How to Know If You’re Talking to Merlin

Sword in Stone Merlin and Archimedes

You and your brother who is a fierce knight were wandering through the woods when he shot an arrow into the air after a passing hawk. Running to catch it, you stumble across an old man. He wears magisterial robes and gives off a faint impression of being a secret owl.

There are tales told in these woods of a legendary enchanter named Merlin who knows the languages of birds and beasts. But you are skeptical. The woods are full of strange men. He wants you to come home with him; should you do it? Is it safe? Is it really Merlin?

Take a close look at his glasses. How would you describe them? Half-moon? Pince-nez? Merlin’s glasses will defy conventional description, “tarantula” being the closest point of reference.

Does he laughingly quote a prophecy about himself written a thousand years from now, but spoken by someone in the past, someone who knew all about him? It’s confusing, I know.

If he has violent flashes of temper that make you afraid to go near him, that could be one of several wizards but it’s not necessarily Merlin. If he knows the location of your missing asses before you ask him, he’s only a prophet but you should run.

Creep into his study. How many crocodiles are there? There should be only one. It should be hanging from the ceiling. It will wink when you enter. If it doesn’t wink, it’s not Merlin.

If the owl in his study silently delivers messages, it belongs to some other wizard. If the owl vehemently denies being an owl, it’s Merlin’s.

If he suddenly disappears and you find yourself talking to a wise young boy, he’s trying to trick you but don’t be fooled—it’s Merlin.

If he complains about the electricity and you’re in the fifth century, it’s Merlin.

If he demonstrates surprising familiarity with the time and manner of your death and also his own, it’s Merlin.

If he makes mulberry trees appear out of nowhere and transforms the sky into a giant fish bowl—your brothers will mutter and cough—“Illusions!” they’ll say—but you can rest easy. It’s Merlin.

Five Reasons I Still Believe (Even When My Faith Is Shaken)

tree_of_life_81In the final pages of my memoir, I describe how my faith was shaken after the untimely death of my close friend in 2012. Seeing her lying in a coffin, realizing she would never get out of it, I wondered where she had gone and whether she had ever had a soul to begin with. I wondered if there was any chance I would see her again.

These aren’t the musings of someone who’s losing his religion but a natural cry of the heart in the face of death. You’re not human if you don’t ask yourself these questions when confronted with the mystery of suffering and evil.

Nevertheless, for several years thereafter my faith was shaky. I read essays by atheist philosophers and Christian theologians in the hopes of uncovering a satisfying answer to the question of what awaits us in the undiscovered country. And today I still have questions. On my worst days I find myself wanting to jump ship as I contemplate the eventual annihilation of our planet and the ultimate heat death of the universe. But I’ve managed to hold onto my faith in the Christian God, though sometimes by fingernails only. Here are some reasons why.

The Existence of Humans

Back in the 1990s Christian apologetics was fascinated by the anthropic principle, this idea that the universe and our planet are perfectly fine-tuned for the existence of life. I find that argument less compelling than I once did—newer scientific models are suggesting that, given certain conditions, the emergence of life is not only possible but likely. Even the Vatican has conceded that there may be other planets inhabited by creatures like humans.

Yet the fact that over the centuries the basic building blocks of life would have evolved from single-celled organisms into primates and eventually into humans who can write books and design towering cathedrals remains impressive. In the words of Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus, “The riddle of existence is not a riddle the universe poses to us, but one we pose to ourselves . . . We are the riddle, and the very fact that we ask the questions we do is one of the best clues we have to the answers we seek.”

The Survival of the Jewish Race

According to legend, when the anti-semitic emperor Frederick the Great of Prussia asked his wise men to provide one irrefutable proof for the existence of God, they said simply, “The Jews.” The survival of the Jewish race into the present era has been called, even by secular writers, the greatest miracle of modern times. It’s all the more remarkable given the various attempts to exterminate them wholesale, and the promises in their scriptures that they would be protected and return to their own land.

The Survival of the Christian Church

When Attila the Hun was ravaging Italy in 452 and the nascent Christian faith was threatened with destruction, Pope Leo I personally confronted the invader and persuaded him to leave the peninsula and return to his homeland. The Emperor Napoleon threw Pope Pius VII in prison and allegedly said, “I will destroy your church.” Within a few years Napoleon was in exile and the pope had returned to Rome and the newly restored Papal States. Stalin is reputed to have said, “How many armies does the pope have?” but in June 1979 Pope John Paul II led a rally in his native Krakow in which over a million people gathered in the town square and shouted, “We want God! We want God!” This rally set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. “I will build My church,” said Jesus, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” and he has been true to his word.

