People of the Books: Lilith by George MacDonald

My, but it’s been a minute since I did a book review.  That’s not to say I haven’t been reading (my goodness, have I been reading) but I just haven’t really transferred that here.  I’m behind on my Goodreads reviews, too, if that makes anyone feel any better.

Nope.  Makes me feel worse.  *sigh*

859561But anyway, a friend of mine loaned me his copy of George MacDonald’s Lilith and said he really wanted to know what I thought of it.  This friend—actually, I don’t think I’ve mentioned him before.  I’ve only known him about a year, but he’s become super important in my life as a friend and brother in faith.  We’ll call him Mr. Honest, since I already have an Evangelist in my friend group.  Anyway, Mr. Honest is a huge MacDonald fan and recommended this to me.

I will say this first:  ain’t no imagination like Victorian imagination.  The basic plot of this book is that the main character, Mr. Vane, inherits this dusty old English mansion (like you do) and is rattling around inside it until one day he follows a crow that may also be a human into another world through a mirror.  In the other world, Mr. Vane encounters monsters and a house of dead people and a band of children and mean giants and a city where the queen is trying to kill any kid who is born and it’s just trippy as all get-out in an apocalyptic fantasy sort of way.  Here’s a way to categorize this:  Lilith was the thing that shaped C.S. Lewis’s molding of the world(s) of Narnia, including how you get in and out.  Knowing that made this book much better for me because it was kind of like meeting your best friend’s parents and exclaiming, “Ohhhhhhthat’s where you get that from!”

It’s also beautiful because MacDonald knew what he was doing with language.  Yes, he gets lost in his own tangents and phrases sometimes; he was a stuffy Victorian academic sort, after all, and I say that as a stuffy academic myself.  (His job was actually being a Presbyterian minister, but they were pretty similar at that time.)  Put on your Philosopher’s Hat when reading this, because it for sure is demanding that you think.  For instance:

“You have, I fear, got into this region too soon, but none the less you must get to be at home in it; for home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and into. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of, but the one place, if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.”  (15)

Or also this:

“At the same time you are constantly experiencing things which you not only do not, but cannot understand. You think you understand them, but your understanding of them is only your being used to them, and therefore not surprised at them. You accept them, not because you understand them, but because you must accept them: they are there, and have unavoidable relations with you!” (152)

Being that MacDonald was a pastor, this is absolutely drenched in Christianity.  It’s in the title.  Lilith is, by the old tales, Adam’s first wife—yep, Adam as in the First Dude.  MacDonald takes on the idea that she was also the first fallen because she refused to go along with the divine plan of populating the world and so she becomes the villain under the power of the Shadow and Eve is introduced as the bestest woman evar.

And here’s a huge part of where I depart from this book:  it is SO OUTRAGEOUSLY SEXIST.  I mean, I get the idea of judging people by their own time periods; I’m a historian, after all.  But even by Victorian standards this is fierce.  There are a ton of female characters, which is super awesome because usually there aren’t really any at all.  There’s Lilith, and Lona, and Mara, and Eve, and some side characters, and actually there are more female characters than male.  Bully for MacDonald, truly, but every single one of them is judged by their maternal ability.

I’ve mentioned a few times before that I don’t have kids and have no plans to have any, so the idea that my worth as a woman is defined by my ability to give myself over to young humans is really, really hard for me to stomach.  Lilith’s sin is pride, pride in the fact that she decided she wanted to be in charge of everything, that she wanted to be God.  But it gets put into language of her sin being a denial of motherhood, and that is not at all a sin.  At.  All.

Also, there’s some wonky Lolita-esque shit that goes on with Mr. Vane and Lona, who is basically a motherly teen that watches the band of Lost Boys Little Ones who care for Mr. Vane when he gets captured by the mean giants.  Mr. Vane develops a crazy crush on her and talks about how beautiful she is, especially toward the end of the book, and not only is it iffy because she’s probably 15 tops but more because his description of her beauty is always couched in language of how maternal she is.  And that’s bullshit, because women who are crap at working with children can still be beautiful for a million other reasons.

