The Power of Fantasy

When I was little, my parents chose to tell me the truth about Santa Claus. They thought if I knew this particular myth was false, I would be less susceptible to believing lies in the future. They didn’t want me to confuse fantasy with reality, especially when I began to learn about Christianity. Not surprisingly, a lot of Christians feel similarly about fantasy and ask why would you read or watch something that doesn’t exactly correspond with the reality we experience? While these concerns regarding fantasy are not ungrounded, I believe there is also a lot of good and truth that can be communicated through this specific genre.

Although the genre of fantasy is able to communicate truth, it does not mean it is free from potential danger. Scripture defines the line between myth and reality when Peter writes, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…” and Paul warns to not, “devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” These two verses clearly warn against the dangers of myths and fables since they have the ability to detract from the truth of the Gospel.

These passages were interpreted by many Christians, including my parents, to mean all fiction must be harmful since it was unrealistic and therefore untruthful. To these Christians, fantasy stories are made up of lies and deceit and are directly opposed to the Bible which is completely truthful. The works which include fantastical elements such as talking animals are deemed falsehoods since they promote worlds incompatible with the Christian reality. Whether or not one completely agrees, these types of concerns are truly valid when an individual begins to replace truth and reality with a fantasy world. Fantasy is not meant to be nonfiction and most would understand the label of fantasy to differ from reality. However, the distinction is not always easy for some, which is why prudence and discretion are important guiding factors when exploring fantasy.

However, in spite of the potential risks, fantasy was championed by Tolkien and Lewis as a powerful tool for Christians through its ability to engage the imagination. Their use of magic and myth is supported by many Christians because of their explicit ties to Gospel themes, but C.S Lewis believed fantasy was useful beyond direct connections to the Bible. He said, “At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.” Fantasy thus has the unique ability to extend beyond the present and introduce to the human mind the potential of a life beyond the tangible reality man experiences.

Fantasy’s introduction to the extension of life beyond the material then allows the mind to break the limitations of materialism and embrace truth’s existence outside materialistic bounds. Fantasy critics construct a false parallel between tangible reality and truth, believing fantasy’s venture outside the realm of daily life is an attack on reality. Tolkien said, “creative Fantasy is founded…on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.” At it’s core, fantasy still maintains logical thought, but it simultaneously engages in a world which extends beyond an earthly framework.By doing so, fantasy breaks the spell of a mindset that truth only exists in this present earth and teaches us to realize greater truths beyond a material worldview.

 

 

A Journey of Sacrifice

“You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.” (*The Hobbit*, 35)

This is my favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s *The Hobbit*, because it communicates the very thing that makes an adventure great: sacrifice. Bilbo is suddenly presented with an opportunity for adventure. He’s used to living in a cozy hobbit-hole, with the comforts of home at his fingertips. Yet something deep within him prompts him to take the opportunity and go on a journey with companions who are practically strangers. He does not quite know what he’s getting into and he suspects there will be perils ahead, but he still chooses to go. Less than five minutes into the journey he remembers his pocket-handkerchief and wants to turn back. It is at this point that Dwalin, a no-nonsense dwarf, reminds Bilbo that if he wants to be a part of the adventure, he’s going to have to leave the comforts of home entirely behind him. Bilbo is reminded to anticipate sacrifice if he wants to get where he’s going.

I’m not going to say that the Christian life is like an adventure –after all, adventures are temporary. You return to the the comforts that you sacrificed once the adventure is over. The Christian life is not called the Christian adventure for a reason. It does not last for a few months and then come to an end. I will, however, say that this line from the Hobbit reminds me of the sort of sacrifice which Paul explains in Romans chapter 12. The Apostle writes:

> I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.1-2)

Paul is instructing believers to seek a radical transformation. When he tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, he means that we are no longer serving our flesh but giving ourselves to God. The world tells us it is okay to pursue our sinful desires. Paul is telling us to leave the world’s standards behind and change our mindset. If we want to be obedient we have to go all the way. We cannot be of Spirit with a mindset and a desire that is of the world. Yes, sacrificing our desires is uncomfortable and sometimes feels uncertain, but it is necessary if we want to get where we are going.

