Tuesday, February 28, 2017

“Just” a body? (Thomas Lynch)

Thomas Lynch, poet/undertaker, will be one of my literary companions this Lenten season.

Perhaps a proper Lenten beginning entails burying (pun intended) the idea that we should ever piously place the adverb “just”  prior to the noun “body” when we talk about the life and death of a human being.
"So to suggest in the early going of grief that the dead body is “just” anything rings as tinny in its attempt to minimalize as it would if we were to say it was “just” a bad hair day when the girl went bald from her chemotherapy.  Or that our hope for heaven on her behalf was based on the belief that Christ raised “just” a body from dead.  What if, rather than crucifixion, he’d opted for suffering low self-esteem for the remission of sins?  What if, rather than “just a shell,” he’d raised his personality, say, or The Idea of Himself?  Do you think they’d have changed the calendar for that?  Done the Crusades?  Burned witches?  Easter was a body and blood thing, no symbols, no euphemisms, no half measures.  If he’d raised anything less, of course, as Paul points out, the deacon and several others of us would be out of business or back to Saturday Sabbaths, a sensible diet, and no more Christmases."

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Moderate Giftedness in a Globalized World (Kurt Vonnegut)

I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives - maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most.  And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically, to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn't afraid of anything and so on.

That's what I think.  And of course a scheme like that doesn't make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that.  A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to do into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world's champions.

The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness.  A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.  We have a name for him or her.  We call him or her an "exhibitionist."

 by Kurt Vonnegut, Ch. 9

Monday, February 20, 2017

Doomed to Repeat the Past (Kurt Vonnegut)

"As the philosopher George Santayana said, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'"

"Is that a fact?" she said.  "Well - I've got news for Mr. Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what.  That's what it is to be alive.  It's pretty dense kids who haven't figured that out by the time they're ten."

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, Ch. 10

Sunday, February 19, 2017

War Fatigue and the Patriotic Imagination (Kurt Vonnegut)

That was an ordinary way for a patriotic American to talk back then.  It’s hard to believe how sick of war we used to be.  We used to boast of how small our Army and Navy were, and how little influence generals and admirals had in Washington.  We used to call armaments manufacturers “Merchants of Death.”

Can you imagine that?

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, Ch. 8

Saturday, February 18, 2017

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, Memorials, and the Eucharist (4) - Shame as Occasion for Grace and Renewal

This is the 4th and final post in this series of reflections on the satirical novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.  A strange and comical title for sure, but a great read.  And a quick one at that.  I highly recommend it.

The 1st post reflected on the final pages of the story, the intervention of the creator, the creation of a new people, the placement of the statue of Phil, and that statue's subsequent disappearance from the collective memory of the New Hornerites.

The 2nd post reflected on memorials and how, seemingly by definition, they don't address the shameful parts of a collective's history.  Is that a good thing?

As I said in the last post, the Eucharist confronts our shame.  Specifically it reveals the violence and scapegoating that arise inexorably from the principalities that manifest our selves and our ways as Michael Hardin writes so clearly in his essay.
"In the Eucharist we come as a killing mob, breaking our victims in order to consume them, to suck the life-force out of them to become them. This is why victims were eventually divinized or made into gods: we sought divine life, eternal life in our victims, life beyond death. In our victims we thought we found the answer to our questions, the solution to our problems. In their death we sought life, in the darkness we brought upon them we sought light. Little did we know that the light within us was a great darkness and that the violence we used against our victims could and would one day turn against us."
It is a hard word to hear, but we need to hear it.  Most importantly, however, we have to proceed through it.  The gospel has a better word to speak.

