What dys?

A couple of writers I admire clued me in to the joys of dystopian literature,

…a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.’ The term dystopia is defined as a society characterized by poverty, squalor or oppression and the theme is most commonly used in science fiction and speculative fiction genres.

They’ve also turned me on to the ability of some writers to use a dystopian setting to identify and even celebrate the light, whether secular or spiritual, that animates human beings to shine against the darkness.

Two recommended books that I found profitable:

 

station eleven

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel.  In this one, an out of control super flu wipes out loads of people all over the world.  The author makes the horror palpable not with the gross outs of the big screen, but with vivid everyday terrors – phone signals fading out, familiar places empty, an arrived airliner sitting inert at the end of a runway.

In the midst of it we meet an ersatz theater troupe wandering the upper Midwest.  Through them we encounter not only the frights of a dystopian world but the dignity of humanity enduring and seeking expression.

 

when the english fallWHEN THE ENGLISH FALL by David Williams.  When a – A what? A manifestation of divine wrath?  A solar flare? An all too human secret weapon unleashed? –  wipes out most power equipment and electricity, dystopian chaos sets in for “The English,” that is, those who are not the Amish protagonists of this novel.

But the chaos spreads out from the frantic urban jungles, and the agrarian Amish are not immune.

This novel searches the struggle of people with profoundly gentle faith and values to exist in a world gone mad (and getting madder by the moment.)

Neither novel gives easy answers to the struggles of its characters.  Fearful vulnerability and glimmering hope remain in contention at the end of both works.

But neither book is dreary on the one hand or happy-clappy on the other.  Neither is preachy with assertions or answers, and both are full of surprises, both terrifying twists and soul stirring responses.

What made both most powerful to me was their plausibility.  Much dystopian fiction verges into sci-fi, and so is frightening but much like a roller coaster ride.  You know it’s been designed to scare you and you simply get off at the end.  The Mad Max movies come to mind.  Other works are ideological tracts verging into paranoia – despite its creative flourishes I’d have to lump The Handmaid’s Tale in that category.

But Station Eleven and When the English Fall are a cut above.  They portray social destruction that could come to pass, at least here and there if not worldwide.  They leave questions open for the reader to search, not assigning tendentious blame to this or that group for the world’s ills, while searching for the good in struggling humanity.

The “dys” is real, but it faces push back, however small and fragile that might seem.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  (Isaiah 42:1-4)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  (John 1:5)

Advertisements

No Savior no saves

A Facebook friend posted,

This would be a great time for someone close to Harvey Weinstein to share the gospel with him.

Some will flame up, and probably from all kinds of hot spots.  For some, sexual harassment will be a kind of unforgivable sin and the idea of hearing about mercy in Jesus will be pious treacle.

Others will call the Christian notion of forgiveness through Jesus too easy, and insist that Mr. Weinstein “balance the scales” by giving gazillions to virtue signaling causes.

Some will take the cynical tack – He just did what everybody does in that vile business.  Repentance is meaningless because… well, it isn’t necessary when you accept the idea that everybody is trashy so we don’t need to change.  Or something like that.

I think that my friend’s post is deceptively deep.  Because he is announcing that we need saving and that only the Savior can accomplish it.

Think about Mr. Weinstein’s behavior and maybe your own.  We all set in motion ripples of evil that keep going out in the world.  We have no metrics for how many people are impacted when we abuse another person.  If you have two minutes of life experience, you know that wounded people go out and wound others, who wound others, who wound others.

If a lover dumps you, you go out and look for any easy mark to use and discard to restore your ego.  Or you put up walls and deny affection to those who do love and need you later, when you pretend that things are “normal” again.

How do we “make restitution” or atone on our own?  Sure, we can seek out those we recognize that we hurt and apologize or, in the case of some offenses, make material restitution.  And that’s good and right.  But by the time we get to that our victims have probably worked out some of their hurt on others.  We have no way to catch up with it all.

And just how does one atone for Mr. Weinstein’s particular behaviors?  How do you “ungrope” someone?  How do you remove the image after you unzip and expose yourself to unwilling eyes, minds and hearts?

The answer is, You don’t.  You can’t.  Because even your most sincere apology can’t undo all the damage.

If it is some kind of moral balancing act, we are all headed for a fall.  Our rebellion against God is such that we traipse through life inflicting all kinds of hurt, most trivial, some significant, all enough to send ripples of evil through the world.

