The Invention of Religion in Japan

Against Christianity

 

The Bible never mentions Christianity. It does not preach Christianity, nor does it encourage us to preach Christianity. Paul did not preach Christianity, nor did any of the other apostles. During centuries when the church was strong and vibrant, she did not preach Christianity either. Christianity, like Judaism and “Yahwism,” is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians, and politicians, and one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the church in their proper, marginal, place. The Bible speaks of Christians and of the church, but Christianity is gnostic, and the church firmly rejected gnosticism from her earliest days.

 

These are the provocative opening lines of Against Christianity, a book by pastor and theologian, Dr. Peter Leithart. (A larger chunk of the first chapter can be found here.) The thrust of the book is that the idea that Christianity is merely a system of doctrine we hold in our heads, or a set of stories that comfort us, or a private hobby we indulge in on the weekends in discreet sanctuaries out of the public eye—the sort of “Christianity” that is separate from the rest of life in more or less a modern heresy.

When I came across this slim booklet in high school, it had a profound effect on how I saw the world. I had grown up thinking of myself as a committed Christian, deeply opposed to the increasing secularization I saw in society. Then along comes a book that says the very categories by which I understand my faith are a product of secularism.

Leithart emphasized that the Bible did not teach an ideology, but preached an event and a person. It was not our beliefs which set His followers apart from the world, but a set of practices that He had instituted. The world would not be changed by a system of doctrine, but by a community. And this community was not a weekend club, but a fiercely political assembly, a rival to the various empires and coalitions and world orders proposed throughout history. The Gospel did not just overthrow the worldview of (presumably atheistic) Democrats, it challenged God-fearing, conservative, American evangelicals.

In some ways, most of my spiritual development since then has been struggling with the new categories Leithart introduced. It fit with certain things I had been taught, but often in odd ways.

For example, if by “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship” you mean that we are defined by our loyalty to and identification with Christ, then that old evangelical commonplace was exactly what Leithart preached. But in another sense, he made that “relationship” seem far more profoundly “religious”—that is, mired in ritual and worship and the sort of devotion and obedience which allows for no competing loyalties.

Ultimately, his book asked me to consider what “Christianity” was, and whether that was even a good term for this thing I was involved in.

Against Religion

If Leithart’s Against Christianity was a paradigm shift, Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s The Invention of Religion in Japan was a far bigger one. Taken by itself, Leithart might almost seem to be saying that Christianity is just a really special religion, one that is so different from all the others that using the usual language is a bad idea. Josephson-Storm exploded the idea of “religion” entirely.

Now don’t take that the wrong way. Josephson-Storm does not disprove the existence of God, or deny that worship is meaningful, or anything like that. It’s not the thing itself that he explodes, but the concept.

“Religion” is a relatively new idea. If you said you were “religious” to a medieval, he would assume you were a monk. If you clarified that by saying you believed in God and went to church and all that business, he might shrug and say “Who doesn’t?” There was no “irreligion” as we think of it, and so specifying that you were “religious” as opposed to “irreligious” was hardly meaningful.

But what about the other “religions” Christians ran into in that era? Well, they didn’t think of them as alternative “religions,” but either placed them in the category of “heresy” or “idolatry.” We have to be careful here, because we can just read the idea “religion I think is false” into idolatry, but that isn’t how they understood it. For medievals, there was simply truth and falsehood—orthodoxy and heresy or superstition—and right worship and wrong worship. Wrong worship was idolatry, and you could accuse an Eastern Orthodox Christian of it as easily as a foreigner with foreign gods.

The closest thing medieval Christians encountered to an alternative Christianity was Islam. It was monotheistic, had a distinct founder, included divine revelation in the form of a holy book, and supported an intellectual world a scholastic would find familiar. But Islam was not regarded as a separate religion, but as a Christian heresy, or as idolatry and superstition, depending on who you asked.

All this is the haphazard explanation of an amateur. Josephson-Storm does a much better job of explaining how, as Christian nations formed in the wake of the Reformation, and as they expanded into new colonial empires, they carved out the category of “religion” as separate from “science” and “superstition” and even “magic.” Of course, The Invention of Religion in Japan does not focus on the European side of that story.

“Religion” in Japan

When Commodore Matthew Perry parked his ships off the coast of Japan in 1853, he forced Japan to begin interacting with the outside—and particularly Western—world. For about two centuries under the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan had shut itself off from the outside world, allowing only very limited interactions with China, Korea, and the Netherlands under very carefully prescribed conditions. For the next twenty years, they would spend their time drafting treaties with new foreign powers and opening themselves up to trade and modernization.

One curious feature of these treaties was that the Westerners were always demanding “the freedom to practice their religion” while in Japan. After the Meiji Restoration, when Japan began trying to craft a modern constitution in imitation of these same Westerners, they kept running into clauses about “freedom of religion.” Whatever it was, Westerners seemed to believe it was very important.

Japan had no word for “religion.” At first they thought it was just another word for Christianity, but that was clearly not the case. The foreigners kept asking the Japanese about their religions. The Japanese thought maybe the word might refer to systems of teaching, but Confucian teachings had little to do with gods or worship, and Westerners seemed focused on that. Japan certainly had gods and worship, but multiple theologies existed to explain any given god, or most popular rituals.