So the final summary is this:  this is fascinating as an adventure into fantasy land, and it’s really neat to read if you’re a fan of Narnia.  I would love to see it rewritten by a modern writer because it has good bones, as a friend of mine says.  But it is just too jarringly male for me to really like on its own.  Glad to have read it, but dang did I take this a whole different direction than Mr. Honest expected—different viewpoints matter, and I’m pretty sure MacDonald never once thought about a woman’s when writing this adventure of “saving” Lilith from her poor choices.

 

Rating:  2.5/5 stars  2000px-2-5_stars-svg_

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People of the Books: Parson Place by Joan Walters Mathison

md986014574I think an associate pastor gave this to me when I was in sixth grade or something like that because he knew I wrote poetry:  it’s a collection of poems by a Methodist pastor’s wife published in 1980 with some pencil illustrations by John Crawford (whoever he is).  It got enough press that there’s a one-page forward by UMC Bishop Carl Sanders in the front (yet it doesn’t seem to have an ISBN—fail, Pioneer Press).  And it is cute in a folksy, homesy sort of way; very much about day-to-day life raising a family and keeping house and being a pastor’s wife.

But DAMN is it painful to a 21st century feminist.  Nearly every poem is about the ways Mathison curtails herself to the raising of a family and the caretaking of her husband the absent-minded pastor son of eight billion generations of pastors.  This…this is kind of what’s wrong with the Church,  which I know is super harsh, but man.  There’s a poem called “Somebody’s Knocking” about a late-night call that wakes her and her husband when a woman calls him to a domestic violence dispute:

“She begged my husband to come and help–
(Neighbor’s [sic] think a preacher makes a grand referee!).”

So the wife waits up in worry for her husband, but then MAKES A JOKE ABOUT IT when he asks why she’s still up:

“I said, ‘Just waiting–
I THOUGHT you’d bring me a souvenir!'”

No.  Domestic violence isn’t funny, and it isn’t cute, and I don’t really care what fluffy note she was trying to hit with that or how common it was when that was written; it falls flat.

I do appreciate her understanding of her role:

“Being a preacher’s wife isn’t something you are born as, it’s what you become when you marry that neat guy in a volkswagen [sic] who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  You are like everybody else until you say ‘yes’ at the alter [sic], and then people start looking at you like you’re something different.  You take on a new image, and if you don’t watch out, you just might start thinking that you’re different too.  When you go to a shower with your old running buddies you catch them introducing you as a preacher’s wife.  People immediately think that they had better watch what they say around you, and the next thing you know you’re feeling different.  The way to lick that feeling is to be yourself and let them know that you’re still a fun person despite your label.  To do so, you may catch yourself talking a lot which is really okay, but talking about something you’re not suppose [sic] to talk about is something else.”

That kid-glove treatment of pastors and their spouses is most definitely still a thing and I’m glad to see her taking apart the effect it has on her.  But then she goes off the rails:

“It usually takes the preacher to get his wife’s mouth under control.  If he doesn’t do it in those early years there’s trouble ahead.  He surely doesn’t want his image changed.”  (31)

ARG.

All poems are ABAB CDCD etc stanzas, but the rhythm is all over the place.  Sometimes there are four feet, sometimes six, sometimes it shifts within a single stanza—while I appreciate her ability to find that many rhymes, her poetry is sloppy in scansion.  And, as you can see, the editing is…subpar.

As someone who has literally never wanted to be a housewife, I can see that perhaps I’m not the best one to give a compassionate reading to this.  And as someone a few decades removed from this, I can see that we’re going to differ.  But just everything about this makes me sad for the generations of women we’ve told had to be shadows of their husbands in the Church and how we’re still doing that in so many ways, even within the denominations that speak of full involvement of women.  And the ways that the husband is expected to be so many things here, both super pious and always a leader and definitely connected to God—yeesh, no wonder the guy was absent-minded.  May my eventual spouse never expect such constant strength and direction from me; I’m human as all get-out.

