Escaping the Monsters

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There’s something scarier than these monsters.

In my iTunes library, I have a playlist labelled “Songs I Play Too Much.” All of the entries on that list are songs that for a time seem to sum up where I was in life and how I felt about it at a particular point of time. When a song catches my feeling in this way, I tend to play it, again and again, for weeks. (Hopefully I am not the only one who does this!)

Right now, that song is “Monsters,” by Imagine Dragons. This stanza is particularly interesting to me:

If I told you what I was,
Would you turn your back on me?
And if I seem dangerous,
Would you be scared?
I get the feeling just because
Everything I touch isn’t dark enough
That this problem lies in me.

Notice what the speaker’s concern about his relationships with other people tells us: “If I told you what I was,” he wonders, “would you turn your back on me?” A question like this implies that there may be something truly wrong with the speaker, dark and serious enough to drive people away. The fact that he wonders whether other people would be “scared” suggests he is not worried about a social snubbing over entertainment choices or even religious or political affiliation. He is worried that he is broken and dark in ways that are truly terrible, ways that if brought to light would logically drive other people away. 

Notice too how the trouble which the speaker bears affects his environment as well. “Just because / Everything I touch isn’t dark enough,” he concludes “that this problem lies in me.” The speaker’s wording here suggests that the world around the speaker – the things he “touches” – are getting darker, and that he is responsible. After all, since “everything [he] touch[es] isn’t dark enough,” the speaker himself concludes “that this problem lies in me.”

No wonder then that in the chorus the speaker concludes:

A monster, a monster,
I’ve turned into a monster,
A monster, a monster,
And it keeps getting stronger.

The idea that the speaker has “turned into” a monster suggests that whatever he is wrestling against, whatever terrible wrongness is within, it is undermining his humanity.

Interestingly, the idea that human beings are wrestling against a “monster” which threatens who are are meant to be is not unique to contemporary culture. The song “Monsters” reminds me of modernist poetry, specifically T.S. Eliot’s preconversion works. Consider (briefly) his poem “The Hollow Men“:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass.

As in “Monster,” the speaker sees himself as somehow wrong, and sees this wrong part of himself as destroying his humanity. In Eliot’s poem the speaker is destroyed by nothing so dramatic as a monster; his “headpiece” is simply “filled with straw,” suggesting a fundamental foolishness. Yet even this problem turns him from a human being to something less: a straw man.

Importantly, his loss of humanity threatens his spiritual well-being; the fact that a stanza further on he is worrying about the “final meeting / In the twilight kingdom” – death – suggests that the speaker is not in a good place, spiritually.

To put this in the terms of faith, what both speakers have discovered is that they are fallen. There is something wrong with them, whether a “monster” or simply a “headpiece filled with straw,” and that wrongness threatens who they were created to be. To give into this wrongness is to become a grotesque, monstrous version of a created human being. 

This discovery is one that I think all human beings make (or at least are capable of making) at some point in their lives. Francis Spufford refers in Unapologetic to his discovery of the “human ability to f*ck things up”: our tendency to turn monstrous, no matter how good our intentions.

I myself have lately been aware of the detritus that accumulates on human life. (Perhaps this is because I am more than a year into my thirties.) I remember my childhood as a time of simplicity and purity. Not that it was Eden: I fought with my parents, I lost my friends, I made stupid decisions. But my childhood was simpler; as an adult I discover that I have built up strong and sometimes destructive personal and emotional habits. These habits are hard to break, they can be controlling, and sometimes I like the speaker in “Monster” feel as though the “monsters” I deal with threaten who I was created to be.

To get how ordinary this is, think of a pocketwatch. If you take a gorgeous pocketwatch, and leave it unattended, at first it will still perform just fine. Glance down at the pocketwatch a day, two days, a week from when you first left it, and it will show you the time clearly. But come back in a month or a year, and it will be covered with dust; the time will not show up clearly.

This, I think, is what growing older is like for human beings. As we get older, we screw things up and are hurt when other people screw things up; sometimes we screw things in up in a recurring way, making it feel as though we are fighting a “monster” or a “demon” inside us. This is simply the result of being broken people living in a broken world.

This is why I like “Imagine Dragons” and modernist poetry: It is one half of the gospel. We are fallen people. That is a reality of life, and it is right to acknowledge it.

