CFL: PROUD TO BE A CANADIAN FOOTBALL FAN FOR LIFE

Why I still love the CFL after all these years!
As we enter the latter half of the 104th Grey Cup Week festivities, I find myself harbouring emotions of another year fallen short for my local team. I believe it is now 26 years and counting since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last tasted the cup.

But this is football of course, so we pick ourselves up and we keep pushing forward. The off-season always has a way of reigniting a sense of hope.

Speaking of football, as is usual this time of year, the national spotlight that comes with the biggest game of the year also tends to bring out the best and the worst between the leagues proud supporters and it’s ciritics, along with those who really could care less.

In the past I have counted myself among the leagues more aggressive verbal supporters. This is because the game remains an important part of who I am, and I always wish more people could share in this excitement.

However, in recent years I have dialed the positive aggression back a bit. Not in my passionate support of course, but rather in the need to defend and evangelize our league to my fellow Canadians against the more lucrative game South of the border. I have come to accept that the only way to truly convince someone that the CFL is a valuable Canadian institution and an entertaining and competitive game is for them to be willing to experience it for themselves.

Saying this, this doesn’t mean I will ever stop being a champion of  my favourite league. It needs to be talked about more. It really is a great game and we are lucky to have it as a representation of our Country. And so, as the Grey Cup quickly approaches here are 5 reasons why I continue to invest in cheering on the Bombers and enjoying the CFL:

1. It is an important piece of our National Identity
Now, before anyone decries the idea of suggesting sport could belong in a conversation about Canadian values and Canadian issues, allow me to say this- It was a book called, The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age by Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit, and more specifically a chapter on the formative years of the Toronto/Montreal civic rivalry, that first opened my eyes to the place of sport in building civic and then national identity. To read of the way two sports teams helped to formulate what would become two of the most dominant civic ethos in our Countries history surprised me. To read of how a sports team and a developing rivalry held the power to both to divide and unite people in the early days of our Countries formation was eye opening. It gave new meaning to my passionate support of the Bombers.

I found a more recent conversation this past year when I came across a couple articles asking the same questions about the role of the Olympics in bringing together a world divided by war.

If you are not a sports fan, the idea that sport has a role to play in building our National identity might sound crazy. But a simple google search reveals a wealth of information suggesting that it indeed does. With this in mind, I continue to believe the CFL contributes to our own National identity in an important way. And here’s why: It’s the only true Canadian game that we have.

Yes, I know. For many, hockey remains the ultimate symbol of true Canadiana. And there is a strong argument to be made for curling. So if I lost you at this point, that’s okay. I mean no disrespect. The fact that I really don’t enjoy hockey means I am likely biased. And in saying this I have to admit that I did indeed hang a banner to help support the Jet’s recent playoff run.

But for me there are few moments that celebrate all things Canadian as well as the CFL’s Grey Cup celebration. Sure, a good portion of the players are American, and sometimes the CFL drops the ball on bringing in good Canadian acts for its half time show (hello organizers for next year), but in my opinion there is no other sport in Canada that has the ability to spark a conversation about Canadian values and diversity in the way that the CFL does year after year. Here the Canadian flag takes centre stage over the sport itself, and it is one of the few national celebrations that we can truly call our own.

There really is something rather amazing about a game that can bring together a representation of an entire Country, even in a league that remains poorly represented anywhere East of Ottawa. The CFL does this, and it does it well.

2. It Builds Civic Pride
I know there are Canadian born fans of the NFL who are passionate about a given team. There can be a whole host of reasons for this- history, family connections, a city you love, tradition, proximity, fantasy football.

But I would continue to argue that there is little that can match the experience and passion of investing in your home team. If sport has a role to play in building National Identity, its ability to affect civic pride is that much greater. And as the Spirit of Cities book points out, cities do indeed matter… a lot.

I know the Jets are back. But I am very aware of a time, not so long ago, where the Bombers helped fill the void of their absence. During that period of time I could only hope it would open a door for more people to get a taste of what keeps me coming back to cheer on the Bombers year after year. It is the people and the crowds. It is seeing our beautiful stadium on the horizen. It is sitting (and standing) under the sun, the moon, the stars. It is braving the rain and the snow to help defend our city against a friendly rival. It is about the tradition and the noise and excitement.

All of this makes the game a special experience, and we should never forget that the CFL played an important role in continuing to foster our civic identity at a time when many mourned the loss of its national hockey team. I still plays an important part today.

And if all of that isn’t enough, perhaps the most important thing is the way the Blue Bombers help remind us of how much Saskatchewan continues to suck.

3. The Experiences and The Memories
The experience of the CFL game begins with the Game Day itself, and there is absolutely nothing like the game day experience.

What I love most about the game day experience is the way it brings people together, gets strangers to talk to one another, and ignites a common passion in its fellow fans. I could probably write a book about the characters I have met over the years at the game, and there is nothing like the opportunity to come together and act (and look) like complete idiots together. This is where all fashion sense is left at the door for the sake of our civic pride.

And all respect to the game of hockey, but in football the 13th person can actually make a difference in the game. It is a part of football that I absolutely love, and it is a part of building this passionate connection to my team that I don’t think I would ever experience by cheering on the Vikings south of the border ( but while I’m at it, Go Vikings). This is my team because it represents my city, and to become a part of the game in this way brings me closer to both.

When it comes to creating memories, these are made from the moments that the game affords me and allows me to be a part of over the years. It is about being there to see records broken (Milt), and to celebrate after a game winning field goal in the dying seconds of an important game. It is about the special players and the classic games. It is about clearing the schedule, getting pizza and watching a road game on t.v. (thank you TSN). And yes, it is also about experiencing the pain of a loss or a losing season and being able to talk about it with friends and strangers and then keep on cheering the next day.

4. The Accessibility of the League
Much ink has been spent over the years about this point. It might sound cliché at this point, but it remains an important and valid truth about the ethos of the Canadian league.

A big part of why I love the CFL is that I can really get to know the players and have a voice in the league. Given that the salaries are much more lucrative south of the border and the top line competition that much broader, those who gain an opportunity to play in the Canadian game are often here because they simply love to play and they love the game. In a world where the almighty dollar tends to dominate so much (hello hockey, talk to me when I can actually afford to go to a game), to have a professional level league that is still somewhat protected from such over the top salary talk is actually a breathe of fresh air.

As well, I love the CFL because its affordability makes the game accessible to all different kinds of people and fans. The fact that I can share space with people regardeless of income level or social status is a testament to the reach of the league. It really is a game for everyone.

Along with accessibility comes diversity. Again, much ink has been spent on this as well, but one of the things that I love about the Canadian game is the way you can follow such a wide spectrum of players, including the rare occasion of a league that protects and fosters the development of its Canadian players.

This includes the variety of reasons professional caliber players fail to gain a break in the NFL and come North instead (ill timed injuries, questions of size, age, over stacked rosters), and it is always fun to see players of all shapes and sizes that otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to develop find their form in the CFL. Sometimes these talented players go on to head south after a year or two of shining in our league, and sometimes they end up staying. But to have the chance to celebrate this talent and diversity along with up and coming college prospects means every season provides something unexpected. And it is the intimate size of the league allows these unexpected talents to be savored and celebrated and recognized on a more personal level.

True, our league can afford to grow another team or two. In my opinion one more Eastern team would be the perfect sized league. But over the years the CFL has shown that smaller does not equal weaker. There are many ways to measure strength. Case in point, the reshaping of the NHL into smaller arenas. In-fact, the CFL’s manageable size has allowed it to key in on the strength of the game itself and to often lead the way in inovative ideas, and statistics reveal a league that has grown leaps and bounds from where it was even five/10 years ago. The story this year has been about the struggle to get fans into seats across the league, but hopefully recent stats can help shed some light on how to move forward with this issue: these stats show an increase in t.v. ratings and increase in the younger demographic (18-40 range). This is a positive, but more certainly needs to be done to capture the attention of this demographic for our league to continue to grow. The leagues accessibility remains an important part of this plan moving forward.

5. The Social Game

This is probably the most important point for me. For as much as I love the game, the most important thing is the social connections the game creates. For the last few years I have been trying to revitalize some of the social connections that I lost with the return of the Jets by investing in the game as a family affair. I have been privileged to be able to attend games over the last few years with my in-laws, my wife and my son. There is nothing I love more than seeing them experience the excitement of Game Day. Given that our team has been losing so often and so consistently, this has remained a bit of a tough sell at times, but the reward is so worth it when the moments do arrive and they get a true taste of the loudest fans in the CFL, a sweet victory or a record breaking moment in franchise or CFL history. The experience of the moment is half the fun. Being able to remember that we were there to experience these moments together is the other half of the fun. I remain grateful for these moments, and I continue to remain grateful for friends who share a passion and commitment to CFL football (win or lose) as well.

There’s Always Next Year
A famous phrase around these parts, but in the first time in a long time I think the sentiment might hold some truth. But then again, I think I always say that.

It has been a long few years of football to be sure. But our team finally seems to be going in the right direction. We have found consistency in the organization and coaching staff. Some dynamic players and some good prospects and picks in the near future are helping to create a visible foundation that, I believe, will help make next year even more entertaining than this past one. And save for a poor start, this year definitely was entertaining football. I can’t wait.

But in the meantime we still have the Grey Cup. The biggest game of the year. The symbol of our great league. No matter who’s in it (ABC… anybody but Calgary… ah crap), no matter who wins it (Go Ottawa), this is about celebrating Canadian football and celebrating Canada. This is about a sport bringing us together to share in something truly distinctive. This is about being able to recognize the story lines (like last years MOP facing off against this years MOP). It is about coming together as fans to talk about what gets us excited, to share in our predictions and to, of course eat a lot of pizza. And of course it is about seeing an entire Country come together around the table together. After all, what better way to bring us together than around a great Canadian institution like the CFL.

#CFL Proud
#BLUEANDGOLD

Book Review: Resistance by Nechama Tec

resistance_by_nechama_tec

I picked up the book “Resistance” by Nechama Tec a few days ago in anticipation of Remembrance Day. My hope was that it would help me focus my mind and my spirit on the idea of sacrifice as I took the time to remember those who gave their lives for the sake of our freedom today.

To be honest I did not grow up learning to value or show interest in the Remembrance Day Celebration. A part of this was not having anyone in my family who was connected to the war or military service. Getting married changed this for me.

My Grandfather in-law, who recently passed away, was a World War 2 Vet, and over the past 12 years we (as a family) have faithfully made the trek out to the Selkirk Arena to participate in the Remembrance Day service. This year was no exception. For the first time however, my Grandfather in-law did not have a wreath layed in his memory. This reminded me  of how  fleeting the stuff of history can be and how quickly time moves forward. It also showed me that when we do take the time to remember it can slow down time enough so that we are able to learn something from the people that helped pave the way before us.

Remembering My Grandfather-In-Law
When we flew to Ukraine two years ago to complete our adoption we took some time out of a very busy process to visit Jen’s family village (just outside of Lviv). The desire was to take the opportunity, while we were down there, to build a connection with Jen’s own family history. A big motivation for this was the chance to gain some insight into who her grandfather actually was, and so following this visit to the village we decided to continue on to Auschwitz.

Jen’s Grandfather never talked much about the war. If he said anything at all it came in bite size snippets that were often encased in humorous stories. Jen has said this a few times, but it felt like the war had changed him in ways that he was unable to express, which I suppose should be expected. Taking this journey did help to offer some insight into the struggles he likely faced and the toll it must have taken on this man and his emotional well being. I can only imagine, and even then my imagination can only take me so far.

