The King, to the Poet (A Poem)

The King, to the Poet

Something happened, when no one was looking.
Quietly, politely, we tore it all down–
Ages old, majestic and mighty, we tore it down to build something new.

Shiny and new.

It was a tapestry once, that told a story around which we built our lives.
It was a mighty whole, a single fabric, built of myriad mysterious pieces.

With the blessing of all (or all but the fringe) we took it apart.

We took the shiny pieces and the pretty pieces and the useful pieces
And put them to work,
Doing our bidding (we once did its), and serving us in strength.

We marvel then at what our lives have become,
All built of artificial fibers and synthetic materials.
Appropriated. Misused.

And what of that old rag, that ancient tapestry?
It’s tatters now, of course, torn to shreds and threadbare
All that’s left behind.

And those same who plundered it now mock it for all the things it lacks.
For all the holes, for all the inconsistencies and flaws–
For gaps, that they had made.

There are gaps, and holes. Places where things once were,
Where things shiny and things pretty and things useful used to be.
It’s not the rag that’s torn, though.

The single piece is shattered, scattered, but its fragments still as strong.
Alas, they no longer grow as one.

You see, it was a living thing. It breathed the life of man.
We killed it, for our own ends — butchered it, for our wealth.
We took its intellect, to make us wise.
We took its heart, to learn some sort of kindness.
We took its soul, to give us more than life.
We took its might, its powers, its strength to change the world, and we made the world we wanted.

We still have all the pieces, and look how much they change our lives.
We killed the thing to get them, though.

We could start anew, of course. Some have tried.
We could make a new fabric, and start the ages-long process of giving it life,
Weave in the first of many threads, and make a gift to our descendants.
We’re a world of scavengers, though.
We’ve made our lives out of plundered parts now, and we’re not about to stop.

Start another if you want. It can be done.
But I’ll tell you this, my prophecy and sigh:
They’ll watch,
And they’ll point and laugh,
They’ll criticize everything that is not what the old thing was.

Then they’ll take everything that’s good, and mock you all the more.

Greatness: Books of Legacy (or “On Fatherhood”)

When I was…I dunno, fifteen or so, my family took a long summer road trip. We’d often done summer road trips as a family for my whole life. This one was the whopper, and my parents had probably been planning it for years.

Trish and I were dating at the time, and I faced the terrifying prospect of being away from her for ten days straight. No phone calls, nothing.

I hated it. I resented it. I…even then, I saw it as a matter of perspective. I sat back and looked at the situation from my perspective (where it was a really big deal), and I could see that, from my parents’ perspective, being away from a girl I didn’t really date yet, for less than two weeks, wasn’t that big a deal.

But I was outraged by it. I came up with an idea, and I put it immediately into practice. I wrote Dad a furious letter, telling him exactly how I felt, exactly how important that summer time with Trish was to me, and how much it hurt that I had to be away from her. That wasn’t exactly the idea, though. My idea was to keep writing letters like this, to write Dad every time I had something important, something dramatic that I wanted to say to him — to write it down, and keep them all together, and save that until I had a son of my own. Then read them all, because that would be exactly the words I needed to hear.

I didn’t stick to it. I wrote only that one letter. The reason was this: well, first, I really don’t stick to very many of my ideas. More importantly, though, everything I had to say in those letters was negative. Because anything positive I had to say, I just said. I’ve usually been pretty good about that. So it would have just been a bunch of whiny letters in poor penmanship.

There are ways in which I really wish I’d followed that through. There would have been some valuable lessons in there, and some powerful reminders. Mostly they’d probably be reminders about what a whiny brat I was, but even those have their value.

Sometime in college, I got an idea for something similar. I think Daniel or Toby, or someone, was telling me about a cultural group that had this practice, but it might have been an original idea….

Anyway, okay, I’ll tell it in story form, because that’s what I do.

Within the history of my fantasy world, there comes eventually a line of kings known as the Davinic Kings — these are the heirs of Daven, centuries later, who reunite and rule over the FirstKing’s old realm, and it’s a time of prosperity and happiness. They are legendary kings (as the similarity of the name would imply).