On this point, there are too many quality citations from Hardin's essay to include them all.  Here are a few:
"Jesus’ death is God’s way of delivering us from death and from the fear of death. The violence done to Jesus is the same violence we see every day in our newspapers. The difference is that in our newspapers, and in our lives, violence evokes more violence, a counter-violence we call justice. We seek an eye for an eye and a life for a life in our way of trying to stop the virus of human vengeance and violence. God chose the opposite; God allows God’s self to be the singular place where all human violence is brought to a pinnacle. God bears in God’s self our violence."
"God steps into our world, the nonviolent Logos, the principle of Love, steps into our world which needs the blood of scapegoats and innocent lambs to survive, and brings an end to all this wickedness by taking upon God’s self all the anger, hatred, anxiety and fear we could muster. God takes upon God’s self death itself. God brings into God’s very heart that which we most fear: death and its consequences. God takes into God’s innermost being our vilest hatred, our ugliest lies, our distorted imaginations, our insatiable thirst for justice and vengeance and absorbs it. God hangs dead for us."
"This rescue, this “exodus“ doesn’t look like much. In fact it looks rather ordinary, just another dead body, a crucified criminal. Yet this exodus, this deliverance was extraordinary for two reasons. First is that it completely demolishes the notion of the wrathful God, the punishing God. This God bears punishment, this God does not mete it out. This God, the God of Life, bears death, and bears it with us and thus for us so that we might see that our violence will only produce one thing: forgiveness. God in Christ forgives us from the cross. God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting against us the false accusations, or the torture or the mocking or the hatred or the pain or the anguish or any other vile thing we did that day. God does not even count our rejection against us. This God absorbs all of our violence and thus, and this is my second point, does away with violence as the mechanism by which we solve our problems. God does away with our scapegoating, our finger pointing, our endless accusations against one another. All that we do here in our lifetimes, the blaming, accusing, and justifying of our anger and systems of punishment are forever rendered powerless and pointless in Jesus’ death. They just don’t count in God’s book.  Instead we are given a meal, a meal where we come together to acknowledge our tendency to persecute and hate and destroy. We are given bread which we break, a body which we crucify. In the breaking of bread we are owning up to our scapegoating tendencies. We are also given a cup, a cup which says that in the old world, under the power of the old where eye-for-eye was the measure, now a new measure for injustice will be given, a measure that makes no sense to a world grounded in violence and scapegoats. That is the measure of forgiveness. God has forgiven the whole world in Jesus."
The Eucharist exposes, subverts, and then renews.  Shame becomes an occasion for salvation.  God reveals Godself to us at our worst, and through our worst.  The "blaming, accusing, and justifying of our anger and systems of punishment....just don't count in God's book."  The time and place of our fiercest rejection of God becomes the occasion for God to reveal his rejection of our rejection and that "His ways are not our ways".
"The Eucharist therefore, is the most anti-cultural institution in the world and breaks down our sacrificial religion and turns us to a non-sacrificial spirituality where God is love and where we learn to love one another."
I hope it's obvious that I'm not making a pure parallel between the storyline of The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil and the Gospel narrative that the Eucharist proclaims and celebrates.

What I am saying is that, however grotesque that statue of Phil might have appeared, however "creepy", behind the shame of it lies the story of the creator making one man out of the two and making things new.  The reason for the statue's existence is inseparable from the breaking down of the wall of separation, the creation of New Horner, and the hands and words of the Creator.  That story comes through the story of their violence.  Thus, in it's very grotesqueness, the statue may become a means to life, it's shame becoming an occasion for grace and renewal.

The story of The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil ends on a somber note.  But even though it's covered in a thicket of weeds, the memorial to Phil is not gone.  It's there at the heart of New Horner waiting to be revealed once more.

Back to 1st post

Thursday, February 16, 2017

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, Memorials, and the Eucharist (3) - Violent Ways

This is the 3rd post in this series of reflections on the satirical novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.

The 1st post reflected on the final pages of the story, the intervention of the creator, the creation of a new people, the placement of the statue of Phil, and that statue's subsequent disappearance from the collective memory of the New Hornerites.

The 2nd post reflected on memorials and how, seemingly by definition, they don't address the shameful parts of a collective's history.  Is that a good thing?

In this 3rd post, I'd like to make some connections to the Eucharist in light of the 1st two posts.

To do this, I'm going to pull some thoughts from a series of meditations on the Eucharist written by Michael Hardin.  I encourage you to read this before going any further.


It's impossible to proceed through Hardin's meditations about the Eucharist and the events of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil without, in clear-eyed clarity, saying what it is that happened at the end of the story.

In short, through clever rhetoric, demagoguery, twisted "truth", and a fundamental malice, Phil was able to scapegoat a neighboring group of people - a people not very unlike themselves - as the reasons for their problems.  The Inner Hornerites were rounded up, stripped naked and humiliated, taxed until they had nothing, imprisoned, and then killed because their death was thought to be the means by which prosperity and fundamental order could be restored to the land.  Ultimately, Phil accomplished this at the intersection of the power of the state, the approval of it's people, and with the supposed blessing of Almighty God.

So let me just say again, this remembrance that the memorial might activate within the collective consciousness isn't something that any of them would likely feel good about remembering.