Returning to The Hobbit, it appears that Bilbo’s sacrifices actually improve him. Prior to his journey, he knew little of what happened beyond the borders of the Shire. He was content with his pipe, his food, and peace and quiet. He never had any need to exercise courage or push himself beyond his comfort zone. He learns with every step of the journey that there is more to him than he thought. He has a courage and strength within himself that brings him to confront incredible foes. In the end, he returns to the Shire as a changed Hobbit, with a beautiful story to tell.

It is okay if sacrifices scare you. You should feel a tinge of fear when you read the aforementioned line from The Hobbit, mostly because you can sense the risk and peril that is coming. You might feel a tinge of fear when you read Romans 12.1-2 as well. Saying no to a desire is painful. Christians know that they are on a life-long journey in which they will have to give up their desires. However, we can be comforted in the fact that as we make sacrifices we are being transformed and prepared for a future glory. Sacrifice is painful but necessary, frightening but transforming. As you strive to sacrifice the desires of the flesh, remember that you are on a journey in which you are becoming closer and closer to God. Not to mention, your journey ends with an eternity spent in his presence. With this hope in mind, press on in your journey of sacrifice.

Happy Endings in Love and Life: The Keys to Satisfaction

Man was never created to be an independent creature, free to do as he pleased.  In the garden, God created man to be in constant communion with him. Adam’s sole purpose was found in relationship with God. God created Eve because it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18).  Relationship is a core component of human nature.  Humans were made to be in constant relationship both with God and with each other. Eve broke that relationship when she took the forbidden fruit, choosing  her own way instead of God’s way, disrupting the natural state of man.  Man was no longer in constant subjection to God.  Listening to self instead of God soon became an option for living.  Obviously, this was not without consequence.  Discord and strife, instead of peace and harmony, immediately became the norm for life.  Hello to the world as we know it.

Marriage is an institution ordained by God designed to replicate the harmony in the garden.  Husband and wife entering into perfect harmony with each other; two becoming one (Genesis 2:25). However, just as it was in the garden, the husband and wife experience unity in their submission to God.  This requires mutual submission and self-sacrificial love.  Acting for yourself in opposition to your spouse results in strife.  For many, this kind of marriage seems very constraining.  It is.  You are not allowed to follow all your passions on a whim.  Marriage is a life time commitment to submitting to and loving another human being.  But in this commitment comes great joy that is not possible in relationship outside of marriage.

Desire is an important part of any relationship.  But as with any passion, desire can come and go.  Following desire can lead you down many stray paths.  Desire alone is not enough for a thriving relationship.   Commitment and security are needed.  In Song of Solomon, the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me (7:10).”  Without this firm sense of belonging, insecurity and doubt will destroy even the most passionate relationship.  Marriage provides a framework for desire where security and exclusivity allow it to blossom.

What about people in abusive marriages?  What about adultery?  There is no doubt that these will drastically affect and possibly shatter any union.  Strife and discord are inevitable in any relationship, no matter how committed the two spouses are to God and each other.  But my point here is not to write about the affects of sin on marriage.  My point is simply to present the best bet for a lasting love.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the story of a tragic love affair.  Anna and Vronsky are destroyed by a love that cannot satisfy.  Anna soon becomes consumed with doubt and insecurity regarding Vronky’s commitment.  Without marriage, there is no assurance of commitment or belonging, thereby making insecurity overtake passion.  Vronksy strives to retain his “manly independence” and keep a life apart from Anna.  He holds onto part of himself that he refuses to give to Anna.  This too prevents them from becoming one flesh.  Chaffing is the natural result.  Destruction instead of a blossoming love becomes the outcome of their affair.  Desire outside the bounds of marriage yields nothing but strife.

Anna and Vronsky are perhaps an extreme example of something so commonplace in our culture, love outside of marriage.  Anna and Vronsky’s destruction was in part caused by their rejection by society.  Today, “living together” is a common place behavior.  While it may not be openly destructive, as with any other self-centered behavior, it can result in nothing but inward strife and discord.  It may feel good at times, but does it satisfy? True satisfaction only comes through living a life in relationship with and submission to God, and, if that life involves the love of your life, a God centered marriage.

