Ishinomaki in May 2012

My trip to Tohoku this month was exhausting, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I can scarcely even write about it without the gray fatigue setting in. But volunteering is still important to do and to share, and as I haven’t written about the last several trips, here is a reflection on a few of them for you. Please keep Ishinomaki in your thoughts and prayers.

*****

On Jenny’s birthday in March, we headed up to Ishinomaki for what I thought would be the last time. Volunteer opportunities had been slow throughout the winter. The quietness of the city seemed more natural during the long, cold nights, and drifts of snow filled up the empty spaces. There were still one or two houses to gut every week, but those only took a day or two each. In fact, when I brought some high school students up in January, I pretty much just watched while they entertained a group of local kids. What my students did was important – Ishinomaki’s youth went through a lot of trauma and are in desperate need of upbeat company – but their rapport wasn’t something I could really contribute much to, given my age, natural reticence, and limited Japanese language skills. So I thought I’d soon be saying goodbye to Tohoku. And honestly, the prospect delighted me! After a year of visiting every other month, my work was nearly over. The leaders of Be One (our volunteer organization) had told me they were preparing to switch missions from manual labor to “kokoro care” – care of the heart. I thought I’d make the trip once more for the sake of closure, and then be done.

Instead, we arrived in March with the thaw and found the town full of a renewed sense of urgency. People who had waited out the snows in temporary housing were streaming back into their neighborhoods for the first time. They were just beginning to assess the damage and restore their properties. In some cases, landlords were finally able to confirm that their tenants were not going to return, and thus needed help hauling away the stuffs of vanished families. Suddenly everything was back to square one, and volunteers were tearing up floorboards and knocking down walls in two or three locations everyday. Be One had to delay its shift to kokoro care because there were once again so many more immediate, physical needs to be met.

So I went north in May as well, and it was more of the same. In fact the coast has barely recovered at all, though some businesses have opened and some residents are trying to get on with their lives. But the roads are still warped and buckled, large buildings are still in shambles, and makeshift garbage dumps still dominate the skyline. My cat Jeoffry once had his fur gashed open by a raccoon – and when I found him he was sitting calmly and cleaning his paws, as if he couldn’t be bothered to notice the horrible, gaping slit across his side. Ishinomaki feels like that these days. One neighbor has rebuilt the patio and planted tulips in neat rows; on either side of him families have vanished, their houses bulldozed, a few scraps of old clothes and sundries littering the bare foundations.

There are even still blocks and neighborhoods where the waterlogged doors have yet to be pried open. There are houses and apartments where things have been left exactly as they were that first week after the tsunami waters receded. The horror and tragedy of March 11th may no longer be fresh for most of us, but in such bitter places it’s been preserved, pickled. Wade into them and you will find rooms still covered in toppled bookshelves, filthy brown sand, drifts of disintegrated particle board, festers of potato bugs, sodden knit sweaters, tangled VHS tapes, shreds of wood, bits of windows smashed to teeth and claws. . . . Over a year later, we’re still finding dead fish. There’s still mud, wet mud, trapped inside refrigerators and washing machines.

I try not to dwell on these things. . . it is easy to think too much about them. I hate seeing ruined collections – of photographs, of Kobito dolls; I hate uncovering evidence that the vanished people’s lives were filled with romance, or hope. It’s hard to bear the loss, even by proxy, when the walls around you sag under weight of all those shattered families. Of course the entire point of volunteering is to lift some of that burden from the town, to bring people renewed hope, to shine a light into dark places. . . . But it can get exhausting, even when you’re only volunteering for a few days every other month – and demolition is the easy part. You can unpickle a house if you have a team, a weekend, a crowbar and a shovel. It takes much finer tools and much steadier hands to conduct kokoro care. Hearts must be coaxed, not pried. Emotional debris has to be sorted too, but then it has to be validated and kept; it can’t be sent to the landfill. That kind of work is beyond me, but it is so necessary, and there are some with Be One who can do it – and the more we keep volunteering, the sooner they will get a chance to start. So I will probably go back again, and again, despite the fact that I am getting tired. If you’re interested in helping out too, you can sign up at http://www.b-1.jp/tohoku/en/. Trips still leave from Osaka most weeks.

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Tohoku in July II

As I wrote in my previous post, the best stories of transformation and recovery aren’t about buildings, but about people. Last week I told the story of Mr. Aoki, a gentle Japanese man who has come to Christ in his old age. Today I’d like to introduce Maya Konno, an inspiring (and awe-inspiring) young woman who has lent enormous strength to the relief effort. If you’re interested in pitching in and/or volunteering as well, you can sign up at http://www.b-1.jp/tohoku/en/. Trips still leave from Osaka twice a week.

*****

Helianthus Annuus Ishinomakiae

I saw this dedication on a gift of mix CDs: “To Maya Konno—you are the vibrant sunflower of Ishinomaki.” This is absolutely right. Maya is tall and bold, bright and colorful, and complex as any sunflower should be. I was resting once at the Be One house, with my eyes closed, and she came and sat down next to me. I didn’t notice her at first – but I should have guessed she was there, as the air filled with the paradoxically warm scent of summertime kakigori (Japanese shaved ice). I woke up to catch a glimpse of her just as a half-dozen children buzzed in, nuzzling and covering her – or almost covering her, as it’s hard to hide completely that giant’s bloom, the strong and dauntless champion of the field.

(Something terrible happened to Maya’s brother. He is alive, but he witnessed the deaths of many others all around him, and could do nothing. This, anyway, is what I’ve been told: That he felt helpless, and now is haunted by it. I do not know his story exactly, but I heard another that may do – about a man who spent the night trapped in his car, up to his neck in tsunami water. Before the sun set, and after it rose again, he watched as monolithic bales of paper, floating free from the local mill, crushed the cars stalled out to his left and right. He told me he shivered for hours in the dubious water, waiting for his turn to be next. He survived, but he is haunted now; he was helpless at the time.)

