Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Problem of Pain -- a new book for your consideration

Pain cannot be avoided -- it is an unescapable fact of life in a fallen world. We spend much of our cultural capital on futile attempts to avoid, delay, sidestep, or medicate pain. Even so, pain comes.

Thus it seems wise and prudent to wrestle with the problem of pain while we are in a relatively pain-free season of life. And we ought not think ourselves as having "arrived", but rather, from time to time, take the pains of others to re-evaluate our own foundations. These past five years of pastoring, I've seen in naked detail the pain of life, which brings me again and again to the task of re-evaluating my understanding of pain and how we as Christias approach it. Just this month, I finished a terriffic book that has helped me once again consider the topic: If I were God, I'd end all the pain by John Dickson.

This book delivers, with concise thought and deceptively simple language, a straight to the heart analysis of the problem of pain. Dickson does not explore the contours of subtle differences in theological systems -- this is not a book for the technician or the theologian staking out turf in the intellectual playgrounds of the academy. Rather this is a book for the pastor in the trenches grasping for words to tell the angry teenager in his office. It is for the bemused office worker struggling to answer the smug skeptic. It is for the seeker asking if there is anything more to the faith than "God has a wonderful plan for your life".

Dickson begins humbly by saying he doesn't have all the answers -- but that he thinks that when confronting the problem of pain, Christianity offers the best option out there. He sketches in broad detail the approach taken by Hinduism (suffering restores karmic balance), Atheism (suffering is a natural part of things), Islam (suffering is God's predetermined direct will), and Buddhism (suffering is illusory).

Then he begins explaining the Biblical view "One of the distinguishing things about the Good Book's approach is that it stops short of providing a single, all-governing, answer.....Like a great rock song, as opposed to a formulaic pop song, the Bible offers a rhyme, rhythm, ambience, and climactic anthem that surprises you each time you listen to it." (33). Dickson backs this statement up with scripture -- pointing to our right to question God (Psalm 22 as but one example of a whole genre of psalms of lament). What a liberating concept! We can bring our confusion and frustration to the Maker -- but a dangerous concept, for when we bring it to Him, He will not leave us alone in it.

Then Dickson deals with the issue of the corruption of the human will. He sidesteps the issue of working through human free agency and God's sovereign will -- and many hard core Calvinists will fault him for that -- but remember, this is not a work of subtle theology. Dickson refers us to great resources (including DA Carson's How Long, O Lord for wrestling with such deeper issues. Here, Dickson simply makes the point that human nature is broken, and a lot of pain arises out of that brokenness.

From there, he moves to suffering caused by nature -- and he demonstrates that that creation itself is broken. As with the corrupted human will, Dickson brings before us, using scriptural support, God's design for restoration. Finally he brings it all together in Christ -- the capacity of Christ to experience suffering is God's great identification with us in our sufferings. We can know that the triune God whom we worship is not some iceburg in the sky, rather our God understands suffering. But Dickson makes clear "Christ's death is more than an identification with us. The Bible makes it clear it is a substitution for us. On the cross God not only stands alongside us, he stands in our place." (68).

Dickson peppers the whole treatment with his own wrestling with the loss of his father and other stories that resonate well. It's an easy read, done in one night. While it lacks the precision demanded by a scholarly work, it is not lightweight. The book is full of heart, and I recommend it for your library.

Read Kieran Robertson's Review

See customer reviews at Amazon

I especailly recommend the article from the good folks at Hippocampus Extensions

Order the book from Matthias Media

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving. May you remember God's abundant blessings in your life: for me, family, friends, enjoyable work, a sense of wonder in approaching the natural world all about, heritage that goes back through generations, health, relative financial prosperity, a fine wife and delightful progeny, and a predilection for dumb jokes (among many other blessings).

In celebration of the holiday -- links to some sites that I've found to be helpful. These articles remind us that Thanksgiving is not a gluttonous speed bump between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- it is not to be some baccanalian start to the Christmas shopping season. Rather it is a holiday season in its own right, and we ought to pause and remember:

Excerpts from William Bradford's On Plymouth Plantation

Chuck Colson's commentary on Squanto

Christian History Magazine on The American Puritans

Soli Deo gloria

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Now Playing: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The fourth Harry Potter film has arrived, and Tammy and I (thanks to my parents' willingness to spend the evening with Sarah Grace and Annalise) have already had the chance to see it -- something of a rarity in this stage of our lives.

