Author Archives: Jesse

Making Carnival Great Again

There is a ghastly float lampooning the U.S.A. and making quite a splash online in the last couple of days. It was built for the annual Carnival of Viareggio in Tuscany, Italy (a month-long celebration dating back to 1873).

On the float itself and in the large procession in front of it, scores of cowgirls, cowboys and red-white-and-blue minutemen all cavort with a gigantic, mechanized and wide-mouthed Trump head, dancing to techno versions of songs such as “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” and Green Day’s “American Idiot.” A live-acted male Statue-Of-Liberty surfs atop a wave of Trump’s hair while pumping a rifle in the air. Another live-acted Indian maiden in a giant birdcage shakes a tomahawk while being carted out in front of the huge procession by two sheriffs who throw candy to the crowds. The float itself is reminiscence of a huge Mississippi steam boat (and covered with signs such as “casino,” “saloon,” and “bordello”). Inside the float, four cutout figures (including a Muslim, a black man with an Afro, and a Mexican in a colorful fedora) rotate in a slow circle with targets on their chests. A huge cutout cowboy on the front occasionally fires off his revolver (with a bang of strobe lights and confetti), causing one of the cutouts to flop over backwards for a moment. Rather ominously, a giant banner on the back sports the message “Make Carnival Great Again” in large letters that stretch across an image of thirteen stereotypical white Americans with nooses around each of their necks.

This float was named “Bang Bang” and was created by the Cinquini brothers.

Here is a photo gallery (and a link to a video at the bottom):

Best of John the Silent

While washing another pile of dishes this morning, I listened to every song that Joel David Weir has loaded onto his bandcamp page (12 “releases”). He has several other songs not loaded onto bandcamp.com, including the “Ballad of Old Man Trump” (which is a great tribute to the now-famous but unrecorded 1950 lyrics by Woody Guthrie about his hateful landlord Fred C. Trump who is Donald J. Trump’s father). [Note: this ballad by Joel Weir was removed from YouTube the day after I linked to it on this blog. His version was unique and heartfelt. It had a refrain that said “but Trump can’t sing that harmony” and also that “Woody Guthrie sings for you and me.”] My favorite song is probably still the simple “I am a boy just like any other.” However, I really enjoyed a few others, and here is a rundown for anyone interested.

His “Saint in the Door” collection contains several beautiful moments:

Blessed Are” is my favorite of all. It is just the beatitudes interspersed with the prayer of the thief on the cross.

“Lay Aside” comes from a critical moment in the Divine Liturgy when you sing, “Lay aside all earthly cares.” I love his lively and thorough musical Americanization of this basic movement in the Divine Liturgy.

His music can get a little monotonous (in a typical armature fashion), but there are also beautiful moments in “Lady/Son” as well as “These Streets Are Haunted.”

(I Won’t Be) Home For Christmas” is a single that is very well done. I found it wonderful for any day of the year, and it did not drag at all for me. Here are a few lines: “peace on earth is hard to find here / when hatred masks as holiness / and the ones with guns and money / make refugees and beggars of the rest.”

Worktown” also stood out to me. It basically is a simple love song for a married couple. Also, his father was dying as he wrote this song and the others in the whole collection titled “Worktown.” He says that it reflects on his father’s life as much as his own. There are two versions of it among his collections on bandcamp. I prefer the one in the “Worktown” collection because the one in “Thin Places” is more produced and instrumentalized. I prefer the raw solo version.

His collection “Thin Places” is mostly remakes of other songs with several friends joining him. It is more polished. “(Don’t Go) Down to Balhinch Alone” in this collection was very fun (first in the lineup).

Review of Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice

Anne Rice was masterful in her descriptions of everyday life in the town of Nazareth. There is a wonderful scene when the whole of Joseph’s extended family arrives back in Nazareth after traveling home from their long sojourn in Egypt. Roman soldiers are moving through the country-side putting down a Jewish revolt with hundreds of crucifixions, and the family walks into a deserted town with everyone in hiding. When four Roman soldiers ride into the empty courtyard right behind Joseph and his newly-arrived family, a tense moment quickly turns comedic as they are saved by Old Sara who comes out of the house with some gifts and a lot of wit.

