Saturday, December 29, 2012

Beauty is truth, truth beauty - Except It Isn't

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is a line written by romantic poet John Keats. Being a Christian and having a philosophical bent, I'd always thought he meant the truth is beautiful, but as Doug McKelvey points out in this terrific article over on the Rabbit Room, he meant just the opposite. It means that if a thing is beautiful, it is the truth. If it makes me feel good, it is good.

McKelvey's article challenges the idea that art can be meaningless, an outpouring of pointless emotion. Instead, he declares the Christian belief that there is intrinsic meaning in everything, that that idea extends even to abstract art and stream-of-consciousness writing. It's also harder to do right, but it's worth it. Because, after all, if...

If things meant something, if art incarnated ideas and if ideas had consequences, if truth was not the same as beauty (at least not in the way that Keats believed it), then I was responsible for the impact of the things I made and therefore had need to be sensitive and discerning. It wasn’t enough just to spin evocative, poetic phrases that were fragments of no greater whole. This was a holier vocation than I had imagined.

Meaningless art is just the easy way out. As a writer who spends a lot of time crafting, and, as Hemingway said, "getting the words right", this affirmation of the try-again-and-again-till-it's-just-right approach versus the flash-bang!-inspiration-equals-automatic-product school is refreshing. (Even better, he called it a holy vocation. Cool.)

McKelvey believes that, as Flannery O'Connor said, there are "lines of spiritual motion" in everything, and it is the artist's job to discover them. And it might mean there's a greater romance than the romantics every dreamed. What is it? Read the article to find out.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Christian Hobbit?

Martin Freeman as Bilbo
Over the years, I've had to argue in the favor of The Lord of the Rings as a Christian epic. At first, as a kid, I took it at face value and said, "Look, it's just a fun adventure story." But with the increase of spiritual maturity, I've seen plain Christian themes in the Rings books, and even in the atheist-produced movies. Re-reading the books for the first time in years, God has shown me things I missed for years - the overt themes of humility, trust, providence, love, mercy, hope, and heaven are hard to miss, but then, I always read Rings for the fantasy stuff. Dark Lords, battles, elves, and dwarves were much more interesting to my twelve-year-old, adventure-starved self even when couched in lessons on moral relativism and absolute truth. As a kid, I knew there was some sort of great moral goodness in these books I loved, but I wasn't old enough to understand it. Now, it's like reading them for the first time, and I'm savoring the experience. But I digress. When talking Tolkien, this is prone to happen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas to everybody - and a Happy New Year to the WORLD!

I'm a big fan of A Christmas Carol (we did a podcast on it last week), and my favorite version is easily George C. Scott's. Partly, it's because of this song:

The past of man is cold as ice:
He would not mend his ways.
He strove for silver in his heart
And gold in all his days.
His reason weak, his anger sharp,
And sorrow all his pay,
He went to church but once a year,
And that was Christmas Day.

 So grant us all a change of heart,
Rejoice for Mary’s son;
Pray, Peace on earth to all mankind,
God bless us everyone!
 The present man is full of flame:
He rushes here and there.
He turns away the orphan child,
The widow in her chair.
He takes from them he merely meets,
Forgets how brief his stay,
And stands a-jingling of his coins
In church on Christmas Day.

 So grant us all a change of heart,
Rejoice for Mary’s son;
Pray, Peace on earth to all mankind,
God bless us everyone!

The man to come we do not know:
May he make peace on earth,
And live the glory of the Word,
The message of the birth,
And gather all the children in
To banish their dismay,
Lift up his heart among the bells
In church on Christmas Day.

So grant us all a change of heart,
Rejoice for Mary’s son;
Pray, Peace on earth to all mankind,
God bless us everyone!

Merry Christmas - and may you keep it in your heart all the year,

Sunday, December 23, 2012

If We Survive - A Review

It seems like every time I finish an Andrew Klavan book, I’m impressed anew with how easily he can drag me into a story. I like predicting things. I like working things out. After reading his first series: the Homelanders, I thought I’d done that. Well, I thought, undoubtedly, that was great suspense, but he works with a formula. Handsome, strong, Christian patriot dude fights people that don’t agree with him and Gets The Girl.

When I got Klavan’s next book, Crazy Dangerous, I settled myself in for some highbrow criticism. Ah ha! I said. Here’s a cleancut American Christian dude—this is the same thing. But it wasn’t. If Charlie West was Jet Li, Sam Hopkins was Barney Fife. He had no super cool blackbelt skills, and his obstacles were given a quite different flavor. The suspense was nail-bitingly good. But there was a beautiful secondary character who classified as The Girl, and was there to be Got. Phew. I had predicted one thing. Obviously, there was a formula somewhere.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Other Stocking, by G.K. Chesterton

(Thought this was rather appropriate for the holidays, so here's a guest post from our friend Mr. Chesterton)

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good–far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still.

I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now, I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea.

Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

Merry Christmas,

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit - A Great Adventure, But Not as Great as it Could Have Been

Let’s be honest, I’ve been looking forward to this movie since I was about six years old. I’ve followed the process for the last year and a half. I grew up with The Lord of the Rings movies defining my childhood. So when I walked into the theater to see The Hobbit, I was muttering to myself, “Open-minded. Be critical – you’re going to write a review. Don’t get your hopes up.”

(There are spoilers – so be wary.)

