Yesterday afternoon, between our Christmas service and supper at my deacon’s house, I picked up my copy of The Avram Davidson Treasury and read the introductory material and the first story (intriguingly titled “My Boy Friend’s Name is Jello” and based, in some odd way, on the rhymes that little girls sing, for instance, when skipping rope).
Davidson, I gather, was a rather odd man with a love of words who wrote science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries, all characterized by his sense of humor and love of fun. Here’s some characteristically written advice about story-writing from the Foreword (I recommend reading it out loud to get the full effect):
A million schoolmams, male and female, have taught us as if teaching geometry or other holy writ, that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And, of course, a story has. The beginning of a story is where it begins, the middle of a story is where it middens, and the end of a story is where it ends. This is exemplified by the one book found even in homes where the mom and the dad have provided no Bible, namely the telephone book. It begins at A and it ends at Z and it middens at or about L. It is the story or song of the Tenth Sister, Elemenope, the Muse of the Alphabet. Characters? Look at all those characters! Plots? Plots? As many as you like. From Abbott Plott to Zygmunt Plotz.
Last week, I finished reading Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy‘s The Fruit of Lips or Why Four Gospels. ERH is a challenging writer and thinker, and it’s not always easy to figure out what he’s saying (largely because he assumes you’re thinking on his wavelength). Nevertheless, he’s also often fascinating, even when you don’t know what to make of what he’s saying.
The Fruit of Lips is largely a study of the four gospels, which ERH sees as four movements of a symphony, each one picking up where the other left off and developing the themes further. Toward the end, he writes:
If you hold that Dante’s Divine Comedy was written verse after verse, and no verse in it related to the end from the beginning, then you must also judge the Gospels as separate entities. However, you then must forgive me if I am not interested in your views because you prove yourself a complete barbarian in matters of creation. A great symphony first exists as a whole and later it unfolds in its single movements. Quacks may patch four movements together; that, however, entitles us to call them quacks (p. 133).
A challenging read, yes, but probably one that I’ll keep thinking about. I really ought to read more of ERH’s stuff….
It occurred to me as I was typing it that the Wright quotation I posted yesterday, taken by itself, could be a bit imbalanced, as if Wright left no place for carols and candles (and cookies), as if the only point of Christmas was to remind us that the world was so evil that it needed Christ to come.
The good news, of course, is that the King has been born, the Light of the world has come, and though His own people rejected Him, yet to those who received Him He gave the right to be the children of God (John 1). And so there certainly is joy — and there can be carols and candles and cookies! — for those who live in the Light and who belong to the King.
And now, changing the topic only slightly, a comment from Chesterton on Christmas:
As I walk down the street I admit that I can understand a sensitive person being a little bored, or at least a little bewildered, with the external displays of Christmas, the shop-fronts full of sheafs and sheafs of incongruous Christmas cards or with children’s toys that only madmen could make and only millionaires buy.
One writer against Christmas went so far as to say that the shopkeepers for their own commercial purposes alone sustain Christmas Day. I am not sure whether he said that the shopkeepers invented Christmas Day. Perhaps he thought that the shopkeepers invented Christianity. It is a quaint picture, the secret conclave between the cheesemonger, the poulterer, and the toy-shop keeper, in order to draw up a theology that shall convert all Europe and sell some of their goods.
Opponents of Christianity would believe anything except Christianity. That the shopkeepers make Christmas is about as conceivable as that the confectioners make children. It is about as sane as that milliners manufacture women.
Still, as I have said, I can understand a man finding the common Christmas shows incomprehensible or tiresome. The Christmas cards especially sometimes reach the flattest or dreariest level of caddishness or cant.
But this is simply because we leave Christmas symbolism so much in the automatic hands of hirelings. It is not because we feel too Christmassy, but because we do not feel Christmassy enough. All these hilarious human observances are in this respect in the same position: as long as they are enjoyed they are enjoyable; it is only when a priggish criticism is brought to bear on them that they become, in practice, prosaic and irritating. It is not the popular belief in them, but a popular disbelief in them that makes them a general nuisance.
The opponents of ritual attack it on the ground that it becomes formal and hollow. So it does. But ritual only becomes formal and hollow where men are not sufficiently ritualistic. — G. K. Chesterton, “The Neglect of Christmas,” The Illustrated London News, Jan. 13, 1906.
Merry Christmas, everyone! “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!”
