27 December 2008

The end of the world is near!

Well, maybe not. The end of 2008 is near, but that's not what I'm thinking about, either.

Earlier this school year, several students began a conversation about eschatology and/or the Apocalypse. We talked about the antichrist, various approaches to prophecy, and other end-times topics. While the conversation was brief, it did spark a thought in my mind I've been hoping to pursue. So here it is, with some background thoughts first.

Whenever I read an absolutely unforgettable book -- whenever a work of literature gives me that feeling Emily Dickinson described thus:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

-- whenever I read a work like that, I say (whether it's Dante, Shakespeare, George MacDonald, Ayn Rand; or Wordsworth, Edna St. Vincent Millay; or the young adult fantasy novels of J. K. Rowling and Christopher Paolini; Ray Bradbury's short stories; rare moments in Freud or Jung; or, just this morning, "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath --

here's what I think. I think, "This author has touched on ultimate human realities." These books that move me profoundly are always "about" (such a weak word, about) love, life, death, birth, bodies, souls and so on, and these great realities are set into some stark relief so that they are sharper, colder, brighter, and more inescapable than they usually are in daily thought. "The Small Assassin" by Ray Bradbury, for example (in the short story collection The October Country), takes our deeply hidden sense of strangeness (or alienation) from birth and babies and uses it as a source of horrific terror. Pincher Martin by William Golding does something similar with the human body; alienating the character from his own material existence in a terrifying way. The great modern epics -- Lord of the Rings, Narnia taken as a whole, Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Matrix -- face death with stark, vivid power.

Great works of literature often deal with the cosmic moments in human history. Narnia and Paradise Lost with creation; Dante's Comedy with Heaven and Hell. So I got to thinking about the end of the world and how it figures in literature. And I couldn't come up with many examples of books set at the end of the world. I recall the nauseating, nihilistic Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The Last Man by Mary Shelley recounts the life and death of the last human being (oo, couldn't have guessed that ending, could you!?), but not the end of the planet earth. CSL's The Great Divorce tells about the final choice of heaven or hell, but not the Apocalypse. There's Wagner's Ring Cycle, of course (a true Gesamptkunstwerk)--which really is the death of the gods and the beginning of a new existence for humankind, not the end of the world for humans. Similarly, there's the death of "god" in Philip Pullman's trilogy. There's (sort of) the Paradiso -- although Dante returns to earth at the end.

I found a list of "Christian Apocalyptic Novels" on amazon: besides Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, the only books were a zombie novel by A.P. Fuchs, two novels by John Hagee, and a political thrillers series by Joel C. Rosenberg. They're not exactly on the same footing as Dante, eh?

Here's another list of end-times literature at wikipedia.

What I'm really saying is that I'm surprised there isn't more End-of-the-World literature -- or at least that I haven't come across it. Most fantasies, science fiction adventures, and action films involve some sort of heroic averting of the end of the world; but not many authors, contemporary or classic, seem willing to tackle the end of human, earthly existence. Is it for lack of imaginative ability to depict heaven? What do you think?

25 December 2008

A Poem for Christmas

Natal Astronomy
To Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon in Conjunction
1 December 2008

You have no similitude, ye gods of heaven
in this Advent night:
you are not, nor resemble, eyes
or jewels or flames of intellect:
to my poor senses little more
than holes torn in the dark-night-of-the-soul
upholstered ceiling of the sky
through which the Empyrean peeps.

Yet I see those planets through layers, like a lens:
a thousand pages from a hundred books
between my vision and their light,
papyrus, parchment, vellum, ink and print
between this nighttime glory and my sight.
Colored by association
with the wisdom of the ancient mind,
with a mountain of mythology,
a wider and more devout imagination
that read the heavens—read them to me:
read their personalities
and souse me in their influence!
Gashes of God-light
dousing my open skull.

Peel them back, these chapters of personification,
make thin the mystery.
But I cannot see the source.
Where is the Urtext for the stars?

When did Jove become the king of gods?
How did those little Greeks, untelescoped,
know he went garmented in royal red,
bled from a giant’s wound, the largest of the heavenlies
and heavy with the arbitration of his ring—his crown?

Who told Homer Aphrodite wore a womb-like atmosphere,
was soft for love, was beautiful in mists and sea-foam airs?

The dust-cold Luna, I suppose,
looks barren in her secondary light
and strings her tidal bow
and lets her maddening shafts
at women’s loins and madmen’s eyeballs—
But how did Norsemen measure Saturn’s aged pace?
They could not catch his frost across the light-years.
Or weaponed Gaels see the Martial red when they looked over
Hadrian’s wall at bloody Roman fields?

The pattern, somehow, the star-field dance,
was like a text. Was less than words,
and therefore more: was poetry.
Was story, and had characters.
A seed without a mother, an unfathered thought
conceiving and repeating, painting deities
on the Sistine ceiling of the sky.

And every figurine foreshadows truth.

For how else could they now, and thus, converge?
Majesty, Virginity, and Love:
how fitting, how exact. They close the circle.
For only once in every human life,
this time of year when every leaf is sheathed with glass,
these gods draw near to offer their Noël.

-- Sørina

16 December 2008

Listening to C. S. Lewis

Here are several audio clips of C. S. Lewis on YouTube that you might find interesting.

1. CSL defending Charles Williams' metaphysical thrillers by assigning them a new genre.

2. Part of one of the BBC addresses that later became Mere Christianity.

3. Selections (I think it's the introduction) from The Four Loves. Just a tiny snippet defining the 4 Greek words.


11 December 2008

December poem of the month

photo by Steve Lantz

I have been working on this poem ever since I first saw the amazing conjunction of the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus several weeks ago. I don't know why a simple sonnet gave me so much trouble, except that my mind, time, and energy are completely consumed by work these days. This not even the poem I intended to write, which would have ended with the line:
Maybe that poem is still forthcoming.

But back to the topic of the heavens! This meeting of Luna (or Silva), Jove (or Glund) and Aphrodite (or Perelandra) was a glorious once-in-a-lifetime experience. We sat and looked at it one evening for a long while until it sank below the treeline. My head was, of course, full of thoughts of the potential significance of this union: Beauty meets the King of the Gods while Virginity presides. And then Michael Ward sent me an article he wrote about C. S. Lewis's thoughts on observing this same conjunction in 1953.

Here are some beautiful photographs of the conjunction.

Meanwhile, enjoy this belated sonnet.


Until the still moment of the turn of Time
When Incarnation changed the spin of space,
Devout Angelicals of Heaven turned
About the planet of the human shape.

At the Nativity, the orbs of love
And intellect reversed their centrifuge:
They sang their fierce chant and burnt their wake
Around the solar image of their Liege.

But then creation lost her fixity
About a hill cris-crossed with lamentation;
On Sunday morning, relativity
Danced giddy with acentric adoration.

Now once a year the gods align and sing,
Awaiting their eternal choreography.

photo by Doug Zubenel

21 November 2008

Entanglement, Affirmation, and Negation

I have begun reading Louisa’s book, and would like to share some initial thoughts here. I don’t think I’ll be writing a play-by-play as I read, but these thoughts tie in so nicely with some themes of this blog that I just have to share them.

The introduction alone is food for thought. There, not explicit but certainly latent, is an idea that physics has wrestled with for a long time—and, interestingly enough, so has Christianity. Louisa and I have had conversations about this difficulty in our intellectual and practical spheres. It is the tension or conflict between The Way of Affirmation and The Way of Negation.

These two devotional Ways, two approaches to worship, were important concerns in Charles Williams’ thought and work. I will explain what they are, some of their implications, some of their occurrences in CW’s writing, and finally what in the world they have to do with physics. Louisa, if you’re reading this, please chime in!

The Way of Affirmation is the use of images and metaphors in the worship of God. The clearest example is in the veneration of icons. Perhaps Eve could share some of her experience with Russian Orthodoxy, and explain more about the valid (as opposed to idolatrous) use of images in devotion. But the Way of Affirmation is not confined to physical images. It also affirms the use of mental images—pictures, as it were, for God—and metaphors. God is a mother hen gathering her chicks; God is a strong tower fortifying His warriors; God is the wall of the sheepfold, protecting His vulnerable flock. All of these metaphors have Biblical precedent, and the Way of Affirmation encourages their use in devotional practice.