Maya Konno is anything but helpless. At twenty-three years old, she is fearless, upbeat, driven, and strong. In fact I’ve heard her described as having “the strength of ten grown men.” When she first introduced herself to my wife, she said, “Hello, my name is Maya. I’m hyper!” And then she ran off to knock down some walls. She was a karate champion as a high school student, and a karate instructor until recently. I could not dream up a more amiable or terrifying person to try to block from kicking you in the head. For Maya is truly the vibrant sunflower; she focuses on her goals with the natural tenacity of a heliotrope encircling the sun.

For two – three? – four? – months now, Maya has volunteered for Be One Tohoku Aid every day, doing the hardest jobs imaginable. She shows up well-groomed at the work site in the morning, with immaculate makeup and tasteful hair. Then she steps into a pair of orange coveralls and starts tearing up the floor. She is always the first to dive into the crawlspaces underneath houses, wriggling on her elbows in the toxic muck for hours at a time. Keeping up with her is a challenge, but working with her is a joy; she screams and laughs whenever she sees a cockroach. Here’s a sample of some typical dialogue:

MAYA: (from beneath the kitchen floor) Ahhh!!! Kumo! Yucky!
VOLUNTEER 1: (standing above her) Kumoyaki? Fried spiders?
VOLUNTEER 2: Are you eating spiders again, Maya?
MAYA: (a pause.) Yes!!!

Actually, Maya couldn’t speak a word of English when she first started to volunteer. Of course she didn’t let that stop her. Be One was either the first or most active relief group in the neighborhood, so she joined up. Her city had been laid waste, but she was still kicking, and she was going to help. It didn’t matter that few of the other volunteers spoke the same language as her, or that she didn’t understand the Christian religion at all; Be One provided her a framework within which she could take action against the despair that loomed over Ishinomaki. She speaks English almost fluently now, of course. She absorbs idioms like she’s photosynthesizing them, practicing phrases while heaving bags of rubble into the bed of a truck. Climb into the passenger seat next to her: She’ll turn to you, blink, and ask, “Are you prepared to die?” before she turns the key in the ignition.

Maya brings a ton of energy to everything she does, and so Be One has relied heavily on her this summer. Officially she is just another volunteer, but in reality she is a towering leader within the group. I knew her by reputation long before I met her in person. I worried about her before I met her, too – after all, how can someone bring that much upbeat willfulness to such grueling, emotional work everyday, for months? Maya knows the people that we’re helping; she knows the fathers and daughters that were lost; she knows who lived in the empty house next door. She obviously has deep reservoirs of strength and resiliency – perhaps deeper than most. Still, they’re finite. She’s human. For most of the week that I worked alongside her, I watched her with a mixture of awe and apprehension. There was such a colossal weight upon her head. When would the sunflower begin to droop?

On the day before I left, something wonderful happened to allay these worries. I’m still concerned for Maya, but not nearly in the way I was before. It happened on a slow Saturday afternoon. We had just one small job, helping an old man load ruined furniture into a truck. He’d dragged his chairs, tables, and bookshelves out of his house and stacked them in the driveway. It must have taken him hours to get the stuff that far on his own, but the ten of us volunteers had it strapped down and headed to the dump in less than twenty minutes. Normally our group leaders offer some informal counseling to the people we serve, and we usually gather as one for a prayer before we leave. This time, however, because we’d only been there for twenty minutes, we were all prepared to depart with just few bows and a quick “sayonara.” It was Maya who stopped us as we climbed into our seats.

“Wait,” she demanded; “we should pray.” So we got out and took each other’s hands, Maya Konno boldly bringing the little old man into the circle.
“We should pray in Japanese,” I suggested, “so that he can understand.”
When no one took me up on this, Lora (one of Be One’s official staff members) turned to Maya and said, “I’ll pray in English, and you translate.”

What followed was more than just a statement of good wishes, or an affirmation of Maya’s skyrocketing language skills. When I first learned to pray. . . for me it was an almost dizzying sensation. My first prayers were shouted from a spiritual rollercoaster. It was overwhelming to have a sense that the Provident Being who created the universe would stoop to hear me, would want to know me. . . . I experienced that same wonder and exhilaration as I listened to Lora and Maya entwine their words together, joining my thoughts to theirs. And when it was over, Maya smiled and said, “That was my first time talking to God.”

*****

There’s a proverb that says the Japanese are Shinto at their birth and Buddhist at their funeral. Shintoism prevails on happy occasions – births, weddings, New Year’s – when everyone goes to the shrine to ring bells and clap their hands. Buddhism’s main business is the somber sutras that prepare souls for whatever awaits them after death. But as I watch the recovery effort in Ishinomaki, I’ve come to wonder: What about the times on the other side of those? What about when everyone else dies, and you are left alone? What about when new life arises in the face of total devastation? What hope, what God can the Japanese people turn to then? Maya Konno knows the answer – and so does Mr. Aoki. Please join me in continuing to pray for them; and with them, please continue to pray for Tohoku and Japan.

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Tohoku in July

The first time I went to Tohoku, just under a month after the tsunami, the roads had been cleared, but there was still debris piled high at every corner. Most people were still in shock, and it was easy to read that on their faces. If they were living in houses at all, they seldom had water or electricity, and the mud was still wet on the remaining walls. Things have changed a lot in the last five months. You can still see long lines for food at lunchtime, but they’re now wound around the aisles of functioning convenience stores. The debris has been pushed out of neighborhoods into huge, mountainous garbage dumps along the sea. Everyone in the coastal area is busy with restoration work, and some houses are miraculously livable once more. Kids play in relatively clean playgrounds, even; and they shout “I love you!” in English as strangers walk by – a testament to the legacy of foreign aid workers in northern Japan.

