Sunday, November 29, 2009

An apocalyptic Advent

Today is the first day of Advent 2009. In the wake of the end of the Gathering, I've spent over a year without a liturgical calendar, without the flow and rhythm that characterized my religious life for seven years. As Advent approached this year, I saw it as an opportunity to begin my own liturgical practice again. At the Gathering, we called Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany "Incarnation Season". For Incarnation Seasons past, I read through Walter Wangerin's excellent Preparing for Jesus: Meditations on the coming of Christ, Advent, Christmas, and the Kingdom, and more recently Phylis Tickles' Christmastide: Prayers for Advent through Epiphany from The Divine Hours. both as devotional texts. I find the majority of Christmas devotions to be sentimental in the worst way possible, treating the holiday season with a sentimental reverence akin to Ricky Bobby's "baby Jesus" prayer in Talladega Nights.

But this year, neither Wangerin or Tickle seemed quite right. As I put up our tree last night (yes, I know, many of you don't put your Christmas tree up until Christmas - we put ours up after Gunnar's birthday on November 25, like Americans who do it after Thanksgiving but before the first week of December), I was listening to The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, a book I am teaching next semester. As a spiritually minded man in his early 20s who was often little earthly good, I had largely ignored the events in Sarajevo for theological musings. My ignorance of that conflict forced me to google the siege of Sarajevo as context for my reading. What many of you likely already knew was fresh news to me. I found myself thinking about Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24", a Metallica-esque take on "Carol of the Bells", in an entirely new light.

Add to this the prominence of articles in the news on the end of the world, inspired by the release of the film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road this weekend. Compound that with my contextualizing of the apocalyptic tension of the Cold War to my students as we study James Cameron's The Abyss; an episode of Boston Legal I'll be teaching to my Analysis and Argument students this week where Nantucket requests the right to build an atomic bomb, not because they really want one, but because no one talks about nuclear threat any more; the relentless dystopia of Battlestar Galactica Season Four; the Edmonton Journal's report on the potential genocide of the world's bat populations, which echoed the H1N1 scare, and got me thinking about the bleak future of Paolo Bacigalupi's calorie-starved world in The Windup Girl. I needed a different meditation for Advent, for Incarnation this year.

Traditionally, Advent is to meditate upon the coming of Christ, either the Nativity of the past, or the Parousia of the future. I chose to go with the latter this year. So this morning over breakfast, I read the preface to Harry O. Maier's Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom. I really enjoyed reading the first chapters of this book, which I picked up at the King's University College bookstore the year before I worked there. I have found I can always count on the King's bookstore for theology that provides me with an edge to grow against. I've never finished the book, but I intend to use it daily this Incarnation season, to temper the apocalyptic tone of my world at the end of 2009.

Maier's basic contention is that Revelation should not be read as "a book to map out an ending to history" (with which I agree completely as a preterist-symbolist), nor only as a "means to comfort churches suffering religious persecution under the Roman Empire" (which is a divergence from the more traditional reading of John's apocalypse), but as a call for Christians to incarnate a "world-ending discipleship." What Maier means by this is more Blood Diamond than it is 2012:

"That is to say, the book [of Revelation] urges Christians to live out an ending to greed and selfishness and to discover a new vision of civic identity centered in the religious particularity of the Christian story, one that interrupts and renounces the forms of violence, greed, and despair that lessen us as human beings...In that sense the book urges an eschatological commitment - a commitment to living endings." (xi, italics mine)

In a terribly complex global community, in a world where the future doesn't look so bright, Christians must do more than just promise that God will someday come to tidy up, or potentially just reduce, reuse, and recycle this broken Creation. We must act in the present to bring the Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. Not as a merging of church and state, but in a "counterimperial identity in faithfulness to Jesus Christ." I hesitate even here, knowing how badly such words can be interepreted. I am not advocating for the sign wavers and the political dissidents, for those who lobby for gun-rights and rail against Obama's new health care imperatives. I am advocating for a Christianity that reflects critically "on Christian discipleship in the face of forms of imperial domination, whether they be those of Pax Romana, or of the Pax Americana". And even as I say that, I must remind myself of the freedom I have to publish these words without fear or reprisal. I am not anti-American, or anti-democracy: I am pro-incarnating. Incarnating Jesus into the current society. Tony Campolo has suggested that the ruling society of the day is always Babylon, always in need of critique and careful consideration.

