Thirty Days of Poems: Sky Canoes (Day 1)

Night_Sky_by_Ravens_Stock           ‘Not all canoes are for swimming,’

            she insists, with the casual air of one who knows.

           ‘Some canoes are for flying

          flying through rivers of starlight.

            Which is why

            when we go on vacation

            (me and mom and Kristina)

            we strap the canoe upside down

            to the top of the car:

            that way when we get out on the road

            where the sky rivers flow,

            they pick up the boat and the car

            and we soar through clouds together.”

 

            She pauses

            standing lightly on her toes

            as though reaching up towards the stars.

 

            ‘But how would that work?’ I demand

            and she blinks back her confusion.

           

            ‘It floats!’ she insists, and her arms burst like rockets.

            ‘There are rivers on the ceiling

            There are rivers in the twilight

            And the current grabs the boat

            And it and we sail off together.’

 

            ‘But it doesn’t work that way.’

           

            As I stamp out my cigarette

            she looks at me

            her mouth a perfect O

            her eyes a question.

 

            ‘Because’ I explain

            ‘If that were to happen

            you’d be floating upside down.

            You and your sister and your mom

            would fall out of the car.

            You would die.’

 

            ‘Oh.’

 

            She doesn’t say anything else

            but when I leave that night

            she wanders out into the driveway

            and with upturned face

            and quiet restless eyes

            peers through the hazy silence

            at that other world

            whose trees bend down to scrape our own

            and at the river people

            rowing the winds

            amid moonlight and starlight

            that she feels sure must be.

 

Advertisements

What Frozen Taught Me About How to Read the Bible

Elsa          Frozen is one of those movies that stay with you. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I watched it again last week. Like most people I could empathize with Elsa’s longing to disappear into the mountains, away from friends and family, free of their rules and expectations, free to quit pretending, to be me. It’s a universal feeling, one that I think we’ve all felt.

 

            I love the second verse especially:

 

            It’s funny how some distance

            Makes everything seem small

            And the fears that once controlled me

            Can’t get to me at all

           

            It’s time to see what I can do

            To test the limits and break through

            No right, no wrong, no rules for me

            I’m free!

 

            There’s something so stirring about seeing a heroine growing in confidence, casting off the constraints that have bound her and soaring through wind and sky. Haven’t you ever felt that calling, that longing to forget what everyone else tells you you have to be and just be what you have to be?

 

            And yet I don’t for a moment think the writers fully endorse Elsa’s perspective. I got to wondering how they made Frozen and was surprised to learn that initially Elsa was supposed to be the villain. But when Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez sat down and started writing “Let It Go,” they began trying to imagine what it would be like to be her, to carry her emotional burdens: “this concept of letting out who she is, that she’s kept to herself for so long, and she’s alone and free, but then the sadness of the fact that the last moment is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful.”

 

            Elsa’s self-imposed isolation is hurtful to her sister and ruinous to the kingdom. The writers aren’t encouraging this, as is clear by the end of the movie. “Let It Go” comes at a place in the movie where the heroine is just beginning her emotional journey, hurt and confused but filled with a longing to transcend her meager surroundings and be confident and powerful. But to understand what the movie thinks about all this, we have to follow that emotional journey all the way to the end.

 

            It’s a precarious balance, but I think the writers got it mostly right. Because we could so easily say, “Elsa was wrong to feel that way!” But the truth is, while her feelings may not always be what we’d want them to be, what they “should”be, they’re a part of the human experience, and that’s beautiful.

 

            We have grace for Elsa because she’s so human. And I wish we could read the Bible in the same way we watch Frozen.

 

            So many people have tried to argue with me about the meaning of the Scriptures. You see, they don’t think I take the Bible seriously enough because I have reservations about some of the scarier passages in the Old Testament, the ones about killing children (Ps. 137:9) or stoning women who are raped (Deut. 22:23-25) or slaughtering whole nations. These are the ones they demand I believe in. “If you don’t believe the whole Word of God,” they insist, “you’re a false teacher!”

 

            And it raises some interesting questions, like: Why these passages? Why does no one ever demand a “literal reading” of, “Love your enemies,” or, “If you forgive others, you will be forgiven”? Why are you making, “Destroy all that they have, and do not spare them” the hill that you die on? What does that say about you?