Anne Rice spent many years reading about the history and world into which Jesus was born. Each reference to Jewish rebels, political developments among the Herodians, or Roman military movements is meticulously accurate in its details and chronological sequence. Her mastery of building construction, social dynamics, agricultural practices, modes of travel, and religious life all shine through and create a compelling portrayal of the life that Jesus lived during his childhood years.

People in the town of Nazareth all remember Joseph and Mary, who both grew up there. They remember the scandal surrounding Mary’s pregnancy before she left town to have her child in Bethlehem and then spend seven years in Egypt. As the family settles back into life in Nazareth, Joseph is vigilant to protect Mary and Jesus from continued rumors. One of my favorite scenes was when Joseph and one of his younger brothers are enrolling Jesus and a few of his cousins in the local synagogue school for the first time. There is a tense confrontation with the Pharisees who run the school as they challenge the linage of Jesus and as Joseph and his brother stand their ground, carefully building a strong case for his legitimacy. Humor shows up repeatedly, even in the most tense moments, and the reader develops a love for all the types of people in this small town.

Joseph was the most compelling character for me. He is depicted as an incredibly careful and quiet man who is constantly waiting for God to show him the next step to take. At the same time, when he tells the story of the prophet Jonah during family devotions on a Sabbath, everyone has tears running down their faces with laughter over the antics of the foolish prophet.

Most of the plot development focuses on the process by which Jesus learns the full story about his own birth. Joseph and Mary are committed to raising Jesus as a normal little boy and do not tell him about the virgin birth until he is old enough to understand it. Also, such terrible stories as the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem are too much to share with him as a small child. He finds out quite a lot about his own story on his own, but his parents will share only a little at a time until the crisis at Passover when Jesus stays behind at the temple in Jerusalem to talk with the scholars and scribes about God’s promises and the coming Messiah. Jesus has always been deeply devout in his own prayers and an excellent student of the scriptures. He is putting together his own story with the the story of God’s people throughout scripture, and his parents finally share everything that they know with him after this trip to Jerusalem. It is clear that his own parents do not know what all of this means, but they simply place their faith in God to show Jesus what he is to do as he continues to grown in wisdom and stature with God and man. They commit Jesus to his heavenly Father.

Although I found most of these plot details compelling, there were aspects of this coming-of-age story that felt beholding to modern psychological conceptions of humans as autonomous individuals. Almost all of what Anne Rice says about parenting was thought-provoking and felt substantive. Mary and Joseph were convincing to me as characters. However, some of the private thoughts that the child Christ wrestles with felt dramatized along lines that felt too modern. Some of this was probably just corny and sappy. As Jesus lies on the sunny, grassy hillsides of Nazareth as a little boy, I appreciated a lot of what Anne Rice imagines going through his mind and senses, but some of it also felt slightly sentimental. The worst of this was connected to a decision that Anne Rice made to have Jesus performing miracles even as a tiny child. She defends this decision in her author’s note at the end of the book by saying that she wanted to portray the fact that Jesus was fully God throughout every stage of life. I think she accomplishes this best when she tries to portray the interior prayer life of the boy Jesus. However, her use of childish miracles just feels hokey. It was too much like the accidental magic that we see with Harry Potter or Anakin Skywalker as little boys. Theologically, I think that it makes sense to think of miracles as being connected to Jesus taking up his mature vocation, starting his teaching ministry with the first miracle during the wedding at Cana.

The wedding at Cana brings me back to the main value that I see in the imaginative effort by Anne Rice. Her story contains a wonderful description of weddings in Nazareth, and it is in these kinds of passages where the reader is blessed by her strengths as an author. She does her homework thoroughly and brings us tangibly into the world in which Jesus grew up. It is a healthy spiritual exercise to image this childhood in all of its normalcy as well as its very unique burdens, and Anne Rice does a good job with at least the normalcy.

Anne Rice’s personal story is fascinating, and her personal convictions about the full divinity of Jesus do come through in her writing. She shares a whole lot about herself in the author’s note at the end of the book. This author’s note included a very cogent and well-documented case for the fact that the four gospels were written by eyewitnesses and are fully reliable as history. In her years of reading for these books, she became fully convinced that Jesus was God and that he had risen from the dead just as the gospels claim. She gives an excellent survey of scholarship about Jesus and the birth of the church, and she ends up with very traditional and conservative positions on all of it. Her criticisms of the higher critics are succinct and brilliant. She continues to believe all of this about Jesus although she has given up on institutional Christianity. In a March 11, 2016 interview with Alice Cooper (shock rock star and also a professed believer in Christ), Anne Rice reaffirmed these the deep personal convictions about Jesus that motivated her two novels about the young Jesus.