But I have to admit, when I saw Bag-End, Frodo, and Ian Holm’s Bilbo, I was geeking out of my boots. In particular, the moment that Bilbo dashes, hatless, coatless, and handkerchiefless out his front door clutching the dwarves’ contract, to a backup of an upbeat version of Concerning Hobbits (a.k.a. The Adventure Begins), I was thinking…Ah, we’re back. This is Middle-Earth. On the other hand, when it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad…

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Silence of God

Today, more than ever, I feel the deep brokenness of the world. That Man could do such things, such brutal, animal, cruel things to innocent children, makes one want to scream at the heavens, why? Why?

I am not one to ask why the world is broken, or what would have been if it was not - it is enough that it is. But I was sitting at the computer, wondering whether it was okay to be hurt about this. The world is broken, but am I allowed to doubt God? To ask why? If I believe in heaven, why does this hurt so much? Then I came to a song that I had heard many times, but as has so often happened before, this time I really listened.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

If There Was Any Justice in the World - The Evolution of the Detective Story

The laughter echoes through the halls of the mist-shrouded mansion. The clink of wine glasses, the sudden high-pitched voice of the host. A small group of seemingly innocent, happy people gather in the drawing room. Two of them are having an affair, three others were involved in a previous murder inquiry, that little old lady isn’t what she appears to be, and all of them have motives for killing the mysterious man in black.
Suddenly, a shot rings out. The maid screams. The inquisitive (but not overly surprised or distraught) group crowds around a body sprawled on the floor. Outside, the storm has arrived and the guests peer out into a snowy wonderland. The butler informs them that the phones are down.

“Well, old boy,” says the hawk-nosed individual in the interesting coat. “I suppose we’ll have to sort it out ourselves.”

It’s the classic setup. An interesting character trots around the English countryside, uncovering things folk would rather have kept hidden, asking awkward questions, pushing the limits of the law in defense of the law, and ultimately, inevitably, triumphantly arresting the local vicar for the murder.

Mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers observed half a century ago that “Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of amusement than any other single subject.” It is still true today. Mystery is one of the three most popular genres in the English fiction market (the other two being romance and science fiction). (1) The most-watched TV shows in the world in 2006 and 2007 were the crime shows CSI: Las Vegas and CSI: Miami. Even the medical drama House, most-watched in 2008 (2), drew its inspiration from Sherlock Holmes, and another runner-up was the comedy-mystery show Monk. Clearly, there’s just something about a mystery.

As Christians living in a culture with so many books and movies centered on violence and immorality, it is important to examine what we read and watch. That begs the question, is it ever good to use evil? After all, “what fellowship has light with darkness?”(2 Cor. 6:14, ESV)

It’s not a new idea. Many in the early 20th Century thought that “To write a story about a burglary is, in their eyes, a sort of spiritual manner of committing it.”(Chesterton, Defense) But when it gets down to it, murder mysteries, at least the good old-fashioned kind, aren’t really about murder. There is invariably a body, sometimes two, but they aren’t there because the author likes killing people, but because murders happen in real life. Mysteries, particularly the ones in later years, try to accurately portray how police deal with murders, and how murder is to be dealt with. There’s one thing about mysteries that isn’t realistic, and it’s not the murders. It’s not the evil part—it’s the fact that murderers are caught. Mysteries always have happy endings.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s fictional sleuth proclaimed that “in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”(qtd. in Dubose, 216) The murderer is nearly always caught, and justice done. For detectives, the first commandment is devotion to law and justice. Sleuths stand as lonely sentinels against encroaching lawlessness. In literature, the closest comparison would be knights and dragons, or possibly David and Goliath. It doesn’t get much purer than that, and the pursuit of Justice is a very Christian principle. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Redemptive Shiver

I'm a bit late for Hallowe'en, but I finally got around to reading Pete Peterson's ghost story he posted a few months ago. It's wonderfully creepy, and I (who am normally pretty good at this) didn't spot the plot twist till the plot had Very reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe in tone, and Arthur Conan Doyle in narration, with an extra dose of original Peterson folksiness and an unexpectedly redemptive storyline.

Silence in a Field of Yellow: A Ghost Story by A.S. Peterson.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Tone of The Hobbit

Over the last five or so years, my mom asked me many times, “Do you think Peter Jackson will do The Hobbit?”

And for the last four, I always said, “No way!”

“Why not?” she’d ask.

“It’s not like The Lord of the Rings,” I’d say, sagely. “It’s a children’s book. There are fifteen primary characters with nearly indistinguishable names. It has talking trolls named William and Tom. The elves sing ‘tra-la-lally.’ Need I say more?”

I am now eating crow, for my mother’s hopes were right. But the crow, to use a weathered phrase, tastes like chicken. I was delighted when I found out that PJ was, in fact, doing The Hobbit. Doubtful, but delighted. It was quickly confirmed, and I could give full rein to my excitement.

Soon enough, however, the cynicism crept in again. The Cast? Who’s Bilbo? Have they got Ian McKellen? TWO movies? Will the trolls talk? Tra-la-lally?

The cast was near-perfect, Bilbo certainly was, there are now three movies, and yes, the trolls talk. No news on the tra-la-lally, yet. Over the months, if I’ve been bored, I can drum up a bit of Hobbit excitement on Now, the Day is almost here, but my traitorous brain is still trying to find reasons that PJ and the crew will go wrong.

It won’t be like the book. It’ll have a lot of corny humor. It’ll be (horror of horrors) politically correct. It’ll be a Ready-Made Blockbuster. Tolkien will be blasphemed.

But over the last few days, some really interesting things have popped to my attention, most of which were Phillipa Boyens’s comments.