Posts filed under 'Books'
In continuation of my recent nineteenth-century magician trend (see The Illusionist and The Prestige), I finally committed myself to reading all 846 pages of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell—something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, as friends far and near have been ecstatically recommending it to me for months.
JS & Mr. N takes place a good 80-90 years prior to the two recent magician movies, however, covering a period between 1806 and 1817. This period seems to have growing appeal for fantasy/adventure writers (see His Majesty’s Dragon), because it allows writers to appeal to stereotypically female readers with Austen-esque social satire and to stereotypically male readers with Napoleonic battles on land and sea. Setting a book in this period also allows for occasional appearances by Lord Byron, which is always a plus.
(One of the most amusing parts of JS & Mr. N occurs while the titular young magician, Jonathan Strange, is visiting the European continent and discovers that, wherever he goes in Switzerland and Italy, Byron has been there just before him. Strange writes home to a friend, “I am, as far as I can tell, about a month behind Lord Byron. In every town we stop at we discover innkeepers, postillions, officials, burghers, potboys and all kinds and sorts of ladies whose brains still seem somewhat deranged from their brief exposure to his lordship. And though my companions are careful to tell people that I am a dreadful being, an English magician, I am clearly nothing in comparison to an English poet and everywhere I go I enjoy the reputation—quite new to me, I assure you—of the quiet, good Englishman, who makes no noise and is no trouble to any one . . .”
This should give you an idea of the kind of humor that peppers the novel. It often made me chuckle out loud. It’s written in the style of a nineteenth-century British novel, complete with “historical” footnotes, and the narrator consistently speaks as if she is addressing readers in the novel’s world. The world of JS & Mr. N is indeed England, and an England in which not only Byron but also Lord Wellington, William Pitt, and the mad King George III are also prominent. (As far as I recall, William Wilberforce doesn’t receive any mention, though, in spite of the fact that one of the main characters is a freed slave.) But this England also has many historical figures that our England does not, most of them magicians. This England has, above any other country, a grand history of magic, a history that reached its apex during the reign of the Raven King, a human who had close dealings with the fairies.
Since those medieval years, English magic has been declining until, by the early nineteenth century, there is only one “practical” magician in the nation, Mr. Norrell (the rest are mere “theoretical” magicians, content to study books about magic rather than books of magic). Norrell, once discovered, quite enjoys his status as England’s only practical magician and hoards the country’s largest collection of magical books, zealously guarding them against potential colleagues. He therefore has mixed feelings when Strange, with a natural magical genius largely unaided by books, appears on the scene, and much of the book deals with the ebb and flow of their relationship—though this relationship also intersects with the Battle of Waterloo, Londoners held captive by fairy enchantments, and the Return of English Magic.
Perhaps only because JS & Mr. N had been so highly recommended to me, I was a tiny bit disappointed. Only a tiny bit, because I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to everyone who enjoys Jane Austen or George MacDonald or Jonathan Stroud (and I don’t just mention the latter because his name is similar to Jonathan Strange’s). I was fascinated by the Raven King, as he seemed to embody much of the book’s sense of Myth. However, I guess I expected to experience more Sehnsucht (C.S. Lewis uses this German word to describe something so beautiful that it hurts, a sense of longing for you-know-not-what, something beyond—ultimately for God, though even those not yet conscious of God can experience Sehnsucht.) For me, Sehnsucht is the greatest thing fantasy literature can achieve, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell didn’t quite do it for me. It came close, but not quite. But it’s still an extremely entertaining and worthwhile read.
My favorite character in the book is one John Childermass, a tall, ill-favored Yorkshire man who is sort of like Heathcliff-gone-right. In fact, some of my slight disappointment may have to do with the fact that I was expecting a role of greater importance for him. Oh well. He can have one in my imagination.
April 14th, 2007
Bright Young Things had a lot of potential: it’s directed by Stephen Fry (of whose acting and poetry-pedantry I’m a fan), it has David Tennant in it, and it’s based on a book by Evelyn Waugh, the British satirist/Catholic convert/novelist.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really work. I haven’t read the novel (which was published as Vile Bodies, though Waugh’s original title was in fact Bright Young Things), so I can’t make my own comparisons between the two: for an extensive and interesting commentary along those lines, check out an article by Alan Dale on BlogCritics.
