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)

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Rollin’ like a liar

OK, OK, I hate to cause controversy but here goes.

There’s this song on the Christian radio, which I think was from a movie soundtrack, called God’s Not Dead.

Now, there’s a recurring verse in it that says… well, if I Google it and go to lyric sites, it claims to say, He’s [God’s] living on the inside, roaring like a lion.

BUT, that’s NOT what the guy is singing. He’s saying,

HE’S LIVING ON THE INSIDE, ROLLIN’ LIKE A LIAR.

I swear to you, that’s what he’s saying. I know I know I know what the lyric pages say. But,

I’ve turned the radio up, and I’ve turned it down.

I’ve faced the speakers, turned my back to the speakers, faced the sunrise and the sunset.

I’ve listened while praying with my mind, and listened while praying in the Spirit.

And that dude is singing about how God is ROLLIN’ LIKE A LIAR.

Now, I assume this is some hipster phrase, probably appropriated from an ethnic community by skinny jeans wearing White evangelical millennials.

Why won’t you own it, and, more than that, why won’t you tell old, broken down men like me what it means so we can have cred when preaching?

I KNOW what you’re saying. So give up the meaning.

Lend me some sugar, I AM your neighbor!

 

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)

 

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?

Strike yer colors (please)

I’ve never seen so many Nazi flags, not even on the History Channel.

No, I don’t mean at the alt-right/old fascist whatev rally in Virginia.  I mean in the social media posts by people objecting to that rally.

It brings up a persistent question.  Do we do better by making active shows of resistance to shut down a crazy movement, or do we disempower it by depriving it of publicity?  I think there are examples and arguments to support both positions, and I’m not going to be so vain as to assert one or the other as universally useful.  It is an important question and one that deserves constant asking if great evils are to be headed off.

It is easy to condemn some “bad guys,” especially when our cultural virtue signalling declares open season on them.  You can concoct international neo-fascist villains in movies about terrorism and that won’t cause the uproar you get with an Islamic terrorist as the antagonist.  When it came to executing White male mass murderer Timothy McVeigh, the usually vocal anti-death penalty crowd went pretty much mum.  We have a natural inclination – which you can blame on sin, biology, social psychology or (d) all of the above – to identify and chase away a threatening “out group.”  That’s not a solution, because we’ve been doing it forever and the same problems persist.

Praying about it and seeking wisdom in the Scriptures of my faith, I was given memory of Jude 1:23,

Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives. (NLT)

It isn’t loving to let others, up to and including the hateful and oppressive, perish in their sin.  To resist their bad ideas and actions can be the most loving possible response.  It is to attempt to rescue them from ultimate destruction, just as much as it is to protect other people from the harm they might inflict.

But this must be done without being “contaminated” by their evil, that is, by getting sucked into participation in the very thing we claim to protest.

The resistance has to manifest something different.  As one observer points out, that wasn’t exactly what happened in Virginia,

Mutually antagonistic flag waving.  Not a call to something better, just a colorful assertion of my superiority to you.

I was at a protest some years ago.  Two groups were demonstrating on opposing sides of a foreign policy issue.  We were both marching in circles, brandishing our witty placards and bellowing our slogans.

At some point, someone in our circle challenged us to shut up and pray.  So we did – we went silent and dropped to our knees on the sidewalk.  The other group kept chanting for a few minutes, then fizzled into silence and dispersed.

Again, I’m not saying that this is some universal solution – it might just as well have happened that some nut jumped into his car and ran over us while we prayed.

What I’m saying is that the real resistance is that which manifests something better, even if risky, than the facts on the ground.  I really don’t see any substantial difference between alt-right and antifa “demonstrations.”  I don’t see substantial difference between alt-right and SJW social media histrionics.

Jesus sets a tall order before us.  He calls us to represent a kingdom that is different from any order on earth, in fact, it’s pretty much upside down from what we call normal most of the time.

This kingdom waves a flag, but not a symbolic piece of fabric.  The Old Covenant presented it as a new kingdom of peace and justice: the New Testament proclaims it in the person of Jesus, the heir of ancient King David’s line and Son of God, a living signal/banner/flag of peace and justice to the whole world,

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear; 
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them. 
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea. 

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. 

He will raise a signal for the nations,
   and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
   from the four corners of the earth.

(Isaiah 11:1-12, NRSV)

So let’s strike our earthly colors, and ask God to unfurl us as that living banner of a better kingdom, even if we must suffer losses in this life to live in it.

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.

Meanwhile, over in Grantchester…

OK, OK, as an Anglican Cleric I confess that I watch Grantchester, that intoxicating mashup of crime mystery, bromance, soap opera and a dash of increasingly potent theology thrown in.

The third season sports an agonizing slow motion collision as emerging liberal Christianity accelerates and traditional faith and morals gets in the way.

The theological issues all locate around (tell me you didn’t guess) S_X. People want to “love” who they want, marital status, gender, age or social status be, well, darned!

It’s presented with some welcome complexity. In episode 3, the Vicar of Grantchester preaches an ueber liberal homily about being ourselves and grabbing onto this life rather than heavenly hopes. I can’t find a video clip but a UK source quotes a line,

“This is the life we are here for, we owe it to ourselves to live it.”

Seriously, that’s the triumphant theology that claimed my denomination and several others over the decades and you can become a priest or pastor by memorizing and spouting fortune cookie stuff like that. I’m guessing that many of you reading this will wonder why I seem to question it at all.

But the show doesn’t shy away from the reality that what follows the sermon, as key characters act on it, is folly and disaster. Families are threatened (the writers go so far as to show a little girl’s mounting trauma as divorce stalks her parents), a spot of December-May adultery gets obsessive, lies abound and along comes all the real stuff that happens when we poo poo the Gospel and take “what we owe to ourselves.”

But the liberal critique of “conservative” hypocrisy is not ignored. The Vicar tries to change course in episode 4, preaching a moralistic harangue about how giving in to temptation leads to suffering, then going off to his lover for more, well, must-be-love.

There is a closeted gay cleric in the series, and we watch in agony as he tries to “be good” on the church’s terms and proposes to a vulnerable woman, only to break her heart.

The bottom line is that when it comes to S_X (why is that the only aspect of life we debate theologically?), we can’t “live the life we owe to ourselves.”

Grantchester illustrates all too well what liberal Christianity does to people – not just the participants in the act but a whole lot of others who become collateral damage.

It also shows how traditional Christians who try to “have it both ways,” preaching Biblical morality while living carnally, generate the same result, harming themselves and all kinds of innocent bystanders in the process.

I’m old fashioned in the sense that I believe we should preach what the Scriptures say, try to live by them and deal with failures as failures, but with gentleness intended to restore the fallen (which includes each and every one of us, all the time),

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. (Galatians 6:1 NLT)

And I believe that people are free to reject Christianity and go do something else – the dice are ours to roll, to be flip about it. If a person thinks the Bible’s plain teaching is nonsense, then don’t claim to live by and represent it. The Vicar of Grantchester seems to have learned that much from the mayhem, taking off his clergy collar and walking away from the church, at least temporarily.