Seeing In New Ways: a debate about art and iconography at Christmas

Yesterday, Katrina Fernandez posted a piece on the Patheos network entitled “ ‘Haute Spere’ Is a Hot Mess.” I stumbled across this post when Elizabeth Scalia, known online as The Anchoress, posted the link on Twitter. Ms. Fernandez posted a picture of a new installation at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. This piece, entitled “Haute Sphere,” is meant to evoke the Nativity scene through abstract shapes.

Fernandez expresses strong distaste for the piece and comments on its failings as compared to traditional icons of the Nativity. “With only the very basic figures present in the nativity icon, there is much to contemplate. More elaborate icons include Joseph being tempted by Satan, the shepherds, wise men, angels, and a star in the upper left corner with three rays for the Trinity. One could contemplate the mystery of His birth all year from a single Nativity icon. I would not waste five seconds gazing on Haute Sphere. Haute Sphere does not lift my mind to heaven or make me in awe of the Word Made Flesh.”

Ms. Fernandez is welcome to her opinions, and to like or dislike the work as she pleases. However, she has made a very significant error: art is not iconography. The two fields are informed and influenced by each other, but they are distinct. Iconography is created to invite contemplation of spiritual truths, to guide meditation and prayer. Art is, in Fernandez’ own words, “to convey meaning and express beauty.”

And the Haute Sphere is beautiful. A gold disc with an intricate pattern sits delicately balanced inside a white geodesic dome, lined with gold stars. The interior of the dome is lit and light bounces off the gold surfaces and spills out into the night, as if inviting the viewer to come inside.

What could be a better image of the Light coming into the world?

Ms. Fernandez believes the abstract nature of this piece is the most problematic part: “[it’s] last and most important failing is its complete disregard for the belief that man was created in the image of God, and that Christ was born in ourlikeness. When the likeness of Christ is removed and replaced with some abstract thing, the artist has removed the concrete visual reminder that God so loved us he humbly manifested as man for our salvation. Gone is an entire half of His duel nature. Christ was fully human and fully divine. Not fully 24-karat gold sphere and fully divine.” Again, if this piece were created as an icon, she would be correct. But it is not. Did St. John err in describing Christ as “the Light,” an abstract concept?

Art can take risks that iconography cannot. Icons must be correct and not misleading, lest they lead the viewer’s contemplation astray. Art has greater freedom (though it can also make bigger mistakes), and the artist of Haute Sphere has taken that freedom and attempted to show us the Light of the World in a new way.

The problem with iconography is that images may become too familiar. We have all seen hundreds of Nativity scenes, and it is difficult to see them clearly now: we glance at the image and think, “Oh, the Nativity, I know this one,” and move on. With effort, we may remember to sit and contemplate the image for a time, but most of us will pass it by without taking that time. After all, we know what the Nativity looks like, don’t we? Art strives to break through what is familiar and teach us to see things in a new way. When I saw the picture of “Haute Sphere,” my first reaction was, “Oh, that’s interesting, what is that?” Art allows us to approach the familiar with new eyes; through art, we become children again, looking at the world for the first time.

This installation may not lead to contemplation of incarnation or the Holy Family, as an icon of the Nativity would. But anyone who views it is certain to be struck by the beauty of a small unremarkable building holding a great treasure, and the depiction of Light shining out into a world that feels so very dark and cold.

 

[Note: more background about the creation of the “Haute Sphere” can be found in a video here.]

All For One, Not One For All: Thoughts on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy

“It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.”

This age-old attitude is at the heart of the drama in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which begins with the international best-seller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

A confession: these are not the sort of books I usually read. I’m not fond of mysteries, and the phrase “international best-seller” usually puts my guard up. But after reading Lars Walker’s reviews of two of the books at Brandywine Books, I became intrigued.

The books deal with the story of Lisbeth Salander, a socially awkward (to put it mildly) young woman with a history of trauma. Over the course of the three books, the reader discovers that not only has Lisbeth been harmed by the very people who were put in place to protect her, but that the Swedish government decided that she was expendable to protect a certain State secret.

Fortunately, Lisbeth is not as alone as she seems. Idealistic journalist Mikael Blomkvist, having met Lisbeth in the first book, determines to expose the evil that Lisbeth has suffered, no matter the cost. Blomkvist is joined in his crusade by the staff of his magazine, Millennium, as well as several others. Over the course of the books, the lines are drawn between those willing to expose the truth and those who want to cover it up.

