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.
The summer after I left the dangerous group, I read a ton of books on the dynamics of spiritual manipulation within Christian cults. Books are a great way of finding one’s way back to reality. Through them I was able to get a better sense of the nightmare in which I had been living for the last three to four years of my life. And when tragedy struck at the end of that year, I wasn’t wholly unprepared to deal with it.
Tonight I wanted to share some of my favorite resources on spiritually abusive groups. Some of these are fictional and some are not. Stories are invaluable to a right understanding of cults because it’s so hard to grasp conceptually how these groups function unless you can see it laid out. Continue reading
As Christians, we all read the Bible with selective lenses. Some folks are willing to admit it, and some folks aren’t. One of the reasons it’s so important not to keep yourself trapped in a bubble is because you don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that the way your group reads the Scriptures is the only way it’s meant to be read. Otherwise you might end up not even being aware of the existence of a number of tantalizing passages:
1. “We are God’s Offspring” (Acts 17:29)
But really, the entirety of Paul’s speech on Mars Hill. The apostle off-handedly quotes a line from a great pagan writer to tell the Athenians that they’re all children of God. He says, “God is not far from each one of us” (v. 27). He says, “In him we live and move and have our being.”
Many teachers try to get around this passage by saying it’s an example of how Paul tried to be “cultural” and “humanistic”—and how he failed miserably.
2. The Fast that God Chooses (Isaiah 58)
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?”
The contemporary American church, having invented a gospel of saving souls from hell, is scandalized by the idea that the Bible might have more to say about this life than the next one. Yet there are countless passages in both Old and New Testaments where God is more concerned about how people treat one another. Fighting for justice is kind of a big thing for him.
3. “Everyone Who Loves is Born of God and Knows God” (1 John 4:7)
You could throw in most of the first letter of John here. But the winner is arguably this passage, where John says that, well, everyone who loves is born of God. Beware of saying this in church unless you make it clear that you’re quoting the Bible.
4. “All Those Who Use the Sword Will Die by the Sword” (Matthew 26:52)
Spoken by Jesus to his disciples on the night of his arrest, this statement epitomizes his ethic of compassion and non-violence even in the face of imminent death. Yet it’s rare to hear these words quoted in many of our contemporary churches where this is the preferred image of Jesus:
5. Paul Wishes That People Would Castrate Themselves (Galatians 5:12), Is Racist (Titus 2:12)
Am I putting words in Paul’s mouth? No, it’s right there in the text:
“I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.”
I’ve seen King James-only defenders cite this as an example of how all the modern translations are demonic because they quote this verse accurately.
Paul also employs his extensive knowledge of pagan writings to make racist remarks about the Cretans in Titus 2. Oddly, I haven’t heard many people complain about this.
6. Paul Urges the Colossians Not to be Obsessed with Angels, Visions, and Burdensome Regulations (Colossians 2:16-23)
The problem with a lot of the longer passages on this list is that if you read them to someone who’s living in contradiction to the message of the verses, they’re not even likely to hear what you’re reading. I once read this passage from Colossians (and the one below, from Matthew) to a group of people who were obsessed with angels, visions, and making up lists of things they weren’t allowed to do. I thought it might have some effect, but when I finished reading, it was like I hadn’t even spoken. Bizarre.
7. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25)
This is a fun one. Jesus tells his disciples a story of how he’s going to judge the nations when he returns. He’ll sit on his throne and divide the nations before him “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”: the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left.
The sheep ultimately go into eternal glory because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. The goats are thrown into eternal fire, “prepared for the devil and his angels” because they neglected to do these things.
Notice anything strange? Yes, those are all works. These people are judged solely on the basis of their works. As Keith Green so succinctly put it in an old song, “The only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to the Scriptures, is what they did—and didn’t—do!”
What’s more, many of the sheep didn’t know they were sheep. Many of the goats didn’t know they were goats.
There are going to be some surprises.
8. “Those Who Eat My Flesh and Drink My Blood Have Eternal Life” (John 6:54)
As Peter Kreeft points out, this is one of the very few images in the Scriptures that literalists don’t interpret literally. I knew it was there, but pretty much ignored it until I decided to become Catholic.
9. Ezekiel 23:20
Don’t read this verse to your kids. Don’t read it in church. You will be thrown out.
10. Love is the Fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13, Galatians 5)
Trying to sum up the message of Jesus in a single sentence might be a fool’s errand, but Paul takes a good crack at it near the end of his letter to the Romans:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
Jesus all but stated that this was the core of his message when asked to name the two greatest commandments. Without hesitation, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:36-40). He expanded on this idea in the story of the prodigal son and the story of the good Samaritan, one showing the super-abundant generosity of God’s love towards us, the other modeling how we should love others, regardless of their race, religion, tribe, or ethnicity.
You might even say the most shocking and offensive aspect of Jesus’ message was this, that he taught us not just to love those who love us, but to embrace all humans as brothers and sisters. As Paul says in Galatians: “In Christ neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith, hope, and love. We love to make things more complicated than they have to be, but Jesus, Paul, John, and the other writers of the Bible are there to remind us—these are the things that matter. Do these, and the rest will take care of themselves.