The Way of Negation, on the other hand, rejects the use of all images as reductive, misleading, and ultimately idolatrous. Edward tore down the icons and crucifixes; Cromwell whitewashed the churches. Following the same impulse, some modern Christian writers (I think J.I. Packer is one) adjure their readers to reject all mental images and metaphors, since none can adequately express God’s attributes. They encourage people to think about God Himself, and not finite human ways of understanding Him. [I’m sure you see my opinion, that this is an inherent impossibility, given the finitude of the human mind, and an unnecessary overcorrection, given the plenitude of Biblical imagery].

Charles Williams allowed both sorts of characters into his novels, allowing both points of view talking time. Richardson in The Place of the Lion is the clearest expression of the Via Negativa. He meditates himself into a mental place beyond image, beyond word, almost beyond thought, until he ends up calling God “Nothing.” One the other hand, the smallest or strangest events in CW’s metaphysical thrillers can represent God so strongly as to seem almost identifications with Him. The most extreme example is at the end of The Greater Trumps, in which one character asks if Nancy, the young lady around whom much of the supernatural action has centered, and who has submitted to being an instrument of redemptive change, is the Messiah. Another answers, “Near enough.” The balance between the two ways is personified in the character of the Archdeacon and in his characteristic mantra: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” Every person, every object, even every event can “be God” to some extent (i.e., can show us something about God’s work and personality), as long as we simultaneously acknowledge that no thing (person, etc.) can ever some anywhere near being God or imitate His attributes in their glorious infinity.

So, then, how on earth does this relate to physics? [I imagine it’s only on earth that it can relate to physics; in the transluner spheres physics are probably transcended by some more perfect understanding!] Well, Louisa touches on this in her introduction by dividing the traditional approaches to entanglement (her central concept of quantum physics) into several camps. Some physicists used a kind of abstractionist approach: the realities of physics can only be expressed in pure mathematics; therefore, metaphors, word-pictures, diagrams, analogies are inappropriate, because they are inherently misleading. Others, however (I think Einstein is in this group) affirmed the use of drawings and comparisons. Think of the little figures of atoms looking like solar systems, with particles orbiting the nucleus. Think of Schrodinger’s cat in the box analogy.

So my comparison should be clear. The Ways of Affirmation and Negation seem to be pervasive routes of human thought, and are not limited to religion or science. I think this kind of division could probably be traced in other fields, as well. The visual arts; indeed, Louisa uses the analogy of representative vs. abstract art in her introduction. Music: think operas or programmatic instrumental compositions, like Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, vs. dodecaphonic or aleatoric works or even purely formal pieces such as sonatas and fugues.

I’m not really using these ideas to try to make a point or anything. Obviously I’m more of a Way of Affirmation kind of girl, but I see the beauty and the theological/scientific advantages of both. So, I guess I’m just encouraging you to ponder both, and observe which you tend to use in your devotional life and in your making of art.

16 November 2008

The Age of Entanglement

Louisa Gilder, one-time contributor to this blog, has just published her first book! It is entitled The Age of Entanglement: How Quantum Physics Was Reborn, and is available here. Louisa is not only a childhood friend, writing partner, and brilliant Christian conversationalist, she's also a fantastic writer. I have just ordered the book, so haven't read the final version, but I did have the privilege of reading a draft years ago. That version was much longer, and included an embedded dramatic work, since excised, that I hope she'll publish as an independent work someday. The Age of Entanglement is a lively, delightful romp through the minds, ideas, and lives of several noted physicists, especially John Bell, and their work on entanglement--what Einstein called "spooky action-at-a-distance." The book is perhaps most aptly called the biography of an idea, and imaginatively recreates conversations to bring the physicists and their concept to life. I'll have to post again after reading it!

11 November 2008

The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards

I came across these on the Internet today (public domain) and was quite struck by them. I thought I'd share them with you all. These were written over a period of several months when Edwards was 19-20 years old. I wish I were that thoughtful when I was a teenager! And I wish I could make such resolutions even now and keep them. Even the one to read over this list once a week would be quite something for me.



Jonathan Edwards


Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.

1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God' s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.

2. Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new contrivance and invention to promote the aforementioned things.

3. Resolved, if ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.

4. Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.

5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.

6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.

7. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.

8. Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God. July 30.

9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

10. Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.

11. Resolved, when I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder.

12. Resolved, if I take delight in it as a gratification of pride, or vanity, or on any such account, immediately to throw it by.

13. Resolved, to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.

14. Resolved, never to do any thing out of revenge.

15. Resolved, never to suffer the least motions of anger towards irrational beings.

16. Resolved, never to speak evil of anyone, so that it shall tend to his dishonor, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.

17. Resolved, that I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.

18. Resolved, to live so, at all times, as I think is best in my devout frames, and when I have clearest notions of things of the gospel, and another world.

19. Resolved, never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.

20. Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance, in eating and drinking.

21. Resolved, never to do any thing, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him. (Resolutions 1 through 21 written in one setting in New Haven in 1722)

22. Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.

23. Resolved, frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God, and trace it back to the original intention, designs and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God' s glory, to repute it as a breach of the 4th Resolution.

24. Resolved, whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then, both carefully endeavor to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.

25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.

26. Resolved, to cast away such things, as I find do abate my assurance.

27. Resolved, never willfully to omit any thing, except the omission be for the glory of God; and frequently to examine my omissions.

28. Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.

29. Resolved, never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer, nor that as a petition of a prayer, which is so made, that I cannot hope that God will answer it; nor that as a confession, which I cannot hope God will accept.

30. Resolved, to strive to my utmost every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before.

31. Resolved, never to say any thing at all against any body, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said anything against anyone, to bring it to, and try it strictly by the test of this Resolution.

32. Resolved, to be strictly and firmly faithful to my trust, that that, in Proverbs 20:6,‹A faithful man who can find?Š may not be partly fulfilled in me.

33. Resolved, to do always, what I can towards making, maintaining, and preserving peace, when it can be done without overbalancing detriment in other respects. Dec. 26, 1722.

34. Resolved, in narrations never to speak any thing but the pure and simple verity.

35. Resolved, whenever I so much question whether I have done my duty, as that my quiet and calm is thereby disturbed, to set it down, and also how the question was resolved. Dec. 18, 1722.

36. Resolved, never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it. Dec. 19, 1722.

37. Resolved, to inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent,- what sin I have committed,-and wherein I have denied myself;-also at the end of every week, month and year. Dec. 22 and 26, 1722.

38. Resolved, never to speak anything that is ridiculous, sportive, or matter of laughter on the Lord' s day. Sabbath evening, Dec. 23, 1722.

39. Resolved, never to do any thing of which I so much question the lawfulness of, as that I intend, at the same time, to consider and examine afterwards, whether it be lawful or not; unless I as much question the lawfulness of the omission.

40. Resolved, to inquire every night, before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking. Jan. 7, 1723.

41. Resolved, to ask myself, at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly, in any respect, have done better. Jan. 11, 1723.

42. Resolved, frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism; which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this twelfth day of January, 1722-23.

43. Resolved, never, henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God' s; agreeable to what is to be found in Saturday, January 12, 1723.

44. Resolved, that no other end but religion, shall have any influence at all on any of my actions; and that no action shall be, in the least circumstance, any otherwise than the religious end will carry it. January 12, 1723.

45. Resolved, never to allow any pleasure or grief, joy or sorrow, nor any affection at all, nor any degree of affection, nor any circumstance relating to it, but what helps religion. Jan. 12 and 13, 1723.

46. Resolved, never to allow the least measure of any fretting uneasiness at my father or mother. Resolved to suffer no effects of it, so much as in the least alteration of speech, or motion of my eye: and to be especially careful of it with respect to any of our family.

47. Resolved, to endeavor, to my utmost, to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented and easy, compassionate and generous, humble and meek, submissive and obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable and even, patient, moderate, forgiving and sincere temper; and to do at all times, what such a temper would lead me to; and to examine strictly, at the end of every week, whether I have done so. Sabbath morning. May 5, 1723.

48. Resolved, constantly, with the utmost niceness and diligence, and the strictest scrutiny, to be looking into the state of my soul, that I may know whether I have truly an interest in Christ or not; that when I come to die, I may not have any negligence respecting this to repent of. May 26, 1723.

