The Southern Dilemma, Part One

This is the first in a number of posts on Southern identity. The following exploration of the issue was inspired by a series of three linked articles whose content will largely structure the upcoming posts. They can be found here, here, and here.

Recently Dr. Peter Leithart posted a quote on his blog over at First Things. The originator of the quote compares Ireland’s relationship to England as a literary center with that of the South’s relationship to the remainder of the United States. He offers an interesting explanation for our significant literary output, grounding greater creativity in the experience of defeat.

“The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not.”

This is an interesting point, and strikes me as true. There is depth to having known defeat, a certain humility when confronted with life that I believe allows a deeper and more poignant experience of the world. But there are greater consequences to such an experience than increased creative potential.

The problem with American history is that it is very short. It has been said that a very old man today could have, as a child, sat in the lap of another old man who in turn had known people alive at the time of the War for Independence. Much has happened in the past two hundred and fifty years, but we are still very much settling into our place in history. We have not been conquered and re-conquered, we have not experienced centuries of changing regimes and lifestyles. The first war the whole United States really lost was Vietnam.

So when the South includes in its narrative a story of defeat, that means a great deal. We are still Americans, with a strong desire for progress and optimism. We cannot fathom the concept of a narrative with rises and falls, defeats and victories, different struggles in different contexts. Change is foreign. Our narrative has only gone so far, and our imagination cannot go much farther.

That defeat, then, defines us. It has the cold air of finality about it, and that terrifies the Southern psyche. No man can maintain a narrative of final defeat. If his worldview has no room for victory or potential happiness, then either he will die or he will find a new worldview.

In the South, that is largely what has happened. In our short-sightedness we think Appomattox meant not just the end of Confederate efforts in the Civil War, but the end of the South as a culture. This drives some to seek out a new culture, whether a Yankeefied liberalism or some broader form of Americanism. Others do not want to abandon their culture so quickly, and instead attempt to change the narrative. The South must rise again, or at the very least be vindicated and accepted in the larger American context. In some sense, our defeat must be undone.

This dilemma largely defines the South as it is now, and if not addressed, will lead to our death as a culture. And it is a problem not for those who are willing to forget the South, but for those who love it and want to see it prosper. We are the ones who have stop living in the past, and address our culture as it stands now. We have to adapt to a new context and become forward-thinking while still affirming our own heritage and way of life.

I do believe that the South has done this on occasion, but almost by accident. We are constantly going back to that same war, rehashing the same old issues, and clinging to that bitter defeat. If we are to maintain an upbeat and forward-thinking culture, we cannot continue to do that. We must deliberately and firmly make a lasting change to our understanding of our own narrative. But that is a topic for a later post.

A Twofer: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and xXx

I was planning on mentioning xXx already, but this weekend I got the chance to see Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and since both reviews are short, I combined them.

Hansel Und Gretel

A lot of movies these days, even blockbusters, try to have some sort of thought-provoking twist to justify the action. Even less pretentious flicks tend to have a message, and classic action movies usually deal with more themes than “gun go bang, car go boom.” So when I saw this movie advertized, with its twist on a classic fairy tale, its rising star, and the sheer potential of the world it was set in, I naturally assumed there would be something of significance beyond full auto crossbows.

I was wrong. Hansel and Gretel is exactly what it claims to be–a movie about little kids that grow up and kill witches. They have plenty of opportunities to try for fairly serious drama or ask semi-deep questions, but don’t. Instead, they make witches splode. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad action movie at all. A little too heavy on the blood and guts, a brief shot of nudity, enough swearing to get the R rating (which I wasn’t aware of going in), and no deeper significance, but still pretty fast paced with some awesome fights and shots purely for the cool factor. The only real change effected by the end of the movie is that the title characters are a little more BA, which is pretty cool, I guess. So, yeah. I won’t say you shouldn’t go see it, but honestly I would rather my own nine bucks had gone elsewhere.

xXx

Have you ever watched Hoodwinked? Remember Triple G? If not, stop what you’re doing and go watch that particular piece of awesome. At any rate, this was the Vin Diesel movie that inspired that reference. I never spent money on this one, and for which I am happy. It was not as action-movie good as Hansel and Gretel, the villain was past Bond-level crazy, and the characters were pretty lame. But it did try to go for a message.