First, our reaction -- we loved it. Tammy summed it up best as we were retiring for the evening last night -- she said "Don't you want to go back to the movie and be with the people in it?" What a great summary of the feeling the books inspire. What I've always loved about Rowling's style is that she captures a sense of rightness about a place. Hogwarts is not unlike Camelot -- a dreamy ideal place that enchants and delights -- it is warm and safe and good. When I finish the books, I want to go back, because the place feels right!

That's where the third film went horribly wrong for me -- it focused so much on darkness and angst that it feld there was nothing at stake. Hogwarts and the people there were not portrayed with any warmth or affection. And I was glad to leave the theatres. However in this fourth film, there is warmth, affection, friendship, and goodness. Indeed, everything that drives the plot is the threat to the idyllic world of Hogwarts.

That said - the film recaptures the importance of the friendship of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It rightly puts the Weasly twins as the center of comic relief (it also introduces some wonderful business with Filch and Dumbledore that is subtle, but very very funny -- watch for the premature shooting of cannons). Ralph Fiennes nails Voldemort, but Brendan Gleeson steals the show as Mad Eye Moody. (see comments from IMDB for more reviews of the content.) Finally, there is no fat in the film -- the narrative is lean and every scene propels us forward.

Now, as to a Christian perspective -- (see other Christian reviews at Christianity Today's website). The first issue that arises is one of the use of magic -- for me this is a total non-issue. This is an imaginative world in which magic is portrayed not as occult practice, but a quasi-scientific development of fantastic gifts. In many ways, the rules of magic in this series are not that different from the rules of science in the superhero sagas of Marvel comics (watch X Men sometime for a close parallel - mutants with inborn fantastic powers who have to develop their skills and stay hidden from public view).

What is really important in this magical realm are the choices people make -- the lines between good and evil, between self aggrandizement and self sacrifice. Here we find ourselves on much more solid ground (though not as solid as we could hope). Harry clearly inhabits a moral world with something worth protecting from the forces of evil. The story clearly lauds the value of friendship and self-sacrifice.

However, because this is a world in which evil operates and tries to destroy good things, it is also a terrifying world. These are not stories for little children. I would suggest that a child ought to be as old as Harry (at this point, 14) to read and appreciate the books and the films.

There's so much we could discuss on this -- but it's bathtime for Sarah Grace, and I've got to go!

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Heidelberg Catechism -- Week 4

I propped my feet up on the desk as we took turns reading the next questions from the Heidelberg Catechism. Katie was the first to read:

"Q. Is not God unjust in requiring of man in his Law what he cannot do?
A. No, for God so created man that he could do it. But man, upon the instigation of the devil, by deliberate disobedience, has cheated himself and all his descendants out of these gifts."

Without taking my eyes off the page, I continued with the next question and answer set:

"Q. Will God let man get by with such disobedience and defection?
A. Certainly not, for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, both against our inborn sinfulness and our actual sins, and he will punish them according to his righteous judgment in time and in eternity as he has declared 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, and do them.'"

And Victoria finished the reading:

"Q. But is not God also merciful?
A. God is indeed merciful and gracious, but he is also righteous. It is his righteousness which requires that sin committed against the supreme majesty of God be punished with extreme, that is, with eternal punishment of body and soul."

John slipped into the room, dragging a chair behind him. Our group was complete: two twenty-something Young Adult Volunteers, one House Church Planter, and a thirty-four year old pastor, all trying to make sense of a five hundred year old statement of theology and faith.

I posed the question of whether we actually believe in God's wrath, trying to get a rise out of them on such a controversial issue. But no takers; we all take God's word at face value as it talks about wrath. None of us are very comfortable with it - it's not a doctrine that we curl up and snuggle with on a cold winter night. It's simply one of the truths of living that we have to deal with. None of us were under any illusion that this would win us friends -- for we know that when you tell people that you believe in God's wrath, they look at you as though you were the one who was dispensing wrath.