This is why, I suspect, so much of the story is spent with characters in the police force and the world of journalism. While these occupations often find themselves at odds, they are both fundamentally dedicated to discovering the truth and revealing evil.

This aspect of the story is slow to build, taking a backseat to a dramatic missing-person story and a double murder in the first two books. But Larsson never lets the theme be lost or obscured: by the end of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the reader can see plainly the horror of allowing a single innocent woman’s rights be trampled in the name of expedience, or national security, or any other lofty-sounding goal.

The main sense of horror in the trilogy comes not from  violence (though there is plenty of that), but from the slow realization that the organs of truth-telling, namely the police and the press, have utterly failed. In Salander’s case, they have even colluded to keep her story under wraps, to discredit her as a witness to crimes, and to keep her under federal supervision. Lisbeth refuses to speak to psychiatrists and police officers, because when she did so as a child, she was locked away in an institution to keep her from revealing a scandal. For 15 years, no-one digs deeper into her story, assuming her to be mentally retarded and incapable of interaction. Lisbeth allows the world to continue thinking of her that way because it is the only way that she will simply be left alone.

The climactic moment of the story comes, not when the murders are finally solved, but when Lisbeth Salander’s story is proven true in a public forum and all those who used her as a sacrifice on the altar of expediency are revealed.

There are problems with these books: the sexual morality, for instance, leaves much to be desired. But in the end, Larsson seems to want nothing more than to praise the costly telling of truth in the face of easy silence. And on that, we can agree.

(Note: there are sexual and violent situations in these books that may make them unsuitable for young readers. I don’t recall thinking that any of the sex or violence was purely titillating, though that is a very subjective judgement. Even with that caveat, I highly recommend these books.)

Confessions of a Textrovert

Hello, my name is Joi, and I’m a textrovert.

You all know the textroverts: the people who are shy and retiring at parties, who can happily go a week without making a phone call, but who are constantly on Facebook and Twitter, sharing insights, jokes, and random links to things they find interesting. I freely confess, that’s me. Ever since I got internet access at age 13, I’ve lived a secret life online, the life of a textrovert.

Let me stop for a moment and explain what I mean by “textrovert.” A textrovert is an individual who is an introvert in “real life” but functions as an extrovert online. Not all introverts are textroverts: many introverts can go weeks or months without logging into Facebook or Twitter, and some eschew the internet altogether.

Ever since Freud and Jung, society has operated on the assumption that there were two general personality types: the introvert and the extrovert. Freud and Jung disagreed about the function of introverts (Freud thought introversion was unhealthy, Jung concluded that it was simply a different way of interacting with the world), but the two types seemed like a good way to begin to understand differences between people.

Then came the internet. Introverts rejoiced: at last, a widespread instant communication system that didn’t involve talking! Perfect! For the first time since the invention of the telephone, communication could happen predominantly in text-based media. And something funny began to happen. Some people began to think of the internet as their natural sphere of activity, and the textrovert was born. (A side note: textroversion is not new, we’re simply seeing a resurgence of it. History is full of people who were more comfortable writing letters than talking.)

Why are textroverts more comfortable online than in ordinary settings where they can interact with others? There are several reasons. The first is that social media circles tend to be somewhat self-selecting. Even on Twitter, people mostly talk with others who have similar interests. This is solid gold for introverts: we tend to love talking about our interests and hate talking about things we find boring. It’s why we dislike small talk. (On Facebook, the textrovert can even block certain posts from being seen by those who only want to chime in with inane small talk—this might be thought a little rude, but it’s a sanity-saver for introverts and textroverts alike.)

Secondly, textroverts can control their online identity. There’s no need to reveal too much of one’s self too soon. If an introvert doesn’t feel like defending her interest in Greek tragedy or My Little Pony or Blade Runner, she doesn’t have to. It’s up to the textrovert to decide when, where, and to whom to open up.

Finally, social media has a built-in delay. No matter how quick you are at texting or tweeting, it takes a few seconds. No introvert likes having to respond immediately. We need a moment to collect our thoughts, to try to find the best way to express what we think. Offline, this usually means that while we try to decide what we think, why we think it, and how to say it, an extrovert has already jumped in with a response. Online, we have those moments to reflect, and it’s much easier to say what we want, when we want, in the way we want.