It made the interesting point that folks like Vin Diesel’s Xander Cage (incidentally, I like the obvious punny casting alternative), who see it as their mission in life to stick it to the man or whatever, don’t rely want the mainstream society they mock to be destroyed. They need the establishment to exist in order to fight against it. Reminds me of how one man compared sinners raging against God to a child sitting in his father’s lap and slapping him in the face. It’s only by the father’s goodwill that the child can insult him like that.

Incidentally, the Netflix version claims to be PG-13, but it’s actually the R version. Not that it should matter. Honestly, that one observation is all the movie was worth.

Mediocre Movies

I guess you have to have movies like those two. Something cheaper to offset the good, deep movies. But you know what? I get more fun out of escaping to deep worlds than to this “okay” stuff. Heck, I get more fun out of stuff so bad it doesn’t need rifftrax. Give me good, give me hilariously bad, but meh is meh. And nobody likes meh.

The Golden Compass

A long time ago a Christian friend recommended a book to me. That is not unusual, as virtually all my friends are Christians and bookworms. The unusual part is that this book was The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, known as Northern Lights to European audiences.

Pullman is an outspoken atheist, and the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which this was the first part, is his anti-Narnia. And I loved it. I absolutely devoured it, right up until the last chapters of the last book, where I did a double-take, and decided to set aside the series once I had finished it. Despite its growing popularity and a feature film, I did not touch it again for years. Until this winter.

Now, I should explain that I have a very strong sense of loyalty and something of a contrarian streak. Though I got a little excited when the trailers came out, I pretty much boycotted the movie, and never recommended the book to anyone. If the author was going to oppose everything I believed in, I was not going to support him in any way.

Meanwhile, I was reading books by ancient Greeks, pagan Romans, and heathen Norsemen. I have always been of the opinion that Christians can learn from even the most virulently anti-Christian writers, if one has thick skin and a keen eye. “Gold from Egyptians,” and all that.

Now, I could pretend it was that philosophy that caught up with me, but it was mostly just an excuse. The truth is I loved those books. The world they painted captured my imagination and the moment I had finished the first part, I started spinning off all sorts of stories inspired by it. And after all these years, I am curious as to what it was that so enthralled me, when the agenda (I have come to realize) was so incredibly blatant.

So, I started reading them again. And here is my take on book one.

Daemons, Denmark, and Deadly Bears

Philip Pullman is absolutely brilliant at crafting worlds. His alternate earth is huge, filled with all sorts of cultures and countries, men and organizations with competing agendas, and some people so strange as to baffle all the rest of the crazy carnival. He can paint pictures of scholarly universities, high society cocktail parties, villages on the edge of the world, the icy wilderness, gypsy boat-houses, and the splendor of a bear’s kingdom. Details are plentiful, but never tedious, and can leave a childish heart captivated.

For one thing, there’s daemons. Daemons are not evil spirits, but a human soul on the outside of the human being. They come in the form of animals, lifelong companions to their human counterparts that visibly embody many of their feelings and charactr traits. Each pair is separate enough from one another to hold a conversation, but so tightly bound that too much distance between them can cause physical pain.

Can you imagine that? I mean, that’s cool. Like the world’s awesomest pet mixed with a furry little sibling. Who wouldn’t want one? And in Pullman’s world, you’re not human unless you have a daemon.

Then there’s all this slightly off terminology. It took me forever to figure out that “anbaric” meant “electrical” and “tokay” was a type of wine. “Aeronauts” could fly balloons or zeppelins. “Philosophical” things have to do with physics and “experimental theologians” are physicists. “Atomcraft” is pretty much what it sounds like. This may sound confusing out of context, but in the book it all makes perfect sense and is accepted as a matter of course.

Another cool thing: his geography, and the politics that spins off it. The Tartars (of Golden Horde fame) are still a very big deal, threatening the peace of all Europe and Asia–particularly Muscovy and Cathay. And Russia, which is not Muscovy. America is New Denmark, and the native Americans are Skraelings, a name taken right out of old Vinland folklore. Gyptians are gypsies that live in boats, and Lapland is still very much a thing. The Vatican has moved to Geneva, and the Svalbard archipelago belongs to a kingdom of sentient polar bears.

Speaking of sentient polar bears, there are sentient polar bears. They are massive beings that can bend metal with their bear paws or engage you in polite, though intimidating, conversation. They have no daemons. Instead, their armor (yeah, armor) is their soul. And this is thick stuff made from “sky iron” and forged in geothermal “fire-mines.” They have a king and an honor code and a giant island where human exiles are sent to have the living daylights scared out of them. Awesome.