The Shroud of Turin

I’m generally skeptical of alleged miracles, but the Turin shroud is not easily dismissed. True, an early test of the fabric concluded that it was woven during the twelfth century, but subsequent analysis has found that the patch tested was not consistent with other portions of the cloth, and had in fact been added after a fire. Moreover, Shroud skeptics must account for the presence of pollen that is only found in the Jerusalem area in the spring, along with the growing scientific consensus that the image could only have been made by a single burst of ultraviolet light.

The Character of Jesus

If you read Christian apologetics books from the ‘90s, it’s obvious that amateur theologians were obsessed with this idea that the Christian religion is true because the Bible is a single perfect work written over a span of several thousand years that has been passed down to us in dozens of ancient manuscripts. There are problems with this argument, one of them being that it doesn’t matter how many copies of a text we have, if the text promotes and teaches terrible things.

I’ve lost friends for questioning the accuracy and wisdom of certain Old Testament passages where God commands the slaughter of innocent women and children. To its credit, the Christian church has always been troubled by these passages because they don’t reflect the image of God that we now see reflected in the life and character of Jesus. Even with all my questions I remain fascinated by the vision of Jesus presented in the four Gospels, by the only man who has ever led a lasting revolution of the human heart, the one man without whom the past 2,000 years of human history would be inconceivable. In many ways our world has not yet met his equal in wisdom. I’m reminded of the young atheist girl in Soviet Russia who, after reading the Gospel of Luke, said simply, “I fell in love with Him.” So may we all.

What Made the Harry Potter Books So Successful?

Severus-Snape-The-Half-Blood-Prince-severus-snape-7012501-1920-1080It’s been 10 years this summer since I read the first six Harry Potter books for the first time. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years reading literary criticism, folklore, mythology and famous works of literature that were an acknowledged influence on J. K. Rowling’s opus in the hopes of answering the question, “What made these books so successful?” So naturally at this point I have a lot of opinions, and today I share them with you. Continue reading

“I Give You… Potter!” Seven Great Moments in the Harry Potter Books

Harry-Potter-and-the-Philosopher-s-Stone-emma-watson-25871706-1280-544As unlikely as it seems now, I largely missed out on the Harry Potter phenomenon when it began blowing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Continue reading

“Everything Is a Remix”: The Perils of Pattern-Hunting in Pop Culture

Hollywood Reporter
recently posted an interview with Gordon Smith, the director of the sixth episode of Better Call Saul. In it he name-checks some of the movies that provided inspiration for a key scene on a train featuring fan-favorite character Mike Ehrmentraut.

“We wanted to give him kind of a classic, Western-style arrival,” says Smith. We’ve been watching Bad Day at Black Rock, and everybody in the room loves Once Upon a Time in the West. Those great ‘hero arriving on a train’ moments. We were trying to come up with something that gave it some weight and some heft, so it didn’t feel just like an arrival and some exposition.”

 This information rapidly made its way through online forums and onto wikis curated by fans of Vince Gilligan and the Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul writing staff, who have long been cataloguing the shows’ carefully layered cinematic allusions. Gilligan speaks openly and lovingly of his reference points, which range from the obvious (the Godfather trilogy) to the obscure (two Humphrey Bogart movies, The Caine Mutiny and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, cast long shadows over the first half of Breaking Bad’s final season). Film lovers were quick to note the explicit parallels to the end of the 1956 western The Searchers in the final scene between Jesse Pinkman and Walter White in Bad’s finale: both stories conclude with a morally compromised protagonist intending to kill someone they believe to have wronged them, but ultimately choosing to rescue them. In post-season interviews Gilligan conceded the influence of that movie on his writers, saying, “It’s always a matter of stealing from the best.”

Given the (sometimes grudging) admiration Gilligan has received even from established authors like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin, fans might be forgiven for thinking that he and his writing staff had conjured a story ex nihilo, out of nothing. Those unfamiliar with the process of drafting and producing a television series sometimes mistakenly presume that these stories, and the ideas that propel them, just appear as if by magic. What Gilligan’s influences reveal is that being a successful writer is less about originality than it is about careful study; less about bursts of inspiration and more about tireless dedication to one’s craft.

