November 20, 2011

On Thesis Present

(written last night)

I spent 10 hours in the library today.  I won't tell you it was dreadful, because you and I both know that I'm wired to enjoy research until my fingers start twitching from too much typing and my eyes flutter shut.  Give me books and journals (and coffee!) and I can be quite satisfied for a very long time.

Well, mostly.  Admittedly, it's not quite the same, working through biblical commentaries and articles, as it is to dive headfirst into real literature.  I kept stealing glances over at the rack where I knew the Mythlore and Seven journals lived.  Does anyone read them when it's not the semester in which the Inklings class is being taught?  Not nearly enough, judging by the lack of traffic in that part of the library.

I mean, Revelation is fun, too.  But the challenge I find in biblical studies is that the more you research something, the more it spins you in a circle until you are back to a principle that, on the surface, seems nothing at all like the topic at hand.  And if this were "just literature," you could make of it what you would and it might not really matter.  But it's not.

For example, if I had read Billy Budd and I had decided that Billy is not a Christ-figure, but rather, a moron (which does happen to be a position I hold), the end result would be that I think he is a moron, and that would be that.  You can agree with me or disagree with me, and perhaps we might even get into violent arguments about it, but at the end of the day, the only thing that would come of this is that I thought he was a moron and you did not.

Not so with Scripture.  With Scripture, you're not just reading for speculation and cerebral exercise--or even to be pointed toward epiphanies of truth (as Azar Nafisi would say).  Whatever you conclude is going to have to mean something when it comes to faith and practice.  (And everybody said: "Well, crap!")

Case in point: Revelation 17-18.  You exit the crazy angels-pouring-bowls-of-judgment-on-the-world scene of Revelation 16 and find yourself face to face with this fancy drunk chick sitting astride a scarlet beast alongside a river.  And you think it's all about Babylon.  Or Rome.  Or some wacko symbolism relating to the future eschatological age.  And maybe it is.  But...

It's also Isaiah 47.  It is so totally Isaiah 47 that it blows your mind when you first start examining the parallels.  The harlot representing Babylon, the imagery of rape and degradation, the arrogance that leads to destruction--all the while, a holy God longing to redeem His people.

And then you start digging deeper into Isaiah 47 and realize that maybe it's about Babylon on the surface, the sitz im leben, but really, what it's about is the Exodus.  It's like the song that they sang after Pharaoah's army was overwhelmed by the crashing-down-falling waters of the Red Sea.  Triumph and exultation.  A mockery of the enemy, even.  And although many circumstances have changed since the Exodus, the key issues remain the same from Exodus to Isaiah to Revelation, because the heart of the prophet and the heart of the apocalyptic visionary share their purpose in pointing people to a revelation not so much of what God will do but of who He is and how He desires to relate to His people. Which I kind of think is the point.

Tomorrow, I'll have to write up my thesis proposal, complete with all the Greek and Hebrew and limitations and delimitations and such.  The inner academic must be loosed.  It's going to be a while before I can talk about the subject as freely as I have here.  But this is what I find rolling around in me concerning the passages I've selected, and I want to capture these thoughts in this moment so that I can look back as I write this thing and remember the bigger picture.

He is the redeemer, the go-el.  Times and circumstances may change, but this does not.  We hope in the Resurrection because we still believe in a God who redeems His people. 

August 14, 2011

The Ghost of Thesis Past

The problem with pursuing a master’s degree in a field that you’re interested in but not dedicated to is that you can make it through most of the program with relatively few hitches, but then, when it comes time to write your master’s thesis, you find that you just don’t even care anymore what you should write about.

Well, ok, maybe that’s not entirely true.  Maybe I exaggerate slightly.  Maybe I’m lying outright simply because I want your sympathy.  I’ll let you decide.  :)

See, for those of you unfamiliar with my seminary saga, this isn’t my first attempt at a thesis experience.  A couple years ago, before my hiatus from extracurricular academia, I was at the same thesis research stage that I’m at now. 

Better, in fact, because I had a topic that I was excited about.  I was going to dig deep into Hell and Christus Victor and descensus ad inferos (vs. descensus ad inferna), and it was going to be this remarkable, ground-breaking study that would find its parallels with such works as Piers Plowman and Dante’s Inferno and, last but by no means least, Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell. 

Oh, I’m not kidding: from the moment I began my seminary study, I knew where I was heading.  I knew what my thesis was going to be centered around, and even though a master’s in Biblical Literature/Judaic-Christian Studies wasn’t exactly a master’s in Medieval Literature, it was going to be good.  It was going to connect.  It was going to bridge the gap between the real and the ideal in my academic present.  I couldn’t wait.

And then life…happened.

And then there was no room in my mind for pondering the mysteries of the Resurrection—or, more precisely, what came before it.  It was too much.  I broke.