Suffice it to say intellectuals and diplomatic translators in Japan had a rough time trying to define religion. In the process, they may even have invented a few.

The Shinto Secular

As Japan underwent rapid modernization, they worked hard to relate modern science to their ancient beliefs about the world. One particular branch of science was called “kokugaku,” which Josephson-Storm translates “National Science.” It was partly concerned with philology and partly with classic Japanese literature. Experts in kokugaku claimed to peel away the layers of Buddhist theology that had come in from China and uncover the original Japanese gods.

As the state looked for something around which to consolidate national pride, they began to disentangle Buddhist doctrine, Buddhist language, Buddhist-style priests, and more obviously Buddhist rituals from the gods the Japanese had worshipped for centuries. This purified, original national religion became what we call “Shinto.”

“Shinto” literally means “the way of the gods.” It is not a system of doctrine, and there is no single prophet and no holy book associated with it. It is not particularly concerned with what we might think of as moral precepts. It is, first and foremost, a set of rituals for honoring the gods.

Our first impulse might be to call this a religion, but the Japanese state did not see it that way. As they developed their constitution, they determined that there would, indeed, be religious freedom. Buddhists and Christians and other sectarians would be free to keep their own beliefs, and even to worship. But the nation worshiped the gods, and any reasonable person would have no problem in participating. For the Japanese state, Shinto was not a religion. Shinto was secular. Shinto was even consistent with modern science.

Science, Religion, and Superstition

Again, Josephson-Storm has done a much better job of explaining these things than I can. I will probably spend years puzzling out the implications of what he suggests. It is truly unsettling for a mind used to modern categories.

As far as I understand at the moment, here is the idea he proposes: the modern, scientific state needed its citizen to put their faith in a system which could be used to uncover objective reality. This system was called “science.” Science was different than the purely personal and private phenomenon of “religion.” Religion might be indulged in to give life meaning, or to promote morality, but science was simply objective fact. It was the marvelous technique that gave the modern state its power. Everyone had to accept it.

Of course, there were dangerous beliefs as well, things that might have been thought to be religion or science at one time. But because they were clearly wrong, according to science, and clearly dangerous, according to the state, they had to be given some other name. These false beliefs were “superstition.” The state would allow for freedom of religion, but by and large attempted to stamp out superstition.

In other words, religion as a category was invented as part of the project of building modern nation-states. “Religion” was what you were allowed to believe in your head or do on your own time, but the secular—that which was scientifically, objectively true, and that which was backed by the state—was what all reasonable people must agree upon.

If Josephson-Storm is right, and if I have understood him, this has profound implications for what it means to be a Christian in modern society. Leithart’s point is right, but his insight has much more far-reaching implications than he suggests in Against Christianity. The division of some rituals into secular—pledging allegiance, the national anthem—and others as religious—baptism, the Lord’s Supper—is not a reflection of reality. It’s a political act. The division of some beliefs into secular—politics, science—and others as religious—theology, hermeneutics—is also more of a trick being pulled than a true division of things into their proper places.

For a Christian living in the modern world, both these books are worth reading and worth chewing on. At the very least, they ask us to take the categories we use far more seriously than we often do.

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What A Town Has

The modern world loves to erase distinctions. We want access to the same burger wherever we go, to the same shopping centers, to the same gas stations. Both producers and consumers want the same TV and the same music and the same video games available in every region. A middle class black girl from the Atlanta suburbs and a first-generation Pakistani immigrant in Chicago and a white chick from rural New Hampshire should all be able to wear the same jeans.

I grew up in the same county, around the same town my entire life. It wasn’t a terribly small one, but my circles were small enough that I might as well have grown up in one of those farm towns that only has a school district because the nearest real town is too far to drive. A significant of that circle consisted of people whose families have been in the area longer than some countries have existed. The point being, I came from something of a bubble.

I stepped out of that bubble to go to college. It was strange. My town has a fairly large poor-as-dirt population, and a fairly large champagne-and-caviar population, and the middle is usually pretty fluid, and generally consists of young families. We’re also several hours from several different major cities, with ties to one being no stronger than ties to the other. We have a strong local identity, both because we’re a part of Texas that doesn’t exist in pop culture, and because we are the oldest town. That’s not to say everyone who lives here loves it, but they certainly know they live here.

In college, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that America has a large, distinct middle class, and that there really is a place called “suburbia.” Bits and pieces of TV’s portrait of that world applied to how I grew up, but I always thought the overall picture was some wildly distorted caricature that existed mostly in the heads of people from LA. Not so, apparently.

The suburban middle class grew up, more or less, in planned neighborhoods of houses that looked the same. They ate, shopped, and spent their weekends in nationwide, or at least coast-wide, chains of restaurants, shopping outlets, and movie theaters. The world where everybody, everywhere has access to the same thing was the world they grew up in.

In the midst of that world is a lot of music, a lot of literature, and not a few movies dedicated to a world they’ve never experienced. Whether that’s the rural, small town America half their grandparents or great-grandparents migrated from, or the crowded cities with immigrant neighborhoods the other half came from, it’s not something they’ve experienced. They have no connection to the old country or the old way of life. For them, that’s in the past, and all that remains is an idealized portrait of a world that no longer exists.