The most impressive stories of transformation and recovery aren’t about houses or buildings, of course, but about people. So I’d like to tell a story or two about people I met in Ishinomaki in July – about the Japanese people who call the city home. These people made a huge impression on me, and they are wonderful; but they are just a few out of tens of thousands that survived the tsunami and are now working as hard as they can to put things right. There are lots of other stories to hear – if you want to go and listen to some yourself, and if you don’t mind serving with a Christian organization, then sign up to volunteer right now at http://www.b-1.jp/tohoku/en/. Trips leave from Osaka twice every week.

*****

Mr. Aoki

Aoki-san is an old man, somewhere between 70 and 80. He lost his dentures in the tsunami, so he always wears a face mask now. If you watch his eyes carefully, you can tell when he breaks into a toothless smile.

He lives in an apartment complex near the sea – you can hear the waves from there, at night when it’s quiet. The building doubtless took in a lot of water, as did everything else in the neighborhood, but Japanese schools and apartments (“mansions”) are built like concrete bunkers and generally withstood both the 9.0 earthquake and the massive ocean swell. Mr. Aoki is a leader of sorts in his community; some volunteers who know him better refer to him as the “building manager,” but I think that’s more of a social than professional title.

A few days after the waters receded, the parking lot beside Mr. Aoki’s building was chosen as a place to hold the bodies of the dead. Whenever the Japanese Self-Defense Forces uncovered corpses of tsunami victims in the area, they brought them to the lot and laid them in rows, face up so that friends and family might identify them. Ishinomaki was hit hard; it didn’t take long for the parking lot to fill.

It took longer to identify people, though. There was mud, and trash, and seaweed everywhere. It covered everything – cars, beds, windows – including the eyes and mouths of the dead. Many of the men, women, and children were so horribly disfigured by mud that they were impossible to recognize. Mr. Aoki took a rag, and a bucket of water, and walked from body to body, to wash their faces.

I can’t imagine staring into the face of death so many times. It had a profound effect on Mr. Aoki, understandably. By his own account he suffered months of utter spiritual and emotional darkness afterward. The shadows only began to lift when he heard music and laughter coming from the playground near his apartment complex. A group of volunteers (some of whom I worked with later) had spent a week cleaning the park; it was now officially usable once more, and to celebrate they were throwing a barbeque for the neighborhood. Mr. Aoki defied the darkness again; he left his room and went out to join them. He shared his story with the Be One Tohoku Aid volunteers that May afternoon, and they’ve worked closely together ever since.

When I first met Mr. Aoki in July on a Sunday, he had a new story to share. He came to the house where we were holding church service to tell us about it, and he brought a couple friends – two other older gentlemen from his building. He’d had a dream earlier in the week, he said, in which he’d seen the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s face was shining upon him, smiling, and radiating love. He said he now understood what it meant that Jesus had brought Be One to Ishinomaki. You can imagine the kind of stir this caused among us, volunteers with a Christian aid organization. One woman cried and asked Mr. Aoki to tell her what her God looked like. Most of us, after all, can’t claim to have seen Jesus face-to-face! My wife Jenny astutely opened a Bible and pulled out Acts 2:17 — “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” One of Mr. Aoki’s elderly companions folded down the page corner in his own new Japanese Bible.

Aoki-san is changed now; every story he tells has a positive ending. Even that his kid brother was sickened by the tsunami water turns out well: while this younger Mr. Aoki was at the hospital, his doctors discovered that he had cancer, and thus caught it when it was still treatable. A slight eccentricity of Mr. Aoki’s is that he’s always giving people little gifts. One particularly moved me: A hand-carved, wooden owl. I had pulled an almost identical artifact out of the rubble earlier in the week and indiscriminately sent it to the dump, desperately keeping myself from imagining its history. I never thought I would see it again. But here was Mr. Aoki – redeeming, as it were, this little wooden owl from the trash heaps and the fire. Not everything in Ishinomaki is lost, not even the things you expect to be.

Something incredible happened to Mr. Aoki, something simple to say but impossible to describe. It renewed his spirit at a late age and reached him even in the depths of his suffering. He stared into the face of death over and over again until – and doubtless long after – it broke his heart. Darkness did cover him for a time, but when it faded, in his dreams he came to see the face of Life, shining. My prayer is that all those who witnessed the Northeastern Japan disasters will one day have a similar story to share, that all may come to know and be comforted by the same Love that still smiles down upon the gentle Mr. Aoki.

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Mud

At the beginning of the month, I spent three days volunteering in the Tohoku area — the region of Japan that was devastated by the tsunami.  What follows is a brief vignette about the experience.  I wrote it for my advanced English students at Fukiai High School.  I like it; it’s very “true-to-life,” so I thought I would share.  You can donate to CRASH Japan here: http://www.crashjapan.com/

*****

Mud

“What’s next?” I asked Jim, as he pulled the car to a stop alongside a dusty country road.  We were just outside a village near the Kitakamigawa.  The tsunami water here had only reached to about chest height, and though they had taken nearly five days to dry, many of the buildings were still strong.  So we’d been shoveling mud all morning, tearing up floors to get to it and knocking out walls to get rid of it, breaking houses to pieces in order to save them.

“Let’s have some lunch,” Jim said.  “Here, try one of these.  Army food,” he laughed, handing me a small brown bag.  “MRE: Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.”  I looked down at it.  “Meals Ready to Eat,” the label read.  “United States Armed Forces.  Beef Soup.”  Cold soup from a bag?  Tempting, but. . . I unzipped my backpack and fished out an onigiri instead.

We opened the doors and ate in silence, attempting to enjoy the warm spring sun.  All along the road, piles of tsunami debris dried out in the open air.  Detritus covered the landscape as far as the eye could see.  Tangles of sticks, strips of torn clothing, bits of plastic and broken buildings. . . I didn’t know how to feel about it all.  Should I be overcome with pity and compassion?  Should it make me cry?  There were toys and artifacts of childhood mixed in here and there – a pink winter coat, a muddy manga, a statue of Anpanman, &c.  There were dead things, too – loads of fish, squids and seaweed, even an entire cow lay dead a little ways up the road.  If I forced myself to think about it for long enough, the waste along the road might bring me to tears.

