Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

24 March 2008

Radio Blues

I was interviewed today regarding my post of 28 February—about allowing my daughters to watch The Hills Have Eyes—on a Christian radio program called John and Stephanie. Stephanie was clearly outraged that I would let Charlotte watch again a movie that had given her nightmares and then that I would let her even younger sister watch it. I explained my miserable parenting as a preference for permission with discussion over prohibition and simply relenting to teenager pressure. And I tried to talk about the other part of my post: the fact that equally creepy stories are found in the Bible, and I see this as evidence that we are to confront and talk about such matters, work them through, even with our children, and not simply forbid the topics altogether and deny their existence.

As is to be expected in any discussion of objectionable or graphic material undertaken among believers, Stephanie quoted Paul to the Philippians: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (4:8). Then she asked me if I didn't think allowing my kids to watch the movie with discussion wasn't tantamount to letting them have sex in the living room or use drugs in my presence. She also wisely pointed out that, while the Bible was made for teaching us how to be, movies were made for entertainment. Her parents had forbidden such movies, she said, so she had never seen them and never wanted to see them. The few glimpses of scary scenes she had caught in her life had stayed with her and damaged her.

I felt bad afterwards. I suppose it shouldn't have been any surprise that my parenting looks exactly as bad to others as I always feel it is. Parenting, I've said many times, is the hardest work I have ever done, and I always feel like a failure.

For the record, though, here's what I'd like my parenting to look like: I seek to be an engaged parent by being aware, really aware, of what my girls are thinking about. I want my daughters to like and trust me enough to keep me in the conversation, so that they will later talk to me openly about more difficult and personal issues—issues that I kept secret and dealt with entirely on my own at their age. I want to allow my children to gradually grow up and away from me. At the same time, though, I also want to have the kind of relationship with them that permits me to retain some small input in their decision-making.

Currently, I am the cool parent among my daughters' acquaintance. Not cool in the sense that I allow my kids to do anything I consider dangerous or immoral, like having sex or using drugs in my livingroom. And not cool in terms of being on top of the latest fashions or able to sing along with the popular music they like, as some of their parents can. Just cool in the sense that I am open to any discussion. I am frequently stern and preachy and demanding, even toward children not my own. I forbid language that they blithely use that, even in jest, belittles and hurts others, and I hold them accountable for racist and sexist views. They have to, in other words, talk nice. But just about any topic, as long as it's seriously considered and not raised purely for the sake of shocking me, is allowed in my presence. So we talk, and because we do I am cool, and my coolness—as well as the fact that my girls like spending time with me—is my main hope in this business of parenting my kids out into a pretty scary world.

My Christian students at JBU often intimate to me that I must be glad not to have been a Christian when I was their age because I got to experience, with impunity, all the stuff they missed or are missing out on. They think my life before I became a Christian must have been, in other words, more fun than my life afterward—and, more importantly, they think that a life without God is probably more fun than their own Christian lives are. I think this sort of skewed thinking comes from never really talking with their parents or other experienced people about depravity. My students grew up believing that sin, however true it might be, was something you just didn't talk about. As a result, they romanticize sin and don't realize such simple truths as that foulness really is foul and feels foul and that immoral behaviors never result in happiness.

There wasn't time in my discussion with John and Stephanie for me to go on about the thinness of the line—if there is a line at all—between teaching and entertaining. I think all art—and I include among it, somewhat reluctantly, even the often bad art of popular culture, even movies like The Hills Have Eyes—has the capacity to teach. Indeed, that's what I think the unconscious goal of most writers and filmmakers and painters and composers is: to teach while entertaining, or, to use Horace's words, to delight and instruct. I think the biblical writers have the same goal, otherwise there would be no complicated organizational schemes, like arranging a psalm's lines in the order of the Hebrew alphabet—no word play, no verse. The stories of scripture, Jesus's stories, would not teach as well if they had not been designed to entertain, and entertain well.

Anyway, I'm somewhere way off topic and must to bed. Sleep well, all.