Part of coming to grips with the world is recognizing which of your ideals are just fantasies that will never and could never come to pass. There is true wisdom in taking the world as it actually is, and learning to live with that. For the children of the world I just described, the children of chain stores and suburban sprawl, part of growing up may be getting over the fact that they aren’t in a cozy small town or an exciting big city, and learning instead to be content with suburbia.

This is all my way of rationalizing a behavior I don’t understand, and one that fills me with deep sadness and exhaustion.

From this point of view, it’s reasonable to say that there are no longer real differences between one city and another, one town and another, or even between rural podunkville and the grand cities of the coasts. America has been homogenized. We live the same everywhere.

Part of me wants to respond to this as if it were a fight between one interpretation of the facts and another. America is only really homogenized for people of a certain class. But this isn’t really a class question. I’ve known rich and poor who love their place, and rich and poor who pay it no mind.

And that’s what it’s really about: love.

The town I attended college in is not terribly different in terms of certain raw facts than the one I grew up in. College town in a rural area, twenty to thirty thousand people. Across the county line is another town, slightly bigger, but without the claim to the same antiquity or artsiness. Nearest major cities are several hours away. Both have McDonald’s, both have Walmart, both have Redbox and Autozone.

But a town is far more than that. You can’t go to the Sterne-Hoya Soccer Complex, named after the old families that played host to Davy Crockett, and now renamed the Clint Dempsey Soccer Complex in honor of our hometown hero, just anywhere. You can’t walk the Lanana Creek Trail, past the place where Father Margil is said to have called up sacred springs to save the Caddos from a drought and keep the Mission alive a little longer. If you go to the downtown square, there’s no Old Time String Shop, and there’s no narrow, dangerous North Street heading up from there, past huge brick Baptist churches, past the library and rec center named for a leader of the black community in town. In many small towns, there is no black community.

You certainly can’t eat at Clear Springs in New York or Boston, and Mike’s BBQ doesn’t exist outside of this town. You also can’t take 225 west out of town, past the lake, and then curve around north to Henderson, passing Flower Mountain and catching the view of the hilly horizon from the road north of Cushing. You don’t get East Texas rain just anywhere, and you don’t get to see how folks around here react to a snow day. Not every place has cattle barns by the highway, or a reservoir that shares the name of a former Speaker of the House with a congressional office building in DC. He took the lectern when he left.

This is not naïve praise of Nacogdoches. Every town has things like this. Every place has things that make it unique. And these roads, trails, buildings, parks, lakes–all of that didn’t just pop up one day. It was people that built it, and people make a place what it is. This town is full of people, of families, that left their mark on it, and more are doing the same every day. There are unique things about this town because there are people here, and people make memories.

My problem with “all America is the same” isn’t that it points out some uncomfortable but true facts about how we live in the 21st century in a high-tech, highly mobile, capitalist society. It’s that it turns a blind eye to the beauty that exists in the world, to the agency people still have, to the world they make around themselves. It looks at the beautiful things all over America and shrugs.

I’m not trying to preserve an ideal of rural, small-town America here, either. New York is nothing like Boston is nothing like Chicago is nothing like LA is nothing like Portland is nothing like Houston is nothing like San Francisco. For that matter, some parts of New York are pretty different from other parts of New York. I also know that, whatever they have in common, suburban Atlanta and suburban Dallas and suburban Seattle can all produce some very different kinds of people.

We all tend to paper over our own era with imaginary worlds from some departed golden age, and criticize our times in light of that. The solution, though, is not to replace that image with one of a vast and endless wasteland of identical places. Every place is unique. That’s how the universe is wired. Neither capitalism nor technological progress are strong enough to overcome that. Our homes still have character, if you are willing to love them, willing to look, and willing to keep and to tend what you find.

Lewis, Lovecraft, and Reading Fantasy

 

            I recently stumbled across what is actually a very old article in The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis & Alien Worlds.” It’s the sort of article that was designed for me.

            When I was a pre-teen/early teen, my family switched not only churches, but theological traditions. Combined with other difficult events in my life, all the questioning and re-thinking I had to do about my faith was disconcerting. That was when I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’s apologetics material, which became my lifeline to sanity. Afterwards I explored his fiction, and even some of his academic material, and I have long thought I owed Lewis a sort of debt as my father in the faith.

            I stumbled onto Lovecraft, fittingly, at an equally insane time in my life. Lovecraft was not my father in much of anything, though he framed certain questions about the world in interesting ways. I also tend to think he’s refreshingly honest and self-aware for a materialist, but I’ve always been skeptical of materialists who take anything like an optimistic outlook on life.

            I would not call myself an expert on either of these men, though I have lived with someone that I think could claim that title on Lewis. I would say that I’m more than casually familiar with both, though, and each has done quite a lot to influence my writing in various ways. This is why I was delighted when the piece in The Imaginative Conservative highlighted a common thread between them, and in doing so, helped me to understand the world of fantasy literature a little better.

The Tools of Fantasy

 

            The article focuses on how Lewis and Lovecraft both told stories about alien life.