Why is God important?  This too goes back to the garden.  God created us to be in constant relationship with him.  Thriving is only possible through this relationship.  Veering away from God might lead to earthly pleasures but will never lead to ultimate fulfillment.  Jesus came so that we might be fulfilled in a post-fall world.

Are you engaging in a self-centered behavior right now?  Whether it is an extra-marital affair, or something like excessive drinking or viewing pornography, I have to ask you, “Does it satisfy?”  Not just on the surface, but deep down inside.   Jesus tells his followers, ”The thief comes to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”  Choose life.

Writing as Art

During my final semester of college, I’m taking a class called “Vision, Voice, and Practice.” The painting and poetry professors have teamed up to teach it, and it’s offered for either upper division Art or English credit. That’s where the “Vision” (art) and “Voice” (writing) parts come from.

The class has afforded me a wonderful opportunity to study that strange being known as the Art Major. I’ve learned that  these beings are most active at night, understand the term “Class starts at 8:00am” very loosely, and like to talk about symbolism. They’re also deep thinkers, insightful, and caring.

Being in a class with art majors has given me a glimpse into the art world—a world where trinkets arranged in boxes help people think about exploration, and a pile of jumbled words  produces a 3D object.

in-class text coll. treeBeing part of this community has made me think differently about my writing.

In my mind, I’ve always categorized “skill” into three sections: skill, craft, and art. The difference between these three had something to do with practicality and objective beauty. I might be skilled at washing dishes, but the activity isn’t beautiful, and is definitely not an art form.

Craft got a little closer to art, but it was still too practical. The glass-blower creates beautiful bowls that hold liquid, and the wood worker creates sleek tables, chairs, and surfboards. But these things were still practical—they were working pieces, not art pieces.

Art, though—art was the shimmering pinnacle of creativity and beauty. It wasn’t supposed to be practical. It was the standard of perfection that practical people looked to and dreamed of reaching.

I had always thought of writing as part of the craft category. It can be measured definitively by a set of rules and requirements (grammar and style) and becomes better with practice. It’s used practically: to record the minutes of a meeting, persuade the public to vote for a new tax, or warn drivers about the deer that might cross the road. Therefore, writing didn’t qualify as art.

My definitions were wrong.

I won’t attempt to give a definitive, holistic definition of “Art” in this post. That’s book and dissertation material. But I will say that any good definition of Art will not demand physical beauty, and will not exclude practicality.

One of the main purposes of Art is to make us think—to challenge our pre-conceived ideas and broaden our perspectives. Sculptors use clay and photographers use printed images, but they both use them as mediums to convey an idea, or even to produce a practical object.

Writers use words to the same end.

Language as a medium doesn’t depend merely on definitions to convey meaning. It also uses style, sound, restriction, and even visual presentation—the same criteria we use to evaluate art.

By the same token, Art doesn’t exist apart from the practical concepts and struggles of humanity. Artists are trying to work out answers to these questions through their work. There is no such thing as meaningless art, (though some have tried). The end result always includes an idea, a concept.

secret garden, 2The other essential part of Art is active creativity. A rose is beautiful, even “sublime,” but it is not human art. This is where “Practice” comes into the class title. We are actively practicing our disciplines, not floating around in the philosophy of Formland, but grounded in the work we make. Our assignments are both individual and collaborative, but in each one, we’re creating something.

Through Practicing the collaboration of Vision and Voice, I have learned to not limit my own work, but to see it as Art.

All the pictures above are projects done in this class. If you’re interested, you can check out the class blog here for more of them.

The Well-Ordered Soul in Plato and Athanasius

I spent five months trying to order my soul. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates establishes the just man as the man whose soul is well-ordered. This means that his appetite, spirit, and reason play their respective roles. Reason guides the appetite and spirit, allowing the just man to evade vice and pursue virtue. Socrates explains that “the most happy is the most kingly, who rules like a king over himself”. Embracing this idea, I sought to order my own soul without any guidance aside from my vague understanding of justice, virtue, and reason. It didn’t work.

