Something to Chew On

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You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do

from A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin

Quote: Through Every Human Heart

Where did this wolf-tribe [of KGB torturers] appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood?

It is our own.

And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?”

It is a dreadful question if one really answers it honestly.

So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.

Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.

And correspondingly, from evil to good.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, abridged version, from pp. 73, 74, 75

Prescient Quote of the Week

Applies equally well to 2021 as to this kid’s situation.

And, of course, it’s by The Klavan.

I tried to think. It wasn’t easy. My mind felt like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces scrambled. The bright clarity of those moments before I’d been put up against the church wall — that was totally gone. I had left the bright moment of my death behind and was back in life, back in the world. And the world, let me tell you, was a mess, absolute confusion.

For another half second or so, I continued to sit there in my stunned stupidity. Everything had changed so quickly, I was still having a hard time taking it in. I mean, one second you’re standing against the wall in front of a firing squad, suddenly realizing that life is beautiful and that you should’ve appreciated everything more and been kinder to everyone — and the next second you’re rattling around in the back of a van, racing to get out of town. And suddenly life isn’t beautiful at all! It’s nuts! Everything’s wild and confusing around you …

Andrew Klavan, If We Survive, pp. 121-2, 125

A Light, Crunchy Snack of a Space Opera

Keltie Sheffield is a real estate agent. In space. About two thousand years after humanity has learned to take to the stars. She sells planets like you would sell a house, but with a 200-year mortgage, paid off by the buyer’s great-grandchildren. She sells this one planet, which she thinks is uninhabited, but … you can imagine how that could possibly go wrong.

Also, she’s a young career gal who chose this path to spite her parents. Lost in space, she’s rescued by an adorable, gentlemanly military reservist named Grayson, and … you can imagine the possibilities.

At 162 pages, Phantom Planet is light, crisp, and refreshing, sort of like eating a handful of cucumber slices, maybe with a little tzatziki. Also like that, it goes quickly, and sort of feels like it was written quickly. I finished it in about one day. Also like the cucumber, it is really tasty (i.e. fun) and digestible, but it feels like just the appetizer. I got the feeling this book was the setup for a much larger epic. Which it is, as it is one in a planned series called “Galaxy Mavericks.” Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so many bricks lately, but it felt like just a first chapter.

One more cucumber comparison: this book is very clean. There is plenty of budding chemistry between Keltie and Grayson, but spoiler alert: they don’t even manage to kiss. At least not in this book.

Fun Moments

There were a ton of fun and charming moments. I am pretty sure the author gave himself a cameo (as a bookseller, naturally), and I’m now wondering whether he does this in all his books. Also, the scientific disclaimer at the beginning is delightful: “OK, pretty much every area of science probably got bastardized in some way while I wrote this book. Any and all errors were made lovingly for your reading enjoyment.” Gosh, I wish I’d thought of that line!

The food and fashion in Phantom Planet still retain many influences from Earth circa 2020. Keltie enjoys wine and chocolate croissants, for example. The women wear jewelry, which women have always loved to do, but you seldom see it in most space settings. (And why don’t more space opera characters get drunk in space? That seems like such a human thing to do, but this is the first time I can remember encountering it.) And, despite thousands of years of technology advancing, human beings are pretty much the same: there are still phishing scams!

One more thing that it may surprise you to see someone do in space: pray. “Prayer was always important in space. It kept things in perspective for her. A lot of people forgot that and often got carried away” (page 39). And no, this is not just meditation: Keltie is “thanking God,” and she wears a cross necklace. This element is kept very low-key, but it is so refreshing to find in a genre that often assumes that people, in the course of discovering that distant galaxies and alien races exist, will have “discovered” that God doesn’t. Space travel (even in this series, where it’s comparatively easy) is so dangerous, full of wonders, and above all disorienting that we can imagine that prayer would be a very human response and an excellent way to keep one’s sanity. Yet it is missing from so many books in this genre which, consciously or not, wish to portray human nature as mutable.

But What Does She Look Like?

