Whimsical Imagination and a New Addition to the Forest

The following article over at Transpositions interweaves C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald, GK Chesterton, and Lewis Carroll.  The article is really jumpstarting some observations I’ve making on the connection between theology and Pixar.  More on that later, perhaps…

Whimsical Imagination.

Oh, and by the by…something special arrived on Easter weekend at my house:

Rowan William Pyne

What If Books Contained a Story?

Anne Jackson recently posed a question asking “What’s missing from today’s books?” I’m a bit disappointed that, on the surface anyway, her query was geared toward an analysis of “the market,” but I see where she is going with this. As an English teacher, the question jumped off the screen and sat on my lap, begging to be answered, but drooping lids prevailed and I retired early to bed (without setting the alarm- let me tell you, it was an exciting morning!).

Here’s C.S. Lewis on the subject of great literature:

Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, or comic… My own eyes are not enough for me. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself: and am never more myself than when I do.

This is a quote I share with my students at the beginning of the year. The desire and ability to “become a thousand men and yet remain myself,” is the essence of an intelligent and broad perspective reaching out to understand the world around him/her.

But is this the literature of which Anne speaks? My assumption (and this is only an assumption) is that she is speaking about books akin to her own, such as Mad Church Disease. I’m not sure. However, I did find an article I thought quite illuminating on what the current market demands. In a nutshell: kids’ books. Susan Carpenter of the LA Times writes in the article “Young Adult Lit Comes of Age” that

It used to be that the only adults who read young adult literature were those who had a vested interest — teachers or librarians or parents who either needed or wanted to keep an eye on developing readers’ tastes.

But increasingly, adults are reading YA books with no ulterior motives. Attracted by well-written, fast-paced and engaging stories that span the gamut of genres and subjects, such readers have mainstreamed a niche long derided as just for kids.

Recently, I whipped through CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, both in print and in a wonderful radio drama version, and currently I am dipping a tentative foot into Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, about a boy who finds out he is half Greek…god.

I am starting to label myself a Recovering English Major. I went through my modernist and post-modern lit as an undergraduate, read and over analyzed “deep” literary fiction, and ultimately came up with the novel idea of actually reading a STORY. It took some heavy lessons learned and essays culled by CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton, and George MacDonald, among others, to realize that “sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.”

Is it what the market wants? Apparently. Is it what the market needs? Definitely.

Now you’ll have to excuse me…I already know the dragon exists, but I must continue my quest to defeat it.

“Holy Scriptures:” Reflections on George MacDonald 25

This story may not be just as the Lord told it, and yet may contain in its mirror as much of the truth as we are able to receive, and as will afford us scope for a life’s discovery.  The modifying influence of the human channels may be essential to God’s revealing mode.

It was one of those nights last night when I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a three hour theological debate, but it happened anyway.  A good friend of mine and I had a bit of an argument that opened up some old wounds.  In the midst of coming to peace with that, we got on a tangent on how our respective views of the world color our thinking.  It’s no secret to my friend that I am a Christian, and in his frustration, he said, pointing to my Bible, “Doesn’t it bother you that none of it is even true.  That it’s all just stories someone made up?”

Oh, boy.  Now this is where my problem of reading more than conversing comes into play.  I hear these words “true” and “stories,” and immediately my mind is abuzz with articles, essays, books, and podcasts that I’ve absorbed on these two words.  I try valiantly to remember my reflections on those essays in which I put those articles, etc. into my spiritual context as a Christian.  Merton, Bell, Norris, Aquinas, Feiler, Underhill, the conflicting doctrines of Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, the Cloud of Unknowing- all dancing in my head as I face the increasingly annoyed and aggravated gaze of my friend.

Did I tell you that at this point it was 1 AM?  It was 1 AM.

So my mind wasn’t exactly primed and prepped for this discussion, and of course I fell flat on my face.  We ended up having a rather garbled interchange on the nature of truth and the need for comforting fictions to keep us in line- ah, can hardly remember, really.  I do remember at one point admitting, “Look, I just don’t know.  But I’m convinced it is worth it.  There’s something there.  I just don’t know what.”  Yeah, put that in your theological pipe and smoke it.