And the fact that a pastor felt like he needed to give this to me as an elementary-schooler as an example of how Christian women write poetry

One and a half stars.  Good for her to write and publish a thing, but ugh.  My United Methodist self, my feminist self, my English major self, and my poet self are all quite sad we carried this around for so long.

 

 

1-5-stars

 

People of the Books: Bible Stories for Little Folks by The John C. Winston Company

Right, so the fact that this is by a company rather than a person should tip you off to the fact that it’s a little sketch to me.  This is a book that I think I got out of a retiring pastor’s collection; I’m pretty much always down for kid-friendly Bibles and Bible story collections because I’m still trying to find one that doesn’t suck.  (Actually, Interpreter and a friend of his were putting one together years ago and I’m pretty sure that got abandoned.  Frustrations.)  Because Biblical stuff aimed at kids usually does suck; there’s this idea that the Bible is way too much for kids as its own text, which, you know, is kinda true but that’s why you don’t hand it to them to read by themselves in a corner like it’s Nancy Drew or something.  We shouldn’t even do that to ourselves as adults, really.  The Bible is huge and complex:  it’s ta biblia, literally “the library” as in a collection of books rather than one book alone.  Libraries need guides to help you figure out what’s what and how they’re related.  So I agree that we shouldn’t just hand the Bible to kids and say go.

But I disagree with the way that we pare it down, not least because of what usually gets chosen for “children’s Bibles.”  We try to make the Bible cute and fluffy, which completely misses the point of the power of these Abrahamic traditions but also distorts the hell out of the actual Scripture and leaves kids unprepared for when they grow up and figure out that the Bible is dark.  Woohoo Noah’s Ark, how lovely with the two-by-two animals and the family on the boat and it’s so great, yay!  Except that Noah’s Ark was a thing because the world was awful and God said it was a great idea to kill everyone and everything else and then when Noah got off after a horrific storm that tore the world apart he got super drunk because, well, yeah, and totally embarrassed his family and God.  That’s not cuddly.  That’s not cute.  But it’s important, and profound, and human.

And I don’t go on this rant to say that the Bible is awful and we should stow it away or that we should smack kids with the book of Judges.  I go on this rant to say that we are doing such a terrible disservice to kids when we shield them so much that they don’t know how to take on the harder questions of faith—and we continue that disservice when they get to that age and then we hand them the full Bible and basically say welp, get to it.  No wonder so much of my generation is wary of the Church; we were taught that white Jesus would hug us like sheep and then we find out He flipped tables and was brown and was never actually a shepherd.

Deep breath.

511wlvy-ahl-_sx363_bo1204203200_As you can see, I have some opinions on this.  (I have a blog.  I have opinions on everything.)  And I realize Scripture is way, way more complicated than that analysis.  And I realize the Church doesn’t monolithically operate like that—I’m still here, aren’t I?  I must believe in the Church at least a little to want to be employed by it forever.  But this book is just so flat, partly because of its time:  it was printed in 1918 by a company with sketched illustrations likely yanked from some Bible encyclopedia or other (actually, the illustrations inside are one of the few redeeming factors; I really appreciated things like a drawing of Dagon and what ancient weapons looked like.  I’m not down with the white Egyptian princess and the brown Gollum handmaid on the cover, though).

The whole of this structure just rubs me raw.  First, it’s set up as “stories,” which, fine, but that breaks apart the fact that the Bible influences itself.  Yes, it’s a library, but the books are connected.  Disparate stories prevent kids from seeing the connections.  And the “stories” are weird hodgepodge things cobbled together by some mad scientist; Story Eighteen, “The Stranger at the Well,” is Matthew 14:3-5, Mark 7:17-20, Luke 3:19-20, and John 3:22-4:42.  What?  How?  What do those have to do with each other?

And “stories” allows the author(s) to insert these weird little moralistic additions without having to announce that the author is doing so, so the kids might not know that what they’re reading really isn’t the Scriptural content—or intent, for that matter.  Like this in the story of the woman at the well in John 4:  “Jesus meant that as this woman, bad though she may have been before, was now ready to hear his words” (97).

