Arthur Was No God

When I have the time (or the willingness to waste it) I stick my nose in books and articles on King Arthur and his world–historical and fictional. I am firmly of the opinion that Arthur was a real, living man (and one from the North), and that can be a tricky thing to assert. There are lots of arguments that go into that debate, but one in particular caught my eye the other day when I should have been reading something not Wikipedia.

Some folks believe that Arthur was a mythical figure, an old god that got reverse-euhemerized into a British king. I’ve even had a somewhat lively discussion with a PhD’d historian who had organized a significant portion of his scholarly career around that idea. As support, proponents of this view cite such early British sources as “The Spoils of Annwn” in which King Arthur goes into a semi-mythical Otherworld and interacts with figures once considered deities. Such sources do exist, and I trust their origins more than the abundance of later French tripe. But I think this argument is flawed.

As an example, take a look at one of the most famous ancient British poets, and Arthur’s near-contemporary, Taliesin. Taliesin is known to have actually existed, served as bard in the courts of men we can locate, and wrote poems about battles we can date. A collection of poems under his name survive to this day, some of which still effect pop culture. Taliesin lived.

But if we believe the legends told about him, he received his poetic (and prophetic) abilities from stealing a bit of a witch’s brew and then transforming himself into various animals to escape. He failed at this plan by becoming a single grain which the witch ate after becoming a hen. She then became pregnant with him, and resolved to kill him when he was born. However, he was such a beautiful baby that she could not, but threw him into some large body of water instead. He was then found by a king who was fishing for salmon, and raised in his court. What stark realism.

Furthermore, some stories make Taliesin Arthur’s bard, despite every historian agreeing he lived well after anyone claims a historical Arthur would have died. The legends that grew up around this man are incredible and otherworldly, in the mold of what little we know of old Celtic paganism. But despite his mythologization, we know he was a historical figure. Why then could Arthur not have undergone the same process? If his countryman could be transformed into a larger-than-life resident of a magical realm, why could not the king himself?

This in itself is no argument for Arthur’s historicity, but it does mean we can’t rule it out. Great men have always bred legends, and some societies are more prone to exaggeration than others. Arthur may never have raided the Otherworld, but there is no reason he could not have raided the Angles.

Under the Sun

The American President used to be leader of the free world. Before that, the sun never set on the British Empire. Nation by nation, by Queen and Emperor, a line of rulers stretches back to Augustus, and beyond to Shutruk Nahunte– king of Anshand and Sussa, Sovereign of the Land of Elam. I woke up today, and Catalonia, Scotland, and Dixie all say they will never die, all claim they will rise again. They have said it before, and they will say it again.

Documentaries are made on the history of rock and roll, and a new top 40 rolls out every week. Summer and winter, blockbuster movies hit the theaters, from the moment we invented the camera until today, without interruption. There are poets and authors in every generation, and once in a while they capture some truth in a story and become the favorite until another comes along to usurp them. Since fallen man first lived in cities, since he envied and coveted and idolized, celebrities have had their fifteen minutes of fame, when all their brothers looked on and worshiped them. And in every generation, the path of the fool ends in destruction.

There are rich men and poor men, wise men and simple men, men skilled with words and men who are slow of speech. Young men rise up, thinking they know what they are talking about. One way or another, they realize they don’t. Old men look on and see the pattern repeated, see themselves in the younger generation. The reins of power and influence in a culture shift hands, but humanity is always what it has been.

“That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.”

But there is a God in heaven, the one who made this rhythm, and who made eternity. He has been, he will be, and he is. He came in the form of one more child, was raised in yet another country occupied by yet another empire, and was crucified by the usual religious elite. But he broke out of death, and told us to follow him. That which has been will be, but there is a permanence found in Christ. That which is done is what will be done, but the treasure stored up in his mansions will never rot, will never rust, will never pass away. There is nothing new under the sun, but in his realm there is no sun, only the radiance proceeding from his throne.

Escape the cycle. Get religion.

Homecoming

A place is more than a dot on a map. Any writer worth his salt, and some worth considerably less, can tell you that. A place is a setting, it can act like a character, and it shapes the story around itself. A place has a soul.

