Arachne, Athena, and a Thousand Princes

Xenia1Imagine a world where competitiveness is that world’s foundation, where it is nothing but mimetic rivalry all the way down. (See my post Human See, Human Want.) Actually many people have, but I am going to focus on a couple of recent fantasy novels I’ve just read which do that.

The Mark of Athena is the latest volume in Richard Riordan’s second series about adolescent demigods, Heroes of Olympus. These books can be a fun way to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, but if ever these gods are real and they really (mis)rule the universe, we’re in trouble. The positions of Zeus and the other Olympians, for example, are the result of earlier conflict. In Riordan’s novels, Cronos and Gaia make comebacks that fuel the divine in-fighting.

This latest book Riordan makes the millennia-old resentments come alive in their tense paralysis. Arachne who offended Athena by weaving a better tapestry than Athena could. Arachne is imprisoned under Rome as a giant spider with a monstrously bad attitude. Beth, a daughter of Athena, has to take from Arachne the Athena Parthenos that was stolen by the Romans and restore it to the Olympians. We see frozen resentments such as Arachne’s in human experience all the time. What if God really were like Athena instead of a God who generously brings us into being and even more generously saves us from follies such as that of Athena and Arachne?

The other books is A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. Prince Khemri is one of countless youths raised in privileged but inhuman conditions to serve the inter-galactic empire as a prince. Each prince is connected to the imperial mind upon coming of age (if he or she is not assassinated first) and is plunged into a system fueled by rivalry and nothing but rivalry. Material goods and programed courtesans are furnished in abundance so there is nothing to fight over except power and position. Nix does a superb job of showing us what such a system looks like, a system that is totally sacrificial. Khemri is singled out for a unique assignment that forces him to live with normal human beings. He is quite bewildered when he finds himself instinctively defending a woman when all his training taught him to use a human as a shield for himself. Is it a shock to us if ever we discover something in the world that isn’t rivalry all the way down, but is grounded instead in love that reaches out to others?

See Baptizing the Imagination for an essay on religious aspects of fantasy literature. See Violence and the Kingdom of God for more about mimetic rivalry and religion.

The Need for New Hearts: an Advent Meditation

wreckedTrees1The traditional apocalyptic Advent themes of Death/Judgment/Heaven/Hell fuse in the recent mass shootings, especially the one at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. A traumatic event like this at this time of year gives us occasion to wonder about the end of the world.

In a memorable poem, Robert Frost mused over whether the world will end in fire or ice. His first thought is that from what he has “tasted of desire,” he holds with “those who favor fire.” The violence of shooting deaths and terrorist attacks is filled with gunfire, suggesting that we should favor fire. René Girard has warned us that with the breakdown of the scapegoating mechanism as a way to hold a violent society together, we run the risk of apocalyptic violence spinning out of control. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God and Human See, Human Want.)

But Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar questions how fiery this violence really is. The opening rebuke of the people: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things” applies to all of the characters in the play. The ominous oracle of the beast without a heart provides the play’s central image. The heartless violence that drives the plot from civil war to assassination to civil war is all as cold as blocks and stones as well as senseless.

The violence of mass killings and terrorist attacks is frigid.  Frost says he thinks he knows enough of hate to know “that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.” The powerful understatement is all the more chilling.

There is another way the world could end in ice than cold, heartless violence. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, warns us that our modern economy creates victims through indifference. We literally do not know what we are doing. The final story in my book From Beyond to Here, “Buyer of Hearts,” explores an apocalyptic of ice and indifference. Danny Melton, a boy already bummed out because his father has left the family, suddenly begins to see ghosts floating around the school. He becomes all the more creeped out when he discovers that the people are still alive in the flesh, although “living and partly living,” in the words of T.S. Eliot, is more like Danny discovers that many of his classmates and teachers have sold their hearts for large sums of money. The selling and buying of heart gains more and more momentum as more and more people become hopelessly depressed over what is happening to their families and friends. My story, Dupuy’s warning, and Frost’s poem show us that God gives us humans the responsibility let God create new hearts within us to keep the world from ending “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Ignominious Glory—Glorious Ignominy: a Doxology

Since when is glory ignominious ? Probably since humans first became concerned about what others thought of them. Seeking glory from others is a sure way to get its opposite as  celebrities know all too well. In the New Testament the Greek word doxa is sometimes translated as “glory,” sometimes with “shame.” How can one word mean two opposite things. James Alison says that is because the word means “reputation.” What kind of reputation? Any kind of reputation.