I’m sorry, what?  No.  The actual Biblical text has no aside on the woman’s morality like that.  But now the kid reading it automatically assumes Samaritan woman at well = bad.  Great.  Because the actual Bible isn’t misogynistic enough, we’re adding value judgments on female characters.

To top it all off, the Crucifixion is the last “story” and the Resurrection gets a paragraph.  Seriously.  A single paragraph about Jesus being risen—not any of the appearances, mind you, just the fact that the Marys found an empty tomb.  WHAT THE SAM HILL KIND OF CHRISTIANITY ARE YOU SELLING IF THE RESURRECTION ONLY GETS A PARAGRAPH?  It’s sort of the point of the thing, yo.  Jesus not being dead when everybody said He was dead makes the faith go ’round.

So.  As you can see, I’m not a fan.  This gets 1.5 stars because some of the illustrations are neat.  The text, however, is crap.  Better to puzzle your way through the actual Bible—but for Pete’s sake, please don’t make your kid suffer through the New King James Version.  That language is beautiful and majestic and wonderful and really, really hard for kids.  There are much easier translations out there.  Please don’t teach them from the get-go that the Bible is boring or unreachable, a text only for fancy days.  It’s a hard and complex and phenomenal collection of texts trying to connect humans and the divine, meant to be read and puzzled over and fought with.  Let’s teach kids that.

 

 

Rating:  1.5/5 stars  Image result for 1.5 5 stars

People of the Books: 10 Lies the Church Tells Women by J. Lee Grady

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I posted last, but then again I can totally believe it—I’ve gotten settled in my chaplaincy job, I have a new car, I’m navigating the complications of living with my best friend, I’ve been to my denomination’s conference.  It’s been a lot.  Thank you for sticking with me while I slammed into that.

I have a backlog of book reviews for you, so I’m going to try and get some of those out.  I have no idea what my posting schedule will look like, unfortunately; I work a 24-hour shift every other weekend and a movable 12-hour shift during the week, so my schedule is all over the place.  But I’m not gone, not yet.

366184So, this book.  It’s a bit of a tangle to review because on the one hand, it’s super fabulous that this is written by a white evangelical for white evangelicals to prove that women are *gasp* real people really called by God to really lead in the real Church. Grady also tears apart the idea that women are in some way incomplete without a man and how that is so short-sighted for God’s power among God’s people—an argument that the whole of the Church often misses as it shuffles unmarried women around because it doesn’t know what to do with them. (“No verse in the Bible says that God’s ultimate purpose for a woman is to find a mate and then reproduce. On the contrary, the Scriptures say that our lives can be made complete by only one thing: a constant, abiding relationship with Christ.” 151)

On the other hand, it’s written by a white evangelical who goes way right sometimes, actually describing modern feminism as man-hating infanticide at one point.  In no universe can I get behind something so completely out-of-touch, especially as a modern feminist who doesn’t hate men and really isn’t all that interested in infanticide.

But oh, how I can cheer for the fact that this guy figured out that God calls women on purpose and is telling other guys on their own level. That’s one of the things that is missing from a lot of liberal theological discourse: Scriptural explanation for ideological premises.  In my experience, a lot of left-leaning arguments leave the Bible behind, which means a conservative and a liberal are never really speaking the same language to talk about hugely important issues.  But Grady takes the main verses used to silence women in church and totally dismantles them within Scriptural boundaries—six million cheers for that.

Grady also dismantles the idiocy of the Proverbs 31 woman, which makes me happy.  While I appreciate the strength many women draw from that description, it’s an impossible level of perfection and energy.  It often ends up harming women in the Church because they can’t measure up and therefore must be sinful in some way.  “First of all, we need to understand that the Proverbs 31 woman was never meant to be interpreted as normative for every Christian woman…The ‘woman’ described here is actually a composite—the passage was never meant to describe one woman.  (If it were, she would indeed be an Old Testament superwoman, since she never seems to sleep or stop working!)” (160)  Grady also notes that the aspect of this women being an independent businesswoman as well as caretaker of the family is often hidden away, which is twisting the Scripture to support a bias.