You probably know at least one textrovert: you’ve probably wondered why the person who tries to blend in with the wallpaper at parties can’t seem to shut up on Twitter! Here are a few tips for caring for your textrovert.

  1. Give them time to spend online. They’re not being rude, they’re just spending time in a place they are comfortable. You won’t do a textrovert any favors by telling them to get offline just because you think they’re lonely or being reclusive.
  2. Hop online and participate in a few of your textrovert’s circles. You don’t have to interact with them on every social media platform (in fact, they may consider that a bit suffocating), but try one or two of them. Talk to your textrovert’s friends: you may find new friends yourself!
  3. Remember that the textrovert is in no way abnormal, weird, or in need of “fixing.” Just because your friend has tweeted 2,000 times in the last month and only made 3 phone calls doesn’t mean they have become a sociopath. Like introverts and extroverts, textroverts simply interact with the world in different ways.
  4. Don’t assume that the textrovert only wants to interact online. Even the strongest of textroverts needs to disconnect once in a while. Invite the textrovert to go for a walk, or get a cup of coffee, or just hang out at a park watching people. As long as there’s no undue pressure to accept, most textroverts will appreciate their offline friends’ efforts to stay connected.

 

Caught Between Oxford and Mars

I’ve always wanted to visit Europe; there are so many things there that inspire me, that mark the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. However, I haven’t yet been able to go (the funds have just never worked out), though many of my friends have lived there for a semester or two.

I envy them sometimes, but not because of their academic experiences. I hope to never have to enroll in any school ever again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-education. In fact, I love to learn: I’m addicted to it. But I’ve grown tired of jumping through hoops to prove to someone else that I’ve learned enough to be permitted to learn something else, and I would really rather not go through that again. If that means I never have a fancy string of letters behind my name, that’s fine with me.

But sometimes I get insecure, and doubt the worth my own life goals. How could my dreams of going back to Florida for a shuttle launch compare with my friends’ goals to return to Oxford, Athens, and Assisi? Are my goals of writing a science fiction novel that inspires the next generation of explorers really equal to my friends’ goals of elected office, scholarship, and parenthood? We’ve received essentially the same college education: a focus on the great books of the Western world, combined with Socratic discussion. Did their education simply stick better? Am I just the dumbest one from the group? After all, someone has to be. Their dreams are filled with the greatest achievements of history, and all I can think about it are spaceships and the difficulties of colonizing Mars.

Sometimes I want to pretend that I’m like them. I wish I could long for that “towery city, and branching between towers,” but I find myself drawn into a vision of the first simple buildings on a distant dusty red planet. I try to desire the slow pace of the ancient cities they love, but find myself eager to return to the happy bustle of the Kennedy Space Center. Many of them would be thrilled to be able to live in Oxford, while I’m just as happy in my smog-filled Southern California, at least until the first colony ship departs for Mars.

My dreams seem crazy, by comparison. I’ll never be one of the few human beings to set foot on Mars; in fact, I’ll be lucky to see mankind land there within my lifetime. I don’t have the math or science background to be one of the incredible crew of people who send others into space or drive rovers on faraway planets. The most I can hope for is to write something that inspires someone else to study more, to try harder, to become one of the few to set foot on a planet other than this one. And if something that I write contributes to a single person reaching out into space, I will be happy.

The education my friends and I share gave us all a love for tradition and the great things that mankind has done throughout history. And yes, in a world of revisionist history and apathy about the ability to accomplish anything great, it is of utmost importance to hold on to the great things of the past. But someone has to love the things of the future, too. The massive Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center is no cathedral, but it is breathtaking, and it’s no small matter to appreciate it. Launch pad 39A may not be the Parthenon, but it is the point from which so many of mankind’s dreams have taken off, dreams that still continue to this day.

So I wish my friends well in their dreams of Oxford, London, and Athens: fare forward, travellers! But I’ll keep my dreams of Gusev and Marineris, and my hope of the ice-bound Europa. After all, it’s going to be the future soon.

A Moment of Grace: My Name Is Jerry and the Difficulty of Change

We’ve all seen that film: the middle-aged protagonist, bored with his bourgeois existence, is suddenly captivated by a younger woman who holds the key to the exciting life he wants. After two hours of confusion, emotion, and the casting aside of inhibitions, our protagonist emerges a changed man, willing to discard anything that holds back his own adventure.