In his treatise,On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius reveals his perspective on Plato’s idea of the well-ordered soul. He exlpains:

For if even Plato, who is admired by the Greeks, says that because he who begot the world saw it distressed and in danger of sinking into a region of dissimilitude, sitting at the helm of the soul he helped it and corrects all its faults, what then is there incredible in what we say, that humankind being in error, the Word sat at its helm and appeared as human, in order that he might save the distressed by his guidance and goodness?

The Son of God lived, died, and was resurrected to conquer death and corruption. The Word took on flesh and became the mediator between God and man. He has reached down to depraved creatures so that he might heal our broken souls and lead us to holiness. It is through his sacrifice that we are able to partake in the glory of our Creator. In understanding the basic message of salvation, the foolishness and arrogance of trying to order one’s own soul becomes apparent. Man is in a perpetual battle with the flesh that cannot be won without the Word at the helm. It is arrogant to assume that a fallen individual possesses the power to rule oneself.

The temporal ends promised by Plato pale in comparison to the beauty and goodness of Christ. The happiness that Socrates mentions is one of earth and time. The kingly sort of ruling described in the Republic is a human ruling which can never be perfected. On the other hand, the Word guides the soul closer and closer to God until the soul is made complete and is able to enjoy the eternal happiness that is the presence of God. Also, when one submits his soul to God, he is submitting it to the only King who is eternally just and sovereign.

Regarding the means to a well-ordered soul, there is action required by the individual. However, it is action that is grounded in the power of Christ. The Apostle Paul closes his letter to the church in Thessalonica saying:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

God, through the incarnation of the Word, does the complete work of sanctification in one’s soul. Plato was right about living virtuously. To have a well-ordered soul, the good must be sought and the corrupt must be expelled. Unfortunately, what Plato failed to recognize is that God is ultimately the King over one’s soul, and must be relied upon for complete order.

Plato’s idea of the soul — though pagan— is captivating and inspiring. By the grace of God, others such as Saint Athanasius have seen and proclaimed the truth of this idea in a new light. With the Word at the helm, the well-ordered soul has now become a sincerely hopeful ambition. This is not to say that it is easy. With a corruptible flesh, it remains a continual struggle to maintain purity in spirit, soul, and body. Nevertheless, there is a righteous King who abounds in grace and lends his strength so that we can become more and more like him and someday rest in the goodness of his presence.

Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions, and Living for Society

Before settling on the title “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen titled her novel “First Impressions.” As the “almost title” suggests, first impressions play an important role in the plot. Mr. Darcy’s aloofness causes the Bennets to scorn his company and drastically misjudge his character. On the other hand, Mr. Wickham, a scoundrel, soon becomes a family favorite. At the novel’s conclusion, very few are privy to the information of Darcy and Wickham’s true character; everyone else is still blinded to the truth by their initial impressions.

Due to this great error in judgement, the reader is led to question the validity of first impressions. We are constantly “performing” in hopes of gaining people’s favor. Since first impressions are so performance oriented and may not be an accurate depiction of who you really are, it seems that they can be completely disregarded as an accurate tool for interacting with other people. Yet, Austen does not want us to completely rule out the usefulness of making favorable impressions on people. She uses Elizabeth to illustrate a way of acting that is socially acceptable, and therefore pleasing to others, yet still true to herself.

In the book, there is a constant tension between pride and vanity. Mary Bennet explains the difference as, “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (p. 14) Darcy knows his own worth, and does not need other people’s affirmation. However, “weaker” characters, those less sure of their capability, are much more dependent on other’s good opinions. For example, we see Ms. Bingley constantly acting in flamboyant ways in hopes of gaining Darcy’s attention. She cares almost exclusively about other people’s, specifically Darcy’s, opinion of her.

Before falling in love with Elizabeth, Darcy is presented as a completely self-sufficient character. He does not need anything from other people. Darcy’s pride is the result of his recognition of his self-sufficiency. Since he does not need anything from other people (with the exception of his friendship with Bingley), he does not bother trying to get people to like him. This works for Darcy. His self-sufficiency allows him to act in a meaningful way (saving the Bennet family from destruction) while being disliked.