Soon, the term "federal headship" floated out in the room. We were in deep theological waters pretty quickly, and had to clarify the meaning of the term. Four amateur theologians grasped at words slippery as wet soap: we talked about how Adam represented us all when he made that fateful decision to disobey. It seems unfair to us democratically minded Americans, for we have forgotten the days when the king WAS the will of the country. The king spoke for all his people, and nobody cared what those people might have thought. Then we flirted with the question of the creation stories and their literal truth - but didn't stay there too long.

John brought up the interesting point that theology, by it's very nature, is a summary, devoid of narrative. But God gave narrative -- God tells stories masterfully. These stories depict relationships that pulse with heart and passion and betrayal and drama; they are devoid of the clinical precision that theology demands, and if we read theology without going back to the stories, then we miss a lot of the meaning. Therein lies a danger for those who would "do" theology (or rather "think" theology) absent a grounding in scripture.

The room weighed heavy, as though the topics of wrath and sin had brought a storm front that didn't erput. We quickly moved to the next week's reading -- about the redeemer.... (coming soon to a blog near you)

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Open Source Culture -- continuing the conversation on Darknet

Following my post on the book Darknet, I came across several critiques of the almost lazzeiz faire attitude toward information sharing propogated by the book.

First I saw an article in Forbes (no, I don't subscribe -- it was at the library) critiquing bloggers and their impact upon business (read the article, but to do it online, it'll cost you two bucks). They told stories about vigilante bloggers who did their best to ruin businesses based on unsubstantiated rumor. Shortly thereafter, Michael Kruse gave some very thoughtful comments on my post: "Not everyone wants there ideas widely spread. Take investment banking research reports. Part of its value is that the consumer is one of only a few who get the benefit of the analysis. They want their information controlled and exclusive." -- the idea is that some people want to control data, not because of image control (like Disney for instance) but because the data itself is the value that they provide. Then, of course, it just took a little thought for me to remember that the cleverness of humanity in harmful behavior will not be trumped by open source data. Indeed, all open source data does is provide more tools for us to express our sinful nature or to express a redeemed nature.

In face of the critiques, however, it does seem that the zeitgeist is toward open access to as much data as we can get -- open access and open ability to remix and blend it at will. Witness Douglas Rushkoff's latest book -- he's releasing the main ideas on his weblog as "thought viruses". He's basically giving away the content of the book, in hopes that people will be interested enough in buying it. In fact, the latest thought virus is on this topic of the "open source" society.

Then there is the concept from trendwatching.com -- the Idea of Generation C -- the creative generation who finds it perfectly natural to create content rather than passively receiving it. These are people who actively engage in life, and they engage in all of it -- and they feel it is their right to remix and work with the data that they think is cool to them.

Clearly the zeitgeist is in the way of open access to information. But content creators want some control of their ideas (and indeed deserve to be fairly compensated for their work). Individuals want some control over their private data (I really don't want my face superimposed on top of a image of a monkey -- Mt. Rushmore perhaps, but not a monkey -- and just by saying that, I've thrown a gauntlet for some joker to do it).

So this takes us right to the realm of ethics -- we as Christians need to articulate an ethics for an open source world. And this means that we can't just go about ignoring the law with impunity -- it means that when we use creative content, we have to consider our responsibilities to the original creators of that material. What will be the ethical questions for the digital generation -- right now, it's kind of a wild west out here in the blogosphere -- anyone can say anything.

Thoughts, comments, ideas. I'm shooting in the dark on this one!

Soli Deo Gloria

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Growing up, I loved the old Rankin-Bass Animagic specials: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Year Without Santa Claus, and my favorite, Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Authored by Romeo Muller, also known as Mr.Christmas (see the fan info written by George Zadorozny), Santa Claus is Coming to Town has some of the catchiest tunes and funniest lines of all the Rankin Bass specials (I love the Winter Warlock shouting out "I guess I'm not such a loser after all!") And except for The Little Drummer Boy, it is the most Christian of the bunch.