I hit the ground on Saturday night, and knew I was halfway there. Houston is not exactly East Texas, just the messy front lawn that leads up to it. It’s filled with people from a hundred backgrounds, doing a hundred things, packed into a hundred locations that sprawl out in a tangled web of concrete and asphalt. All the cars are big, and in the pick-up line at the airport, the drivers were all a bit jovial, with a comic edge. The workers directing traffic were laughing and calling across the lanes, smiling as they shouted at drivers and blew sharp whistle blasts. Up the sidewalk from me a couple of little girls ran squealing towards their pawpaw, and down from me a couple of fashionably dressed young women were doing the “hey girlfriend!” routine.

The road north of Houston stretches on for quite a ways. I spent those long miles and winding hours making conversation, slipping quickly and easily back into Henry family life. There’s lots of joking there, lots of poking fun, a little intellectual conversation, lots of eating, bluntness, laughing, and when we stop for dinner, distraction by means of football. By the time the night had faded and we entered the old Nacogdoches city limits, I already felt at home.

After three days without a full night’s sleep, exhaustion fell on me like a heavy blanket, and kept me down. The morning came quicker than I would have liked, but there was family there, an excited dog with self-esteem issues, and a whole green wooded hill that hadn’t gotten the memo about Fall. We hopped in the truck, which was parked by our own private jungle complete with vines and monkey grass and a creek, all beneath a canopy of Southern pine. Up we sped through nicer neighborhoods, onto the loop with the trees right up by the shoulder, over the creek and around town past gas stations and watermelon stands and well-kept businesses. Ahead rose a newly built wooden white church, the chapel my people have come to call home. The post-construction ground around it is still dusty and muddy, not yet covered in a carpet of green, but the building itself and its immediate surroundings are beautiful.

How do you capture holiness? Is it a well-told Sunday school lesson by a humble man with a thick accent? Is it the people that greet you with warm smiles and ask about your life whether you’ve been gone three weeks or six months? Maybe it’s a worship service with people who visit from sister churches just for fun. Maybe it’s Scripture spoken on all sides, or God’s sovereignty and mercy towards sinners poured out with eloquence. It could be a fellowship meal where families sit mixed together, blended into one household beneath the Messiah’s roof. Then again, it could be the kids that help clean up, unbidden. Whatever it is, you can find it in my church.

The sun-drenched skies of East Texas are beautiful, and ever acre of earth below is filled with activity. We visited a friend’s property in a nice subdivision. Here, as at the church, the ground around the slowly forming edifice was torn up and devoid of grass. But the house rising above the red dirt and white sand was worth it. The living room is brilliant, high-roofed and with an open kitchen separated only by a bar. Beyond a broad doorway there is a high-roofed porch bigger than some houses, looking down a hill into trees and another house. The homes of East Texas are all like this, sprawling things made at least partly of brick, always ranch style with some personal twist. And always with big trees and gardens so fruitful they require constant taming.

Later, when we managed to pull my brother away from the Cowboy’s game, we took Dad’s truck down to the theater. As we made it out of the neighborhood and a down a hill covered in old pasture land, Queen rocked on the radio. The song ended quickly, and by the time we turned onto University Drive, Stevie Ray Vaughan was cranking out “Pride and Joy.” Texas Blues right there, a soul in music.

It’s hard to capture the soul of a place. It’s got so many facets, so much shifting ground. To me, East Texas just seems alive. There are colleges, big and small. Restaurants spring up, get popular, and become chains. Neighborhoods are crowded with newcomers, and factories, small farms, and small businesses are always hiring. On every corner there’s a church, and though every one is different, despite the rough patches, we all get along surprisingly well. From the woods to the gardens, from the to kids to the towns, everything is growing. It’s a place of life, a place I’m proud to call home.

It’s good to be back.

On the Banks of the Styx

Waiting for this plane is like sitting on the banks of the Styx. I’ve already left the place I was at, but I’m not quite gone. Here, on the marshy riverside, I mingle with a thousand other departed souls. We are mostly silent, standoffish, clutching our denarii and waiting on the ferryman. He needs two denarii, you know. One he takes when you board his boat, and the other is a token of the journey.