However, Elizabeth, along with all the other women in the novel, is much more dependent on other people. As a woman in that society, the only option for advancing in life is marriage. Therefore, they must make good impressions on people so as to gain favor. Elizabeth, for the most part, does this. She plays by the rules of society. Yet when it is time for Elizabeth to make the decisions that really matter (who she marries), she asserts her independence from society’s rules. Her happiness is more important than following the rules. So even though Elizabeth is outwardly submissive to the rules of society, her inner strength allows her to act independently from the expected behavior.

Darcy is attracted to this quality in Elizabeth. Elizabeth does not completely spurn the rules like Darcy does, but she does not order all aspects of her life around them like Ms. Bennet. So Elizabeth is a wise choice for Darcy—she will not embarrass him by acting inappropriately in Darcy’s higher society but she also is not afraid to think for herself.

Most of us could not afford to act like Darcy. After all, we need a job to put bread on the table. Yet we should not sell our souls trying to win other people’s favor. Elizabeth provides us with a happy medium. It is wise (and beneficial) to follow society’s rules—to a point. First impressions are important. They put you in a position to benefit from society and enable you to act in a meaningful way. However, like Elizabeth, we should not compromise who we are simply because society wants us to. This is especially applicable as Christians. We are living for our Lord, and what our Lord demands of us is often different than society’s expectations. Wise people will respect us for our integrity, yet it may mean giving up a seemingly valuable opportunity.

Everything is clearer in hindsight. Did Elizabeth make the right decision not to marry Mr. Collins? Yes, because Mr. Darcy allows her to live to her full potential. As we are making decisions, there is no guarantee that a better opportunity will come along. Good first impressions put us in a position to make that decision.

*Quotations taken from Oxford World Classics edition.

The Art of Self-Knowledge

I’m my own worse critic. I don’t mean to say that I see every flaw in my writing; I mean I only see the flaws in my writing. The difference may be slight, but it is like the difference between deciding to sit down and practice the piano, and deciding to push the piano out of a 10 story building, light all of the copies of music on fire, and yell “to hell with it!”

So when Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a class of high school students surfaced in my news feed this past week, I felt convicted:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He reminds me that the practice of any art is more like exploration and less like decoration–it is about the soul of the artist. My worse criticism of my own writing stems from this confusion. Instead of asking myself, “What does this blog, poem, or essay say about my soul?” I ask whether it compares well to the writing of my peers or my favorite authors.

The same principle applies to the way I consume art. Instead of worrying whether I like the right movies or books, I could inquire about how my response to particular stories reveals some new aspect of my soul.

In an interview from 1968, Ray Bradbury describes human beings as “tension collecting animals.” In other words, we sometimes suppress violence, grief, and joy because those impulses are not always appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. These tensions, however, accumulate over time and need to be exercised.

Often, we don’t know what tensions we’ve accumulated. Sometimes, we just feel feelings without a clear understanding of where they’ve come from or why we’re feeling them. So, as Bradbury says, the artist will come along and help us discover what they are and allow us to exercise them. Too often, the cathartic experience is a neglected avenue for self-knowledge.

Whether creating or consuming art, we should learn to posture ourselves for inquiry. We don’t always know what tensions we need to exercise on a particular day and so we need to go exploring. Because of my own propensity to care more about art as decoration instead of exploration, I’ve set up some guidelines to follow:

1. Follow Vonnegut’s advice: “…starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with art. Instead, allow yourself the space to get to know one painting, sculpture, poem, or song. Inquire about your experience by asking “what tensions am I feeling? What tensions is the artist representing?”

3. Pay attention to your preferences and start there. If you’re wondering what counts as good art, then you’re thinking about this backwards. If you do not find Van Gogh intellectually or emotionally engaging, then don’t try to force yourself to like him just because everyone else does. Exploring art isn’t a competition, and it doesn’t require a refined taste. Like the things you like and ask yourself “why do I like this?” Only when you start reflecting on your own experience, will you eventually begin to see what makes an artist like Van Gogh great.