And I decided that, among themselves, this family of kings would have a practice of writing Books of Legacy. Each king, when he first learned that he was going to have a child, would write a book containing all of his wisdom, all of his experience — everything he truly wanted to teach his son. He would spend the nine months or so writing down his message to his son. When his son reached the age of maturity, his father would give him the book, and perhaps teach it to him.

I thought how cool it would be to write those books, to write the collected teachings that each of these great and powerful men (while they were still young) would like to pass on to their sons and heirs. How much could you say, how much imply, about a character and his world, within that particular framework?

I didn’t follow through on that. I have a few notes scribbled in one of my scribblebooks that I’d intended as some of the bits of wisdom, and I stumbled across those on Sunday morning. Of course, those are only three years old or so, and they already strike me much the same way that my high school rants at my dad would, if I still had those.

And I think that would be a big part of the message. It’s amazing how much we change, from day to day, and I think that’s one of the most awesome things about writing, about setting down, at one time, a whole world, that may seem entirely alien when we look back on it tomorrow. Because we carry our memories with us, and modify them, in subtle ways, to match the world we’re living in now. It’s nice to have something, some hint or snapshot, showing the world as it was, then.

It can be embarrassing. It can be really embarrassing. But that’s part of the process, innit? That’s the price a writer pays, to do this remarkable thing.

God and Greatness: The Writing Process, and Censorship

My older sister Heather has started reading Sleeping Kings, and she somehow stumbled across this website (and pity to her for that), and she read and responded to my post on The DaVinci Code (something none of you regulars were brave enough to do!).

That conversation was here:

I started to reply to her comment, and in my reply I said some things that I wanted everybody to hear, so I’m making a new post instead of a comment.

Now, in response to Heather’s direct questions, I have this to say: don’t ever feel guilty about writing something inconsequential. My complaints against The DaVinci Code were based on the fact that he wrote something extremely consequential and treated it as though it weren’t. It is hard to go too far in that direction (pretending your stuff matters).

In fact, I think the most important element for a writer is to care, which you (Heather) obviously do.

There are writers who write just to play with language (think Alice in Wonderland), or just to tell an interesting story. That’s okay, as long as you’re writing insignificant things (or things clearly established as fictional, which is the difference between, say, Kate and Leopold and The Patriot). The DaVinci Code goes out of its way to seem real, while playing extremely fast and loose with the base elements of people’s worlds (as one would expect from fantasy).

Mainly, it’s important that you, as a writer, try to write responsibly. Sometimes you’ll do a good job of it, sometimes you’ll make mistakes. Both aspects are important to your learning process (and, as a direct result, to your eventual potential to do good).

Please don’t misunderstand me. Every story should be interesting. Most of them should be entertaining. Those aren’t inherently bad things, but when you’re writing (or reading) just to get that feeling, it becomes like eating just for the taste (and ignoring the far more important aspects of nutrition).

Like anything, though, the learning process is not the same as the master craft. My advice to you, now, is to focus on the stories you most want to tell, for whatever reason. Every single page you write at this point benefits you in a dramatic way. As a writer, and as a person. Writing, no matter what the topic, is a process that involves examining the world you live in, finding your place within it, as well as the place of your topic, and trying to understand and communicate. These are the most basic elements of human existence, and the foundation of human society. So, yeah, I realize I’m a writer and this sounds self-aggrandizing, but the very process of writing makes a person better at being a person.

Not necessarily a good person. That depends on what you’re writing, and what you’re thinking, and all of that.

Now…as to that. Heather asked me specifically which stories to tell, what lessons to teach. And, again, my answer for someone just starting to write is, “Anything that interests you enough to keep writing about it.” Once you’ve gotten past that, though — once you’ve learned to commit yourself to writing in order to get something accomplished, then the process of choosing which story to tell is no different from choosing anything else you could communicate in any other medium. On this point, I’d like to mention something Milton once wrote.

Milton (of Paradise Lost fame, and the author of the bulk of our religious imagery and mythology) became involved in a massive political debate on the topic of censorship. He wrote a fairly well-known (to Lit majors, that is) essay on the topic, which he published as part of the debate.