Everyone puts their faith in something or someone. Where would you say your faith lives?

…Though I’ve moved away from institutional Christianity and organized religion — and all its theological strife — my devotion to Jesus remains fierce. …The story of the Incarnation is so important to me, the story of Jesus being born amongst us, growing up amongst us, working and sweating and struggling as we do, and dying amongst us before he rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. I write about outsiders seeking redemption in one form or another and always will.

Your book Christ the Lord Out of Egypt was the basis for the film The Young Messiah. In the co-writing of this movie many references were used from the Bible. Was the Apocrypha also used as a source?

Actually very little of the apocrypha was used in the novel, only the legends regarding Jesus’ childhood in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is NOT gnostic and contains legends that influenced Christian art for centuries. Nothing gnostic was used in the book whatsoever. I researched the First Century for something like ten years, off and on, probing history, archaeology, anthropology, and the bible, of course, the bible again and again and the early historians, Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. I sought to write a biblically sound and authentic novel about Jesus as a child that would bring Him alive for people, presenting a fictive day to day life for him. I wanted people to hear his laughter, smell the dust in the streets of Nazareth, to see the world in which Jesus lived; I wanted people to have a sense of Him as a real little boy, surrounded by mysteries — the Jesus whose birth was celebrated by angels singing to shepherds, the Jesus whose birth brought Magi from the East, the Jesus whose mother had been visited by an angel…. The bible mattered infinitely more to me than the apocrypha.

For all of her historical reading, Anne Rice is very much a child of today. I can sympathize with her brokenhearted response to much about institutional Christianity. She wants to see a church that leads the way in loving outsiders, in bringing healing, light, and love into dark places. Her heart goes out to homosexuals and vampires. This is understandable, but she is ultimately trapped by her modern ideas about the autonomous individual. In the end, she cannot submit herself to the greater community of faith and all that it claims about our fragility, our limitations, and our interdependence. Certainly, some of her own hangups show up in her novel about the child Jesus. However, much else that is of value also shows up clearly and warmly invites us to image God with us.

The book ends with Jesus at the age of ten realizing that all humans are born into this world to die and that he must join humanity in death as well. The boy Jesus also has some thought that his every experience of human life is being brought into the life of God himself. Although I’d have to read it more carefully with a fine theological lens in order to speak more confidently, this ending was not bad theology. It reminded me of these lines from “The Journey Of The Magi” by T. S. Eliot:

This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

Anne Rice was raised in a very traditional Irish Catholic home before rejecting her faith for most of her adult life. While she claims to be committed primary to the Bible in her telling of this story, she is certainly interpreting the biblical story along traditional Roman Catholic lines, and she borrows freely from many extra-biblical traditions. For example, her Mary is a perpetual virgin and was dedicated to God as a young girl who was selected to help weave the massive Holy-of-Holies veil for the temple in Jerusalem. These details don’t bother me because I’ve come to be convinced of these ideas separately in recent years for various other reasons. However, these details could be distracting and off-putting to a Protestant or Evangelical reader.

There are other potential distractions to be sure, such as when one of the world’s most famous authors of vampire tales spends several sentences describing the life blood upon the altar in vivid terms. In the end, however, the story does not read dogmatically or sensationally. It is gentle and heartfelt, and I found it very easy to enjoy its goodness on a piecemeal basis. I think any reader could glean many wholesome things from the story, aware that it is simply the heart-felt imaginings of one believer. Theologically, it was clear that Anne Rice sees the incarnation as the vital heart of human history and personal experience, and this gave the story a wholesome grounding. It is a healthy thing to imagine the lives of biblical figures and to imagine ourselves within the stories of the Bible. In my experience, the Bible was not obscured or violated by this imaginative work of Anne Rice. Scripture and the story by Anne Rice stood clearly apart as separate things. Instead, her story-telling pushed me back to the Bible with fresh questions and appreciations and also back to my own life of prayerfully pursing Jesus Christ.

Dear Family, a recent video production by Nessa and Tobin:

http://youtu.be/7PtP9Oo8z7E

BTW, several very cute oldies on this same YouTube channels of ours. Love you all!