Tec explains in the beginning pages of his book “Resistance” that he needed a way of responding to the most common question he has come up against in his personal research on the plight of the Jewish people during the war:

“Why did the Jewish people not fight back?”

This book essentially looks to shed light on a great misunderstanding when it comes to how people respond and fight back in the face of tragedy and war, which for Tec comes down to an understanding of the word resistance.

According to Vic, the idea of resistance is far more nuanced than we often realize, and fighting back is much more than simply an act of defending oneself against an outside threat. First, the most important thing to recognize about resistance is that it is not an individual act but rather a communal act. It always involves a community and a concern for others. Secondly, resistance is also, by nature, active and intentional. It is a movement that intends to accomplish something.

In the case of the Jewish resistance to the Nazi terror, Tec first pulls back the curtain of history to help us see how the Nazi force was incredibly intentional in crippling the ability of the Jews (both men and women) to fight back. Their strategy, of locating, dispersing to the ghetto’s, and eventually deportation (and execution) essentially divided the numbers, fostered an environment of uncertainty, and allowed the Nazi’s to deport (both Jews and non-Jews) at their weakest point. It was an exercise of control that was intended to eliminate the possibility of resistance before it was even able to gain momentum.

By helping us understand the reality of their situation, Vic then goes on to show, through personal stories and up-close encounters (with the eventual resisting force that fought back at Aushwitchz, the underground, the stories of the forest, and the woman couriers to name a few), that in the midst of such a horrible injustice we actually find an example of incredible strength and a resistance movement that was focused primarily on protecting the integrity of its people for the sake of future generations.

According to Vic, far too often resistance (in our modern mind) is demonstrated as violent action and hostility, heightened emotional response, vocal push-back, the protection of personal rights, and angry picket signs.  The Jewish people, and the Christians who stood with them, help to show us a different kind of resistance, a resistance that, for many, faced the loss of everything they once knew and held close- even the ability to fight back to begin with. This was a resistance that found the courage to see what, in the face of such loss, they might be able to do to ensure the future of their children. This was a resistance that refused to lose sight of their heritage even when mass execution was threatening to erase it from existence. This was a resistance that looked to uphold and to demonstrate the beliefs, values, and virtues of their people, even when oppression demanded a different reaction.

In the midst of such a great horror, Vic reveals a people who did not simply give themselves over to their oppressor, even as their voices were effectively silenced. They did fight back. They continued to work together to circumvent the trappings of the Nazi strategy and continued to have hope that something good was going to come out of the mess. They truly were an example of what it means to lose your life for the sake of another.

In this season of remembrance may we remember what it means to demonstrate such integrity, to speak with action rather than words, and to always see the celebration of our freedom (the freedom that people like my Grandfather in-law fought for) in light of the needs of the marginalized and the oppressed rather than as a proclamation of our personal rights.

The war left my Grandfather in silence. Putting his life on the line for the sake of others continues to be the action that broke the silence. If remembering the sacrifice of my Grandfather has taught me anything, it is that two minutes of silence can be worth far more than a thousand words. Allowing this silence to move me to action is worth a million more.

The Thrill of Horror and the Hopeful Mystery

images
Tis the season to talk about horror…

Not Surprising But Maybe Somewhat Surprising: Horror Is Popular Again!
2016 has seen the release of “The Conjuring 2”, along with a calculated (but highly rated) gamble by Fox in bringing The Exorcist to the small screen. Given that my favorite horror film, “The Conjuring” (2014), currently sits in second spot as the as the highest grossing genre film of all time (with the original release of the “The Exorcist” leading the pack at #1) this is probably not surprising.

                             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conjuring_2
What does surprise me is how many people seem to share in my love of a good horror film these days, perhaps because I’ve met a fair degree of cynicism in the past:

  • Horror By the Numbers
    Both Micheal Gingold and Charley Ridgely argue that not only is there a continuing upward trend in popularity, but it currently represents the only true competition to the dominant superhero blockbuster.

As Charley Ridgely goes on to show, when considering the domestic box office alone, horror films within the last few years have actually out-performed their superhero counterparts in terms of profitability. Unconventional films like The Witch, a slow burning, highbrow period piece, are managing to generate a surprising amount of conversation, while sleeper hits like Don’t Breathe and Lights Out continue to exceed expectations. However we look at it, people are searching for a good scare, and this is something that doesn’t seem to demand a big budget.

http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/08/horror-movie-box-office
(http://comicbook.com/popculturenow/2016/09/01/is-2016-a-milestone-year-for-horror-movies-/)
(http://www.indiewire.com/2016/09/best-horror-films-2016-dont-breathe-1201721854/)
(http://www.nerdinfinite.com/do-horror-movies-need-a-hot-hollywood-trend-to-thrive/)

imgres-2

 So why are people seeming to share in my enjoyment of horror?

The Theory of Diversity
One theory, Gingold argues, is the sheer diversity of the genre itself. Ranging from the “found-footage” concepts of Paranormal/Cloverfield, to the “central villain” style of The Purge, this has allowed the genre to reach a fairly broad audience.

Also noted in Gingold’s assessment is the emergence of the certain amicability between a genre that has been notoriously looked down upon by critics in the past and the relatively positive (or open) critical response the last few years. This seems to be helping the humble horror film garner interest from cross-genre authors and directors and has been translating into solid numbers at the box office (as we speak, yet another horror film, Ouija, has opened to positive reviews and solid numbers).

Perhaps, though, as the writing team behind the Conjuring 2 (Carey and Chad Hayes) suggest, there is an even bigger picture worth considering.

A Special Interest In the Supernatural

“Demonic possession is having something of a cultural moment right now.” – Carey and Chad Hayes

“Demons are hot right now, at least in pop culture.” – Alison Gilmore (Winnipeg Free Press)

“Out with vampires, in with haunted houses: the ghost story is back.”
– https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/24/out-with-vampires-in-with-haunted-houses-ghost-stories-are-back

While the genre indeed remains diverse, Carey and Chad Hayes insist, in a recent interview, that it is a general interest in stories of the supernatural and spirituality that continues to drive it’s overall popularity.

Modern research seems to have something to say about this as well:

  • The Science of Horror
    To begin with, there appears to be a rather strong link between the modern experience of “controlled fear” (horror films, roller coasters) and the need to control an ancient tribal impulse to “flee” from danger.

As Newman points out, Freud

imgres-5actually speaks to this idea in his theory of “repression”, which has to do with the relationship between our conscious awareness and unconscious response.

What this essentially means is, when we watch a horror film we are actively suppressing (controlling) the need to flee or give up in the face of an on-screen threat. We do this by remaining consciously aware that the on-screen threat is not real, while at the same time allowing ourselves to experience a genuine sense of fear as an unconscious reaction. By controlling the experience in this way, we prevent the sensation of fear from turning towards prolonged anxiety. This is what makes viewing a horror film so rewarding, leaving us with the momentary ability to enjoy the thrill of a good scare.
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To use a further example, if we are unable to trick our brains into feeling “unsafe” on a rollercoaster it will cease to be a thrill ride. Thus those in charge of designing a rollercoaster must provide a prototype that allows us to engage this part of our brain. At the same time, tricking our minds into feeling unsafe (in the moment) requires that we are able to recognize the coaster to be a safe and controlled environment. Otherwise, the fearful response ends up outside of our control.

Simply put, those who are unable to balance (or control) these competing forces are the ones who either will not get on a roller coaster (or watch the horror film) or remain too bored/cynical to consider it scary.
Transgressions of Reading: Narrative Engagement as Exile and Return by Robert D. Newman

  • The Science of Filmmaking
    The people at (filmmakeriq.com) look at this same idea from the perspective of the filmmaking process itself. images-3They explain that inciting the emotion of fear in film is a combination of- Tension (establishing the presence of the monster, demon, ghost, villain on screen), Relevance (allowing room for a personal and emotional connection to this tension to develop), and Unrealism (keeping the audience from being pushed too far over the line between what is real and what is not).
    http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/the-psychology-of-scary-movie
    http://www.livescience.com/7949-horror-movies-people-love.html

Realism vs. Unrealism
Something interesting happens though when we move to consider stories of the supernatural in the horror genre. As the Hayes brothers go on to suggest, it actually appears to be an increased sense of what is “real” (conscious or true) that draws people into these stories:

Based on a True Story
There is clear evidence that the phrase “based on a true story” has the power to get people out to watch a certain film or read a certain book. Research seems to suggest a persisting belief that these stories can evoke certain emotions that wouldn’t otherwise come into play when watching a film.

In fact, showing pictures of the real-life characters (on which a story is based) at the end of a film is the product of a very real science that seems to be getting very real results. Recent studies have shown that including these pictures at the end of a film substantially increases the number of people who will stay in their seats after (and for) the closing credits. It is fascinating that getting viewers to stay in their seats also increases positive viewer response towards the film itself.

The articles below add an interesting sub-point to this discussion, pointing out that this persistent belief in the value of the “true story” actually devalues (unnecessarily) the power of the fictional story to evoke the same emotion. The evidence, after all, seems to point to the fact that even though our ability to resonate emotionally with fiction and non-fiction remains on equal ground, audiences still seem to gravitate towards material that carries that true to life claim, no matter how closely  . At a base level what this tells us is that audiences seem to crave stories that are able to break that fourth wall (between the viewer and the on-screen or on-page story), and many seem to find this in stories that hold even a passing connection to a true to life tale.
http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2014/september/ebert-factorfiction.html
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140826121058.htm
http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/movies-and-tv/looking-at-the-meaning-of-true-stories-in-films

“The truth, though stranger than fiction, isn’t necessarily more interesting. Irrespective of whether they’re as disingenuous as found footage movies about possession, or as openly interested in the intersect between true crime and horror as Scott Derrickson’s films, the credulity of that ‘true story’ label still holds considerable currency with audiences.”
– Mark Harrison

Realism and the Supernatural
Which brings me back to people’s fascination with stories of the supernatural. The “true story” label that we find lobbied on to so many of these films in recent years plays a significant role in establishing this connection with audiences. In an odd way, when considering the nature of horror films, for as much as these films are intended to scare us, they even seem to foster a sense of comfort. This is because they tap into something that remains very real for many- the supernatural or spiritual experience (defined simply as an experience or belief “relating to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena”), and even if a film is only loosely based on it’s source material (understanding that anything from Ed and Lorraine certainly come with a fair share of controversy), it is the subject matter itself that resonates more than anything else.

To this end, there is plenty of research available that documents the rising interest and openness to spirituality in general (see http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/21/americans-spirituality/ for one example). What the  horror film does, at least in terms of audience testimony, is affirm the idea and the experience of the spirit and offer an outlet from which one can share their experience with others as well.
http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/october/ghost-stories-for-christian-soul.html
http://www.thehorrorzine.com/Special/ThomasSmith/ThomasSmith.html

“We think ghost stories chill us but actually they offer comfort. A universe with ghosts is a universe with an afterlife, which means the bed in the hospital ward or the view from the hospice window is not the end; we carry on, we’ll get to see the people we love once again. So while ghost stories scare the pants off you, they also defang mortality.”
– Mitchell, author of Slade House


The Place of Myth in Understanding The True Story

“Experts sometimes separate oral stories into two main groups: Märchen and Sagen, which are German terms. There are no exact English equivalents. Märchen, consisted of loosely translated “fairy tales” taking place in a kind of different “once-upon-a-time” world, pointing to nowhere-in-particular. They clearly indicate that they are not to be understood as true. People with rather flat characters, clearly defined incidents are the hallmarks of traditions in oral storytelling.