I should mention that he was an extremely conservative Christian. He held fairly extreme opinions on the idea of obscenity, and it’s safe to say that he was on the “against” side. When the king began taking serious steps in support of censorship, though, Milton strongly opposed him. Milton was a man of considerable social influence at the time (so there was no chance his opposition would go unnoticed), and, yeah, this was that time in history when opposing a king was still a Very Bad Idea.

So Milton, a total prude of a man, risked life and limb to oppose censorship. His reasoning went thus:

* We, as Christians, believe that good is good, in itself, not just because of our belief and support.

* We believe that good is stronger than evil, that right will triumph over wrong.

* Therefore, any idea or message that is right should win out over a message that is wrong, in a state of free competition.

* It follows, then, that any message that cannot stand without our protection is not entirely right. If we have to force an idea (or protect it from attack or ridicule), then it is not of God. It is not right.

* It also follows that any message we know to be wrong should be exposed to public scrutiny, rather than hidden from it, so that the idea can be destroyed in free competition (or, perhaps, proven right in spite of our expectations). If the idea, freed from censorship, stands against our wishes, that means the idea is not as wrong as we wanted to believe.

* Right and wrong are not a matter of our comfort, or our preference. After all, Jesus said a lot of things that a lot of strongly religious people wanted to keep quiet. Part of the reason we believe today, is because Jesus’ ideas were able to stand the test of time.

Okay, I studied that essay about six years ago, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then, so I don’t know 100% how much of that logic was Milton’s, and how much of it is mine, derived from Milton’s basic points. I think it’s got a lot going for it.

One thing that I know he said, and that I cannot possibly overstate, is that — based on these other ideas — the Christian as a reader ought to strive to become exposed to absolutely as many ideas as possible, so as to learn about right and wrong, so as to test them. We earnestly believe that good will triumph over evil, and every time we try to protect good, to hide the right from the ravages of wrong, we deny our own belief — we show clearly that we don’t have faith in right’s rightness.

Greatness: The Power of the Written Word

We went to see The DaVinci Code yesterday….

Here’s the thing. I’m often going to be called a snob, or just generally hateful toward popular culture, and to some extent both of those things are true. I mean, I just hate Tom Hanks because I hate him — I’ve got no good reasons.

The DaVinci Code, though, and that damn Anne Rice — those I hate for different reasons.

See, I’ve lived most of my life thinking of myself as a writer. And, as all of you know, I’m a very introspective sort of person, so I’ve paid close attention to what I was doing. More than that, I’ve always felt it was my religious calling to write, that my gifts were given in order to accomplish something.

And that leads straight to my point. Writing matters. Art matters. Our cultural symbolism and stories shape the worlds we live in, and they can do that in very powerful ways. This includes popular music and dime novels and all of it. Interview with the Vampire shapes our view of the world in exactly the same way that Stoker’s Dracula does. Except, of course, for the new shape presented.

And if that’s true, then it says something about the role of writers. Not just that they’re important (which, of course, I believe is true), but that they have a responsibility. If I’m writing two hundred pages of chitchat to entertain you in your free time, then my sole responsibility is to write something that entertains. I could throw in some deep, thought-provoking dialogue if I wanted to, as long as it didn’t detract from the entertainment value. That’s how Kris, for instance, feels that most popular entertainment works. I think that’s how most people approach it. “It’s just a movie.” That sort of thing.

But if our entertainment shapes the way we view the world, then everything changes. Then every book you read and every movie you write changes your world (for better or for worse). The entertainment value, then, is not the point of the piece, but the bait that keeps you in the trap long enough for it to have its full effect.

Everything I’ve seen of literature (and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of it) indicates that the latter is true. And, as I’ve said, not just for high literature but for every soap opera or trashy romance novel you ever read (or, hitting closer to home, every opinionated website or goofy collection of flash animations). There’s a thousand ways in which it works, too.

First, we all build meaning in our lives based on stories. You learn that the stove is dangerous through an autobiography: “And then, in spite of all the ‘nos’ and ‘hot! bad!’ from Mom, I touched the hot stove, and it hurt.” That story gives meaning to “no” and “hot” and “bad.” They’re no longer just shouted admonitions, and no longer just empty instructions, backed by the threat of punishment. They are meaningful warnings of the dangers the world holds.