49. Resolved, that this never shall be, if I can help it.

50. Resolved, I will act so as I think I shall judge would have been best, and most prudent, when I come into the future world. July 5, 1723.

51. Resolved, that I will act so, in every respect, as I think I shall wish I had done, if I should at last be damned. July 8, 1723.

52. I frequently hear persons in old age, say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: Resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age. July 8, 1723.

53. Resolved, to improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer. July 8, 1723.

54. Whenever I hear anything spoken in conversation of any person, if I think it would be praiseworthy in me, Resolved to endeavor to imitate it. July 8, 1723.

55. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to act as I can think I should do, if, I had already seen the happiness of heaven, and hell torments. July 8, 1723.

56. Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.

57. Resolved, when I fear misfortunes and adversities, to examine whether I have done my duty, and resolve to do it, and let the event be just as providence orders it. I will as far as I can, be concerned about nothing but my duty, and my sin. June 9, and July 13 1723.

58. Resolved, not only to refrain from an air of dislike, fretfulness, and anger in conversation, but to exhibit an air of love, cheerfulness and benignity. May 27, and July 13, 1723.

59. Resolved, when I am most conscious of provocations to ill nature and anger, that I will strive most to feel and act good-naturedly; yea, at such times, to manifest good nature, though I think that in other respects it would be disadvantageous, and so as would be imprudent at other times. May 12, July 11, and July 13.

60. Resolved, whenever my feelings begin to appear in the least out of order, when I am conscious of the least uneasiness within, or the least irregularity without, I will then subject myself to the strictest examination. July 4, and 13, 1723.

61. Resolved, that I will not give way to that listlessness which I find unbends and relaxes my mind from being fully and fixedly set on religion, whatever excuse I may have for it-that what my listlessness inclines me to do, is best to be done, etc. May 21, and July 13, 1723.

62. Resolved, never to do anything but duty, and then according to Ephesians 6:6-8, to do it willingly and cheerfully as unto the Lord, and not to man:‹knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord.Š June 25 and July 13, 1723.

63. On the supposition, that there never was to be but one individual in the world, at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian, in all respects of a right stamp, having Christianity always shining in its true luster, and appearing excellent and lovely, from whatever part and under whatever character viewed: Resolved, to act just as I would do, if I strove with all my might to be that one, who should live in my time. January 14 and July 13, 1723.

64. Resolved, when I find those ‹groanings which cannot be utteredŠ (Romans 8:26), of which the Apostle speaks, and those‹breakings of soul for the longing it hath,Š of which the Psalmist speaks, Psalm 119:20, that I will promote them to the utmost of my power, and that I will not be weary of earnestly endeavoring to vent my desires, nor of the repetitions of such earnestness. July 23, and August 10, 1723.

65. Resolved, very much to exercise myself in this, all my life long, viz. with the greatest openness, of which I am capable of, to declare my ways to God, and lay open my soul to him: all my sins, temptations, difficulties, sorrows, fears, hopes, desires, and every thing, and every circumstance; according to Dr. Manton' s 27th Sermon on Psalm 119. July 26, and Aug.10 1723.

66. Resolved, that I will endeavor always to keep a benign aspect, and air of acting and speaking in all places, and in all companies, except it should so happen that duty requires otherwise.

67. Resolved, after afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what am I the better for them, and what I might have got by them.

68. Resolved, to confess frankly to myself all that which I find in myself, either infirmity or sin; and, if it be what concerns religion, also to confess the whole case to God, and implore needed help. July 23, and August 10, 1723.

69. Resolved, always to do that, which I shall wish I had done when I see others do it. August 11, 1723.

70. Let there be something of benevolence, in all that I speak. August 17, 1723.

07 November 2008

Poetry Book Promotion

Dear friends, family members, and faithful readers:

My poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans, is now available at If you have already purchased and read this book, would you please take the time to do me a very important favor? I would really appreciate it if you would dash over to amazon and write a little review for me. Even better: if you are connected with a literary magazine of any sort, would you consider publishing a book review of this volume? Now that the book exists, my publisher is encouraging me to try to promote it a bit more. I’ve done a series of readings, but those are necessarily local. It would be fantastic if almost every person who has purchased this book (and who enjoyed it!) would do one of the following:
1. write a review on amazon
2. write a review in a magazine
3. write a review in a newsletter (church, school, etc.)
4. recommend the book to someone else
5. write a comment about the book here on Iambic Admonit
6. write me a comment on facebook
7. suggest places where I could do more poetry readings

Can anyone do any of these for me? Thanks very much!

~ Sørina

03 November 2008

November Poem of the Month

Electrical Work

A sheaf of wires: a harvest of facts.
Bundled and baled into circuits of certainty,
running through walls with the hurry of truth,
enlightening with frightening speed
the ceilings and walls and cabinets and halls
of the house of my dubious brain.

Each is so sure
that it grips to its ground
with a boa-tight bond
and it sticks to its fixtures
with a passionate twist.

But one, a weedy question mark,
Infests the field with its ubiquitous queries,
Sounding a pestiferous drone,
A plaguey buzz of
why, why, why, why, why,
locust-winged doubts devouring the faithful grain.

~ Sørina

27 October 2008

The De-Familiarization of the Everyday

The allure of fantasy and metaphysical fiction might be attributable to, among other features, the de-familiarization of the quotidian. In such works, the everyday becomes extraordinary: the mythopoeist looks at the normal through such kaleidoscopes of insight that ordinary surroundings scintillate out of recognition. And yet, this very estranging process is what gives us back our daily lives made fresh, washed clean, given depths of eternal light.

The Christian story, or the “One True Myth” is often disguised and, therefore, transfigured. C. S. Lewis said that one of the side effects of Aslan’s appearance in Narnia (which, he claims, was due to no intention of his own; Aslan just came bounding into the story of his/His own accord) was to take the Gospel out of its Sunday-School context and sort of surprise children with its fresh, applicable, heart-rending reality. Stripped of stained glass, it can really shock. Or, rather, stripped of flannelgraphs and saccharine clichés, it can really live. The common appearance of elements of the “Christian myth” is another side of this process. In “Star Wars,” there’s a virgin birth. In “The Matrix,” Lord of the Rings, “Beauty and the Beast,” and so many more, the hero dies and rises again. An atoning sacrifice by an innocent character on behalf of someone else is perhaps almost the one theme of literature and film.

The final result is to give us back our routine details glittering with the magic that was always there, but had dulled with daily handling and the dust of familiarity. It washes off the common fingerprints. In Beauty by Robin McKinley and in both Phantastes and Lilith by George MacDonald, libraries become wonderlands: magical, endless wildernesses where others’ adventures are your own. McKinley’s Beast owns a fabulous library containing all the books ever written and all the books that ever will be written, in which (presumably) you can read your own future. I have Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, William Golding, and Aldous Huxley: prophets of our trajectory. MacDonald’s Anodos whiles away weeks of his visit to fairyland just reading: living secondary lives in delightful snippets shorn off of MacDonald’s prolific, prodigal imagination. Winged women find babies in the woods, and talk of earthly romance makes them wild with melancholy desire; a mirror shows an enchanted maiden to a student of alchemy and magic; and I look freshly at marriage and mirrors over the edge of the book. In the Harry Potter series, teachers and lectures are thrilling, dangerous adventures—and the mentor relationships are admirable and enviable. In the Inheritance trilogy, Christopher Paolini reminds us of the power of words, and through that, of the potential meaning of any household object once you understand its real essence. Here are examples of ordinary objects that take on mythical significance in fantasies: Knives, spoons, cups, swords, thread, shoes, rings, jewels, maps, streets, doors, clocks, houses, trees, telephones, bullets, and pocket-handkerchiefs. These will never be just the same again, but shot with something more than mundane light.

Perhaps someone can write about how the visuals arts and music perform the same transformation in manners specific to their own media.

03 October 2008

October Poem of the Month

I'm sorry I missed September! I started a new teaching job, which requires much more of my time than my previous jobs. I'm hoping to get back into posting now that the first month has passed and I'm feeling more at home.

Here's an old poem I just rediscovered recently. At first I couldn't even remember writing it, but then I recalled the first time I taught Milton's Paradise Lost--this is [obviously] from that time.