4. Be aware of how much art you are consuming and how much you are creating. Inevitably, you’ll always consume more art than you create. It takes several years to create a movie, but only an hour and half to watch it. If, however, you find that you haven’t created anything in a long time (paintings, poems, music, photography etc.), then consider making time for your own art. Creating art often has the effect of not only revealing something new about your soul to yourself, but of helping you to better appreciate good art when you see it.

5. Finally, follow Vonnegut’s last instruction: don’t show your art to anyone because “you will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded…You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.” For a host of obviously bad reasons, this is a hard rule to follow. I like it when people like the things I create, and without fail, this desire eclipses the real rewards of making art. Art as self-expression is the act of exploration. Who knows what knew thing I’ll discover about myself or about the world through the crappy poem I wrote today? My job is only to be interested; the rest is not my business.

I’ll Save My Gucci For Sundays

A smashing outfit is worth a thousand words. I buy what “fits my image” and dress to “make a statement.” Apparel advertising buttons our identity to our body. It encourages self-expression through something visual that we create or select with the cooperation of our minds and our hands. For that reason, fashion savants likely claim ranking with other types of visual artists. For an animal, its outerwear is defense against weather. But ‘wardrobe curators’ and the like explore more complex uses for clothing by engineering it for communication between people. It communicates status and role, dispositions toward authority and levels of self-esteem. Even more abstractly, it communicates a person’s unique ability to relate linear patterns, colors or shapes.

So, clothing—it’s an image of who you are. Granted, it’s a brief image—we can’t statically frame our outfits for study. Our own moving bodies are the frame. Outfits are assembled for certain moments or a stretch of hours, and then get dismantled, sort of like the short-form of installation art. But when taken as a whole, the right wardrobe is evidence of someone’s good taste correctly conveying their peculiar identity.

We’re attracted to those people, wondering how it is they deftly create consistent, genuine images of their identity. Come Sunday morning, Christian adults who dress well have this effect on me. Their identity in Christ—an identity centering on Christ while radiating his image to the world—is now made visible in a small way. It absorbs me in the thought of Christian adulthood. The image of their identity is profound motivation to mature my own identity and invites me to become the disciple of my elders.

Yet we don’t often think immediately of clothing when our church communities encourage us to develop our faith through carefully considering culture and art. Quite possibly, clothing has been waylaid while we catch up on learning how to healthily consume higher art. It’s likely, though, that we should encourage more attention to it in our after-church fellowshipping and small-group conversations. Kent Reister recently described a healthy consumer as someone who loves something “for its aesthetic power” by encountering it with “focus and deliberation,” turning an “overload of film and music access” into “searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track.” Pausing in the ‘image bombardment’ of our culture to give diligent awareness to the intelligent design and significance of a few images transforms consuming into partaking of God’s nature. Taking pause with clothing as an image is doubly worthwhile; clothing facilitates encounters with beauty as seen distinctly by another human. Particularly in a church setting, a conversation about clothing is a trustworthy convergence of becoming a better consumer and seeing the image of God in the soul of our neighbor.

The Christian communities I am familiar with have no strong resistance to dressing fashionably. They also don’t encourage or articulate stronger aesthetics beyond  principled modesty. If that’s the only governing principle for the art of grooming, then the only criteria for being ‘well-dressed’ is probably ‘finding clothes which minimizes thoughts about sex.’ There is easily more to motivate our clothing choices than sex. Human beauty is not inherently sexually attractive. Otherwise, how would you justify telling your daughter she is beautiful? We are daily discerning human beauty without experiencing it sexually.

To caveat, I am deeply grateful to my parents and church for teaching me the protection and freedom of modesty. But limiting discussions of clothing to modesty is doubly restricting. It veers toward more application for women than men. Men don’t get (need? deserve? what are we telling them?) much training in clothing aesthetics.  Also, it only teaches women to dress their body by thinking of its sexual purpose. The gender compartmentalization ends with recognizing the sexuality of the body and falls short of recognizing its humanity.