For Hardin, the same thing is true about the Eucharist.  Even as we recognize that it's not the end, we should not bypass the darkness of the thing:
"In breaking the bread we confess we are all persecutors, that had we been there, we would have crucified Jesus. We do not come to this meal with clean hands and pure hearts. We come to it frothing at the mouth, demanding a sacrifice that will take away our personal and social angst, violence and fear. We break bread, we confess we are murderers. This is the point. We are the mob, or in religious language, we are all sinners."
"We are God’s persecutors. None of us can escape this. We must acknowledge that had we been there we would have joined the angry mob, or we would have sought to force Jesus to act with violence (Judas) or we would have denied having ever known Jesus for fear of reprisal (Peter). We would have been the ones to stand in judgment, righteous judgment against Jesus, the law breaker."
"This meal breaks down all illusions of good and bad, sin and holiness. In this meal we are all going to get our hands bloody. We are those who would scapegoat the “other“ who is different, we seek our differentiation in the “other.“ The process of “removing“ sin is antithetical to this meal for this meal is all about sin, in fact one might be so bold to say that it is the ultimate act of sin in which we shall ever participate for in this meal we are standing there as the mob that rejects Jesus, that falsely accuses him, that blasphemes against him and we are the ones who drive the nails into his hands and feet. The old spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” must be answered in the positive when we come forward to share in this meal for that is exactly what we are doing by participating in it. The Eucharist is Good Friday over and over again, a ritual repetition intended to drive something home, to drive something so deep into our the fabric of our being that we cannot remain unchanged. That something is all the blood on our hands from those relationships we have destroyed with our thoughts, our actions and our words. The Eucharist is not just about breaking bread, it is the complete and total recognition that in harming the “other,“ we are breaking bad."
First is a revealing.  As we reflect on the narrative behind it, the Eucharist exposes what we have done.  It recounts how the principalities and powers, the combination of church and state, conspired to kill Jesus as the crowds looked on.  It is a revealing of the violence that is at the heart of our culture.  It is we who imagined the cross, and we demand it's violence.

So this isn't just a sort of pious and reluctant "I'm a sinner, having broken the rules."  Rather:
"It meets us in the darkest places in our souls, the place where we would consign “the other“ to an eternal hellfire or a life of hell."
We need to dwell here for a moment, but not for too long because it is not the end.  We move through it to a message that speaks a better word.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, Memorials, and the Eucharist (2) - Memorials of Shame

The 1st post in this series recounted and reflected on the story of the Inner and Outer Hornerites of George Saunders’ satirical novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.  I concluded the post in the same way that the book itself concludes; by pondering both the purpose of the statue of Phil and it’s disappearance from the collective conscience of New Horner.

Now, I don’t want to overanalyze the story as written or to read into it things that are not really there, but I think the following question is worth asking.  Why did the Creator – whose literal hands came down out of the heavens to “redeem” the Inner and Outer Hornerites from the mess of their division - leave the citizens with a statue of PHIL. MONSTER??  It certainly isn’t an arbitrarily chosen narrative device.

I'd like to reflect on this by way of a bold and courageous blog post by Richard Beck entitled America's Holocaust over at his blog, Experimental Theology.  I highly recommend giving it a slow, meditative read.

It's a post about national shame.  More specifically, it's about the ways that countries deal or don’t deal with the shameful parts of their history.

Beck talks about a recent trip to Germany and how "a national reckoning with the Holocaust had been and is being attempted."  He points to the memorial to Holocaust victims that's situated right smack in the middle of Berlin, the Topography of Terror Museum, and guided tours through the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Why not tear that Concentration Camp down?  Why does it still stand?  Why is it illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany?  Unlike the Confederate Flag, why is consideration of the Nazi flag as a "cultural artifact" an impossibility?

What sort of things had to happen in the world at large and, perhaps more importantly, in the minds and hearts of the German people themselves in order to take the steps to memorialize their shame?

Nearly all of the time, Beck observes, our memorials are about pride.  They celebrate our successes, generosity, exceptionalism, and sacrifice but never our failures, theft, or those who we've sacrificed on the alters of “progress”.

It's interesting, he points out, that the United States has memorials to the Holocaust in nearly every major US city - memorials to the crimes committed by another country and to which the United States played a role in stopping - but not to any of our own Holocausts.

"What American Holocausts?!" you say.  