For many, Christianity is just a beautiful dream. It’s a world in which everyday reality goes a bit blurred. It’s nostalgic, cosy, and comforting. But real Christianity isn’t like that at all. Take Christmas, for instance: a season of nostalgia, of carols and candles and firelight and happy children. But that misses the point completely. Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked, where children are murdered, where civilized countries make a lot of money by selling weapons to uncivilized ones so they can blow each other apart. Christmas is God lighting a candle, and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness, says St John, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Christmas, then, is not a dream, a moment of escapism. Christmas is the reality, which shows up the rest of “reality.” And for Christmas, here, read Christianity. Either Jesus is the Lord of the world, or he is dangerously irrelevant to the problems and possibilities of today’s world. There is no middle ground. Either Jesus was, and is, the Word of God, or he and the stories Christians tell about him, are lies. — N. T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, pp. 1-2.
This week, I received a package from my grandmother containing a boxful of her shortbread cookies. Along with them, she sent a note passing on wisdom from my late grandfather: “Grandpa Phillipps always said one should start eating Christmas cookies before Christmas to gradually get used to Christmas goodies.” I’ve been munching ever since.
For any of you who get troubled by hearing Reformed voices claiming that we shouldn’t be celebrating Christmas, Jeff Meyers‘ new article “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? A Defense of Christmas” may be just what you need. Jeff deals helpfully with the claims that the early Reformers didn’t celebrate Christmas, that Christmas is really a Roman Catholic holy day, that Christmas is really a pagan festival with a Christian veneer, and that Christmas celebration is somehow a violation of the “regulative principle of worship.”
If you’re interested in more on this topic, check out Mark Horne‘s “Celebrating a Calvinist Christmas with a Clear Conscience.” Jeff Meyers‘ “Is the Church Year Biblical?” is also an entertaining and helpful read.
I’ve often heard it said that the reason Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25 is that the Romans had a feast to the Sun on that date and the Church just took over the date and made it the feast of Christ’s birth. Newer liturgical scholarship, however, contests this story. It appears that Christians were linking Christ’s birth to December 25 before the Feast of the Sun was set on that date! Thomas Talley provides a full discussion in his The Origins of the Liturgical Year (which is sitting on my shelf, still unread) and William Tighe summarizes that discussion in his article “Calculating Christmas.”
What do we mean when we pray “thy Kingdom come”? Here are a couple of paragraphs from N. T. Wright’s The Lord and His Prayer:
The second main petition in the Lord’s Prayer — “Thy Kingdom Come” — rules out any idea that the Kingdom of God is a purely heavenly (that is, “other-worldly”) reality. Thy kingdom come, we pray, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Sort out the familiar, but technical, terms. “Heaven” and “earth” are the two interlocking arenas of God’s good world. Heaven is God’s space, where God’s writ runs and God’s future purposes are waiting in the wings. Earth is our world, our space. Think of the vision at the end of Revelation. It isn’t about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven. The holy city, new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last. That is what we pray for when we pray “thy Kingdom come” (pp. 24-25).
What then might it mean to pray this Kingdom-prayer today? It means, for a start, that as we look up into the face of our Father in Heaven, and commit ourselves to the hallowing of his name, that we look immediately out upon the whole world that he made, and we see it as he sees it. Thy Kingdom Come: to pray this means seeing the world in binocular vision. See it with the love of the creator for his spectacularly beautiful creation; and see it with the deep grief of the creator for the battered and battle-scarred state in which the world now finds itself. Put those two together, and bring the binocular picture into focus: the love and the grief join into the Jesus-shape, the kingdom-shape, the shape of the cross — never was Love, dear King, never was Grief like thine! And with this Jesus before your eyes, pray again, Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven! We are praying, as Jesus was praying and acting, for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all. And if we pray this way, we must of course be prepared to live this way (p. 31).
John Buchan has long been one of my favourite authors. (Thanks, Mom, for introducing me to him!) I’ve recently been reading his Salute to Adventurers and I’ve enjoyed it greatly. The novel starts in Scotland, just before William of Orange took the throne of Great Britain, but our hero, Andrew Garvald, soon ends up in Virginia, getting deeper and deeper into adventure. Here’s a quotation, as Andrew heads off to meet a dangerous friend:
Once at Edinburgh College I had read the Latin tale of Apuleius, and the beginning stuck in my memory: “Thraciam ex negotio petebam” — “I was starting off for Thrace on business.” That was my case now. I was about to plunge into a wild world for no more startling causes than that I was a trader who wanted to save my pocket. It is to those who seek only peace and a quiet life that adventures fall; the homely merchant, jogging with his pack train, finds the enchanted forest and the sleeping princess; and Saul, busily searching for his father’s asses, stumbles upon a kingdom (p. 106).
