Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Clergy should get a Compass

This past year, I read (or actually listened to the audiobooks) of an enchanting, beautiful, and disturbing trilogy of books called His Dark Materials. The first part of the series, called The Golden Compass will be released by New Line Cinemas this December and look like they're going to be a hit. The trailer begins with a reference to the successful LOTR trilogy that New Line also masterfully brought to screen, and the two books are both epic and engrossing. They also both have strong undercurrents of religion and spirituality. However, while Tolkien had a positive view of religion, which shone through in his epic, Philip Pullman's view of religion is fairly negative and can also be seen in the pages of His Dark Materials. God is referred to as "The Authority" in the Golden Compass, the church is a dominating bureaucracy that stands in the way of innovation and discovery for fear of the truth behind what might be discovered. Children are tortured in a physical, emotional, and spiritual way by the church, and the heroes of the novel are on a quest to aid an uprising against the Kingdom of Heaven on a Miltonian kind of Armageddon.

Now, I'm not someone who would ever advise one to censor what they read because of objectionable material. Instead, I would encourage everyone I know to read these books. I think they are wonderful--wonder full. But, as a clergy person, I'm happy that I have read and delved into Lyra Belaqua's world (the parallel universe that the main character lives in) to explore it before most of my parishioners have been exposed to it. I'm sure they will have questions, and I prefer to be prepared. Many of our parishioners will be exposed to the Golden Compass this Dec. and many will then pick up the books to read. I'm not sure how far down the rabbit hole New Line will go in the presentation of Pullman's original themes and metaphysics, but the book is quite enchanting and persuasive, and it will do us good to be able to respond knowledgeably and engagingly. I recommend a summer diet of Pulmann, Milton, and Blake (Pulmann's two chief inspirations). As Blake once did, the metaphysics of the book challenge the traditional metaphysic of Christianity, except Pullman has physics at play in his construction of another metaphysic as well. I suppose you could call Pullman's a quantum metaphysic. An excerpt from the second book, The Subtle Knife, of the rebel angel Balthamos addressing Lyra (the main character) “It's an angel speaking, Balthamos said quietly. The authority, God, the creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, the King, the Father, the Almighty - those were all names he gave himself. He was never the Creator. He was an angel like ourselves; the first angel too, the most powerful. But he was formed of dust as we are, and dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself.”

On another note, after reading the whole trilogy, I do believe that Pullman could be quite persuaded by Process Theology, but perhaps that is the subject of another post (or book).

I envy all of you who will now pick up His Dark Materials for the first time now and be able to fall into discovery of the world of armored bears, witches, Will, Balloon flying Texans, daemons, and the like. If you don't have time to read, the audio book is excellent, (BBC production including Pullman as the narrator's voice) and can be listened to in the car (although you may find yourself driving more just to listen).

Oh, and lest I fail to mention it, Pullman is presenting the metaphysic that is contained in the book to advance the story, not to "describe our world, per se." Here's a clip from a BBC interview: BBC: "So, this is an account of where our beliefs, all kinds of beliefs, come from?
PP: No. I wouldn't say it like that. It might turn out to be an account of where my beliefs have come from, but first and foremost, it's a story. You see, I didn't set out to write this thing in order to embody a myth. The myth was something for my own private needs. I needed to have something; some sort of solid ground on which the rest could be erected. But the most important thing as far as the reader is concerned, is the story of what happens: Event succeeding event, explanations of things that were mysterious, gradually becoming apparent. Consequence is being worked out, and so on. That's how stories work, and I'm concerned with a story rather than anything else."

I think that Pullman is dead on in the interview and also in the "moral" of the book that our stories will ultimately save us. I think we in this day and age get too caught up in the discrepancies of "fact" and "fiction" and forget about the much larger power of story or myth. Why does Jesus still find such resonance in our culture 2000 years later? Because he told stories.

I'm attaching a BBC interview with Pullman on a program called "Belief" here.

And a link to the "fansite" for all things Pullman here.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Grandma wanted to borrow the DVD of my life

A couple weeks ago my grandmother passed away in Monticello, AR. She had pneumonia, but had been debilitated from about 10 years of Alzheimer's disease. On the morning I found out that she died, I felt glad and strangely confident that she was now finally and completely made whole. Alzheimer's is such a difficult disease, that I felt like I had mourned her loss over the course of 10 years--the news of her death was an end to that mourning for me. This isn't the same experience for everyone who knew and loved grandma. My mother, for instance had developed a rhythm of going down to visit her, sitting with her, and was there when she died. My grandpa used to walk to the nursing home every day to make sure they were caring for her as they should. My visits were more infrequent; so for me the loss is less a disruption to the rhythm of life. My dad and I did the funeral service. I was glad that I was given the honor of memorializing her--being the oldest grandchild, I took the approach that I was there to give voice to the grandchildren, and to relate how grandma was a loving grandparent.

As I mentioned, she suffered (and we all suffered) with Alzheimer's for about 10 years. This is such a vexing disease for one who proclaims the reality of the spirit (where was her spirit in those last years? trapped?) and the sanctity of remembrance (there seem to be theological as well as existential consequences to the loss of memories). But for some reason, when reading over the funeral scriptures, I drew confidence from Paul's beautiful words, "we shall be changed, in the twinkling of an eye" and in John's mystical vision of God's proclamation, "Behold, I make all things new." It has been a while since a scripture has penetrated my mind and touched my heart. Usually they just get stuck in the swirling world of ideas, study, and application. These two pierced my heart and formed my words that I shared with the family during the funeral. Praise God!

I share all of this because last night I had a dream that grandma was sitting in my grandparents cluttered living room, and I was there with her. Grandma was really excited to watch this DVD I was holding. It was a home-made DVD similar to ones that I've made of video clips of Wesley's first year, or like the ones I made for our family for this past Christmas, except that this DVD was somehow a record of the 10 years of my life that she missed. I remember feeling a great deal of excitement about the prospect of sharing those moments with her, and when I woke up, I felt refreshed as soon as I opened my eyes for the first time in a long time.

And by the way, the photo is taken by my sister, who is very talented. I'm sure she doesn't mind that I lifted it from her flickr site (Haley Ruth), even though it says "rights reserved."

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Sermon Scraps--Emmaus and a Violin Virtuoso ignored

I'm not preaching on the Emmaus story from Luke this Sunday, but I read a story in the Week this past week that was from the Washington Post that reminded me of it. Take it and run with it.
Here's a good blog link that I found that details the story, including a youtube of the performance, and some reflections. Basically the gist is that a major violinist named Joshua Bell played his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius at a subway stop in D.C. for close to an hour during rush hour and hardly anyone even stopped to listen. The Post asks, "Do you stop to listen? do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? The Washington Post arranged this experiment in context, perception, and priorities--as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"

I thought the story made a good parallell to Luke's story about the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus who encounter a stranger with whom they share conversation along the journey. When they reach their destination, they make an effort to convince the stranger to have dinner with them (Luke tells us the stranger makes like he is going to take leave of them once they reach their place), and when he obliges and then has dinner with them, they recognize that it is Jesus when he sits at the table and breaks bread with them. These disciples are good witnesses for us to stop and smell the roses, to encourage beauty and truth and love and depth to win out in our own lives.

Toward the end of the youtube video, (which is shot in time lapse to a soundtrack of one of his performances), you see several congregate at the end--one woman had seen him previously at the library of congress and recognized him as he played, several others looked as though they were perhaps just caught up in the moment--I'd like to count myself among those four or five, but in reality, how many masterpieces of God's have I simply passed with tunnel vision on "my priorities?"