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Handeling the Messiah

Everybody grows up with the Hallelujah Chorus,and–

Well, okay. Not everybody. I remember, with mild horror, the time our church choir sang it. People slowly stood in an incredibly confused fashion in the first service; in the second, everyone sat.

Never underestimate musical illiteracy.

Still, the Hallelujah Chorus is very familiar. Partly because it’s not that hard to sing (for Handel, anyway), and partly because it’s happy, it gets performed a lot on its own. And people (some of them) remember it because they have to stand up (and don’t want to).

But I recently got a chance to sing the whole Messiah this fall (well, most of it), and it was quite an experience. I’ve heard the Messiah before, but I’m pretty visual, and there were things that I missed.

There’s the aria “He Was Despised and Rejected” that talks about Christ giving his cheek to those that “pluck-ed out the hair.” I could only guess that once upon a time that sounded awful. Now it sounds almost humorous–today’s hair plucking usually involves standing with tweezers in front of a mirror. Word associations change over time, and “pluck,” I guess, must be one of them.

On a more serious note, the Hallelujah Chorus comes after an aria about God dashing Christ’s enemies in pieces like a potter’s vessel. It made me pause and wonder what a modern Messiah would sound like. Certainly there would be no joyous choruses after songs about God enacting judgment. Many of us find the topic of judgment uncomfortable, and even the people who are most comfortable with it don’t want to get caught gloating.

Yet the Hallelujah Chorus isn’t merely a gloating session. It’s about something different–justice.

In the modern West, we live in a culture that has institutionalized justice. Do unjust things happen from time to time? Sure. But in the ancient Middle East, justice was not institutionalized. When you went to the judge, you expected to hand him a bribe. We worry now because the poor can’t afford good lawyers; under the Law Code of Hammurabi, the poor suffered greater penalties and lesser protection because Hammurabi thought that was the right thing to do. Not an unfortunate accident–the right thing. And most people weren’t lucky enough to be judged by a law code. They suffered whatever the local authorities thought appropriate. Or whatever the local authorities chose to ignore.

In other words, unless you are wealthy and powerful, you are as unlikely to receive justice as you are to receive mercy. Mercy and justice are not opposites. Not in a culture like that. If you are a person who has been wronged, then for you, they are more like two sides of the same coin. A judge proves himself merciful by being just at all.

We often take justice for granted. Not everyone could–or can–afford to do so. We shouldn’t gloat, of course–that usually shows that we are selfishly caught up in our own personal agendas. But justice also isn’t a time when we are obliged to grimace and make unpleasant faces at anyone who happens to be around.

Justice is something to celebrate.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Music

 

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If Homer Ordered a Coffee | Literary Starbucks

Ever wondered what would happen if Homer went to Starbucks? There may not be an app for that, but there is a Tumblr account–Literary Starbucks. It’s worth a look. Or, if you would prefer the Tumblr in a nutshell, try this article: “If Authors Ordered at Starbucks.”

Homer’s sample, from the Literary Starbucks site:

Homer

Homer goes up to the counter and asks if they have any wine dark teas. The barista goes in back to check. He doesn’t return for 20 years.

Even more remarkably, Tolkien’s is accurate and does not involve jokes about exaagerrated good vs. evil plots or short people:

Tolkien

Tolkien goes up to the counter and orders a Teavana Shaken Iced Blackberry Mojito Tea Lemonade. All of the hipsters inside the shop overhear and immediately go up and order the same thing. Tolkien is enraged and storms out, screaming that everyone misunderstood what he was trying to order.

(Suffice it to say that Tolkien was not a fan of many of his fans–though his critics often seem unaware of the fact.)

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2014 in Guest, Humor

 

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A Southwestern Western

Diversity appears in unusual places. When it comes to Westerns, the stereotype is that old Westerns included almost no minorities, and new ones have seen the light and are giving a fair shake to everyone. But I recently finished a book that, while unique as a “Western” then or now, breaks almost every stereotype I can think of.

Westerns are plot-driven. This one is episodic. Westerns include cowboys. Cowboys are only mentioned in passing. Westerns don’t focus on clergyman. The main character is a Catholic bishop.

LamyThe book is Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. It reads as a succession of vignettes based on one man’s life—Catholic bishop, later archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy (called Jean Marie Latour in the book), who was sent to New Mexico shortly after it was taken by the United States. I’m not sure how many were based on actual incidents in his life, but in any case, Latour’s background and experiences make for a Western unlike most of its time.

Latour is a Frenchman who speaks both English and Spanish. In fact, he insists that his household speak either English or Spanish, since English is the language of the Americans who rule the region and Spanish is the language of the Mexicans whom he spends most of his time serving. Native Americans come into the story often, as well. In fact, I estimate that at least half the characters in the book are non-white. Probably more. And of the white characters, many are not even American. In fact, the only important white American in the book is Kit Carson, who is presented as a complex character. Carson converted to Catholicism after marrying a Mexican wife (a historical fact), and he befriends Bishop Latour by helping him save the life of another Mexican woman, one who was being abused by her murderous American husband. Yet Carson also takes part in an attempt to force a group of Native Americans from their lands, an action that Bishop Latour strongly disagrees with. (Sadly, he can do nothing, even when a chief begs for his help—Catholics were, at that time, viewed as suspect by the United States government.)

Cather’s book offers a rarely seen glimpse of Southwestern history. Most older stories on the West focused more on areas farther north, where Native Americans were the original inhabitants. The Southwest included a far greater array of cultures. Not all Hispanics immigrated to the United States in the last century. Some have been here far longer. There were Hispanics fighting alongside William Travis at the Alamo. The Southwest has traditionally been a region of considerable political, cultural, and religious complexity, much of which Willa Cather chose to address in her novel.

Death Comes for the Archbishop isn’t a very entertaining story. There are adventures, but not enough of the building tension that makes for a gripping read. Yet it offers a broad look life in the American Southwest that can be found in very few early writers. If you want to take a look at the early West’s multiculturalism, you do not need to go to modern Westerns. Just read Willa Cather.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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A Canticle for Walter Miller

Sometimes it’s best not to know what a book is about until you open it. I’ve spoiled plenty of stories for myself by reading up on them too much. (And then there’s my most recent Youtube crime, which is accidentally finding out which Harry Potter characters die before reading through the series because those videos keep showing up in the sidebar.)

I had heard the title A Canticle for Leibowitz before. Then I saw a blurb for it, saying it was written against nuclear warfare. Okay, I thought. I wonder why the word “canticle” is in the title? That sounds like a churchy type of thing. This is science fiction.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2005-0004,_Italien,_Monte_Cassino

The Monte Cassino monastery after the bombing (German Federal Archive).

I guess I had assumed that C. S. Lewis was the only important science fiction writer to pay much attention to Christianity. I now stand corrected. Walter M. Miller Jr. was a World War II veteran who had seen the horrors of war first hand. A gunner in the Army Air Corps, he took part in the destruction of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy. Intelligence from the ground had led his commanders to believe that German troops were camped in the monastery–the monastery from which the Benedictine Order sprang. So the Air Corps bombed the monastery. Only rubble was left. 230 Italian civilians were killed. But no Germans died that day. They had not been staying there, and only after they decided the rubble would make excellent cover did they take refuge at the monastery. Miller never forgot the bombing. He probably had post-traumatic stress disorder, but in those days no such disorder existed on the books. After the war ended, Miller converted to Catholicism and developed strong anti-war inclinations.

Miller was primarily a short story writer. But in 1960 he published A Canticle for Leibowitz, the only novel he completed during his lifetime. The backstory to the novel goes like this. The human race is stupid and sets off enough nuclear bombs to destroy life as we know it. People blame scientists and other well-educated individuals for the problem. They destroy books. They stop learning to read. Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a scientist who had been involved in nuclear research, repented for his role in the disaster and converted to Catholicism. But he saw how quickly the culture was being dismantled, and he started a religious order devoted to preserving the few books that were not burned. Until Leibowitz himself is burned by an angry mob. The novel chronicles the struggles of the Leibowitzian Order–first to survive amid the ruins of civilization, and then as civilization becomes advanced enough to destroy itself.

While opposition to nuclear war is the background, the novel offers many other questions. What is the value of preserving knowledge you do not understand? Can science limit itself, even when the safety of millions may be at stake? How should Christians respond when no one respects their point of view?

The novel includes some profound passages on suicide and euthanasia, which make Miller’s own death more tragic. Clearly, he believed–at least at the time he wrote the novel–that suicide is a sin. But in January 1996 he shot himself in the head. His wife had recently died. He was depressed. He had never really recovered from seeing the Monte Cassino bombed into the ground. And so Miller, whose passages on suicide are some of the most profound fictional meditations on the subject that I have read, died by his own hand.

I wonder, though, whether Miller could have written what he did had he not understood why someone might commit suicide. He understood. He fought. He failed. As we all do, at different times and in different ways.

A Canticle for Leibowitz ends on a grim note. Nuclear war has destroyed the earth for a second time. Yet Miller suggests that there is still hope. Out of ugliness, God brings redemption. And no bomb, however powerful, can change that.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Science Fiction

 

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The Dastard’s Dictionary: Literary Edition

For those familiar with Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (an online version is located here), this is my attempt–librarian style.

1024px-Nouveau_Dictionnaire_Larousse_pageAdult, n. Someone under the delusion of having grown up. This delusion usually develops in conjunction with a teenage effort to extend one’s curfew.

Adult fiction, n. Adult fictions may be found in three categories–that the grass on the other side is greener, that money grows on trees, and that cats are nice creatures.

Book burning, n. 1. The enraged reader’s final recourse. 2. The enraged non-reader’s first recourse. 3. What some Divergent fans want to do to Allegiant.

Censorship, n. 1. Ship sent ahead of the fleet to locate torpedoes. 2. The humane alternative to book burning.

Contradiction, n. When the features of a situation are opposed to one another. Example: The librarian shelved The Brother’s Grimm in the children’s section.

Fantasy, n. 1. The reason people repeatedly vote in presidential elections. 2. The attempts of some authors to simultaneously show multiple layers of reality while rearranging aspects of reality. See contradiction.

Fiction, n. This word is imaginary.

Genre, n. The cell block in which similar books are imprisoned.

Graphic novel, n. Cheating.

Intellectual freedom, n. The right of six-year-olds to read things that only interest their elders.

Library, n. A place where one goes to steal DVDs. Libraries own printed books, which are not as worthwhile to steal, and some also have e-books, which cannot be stolen at all.

Mystery, n. A literary genre explicitly designed to confuse the reader. Psychologists have attempted to explain the value of truthfulness to mystery writers, but without success.

Nonfiction, n. Boring, with the exceptions of tell-all memoirs, which should also be destroyed, but for different reasons. See book burning.

Oxymoron, n. A contradiction in terms, as in the phrase “a serious work of fiction.”

Pleasure, n. 1. An excuse for reading poor fiction. 2. A reason for reading good fiction. See oxymoron.

Reading, n. This phenomenon is most commonly associated with one’s Facebook feed. Prolonged reading requires concentration, which may cause furrows to appear in the forehead, and is generally discouraged for cosmetic reasons.

Romance, n. The literary genre in which bad titles result in higher library circulation.

Thriller, n. Genre designed to increase adrenaline while one slouches on the sofa.

Western, n. A literary genre frequently written and read by people who have never ridden a horse. See wish fulfillment.

Wish fulfillment, n. Achievable by fairy godmother.

Young adult, n. An adolescent under the delusion that he is growing up, but ought to be treated as if he had grown up already. That this is strictly a delusion was made clear by the marketing of Twilight as young adult fiction.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2014 in Humor

 

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Pullman the Preacher

It’s always nice to know that you’re not imagining things. (Particularly when you spend a lot of time doing just that–on purpose.) I read through Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series because I wanted to be fair. Pullman’s atheism felt heavy-handed, and I wondered whether he was really more didactic than Lewis, or whether I was just uncomfortable with didacticism from an opposing point of view.

PSo when I found this article in The Atlantic, I was greatly comforted. It isn’t just me. There’s a reason that lots of people–even Christians–read through Narnia without noticing the Christian elements. I’ve never heard of someone reading Pullman without realizing that he is an atheist. Yes, atheists get preachy, too. And it’s a shame, because Pullman really is a good writer. He could have done a lot with the His Dark Materials books if he hadn’t gotten caught up in trying to prove that atheism can be an emotionally satisfying worldview.

From the article:

…An appropriate response to this irritation would have been to write an “atheist’s Narnia” in which the polemic is less abrasive – and therefore more effective, perhaps – than Lewis’s Christian sallies sometimes are. More myth, in other words, and less message; more Middle-Earth, perhaps, and less Narnia. Instead, Pullman seems to have set out to take the things he hated about Lewis’ writing and recreate them, but at a heightened, more hectoring pitch.

There are other children’s fantasies by atheists that offer an alternative to Narnia. I’m thinking, in particular, of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” series. Cooper‘s world is rather dualistic–which is not atheistic enough, perhaps, for Pullman–but she wrote a compelling series that doesn’t preach.

I enjoy books that struggle toward what their authors see as the truth. Some authors do this successfully–Flannery O’Connor, and C.S. Lewis much of the time. Others–Ayn Rand, for instance–get so caught up in trying to demonstrate the truth of their viewpoints that they end up sacrificing their artistry.

All art is didactic in some sense. Even if you really don’t care what conclusions someone else might draw from it, you have beliefs, and those beliefs shape the way you write. Like it or not. So ranting against didacticism isn’t the answer. But the good of the story has to come first. If the story isn’t improved by adding something, don’t add it. Even if it proves that your viewpoint is eternally right. Just don’t do it. Preachy stories are annoying. Period.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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When an Anti-War Novel Isn’t

I never thought about how postmodernism would affect an anti-war novel before I read Slaughterhouse-Five. I’ve read a few other pieces of anti-war fiction–Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Mark Twain’s short story “The War Prayer”–but this was an entirely different experience.

All Quiet on the Western Front and “The War Prayer” have disparities beyond the fact that one is long and the other is short. Remarque wrote a bloody novel about the horrors of war. Twain’s story was a satirical look at how Christians, supposedly serving the Prince of Peace, can glorify the destruction of their enemies, ignoring Christ’s command to love them. Yet both stories share a common theme–people often hold unrealistic and even evil attitudes toward armed conflict, but they shouldn’t. They certainly don’t have to.

It’s hard to write a novel where the characters do not have free will. Flannery O’Connor, in fact, considered it nearly impossible: “I don’t think any genuine novelist is interested in writing about a world of people who are mostly determined. Even if he writes about characters who are mostly unfree, it is the sudden free action, the open possibility, which he knows is the only thing capable of illuminating the picture and giving it life.”

O’Connor died five years before Kurt Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse-Five. I wonder what she would have thought of it—an anti-war novel, now considered a sci-fi classic, in which none of the characters really have free will. For those who haven’t read the book, an American prisoner of war named Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time and jumps back and forth from Nazi Germany to a planet called Tralfamadore (where he is put in the zoo) to his post-war days as an optometrist. In fact, he hops through time all the way to his murder as an old man, and then back to Nazi Germany, where he is imprisoned with the man who is going to kill him.

The Tralfamadorians, Billy discovers, see a fourth dimension—time. They see their own lives, and others’ lives, all at once. To a Tralfamadorian, death is an unfortunate moment in a person’s life, not a linear end. It isn’t a tragedy. The Tralfamadorian response to death is the phrase, “So it goes.” They also try to focus on the happy spots in their lives. But, to them, all time exists at once, so free will isn’t even something that they understand. Billy Pilgrim adopts their peculiar blend of apathetic happiness and applies it to everything, from his own death to the American firebombing of Dresden, the city where he was held prisoner.

After reading the book, George Will evidently accused Vonnegut of trivializing the Holocaust. Vonnegut returned the favor by calling Will an “owlish nitwit.” Vonnegut said he had intended no such thing; rather, he was expressing shock at the aftermath of the Dresden bombing, which he had witnessed. The Holocaust, contended Vonnegut, was about man’s inhumanity to man. Dresden was about the inhumanity of man’s inventions to man.

Thus the accusations by others that Vonnegut advocates quietism–simple resigned acceptance to the status quo. “So it goes.” Does Vonnagut himself take the same position as the one held by the Tralfamadorians and by Billy? I doubt it, given Vonnegut’s strident opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Postmodern works are, by their very nature, difficult to pin down. But maybe that is the problem.

Slaughterhouse-Five stands apart from earlier anti-war writings. It succeeded in bringing attention to the injustice of the Dresden firebombing. In that sense, it was successfully anti-war. But another thing is clear. Where the characters do not have–or apparently do not have–free will, there can be no ringing condemnation of anything. To Billy Pilgrim, if not to Vonnegut himself, Dresden was regrettable, but unavoidable. It was horrible and unnecessary, but no one was to blame. I have begun to ask myself, Is it possible to write a postmodern novel that actually condemns unjust warfare?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that if “So it goes” is what people mean when they say that good and evil are not black and white, then I want no part of it. We are responsible for our actions. We are even responsible for our machines.

 

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in Science Fiction

 

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