The story, narrated by postman SD Kluger (voiced by Frad Astaire), tells of the early life of Kris Kringle, an orphan adopted by the Kringle Family of Elves. These Elves were the first toymakers to the king, but now they didn't deliver their toys anymore because the Winter Warlock on his mountain blocks the way to the villages on the other side of the mountain. When Kris grows up (voiced by Mickey Rooney), he volunteers to take the toys over the mountain.

In the village of Sombertown, he finds that the Burghermister Meisterburger (one of the more entertaining villans of animated history-- strangely, the only person in the village with a german accent - but remember this was 1970 -- germans still weren't too popular then -- think East Germany under soviet domination) has issued a draconian decree forbidding toys. And so Kris delivers his wares, and runs off to the mountain where he is captured by the enchanted trees of the Winter Warlock. But through the gift of a choo-choo train, he melts the warlock's heart and makes him good.

The rest of the story shows how Kris overcomes Meisterburger's silliness, falls in love with the town schoolmarm, Miss Jessica, and eventually moves to the North Pole.

At this point you are thinking "Most Christian, Russ -- at what point is the gospel even mentioned?" OK, don't think this too much of a stretch. Watch the scene when Kris and Jessica are wed. Astaire clearly says "they went before the Lord" in a grove of pine trees because they were considered outlaws. As they come into the grove, you see how the elves and forest creatures have decorated the trees -- and chief among the ornaments are Christian Crosses. But most surprising is the Winter Warlock, who has been "dis-enchanted" and lost all his magic powers. Just as the wedding is about to begin, he prays "please, give me just a little magic" and the trees light up with Christmas lights. Let me write that again THE WINTER WARLOCK PRAYS.

Then, as Kris and Jessica decide what single night to do the deliveries, Astaire narrates "He chose the holiest night of the year, a night of profound love..." Christmas Eve.

And then, my favorite subtle gospel insertion is also in my favorite song. Kris has just given the Winter Warlock a gift -- nobody gives mean old warlocks gifts, you know -- and that icy heart just melted away, revealing a kindly looking old man. Winter then says "Ah, but will it last, at heart I'm a mean old warlock" -- and Kris says being good is just as simple as putting one foot in front of the other -- leading into the peppy song:

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walkin' 'cross the flo-o-or
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walkin' out the door.

You never will get where you're goin'
If you never get up on your feet
Come on! There's a good tail wind blowin'
A fast walkin' man is hard to beat!


If you want to change your direction
If you're time of life is at hand
Well don't be the rule -- be the exception
A good way to start is to stand.


If I want to change the reflection
I see in the mirror each morn
Oh, you do?!
You mean that it's just my election
Just that!
To vote for a chance to be reborn.

[chorus x2]

Re-read that last verse -- sung by the warlock. "...a chance to be reborn" is not accidental language (neither I think, is the word play with election). Now before you get all hyper-calvinistic on me, let me state that I'm well aware that the song seems to teach "bootstrap redemption" -- just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you can be good. Such teaching flies in the face of everything that is true about grace (go back and read Ephesians chapter 2). However, remember that the song only comes AFTER the warlock's heart is melted by an unmerited gift that he didn't deserve! (admittely, the gift is a choo-choo, but this is, after all, a children's story)

I'm telling you, there's good stuff going on in this flim. After thanksgiving, break it out and watch for yourself -- I hope you'll be delighted at what you see.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Off the Shelf: Darknet

Yes, I know the title sounds like a third rate syndicated TV show (the kind you only see on after midnight, featuring cheesy special effects). In actuality, Darknet (by JD Lasica), subtitled "Hollywood's war against the Digital Generation" is about the ongoing battle between entrenched media giants and the digital pioneers who make information malleable and easy to use. (read the reviews from readers or see the promotional webpage with blog and other resources)

The thrust is this -- new technology makes image, text, film, and sound easily accessible and easy to manipulate. This means that anyone with a computer and a little software can become their own media producer. This also means that they have the capacity to use existing material to make their own montage.

According to the book, the big media conglomerates hate that concept -- they want to keep control of media creation and distribution. Accordingly, they want to establish laws and protocols that will prevent end users from mixing or even appropriating existing material.