Internal to the movie itself, there are some big tone problems. First of all, from what I read, it looks like Waugh’s novel is pretty pure satire; Fry’s movie seems to expect us to have sympathy for these vapid, decadent, aristocratic characters, but it doesn’t give us any reason to do so. Adam, the protagonist, does extraordinarily stupid things that you wouldn’t be surprised to see coming from Bertie Wooster (e.g., “let me turn over the 1,000 pounds I’ve just won to a drunken stranger, on his promise that he’ll place the money on a winning horse), but which really don’t work for this supposedly intelligent, though somewhat lost, young writer.
(By the way, for those who don’t know, I should mention that Fry played Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s Wooster in the great 1990s BBC show “Jeeves and Wooster.” Fry is clearly familiar with portrayals of the between-the-wars decadence of British youth.)
In some ways, once the “bright young things” of society begin dropping like flies to suicide, mental illness, and arrest for “indecency” (i.e., homosexuality), the movie picks up steam. But, again, we’re confused about whether we should feel sorry for them. The music and the screenplay tell us to sniffle a bit—but we’ve been given no previous reason to like them.
Once everyone else drops out, we’re left with penniless Adam and his hopeless love for Nina, who by now is engaged to the much richer Ginger Littlejohn (David Tennant, in a moustache. A moustache! Why? The moustaching of David Tennant may be the greatest of this movie’s sins. Ahem.) But, fortunately, World War II starts, so Adam can go off and shoot people rather than mope. It seems like at this point we’re to think, “Aha! War is a force that gives us meaning,” but it doesn’t really work that way in the movie—or in life, I might add, though the decadent British aristocracy did sort of vanish after the war years.
War doesn’t really seem to change Adam or anyone else, and then he gets to come home and have a happy ending. It’s all wrong. He should either have an absolutely pointless ending (as befitting a satire) or a redemptive one (like in Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s 1945 novel)—none of this undeserved happiness business!
Since Waugh published Vile Bodies in 1930, the movie’s ending is quite obviously different from the book’s. Apparently the book does also end with Adam on a battlefield in an apocalyptic sort of war, but it seems like the book sticks to the “pointless” angle rather than mucking about with genres.
Interestingly, 1930 was a huge turning point in Waugh’s life. His cheating wife divorced him—and he converted to the Catholic church. He was certainly already thinking in spiritual terms when he wrote Vile Bodies, though, for the title comes from Philippians 3:20-21 (in the King James Version): “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
The title may be the only hint of redemption present in the novel, but I’m guessing that’s preferable to the alternately sentimental and satirical muddle of the movie. But, hey, the movie made me want to read the book! And it’s making me wonder how pure, harsh satire functions in our culture’s spirituality. Does it exist today in Christian writing? If so, where?
P.S. The movie’s rather flamboyant homosexual is played by Michael Sheen, most recently seen on big screens as Tony Blair in The Queen. Since that’s the only other role I’ve seen him in, I have to admit, I spent much of the movie thinking, “Tony Blair, why are you wearing eyeliner?” And, of course, “David Tennant, WHY are you wearing a MOUSTACHE?”
P.P.S. Fry’s movie may not be great, but his recent book The Ode Less Travelled is the funniest (and therefore most helpful) guide to reading and writing poetry that I’ve ever encountered.
March 11th, 2007
I have another movie to add to my “Top 10 Films of 2006” (list forthcoming once I see a few more DVDs): Neil Burger’s The Illusionist. I liked it tremendously—so much so that I even listened to the whole commentary track (featuring Burger, who both wrote and directed the film) right after watching the movie.
The Illusionist reminds me in tone of an Isak Dinesen story: it’s sumptuous, romantic, and yet raises key philosophical and spiritual questions. Most of all, it addresses the power and mystery of stories—and stories within stories—as a kind of magic.
In his commentary, Burger reveals that the short story (“Eisenheim the Illusionist”) on which the film is based is much more philosophical in tone: Eisenheim, a conjurer in Vienna around 1900, is arrested for blurring the distinction between reality/truth and fiction/illusion. Burger wanted to keep that thematic element, but he also wanted a more cinematic story, and so he added the central political (and philosophical and personal) conflict with Crown Prince Leopold, as well as the romantic interest with Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen (which, when pronounced with a Viennese accent, sounds a lot like “Duchess Fantasia”). Leopold, played by my dear favorite Rufus Sewell (who always seems to land Hollywood roles as jealous villains or revolutionary radicals), is really central to this treatment of the story, because he is a worthy intellectual adversary for Eisenheim. He’s a lout and a boor, but he’s a highly intelligent lout and boor. He, as the rationalist foil to Eisenheim’s man of mystery, can’t stand not knowing the mechanics of how Eisenheim’s “tricks” are accomplished.