The last few years have seen an emerging awareness that stories do come from somewhere, that many of our most beloved entertainments were cobbled together from bits and pieces of earlier entertainments. A popular webseries, “Everything Is a Remix,” traces the influence of Kurosawa and Flash Gordon serials on the making of Star Wars, stopping just short of suggesting that the film was lifted wholesale from other movies. A virtual cottage industry has risen up around the literary influences of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, spearheaded by John Granger, whose book Harry Potter’s Bookshelf argues that the beloved series is indebted to classic authors like Dorothy Sayers, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hughes.

However, approaches to criticism and writing built on the “Everything Is a Remix” model have their own perils. Most pointedly, they can leave aspiring writers under the illusion that they’re guaranteed to make it big if they only watch Metropolis enough. This discounts the critical role imagination plays in the creative process.

Moreover, attempts to trace the origin of a given idea, motif or narrative structure by comparisons to previous works can be misleading. For example, The Searchers is often cited as a seminal influence on George Lucas’s space epic because both feature scenes in which a man wanders out into a desert, only to return and discover that his relatives have been ambushed and their home destroyed. Yet equally striking comparisons could be drawn between John Ford’s western and J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Fellowship of the Ring. Early in both stories, the heroes journey across marshy swamps and fierce rivers to evade deadly hunters, and ultimately form their own hunting party to rescue two of their number who have been kidnapped. Was Tolkien inspired by Ford, or vice versa? Given that both works were completed in the same year, it’s unlikely.

The problems inherent in the “Everything Is a Remix” model of criticism are the same patterns inherent in all forms of pattern-seeking. In its most benign form, pattern-mania is a kind of party game, an entertaining though potentially misleading diversion that can trivialize a great work by reducing it to its similarities to other works. (It’s the same problem encountered in religion by pattern-seekers who leech a faith of its moral substance). At its worst, pattern-mania can become an obsession, sending critics and writers off on hallucinatory quests that promise much but yield little. We begin to evoke Captain Ahab, who stares at a chart in his cabin for so long that the creases in his forehead begin to resemble the lines on the map. We can go on multiplying associations forever, but the mysteries of the writer’s craft, like the mysteries of time and the cosmos, will continue to elude us.

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing Skirts the Line Between Comedy and Tragedy

much adoThis is the first post in a new series discussing my 40 favorite films.


Groups can so easily turn against a single person, as I learned at the end of my freshman year in college 10 years ago this month.

Skyler* and I had met on the first morning of orientation, and for much of the year we were inseparable. Our friends said we were like twins. We listened to the same obscure bands, treated Shakespeare like a religious text, and, ultimately, fell in love with the same girl, Mary Ann*.

This was never going to end happily, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare probably realizes. Throughout his career, from his early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona to a late romance, The Winter’s Tale, the prolific playwright wove stories about inseparable friends whose friendships are ultimately torn apart by jealousy and mistrust. Continue reading

If Charles Dickens Wrote Contemporary Christian Music: or, God and the Grotesque

My first day of high school in 2000, my pre-AP English teacher (and Sunday school teacher, and super-woman) Mrs. Pauley ran through the list of everything we’d be reading in the coming trimester. Then she asked us, “Have any of you read Great Expectations?”

One hand went slowly up into the air. Blushing, I could feel the stares of the rest of the class as they turned to look at me.

“Boze,” said Mrs. Pauley, in her usual droll voice, “I knew there was somethin’ wrong with you.”

It wasn’t the first time an English teacher had teased me for my Dickens obsession. Two years before, I had torn through Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in short order. I’d begun speaking and writing in a pastiche of nineteenth-century Victorian writers. (“Magniloquence is a virtue much to be admired in a gentleman,” I would say, to the friends I did not have).

I found Dickens irresistibly fascinating; David and Pip and Joe Gargery and old Fezziwig were like old friends, in the same way Ali Baba and Sinbad befriended young Ebenezer Scrooge. As a poor boy growing up in an abusive home environment, I connected with the violence and destitution and rage and filth and gore of Dickens’ imagined England, with this gothic and grotesque world in which convicts leapt out from behind tombstones and frightened little boys out of their wits, in which stepmothers and stepfathers beat their kids until they bled and eccentric old women set themselves on fire.

Dickens was haunted by what Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque”; it was the darker half of his Gothic imagination. His books were filled with wild, extravagant, deformed figures, twisted in soul and body. He got into a fair bit of trouble when a roguish, “ogling” dwarf woman in the not-yet-completed David Copperfield turned out to have been based on an actual person, who was so hurt by Dickens’ characterization that he was compelled to revise forthcoming installments of the novel, to portray her in a less appalling light.