My Name Is Jerry is not that film.

The opening scenes may lull the audience into a sense of security, believing that they know what lies ahead. But instead of a story of personal fulfillment at all costs, they will find a story about the pain we cause each other, the importance of commitment, and the necessity of forgiveness.

Jerry, played by the multi-talented Doug Jones (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth), is a salesman; divorced, he hasn’t spoken to his daughter in years. His schedule is mind-numbingly predictable -until his world changes. His ex-wife passes away, he gets a chance at a new job, and through a series of coincidences, he finds himself drawn into a crowd of twenty-somethings, exploring their music and trying to change himself into a new man. Captivated by Jordan, a lovely young bartender at a club, Jerry moves further and further away from his old life, brushing off his friend’s advice not to get involved with a younger woman. These scenes have a distinct charm, stemming mostly from the characters themselves, but they are also shot through with awkwardness, the growing pains that make every rebirth so messy.

I won’t give away the ending of the film; see it for yourself. Suffice to say that over the course of the movie, Jerry is forced to come face-to-face with his many failures and confront the person he has hurt the most: the daughter he abandoned at his former wife’s request. He seems to miss the point of the whole thing, headed for perhaps his most catastrophic failure of all, until the final moments of the story. The film is reminiscent of a Flannery O’Connor story (though much more light-hearted), with a moment of grace extended to someone who is determined not to notice it until it is almost (but not quite!) too late.

This film admirably walks the fine line between two worn-out clichés: the story of the man who learns to love himself and throws everything away pursuing a selfish dream, and the story of the man who learns to love someone else, conveniently solving the problems of all involved. Jerry is a lovable fellow, but there is no glossing over his mistakes. He is sometimes uncomfortable to watch, because he is all too familiar-we know Jerrys, or have been Jerry ourselves. We dutifully shy away from those who tell us to ‘let it all go,’ but we long for something more, something better, and a chance to make things right.

A quote from the film sums it up rather nicely. “Truth is, you know if you’re in need of a change.” Who doesn’t feel that need? The question is what we change into-will we be butterflies or just worms? The doctrine that self-fulfillment is all we need is sure to keep us earthbound, content that we are already at our best, when in fact we are still mired in the muck. With forgiveness, grace, and a willingness to admit our wrongs, we just might have the chance to fly.

Listen! Ancient Stories and Modern Hearers

“Listen!”

It’s almost impossible not to sit up and pay attention when that word is shouted, spoken, or even whispered. It reminds us that what is coming is important, and worth heeding.

The great epic poem Beowulf begins with that phrase: “Listen!” While obviously a call to attention, to alert the listeners to the import of the story, it is also an inescapable part of the storytelling. The fact that we read Beowulf is a bit odd—the story is part of an oral tradition, meant to be sung to an audience, not read in solitude.

For many years, I did not understand why Beowulf was considered to be such a great work of art. The story seemed archetypal but not unusual, the characters difficult to relate to, and poetry in translation never holds the appeal of the original. Part of the difficulty, of course, is the fact that Beowulf was never intended to be read at all: it is part of an oral tradition, meant to be performed by a skilled bard for an audience accustomed to listening to a single performance for hours at a time.

But then a friend mentioned a DVD he’d seen in a catalog: Beowulf, performed in Anglo-Saxon. Curious, I ordered the DVD; when it arrived, I sat down to watch, intending to get some work done in the meantime. What followed was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Benjamin Bagby, founder of the medieval music group Sequentia, sat on a bare stage, and sang the first part of the Beowulf story in Anglo-Saxon, accompanying himself on a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon harp. Over the next hour and a half, the story of Grendel’s attacks unfolded, culminating with the coming of Beowulf and the defeat of the monster. I hadn’t gotten any work done–instead, I was perched on the edge of my seat, hanging on every word of the performance. Reading Beowulf had stirred nothing in me: hearing it set my mind and heart on fire.

Listen!

How important is it to hear a work like Beowulf or the Odyssey? It’s true that adding sensory perception makes any experience more memorable, and music has long been known to aid in memory and recitation. But perhaps it’s more than that. When one reads, it is usually a solitary pursuit. We often speak of “getting lost in a good book.” But some works were not meant to work that way. In the oral traditions, it is impossible to have a solitary experience of the story. There must always be a storyteller, and there must always be someone to hear the story. There must always be a community.