One of my goals for this year is to journal every day, which means I’ll probably be doing a lot more free-writing.
I spent most of my Christmas break rewriting the first chapter of my book, just because I wanted to have a truly stunning first chapter. I finished it yesterday and sent it to three different people, seeking their opinions. It may need some revisions, but for the most part I actually really like it.
Some strange things happened as I was writing it. A few paragraphs into the chapter I realized that the only way forward was to talk about the fantasy stories I was dreaming up at around the time the novel begins. (Because the two main characters in these fantasies were fictional versions of me and *Rebecca, the fantasizing provides a commentary on the very real situations I’m describing).
Previously I had always been afraid to bring my imagination into the story because I felt it would alienate readers. (And also, I think, because *Timothy and Rebecca tried to tell me that my fantasies were evil and anti-social. Only in the last year have I begun rejecting the shame they spoke over me and embracing my calling as a storyteller).
What I found, though, was that being open about how much I used to fantasize actually made the story more realistic and grounded. Because the narrator is constantly explaining how he expects things to play out, watching them unfold in a much less dramatic way than he was anticipating creates a sense of realism. For example, there’s one moment in the first chapter where Rebecca has just finished giving a long speech about how reality is not a book, and I want so much to shake her hand and thank her for saying that, but I don’t. Instead, she goes into her room and shuts the door.
In earlier drafts of the novel, I would have been tempted to try and turn that into a big scene. But somehow, because it’s NOT a big scene (no matter how much I, the narrator, want it to be), it has more of an impact.
What surprised me even more is that, as the chapter was winding down, I found myself becoming obsessed with the most boring, minute, mundane aspects of the story. Reading back over it, my favorite moments are the dozens of small and apparently insignificant details, like the way Rebecca walks through the Cove with her hands in her back pockets, or how I say, “Hey,” and she doesn’t immediately respond, or how when we finish praying together I’m suddenly depressed because I’m afraid she’s going to admire me when all I wanted to do was to help her.
And yet the two BIG paragraphs that at first I was most excited about, the most poetic and “important” paragraphs in the chapter, fill me with an unsuppressed nausea. They don’t feel “real” to me in the way the smaller passages do.
And perhaps it’s just emblematic of a bigger change going on in my life. Because I grew up on Peter Jackson’s brilliant, amazing Lord of the Rings films, because those were my reality, I thought life would be full of grand gestures and vivid, emotional flourishes. I tried to shape reality to fit my preconceptions.
But over the last few months I’ve started to realize that reality is what it is, that there IS a real battle between good and evil but it takes place at the level of our mundane interactions. People have to eat and shower and do laundry and comb their hair and get their oil changed, pack their lunch in the morning and go to work each day. And for the most part we stand around looking bored and clueless, and there’s a lot of dead air in our conversations, and we accidentally talk over each other, and sometimes we don’t say what we mean to say and have to repeat ourselves, and we all spend twelve hours a day on Facebook and Twitter, and sometimes terrible things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, and that’s how life is, even if it’s not how it should be. But somehow God is gracious and we get to be heroes anyway.
And maybe in real life, being a hero is better than how it is in the movies, better and worse, because instead of battling sorcerers and Balrogs you have to fight REAL monsters, and that takes even more courage. I think I could stand up to a dragon; but after what I’ve been through in the last four or five years, no mythical creature will ever be quite as scary again. I’ve seen the face of true evil, and I think that smile will haunt my nightmares for a long time to come.
And I’m not giving up my love for fantasy, but as I get older the stories that continue to enchant me are the true ones: either those, like the novels of Tolkien, that radiate elemental truths about the nature of reality, or those like Harry Potter that take into account how people actually talk and think and feel and behave, so that I feel like I’m reading a real story about real people. Lousy case-of-the-week dramas, cheap end-times thrillers, and overblown Hollywood epics no longer interest me because they seem to be operating on an exaggerated and romantic notion of how the world should be rather than how the world is, and when I’m watching a movie the last thing I want to feel is concern for the writers, wondering whether they’ve ever had a real experience, whether they know anything about what life is like.
In the first chapter of my book I describe how Rebecca implored me to come out of my books and really experience reality instead of just reading about it. She taught me so much about how to live life, how to feel feelings, how to interact with real people. And to the extent that I didn’t figure out how to do that while she was living, I had to learn it in the aftermath of her death when every remaining illusion I had was shattered and I had to face the bitterness of mortality. She seemed to be fading into a fantasy more and more during our last years together, but because of her encouragement and example I was able to find my way back to reality. And I think I’ve “inherited” some of the pragmatism and realism she was always trying to pour into me (without a lot of success). That’s how I intend to live my life now. And when I finally sit down and write my fantasy novels, they’ll be weird and creative and surprising, of course, because I don’t think I can help being weird, but I want them to be true more than anything else, alive with the complexity and brokenness of ordinary life. And I think now they will be.