            For Lovecraft, alien life was fundamentally strange, disgusting, disturbing, and indifferent to the existence of mankind. There is no basis for friendship between our species and one of theirs, and often not even for communication. Our goals are different, our minds are different, the ways we see the world are different, and we are not even made of the same kind of matter. Any encounter between us drives one or the other to insanity or death.

            For Lewis, life outside our sphere may be strange, but it is not disturbing. Though we might not understand the aliens at first, soon we can grow to appreciate them, to admire their beauty and their skills, and the ways they interact with their environment. Each kind of creature is built for its own place, and though it may not thrive outside of the place, there is no fundamental opposition between one place and another, one species and another. There is a harmony at the back of all creation, and simply because one voice in the chorus may seem strange to another does not mean it does not have a place in whole.

            This is exactly the sort of thing fantasy literature is adept at highlighting. Both these men want to examine the nature of sentient life. To do this, they both created sentient life-forms in situations far different from our own, some of them taking forms that were utterly inhuman. They were then free to exercise their imagination and come to a deeper understanding of what it meant to be sentient. They also wanted to examine what it would be like to take a creature built for one place and let encounter a creature built for another. In fantasy literature, which I am using a shorthand for all speculative fiction, you are allowed to do that.

            Fantasy is a genre with the potential to examine the world in ways almost no other genre can. It can examine the structure of the cosmos, or expose its lack of structure, simply by sending you on a journey. It can explore the meaning of humanity by setting the human next to the inhuman, or by turning one into another. It can ponder the possibilities of predestination and free will by inventing prophecies or engaging in time-travel. The limitations nature imposes on the scientist and philosopher in the real world are overcome through the power of imagination in fantasy literature.

 

The Readers of Fantasy

 

            This aspect of the fantasy genre has always attracted me to it, the fact that it lies so close to the surface in both Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis is probably a major part of what attracts me to their writings. But this is not all that fantasy is, and that must be taken into account when examining the genre.

            J.R.R. Tolkien, who has the authority to speak on such topics, says that “fairy stories” are good for a number of things, and one of them is escape. We do not live in a perfect world, and at times it is good to rest from our labor, to enjoy a vacation of the mind to strange and distant place, from which we can return refreshed. If real suffering is a prison, fantasy allows us to fly the coop.

            This is a good and healthy use of fantasy, and the fact that Tolkien acknowledges it is quite honest. Some people criticize this use of fantasy, but he does not. There is a difference, he says, between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. And there is also a word for people who are constantly worried about escape—he calls them prison guards.

            But an unhealthy kind of escapism, the kind Tolkien calls “the flight of the deserter,” does exist. I missed quite a lot of my teenage years while squirreled away in my room reading Harry Potter, or off in a corner trying to make my way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think a lot of fantasy readers can say the same. After all, it does take quite a lot of time to tear through five hundred page paperbacks, especially when there are a dozen to a series. The world is not built out of free time, and time spent there is not going to be time spent with family and friends.

            But it’s not just the amount of time spent that worries me. A large portion of the fantasy world, as has often been pointed out, is just repackaged Tolkien. It is not a genre known for innovation, though there are notable exceptions. The industry that nerd culture has become also expands this beyond unoriginal books and fills tabletop games, MMORPGs, card games, TV shows, and movies with the same old tropes. The worlds are familiar, the fantasy races are familiar, the MacGuffin swords and rings are familiar, and the characters and plots are old as dirt.

            There is something to be said for that. One of my favorite things about medieval literature is that authors didn’t feel the pressure to invent something new every time they set pen to paper—a reworking of old material was perfectly acceptable. Old and familiar is good for binding a community together, and allows you explore those same themes with a level of depth constant novelty just doesn’t allow. If you use it that way.

            But if fantasy is a genre with unique tools that allow it to explore the cosmos, and the nature of humanity, and other philosophical and scientific worlds in new and exciting ways, if all that is true, then this kind of thing is disappointing.

            Lewis taught me to think about hierarchy and place, the nature of being human, the nature of being male and female, and who God is in new and exciting ways.

            Lovecraft taught me to understand just what it means for man not to have a privileged place in the universe, and what the truly Other would be like if there was no harmony behind it all, and to contemplate the difference between science and magic, between religion and cosmic politics.

            Tolkien taught me to consider that great power that appears to be a gift may come at an unthinkable cost, and to realize that in a fallen world, death in its time might be a gift.

            I don’t want merely to escape. I don’t want to waste time in a world not my own simply because my own can get rough. I want to be equipped to handle that real world better. I need relaxation and refreshment, to be sure, but also need wisdom, need news eyes for the world. Fantasy has the ability to grant that, but when the genre becomes an exercise in revisiting the same old elves and dwarves, and the same old magic swords, it loses something important. It loses the magic that makes it unique.

            That’s not the fantasy I want to read.

            That’s not the kind of reader I want to be.

Death, Burial, and Augustine

Mankind has always treated the bodies of the dead with a certain degree of respect, as far more than a mere husk once inhabited by someone we know. There is a general feeling, throughout the world and throughout history, that the way we treat a body says a great deal about our attitude towards the deceased. In fact, scientists consider the first burials to be a sign of anatomically modern humans becoming behaviorally modern humans—it’s part of what separates man from the animals.