The Church

But, there is an agenda. Pullman’s portrait of the Church is very interesting. John Calvin, the last pope, moved the Vatican to Geneva, where a dizzying series of committees and councils known as “the Magisterium” has taken over running pretty much everything. A Presbyterian nightmare. The Magisterium is pretty much all-powerful, running science, the Inquisition, and great deal of politics.

Honestly, though, the Church is not as horribly painted as you might expect. For one thing, it’s just a giant series of commitees. Easily mocked, perhaps, but hard to put a face on as the embodiment of evil. Mostly Pullman just paints the Magisterium as complicated, paranoid, slightly reactionary, and easily confused. And very, very distant. It has its hands in everything, but a clear representative is hard to find. Kind of like the US governmant.

Coming of Age

While this is a major theme, I don’t think much ought to be said until the sequels are taken into account. Suffice it to say that puberty is a big deal to Philip Pullman, and not just because it involves hormones ‘n stuff. It connects to reason, curiosity, original sin, self-reliance, and why the Church is evil. Also, to major plot points. So we’ll come back to that.

Lyra Lier

Ordinarily it’s not worth dwelling on a character’s petty sins, but this really stands out. Lyra lies very often, and often with little provocation. So does everyone else, and it’s just accepted without the least bit of justification. I mean, sure, any individual instance may not be a big deal, but the frequency just seems pathological. Nobody trusts anyone in this world. That, I think, fits very well with some overarching ideas in the trilogy, and we’ll come back to it in later posts.

A Fascination with Power

Pullman seems to have a heightened awareness of power, and a fascination with it. Several characters are admired for their commanding presence, the sense of danger that emanates from them, and their sheer superiority over other human beings. Power is not just ability to get things done, it’s a positive virtue. And an immensely attractive one at that. Again, this connects with an overarching sort of worldview Pullman has–and this is a very worldviewy trilogy. It will, I think, be important when all is said and done.

Conclusion

Book one, fun as heck. Awesome world, interesting plot. Characters are fun, if a bit flat. Good enough I checked out the second book.

PS– In a battle at the end of the book, Pullman decides to use epic similies. Seriously.

Decisions

Men are made of decisions. It is a commonplace that the little decisions are what make a man, adding together to become the habits of a life. Likewise they are the training and practice for the big decisions. Every little thing mattters. Quite true.

But there is a flip side to that coin. The big decisions also matter, and they matter regardless of the little decisions that lead to them. What I mean is this: while little decisions may condition our responses to big choices, those big choices are also big chances to break old habits, to counteract earlier little decisions, and redifine the life which you lead. Habits can be broken in one fell swoop, a rousing moment of redemption, or a tragic crash of hubris. The little decisions matter, but they are not the final word.

Pardon my musings. This is the sort of interesting tangle people write stories to unsnarl.

But if you ask me, little decisions determining a life’s course is most definitely the norm. When a big decision confronts a man and he chooses a path to which he is not accustomed, something extraordinary has happened. Either a change of character has occured, or else a tension within the man’s character has been revealed. If the latter is the case, any amount of time will see the tension resolved. One cannot act in the grand moments according to one set of principles, and live one’s daily life according to another. At some point, the daily life will change, or else the grand moments will fall in line.

But if a grand moment, a big decision, reveals a sudden change of character, that is something miraculous. Outside of Christ, a lifetime of sinful habits (yes, I was thinking morally the whole time) will carve a rut in which a man’s soul may get stuck. Suddenly getting out of those ruts requires something strang and wonderful: a new heart. A man’s entire character must be changed, and that is not something he can do himself.

That is why, I think, such stories are fascinating. We want to see men with a certain character that is simply not good enough. We want to see these men struggle with life, and then see them presented with some particular conflict which draws up into one immensely climactic moment. At that moment, we want to see their character change, because we want to believe that such a thing is possible, and we want to know what it looks like. That dramatic change in character gives us hope.

That is why we love testimonies. That is why I love Augustine’s Confessions.

Common Grace and the Common Flu

I brought the same jug of sweet tea to two parties in a row this weekend. It was not opened either time. This, I trust, is an act of providence, because I am now “experiencing flulike symptoms” and have a solid gallon of hydrating liquids at my bedside. I also have a bag of my beloved sunflower seeds which I have had to abandon. They look very sad sitting over there, all alone.