18 March 2008

An Intercessory Prayer of Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester

I really like this prayer—the specificity of its generalities, especially. I also like how the selective capitalization—reminiscent of e. e. cummings and Thomas Carlyle—throws emphasis on certain words. The prayer is excerpted from "Prayers for the First Day of the Week," from the private devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, originally composed in Greek and Hebrew sometime during Andrewes' lifetime (1555-1626), here translated and abridged by Florence Higham in her biography, Lancelot Andrewes (London: SCM, 1952). I've become a fan of the biographer, who wrote a number of books about 17th century religious thinkers. I'm also reading a translation of Andrewes' devotions by John Henry Newman, but I don't like it as much.

I covet Andrewes' ability to pray outside of his own experience—to think of farmers' concerns and nursing moms and those who, surely unlike him (he was known for his sweet cheerfulness of temper), are tempted by suicide. Anyway, just thought I'd share it, as it seems as though this wonderful little biography doesn't get checked out much. Here it is:

O Thou that art the Hope of all the ends of the earth,
remember Thy whole creation for good, visit the
world in Thy compassion . . .
O Thou that wlkdest in the midst of the golden candlesticks
remove not our candlestick out of its place,
Set in order the things that are wanting,
Strengthen the things that remain.
. . . . .
Grant to Farmers and Keepers if cattle good seasons;
To the Fleet and fishers fair weather;
To tradesmen [I'm sure Andrewes and Higham meant traders], not to overreach one another;
To Mechanics, to ursue their business lawfully,
even to the meanest of work[ers],
even down to the Poor . . . .
Do Thou arise and have mercy
on those who are in the last necessity.
. . . . .
All in extreme age and weakness
All tempted to suicide
All troubled by unclean spirits,
the despairing, the sick in soul or body,
the faint-hearted.
All in prisons and chains, all under sentence of death,
orphans, widows, foreigners, travellers, voyagers,
women with child, women who give suck,
All in bitter servitude, or in mines, or in the galleys,
Or in loneliness.
. . . . .
O Lord I commend to Thee,
my soul and body,
my mind and thoughts,
my prayers, and my vows,
my senses and my limbs,
my words and my works,
my life and my death;
my brothers and my sisters, and their children,
my friends, my benefactors, my well-wishers,
those who have a claim on me;
my kindred and my neighbours,
my country and all christendom.

That's it. And I agree. Amen.

28 February 2008

My Daughters Have Eyes

My fifteen-year-old daughter, I recently discovered, has been watching at her friends’ houses teen horror movies that my husband Kris and I would never think of renting. She’s seen the Saw series, whose storyline follows a murderer who makes his victims hurt themselves—saw off limbs, for example—in order to avoid being killed in some other way. Most recently, she saw The Hills Have Eyes, a sci-fi film about cannibalistic mutants murdering and, in one scene, raping their human victims.

After Charlotte saw it, she had trouble sleeping for a while and one night turned the heat way down, despite the icy weather, so that she could sleep with the covers up over her head to protect herself from dream attacks, metaphorically speaking, without getting too hot. Nevertheless, she begged and begged to be allowed to rent the film and watch it again, this time with her younger sister Lulu. Her trump cards—that viewing it would promote sisterly bonding and that Lulu was liable to see it on her own one of these days with her friends—eventually wore me down. On the way to the video store, though, we talked about why she liked it so much and why she wanted to watch movies that scared her so badly she couldn’t sleep.

“It doesn’t have anything bad in it besides the rape. Just violence,” Charlotte reassured me as I pulled the DVD from the shelf and scrutinized the case—The Unrated Version!, it touted—and balked yet again as we approached the checkout line.

I returned the DVD back to the shelf twice before I finally broke down and rented it, thinking, as I usually do in this sort of parenting dilemma, that anything that causes my daughters and me to talk seriously about problematic issues like rape and evil “others” (mutants) was probably worthwhile in the end. I remembered, too, the movies I had snuck off to see in my teens—Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and, the most disturbing film I have seen in my life, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, a frankly erotic and profoundly creepy movie in which young boys not only dissect a live cat in horrifying detail but spy on the widowed mother of one of them having sex and eventually murder her lover.

Charlotte was right, I decided as I laid my dollar bills on the counter. My daughters’ exposure to such monstrosities was inevitable, and I would rather be able witness their response and thereby, hopefully, help shape their evolving beliefs.