Limiting theology of clothing aesthetics to modesty boxes it into the one season of life where modesty is relevant. Dressing well is merely fad for the young and sexually aware. It plays no role in drawing us further up and further in to Christian maturity. But if you are like me, you are convinced that dressing well may become a means to glimpsing part of God’s nature. Naturally, you hope that your peers are not the best available experts on clothing aesthetics. Instead, you look to your elders and hope to find their conversation both seasoned and eager.

 

 

 

Rethinking Individuality: Family in A Tale of Two Cities

When my grandmother was growing up in a foster home she did not live the life that she imagined. She did not have nice clothes, nor did she have many friends because her speech impediment set her apart. She went through so much hardship that I could never understand. As a child reflecting on this, I did not understand how my grandmother could deal with her past, but it later dawned upon me that my grandmother was able to put aside the past by seeing her grandchildren live her dream life.

There is something strange about the attachment we have to our family; we hope for the best for those we currently reside with and for our future posterity to have better things. We hope for this even if it is at our own expense. Why did my grandmother unselfishly give me the last cookie from the cookie jar when she never even had that option as a child? Why did she care so much for my happiness as a child when she had none?

Charles Dickens portrays this family dynamic in A Tale of Two Cities in the character of Miss Pross, the caretaker of orphaned Lucie. Pross is described as “one of those unselfish creatures…who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it.” This may at first glance seem like Miss Pross is living vicariously through Lucie, but I do not think that this is what Dickens means to say.

Pross desperately wants Lucie to marry a man who is fit for her and Pross claims that none of the suitors are “in the least degree worthy.” Mr. Lorry even goes to the length of calling Pross one of the lower Angles because of the “faithful service of the heart” that she exhibits toward Lucie.

There is this delicately crafted family relationship that Pross and Lucie share that can almost be likened to the relationship between a daughter and a mother; Pross wants the best for Lucie not for her own sake, but for Lucie’s sake. Pross wants the best for Lucie because she herself never had what was best.

Dickens furthers this value of family by contrasting the two cities of the novel: London and Paris. London, the home of Pross herself, is a stable city that maintains its value of family. Paris on the other hand is striving toward revolution and a new idea of the individual. There is no room for the family unit in Paris because the revolution and the making of this new society means an individual commitment to the goals of the revolution and nothing else. London has family values, while the revolution in Paris creates the values under which all individuals must adhere.

France’s destruction of family even goes as far as preventing the act of mourning. A family member of one who is killed by the guillotine may not mourn their death, but rather rejoice in it because it is following the values of the rebellion.

The Revolution takes away the power of what should be the strongest unit in a society.

When I worked as a staff member at a family camp this past summer, we were taught that we ought to value each individual in the family but also to remember that the family had one extra member: the family as a whole was a type of individual in itself because it was a unified body bonded together by its powerful relationship.

The family unit is bonded so tightly together by relationship that it is itself one unique and cohesive unit. When we look at Dickens’ portrayal of the French Revolution and its destruction of family we see that the rebellion is made up of a bunch of individuals, but not the strong unit of a family. The strong individual lies in the essence of a family.

It is for this unit that Pross travels to France to be with Lucie and her family. It is for these relationships that Mr. Lorry cares so many years. It is for this unified body that Sydney Carton dies.

And the funny thing is that all of the above mentioned characters are a part of that family. They do not stand for themselves alone when they make their sacrifices, but rather stand to protect the others who are a part of their individuality.

It is because of this that Carton will live even though he is dead. His individuality extends beyond just himself; it lies within the family unit that he has sought to preserve.

This powerful relationship that the family has also extends to the church member. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we are in the same family unit. The Apostle Paul even goes are far to say that we are members of the same body; we make up one individual. Somehow our membership in Christ has not only made us a united and cohesive family unit, but has made us into one person.

Dickens tries to explain this mystery of family as a singular unit and he does this by showing the love that the members have for each other. It is love that builds up and unifies, it is a love that sacrifices.

My Grandmother knows that her individuality does not lie within herself, but within her family. So too do Christians find their individuality when they look to the body that they are a part of, the unit that they have a family in.

Let Writers Be Unashamed of Having Homemade Imaginations

In my last article, I gave a broad overview of interest-based living .  This follows with a specific instance of an unfolding interest that has actually resulted deeper immersion in my communities and greater liberty as an artist.