So this quote of George MacDonald resonates with me.  It probably got him into a bit of trouble- there’s always the literalists out there, and they usually have the loudest voices, ready to defend “The Book.”  But he’s admitting something terribly important to our faith as Christians.  “[Scripture] will afford us scope for a life’s discovery.”  In other words, it’s enough for what it can impart- words that describe the nearly indescribable.  We don’t bow down to it, we don’t worship it, but it is a text that tries to convey the unfathomable mystery of God.

Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, continues this thought:

It is a mystery, a matter of faith in something that can’t be explained or understood, at least not in our conditional human speech.  Silence is the best language for it- “the silence of eternity interpreted by love” (quote by Whittier).  She later goes on describe how Christians can say “yes,” about what they believe: “Answered in the spirit of hope, not that other people of faith will come around and see things my way, but in the conviction that the incarnation of Jesus is powerful enough to live up to its name and will work to the good of all people despite all our groaning, quibbling, and squabbling over terminology.”

It’s not really about the Bible, ultimately, but what happens when that follower of Jesus lifts their eyes from the page and looks out at the world.  Are they able to see and hear the word of God in their interactions with their neighbors and enemies, in the soft breeze that gently flows by them, in the darkness of a night lit by only one lamp, with a frustrated friend sitting on the couch?  Are we ready for discovery through human channels?  Are we open to the experience of word?

“No Comparing:” Reflections on George MacDonald 20

Here there is no room for ambition.  Ambition is the desire to be above one’s neighbor; and here there is no possibility of comparison with one’s neighbor: no one knows what the white stone contains except the man who receives it… Relative worth is not only unknown- to the children of the Kingdom it is unknowable.

A note of context before we begin: the “white stone” that MacDonald refers to alludes to Revelation 2:17 (“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.”)  MacDonald notes that each of us gets a “white stone” from God, that expresses, in Him, our deepest identity and meaning.

We like ambition in the United States.  We need ambition now- the drive to get this country moving again, to recover what’s been lost- sense of unity and hope.  But it’s necessary to define the first word in this reflection: “Here.”

What “here,” is MacDonald talking about?  When ambition is “the desire to be above one’s neighbor,” it is an ambition based on the Self.  What “I” want, what “I” deserve.  Therefore, the “here” that MacDonald speaks of , which has “no room for ambition” must be a place of Non-Self, or a focus to where the Self is not the Center.  This is a “here” in the presence of God.  There is no measure, no “relative worth,” for, as Jack Kerouac once said, “All is precious and holy.”

This is why when Jesus was approached by the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who wanted her two sons to sit at the right and left of Christ in Heaven, he said “You do not know what you are asking.” Later in the passage he spoke to the other disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20: 25-29)

Those who long to be close to God must first let go of the desire to be first among others.  There is no hierarchy of Love with God.  It encompasses all completely and fully.  To desire to have more of the Love than another corrupts that Love, and makes it unattainable.

“No Massing:” Reflections on George MacDonald 19

“There is no massing of men with God.  When he speaks of gathered men, it is a spiritual body, not as a mass.”

Okay, so I realize I’ve let quite a few days slip without posting on MacDonald.  Rather than compiling the bunch that I missed, and trying to make a broad sweeping statement about them all, I’m starting on 19 and saying phooey to the rest.

Besides, this MacDonald reflection hits pretty close to things I’ve been experiencing this week. I caught up with guy I used to work with on Facebook, and then ran into him when I went to a Saturday evening service at Discovery Church.  Now, what compelled me to go to Discovery Church, a so-called mega church in Orlando, is still something I’m grappling with.  Suffice to say I’ve been restless in my spiritual life, and not necessarily looking for something “new,” but wanting to dive a bit deeper into my faith, and have the ability to communicate this with people my own age.