Because when we are hurting, we go out and hurt others.

And so the gospel says that God was willing to be hurt to save us.  The perfectly innocent victim suffered the greatest cosmic injustice and indignity on behalf of all of us, who justly deserve wrath – not only from our human victims but from the Creator whose order we deface with our evil antics.  We can’t clean up the mess, but we can be made clean in the midst of it.

We need saving, and we can’t save ourselves.  No Savior, no saves.

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  (Romans 5:8-9)

El Greco Christ Healing the Blind
Jesus Healing the Blind, El Greco, c. 1570.  Notice that many in the crowd are unimpressed.

More field, less fence

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  (Matthew 21:43-46, part of the Gospel heard from the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8, 2017)

Jesus angers the chief priests and the wider religious movement known as Pharisees.  Their emphasis was the strict application of laws governing every aspect of life.  They were so zealous for this approach that they created what they called “a fence around the law,” that is, make more and more rules to prevent people from even getting close to the rule you don’t want them to break.

In contemporary Israel, this found expression in ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars driven on the sabbath.  It wasn’t that driving the car was forbidden work  – it was that the car might get a flat tire and tempt you to fix it, or tempt you to tempt a tow truck driver to come and fix it.  (Still not sure how gathering and throwing rocks didn’t count as work).

The problem with this approach, according to Jesus, is that makes it harder and harder for sinners to experience and respond to the mercy that God wants to show.  The legal system builds fence upon fence to keep sinners away, treating them as disposable rather than souls of such great value that God would suffer to save them.

Jesus warns that the kingdom of heaven will not be achieved by rigorous laws and systems built by human beings.  He says that the kingdom will be given (that is, by God, the only one who can create the kingdom) to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  Jesus calls for the fruit of the field more than for a fence to contain it.  What does that mean?

First, it means repentance.  In Matthew 3:8, it is recorded that John the Baptist prepared people for the coming kingdom with the warning to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Repentance is to turn from one way of life into a new way.  Christianity calls people to turn from current priorities to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).  This is to place any identity or agenda to which we cling on the chopping block and be baptized instead into the identity and agenda of Jesus Christ, who IS the righteousness of God.

(That Jesus is himself the righteousness of God is why he speaks of himself as the rock that breaks and crushes – he is the final judge of what is right).

Then, after this rebirth into the life of Christ, bearing fruit is to let our life flourish with Christ-like qualities planted and nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Christ, the fences fall and the field flourishes.  Humans live together in loving commitment, voluntarily tempering private passions and desires so that all can grow toward the kingdom’s light.

The contrast between field and fence is obvious in our national outpouring of horror at the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Enough Americans to be significant have made politics their faith, and so there are calls for laws and for public demonization of various groups of people we should see as neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In an editorial in the Washington Post,  researcher Leah Libresco explains how her research on gun violence led her from a legal approach, advocating various forms of “gun control,” to a different set of insights.

What she found was that American gun violence would be most effectively reduced by attention to three groups of suffering neighbors:

The suicidal.  Two thirds of annual America gun deaths are suicides.  We know this is an affliction here on South Dakota’s Reservations; it’s also becoming a disturbing trend among middle aged white guys like me as our familiar cultural expectations fade.  I have a friend on the East Coast whose church is managing to engage very troubled neighbors.  It is exhausting and not always successful work – he’s done over 100 funerals in the last three years.  But his church is tearing down fences to connect with suffering neighbors as souls precious to God.

Young men in drug and gang subcultures.  They account for 1 in 5 annual gun deaths.  This statistic gets into our uncomfortable American racial divides.  The Pew Research Foundation stats on gun crime, filtered for race, show that this kind of gun violence is disproportionately high in the Black community.  How do we cross longstanding fence lines together to bring life where death has so much power?  What in our own attitudes might have to be confronted and repented of to help that happen?

Domestic abuse victims, predominantly women.  Again, a shameful reality which most of us would rather ignore.  Again, an aspect of life that might expose some of our own sinful attitudes or hardness of heart.   How do we pull down fences so that what is hidden is brought into view for both justice and healing?

It’s easier to build a fence.  It’s easier to pass a law and pretend, with great conceit, that it is necessary only to control “those” people over there with “their” problems.