Sagen, on the other hand, are supposed to have actually happened. These “legends”, occurring at a particular time and place very often, draw much of their influence from this fact. Even with the intrusion of supernatural, it does so in an emotionally loaded manner. Ghost and lovers’ leap stories, UFO-stories and stories of supernatural beings fall under these oral storytelling traditions.”
-www.storytellingday.net

(Sagen) Myths, or mythology, have played an important part in the art of storytelling throughout our human history. They help to inform and define our sense of community, connect us to history and tradition, and help us to explore questions of our origins and spiritual relevance (who we are and where we came from). I believe understanding the nature of the myth can aid us in navigating the idea of the “true story” in a more meaningful way.

In his article “Myths, Stories and Reality” Joel Dubouis does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between myth and storytelling, noting that it is a necessary practice (especially for those in the West) to distinguish between the distinct definitions of story telling methods such as myths, fairy tales and legends as we discover what kind of story is being told. For example, while fairy tales are interested in creating wholly fictional universes and characters, myths are grounded in a concern for real human history. They act as a bridge between the seen and the unseen world and help illuminate the pieces of our human story that can sometimes get lost within the ever evolving generational gaps. In this sense, myth can help us to see ourselves (and this world) more clearly than we otherwise would. While myths can certainly fall on different sides of the conversation between fictional and factual, the true power of the myth seems to lie in its ability to evoke a sense of mystery, the push to consider the unknown and to see beyond our limited perspective. The Oxford University Press helps remind us that, “Myth in a sense is the highest reality, and the thoughtless dismissal of myth as fiction or a lie is the most barren and misleading definition of all…Myth serves to interpret the whole of human experience…”
http://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780195397703/student/materials/chapter1/summary/
http://www.csus.edu/indiv/d/duboisj/wm/wm_msr.html

The Mystery and the Religion
As the Oxford University goes on to suggest, myth, as the passing down of stories and traditions from one generation to the next, has always been rife with religious figures, images, and symbols. Myths, of the religious sort, remain “sacred” and “timeless” because of the way they afford us a bridge between our experience of this world and the power of the mysterious or the unseen world. For example, I have had spiritual experiences in my own life that, while they remained anchored in a time and place that is very real, remain impossible to interpret on the grounds of rational thought alone. Sharing these experiences as a part of my mythology offers me a way of speaking to something that I otherwise would not be able to explain.

In a similar way, to offer another example, understanding the nature of these kinds of stories can help us make sense of the tension that exists between the truth of the historical Jesus and the emerging testimony of his self-declared divinity. As the stories of Christ emerge, we are offered a means of wrestling with this mystery in a way we otherwise wouldn’t be able to explain.

Religious figures and images continue to fuel the popular tropes of the horror movie genre- and for good reason. The tradition of religion and spirituality connects us to something bigger than ourselves and helps us make sense of the battle between good and evil that seems to persist inside ourselves and in our world (as a quick aside, Stephen Jones does a wonderful job of bringing these otherworldly images to life in “The Art of Horror: An Illustrated History”). imgres-7The popularity of the supernatural in horror films seems to prove our natural inclination to want (need) to wrestle with this sense of mystery, and for many they remain more than simply a momentary thrill or metaphorical symbol. They have something important to say about the nature of the unseen and the mysterious, and often have a way of shedding light on  whatever modern experience happens to be defining the fear of our time.

When we have trouble making sense of the stuff of life, horror films can give us a way of seeing beyond it by helping us to face the fear and the brokenness of our unanswered questions.

The Power In Facing Our Brokenness
According to author Terry Eagleton, it is also possible that many gravitate to horror because it uses the outward visuals to turn us further inward towards a more sincere form of self-examination. The horror story, after all, tends to feel more honest than the fairy tale ending.  These stories bring us closer to ourselves, not because they avoid goodness, but because they help us to understand our brokenness and our flaws by forcing them into our point of vision. As Peter Chattaway suggests in an interview with Christianity Today, “It’s about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we’re not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear.”

As Alison Gilmore so elegantly argues, the true power of the demon on screen, imgres-6a primary religious symbol in horror films, is the way it exposes the figurative demons that are hiding within us all. This is true whether we are speaking of our perceived shortcomings and failures, our hidden struggles, fears of the unknown or our anxieties.

Thankfully, though, as these films pull these fears and uncertainties to the surface, they don’t leave us in this place. Perhaps the most alluring and wonderful part about this kind of horror story (the supernaturally or spiritually charged) is the way it helps us to confront the evil in order to see the good, something that fits with the redemptive nature of the religious narrative itself.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/so-bad-its-good-why-do-we-find-evil-so-much-more-fascinating-than-goodness-1965587.html
http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/arts-and-life/entertainment/TV/wrestling-with-our-demons-382561191.html
http://cojmc.unl.edu/nativedaughters/storytellers/native-storytellers-connect-the-past-and-the-future
Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore by Josepha Sherman

“I think the thing about ghost stories is that it’s a safe place to enact your darkest fears. Reading a ghost story gives you the permission to go to places we actively and rightly avoid in normal life. A good ghost story asks the reader to examine the horror within – but it’s in a safe and contained way.”
– Catriona Ward, author of Rawblood.

“Considering the storytelling context of myth draws attention to the dynamic process of telling, listening, and reflection that continually shapes and reshapes peoples beliefs about the unseen powers and forces at work in their daily lives.”
– Dubouis

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Lovecraft and Stranger Things: Moving us From Fear to Hope
In a recent episode of “reelworldtheology.com,” they reference the recent success of the Netflix show “Stranger Things” by contrasting it with the legacy of noted horror enthusiast H.B. Lovecraft. As a professed atheist, even Lovecraft was forced to acknowledge the limited capacity and ability of the human mind to wrestle with the horror movie experience.

“His stories dig farther than they should, and what they find (when they do) is something horrific and not immediately comprehendible”, thus allowing the experience of terror to have it’s way with the audience precisely because of the presence of the unknown and the sense of mystery that fuels the story forward.”
-reelworldtheology.com

In other words, the best kind of horror story is one that doesn’t answer all of our questions or reveal all of the monster, but rather leaves it lingering in the shadows for our conscious minds and unconscious emotions to wrestle with.
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But there remains another side to this discussion of Lovecraft, as the writers at “reelworldtheology.com” go on to point out. For all of the ways his work in shaping the genre of horror helped to expose our hidden tendency towards fear, he fell consistently short of capturing the hopefulness that makes up the other side of this picture, certainly when it comes to the genre’s religious symbolism (which they argue is a part of what makes the horror story so compelling).
http://www.cantonrep.com/x780393760/Religion-a-common-theme-in-horror-films

The Hayes brothers also talk about how they intentionally set out to tell stories with a happy ending for this very reason. Hope is important. Hope is necessary. Hope is what draws people to these kinds of stories over others.

It is the redemptive quality that we find in stories of the supernatural that allows us to wrestle with and face both the on-screen and our personal demons with confidence. It is the redemptive story that reminds us that however big our failures and our problems might loom, there is an unseen world (or the idea of the “upside down world” in Stranger Things) imgres-3that stands that much taller. This provides us with the hope that anything is possible, anything can be conquered.

“The success of horror as a popular art form is due in no small part to its ability both to attract and to repel — to captivate, entertain, and invite us, on the one hand, and to confront us with that which is forbidden, unknown, strange, and terrifying, on the other hand. Horror preys upon our vulnerabilities, superstitions, nightmares, and fears.., and we like it! Or at least many of us do. Explanations for why this is so often take two forms: the quasi-religious (“awe”) or the psychoanalytic (“repression”).3 But neither of these is fully sufficient in and of itself. When horror is at its best, it satisfies our curiosity about both the metaphysical and the psychological unknown while, at the same time, casting an unsettling light on the shadow elements both of the human condition and of the cosmos.”
– Bryan Stone
https://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/sanctifi.htm
“There are redemptive qualities that, thematically, are very important to carry forward in these stories, which essentially work to tell us something honest about the battle between good and evil that wages inside of all of us on a daily basis.”
– The Hayes Brothers

Horror as The Unsettling Light
Bryan Stone, in an article titled “The Sanctification of Fear: The Images of the Religious in Horror Films”, written for the Journal of Religion and Film, describes the roots of the horror story as that “thin line that separates beauty from terror”. He goes on to say that

“by functioning both as a threat and a catharsis, horror brings us face to face with our fear of death, of the supernatural, of the unknown and irrational, of’ ‘the other” in general, or a loss of identity, of forces beyond our control.”

This process of findingmyselfat40 has been a consistent struggle of learning to unearth the stuff that has helped make me who I am today, and recent viewings of “The Conjuring 2” and “The Exorcist” network series have helped remind me of my own walk between beauty and terror as I have learned to face my fears and see God more clearly:

Growing A Fondness For the Otherworldly Story.
While Charlotte’s Web is one of the first books that I can remember reading (which I spoke about in a previous blog), it is actually my well-worn and tattered Children’s Bible (which I still own) that managed to captivate most of my attention. It still ignites a sense of excitement and anticipation every time I come across it collecting dust on my bookshelf.

My Picture Bible was the first book to immerse me in the world of otherworldly battles and supernaturally charged narratives full of gods and ghosts, demons and monsters. It captured my young imagination, leading me to read it from front to back many times over through the years.

True, the fact that my parents gave me $5 for every time I finished it might have been added motivation (and something they probably came to regret), but this book soon became a stepping-stone into the broader literary and cinematic universe of otherworldly stories. As a kid my library would quickly grow to embrace the likes of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, films like The Never Ending story, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and the Biblical proportions of John White’s imaginative and fantastical world of supernatural forces.

I loved living in these stories. They helped to grow my perspective of the world into something magical and expansive, offering me hope as a young mind. At the same time, though, they also shed light on my ongoing struggle with fear.

Shedding An Unsettled Light On My Fears
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one of my favorite horror films of all time. There is an especially affecting scene near the end where Emily speaks to her desire to share her struggle (with fear and darkness) so as to offer hope and light to the dark places in the souls of others. This scene was especially relevant to me because I am someone who has struggled with fear all my life- whether battling through chronic nightmares as a young child or facing a full-blown anxiety disorder in my adult years.
Emily’s story reminded me that no matter how big these fears were there is a world out there that stands that much taller. She taught me that there is wonder and magic in this world, even when we can’t see it, perhaps especially when we can’t see it. Her story helped to remind me that there is a real God who can help me face my fears at a time when I struggled to see God at all.

Exchanging Mysticism for Rationalism
It is interesting to consider that the one place that should have helped me to embrace this message of hope- The Church- eventually taught me to reject it

When I was 16 my parents moved us (me and my brother) from the only Church I had ever known to one that had a thriving youth group. It was here, as I believe they hoped I would, that I really began to understand the role of the Church in my own life.
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For me, Church was a place where I could connect with the unseen world. It was a place where I could understand some of my deeper questions about who God was and who I was, and a place where I could share my love of the otherworldly story.

Unfortunately, this is not what it ended up being.

From my vantage point, the one place that had finally seemed able to offer me a sense of community and share in my passion for exploring the unseen world eventually spiraled into a rather long and complicated history of (what would become one of many) Church splits and religious dissolution that would follow me well into my adult years. No matter where I (or eventually we) moved, conflict within the Church walls seemed to follow.

I watched helplessly as this initial conflict eventually ripped apart my social circle, even turning families and friends against each other, in some cases creating lasting animosity that still remains today. This environment was far from magical and mystical, and eventually, it started to erode at the sense of mystery and awe that my faith used to hold.