And the topic broke along with me.

Time heals many wounds—a fact for which I remain increasingly grateful.  But just as Tolkien’s Frodo would never fully heal from the wound bestowed by a Morgul blade, my thesis topic also seems destined to only exist in its transformed, more wraith-like state.  It doesn’t work anymore.   It doesn’t look the same to me.  I think about it, and I get overwhelmed, and it’s like the ghost of a couple years ago comes back and causes me lose focus.

And it’s easy to come up with excuses not to be focused.  I have responsibilities, a department to keep on track.  People who need me…people who need things from me.  Constant emails.  Demands everywhere, and none of them joyfully academic in nature.

But regardless of any of that, tomorrow, I’ll head into that class as a student, and the associate dean over my college will ask me to share what it is that I think I’ll be researching for my thesis.  And I don’t have a clue how to answer that question—at all.

Part of me wants to play the game some people play when they want an answer from God and aren’t willing to wait for it.  They pull out their Bible, let it fall open to a random page, close their eyes, point blindly to a spot of the page, and voila!  There is the answer (whether it makes sense or not!).

Would it be so bad to select a thesis topic that way?  Close my eyes and point?  Or the modern technologically savvy equivalent: Google “the Bible” and click on “I’m Feeling Lucky”?

[Speaking of lying outright so as to get sympathy, which of course you’re still wondering about, I’ve been re-watching LOST, and I find Ben Linus to be increasingly fascinating, because he does that very same thing.  He’s constantly working a story to his angle, but of course, since none of us are inside his head, we never really know when he’s telling the truth and when he’s lying, except when something comes to light later, but then not everything does, and I realize this is a terribly constructed run-on sentence quite off-topic from the rest of this post, but it’s so frustrating to realize that there are things he says that we’re never going to be able to verify—so do you just base everything you believe off the hope that what he says is true, or do you approach it all as a skeptic and never really believe anything?]

I went off topic, but in a sense, I didn’t.  If you follow, I’m impressed.

I guess the bottom line here is that I feel a bit lost myself when it comes to this thesis stuff.   And…I don’t know.   I guess I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that I jumped sideways and that the stuff that’s real already happened.

But I’m pretty sure that motif only works in television.

May 02, 2011

"To Wish That He Were Not Bad"

I was watching The King's Speech this evening, and as it drew to a close, I glanced at my laptop screen to see that Facebook had lit up with a storm of posts concerning the possible (at that time) death of Osama bin Laden.  A few minutes later, I caught the President's speech, which, really, should not be watched right after you've watched Colin Firth.  It was a bit of a clanging gong and crashing cymbal in comparisonlet's face it, the President is no Colin Firthbut it did mean something, nonetheless.

Osama bin Laden.  Dead.  Echoes of 9/11.  Justice.  Maybe.

There seems to be a flurry of celebration now.  On Facebook.  On Twitter.  On television.  Certainly, after nearly 10 years, this is a day that many in the U.S. hoped for and yet (if they're like me) thought might never come.  Yet, as flurry heightens to frenzy, I can't help but wonder why our initial reactions to his death are as full of hate as his messages once were.  Oh, we wanted him dead, good and dead, and now he is, and he can rot in hellwe say.

I certainly wouldn't want to be him in the afterlife.  Something tells me there isn't a host of virgins waiting for him.  Something tells me he's in for the sort of torment that not even Dante could have been able to imagine, something that will make even bin Laden's earthly atrocities pale in comparison.

Are we really happy about this?  I'm not so sure I am.

This passage from C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity reminds me to consider my motivations as I celebrate that Osama bin Laden has been killed.  Lewis writes:
We may kill if necessarily, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.  We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.  In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one's own back, must be simply killed.  I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more.  That is not how things happen.  I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head.  It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible.  Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselvesto wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. [italics mine]
It does bring me some measure of satisfaction to know that someone who orchestrated the deaths of so many other people will no longer hurt anyone else.  And I applaud the hard work, patience, and success of those in our military who did their jobs and risked their lives to make this happen.  But I can't cheer right now. It doesn't seem right to rejoice at someone's deatheven someone who committed such heinous crimes as bin Laden.

I am pleased that he was brought to justice.  But I am sorry that he was a very lost soul.

And I hope and pray that my reaction to this event may somehow remind me to find a way to love the people who sin, just as I hate their sin, just as we who follow Christ are called to do with all people, no matter who they are or what they do.

April 27, 2011

"It Only Ends Once"

"It only ends once.  Anything that happens before that is just progress."

Lost fans know this scene well.  On the eve of my last exam for this master's degree, I find myself reflecting on Jacob's words here (instead of...oh, sigh...studying).  It's easy to think that whatever difficult thing you're facing is your finale.  At least, I find this to be the case.