As we get older, we get better at interpreting and applying stories. We learn to listen to biographies. “Tommy got caught lying to teacher and he got fifteen swats!” And so we add pieces to our picture of the world without having to directly experience them. Of course, this is also when we become vulnerable to lies (and fiction) misshaping our world.

And, of course, we eventually learn to respond to fiction, to allegory, to metaphor. We learn to listen to a story that’s not real, or not about anyone we know, or not directly applicable to our lives, and take the meaning out of it that does apply to our lives. Think of your favorite parable (Zen or Christian, doesn’t matter), and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

A major portion of the human experience comes from listening to stories and applying them to our lives. A major portion of the adult experience is burying that process so deep beneath our conscious awareness that only Literature and Film majors are expected to ever talk about it, and they’re considered a little goofy for doing it.

But you do it. You internalize the messages of the media that you participate in. This doesn’t mean you ape the actions you see on the screen or read on the page. Watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game doesn’t make you a violent person. Rather, it adds a vivid awareness of violence to your view of the world. There are some people who really believe the world isn’t a violent place, and for them, watching (I dunno) Pulp Fiction or playing GTA would seem so terrible….

You know why? Because it’s actively challenging and reshaping their world.

And here’s the thing: violent games can make violent people act violent. It’s not the game making them violent, though. It’s a part of their personality made visible in their environment. If violent games couldn’t do that to us, then inspiring stories couldn’t lead people to do great things, and romantic stories couldn’t melt hardened hearts. The world around us is far too big to take in all at once, so we view it, constantly, through personal filters. Dynamic filters. Stories help us to change the filters, ever so slightly, to see something that was hidden before, or to see something familiar in a new light. In the most dramatic cases, this leads to action (good or bad), but far more often it’s a subtle change, that will persist until the next story changes your filters again….

It’s a deliberate process, too, from the writer’s point of view. Let me use an example that I mentioned to Trish yesterday, after watching the movie. There’s a scene in the movie (I doubt this is any kind of spoiler) when Joe and Magneto are debating some of the finer aspects of mythical history. They accept from the start that the church is a fraud actively perpetrated against humanity, and (from that base) get into a really heated debate about whether the fraud was perpetrated this way or that way. It’s easy to get caught up in the debate.

That’s something we are taught in Creative Writing classes. It’s a fantastic trick. Because the reader, who (knowing they are reading fiction) is actively working to believe your fantasy story (at least enough to keep reading). Part of the unconscious process of reading fiction is distinguishing which parts of the story you’re supposed to take for granted (just as part of the story), and which parts you’re supposed to consider suspect (such as individual characters’ motivations). If I wrote a book on Church history and said outright that this or that had happened, you would stop and think, “No, that can’t be right, it goes against so much other historical evidence.”

If, though, I hand you a fictional story and say, “Read this, it’s entertaining,” and then within the story I suggest that the same thing happened, you are trained to accept that just within the confines of the story. That works out really well for sci-fi and fantasy, because usually the fantastic premise is something that you’d have to work really hard to incorporate into your regular worldview. Something like “the Catholic church is out to get us,” though…that’s something a lot of people want to think anyway. So it’s a lot easier to accidentally take it with you when you put the book down.

So, back to my example from the movie. When Forest and Gandalf are arguing the fine details (“The Christians started it!” “Nuh uh, the pagans started it!”) you evaluate these items the way you normally would a story element (that is, decide to accept it within the story, but reject it once the story is over). The very action of their debate keys you in that this is something you’re supposed to consider suspect. And, by contrast, the things that they agree on seem even more reasonable and less suspect than it normally would, because these dissenting voices agreed on it out-of-hand.

It’s just one of the tools that we, as writers, are taught to use to deliberately affect the way you, as readers, view the world. Sneaky little things that we drop between paragraphs while we’re crafting a story that’s entertaining enough to keep you reading. That’s the work of the author, and he has a responsibility to treat his readers right. Every orator out to change his audience’s mind has the same responsibility. The better you are at it, the more compelling your message or the more receptive your audience, the greater your responsibility to impact their world in a positive way.