Or it could make me angry.  The debris was filthy, and it had ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of people up and down the Tohoku coast.  Slicks of mud and saltwater spread out across the farmland, turning it all into a lifeless swamp.  Broken cars leaked oil into rice fields; boats pressed up against houses and refused to shove off again.  It would take years to clear out the poisoned mud and toxic trash that had infected these villages, choking their roads and suffocating their fields.  Should I hate the debris left by the tsunami?  Would that be the right way to feel about it?

I jumped down out of the car into the dirty, dusty street, and felt nothing.  Or rather, my emotions were too confused to sift through and sort out.  There was some anger in there – like a bright dye, burning red – and yet there was sadness, too, in tints of bluish gray.  There was also a shadow of fear, and the peaceful golden glow of the warm spring sun.  All of these emotions mixed together inside me like paints in water, until they formed a colorless mud.  I felt too much; I couldn’t feel anything.  My heart was turned to mud; it mirrored perfectly the mud that was everywhere outside.  I wanted to kick something, but I didn’t want to kick anything I could see, because any small piece of debris might have been precious to someone who had died.

“I’m finished.  Are you ready?” Jim called to me from the car.

Looking down at the empty plastic wrapper in my hand, I realized I hadn’t tasted the onigiri at all.  I had no memory of eating it.  The only flavor in my mouth was little more than wet dust.  There was a slight scent of seaweed, too, but that was everywhere here.  I wondered how many years it would take to get this place clean, how many years before a person could taste or feel anything besides what was left behind by the tsunami.  “Yes,” I said.  “Let’s go scoop up some more mud.”

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Contradictions and the Perfect Word (Myths of Language, III)

A Christian friend of mine told me recently that this blog was fun to read, but that he “disagreed with it completely” – somewhat worrisome considering my goal is a legitimate Christian literary theory.  Before going on to the grand finale of the “Myths of Language” series, therefore, I’d like to touch on the theological underpinnings of the story that I wove in my last entry.  Unfortunately, I have absolutely no background in theology.  But this a blog, right?  Anyone can be an expert on the internet!  And I’ve been to church a few times. . . so here we go!

[By the way, I’ve been laboring over this blog for several weeks now, distracted by a lot of sundry occurrences, some minor and some literally earth-shaking.  Having finally finished, I’ve just read over it again. . . and I have to disclose that I was tempted not to post it; I considered just tacking up chapter 13 of the Biographia Literaria instead.  Still, do I think you should read it; it’s at least worth trying to get through!  Right, right. . . here we go!]

Total Depravity

Basically, I intended my last blog on the “Christian Myth of Language” to be a linguistic version of the doctrine of total depravity.  Christians (particularly Protestants) believe that God’s will is the ultimate good, and that humans are helplessly out of alignment with it.  Ever since the Fall, we’ve been totally depraved – that is, ultimately unable to discern the best choices to make or the best things to do.  We can do good things, within our own imperfect contexts; but we have lost the supreme context of God, and when it is superimposed upon us, we will discover treacherous contradictions and inadequacies in even our noblest intentions.

Augustine of Hippo first articulated the doctrine of total depravity.  He based it on his reading of the Bible, of course, but the doctrine also bears traces of an earlier aesthetic work, De Pulcro et Apto, which Augustine wrote during his pre-Christian “carnal days.”  This earlier theory stated that beauty is relative to context, that a person or object in the right situation is pleasing to behold, but that the wrong setting can ruin even the fairest of appearances.  A chipmunk in the park is charming, for example, but a chipmunk on your bed is a menace.  A cobweb in the corner is filthy; a spider web in the sunlight is resplendent.  Lovely colors still can clash.  Place and situation are therefore key when it comes to beauty.  It’s easy to see how this idea contributed to the doctrine of total depravity – true goodness (or ultimate moral beauty) comes from closeness to God, and the Fall changed us in such a way that it’s no longer appropriate for us to be in that context.  Because of our depravity, our most ethically or aesthetically apt place in the order of things is now a great distance from God – in the compost bin of creation, say, where our dissolution can be useful and our smell will not offend.  Thus total depravity had an aesthetic element to it, even from the beginning.

The Universal Sentence

In the same book where Augustine outlines this aesthetic theory – book four of The Confessions – he also makes a curious analogy between creation and language.  All things, he says, are transitory; all come to be and then pass away.  The universe is like a spoken sentence, and every individual thing that exists is like a word or syllable in that sentence.  In order to have meaning, and to keep the meaning of the whole construct moving forward, like spoken words we must come to be and then pass away.  For “meaning is not complete unless one word passes away, when it has sounded its part, so that the next may follow after it.”  If one word lasts forever, if something within creation achieves eternity – eats from the tree of life, or constructs a tower that stretches from earth to heaven – then meaning becomes fixed and constricted, and fails, and all the rest of the sentence piles up in a wreck behind it.  Considered in this sense, it’s a good thing we lack the power to pin down ultimate meaning.  That’s not to say we should never have access to God’s will, or goodness, or meaningfulness – we just shouldn’t have control over it.  It’s possible to experience meaning without possessing it.  That nearly brings us back to where we left off in the last blog, with the concept of grace.

Grace

For Christians, grace is a partial answer to the problem of total depravity – and to the agony of Babel.  Grace is the interference of God’s will in our hapless, confused lives.  It’s a beam of divine virtue that transforms our circumstances, making something good out of a lost cause.  It can also inspire, urging us to actions that we otherwise wouldn’t take.  Given our totally depraved nature, there is no reason we should experience peace, or happiness, or even exist at all. That we do so is not because of our own actions, but because of the free gift of God’s grace.