And so. Eve reaches her fingers past
the prohibitive gap to grasp the little globe.
She feels cold—unfamiliar, frightening—tightening her skin,
numb tingling along her veins, a sharp new something—
pain—dash down her radius, and hears three drops
of unknown red splash on the ground. She thinks she hears
a screaming—sound unheard before—and falling buildings,
crashing planes, exploding bombs (what are these noises?).
She pulls back her hand—and cannot. Inertia draws her down,
down, into the fruit of that transgression.

Adam watches. He sees her hand go through the leaves
and disappear. Startled, he turns to her face. A twist takes her lips, a crinkle
mars her till then unwrinkled head, and lines twine around her eyes. Ugly,
he thinks, shocked by the foreign word. Then colour runs
across her body, takes it in: a strange white-yellow shade
stretches and dries out her skin. His cry is hers, and for her, and he knows—
though he has never seen a corpse—this is that Death and they
were warned. He moves to stop her, save her, but they are one,
his soul is in her body, he has already sinned.

God sees their hands, faint images of His
outstretching immanence with men, plunged through the space
He fixed. He names the cold, faint, pain, and blood they feel
with sorrow of His own, and yet He also sees
the fruit. Its sphere, the universe. It travels where
her human words find form, past terrestrial lungs, beyond
the beating central core. Its rind slips off. Its flesh
grows one with hers, a poison and a nourishment.
Its seeds alone are left. Deep in the empty
dark of her, He touches them. They are His seed,
and that of man. SomeOne will be born.
This is not, and it is, exactly what He planned.

-- Sørina

31 August 2008

An Odd Christian Genre?

This past Wednesday, I was asked to “Give my testimony” at the faculty meeting of my new school. This simple request, traditional among many Christian groups, threw me into confusion. It wasn’t not the public speaking aspect that upset me (I can ordinarily give a paper, read poetry, or lecture with only minimal and short-lived nervousness), but the bizarre and unnatural expectations I associate with the odd Christian genre of “The Testimony” itself.

The idea of sharing with your fellow believers the specific acts of grace in your own life is a very good idea. It is healthy to encourage one another with tales of personal mercy and redemption. It is uplifting to hear other people’s stories of real change in lifestyle and real connection to Christ in their internal lives. So the basic premise is good.

And the word itself, “testimony,” bears witness [gentle pun intended] to the positive aspects of this narrative form. There is, of course, the legal definition, a sworn formal statement in a court of law. But then there’s the old-fashioned meaning, which is “a solemn protest or declaration.” Then there’s an alternative definition, “evidence or proof.” (All from the concise OED). It is right and good for believers to declare their faith before many witnesses, to affirm their commitment aloud in a body of the faithful. It is right and good to recount the evidences or proof of God’s work in one’s life. So the original definitions reveal what is good in the concept of a Christian testimony.

However, in practice, the giving of testimonies is rather odd. First of all, people often add strange emotional responses into their delivery. More disturbing than that, however, is the pre-determined narrative structure into which testimonies are supposed to fit. There are, in my experience, only two narrative forms that are permissible—and really they turn out to be the same. The first is the “I was born into a Christian home and accepted Christ at a young age, but it didn’t really make a big difference into my life until such-and-such life changing event or decision happened and everything has been perfect since then.” The second is the “I was born into a non-Christian family and lived like the devil until such-and-such life changing event or decision happened and everything has been perfect since then.” You see? So the first really big problem, in my observation, is the assumption that everyone’s life ought to fit into one of these two almost identical story-patterns. And what’s worse, this assumption is built upon certain theological beliefs that (I think) are unexamined and probably wouldn’t hold up to severe doctrinal critique or exegesis. These theological beliefs have evolved out of teachings about ordo salutis (the order of salvation: what is the sequence of events when a person gets saved, i.e, God regenerates him, he realizes his sin, he trusts Christ for his forgiveness, he is justified, sanctification begins, and after death and resurrection he is glorified) and about the exact nature of the atonement (what precisely happened, metaphysically speaking, when Christ died on the cross? Did He take our sins? Did He substitute Himself for us? Did He satisfy God’s judgment? Did He serve our sentence for us? and so on). I believe that discussions, debates, creeds, and confession on these topics and very important. I believe that it matters, for example, whether a person believes and then is born again or is born again and then believes. However (and here’s the huge caveat) I also believe that our theological language is metaphorical and should be held with a certain spiritual humility. However we understand redemption and atonement, we need to remember that this is a human formulation we have developed from our understanding of the Scriptures. Yes, it ultimately originated in the Bible itself—but it really originated in a human interpretation of the Scripture, whether Luther’s or Calvin’s or Wesley’s or Aquinas’s. You see? So it seems at best inaccurate and at worst spiritually arrogant to insist that everyone’s Christian journey narration needs to fit a certain story-pattern because of closely held theological assumptions.

If I am misunderstanding the reason for the storyline template, please enlighten me!

Now, there’s another big problem with the whole idea of the testimony being a narrative at all. A narrative, in the literary sense, is a spoken or written account of connected events. It has a narrative voice (the character or persona telling the story) and a clear beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the exposition, in which the reader/listener learns about the setting, characters, and situation. Then the conflict begins to build (the problem, the difficulty, the mystery). Somewhere at or after the middle, the tale reaches its crisis—its moment of most intense conflict. Then the conflict is resolved (everybody dies or gets married!) and all the loose ends are tied up. You can probably see how this pattern applies to short stories, narrative poems, and novels. What’s odd is the application of this pattern to autobiography, memoir, and the testimony. How can a living human being, with her limited perception and interpretive ability, understand the events of her life well enough to know which were the exposition, crisis, and resolution? How does she know she’s already reached the crisis, if she’s still alive?! Unless she’s extremely elderly and on her deathbed, the crisis might very well be yet to come. Maybe death itself is the crisis. And how can she interpret her life well enough, from God’s perspective, to be able to relate it as a series of connected events? It seems like hubris to say that I know the significance of everything that has happened to me or that I have thought, and to claim to fit them into a cause-and-effect or other significant sequence. How do I know what will ultimately prove to be of the greatest importance in my spiritual development? Perhaps some early incident that lies forgotten in my consciousness will one day emerge and take on gigantic proportions. Perhaps those events that loom largest in my memory, either for wounding and regret or for nurture and joy, will lose their glitter and be replaced by more mundane stages of development. You see?

And of course the last, and perhaps greatest problem with the testimony pattern is the “and everything’s been perfect since then.” I don’t know if people are deliberately being dishonest, or if I just have a messed-up faith: but I want to suggest that perhaps being a Christian is actually more difficult than being a Buddhist, New-Ager, or Atheist (I won’t presume to compare it to the other “great” world religions). Because the daily exercise of faith is terribly hard work. Doubt is the default position for my internal dial. Even the simplest intellectual affirmation of the fundamental points of the creed takes constant, vigilant, intentional mental effort. Maybe that’s just me. But if so, my story doesn’t fit the prescribed pattern. Is it therefore not a testimony? The horrible implication is that I am not saved, because I can’t fit my life into that shape. Well, I can make it fit. I was born into a Christian home, and I did “ask Jesus into my heart” as a little kid, but it didn’t make much difference in my life, and there was a really important commitment later on (followed by a few years of awful doubt, which then subsided during a period of suffering) , and I haven’t denied that promise ever since. But I still see myself as in the “beginning” phase of my story—but then, I might die young. If I died today, my narrative would fit. Exposition until age 13: crisis beginning in that year and continuing until age 18, resolution from age 18 to 29. that would be neat and tidy. But I’d rather live longer, if given a choice: I have books to write, students to teach, a house to finish building and live in, a husband to hang out with, countries to visit, and other huge dreams to fulfill. If I’m given the grace of more years and more goals accomplished, I will be very blessed—and I won’t fit the frame.

So I wanted to put a little of this problematizing into my 5 minute slot on Wednesday morning, but I didn’t want to be insulting to those who invited me to speak. More importantly than that, however, I wanted to be honest. I didn’t want to force my interpretation to fit a particular shade. Here, below, is the written form of what I said (there were slight changes of wording, etc., when I gave this out loud).

I’ll start with the external, narrative facts of my Christian story thus far (even though these outside events are usually the least important facets of such a tale, and sometimes even misleading). The whole idea of a testimony, in which the speaker is supposed to recount her spiritual journey in retrospect, leading up to the present culmination, strikes me as an odd practice for anyone who is not dead!—since we cannot intelligently analyze the structure of our own lives until they are over and we can see more clearly with the mind of Christ. However, those basic autobiographical details can give you a framework into which to fit the more introspective analysis I’ll share after. So here goes.