Naturally, there have always been those who have abused the power of oratory. Some earnestly believed the message they were preaching (corrupt though it may have been). Some manipulated others for personal gain. The worst, though, are those so irresponsible that they toss world-changing words on a crowd at a whim, without thought of the consequences. Those who twist words for a quick buck, or just for the spectacle it produces.

I’ll spend most of my life striving to be able to impact people with my words, and the rest of it trying to make my words worthy of the people who hear them. It disgusts me, deep down, to see someone abusing that power.

That’s all.

Greatness: Archetypes

Daniel and Brad and I used to sit around discussing such things, and we once settled on a set of four symbols, four archetypes to define the various kinds of Great Men — those people living the deliberate, examined life.

These are the ones we settled on: the Shepherd and the Wolf, the Poet and the King. The Shepherd and the Wolf are pure archetypes, the Poet and the King are hybrids. I eventually defined them based on their focus, and their intended goal — self, or others.

The Shepherd
The Shepherd focuses on others for others’ sake. The Shepherd devotes his life to truly understanding the people he encounters, and to making their lives better.

The Wolf
The Wolf focuses on himself for his own sake. (These are mythical characterizations, not naturalistic ones — yes, I know that the wolf is actually a highly social animal, but I’m playing off the symbolism, not the science. So shove off!) The Wolf is highly independent, and most fit for survival in difficult circumstances.

The Poet
The Poet focuses on himself for others’ sake. He examines his life, his world, his thoughts and emotions to try to find some Truth to share with others. Unlike the Shepherd, he’s an introvert, independent.

The King
The King focuses (you’ve probably already guessed this, if you’ve been paying attention) on others for his own sake. The King is highly social, capable of getting along with others (through charm or manipulation or authority, or any combination of these), and focuses highly on the people around him in order to attain his own ends.

Just some things I find interesting. Thought I’d put them down on paper, as it were. My navel-gazing post prior had me feeling a little embarrassed, but then I decided, based on my archetypes, that it’s okay to do that from time to time (since I do strive to be like The Poet), so there you go.

And, anyway, that got me thinking about the archetypes, and I thought they should be documented somewhere. Comment if you like.

Greatness: Silence

Daniel has often commented that the time he spent with my whole family growing up has had a big impact on his friendship with me, as he has had the opportunity to see the dynamics and factors that went into making me who I am.

One of those factors, from the time I was about six, was noisiness. Most of you know or have my met sisters, and most of you probably won’t think that what I’m about to say is a fair characterization, but remember it was the appraisal of a six year old boy, concerning a seven year old girl and a four year old girl. Or something like that.

Anyway, that age was probably the earliest point in my life when I really stepped back and said, “I can see people behaving this way, and I choose to behave that way.” Heather had a good friend who lived nearby (and I didn’t, and that probably plays into this to some extent), and when she and Cheryl would get together, they would just talk and talk and talk. Chatter, it’s called. It wasn’t the volume, so much as the quantity, and the perfect obviousness of the fact that it was all nonsense. I mean, second grade gossip, how valuable is it gonna be?

And then there was Shannon, and with her it was the volume. She was the little one, and the last one, and she had to speak up to be heard at all, and when she caught on to that, she sure went all out. I think there was something wrong with her hearing for a little while, too? I’m not sure on that one. Anyway, she made noise.

And, even at that age, I decided that I really didn’t like all the noise, all the ruckus. I spent a lot of time playing by myself, out in the trees and pasture below our house, so I got used to the quiet anyway, and I just decided that that was more valuable, to me. Well, no, that’s not true. Back then I wasn’t so generous. I decided that noisiness was awful and horrible altogether, and that being mostly quiet was ideal.

And, of course, when I got together with my other friends, all six year old boys, I’m sure we raised quite a racket. I don’t remember doing that, but I’m sure we did. Whatever. The point is, I decided that an aspect of my personality was going to be silence, and I incorporated that into who I was.

I was talking with Trish about this on Monday, driving home from Little Rock, in case you’re wondering why I bring it up here. It’s not really something I’ve thought about recently, but it occupied my mind quite a bit in high school. I’ll get to that, in a moment.