 

            The truth is, like Frozen, the Bible has some very human elements. Human writers and human heroes expressed things that are often not appropriate. They did not always hear God correctly, and their image of God was not always accurate. Because the Bible is a story, and in order to grasp its full meaning you have to read it all the way to the end. There’s a twist at the end of the story, and the twist is Jesus.

 

            The Psalmist said, “Happy is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

 

            Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

 

            Moses said, “You shall conquer them and utterly destroy them.”

 

            Jesus said, “Put away your sword.”

 

            David prayed, “Let there be none to extend mercy.”

 

            Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

 

            In the same way our knowledge of Hans, Anna’s fiancé, is dramatically altered by his self-revelation at the end of Frozen, the Israelites’ perception of God is dramatically altered by the self-revelation of Jesus.

 

           In the first case, the one we had trusted turned out to be a villain and deceiver.

 

           In the second, the one we had feared turned out to be gentle and good.

 

           And that’s really the message of the whole Bible: we thought God was like this; but all along, he was really like this.

 

           We thought God was proud and lofty. But he was meek and lowly.

 

           We thought he would execute vengeance. But he himself was executed.

 

           We thought he would take up the sword and kill. But he took up the cross and died.

 

          It’s the greatest of all surprises—a twist like no other.

 

            But we’ll never grasp what it means unless we read to the end. You can cut up the Bible into pieces and make it say whatever you want, just as you can take “Let It Go” out of Frozen and make a compelling argument for isolation and selfishness. But the true heart of the story is found in its closing scenes, in sacrifices made and love rekindled.

Tonight, All the Children Are Crying: A Lament for Nigeria

malala-yousafzaiThree hundred girls.

 

The hope of their nation. The brightest young women Nigeria had to offer. They were going to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians. They had dreams of leading their country out of the darkness.

 

But that’s not how it’s turned out. They were carried away. Awoken in the middle of the night to the noise of gunfire, forced out of their beds by sweaty, dangerous-looking militiamen, with AK-47s primed at their backs they disappeared into the night and haven’t been seen since. The darkness swallowed them up.

 

It swallowed up the hope of Nigeria.

 

The hope that a woman could get a real education and grow up to be something other than the twelve-dollar bride of a tribal warlord.

 

The hope that a country racked by violence and religious militancy could look towards the future and begin to heal itself.

 

Those dreams were taken away, into the jungle where three hundred brilliant, talented women were tallied up and sold like the cheapest of human commodities.

 

This need not have happened. It shouldn’t have happened.

 

And as I join with people of faith throughout the world tonight in praying for their return, I wonder why I live in a world where these things do happen, why they seem to happen so often. Why men with Bibles and Korans and machine guns are trying to destroy everything good and beautiful in this world. Why they throw acid in the faces of little girls who have the courage to attend school and determine the course of their own lives. Why they shoot strong women, brave women, in the back of the head, for the crime of being strong and brave.

 

I keep thinking of the lines to an old song we used to hear on Christian radio growing up. Tonight the lyrics resurfaced, more poignant and powerful than ever:

 

            Little child

            Dry your crying eyes

            How can I explain the fear you feel inside?

            For you were born

            Into this evil world

            Where man is killing man

            And no one knows just why

 

            What have we become?

            Just look what we have done

            All that we’ve destroyed

            You must build again

 

Yes, some humans have made this world a truly terrible and hellish place to live in. We have to do better. We have to create a better world for our children, a world not characterized by the deafening roar of bombs and ceaseless cacophony of bullets but by the quiet hum of students thinking, reading, writing poetry, creating model UNs—free to dream and discuss and flirt and fight and fall in love in peace and safety.

 

A world where the “threat” of peace doesn’t scare us.

 

A world without drones or guns, where the state no longer wields the grisly instruments of torture and death.

 

A world where women are not seduced and exploited by twisted religious perverts—in America or anywhere else.

 

Where they can study astronomy and biology and literature and math and politics without fear of reprisals from men bearing scriptures and machetes.

 

Where they can be anything they want to be, live any dream they want to dream, and no one can ever again take those dreams away from them.

 

So many have been hurt; so many have died. Tonight I pray against hope for the return of these young women, even as I mourn the possible loss of all they might have become. But I realize that in a much larger sense this is just another tragedy in a world full of them. It seems like every time the world has a chance to go right, someone comes along to wreak harm and destruction. And no one knows why they do it. Maybe it’s the twisted feeling of control and power it brings them, or maybe they really do just want to watch the world burn.