The Harry Potter books give some interesting examples of the double-edged meaning of doxa. Harry arrives for his first year at Hogwarts as a celebrity, not for anything he had done but because he had survived Voldemort’s attack when his mother gave her life to save him. In his second year at Hogwarts, Harry is blamed by many for an epidemic of people turning into stone although he had done nothing to earn this ignominy than he had done to earn his celebrity status. In the fourth book, when Harry’s name is entered in the competition in a questionable way but through no fault of his own, there is bad feeling towards him from students of all three schools involved. (Spoiler alert!) His defeat of Voldemort has no external fireworks and he ends up with a quietly respectable position in the wizard world without celebrity status.

Bob Dylan has been praised as one of the greatest poets and songwriters of our time but he has also been the object of much ignominy with every turn in his career. He did not receive it for drugs or sex, but for using electric guitars instead of a simple acoustic guitar like a true folk singer. Then he got it for seeming to relax and live an ordinary life, as if living an ordinary life is a scandal! The worse ignominy was for turning to Christ and doing some Gospel albums.

Speaking of Christ, in his Gospel, John plays with both sides of the meaning of doxa in relation to Christ. Jesus seeks doxa from his Father while the people who put him to death or keep their sympathy for him a secret because  they seek doxa from other people. So it is that doxa inevitably falls into sacrificial violence if reputation is sought from people instead of from God. The raising of the cross is Jesus’ doxa. That is why God has such a bad reputation nowadays. Where do we look for our own reputations?

Christmas Stories

For quite a few years, I wrote a Christmas story as the Season approached and sent copies to family and friends. Once the number of stories had grown, I collected the ones I thought were particularly effective and published them in a volume called Born in the Darkest Time of Year: Stories for the Season of the Christ Child.” The Christmas season is offered as a time of hope in the midst of darkness. The hope is fragile, or at least seems so to human eyes. After all, God the Word had been born as a baby needing care from others to survive. Today, Christmas seems to be threatened at times even as Herod threatened the Christ Child. So it is that many of my stories deal with threats to Christmas through human folly, weakness, commercialism, or just plain malice. I know it is early for Christmas but some people will be thinking ahead already to their Christmas shopping. I invite you to read the opening story that I have just posted: Silent Night: How John Beaconsfield Saved Christmas.” John is a devoted chorister traumatized when all Christmas music mysteriously disappears just a few days before Christmas day.

Living with the Dead” Thoughts for Halloween

For many in North America, Halloween is a day for children to dress up, have fun, and get lots of candy from indulgent neighbors. Skeleton suits and witch’s makeup are all in fun. Not as fun is the background to Halloween that goes back to rites, such as the Celtic Samhain festival, designed to allay anxiety over blurring the distinction between the dead and the living and make sure the dead stay dead. This anxiety causes some people to try to suppress modern Halloween, although the people who sentenced witches to burning should be more horrifying than girls running about in black dresses with candy bags.

Blurring distinctions between the living and the dead raise horrifying issues. To begin with, it calls into question what life and death really are. Zombies and vampires are very popular today as creatures haunting us with this blurred distinction. The idea of being “undead” is a haunting but unattractive possibility.

Rites of and against the dead, encountered by anthropologists worldwide, express fear that the dead envy the living and, if they get a chance to break into the land of the living, they will destroy the life we cherish. That is, the dead are set up as rivals for life that has been made scarce. These anxieties project rivalry experienced with other living persons on those same persons when they are (hopefully) departed this life. Cf. “Human See, Human Want.”

The execution of Jesus followed by his Resurrection, where Jesus appeared not as a vengeful ghost but the forgiving victim, opened up a whole different paradigm of the dead. Christian martyrs who gave up their precious lives to witness to Christ were believed by the early church to be, not vengeful ghosts, but saints in Heaven actively seeking our good. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a particularly powerful vision of those living on earth and those living in Heaven supporting each other in prayer without resentment or rivalry. Cf. “Two Ways of Gathering.”

Many people like to have their spines titillated at Halloween. My stories “Ghost of Swiss Castle” and “The Dark Window” in Beyond to Here might chill the spine a little bit, but they also invite the reader to think of lending a ghost a helping hand and receiving some healing in this life as well.