Besides the “this is just the first chapter,” slightly less-than-satisfying feel of this book, which I understand because it’s part of a series, one minor thing bothered me.

We are given physical descriptions of nearly all the major characters, including Grayson, Keltie’s boss, her flight crew, her clients, and her best friend. We are not given a physical description of Keltie. Being able to picture the characters is important to me, so I just imagined her looking like a women from the cover of another La Ronn book I had seen (which is in a completely different genre). About 3/4 of the way through, we are finally told that Keltie has very long hair. Then that her sister is “blonde-haired and skinny and unlike [Keltie] in every way” (p.134). So, Keltie apparently is stout or curvy, with long, dark hair. I still don’t know what color her eyes are.

Maybe this issue is not important to any reader but me. (Maybe it’s even a trend. Is there some rule that we are not supposed to describe the point-of-view character, so that readers can picture that character however they like? I’m asking because I recently read a different book that made this same omission.) As for me, I take cover art very seriously as a clue to how the characters look, and I dislike having to guess and/or revise my mental image of the character partway through. (Especially if you are going to introduce a romance as a subplot.) Please, fellow authors, when you first introduce a character, give us a quick physical sketch, even if it’s just one or two outstanding physical features that can act as a peg to build our mental image on. I’m not saying you have to do the scene where the character looks at herself in the mirror (though if she DOES happen to look in a mirror, and you don’t tell me anything about what she sees, I’m going to be miffed). Just throw me a bone here.

Now … Go Eat Some Cucumber!

Other than those minor quibbles, this was an enjoyable book. There were lots of questions left unanswered that make me want to get the next one. If you like space operas and are looking for a new series to gobble up, check out Michael La Ronn’s Galaxy Mavericks! This would be a good series for libraries to carry because readers will speed through the books and check them out one after the other.

The “Wise” Men as Failed Culture Crossers

The Original Text

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or when it rose] and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,/are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,/for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east [or when it rose] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another way.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,/Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,/because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:1 – 18

This passage is found only in Matthew, not in any of the other Gospels.

Notice, if you didn’t already, that it does not say how many Magi there were; they are just plural. It also doesn’t say that the Magi came to the stable, but references a “house.” Given other clues in the text, this incident could have happened as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. Apparently Joseph and Mary had been forced to stay on in Bethlehem for some time. (This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has ever had to deal with a large bureaucracy.) Apparently the housing situation in Bethlehem had improved enough that they had either found a room to rent, or a relative to stay with.

The following is a re-write of a meditation on the Magi that I once wrote for a church newsletter. The original title was “The Wise Men as Failed Missionaries,” but I think their experience can apply equally well to many kinds of culture crossing, including culture crossing for research, medical work, or the Peace Corps, any time we are attempting to do no harm.

The Perils of Crossing Cultures

I did not see The King and I until after I had already lived in Asia. But I had heard about how great it was, and had somehow gotten the impression that it was a fun, lighthearted musical. When I finally saw it for the first time, I was shocked by how darkly and accurately it portrays the meeting of two cultures. The cost, to both Anna and King, is very high indeed, for what seems like a small payoff in mutual understanding.

There is one moment of the kind that we always hope for in cross-cultural exchanges. The King is making Anna show him how to ballroom dance. This romantic activity, so typical of Anna’s culture, is one that she loves, and that could never happen in the culture of Siam. She has been talking about it, and now the king wants to learn. They dance across the stage, with the king concentrating very hard on this new experience. “Again!” he commands. They dance again.

And then, right in the midst of this wonderful moment, everything crashes down. The concubine Tuptim is dragged before the king. She has been caught running away to join her lover. The king has her whipped; Anna tries to intervene; Tuptim is dragged off to her death, and the relationship between Anna and the king is irreparably broken.

Anna brings British values to the king of Siam, and those values literally kill him.

That is how cross-cultural exchanges often go.