Consider the story of Chris Strompolos, who as a middle schooler was so enthralled by Raiders of the Lost Ark, that he decided to recruit his friends to re-shoot the film. They went all out, and the project took them seven years. They built elaborate sets in their basement, they asked for special effects pieces for Christmas and Birthday presents. And after 7 years, they had created a faithful re-creation. It was a labor of love. Spielberg got hold of a copy and he loved it. But you'll never be able to see it, because the studios hold extensive copyright control, and they'd never let you see it. (Lasica tells the story much better than I can -- Read his retelling, quoted straight from the book)

Lasica makes a strong case for "open access" to all kinds of media as a way of encouraging ongoing creativity (it also adds value to the existing work -- anytime someone references my intellectual work -- it further spreads my ideas -- as Mae West once said "i don't care whether what you write about me is good or bad, just don't misspell my name". Seth Godin (marketing guru) constantly emphasizes that the point behind blogging (and much of the new media) is to spread your ideas -- not to make a sale. That's where the Hollywood types don't get it -- they're more concerned about the bottom line and keeping their captive audiences than they are about producing quality products. Is it any wonder that labors of love that The Lord of the Rings, The Passion of the Christ, and Farenheit 9/11 were major successes? They were works with heart (whether you liked them or not -- their directors did them primarily as expressions of passion).

The thesis behind Darknet is that the regular person also has this artistic impulse and would really like to have access to lots of digital material to indulge said impulse. If the major corporations will block that impulse (see what they did with Napster), then people will still get the digital information from hidden parts of the internet -- called the Darknet. The latter half of the book traces the careers and techniques of the digital freebooters and pixel privateers who pirate movies and make pristeen copies available via invite only secret lairs on the web -- kind of like a movie buff's batcave on the net.

All said, the book is worth a read for people of faith (one story is about a pastor who shows movie clips in his sermons -- this is kosher under the fair use of copyright law. However, he breaks the law because he copies the clips from his DVD to his laptop -- that act of copying is a violation. And the interview explores the ethical concerns involved). This will be an interesting field of ethics in the coming years -- Big media are quick to cry "theft" for any appropriation of intellectual material. And there is a lot of theft going on. There is also a lot of sampling that is the digital equivalent of quotation or allusion -- which has been within ethical bounds of fair use for centuries. Again, I don't suggest a purchase -- this isn't a classic you'll refer to again and again. Check it out from the library and give it a good detailed skim.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, November 07, 2005

Heidelberg Catechism -- week 3

I know I've not posted on weeks 1 and 2, but I just never got around to it. Here's the background info -- We have a discussion group at our church where we're working through the Heidelberg Catechism week by week. The other three folks are all under 30 and I'm trying to orient them to some of the confessional foundations of the church. This discussion group is good for me too -- it keeps the confessions fresh in my mind.

For those of you who have no clue what I'm talking about -- a little background is in order -- our denomination has assemlbed a Book of Confessions -- historic theological statements from various eras of the church. These statements summarize the teaching of the Bible, and guide our present day understanding (that is, if we take the time to actually read them).

Catechisms are theological documents that are stated in question and answer format. Heidelberg was written early in the Protestant Reformation, and is still used as the standard for churches in the Dutch Reformed Tradition. The first two readings deal with defining mankind's only hope, and our inability to fully keep the law of God -- so we pick up in week 3 with the case already being made. For these posts, I'll give the reading that we did (quoted directly from the book of Confessions), and then summarize the discussion. As always, the floor is open for your comments and thoughts!

"Q. Did God create man evil and perverse like this?
A. No. On the contrary, God greated man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, love him with his whole heart, and live with him in eternal blessedness, praising and glorifying him.

Q. Where, then, does this corruption of human nature come from?
A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden; whereby, our human life is so poisoned that we are all conceived and born in the state of sin.

Q. But are we so perverted that we are altogether unable to do good and prone to do evil?
A. Yes, unless we are born again through the Spirit of God."

The first thing we ought to note is the use of that little word "perverted" in the last question does not mean that we are all slobbering maniacs -- It means that we are diverted from our original design. We are not able to do what we were made to do in the first place.

