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.