From Mysticism to Rationalism
At this point I began a rather aggressive push towards rationalizing the supernatural out my life. My faith became less concerned with the mystery and more concerned with certainty, and with this went my ability to wonder and my optimism for the world around me. I entered the latter part of my 20’s confident on the outside but broken on the inside. I was far from the faith of my childhood.

If there was one constant at this point in my life it was the idea of change. Growing up has a way of changing you, including the way you view the world. One significant change for me at this time in my life was the loss of our family Christmas tradition (and those who know me will understand why this was a great loss… I am Mr. Christmas after all). Being the last one to remain under my parent’s roof, I remember the distant feeling of waking up on December 25th without my brothers there to share in the space around the tree. This moment taught me, perhaps more than any other, that the world I was facing was no longer the familiar place of my childhood memory. The loss of my dog, a true friend of 15 years, would eventually (finally) push me over the edge of this realization.

The older I got the more exposed I became to experiences (including family and friends) that challenged my old paradigms and beliefs. This would include rejection of the idea of faith and God altogether. Eventually, the childlike wonder that had carried me forward for all those years seemed to disappear altogether.

I had exchanged an ingrained sense of mysticism and romanticism for a cold, calculated humanism, and whatever remained of my faith followed suit.

My The Letter From God
“God, give me something. Anything. I am at the end of my rope and I don’t know what to do.”

It was at my lowest point, sitting in the middle of an empty house in the darkness of the night, that I forced this rather direct and exasperated conversation with God. Honestly, I was ready for my life to end.

Whenever I share this story, those who know me tend to respond with a sense of shock. I never revealed this struggle with anyone until many years later. I didn’t know who to share it with, to be honest. I had continued to put on a strong public front because it was required of me (especially in the walls of the Church), but on the inside it was clear that I was unraveling.

I went to bed that night and woke up to the grim silence of a cloudy, grayish morning. This morning remains rather vivid in my memory. I got on my bike and forced myself to carry on with my morning, but in the back of my mind, I continued to consider the possibility of not facing tomorrow. God’s silence seemed to meet with the silence of the day.

It was in this place that some unexpected words, delivered by someone essentially unknown to me, eventually broke the silence. I have come to call it my letter from God. It interrupted the darkness. It brought an unsettling light to that “thin line that separates beauty from terror”. It brought me back to the realization that this world is bigger than my perspective and gave me the ability to wonder again. It offered me hope that there was more to this world than I could see in front of me at the moment.

God was present in the darkness.

The most important part of this letter was the call to “remember”. Remember back to a time when the presence of the supernatural was active and real, a time in my childhood when I still had hope and a childlike wonder. This letter would go on to recount my conversation with God from the night before, but more importantly, it gave me a way forward out of the darkness. In a very real way, the premise for this findingmyselfat40 blog actually began when I started to put this act of remembering into practice over 10 years ago.

And here’s the thing. With every memory revisited came a story of faith that I had unintentionally left behind. And with every story of faith came an experience that I had managed to rationalize away. For me, this wasn’t about returning to the place of my childhood. Over the years I have learned to embrace the messiness and the mundane, even learning to find joy in the  brokenness of the Church. But it was about reclaiming some of what growing up had stolen from me along the way.

Discovering A Different Kind of Certainty
In the first episode of The Exorcist (which has thus far proved to be a smart, moody and creepy thriller) we are introduced to two central characters: a struggling pastor who is attempting to reconcile the tension that exists between his own battle between faith/reason while also living into his responsibility of caring for the faith journey of others; and a former priest whom we find scarred and beaten from his own past experience with the church and the devil (and the questions about God that this experience then evokes).

Most noted for me is the way the looming presence of the supernatural in stories such as these often gives way to the recognizable human struggle to understand the mysteries of God and this world.

I admit, I love a good scare. But the real reason why I continue to be drawn to the horror story, or any story that deals with the supernatural and the fantastical for that matter, is because it connects me to the bigger picture of my own story. They remind me of the fears that I continue to face, and the place of God’s great mystery in helping me see past them, even on my worst days.

I find the idea that there is more to this world than what I can see on the surface to be incredibly hopeful. It gives me confidence in knowing there is something on the other side of the darkness that seems to permeate much of my experience. They help immerse me in the grander story of good versus evil, something that helps fuel my childhood sense of adventure. They open my eyes to stories that I might not otherwise be willing to hear, and they protect me against a rampant rationalism by continually humbling my disposition. Ultimately they have helped me stay connected to a very real God.

I am a different person than I was yesterday. This is not something I should ever take for granted. As I continue to navigate a newfound appreciation of God’s supernatural presence in my own life, I have grown a greater confidence for seeing God in the mundanity of the everyday. I no longer feel the need to apologize for not having all of the answers, and I have grown to stop feeling guilty about sharing my own experiences of God’s provision.

I can’t pretend to know how God speaks, I can only recognize that I believe He spoke to me and continues to speak to me today.

A truly modern perspective sees reality as shaped and determined by what we can see. From this we inherit a necessary degree of cynicism over what is possible and what is not, and from within this we determine how we can move forward in the face of our circumstances.

Perhaps there is space in this modern notion to consider a “reality” that assumes the existence of god as one who dwells in the midst of what we can see. From this we are able to inherit a necessary hopefulness… a true definition of hopefulness, that can expect the impossible to be possible.

From Prince To Prophet: Reflections on The Little Prince Part 2

 

There is a scene in the film The Little Prince where the mother discovers the Aviator’s story (hand-written on a piece of parchment) in her daughter’s room and tosses it into the garbage. The mother insists that her daughter put aside such silly, childhood distractions and focus on what really matters- the finely detailed life plan that is conveniently hanging on the kitchen wall.

life-plan

What I found compelling about this scene is the way it uses the image of a wall to symbolize the distance this action creates between mother and daughter. The massive hole in the living room caused by the stray propeller of the aviator neighbor (along with the ensuing action of taping it off and covering it up) awakens us to the figurative language of the relational struggles that push the story forward.

The image of the wall is an allegory, of course, one that also pushes out into the films broader social context. The cold, gray, calculated sameness of the upper-class suburban grid in which they now live, along with the large, looming fence that shelters them from the inconvenience of their neighbor’s view, call us to consider all of the ways in which our own societal structures divide and isolate us from one another. The beauty of this image in The Little Prince is the way it shows just how pervasive and persistent these walls are, both underneath the narrative of the film and in our personal, everyday lives.

From Prince to Prophet
It was during a time of personal reflection on the “walls” that I have managed to build over the course of my own life, that I was reminded of another story, the story of Elijah the Tishbite (I Kings 17-19; 2 Kings 1-2), a man I was privileged to spend some quality time with a few years back.

“The Kingdom of Israel is a broken pot, its shards beyond repair. Contradictions yield to gravity’s pull. Like a weakened wall the kingdom wavers, then falls. Falls northward, falls southward. Israel divides in two.”
– Daniel Berrigan, page 92 (The Kings and Their Gods)

Elijah arrives (rather abruptly) in the middle of a divided kingdom (1 Kings 17:1). The Israelite people find themselves (once again) caught in a place of disunity and dysfunction, and this division (1 Kings 12:16-20) leads to more division (1 Kings 16:21). Elijah has been purposed to call them back to a unified vision of who they are in God’s great story (17:1).

Trained to see him as something of a miracle worker and a hero (he was blessed with super speed after all), I was surprised in my own personal study to find a man who was decidedly human and desperately flawed. Not unlike the Prince himself, who ends up lost in the desert of his own existential questions, the victor of an epic fire-making contest of the gods on the mountaintop (I Kings 17:20-40) quickly gives way to the picture of a lost soul wandering a desert of his own making. The struggle that emerges from within this rather surprising twist in Elijah’s story sadly evaded me for years. But as I revisited it with a fresh set of eyes I found some important lessons for helping me see and understand the walls in my own life.


1. THE WALLS I BUILD ALWAYS BEGIN WITH A QUESTION
Both the story of the Little Prince and the biblical figure of Elijah revolve around a motivating question. For The Little Prince it is the question of “who I am” in a complicated and scary world. For Elijah this question is pushed further, connecting this search for self with a concern for who God is.

Fretheim, in his commentary on First and Second Kings, notes that the primary concern of Elijah’s story is not simply to say that Yahweh is God, but rather to say something about the character of God, or who this God is

Ultimately, as both stories go on to say, it is the way in which we answer these questions that often determines whether we are engaged in the practice of building walls or tearing them down.

2. FEAR LIMITS THE WAY I AM ABLE TO ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS
When it comes to my own questions, I have a tendency to limit my view of the world (to something manageable, safe and less risky) and then allow that limited view to define my response.

The problem for me is that this  limited view tends far too often towards the material- success, money, status, power, accomplishment- all of which seem to consistently let me down. This notion is not altogether unfamiliar to the competing societies that surround Elijah and his ministry.

While these material goals might appear attractive in the moment, even affording me the illusion of having power and control over my circumstance when things happen to be going well, in the end, all it usually does is reveal the ways I fail to measure up to the greater status and success of others.

Worse yet, it hides the real reason I choose these things to define me in the first place- I am fearful of having no control or power over my circumstance altogether.

In The Little Prince we find the story of a mother who, fueled by a hope for her daughter’s future, becomes distracted by materialistic dreams (and the fear of being unable to achieve these dreams). This fear gets in the way of what she really desires, showing that the materialistic dreams were really more about her rather than her daughter.

For Elijah, he begins with the dream (or hope) that the people would turn their hearts back to God after seeing His power put on display (18:37), however when God’s power does come (and the people do turn), fear causes his name to be associated with their slaughter (18:40) rather than their saving. This seeming contradiction between heart and action is puzzling, but the more I consider it the more I begin to see the ways in which his question (who is God) and his hopeful disposition (for the people to see who God is as sustainer and provider of all) also reveal a fear that seems to be standing in the way of his true desire for the people.

What did Elijah fear?
Perhaps the most striking and revealing moment in Elijah’s story comes after he has fled to the desert, where we find him asking God to take his life.

“Kill me now for I am no better than my fathers”.

This statement is interesting as it leads me to wonder when Elijah started to compare himself to others?

The term “fathers”, as best as I’ve been able to understand it, most likely refers to the prophetic tradition to which he belongs (perhaps even to Moses, to be even more specific). And what it reveals is a man who appears to be struggling with the weight of the role he is expected to play (in this world), and the feeling that he has failed to live into this role in a meaningful way. In verse 3 we even read that he lets his servant go, a move that emphasizes the fact that, in this moment, he firmly believes his ministry and his life are done.

The idea that Elijah is feeling this burdened should not necessarily come as a surprise. Before we arrive at this point in the story we have already heard Elijah voicing his fear of being the “only one left” who sees the true character of God (18:22). This is, of course, the same fear that he reiterates to God in the desert. Underneath the mountaintop sequence, we find other clues that help foreshadow this eventual spiral downwards, such as the not so subtle taunting he exhibits by asking the people to pour water, a precious commodity in the midst of a famine, on to his fire pit.

What begins as a concern for others (17:3-4; 17:8-6) and a concern for life (17:17-24) gives way to an overwhelming concern for how others were perceiving him as a prophet. This eventually leads him to neglect God’s concern for the life and provision of the people (18:40) and exchange it instead for a picture of death and a concern for his own circumstance (18:40).

“We and our Baals. The gods of the culture—invoke, stroked, placated. A dementia of death lies heavy on us… Death as an acceptable social method, invariably cloaked in military overtones and metaphors, and these wildly and publicly approved.