I was born into a Christian family; my father went to Westminster and held a few pastoral positions off and on when I was a child. He trained me quite thoroughly in the Reformed faith and in what might be called speculative theology. I cannot remember a time when I did not know what was required for salvation—but I postponed a personal decision until I was around five years old. I recall that fear of hell was a major factor in that decision, and also that I prayed some version of the sinner’s prayer several nights in succession in case it didn’t stick!

Although my parents were fairly strict Calvinists in their doctrine, they left the decision of baptism up to me in my years of discretion. This decision, made when I was thirteen, turned out to be extremely important. When I chose to be baptized and to make a public profession of faith, I also made some kind of recommitment—or perhaps it was really my first serious commitment—to Christ. I took a kind of marriage vow, privately, to follow Jesus and be His disciple and believer no matter what I might think, feel, or encounter in the future. Then I affirmed that promise in front of my family and church; and many have been the times that covenant has held me to Christ when nothing else would.

And from that point on, the tale is one of internals, and much more difficult to relate. I have inherited an uncomfortable psychology from my forebears, one that offers me doubts and skepticism more often than peace and assurance. Ecclesiastes may be my favorite book of the Bible. I feel that my faith is a constant struggle, like John Bunyan’s, against sins of the intellect. I have rarely been blessed with any kind of tangible sense of God’s presence, and find many of my days (and nights) characterized by these lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet “Carrion Comfort”:

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

[I didn’t go on to quote the rest, in which he relates the strength and joy that have come to him since “that night, that year / of now down darkness” when he lay wrestling with his God.”

And yet, thus far God has not allowed despair to overwhelm me, and sent me a husband with a solid and unshakeable soul to hold me fast. The Lord has also given me a string of complementary educational experiences (Bible college, community college Christian liberal arts college, state university, private secular graduate school), which have all worked together to give me multifaceted perspectives on the many denominations of Christianity, the many beliefs and lifestyles of non-Christians, and the many interpretations of both Scripture and human literature. And I cannot complain, for as a counterbalance to my depressive tendencies, I have been granted a disproportionate capacity for beauty. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men….” I have been blessed—or stricken—with this sense of eternity, something like Wordsworth’s oceanic sense, something like the “sublime” of the 18th and 19th centuries, something like C. S. Lewis’s joy or sehnsucht. To both Creation and sub-creation, I respond with ridiculous, delirious joy. Both pattern and purpose inform Nature and Art. So I make meaning with words, writing, studying, teaching. And I affirm and almost daily revel in what Hopkins wrote in another of his inimitable sonnets, “God’s Grandeur”:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

01 August 2008

August Poem of the Month

and related thoughts on The Way of Exchange.

The poem below is a major revision of the July Poem of the Month, “The Curse of Co-Inherence.” As I worked through this poem with a critique partner, I realized that the focus was wrong. Rather than being a primarily positive poem in which the narrator is some kind of hero, the more honest approach was to explore the narrative persona’s fear of getting entangled in the other person’s pain. This, I think, is central to my confusion about Charles Williams’s doctrine of Co-Inherence—or, more specifically, to the application and practice of co-inherence he called “The Way of Exchange” or “The Doctrine of Substitution.” So here (and also over on the Coinherence List, a yahoo group) I’m going to write a bit about my three biggest problems with the Way of Exchange, and see if anyone has any thoughts.

You do NOT have to be a Charles Williams scholar to chime into this discussion; you need not have ever read his stuff or even heard of him. I’ll start by summarizing his doctrine. Basically, CW believed that all human beings (and especially all Christians, but only especially because they’ve been taught about it in their theology, not because they have any kind of corner on the market) are part of one another: We are members of one body. Whatever happens to one happens to everybody. So far, so good. But he took this belief to a literal extreme that I don’t think I’ve encountered anywhere else: we are a whole just as the Three Persons of the Trinity are one. God is Three; God is One. The three Persons exist in a loving relationship, yet are one single entity. So, he postulated, are we. This is Co-Inherence.

I’m OK with that, I think. But then there’s the practical application: The Way of Exchange. In this practice, people contract with each other to carry one another’s emotional or physical burdens for each other. Then they do it. So, let’s say one person has grief over the death of a child, and another has acute physical pain from an illness. The invalid agrees to suffer the grief, and the bereaved parent agrees to take on the bodily agony. And then they do it.

This is absolutely beautiful in CW’s best novel, Descent Into Hell. And I love it. It just thrills me! But I have 3 very serious questions about the use of this Doctrine of Substitution, as follows.

1. Is it Biblical? CW based this doctrine on the command to “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of God” and on Paul’s exposition about how we’re members of one body. That foundation is clear to me, and thus I think I understand and assent to Co-Inherence. But where does CW get the idea that we can literally take someone else’s burden? Did Christ take all our burdens on Himself all at once on the cross? So why should we need to do it now? I think that the response has something to do with our calling to live like Christ, to “be Christ” to other people—but I still feel a bit uncomfortable, as if enormous spiritual arrogance is required to practice this Way.

Also, the whole idea that Christ’s Atonement is a Substitution (and thus the model for our small ones) might possibly be just one way of viewing what actually happened, metaphysically, on the cross. CSL pointed out that all our descriptions of the Atonement (judicial: He served our sentence for us; economic: He paid the price for all our sins; legal: He fulfilled the law in our stead…and so on) are metaphors. Yet every one of those “metaphors” depends the idea of substitution: Christ exchanged Himself for us. So perhaps that is where C gets it; but I still have a hard time making the leap from Christ’s once-for-all substitution that covered the sins of everyone (or at least of the Elect!) to the idea that we should and can therefore make personal substitutions.

2. Is it possible? I do not really see how this sort of Substitution could really work. It seems a sort of New-Agey mind-over-matter. Just because I think about, say, my husband’s toothache and wish I could take the pain instead of him, why should my thought do anything to the physical nature of reality? I know, I know; this sounds like a naturalist/materialist objection to miracles in general. Of course the Lord is able to answer my prayer (even about that toothache exchange) however He pleases, and to violate the natural laws He laid down. Didn’t He do things like that in the Old Testament? Yes, but… But I don’t know what, except that I have a hunch it doesn’t work that way. Is this just my lack of faith?

Well, let’s come at this question from a different angle: Has anyone done it? Have you ever sat down with a suffering friend and contracted to take his or her pain? Did it work? How did it work?

3. Who would ever dare?
Now, this finally gets to the heart of my thoughts and concerns, and also to the poem. I am something of a physical and emotional coward, and I don’t see how I would ever dare to take on someone else’s pain—I can’t even deal with my own. Yes, that’s part of the point: it’s easier to have someone else’s (just like how you can always think of the answer to somebody else’s question, but when you’re on the spot and it’s your turn, you can never think of the answer!). CW seemed to believe that when you offered yourself in a sacrificial, substitutionary way, Christ took most of the pain away and you were basically just imagining the other person’s suffering. So it kind of works itself out. But I am not fond of physical pain or mental agony, and I don’t know if, when it came down to brass tacks (is that the phrase?) I’d seriously make that commitment to take the other person’s, if it was really bad. Like burning at the stake, as in CW’s novel. I just couldn’t do it.

Christ could do it for me. But until I was convinced that it worked and was Biblically sanctioned, I’m sure I couldn’t make that leap.

And who could be spiritually arrogant enough to be such a hero? How dare anybody say, “I will be Christ for you in this situation; I will substitute my [better?] body and mind for yours and I will bravely shoulder your terrible burden even though I will then feel all your anguish.” Seriously! Who could do that?

It isn’t like that in Descent Into Hell. “But that’s fiction.” If I meet a doppelganger, then maybe I’ll be convinced that “this isn’t nonsense either.”

So, please, share your thoughts! And here’s that poem, much more honest now (I believe), and more about these struggles than about the nimbus of glory CW gives to Exchange in his writing—because he already did that.

The Curse of Co-Inherence

Do you see this skin, this arm? It is mine,
unmarred, unscarred. Cut it as you do yours. I
will not flinch, unless you do: it’s only vanity
that makes you think you are alone. You are not free
for arrogance, do not have leave to think your hand
is only yours. Your wounding enters me, you know.