That said, we come to the oh so popular main theme of this reading: depravity. It's a common theme in literature and art (see my previous post). It's a wonder that secular novelists see this truth as clear on the nose on their faces, but many religious folks balk at the idea.

Depravity is the T of the Tulip of the five points of Calvinism:

*Total Depravity
*Unconditional Election
*Limited Atonement
*Irresistable Grace
*Perseverance of the Saints

A lot of people really have problems with the concept of depravity. But our discussion group didn't. Among us, we had all hit our heads against the wall enough times to have an understanding of self-doubt. As one friend told me a long time ago "I'm a sheep that has to stay close to the shepherd" -- That's an experience I identify with. Depravity means my capacities for good decision-making, right discernment of truth, rightly oreinting my emotions, and just about everything else, are undermined. Every human faculty is stained.

But counterbalanced against that is the dignity of humanity, as stated in question 6. Humans are created good and in God's image. And so the question that arose in discussion was how did the fall affect that dignity. Was the image of God (imago Dei) lost? Was it broken? or was the corruption simply an inability to perceive truth rightly? Are we like a TV set that is smashed beyond repair, or are we like a TV set with the antenna removed? I came down on the idea of asserting that we continue to have the full dignity of bearing the image of God (hence the reason that love your neighbor like yourself is the second greatest commandment behind love the lord your God) but that we have the full corruption of depravity. Full dignity, full depravity. That's us.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Now Playing: Stage Beauty

While widely compared to Shakespeare in Love, Stage Beauty, struck me as a very different movie. Shakespeare in Love is a romantic comedy that happens to feature Shakespeare's penchant for gender confusion as a plot device. Stage Beauty, on the other hand, is a drama exploring gender identity which happens to employ a romantic plotline. About all the films share in common are a performance of Shakespeare's play in which a woman takes a leading role.

Confused? Don't be. Stage Beauty is a clever tale set during the restoration of the English Monarchy under Charles II. During this era, only men were allowed to perform onstage, and the best actor at playing women's roles was Ned Kynaston. The conflict in the play is driven when the king makes an edict that women will be allowed to perform, and Ned's assistant, Maria, becomes the first actress on the English stage. Ned's career is ruined, and Maria is quickly joined by other actresses who are much better than her. But the problem is that they all use the same stiff acting style based on formulaic gestures. Ned is enlisted to help Maria improve her skills -- and they finish the film with the climactic murder of Desdemona from Othello.

This is where the great themes of the film come in. Ned has spent his whole life working masculinity out of his every gesture and tone. To play a woman, he has forsaken his masculine identity. But his understanding of women centers around his idealized sense of their beauty. For example, when Maria asks Ned why he doesn't play male roles he replies "Men aren't beautiful. What they do isn't beautiful either. Women do everything beautifully, especially when they die. Men feel far too much. Feeling ruins the effect. Feeling makes it ugly. Perhaps that's why I could never pull off the death scene. I- could never feel it in a way that wouldn't mar the -- I couldn't let the beauty die. Without beauty there's nothing. Who could love that?"

A little bit later, Maria throws this moment of self revelation back in Ned's face when in a fit of anger she shouts "Your old tutor did you a great disservice, Mr. Kynaston. He taught you how to speak, and swoon, and toss your head but he never taught you how to suffer like a woman, or love like a woman. He trapped a man in a woman's form and left you there to die! I always hated you as Desdemona. You never fought! You just died, beautifully. No woman would die like that, no matter how much she loved him. A woman would fight!"

Ned's confusion about his gender has led him to be objectified by men and women alike -- in his longing for an idealized beauty, he is made into a sexual trinket to be posessed by the aristocrats of the era. It is only when he realizes that there is more the femininity than beauty that he's able to help Maria transform her performance. Together they put on a show that is radically different from what came before -- and it electrifies the audience.

The film also does a fine job of showing the decadence of the Restoration era -- it is a culture centered around sensation -- not much unlike our own culture.

While The critics are mixed in their evaluation of the film, Tammy and I both thought it was pretty teriffic.

