Poetry after Christmas

January 10, 2014

When I looked at Christmas poetry on Christmas day, I came across this poem by W.H. Auden. Since it belongs to the period after Christmas, I delayed writing this post until now.

I can certainly relate to a lot of it – the Christmas tree waiting to be taken down, our sons back in school, and the holiday celebration already a fading memory. I certainly stayed up late during Christmas break, and had a lot of leftovers to finish up. We didn’t get together with relatives, but I can relate to that also from past holidays.

And now here I am in the Time Being. Going back to the office was kind of depressing – and my excitement at getting two days off from school (i.e.the college where I work) this week due to the extreme cold seemed more appropriate to a schoolchild than a 50-something member of the staff.

More than that, I can relate to “craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,” looking for something to inhibit self-reflection (FreeCell works well), wanting to redeem the Time Being from insignificance, and enduring “silence that is neither for nor against [my] faith.”

This poem reminds me that W. H. Auden is one of the modern poets I appreciate. I don’t know that it would be accurate to say I “like” his poems, because they are often reminders of how indifferently brutal people can be. But they are thought-provoking, and their language captures my interest in a way many poems do not.

One of Auden’s poems I had not read before is “The Shield of Achilles.” Even before I read some background information explaining about Thetis and Hephaestos (details from the Iliad that I no doubt rushed through in ninth grade), I got a sense of what Auden is saying about the modern world. But it is even more poignant in light of the contrast Auden draws with Homer’s depiction.

Poetry for Christmas

December 25, 2013

I spent much of yesterday and today reading a book written by an English professor, and thinking that I ought to act on some vague intentions to read more of what would generally be considered “literature” rather than just books. I’m not sure how far I’ll get in this project, both due to time constraints and the thought that having other people to read and discuss literature with would be beneficial.

But for today, I decided a reasonable goal would be to find a good poem about Christmas. Google found me a great many, of course, but I easily settled on a favorite, “Moonless darkness stands between” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I haven’t read a great many of Hopkins’ poems, but I like the ones I have read, both for the way he writes and for the things he says.

I enjoy much of the traditional activity associated with Christmas – the decorations, the food, the exchange of gifts, and especially the singing. But the significance of Christmas to me is expressed in this poem by Hopkins as well as by anything else I can think of. It is about the birth of “Him Who freed me / From the self that I have been.” Not that it is by any means a finished project, but one that is “Now beginning, and alway: / Now begin, on Christmas day.”

Movies: Veggie Tales: The Little Drummer Boy

December 28, 2011

I’m always eager to check out a new Veggie Tales DVD, but I sometimes wait until I can borrow it from the library rather than purchase it. When I saw their version of The Little Drummer Boy, I wondered how it would compare to the original. The Rankin/Bass stop-action movie released in 1968 has always been one of my favorite Christmas specials.  

Usually when Veggie Tales retells a story, they change it considerably, not only in the details but in the “big idea” behind it. When I looked at Veggie Tales’ The Little Drummer Boy in the store, somehow I got the impression that it was less about bitterness and forgiveness, and more about what a small boy (or any of us) could give as a gift to the Christ child.

So I was surprised, when Al and I watched it, to find that the story of Aaron follows so closely the one I remember from my childhood. The characters are nearly all the same (the camel Joshua even looks the same), and the major events are pretty much the same. There are some details that are different, both changes that have to do with Veggie Tales style and others that apparently are to make the story less upsetting in certain ways.

One change that I don’t understand is that it is implied that the Romans are responsible for the destruction of Aaron’s home and the loss of his parents. In the original, it was bandits. Either is plausible, certainly, but I don’t see the purpose of the change. I read in some reviews of the original that its portrayal of Arabs is unacceptable by today’s standards, so perhaps it was felt that it was necessary to avoid showing them as bad guys. But those who destroy the farm are not even shown – why would it be wrong to simply say they were bandits?

[Spoiler alert] Read the rest of this entry »

What’s merry about Christmas?