The Wise Men, unfortunately, are no exception to this rule. Let’s call it the Law of Unintended Consequences. When people go into another culture, however good their intentions, there is inevitably much they don’t know. So the Wise Men show up quite innocently in Jerusalem and start asking “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”

They did know a few important facts about Jesus – His office, His age (newborn), and that He ought to be worshipped. What they didn’t know was that Jesus had not been born into the current royal family, or that Judea was a political powder keg. They also had no idea how evil Herod was. It’s amazing – expatriats are constantly amazed – at how the same person can know an awful lot about some things, yet be completely clueless about other, equally important, equally obvious things. This is a pitfall of crossing cultures.

So, in they go – clumsily, conspicuously, perhaps with a large entourage. Foreigners, especially wealthy foreigners, always stand out. They are called before the king. And he is actually able to help them! His scholars point them to Bethlehem. He tells them a pack of lies about wanting to worship Jesus too, and they may sense they are being manipulated, but they are not sure exactly how. Everything is so different from what they expected.

Against all the odds, they do succeed in their mission. They find the newborn king. They worship Him. They deliver their carefully guarded gifts. They even manage not to go back and tell Herod where He is (by the grace of God).

They go back to their own country, thrilled to have met Him … and rightly so. They had gotten to meet the Messiah. It was the experience of a lifetime, and they had sacrificed a lot for it. I realize that I have made these godly men sound a bit foolish in the summary above. Of course they were not fools. I am just trying to highlight that, on a human level, their visit caused a lot more problems than it solved. The Bible hints – and I hope it is true – that they had no idea of the way events were unraveling in their wake.

For the story goes on. Herod does not care that he cannot find the exact child. It does not bother him to murder all the male babies in an entire town. And it does not bother his soldiers to obey him. The holy family, who thought they would just be in Bethlehem a while for the census, now are refugees in another country. And other families in Bethlehem fare much worse. Horror and tragedy! All triggered by the wise men.

If we were the wise men, and if we knew the whole story, we would be dismayed. We would throw up our hands and say, “What a horrible mess we’ve created!” Perhaps we would say, as Anna said, “I wish we had never come.” And then perhaps we would ask, “Have we done any good at all here?”

I think many culture-crossing, would-be do-gooders ask themselves that same question. “Am I doing any good? Does the small amount of good I am able to do, come close to outweighing the harm that I accidentally do? Is the small amount of good that I sometimes, by the grace of God, do, proportionate to the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that I and others have invested in order to get me here?”

I don’t have answers to these questions. In the case of the wise men, it is dangerous to weigh and compare, because soon we will find ourselves weighing and comparing the incarnation of God, and the brutal death of dozens of babies and toddlers. To what can we compare either of those events? They are not currencies that can be converted with some kind of exchange rate. There is no scale for these things. It is wrong to compare. So perhaps it is wrong to ask these questions.

I do know one thing. Despite how it might seem to our human wisdom, the wise men were supposed to be there. Both the slaughter of the innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt were foretold in prophecy. And God sent the star to guide the Magi to Bethlehem. They were supposed to go; they had a role to play. In their case, their role was worship. God did not send them there to change the world or to do some good with their wealth and their wisdom. He sent them to worship. And they did it, and they have gone down in history, and so have the innocent toddlers whom Herod slaughtered. Laments are sung for them, still to this day.

In that fabulous tome about culture crossing, The Poisonwood Bible, missionary kid Leah, who up to that point has been all in on her father’s attempts to transform the local culture, has a low moment when she realizes that her family, by their presence there, is putting a lot of burdens on the community but contributing nothing. “We should not have come here,” she intones. And she presses Anatole, whom she will eventually marry: “Should we have come here? Yes or no.” And Anatole says, “You should not have come here, but now you are here, so you should be here. There are more words in the world than yes and no.” I can’t think of a better way to describe usually disastrous cultural exchanges.

In the Coming Dawn

At the dawn of this new year, I am about to get sentimental on you.

Or am I?

Yesterday, we had a bit of a downer post about the human condition. Today, same topic, but with hope.