Thus we are rid of enemies, adversaries, delinquents, the aged and the unproductive, the criminalized, the unwanted unborn. And lately, of terrorists and the regions that protect them… the god invoked, not when other ways have failed—rather, when alternatives are ignored and contemned.

Implied in our oingoing predicament is a socialized, functional despair, a loss of nerve, despair of goodness and reciprocity and the skills of give-and-take, plan speech and respectful listening, the search for human ways of organizing our common life in the world.”
– Daniel Berrigan, 98/99

Where once Elijah was instructing the widow to “fear not”, he is now running for fear himself.

Moving From the Mountain to the Desert
How often do I find myself in this place? The truth is, far more often than I care to admit.

For me, the struggle has been learning how to deal with an anxiety disorder that has managed to rule my life for far too long. (One of) the problems with anxiety is that it amplifies worry and elevates the perceived need to control our circumstance. In fact, one of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder is obsessing over the stuff that I cannot control, something that always seems to push me further into my own insecurities and depression rather than alleviating it. It’s a vicious cycle that builds walls between others and myself, and I remain very much aware of how destructive these walls can be when it comes to living into the expectations of outside relationships. In this sense, the legacy of my 40 years on this earth might not include a mass slaughter, but the slaughter does manage to be a fitting metaphor for the many ways in which I have failed in these relationships. This is why sometimes it is easier to long for the desert rather than resist it, as I know I need to to do.

What the story of Elijah revealed to me is that, while the questions born out of my struggle with anxiety do reflect a sincere love and concern for others (realizing this has been an important step for me), the true challenge has been learning to keep these questions from driving me further into myself.

 

3. MY HIDDEN INSECURITIES CAUSE ME TO ANSWER MY QUESTIONS BY BUILDING WALLS RATHER THAN TEARING THEM DOWN
As Elijah moves further and further into the desert, we find the powerful demonstration on the mountaintop giving way to the rather humbling picture of a supernaturally inspired storm in the desert (wind, fire and earthquake). This event allows him to see the storm that has been raging inside of his own need to find the approval of others.

As the desert storm subsides we are afforded a moment of pause in the stories movement, a moment in which God finally gets Elijah’s attention. Here Elijah finds the God he has been searching for- a God who longs to forgive, a God who desires to see the prophet rather than the failure, and a God who desires to free him from the need to measure up to others.

In the calm of the storm, we find Elijah being reminded of the hopeful disposition that marks the beginning of his story. The hopes he had for the people and their relationship with God- forgiveness, love, provision, freedom- reveals his inability to experience these things for himself first.

Without personally resting in God’s promise to provide, forgive and love, he is unable to see these same promises being afforded to others. This builds a wall between Elijah and the people. Thankfully God’s concern for His people reaches far beyond our walls. This is good news for the world, but perhaps even better news for Elijah.

Learning How To See Beyond The Wall

In Elijah’s Story the promise for oil and flour comes in one person, but then extends over the lands. This is how God’s promise works, for one person for the world.
– Tim Keller

The real challenge is learning to see beyond our circumstance when all of life seems to be pushing it back into view. Elijah’s narrative begins with a story of provision, both for himself and for the widow, and the first act of God in the desert is also to provide in 19:5. Elijah had taken his eyes off the truth of who he was in God’s eyes, and in the process builds a wall between himself and the people. This leaves him struggling with a feeling of hopelessness over his situation, and causes him to be associated with the peoples slaughter rather than their saving. He can no longer see God as the provider, and no longer hopes for God to provide for others.

But there is hope beyond the wall, hope beyond this limited vision; and it begins with God showing Elijah that he is not alone on this journey (19:19).

The Thing That Truly Defines Us
Our careers can’t define us. Our financial and social status can’t define us. Our successes do not have the power to determine our worth and our failures do not determine our worthlessness.

So why do I continue to believe that it can and that it does? Perhaps because the alternative feels far too risky:

As God shows Elijah, and as we discover in the story of the Prince, relationships (with God and others) is the only thing that can truly define us. It is only in relationship that we can discover our true worth. When we accept others we can then learn how to accept ourselves.

But as Elijah shows, the opposite is also true. When we reject ourselves (based on not being good enough or powerful enough), we also tend to also reject others, thus losing sight of who we are and tearing down others in the process.

In order to learn how to love unconditionally, we must also be willing to be loved unconditionally as we are.

The true power of relationship (family, marriage, friendship, communities, church) is the way it reminds us of our common human need- the need to know others and the need to be known by others; and also our common human nature- in which we are all equal in our need to know and be known regardless of our successes and our failures. Recognizing this can then allow us to embrace our differences. 

Elijah finds this in God. The promise to forgive, to provide without prejudice, and to love unconditionally gives him the confidence he needs to share his story of the desert with others. By sharing his story (of being known and loved by God without measure) he can then begin to share this promise with others.

We are called to do the same, no matter where we find ourselves- whether we are on the mountaintop or lost in the desert. It is through this that God can then push us back out into the world in order to share in our commonness and celebrate our differences.

4. TEARING DOWN MY WALLS REQUIRES GIVING UP CONTROL OF WHAT I CANNOT CONTROL
When we find ourselvs unable to accept the truth that God has provided, forgiven and loved us, we end up having a hard time accepting this truth for others. This is exactly where we find Elijah, blaming the Israelite people in what becomes his final defense to God (19:10). The belief that he is not good enough for God causes him to dwell on the ways that others are not good enough for God.

When God meets Elijah in the desert he humbles him by showing him that this is not the way His provision works. Elijah does not get to control who is in and who is out of God’s saving grace. He is loved in order that he may show others that they are loved, and this love arrives (in the form of provision, fogiveness and care) without condition. This is what it means to give up control and fall into God’s grace.

Over the past while I have come to recognize that the walls that I build matter not because they are helpful in defining who I am (they most certainly are not) or even in keeping me safe from unwelcome intrusions (an allusion at best), but rather because they keep me from the risky business of knowing others, knowing God and knowing myself.

Giving up control is never easy, but giving up control is the only way to begin tearing down my walls. I must learn to fall further into God’s grace every day so that this grace can also be given to others.

The Questions that Unite Us
In both The Little Prince and the story of Elijah, the act of questioning is not presented as a negative. These questions often become the starting point for recognizing where our walls exist and how we can best begin to tear them down. They also help to remind us that we are not alone in our struggle.

In The Little Prince, the daughter comes to discover her neighbor, and in the process helps give light to the Aviator’s story. In doing so they both come to realize how much they share in common, even across the generational divide, and this flows outwards into the relationship with her mother.

In the story of Elijah we are called to consider the ways in which it connects us to the story of Israel. The image of the desert, the picture of the mountain and of the prophet looking for God to “pass him by”. The setting of the Jordan River, the great miracles of Elijah’s story- they are all intended to bring us back to the memory of Moses and the previous desert wanderings of the Israelite people.

Here, both Elijah’s story and the story of Moses remind us of their shared question:
Who is God? God is the one who provides and provided. He is the one who called the people to a new vision of the world, one in which the Abrahamic covenant is able to reach into all the nations of the earth.

These same images also push us ahead to Jesus, who wandered the desert as the true embodiment of this new vision now being made complete. Christ the miracle maker, Christ on the mountaintop, Christ at the Transfiguration seeing God pass Him by- Jesus brings light to the world beyond our walls and calls us to share in his example.

 

Elijah’s story reminds us that the God/Human relationship is a movement, one that is moving us from our world out in to the world.”
– Tim Keller

Learning To Live Beyond The Wall Together
Elijah also reminds us of our shared failings in living this out.

When Elijah first shows up in the desert, God’s response is “what are you doing here?” The question feels rhetorical. It also feels painfully familiar, as if to say “how did we end up back here again?” The story of the Israelite people essentially reflects the same old story, one that persists throughout the story of Jesus’ disciples, the early Church and into our modern day.

But hope remains. Just as Israel moved in and out of God’s provision and was called to reform, I also continue to build walls when I should be tearing them down. There is comfort in knowing that I am not alone in this struggle, that I am in good company. There is comfort in knowing that it is not about getting things perfect and right.

As the story of The Little Prince reminds us, it is in our commonness that we are afforded our uniqueness. And as Elijah shows us, our commonness is found in a God who works in our weakness, a God who cares enough to call us to keep going, both for our sake and for the sake of a diverse world.

 

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A Further Word on The Problem of the Slaughter

This part of the story has admittedly puzzled many over the years. Who is it that killed the prophets of Baal? Was it Elijah himself (as it seems to suggest in 18:40), the Israelite people (which Elijah seems to evoke in his personal defense to God in 19:10; 19:14), or was it God (or the spirit of God) working through a human conduit?

While God does not sanction or command the slaughter in chapter 18, we certainly are left to wrestle with the fact that He appears to be associated with a later command to see Elijah’s successor’s finish what he started (19:15-17). But more on this later.

The primary concern with God’s association is of course about our ability to reconcile such violent acts with the question of God’s good character. Adding to the problem is the fact that most scholars recognize the slaughter in light of the Deuteronomic Law, God’s commanding decree for how the new covenant community must now strive to live. According to the law of Moses, false prophets (and the worship of false idols) required the sentence of death (Deuteronomy 13:5; 13:13-18, 17:2-5 and 18:9-22).

So how can we approach the problem of the slaughter?
1. Understanding Hyperbole and Polemic: Discussion of the Deuteronomic history aside (and certainly there are some excellent voices out there that can help bring perspective to the Deuteronomic history, community and development), one approach for reading the story of Elijah in specific is to recognize the story as hyperbole (exaggerated stories or details which are intended to be symbolic rather than literal, which certainly does fit with the use of such concrete and static numbers as the ones we find in Elijah’s story).

As hyperbole, the account in 1 Kings reflects the intent of the authors/editors to be presenting a polemic against the foreign gods and kingdoms that surrounded Israel. A polemic is either an attack against an opposing idea or a way to simply set oneself apart from an opposing idea. Certainly, the more we discover from archeological research the more evidence there seems to be for the pervasiveness of multiple pagan cultures that existed within the early Israelite community.

It is also worth noting that, closely connected to this theory of hyperbole is the presentation of the Elijah story as common legend or myth.

There are many stories in the biblical narrative that share similarities with other pagan myths, to be sure; but there are some problems with considering this approach for Elijah.

First, in the literary context of the stories Jewish origins, Elijah the prophet doesn’t necessarily demonstrate the defining marks of a legend (the tension of the story points us towards Elijah rather than the Hellenistic culture; even though the story exhibits supernatural elements, reigning mythological symbols remain largely absent).

And while there are certainly places in the book of Kings where the editing process is made more obvious than others (Fretheim is as an excellent resource to this end), the story of Elijah is not one of these places. His story is presented as an interruption to the flow of the narrative, and appears to carry an intimate connection with it’s source material (in some form anyways). It also appears to remain attentive to its historical placement and setting (especially as he reemerges with the discussion of the second coming).

Further, if Elijah does carry any mythological characteristics, most of this emerges from its historical placement, largely as a product of the froming practice of the Jewish midrash. Much of this has been suggested to connect with the idea that Elijah vanishes without a historical record of his death.

That said, the sheer amount of symbolic force that we do find in the narrative seems to allow it to freely flow between other narratives within the Biblical canon itself, including that of Moses, Jesus and even Elisha. It would be difficult to not see, at least in part, a certain mix of literary formation at play.

Lastly, it is worth suggesting that simply seeing the story of Elijah as hyperbole and polemic does not really deal with the problem of a violent God at face value. It simply offers a way of categorizing it.