The thing about this book is that it’s for a very specific audience and it is in no way a scholastic enterprise—there are maybe three main sources that he’s just repackaging.  But again, I want to stress the importance of having a voice within the evangelical community use Bible-based reasoning to advocate for women in leadership.  We listen to the people like us, and this guy’s voice will carry a hell of a lot farther than, say, mine.  Let me give you a rundown of what “lies” he’s debunking so you can see what that looks like:

  • “God created women as inferior beings, destined to serve their husbands”
  • “Women are not equipped to assume leadership roles in the church”
  • “Women must not teach or preach to men in a church setting”
  • “A woman should view her husband as the ‘priest of the home'”
  • “A man needs to ‘cover’ a woman in her ministry activities”
  • “Women who exhibit strong leadership qualities pose a serious danger to the Church”
  • “Women are more easily deceived than men”  (Grady has a great rebuttal to this on p. 137 in which he points out that pretty much every “false religion” ever has been invented by a man, so the idea that they’re less easily led astray is crap)
  • “Women can’t be fulfilled or spiritually effective without a husband and children”  (If you’re curious as to why I’m cheering for this one being included as a lie, see my post on being single in the Church)
  • “Women shouldn’t work outside the home”
  • “Women must obediently submit to their husbands in all situations”

If you’re thinking, Reader, that these sound super outdated and surely no one outside of the very thin slice of crazy evangelicals is still arguing any of this, let me tell you a story about my church conference last week.  A couple of resolutions regarding gender came up and I kid you not, I heard at least four of these brought to the floor as reasons why the Church should not commit itself to standing against gender-based violence and prejudice.  And I’m in a mainline denomination that ordains women and has for decades.

A thing I really appreciate about this book is that Grady doesn’t just debunk the lies, he offers what he calls “fixes,” or action points:

  • “We must repent and apologize for gender prejudice”
  • “Christian men must vocally defend the right of women to preach the gospel and lead the Church”
  • “The church must stop misusing the Scriptures to limit the ministry of women”
  • “Bible-believing churches must dismiss the notion that women’s ordination is a ‘liberal’ position”
  • “The Church must stop ignoring the ugly sin of domestic abuse”
  • “Christian women must respond to injustice with forgiveness—not revenge”
    (This is where he got into his feminism-bashing, fyi, but his core point isn’t far wrong)
  • “The church must reject human control—from male and female—and settle for nothing less than the Holy Spirit’s direction”
  • “We must take reconciliation and healing to women who have been offended by the Church”
  • “We need to encourage millions of women to go to the mission field in the twenty-first century”
  • “Christian women must take an active stance in this crucial hour”

I don’t agree with all of these, but I do agree with many of them and am cheering for this dude for laying them out like that.  So three stars for effort and saying what needs to be said to those who need to hear it; ideologically we’re still not on the same page, but I support his support of my ability to do ministry every day of the week.

 

Rating:  3/5 stars  3-stars

 

People of the Books: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

I truly did not mean to stay away for a month, my apologies.  Every time I think I have a handle on this semester, something else comes along—however, now that we’re in midterms (can you believe it?) I think I might be finding a rhythm.  This is a semester where I spent A LOT of time actually in class, which is unusual for graduate school.  I’m hoping this is not the case next semester; be patient with me, Reader, and stick around.

I have a great many books that have been piling up and it’s been some time since I did a review, so I present The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley.  I don’t remember where or when I got this, but I do remember picking it up solely because Huxley (of Brave New World fame) wrote it and I was fascinated to see what he’d do with devils.

It is, I discovered, a historical overview of a spate of supposed possessions in a convent in Loudun, France, in the 17th century.  Or it’s an indictment of 17th century Church corruption.  Or it’s a showcase of what happens when you tell people sexuality is bad but then make it enticing.  Or it’s religious theory.  Or it’s psychology.  Or it’s poetry.  Or it’s comparative religion, drawing on Taoism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Judaism.