Of course, science has been wrong before, but even if a Biblical anthropology does mean rejecting some ancient, widespread transition from brute beast to what might be more properly called the image of God, we shouldn’t reject the notion out of hand. The fact remains that there is a wide gulf between how most living things treat their dead, and how mankind—and, perhaps, the highest animals—seek to honor their own.

This thought occurred to me this morning while I was reading Augustine’s City of God. It’s been required reading twice during my education, but the first time I only read selections, and the second was at a pace that barely counts as scanning, much less reading. I caught enough to know what I was missing, however, so I picked it up a few days ago and started working through it at a more leisurely pace.

City of God was written in the wake of the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth in 410 AD. For the past several decades, or even generations, a significant chunk of Western Christendom has been convinced that our faith’s hold on our civilization is weakening, that we are experiencing some sort of transition into a post-Christian West. Apologetics and evangelistic materials have been written with the assumption that Christianity is on the decline and the average person needs to be both taught about it and convinced that it is true. The occasional debate between staunch Christian and unyielding atheist sells books and DVDs, or at least admission to an auditorium.

Augustine’s era was much like our own, only in reverse. It was not Christianity, but paganism that had lost its hold on civilization. But though Christianity was on the upswing, it was not yet the uncontested master of the Roman religious landscape. Then, as now, apologetical material and evangelistic tracts were written, and pagan and Christian intellectual squared off in public debates.

After Rome was sacked, the debate grew more intense, with an edge of doom tinging the back-and-forth of the interlocutors. The sack of Rome was something like 9/11, but on a far grander scale. Entire provinces were abandoned by the Roman military, and the entire western half of the empire would be in barbarian hands before the century was out. Pagans blamed this disaster, and the decline that followed it, on the neglect of their traditional gods. These Christians had abandoned the old gods, abandoned the ways of the ancestors, and taught others to do so. Now the gods were punishing them.

Early in the first book, Augustine addresses all the evil the citizens of Rome have endured, pagan and Christian alike. An outsider might say to the adherents of either faith, “Where is your god now? What can he do to save you?” In response, Augustine must, among other things, explain why God would let horrible things happen to his faithful. Among these evils is that many of the saints lay unburied, rotting beneath the sky.

Just as common as taking special care for the dead is the sense that something is profoundly wrong when care has not been taken. Ghost stories the world over tell of unquiet spirits seeking someone to find their corpse and honor it so that they can move on to the afterlife. Just as proper care for the body implies honor for the deceased, so neglect of the body implies great dishonor—they are a nobody, a nothing, a mere piece of trash to be discarded in the street, left to wind and weather and wild animals.

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Augustine says, quoting Matthew. If there was something our enemies could do to our body, to our corpse, to hinder the resurrection, would it make sense for Christ to say this? Of course not. The God who made heaven and earth, who kindled the stars, lit the sun like a lamp, and hung the moon in place will not be hindered in resurrecting the faithful simply because their bodies have been mistreated.

Augustine goes on to say that funerals are meant more for the living than the dead. The godless dead will find to profit by them, and the godly dead already have their reward. It is we who remain who need consolation.

But Augustine will not leave it there. If funeral rites and proper treatment of the body do not matter to the dead, then why pay attention to them at all? For some, that question sounds like nonsense. The answer seems obvious. But Augustine is right to address it, because there are many who truly fail to see the importance of such things. This is particularly common among Christians whose emphasis is on their heavenly home rather than earthly concerns. For such, this world can seem like an insignificant and painful stop on the way to a better place.

Augustine surely understands this perspective, but ultimately rejects it. If we love things that remind us of our loved ones—our father’s ring, the quilt our grandmother knitted, pictures of long lost relatives—how much more should we honor that which was so much more intimately a part of them? The body is not a suit to be put on and taken off at one’s convenience, but our constant companion throughout life, the very medium through which we interact with the world. Indeed, Augustine says it is part of our very nature as mankind. Reading the first chapters of Genesis, I would have to agree.

Human nature teaches us to regard contempt for the bodies of loved ones with horror, but Augustine does not stop there. He appeals first to the apocryphal book of Tobit, in which the title character is commended for going out to bury the bodies of slain Jews, and honoring them with the proper funeral rites. He then points to the woman who anoints Christ’s feet with perfume. Christ praises her, saying that she does this for his burial. Then we are told how, in the Gospel of John, Christ’s body is removed from the cross and clothed and buried with all honor.

These stories, and additional incidents from the latter part of Genesis, do not teach us that our salvation or the general welfare of our soul is dependent upon the proper disposal of our bodies. They do teach us that treating bodies with respect is dutiful and pious. But Augustine points to yet another thing these passages teach us—hope in the resurrection.

In taking care for the bodies of the dead, we affirm that neither we nor God have lost sight of the dead. One day they will rise again, clothed once more with flesh and blood, neither abandoned nor annihilated. God is concerned with our bodies, because they are a reminder of a promise.

In considering this, I am reminded of a change in funeral practices I have seen over my lifetime. Cremation has become far more common in this country than it once was, even among Christians. I find the thought unsettling, and my reasons are similar to Augustine’s.