December 25, 2011

I read an interesting essay yesterday by the late Christopher Hitchens, on why he objects to the “forced merriment” of the Christmas season. I agree with him in principle, though I have not experienced the degree of coercion he rails against.

Perhaps he exaggerates for effect. Perhaps his dislike of the religious nature of the holiday colors his perceptions. I don’t recall any “compulsory jollity in the hospitals and clinics and waiting rooms.” But I have heard objections, including from devout Christians, to the monthlong assault on our ears by the seasonal music played at shops, malls, and other public spaces.

I haven’t noticed it much myself. I spent time yesterday in a mall for the first time in months, and if there was music playing I was oblivious to it. Perhaps I tend to tune out piped-in music along with all the rest of the noise that I associate with crowded stores.

I do dislike it when I am expected to act happy when I don’t feel happy. I have never liked it when someone, seeing me walk by with a serious look on my face, says, “Smile!” Whether I was looking serious because I was unhappy or deep in thought, I don’t want to be told how to feel, or at least to pretend that I feel.

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Books: A Log Cabin Christmas

December 22, 2011

I don’t normally read any book identified as a romance. I read some romances when I was a teenager and decided that they were not only a waste of time and money, but probably also an unhealthy form of escapism. I have made a few exceptions, such as the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, and The Time Traveler’s Wife, and enjoyed them. There are probably some other good romances out there, but there’s too much junk to be worth sorting through.

I learned about A Log Cabin Christmas from the writer of one of the novellas in this collection. I’ve never met Michelle Ule in person, but we’ve communicated by email, as well as interacting in the Community area at WORLD Magazine. I decided that if I could get the book from the library, I’d at least read Michelle’s “Dogtrot Christmas” even if I skipped the rest.

As it happened, I got the book from the library at about the same time as I was trying to find a book to give to a co-worker. A couple dozen of us at work were doing Secret Santas, and I was buying for someone who likes to read “any kind of book.” That should make it easy, but instead I was stumped. If someone reads just about anything, what are the chances I pick out a book she already has? And I couldn’t feel comfortable buying a book I wouldn’t want to read myself.

Then I noticed A Log Cabin Christmas at Walmart. It was unlikely she had read it. It’s Christmas, so that made it a good Christmas gift. And while I don’t know her well, my guess was that a book with a Christian perspective would go over well. But I still wasn’t going to buy the book without having read at least most of it myself.

I had just finished reading The Sparrow (see my post about it from yesterday). The contrast between the two books is striking. They are very different books, with different goals, but I’m afraid most of these romances seemed pretty shallow in comparison. I enjoyed some of the historical detail, and there were a few interesting characters, but not much to make me think.

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Fourth Sunday of Advent: Love

December 18, 2011

Why is it that I have more trouble thinking of something to say about the theme of Love at Christmastime, compared to the previous three Sundays of Advent? It was easy to think of something to say about Hope, Peace, and Joy. But Love? It seems almost trite to say that Christmas is about love.

I try to think of Scriptures related to Jesus’ birth that mention love, and realize that I can’t think of any. The angels talked about joy and about peace, and all the prophecies about the Messiah imply hope. But I can’t think of any that mention love.

Is that because love is so basic to the idea of God that it hardly seems necessary to mention? Is it because, at the time, the events surrounding Jesus’ birth induced feelings of fear and confusion more than love? Is it because the meaning of Jesus’ birth only made sense long afterward?

I’m guessing that Joseph loved Mary, but all Matthew 1 actually says is that he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” After the angel appeared to him in a dream, “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” How many women would want to know that their husbands married them because they were commanded to do so? Yet acting out of obedience doesn’t mean one is not also acting out of love.

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December 25, 2010

I don’t remember when I first heard a sermon comparing the Incarnation to a person becoming an ant in order to communicate with ants. (It was longer ago than when this sermon was given in 2001, but this is a fair approximation of what I remember hearing.) It was pointed out, of course, that there is a far vaster gulf between the infinite God and finite humans than between humans and ants. But there is certainly a big gap between us and ants.