But that moment, that struggle, that grief--no matter how significant it may or may not be, it is not the end.

For me, that one thing right now is this exam.  Not terribly deep, but that's the real deal.  I've enrolled in and subsequently dropped this course twice before, and now I've almost made it to the end.'s not really the end.  No matter how I do tomorrow, it's not the end.  Maybe it means I don't have to sit in class anymore, but other than that, nothing will really have changed except I'll just be one step closer to the master's degree, which will then put me one step closer to...whatever follows that.

It only ends once.  This moment is not that end.  No matter what ends up happening.

And maybe you need to hear this as well--I don't know.  I need to hear it.  I need to write it.  Whatever it is that looms before you is not your end.  No matter what happens--success, failure; joy, sorrow--you're going to wake up again the next day and you're going to keep walking the path you're meant to walk.

And it's all going to be ok.  Really, it is.  I say this to myself as much as to anyone else who might read this.  It is all going to be ok.  All manner of things shall, as Lady Julian so frequently reminds me, be well.  There are so many reasons to hope.

Because it only ends once.  And that time has not yet come.

April 25, 2011

A Terrible Good

‘Tis a dark and definitively stormy night, and I find myself rereading Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell while thunder rumbles with a stirring splendour, rattling the windows and shaking the walls of the house.  Fitting, it seems.  It’s the sort of night where you might almost expect, reaching out a hand to the empty air, to encounter another being—a doppelgänger, perhaps—or something else dead but not departed.

A rather morbid dread, in retrospect, on the day in which we celebrate the empty tomb.

I wonder if those who were present at the resurrection trembled at a similar clap of thunder before the tomb opened—and how violently the earth must have shaken—and how it must have been to suddenly see multitudes of undead walking about.

The gospel writers say these things happened.  I wonder whether it was all as terrifying as it sounds.  I rather think it must have been.

“If things are terrifying,” I can almost hear Pauline Anstruther asking, “can they be good?”  I echo with Peter Stanhope: “Yes, surely.” 

Yet on a night such as this, it doesn’t seem enough to simply cast my vote in favor of the resurrection.  Yes, I believe in the resurrection.  No, I don’t fully grasp what it means, but I do think it’s more than the terms we like to throw around to define it: “substitution,” “propitiation,” “reconciliation,” “ransom.”  Not that these terms aren’t true—not that they don’t help us try to make sense of it—but we spoil the power of the moment (I think) when we limit it to purely philosophical claims.

I hope in the resurrection, but there are aspects of it that do still terrify me—and I hope they always shall.  Lightning flashes before my eyes, and I feel the thunder.  The very ground beneath me shakes—because God is near.

He is risen.  A terrible good.

April 18, 2011

The Book I Didn't Want to Read

People often act surprised when I tell them I’ve never read Mere Christianity.  Maybe it’s because these days I pose as a seminary person—and all seminary people worth their salt should have read it, right?  Quite frankly, it was one of those books I always told people I’d “add to my list” (you know what that means) and then secretly hoped nobody would ask about again.

I mean, really.  The minute you start talking about the fundamentals of the Christian faith, you’re going to find disagreement, and if there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s theological bickering.  Tell your angels to go dance on the head of someone else’s pin—because I don’t want to hear about it.

Yes, I’m in the seminary.  God help me.  (Sigh.  He does.)

So, I started reading Mere Christianity over the weekend.  It’s actually pretty good so far.  Really, Jack could just talk all day, and I could listen, and even if I didn’t agree with him, it would still be well worth the intellectual journey. 

But even more than that, I feel as though I am surrounded by this ever-deepening sense that I am meant to be reading this particular book in this particular moment.  Is that weird?  Oh, I certainly think so.  Yet it feels…true…which is stillweird.

I don’t know.  Does anyone else out there ever wonder if maybe we’re meant to read certain books at certain times, as if to read them earlier or later would be fine but somehow not the impetus to arrive at a moment of destiny in which several internal roads are colliding into one overarching idea brought to a head by that particular book or writer?  Am I the only person who thinks about things like this?

As I finish my last real (non-thesis) class for my M.A., I find that I’m actually starting to care about New Testament theology.  I still think its Jewish roots are important—nay, essential—but after years of wandering in the wilderness called “I Just Don’t Know Anymore,” pieces of the faith (the “mere” components, as some would venture to call them) are finally beginning to make sense in the greater context.  I’m starting to see this crazy beast called “Christianity” a bit more objectively.  Historically.  Theologically.  Experientially, yes.  Myth included.  “Myth made fact,” some might say.  :)

And maybe that means it’s time.  Time for Mere Christianity.  Time to really start considering some of the things I never wanted to argue about before.

Time at least to find the “wings to fly,” rather than just “merely vans to beat the air.”