But as I have wrestled with my own internal monsters, I have become increasingly aware that half the gospel will not do. After all, “Monsters” is a very one-sided song. Consider the chorus again:

I’m only a man with a candle to guide me,
I’m taking a stand to escape what’s inside me.
A monster, a monster,
I’ve turned into a monster,
A monster, a monster,
And it keeps getting stronger.

On the one hand, the speaker asserts that he’s “taking a stand to escape what’s inside”, suggesting that he is going to vanquish his internal monster. He is going to stop screwing things up, and become a real man.

But only four lines later, he acknowledges that the monster inside him “keeps getting stronger”. The fact that he mentions this after he declares his stand against the monster calls into question whether he will actually be able to escape his internal monster and reclaim his humanity. Perhaps the monster will reclaim him.

Thus, “Monster” is incomplete, ultimately hopeless. It accurately captures the way we fallen human beings feel but cannot help us figure out what to do about these feelings. For this, we need the whole gospel: that through Jesus Christ we become the people that God created us to be.

We tend to reduce the gospel to, “Jesus Christ died so our sins could be forgiven.” Yet true (and glorious!) as that is, the Gospel teaches us more than this, and in its teaching guarantees victory against the monsters within.

Here is what the Gospel teaches:

It teaches that in Christ we are not only forgiven our sins, we are made righteous. Two weeks back, I was listening to the “White Horse Inn” podcast (recommended by a friend) on “the great exchange”. In the words of one of the speakers, the gospel means not only that “our sins go to Christ,” but also that “Christ’s righteousness comes to us.” If we are only forgiven, without being made righteous, we are but a blank slate; we are perhaps rid of the monster but need to work ourselves into being the hero. Yet the gospel understood in all its fullness means not only that Jesus kills the monster but also that He bestows on us his essential heroic nature; we are rescued from the monstrous version of ourselves, and become the person God created us to be. 

Of course, “becoming who God created us to be” has notes of Joel Osteen and self-help philosophy in it. Yet whereas Osteen & Co usually deploy this phrase to signify that we through our own efforts become either 1) more successful at work, or 2) kinder generally, I do not mean this at all. I do not believe we were created to be either successful at work or nice generally; being successful and nice is good, of course, but neither of these things is our telos. Our telos, our purpose, is to be made in the image of God, and through Jesus Christ this image is restored to us. Thus, through Jesus Christ we literally become who were were meant to be, though we do not become so through our own efforts.

Nor do we become who were were meant to be all at once in this lifetime. The Gospel does not teach this.

It teaches that God is patiently working on us through His grace, steadily making us more like him. In I John we read this:

God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1.5)

And then we read this:

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, . . . the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1.7)

So far, none of this is new. We have sinned, yes, but “the blood of Jesus Christ” guarantees that we can find forgiveness and righteousness; we can be made new. As we “walk in the light” and model our lives off Christ’s, we become through the grace of God steadily more like Him.

And yet, this does not happen all at once. We make forward progress, only to slip backwards again. We squash down one monster, only have to it pop back up again, like a kind of spiritual Whack-a-Mole.

And so, John reassures us with this:

The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. (2.8)

There is darkness in us, yes. We are fallen and monstrous. But the darkness has been beaten through Christ, and even now it is “passing away”. We will one day be wholly like Christ and will no longer fight our demons. 

As I bring this post to a close, my Pandora station (the one which introduced me to “Monsters” in the first place) is playing Sam Mendes’s “Three Empty Words,” its refrain reminding us that “we can’t fix what’s broken.” Brokenness is indeed all around us, it is inside us, as Imagine Dragons notes, and it is right to acknowledge and remember the monsters we fight.

But the monsters are only half the story. In the second half comes the Red Cross Knight, and in that second half alone we find what we need actually do what Imagine Dragons only sings about: “take a stand to escape what’s inside”.

The monster is real, but in the Gospel there is hope.

 

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Teaser Tuesday: I Capture The Castle

castleWe’re back to Teaser Tuesday! I missed this post last week, as I was recovering from a week-long trip through southern Colorado. But this week, I’m knee-deep in an old favourite and eager to add to the Teaser Tuesday collection.

In case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a new blog series I’ve been working on. It’s a fun, weekly post in which I open whatever book I’m reading to a random page and share a few sentences from it. I originally heard of Teaser Tuesday through the blog Running in My Head, though it seems to have originated from the Books & a Beat Blog. Feel free to chime in via your own blog with whatever you’re currently reading.