So, way back then, I had a handful of friends from church, but church was about half an hour away, and most of them lived on the other side of it, so it’s not as though we saw each other at all aside from church events (and occasionally inviting one or two friends over for the afternoon on Sunday). Other than that, as I said, it was mostly the playing by myself. So this philosophical choice I’d make about Silence was pretty much a foregone conclusion, anyway.

But when I was twelve, my family moved to Wichita, and I was enrolled in a school that had a Gifted Program (and, y’know, more than 200 people K-12 — probably well over 200 people just in the middle school). This meant a lot more people for me to have someone in common with, and for the first time I had a group of friends at school. Friends I interacted with on a pretty much daily basis.

And most of my interacting was just practicing silence. It seems almost imagined, when I think back on it now, because it’s so different from who I am today. I would sit in a group of people who, adjusted for age, pretty much exactly matches the group of people I hung out with in high school, and the group of people I hung out with in college and, though the number has shrunk, the group of people I hang out with now.

Talkative people. People who listen to the news and ponder life’s big questions, and talk out of their ass from time to time just to sound sophisticated. People who debate constantly, trying to find an answer, or score a point, or challenge someone in a way that will make them think something new (or just get a rise out of them). It is a constant babble, but somehow it strikes me as different from the chatter, the meaningless blab that I’d discarded when I was little. So I didn’t mind it so much.

However (and this is the disconnect), when I was a part of this group in middle school, I would sit for hours and listen to them talking, but I wouldn’t participate. Not much. I mostly just listened. I assume I was the same way with the youth group, but I can’t say for sure, and the only people who really could (aside from maybe my parents) have known me for too long since then to answer with any more clarity than I can, I think.

But I definitely remember the dynamic among my friends at school, and for a rather embarrassingly vain reason….

Okay, I’ll tell you. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote my first novel. It was called The Scorekeeper, and it was about…errr…an archangel who came down to Earth (well, not Earth, but to the world where my fantasy novels are set) to convince four prophesied heroes to fulfill their destinies and save a kingdom. However — here was the tricky bit — even though he had foreknowledge and immense power, he wasn’t supposed to interfere. The heroes were supposed to have the adventure, because it was a human situation and humans were supposed to resolve it. So he followed along, watching these people, occasionally having a hearfelt discussion with one or another of them, and without ever touching the world he subtly, gracefully led them along the path for which they were destined.

Err…okay, it was my first novel, and I was in sixth grade, so the grace and subtlety weren’t what they should’ve been, but that was the point of the character.

And I remember one day, shortly after finishing it, I intervened in a conflict among a couple of my friends, and resolved it to everyone’s satisfaction, and Haley Rumback (I had such a crush on her at the time) stopped me in the hall between classes and said, “You really are the Scorekeeper, aren’t you? You’ll save us all.”

Okay, this whole post has been worth it to me, just for the warm memory. I’d forgotten that bit, mostly, until I worked my way up to it.

Anyway, that wasn’t something I’d intended at all, in the conception of the story, and I’d never thought of myself in that way, but when she said that, I thought about it heavily (as I tend to do), and I recognized this aspect of my interaction with my friends. The thing I’m talking about in this post, I mean, where I would sit back and listen, barely participate at all, but really listen, and when I did speak up, I had something so worth saying, that they all paid attention. And, at least that once, I was able to really help.

Man, those were good days….

Then there came a time, early in my high school career, when I decided that I could be sociable. That it was a matter of behavior, not genetics, and all it took was getting up and participating in the conversation, rather than hiding from it. This is one of my mom’s proudest memories of me, because she saw me learning to face social challenges, but it’s also one of the things I most regret about my own development.

Because it worked. I was successful, to an extent. You all know that I’m still a pretty shy person, that I still am very uncomfortable meeting someone for the first time, and I’d much rather interact in a small group than a large one (or out in public), but even so…I’m way better than I was in middle school.

Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of participation. I jump into the mix. I make wry comments when the opportunity arises (well, I think they’re wry). I start conversations, rather than waiting to see what others will talk about.

(I’m not bragging here — I’m not particularly good at any of these things, it’s just that I do them at all.)