2. God and Human agency: In the larger story of Kings (First and Second), we discover a God who is working together with human agents. This would probably be true to say about the whole of the Jewish and Christian scripture. God is working through and for the people from the places in which they find themselves. In this approach, we find the theological view that God works from our places of weakness (and violence) in order to redeem it not to endorse it.

The strength of this approach is that it offers us more than simple categorization. It doesn’t do away with the idea of hyperbole and myth, but is simply more concerned with revealing the tension that exists within the Biblical material (to which my blog is largely about).

A Couple Additional Thoughts:
1. With any approach to the slaughter in Elijah’s narrative there remains the question of how to deal with the fact that, at least in the historical evidence that we are afforded, the sanction of God for Elijah to anoint his successors doesn’t happen in the way that God commands, nor in the order it is prophecied or declared. There are a couple reasons why this is worth mentioning:

As a part of an edited canon, the chronology of Kings has been recognized as somewhat difficult to manage. There has been work done (Edwin Thiele’s theory is one that I have come to find helpful) to show that this is not an impossible problem to reconcile, but this is simply to say that the prophetic nature of the command given to Elijah (in the context of Kings) carries much in the way of nuance. We should remain slow to label this material as a clear sanctioning of violence, as I think this tends to miss the larger concern of the narrative itself.

In the narrative, Elijah goes through Elisha first, and then in a round about way Elisha ends up connecting himself to Hazael and Jehu. There has been plenty of work done about the Hazael and Jehu question as well, but one idea that is worth noting (from a theological standpoint) is that in the story of Elijah, the two figures are included in order to represent the contrasting sides of judgment and reform (given their contrasting roles). Further to this theme, the slaughter itself seems to appear as a response to the slaughter of the Israelite people by Jezebel (I Kings 18:13). This is not to simplify or justify the account itself (and my struggle with it), but simply to suggest that it does appear to carry some level of intentional theological placement in the course of the narrative.

2. Looking to the NT, the apostle Paul reconciles the slaughter by seeing it as a commentary on the remnant of God, thus focusing our attention on the positive side of the movement and away from the slaughter itself (11:1-4).

3. Lastly, as the reader moves through the story of Elijah, it is good to keep in perspective the tension that exists between the slaughter and the overall theme of the passage (as a hopeful concern for the life of the people). This is a good practice to maintain in reading through any of the OT and NT material, as the tension between what the people see (a limited view of God’s concern for the world) often appears alongside an opposing view (the bigger picture of God’s perspective).

There is worth in embracing the appearance of contradiction rather than running from it.

 

The Battles That Unite Us: Reflections on The Little Prince

 

“The world conspires to make us blind to its own workings; our real work is to see the world again.”
– Adam Gopnik (in his commentary on The Little Prince)

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The 2015/16 film The Little Prince, directed by Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda), is based on the 1943 novel by French writer Antoine de Satin-Exupery. New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik, described the popular children’s story as “the best loved in the most tongues”. Gopnik goes on to describe the significance of this cross-cultural context by also noting the strangeness of the story itself, suggesting that, “it still seems far from transparent, even seventy-five-plus years after its first appearance.” It would be Stacy Schiff’s biographical account of Exupery that helped open a door to the circumstance and inspiration that marked the writer’s world, offering some necessary insight in to it’s apparent strangeness.

A War Fable
It is from this biography that Gopnik determines The Little Prince to be a sort of “war fable”, born out of the experience of Vichy and the Occupation of France. Even more intriguing is his recognition of The Little Prince as a reflection on the tensions of Post-War French abstraction, which helped play a role in re-claiming France’s national artistic identity during a time of cultural and national devastation.

If pre-war perspective was fleshed out in more concrete forms, it is the abstract that allows us to wrestle with the interpretation of these concrete events as it plays out in our individual context. Abstract art is intended “… to make us aware of different possibilities of being and living, or even just imagine that there are alternative ways of understanding our relationship with what is…” (Michelle Kamhi)

The true beauty of The Little Prince, which is an absolutely charming, wonderful and endearing on-screen adaptation, is the way it takes a concrete event (the literal war) and weaves it in to a modern day parable about the consequences of (the figurative) wars that wage inside of us all. It is through the reality of war, then, that Exupery experiences the common human language of love, loss and anxiety over an unknown future, which allows his parable to resonate across cultural experience and circumstance, whether on a spiritual, emotion, physical or social level.

We might not understand the war itself, but we can understand the consequence of war.

The Battles That Define Us
At one point in the film The Aviator laments, “I wanted to find someone to share the story with. But I guess this world just got too grown up.” Exupery in-fact wrote his story from the shores of Manhattan after having been exiled from his homeland, and thus speaks as someone who has essentially lost a large part of his identity. Who am I is a question that permeates this tension between the concrete reality of this loss and the abstract reflection of what this loss means for him personally. The story of The Little Prince demonstrates his need to share his own story from the shores of a foreign land.

We all have a need to hear and be heard. It is in the midst of the tough reality, the endings and plot twists that we perceive shaping our stories in to false and tragic endings, that we need to find ways of telling our stories, our own war fables, in ways that can help them make sense, not just to us but to others in the midst of their own false and tragic endings as well.

  • In The Little Prince we see the story of a single mother who is desperately trying to plan out her daughter’s life according to the expectations of the world around her, while also trying to support her through a job that demands all of her time. This is her battle.
  • We see the story of a little girl auditioning and failing to get accepted to a prestigious school, and trying desperately to live up to the expectations of her mother while also discovering her own childhood. This is her battle.
  • And we find the story of an Aviator, a man who has waited a lifetime for someone with whom to share his story, a man desperate not to forget his own past. This is his battle.

Each of these battles is personified in the story within a story, the tale of The Little Prince who finds himself mourning the loss of his own childhood innocence from the pressures of grown-up expectations.

Eventually we are all forced to grow up.

 

The Grown-Up Dillema
I think the older we get the more daunting these social pressures can become. At the very least they become harder to resist. We must learn to live life on the world’s terms, terms that become frighteningly familiar in the opening sequence of the film: a pre-determined grid-like neighbourhood of sameness which inspires a calculated life-board of pre-laid plans.

And yet, the dilemma that persists is the truth that life itself rarely ever follows the path it promises. It is consistently driven off course by the unexpected, the stuff that intrudes the places we depend on and the plans we conform to. This might be a war, or an economic crisis, or even a lost audition as the film portrays. More often it comes in the intrusive neighbor who pokes a hole (literally and figuratively with a propeller) in to these social norms and the tightly guarded life plan. The neighbour symbolically stands as the one house on the block that looks different than all of the rest, the small anxieties that creep in to everyday life. I can’t help but feel like this is a picture of how Exupery must have felt being exiled in Manhattan, or even lost and stranded in the desert, a lost soul in a sea of others that look different than him, trying to share his story of an imperfect life in the midst of imperfect circumstance, in a world that seemingly doesn’t understand and is unable to hear from the noise of it’s own tightly guarded routine.

Ultimately it is the Aviator that reminds us that it is how we respond to these unwelcome intrusions that is important. This is true no matter which side we are on, whether we are the ones who need to see the neighbour or the lost soul exiled on our shoreline, or if we are the lost soul looking to be heard. When our story goes off script, it is about the ways we learn to grow up without forgetting the past that brought us here, the past that made us who we are. It is about allowing the struggle between past, present and future to shape us in to something unique, different and valued instead of mourning the way it deviates us from the world’s short sighted vision.

Understanding My Own War Story
As I approach that ever-nearing intersection of 39 and 40, I find myself with both feet floating over the brake, making nervous glances to the right and left in anticipation of what intrusion might sideswipe my current vulnerability.

Who am I?

As I do so, I keep a persistent eye on the rear view mirror, trying to make sense of a past that feels far too littered with failure, and a future that feels far too calculated and unsure. It is here that I encounter the stuff that makes me want to pull over on the side of the road, shut off the key and park it in the shadows, if only for a little while.

Who am I?

In my last two posts I started to look more closely at my own war story. I recognized a dreamer, an optimist that somehow and somewhere had learned to stop dreaming. In Exupery’s story, I found the image of losing sight of the stars is a striking one that affirmed this notion.

The stars represent our forgotten identities, the dreams that both distinguish us as individuals and unite us as community. As we encounter the lonely “star counter” living alone on his ambiguously titled asteroid, we find the image of a modern society that is using it’s own misguided expectations to capture our dreams and mould them for it’s own purpose. It is helpful for me, as I imagine the stars I have lost sight of along the way: confidence, faith, optimism, identity- to recognize that the image I find in the world is not the true image of me.

Learning to dream again, learning to see the stars, is a big part of finding myself again at 40, of seeing myself as other than the labels the world has given me in my 4 decades of living. Yes, it requires me to keep moving forward, even if it means getting out to walk instead. It requires seeing the intrusions of my past and knowing what to do with them. But it also involves coming to a greater understanding of who I am moving forward with this intrusive neighbour in tow.

Again, as The Aviator says, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.”

 

Finding Uniqueness in the Midst of our Commonness
There is a point in the story of The Little Prince where the daughter insists to her mom that she is trying to make her in to who she wants her to be, not who she actually is. She cares more about the life board than she does about her. The mother insists this is absolutely not true. She cares equally for the life board and her daughter, because, in her eyes the two are the same thing.

Feeling invisible and unheard, the daughter eventually goes off looking for The Little Prince as her new friend The Aviator, the only one who actually sees her and hears her story for who she is, suddenly becomes sick and hospitalized. The story he has been sharing with her over the course of this relationship remains unfinished, side swiped by the intrusion of the old man’s illness. It cannot end this way. It’s not supposed to end this way. And so the little girl insists that she must find The Little Prince so that she can help make the story right, to help reunite The Little Prince with his one true love, The Rose. She must do this so that she and her friend (The Aviator) can have hope in their story as well.
She finds The Little Prince, grown up and having forgotten who he is in a world that has placed its expectations on his shoulders. The world has made him in to something that he is not, and she must help him remember.

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No matter who we are, no matter what our circumstance, all of us face these pressures, the push to become a statistic, a number and a faceless title. As I look in the review mirror, I am coming to recognize that, for me, a big part of my current struggle with turning 40 is my in-ability to recognize who I am as a grown man in a world that has had a lot to say about what a grown man is not. I am a statistic: middle aged, middle-classed, tax-payer, all of which make me indistinguishable from the faces of my neighbours that live two doors down.

There is a powerful scene where we are first introduced to this Rose, someone whom The Little Prince helps grow in to something beautiful. “I know you’ll be miraculous, I know you will”, he insists. It is a hope I think we all imagine being placed on us in our birthing room in one form or another. And yet it is later, when he encounters a field full of similar looking Roses, that his vision of the Rose becomes dismantled. “She was just a common Rose” he laments. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

And yet, in all of this sameness, the persisting ideology of the story (the abstraction if you like) is that it is in community that our commonness becomes uniqueness. It is when I learn the name of my neighbour and hear their stories that they, and I, become distinguishable. It is the fox that helps the Little Prince see this truth, suggesting that it is in friendship (in the taming of the wild, indistinguishable fox) that we can say, “To me you shall be unique in all the world, and to you I shall be unique in all the world.” In the same way, she is not just a Rose, “She is his Rose.”

The beautiful thing about this truth is that is also flows in the other direction: It is in our uniqueness that we can also celebrate our commonness.