Now, I still call Emmanuel Episcopal home.  They were the church I stumbled on when I was in my deepest need to reconnect back with Christian life and community.  But I am not joking when I say that at 34, I am still one of the few “young people,” at the church, and definitely the youngest person in the choir, the next oldest being in his mid-forties.  Lately, it’s been a small issue.  I still feel so blessed to be a part of that community, and to be a part of the larger Episcopalian community.  For the past couple of years, they have nursed my broken and disjointed faith back to health.  I feel like Emmanuel has been a wonderful incubator for me.  I’m wondering now if it’s not time to start moving out of that space to start breathing on my own.  I could be wrong, so let’s just label it for what it is: a feeling.

Back to Discovery.  For the longest time I’ve been wary of mega churches, and for good reason.  They seemed driven by sheer attendance and not much else.  This is where a majority of the “prosperity gospel” ideas found their home, and why not?  A church with a $1 Million per month budget probably did have something to say about getting rich with the help of Jesus.  In addition, the high-tech “performance” sermons complete with huge video screens, rock bands, and a light show felt more like entertainment than a true reflection of faith.  One of my positions- and I do still hold to this- is that American Christianity would do well to pipe down and reside in God’s silence for a while.  This is why I see the practices of Christian monasticism and mysticism as better paths to a clear, balanced relationship to God than any other way (I realize I’m not being very concise in my words, but this is one of those “ramble posts” that I have about once every couple months).

So why Discovery?  I remember attending the church to hear Shane Claiborne speak on his Jesus for President tour.  Claiborne is/was part of the neo-monastic movement which I read about in addition to my studies of traditional monastic life.  So I had “entered the building” once, and I guess one Saturday night was hungry to do it again for a bit of spiritual refreshment.  It also gets to the point with me that I think “well, if it’s not going to tackle me and rip my head off, why not?”  And lo and behold if they weren’t doing some of the centering prayer techniques I’ve read and practiced from the ancient Desert Fathers.

I attended, and ran into Duncan, who invited me back to a young adults meeting the next Saturday evening.  During the “Young Professionals” meeting, we watched a video by this guy Rob Bell.  Never heard of him before.  Some of you right now are saying “Uh-oh.”  Oh well.  The NOOMA video Dust really resonated with me, and I googled “Rob Bell” and “NOOMA” when I got home, and opened up a whole new can of controversial, worms in the process.  Bell is part of the new “Emergent Church” which wants to radically change the perception and outlook of Christianity in the postmodern era, in order to make it more relevant and “stir up” what they (the Emergent Church) considers a stagnant and disconnected body.  They have a point- church attendance is down across the board, and many see the church as less than inviting, almost to the point of being exclusionary.

This brings us to MacDonald’s quote.  We have indeed become mass and not a body.  And when a Shane Claiborne or a Rob Bell comes along to point this out, the community eats him alive.  I found this great perception contrast on A Mending Shift‘s blog:

This is how we view the world:

world_us

I believe this is how God views the world:

world_god

One my heroes, C.S. Lewis, longed for the “petty divisions” among us to cease.  He wagered that we were still the “early Christians,” giving hope that we are still trying to get that Message, the Message of Christ’s, and therefore God’s, Love right.  We are a hurt, battered, and broken world, and we need to pull together through Him.  We need to lose that disjointed, disorganized mass mentality and reconnect.  Will it ever happen?  It has to.

But I know it will take a while.  We’re imperfect, we struggle, and we’re near sighted.  Feeling a bit overwhelmed and disjointed tonight, I took an evening walk with God, asking Him to open my eyes to see the peace of the night around me, and to dwell in His silence and peace.  As I walked, I passed this tree that to me has always looked like an angel praying in profile: A large, arching group of branches representing a wing, a rounded bit of branches on the lower right representing a bowed head.  It waved a bit in the chilly breeze, but still stood firm, head bowed, in silence except for a few rustling leaves.  It looked like something to emulate.  I kneeled down in the grass by my house, felt my head bend low, my hands fold.  The wind ruffled my hair a bit, and I was still, my body intact and directed toward God.

“Truth is Truth:” Reflections on George MacDonald 14

“Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.”