 

There are times like tonight when I feel scared and overwhelmed, just one feeble voice in the darkness. But this experience has galvanized so many, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks this world could be so beautiful. There is much to rebuild. But as hopeless as it seems, I haven’t given up yet. I hope you won’t, either.

 

Thomas

PLWD09 The_Incredulity_of_St_Thomas_Caravaggio“Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”

 

The one who doubted:

that was what they called me.

No one remembered

the bravery I had shown

on the way to Bethany—

bravery or was it despair I felt

remembering the failed revolutions

the cousins murdered

Miriam straining to deliver

and dying or ere they were born,

our two sons.

 

The eddies of dust

over which our fathers walked

in ages past are trampled under

by the eagle’s talons

luxury sits grinning and contented

in the temple

making a mockery of Abraham

and Abraham’s God

The flower of youth perishes

on the hilltops of Judea

and hope is a luxury

for fools and charlatans.

 

Yet there was one who was not hopeless

Quiet and resolved

Upon his dark brow lingered a celestial light.

Though we had been abandoned by all

He had not abandoned us

And I was resolved not to forsake him

Even with the expectation of death encroaching

Death sadistic and perverse.

 

So call me not doubting

for it wasn’t my faith that forsook me

on that night in the garden

when they led him away

when they bound him to a fiery wheel

when the hounds of hell stood baying

round the tree where he hung suspended

where the crude lance entered

and his mother lay pierced at the root

 

no, it wasn’t my faith.

it was hope.

 

hope was enshrouded

and lain in a tomb

and a stone was laid over its mouth

and into the whale’s jaws

poured the blackness of darkness

and the mountains of the sea were silent.

And the serpent of death

glutted and imposing

stretched its victorious coils

round the sleeping world.

 

*           *           *

 

When they talk about me

ages hence

this is all they will remember:

the scorn on my face

when I heard they had raised him

when they said he had been sighted

walking towards Emmaus

breaking bread and disappearing

amid quiet laughter.

 

Buoyed with renewed expectation

they floated together

and I stood alone on the seashore

and the stars of twilight twinkled

as the shadows gathered round me.

 

And whenever the story is told

they’ll laugh at me for not believing

though if you had been there with us

you’d have had your questions

and they all gathered round him

and I lingered at the edges

feeling faint with confusion and sadness

as the smell of frankincense and spikenard

filled the warm spring air.

 

And when the commotion settled

and the twelve spread apart

there he was

and he motioned me forward

and it wasn’t a ghost nor a trance

he was just as alive as he had been

three days before

and I had no idea how to account for that

because I had known all along he was going to die

and the best I could have hoped for was to die alongside him.

 

But when I saw the wrists

where the wounds of betrayal burned dully

when I dipped my hand in the well

where the waters of life had poured out

when I brushed the skin of my arms

against the hair on the back of his neck

the embers of injustice blew away into nothing

and bitterness exhausted itself and was silent.

 

Years from now

when my desire is finally granted

when my blood seeps over the barbaric stones

of some desolate isle

and my body grows cold and rigid

pierced by the four lances

I’ll stretch my stiffening sinews

Breathe a final prayer

And when death comes gliding over the seas to meet me

like a ghostly mirage of one I loved long ago

I’ll follow it fearless and undaunted

through the primordial depths

where the monsters of chaos will battle

until one comes to free them

and the dust of the tomb is plundered

and the relics are gathered from the shrines

and the bones are called out of the blackness.

And I’ll gaze on myself

and on them

as we gazed on him that night

credulous but believing

not understanding but no longer doubting

and we’ll walk together, tranquil and quiet,

on the shore of the sun-rimmed sea.

_________________________________

Easter-2014-blog-synchroblog_550x332

What I’m Into (March 2014)

wk-nebraska1122-1It’s been a good month. An emotional month. I quit my job today to pursue my career as a writer. I’m probably going to spend the next month finishing my first book. I’ve been studying for the driver’s exam, because I somehow made it to 27 without knowing how to drive. I met Bishop N. T. Wright. I made some great relationships on Twitter and really challenged myself to use social media for all it’s worth.

 

I haven’t been watching a lot of movies because it’s Lent, but I did sneak in a few. These were some of my favorites:

 

Nebraska (2013)

A sad black-and-white movie about an old man with a drinking problem and his world-weary son, who are taking a trip to Nebraska to claim the million dollars the man thinks he’s won. Lovely and powerful and haunting.