The idea of a lost golden age is found in all sorts of cultures, sometimes in some very strange forms. Some cultures and/or religions also add the hope of a future golden age. Of course, you want to watch out for promises of utopia on earth. They usually go wrong quickly and badly. But, the fact that we cannot bring about this future golden age ourselves, does not make the longing for it an illegitimate pursuit. This longing is the universal human recognition that something is wrong with our present world, with our present selves. It expresses the wish for redemption.

So maybe it’s not sentimental to long for a future golden age in which all tears will be dried, even if the song below is a little bit sentimental its instrumentation, coming as it does out of the late 80s/early 90s, when I was a moony teenager. And (*whispers*) I find this song even more moving now than I did as a teen, perhaps because in the intervening years I have seen even more of this broken world.

Here we go.

The World Is Broken. Have a Beer. Happy New Year.

“Once,” [I said,] “There were no predators, no prey. Only harmony. There were no quakes, no storms, everything in balance. In the beginning, time was all at once and forever–no past, present, and future, no death. We broke it all.”

[Police] Chief Porter tried to take the fresh Heineken from me.

I held on to it. “Sir, do you know what sucks the worst about the human condition?”

Bill Burton said, “Taxes.”

“It’s even worse than that,” I told him.

Manuel said, “Gasoline costs too much, and low mortgage rates are gone.”

“What sucks the worst is…this world was a gift to us, and we broke it, and part of the deal is that if we want things right, we have to fix it ourselves. But we can’t. We try, but we can’t.”

I started to cry. The tears surprised me. I thought I was done with tears for the duration.

Manuel put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Maybe we can fix it, Odd. You know? Maybe.”

I shook my head. “No. We’re broken. A broken thing can’t fix itself.”

“Maybe it can,” said Karla, putting a hand on my other shoulder.

I sat there, just a faucet. All snot and tears. Embarrassed but not enough to get my act together.

“I’m a mess,” I apologized.

Karla said, “Me too.”

“I could use a beer,” Manuel said.

“You’re working,” Bill Burton reminded him. Then he said, “Get me one, too.”

Dean Koontz, Forever Odd, pp. 321 – 323

A Song About the Incarnation

This semester in Sunday School, my kids have been memorizing John chapter 1. I don’t know if things were planned this way, but the way it has worked out, as we enter the Christmas season, they are memorizing verse 14:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

John just can’t get over the fact that they saw him.

Whenever I hear this verse, I think of the following song. By the way, all the background music is voices.

Thank You, St. Boniface

This post is about how we got our Christmas trees. For the record, I would probably still have a Christmas tree in the house even if it they were pagan in origin. (I’ll explain why in a different post, drawing on G.K. Chesterton.) But Christmas trees aren’t pagan. At least, not entirely.

My Barbarian Ancestors

Yes, I had barbarian ancestors, in Ireland, England, Friesland, and probably among the other Germanic tribes as well. Some of them were headhunters, if you go back far enough. (For example, pre-Roman Celts were.) All of us had barbarian ancestors, right? And we love them.

St. Boniface was a missionary during the 700s to pagan Germanic tribes such as the Hessians. At that time, oak trees were an important part of pagan worship all across Europe. You can trace this among the Greeks, for example, and, on the other side of the continent, among the Druids. These trees were felt to be mystical, were sacred to the more important local gods, whichever those were, and were the site of animal and in some cases human sacrifice.

God versus the false gods

St. Boniface famously cut down a huge oak tree on Mt. Gudenberg, which the Hessians held as sacred to Thor.

Now, I would like to note that marching in and destroying a culture’s most sacred symbol is not commonly accepted as good missionary practice. It is not generally the way to win hearts and minds, you might say.

The more preferred method is the one Paul took in the Areopagus, where he noticed that the Athenians had an altar “to an unknown god,” and began to talk to them about this unknown god as someone he could make known, even quoting their own poets to them (Acts 17:16 – 34). In other words, he understood the culture, knew how to speak to people in their own terms, and in these terms was able to explain the Gospel. In fact, a city clerk was able to testify, “These men have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Later (for example, in Ephesus) we see pagan Greeks voluntarily burning their own spellbooks and magic charms when they convert to Christ (Acts 19:17 – 20). This is, in general, a much better way. (Although note that later in the chapter, it causes pushback from those who were losing money in the charm-and-idol trade.)