I’ve been thinking about that analogy the last few days, as the holiday celebrating God’s incarnation as a human approached. If I were to “empty myself of all human knowledge and power and be limited in time and space to be born as a little white egg and grow up in the ant world and bring them my message of love from the Great Entomologist,” would I still have the capacity to bring them that message?

I don’t remember much about the anatomy of ants from tenth grade biology, but I’m pretty sure that whatever sort of brain they have, its capacity is pretty limited. I imagine that trying to express human thoughts with an ant brain would be somewhat like trying to program a robot to do microsurgery using one of those dollar store handheld calculators.

The difference is not just in the size capacity, but in the type of logic that can be performed. A basic calculator is hard-wired to do basic arithmetic and perhaps hold a value in memory (though as it doesn’t have a Help function, I never know how to use that memory function). It has no ability to deal with even the simplest if-then statement that is a basic building block of computer programming.

An ant is, so to speak, “hard-wired” to perform certain tasks and react in certain ways to external stimuli (i.e. it acts by instinct). I question whether its brain has the capacity to process an idea such as a Great Entomologist, let alone the idea of being loved by one. So how could becoming an ant allow me to convey such an idea? How could I, as an ant, hold the idea in my own head, let alone communicate it to my fellow ants?

Of course, one way the analogy breaks down is precisely what it is that makes the gulf between us and ants less than between us and God. Both we and ants are created by God. We are not the creators of the ants, and they are certainly not made in our image. We humans, on the other hand – according to Christian teaching – are made in the image of God. People have suggested all sorts of interpretations of what that “image” means, but it certainly makes sense to think that it means that there is far more potential for communication between God and us than between us and ants.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering – if my imagined “incarnation” as an ant leaves me with little if anything conceivably human about me, what exactly of the divine was in Jesus the man? There are probably as many opinions on that as on the meaning of the image of God in humans. Mostly, they seem to boil down to some mystical divine nature that somehow is there, although there’s really no good explanation of where the “there” is.

I think Christians are so used to the idea of the Incarnation that we rarely think about just how difficult an idea it is to get our minds around. I forget what book I read, a long time ago, that pointed out that the Incarnation is, in some ways, a vastly greater miracle than the Resurrection. People may or may not believe the Resurrection, but conceptually it’s not that difficult. The Incarnation, however, is simply beyond our understanding, which is why we end up – if we believe it – acknowledging that it’s a mystery and then going on to think about something we actually can understand.

I was surprised, reading an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, “Do Christians Overemphasize Christmas?”, to see N.T. Wright listed as one of those admonishing Christians to put less emphasis on Christmas, because Easter is more important. The author of the article doesn’t quote Wright, however, or mention where Wright teaches that, so I googled “Wright” and “Christmas” to see what he does say.

This excellent article in Christianity Today is much more what I would have expected from Wright. He talks first about the incomprehensibility (to us) of the incarnation, as taught in the first verses of the Gospel of John. Then he makes it clear that “John’s prologue is designed to stay in the mind and heart throughout the subsequent story.” So it is with Christmas – and this is the point the author of the WSJ article is making, even if I think he misrepresents Wright in the process.

As Wright points out, Christmas is not all good news. It’s not “only about comfort and joy. In truth, it’s also about incomprehension, rejection, darkness, denial, stopped ears, and judgment.” That’s why Good Friday and Easter are so important. But it’s also key to understanding why they are important.

In my experience, Christians – at least in Evangelical churches – are much more likely to de-emphasize than overemphasize Christmas. Between trying to avoid the materialism of our culture (at least in church – what happens in people’s homes is another matter), and being sure to always point to the cross, Christmas seems to serve mostly as a springboard to messages about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I suppose a holiday whose main idea is incomprehensible – apart from God’s grace – is a tough one to celebrate. It’s much easier to focus on the pageantry, the gifts, and the fun (we got a Wii for Christmas!), or else to jump mentally ahead to the other major holiday that brings people in our society to church. But something in me insists on periodically tackling difficult ideas the way our dog occasionally chews on her Nylabone (not quite indestructible, but it sure doesn’t show much sign of how much she has gnawed on it).

Tomorrow I’ll tackle learning to play the Wii.