 

Breathless (1959)

          The first film in the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was a breath of fresh air. The cinematography, encompassing the picturesque sweep of Paris streets and the idleness of a pair of lovers casually chatting, is breath-taking.

 

True Detective (2014)

          The entire first season, from start to finish. A great fix for anyone who’s still suffering from the end of Breaking Bad. The writing and directing is electrifying, and at times genius. Woody Harrelson is effective as a blustery Louisiana detective, while Matthew McConaughey creates a character for the ages.

 

NOAH (2014)

          No, it wasn’t made by evil alien space lizards with the intention of destroying “traditional Christianity.” Ignore all the bizarre controversy surrounding this movie and go see it for yourself. It’s worth it. Trust me.

 

*         *         *

 

It’s been a much better month in terms of books, because I HAVE A KINDLE NOW AND I CAN READ ALL THE TIME!

 

This month I read, or began reading:

 

Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction by Larry Brooks

– The Mahabharata (a modern adaptation in two volumes) by Ramesh Menon

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters,by Christopher Vogler (haha, can you tell that I’m writing a book?)

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, by Peter Ackroyd

Jesus & the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright

Girl At the End of the World, by Elizabeth Esther

 

Excluding Elizabeth’s book, which I’ve already written about at length, my favorite of these was the Mahabharata. It’s an ancient story of family and war and sex and betrayal, gods and goddesses and demons and monsters, that reads like a great Shakespearean tragedy. I’ll have more to say about this. I want to write a post about my eleven favorite stories ever, and this is definitely one of them.

 

*           *           *

 

Music that I’ve been falling in love with? The Silver Seas, Elbow, The Handsome Family, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Alessi’s Ark, Club 8, Elizabeth & the Catapult

 

Songs? Here’s a sampling:

 

“Alaska” (The Silver Seas)

“Far from Any Road” (The Handsome Family—True Detective theme song!)

“The Bottomless Hole” (The Handsome Family)

“Julian, Darling” (Elizabeth & the Catapult)

“Karaoke Star” (The Silver Seas)

“The Water” (Johnny Flynn ft. Laura Marling)

“New York Morning” (Elbow)

“John Lennon” (Felix)

“Song of Joy” (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds)

What about you? What have you fallen in love with this month?

Girl At the End of the World: A Review

Girl-at-the-End-of-the-World2-624x469“The most detrimental aspect of my childhood was our preoccupation with End of the World theology.”
— Elizabeth Esther

*        *         *

 

Elizabeth Esther’s new memoir, Girl At the End of the World (Convergent, 2014) is an important book. But it’s also a hard book.

Hard for anyone still recovering from the trauma of being trapped in a fundamentalist cult.

For anyone who has lost loved ones to a twisted ideology masquerading as the one true religion.

For anyone who has ever tried to convince her fellow believers that yes, Christians can be sadistic and abusive and scary and cultish, only to be met with confusion and anger.

* * *

Near the beginning, Elizabeth likens her youth in a Christian end-times cult known as The Assembly to the experience of growing up in a mob family. “Except instead of killing people if they stopped cooperating, we just excommunicated them from our training homes. Religious fervor was all I knew, so my holy mob family felt normal.”

A mob family. I’d never thought about it, but that really is what it feels like.

Just as a thought experiment, I sometimes like to imagine how a cult member would react when shown a movie about a group of people doing the exact same horrible things that are being done in his group. Nine times out of ten I think the comparison would fly over his head, because the movie is about the evil World while the cult is about loving Jesus.

Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone in Goodfellas being as cruel to their family as Elizabeth’s family is to her in the course of this book.

Yes, fundamentalism really does erase people. And when it finds a perceptive, artistic, and free-spirited young woman with a passion for truth, beauty, and justice, a woman like Elizabeth Esther, it erases them harder. It can’t allow them to be themselves, because who they are is dangerous.

It’s true, no one was murdered in Elizabeth’s community, but in a way it doesn’t even matter. When you’re in a cult, everything you are is invalidated.

Your body. The women in her community are strictly policed to ensure that not a hint of curves is ever seen through their clothing. “Better to wear a shapeless sack,” she writes, “than risk clothing that suggests any shape whatsoever.”

Your gender and sexuality. In The Assembly, women have no say in how their own lives are directed. A woman belongs to her dad until she gets married, at which point she belongs to her husband.

