…in which I discuss my poem “Yard Sale” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.
…in which I discuss my poem “Yard Sale” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a post referencing the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty and how its depiction of dragon-slaying and the victory of goodness over evil is quintessentially biblical, reverberating with the sweet harmonies of Jesus’ grand story. We now must turn to Snow White…
I brought home the movie a few weeks ago for my daughters to watch. Toward the end of the film, I was struck by the sheer power and depth of the story in displaying both the dilemma of death and the transcendent beauty of redemption, culminating in the glorious resurrection of all things. Indeed, the Bible teaches that Eden most certainly will be restored, and, to quote T.S. Eliot, “all shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well” (The Four Quartets). In his Revelation, John declares with valiant sureness, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new'” (Rev. 21:5).
It should be no surprise that the gospel can appear in the unlikeliest of places with the unlikeliest of transformative power. After all, all truth is God’s truth. Tolkien showed us this in his epic tale of a halfling saving all of Middle-Earth. Who can forget the disbelief, the skepticism many shared that the responsibility for the One Ring should fall to a lowly hobbit? Or that the salvation of all the Jews could rest in the hands of Esther, one who attained her royal position “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)?
Even more directly, Chesterton writes in his essay “The Ethics of Elfland” of the glorious beauty and wonder that fairy tales hold in presenting the most dynamic truth in truly astonishing ways:
“…We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales because they find them romantic…This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water…We have all forgotten what we really are”
Chesterton is right; fairy tales jolt us awake to the absolute vibrancy and wonder of God’s True Story. Indeed, these stories we tell are numinous, bathed in sunlight; we merely need eyes to see them. The world and its millions of stories, trickling through every pore of reality, are diaphanous, “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins). Just as Plato described the awakening of man’s reason to see the light beyond the cave, for these are mere shadows before us, Lewis believed the resurrecting of man’s imagination drew us “further up and further in” toward the dawn of True Reality to see the glory of God’s story in living color. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ – this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus” (“In Bright Shadow”).
So, we must turn to the truth and beauty of Snow White not to be merely entertained but to equip the eyes of our imagination to see more clearly the truth and beauty of God’s Story.
The Bliss of Eden
When Snow White arrives at the dwarves’ cottage, we see a warm and inviting portrayal of Eden: there are chores and tasks to be done (to the blissful tunes of whistling while you work, of course), there is community and fellowship, and the cottage is alive with song and dance. Merriment abounds. The story presents this way of life as a perfect balance of duty and desire; each person has a role to fill, and he or she fills it gladly. Sneezy is the one who sneezes, Happy is the one who is happy, Grumpy is the one who is grumpy, and so on.
At the center of this pure and enchanting home is the image of Beauty herself, the ideal virtue incarnate in the character of Snow White, the proverbial “fairest of all.” She is undistorted by the seductions of the mirror, and she is elevated to the right position of a bride and mother, for the prince seeks her hand in marriage, and the dwarves seek her loving and affectionate arms in biblical domestic motherhood. She is the mother of all the living, and the eventual bride of the prince. The stage is set for the great Drama.
The Dilemma of Death
Edenic paradise, God’s story tells us, is subject to the rebellion of man. It was only a matter of time before Snow White would face the choice to fall from the warmth and glory of her perfect home. And fall she does as she fills her mouth with the false deliciousness of the Queen’s poisoned apple and succumbs to the deep sleep of death. Yet, this sleeping death is no individual affair; the effects of her sin are not limited to her lifeless body. Indeed, all of nature is bent by her fall, and when the dwarves encase the body of Snow White in the glass coffin, all of creation attends to mourn the death of Beauty. It is a truly eerie scene in the film; Snow White lies beneath the numb sheet of sin and death, quiet and still, as her dwarves weep softly around her and all of the woodland creatures draw near to see and to mourn. In their sorrow, they know that ultimate Beauty has died and their perfect world has been damaged by darkness and evil. All of creation feels the sting.
The Kiss of Life
In this bleak moment of despair and sadness, the sleeping bride is powerless to rise from her bed of death. She needs the sweet kiss of a savior, the arrival of her great prince to bring her back to life. She needs resurrection, not only for her but for all the grieving world. Mourning must turn to morning.
And so arrives the great prince, ready to unseal the curse of death with the kiss of life. I challenge anyone to watch this scene and not whisper “amen” at the moment their lips touch, for this is truly our story. This is our greatest need. We are the sleeping Bride of Christ, desperately in need of Christ’s resurrecting power. Hear the old song:
“Long lay the world, in sin and error pining,
Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth,
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”
Indeed, our Prince has come to kiss us wide awake. Savor the beauty and the power of the Story.