I hold your sorrow, yet I wonder: Do you even know
what you are cutting, crying for? Here, here, take mine!
Take it—whatever it is—turn away those empty eyes
and use my tears to seal your weeping veins.
And yet, I fear this union, for the chill that freezes
you has blued and blanched my ministering hands.

Therefore I offer any-, everything, to stay your hand.
I give and try to give, hoping hard that nothing
hollow echoes your insides, shouts in your mind—
or mine. My willing and unwilling brain, my eyelids,
rivet to your, to our, agony. I blink in vain
and wonder how to warm you, yet stay free.

It’s a wonder anyone escapes the freezing
force of so much sorrow, that there are hands
free from bruises when every body knows
the blows that fall on every other flesh. My
fingers shrink in terror from transferred pain; my eyes
sting and blink away from the blue veins

showing through your cold skin, the veined
scars in wandering lines. Keep your cuffs over your freezing
wrists while I struggle to exchange my healthy hand
for yours. For there are lines, lines of some unknown
way chalked up between each ecstasy and mine,
each horror and yours and every body’s; a way that I

can take to comfort you. There need be no more “I”
for isolation; there is one human heart whose veins
in symbiotic cycle feeds the needy on another’s hope and frees
the freezing with another’s feverish vitality. From feet to hands
to head, through every grieving molecule, no
part is only yours; no blissful atom only mine.

You know, whatever tears you weep fall from twelve billion eyes—
but only I am near at hand. Do not let me sacrifice in vain.
Here, here: put on my sweater, lest I freeze.


25 July 2008

Review of Lake George Opera at Saratoga’s production of La Traviata

On Sunday, July 13th, I had the great privilege of watching Verdi’s La Traviata in Saratoga Springs, NY, in a new production directed by David Lefkowich. This was my sister Nadine’s last performance of the season as a studio artist with the Lake George Opera. She spent time with LGO in the winter as a pianist, then again in the summer as a chorus member, and sang in solo or duet recitals during both seasons. Now she is off to the Berkshire Opera Company, where she will join their presentation of La Nozze de Figaro.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a live opera (I guess the last one was the Met’s Opera in the Park performance of Gounod’s Faust in the summer of 2007, and that wasn’t staged—but glorious!), and I was ravished again by the glory of the form. It truly is the Gesampkunstwerk, the total art work. Song, instrumental music, acting, dance, text, visual art in the set and costumes, all united in one heart-wrenching archetypal story of human emotion at its highest pitch.

This particular production took a staple from the classic repertoire and refreshed it in the most astonishing way. In a brilliant twist, the director set this story of a “fallen women” in Las Vegas in the 1950s! This not only made the plot and characters “accessible,” it also added an ingenious interpretive angle. The story, in brief, is the tale of Violetta, a society woman who lives for shallow “pleasures”: drinking, gambling, sleeping around. She falls in love with a young fellow, Alfredo, as morally transitory as herself, and their mutual commitment begins to redeem them and raise them out of their spiritual squalor. But then the boyfriend’s father comes and convinces here that, for the good of the family, she must give him up. She makes the ultimate sacrifice, returning to a previous lover to make her departure convincing (and also, probably, to have a way to survive physically/financially). There’s a fight between her two lovers, and a heart-brekaing final scene when Alfredo and his father come to beg forgiveness and she dies in their arms. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that she had “consumption” all along. Which, Nadine told me, was a delicate 19th century euphemism for all kinds of things, including STDs.

So the story is the same as that of the old B&W film Camille; both are based on Dumas’ novel The Girl of the Camillas, a wandering, even-less-redemptive novel (what did you expect from Dumas?).

But just stop and ponder the effect of the modern setting on that story! Since it was set in Vegas, Violetta’s party lifestyle immediately became clear to a 21st century audience. She was a casino socialite, ruining her life among playing cards and poker chips, drowning her emptiness in cheap champagne. Alfredo was the rich young party boy, spending his father’s money at billiards and the card table. The father was a Mafioso type of Italian patriarch, endued with the 1950s sense of superficial morality. Just as the 1850s, so the 1950s were horrified at cohabitation, and rushed to cover it up so the family name would not be stained. By putting this story into the time of (what do we call them) Leave-it-to-Beaver families, the director made the family’s attitude towards Alfredo and Violetta’s lifestyle perfectly clear and understandable. And in the end, when Violetta lies dying alone, she’s in a cheap hotel room—the abandoned mistress, the homeless society woman at the end of her rope, alone in the anonymous city. It was brilliant!

This updating of the setting is a microcosm of a current trend in the opera world, so Nadine tells me. Directors and producers sudden find themselves competing with Hollywood for fame, audiences, and screen time. Live broadcasts of operas on the big screen in movie theatres is becoming popular—and I think that’s all for the best. Why not bring the greatest music ever composed to a place frequented by millions of young Americans? Why not give teenagers opera in a form they can relate to? Also, the picture and sound quality of the new digital projection surround-sound theatres means that you can see and hear even more than you could if you were sitting in the actual theatre where the opera was being performed. Thanks to the “magic” of film, you can get zoomed-in shots of the singer’s faces at just the right moment, or panned shots of the whole stage, or close-ups of the conductor and orchestra during the overture and preludes. Costumes can have their fullest effect, and sub- or super-titles can be closer than ever to the action so they’re less distracting and more integrated. Plus it’s cheaper: about $15.00 for a ticket to watch a live broadcast in the theatre, as compared to $50.00-$150.00 for seats in a typical Opera house.

But there’s one drawback, at least for rising opera stars themselves. Now they have to be young, thin, and beautiful in addition to being talented singers. They have to be stunning actors with vital stage presence and mobile, expressive faces. They have to be really good dancers. All this while still trying to master the extremely complex art of operatic singing—and the operatic voice doesn’t mature until around age 30, when lots of movie stars are retiring (or having their faces and bodies reconstructed by plastic surgeons). So opera singers have to be young and mature, beautiful and grown-up, skinny and full-voiced—a nearly impossible combination. The mountainous soprano with the voice of a goddess (whose waist the tenor couldn’t span with his two arms) is giving way to the waifish, spindly chick with the voice of a reed. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. Personally, I don’t mind if the singers are both lovely to listen to and lovely to watch!!

And the updated setting not just a cheap trick to try to make the opera relevant to 21st century audiences. Or 20th century audiences: I was one of the youngest people in the crowd, by about 30 years, no joke. On the contrary; directors of opera and theatre alike have a long tradition of updating the settings of their stories to show the timelessness of the plot and the underlying themes. Putting Romeo and Juliet on a beach in California in the ’60s, Hamlet in a large NYC corporation in the ’90s, Henry V as the British fighting the Germans in WWII—these are all Shakespearean productions that have worked, and worked well. I see no reason not to do the same thing with Verdi. And if this LGO production was any indication, updating operas is not only workable, it’s fantastic!!


Conductor: Mark. D. Flint (whose head and arms only were visible above the set; the orchestra played from above and behind the singers!

Violetta: Elizabeth Andrews Roberts. I heard a woman say, during intermission, “This is the best Violetta I have ever seen! And I’ve seen La Traviata over 50 times. This is the best Violetta—better than the Met!”
Alfredo: Marc Schreiner. He wasn’t quite as good. I like his voice, thought it had a sweet quality, although Nadine said his singing was very strained. But he was an awful actor. Quite the pretty boy, but an artificial actor. All his gestures was stock and fake, as if someone had said, “Now, clasp your hands and shake your head.” (That’s all he did most of the time). Yet the Violetta was good enough to make up for his weaknesses. And, honestly, he did better when he was singing, especially his solo arias. When he had nothing to sing and was supposed to act, he was awful. But his Act II aria was, I thought, very well executed.
Giorgio Germont: Kelly Anderson. Very good! The classic stern father figure, with a touch of Mafioso.
Doctor Grenvil: Christopher Temporelli.
Also other small roles played and chorus lines sung by apprentice and studio artists, mostly dressed as wealthy casino patrons or—ahem—Burlesque dancers.