Where is the memorial to Transatlantic Slave Trade?  Where is the memorial to the lives lost in the Middle Passage?  How many within our borders even know what either of these are?  We memorialize their bravery and courage via our sports mascots, but where is the memorial to Native American genocide?

Our memorials to the slave trade and to the middle passage best take form in Black History Month or the Martin Luther King Jr memorial.  That is, we've managed to turn these things into symbols of national pride and progress.  They console us.

But we don't like memorials to our shame.  Those sorts of memorials "give us the creeps".

We need to hear this, even if it's uncomfortable.  Maybe it's worth hearing precisely because it’s uncomfortable.

To bring it back to our story, perhaps the very thing that could keep New Horner from once again becoming Inner and Outer Horner (or some mutation of it) is the statue of PHIL.  MONSTER.  In it, the New Hornerites might remember what had happened, what they were capable of, and what they might be capable of again.

And as Phil's story goes, this was all divinely blessed.  Phil invoked the will of this divine being confidently and liberally throughout his rise to power.  Invoking the approval of the divine certainly tickled the ears of his audience, but Phil had this god all wrong.  So just as importantly, the statue might serve as a reminder of the One who put it there – “creepy” as the statue may be.  It might provide a reminder of the One who broke down the boundaries of string that divided Inner and Outer Hornerites, made one man out of the two, and told them that they are enough.  It might remind them of their story, their telos.  

Here’s the thing.  The New Hornerites have the statue, but their memories were wiped clean and they don't know actually why they have it.  They'd need it to be told to them by their "invading" neighbors.  You'd think they'd want to know.  But do they?

In the next post, I'd like to look at some of these themes as they relate to the Eucharist.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, Memorials, and the Eucharist (1) - The Narrative

I happened upon this interesting tweet by David Congdon.  Check it out.

So I picked the book up from my local library - The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.

It’s a short book.  130 small pages with big, double-spaced print, readable in 2 hours or less.  I’ve summarized the plot below, so if you don’t want spoilers you should read the book before reading any further.  This isn’t a book, however, in which the surprises are negated by knowing the story.

It’s a scifi-ish story of moral/political satire.  The main characters in this story are Hornerites - strange creatures comprised of any variety of earthly items sort of strewn together to create a living being.  Each Hornerite is either an Inner or Outer Hornerite, and Inner Horner is within the borders of Outer Horner.  Inner Horner is so small, however, that only one of it’s citizens can be within it’s borders at a time.  The remaining handful of Inner Hornerites live in the Short Term Residency Zone, a tiny overgflow area that falls within the borders of Outer Horner.  The Inner Hornerites rotate in and out of Inner Horner, where exists a stream with some fish, some dirt, and an apple tree.  These things keep them alive independent of anything provided by Outer Horner.

How did things come to be arranged this way?  We don’t know.

But this is really the story of Phil, his methods and rhetoric, his rise to and fall from power.

He’s a bad hombre.  Believe me.

Having fallen in love with an Inner Hornerite who had loved and started a family with another Inner Hornerite, Phil, in his existential dissatisfaction and feelings of not living up to his potential, begins to despise the current arrangement with Inner Horner.  He accuses the Inner Hornerites of ingratitude of the “generosity” of the Outer Hornerites.  They attack Outer Hornerite values.  He questions the patriotism of his Inner Hornerites in accepting this.  He asks his fellow Outer Hornerites if they are not the greatest and biggest country - given to them by God Almighty - and if their prosperity could not be even greater.  Through some clever rhetorical manipulation, Phil “legislates” taxation of the Inner Hornerites and annexation of their land and possessions.  Phil is able to characterize the Inner Hornerites as thieves and aggressors, and places them in a concentration camp like “Peace-Encouraging Enclosure”.  Finally, in the name of safety and prosperity, Phil resorts to “disassembling” (executing) the Inner Hornerites.

It is at that point that the nation surrounding Outer Horner invades, it’s citizens being larger than those of Inner Horner and being concerned for their own future existence in light of Outer Horner’s newfound imperialism.

Phil, through the invasion and some comical physical limitations, is effectively removed from power.  The country is left wondering: “How could this have happened?”

There is much that could be said about the book, but my reason for writing today has to do with the way that the book ends.  I quote it here at length:


The two hands, working together, gently disassembled the Outer Hornerites.
Then they gently disassembled the Inner Hornerites.
Using the Inner and Outer Horner parts, they rapidly constructed fifteen entirely new little people.
The only parts they didn’t use were Phil’s parts.  Phil’s brain (retrieved from under his couch, covered in chip-crumbs and lint, giving off the hissing noise a Type C brain makes when off-gassing) they dropped into the stream, where several of the new fish, mistaking it for Phil’s body, they mounted on a platform, after first spray-painting it black and mounting a plaque beneath it.
“PHIL,” the plaque read.  “MONSTER.”