Tolkien writes it this way:
“‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’
‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
Amen. May it be. A great Shadow has departed, and everything sad is coming untrue.
All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
We all live happily ever after.
I slipped deftly into Botticelli’s Primavera one afternoon,
Begging the pardon of the Three Graces in white
As I wandered toward the orange grove.
The little cupid, bow at the ready,
Failed to notice the bent flowers beneath my feet
And my slow reach into the branches
Where I carefully felt for a perfect orange,
Tore the globe of skin from its stringy flesh,
And held the dimpled smoothness of the flayed world in my palm –
The shred of color,
The fragrance of gravity,
The naked hue of hunger.
Then, like my father before me,
I dug my teeth into the tender spot and, somehow,
I have spent the sudden years trying to dig myself back up.
As the night centered itself behind a thousand stars,
Your voice cut the cables in my mind,
And I fell to the corner of 8th street,
Where I found my shadow in some shallow gravel water,
My pupils exhaling,
Widening to devour my vision –
Dilated thick like dark ink.
The sharp steel of your footsteps raked like teeth to a stop,
Surrounded by the blur of city light
As I knelt alone, rooked in the corner, undone and
Enveloped in the venom of my name
On your silver tongue.
The earth stammered when you spoke, quivering beneath
The bass of your breathing lies
As you slowly taught me how to drown.
And now I see
How your every word howls,
Choking and decoding my defenses,
Coursing through my chemistry,
Anchoring the fever to my bones until they shiver
Like sparrows in the cold.
And when you lean in closer
To tear apart the helix,
My knuckles rust, robotic,
Helpless to your redirection,
Heavy with the burden of entanglement –
Short circuits and crossed wires –
Reprogrammed to believe in you
And all your bitter charming.
So I time a desperate prayer to touch
The crest of tossing waves,
To clear the fog and wind within
And find my loving Father,
Tell Him that I’m sorry,
Then beg He take a shovel to this serpent on the corner,
Calm my frightened eyes and
Pull the poison from my spine
That I might stand up straight
And finally become human again.
I am working my way through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and was struck by one of its early scenes depicting a drunkard in a St. Petersburg tavern bemoaning his vices, as well as the costs they have accumulated, to the novel’s protagonist Rodya Raskolnikov.
To set the scene, Marmeladov is a sickly alcoholic who has drowned himself beyond the breaking point in his sins. With each vain attempt at repentance, Marmeladov, like a dog to his vomit, returns again and again to his excesses, much to the despair and fury of his long-suffering wife and children. In fact, Marmeladov mumbles to Raskolnikov that his drinking has even pushed his daughter Sonya into prostitution to keep the family above water while he lurches night after night down the old steps into the dingy bar.
In his extensive monologue, Marmeladov admits his depravity and the egregious consequences it is creating, yet he feels compelled to linger in his darkness, a tension that pits sin and redemption on opposite ends of the same locked door of the heart, thus foreshadowing Raskolnikov’s own division as he crouches behind the door of the old pawnbroker moments before her murder.
By the end of his rambling speech, however, Marmeladov rises to a momentous occasion in which he declares he “ought to be crucified” and judged rightly for his wickedness. He even tells the bartender: “Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and I have found it, and I have tasted it.” Here, Marmeladov has reached the nadir of his troubles and has realized his inability to see joy, redemption, or hope in his bottomless search; neither in beer nor the tears it draws can salvation be found.
At the climax of his speech, Marmeladov looks forward to the final judgment of Christ in which all will be exposed and all will be made right. Read the beauty of his plea:
“And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once…Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much’ […] And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ […] And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.'”
Few moments in literature parallel with this piercing declaration of hope in the face of hollow living. Marmeladov, for all his sinfulness and despair, preaches the gospel in a dim-lit corner of a Russian pub. He has vainly sought peace in his drink and in his darkness, yet he discovers that it is in such darkness that illumination may rise. The voice of Christ beckoning all who are weary, all who are broken, all who are drunken to rise, like Lazarus, and come forth into the light is one of the most beautiful pictures Dostoevsky imagines, and he seats it right in the opening of a harrowing novel full of shadow and fear. It is perhaps no wonder his original title for the book was The Drunkards, for that is what every character, in his soul, is. And since Hamlet was right in declaring all art to “hold a mirror up to nature” and expose our own innermost realities, we as readers instantly recognize our own spiritual drunkenness, our own Marmeladovian depravity. Therefore, as Raskolnikov begins his own plummeting spiral over the rest of the novel, we too are caught in the plunge, equally complicit in the powers of darkness that await the resurrecting call of Christ. We too are drunkards, and our only salvation will come from the belief that we are unworthy of it.