The Continued Journey
The page is about to turn on my 40th birthday. I am about to cross this intersection with my past in tow. As I do so, the story of The Little Prince continues to resonate with my spirit in a way that I feel inclined to push further. There are two basic truths of my own battle story that emerged as I watched this film, my act of remembering if you will. The first has to do with the notion of community. The second has to do with the notion of who I am in the midst of this community. My hope is to continue this journey in Part 2 and 3 of this blog on The Little Prince story.

Conclusion
“What makes the desert beautiful, is that somewhere it hides a well.”

The Little Prince is about how we see the world around us. In the midst of difficult and troubling headlines of war, tragedy and conflict that hit is every day, it is important to remember that in the midst of it all there is still meaning, something that makes life matter.

It is also important to remember that what makes life matter are the stories we have to tell, our story and the story of others. The ways in which we persist in telling these stories is important, as this is what keeps us from forgetting. The ways we carry and respond to the intrusive parts of our stories, of learning to approach the tension between the concrete and the abstract, matters even more.

The Little Prince is about how we see ourselves in the world around us. To see the stars again in the calculated mess of our lives is to find the beauty that the routine, responsibilities and social obligations tend to disguise. It is about letting go, learning to get off the roller coaster ride every once in a while and trust that the world will move forward on it’s own. It’s learning to see the places where our world intersects with the world of others. It is learning to see how another’s experience of the world impacts our own.
To hear and be heard. We all have a story to tell, we all have a story to share. We are all more than just a statistic. We are all something beautiful.

SOURCES
1. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-strange-triumph-of-the-little-prince

2. Understanding Contemporary Art by Michelle Marder Kamhi

3. http://www.biography.com/news/the-little-prince-antoine-de-saint-exupery-facts

4. Saint-Exupery: A Biography by Stacey Schiff

 

Our Dreams Big and Small: Making sense of Giants and Spiders

“Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.”
– E.B. White

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E.B. White

The late, great E.B. White (Happy Birthday) left behind a strong legacy of memorable stories and characters that have become something of a window in to the things he loved and the struggles he faced during his time on this earth. He sought to translate himself in to his stories in ways that grounded them in a sometimes overly pessimistic reality, but always kept them honest.

Charlotte’s Web, probably White’s most popular work of fiction, is one of the first books of significance that I can remember reading, and it is a book that taught me, in this same spirit, that as a reader (as with any form of art) I also translate myself in to these stories in ways that shape me and inspire me. I know I owe much to the well travelled places of these childhood adventures that remain etched in my mind and memory, something that a recent viewing of the big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s BFG (another necessary piece of my childhood story) happened to remind me of.

As I was watching BFG it hit me. No, not a stray popcorn kernel coming from the back row. It was a sense of comfort as I recognized a shared affinity in these two stories, BFG and Charlotte’s Web, with the theme of belonging, and a similar exploration of isolation and anxiety. It reminded me that these themes represent what is a common human struggle that binds us together whether big or small, whether in the story of a spider or the tale of a giant.

 

SEEING THROUGH THE SHADOWS THAT HIDE US FROM THE WORLD
Charlotte’s Web tells the story of an unlikely relationship between a pig and a spider, whom we are first introduced to from the shielded shadows of a barn.

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BFG also tells the story of an unlikely relationship, this time between a small, orphaned girl who lost her home and her parents and a mysterious giant with big ears, whose inability to fit in manages to find him isolated and alone in the Land of Giants. It is interesting that we also first meet the Giant from the vantage point of the shadows, something that hints at a shared concern for this struggle with loneliness, isolation and belonging.

In White’s story it is about how we come to terms with the harsher parts of life, the stuff that bogs us down and keeps us from dreaming. BFG takes this a step further, and for Dahl it is about learning to dream again in the midst of this struggle.

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With all of these similarities, it should not be surprising to discover both authors faced their own struggles with isolation and anxiety. It should also not be surprising, given their different approaches, to hear how they coped with their struggles in very different ways.

I don’t know why, but some of the best children’s stories seem to come out of these sort of struggles. This would include Charles Schulz, a personal hero of mine and the creator of the popular Peanuts characters, who battled an anxiety disorder all his life. That this reaches across so many of our child-hood classics also reminds me that everyone deals with these struggles in different ways. Even so, there is something about the idea of the broken childhood dream and the threat of innocence lost that seems to resonate with both young and old, big and small, and this is precisely what we find at the crossroads of White’s admittedly pessimistic view and Dahl’s more hopeful expression.

 

FINDING LIFE IN THE MESSINESS

“What’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
– Charlotte (excerpt from Charlotte’s Web)

Life is messy.

For some, this truth is thrust upon them without warning, such as in the story of Sophie, a girl who is far too young to have to deal with the loss of-both parents, her home and (both literally and symbolically in BFG) her dreams. In Charlotte’s Web it is Wilbur who comes face to face with the reality of death in a way that forces him to readjust his understanding of the world around him. We also see this in Charlotte as she adjusts to the reality of aging with death creeping it’s ugly head from around the corner. And lastly we see this in the Giant, whose overwhelming fear and past experiences keeps him shuttered in his house or hiding in the shadows.

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The question that looms in the background of both stories is how this sort of uncertainty and loss shapes our ability to face tomorrow with confidence. Whereas White’s experience on the farm drives him towards a matter-of-fact approach to it all (this is just the way life is, and we do our best to make the most of it), in BFG the dream becomes the symbol that inspires Dahl’s hopeful response.



THE THINGS WE BOTTLE UP ALONG THE JOURNEY
Spending much of his time alone, the Giant fills his days as a dream-catcher: catching dreams, bottling them up and spreading them out over the slumbering bodies that fill the beds back in London. imagesThere is a certain charm to be found in the Giants self-less and self-giving activity. He wants to make the world a better place, and it immediately endears us to his character (played with depth and dexterity on screen by the voice of Mark Rylance). It does however, also help unmask what lies underneath the Giants personal self-imposed isolation and willing acts of service, reflecting some tightly guarded emotional secrets from his past that he does not want others to see.

These unseen layers guide and form the Giants response to his own troubled past and present circumstance. Just as Charlotte looks, in the midst of her own reality, to “lift up” her life a trifle by helping Wilbur, the Giant choses to help others to dream. Through both characters we learn that helping others can indeed help make our own life better as well, but we also learn that it can be a way of hiding and disguising the personal brokenness and hurt that lies underneath. For as much as the Giant freely gives away his dreams, we come to realize that he has also become an expert at hiding and bottling up his own.

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I think I get this. At least in the context of my own story I do. Growing up I found it difficult to fit in at school. I was bullied quite a bit, and I can remember a few attempts to hang out in the gym with my fellow classmates being met by basketballs being launched at my head until I left. I learned to adapt, which mostly involved isolating myself in a growing library of books from Scholastic Book Fairs (how fitting is it that I would get a job there later in life). It would be later, as I connected with a youth group and life in a Church, that these insecurities would morph in to an opportunity to learn to serve from out of this sense of inadequacy.

The books (and later movies and television) became my world, a way of responding to the challenges around me. Learning to serve others became a means of finding my way back in to the world in the midst of these challenges. The truth though, was that while both were positive things, they also allowed me to continue to hide behind my insecurities, learning to fit in to the world that I occupied rather than being willing to stand out for who I was.

If I am honest, I did not yet know who I was, nor was I okay with who I was. I didn’t know it at the time, but my dreams had been bottled up, stored where no one could see them or break them beyond recognition. They had been bottled up for so long I didn’t even recognize them anymore. This likely stemmed from the chronic nightmares that haunted my childhood in the form of unnamed monsters and anxieties. It likely persisted after my first brush with death and my first experiences with failure and rejection.

However it happened, somewhere along the way life had taught me to stop dreaming.

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FINDING YOUR VOICE AGAIN
The scariest part about daring to dream is the way it makes us vulnerable to our biggest fears.

The most wonderful part about daring to dream is the way it breathes life in to our most cherished joys and desires.

In both of these classic children’s stories (BFG and Charlotte’s Web), it is about the way we learn (or re-learn) to face our fears and give voice to the dreams that our fears have stifled. This voice plays an important role in both stories:

In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur hears the words spoken from out the shadows before he sees, what turns out to be, a rather articulate spider with a small, humble and insignificant disposition. In BFG, Sophie sees the figure in the shadows before hearing him as an in-articulate giant with an obvious, towering disposition. In both cases the shadows represent fear and the hidden parts of ourselves that we don’t want the world to see; our insecurities. The voice represents the hopes and dreams that are trying to pierce through the shadows, the stuff that makes us who we are and that the shadows often keep us from seeing.

In the film BFG, dreams are kept in jars that the Giant uses to transport and give back to the world. Ironically, at the very same time he keeps his and Sophie’s dreams bottled up and hidden from the world. We aren’t immediately told what these dreams are made of, but we do know the ingredients include both the good and the mess.

It is when we learn to become okay with the messiness that we give the world the opportunity to see the good.

In this way, BFG is not about the sort of dream that paints picture-perfect visions of a wishful future. Life, after all, rarely goes the way we think it should. Rather, it is about the way in which our ability to dream allows us to make the most out of the unexpected and the unwanted, an idea which reinforces Charlotte’s insistence that life is messy, and that’s okay.

 

OUR DREAMS BIG AND SMALL
It is on one of his nightly trips back to the city that the giant first encounters Sophie, who, given her own troubled past, has been distracting herself by sneaking out of bed at night to sneak a peek behind the window curtains. It is here where Sophie likewise encounters the giant (where the filmmakers make creative use out of the book’s representation of hiding in the shadows of the moonlight). search-2There is a beautiful scene that follows, as this relationship develops, where the Giant and Sophie are standing at a windowsill watching a little boy dream one of the Giant’s freshly caught dreams. Sophie turns to the Giant with an admission that she does not dream. It is expressed matter-of-factly, but we can hear the hint of longing that sits behind the confession, a glimpse of a less than ideal past that might be hampering her own ability to see who she is. Little does she realize, in this moment, that sneaking a peek behind the curtain was an act of dreaming, a risk-taking exercise that was in-fact teaching her how to find her voice again and bring it to the world. This small act would become the inspiration she eventually offers to the Giant to do the same.

The Giant, being an inarticulate character, would go on to do his fandangled best in this moment to try and explain to Sophie precisely what it was to dream. “Dreams are short on the outside”, he responds, “but they are long on the inside.”

Sophie wishes to dream, but she does not know how. The Giant knows how to dream, but he is too scared try for fear of being disappointed, let down or scared by what he finds. What is clear is that both of them have dreams on the inside that have been percolating and growing for a long time, dreams that desire to be set free. Dreams, after all, never truly die. They only remain bottled up in the places that we choose to store them, until we, or perhaps someone else, open them up again.

And here-in lies the great truth of BFG:  In the book and in the film, the giants are the dreams. They symbolize the giants in our life that seem far too big to handle, the stuff of nightmares and night terrors, the stuff of our rampant anxieties. They also symbolize the ability to stand taller than our fears, the day dreams and secret desires that motivate us to move forward. Further, these giants, these dreams, are the joys, the fears, the hopes and the desires that not only make us who we are, but also connect us to one another.

Ultimately, these dreams, these giants in our life, have the potential to drive us forward or hold us back from participating in the world around us. It is the way we respond to the challenges and the opportunity that can help shape which direction they take us.

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The film uses the device of visual scope to help portray this truth in it’s own way. While Sophie and the Giant are much closer in size than they are in the book (in the book Sophie can fit in the Giants ear), this allows for a much more striking contrast when it comes to the Giant and the other “not so friendly” giants that surround him. In the Land of Giants the others tower over both him and Sophie, showing us how sometimes our fears can dominate us and search-1overshadow our ability to find hope in our own larger than life circumstance. For the Giant these fears (the much larger giants that lurk outside his door) represent his failures and the unknown, his fear of the world seeing him for who he really is. For Sophie, her fear is losing the only true family she has in the Giant.