This week, my entry is from I Capture the Castle, a coming of age novel set in 1930s England. Its heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, handles her family’s poverty, her quirky family, and the perils of first love with humor and spunk. I discovered the novel two years ago and picked it up again recently, when I was in need of something lighthearted to read.

My random number generator chose 164, so here is an passage from page 164 of the novel:

Simon seemed more fascinated than ever by Rose. Late in the afternoon, when she had just been particularly tomboyish, he said to Neil:

“Did you ever see such a change in a girl?”

“No, it’s quite an improvement,” said Neil. He grinned at Rose and she pulled a little face at him; just for that minute I felt they were really friendly to each other.

“Do you think it’s an improvement?” she asked Simon.

“I’m wondering. Shall we say it’s perfect for the sea and the sunlight – and the other Rose is perfect for the candlelight? and perhaps what’s most perfect of all is to find there are several Roses?”

 

Teachers Take Responsibility

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Complain, apparently. 

In a Star Trek: Voyager episode (sadly, I cannot remember which one) the EMH physician declares to Seven of Nine, “I like to complain. It makes me feel better.”

For me personally, the EMH hits the nail on the head.

This is especially true in my classroom. When I don’t know what to make of my students’ writing abilities, when the carefully crafted unit plans I’d made go south, when nobody likes the short story I picked for reading, I tend to complain. Just yesterday I wondered aloud to my father whether my students were raised to be thinking people.

So when I stumbled on this post from the Tattooed Prof (via John Fea’s blog) this morning, it caught my attention. The Tattooed Prof, a college-level history instructor, spells out his teaching philosophy in what he calls a manifesto, essentially a series of resolutions he makes regarding his classroom practices.

A few of these resolutions were convicting:

Kids These Days are just like Kids in My Day, or Any Other Day, if we choose to remember honestly.

Our students are not us. If we merely teach to how we prefer to learn, we exclude a majority of our students.

I am not the one to decide if a student is “ready for college.” That’s the student’s decision. If they’re admitted to my university and they’re in my class, I am ethically and morally obligated to give them my best.

Do my students enter my classrooms with room to grow, intellectually and personally? Sure. That’s part of being a college freshman. But while some students have more growing to do than others, and while some students will not finish their program of study, that’s not my responsibility as their English instructor. My responsibility is to teach them, insofar as it is within my power, to write a thoughtful, well-researched college-level paper. The more time I spend wondering if my students are less thoughtful than students were when I started college nearly fifteen years ago, the more time I spend wondering if a particular student is “ready for college”, the more I abdicate my responsibility as a teacher. This is a good reminder for me.

Not everything the Tattooed Prof wrote was convicting. Some of it was encouraging, like this one:

Everyone is fighting their own battles, some on multiple fronts. Compassion and flexibility >>> being a hardass

I tend to be a bit of a pushover on extending deadlines. When my students actually ask for an extension, I have a hard time saying No; this is especially true if they ask to my face, because as long as they have a good excuse, I find I cannot look them in the eye and decline their request. (I hope none of my students read this blog!) I worry sometimes that I’m not being sufficiently strict, but in general I prefer to be a pushover. I’d rather be the teacher who is suckered in by a false story than the one who does not believe a true story, because she’s too skeptical. I worry sometimes this is a flaw of mine in teaching, but the Tattooed Prof’s blog reassures me that I’m on the right track.

So my resolutions: Be kind. Be flexible. Hold students to high standards, but teach them how to meet those standards. Take responsibility for their learning, and ignore the rest.

You can read the full Tattooed Prof post here.

 

Matthew 4 & The Importance of Interpretation

IMG_0461I noticed something interesting in reading my Bible this morning, and I wanted to share it here: Based on Jesus’s example, the ability to critically read and interpret Scripture is important. 

I’ve been reading the Gospel of Matthew, and I came to Chapter 4. There, as you know, Jesus is tempted by the devil.

The first two temptations caught my eye particularly:

Satan starts off a little naively, suggesting that Jesus put aside his spiritual growth for his physical comfort, suggesting that he turn stones into bread. Jesus of course rebuts this, reminding Satan that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”.

So Satan ups the ante. He tells Jesus to leap from the high cliffs. He assures Jesus that the Psalms teach that God will protect Him.