April 13, 2011

Naked in Narnia

This will be, no doubt, a fairly obvious observation to serious C. S. Lewis scholars, but last night I stumbled upon an idea while reading the Eros chapter of The Four Loves and thought I’d try put that thought together for you, my few but faithful readers.

And who knows?  Maybe the search engines will catch this as well, because today, I’m talking about getting naked.  Oh, yes.

But not the way you think.

We begin with Lewis’ discussion of eros in The Four LovesEros, for those not well versed in the Greek loves, is romantic love.  Surprisingly to me, Lewis treats the subject as something neither sappy nor salacious.  And as he proceeds to ponder the nature of the sexual act (which he refers to as “Venus”), he delves into a discussion of nakedness that I think will prove useful in a moment.

He writes:

Some will think it strange I should find an element of ritual or masquerade in that action which is often regarded as the most real, the most unmasked and sheerly genuine, we ever do.  Are we not our true selves when naked?  In a sense, no.  The word naked was originally a past participle; the naked man was the man who had undergone a process of naking, that is, of stripping or peeling (you use the verb of nuts and fruit).  Time out of mind the naked man has seemed to our ancestors not the natural but the abnormal man; not the man who has abstained from dressing but the man who has been for some reason undressed.  And it is a simple fact—anyone can observe it at a men’s bathing place—that nudity emphasizes common humanity and soft-pedals what is individual.  In that way we are “more ourselves” when clothed.  (TFL 104)

Interesting, right?  But not perspective-altering—until I started thinking about this prosaic passage in light of the scene from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which Aslan transforms Eustace from a dragon into a boy.  Oh, yes.

[And, by the way, if you’ve not yet read Voyage of the Dawn Treader, please consider this my obligatory spoiler alert.  Run—don’t walk—to your nearest bookstore or library and let yourself feast upon the countless delights of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  Now, back to our story. . . .]

So, as we recall, Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a bit of a whiny brat who stumbles upon Narnia against his will, makes his shipmates largely miserable, and through his greed, ends up being transformed into a dragon on the isle where Lord Octesian died.  As those who are familiar with the story will note, he goes about as a dragon for quite some time while the rest of the voyagers try to figure out what to do. 

And then it happens.  One night, he sees a huge lion coming toward him, and the lion beckons him to follow until they get to a garden with a bubbling well that almost seems like a Roman bath.  You know what’s coming, right?

There is a lot that can be said (and, no doubt, has been said) about the imagery in this scene, how it evokes ideas of salvation and redemption and baptism.  (And, oh, does anyone else feel that the recent film utterly ruined this scene?)  Yes, I see those things, too, but now something different has caught my eye, and it has much to do with the concept of nakedness that we just saw in The Four Loves.

Eustace, as a dragon, is naked—and profoundly aware of it, I think.  We see this in the narrator’s description, that he hated his dragon-like form, that he “was almost afraid to be alone with himself and yet he was ashamed to be with the others” (VDT 84). 

When I read this, I immediately think of Genesis 3:10, where Adam and Eve hide from God, and when God asks why they are hiding, Adam replies, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (NASB). 

When Aslan finds Eustace, he bids that he undress.  Eustace wisely observes, “I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on” (VDT 89). 

He realizes, however, that “dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins.  Oh, of course . . . that’s what the lion means” (VDT 89).  So Eustace begins to tear at his dragon skin until an entire layer has been peeled off.  How very satisfying that must feel—to be free from his dragon scales—until he finds himself about to stick an all-too-dragony foot into the water.  He tries again, and then, a third time.  Still, though each time he sheds another layer of skin, he is unable to free himself from the scales that enshroud him.

You know the rest.  Aslan says that he must undress Eustace, and Eustace agrees.  The lion’s claws tear deep into the dragon, “so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart,” Eustace tells Edmund afterwards (VDT 90).  And so Aslan “peeled the beastly stuff right off” (VDT 90).

It is only as Eustace experiences relief in the water that he realizes he has been turned back into a boy.

I would like to suggest that in this scene, Lewis is lending story to an idea that he will later flesh out (no pun intended) in The Four Loves.  Remember, we are not our true selves when we are naked.  Neither is Eustace his true self when he is a dragon.  He is made “naked” through his greed, transformed into an abnormal state of being.  Yet Aslan comes to him and, by removing his dragon-like exterior, changes him so that he may once more have his natural, boyish form. 

But even that is not the end of this story:

“After a bit,” Eustace tells Edmund, “ the lion took me out and dressed me—“ 

“Dressed you.  With his paws?”

“Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit.  But he did somehow or other: in new clothes—the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact.  And then suddenly I was back here” (VDT 91).

Aslan transforms Eustace back into his natural form and gives him clothes once more—indicating, I think, that not only has Eustace been redeemed, but he is now more himself than he ever was before.

He is no longer naked.  He has been made whole.