In Charlotte’s Web, when Wilbur faces the threat of death it begins to rob him of his innocence. This death, this sense of forever loss, is the giant in Wilbur’s life. As Charlotte begins to weave and shape the story of Wilbur for the world to see, she is re-shaping Wilbur’s own ability to see his story as something bigger than his fears. She is teaching Wilbur to dream again, and in the process finding a reason to dream herself. She brings words of significance to Wilbur about who he is in a scary world. “Maybe you’ll live forever” Charlotte tells Wilbur, yet in the meantime she persists in telling Wilbur exactly who he is in the present moment… one terrific pig.images

In BFG it is a little girl who helps the Giant find his voice by facing his biggest fear, which is making himself visible to the world. She does this by helping him see who he is first by adorning him with the name “Big Friendly Giant”, and then showing him that he is accepted for exactly who he is. In response, BFG recognizes that he needs Sophie to help him learn to dream again, for his sake and for her sake as well. As they face their fears together, they both learn to become okay with their secrets being made visible to the world around them, letting themselves be seen for who they really are (which most certainly does not belong in the Queen’s Castle, but they make themselves welcome there anyways in what unfolds as a stellar sequence on screen). This is what also leads them to the realization they can’t do it alone.

Ultimately both stories show us the importance of having others in our life who can help us see those hidden places, to help us find the voice that is piercing through the shadows. Community requires us to be visible and vulnerable. Community also requires us to take the risk of investing in others.

FROM ORDINARY MIRACLES TO DREAMS COME TRUE

“I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
– Fern (excerpt from Charlotte’s Web)

The caption of the feature film Charlotte’s Web, and the song that accompanies it, uses the phrase “ordinary miracles”. This reflects the idea that hope can be found in a sunrise, in facing the messiness of life by finding beauty in the moments that lead us towards a new day.

In much the same way, BFG taught me that my dreams will always have the potential to propel me forward or hold me back, to be helpful or harmful. What ultimately matters is whether I allow the nightmares to silence my ability to hope, to lose sight of the small, everyday, ordinary miracles that can lead us towards a much bigger potential for greater living.

In the end of the film BFG, Sophie describes the dreams (the giants) as “all the secret whispers of the world” that are helping to make her who she is, continuing to re-shape her expectations of the world around her. It is a beautiful sentiment. It is a sentiment that I believe also happens to be true. When we speak we offer ourselves to another as we are. But when we listen we hear the story of our experiences and of others that can help shape us in to what we are becoming, which is taller than our fears, bigger than our failures.

Finding a way to dream again is about learning to be okay with who we are and trusting that both our failures and the wisdom of others can help make us better. It is about learning to respond with grace and confidence when life looks a little bit different than we imagined, and continuing to search for new possibilities when things feel impossible. When we learn to face our fears, and when we learn to dream again, it gives us the opportunity to make a difference in the world in ways both big and small.

ACCEPTING OUR FAILURES AND FINDING OUR STRENGTHS
Many of my favourite childhood stories have taught me similar things about what it means to stand taller than my fears. For me it begins with facing the demons of my anxiety and my depression. The fact that these same child hood stories are also expressions of the authors own translated life helps me know that I am not alone in this battle, whether that be Charles Schulz public battle with depression and anxiety or E.B Whites internal battle with feelings of isolation.

imgresIn the case of BFG (and Dahl’s other works), it is a revealing (and necessary) process to recognize the personal demons that inspired Dahl to give shape to the story from his own embattled context, which arguably inspired a much different response than White or Schulz. BFG is largely an unveiling of the authors own personal brokenness, as he remained a conflicted personality who expressed his own failure (and need) to belong in the world by projecting on to others a strong bent of racism and social bigotry. This is mere speculation, but I believe this is what drove him to continually write about themes of brokenness, belonging and being the social outcast. I also think it is why he wrote about the fantastical, larger than life images of our childhood fantasies, whether that be a factory made of chocolate or a mysterious and magical Land of Giants. There is a sense that these stories acted as a sort of confession of a life that he was less than satisfied with, a life that reflected his own bottled up dreams, failures and broken childhood expectations.

Spielberg himself would go on to suggest in an interview about his work on BFG, “For somebody who has proclaimed himself anti-Semitic, to be telling stories that just do the opposite, embracing the differences between races and cultures and sizes and language, as Dahl did with ‘The BFG,’ it’s a paradox.”

Journalist Carnevale pushes this even further, saying, “To be so gifted and yet so full of disdain for others was Dahl’s problem. His creations reflect that self-hatred, but if they did not, they would not be honest explications of a cruel and merciless world.”

Stories, whether we write them or read them, help translate ourselves. When we translate ourselves it keeps the stories honest. Clearly Dahl struggled with being compared to others around him, something his stories help to unmask. The beautiful thing about this though is that, if I am honest, there is something of this struggle that remains in me as well.

Just as Charlotte’s Web was White’s way of reflecting on his relationship to the world around him, I can’t help but imagine that Dahl engaged in the process of writing in order to make sense of his own struggles. By being brave enough to offer this window in to his own soul, he also helps encourage us to present our unmasked self to the world, faults and all. After all, it is in the messiness that the world can also see the good, and it is by facing the world that we find the courage to stand taller than our giants.

There was a time when I was alone
Nowhere to go and no place to call home
My only friend was the man in the moon
And even sometimes he would go away, too

Then one night, as I closed my eyes,
I saw a shadow flying high
He came to me with the sweetest smile
Told me he wanted to talk for awhile
He said, “Peter Pan. That’s what they call me.
I promise that you’ll never be lonely.”
And ever since that day…

He sprinkled me in pixie dust and told me to believe
Believe in him and believe in me
Together we will fly away in a cloud of green
To your beautiful destiny
As we soared above the town that never loved me
I realized I finally had a family
Soon enough we reached Neverland
Peacefully my feet hit the sand
And ever since that day…

Neverland is home to lost boys like me
And lost boys like me are free

– Lyrics from Lost Boy by Ruth B

 

 

Finding Me at the Intersection of 39 and 40

40 years. That’s a long time to be on this earth. My memory isn’t what it was even a few a years ago, but I can still remember being a young child and thinking, “man, 40 is so old!” Of course I didn’t understand what old was back then. I only knew a childhood that was supposed to never end. That is how the world worked after all. Some people aged, sure, but it was not something that would ever happen to me.

I blinked and I aged. Man did I age. And here’s the kicker: I still don’t understand exactly what old is. The truth is there is a big part of me that simply doesn’t want to. But as the days go by it becomes harder to hide from those daily reminders. I am slowing down. My memory is getting worse. My hair is turning more and more grey.

Perhaps the most significant reminder of that number which is suddenly lurking around the corner came from a few years back. I will admit that I haven’t built much in the way of a career (the ongoing joke is that I am building a collection of useless degrees to hang on my shelf), but the closest thing I have to it is a career as a youth worker. Many of these years were spent in the role as a youth pastor. I have written in other places about how my most recent position impacted this career, emotionally, practically, physically  and spiritually. I left that job with a big question mark surrounding my life and not much clarity in how to build my life moving forward. What I probably haven’t mentioned was that this is not technically my most recent position. In an attempt to find healing and clarity I accepted a part time youth pastor position a few years ago. Unfortunately I only lasted two weeks before having to step out (for a number of reasons). These two weeks would nevertheless go on to leave it’s mark though, as it was the first time my age really came in to question as they considered my qualifications. I left the job knowing that I still had a lot to work on personally, and that somewhere inside I still had a fire burning for youth ministry and ministry in general. But it left me with the cold, hard fact that, moving forward, this question of age was officially a part of the picture that I would have to wrestle with. Yes, I am old.

I have a confession to make. The march towards the big 40 caused me to have a breakdown this past year. I have a strong anxiety disorder, and sneaking past the 39 mark this past summer, without a lot of answers to the above scenario, pushed me towards a sharp downward spiral. I was not doing well, and the fears that dominate my anxiety had taken over.

I have another confession to make. You will probably never know how guilty I feel about having this sort of breakdown, of having these seemingly irrational and self-centred fears. Underneath I know I am privileged to be afforded 40 years. I am reminded of this every time I hear a story of a life cut short. Underneath I know that these fears fly against the promise of the Christian hope that I am supposed to carry, the kind of hope that I see so confidently expressed in others. Often times I wonder if my greatest weakness is that I hold on too tightly to this world, and yet holding tight is sometimes the only thing I know how to do at all.

A friend of mine recently started a blog to see if it could play a role in helping to publicly express her battle with depression. I was inspired to do the same. As 40 creeps nearer my anxiety is threatening once again. Thoughts of what I have managed to accomplish at this (supposed) mid-life mark are overwhelming. Look back far enough and I would have suggested an accomplished music career by the time I was 40. I ended up leaving that to my friends those who forged the way ahead of me. In the more recent past I would have suggested a successful and long tenure as a youth pastor. Circumstance forced me to hand that over to more qualified individuals.

Which brings me back to the subject of a career at the scary (and perhaps dangerous) intersection of 39 and 40. The truth is I don’t know where I belong. This is as true for the discussion of a career as it is for the realm of social obligations.

A friend of mine recently afforded me this insight over lunch this past spring. As I laid the story of my life out on the table, he suggested that I could see myself as a career care-giver. I have always been afforded the inherited titles of son/brother (which I wear with much failure), but as my life has developed I have grown in to the role of youth sponsor/volunteer, respite worker, youth pastor, husband, father, friend and now also a school bus driver. In all of these developed roles servant and care-giver has been the consistent denominator. It’s not flashy and it doesn’t pay well, but it is a title that I can choose to wear. Recognizing this was a part of the battle. The greater battle is that I see myself in all of these roles as less than capable. When I was interviewed for that youth pastor position that did not end well I had prided myself on the fact that I interviewed really well. If I had managed anything in my 40 years it was the ability to understand who I was. It would be in the dying minutes of that position during a final round table discussion that the Church would end up admitting that I had advertised very clearly as someone that they were now deciding they did not want. At the very least I could say that I have come to a good understanding of who I am. There remains a disparity though in understanding what this means for the world around me when there is always someone more capable, more experienced and more adept. With self-realization comes my strengths, but there also comes my weaknesses. and the truth of a “survival of the strongest and fittest and smartest” world only grows that much bigger with an anxiety disorder.

Perhaps, though, 40 is a time to reclaim an understanding of why I find myself consistently placed in to these roles as a care-giver, and to gain the confidence to live in to this role as best as I can and with whatever I have to offer in God’s great grace. Perhaps 40 is the time to finally step out of the rat-race, to stop caring about my capacity to make a difference, and to begin to trust that I actually have something to give that is worthwhile.

So that is what is this blog is about. It is not intended to be a woe is me. It is not intended to be an exercise in narcissism. It is simply intended to help keep me aware, to keep me honest, and God wiling, to keep myself from the sort of isolation that allows my anxiety to take over. It is a place to speak my thoughts about faith and life, and to hopefully make some progress on some of my writing (I always said I would write a book by the time I was 40).  It is a place where hopefully I can interact with those who hold a similar love of movies, books and pop culture, and maybe open the door to share with others who struggle with anxiety/depression disorders. Mostly it is about taking the steps towards becoming a better version of me, a journey towards finding me at 40 exactly where God has me.