Anyway, I devoted most of a year (probably my Freshman year in high school) to learning to do these things. I really worked hard at being social, and my circle of friends grew. I got to know a lot more people, and more people thought I was fun to hang out with. I don’t remember anyone really coming to me for advice, though. I don’t remember solving a lot of problems. I do remember regret. By my Junior year at the latest, I was missing what I’d once had. I’d gotten to the point that I spoke up a lot more, but I said a lot less. That really bugged me, and I decided to go back to the way I’d been.

I’ve decided that at least once a year, ever since then. I’ve never succeeded, not even a little bit. I wish I could be the contemplative listener, the thoughtful observer, instead of the shining socialite I’ve become.

And what’s the point of all this? What’s the point of the post? More chatter, I guess. Something I should’ve kept to myself, but said out loud instead. I guess this is really more of a diary entry than an essay, but there you go. At least I wrote something today.

There are some lessons, though. You can choose to shape your own personality, within limits. You can choose to become something you admire, or avoid something you dislike. There’s a certain gravity to some characteristics, though, and those are particularly the shallower ones. There are some evils that, once invited in, are hard to chase back out. And sometimes they look beautiful as strangers, but once you’ve gotten to know them, you wish you didn’t have them at all.

So maybe it is a topical post after all. For Julie, at least, who has been discussing these things lately. Here’s my personal experience, with all of the issues you wrote about today. Maybe it’s worthwhile. Maybe it’s worthless vanity. Make of it what you will.

God and Greatness: Absolution

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about absolution — about sin in general, and the afterlife as well.

In my time, I’ve been a lot of different places on the topic of life after death. There was a long time when I felt like there was no NEED for a life after death — on a personal, individual base, the extent of your consciousness IS eternity, after all. I built up a big argument for it, trying to work my way around to “Live life to the fullest,” I guess, but it just doesn’t match with anything I believe, long-term.

I sort of outgrew that phase, without really replacing it with anything. I just settled back into default, I guess.

Then I started this blog, about a year ago, and sometime around a week after I wrote “The Magic Architect,” I really started understanding what I really believe these days.

(And I was already arguing the supporting points back at the very beginning, but it’s only recently that the pieces fit together into a big picture, y’know?)

So. What is salvation? What is grace? What about “neither height nor depth” separating us from God, and whatnot? What about Love keeping no record of wrongs?

I asked these questions before. You’ve seen me mull them.

Why would Jesus give up his divine life, so that we could walk a knife edge that we’ll almost certainly going to fall off? That’s a huge sacrifice for a pretty risky investment. We’re told he died to save us from everlasting death, not just to give us a fighting chance….

Me, I see people screwing up. People screw up all the time. Life is just a big string of terrible mistakes. Daniel asked me recently if I thought people ever really stop sinning, if anyone ever really overcomes temptation, and I said I’m pretty sure that happens when people die, and not really before.

And I don’t mean that as a pessimistic statement, and I don’t mean it as a snarky way to score a conversational point. I think Life is a kind of hell — or, to use someone else’s terminology (and I’m mostly thinking of Lewis here), a kind of purgatory. It’s not where we’re supposed to be, and it’s not something we’re good at, and it’s got more negatives than positives about it.

I think that (as I’ve said before) thanks to the gift of absolution, humans having to suffer through Life is a kindness. It’s an opportunity that we desperately need, to learn the important lessons without facing the eternal consequences for the little mistakes along the way.

I cherish Life, for this reason. I’m proud of all those people I see living it, really participating in the experience. Which is not say those going out of their way to make mistakes, in the hope of learning from them (or, to use someone else’s words again, those people who are “going on sinning so that Grace may increase”). No, I think anybody rushing blindly into folly after folly after folly without trying to learn from it is setting himself up for some long-term suffering.

But there are some people who try to really experience Life, who try get everything they can out of it. And let me tell you (as if you didn’t already know), living life boldly will result in mistakes, and missteps, and grand catastrophes from time to time. Living life boldly will result in sins, and addictions, and suffering (and, to make sure it’s real suffering, it won’t just be your own, but your mistakes will cause suffering to those that you care about). Living life boldly means that, from time to time, you will be viciously, horribly guilty.