Burger also beefed up the character of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who is mentioned only in passing in the short story. He’s Crown Prince Leopold’s flunky, but he demonstrates a childlike enthusiasm for learning the inner workings of magic. And sometimes, unlike Leopold, he would prefer to suspend disbelief and enjoy the illusion. Since he narrates the story, this feature of his personality is really important.
Edward Norton, as Eisenheim, does an incredible job of acting in this movie. Throughout the entire thing, he has to allow for two simultaneous readings of what’s going on: is his magic real, or is it all a trick? He (and Burger’s screenplay) leaves room to come down on either side—which, in part, he accomplishes by not showing any of his cards, so to speak. And whichever side we, as the audience, end up believing, we have to admit that there’s truth in illusion.
That’s all I’m going to say without spoiling the movie. DO NOT READ AHEAD IF YOU EVER PLAN TO SEE THE ILLUSIONIST. Trust me: even if you don’t usually mind spoilers, you will here. MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
Okay, so, if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen the movie. Hurrah for you. You know that the central plot point of Sophie’s death may be all an illusion. But is it? Most reviewers seem to think so, that we’re supposed to trust Uhl’s version of the story at the end. And, if they gave the movie a less than stellar review, it’s often because they wanted the end to be “darker.” They seem to have forgotten that the faked death and the Eisenheim-Sophie reunion are all in Uhl’s mind! It may be true, but it may just be an illusion he himself has conjured because it’s what he would prefer to believe. I love the ambiguity of the ending. It makes me happy in a very nerdy way.
It’s funny—when I first saw the movie, I noticed Eisenheim putting a vial of liquid in the suitcase that he gave to Sophie, and I thought at the time, “Either they’re going to drug Prince Leopold or they’re going to fake Sophie’s death.” Both turned out to be right (well, in one reading). But, in the drama of Eisenheim’s apparent grief and the increasing darkness of his shows, I sort of forgot about what I’d seen. That’s what a magician does: shows you the clues, but then makes you forget about them in the spectacle that follows. It wasn’t until Eisenheim arrived at the train station for the second time that I remembered the vial, and, just a couple of minutes before Uhl, considered the possibility that Sophie could be well and alive, hiding away somewhere. I tend to be the sort who suspends disbelief extremely well, and without intention, so it’s possible that I was a little slower than some viewers to follow where the clues were leading Uhl, but, still, I think the film’s timing was effective. And I love the bit at the end where Uhl takes off his hat, delighted that Eisenheim found a way to hoodwink them all (or at least that’s what Uhl chooses to believe at this point).
Oh, here’s a random interesting fact from the DVD commentary: the hall with all the antlers on the walls is actually in Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s castle. “Bad karma?” says Burger. You better believe it. Burger says that Franz Ferdinand’s own death mask is actually at the end of the hall, placed there after his death (and presumably sometime after World War I settled down a bit). Ooh, the irony.
March 5th, 2007
So, now that Hollywood has almost run out of Jane Austen novels to make movies from (Northhanger Abbey is still left, true, but since it’s a satire of Gothic novels, it would be hard to adapt well), they’re making a movie from Jane Austen’s life—or a mostly imagined version of her life.
The film centers around a young Austen’s infatuation with a young Irishman, played here by James McAvoy (a.k.a. Mr. Tumnus). Austen did indeed write a letter to her sister Cassandra telling of her flirtation with Mr. Lefroy, but it was apparently short-lived and without much consequence. The movie trailer, however, heavily implies that Austen couldn’t have written her novels without this “experience” of love—a strangely modern notion, this idea that writing depends on first-hand experience.
The trailer irritates me for many reasons, and I’m not entirely sure what all of them are. Part of it is the music recycled from Sense and Sensibility and Little Women (which, excuse me, sounds so distinctly American—in fact, it’s usually used in trailers for nostalgic, Americana-type films—that it’s ridiculously out of place here). Part of it is undoubtedly the premise of the film, and part of it is Anne Hathaway’s voice. Despite bearing the name of Shakespeare’s wife, the American actress doesn’t seem right for the part. Also, there are naked bottoms in the trailer—must be because it’s the international, unrated one. The film itself will be PG.