Grace also functions in literature.  Through (and in spite of) writing we occasionally find strange glimpses, strange experiences and ecstasies, uplifting revelations that stem from a sort of spiritual alignment between the reader, the text, and the meaning behind it.  These experiences may not even be reproducible the next day.  (Basho [sic]: “Even if you only write one haiku in your life. . . it’s enough.”)  And literature can be inspired; or at least it can feel that way to its readers and authors.  From a Christian perspective, both of these are potential traces of God’s grace entering into the written word and the reading experience.  The term “graceful,” which we most commonly use now with reference to aesthetics, is etymologically linked to the Christian concept of grace.  Even in its current, colloquial application, it still bears an edge of spiritual importance.  A graceful form in life or art, or a graceful turn of phrase is by definition one that lends the impression of something greater, something that glints of hope and eternity.

Back to Babel

The fact that we respond so favorably to grace (and gracefulness) indicates that despite depravity, we still long for God’s goodness and delight in experiencing it.  This longing for God, this response to pure beauty, this hunger and thirst for righteousness, is a shadowy synonym of the highest human motive.  It is, finally, where we left off with the Christian Myth of Language.  When we last saw them, the descendants of Babel were spending eons struggling with the agony of a language that could never tell the exact truth.  Their words couldn’t describe the world as it actually is, but only approximate it.  Because of the curse of Babel, they could never really understand one another; they could neither fully know nor make themselves known.  While at first humanity may have wanted these things only for the sake of power, in order to “make a name” and raise themselves up before heaven, over the centuries that desire was refined – sublimated, even – through frustration, until it became something purer and humbler.  The will to dominate through language was transfigured into the longing to put things the right way.

Myths of Language, part III

The quest to finally describe experience once and for all, to express one’s self fully, to put things the right way. . . all of this is synecdochically the quest for the perfect Word.  This is the motive behind all writing and reading.  Authors struggle to find it, hunched over their keyboards, trying one word and then deleting it, trying another.  Book lovers pour through the pages, delighting in the Word’s approximations, almost seeing the world described as it actually is – or better, as it might possibly be.  Writers and readers hunger and thirst for the perfect Word.  And the perfect Word is righteousness, and justice, and mercy, and peace – or at least it carries these concepts in its wings.  Better that it redefine and reorient them, however, than that it conform to any set of fixed definitions.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ is this perfect Word.  Not the name “Jesus” itself – most of us know “Jesus” is just a Hellenism for the Hebrew Yeshua (or Joshua) – but we believe that Jesus the man is the ultimate spiritual sign, born into human form.  He is not any specific human word, because perfection is beyond human language.  Instead he is God’s Word, the very Word that created the universe.  He is the Word spoken by God that surrounds and sustains the universe, and that breaks into it from the outside.  He is the message that signifies God’s kingdom, the revelation of “good news” that God wants us to hear.  Still, it’s hard to understand him as a word at all, because the divine language (and divine reality) which he represents in microcosm is thoroughly inaccessible to us in our thoroughly confused and depraved state.  Even when God speaks directly to us, we cannot hear him without His assistance.  Essentially, the perfect Word is a word we cannot use.  Instead, it uses us, if we are open to it.  It re-centers our own language in a way that allows our own words to act as resonance chambers for meaning.  Our writings do not possess meaning in themselves, but they can channel it insofar as they are echoes or explorations of the perfect Word.

The “Christian Myth of Language” claims that the life, works, and person of Jesus Christ somehow embody the goal of all literary and poetic pursuit.  It is through him and only him – the Word that was God, and was with God in the beginning (John 1:1) – that the curse of Babel can finally be overcome, and true meaning can be obtained – as in Acts 2 the disciples receive the ultimate linguistic gift, when tongues of fire descend on them and render their speech universally understood.  It was Jesus, the Word of God, who was lost to us in the shadows beneath Babel; and Jesus, the Word of God, for whom we’ve been longing ever since.  The incarnation of Jesus is the perfect expression of the divine language within the world, and literature is at its highest when it compliments or echoes him.  Therefore, Christian critics then should have at least three modes of appreciation open to them:

  • The extent to which a text strives toward finding and expressing the perfect word.  The way it sidles up to or approximates the truth – its “slant,” if you will, or glamour.
  • The extent to which a text appears to be inspired – what we’ll call for now the “incarnational” or graceful quality of a text.
  • The extent to which God’s grace transforms the reading experience.

Naturally, all three of these are highly subjective.  The Christian Myth of Language necessarily empowers the critic to read a text for something other than an objective, universal interpretation.  Jesus invites us to an absolute relationship with him, one that transforms and transcends any claims of propriety or authority within the world, at least over our own experience, even that of an author to his or her text.

Additionally, Christian critics can assume that all western literature is specifically confronted and challenged by the Biblical claim that Jesus Christ is the perfect Word.  All writers must accept it or reject it, and/or explore its implications.  Christian critics can therefore ask these questions:

  • How does an author or a text respond to ultimate invitation back into grace, embodied in Jesus Christ?
  • Does the given text amplify the continuing reverberations of God’s Word within the world today?  Was it intended to be a deliberate echo, or does it incidentally allow echoes and resonances to flow through it?
  • Is the text an attempt to hold God’s Word in apposition to something else, either didactically or for the sake of curiosity, or for honest contrast and comparison?
  • What tests or questions does a text pose toward the Word of God?  Note that Christian criticism does not need to answer these questions; it just needs to underscore and affirm them.

One last point about Deconstruction and the Word:  Jesus himself was well aware of the essential instability of human language.  He spoke in paradoxes all the time; in fact he often appears to deconstruct himself.  “So the last shall be first,” he says, “and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16).  How can that be?  How can that mean anything?  Yet with grace, experience will prove that it does.  My favorite example is when, while translating a Hebrew prophecy, Jesus uses a word which in Greek means both cornerstone – something akin to the foundation of a building – and capstone – something akin to a rafter.  Which one does he mean?  He confuses the point further by stating: “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed” (Matt. 21:44).  Clearly language stumbles over itself here.  How can the same stone be at once looming overhead and protruding under our feet?  However, rather than demonstrating the futility of language to describe ultimate reality, Jesus uses language to insist on the immediacy of that reality, despite our confusion: There is something behind his words that demands attention; something transcendental, indeed, yet as real and significant as the rock Dr. Johnson kicked with his boot.

