Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Dream of Restoration

I received a message from Scott Atkinson today mentioning the Gospel According to Shakespeare classes. Scott mentioned that he had just finished Greenblatt's biography Will in the World. This bio was a NY Times bestseller last year – Paul Ragan recommended it to me as well – so, I read it earlier this year.

What a wonderful book. It apparently sparked some controversy for taking imaginative liberties with Shakespeare’s life. Most likely, Greenblatt did take excessive liberty – I’m not sure I agree with the portrait that he paints of Shakespeare, save for one chapter (see next paragraph) – Greenblatt’s mastery is in painting the landscape of the time – the religious uncertainty, the beginnings of modern urbanism, the pastoral fantasy of country living, the political intrigue and paranoia around Elizabeth’s court, the freewheeling and indeed decadent atmosphere of the early Elizabethan theatre. All of it Greenblatt sketches out for us in colorful and captivating detail.

But he ultimately paints Shakespeare as a cautious, brilliant, but ultimately somewhat petty figure. Shakespeare is almost the ultimate Walter Mitty who is able to live out his fantasises and desires for revenge through his plays. His brilliance at absorbing language wherever he heard it (so comically depicted in the film Shakespeare in Love) was what made him a star – apparently he lived a humble life, not carousing with fellow playwrights. He was estraganged from his wife, and if his last will and testament is any indication, there was no reconciliation.

But the chapter that captures my heart is the one called “The dream of restoration”. Greenblatt tells us that Shakespeare’s father was a prominent citizen of Stratford and a successful businessman – he had even applied for a coat of arms, which would propel the family into a new social status. But then suddenly, the fortunes turned – John Shakespeare lost his prominence and his positions. He slipped into debt, and the hopes of being granted a coat of arms were lost. Greenblatt believes alcoholism contributed to the fall.

But years later, Young William, now a successful playwright and part owner of a company, reapplies for the coat of arms and it is granted – he adds the motto “Not without right”, a seeming jab to say “I do come from a good family”. Greenblatt shows how often in Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the comedies), the noble hero loses everything and must endure the wild world seeking a way to attain restoration – this is the story in twelfth night, comedy of errors, merchant of Venice. In the later romances, this loss of position and then later restoration is darkened by pain – the winer’s tale and the tempest being examples where there is a happy restoration, but with a melancholy twinge – a loss of innocence, as it were. The early comedies return to innocence, the later romances move to transcendence beyond the pain.

And this is what fascinates me – Shakespeare always presents the dream of wholeness – the dream of bringing order out of chaos – the dream of the good society. And the dream is usually attainable (save in Troilus and Cressida – perhaps the darkest Shakespeare play yet – where there are no sympathetic characters – it is an ironic lampooning of the Trojan war). Is this dream not reflective of our desire for the edenic state. Is it not reflecting something deeper within – a longing for the “real countries” beyond these shadow lands.

This is the longing that is reflected in Isaiah:

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together: and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Is 11:6-9)

There is the longing for order out of chaos – the longing for all to be put right – for the forces of destruction to be put at bay – for our own destructive impulses to be transformed (the lion will eat straw like the ox – no longer a carnivore). It is a picture of society – not an individual paradise, but a society. And it is a picture of a society focused not upon ourselves, but upon knowing God. When we get our minds off ourselves, we find ourselves able to extend the graciousness of spirit and generosity. While we live in the present, the Holy Spirit gives us a foretaste, a hint and shadow, of the ultimate dream of restoration.

What do you think? Where do you see the dream of restoration played out? Have you seen this in Shakespeare? What are your thoughts about Greenblatt’s book. Just make a comment and join the conversation.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The True, The Good .... and the Force

The Cincinnati Enquirer just published an article on our church's Gospel According to Star Wars class.

  • Here's the link to the story

  • Then at 6:30 this morning, the Jim Scott show on WLW called and did a brief interview. As of this writing, we have had 40 hits on our website today (about 4-5 times what we normally have in a whole day!).