I think what I most resent, though, is the title of the film, which implies that Jane Austen isn’t herself, isn’t complete, until she falls in love. In other words, she’s not complete unless she has given her heart to a man, which is a pretty icky message, in my opinion. (And, I would add, you can’t really love someone unless you are complete in yourself–if you are yourself on your own, you have so much more to give.)
According to an article in the Telegraph, Becoming Jane prides itself on its “authenticity” and “earthiness”:
“Becoming Jane certainly looks different from most other Austen productions. It is still a period picture, with magnificent country houses and carriages, and a Wordsworthian rapture for fields, but the air is cold and wet, the colours are earthy – mustard, yellow ochre, burnt sienna – and there is a wintry feel draped over proceedings. For once you hear the squelch of mud and the sound of crows and pheasants rising out of the mist. Even the costumes seem oddly casual.
Hathaway isn’t wearing the signature Austen Empire line, but simple cotton dresses. ‘This film is set much earlier than the period typically shown in Austen films,’ says Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, who was responsible for about 3,000 costumes. ‘The really high waists were not yet fashionable and I wanted Jane’s world to have a simple country feel to it, so her dresses are very plain in shape and structure.’”
Hmmm . . . where have we heard this before? The most recent Pride and Prejudice, anyone? Now, I certainly don’t mind pigs and Irish wolfhounds traipsing across the screen, and there were things I liked about that version, but to me it seemed to focus on the mud at the expense of the wit. And, with Becoming Jane, authenticity seems to be left by the wayside when it comes to late-eighteenth-century philosophies of writing.
Why is there suddenly this obsession with claiming to be different from all the other Austen films?
No doubt I’ll see the movie–and probably in the theater, too–but let it be known beforehand that I am dubious about its quality. (By the way, it opens here in August, though the British premiere is next month.)
February 22nd, 2007
An excellent way to spend a snowy weekend! I think it’s been a good 13 years since my last re-reading of the Cooper books, but I read them so many times before that that I really hadn’t forgotten much. It was still a delight to immerse myself in a mysterious, haunting world—a world still connected to the good, earthy pleasures of large families and fresh-baked bread and “Good King Wenceslas.”
I mentioned in my previous post that, overall, The Dark Is Rising sequence is not particularly friendly to Christianity. As I recall (and I have to admit, I remember many images and symbols and characters from the books, but my memories of their doctrine is a bit fuzzy), most of that comes across in The Silver on the Tree, the last of the five books. There are hints of it in some of the other books as well, but any discerning Christian reader should still be able to appreciate the books for their writing style and their evocation of a mythic world.
Will Stanton, the 11-year-old protagonist of The Dark Is Rising, is the youngest of 9 children born to a family in a small Buckinghamshire village. He is, however, as even his siblings realize “a very old eleven.” Not only is he mature for his age, but, as he learns on his birthday, he is actually one of the Old Ones, a group of people who serve the Light and protect the world from the forces of the Dark. Eleventh birthday, discovering you’re someone more special than you knew . . . sound familiar? Remember that Cooper wrote these books a good twenty-five years before the first Harry Potter appeared.
There is, of course, a lot of appeal in this kind of character, especially for a bookish child who often feels older or somehow different from his or her peers. You recognize yourself in Will, you think, “Oh, there IS a reason I don’t fit in—I have a special calling”—not that that makes you think you need to go around collecting the Signs of Power and learning the Old Speech. When you’re older, you may be able to apply that feeling to being called to life in Christ—and I have to admit that I’m more excited about being called to life in Christ when I read about Will Stanton than when I read the words of the Apostle Paul (though I also recognize that if I hadn’t read Paul, I might not be able to appreciate Will’s calling as much).
In spite of their simplistic names, the Light and the Dark convey a much deeper, more convincing sense of good and evil than anything in J.K. Rowling’s books (which is why it’s all the more puzzling that Cooper decides to collapse the categories of good and evil by the end of the series). In The Dark Is Rising, the Dark has no power on its own to hurt human beings, “but they can encourage men’s own instincts to do them harm.” And that’s how evil really seems to work, even when it’s not embodied by tall men on black horses.
The most heartbreaking character in the novel is The Walker, a man torn by conflicting allegiances to Dark and Light (so, you see, it’s not all dualistic). He’s sort of a re-working of the myth of the Wandering Jew, without all the anti-Semitic associations. Even though I didn’t remember his exact words, I remembered for years the sense of anguish that accompanies his interactions with Merriman Lyon.