But in our Gospel, Jesus warns that that kind of thinking is what can cost us the kingdom.  Our fences can trap us in our own wasteland of sin and keep us out of the flourishing field that is the prophesied kingdom of heaven,

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.  (Ezekiel 47:12)

 

More than a symbol

September 14th is Holy Cross Day.  Like many church calendar days it has uncomfortable entanglements with legends and claims that go beyond the Gospel message, and the content of prayers and commemorations vary across Christian traditions.

That said, the cross of Christ should always draw our attention, and not as a mere symbol of a religion,

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  (The Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 1:17)

The cross is full of power, he says.  Verses like that can get us into the shadowy border of faith and magic, of course.  Yet our contemporary way of thinking does empty the cross of its own, distinct power, turning it into a mere symbol to support this or that cause or claim.  It becomes one more noise maker in our din of conflicting opinions proclaimed as life and death truths.

Sometimes other cultures can help us reconnect with what the Spirit reveals through the Bible.  The late missionary Marc Nikkel shared this report from Africa,

In April (1997) Kakuma (a refugee camp in Kenya, extended “home” to many displaced persons from Sudan and South Sudan) was hit by an epidemic of cholera, the result of poor hygiene due in part to contaminated water containers.  While official reports state that some twenty people died, several NGO (non-government organizations) staff and educated refugees vow that over a hundred expired during a five-week period.  Diagnosis of the disease and measures to stem its spread were slow in coming, with at least four deaths daily over several weeks.  As camp officials struggled to put health measures in place, refugees became increasingly frightened, and Kakuma’s ECS (Episcopal Church of the Sudan) women assumed spiritual authority.

The women report how, one day in May, they banded together in a force of some 520 to lay siege against the powers of death.  Carrying their hand-held crosses, they marched around Kakuma’s main hospital compound where some 108 people were understood to lie ill with cholera.  Praying and singing they converged at the heart of the complex.  There, with the permission of hospital staff, they planted a long, wooden cross in the earth and called on God to restore life to the dying.  This, the cross of Christ, they likened to the bronze serpent erected by Moses in the desert, which brought healing to all the afflicted who looked on it (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15).  Indeed, as they narrate events, divine grace was imparted, the plague of cholera ceased from that day, and all 108 returned to health.

This was the first in a series of marches initiated by the ECS women in which they seek to supplement apparently impotent hospital care with initiatives of the spirit and transcend their sense of helplessness through united action.  Because these events are conducted in the Jieng language, non-Sudanese NGO staff have sometimes felt threatened by them, interpreting them as aggressive, politically styled demonstrations.  Undeniably, resolute masses of marching women, singing buoyantly, crosses thrusting in rhythm, have a military flavor.  For them, however, their processions are literal battles of the spirit in which they are supplanting the powers of death and oppression, as a composition they sang reveals,

“We are carrying burdens that oppress us; Great Lord of peace help us!

“We bear loads that lead us astray (from your way): Great Lord of peace help us!

“We accuse the enemy in your presence.

“Great Lord who has power, come near and help us, Christ help us upon the earth.

“O Protector against evil, our Helper O Father.  Christ help us!

“The suffering you suffered shows us how to live upon the earth.

“Come near and help us, Christ our Helper, our Father upon the earth!”

Dinka+church+cross+(1+of+1)
Dinka women carrying the cross.  From here.

To recent marches here in the U.S., in which flags symbolizing enslavement and genocide were waved as tokens of freedom; masks were worn as if able to conceal the free floating juvenile anger animating violent actions, or costumes resembling body parts were donned to celebrate the self, the demonstration in Kakuna, neither vilifying nor exalting any group on earth but seeking the well being of those who suffered, contrasts the power of the cross of Christ.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.  (Collect for Holy Cross Day, Book of Common Prayer U.S. 1979)

Bubble Buster

The Epistle (ancient snail mail for readers who ain’t church geeks) for this Sunday is Romans 12:9-21.  I’ll include the whole text a few paragraphs down, with some commentary, after a short personal confession:

My immediate takeaway is how short I fall of this lesson’s call to humane, common sense, non “religious” (that is, not loaded with ceremonial or otherwise churchy jargon) behavior.

So it burst my personal bubble.  My easing into the morning over coffee stumbled into full blown confession of sin.  How little of the verse I apply, and how poorly I apply those parts at which I do endeavor.

bubbles
Pic snagged here.

Then I got to thinking about the “bubble” accusation that we all fling around gratuitously these days: White people in suburbs live in a bubble, college students live in a bubble, the mainstream media is a big bubble of the like minded, etc. etc.  My group has intellectual insight, common sense or some other form of enlightenment, you and your kind live in a bubble to reinforce your shared ignorance and malice.