Colds and the flu are not things I am given to recognizing quickly, since I already have sinuses stuffier than a high society luncheon. But this headache, the fatigue, the increased rate of sniffles and coughing… it adds up. I left class early today, skipped work, and caught a two-hour nap before plowing through some Bavinck. Which is great, because we’re finally to the point in the theology book where the guy starts talking about Jesus. I mean, the other stuff is important too, but the Lord is kind of crucial. And I’ve been on a central-tenets-of-the-gospel kick lately. But I digress.

I was settling into bed after a warm shower (the best place to think, and also a cheap humidifier) when I got the urge to pull up Spotify. You see, physical and mental health can be pretty closely connected, and feeling miserable often makes me… well, feel miserable. The solution? Good music. Montgomery Gentry, Tim McGraw, and Alan Jackson. I’m pretty sure the entirety of my musical tastes spiral out from those three/four musicians.

After taking my hot shower, while drinking my jug of tea, as I listened to my favorite musicians, I texted my dad two time zones over. While interacting with friends on facebook. And researching the flu on WebMD.  It kind of all hit me right then. I am living the life of a king. I am a dirt-poor college kid, and I still am blessed beyond the wildest imaginations of anybody just a few centuries age. Again, as an inhabitant of a comparatively low rung on the socioeconomic latter (thought there are a lot lower), I’ve got luxuries within reach of my bed that any Louis, Henry, or Otto of old Europe could only dream of.

Today in the one class I muddled all the way through, there was a great deal of discussion about common grace. This is the notion that God not only is gracious to those whom he is saving, but scatters blessings over the whole of humanity. Now, we went on some interesting tangents about tetherball and the nature of testimonies, but that basic idea is itself a pretty fascinating one. Over two thousand years God has blessed us with technology and economic developments that make the high points of other civilizations look like post-apocalyptic nightmare realms. And not just on repentant followers of Christ, either. Rain falls on the justified and the unjustified alike. Amazing stuff, this grace.

After I click publish and send my written words out into the world to be perused from any place on the planet, I will go back to reading theology, though I might dive into the modern miracle of Netflix at some point tonight. Eventually I will sleep, and awake to the sound of a small electronic alarm in my phone. Which has a touchscreen. Then I will use that phone to tell people whether or not I am healthy enough to attend their classes, bible studies, and Greek studies. All without leaving my room. It’s a crazy world we live in. Enjoy it, even in the flu season.

Evangelical Audacity

Evangelical Christianity is centered on a radical claim: that each individual Christian has a personal relationship with the almighty Creator and Lord of the universe. The very idea is incredible: that even the lowest, most sinful members of the Church have a direct line to the throne-room of the King of Kings. Why would such a holy God have anything to do with such unholy, unimportant sinners? But, staggering as it is, that is the claim we evangelicals make.

If true, this idea has very interesting implications. Consider this: where is the center of such a society? Who is charge? It is no elected official, no pastor, no charismatic personality. All these influences and authorities certainly exist, but they are trumped by direct responsibility to a higher authority. While men must obey human magistrates, those men do so because God has required it, not in response to an independent earthly right. Such a society is a Christ-centered, theocratic society whatever its constitution may be.

This also means that society, though it may have its inequalities (not all of them results of sin), and though it has a great diversity of callings, is not hierarchical. The pyramidal power structure humanity might otherwise create is undermined by a God who speaks to the common man. This is a frightening leveling, a revolutionary equalization. Rich and poor do not matter, nor do ruler and ruled, white and black, or male and female. What matters is each individual’s relationship to Christ.

The claim that every individual must have a personal relationship with Christ not only flies in the face of human pride, it is a threat to earthly power. It is unsettling, removing the reins of rule from human hands to a heavenly Savior. This is a thought that should fill us with fear, certainly, but also provide comfort and a sense of gratitude. We are not in control–but one infinitely more worthy is.

Students as Arrows

“As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.” Psalm 127:4

This verse ordinarily applies to parents, but I believe it can also apply to teachers. Whether in grade school, high school, or college, our teachers shape who we are, and we in turn are a reflection of them. Our success is a source of their pride and our failure is a cause of their shame.

Because this is true, there is a weighty responsibility on the backs of students. We ought to endeavor to be the sort of men and women that are a credit to our teachers. We should be the sort of people that they hear about later in life and say, smiling broadly, “He was in my class.” They spend their days blessing us; we in turn should leave their tutelage having become a blessing to them.