A body that goes into the ground is a seed planted. It is a promise of new growth at some point in the future, and it leaves a reminder in the soil, in the green grass of some graveyard where future generations can go and think of both what was lost and what will come again. We are creatures of mud, with God’s breath breathed into our lungs. When that breath leaves, we return to the mud until he sees fit to give it back.

Cremation says something very different. The body is destroyed, totally annihilated. Whatever ash remains does not resemble the deceased in any way, and is often scattered in the wind. I can understand why someone might do this who believes the dead are truly gone, who thinks we are momentary phenomena rising from nature for a brief time, only to return to it when our life is over. I can understand doing this, if the human image was always illusion, always something to be destroyed and scattered with the play is over. But that is not what the Gospel teaches.

I will not say that cremation is a sin. There are many reasons to do some things, and in this case some of them may be commendable. But the tone of the whole ritual seems wrong to me, an act of despair. With Augustine, I believe the things we do with our dead, though not of great importance to them, are great importance to us. With Augustine, I believe the way we treat our dead should point to the final resurrection.

Mourning is fitting for human nature, but we should mourn like those who have hope.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I have a huge interest in the history and mythology of King Arthur. Most of my serious studies of that material, often called “Arthuriana,” came before I had a blog, so I’ve said very little about it here. Today, I want to start fixing this terrible oversight.

One of my favorite characters in the Arthurian mythos is Gawain. Like all the oldest of Arthur’s companions, he originated in Welsh legends. His name in that tongue was “Gwalchmai.” His father was Lot of Lothian, an area of southern Scotland that includes modern Edinburgh, but was Welsh-speaking at the time and known as Gododdin. According to the old Welsh tales, Gwalchmai ended up migrating south at some point in his life, and ended it as something of a saintly hermit on the Pembrokeshire coast.

At any rate, Gawain is Arthur’s nephew in most stories, and known both for his fierce fighting abilities and for defending women. In French versions of the stories, he defends women for about the same reasons as James Bond, but in the English versions he is far more chaste and virtuous. Which leads us to one of my favorite Gawain stories.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late 14th century, at about the same time Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales. This means the poem was written in Middle English, a dialect old enough to make Shakespeare look downright Millennial. But where Chaucer’s Middle English is what gave us Shakespeare, and eventually modern English, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was from a different part of the country, and spoke something very different. The difference between the two is something like switching back and forth between an Australian and a Deep Southern accent.

Fortunately for us, there are people trained to understand weird regional dialects of Middle English. Enter J.R.R. Tolkien. The author of The Lord of the Rings came from the same region as the poet who wrote Gawain, and when he became a professor of the English language, this was a dialect he specialized in. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was found in a manuscript with two other poems Pearl and Sir Orfeo, which all seem to have been written by the same anonymous person. Tolkien translated all three into modern English, and his version is widely available.

The story begins with a great feast on New Year’s Day in King Arthur’s Court. It is the habit of the noble knights and ladies of that court not to eat until they have either seen or heard of some exciting adventure. On cue, a giant green man with a monstrous axe enters the room. He says he wants to play a Christmas game. First, someone will chop his head off with then axe. Then, in a year and a day, he and his challenger will meet at the Green Chapel, and the Green Knight will get to return the blow.

If this were not the world of King Arthur, this challenge would be somewhere between horrific and laughable. Because it is, the knights stay silent. They know something shady is going down. At last, it seems like Arthur will accept the challenge, but Gawain stands up instead, shames the other knights, then goes down and retrieves the axe. The Green Knight exposes his neck, Gawain brings the axe down, and the head goes rolling away. Then the Green Knight stands up, retrieves his head, and exits, reminding Gawain of the terms of their little game.

Naturally, Gawain keeps his word. He arrives in the vicinity of the Green Chapel early, and receives the hospitality of one Lord Bertilak. Bertilak also likes to play Christmas games. He will go out each day hunting, and Gawain will receive whatever he catches. In exchange, Gawain, who is recovering from his journey, must give Bertilak whatever he catches while lounging about the castle.

This gets very uncomfortable when Lady Bertilak starts putting the moves on our noble knight.

The rest of the poem becomes a test of both Gawain’s courtesy and his chastity as the game winds on for three days. This is played against the backdrop of his all but certain demise as the appointment with the Green Knight draws nearer, and his courage is tested as well. The resolution is thought-provoking and unexpected, and has inspired quite a lot of scholarly commentary. I won’t spoil it here, but instead highly recommend you read it for yourself. The poem is not too long, and very much worth the time you put in.

Having baited the hook, let me point you in the direction of further resources:

Here is the excellent and affordable Tolkien translation of all three poems.
Here is the original Middle English version, which more bold adventurers should definitely take a crack at.

Corey Olsen, widely known as the Tolkien Professor, taught a course on medieval stories of Faerie and modern fantasy back in 2011. Recordings of his lectures are available, and I recommend both his Introduction to Middle English and his four lectures on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight itself.

