But we still need to fight him. That’s all I know. You and I won’t find much joy while we’re here. But we can keep others alive. We can defend those who can’t defend themselves.

(Start at 2:10 of the video for the dialogue between Dondarrion and Snow. You have fair warning that there’s a lot of rough language and raunch prior to that.)

That’s pretty much J.R.R. Tolkien in Cliff’s Notes, right? Evil persists and morality is to contend sacrificially for the good just the same.

This got me thinking, Who’s right? The folks who say Tolkien’s tales are much too long (it was Harvard Lampoon who parodied them with Bored of the Rings) , or the ones who say that GoT is fast food Tolkien for a generation with a short attention span?

I dunno. Martin is still writing his books, by the way. He’s voluminous like Tolkien, down to the extra middle initial, although he seems to favor smarmy villains where Tolkien lifted up heroes. The HBO series has outrun him and is coming to its own final season, independent of his books.

My other take on GoT is how much it’s come to seem like warmed over Tim Burton. The Night King and his zombie army are coming to overthrow the conventional world. That’s every Tim Burton movie ever. Goofy looking CGI monsters come to mess up our banal lives. That’s the Joker and his goons terrorizing an art museum in one of the Batman movies, and it’s Mars Attacks, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Beetlejuice and every other reheated plate o’ Tim he’s done after he was at least a bit of fun with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Although the Army of the Dead has been a looming threat from the very first scene of GoT (see, I paid attention. A few times.), it’s become annoying as just another CGI zombie fest, intruding on the climactic confrontations of characters that one has come to love or hate over seven seasons.

This is not to knock formula. We all want formulaic entertainment, and only trot out that particular f-word to describe what we don’t like. I mean, I never liked Sex and the City, which always struck me as the same episode played over and over. But I wasn’t its target audience, and those who were in on the joke thought it was great.

My wife and I have been binge watching The Big Bang Theory, and we’re through enough seasons to see the gags coming a mile away but find them funny just the same when they arrive.

What’s my point?

Do I have to have one? I mean, does GoT?

Narrative Happens

Lauck BookBook Review: From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965 by Jon Kevin Lauck.  University of Iowa Press, 2017.

As the American Civil War ended, what we now call the Midwest was an influential region for the reuniting nation.  Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the “great interior region” in his second address to Congress, calling it “the great body of the republic.”  After 1860, six of seven Presidential elections were won by candidates from Mississippi Valley states.

The religious, frugal, hardworking, family and community focused Midwestern culture was seen by some as the dynamic American future.

How did this vital heartland turn into maligned “fly over country” in popular stereotype?  Historian Jon Kevin Lauck sets out to explain this.

His book’s title is an inversion of Nick Carraway’s point of view in Minnesota native F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.  Carraway, the character who narrates the story, initially rejects his own Midwest hometown as a “ragged edge” of emerging America and heads for the toney East, only to recoil from its destructive materialism and self-centered culture.  He comes to revalue his Midwestern heritage as a “warm center of the world.”

While Fitzgerald’s novel unfolded that way, Lauck points out, with copious attention to primary sources (he provides 135 pages of notes) that the American point of view went in the opposite direction, initially esteeming the Midwest as the warm center or even heartland of the nation but eventually sneering at it as ragged edge to be ignored.

Lauck lays out two major socio-historical trajectories.  The first can be summed up by a different (and radically silenced) regional voice that precedes the Euro-American farm village culture to which the book refers:

“There are no mistakes. Everything is equal on the journey, and what will happen in your path will happen.”  Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand, Oglala Lakota

The discrete voice of Midwestern history and literature was in part muted by historical events that just happened how and when they did.  The Great Depression and World War Two elevated the national identity in suffering, sacrifice and ultimately global position at the expense of regional identities.  The ensuing Cold War and other aspects of globalization led to changes in academic work, necessarily lifting exploration of the forces moving nations and looking less at regional themes.

This is explored in the latter half of the book.  It’s less dramatic than what precedes it but is necessary to keep From Warm Center to Ragged Edge a work of honest history rather than a culture-war exercise in…

Narrative.  Geez, I’m coming to hate that word.  It’s just a genteel substitute for propaganda.  But what Lauck describes and, more critically, documents in the first part of this book is the creation of a damning narrative that silenced most Midwestern voices in favor of a few who were embraced by anti-regional elites.

Lauck lays out the Village Revolt narrative by which Eastern (primarily New York) publishers glommed onto a few good Midwestern writers and elevated their critiques of farm town life to label the whole region as, in one influential Eastern writer’s words, “a desert of human sand! – the barrenest spot in all Christendom, surely, for the seed of genius to fall in.”

While Lauck catalogs how the writers lumped together as the Village Revolt school did, in fact, overthrow sentimental stereotypes of Midwest life, he’s just as meticulous in showing how several of them rejected the revolt narrative.  Assumed rebel Sherwood Anderson was blunt, “There wasn’t anything to this revolting.”  Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street was like a Bible for anti-Midwest narrative, was panned by the Eastern critics when in subsequent works he called his upbringing “a good time, a good place, and a good preparation for life” and called for better study and articulation of the region’s culture.