Shared experience of a story not only requires a community, but creates and strengthens  community as well. Many students of the Torrey Honors Instutite have had the opportunity to attend the beloved Homerathon, when a group gathers to read aloud through the majority of the Iliad and Odyssey over the course of a day and night. It’s not just that great discussions can arise in such a setting, valuable though these may be. It is the participation in a story; shared stories not only give us shared experience, but they tell us who we are, and what is expected of us. The best stories, when shared with a receptive community, can change the world.

In today’s world, we have unprecedented access to written versions of tales constructed in an oral tradition, and this is certainly a good thing: better to read such a work than never experience it at all. But something is still lost.

Don’t just read Beowulf, or the Iliad. Gather a group, and read it aloud together. Enter into the story.

Listen!

Better to Rule in Hell?

Many people expressed surprise when World Magazine gave the first Hellboy movie a positive review: what could possibly be edifying in a story about a demon who smokes cigars, totes huge guns, and smashes up other demons? If they’d been reading the graphic novels, they wouldn’t have needed to ask.

The Hellboy series, created by Mike Mignola , is unique. Hellboy is a half-demon, born of a witch and a devil. He was brought to earth by Rasputin and the Nazis, and destined to be the Beast of the Apocalypse. There’s just one problem: Hellboy is found and adopted by Catholic Trevor Bruttenholm, and raised in a loving home. He repeatedly denies his infernal nature—despite being told time and time again that there is a crown waiting for him in Hell—and makes the choice to fight evil. Mignola’s artwork is distinctively Catholic-flavored: almost every page shows paintings and carvings of saints looking on as Hellboy battles his way through the monsters. (Artist Duncan Fegredo has now taken over the art for the series, and while his drawings are very similar to Mignola’s iconic images, he does not generally include the insets of saints.)

The most recent volume, The Wild Hunt,  is arguably the best yet. Mignola is not afraid to pull from the folklore of any culture, and Hellboy has contended with creatures out of tales from Russia, Africa, Malaysia, and Celtic Britain, just to name a few. The lurking evil in the back of most of the stories is the Ogdru-Jahad, a seven-headed “elder god” inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.

These disparate bits of myth and fable often seemed disconnected, but in The Wild Hunt Mignola begins to tie the strands together. The book opens with a funeral: fey creatures are languishing as magic slowly leaves the earth. But some are not content to slip into the shadows: Gruagach, a warped elf who thinks himself wronged by Hellboy and all humanity, is determined to wreak havoc on the earth and take it back from the humans. To acheive this end, he restores Nimue, queen of witches; but Nimue is out for her own revenge, and declares herself queen of war. She serves the Ogdru-Jahad, and plans to spill the blood of humanity in war in order to call them down to earth.

Hellboy is the only hope, but he must constantly fight those who seek to end his life. While some, like Gruagach, want revenge on Hellboy, others want him dead out of a desperate desire to avoid the apocalypse that he is prophecied to bring. Hellboy himself wants nothing more than to escape his demonic nature and smash the bad guys for as long as he can. But when the secret of Hellboy’s maternal line is known, he can no longer escape the call to rule. Hellboy’s mother was the direct descendant of King Arthur’s only living child. This makes Hellboy, Arthur’s only direct male descendant, the Pendragon and true King of Britain. He must take up Excalibur in order to fight Nimue, but taking on that sword, he is told, will lead him to claim his role as the Beast of the Apocalypse. He has twice refused a crown in previous volumes, but now takes up the sword of Arthur. (On an interesting note, he does not take Arthur’s crown: he accepts the deeds of a king, but still refuses the glory.)

The Hellboy stories draw significantly in tone and content from Lovecraft’s tales of Cthulhu and the elder gods. Unlike the narrators of Lovecraft’s stories, however, Hellboy does not fall into helplessness or madness, nor does he throw himself into the evil that is said to be inescapable: even when all may fail, Hellboy still chooses to do the good thing, at any cost to himself.

In The Wild Hunt, Queen Mab remarks, “I think that may be the curse of your life–that the ruin of things will come from your good works.” The story is still unfolding, and no-one (save perhaps Mignola himself) knows yet whether or not Hellboy will bring about the end of the world, or make a final denial and pay whatever price it demands. In the end, he may have no choice in the matter at all. But he has a choice of his actions in the present moment, and chooses to fight as best he can. The final images in the book are telling. On the left page, a goblin weeps as he fashions an iron war helmet for Nimue, Queen of Blood. On the opposing page, Arthur’s skeleton sits erect, golden crown gleaming in the surrounding gloom.