This lesson from Romans (the bold sections below) can burst bubbles.  I’m not talking about nasty efforts to go popping other peoples’ bubbles, but the bursting of our own so that others might be set free to prick holes in theirs:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection – some translations say “brotherly love.”  The Greek term means affection between equals, such as siblings or friends.  It is to put ourselves on the same level as others instead of in a bubble floating apart from and above them;

outdo one another in showing honour – we’re accomplished at mocking one another.  We’re all about dank memes and mic drops and other claims to have finally and forever exposed others’ flaws.  What if we went out of our ways to honor one another, almost competing to see who could show others in the best possible light?  Can you hear the bubbles popping?

Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers – opening our wallets and doors to people, especially people unlike ourselves, has great power.  Jesus said that our money trail reveals the path of our hearts.  To reach out to others and/or to allow them into our lives means punching a deflating hole in our comfy bubble, which, as we know from balloons, makes a gross noise.  Giving and receiving can disturb us, but discomfort precedes all great gain in life.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them – What, no name calling?  No virtue signalling tweets, chants and placards?  The horror!  Yet this lesson applies to the worst possible bubble condition, when one bubble group is busy tormenting another.  It is our natural reaction to retaliate (and to justify our counterattack).  Here we are offered a supernatural alternative, to join with Jesus on the cross and bless those who are doing us wrong.  And if our hearts and minds are consumed with our just grievances?  Humanly speaking, our inner attitude will follow our chosen actions. Blessing those outside of our bubble can deflate our rage, and possibly theirs.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep – We can find common ground with people very unlike ourselves when we practice empathy for common human situations.  It is hard to stay enbubbled (<– spellcheck hateth that one) when we are laughing or crying with (not at or about) others.

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are – We are good at proclaiming “diversity” while maintaining bubbly uniformity.  People have profound differences.  We burst bubbles by finding ways to come together across those differences, not by seeking to define them away or pound them out of existence.  It is painful to accept our own limitations or wear excellent aspects of our lives with humility.  It is a challenge to accept others’ limitations without condescension and their excellence without envy.  Bubbles burst when we know and accept ourselves and know and accept others as God’s works-in-progress.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all – The irony is that violent effort to pop bubbles tends to give them stronger membranes.  It is the gentler search for common values that makes for the peace in which bubbles evaporate.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  No, you’re not crazy.  There are evil people out there and, no matter your good efforts, they will ride around in a bubble bouncing violently here and there.  In this passage the New Testament quotes the Old.  There will be justice, dispensed by God.  The good you offer will not be forgotten, and the unrepented evil of those who afflict the earth will receive a sentence declared by the Lord.  To keep at the good requires this eternal point of view.  Without it, we risk being absorbed into the bubble of those we claim to resist.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Let us pray.

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love
our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth:
deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  (For our Enemies, Book of Common Prayer 1979)

O God our Father, whose Son forgave his enemies while he
was suffering shame and death: Strengthen those who suffer
for the sake of conscience; when they are accused, save them
from speaking in hate; when they are rejected, save them
from bitterness; when they are imprisoned, save them from
despair; and to us your servants, give grace to respect their
witness and to discern the truth, that our society may be
cleansed and strengthened. This we ask for the sake of Jesus
Christ, our merciful and righteous Judge. Amen.  (For those who suffer for the sake of Conscience, BCP 1979)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the
people of this land], that barriers which divide us may
crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our
divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (For Social Justice, BCP 1979)

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?

If you circulate the lies, you’re the liar

Today I’m seeing demonstrably faked pics vilifying both “sides” in America’s current infotainment grievance fest.  There’s a fake pic of Antifa activists attacking a cop and a fake pic of Trump relatives in KKK regalia just to name two.

THAT kind of deception (not differences of opinion) is “fake news.”

God has spoken about this:

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. Exodus 23:1-2

There is no justification for our “narratives” (the sanitized name for propaganda, lies and social manipulations). Neither the culture of the majority (the many) or claims of social justice for the marginalized (partial to a poor man) have any value if they are based upon falsehoods.

It isn’t just the one who starts the lie, it’s any and all of us who join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.

We need to repent of our false narratives before our call to stand before the only Judge who is is not partial and cannot be deceived.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:12)

Golden calf
Moses encountering the Israelites’ new narrative.  From here.