Later that night, after the girls had watched the movie and Lulu had pronounced it “not that bad,” we talked about the rape scene.

“You couldn’t really see anything besides the mutant guy spreading her legs, and that was from behind him,” they told me.

“And anyway,” Charlotte said, “after seeing that rape scene, I know I don’t want to be raped.”

“So then, before you saw it, you thought you might want to be raped?” I asked her, trying hard to keep my voice flat.

What if she really did fantasize about rape?, I worried silently. What if rape was as desirable for girls of their generation—influenced as they are by rap music values and parented by mixed up Baby Boomers like me—as all the other creepy things they seem to like? Body piercing. Tattoos. Hooking up. Shaved pubic hair.

“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “I just mean, rape really looks like a bad thing in the movie. Like, I’d rather be killed than raped by one of those mutants.”

It was the qualifications that did me in each time. Not that bad. Rape really looks like a bad thing. Rather be killed than raped by one of those mutants. I groped for what to say, how to reply to my daughters’ unconscious exposés of what it means to be a teenager in our time.

I wonder, though, if things have really changed that much. Consider the rapes of scripture. The Levite’s concubine, gang-raped to death and then dismembered and sent to all the parts of Israel. Lot’s virgin daughters offered up to the rapists at the door. Tamar—raped by the least “strange” of all rapists, her own brother. Bathsheba, sexually harassed and eventually widowed by the devout king of Israel—a man, we’re told, after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Somehow, although they happened thousands of years ago, these rapes seem more real than a cannibal mutant rape and the twisted relationships they portray more horrific. Interestingly, too, the scriptural rapes and the movie rape offer same grim story: rape happens, our world is depraved, and honest consideration of these truths—and of the escape God offers us—is our only hope of getting out of life alive.

My daughters and I will have much to discuss in the coming days, I’m thinking, as they enter the horrors of human existence laid bare in popular culture and in the book on which we base our faith.

21 February 2008

The Other Side—A Lamb Chop for Spring

I will not begin this post by apologizing. Suffice it to say I have been busy. I turned in the mss. for book three last week—a book of essays called The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent; look for it at Barnes & Noble in October or November—and I have been recovering and trying to get myself to go out in the garden to dig up the dirt and plant peas and spinach. No success. It's so freezing cold and has been raining on and off for days. I haven't even managed to go out for my run today. After getting up to 9 miles every other day culminating each time in a visit with my mother-in-law and then having to lay off for a while due to an injury incurred, I've decided, from not warming up or stretching before a run in 9º weather, I'm now at 7 miles every other day. (Please applaud.) No visit with my mother-in-law anymore and not as far as before, but still. Today not, though. Too cold.

The book is really cool, I think. (The intended transition here, in case you're wondering, was cold...cool.) I had to work really hard to get it done in one month. Most of the essays that make up the chapters were already written, but I hadn't looked at them in years (I write new ones every Advent) and three were brand brand new. The biggest challenge—as always for me, since I tend to write pieces that work independently of one another—was putting the whole lot together to work as a book. Once I managed that, it was such a delight to work on. I LOVE revising. And I love the whole idea of the Incarnation—God coming to us as an embryo in his human mother's uterus, drinking her blood (as my daughters used to say), and emerging from a part of her body she probably wouldn't mention in public, covered in blood and other bodily goo, and stuck in a feed trough. What a way for God to start out his life in our world!

As it happens, I am participating in a Bible study on the other end of the divine visit right now at church. (Yes, I have found, to my amazement, a church of which I can say, so possessively, "at church." It's Presbyterian, even more to my amazement, given my unenthusiasm for certain Calvinist preoccupations. Anyway, more on church some other time.) We're studying the Suffering of Jesus (my word for the Passion) in the weeks leading up to his Resurrection. Everything I'm learning about Jesus' suffering and death seems to be informed by everything I'm learning about his birth in working on the Christmas book. So odd.