“I am the Alpha and Omega,” Jesus said, “The beginning and the end.”  This is the difference between Deconstruction and what Jesus does with language: What the former holds up as a contradiction, Jesus turns into a reconciliation.  Therefore the Christian critic must also keep his or her eye out for binary oppositions within a text.  But we should do so with the expectation that they can be brought together and reconciled – that, as Coleridge put it, the product of opposition is ultimately a “tertium aliquid. . . no other than an inter-penetration of the counteracting powers, partaking of both.”  Contradiction isn’t an end; it merely produces tension, which can be in itself productive.  And when we close a book with satisfaction, reflecting on the unity of the beginning and the end, it is the perfect Word we’re pondering, the silent whisper that comes to us from the kingdom of God.

*****

That’s the last of the “Myths of Language” series; tune in next week as this blog becomes a review of books!  Next week, that is, or whenever I get around to it.  Thanks for reading!

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The Agony of Babel (Myths of Language, Part II)

Last week I paused this blog after suggesting that although Deconstructionism is depressing, it nevertheless dovetails nicely with the “Christian Myth of Language.”  How could I, as a Christian, say such a thing?  Am I some sort of post-modern Judas, kissing the Christ and then selling him out for a few nods and snaps from my hepcat friends in the French Theory Café?  Christians and Deconstructionist readers alike, please withhold your judgment until we get to the bottom of this.  Now, let’s take a look. . . .

And let’s start by combing through the ruins of the Tower of Babel.  In the strata beneath Babel, according to the Christian myth of language, words had enormous power.  We all know, but nevertheless it bears repeating, that God created the universe by speaking it into being.  “Let there be light!” and there was light.  God then gave language to Adam, who used it to name all the animals on Earth.  (The refreshing Christian memoirist Don Miller points out that this must have taken quite awhile.)  Using the language God had taught him, Adam gave them their true names, their perfect names.  At this point there was a one-to-one correspondence between the symbol – the word – and the meaning it symbolized, whether that be material, intellectual, or spiritual.  This was the time when Emerson’s formula was literal and true: Words were straightforward signs of natural facts, which were in turn signs of spiritual facts.  Or, as the apostle John put it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”

But Babel, alas!  For reasons known best by Him, God made a ruin of human language there.  At the outset, so the story goes, all humanity spoke a common language.  They said to each other, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. . . .  Let us build ourselves a city, a tower with its top in the heavens,” and with that, they could do it!  No sooner were the words spoken than their potential was real; the men and women of Babel had the capacity to use language to get to real meaning – in fact to get to heaven.  Once Babel was broken, this potential was lost.  God confused the languages of the nations because he wanted to stop them from getting to heaven (why he wanted to prevent them from getting there is someone else’s blog to write).  The agony of Babel was therefore more than just an inability to communicate, although that inability was – and is – a part of it.  But beyond that, the true price of Babel was the interruption of the divine language on Earth.  The names that Adam had given the animals, the instructions that could have built a tower to heaven, and possibly even the words that had created the universe itself – all of that was lost.  The Word that was both with us and God detached from our end and slipped off the tip of the human tongue.  Words cannot have ultimate meaning, after Babel; they are no longer centered on any truth; they don’t correspond to reality the way we think they ought to.  In vain we try to find universal meaning in written and spoken language; in vain we try to make ourselves understood.  But all is vanity, and a chasing after the wind.

So far we are two-thirds of the way into the Christian myth of language.  Consider how much it agrees with – and even anticipates – Deconstructionism.  Both assert that any attempt by humans to use language to construct or discover ultimate meaning is bound to fail, and both emphasize the arbitrary diversity of the languages humans use.  Neither one, I feel I should add, believes that relinquishing linguistic diversity would be a good thing.  Deconstruction stresses that one language is as worthwhile (or arbitrary) as another; the story of Babel suggests that the original, meaningful one has been lost for good.  Even if it were possible to recover it, God would not be pleased if we tried, and would likely frustrate any attempts to do so.  Granted, the myths of the two theories do disagree about how we got here.  The Christian myth says that there once was meaning, but it was lost; the Deconstructionist myth says that though European philosophers invented the concept of truth, there never was any to begin with.  Both myths, however, give a grim warning about trusting too much in the fixedness of language, or the towers of vain wisdom and false philosophy that are inevitably built from it.  Perhaps words were once bricks that could be raised and ascended to heaven.  Regardless, they can’t be used that way anymore.

That is the first two-thirds of the Christian myth of language.  It draws attention to the same sort of details within a text that Deconstruction does.  Reading through either lens, we should expect to find evidence in a text of contradictory value systems and empty assertions of meaning.  We should expect our own readings to be limited by the language used in our interpretive communities; and we should acknowledge that, because of the limits of language, neither our individual nor communal interpretations are likely to be the “right” ones in any ultimate sense.  Of course, however, the Christian myth of language does not end there, with the agony of Babel.  It gets much more upbeat in the final third!  Even inchoate in the tower story itself, there’s the implicit understanding that humanity longs for meaning, or heaven, or God, and that language is somehow the answer to that desire.  Deconstruction cynically credits the desire for meaning to a covert desire for power – and hey! if that was the motivation behind Babel, perhaps that’s why God put the kibosh on it.  But this is the beginning of the rest of the story I’m telling you: Over the centuries – millennia – in the aftermath of Babel, our agony and frustration at the inadequacy language has been refined, beyond sublimation.  We have extensively reflected upon ourselves.  Many of us now just want to know God, regardless of what the public consequences of that knowledge will be.  We read voraciously, and write obsessively, searching always for that lost, perfect Word.  We’re willing to submit to it, to cast our crowns before it and take nothing for ourselves, if only the Word would come home.  That’s where the final third of the Christian myth of language picks up.  It is undeniably “logocentric,” and it diverges from Deconstructionism – but still, not entirely.

