It’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
As 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
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
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.
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
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.
Read 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
I’ve been thinking about the dangerous group I was once a part of and trying to understand how so many innocent Christian people could be tricked into following a predator.
And the truth is, we were pre-disposed to trust him because of the spiritual culture we were raised in.
Growing up, I was taught to make a clear distinction between people of the world and other believers. A Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, prayed, read his Bible, didn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. It was easy to tell when you met a true believer. You could *trust* those people.
But you couldn’t trust unbelievers. They were all depraved and damned and on their way to hell.
And of course, I thought this was all scriptural. Because once I got an idea in my head, I could find it throughout the Bible.
* * *
But everything began to change for me when I read the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, a character who had served the evil god Tash his entire life is welcomed by Aslan into the new Narnia. To his own surprise, he realizes that he had really been pursuing Aslan this whole time, although he didn’t know it.
“If any man do a cruelty in my name,” says the Great Lion, “then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” And, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
And it makes me wonder. Because the Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about people being saved on the basis of their “profession of faith.”
But it has an awful lot to say about how we treat the poor, showing mercy to others, forgiving our enemies, resisting injustice, standing up for the abused and oppressed.
Jesus says that the ones who do these things are the true sons and daughters of his father.
But in our churches, we don’t evaluate people based on the quality of their love. We evaluate them based on whether they conform to our idea of what a Christian should look like. Do they have all the “correct” beliefs? Do they listen to Christian radio? In short, do they look like us?
And the sad truth is that this way of evaluating people makes the church painfully vulnerable to predators and abusers like Tyler who can so easily adopt the language and rhythms of the Evangelical culture. Anyone who speaks against them becomes an “outsider” and carries a taint of distrust.
We should never allow tribalism to replace our moral judgment. There are *bad* people who profess the name of Jesus and *good* people who don’t. Rather than judging everyone based on the group they belong to, get to know them. There are atheists who are nearer to the kingdom of God than many Christians because what they’ve really rejected is a false Jesus. There are undoubtedly thousands of zealous, radical, “Bible-believing” Christians who are creating a hell for themselves by the god they worship, a proud god, a god who despises learning and beauty and exalts violence and hatred.
On the day we stand at the judgment, there will be some surprises. I suppose where we all end up is measured by what we loved truly, even if we didn’t know its name.