Sunday, July 25, 2010

In which I catalog what books I read...

I have decided to begin a series of posts in which I share my impressions about every book I finish reading. I realized last week that I go through a lot of books, and I thought it would be neat to see how many I get through in, say, a year. The best way to keep track of this is to document it somewhere, and this blog seems as good a place as any to do so (being a librarian's blog and all). The books I read range in genre from fiction to theology/spirituality and more. I also tend to read more than one book at a time. This series of posts will only include books I have read in their entirety, which can include books I have read for the first time, or that I have recently reread.

Title: Theology of Wonder

Author: Bishop Seraphim Sigrist

Read or Reread: Read

Impressions: I picked this book up at the St. Vladimir's Seminary Bookstore back in June when I attended a week-long Summer Institute. I spent most of my money that week on course-related titles, but saw this book and decided it would make for a less-academically-demanding, spiritual jaunt for me at some later time. Well, several weeks later I began reading it, one chapter per night (roughly). Every chapter title is a single word, ranging from "Tree" to "Theosis." I'll be honest and say that I found these sorts of stylistic juxtapositions a bit jarring. Often in a single reflection-chapter Bishop Seraphim draws from literature, sacred texts from a multitude of faiths (including many non-Christian ones), and theological scholarship, woven together by his own poetic-prose writing style, and all arranged in order to speak to the subject of that particular chapter. Despite this unique style, several of Bishop Seraphim's reflections I found poignant and helpful. The chapter I enjoyed most was the one called "Hermit." In this chapter he addresses the desire of many an Orthodox Christian to find that special and holy relationship with an elder/spiritual father/staretz/geronda. (Think Alyosha/Elder Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov.) After reflecting on this a bit, he lands somewhere surprising and refreshing:
Now it seems to me that in every aspect of our involvement with the Divine we are at risk of missing what is actually there, and what God is sending us, in looking for something else. If I look again at the person next to me in line at the supermarket, perhaps he is the Hermit, at least at this moment and at least for me. (31)
I like this. It is good, healthy and--dare I say--joyful to go through our daily life, always on the lookout for that which God is sending us. Often, the remedy for our longings does not require a long journey to elsewhere to find that which we think we do not have, but rather, a journey inward to recover our sight, so that we can see the riches God has already provided. This, I think, is what this book hopes to teach its readers.

Summed Up: Spiritual reading that is light and varied, which will probably be enjoyed most by creative types who are not put off by thoughtful but meandering prose.


Update, 2/16/2010: It's worth noting that, because my blog went into hibernation several months after this post, this series of posts never really came to fruition. Perhaps I will resurrect the "Books I've Read" label, perhaps not. We'll see how things progress.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Christology of Good Storytelling

My new blog-friend Jenna St. Hilaire, who blogs about writing and other cool stuff at A Light Inside, is in the midst of a discussion via blog posts with another writer-blogger called Mr. Pond at The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, all about, of course, writing. More specifically, their discussion tries to get at what makes good writing exactly that: good. Since I do not write fiction myself (in an alternate version of my life, I might have, but...), I do not feel able to participate in the discussion at the level of detail they are. However, Jenna's most recent post, "Rules and Real," sparked in me a bit of a theological (and geek-tastic) response. I left her a long-winded comment along these lines, and I decided to repost it here, edited a bit for clarity. I encourage you to go read her original post in full, but since I quote the bits that matter to my point in my response (below), you may also simply read on to find out what Christology might have to do with good storytelling, according to lil ol' me:

Ok, here I need to comment on the following quote from Jenna's post, particularly on the quote's the first sentence:
"And the trick, for those of us aiming at the stars, is to write a tale that is both within our time and transcendent of it.
That is a resolution of contraries if ever there was one. Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling, disrespectful of history and therefore unable to learn from it, busy trying to immortalize itself in 140 characters or less per idea--this we must unite, somehow, to the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be."
So, maybe it's because I'm a graduate theology student at the moment and so I'm immersed in early Church writings about the nature of Christ, but this passage, especially its first sentence, immediately brought to mind for me the nature of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. The Word of God is exactly as Jenna has described a good tale to be: "both within our time and transcendent of it." He is both within the time He lived on earth (2000 years ago) and transcendent of it. (He is of course also present in our current time as well--He is in all times, both before and after His earthly sojourn--but that's another theological discussion separate from this point I wish to make right now.) I included the whole of Jenna's quote above because later on she uses the word "unite" and, again, that is theological, Christological language right there, and it was awesome to see that appear in this dialogue about good storytelling, storytelling that both speaks to us today and also taps into the greatest Story of all.
I wonder if, in a way, the Christological analogy can be taken a step further: if Christ can only save what He has assumed (i.e., our fallen condition, including death itself), I wonder if this means the good writer (in synergy with God and His grace) can take that which is fleeting and nailed down in the here and now (i.e., "Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling") and transfigure it from the inside out (as Christ does with us) by filling it with true Story (i.e., "the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be").
I'm not a fiction writer myself, but as an avid fiction reader I can confidently say I've encountered this kind of transfiguration of our time, our world, and our very selves (as reflected in full, rich characters) in great stories. It is like C.S. Lewis's statement in... one of his essays about this sort of thing (lol I read it years ago, sorry I don't have the citation handy). To paraphrase Lewis, he said something like: When we eat an ordinary piece of meat, it is exactly and only that: a piece of meat. But when we imagine that someone has hunted for this meat, encountered dangers while doing so, emerged triumphant, and because of that struggle and victory this meat is now before us, waiting to be eaten... suddenly the meat tastes so much better than it would have when it was just "ordinary meat." Story makes this transformation happen.

One follow-up: I just spent about twenty minutes skimming Lewis's essay "Of Other Worlds," from which I am sure I first encountered the idea about story transforming meat to the point where it tastes delicious because of the sense of story that accompanies it... But, I could not find exactly the image I thought was in that essay. I must have extrapolated the above (I guess I was in the mood for meat when I first read that essay years ago, ha) from the following quote of Lewis's, which is the closest I could find:
"The happiness which [a story where the characters are animals who talk and live like us] presents to us is in fact full of the simplest and most attainable things--food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That 'simple but sustaining meal' of 'bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding' which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual." (pp. 14-15 of the Harcourt edition of Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis)
I think, since his essay begins by addressing the sense of danger often found in good stories, I must have combined the danger-discussion with this little snippet about food tasting better for having passed through story (with a little of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet thrown in). Regardless, both discussions are talking about the same thing: at the beginning of his essay Lewis discusses a sense of danger (think Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans), and in this quote above his discussion has moved to a sense of preposterousness and absurdity, where he uses a story where animals talk and share fellowship as an example. (Since I'm currently reading as my de-stress reading Martin the Warrior, a novel of Redwall by Brian Jacques, I can relate to this about talking animals even now.) Each of these qualities (danger or absurdity) is what the essay's title refers to as, simply, "other." It is this otherness, or as Jenna puts it, this transcendence, which makes the ordinary meat (or Lewis's "real nursery dinner") taste better.


To conclude, the crux of my above response to Jenna's post is this: a good story has the ability to transfigure, by God's grace, the fallenness of our world and our selves, from the inside out--made possible because of Christ having done this very same thing for us on the cross. I think this, for me, is the measure of a truly "good" story--one that achieves this great feat.

Is this a tall order for the writers and storytellers out there? Perhaps. But, it's what I'm seeking when I devour book after book after book--a reader's quest, if you will. And of course I have found it (Thank God!), time and time again, and these are the books and stories that get at the core of me. They tell my story of brokenness and redemption back to me. A story that can do this, without of course preaching or "teaching a lesson" (none of my above discussion has anything remotely to do with didactic, moralistic writing), is what I would call good storytelling.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Revisiting Stories

I learned something remarkable this week. Or rather, I have been learning it, and will continue to learn it, but this week it crystallized for me.

It is about ingesting stories through art... As a person's time on this earth lengthens, and more and more life experiences accumulate, such stories only deepen.

This may seem obvious, and if you had told me this as an 18 year-old, I would have said, "Well of course, that only makes sense." But there is a big difference between knowing it superficially, and experiencing it in a way that takes one's breath away, as this 26 year-old recently did.

This happened to me twice within the past week. And both times, the experience drew upon the same moment -- from my past, but also in my present and future, since it will forever be a part of me and make me who I am at any given time since it happened. The moment is the death of my father.

Without dwelling too much on the moment itself, for the purposes of the remarkable thing I learned and experienced this week, I will just say this: My father's death was very hard, for myriad reasons, all very complex. It happened two and a half years ago, and involved three very difficult weeks in which my dad was in and out of the ICU. He is the closest person to me who has died, thus far in my life. Who I am, and the life I live, has not been the same since.

That being said, I now want to share about two bits of artistic storytelling which, for extended periods of my life during my teen years, were stories that worked on me. They are completely unrelated to each other, and they are also both stories I had not revisited since my dad died -- not for any noteworthy reason in particular, but simply because there are new and different stories (as told through art) that fill my days today. But both of these stories, I had cause to revisit within this past week.