More recently, Alan Jacobs wrote short posts on Sir Gawain over the first seven of the twelve days of Christmas. There’s a lot of good stuff there, but I particularly enjoyed his perspective on the story as a lesson in humility for the knights of Camelot. Here are links to those posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

He also wrote an eighth post, but it’s less part of the series than it is a reflection on and response to the thoughts of his friend, Adam Roberts. This one is fascinating, because Roberts takes it as a tale about circumcision, and then Jacobs runs with that, treating the code of chivalry the way the Apostle Paul treats the Law, and pointing out how the story uses the code/Law to expose the sin within even the best of knights.

This is a great introduction to Gawain as a knight, and to King Arthur’s court in general. It is a true tale of Faerie, in the old sense of the word. There are not silken-winged miniature ladies, but there is a true, super-human, verdant weirdness coming out of the wild to test mortal men in a world truly other than the everyday. I love it, and highly recommend it.

Wandering

This morning I was fiddling with short nonfiction piece and discovered a forgotten folder marked “Essays” in my documents. This is something I wrote shortly after returning home from college. It resonated with me, especially now that I’ve made a habit of wandering East Texas backroads, and I thought it might be worth sharing.

 

            Wandering is the ordinary condition of mankind in the postmodern West. We are individuals, persons with separate rights, separate wills, and separate destinies. Unconnected to tribes, to families, to congregations, to small towns or the rootedness of distinctive cities, and only loosely attached to the states that rule over us, we wander. We are adrift, just so many particles of sand swirling around in the wind.

            I wandered from my conservative pocket of the universe in 2010. Although the story of my wanderings might be said to have begun earlier, with moves from house to house, from school to school, and from church to church, with my circle of friends changing, or at least shuffling, each time, I was nevertheless still anchored by my family, my county, and a few radio stations that kept us company on the long rides in and out of town. So the real story begins in 2010.

            The journey itself was not accompanied by feelings of rootlessness. My brothers and my parents drove me and a large number of my things across the increasingly brown and treeless expanse of North and West Texas, up the Rockies through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, and over the Bitterroot Range into Northern Idaho. Two thousand miles of road, punctuated by the carefully tended wildernesses of Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons. Two thousand miles from home, but I carried my family with me.

            They stayed with me a day or two, while I got settled, but it was not long before they were driving off, and I was left sitting in a rented trailer, in a strange town, tasked with forging friendships, crafting new habits and new routines, and generally making myself at home in the little hill-crowded hamlet of Moscow. I was already homesick, but a defiant optimism stood in the back of my soul, ready to meet the challenge. I had no idea how hard it would be.

            My raising left me poorly equipped to make friends with any degree of speed. That, coupled with the social awkwardness of youth and a temperament of combined overeager enthusiasm and reflective moodiness made the first terms interesting. Layered onto that was the culture shock of moving from the Baptist and evangelical-dominated Deep South to a large congregation in the Unchurched Belt that sought to imitate the New England Puritans in all things, or so it seemed to me. I did not integrate into the community as quickly as I had hoped, and I made things harder on myself by adopting a defiant attitude towards certain of the more abrasive personalities in that milieu.

            And that is how I found myself two thousand miles from home, without my family, without a culture I could identify with, in a church and school that, despite being vast and vibrant, left me uneasy. And that is when I discovered the one alien feature of that town which came as a welcome surprise. It was a walking town.

            The town I spent most of my life living near was very spread out, with roads crisscrossing through heavy woods, bounded by an enormous loop of roaring trucks and SUVs, and blessed with hardly any sidewalks. This new place was compact, built for pedestrians, and cars were practically required by law to stop for jaywalkers. So I began to wander.

            It was always late at night, and it started with walks to and from friends’ houses. (I did make a few, forming a temporary little circle of companions who kept the weekends lively for a year or so.) The street lamps shining down from their places among the shade trees were enchanting. Neat little square houses sat in tight little rows, like cottages out of fairy tales. They were not identical, like the soulless nightmares of a subdivision, but spunky little things, with unique looks, colorful walls, and patches of yard designed to express personality. All those streets so tightly laid together, row on row, up and down the hills of the little town, revealed fresh surprises every time I turned a new corner.

            Wandering is a solitary pastime, the work of an individual, unaccompanied by companions who might distract you with conversation, or disagree with your sudden urge to go down a new road or alley. I was not fitting in as well as I liked, but as long as I wandered, I didn’t have to. I was a soul unto myself, a lonely ship sailing on concrete currents through a sea of houses. I did not have a home here, but I had freedom. And I used it.

            I don’t think I understood what I was doing in those early days. I just wandered because it felt good. But occasionally someone would mention seeing me pass by their house late at night, or in the hours just before sunset. Startled at the idea that some other human being might not only recognize me in my time of freedom, but take particular notice and mention it to me, I would then alter my path so as to avoid that street or house in the future. I suppose my secretiveness must have only added to the dull sense of alienation from my peers. But the silence, the darkness, the feeling of independence, was soothing.

            There were ups and downs over my years in that town. I moved from that trailer to a rent house, and then to an apartment. After a long period of time, I began visiting other churches, and eventually switched. My circle of friends, never exactly stable, withered away to a bare few. They were reliable, though, and towards the end of my time would help me find a broader community in which I was comfortable. In all that shifting and changing, I never quite settled down. Yet somehow, Moscow stopped being a stranger.