It’s a day late, but happy birthday, N. T. Wright!
I’ve been greatly enjoying Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. I’m halfway through and finding it helpful and thought-provoking, even when I don’t agree with him. In connection with a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, I’ve also started rereading Wright’s delightful The Lord and His Prayer, which I highly recommend.
In honour of Wright’s birthday, here are two quotations from the chapter on “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Wright points out that calling God “our Father” has everything to do with the salvation of God’s people as well as with the vocation of God’s people. As God’s Son, Jesus had a particular vocation. And as the Father sent Him, He has sent us so that we share in His vocation. When we say, “Our Father,” we’re committing ourselves to that vocation:
When we call God “Father,” we are called to step out, as apprentice children, into a world of pain and darkness. We will find that darkness all around us; it will terrify us, precisely because it will remind us of the darkness inside our own selves. The temptation then is to switch off the news, to shut out the pain of the world, to create a painless world for ourselves. A good deal of our contemporary culture is designed to do exactly that. No wonder people find it hard to pray. But if, as the people of the living creator God, we respond to the call to be his sons and daughters; if we take the risk of calling him Father; then we are called to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God. And we then discover that we want to pray, and need to pray, this prayer. Father; Our Father; Our Father in heaven; Our Father in heaven, may your name be honoured. That is, may you be worshipped by your whole creation; may the whole cosmos resound with your praise; may the whole world be freed from injustice, disfigurement, sin, and death, and may your name be hallowed. And as we stand in the presence of the living God, with the darkness and pain of the world on our hearts, praying that he will fulfill his ancient promises, and implement the victory of Calvary and Easter for the whole cosmos — then we may discover that our own pain, our own darkness, is somehow being dealt with as well (pp. 21-22).
In John’s gospel, one of his [Jesus’] regular ways of talking about God was “the Father who sent me.” He wanted people to discover who the Father really was by seeing what he, Jesus, was doing. When we call God “Father,” we are making the same astonishing, crazy, utterly risky claim. The mission of the church is contained in that word; the failure of the church is highlighted by that word. But the failure, too, is taken care of in the prayer, and in the cross. Our task is to grow up into the Our Father, to dare to impersonate our older brother, seeking daily bread and daily forgiveness as we do so: to wear his clothes, to walk in his shoes, to feast at his table, to weep with him in the garden, to share his suffering, and to know his victory. As our Saviour Jesus Christ has commanded and taught us, by his life and death, even more than by his words, we are bold, very bold — even crazy, some might think — to say “Our Father” (pp. 22-23).
Here’s a snippet from one of Chesterton’s essays, which seems to me to be as applicable to the church and her worship as it is to the rest of life:
I made some observations a week or two ago about the desirability of some gorgeousness and pageantry in the opening of Parliament. I am pleased to find that there was plenty of it. But as some friendly philosophers have differed from me upon this point of the desirability of grandiose ritual, I can illustrate my sense of its human necessity by a very topical parallel.
Compare, for instance, the ceremony of the King opening Parliament with the ceremony surrounding Miss Roosevelt’s marriage. There you have conditions in which originally ceremonial has been abolished. Theoretically, the President’s daughter is nobody; theoretically, there is no pageantry surrounding her. Actually, there is an enormous pageantry surrounding her; only it is a vulgar pageantry.
Human nature demands ritual everywhere. Abolish your ritual, and you get an inferior ritual. Destroy your impressive ceremony, and all you get in return is an unimpressive ceremony. King Edward has borne in front of him a Sword of State. The Sword of State is useless as a sword, but as a symbol it is simple, poetical, and popular. The American bride was presented with an enormous rifle in solid gold. It was useless as a gun, and as a symbol it was not simple or poetical or anything else; it was a symbol of nothing except blank bathos and bad taste.
Do not let us talk of getting rid of symbolism: it is impossible to get rid of symbolism — but you can get rid of good symbolism if you like. — G. K. Chesterton, “Importance of Ritual and Symbolism,” The Illustrated London News, March 10, 1906.