Or it’s all of that.  Huxley isn’t writing a novel (which is what I originally thought this was, especially having read The Devils by John Whiting, which is a play based on these same possessions.)  It reminded me a lot of The Cheese and the Worms in terms of taking a historical event/text and extrapolating with stories and theories about the personalities and relationships involved.  And Huxley has a lot to work with:  as I mentioned, it’s about possessions at a convent in France.  A priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of bringing a whole slew of devils to torment (mostly via impure thoughts and some flopping about and such) a nunnery; he was eventually convicted and burned to death as a sorcerer.  Along the way, though, Huxley goes through how the politics of religious France allowed this, what relationships Grandier was having that would have set him up for such a claim, what the abbess of the nunnery was doing in claiming such possession, and whether or not the entire affair had any grounding.

Huxley comes down hard on the side of this whole thing being a frame-up because the nuns were sexually frustrated and Grandier slept with all the wrong gals, but fortunately he doesn’t dismiss the reality of the situation for the people involved.  He’s pretty good about not judging the actors through 20th century eyes, which not every historian can pull off.

Be warned:  there are a lot of times when Huxley will quote from some document or other in French or Latin and just move on without translating.  That can be frustrating if you don’t quite know what’s being said, but fortunately it’s never anything on which the argument turns.  And there are sparse citations in this book; there are a few footnotes, but they’re as random as the choices to translate.

Huxley goes through so many tunnels to get at his objective of totally dismantling this entire mess and tearing apart the politics of the Church and the fear of evil, especially as it manifests in sexuality.  I found myself feeling awful for pretty much all of the characters because they got caught in this machine they’d foolishly started and then couldn’t stop, ground in its gears without mercy or tempered judgment.

Let me share some quotes with you that I found particularly of note:

“A Church divided by intestine hatreds cannot systematically practise love and cannot, without manifest hypocrisy, preach it.”  (27; oh modern Church, do you hear?)

“Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings…[they] enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that ‘there’s no damned merit about it.’  That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive.”  (85-86)

“Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night…The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.”  (121, on the weird sexual tension between the possessed nuns and the exorcists brought in to cure them)

“[A]ll the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural…Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number.  In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.”  (125; oh, that doesn’t sound familiar at all here in 2016…)

“And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber…’After all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.'”  (133)

“For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of contrition—not doctrinally, not by scholastic definition, but from within, as an anguish of regret and self-condemnation…Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution…and spoke a little about the will of God.  Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused.  Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment.  Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed…And in the act of being willed they would be understood.  And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.”  (203)

“At Saintes, for the first time in ten years, Surin found himself treated with sympathy and consideration—as a sick man undergoing a spiritual ordeal, not as a kind of criminal undergoing punishment at the hands of God and therefore deserving of yet more punishment at the hands of men.  It was still all but impossible for him to leave his prison and communicate with the world; but now the world was moving in and trying to communicate with him.”  (297)

 

Rating:  3.5/5 stars  3-5-stars

People of the Books: Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Hullo, Reader!  Thanks for your patience with me in my not warning you I’d be dropping off the radar last week; I had a conference last weekend (and also confirmation at church), so I wasn’t able to get to this.  But I’m back now (albeit a day late)—happy Saturday!  Have a book review!

Quo Vadis (which has apparently been made into a movie that I’m going to have to see now) is another of those books that somehow magically made it into my library when I wasn’t paying attention.  I have no memory of buying this or being given it, but I know I’ve moved it from at least one place to another with me.  In my great I Have to Read All These Books Before I Move Them Again project (yeah, it’s not going well; Reader, I own a lot of books) I finally decided to sit down with this one.

I must say, it was slow going at first.  Sienkiewicz doesn’t pull punches in how he sets up the story; he expects you to keep up as he throws you into 60s A.D. Rome under the craziness of Nero’s rule.  But stick with it; once you get situated in the overwhelming city (fortunately, my version had a map at the back so I could follow Sienkiewicz’s characters talking about where things were), you realize this is a pretty epic story.