Something the Bible study leader—Robbie Castleman, for those of you who know her from JBU—said moved me to do Lent. Really do it—with the idea in mind of coming up on the other side, like Jesus giving up his earthly life knowing that 1. he would take it up again in a few days, and 2. he would resume eternal life after that. So, I'm approaching Lent as a temporary giving up not for the sake of suffering along with Jesus, as I saw it in my Catholic childhood, so much as for the sake of getting to enjoy—as he enjoyed and is enjoying—the resumption of pleasures after the period of suffering is past. Probably that's obvious to all of you and how you've always thought of it, but it has been somewhat transformative for me. I can't tell you how much I am going to enjoy that big, medium-rare steak and glass of Cabernet in a few weeks here!

Which brings me to Spring's promised lamb chop: The other day, a man on NPR's Fresh Air—the author of a bestseller called Misquoting Jesus—was going on about suffering, all the ways in which it can't be reconciled with an all-powerful and kind-hearted God. He lost his faith over it, he said. None of the explanations of suffering offered by Christianity or the Bible obtain, according to this man, and he went through them all fairly systematically: suffering is punishment for sinfulness, God's ways can't be explained, suffering makes you a better person, who are you to darken my counsel with stupid questions?, and so on. Anyway, afterwards I thought of a reason he never brought up that I'm thinking, this Lent, is worth considering. Suffering—which can pretty well be reduced to pain and/or loss, I think—causes you to value more highly the absence of pain and/or to honor the thing lost. It causes you to look forward to—I mean really look forward to—the time, on the other side, when you will no longer suffer pain and when you will be reunited with whatever it was you lost.

I have always thought it terrible for people to long for the next life. I have only personally known of a few people who said that they did. One was a woman (not my mom) who had led a grim life as a prostitute and then became a Christian and not long thereafter was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She opted not to do any sort of chemotherapy or treatment that would prolong her life. She also withdrew from friends who tried to encourage her, as they saw it, that she might live longer than the prognosis. She didn't want to talk about that hope at all. "I just want to be with Jesus," she said.

Another was a woman—again a Christian—who, in a fit of biological timeclock desperation, had married a horrible man who was mean to her. All she ever talked about was how wonderful it would be in heaven.

Longing for heaven, it has always seemed to me, amounts to giving up and despising the life we've been given. It seems a wrong focus, like loving Revelation above all the other books of the Bible (excuse me if I have dissed your pet book) or obsessing, as Jesus' disciples were wont to do and countless others have done since his time, on the end times. I guess I'm too much of a hedonist to be able to get to the hating-this-world point of view. Or—shudder!—I just haven't suffered enough yet.

At church (there I go again) the other day, though, the pastor mentioned several times an elderly woman in too poor health to attend the service. She had been a member of the church since forever and had sent us all a cheery greeting in the bulletin. "She's ready to go," the pastor told us more than once. He encouraged us to pray toward that end—not your usual prayer request, unless it's for a person lingering unconscious in the hospital while the family awaits the inevitable death. I have been thinking about that woman a lot, although I don't know her. I have been thinking that such a desire is not necessarily a deathwish, as I have always thought, but maybe a longing for how fabulous it will be to take up life on the other side.

When we rise again, we will be real, Robbie was telling me the other day in her office, where I had gone to apologize for asking too many questions in the Bible study and keeping us from getting as far in the material as she had wanted. Somehow, while I was there, she got on the topic of the Resurrection and started talking about how, contrary to what many think, heaven was not some puffy fantasy place peopled by spirits but the real world, renewed, where we would be solid, in our own bodies, real. She leaned toward me and, to emphasize her point, punched me in the arm. "Like that," she said.

It was not Robbie's punch in the arm that moved me to reconsider heaven, I think, but rather that overlarge wine glass in my imagination, about a third full of Cabernet. Or perhaps a jammy purple Zinfandel in a globe-shaped glass. I haven't quite decided.

"Truly I tell you," Jesus said at his last meal before his death, "I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mark 14:25). His words, I'm thinking now, were not so much a lament, as I have always thought, as they were a preview of future pleasures. He took up his suffering, his voluntary loss of an earthly life I am convinced he actually loved—a life which, fully human as well as divine, he was built to love—not with wretched despair, but in the excited anticipation of life beyond the grave, its treasures and delights, of which this world's joys are only a foretaste.