At the very least, I am definitely railing against only comfortably contemplating the Christ child in a sentimental, romanticized fashion, or anticipating the apocalypse with a rabid fervor that echoes the cultic madmen of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. In Maier's words, "an otherworldly reading of John's Apocalypse is a fundamental misreading of Revelation."

"Preoccupied with a call to faithful witness, Revelation offers a portrait of this-worldly discipleship and Christian commitment. If it leaves the future to God, it invites consideration of a present filled with the sounds of faithful testimony to its counterimperial hero, Jesus." (xiii)

If the second advent is a message of hope and not hellfire, one that isn't waiting for the end of time, but the beginning of the Kingdom, then I think more people would echo my prayer today from Revelation 22: Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Poems, on Remembrance Day

Today, the front page of the Edmonton Journal featured an account of one of Canada's "deadliest battles" in the war in Afghanistan. It reminded the readers of how Canadians have not only fought in numerous wars, but continue to be involved in conflicts overseas. Before putting the paper down, I flipped it over, and paused for a moment to read In Flanders' Fields. One must pause to read poetry. We can read journalism quickly, without thought, but poetry, if one stops to read it at all, forces us to slow down through its structure of lines and stanzas. I thought it an interesting commentary on our culture, that the immediate conflict rates the front page, but this piece of poetry is saved for the back. I suppose I ought to be pleased that it warrants a full page, and not simply a side-bar, but I find myself considering the end of William Carlos Williams' Asphodel, where he writes:

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men.  Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

What do I get from the news? I get the latest H1N1 information, or lack thereof. I get misleading headlines and celebrity gossip. I get mostly bad news: murder, gangs, war, a failed economy. Letters to the editor are a revelation of how miserably men die every day for the "lack of what is found there", in the news.

I was more heartened by my reading of In Flanders' Fields than by the article of war in Afghanistan. Perhaps that's only because I teach English. English professors and poets are the only ones who give a damn about poetry any more. It's "despised," as William Carlos Williams says. But "my heart rouses, thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you, and concerns many men." I think it is important to pause for reflection on Remembrance Day: we are encouraged to take two minutes of reflective silence to do so. What will we reflect upon? Some will reflect upon the loss of loved ones, some on the glory of fighting for one's country, others will reflect upon the hope of peace.

This is the purpose of poetry. To allow us to pause, and to reflect. It cannot be quickly digested. It must be mulled, not glossed over.  Specifically today, we are encouraged to reflect on the poetry of In Flanders' Fields, which I have copied here for your reflection:

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Years working with people who seek peace as a first resort has troubled my reflection of the last stanza, both by their devotion to Peace, and by the words of other poets, such as Wilfred Owen. Like John McCrae, Owen also fought in the first world war, but wrote a rather different piece of poetry concerning it. Here is the text, along with the slide I made for teaching this poem in my introductory English classes:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

While the Latin of this poem was well-known at the time of the Great War, few today are likely to see the ironic twist of Owen's final line, which means, "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." The title of this poem, translated from Latin, would simply read, "It is Sweet and Fitting," which contrasts immediately with the opening lines detailing the horror of battle. Perhaps, as a variant reflection this Remembrance Day, you would consider reflecting on Wilfred Owen's thoughts as an alternative to the pastoral poppies. Save the slide and make it your desktop today, and pause for reflection, not once, but several times.

Perhaps you find this suggestion to depart from Flanders Fields misguided, but if you wish to continue to reflect upon the words of John McCrae, I would ask that you leave your poppy pictures behind, and consider this one for your reflection instead, and image of Canadian soldiers at Flander's Fields.