Writing strong short stories is a recent interest of mine, but it is I was unintentionally prepared for. I come from a small hometown and a tight-knit family. I picked up on lots of the details about the culture of my immediate and local surroundings.  Happily, I discovered that short story fiction reads best when they simmer with an indigenous flavor. Why is that so? Well, there’s this instinctual, three-part code that raises the short-story writer from infancy. Its persistent purpose is one thing; keeping the story poignant and sincere by grounding it local culture.

Dialogue is sifted through filters called ‘dialects’ 

It makes for irretrievably bland reading when characters time their words, pursue ideas, and cuss with undifferentiated style. It’s suspicious. Maybe the characters are just surrogates for the author’s pet thought projects. After all, experience shows us that conversations are not under the control of one mind and we wouldn’t enjoy them if they were. The author can defer to that by giving each character its own dialect; its own distinct pattern of funneling thoughts into words and words into sentences. These patterns are the foundation of dialect.

Dialects are languages within languages. Think of the genteel verbal graces of a Southerner or the contrasting caterwaul of a bog-dwelling hick. Whereas an actor relies on the sound of the accent for embellishment, a writer configures his words precisely so that a sounding accent is irrelevant. It’s simply felt in the word choices. The process is to mull between, say, what characters repeat and what they would never say, whether they always speak in complete sentences and why they say “gender” not “sex.” All these sorts of differentiating decisions intensify each character with a habitual, ingrained dialect.

Characters are in behavior, not postures.

Sometimes you read a story where you can’t stop visualizing everyone in some sort of pose. They aren’t moving anywhere or handling anything. Unless the majority of us grew up in photo shoots and fashion shows, that isn’t what we are accustomed to expect from humans, especially in the current age where we even greet each other with salutations to our busyness.

“How are you?”

“Doing this, this and this thanks.”

“I see. I as well. That’s actually why I have to go…”

Plausibility emerges when characters are doing things: washing the dishes, defacing public monuments, putting on wedding veils, etc. Characters are attempts to represent people; they deserve a psyche outfitted with the ordinary, common stuff of birthplaces, families, and favorite foods.

Once you give them an activity, you put them in context. Are they washing the dishes by hand? Is a dishwasher doing most of the work? How many other times has this person pasted art on public monuments? In the few words which answer these questions, you add a time and a place to the character’s psyche. The more they become believably native to some place and time, the more likely it is that they truthfully portray an actual human.

Perspective has consistent bias

Perspective is the frame of the story; it is the deciding line between what is included and what is excluded.  Short stories resonate with peculiar integrity when they are told from the viewpoint of a single narrator. None of those omniscient intrusions from the author to invoke a muse or explain the meaning of the parable. Anytime in a real conversation when a person attempts an all-seeing, all-knowing statement, we usually treat as their perspective and consider it from our own perspective.

The implication is that short story perspective is biased. The viewpoint doesn’t move from character to character but stays faithful to the perception, assumptions and empathies of one person. The character gives us a taste of his own experience without pretending to have the omniscience of God. At its most meaningful moments, the character’s perspective will not be universally meaningful. Instead, it’s tremendously meaningful to a certain person, his surroundings and his people. Biased perspective allows local flavor to emerge at its strongest.

These three boundary lines push me to find inspiration in the local culture of my hometown and of my townspeople.  This directly assists a valid danger I encounter in trying to live an interest-based life. Sometimes, new interests make us feel naïve because our curiosity is directed right at what we don’t know. And in a culture which prizes experts, it’s embarrassing when you only have half the puzzle; you’d really like to have more. The short story code helps me beyond the fear of not knowing because it redirects me from a vague, bleak unknown. I have intimate knowledge of my home. I and only I may claim mastery of my experiences. The question of expertise dismissed, I am free to nurture my interest without the fear of speaking ignorantly.

And as a beautiful result, this artistic freedom encourages me to go deeper into my community. It leads me into nursing homes, opens my eyes to the homeless and less fortunate and keeps me loyal to even the most difficult family relationships.