And that’s where absolution comes in. We are not called to a spirit of timidity, but to a spirit of boldness. We could try to hide behind a Law, we could try not to commit sins, and we could commit a whole life to not being bad, but that would be — listen carefully — that would be a life wasted. That would be nothing learned. That would be all the pain of temptation rejected, and in the end you are where you started — you know what is wrong, and what is right. Hiding behind rules does not mature you, does not better prepare you for tomorrow, or for infinity.

To do that, you must come out from behind the Law and experience Good and Evil. You must enter into the actual knowledge of both, and choose Good. But doing so will leave you marked with all the filthy stains of your journey, all the wickedness you surrendered to along the way. By the time you’re in a position to choose Good, you’re too filthy a thing to do so.

And, of course, our God provided an answer. He paid a heavy price, but it was a price he was willing to invest in his children. Absolution. He invested Christ, not in the goodie goodies who avoid mixed swimming and run away from temptations (the older sons, as it were). No, he invested the blood of Christ in all those who have tasted everything the world has to offer, the Good and Bad, and who, having seen the fullness of what the devil has to give, are willing and able to reject it in favor of the kingdom. Those are the ones who will truly know the value of what they have obtained, and it was for them that the blood was shed.

All things are permitted to me, but not all things are good for me. Life…life is an opportunity to learn both halves of that statement. Get started.

Greatness: “Othering”

In college, I took a class called “Search for the American Identity: Race, Class, and Gender.” It may have been called “Quest for the American Identity,” (that’s how I remember it), but that’s probably just my Fantasy Lit slant on things. Probably “Search.”

Anyway, as part of the “Race” segment, we read several articles on the topic of “Othering,” that is, pursuing cultural practices that isolate the participant’s community from another community, preventing integration and emphasizing differences between the communities. The ancient Greeks were experts at this — y’know the word “barbarian” which we use to this day? It’s from the Greek meaning, “Someone who isn’t Greek.” But they applied it in exactly the way we do today.

“Othering” is the concept behind the phrase, “those people,” as in, “you know how those people are….”

It is, of course, highly poisonous. It teaches us to think of ourselves as real people, and Others as not-quite-real-people. Whatever it is that makes them Other is also what keeps them from being real people.

Interestingly, the Covenant of the Old Testament sort of inverted Othering, providing the Hebrews with a set of cultural practices specifically designed to set them apart from the communities they encountered. From within, the Jews were just as racist as the rest of us, looking out at the Gentiles in precisely the way the Greeks looked at the barbarians, but looking back on the Old Testament, many of the cultural laws seem specifically designed to promote Othering by Gentile communities, which may well have been a large part of God’s design for the establishment of a chosen people.

That’s not my point, though. That’s just an aside.

One of the many articles we read in that section focused on Othering in Hip Hop music. Specifically, that Hip Hop is published, promoted by, and consumed by the White Man, as an Othering form of entertainment that allows us to look down on black culture even as we are creating it.

I’ve been thinking about that more and more lately — mostly because I finally have a significant commute to work, which is the only time I actually listen to music of any sort. I have been listening a lot to Hip Hop (okay, it sounds silly, yes, and it looks silly in type, especially capitalized, but that’s the name — I don’t really listen to Rap), and I’m seeing more and more what that article was talking about.

I keep thinking of the Eddie Murphy sketch where he went in full costume as a white dude. Near the end of the sketch, he’s sitting in a bank talking with a loan officer, and they’re both laughing, and Eddie says, “Hahaha! Silly negro!” That’s kinda the effect you get sometimes, listening to Hip Hop. That, or, “They really are a vicious people!” That’s Othering. That’s bad. And we need to be careful about it, otherwise we’ll end up like those Muslims, condemning people based on their cultural traditions, rather than their individual vices….

Greatness: Listen Up!

This is very important people, so pay attention!

All of you! Even you in the back of the class. Listen up!

It is now time to watch The Zero Effect. Hop to it. No delays, no excuses. Your reports are due by 4:00 tomorrow (or Monday, if you still have an excused absence left for the semester).

You may spend the rest of the period working on this project. I have no objections to that.