After all, John McCrae might well have been thinking about Longfellow's Aftermath when he penned his words about poppies. In Aftermath, Longfellow presents the reader with what initially seems a nature poem:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When the summer fields are mown, 
When the birds are fledged and flown, 
And the dry leaves strew the path; 
With the falling of the snow, 
With the cawing of the crow, 
Once again the fields we mow 
And gather in the aftermath. 
Not the sweet, new grass with flowers 
Is this harvesting of ours; 
Not the upland clover bloom; 
But the rowen mixed with weeds, 
Tangled tufts from marsh and meads, 
Where the poppy drops its seeds 
In the silence and the gloom.

Longfellow utilizes carefully chosen words which all convey images of death, of the passing of life. While we consider "aftermath" immediately as a word associated with calamity or death, it was also understood in Longfellow's day as the second cutting after the initial harvest. The image of cut wheat is a powerful one, of new life cut down before it has time to fully grow, a potential metaphor for youths sent to the fields of battle. Students will often cite McCrae's poem to explain why they see the poppy dropping its seeds as an image of death, not recognizing that Longfellow wrote his poem in the nineteenth century, years before In Flanders' Fields. But one has to wonder if McCrae wasn't pondering Longfellow's words, which are simultaneously about a field of harvest, and a field of death. 

What is certain, is that McCrae was not picturing a verdant landscape filled with red flowers, but a once-pastoral scene now turned to horror, the image of the Canadian soldiers standing in Flander's Fields. The poppies McCrae suggests are likely the ones which drop their seeds "in the silence and the gloom." We need the poetry of all these writers to properly reflect upon the nature of war. One perspective will not do, or we fail in our remembrance. If we remember only the glory of war, we fail the memory of Wilfred Owen. If we are dismissive of those who fought for the freedom to "wage peace," then we fail the memory of John McCrae, who asked us to "take up our quarrel with the foe." I suppose so long as we see the foe as another human being, we are doomed to honor this day with front pages devoted to the immediate conflict. My hope is that we might some day only have the past to reflect upon, to remember.

Monday, November 09, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like season

The year has nearly passed, and of the movies I wanted to see in theatres, I've seen about half. With the Christmas movie season approaching, however, the list of films I'd like to see sooner, rather than later, has grown. While last Christmas was a bit of a deadzone, this year is shaping up to be awesome. Here's my list of films to grab in theater while I'm in Kelowna over the holidays.

Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the world's greatest detective and the admirable Dr. Watson. The trailers display little to no adherence to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary corpus: Hollywood neo-Victorian thrillride, I presume?

The Road: I read the book last Christmas, and I'll get to see the movie this Christmas. Viggo Mortensen seems a great choice for the father in this utterly bleak dystopic tale of a future where family is not only all that matters, but all one has left. For all who feel overwhelmed by the sentimentality of North American Christmas, this one's for you.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: I liked the last Terry Gilliam movie Heath Ledger was in, despite all the bad reviews it got, so I can't really see the downside of this phantasmagoric eye-candy, combined with  performances by several of my favorite actors. It seems a more appropriate swan-song for the late Ledger to be remembered by than the admirably played but ultimately dark Joker in Dark Knight.

Christmas Carol: This one is going to take a lot of hits from the critics, but I loved Polar Express and Beowulf, so I'm not turned off to Zemeckis' CGI approach to his last few films. I've also heard rumor that the dialogue is very true to Dickens, as is the film's grim tone. Jim Carey has transcended makeup and masks before; I'm looking forward to watching his performance shine through motion-capture too.

Avatar: While I haven't yet forgiven James Cameron for fighting The Last Airbender for the title of this film, the trailers look amazing enough to cover over all wrongs. Plus, it's the first film one of the most brilliant talents in Hollywood has made that didn't involve shooting marine documentaries, so I'm not complaining. It's probably the one I'm most excited about. I don't think James Cameron has made a movie since Pirahna 2: The Spawning I wasn't blown away by.

Twilight Saga: New Moon: I'm man enough to admit when I'm wrong, and I just can't get enough of Stephanie Myer's supernatural hotties and their post-adolescent adventures...

Yeah, right. Hopefully all the Twilight-teens will keep the other theaters clear to see the movies I want to see.