And I have to share one of the greatest lines -- When the king is justifying letting women on the stage, he says that the French have been doing it for years, to which one of his aides replies "Whenever we're about to do something truly horrible, we always say that the French have been doing it for years." Sacre bleu!


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Gospel According to Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus (part 2)

Sorry I've been incommunicando for a week -- below is the post I intended to put up last Tuesday -- the class went well, and perhaps I'll do a follow-up post later.

For you regular readers, i need your help for the next play, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. It goes up in January. I'm going to try to do some preliminary blogging on it in December. It would really help me if you would read the play, and lend your comments to the blog. I hope you can join me in making the class a great experience of Christian Worldview thinking! More to come on that later -- below is the unedited post I had originally intended:

After the slew of comments that I received from part 1 (please note the ironic tone), I've decided that perhaps Shakespeare is not the most appealing topic for readers of the Eagle and Child. Admittedly, I was envisioning scads of people searching on Titus Andronicus searching in Google, and suddenly coming across my site and being dazzled by my insight -- but alas I'm not even in the top 150 sites on Google's list.

Nonetheless, I'll continue, mainly to get my thoughts worked out before class on Wednesday. Your comments, thoughts suggestions really do help -- let me know if any of this stuff is making sense at all.

Those reading the last post will be struck by the gore and violence in the play. What are we to do with this? Just as a recap: We see human sacrifice, murder, rape, mutilation, random killing of incidental characters. The violence is so over the top that critic Harold Bloom, in his work Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, says that Shakespeare intends the work as a parody of the violent plays of colleagues Kidd and Marlowe.

The "hero", Titus, begins the play by turning a deaf ear upon pleas for mercy and then killing his own son for the sake of preserving his notion of honor. By the end of Act I, we've lost all empathy for him -- it seems that he's really the monster. But then, over the next three Acts, we see his great suffering -- the violence returns to him and breaks him. We cannot help but feel for the man -- his son in law is murdered and two of his sons framed for the deed. His daughter raped and mutilated, his own hand cut off in a vain attempt to save his sons lives. Then, as the messenger delivers his sons severed heads, Titus says "Now let hot Etna cool in Sicily And be my heart an everburning hell! These miseries are more than may be borne..... When will this fearful slumber have an end?" Titus' brother Marcus bids him weep: "Rent off thy silver hair, thy other hand, Gnawing with thy teeth, and be this dismal sight the closing up of our most wretched eyes. Now is a time to storm? Why art thou still?" Titus responds by laughing -- Marcus asks why? "Why, I have not another tear to shed." Quite possibly the most heartbreaking line in the play. Anthony Hopkins delivers this line in the film version with such pathos that all my antipathy for Titus earlier deeds was lost.

And we wallow with Titus in grief for a while only to have him become a monster again in the climactic scene. Rather than bringing the villans to justice, Titus enacts an even more cruel revenge, if that is possible. Taking the idea from classical mythology, Titus kills the offending murderers and bakes them into a pie, feeding them to their mother, Tamora (who guided the whole campaign against Titus). Then, as he reveals what he has done, he kills his own daughter (supposedly relieving her of the living hell of being without hands and tongue) and then leaps across the table to kill Tamora. Then Tamora's husband the emperor kills Titus, and within moments the emperor is killed by Titus' one remaining son.

Given these events, we're left with an ambiguous feeling -- we want to like Titus, but he's proven to be unlikeable. In this respect, he's not all that different from the Biblical heroes from Judges. The book of Judges is the Titus Andronicus of the Bible -- it drips with gore and violence -- a sword plunged in the fat belly of an evil king, a tent peg driven through the skull of another villain, a raped and murdered concubine cut up and sent to twelve tribes as a message, the near extermination of one of Israel's tribes. Judges is not entirely a pleasant book. And many of its heroes are ambiguous: Japehth who wins a victory, but in his hastiness, vows to sacrifice the first thing coming out of his house as a celebration -- which turns out to be his daughter. Then there's Samson, a great warrior, but a petulent fool.

Titus reminds us that at times and seasons of history, our heroes are ambiguous. The reason why the truly great are so great is that they're rare. Judges shows how God will use even such people -- with streaks of nobility and wrath -- to accomplish His ends.