The basic premise is that Marcus Vinicius, a nobleman of one of the ancient families and a decorated soldier now hanging about in Rome, falls in love with a gal named Ligia.  Add in the complication—Ligia is a Christian.  This is a time when Christianity was kept on the downlow because it wasn’t outright illegal but it definitely wasn’t liked, so Ligia’s faith is already questionable but also it’s a totally foreign idea to Vinicius.  He has all the power and wealth he could want; why on earth would someone want to follow a faith that tells you to give up stuff like that?  Foolishness.

So with this very simple plot, off we go.  Of course it gets more complicated; it’s set against the backdrop of Nero, who was batshit crazy and a half.  Petronius, Vinicius’s uncle, is one of Nero’s advisors (of a sort) and through his eyes we get to see the court falling apart as Nero loses touch with reality more and more.  The main punch of the book is when Rome gets set on fire, which Sienkiewicz described brilliantly, hauntingly, and horrifyingly.  For a city that large and that flammable to catch fire would indeed have been a sight for the ages, but the amount of people it displaced for the whims of a mad emperor is just staggering.

And then Nero blames it on the Christians—cue lions, torture, gore, and all of the awful debauchery that Rome could offer.  We of the 21st century are scary good at causing pain, but we have nothing on Rome.  They were terrifying in the amounts of ways they concocted to kill people; it’s even reflected in the language.  There are over thirty different verbs for “to kill” in ancient Latin.

I do try to correct folks when they think everything from Jesus to Constantine was lions eating Christians because that isn’t true.  Wide-scale persecution was relatively rare; most of the time Christians were mistrusted and ignored or simply thrown in jail for a while.  But sometimes they became scapegoats of epic proportions, and Sienkiewicz does a fantastic job of capturing how frightening and overwhelming that would be.  And one of the best parts about this book is that it makes you look at Christianity itself all over again.

Christianity is so completely embedded in modern Western culture we simply can’t look around without seeing it.  But when it was new and weird and secretive and still being ironed out—I don’t want to romanticize that at all, but I do love reading stories that make me remember it.  This is a time where there aren’t written stories but instead you would hear the Gospel from Peter himself (yeah, Peter and Paul have bit parts in this; it’s pretty awesome because I’m always ready to have them be ornery humans with their own doubts and fears, not knowing how much they would become pillars of the Church).  This is a time when there are the earliest of hymns, when people were still using the fish (ichthus) to identify each other, when books like Revelation make sense because people really did think Jesus was coming back any day because surely the world was tearing itself apart at the seams.

Sienkiewicz definitely has an angle—Nero bad, Christians good—but this isn’t at all a religion pitch.  He returns over and over again to how hard it is to be part of this faith and how different the early version of it was compared to what we know.  And the remarkable thing is that he was writing at the turn of the 20th century yet you can tell his heart is in the history of this rather than any attempts to convert the reader (of course, he would likely have assumed all of his readers would have been Christian already anyway).  Some of the characters don’t get Christianity and end the book still not getting it and yet being fully themselves, and five million points to an author who respects his/her characters enough not to try and force them into conversion moments.  My only real problem with characterization is in how Sienkiewicz talks about Ursus, Ligia’s bodyguard; a lot of the language there is very much about how this barbarian (they’re political hostages from a northern kingdom) is so very slow and more brawn than brains.  That caught me up several times because it’s so bald, but Ursus was still a real and marvelous character who actually stands in for the reader sometimes when we’re trying to understand what’s going on.  He also becomes a paradigm of loyalty and an example to be followed.

There is violence and sex and this is not for the faint of heart, Reader, but it is well worth the time, especially in this more modern translation (mad props to W. S. Kuniczak).  It’s a great story as well as a really well-written imagining of the early days of Christianity. I’ll definitely be keeping this on hand.

 

Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills

 

People of the Books: The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“How on earth, Christiana, does this book belong on a blog about Christian spirituality?  It’s only an old nursery tale about a rabbit.  There’s no mention of God anywhere.”