Jesus rebuts this temptation too, reminding Satan that we are not to “tempt the Lord [our] God”.

Here’s what struck me:

Neither of these first two temptations ask Jesus to do anything that is, on the face of it, sinful. It is not sinful to eat. Nor is it sinful to trust in God’s promises of protection. But in both cases, Jesus refused to do Satan’s bidding and supported his decision with Scripture.

The reasoning for Jesus’s refusal does not particularly interest me; when we study these passages further, it’s clear that Jesus refused Satan’s temptations because Duh, it was Satan, but also because Jesus refused to put physical comfort above spiritual well-being and because He preferred not to exert his own willpower.

But putting that reasoning aside, what interests me is that Jesus quoted Scripture to justify his reasoning for refusing to do something which was not sinful and could even be construed as virtuous. Jesus’s ability to do this rested on an ability to read Scripture interpretively.

He was able to take a general principle, on the necessity of God’s word to our life, and apply it to a specific context.

He was able to weigh the Scripture Satan quoted against the passage He Himself quoted and determine which was more relevant.

He was able to draw inferences and conclusions about God’s expectations for Him from the passages He read.

He was able to read between the lines.

Reading between the lines, drawing inferences, determining relevance, making general principles specific (and vice versa): all of this is interpretation. It gets beyond taking what we read at face value to making judgments about what we’ve read.

So often, when we approach Scripture, we do so with an eye to proof-texting. We want Scripture to spell out exactly what we should do in any given situation.

And sometimes it does do that. When I am angry, Scripture is pretty clear that I should not lose my cool (That’s a hard one for me.) But on many occasions, Scripture is less clear. What do we do then?

Jesus’s example suggests that in such circumstances, we should not twist Scripture into pretzel knots trying to make directives out of general principles. Rather, we should approach Scripture with an interpretive eye, able to infer from what is said and done in a passage who our God is and how we should interact with Him.

And that brings me to a particular soapbox of mine. Increasingly, people think that studying literature is not worth spending time on. Many of my brightest students do not take Intro to Literature, because they’d prefer to spend time taking more “practical” courses for their major.

I want to be clear that I don’t blame my students, and I respect whatever decisions they make, even when they choose not to take my courses. Nonetheless, the culture they make those decisions in is one that emphasizes job skills and downplays the humanities. In that culture, literature is seen as a luxury course, something that you take only if you have interest, and room among the multitudinous courses for your major.

But Jesus’s example proves that literature is not a luxury course. 

The ability to read literature interpretively is dying. The ability to read at all is dying. I had a conversation with an old grad school friend of mine this past week, and we agreed that while many students are technically literate, able to read basic material for information, they often struggle to read more thoughtfully. They are not readers.

Yet to apply Scripture successfully demands that we be thoughtful readers. 

So let’s be thoughtful readers.

So let’s take more literature courses. Or if we’re not in school anymore, let’s just read more literature, period.

Let’s not expect Scripture to spell everything out for us. Let’s stop having so many Bible studies where we sit and passively listen to someone else spell out what Scripture means for us. (I’m thinking of those videotaped Bible studies). Let’s learn to interpret it for ourselves, and think deeply about it.

Note from Meditations & Miscellany: I’m trying to grow my blog audience. Please feel free to share this blog! You can also follow me via email or WordPress or leave a comment.  

 

 

Teaser Tuesday: The Silkworm

One of the things that I like to do on my blog is talk about books. Teaser Tuesday is the perfect chance to do just that.

Teaser Tuesday is exactly what it sounds like: a fun, weekly post in which I open whatever book I’m reading to a random page and share a few sentences from it. I originally heard of Teaser Tuesday through the blog Running in My Head, though it seems to have originated from the Books & a Beat Blog. Feel free to chime in via your own blog with whatever you’re currently reading.

This week, I’m not reading anything very deep: The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling.

Here’s the random selection:

When Strike had finished tweaking his schedule, he gave his secretary Robin the name of the Danubius Hotel in St. John’s Wood and asked her to try to find out whether Owen Quine was staying there.

“How’re the Hiltons going?”

“Badly,” said Robin. “I’ve only got two left. Nothing. If he’s at any of theme he’s either using a different name or a disguise – or the staff are very unobservant, I suppose. You wouldn’t think they could miss him, especially if he’s wearing that cloak.”

And a portion of the Goodreads blurb:

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

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