Like Jean Valjean’s defining moment of forgiveness from the bishop in Les Miserables, Marmeladov faces the depths of his own sin in the light of Christ’s glory and grace. It is not in the rack of guilt or the metallic strictness of the law that such men hear God but in the beautiful touch of pity and grace. Like Valjean, Marmeladov sees, though ethereally, the mercy of God extended even to him, and struck to the bone, he seeks the light of redemption. Like Valjean, he is brought to a full understanding of his wickedness, and there, only there, may he see the extended hand of God lifting him up. And so in reading such masterpieces, may we also be brought to the pits of our own sin, may we also see our offenses for what they are, so that we may be forgiven, shown grace, and restored to our full humanity. May we drunkards hear the call to quit the shadows and ascend from the grave into the marvelous light of God.
Recently, I decided to post an old article I had written for my college newspaper in 2009 called Feed the Birds. In this post, I dusted off a piece of writing from my past in hopes that it could speak again these six years later with new strength and relevance. The response and feedback I received was overwhelmingly encouraging, enough so to prompt me to resurrect another one and bid it walk among us. So, thank you for sharing my blog and letting me know that you have been inspired, encouraged, or rejuvenated by the words I write and those I have written long ago.
Yesterday, I saw someone trip on the front lawn. Of course, when it happened I kept my face forward to help maintain the illusion that no one saw it, but I certainly did. I was walking toward my eight o’clock class, and I happened to look over by the bell tower where I saw it all happen.
He was keeping a quick pace as he shuffled through some papers, hurriedly preparing for class in AV Wood [a building on campus], when his left foot snagged an uneven part of the hill. The rest of the fall was classic in form – he stumbled a few steps, juggling his books and papers, and threw out his arm to brace himself against the ground.
This whole scene stayed with me throughout the day, making me wonder just what it means to fall down. For many of us, falling down carries a certain negative connotation, eliciting thoughts of pain and embarrassment. We consider tripping in public to be absolutely humiliating while ignoring a rather important fact: everyone has done it. Everyone falls down; everyone makes mistakes.
As is true for many things in life, there lies a certain beauty in this because without falling down, there is no getting back up again. As Dickens claims, without the pain of parting, we could not experience the joy of meeting again. Somehow falling down is necessary to human life simply for the moment of standing back up. We see this most honestly in the form of trial and error, the unforgettable hand-on-a-hot-stove experiences. In essence, that is a large part of what makes us human. We do not rely simply on atavistic instincts to govern where we step next; rather, we carry a pair of balances at our side like a slingshot, constantly ready to decide, choose, and take action. Constantly ready to succeed or fail.
Since we are a fallen people, our decisions can never flaunt a perfect track record; failures and mistakes are imprinted into our very blood. However, this flaw must not lead us down a road of despair and apathy. Our mistakes allow us the chance to grow; they provide us something to look back to and, subsequently, something to learn from. Even in falling down, there is forward motion. There is still progress in the process.
Luckily, it is by falling down that we most honestly learn how to get back up, to keep moving, and to renew our focus. Generally after someone trips, he walks a bit clearer, much more keenly aware of his surroundings and his gait. He takes his steps with more purpose and carries his things a bit more securely. Our lives are no different. With each mistake we make, with each bumbling, embarrassing plummet, we are provided the chance to pull back up and continue to move forward. We are given the gift of resilience, the chance to pick back up, brush off the dust, and press on, even if it is just to make it to class on time.
One of the most powerful insights I’ve heard regarding the nature of worship is that our worship is transformative; in effect, we become like what we worship.
G.K. Beale, who authored a book with a similar title, puts it this way: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration.” This concept has made its way through my mind quite often over the past few years, and I continue to dwell on its real-time implications in our modern culture.
I am currently teaching through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my British Literature students. Sir Gawain is a medieval poem that follows the challenges and trials of one of King Arthur’s most noble knights as he seeks to prove himself worthy of honor. As I’ve been rereading through the story, I have found myself quite struck by a particular quality of Sir Gawain’s quest. On the outside of his shield, the side he brandishes in the face of combat, is a pentangle, a five-angled star that symbolizes the ideal perfection and exaltation of a true knight. The chivalrous knight par excellence is brave, good, chaste, loyal, and unerring in his manner and conduct; he is the paragon of medieval society. The only problem is that behind the knight’s armor stands a mere man – utterly unable to achieve such a standard of perfection.