True.  I think we both know that God doesn’t so much wait around to be mentioned, though.  Here’s the thing about The Velveteen Rabbit; I don’t actually understand this book.

I mean, I get the story line well enough—before Toy Story (but after Pooh and Pinocchio), there was the Velveteen Rabbit being a toy with its own worries and fears and desires to be loved and useful and fun.  But there’s this central concept in this story about being Real, and I struggle so hard with what that actually means.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a book loaned me by Interpreter, who has had me read it twice and I’ve read it a third time trying to understand what on earth is so important about it.  My first response is yay, that’s adorable, what a delightful snippet of childhood.  I remember having that one toy as a child that was not a toy but my best friend. It knew my secrets, it shared my adventures, it understood the days that I needed to not talk at all but simply be there together. Giving that toy a voice, a heart, a love for its owner and a desire to be Real—what a fantastic concept!

But I still didn’t really get what “Real” actually meant, which kind of drove me nuts because this book seems to mean a lot to people and I didn’t know why.  So I read it, and re-read it, and mulled it over, and thought about it when that one important page popped up on Facebook pages:

And I still didn’t get it.

Anyone who’s ever taught anything knows that you understand something so much better when you have to explain it to someone else.  I was out to lunch with Discretion the other day and somehow she and I got onto appearance.  I’m not beautiful by American societal standards, and in some ways neither is she.  This is a hard thing because we are taught to want to be beautiful—but that’s another conversation.  In this conversation, I was talking about how it’s okay that I’m not beautiful because my friends like her don’t actually look at me, not my physical self; they see the me who is their friend, the conglomerate of all the memories that we have together.

And I actually stopped mid-sentence because that is what it is to be Real.

I have the feeling there’s more to it than the physical appearance thing—I don’t pretend to have totally figured this book out.  But I am Real to God:  no matter whether my ears have lost their pinkness or my nose has fallen off or my fur has been rubbed to dullness, I am Real to God.  No matter whether I don’t have real hind legs and can’t actually hop, I am Real to God.  No matter whether I have totally fucked up the life I was given and the body I was given and am not at all like the human I was supposed to be, I am Real to God because God sees past all of that.  God loves me enough that I am Real.

Because I am Real to God, and because God teaches us to see other creations as Real, I am also Real to some other people.  I am Real to Discretion, and probably to Watchful, Hopeful, Magister, and Interpreter.  They don’t see the unkempt body or the mismatched sins; they see me, their friend whom they love.  And they are Real to me because I see them as the people I love with whom I have shared many adventures and long conversations and moments of holding tightly when I was afraid.

This is tough stuff.  The Skin Horse (who has been Real for a very long time and is quite wise) says, “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”  Either I am not Real all the time or the Skin Horse got that one wrong, because I very much mind being hurt.  This is perhaps why I get super stuck at the Rabbit’s conclusion when he’s been thrown away with all the other scarlet-fever-infested toys:

Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?  (33)

I’m still there, to be honest, because I am still velveteen and I want very much to stay in what I know.  My family loves me and I have to leave them, and that sucks, Reader.  That sucks a lot and I am in a lot of conversation with God about what that’s going to look like because what use was all that relationship-building if it’s to end like this?

The hope, perhaps, that it does not end like this.  The Rabbit meets a fairy and the story goes on; some day, some far off day, I will meet a Savior and the story will go on.  In the meantime will change, and there will be many other meetings in between now and then, and I may be altered by the next pieces of my life such that one of my current friends may see me and not quite recognize me but think, “That woman looks just like a friend I used to have…”

But I will never stop being Real because one you become Real, you can’t become unreal again.  God made me Real long before I had any idea what that meant because God really loved me—loves me still.  So to God, and to some of my friends, I cannot be ugly—in spirit or physicality—because they understand.

At least, I think that’s what it means.  The things we write for children are often hardest for us adults to grasp.

 

 

Rating:  4/5 stars  5ac3e-1056599-golden-four-star-rating-border-poster-art-print