And then there’s that sense of beauty beyond this world—a dimension totally lacking from the Harry Potter books. When Will’s brother is allowed to play an ancient flute with a marvelous tone, he fumbles in his attempt to describe the beauty of it. “There was an ache in his voice and in his face that something in Will responded to with a deep, ancient sympathy. An Old One, he suddenly knew, was doomed always to feel this same formless, nameless longing for something out of reach, as an endless part of life.”
That’s C.S. Lewis’s Sehnsucht, right there! It makes me ache just to read about it.
There is one scene in the book in which it’s implied that the church is weak and powerless against the Dark, and that Christ is simply one way of talking about a much older power existing in the Light. This makes me squirm a lot, but there’s so much else in The Dark Is Rising that feeds my soul.
I was thinking just this morning: Susan Cooper was born in England in 1935, and she grew up during the war years. In fact, she would have been close to the same age as the fictional Lucy Pevensie. What if she had had a chance to peer into the wardrobe? I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but there it is.
February 18th, 2007
Who’d have thunk? One of Walden Media’s next projects is a film version of Susan Cooper’s children’s fantasy novel The Dark Is Rising. I’m surprised because Walden seems to prefer taking on adaptations of books that are at least sympathetic to a Christian perspective, which the Cooper books aren’t particularly.
Don’t get me wrong–I love The Dark Is Rising and the other books in the series, especially Over Sea, Under Stone and The Grey King. They made me fall in love with England and Cornwall and Wales at the tender age of 8. Plus, I think they may have contributed to my spiritual development as a sacramentally oriented Christian (not that Cooper intended the books to have a sacramental emphasis . . . but they kind of do, anyway).
But none of my childhood friends read the Cooper books. Certainly not the friends whose parents thought even The Chronicles of Narnia were Satanic! Even my more moderate Christian friends were suspicious of The Dark Is Rising sequence. So I only got to talk about the books with my dad, who read them to me.
Anyway, all that to explain why I’m surprised about the Walden Media connection. Moreover, the film’s director is going to be David L. Cunningham, the son of one of the founders of the evangelical Christian organization Youth with a Mission. I’ve only seen one of his films: To End All Wars, a movie about British soldiers held as prisoners by the Japanese in World War II. That film, though brutal, definitely had an emphasis on Christian forgiveness (and it starred Robert Carlyle, of whom I’m always a fan). So I’m fascinated to see what will be done with The Dark Is Rising’s spiritual themes.
I’m also excited to see that Christopher Eccleston (the Ninth Doctor Who) will be joining the cast as a villain, the Dark Rider. Some of the other casting news has me discouraged, though. Ian McShane is to play Merriman Lyon, one of the best characters in the whole series. I’ve never seen McShane in anything, but he’s only 65. He doesn’t look old enough to play the craggy-featured Oldest of the Old Ones. Where’s Ian McKellen when we need him? Now, he would make a perfect Merriman. But maybe McShane will be okay if he grows a beard and dyes his hair white.
Also, most of the children cast thus far seem to be either American or Canadian. Oh, please, please tell me they’re not going to try to set the movie in the U.S. We don’t have Old Ones here! Or Herne the Hunter! The English landscape/mythology is so essential to The Dark is Rising. So those kids had better be able to do British accents.
February 16th, 2007
Apologies for The Ottery’s silence for the past couple of weeks. Holiday travels and the death of my grandmother (a wonderful woman and a creative inspiration for otters everywhere) kept me from writing.
However, travels also allowed me to do more fun reading than I usually manage. I’ve just finished Naomi Novik’s new novel His Majesty’s Dragon, the first of a series of at least five books about a dragon named Temeraire set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. The first three Temeraire books hit the stores in rapid succession in 2006, and director Peter Jackson has already optioned them for film adaptations. (Of course, the Temeraire movie(s?) will have to wait until Jackson is finished with The Lovely Bones—and possibly The Hobbit, if that mess ever gets straightened out. Maybe Smaug could make a cameo in His Majesty’s Dragon?).
Novik’s dragons are of a very different sort from Tolkien’s—and, given the unusual 19th-century setting, also very different from the plethora of copycat dragon fantasies. The Temeraire books are frequently compared to Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” books, only with dragons thrown in. There’s quite a bit of Jane-Austen-style social commentary, too. And something—perhaps the skepticism about war’s purpose, at the same time that battles are rendered thrillingly–reminds me of the fiction of Lloyd Alexander, as well.