  • See our Website

  • Needless to say, I'm jazzed. Not just for the free publicity (though that is quite nice) but also for the opportunities we have here. For four years I've been talking about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. My understanding of Christian doctrine tells me about general revelation -- the idea that all creation tells of God's glory, His character, His goodness. Check out Psalm 19 "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard." or perhaps Romans 1 "...what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Simply put, God leaves his thumbprints all over creation, even in the imaginations of creative human beings like George Lucas.

    Then when they tell their stories -- even if they don't know that they're talking about God, they wind up talking about Him. Paul demonstrates this on Mars Hill in Athens in Acts 17 "men of Athens, I see that you are religious people" and he goes on to reaveal the God of truth behind their shadowy shrines and their poets -- indeed the God who created within them their instinct for worship and their instinct for beauty.

    And this is what we've been trying to do for the past 4 years with the Gospel according to the Simpsons, the Art Museum Devotional projects, The Gospel According to Shakespeare, countless film references in sermons -- and now the Gospel According to Star Wars -- we're trying to reveal the redemptive truth behind the shadowy pictures of truth, beauty, and goodness that surround us in the stories we hear and read.

    What really stokes my fire is that I didn't even author this study -- Brook authored it, Andy teaches it. You don't have to be a religious professional to learn to view every element of the world through a Christian worldview -- indeed it probably helps if you're not a religious professional.

    Hope you get a chance to check out the study -- let me know what you think!


    Tuesday, April 26, 2005

    Strictly Ballroom

    So I'm starting to use this blog as a means for processing all the cultural input I receive - books, film, stories, websites, experiences. Part of the job of the preacher is to be the epic poet of his/her generation. I believe that I have to pay close attention to all that is around and filter it through a christian worldview, in hope that some of it may be used for building up the saints. i invite you to join me by giving your own thoughts/feedback/ideas. And thus, we begin.

    This weekend, I picked up the film Strictly Ballroom for our usual Sunday Night viewing. This was a treasure of a film from 1992 that somehow I missed for the past decade. It's the charming story of competitive ballroom dancer Scott Hastings who wants to break out of the stale traditional steps that the Australian ballroom dancing federation requires of its participants. He loses his partner, but finds Fran, a seemingly clumsy wallflower who turns out to be a dance partner with soul and spirit.

    I really liked this film, and for several reasons. First, it is mostly clean. A little innuendo and a few choice expletives -- but overall clean. It avoids having a titillating, but pointless, sex scene between Scott and Fran (unlike just about every other romantic comedy of the 80s 90s and 00s) -- and the movie is stronger for it -- it enables us to focus upon the story.

    The film lampoon people who give themselves over to a subculture, but lose the sense of their first love. The "established" dance teachers and rulers of the ballroom dance federation are much more interested in control -- in having the next generation carry on their steps. Meanwhile, Scott simply wants to feel the music and abandon himself to dance. There is a wonderful scene where Frans father and grandmother teach scott the latin way to dance -- not just focusing on form, but also on feeling.

    And therein lies the rub -- finding the artful balance of form and feeling. It would be a mistake to say that the film says that feeling is all important and form is pointless -- rather it says that form will only carry so far. All the technique in the world will not enable you to viscerally feel the music and abandon yourself to the dance. And that is what Scott must learn.

    A good lesson for discipleship as well -- all the theology and self-discipline in the world will only take you so far -- it is only in an encounter with the Holy Spirit that we begin to dance in life. This does not mean that we abandon theology and self-discipline -- only that we don't make an idol out of it.

    The other charming piece of the story is the ongoing refrain "A life lived in fear is a life half lived." If you've not seen it, I won't blow how this works out in the climax of the film -- but it is very true -- and again a powerful maxim for discipleship.

    Key verse: "It was for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Galatians 5:1 (read in context -- dealing with the struggle of do Christians have to adopt all the jewish customs, or can they express Christianity in their own ethnic heritage -- this is not an anything goes statement)