Which will win: the crown of blood or the crown of the king? Will either survive the coming fire? No-one knows, but one thing is sure: we’ll follow Hellboy’s story to the end, whatever that end may be. ‘

In Defense of Frank Peretti

 

(Note: for simplicity, the term “Christian fiction” in this post is used to refer to Evangelical Christian fiction.)

Ask many Christians what’s wrong with Christian literature, and you’re likely to get an earful. The list of bad Christian fiction is long, and one author tops most lists: Frank Peretti, most notably author of This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness.

The criticisms of Peretti have quite a range: to some people he’s too overtly Christian, to others he focuses too much on the occult. For some the characterization of the people in his novels in the problem, and others find his plots too cliché. His books almost always include a dramatic conversion, angelic warfare, and New Age rituals that turn out to be Satanic in origin.

Some of this criticism is fair. Peretti isn’t the best of Christian authors, but then he never claimed to be. (He has repeatedly stated that he enjoys writing about demons and the occult because he has had a life-long love of monster stories. When he realized that demons were the ultimate monsters, he decided to write about them.) The characters in his earlier works do tend to serve in fairly standard Christian roles (pastor, teacher, etc), and there is rarely a truly unexpected turn of events.

However, Peretti deserves far more praise than criticism. When This Present Darkness was published in 1986, the only other openly Christian stories on the popular market were historical romances, modern romances, and children’s books. Peretti dared to try something new, something that was not a sure sell with his audience.

Peretti’s stories had real spiritual and physical danger, and his characters didn’t always survive intact. Spiritual threats were taken seriously. There was little to no romance in the books (a very welcome relief to some), and Peretti’s characters grew more complex over the years. The Visitation picked up on many of his old themes about demonic activity (though no demons actually show themselves) but also told a highly compelling story of disillusionment with the established church and life in the Christian community.

Though some of his writing is cliché, Peretti’s characters do manage to come to life on the page, and speak in their own voices. No-one who read his books would confuse Travis Jordan, the burned-out pastor from The Visitation, with Hank Busche, the struggling pastor in This Present Darkness. Though both characters have similar roles, Peretti manages to make each of them distinct and unique-a more difficult task than most people realize. He creates memorable locations and towns, and has a talent for creating an atmosphere of believability.

Why are we so quick to dismiss Peretti? Even at his most clichéd, his writing is no worse than the formula fiction that stocks airport bookracks. Perhaps we cringe at Peretti’s writing because it is hard to defend in a materialistic world: he makes no bones about the reality of supernatural. While much of Christian fiction implies the presence of the supernatural, Peretti not only tackles it head-on, but sets a significant portion of the action in the world of the spirit. He defends that which is most indefensible in a skeptic’s world.

Though they might not rise to the heights of literature one hopes to see from Evangelical fiction, Peretti’s early books did something very important: they opened a door. With the popularity of This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, up and coming authors were more free to branch out, to explore, to use other genres of fiction. In any Evangelical fiction catalog, one can now find detective fiction (The Danielle Ross series), comedy (The Wally McDoogle books), adventure stories (The Heirs of Cahira O’Connor series), and many more. It is even arguable that Peretti’s ground-breaking stories allowed Christians to be more engaged with the Harry Potter, Golden Compass, and Twilight series. Such books are no longer “off-limits,” but open for reading and debate.

It is to be hoped that one day Christian fiction will no longer be a genre unto itself, but will have branched into all genres, with masterpieces in each. When that day comes, we should thank Frank Peretti. ‘

Do We Need A New Reagan?

In the recent election, one phrase kept cropping up in Republican and conservative circles: “Is _____ the next Reagan?” Many names were offered, from Mitt Romney to Sarah Palin to Bobby Jindal, among others. The Reagan-ness of various individuals was hotly debated, with various people touting their favorite candidate’s wit, political savvy, and conservative principles. It seems that no one ever thought to ask whether we actually needed a new Reagan. Michael Reagan referred to Palin as “my dad reborn,” and even Gay Patriot’s thoughtful piece on the differences between Palin and Obama used Reagan as the gold standard, without questioning this comparison.