And that will be the subject of next week’s blog!

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Myths. . . Of. . . Language!!! (Part I)

I promised a friend last week that I’d soon get to unveiling what I called (somewhat grandiosely) “The Christian Myth of Language.” Most literary theories have a mythic element to them. . . a brief story or description that answers etiological questions about language and/or literature. These brief stories may serve as a starting point in the development of a theory, but not all users of a theory are required to believe them. So, for example, the Freudian myth describes language as a kind of mental pacifier the ego attempts to cram into the id’s yowling yaw. You don’t have to believe this in order to understand and experiment with its implications in a text.

Hence the term “myth”: The story which I’ll tell in Part II stands in the same relation to true, living Christianity that written myth stood in relation to the actual pagan beliefs of the Romans or Greeks. It’s not entirely untrue of the religion, but you won’t get a complete sense of what the religion is just by reading it. It’s been distilled for a particular rhetorical purpose.

Before I begin with the “Christian Myth of Language,” though, I’d like to provide some more brief examples of the myths that back other critical theories, to help adjust expectations and for the sake of context.  Hence this blog is part I; next week I will publish the second, more exciting bit.  (This week’s entry is fairly dry; actually.  If you’re not that interested in general course literary criticism, feel free to pass it by.  But come back next week!)  What follows here are four brief summaries, done on a whim. . . “mythic” versions of four of the most popular literary theories in school.  I make some huge generalizations, and I leave a lot unexplained; so if you want to ask any questions, or make any corrections. . . go for it!  I’ve also written a paragraph or so beneath each suggesting a positive way to incorporate the myths into one’s own reading practices.  Without further ado. . . .

Jungian / Archetypal Criticism. According to the Jungian myth, all of our minds connect in sleep within a pool of powerful, reoccurring patterns and figures. Storytelling is a means of manifesting these figures from our dreams in waking life, and those who are most gifted with language are those who can fish the lowest underlying patterns up to the surface. Jungian critics love to study mythology and religion proper, because they see religious myths as some of the purest versions of their archetypes, their name for these unconscious patterns.

Despite some fringe anxiety, Jungian criticism is not on entirely bad terms with Christianity. C.S. Lewis, for example, gave a nod to the archetype when he suggested that similarities between the Gospel and Norse mythology are evidence of God-given “good dreams,” intended to prepare pagans for the truth. The popular Christian author John Eldredge is a complete Jungian; his work makes an appeal for the Bible by describing it as the ultimate hero story, using archetypes to compare it to works like Braveheart and The Lord of the Rings. Eldredge doesn’t acknowledge his debt, which is unfortunate; but he does show that it’s possible to use Jungian theory constructively, even if you don’t believe everything in its myth of origins.

Feminist Criticism. Like the archetype hunters, Feminists also acknowledge the existence of powerful, reoccurring patterns in literature and religion; unlike Jungians, however, they’re not impressed. The Feminist myth of origins describes a process of linguistic stratification. Once upon a time, patriarchal proto-societies wrote stories and codes based on arbitrary inequalities they enforced between the sexes. Over time, those stories became the accepted background wisdom of large portions of the world, informing and changing the way language was used to talk about gender, thus further reinforcing patriarchy. More stories were then written, and more unexamined prejudice was built into language. After several millennia of this process, it now becomes hard to speak, read, or write without perpetuating false and unfair gender categories. Feminist critics seek to expose the way language and literature do this.

There are lots of different ways you can go, after you’ve done a feminist critique; there are lots of ways to reconstruct gender – which is why there are lots of different kinds of feminists. Laura Bush has publicly declared herself a feminist, as has Larry Flynt. Both the founders of Ms. and Cosmopolitan magazine consider themselves to be sincere, ethical feminists. All of these people have wildly divergent ideas as to what femininity should be, but the valid insight that unites them is that gender is a social construct, distinct from biological sex. The feminist myth of language describes a process by which the arts of writing and reading may have created these false, non-biological ideas of femininity and masculinity. Even if you don’t entirely accept the myth, keep it in mind and you will discover untruths and half-truths about gender buried in whatever you read.

Marxist Criticism. The Marxist myth states that all literature springs from a desire either to justify and preserve the economic stratifications of the day, or else to protest and subvert them. Authors may not be consciously aware that this is what they are doing, but the social forces that position the author to write, and the impact that his or her writing will have, are best described in terms of economics. Really good literature, literature that endures outside a few decades or even a few centuries, is literature that reveals the plight of the working classes and envisions a better future. However, no text is entirely free from the biases of the economic system in which it was created. Finding them and revealing what they are is what the Marxist critic sets out to do.

Few words raise the hackles of (particularly American) Christians like the name Karl Marx – and with good reason. Marx was not a fan of religion. His ideas were used to rationalize some of the greatest horrors of the 20th century. Yet it would be foolish – it is foolish – for Christians to hold our hands over our ears and try to shout louder than everything that he said. Marxist literary theory sets out to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” particularly the poorer, working classes (Proverbs 31:8). Though we may have different ideas about the origin and purpose of writing (to say nothing of the ideal human society), the Marxist myth of literature can provide a noteworthy example of advocacy through reading.

Deconstruction. And now we come to the hippest, edgiest kid in Literary Theory 101. The deconstructionist myth of language says a long time ago, a bunch of old, white, male writers brashly asserted that a word and a text could have a single, correct meaning. They bolstered this claim by privileging some words over other words. In fact, however, all texts and words can have any number of meanings – and the discovery of one single, correct one is impossible. If you take away the arbitrary privileging of one word over another – say, white over black – then the claims of one central “meaning” will fall and make room for a great diversity. Deconstructionists read for paired concepts (e.g. truth / falsehood, presence / absence) in which one word is privileged over another, and then show how, by collapsing the opposition between the two, they can make all sorts of other interpretations possible.