We are either attracted or repelled by statements like this.  When we are attracted to the quiet wisdom or the blunt direction given by such statements, we often reduce the value of it by incorporating it into some ad campaign or slapping it on a bumper sticker.  The words are made to identify with us, instead of our conscious effort to identify ourselves with the words.  Therefore, the concept of world peace becomes a statement “Imagine World Peace,” which becomes a stock phrase with no real meaning or activity behind it, which soon becomes a pun (“Imagine Whirled Peas”), and then is quietly swept off the table of public discourse, along with the possible reality and wisdom behind it.

When we are repelled by these statements, we argue about their rigidness, their inflexibility, the impossibility of a last word on anything.  Instead of reducing the statement, we now expand it, stretch it beyond the parameters of its wisdom, until we satisfactorily render it meaningless, as just another statement in the grand noise of the world (Screwtape would be so proud). Every statement requires some amount of intellectual rumination, but it is almost as if we want to chew without getting the benefit of the nutrients.   I recently read an unfavorable review of Paul Ricoeur’s Evil: A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology, in which the reviewer lamented, in the title of his review “What good is wisdom if you can’t communicate it?”  In other words, do we get to the point of making things so obtuse as to render the meaning of something negligible to the human experience, spiritual, emotional, physical, or psychological?

I think MacDonald’s axiom falls into the latter category.  I picture MacDonald like a misplaced Tibetan monk, wandering the highlands of foggy Scotland, with a trail of novices following behind him.  One novice runs up to him and asks “Who tells the truth, and who lies?”  To which MacDonald replies “Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.”  Now, the novice wrinkles his brow, runs the thought through his mind, processes it, questions it, and tries to see the logic behind it.  After a few minutes, he opens his mouth again and says, “But…” MacDonald calmly raises his finger to his lips and smiles at the novice, and turns toward the highlands again.

MacDonald recognizes the two steps the novice missed, steps which our culture increasingly tries to detour around: the path from mind to heart, and from there the path from heart to silence.  The novice did not allow MacDonald’s words to seep into his heart; he was merely satisfied with an intellectual joust.  But statements like this demand not an intellectual dismantling, but reflection in our innermost being, which brings us ultimately into that Silence in which all find their peace.

I fully realize that I have not even really touched on the meaning of MacDonald’s proverb, except in the most general sense.  The irony is noted.  So I’ll sign off:  it’s time to stop talking, and to reflect…

“I Knew a Child,” “Spiritual Murder,” and “Impossibilities:” Reflections on G. MacDonald 11-13

I’m quickly falling into the trap of simply compiling entries, instead of reflecting on each one.  Conveniently, however, these three entries all focus on the concept of Forgiveness, on how forgiveness illuminates our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other, and how those relational pairs are inextricably connected.

In “I Knew Child,” MacDonald relates the story of a girl who believed she had committed a sin.  It was a small matter, and the average person would have been quick to say “don’t worry about it.”  MacDonald refutes this position, saying “Dare not to rebuke me for adducing the diseased fancy of a child in a weighty matter of theology.  The child knew, and was conscious that she knew, that she was doing wrong…He would not have told her she was silly , and ‘never to mind.’  Child as she was, might He not have said to her, ‘I do not condemn thee: and go and sin no more’?”

In “Spiritual Murder,” MacDonald surmises that “It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him.  The former may be the act of a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice.”  Following closely on this sentiment, “Impossibilities” states “no man who will not forgive his neighbor, can believe that God is willing, yea wanting, to forgive him.”

There are things in my heart that show me I have a long way to go in fully absorbing the ideas MacDonald presents.  And I must remember that when I am wronged, that harbored injury, the longer it remains inside of me, the more distant from God I become.  As Christians, we recognize that every time we come into God’s presence to ask for His forgiveness, we are cleansed.  This is a sacrament that I experience every week at Emmanuel, and a time I try to set before God every night.  But often I do not have that “rise-to-my-feet-I’m-now-white-as-snow” feeling.  Because I know I’m still holding some things back.  So now a part of my prayer has become “Please help me to let go of things that I insist on holding on to,” because it is an “Impossibility” to be close to God and still harbor resentment, anger, strife, or anything that contrasts with the Inexorable Love.