I’ve crossed this river before, but like Orpheus, I keep coming back, trying to bring something with me. But I can’t. That’s the way it works, you know. When you step on that plane, you leave a whole world behind, an entire life with all its places and people. And when you step off on the other side, the universe is utterly transformed. You too are changed, into a figure that the old you knows only as a wraith.

Charon is slow today. I arrived early, and so I will be standing in my queue, letting the other ghosts go before me. I will spend the night here too, and that is risky. If I am not careful, I will wake up late and miss the boat. It is, after all, an early crossing.

I wonder what the other side is like. Dante assures me it is hell, but from those past lives I think I remember the Elysian fields, waving in the wind, like that scene from Gladiator.

Occasionally a loudspeaker comes on, barking like a three-headed dog, telling us who is permitted in the underworld and how they are to act. Because, we are told, this netherworld, this land between the lives, is dangerous. Who knows what might happen if these ghosts were given free rein, unbound by the boatman’s clock or the dogged regulations?

One thing I will say for this twilit land– the music is soothing. A little wearing after a while, but pleasant. So I settle in and chat with the other ghosts. It will be a long night on the banks of the river Styx.

A Failure to Preach

What we saw this past Tuesday was more than a failure of Mitt Romney or the Republican Party to win an election, it was a failure of the Church to preach and live out the Gospel. There is no dispute that in this nation the portion of the Church that could be called Bible-believing or evangelical is firmly associated with the Right. This is not to say that the Republicans accurately reflect the teachings of Christ, or that all those who are saved identify as conservatives, but merely that the Right is believed to be religious for a reason. And if the Church had been doing her job for the past couple of election cycles, had been baptizing and discipling this nation, things would have looked different.

The Gospel can be summed up as “Jesus Christ is Lord.” And if he is, certain things follow. If he is Lord, the government is not. If he is Lord, we must obey him. If he is Lord, we must treat his other subjects right. And if he is Lord, we must require that those who represent us submit to him. We would be looking at a very different America right now, had we been preaching the Gospel.

First off, if Christ is Lord, the government is not. That statement is not a declaration that government had no authority. It does, and that authority is derived from God for our benefit. But that authority is not inherent in the government itself, it is merely a gift from the Lord. This means that it has limits in what it can do. In electing Obama and the party he represents, America is recognizing that our government is the final authority.

An ad was circulating a while back which said that government was the only thing we all have in common. If Christ is not King, that is true, and if that is true, then that government becomes the most important thing to us as a community. It can do whatever it wants for the simple reason that if it doesn’t, who will? Thus government inherits the power to give and take wealth, the power to take away, grant, and educate children, and any number of other powers. If the Church had been declaring Christ’s Lordship, this country would have to at least stop and ask itself whether Christ had granted civil government the authority to do such things.

Second, if Christ is Lord, we must obey him. This means we can no longer support the murder of children in the womb, or sanctify sodomy by giving it the name and rights of an institution which God created. It means we cannot support government-backed theft, whether that money is taken from one person and given to another, or from another generation to feed this one’s decadent lifestyle. These are issues well-addressed by conservative Christian thinkers, so I won’t harp on them. But if we had been preaching the Gospel, this many people could not have voted the way they did in good conscience.

Third, if Christ is Lord, we must treat his other subjects right. This is where we play at the funny edges of conservatism and have to reconsider our current policies. With regards to immigration, while nothing in the Bible is at all inconsistent with a secure border or recognizing the distinctions between one nation and another, there is a great deal in there about being hospitable and showing mercy to strangers from foreign lands. It has been noted that Hispanics, despite being socially conservative, did not vote Republican. We ought to think long and hard about why.

There’s another point to be made under this same heading. Before I make that point, let me state that nothing bugs me more than the people who cheered these wars at the beginning acting like they were never in favor of them, and looking for scapegoats to pass the blame to. Unless, of course, it’s civilians, comfortably at home, and who have never once risked their life, calling soldiers foul names and dishonoring them. That might bug me more.