Nadine as a Vegas casino patron:

20 July 2008

My Two Cents’ Worth on the Worship Wars

I’m sure you know that over the past few decades (well, actually, over the past few millennia!) the Church has been torn by fierce debate about worship styles—specifically, about music. Well, the war is not over, and probably never will be. Music styles in popular culture and “high” culture change over time, and the Church has to figure out how—or whether—to change in response. I’m not old enough, nor enough of a student of church history and contemporary culture, to recount the phases through which church music has traveled in the last half-century or so. Instead, I’d just like to give my observations and advice on what I have observed in churches I’ve attended, and throw in some of the opinions of young people I have asked.

First of all, my observation is that contemporary Evangelical American churches (that’s what I’ll be talking about here primarily) have either checked out of all cultural trends and held to an outdated, outmoded, static tradition, or they have tried hard to make themselves musically relevant to the contemporary youth culture and failed miserably. That sentence sounds really judgmental, I’m sorry! But let me explain. And before I explain my perspective on these two opposite errors, let me propound my basis for what I am going to say—my musical credo, as it were.

1. I believe that any music offered to God in worship must be of the highest possible quality that the members/attendees of that church are capable of producing. I believe that offering mediocre music to God is insulting. If there are people in the pews who are capable of playing better music than those up front, enlist them!
2. I believe that the style or genre of music is totally irrelevant from a moral point of view—that is, it is no more inherently godly or holy to play Bach than to play rock—provided that the music is of the best possible quality that church can produce in that genre.
3. I believe that music ought to be performed in the manner in which it was intended: that the instrumentation, harmonization, rhythmic patterns, style, etc. should correspond to how that piece of music was designed. I know this gets hairy if you are a literary scholar who believes that intentionality is inaccessible. But, seriously, why do we play hymns (written in 4 parts for voices and/or keyboard instrument) on a badly strummed guitar? Why do we play folksy praise choruses on a huge pipe organ? Why do we shake a tambourine and clap our hands on the jazzed-up melody of an antique anthem? If your church wants contemporary music, play it on drums and electric guitars. If you church wants traditional music, play it on organs and pianos and string instruments. Don’t mix instrumentation. One major reason for this rant is:
4. I believe that each musician should play what s/he is trained and talented to play. Only use highly trained or talented musicians, and only let them play what they are good at playing. If they can only strum a few basic chords on the acoustic guitar (well, then they shouldn’t be playing in public at all, but if they’re the best your church has got…), don’t let them try to accompany hymns! Let them play only folk-style, simple chorus that were designed to have three chords and untrained singers. If you have a conservatory-trained Classical pianist, don’t make her play single-melodic-line tunes; let her play Bach and Beethoven.
5. I believe that the music ministers/worship team of every church have a peripheral duty to teach the congregation to be better musicians, collectively. Congregations who sing four-part hymns every week, who have the four parts either explained or played out to them (there are various ways of doing this that won’t interrupt the flow of worship), and who sing new, difficult hymns every month or so become a beautiful choir. Congregations in which more than 50% of the members play music during worship at least occasionally are congregations whose hearts and voices join for the most beautiful music on a regular basis. On the other hand, congregations that are allowed to drone out unison melodies with poor contours and terrible texts settings, week after week, at deathly slow tempi and with no attention to breath or dynamics, continue to be pathetic singers. This does not accord well with item #1 on my list.

OK, now with that foundation laid, back to my observation of the two equal and opposite musical problems in contemporary Evangelic American churches. Well, maybe they’re not equal. As you’ll see, the second gets my goat far more than the first. But that’s probably a matter of taste.

First, some churches have held to an old tradition as it was, or as they imagine it was, without making that tradition vibrant and dynamic. Specifically, there’s hymn-singing and organ-playing. Now, this is the church music I really love, for the most part. I adore four-part harmony, the good old chorale-tune hymns (mostly Lutheran in origin), a well-played organ, the music of Bach, 17th-19th century choral anthems, and the like. That’s the music I would choose for a church were I the music director. But I don’t think that the traditional music should be treated as if it is dead and mummified, just on display in a museum. There is a living practice of “Classical” music in the world of “high culture”: symphony orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music centers are constantly premiering new works that have developed out of centuries of European music theory and practice, but are exploring relevant new ways of expressing that. For instance, Classical music went through its Dodecaphonic (12-tone) phase in the 1940s. Church music didn’t. Now, I’m not saying I want the Sunday School children’s choir to get up and start singing 12-tone rows! Yikes! But I am saying that if the church wants to use the grand old tradition of Baroque-based counterpoint, voice-leading, and harmonic practice, it should stay current with the best scholarship, practice, and composition in the development of that practice. So here’s some advice for “traditional” churches and denominations:
- Commission new hymn-words from the top Christian poets of today. Has anyone asked Dana Gioia? How about Scott Cairns? Luci Shaw?
- Commission new hymn-tunes from the great composers of the day who were trained in the classical tradition and are cutting-edge experimenters and also capable of producing great works in the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic traditions. I don’t even know who these are, since it’s lots of years since I was actively involved in a symphony orchestra or opera house. Perhaps Eurydice will answer this one?
- Get your church organist involved in the Organists’ guild, where she can go to conferences, take workshops/classes, keep up-to-date on new developments, hone her skills, and get inspired on a regular basis.
- Find out which young people in your church are taking lessons on a instrument from a good, solid, technically virtuosic teacher or music school—especially those who are music majors in a conservatory or other college with a good music program. Encourage these students to continue those studies with an eye to using those skills and talents to serve the church. Perhaps offer them scholarships to improve their technique if they will play in church.
- Have the music director read up on and listen to all the latest developments in the classical music world. Encourage her to attend symphony concerts, operas, and chamber music performances. Suggest to her that she host musical evenings in her home to play with good “secular” performers from the community.
- Advertise concerts at church and encourage church members to attend. Have them develop an ear for great music.
- Use choir practices as educational settings. Give brief (like 30 seconds!) music history lessons. Have the choir listen to recordings of the great oratorios of the past. Always have the choir sing just a little bit beyond its current skill level. Teach music reading and music theory in little increments, subtly, so they won’t even realize they’re being educated.
- If you have a children’s choir, have them sing “real” music. There’s no reason to have kids sing stupid stuff just because they’re young. There is plenty of Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, Mozart, old carols, and other high-quality music that a children’s choir, even a beginning one, is perfectly capable of singing.
- [This one is huge, and very difficult!] Get rid of the musical hierarchy in your church! Don’t give the solo to the awful, quavering soprano with a vibrato as big a Gibraltar every time just because she’s always had the solo and would be offended if she didn’t get it. Give it to someone who’s good! You figure out the politics of this. I’m not a bureaucrat. You shouldn’t have gotten yourself into this problem by letting that pecking order develop in the first place.

I could go on, but instead I’ll move on to the other, opposite problem: churches that think they are musically relevant to the contemporary youth culture and really have nothing to do with it. OK. So, the “praise chorus” phenomenon. I’m no church historian, so I don’t really know the details of when and why this, um, shall we call it, genre of church music developed. But I know it was in response to the exclusive and increasingly irrelevant usage of hymns-only in churches. Young people didn’t want to sing hymns, so they were leaving the church. So the church came up with a kind of music that apparently was more relevant to that generation of young people. But that was, what, my parents’ generation? It wasn’t even mine, let along my students’. [OK, so this morning the praise choruses we sang, if you could call that droning singing, were written between 1979 and 1986. So that’s my generation. But my students weren’t even born yet]. So the fact that the Church continues to use these poorly composed, bad settings of worse lyrics means that now the Church is two a generations behind. Who listens to anything else like that at all, anywhere, ever? It’s a simple, awkward melody with odd contours and strange leaps (not at all conformable to the average untrained singing voice), with a difficult range, and with only the most elementary chordal accompaniment—and with a very boring rhythm, too. Where else will you ever encounter music like that? Some sorts of American folk music might be just a simply melody with a few basic chords, but the melody will be memorable and the rhythm catchy. The only other music I can think of that is comparable to praise choruses is kids’ campfire songs.