Then the massive hands lifted the new people up to a pair of giant indescribable lips and whispered, in a fundamentally untranslatable Creator-language, something that mean approximately: THIS TIME, BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER.  REMEMBER: EACH OF YOU WANTS TO BE HAPPY.  AND I WANT YOU TO.  EACH OF YOU WANTS TO LIVE FREE FROM FEAR.  AND I WANT YOU TO.  EACH OF YOU ARE SECRETLY AFRAID THAT YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH.  BUT YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH, TRUST ME, YOU ARE.

Then the left hand picked up the green string that constituted the boundary of the Short-Term Residency Zone, and the right hand picked up the red string that constituted the Inner Hornerite border, and the left had took away the remnants of the Peace-Encouraging Enclosure, while the right hand planted a sign reading: “Welcome to New Horner.”
Then the hands did that dusting-off thing hands do when they’ve finished a difficult piece of work, and withdrew majestically, through a large white cloud.

Soon the fifteen new people woke up, stretching and yawning.  Where the heck were they?  And who the heck were they?  They felt sort of sore?  Apparently, the concluded, by looking at the sign , they were New Hornerites, and lived in New Horner.  Apparently, they concluded, reading the little name-tags around their necks, they each had a name.
They were, they all agreed, just amazingly hungry.

On the way to a nearby apple tree, they passed a hulking black mess on a platform.
“What is that thing?” said Gil.
“It’s a Phil,” said Sally.
“What is a Phil?” said Sally.
“A monster,” said Leona.  “Apparently,” said Fritz.
“Or maybe Monster was his last name?” said Gil.
“You know: Phil Monster.  Like: Hi, I’m Phil Monster?  It’s not entirely clear from the syntax.”
“Whatever,” said Sally.  “Let’s go eat.”

Leona looked at Gil.  Syntax?  What the heck kind of word was that?  What was Gil, some kind of big-shot?  She hated big-shots, she suddenly realized.  She’d have to watch Gil.  She’d talk to Sally about it.  Sally didn’t seem like a big-shot.  Sally seemed sensible and moral and down to earth.  Sally, like Leona, was compressed and ball-shaped, unlike the freakishly elongated Gil.

As the months went by, the new Hornerites took to avoiding The Phil.  Although nobody could exactly say why, The Phil gave them the creeps.  Soon the oath bowed out around it, weeds overtook it, and all that could be seen of the The Phil was the tip of Phil’s rack, which stuck out of the weeds like a bad flagpole.  Animals burrowed in on The Phil, birds nester there, balls accumulated there because the New Horner kids were too scared to retrieve them.

And that is where Phil is today: hidden in a thicket of weeds not loved, not hated, just forgotten, rusting/rotting, with even the sign that proclaims his name fading away.
Excepts sometimes Leona comes to visit.  She does no find The Phil monstrous, but strangely beautiful, and sometimes sits in the thicket for hours, dreaming, for reasons she can’t quite explain of a better world, run by humble, compressed, ball-shaped people, like her and Sally, who speak, when they speak at all, in short sentences, of their simple heroic dreams.


As literally as possible, The Creator intervenes.  He/She disassembles both the Inner Hornerites and Outer Hornerites, removes the flimsy string border that divides them, and creates New Hornerites.  The Creator then disappears.

When the New Hornerites wake up, they don’t know who they are.  Not really.  They have no memory of how they came to be.  They just have names and a sign that says NEW Horner.  NEW.  (There is an "old"?)  And they have a strange memorial, one that gives them the creeps.


“What’s a Phil?”

Whatever reasons there might be for it's presence, they take to avoiding it.  As the mere existence of the statue of Phil gradually fades from the collective memory (the notable exception being one New Hornerite who finds it “strangely beautiful”) the reader is left realizing that the cycle is bound to repeat itself.

As the story is written, how could it not?  Seriously.  That's not rhetorical.

What IS New Horner?

I’ll leave it at that for the moment.  It's worth thinking about.

In the next post, I’d like to talk about this memorial of Phil, what role it might be intended to play within the life of New Horner, and some ways that this matters.

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