Deconstruction is bizarre; it’s hard to contradict, and clever college students may find it empowering if they can master its schtick. . . but to many people, it’s just deeply discouraging. Deconstruction has it out for Western culture, for sure; yet I don’t think that’s why people don’t like it. Rather, I think it’s because we all want meaning in our lives. Most of us feel we have meaning, from time to time; and if we don’t feel like we have it now, we hope that we’ll have it again in the future. We want to find meaning in the texts we read, and we want there to be meaning behind the things we say. Yet there is a way in which the Christian myth of language confirms the gloomiest notions of deconstruction. . . but that will have to wait for next week.

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Encouraging Christians to Read

And teaching normal people to read like Christians

“What would Christian criticism look like?” I used to ask my private school seniors, in the last weeks before they graduated. “We’ve done Feminist theory; we’ve done Marxism and Psychoanalysis. . . . Now, what sort of questions would a Christian literary theory ask of a text?”

We’d brainstorm (what a great word!) awhile together, and inevitably end up with a list similar to this:

 In what light are Biblical virtues presented in this text? (Sacrificial love, faith, hope, forgiveness, perseverance, humility, sympathy, &c.)
 What does the text consider to be the greatest virtue? What are the reasons for this value system?
 What does the text consider to be the greatest sin? What consequences does it imagine for this?
 What is the ultimate source of conflict within the text?
 Where do the characters look for God (or for fulfillment)?
 Can the reader find God anywhere in the text beyond where the characters look?
 How does the text position itself in relation to truth?
&c.

I love getting high school students to ask these questions! The implied extension of each is “and how does that compare to the Gospel?” Such comparisons can make for some insightful final papers. What they don’t do, however – what I’ve never required my students to do – is provide a clear, theoretical description of what Christian literary criticism should be, and what the need for it is. Our classroom set of questions was a good tool for young, inquisitive Christians to use when applying their ideology to the literary world. Taken on its own, however, a list like this doesn’t provide much for the secular reader who’s interested in reading from a Christian point of view. A true Christian literary theory would be accessible and compelling to believers and nonbelievers alike, much in the same way that you don’t have to be a devotee of Freud to explore psychosexual allegory in Beauty and the Beast.

There’s a need for a new Christian criticism that can hold its own in dialogue with today’s more popular critical theories. The need is twofold; it’s present both within and without the Christian community. Christians need a new literary theory because, frankly, we’re often afraid to think critically about literature at all. Everyone’s familiar with the embarrassing animosity a good portion of our church holds against Harry Potter, without having ever read it, because of its use of a few token words. My wife was once told by a pastor she didn’t know that she should stop reading a fantasy novel immediately – because it had a dragon on the cover. Such paranoia about superficialities is, to use Jesus’s phrase, like straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. The camel here is superstition, or the appearance of superstition; every time non-Christians hear one of us condemn Harry Potter, they’re reminded of the Salem Witch Trials and the drowning of black cats. We need to articulate a more deliberate, insightful way of evaluating literature in terms of meaning, to soothe the nerves of our more reactionary brothers and sisters, and encourage them to read with a spirit of love instead of avoiding books out of a spirit of fear.

Non-Christian readers would also benefit from a Christian literary theory. For the last thousand years, in the West, reading and writing have been implicitly Christian activities; consequently most critical and interpretive modes were Christian too, though few were expressly identified as such. In the last century or so, however, there has been an explosion of new forms of criticism that place themselves outside of the Christian tradition. These generally draw the focus of critical reading toward social preconceptions and psychological issues that lie deep beneath the surface a text. Such readings can be extremely useful and illuminating; they raise new questions by shining their lights into previously unexplored corners of the art of language. However, by focusing only on the margins and the corners, contemporary criticism can lose sight of questions and concerns that have been central to literature for so very long. Christian themes and modes of understanding, which have been passed down by tradition and renewed every generation by contact with the Bible, still profoundly influence our cultural conversations and literary art today. Spiritual questions and questing will always be a part of why people read, and why people write in the first place. A Christian critique can speak to those questions, recover those themes. An educated reader with a Marxist and a Jungian lens in her pocket could learn something new and valuable by picking up and peering through the dark glass of Christianity.

Since late Roman times, literature in the West has been a response to the immense cultural phenomenon that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – either an attempt to understand it, an outright rejection of it, or an exploration of its implications. As Christians, we believe that this is true, in a certain sense, of the rest of the world history as well: Paul the Apostle writes that “since the creation. . . God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). All intellectual pursuits, therefore, must at some point grapple with what do with God, whether that be to interpret him, ape him, or even try to ignore him. The Christian critique is particularly suitable for the Western canon, but it should produce interesting readings of non-Western literature as well.

So then, what is Christian literary theory? What would Christian criticism look like? As e.e.cummings said, “always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” Since I haven’t provided an answer, I hope I’ve at least made the question more beautiful for you! I’m starting this blog for the purpose of feeling out an accessible system of Christian critique, one that could be used by believers and nonbelievers alike. Hopefully I will arrive at a workable description in the end. In the meantime, I intend to post a short reflection on a book every week or so, asking why and how Christ appears in it. I hope to suggest the valuable insights that such readings can produce. I’m not a real literary scholar, though; I am only a high school English teacher. That’s not to say I’m anti-intellectual; in fact I love college professors and deeply admire their work. However, I don’t hold this blog, myself, or my new theory, to the same kind of standards they might be subjected to in a graduate program. I expect to oversimplify, and to get things wrong from time to time. If you catch me in a mistake, please let me know! The highest goals I have for this blog are to encourage Christians to read, and to provide the means for normal people to read like Christians. Short of that, starting a conversation would be nice!

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