When No Escape is a Good Thing and “The Word”- George MacDonald Reflections 9 & 10

9: Escape is Hopeless

The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning.  But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it.  Escape is hopeless.  For Love is inexorable.  Our God is a consuming fire.  He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing

10: The Word

But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged.  It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth.  The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God.  It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to Him.

Christianity gets particularly singular, despite its numerous doctrines, traditions of the church fathers and mothers, saints, and denominations.  All things point to Christ, and Christ alone.  What are we to make of this?

The more educated I’ve become about Bible, the less I’ve come to see it as the be all end all of Christ’s teachings.  It is a combination of historical documents, poetry, storytelling, myth, letters, and prophetic writings.  To some, this automatically renders the Bible, and thereby Christianity to be of no use, authority, or truth whatsoever.  For myself, however, this realization brings on a sense of relief and enables my faith to come more alive.  Why?

I was at a retreat at Weston Priory, and the brothers took us through the benedictine tradition of lectio divina, which is a very slow, methodical, meditative reading of a passage of scripture from the Bible.  I asked, at one point, “So what does this passage mean?”  The subtext of my question was an inquiry into what the doctrinal position was on this particular passage, a “when Christ says X, he means X” equation.  The brother looked at me and then asked quietly, “Well, what does it mean to you?”

What the brother was emphasizing was a return of my consciousness to what holy scripture was meant for: to assist in the growth of my relationship to God.  That’s what scripture is meant to speak to.  If my first impulse was to read the Bible as a series of rules that I must obey, to apply X to X, as one would in following directions on how to build a table,  then I was truly missing the point.  Of tantamount importance is what this particular passage of scripture was saying about my relationship to Christ , right then and there, and the impetus of this reading was to focus my mind on that, and that alone.  The Bible, having led me to where I need to be, can now be put to the side, as I dwell in He to whom I have been led.

And by my faith I believe I have been led to a place where inexorable Love is supreme, that anything that is not Love is burned away.  The part of me that comes with the baggage of hate, anger, greed, selfishness, insecurity, anxiety, is stripped away, and I am able to dwell in that Perfect Love.

“No” and “The Law Of Nature:” Reflections of G. MacDonald 7 & 8

7:

When we say that God Love, do we teach men that their fear of Him is groundless?  No.  As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more… The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear.

8:

For that which cannot be shaken shall remain.  That which is immortal in God shall remain in man.  The death that is in them shall be consumed.  It is the law of Nature- that is, the law of God- that all that is destructible shall be destroyed.

George MacDonald speaks of transformation, which we love to admire in Nature- the butterfly, the change of seasons- but never want to see in ourselves.  We want to hold on to everything.  God asks us to let go.  As Brooke Fraser wrote in her “C.S. Lewis Song:” “My comfort world would prefer for me to be numb/ And avoid the impending birth of who I was born to become…”

Sinai- Reflections on G. MacDonald 6

And is not God ready to do unto them even as they fear, though with another feeling and a different end from any which they are capable of supposing?  He is against sin: insofar as, and while, they and sin are one, He is against them- against their desires, their aims, their fears, and their hopes; and thus He is altogether and always for them.  That thunder and lightning and tempest, that blackness torn with the sound of a trumpet, that visible horror billowed with the voice of words, was all but a faint image… of what God thinks and feels against vileness and selfishness, of the unrest of unassuageable repulsion with which He regards such conditions.

MacDonald references the events that occurred on Mt. Sinai, when the Jews began their travels out of Egypt.  Manna fell from Heaven, and Moses was given the Ten Commandments.  During the time that Moses was speaking to God, the Jews got impatient, and formulated the Golden Calf and bowed down to worship it.  This, understandably, made God a bit upset.  But why?  Because He wanted all the glory?  Well, yeah- but to what end?  Here we have the Divine reaching out and wanting relationship with those that He created, and what he created them for: to rise above their own egos, fears, and faults, and come into communion with Him.  Let all that hinders you from the deepest of all Loves fall away, and become your True Self.