The hostility to all things Midwestern – including Christianity – drips from the quotes Lauck mines from newspapers, magazines, literary journals and all kinds of other primary sources.  It’s the kind of culture warrior language still with us today, belittling some voices while claiming to extol inclusion and tolerance for all.

(Boy, does that ring bells for me as a clergyman in a mainline denomination headquartered in the East.  But I digress).

With a constant supply of quotes from quality writers and thinkers, Lauck’s book has vigor and wit.  This history brings the past to life and engages the present.

There are questions I would raise, were I an annoying student at a Lauck lecture.  For example, does the initial success and continued cable presence of a show like Little House on the Prairie, from the writings of Midwesterner Laura Ingalls Wilder, reveal less popular penetration bythe Village Revolt narrative than his book allows?

Or how about the sentiment for small family farmers (in Iowa, no less!) expressed in 1984’s Country, for which Jessica Lange received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations from the coastal elite crowd?

Some regional writers are doing well expressing Midwest culture (and finding publishers), for example Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Dan O’Brien in Buffalo for the Broken Heart – which got the attention of Hollywood actors and activists.

Might it be that there’s a latent affection for the Midwestern values, even for sentimental presentations of them, especially in unsettled times?  As Don Henley sang in 1989,

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
But, somewhere back there in the dust
That same small town in each of us
I need to remember this
So baby give me just one kiss
And let me take a long last look
Before we say goodbye

I’m a transplant from the West Coast to the Midwest, and found my blood boiling from time to time as I read From Warm Center to Ragged Edge. I’m still a bit of a fish out of water here, but couldn’t help but resonate with Lauck’s documentation of a region and people – even if not my own – dissed by a concocted narrative.

We can learn much from Lauck’s history, but even more from his open eared, open minded and open hearted approach.

Emancipation Population

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Random House, New York, 2017

20170627_081048Well, this novel has an endorsement from Thomas Pynchon on the jacket.  Given that, I’m sure that the world is panting in anticipation of my review.

Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over a single night as President Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his young, much loved (even favored) son, Willie.  The story is a wild ride through the supernatural and paranormal – like a complex bottle of wine it has strong notes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Walpurgisnacht” from Goethe’s Faust, Wilder’s Our Town, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a hint of Disney’s Haunted Mansion (the ride at Disneyland.  Can’t vouch for the movie).

The concept of Bardo is Tibetan and refers to a state of existence between one’s initial earthly life and a rebirth to new life.  It has affinities with Catholic ideas of Limbo and/or Purgatory.

In the cemetery where the emotionally crushed President has come to be near his son’s recently interred body, an array of the dead and buried (who have not come to terms with the fact that they’re dead and buried) spend the night in their active, interim state.  Three are the primary narrators and protagonists in the goings-on; many others appear.

The brilliant subtlety of the book is the interplay of spiritual bondage with the historic reality of “The Great Emancipator,” who is bound up in personal grief and the overwhelming national crisis.

All of the denizens of the cemetery are bound – bound by their lack of insight into the fact that they’re dead (back to my bottle-of-wine simile; here’s a taste of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave); bound to whatever dominated them at the moment of death (they manifest with physical exaggerations, such as one character who lived so much through his sensual appreciation of the world that he appears as a living mass of eyes and hands); bound by past excesses requiring acts of atonement; bound by the iron fence of the cemetery and by the arrival of daylight; bound up in the ultimate illusion that continuing fruitless old habits will result in a hoped for outcome.

Lincoln and Willie are arresting figures who break through the binding boredom of the Bardo.  The cemetery residents are as taken with the Lincolns as is the divided nation.  Coming first to gawk at them as a diversion from the nightly routines, the spirits are moved by the Lincolns, and, to the very limited extent that they are able, move them.

This sets the stage for a wild matrix of possible liberations.  Can the spirits accept the feared burst of light that hearkens a new existence?  Can Abraham and Willie Lincoln, if only for a moment, reach some kind of peace across the separation of death?  Can the nation out in the dark beyond the cemetery emancipate those it oppresses and free itself from its devouring battlefields?

The book unfolds almost as a play, with the narration carried by succeeding character voices, and scenes set by historical quotes from Lincoln contemporaries and subsequent historians’ works.  Saunders’ distilled breadth of reading on Lincoln and the culture of the times is a treasure within the other riches of this novel.

Saunders does a masterful job of leaving open the spiritual questions while engaging them with refreshing respect.  A key Christian character must grapple with the fearful mystery of a sovereign God, yet never doubts the tenets of the faith and… well, I need to stay away from a big spoiler on this.  I’ll just say that while this is not a Christian novel, a Christian operating as a Christian has an honorable impact upon what unfolds, and what unfolds honors his faith.

This is a great novel on so many levels, including imagination, history, spirituality, engaging characters (even the plethora of minor ones who show up), emotional punch (I was reading it in the break room at work and had to hide that I was weeping at one point) and wit.

Once you follow Lincoln into the Bardo, you’ll be hard put to do anything but keep reading.