His Majesty’s Dragon is really more about British Naval Captain Will Laurence than it is about Temeraire, whom he captures from a French vessel while the young dragon is still in his egg. When he hatches, Temeraire immediately latches onto Laurence, in a touching display that also dooms Laurence to a life as an “aviator.” Aviators, because they must tend to their dragons constantly, are a scorned social class, viewed as wild and somewhat reclusive. There is little chance of marriage, as few spouses would care to come second in priority to a dragon.
Laurence, of an aristocratic background, gradually learns to change his opinion of aviators once he leaves the Navy to train with them—though not without some initial character misjudgments worthy of any Austen heroine. Thanks to Temeraire, who has a mind of his own, Laurence also begins to think twice about principles he has never questioned: duty to the Crown, the justice of capital punishment, etc. The use of dragons as beasts of war also makes him more reluctant to engage in battle, for their wounding or death is far more tragic than the destruction of a ship.
Overall, His Majesty’s Dragon has a light tone with plenty of humor in the human-dragon interactions. However, the climactic battle was hard for me to read, because of the very real risk to the dragons. Sure, nature is red in tooth and claw, even dragon-nature, and I’m sure dragons fight each other in the wild, but it’s heartbreaking that these dragons must attack other dragons, for whom they hold no personal dislike, simply because the other dragons represent an enemy nation. It makes you think, more than human-versus-human battles, about how inhumane war really is. Whether that’s Novik’s intention or not (and I suspect that it may be), it’s certainly the effect, but it’s done without speechifying or over-the-top narrative condemnations of war.
I’ll definitely be reading the second and third Temeraire novels, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War.
January 6th, 2007
As promised last week, here’s my report on a talk by Philip Jenkins, author of The New Faces of Christendom: Reading the Bible in the Global South.
For this particular talk, Jenkins chose to focus on women’s experience of biblical literacy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (though his anecdotes were primarily about African Christians). A good choice, considering his audience, many of whom no doubt assumed that conservative/orthodox Christian interpretation of Scripture inevitably leads to oppression of women. It ain’t necessarily so.
Jenkins pointed out how, in the U.S., we tend to assume that “liberation theology” (emphasis on God’s care for the oppressed, the righting of social injustices, etc.) belongs to the liberal left, while “deliverance theology” (emphasis on the miraculous, healings, deliverance from evil spirits, etc.) is associated with the far right. For many Global South Christians, however, “liberation” and “deliverance” are not separate phenomena. For example, take Zimbabwean Titus Pressler, who says, “Charismatic renewal, conflict with demons, and the liberation of women are other fruits bearing directly on the churches’ mission in Zimbabwe.” You wouldn’t expect to hear that sentence coming from many U.S. Christians, would you?
Women in many (though not all) Global South churches preach, teach, and prophesy. How do Global South Christians reconcile this apparently permissive view of Pauline passages regarding women’s behavior in church with their more conservative interpretations of scripture passages regarding homosexuality? Jenkins didn’t address this question explicitly. He did, however, discuss the importance of stories about Jesus’ treatment of women (particularly the Samaritan “outsider” woman at the well and the woman with the flow of blood) and of the fact that women were the first to announce the good news about Jesus’ resurrection.
I don’t think that Jenkins meant that Global South Christians set up a Jesus-Paul dichotomy and choose Jesus over Paul, but he didn’t really explain why these passages are interpreted differently. For me, since Paul was writing to specific congregations about specific problems within them, context plays a big role: though his overall principles still apply, certain details may have been intended for a certain situation. But I’m not sure if that’s a particularly American way of reading.
Anyway, Jenkins spent much of his talk discussing “neoliteracy,” a concept describing the stage when texts are newly introduced within primarily oral cultures. New readers still bring their oral/aural background (including both a respect for authority and a suspicion of the written word) to the Bible, and so the authority of texts is confirmed by visions, dreams, and other forms of experience. There’s an emphasis on God’s continuing revelation—in ways that refer back to the Bible.
One of the most interesting moments of Jenkins’ talk occurred in the question-and-answer session, when someone in the audience asked if African Christians were theologically conservative because they had been converted by theologically conservative whites. No, answered Jenkins, in fact many white missionaries couldn’t deal with the more charismatic tendencies of Africans who began reading the Bible (and taking it seriously, including its statements about spiritual warfare). But the more indigenous churches did deal with the spiritual realm.
