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.

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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.

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.

 

Millennial Monsters

When it became clear how momentous a change was going to follow in the wake of the internet, and after that, how much the widespread use of the smartphone was going to transform our lives, speculation immediately began as to how the generation raised with these things would differ from the generations that had seen them come into existence.

I recently had occasion to think about how horror stories in particular have changed in the new, online world. Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent enough time watching YouTube ARG’s, reading creepypasta, watching movies, and listening to the right podcasts to notice a few patterns emerging.

Before I point these out, let me give a few caveats: I’m way more of a general speculative fiction guy than a horror guy. I also remember broadcast TV and thinking dialup was cutting edge. I am therefore a bit of an outsider when it comes to both horror and the smartphone generation, so take this with a grain of salt. This is an essay in the old sense of the word—a casual attempt to think through a topic, rather the thoroughly researched and well-cited work of an expert.

That said, I’ve noticed three things that stand out about the ghosts and monsters conjured up by horror fans and writers since the rise of the internet. The first has to do with their character, and the next two with different aspects of their appearance.

First off, millennial monsters seem, by and large, to be loners. Slender Man, the hat man, the rake, most shadow people, many sightings of black-eyed kids—all of these are lonesome creatures, often dwelling in isolated locations. Before the internet, this was certainly a category of horror creature. However, zombie hordes, or large packs of werewolves, or massive cults, or covens of vampires and witches seemed to be a bigger part of the genre. On YouTube and in creepypasta, the creatures of our nightmares all seem to be individual, anti-social monsters.

Second, a major change seems to have occurred in the appearance of popular monsters. In the 80’s, it seemed like the majority of scary critters you might run into were big and hairy. They were often shaggy, wild-looking, and above all, physically imposing. Slender Man, the rake, and their relatives, on the other hand, are lean and hairless, and often pale. Their appearance is frightening not due to size or weight, not because they are bestial, but because they look wrong. They are unearthly, and unsettling. They are distorted.

Third, the way they appear unsettling is particularly interesting. I used the word “distorted” because I think it’s particularly apt. Slender Man is not too terribly unsettling, except that he’s been stretched like a piece of gum far beyond what is normal for any human being. The rake is bent until he can go onto all fours, and thin as well. Dear David, of recent Twitter fame, has a bent-in head. Werewolves are not distorted—they are often anatomically believable, as long as you don’t catch them mid-transformation. Zombies are rotten, but they’re not oddly shaped. If anything, vampires are often even more physically perfect than the rest of us.

Before I go on to speculate about these three trends, it would be good to make a qualification. Millennials can and do, of course, watch older horror movies and read Stephen King and dress up as zombies and vampires and werewolves. There is no unbreachable wall between pop culture before and after the internet. These are just tendencies, and that’s worth keeping in mind as I outline the truly speculative part of this below.

It has been observed of older generations that zombie movies do well during Republican presidencies, and vampires are more popular under Democrats. The thinking here is that the people are working out their fears of what they might become in the form of horror stories. Republicans are a mindlessly conformist mass of soulless corpses who want to eat your brains, and Democrats are parasitic sexual libertines out to exploit the working man. Or something like that.

Apply the same thinking to millennial monsters. In an age of smartphones and laptops we can all stay up to unreasonably late hours, living in a virtual world, without human contact. We isolate ourselves, from human contact and from sunlight. In the high-contrast world of bright screens in dark rooms, is it any wonder we see people in the shadows? Is it so strange that we fear pale, manlike creatures emerging from the darkness? The appearance of these creatures, and their isolation, matches things we fear about ourselves—what might we be becoming?

The world of social media adds another layer to this. In a time where so much of who we are is a performance, a cultivation of the right photos and the right statuses, the right comments and sharing the right posts, every bit of our identity is subject to technological manipulation. We distort our personality and our appearance to convey messages about where we belong and what we hold sacred, and do so far more consciously and constantly, and in a far more chaotically diverse context than ever before.