            I walked those streets at night, and as I moved to different parts of town, I walked some of them in the day as well. Eventually I would end up shopping near the western city limits, going to church near the eastern city limits, and paying rent down south. I walked everywhere, and wherever I went, the town was familiar. I doubt if, by my fifth year, there was a single street I had not looked down half a dozen times, that I had not walked at least once on some cold and lonely winter night. The surprises dwindled away, to be replaced by a comfortable familiarity.

            People are not, by nature, strangers. We are not built to be foreigners in this world, or at least I am not. In the waxing and waning of the moon, the tilting cycle of stars, the slow turn of seasons, wandering ceased to mean walking about in a foreign land. It came to mean surveying my land, walking the boundaries of my property. On the rare occasions I walked with friends, or had to give directions to someone visiting from out of town, I began to take pride in my knowledge of the town’s nooks and crannies. I knew it better than I knew the roads back home.

            Some people talk as if wandering meant aimlessness, a sort of drift into a vast ocean with no hope of ever sighting land. That is not what it meant to me. In more ways than one, as I wandered the streets of Moscow, I was sighting land. I was scouting it out, putting down roots simply by being there. All my disorderly casting about had created a map in my head, a series of images, of places, of stories. Thoughts and emotions, phases of life, were caught up in the contours of a hill-shrouded town in Northern Idaho. I came a foreigner, but I left knowing the place intimately.

            And I did leave. In all the years that passed, my footsteps had brought me to a place I knew, but no closer to a place where I could rest. Far from the green woods and fields of home, far from the winding creeks and stifling humidity, and far from the culture of backwoods Southern Christianity, I could never really breathe. So I passed college by the skin of my teeth, and bore a diploma back across countless miles of crowded city and empty Western frontier to the place I had wandered from.

            But something strange had happened. Just as I had not noticed when my restless late-night rambles had turned into purposeful walks, so friendships had crept up quietly upon me. The town that caused me to wrestle with an unsettling sense of alienation had given me relationships I cherished, memories I could not willingly forsake. As I wandered back to the land of my childhood, a piece of my heart wandered away and settled in a strange place, far from home. And though I wander the world over, a little piece of me will still be wandering there.

 

Representative Movies by Genre

A friend of mine posed this question: If you were creating a film appreciation class and wanted your students to get a good grasp of what kind of movies there are, and to see the most representative movies in those genres, what would you pick?

This is my attempt to answer that question. It’s pretty rough-and-ready, and I clearly don’t spend much time in certain genres. If you’ve got a better suggestion for some of these, or new categories to add, I’d love to hear them.

  1. Romantic Comedy – Ten Things I Hate About You
  2. Buddy Cop – Lethal Weapon
  3. Action – Die Hard (Although John Wick is pretty awesome.)
  4. Action Adventure – Raiders of the Lost Ark
  5. Space Fantasy – Star Wars (A New Hope)
  6. Hard Sci-Fi – Contact (Or 2001: A Space Odyssey. How does one define this genre in film, anyways?)
  7. War – Saving Private Ryan (Patton, Dunkirk, and Hacksaw Ridge are all also good, but either lean more biopic or are just too new.)
  8. Crime Thriller – Silence of the Lambs
  9. Courtroom Drama/Legal Thriller – A Few Good Men
  10. Epic Fantasy – Lord of the Rings (Whole trilogy.)
  11. Sword and Sorcery – Conan the Barbarian (The Ahnold edition.)
  12. Sword and Sandals – Gladiator
  13. Family Drama – Big Fish
  14. Western – Tombstone (I’d add Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, and McClintock, and Lonesome Dove, but Tombstone is pretty good if you have to pick one.)
  15. Period Piece – Lawrence of Arabia (Or Gangs of New York? Ever After? Master and Commander? Every Jane Austen adaptation ever? A period piece should really be about the period, not merely set in it, in which case something like Ever After fails, but I wanted to mention it somewhere. This one is hard for me.)
  16. Alien Invasion – Independence Day. (Because I’m a 90’s kid.)
  17. Slasher – Halloween (Psycho, if you think it fits the bill, would be better. Because Hitchcock.)
  18. Supernatural Horror – The Exorcist
  19. Creature Feature – Alien (Netflix uses this category, and I find it a useful place to put monster movies I can’t quite categorize otherwise.
  20. Sports Movie – Chariots of Fire (Or Remember the Titans. Rocky is a red herring, though.)
  21. Biopic – The Social Network (Lawrence of Arabia also fits this bill, and Forrest Gump if a fictional biopic counts.)
  22. Documentary – Exit Through the Gift Shop (Finding General Tso, Blackfish, and, I hear, Helvetica are all good.)
  23. Spy Film – From Russia with Love (The Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Munich, Hunt for Red October, Sum of All Fears, The Man from UNCLE, and Casino Royale are all very worth watching.)
  24. Disaster Movie – Titanic or Day After Tomorrow
  25. Action Comedy – Rush Hour (And everything else Jackie Chan did before he got older and more serious.)
  26. Parody – Blazing Saddles (of westerns) or Ghostbusters (of supernatural horror, especially the streak of Exorcist-like movies that were popular up until then.)

 

Well, there you have it. There are a lot more good movies worth watching in each category, but this is at least a rough intro to the genres.