Large portions of the Republican and conservative voting bases have fond memories of the 40th President. He inspired many people to become involved in politics for the first time, and was generally perceived to be winsome and witty. There’s no denying his impact, but a time comes when even the best image must be put aside, lest it become an idol. Some have allowed their memories of President Reagan to become a Bed of Procrustes on which to sacrifice any up-and-coming conservative politician: the politician must fit the bed, or it is off to the “RINOs” with him!

Many reliable conservative sites, such as Townhall.com and National Review did not fall into this mentality (at least, not often) but even these powerhouses of conservative thought frequently trumpet Reagan’s remembrance over all others. One often wonders if these pundits would resurrect Reagan and re-elect him if they could.

Reagan is not coming back. Even if he were the perfect President-a highly debatable notion, to say the least!–he will not return, so to spend so much time fervently hoping for such a resurrection smacks of political idolatry. Conservatives, and Americans in general, have historically despised the notion of a political savior, someone who will come and make all our decisions for us. Reagan himself never espoused such a hope. It has always been up to Americans to vote, become active in their communities, and do what can be done.

Many conservatives argue that it’s not so much the man himself that they revere, but the principles he governed by. Fair enough. But one of the foundational principles of conservatism is that freedom comes from personal responsibility, not a political savior or a right-wing state. Our trust is in God and in ourselves, not the State, and certainly not the President.

Enough, then, with the retroactive king-making. Let upcoming politicians develop their own identity, and show the world what they have to offer. Let the next generation of voters, many of whom have no memory of Reagan, choose their own heroes. Remember the man, and honor his service to his country, but do not make him the measure of every election.

Prayer and Piracy

Since the release of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Americans have gone pirate-mad. Most don’t realize that piracy remains a real threat. Many people have been taken hostage by pirates in recent years, but this rarely makes the news. Even the recent rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates only held the attention of the media for a few days.

Piracy is nothing new, and it has always been despicable. The Barbary pirates were a great concern of the early American government; these criminals routinely took captives who were held for ransom or forced into slavery.

A new book, A Pastoral Letter to the Captives and Other Works, showcases several documents from this era. Edited by Vicki Claudio, this book presents Cotton Mather’s Pastoral Letter to the Captives along with several other relevant documents. The original texts are presented with a few changes for clarity, but the changes are minor.

The Pastoral Letter, addressed to Christians held captive in Muslim lands, encourages them to hold fast to their faith by prayer. In the introduction, Pastor Ed Boston writes:

“whatever the captive sailors have suffered in their cruel ordeal, it is nothing compared to eternal slavery to sin…[Mather] urges them to hold fast to God…’ We would gladly do and spend all we can to rescue you…Nevertheless, we would rather you should endure all manner of temporal miseries than incur eternal ones.’ ”

The narrative portion relays the account of Thomas Phelps, a sailor whose ship was boarded in 1684. He was forced into slavery; many prisoners were killed brutally at the whim of the ruler, Moulay Ismail. Phelps makes his distress clear in simple but evocative language:

“The Reader…will not think it strange, if I was dissatisfied and very weary of my condition, and therefore I did often rummage all my thoughts, for some expedient to ease me of this accursed way, not of living, but …dying daily…I proferred [the requested sum for ransom] but it would not be accepted; upon which I looked upon my condition as desperate.”

Phelps, chained to two other men, persuaded them to escape with him. They made their way toward the coast, dodging patrols and wild animals, until Phelps developed a case of gout that nearly caused his companions to desert him. His account of escape and rescue is both thrilling and profoundly moving.

Claudio skillfully brings together devotional literature and first-hand accounts to present a compelling vision of faith’s power to work in the lives of believers in captivity. Mather’s call to faith is echoed in Phelps’ story of learning to rely on God as he escapes. The exhortation to trust in God and pray is as relevant today as it ever was. Mather’s plea still rings with power, and modern Christians are subject to the same call to pray for those in chains.

This is a difficult book to read; not because it is unclear, but because it is painful. It is not pleasant to be reminded of the plight of captives, such as the recently-released Roxana Saberi, or Laura Ling and Euna Lee who have been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, and hundreds of others. Claudio’s internet radio show Pray For the Hostages is devoted to bringing this uncomfortable knowledge to Christians everywhere. Some of the hostages have been on their prayer list for years, with no sign that they will be released. Many of the captives are Christian, and many are not, but the cry of the captive is the same: “How can we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?”