Slender Man is stretched and distorted because we are stretched and distorted. The rake is twisted as we are twisted, and the hat man is reducible to one distinct identifying marker just as we can easily become nothing more than a brand, hiding unknown intentions behind a meaningless profile pic or Twitter handle. Our monsters are no longer hairy and physically imposing because the most common threats to us today are not physical, but about identity and belonging. We no longer fear we or our neighbors will become beasts, but that they will become alien and unreadable and hostile.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said here. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on horror, and there is no doubt that there is quite a lot of continuity between previous generations and this one. I did see the IT remake a week or two back, and seems at least as popular as the original. But I think these trends are noteworthy, and worth more exploration.

It also occurred to me, as I was considering these things a few days ago, that the things I’ve pointed out here—the appearance and isolated character of millennial monsters—is probably far more significant the technology through which our ghost stories are now communicated. Chat roulette monsters and found footage seem like little more than novelties, while the form of the monsters themselves carries actual weight.

At any rate, it will be fascinating to watch as the fears and folklore of the next generation develops.

The Cave, The Matrix, Buddha, and the Great Commission

Imagine you are trapped in a cave. You have been here all your life. Your head is locked in place with straps, facing a screen. On that screen is projected a series of images, provided with sound effects. You have never left your chair. This is the only life you have ever known. For you, what appears on that screen is reality.

These images and the voices that speak for them are put there by group of puppeteers hidden behind a screen, tending the fire that backlights their puppets, projecting shadows on the wall. One day you are set free, and you turn to see the trick that has been played on you. At first you are in denial, and do not understand what you are seeing. The light hurts your eyes. Then you find the way out. You leave the cave into open sunlight. If the firelight hurt, this is blinding. It takes a long time for your eyes to adjust, but eventually you come to see the real world.

Would you go back to free the others? What if you had to be strapped back in the chair while you convinced them? What if they had been told this before, if it was a standard rumor passed around the cave, always rejected out of hand? You left behind that life watching shadows dance, and have forgotten how to interpret them. What if they call you a fool, because you know longer understand the only world they have ever known?

Would you go back?

This story is drawn from Plato’s Republic. He believes that life is like this, that the majority of people are concerned with a world that is fading, finite, only half-real. It is the path of the philosopher to escape that world and learn about the eternal things, the higher, better reality beyond this world of shadows. Humanity, he says, has a problem. We need to brought out into the light, but we violently resist those who would bring us. How then can we hope to be delivered?

If you’ve ever watched The Matrix, something similar is going on. All of humanity is trapped in a giant computer simulation. We think we live in the late nineties, but in reality it’s two centuries later, and the robots have us all plugged into this illusion to keep us quiet while use our bodies as batteries. The science is a bit off, but just roll with it.

In this story, there are people who have escaped the Matrix and live in a hidden society—Zion. Zion sends certain people back, people who willingly plug themselves back into the Matrix so they can help others escape. But in doing this, they must be willing to sacrifice their own lives. The machines that created this illusion and keep it running are quite capable of killing anyone plugged in, and so a trip back could turn deadly.

This idea in classical Western philosophy and modern pop culture is mirrored in Eastern philosophy as well. Mahayana Buddhism—the more dominant of the three main schools of Buddhism—is centered around a character called the bodhisattva.

            This world is a world of unsatisfied desires and therefore suffering, and by pursuing a certain path we can achieve a state of enlightenment wherein we no longer crave what cannot obtain. This is nirvana. In Theravada Buddhism, one of the other two schools, you reach nirvana and that’s it. You’ve escaped the cycle of death and rebirth and no longer suffer. But in Mahayana, the goal is to become a person who has achieved nirvana, or come incredibly close, but stays in this world to help others become enlightened as well. Such a person is called a bodhisattva.

C.S. Lewis wrote about a dying-and-rising god present in mythologies throughout the world. He suggested that this character was universal because there was an element of truth to it, some hidden knowledge in the human soul that such a person must exist. That person, it turned out, was Jesus. This mythical archetype was, in a way, a foretaste of the Gospel.

In Plato’s philosopher who returns to the cave, there likely to die, and in the heroes of The Matrix and the bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, we see this repeated pattern of the freed or enlightened one who returns to suffer with his people. This person offers salvation to those who would otherwise be too blind to recognize the predicament they were in, much less be capable of escape.