But it has been said, elsewhere and by better men than I, that we are doing a great deal of harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ over in the Middle East. They say there is an unconscionably high number of civilian deaths, and that the Church there is now hated for its association with us. If we are killing the innocent and preventing the spread of the Gospel, even unintentionally, we ought to think twice about what we are doing. In this respect, and in the arena of immigration, we see evidence not only of a failure to preach the Gospel, but of a failure to live it out.

There is one final way in which the world would be different had we been doing our job. If we are Christians, then our loyalty to Christ comes first. The organizations we create ought to reflect our obedience to him. The people we choose to lead those organizations should also reflect that obedience. Despite being the “Religious Right,” despite evangelicals and conservatives being virtually synonymous, the Republican Party is filled with hypocrites and men swayed by self-interest, not by the truth. We chose as our representative a pagan, we gladly voted for him, and we were disappointed when he did not win the election. We refused to hold the party we thought we ran, and the people who led it, to Gospel standards.

Now this all sounds like a thorough condemnation of the Church’s lack of faithfulness, and in some ways it is. But our Lord is the one who died for us, and the one who forgave us all of our sins, including these. I have seen some wonderful things during this past couple of years, things that give me hope for the future of the Church. But if those things are to come to fruition, we need to repent and begin living the Gospel. And when we have begun living it, people will notice. And as we live it, and begin to preach it, we can have some real hope, and real change. So please join me over the next four in praying for that kind of repentance. We need it.

Recovery Reading

So, when I came to NSA, I thought “Cool, a place where I read the classics non-stop.” What I had not anticipated was the fact that I would have little time for anything else. Sadly, I lapsed in my fun reading. Indeed, for months at a time I would read no fiction whatsoever. For an avid reader, that’s disturbing. For someone who wants to write, that’s downright stupid. You need good stuff going in, or no good stuff will ever come out. So, after a crisis and some soul searching, I slapped together a list of books good for writers to read, and I’m starting to read it. This is actually modified from my personal list, and it’s divided up into sections. But check them out, I insist.

Children’s Literature:

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Time Quintet, Madeleine L’Engle
The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper
The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia C. Wrede
The Book of Dragons, Michael Hague
Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
The Chronicles of Prydain , Lloyd Alexander

Non-Fiction:

Dragons: A Natural History, Karl Shuker
The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, C.S. Lewis
Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, Alistair Moffat
Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis
The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, Armand M. Nicholi Jr.
Born Fighting: How the Scot-Irish Shaped America, James Webb
God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead
Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval that Inspired America’s Founding Fathers, Michael Barone
Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

Mythology:

The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson (Norse)
Theogony, Hesiod (Greek)
From the Poetic Edda: (Norse)
___Alvissmal
___Voluspa
___Grimnismal
___Rigsthula
The Mabinogion (British/Welsh)
Lebor Gebala Erenn (Irish)

Classics:

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Paradise Lost, John Milton
Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves: Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Roy Maynard
The Iliad, Homer
The Odyssey, Homer
Beowulf
The Aeneid, Vergil
The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
The Song of Roland
The Oresteia, Aeschylus
MacBeth, Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

More Recent:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Series, Tad Williams
Dresden Files, Jim Butcher
The Halfblood Chronicles, Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey
Kolmar Series, Elizabeth Kerner
House, Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker
Monster, Frank Peretti
Prey, Michael Crichton
Timeline, Michael Crichton
A Time to Kill, John Grisham

Arthuriana:

Culhwch and Olwen
The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth
The Lady of Shallot, Tennyson
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Dream of Rhonabwy
Peredur Son of Efrawg
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Roger Lancelyn Green
The Pendragon Cycle, Stephen Lawhead
The Warlord Chronicles (not for kids at all), Bernard Cornwell
Camulod Chronicles (also sketchy, haven’t read them all), Jack Whyte
Avalon High (if you feel like high school drama), Meg Cabot
…and several other things mentioned above and below.

More Welsh Stuff:

The Battle of the Trees
Y Gododdin
Dialogue Between Myrddin and His Sister Gwendydd
The Apple Trees
The Dream of Macsen
Llud and Lefelys

Poetry:

Judith
The Dream of the Rood
Anything by Kipling
Anything by Billy Collins
The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

And so, so much more. But this is quite a lot to sink your teeth into. You can probably tell from this where my interests lie, and where my deficiencies are. If you have suggestions, I’m open to them. But these are mine. Mostly, I recommend picking up a book and following your nose where it leads. It worked for me, when I let myself do it.