The first is the HBO series Six Feet Under. I grew up in a home that, for better or worse, had HBO. When this show started, created by the writer of American Beauty (one of my favorite films as a teen), I knew this would be something I would like. And it was, for the first few years at least. The premise was quirky, the characters real. The story, as told every week in each new episode, did to me what it did to millions of viewers: it let me relate to characters who struggled with the hardness of life. And it told their stories in strange and wonderful ways. I confess, though, that after several years, and once my schedule in college became very full, I fell out of touch with the Fisher family. In the interim, I became aware that the series ended, but I did not participate in this in any meaningful way, other than nostalgic thoughts of the years of my life spent watching it.

The second is the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. Being both a theatre and fairy tale junkie, it is no surprise this show was incredibly important to me as a teen. I owned the VHS recording of the original Broadway production, as well as the cast recordings for both the Broadway and London productions. I knew the musical score inside and out. During my musical theatre days, I sang songs from the show. All of the stories told in it, and the bigger story they all unite to become, beat out a rhythm in my life for many years. But, as is wont to happen, my musical tastes expanded after college, and between folk music and Orthodox Christian chant, in recent years I have not found much time for the music of shows like Into the Woods. By not listening to the recordings any more, the stories drifted from the front of my mind and settled like a dusting of snow into the back recesses of who I am. I may not have been consciously aware they were still there, gently lingering, but they were, and thank God for it. They just needed to be woken up.

And so, I bring us to this past week. Last week my friend and colleague Teresa posted on her Facebook wall a link to the final scene and montage of the series finale of Six Feet Under. I thought, "Oh, yes, I remember really liking that show for several years. Let me give this a watch." (It is a 9:51 minute video clip.) And boy, as I watched the final montage, in which we are shown how each of these characters ends his or her life here on earth, and particularly how those who had gone before are waiting to greet each one as he or she passed... I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me. The images and sounds I was seeing and hearing penetrated a depth in me that did not exist when I watched the first episode of the series almost ten years ago. I know, of course, that this depth in me was created by suffering, and grace. But the entire thing was remarkable, that these characters and this storytelling, about death and loss, could have such an effect on me now, when nine years ago my experience can only have been superficial in comparison.

Then, yesterday, my other friend Beth began "Showtunes Week" on Facebook, where she will post a video with a fabulous showtune each day this week. I thought this was fun and decided to join her, and chose as my first video Bernadette Peters singing "No One is Alone" from Into the Woods. I watched the video of Miss Peters sing the song, which I have heard and seen many times (having owned the CD and VHS of the live performance in question; did I mention I was a big fan of hers?). She paints pictures with her voice, and it was lovely (and, of course, nostalgic) to behold. It caused me to decide to dig up the CD that had this recording on it, and I am currently revisiting it in my car. "No One is Alone" is the second song on the CD. So, on my way to work today I listened to the song again in the private world I enter when I am alone in my car. And a curious thing occurred: instead of stretching my voice in order to sing along with Miss Peters, as I would have done and always did as a younger person, I decided to simply listen. When she reached the words, "Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood," again this deep, deep place inside of me was pierced -- a place that did not, could not have existed the last time I listened closely to this song. (And I'm not counting having watched the video the evening before, because I did not listen closely but encountered only nostalgia at that point.) This song, about forgiving people you love for their mistakes, and also about recognizing that they are still with you and love you as best they can amidst those mistakes... Again, it took my breath away. And again, there is no way I could have truly understood this meaning in the song all those years ago, when I would listen to it on repeat and attempt to let it work on me as deeply as it could. It is clear that, whatever depth it may have reached in me as a teen, was nothing compared to what happened this week.

And so, this week I learned:

There is beauty and depth in stories told in artistic media. If the story is well-told, that will be evident the moment one encounters it. However: Never, ever think you have completely mined the depths of a story, even if you ingest it over and over and over again in a short space of time. (I was an obsessive kid, in case you didn't pick up on this yet.)

And also, and more importantly: Never, ever think that story has finished mining the depths of you. If it is a story worth telling, there is always something new and surprising (sometimes breathtaking) to encounter in it and in yourself.

And I suppose a third thing I learned is this: There is joy to be found in suffering. This joy comes when an encountered story manages to absorb your suffering into itself and tell it back to you. In this encounter, healing and grace are to be found.


Here are the two videos described above: