Friday, December 30, 2005

C. S. Lewis -- Two Words

I have just posted to my church's Theological Discussion blog, The Thinklings. I muse about my irritation with C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce -- which is a treatise on heaven and hell. It seems appropriate to spend a little time getting acquainted with the Oxbridge don, given the hype over the new Narnia movie. But I must confess that Lewis has been unable to capture my interest in the past, and he continues to leave me cold. You might check out my comments there, so that I don't have to repeat them here.

On the other hand, I have just seen the Narnia move, and I heartily recommend it. I was not expecting to enjoy it very much, but when the family all want to see one movie, we GO. I didn't particularly enjoy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a book: I thought it was too ham-handed and allegorical for me. And I thought the tone was a little off -- sort of a stuffy, rather humorless great-uncle guiding one's thoughts. (I know that Lewis enjoyed jokes, cigars, and beer. But I don't pick that up in The Narnia Chronicles.)

In any event, the movie inflicted none of the irritations that book did. First, it is a beautiful movie to watch. (It also made me thirst for a trip back to England.) The cinematography was delightful -- frozen Narnia was gorgeously cold. Second, the acting was excellent. Even though Lucy was in her first movie (I think she's 8), she was believable and captivating. The other "children" (I suppose we'll learn that Peter is 40 or something) were true to their characters and believable in their responses -- and they all looked related. Of course, Tilda Swinton is phenomenal (I'll accept a ride from her in her sleigh any day!) as the White Witch -- cunning, charming, and e-v-i-l! Third, the special effects are wonderful and do not seem like special effects. I was stunned, for example, to learn that all of the lion was digital. I was convinced that they had filmed a lion and then over-written when he talks. And the battle sequences were quite chilling. Fourth, I enjoyed the theology around Aslan's death: It wasn't straight "buying-God-off" Anselmian doctrine. I haven't quite worked out what it is (it's probably pretty straightforward, but I keep dredging up concerns from other Lewis material and it confuses me, frankly). But it's an interesting take on things salvational.

Today the ballots go out for nominations for Oscars, so it is appropriate to discuss movies. I have no sense whether Narnia will figure into the calculations. But I know that I have my own favorites that I'm figuratively lighting candles for! (HINT FYI: I'm hoping for nominations for Tilda Swinton for Narnia and Catherine Keener for playing Harper Lee, author of my favorite American novel, in Capote.)

I wish you the very best in 2006, with eagerness for the festivities of the Theophany next week.


Thursday, December 29, 2005

Shameless Commerce

A most blessed Christmas season to my Western Christian friends and a blessed Theophany/Epiphany to East and West alike next week.

I received the new catalog from Eighth Day Books yesterday -- and it was ample evidence that good things can cause bad results. My temptatioin index has gone through the roof. Here in one place are almost all the books I could want to read. (Well, not all: You can't buy the St. John's Bible, e.g.) Butwhat a collection! I set the catalog before my wife and said, "Here's my wish list for the rest of my reading life." Check it out here.

I was graced by my wife and daughter with the first volume of the St. John's Bible, Gospels and Acts. It is a very rare treat to the eyes and the soul. I have attended the traveling exhibit about the Bible project and I have sat in on the mini-lecture and film at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library at St. John's University (at the Abbey producing the book). And I keep getting more and more excited, fascinated, and inspired by the project. Despite my initial objection to any group's spending perhaps $7 million to produce a hand-lettered and -illuminated manuscript, I am now a shameless promoter of the project. Having seen some of the actual pages, I cannot begin to describe the depth and subtlty of the work. It is pure praise of God! Check out St. John's Bible website to get a mere sense of the project.

To boast further about the quality of family, I now own, by virtue of the generosity of my in-laws, Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses -- his translation of the Torah that attempts to capture in English the sound, sense, meter, and soul of the Hebrew original. (He writes a long essay on what that means as the introduction to the volume.) This work will be a classic, too. (It is another title unavailable from Eighth Day Books, but use your Barnes & Noble discount card to get it there -- it's set in the Judaica section, not in the Bible section: Go figure! Or save lots of money and get it from )

Now that I have commercialized Christmas, let me note that these books will enhance your spiritual health, even if they lighten your wallet.

A most blessed season to you!

Friday, December 16, 2005

In Anticipation of Christmas

Good at any time, but especially to be admired for reading during the Twelve Days between Christmas and the Epiphany (Theophany) is this anthology of short readings from various of the early Christians.

Thank you to Fr. Joseph for assembling them.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

As both a lawyer (at least by training) and a Christian with a love of theology (and a former preacher), I find the story of Tookie Williams fascinating. It seems a kind of case study in Christian realism -- i.e., it asks whether we believe in the redemption we claim to proclaim or not. This, too, is the viw of David Batstone of the Sojourners Fellowship (and Sojourners magazine). In the Sojourners e-mail that I received today was a column by David that sets out the issues quite well, and I commend it to your consideration.

One point I especially appreciate about his analysis is the implied question whether redemption is only backward-looking or whether it is also forward-looking: Are we redeemed only from what has come before or are we also redeemed for.

Here is the column:

Redemption on trial in California
by David Batstone

One man, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, faces execution Tuesday, Dec. 13, at San Quentin State Prison in California. With him our belief in human redemption also sits on the gallows, pending a decision in the clemency hearing conducted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Williams, a founder of the notorious Crips gang, is charged with the murder of four eople in the Los Angeles area in 1979. At the time of the trial, he proclaimed his innocence, a position he maintains today. A jury convicted him wholly on circumstantial evidence; in other words, no eyewitnesses or incontrovertible material evidence linked him to the murders, according to attorney Verna Wefald’s appeal.

In one of the robberies that led to a murder, an accomplice was given clemency for
pointing his finger at Williams for the murder. Beyond the self-interest involved, the accomplice's reputation as a truth-teller was less than stellar. The prosecution produced a shell casing tied to the murder weapon found at the motel where Williams was staying. But the science that matched the casing to the weapon was speculative and its results have not been revisited in the intervening years, the Los Angeles Times reported.

I revisit the facts of the case because Schwarzenegger's decision to grant Williams clemency will depend more on the possibility of his innocence - or at least the uncertainty of his guilt - than it will turn on the contribution that Williams has made to society over the last two decades.That's tragic, because Williams has become a major figure in the gang peace movement. He has co-authored 10 books from Death Row.

The message is clear: Violence is never a solution. He urges young gang kids to get out before it destroys them and the lives of their family members. That's a powerful message from one of the founders of the Crips.Williams first made a public plea to hundreds of gang members who gathered at a Los Angeles hotel in 1993 for a summit called Hands Across Watts. He did not hide his early role in the Crips, but on a prerecorded videotape filmed for the summit told the young gang members that he lamented his history. Recounting this first public event to the San Francisco Chronicle, Williams said, "I told them I never thought I could change my life, that I thought I would be a Crip forever. But I developed common sense, wisdom and nowledge. I changed."

Williams has gone on to build on this witness. In his 1998 prison autobiography Life in Prison, he directed young people to seek an alternative life beyond violence. Prison, he stressed, was no place to spend a life. Two years later he launched the Internet Project for Street Peace. His memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, and the movie, Redemption, came out in 2004.Williams has a bevy of supporters calling for his
clemency. They argue that he has changed thousands of young people's lives, and if allowed to live will continue to be a force for good. His street credibility with gang kids is high, so he can reach them in a way that a teacher or social
worker cannot.

In the eyes of the criminal justice system, a redeemed criminal is simply another criminal. I recall my first visit to a federal prison back in seminary when starting a prison chaplain residency. The warden of the prison came to the orientation I shared with other interns. His message was clear to us: "I want you to remember that the prison system today is not about reforming criminals. We are here to punish them."Redemption, in other words, has no place in our justice system. We do not offer a path for conversion. Once marked for condemnation, an offender's destiny is fixed.Elsewhere in the world, four Christian Peacemaker Teams members are marked for execution by a radical terrorist group in Iraq. The circumstances are dramatically different, so I hesitate to make the connection. We are appalled by the blind ideology that drives the terrorists and leads them to cheapen the value of human life. In this ideology, the individual is a tool for political expediency.Don't we want to offer our citizens more in a democracy?

From 12/7/05 SojournersMail.

Permission to reprint is inferred from the invitation, which appeared at the end of the column, to share the article with friends.

Think on it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Books Note (In time for holiday buying?)

I once (part-)owned and ran a bookstore. It may have been the most fun I have had in my working life. (I was lucky: My enterprise was capitalized by a corporation, so that I only needed to keep the thing running and do the ordering and such. For that I was paid both a salary and a piece of the profits.) It fed my addiction for books -- but it enabled it at a much lower cost than if I didn't enjoy discounts!

I still like to keep up on publishing (I lament the state of consolidation of the book trade -- both publishers and retail outlets). And I really appreciate it when someone (scholars, book lovers, or otherwise) takes the trouble to write a kind of synthetic essay, comparing and contrasting works of literature around an certain theme or issue.

John Utz, of the Duke Divinity School, has done such a service with respect to the issue of terrorism in literature. And it's a really helpful guide. I encourage you to read it here.

Terrorism, as if we all don't know, is the issue in the lives of USAmericans (that, and the breakup of Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt -- if you believe the front page of my local newspaper). And it has theological ramifications galore. Easy to identify is how "Islamist fundamentalists" identify what we consider "terrorist acts" with devotion to Allah. But slower to come to mind is the role of terror in our own Christian history. To cite only a couple of scenes from the Bible: We shall soon celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The civil authority slaughters children in order to try to wipe out a "pretender" to the throne. An undeniable act of terrorism that -- if state-sponsored (which, by some lights, renders it non-terrorism). But keep in mind that that act is a kind of mirror image of The Lord's wiping out innocent Egyptian baby first-borns -- all in order to convince Pharaoh to "let my people go." Is it terrorism if the Creator of All is the perpetrator?

One important point that Utz makes in his essay is that terror is in the eye of the beholder. (The same might be said of torture: Witness the casuistry in the current USAmerican Administration's attempts to say that if we do it, it's not torture; but if it's done to "our boys" -- when will they realize that women are warriors, too? -- then it is.) And fiction can be a good way of coming to understand what that means. I don't urge trying to sympathize or empathize with terrorists. But it seems to me that a good way of reducing the efficacy of programs to enlist terrorists -- whether international or intranational -- is to understand the "terror" dynamic.

I am tempted to read Doris Lessing this Christmas.

"No Comment" for Advent II

I'll try to highlight on occasion a comment or article that speaks for itself -- and then go on to offer a couple of comments. Here's this week's, from the Chicago Tribune.

Willow Creek Community "Church" (the archetype of the seeker-friendly megachurch) has cancelled services for December 25 -- get this -- because it's Christmas. Better, say the pastors, that the people should be at home with their families. (In their defense, they do make Christmas program tickets available -- 6 to a household -- for their various programs between 20 and 24 December.) See here.

For a liturgically oriented Lutheran, which I am, this makes absolutely no sense -- except as an expression of the complete surrender of the traditions of the Christian Church to the wishes of culture. I used to chide, but have now foresworn doing so, my friends at Mount Olivet (not to be confused with my own Mount Olive) in Minneapolis, where Christmas Eve services run on the hour from about 3 p.m through 11 p.m. (Of course, they only have 2 services on Christmas Day -- another reflection of the culture within we Minneapolitan Christians live, perhaps? Mount Olive will worship at one liturgy on Christmas and "New Year's," too.)

But none of that compares to giving over entirely to a wider culture that views this major Christian festival as a "time for family"? It's a celebration of the Incarnation of God, for heaven's sake; how is that a "family-oriented" event? And if it is family-oriented, why does it draw one Christian family away from another?

What kind of theology so atomizes the life of faith that fellowship with the Body of Christ is considered a distraction?

OK: No comment.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Anne Rice, Author: Vampires to Jesus

I can't claim to be a great Anne Rice fan. I have, however, read some of her books --even, I confess, one of the so-called pornographic novels she wrote ( it wasn't very good. Come on, someone says to a bookaholic, "Have you read that Anne Rice, the great vampire-books author, has written porn?" And you want him to say, "No, and I'm not going to read it"?) I've also seen her former home in New Orleans (she moved before the hurricanes; it was majestic) and watched crowds awed by stories of the time she was taken to a book signing in a horse-drawn hearse, lying in a glass coffin dressed as a bride. She's very popular.

Well now: She has turned her sights from vampires to a new type of immortal -- Jesus. Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is apparently a first-person narrated novel about Jesus at the age of 7. Even more interesting is that the book is a reflection of a very intentional return, on Ms. Rice's part, to communion in the Church.

I tend to be cautious about prodigal son/daughter stories, but I found myself touched by Ms. Rice's story -- as reflected in this interview article published by Christianity Today:

She sounds very sincere to me -- and she has not abandoned her sense of complexity or wonder. (Is it not, for example, too appropriate that her son is gay and that she is a sincere Catholic who advocates for the Church's acceptance of gayness? After all, half my gay friends read the Vampire novels as gay stories -- and Interview with a Vampire is a gay classic, isn't it? The movie ends with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise entwined in some sort of vampirish Tantric act.)

I don't know: I may have to read the new book -- and while I'm at it, go back to some of the vampire books. I think she is generally a good author. And since I judge authors partially on their personal characters, and since Ms. Rice's character seems pretty strong, I am inclined to give her another crack.