So if we think we’re playing praise choruses to be “relevant,” to make church interesting to young people, or to “reach seekers,” I submit the proposal that we are doing just the opposite. What teenager listens to praise choruses in his free time? They listen to pop, rock, rap, hip-hop, punk, emo, screamo. They don’t listen to praise music. Well, then, what ought we to do? I asked several high school and middle school aged students (and I think I will ask a few more right now, on the wonderful world of facebook). I asked them what they thought of church music and what they would like. They gave me a really interesting variety of answers. Some said that even though they didn’t really like hymns and organ music, they still agreed with their elders that hymns & organs were really churchy; in other words, they didn’t really feel like they’d been to church and had worshiped unless they had that big, traditional music. Others said that their church music was totally disconnected from their real lives, and that they “wish we could have screamo at our church, but I know that totally wouldn’t work.” Most of them understood that their elders were doing the best they could with music, and were resigned to feeling disconnected.

But what couldn’t we have punk and emo and screamo churches? Always provided that it was the best possible quality of those genres, and that the musicians were thoroughly trained in the techniques and skills of those genres (whatever those may be!). I don’t know how that would work. But it think it’s actually a better idea than poking along playing irrelevant praise choruses that are very poorly composed, very poorly written, very poorly played and sung, and have nothing to do with contemporary or traditional musical culture.

The whole point of praise choruses, as far as I can discover, is this: it was designed to be played and sung by really, really bad musicians: so therefore, a priori, it shouldn’t be played as worship music at all! Remember the first point in my “credo”? If the music is of poor quality, I believe it ought not to be played to “glorify God” at all. I mean, think about it: He invented music. Playing bad music and dedicating it to Him is like dedicating a tin-can-and-string “telephone” to Alexander Graham Bell, or a stinky dip candle to Thomas Edison, or a Crayola scribble to Michelangelo. Only worse, because He’s GOD.

So here are my pieces of advice for “contemporary” churches and denominations:
- Figure out what music is actually relevant to your congregation. Here’s where you’ll have to make all those hard decisions about multiple services, etc. I have no idea how to help you here, since I’m neither a pastor nor a politician! But part of the decision should be, I think, based on the kinds of talented musicians you have in the church. Got a great folk singer? Why not have him write and perform some folk settings of Psalms? Got a fantastic rapper? Why not have him create Scripture-memory songs to teach to the Sunday School? Be creative! Be relevant!
- Commission new song-words, including versions of Psalms and other Scripture passages, from the top Christian poets and singer-songwriters of today.
- Commission new songs from today’s greatest Christian recording artists in whatever genre(s) your church decides to use.
- Have your church musicians attend tons of concerts and do whatever else they can (Creation?) to keep up-to-date on new developments, hone their skills, and get inspired on a regular basis.
That’s really all the advice I have, because that music is not particularly meaningful to me, but I imagine that there are contemporary musicians out there with fantastic ideas for contemporary, youth-driven, “seeker-sensitive” churches. I’d be interested to hear their ideas.

And I haven’t even dealt here with two other huge topics: first, “blended worship,” and second, the movement of the Church towards the “East.” Nor have I talked about the real worship aspects of various styles, nor about the dangers of a performance-based attitude in the church. But this was only supposed to be two cents’ worth, after all!

Postscript: What about every Communion Sunday, or during certain parts of the Church year, you put on a brand-new, occasion-commissioned, fully staged sacred opera? Now, how’s that for an idea? It would give a lot of jobs to composers and opera singers!

18 July 2008

Vancouver's Pacific Theatre: Good art with Christian motivation but no "agenda"

My article on Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, Canada, has been published by Comment magazine. Here are a couple of excerpts:

The mission of Pacific Theatre is "to serve Christ in our community by creating excellent theatre with artistic, spiritual, relational, and financial integrity."


Although it is not intentionally a ministry to theatre artists, "there are people whose faith is alive today who might not have been if Pacific Theatre hadn't existed." It is "a place where your art and your faith are accepted. That can be restorative."

You can read the full text here.

01 July 2008

July Poem of the Month

There are only five days left in which to purchase Sørina's poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans, with free shipping. Please go to Finishing Line Press and order a copy today! My pressrun is determined by how many I sell now....

As was last month's, this poem is in a different style from my usual theological lyrics and explorations of mythology. This painful poem is dedicated to a dear student of mine (and has several others in mind). She (and they) have been enslaved to very destructive, addictive behaviours in the past, but have begun to find freedom and gradual redemption.

Again, the photography is by Darlin/Gemalee.

The Curse of Co-Inherence

Look at my hand. It is also yours: your hand,
your arm, your skin and unscarred bones. Don’t you know
how many molecules are both yours and mine?
Whatever tears you weep fall from six billion eyes:
no wonder every street is a saline vein;
no wonder when the frost comes faces freeze.

It’s more a wonder anyone escapes the freezing
force of so much sorrow, that there are hands
free from bruises, when every body knows
the blows that fall on every other flesh. My
fingers shrink in terror from transferred pain; my eyes
sting and blink away from the blue veins

showing through your cold skin, the veined
scars in wandering lines. I am frozen
in your fear, or else I would warm your little hands
at whatever flame saves mine. Do you even know
what you are cutting, crying for? Here, here, take mine!
Take it—whatever it is—turn away those empty eyes

and fill them up with anything I have. My eyelids
rivet to your agony. I blink in vain,
because you are inside myself. The chill that freezes
you has blued and blanched my hands:
I give and try to give, hoping nothing
hollow echoes your insides, mars and marks your mind.

Do you see this skin, this arm? It is mine,
unmarred, unscarred. Cut it as you do yours. I
will not flinch, unless you do: it’s only vanity
that makes you think you are alone. You are not free
for arrogance, do not have leave to think your hand
is only yours. Your wounding enters me, you know.

There are lines, lines of some unknown
intensity chalked up between each horror and mine,
each ecstasy and yours and every body’s. There is no more “I”
for isolation; there is one human heart whose veins
in systolic cycle feeds the needy on another’s hope and frees
the freezing with another’s vital intensity. From feet to hands

to head and back to hands, no
part is only mine; from toes to eyes
every vein runs in us both. Put on a sweater, lest I freeze.

~ Sørina Higgins

27 June 2008

On The Significance of Swans, a poetry reading.

Sørina Higgins’ poetry reading the Saturday before last opened in an atmospherically lit, slightly over-warm wooden theater, with Sørina reading cluster of dim poems ”on doubts, questions, and how to understand nature.” (to use Mrs. Higgins’ words.) Among deep green stage plants, silhouetted against a white drop, the dark eyed poet lead her audience through fascinating, lovely, and often esoteric scenery of nature and the mind. Sørina’s student, Nick Jarratt, set one philosophical poem to music that followed the rising and falling poetry of her villanelle, “The Stratigraphy of Sleep.”

After an intermission, Sørina resumed her readings with a more contemporary tint, with poems that traced horrid pains hidden in the lives of students she knows. Photos by Gemalee Anne Ugi heightened these poems’ poignant relevance with combined contemporary understanding of the painfully, stained existence they witness around them. However, this look at the “real world” served to show how the pain of living is part of existence. These poems drew from two planes of existence; the secret, hopeless existence of pain and meaninglessness which runs counter to, yet along with a deeper plane of meaning and reality which is beyond our full comprehension. Music by Cassandra Caracci and Andrew Rittenhouse gave a new dimension to the mythological and transcendental writings. The pain of living naturally flowed back into the existence of the reality—Joy.

Full-bodied, fulfilling textured words danced or processed to build images of the world as it exists but which is greater than our sight or full understanding. The final section of poetry explored more overtly theological themes. For a grand finale, Sørina read a free-verse series entitled “The Voice of God,” to the accompaniment of pictures taken in Alaska, Ireland, Egypt, Jordan and Israel.

This grand finale left us audience members wishing for more, so, Sørina’s students (and a few others) participated in an open mic session. Her student’s poured out secret pains in poems and music on the same themes Sørina treated in the middle section of her reading.

In all, the evening was full of textures and sights of the tangibly real mixed with the ineffable. It was beautifully atmospheric, especially scented as it was with atmospheres of worlds unknown. As Sørina commented, it can be fun to just listen to the words of her poems. The sounds of the words, even divorced from their meanings, filled the listener’s imagination as they filled the
ear. This poetry reading made me very glad to know that soon I will be able to own Sørina’s book, and thus hold these deep expressions of thought to read and share whenever elven horns call....

Please consider purchasing Sørina’s poetry book, The Significance of Swans, at Finishing Line Press. Click on the "new releases and forthcoming titles" link and scroll down the alphabetical list. Your copy will be shipped to you on 8 August 2008.