God Bless.

I Have Meant It For Good

When I put up this post, someone brought up a good question. Doesn’t a high view of God’s Providence make him the author of evil? I said “No–depending on what you mean by ‘author of evil.'” Let me explain.

Amos 3:6, “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is “of course the Lord hath done it.” In some sense, whenever evil happens, God has not only allowed it to happen, he has done it. Nothing is outside of God’s control, not even sin and its consequences.

This issue is dealt with most directly in Romans, especially around chapter 9, where Paul points out the fact that God had already chosen who, between Jacob and Esau, he would bless and who he would curse. Not only that, he chose which of their hearts to harden, and which of them to redeem. If this is an issue you want to dive into real deeply, I suggest you read Romans. But for now, let’s take a look at one section, 9:18-24:

“Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?  Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”

When the Scriptures address this question, the immediate response is “Who are you to ask that question?” The relationship between God and man isn’t the relationship of one created thing to another, of one big clay pot to a bunch of small clay pots. He stands outside the world, as the creator, as the potter. He decides what kind of pot to make, and how to use it.

Another analogy is that of an author. When J. K. Rowling had Voldemort kill off Lily and James, did that make her a murderer? Of course not. God is telling a story, and it has bad guys and it has their victims, and it has good guys and those they rescue. As an author, he can write sin and pain and sorrow into this world without being a sinner.

Paul then goes on to point something else out. What if–and note that he does not feel obligated to give more than a hypothetical answer–what if God was patient and put up with sinners far longer than they deserved so that he could demonstrate his justice on the one hand, and his mercy on the other? After all, we are all sinners, all deserving of death. But God didn’t give us that. He let the human race keep on living and the globe keep on spinning. More than that, he chose to redeem that world, to transform it from the dark place it was to shining city that is yet to come. He chose to deliver people from the death they deserved. If he does that, for his glory, who are we to complain?

Having touched on Paul, let’s shoot back to the Old Testament for a minute and reference Joseph. Joseph thrown into a pit by his brothers, who considered killing him. Instead, they sold him into slavery, and he was hauled away to a foreign land. There he proved himself to be a very good slave, and was made the head over everything in his master’s house. Falsely accused of trying to lie with his master’s wife, he was thrown into prison. There he proved himself a good prisoner and was given more responsibility. He interpreted dreams to two men who promised to help him get out of there, but they forgot him.

Finally, though, one of them did tell Pharaoh about this man who could interpret dreams. Pharaoh called in Joseph, who interpreted his dreams. He said a huge famine was coming, but that it would be preceded by several years in which they could prepare. Joseph was made head over most all of Egypt and prepared for the famine. When it struck, his brothers came down to buy grain. Long story short, Joseph revealed himself and forgave them. In Genesis 50:20 he said, ” But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” And indeed, all of Egypt and Joseph’s family were saved.

So all of Joseph’s suffering, besides making a good underdog story and a lesson about God’s faithfulness to those who love him, ended up working out for good. And Joseph says that “God meant it for good.” This tells us two things: first, that God meant the brothers to commit this heinous act, and second, that God meant it for good. So God meant for sinners to sin, for a righteous man to suffer. But, he meant it for good.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s hard to answer this question from the Bible. What’s hard is what lies behind the question: trust. We have a choice between a world of pain and suffering with a benevolent higher power we can understand, or that same world where that higher power can not only help us out, but is in control of that pain and suffering. And that is hard to understand.

Trusting God with absolute control means trusting him with everything we hate about life, everything that makes it hard. In the midst of the struggle, it’s hard to see why God would put us through all this. It’s a lot harder to trust him with that kind of power than to trust him with general good will and the possibility that he can get us out of this bad situation when it’s all over. But that’s not the Bible’s solution. The Bible looks the problem of evil in the face and tackles it head on. And it’s answer is “Who art thou?” and “I have meant it for good.” And these are the best answers man can get.