In fact, said Jenkins, launching into a brief tangent, did you know that today is the greatest age of witch-hunting in history?
I could see the looks of “Ah ha!” dawn on certain faces around the room. “Ah ha! We knew there had to be a catch somewhere. They may be relatively enlightened toward women, but they hunt witches! Yup. Always happens with conservative Christians.”
And, Jenkins continued, Global South Christianity is one of the main forces combating witch-hunting.
Certain faces fell.
Unlike the previous generations of white missionaries, leading Global South Christians acknowledge that witchcraft exists. But they believe that Jesus has already conquered the forces of darkness, and so you don’t need to go around burning witches. Makes sense to me.
I suspect that Jenkins is more theologically liberal than the subjects of his talk and his book, but he is extraordinarily fair. He doesn’t take pot-shots at anyone, conservative or liberal. And he significantly complicates our assumptions about different “camps” of Christians, both in the U.S. and around the world. For that, I’m very grateful.
December 13th, 2006
One: David Tennant, of course. I was pleased to see that someone over at Idol Chatter is watching “Doctor Who”! Ellen Leventry’s commentary on the recent two-parter “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” is worth a read.
I, too, was intrigued by the spectacle of a Doctor who suddenly doubts all he has ever held for certain. I got a little bit annoyed by all the speeches along the lines of “the Devil is powerful because he’s an idea” speeches, but it fits the Doctor’s character (and Britain’s current spiritual climate). From a dramatic angle, I found “The Impossible Planet” very satisfyingly scary, while “The Satan Pit” was terribly anti-climactic. I think the episode lost its tension for me once we learn that this is supposed to be THE Satan (when, in the prior episode, we’ve been told that he’s the Beast, which is not quite the same thing). And, after all, if humans can beat big bad old Satan simply by trusting in each other, well, then, he’s not very scary, is he? Not really worthy of the title “The Adversary,” which is what “Satan” means. It’s hard to make Satan scary when the writer doesn’t really take him seriously. He should have stuck with the Beast.
Anyway, moving on to Tennant Number Two: Agnieszka Tennant (who is, I assume, no relation to David, especially since his last name isn’t really Tennant, anyway–it’s MacDonald). I just discovered an essay of hers from back in August that, in great prose, captures the main flaws of the books by John and Stasi Eldredge.
I especially like Tennant’s point that, when the Eldredges argue that all women want to be “the Beauty of the story,” they’re really talking about ornamental prettification, not true beauty. “True beauty is precarious, unbound,” Tennant writes. “It cannot be confined to pre-approved tastes or to one gender. It is wild at heart. Like Christ. And like the complicated men and women who follow him.”
Amen to that.
December 7th, 2006
An excellent article (called “The Limits of Tolerance: Will Liberal Theologians Listen to the Global South?) in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal called attention to an issue of growing importance across the worldwide Christian community: the tension between Western (and mostly north-of-the-equator) liberal theologians and more scripturally conservative Christians in the Two-Thirds world, or the Global South.
This particular article points out the blatant snobbery practiced by supposedly super-tolerant folks like the Episcopalian Bishop Spong, who said recently of his African coreligionists, “They’ve yet to face the revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world.” Um, so they’re ignorant savages? That’s certainly the tone of the comment. (Though, as religious historian Philip Jenkins explains, many Global South Christians do face different struggles from their Northern counterparts: north of the equator, Jenkins argues, our primary religious struggle is against doubt, while in the Global South, Christians are more often concerned with defending the faith against other, competing religions. So there is a way in which Spong’s comment could be interpreted more positively—but, given some of Spong’s other statements, I’m not inclined to be that generous.)
Even worse is a comment made by liberal Catholic theologian Andrew Greeley: in answer to a question about the role Global South Christians would play in the future of the Church, he said, “We will depend on them for vitality. But they will continue to depend on us for the ideas.”
Oh my. That’s so offensive that it makes my blood boil.
Anyway, for a much more respectful analysis of the potential role of the Two-Thirds World in transforming Christianity (by returning it to its more orthodox roots), check out Jenkins’s new book The New Faces of Christendom: Believing in the Bible in the Global South (sort of a sequel to his earlier book The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity). You can read the first chapter online at Christianity Today.
I also happen to be attending a talk by Jenkins on this subject next week, so let me know if you have any burning questions you’d like me to ask in the Q&A session.
December 5th, 2006