This notion of expectation vs. reality cuts deep to the bone of our American society. For example, I have encountered a number of young ladies in my classes over the years who are beside themselves trying frantically to reach the bar of feminine beauty and fashion that they feel our media culture has thrust on their small shoulders. “Whatever it takes to look like her” has become their mantra, “accept me!” their daily cry. And so, as an inevitable result, we have waves of girls dragging the ghosts of self-loathing, inadequacy, and shame down the halls. We have girls pushed toward seduction with their hearts stitched tight in straitjackets. In short, we have girls who are told to reveal as much and as little as they can – show your skin, hide your scars.
Prodded by the flood of advertising and celebrity mania, these young ladies are being converted to a hollow religion, a new devotion towards thousands of graven images carved on our magazine covers, spreading the lie that these are the women that girls ought to look like. But in our heart we know they are no longer really women; they are our feminine form of the deus ex machina – goddesses out of machines. Mangled by the digital scalpel, processed through the filters of Photoshop, airbrushing, and cosmetic overload, these women in the spotlight have become mere echoes, shadows of their true humanity. They are a part of a smoke-and-mirrors gimmick, a ruse. I can almost hear the Wizard now: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
Yet, the principle remains: we become like what we worship (Ps. 115:8). We reflect what we behold (2 Cor. 3:18). Contrary to what they are told, these young ladies pining for acceptance and worth by straining to look like cover girls are not becoming more beautiful; they are becoming less human. They are worshipping an image of edited humanity, images of women scrubbed of their flaws. This ache to see oneself as, and ultimately become, utterly flawless is a consequence of the primal temptation to be God. We are running Eden on repeat, reaching to take and eat of the fruit with every glance at the mirror.
How gracious is our God for spilling his blood, his real, warm, human blood, to buy us out of our cold, self-absorbed condition. May we yearn, like Moses, to see glimpses of God’s glory and, to quote the old hymn, “turn our eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face.” May we see Jesus and “behold his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). May we learn to acknowledge our brokenness, our failure, our human limitations and look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For we are most certainly becoming like what we worship; let us worship the God of mercy and of grace who forgives our sin and truly makes all things new.
I’d like to introduce my wife Kristen Huff as the guest writer for this post. I am thrilled she has taken the opportunity to respond to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman which released earlier this summer.
Disclaimer: Spoiler Alert
Everyone has that person in their life. You know, the one you look up to. The one who can do no wrong. The one you trust that if all the world goes crazy, he or she will be right there, a consistent moral force to speak truth into your life.
For Scout Finch that person was always her dad, Atticus. He had always been the one to do what was right. He was the rock she and her brother depended on, as well as the one who did what no one else in the town had the guts to do. We all remember the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird. He boldly defended a negro in court at a time when race relations were at the height of social issues.
In Go Set a Watchman, a grown-up Scout finds herself once again observing her father amidst a heated discussion concerning race relations. Yet, she is mortified to see that, instead of being the bold defender of negroes, her dad, and also her fiancé, quietly sit, blending in with the crowd.
She runs from the scene carrying a storm of emotions. What follows is a bout of physical and emotional illness as she tries to grasp the fact that her father has somehow changed, or perhaps was never the man she thought he was. After several attempts to distract herself from the betrayal she feels by those closest to her, she runs to her uncle for answers. His explanation for her devastation is incredibly enlightening:
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious. […] now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings — I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ’em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”
I had to stop after this and think. I have been thinking about this scene for several days now, especially in light of recent events at my alma mater, North Greenville University. Do we not often place unrealistic expectations on our leaders, heroes, and parents? We set them up in our minds as these perfect people who, if they sin at all, it is just a small fib or a sharp word here or there. To find out that a moral leader or hero has done something horrible feels like the end of the world to us. Like Scout, we go screaming for answers and assume our entire faith has been shattered.
Let’s do some self-examination for a moment. How many of us really made it through college without some sort of sexual sin? I think, if we are honest, that would be no one. So, there we all are, 18 years old and thinking we are spiritual. Attending chapel, taking part in ministry and secretly making out with our significant other and probably doing a whole lot more than that. I have a feeling our professors/faculty/administrators and, dare I even say, our president had a pretty good idea about our “secret sins,” but did they broadcast it and condemn us for it? No. They just kept on serving us, loving us, and praying for us. Eventually, the Holy Spirit got through, and those of us who were truly saved repented, beginning the process of making things right.
So, here is my conclusion after several days of thinking through this book in light of recent events. We all have a watchman, our conscience, and if we are saved, it is controlled by the Holy Spirit. The best thing to do is what it says in Psalm 130:3-8:
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.