However, occasionally it is appropriate for a representative of the living God to challenge a local god directly. This is called a power encounter. Elijah, a prophet of ancient Israel, staged a power encounter when he challenged 450 priests of the pagan god Baal to get Baal to bring down fire on an animal sacrifice that had been prepared for him. When no fire came after they had chanted, prayed, and cut themselves all day, Elijah prayed to the God of Israel, who immediately sent fire that burned up not only the sacrifice that had been prepared for Him, but also the stones of the altar (I Kings chapter 18). So, there are times when a power encounter is called for.

A wise missionary who had traveled and talked to Christians all over the world once told me, during a class on the subject, that power encounters tend to be successful in the sense of winning people’s hearts only when they arise naturally. If an outsider comes in and tries to force a power encounter, “It usually just damages relationships.” But people are ready when, say, there had been disagreement in the village or nation about which god to follow, and someone in authority says, “O.K. We are going to settle this once and for all.”

That appears to be the kind of power encounter that Elijah had. Israel was ostensibly supposed to be serving their God, but the king, Ahab, had married a pagan princess and was serving her gods as well. In fact, Ahab had been waffling for years. There had been a drought (which Ahab knew that Elijah — read God — was causing). Everyone was sick of the starvation and the uncertainty. Before calling down the fire, Elijah prays, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (I Kings 18:37)

Similar circumstances appear to have been behind Boniface’s decision to cut down the great oak tree. In one of the sources I cite below, Boniface is surrounded by a crowd of bearded, long-haired Hessian chiefs and warriors, who are watching him cut down the oak and waiting for Thor to strike him down. When he is able successfully to cut down the oak, they are shaken. “If our gods are powerless to protect their own holy places, then they are nothing” (Hannula p. 62). Clearly, Boniface had been among them for some time, and the Hessians were already beginning to have doubts and questions, before the oak was felled.

Also note that, just as with Elijah, Boniface was not a colonizer coming in with superior technological power to bulldoze the Hessians’ culture. They could have killed him, just as Ahab could have had Elijah killed. A colonizer coming in with gunboats to destroy a sacred site is not a good look, and it’s not really a power encounter either, because what is being brought to bear in such a case is man’s power and not God’s.

And, Voila! a Christmas Tree

In some versions of this story, Boniface “gives” the Hessians a fir tree to replace the oak he cut down. (In some versions, it miraculously sprouts from the spot.) Instead of celebrating Winter Solstice at the oak tree, they would now celebrate Christ-mass (during Winter Solstice, because everyone needs a holiday around that time) at the fir tree. So, yes, it’s a Christian symbol.

Now, every holiday tradition, laden with symbols and accretions, draws from all kinds of streams. So let me hasten to say that St. Boniface was not the only contributor to the Christmas tree. People have been using trees as objects of decoration, celebration, and well-placed or mis-placed worship, all through history. Some of our Christmas traditions, such as decorating our houses with evergreen and holly boughs, giving gifts, and even pointed red caps, come from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This is what holidays are like. This is what symbols are like. This is what it is like to be human.

Still, I’d like to say thanks to St. Boniface for getting some of my ancestors started on the tradition of the Christmas tree.

Sources

BBC, “Devon Myths and Legends,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2005/12/05/st_boniface_christmas_tree_feature

Foster, Genevieve, Augustus Caesar’s World: 44 BC to AD 14, Beautiful Feet Books, 1947, 1975, Saturnalia on p. 56 ff.

Hannula, Richard, Trial and Triumph: Stories from church history, Canon Press, 1999. Boniface in chapter 9, pp. 61 – 64.

Puiu, Tibi, “The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity,” ZME Science, https://www.zmescience.com/science/history-science/origin-christmas-tree-pagan/