Your faith. All forms of Christianity other than the kind practiced by The Assembly are viewed as illegitimate. Elizabeth’s dad sneers at the idea of “good Christians” in other denominations, calling them Pharisees. Anyone who begins to explore other traditions of faith is expelled from the community.

Your talents and passions. Elizabeth’s dad is unable to attend her swim meets because he’s too preoccupied with “issues of Eternal Significance.”

Your dreams for your life. For me the saddest moment in the whole book is when her parents force her to give up her dream job on the high school newspaper staff, effectively destroying her chances of going to a private college. Why? Because she’s not spending enough time doing chores around the house. You see, writing and getting an education and being fulfilled as a human aren’t nearly as important as “doing the Lord’s will.”

This is what it looks like when people are erased.

Yet the group continues to congratulate itself on its holiness. No one listens to secular music. No one drinks alcohol.

As the story winds on, as the catalogue of horrors and abuses grows ever longer, I begin to wonder what any of this has to do with being a Christian.

Take away the superficial religious trappings, and this becomes the story of a sick, twisted system where people were controlled and their personalities quenched of all light, all passion.

I begin to suspect that this is all it ever was: a predatory structure for the enslavement of other human beings. That’s its purpose, the thing it was designed to do.

And people submitted to it without question because they thought it was Jesus.

* * *

In an interview with my friend Teryn at the back of the book, Elizabeth elaborates on her eventual decision to become Catholic. Teryn asks her, “Do you see the Catholic Church as less abusive than Protestantism? . . . Do you feel safer now that you’re Catholic?”

Elizabeth says, “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who said that, because I attract enough controversy as it is! But yes, that is a great insight and I absolutely agree. In fact, this was a huge reason why I joined the Catholic Church. I felt absolutely safe there.”

And no wonder. For the first time in her life, she’s in a spiritual environment where the voice of God isn’t being mediated by some renowned pastor; where she can read the Bible on her own without the interpreting voices of authoritarian fundamentalism; where she can seek the wisdom and solace of Mother Mary without fear of rebuke.

This book affected me on a profound level. I read it in a single day, and for days afterwards I felt sick.

You see, I was in a group similar to Elizabeth’s, a group that was going to pray in the End Times and battle the forces of darkness. My best friend was allegedly murdered by the leader of our cult, a man we all trusted and revered as a spiritual leader. For five years he had been the primary authority interpreting the Scriptures for us. We were sincerely convinced that when we opened the Bible, we were seeing the “plain meaning of Scripture.” He had so colored our perceptions that we read his ideas back into the Bible and thought they were the words of God.

And so when Elizabeth says, “I’m going to the Catholic Church because I don’t know where else to find a way to God that feels safe,” I get that. More than anything else, I think that’s the reason I became Catholic.

Because the Church is a place where the voices of writers and artists and intellectuals and, yes, women, are welcomed and not stifled.

Because Jesus offers himself to us in the Eucharist and I can’t think of a more beautiful demonstration of love than to give us his physical presence.

Because for the first time in my life I’m in a place where mystery and mysticism and beauty and questions are encouraged and accepted. Where I am accepted, for who I am.

Because the beautiful crucified God, the God on a cross, the weak, suffering Messiah, gazes down at me from the crucifix at the front of the church, and I know that the mechanisms of power and control that enslaved me for years are brought to nothing in the presence of the God who became powerless.

And I’m so grateful to Elizabeth for putting words to that, for taking us on her journey out of the darkness of toxic religion and into the light of a faith that is warm and welcoming and stable and biblical and traditional and safe.

This is a brave book. Not an easy book to finish, but it’s worth it, because the hope at the end is brighter than the blackness of darkness that scarred her youth.

It’s a necessary book.

For anyone suffering under the shackles of dangerous Christianity.

For anyone who has a friend who’s enslaved and doesn’t know what to do about it.

For anyone who’s ever fled from a cult into the safe, warm arms of Catholicism.

A harrowing, disturbing, tremendously sad, yet ultimately redemptive book, illuminating, timely, and prophetic. The kind of book the Church needs to read, now more than ever. A true godsend.

 

I Read the Bible as an English Major (and That’s Okay)

4426269085_8b16eeda09Read this great article last week by Morgan Guyton on why English majors make lousy fundamentalists.

Growing up I know we were encouraged to take everything we read in the Scriptures at face value. But it’s been fascinating, as I’ve gotten older, to look at the Bible from a more literary perspective. Continue reading