Jesus Christ was the Son of God. He was perfect in every way, and perfectly happy. He had no need to suffer the way we do. Despite this, he took on flesh and walked among us. He knew starvation, ridicule, heartbreak, weariness, loneliness, rootlessness—every form of suffering or temptation common to man. To save mankind, the people made in his image, he went into the prison we had created for ourselves and lived among the prisoners, telling us of the kingdom of God, offering freedom. For this, we killed him. But then he overcame death.

The story of Christ parallels the others, but the depths of the descent are more profound. It would be as if a man who had never been in Plato’s cave, only heard of it, chose to go down to rescue the people. Not only did he go down, but when he knew it meant his death, he did not run away. It’s as if someone who had never been in the Matrix had themselves outfitted with plugs and inserted in, risking a death they would never otherwise have to face. It’s not as if a man became enlightened and returned as a bodhisattva to help us all, but as if nirvana itself, enlightenment as a person rather than a state, descended into the world of illusion and suffering to lead us all back out.

It is this image of Christ we see a distant echo of in these three stories. But both the echo and the reality have a lesson for those of us who were born in the cave. Christ has come to set us free, but that is not a license to escape. We are not here on earth biding our time until the chariot sweeps us away.

Take up your cross and follow him.

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.

Return to your brothers in chains, those trapped in the wickedness of their own hearts, in the blindness of a dark world, go back and show them the light. Though they reject you, though they cast you out, though they mock and crucify you, do not leave them alone. Do not let them perish in darkness. Share the Gospel. Show them the Way. Set them free as you have been set free, risking all as Christ risked all.

 

“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

An Imaginary Country

Occasionally I ponder how one might describe Texas to someone from far flung parts of the US. Today I was thinking about central Europe, and a new angle struck me. This is the result.

Imagine central Europe. The Czech Republic and Germany especially. Beer, strudel, lederhosen, sausage, quaint little Alpine cottages. Lots of polka. Lots. And plenty of unpronounceable names. Take all those people and set them down on some dusty hills right next door to the Great Plains. Still imagining the polka? Good. That’s Central Texas.

Now take all the Cajuns and creoles out of Louisiana. Empty it out until there’s nothing but woody hills up north and swampy bayous down south. Then fill it with people from Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. That’s East Texas.

Now take the nice parts of Chicagoland, both the city and the suburbs, and put them on the flatter side of Wyoming, complete with all the cattle and Sheriff Longmire and the antisocial types. The central Europeans and the rednecks will fly out of this airport. This is DFW.

Now combine the Wenatchee area of Washington with the drier and emptier parts of Arizona. This will be owned in large part by the people from Chicagoland and central Europe. This is West Texas.

South Texas bleeds into central Europe and Arizona-Wenatchee. Except it’s got a lot of Spanish influence, and a lot of Mexican music. They also grow oranges here. So it’s like SoCal, but older and minus the glitzy parts of LA.

All of these are united by the shared memory of a revolution. This revolution was fought by a combination of Willie Nelson, Ron Paul, homeschoolers who raise goats, and a lot of roughnecks.

Between SoCal and central Europe is the capital, Portland. Everyone in Portland likes to think about the revolution. They also vote for Bernie Sanders. When they’re not writing surprisingly conservative laws, going to offbeat indie concerts, or inventing new kinds of organic pizza, they go to college. This particular college acts like Berkley some days, like an Ivy league school on others, and gets wilder about their football program than Alabama fans.

Now take the way Europeans see Americans (“American cowboy! John Wayne! Bang bang!”) and crank it up to ten. That’s how everyone not from these areas sees everyone from these areas—when they find out that’s where they’re from. Little German guy who listens to polka while making schnitzel? John Wayne. Goldman Sachs banker from Chicago? Also John Wayne. Redneck swimming in a creek in the woods behind the mobile home park? Also John Wayne. Maoist vegan didgeridoo player? Clint Eastwood.

Some people are okay with that image. Some are not. Either way, it’s too late to find a new one, and it makes good branding for the ad guys. Also Hollywood.

That’s Texas.