Arguably, though, it was this gallery of grotesques that made Dickens so massively popular. They burned themselves onto your brain. Novelist Susanna Clarke once described him as “huge—like the sky,” and the same could be said of his characters, even the most minor ones, like the grinning, inebriated old robber David meets on the road to Dover who shouts, “Oh, my lungs and liver! Oh, goroo, goroo!” It is a dark, violent world Dickens builds for his characters, and heaven bless him for it.

At around the time I was beginning my freshman year of high school, and reading Great Expectations for the second time, the Christian contemporary musician Steven Curtis Chapman released the single “Great Expectations,” a track from his massively popular Speechless album. (If you attended Christian summer camp in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, it’s likely you were subjected to the song “Dive” off of that album).

I remember the curiosity and interest I felt when I learned that Chapman had a new single entitled “Great Expectations.” His previous songs, from “Lord of the Dance” to “More to This Life,” had not been found wanting. But, like a young orphan discovering that his mysterious benefactor is something less than he imagined him to be, I found myself disappointed by the sheer immateriality and vapidness of the song, which didn’t seem to be about anything.

We’ve been invited with the Son, sings Chapman:

We’ve been invited to come

And believe the unbelievable

Receive the inconceivable

And see beyond our wildest imaginations

So Lord, we come

Oh, Lord we come…

With great expectations

Now, musically the song isn’t bad. It has a subtle but wonderfully evocative piano intro and a stirring string section. And I’m willing to concede that my disappointment may have been a case of… well, misplaced expectations. When you title a song “Great Expectations,” I expect greatness. I expect gritty ballads about orphans and outlaws. What I got instead was another generically written worship song with some abstract lyrics about power and glory and the obligatory pun on “Sun / Son.”

Lest it seem like I’m picking on Mr. Chapman, I should add that this is a problem endemic to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), both then and today. (“Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me,” sings Passion on the most recent WOW album). So often Christian-brand music, and worship music in particular, sings ethereally of “approaching the throne room” to encounter God’s grace, compassion and mercy. But rarely do these songs give any indication of what this is actually supposed to look like, nor how God’s goodness and mercy manifest in our actual lives, the place where we live and move and breathe.

We’re left with uplifting platitudes that fuel a quasi-Gnostic spirituality divorced from the realities of time and place.

Yes, this is a long way from Dickens in the opening chapter of Great Expectations, describing Pip’s encounter with the runaway convict Magwitch: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled.” But it’s also a long way from the very best of which Christian music is capable.

Which brings me to this man:


In January 1968, Christian, country-western musician and recovering drug addict Johnny Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California, one of the most notorious prisons in the country, a place where the most dangerous criminals were imprisoned, men who were just waiting around to die. Those two shows became the basis for one of Cash’s most celebrated albums, the live album At Folsom Prison.

Listening to the opening and most famous track, “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can hear and practically feel the exhilaration of Cash’s audience as he states his name and launches into his dark, hopeless and morbidly funny ballad about desperate men in desperate places:

When I was just a baby

My mamma told me, “Son

Always be a good boy

Don’t ever play with guns”

But I shot a man in Reno

Just to watch him die…

 And when you hear the loud howl of recognition that one guy yells out right at that moment, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that here was a musician with a preternatural gift for connecting with people in their deepest pains and regrets, a man who descended into caves of guilt and despair and emerged out of them again like the apostle Paul with a burning revelation of grace, a revelation that made him almost irresistibly compelling to the Magwitches and Havishams of the world—freaks, outcasts, thieves, murderers—life’s grotesques. The people whom ordinary church music could never reach.

This aspect of Cash’s legacy, and the controversy it raised among regular suburban churchgoers, is perfectly captured in a scene from the 2006 movie Walk the Line:


The best Christian music, the most truly “Christian” music, whether it’s performed by outsiders like Dylan, Bono, or Cash, or by artists in the Evangelical mainstream like Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins, or Gungor, never loses sight of this world in search of the next one. Unlike the disembodied worship songs of so much CCM, with their vague descriptions of a personal, mystical experience, they remain fixed in their own time and place, in the reality of original sin, in the rhythms of liturgy, in the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying beauty of nature, in real situations that real people face.

The best Christian music sings about actual things: an open field of wild flowers; a mudslide in Decatur, Illinois; the moon spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills.

And Christian-brand music will never be relevant until it follows the examples of its best and most talented artists, and embraces this crooked world.