Thank you to all extended family writers on here! I just spent about an hour here with the kids. Tobin put about as well as it can be put: “I love the family. It is such a nice place to be.”

I shared some pictures of my birthday loot below. We celebrated a little more yesterday because last weekend was a work weekend at MHS. Elizabeth is sick this weekend, but we’ve still managed to have some good times together.

Love to all you crazy and wonderful folks!

Some of my birthday loot!

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Jesse and the kids have today off from school, the last of their Thanksgiving break. But I had to keep my usual schedule, so when I came home from work this morning, I decided to compromise between sleeping and spending time with them. I went to bed very slightly later than normal and set my alarm for 1:00, instead of 3:30. At 12:30 a sudden clatter outside my bedroom door awoke me, and then I heard this small, mournful Tobin voice say, “Oh! I have too many stuff, and I only have two hands!” For some reason, it swelled my heart so that I eagerly turned off my alarm and almost leaped out of bed with joy to join my family. The kids had been charged with the task of picking up this morning, so that we can get our Christmas things down from the attic. Catching Tobin saying something so earnestly and sweetly funny, when he doesn’t know anyone has overheard, is a rarity, as he is such a ham.

It was really wonderful to have been able to join Dad, Mom, Elsie, Elaina, Liesl, Luke, Isaac, Hannah and my littlest, still-on-the-inside niece for a decent bit of time over the weekend. Hannah looks so prettily pregnant now, and we got to spend time truly talking and getting to know each other, which was so meaningful to us both. Jesse and I also had a nice walk with Dad & Mom, discussing and pondering together. I also had a couple sweet snatches of time talking with just Mom. Catching up briefly with Isaac, Luke, and Liesl about jobs, upcoming Nicaragua plans, and college, etc. was so very nice to get in-person. To witness and experience everyone being themselves – Luke arranging things for a Christmas tree to fit into Mom & Dad’s living room, Liesl and Luke taking E&E to a 3-hour-long play rehearsal, Hannah making clay dollhouse food with and without the kids, Isaac and Liesl playing wildly with the kids, Luke also playing with the kids, Luke and Liesl spending time on college work and applications, Dad and Isaac building a beautiful frame to house the new monitor they bought for displaying the rotating family photos, Mom making paper crafts with N&T and showing them how to feed the rabbits, and of course many, many other things.

I love when the entire family is together, and have come to feel a want of the rest of you all when there are “just” 12 of us. 🙂 But, I also cherish times when there are these smaller family groupings, as it is far easier to be intimate. So, I am very thankful for the time that was had, and look forward to maybe seeing everyone briefly around Christmas, and more definitely and hopefully everyone in August.

Nessa and Elizabeth are at a musical version of The Hobbit this evening. I’m home with a sick Tobin. We just built this ship with all of our blocks. Tobin says it is even better in real life than the picture, and I agree. Now we are looking for a story about a ship.
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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KEVIN!

Dear Kevin Radman,

We hope that your day felt blessed & fantastic. We are thankful that you are a part of our lives!

love,
Elizabeth, Jesse, Nessa, and Tobin

Nessa finished her first book report for school this weekend. I really enjoyed working with her on that. Elizabeth is well underway with her last college course!

I am glad be home from Calvin College with the Alcuin Fellows, but my time there was very good. I was also there with my new boss and the high school science teacher from Logos. Both of them really appreciated their time as well. The talk that I gave was still very far from polished, but several folks said it had some good stuff in it. I’ll share it if it gets posted online any place. Lots of great conversations and insights as usual during the week. Some of my personal favorites were after hours. But several of the official conversations were really good too. David Smith gave an remarkable talk called “Schools as Gardens of Delight.” It mostly focused on the gardens created by Mesopotamian kings (very cool biblical stuff here) as well as the writings on education by John Amos Comenius. There was also a panel discussion that featured research fellows from Reason to Believe and Discovery Institute alongside the president of BioLogos. These three organizations have not sat down at the same table for a conversation very often! It went very well, and all three said that their interactions while talking together with the Alcuin Fellows were unique and productive in ways that they had not anticipated. Pretty exciting. These two books both got a lot of high praise from multiple folks that I respect:

1) Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga
2) Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer

So it’s back to school tomorrow and plenty to do there…. Please pray for me. Love to all!