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

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

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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:

johnny-cash2

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:

walktheline

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.

 

 

Thirty Days of Poems: She’s Ubiquitous (Day 3)

05-02-2013i            She’s ubiquitous

            She wouldn’t call herself a genius

            but I know she is

            A novelist, an actress

            She’s on billboards and Broadway

            The writer, star, director

            of a one-woman play

 

            She’s pale as the sun

            as quiet as the moon

            and she doesn’t

            understand the world

 

           

            She’s ubiquitous

            she wonders what the moral of the story is

            she takes her coffee black

            she stays out past midnight

            sipping Chardonnay and reading

            N. T. Wright

 

            She’s ubiquitous

            but lately she’s been feeling nervous and listless

            She’s sick of putting up with boys

            and their pathetic grandeur

            and wishes she could meet a guy

            who understands her

 

           

            She’s pale as the sun

            as quiet as the moon

            and she doesn’t

            understand the world

 

            (and sometimes late at night

            we take that desert road

            out where the stars are street lights

            and when we hit the end of that trail

            where the dust shines like fog

            and the grass hums around us with a million voices

            I pull out my flamenco guitar

            and she dances).

 

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.

The Secret of Good Fantasy is to Write Honestly

ainePhoto Credit: Aine McVey

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.

Celtic Myths, Part 2: Isle of Man, Isle of Delights

250px-The_Isle_of_Man.svg   I knew some of my favorite Celtic fairy tales came from the Isle of Man, but I didn’t know where the Isle of Man was. Apparently Ellan Vannin is a small island located in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Ben-Varrey (The Mermaid)

When a distinctive Manx literature began to emerge in around the sixteenth century AD, scholars noted its similarities to the mythology of Ireland. The legendary exploits of Finn Mac Cumhaill (“Fin McCool”) and Ossian, the great Irish heroes, were told and retold here.

“The Ben-Varrey” is a Manx version of a tale which also appears in the Western Isles of Scotland and in Ireland and Brittany. Celtic storytellers are especially fond of this story because it evokes the enchanted menace of the rocky and tempestuous Manx coastline where so many have perished. Continue reading

Fourteen Questions About Heaven (Peter Kreeft)

angels&saints123Ran across this GREAT article by Catholic professor and writer Peter Kreeft answering fourteen of the most commonly asked questions about life in heaven, including:

Can the dead see us?

Is there music in heaven?

Are there animals?

How are we never bored?

I had to restrain myself from tweeting the whole essay, but here’s an excerpt. He’s answering the question of whether we’ll know everything in heaven, and comes to the conclusion that though we’ll know much more than we know on earth, it will be our joy to be as children as forever in the glory of our own smallness:

 

Even if there is no curtain in Heaven, even if our consciousness there dashes against no wall or limit, still we remain like the tiny figures in a Chinese landscape: small subjects in an enormously larger objective world. Even if we then escape from the tiny hut in which we are now imprisoned and through whose smudged windows or chinks in whose walls we now must look – even if we wander freely in the country of light – we are in the light, not the light in us. Our first and last wisdom in Heaven is Socratic, just as it is on earth: to know how little we know. If there is no end of the need for humility in the moral order (the saint is the one humble enough not to think he is a saint), the same is true of the intellectual order (the wise man is the one humble enough to know he has no wisdom). It all depends on the standard of judgment: by earthly standards most of us are moderately saintly and moderately wise; by Heavenly standards all of us, even in Heaven, are children. And by the standard of the infinite, inexhaustible perfection of God, we remain children forever. Happy children, fulfilled children, but children.

Read the whole thing here.