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My favorite Christian artists are the ones who could care less about the label. They are kind of yesterday’s news, but the Irish progressive rock band Iona has been making outstanding music for fifteen years that is unabashedly Christian and drop-dead beautiful. Try to buy one of their CDs in a Family Bookstore ®, though. The clerk will give you a blank stare and ask you what kind of music they play. If you describe Iona’s music you will probably be steered towards Caedmon’s Call or Rebecca St. James, both of whom are to Iona as a lightning bug is to a lightning bolt.
Ditto for Steven Bazan of Pedro the Lion, or Sufjan Stevens, or Danielson Famile, all of whom are wildly creative and deeply Christian. You get the feeling that their art isn’t a matter of “letting their light shine”, but of letting out a force that might do them irreparable damage if suppressed.
I’m trying to remember how the Christian ghetto got started. When I was a child and a young adolescent, we were all of us “Christians” and most of us Sunday School kids. Our churches were very nice places and had music by Bach, Mendelssohn, or Schubert as introits. The sermons were twenty minutes, timed, and usually contained references to racial integration, or neurosis, or existential anxiety. Those were the days of the hegemony of the Seven Sisters of the National Council of Churches, liberal Protestantism at flood-tide, the inheritors of Christendom, and, along with the Academy and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, guardians of the high culture of the West
We had friends who went to other churches, a little more thread-bare. The music wasn’t as elevated. Some of them couldn’t afford an organ and got by with a piano, or a guitar. The preaching (never a sermon, mind you) was embarrassingly direct and personal. There were bookstores in my town that catered to those churches, full of books that didn’t appeal to anybody who didn’t go to those churches. Most of the books were about the Bible; how to understand the Bible, or what the Bible said about this or that subject, about the errors of evolution or “the problems of youth” as seen in the light of the Bible.
Now, this was the status quo circa 1964. The President had just been assasinated, and the Beatles had just appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. The deceptively placid fifties were about to plunge headlong into the ferocious whitewater rapids of the mid to late sixties, and the whole brave liberal Christian experiment just evaporated like a morning fog. Most of my Sunday School colleagues lost themselves in the drugs and sexual libertinism of the sixties and the seventies, and emerged as secular entities, with little or no connection or allegiance to Christ or Church.
Another subset of us were harvested by the so-called “Jesus Revolution” in the last gasp of the ‘sixties and the early ‘seventies. This was an outbreak of revivalistic Evangelical Protestantism among young people that injected countercultural memes into the marginalized Evangelical Protestant culture of that era, and it was wildly successful as a marketing ploy, if not so much as a spiritual movement. When I was a student at a Pentecostal Bible School in the mid ‘seventies, there was a sharp division between the “Church Kids” and the “Teen Challenge” ex-hippies, even though we composed about one third of the student body.
The music though, was always marketed to us “just like Led Zeppelin, or Jethro Tull, but its about Jesus, man!” We lapped it up, rejoicing every time a mainstream musician like BJ Thomas or Bob Dylan “accepted Jesus” and came into our increasingly isolated little bubble, until their record sales improved and they left.
It never dawned on us that the reason to listen to Ian Anderson and John Fischer was the same; that they were competent artists with something to say. The shame is that once you disappeared into the ghetto, anyone outside of it wasn’t hearing you, unless, like Sixpence None The Richer or Evanescence, you managed a crossover success story that allowed you to escape the youth rally circuit and appeal to a wider audience. Usually, though, the tradeoff was that you’d forgo using that awful J-word.
Which brings me full circle to Iona, to Sufjan, to Daniel Wilson and his wonderful family. They are so talented, or so quirky, or so lovely, that they command attention by appealing to our common humanity, but they speak or sing openly and directly about Jesus as if He were the most natural thing in the world to talk or sing about.
Which, of course, He is.
And to Rebecca St. James’ credit, I heard that she spent a whole night at a CCM conference with her skirts lifted dancing on a table top to the tunes of Catholic merrymakers Ceili Rain . You go, girl.
In one sense, its a little misleading to speak about “successors” to the Inklings. The Inklings were not a self-conscious literary movement, and as far as I know, l there are no little coteries of academics gathering in a tavern on Saturday nights to drink and read excerpts from their works-in-progress. Would that it were so. Also, I think it is hard for us to appreciate how counter-cultural Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were, writing and publishing tales of the fantastic when the literary world was dominated by modern realists, by the likes of Lawrence, Hemingway, and Joyce.
These days, though, writing fantastic literature appears to be a lucrative pursuit., and the bastard children of the Inklings appear to have swept the field. “Fantasy and Science Fiction” occupies a healthy percentage of my local Barnes and Nobel bookshop, even more if you add the two or three shelves of “graphic novels”/manga with which it is customarily bundled.
What hath Tolkien wrought? There is so much fantasy on the shelves that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Trilogies abound, of course, and a lot of them take place in a pre-Modern setting where the red iron of brutish trolls and tragic High Elves clash on darkening plains. There is so much of this that I haven’t read because I don’t know where to start. In the ‘seventies I read the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin and found them engaging. I yawned my way through the first Shanarra book by Terry Brooks and the first Thomas Covenant trilogy and found both of them tedious and uninteresting.
Nor do I think that the self-consciously Christian fantasy works that have belatedly crawled out of the Evangelical presses in Wheaton or Grand Rapids to sulk on the shelves next to Janette Oke’s prairie romances or the horrid Left Behind series will beget much in the way of mythopoeia. Sure, there are plenty of brutish Shadowghouls clashing with High Lightbearers on the Iron Plains of Bethania, but there is always a Lost Book of Hidden Wisdom that restores the Balance, or even worse, smites the agents of Darkness with the light that pours off its pages.
I think the problem with “Christian” fantasy is that Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien operated in the jagged edges of Christendom, whereas the modern Evangelical lacks that framework. “Christendom” as a political and geographical substance is great mythopoeia in its own right, and the fantastic works of Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien don’t make much sense apart from it.
There are three series I feel bad about not reading. The first is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I have heard much good about this series, but also I have heard that it rambles badly. If I read something that requires that much patience and effort, I’d prefer to start with the Gormenghast series by Melvyn Peake.
The Harry Potter books I haven’t gotten around to yet either, although I did read the first volume in His Dark Materials. From a philosophical point of view, Christians should be far more concerned about Pullman, who definitely has a bitter axe to grind, than they are about Rowland, who just wants to tell a good story.
Finally, I think Steven King as a mythopetic writer has been woefully underappreciated. I haven’t yet read his Dark Tower series but I believe I shall have to. I believe King, along with such writers as William Vollman, Walker Percy, Philip K. Dick, Cormac McCarthy, and even William Burroughs are participating in a project of which the Inklings would be proud; the mythopoesis of America.
Neil Gaiman, in American Gods, stumbled upon the main theme of this project; America is poor breeding ground for the supernatural. We have no myths. Our country is an abstraction, based not on blood or belief, but on a sort of least-common-denominator secular frame of exchange, and we don’t know our hills and our rivers from the inside yet like the Germans know the Rhine, the British the Thames, or the Central Europeans the Danube. The strength of the hills is not yet in us.
The tarot has always fascinated me. I bought a Waite-Smith deck when I was 16 and entertained people by giving a number of accurate “readings” . I would not now recommend this, even to non-Christians. There is too much power and too little certain knowledge for Tarot readings to be safe.
However, even at that time, I was puzzled by the amount of Christian imagery in the Waite-Smith deck. So much so, that non-Christians, ex-Christians, or anti-Christians prefer to use other decks with less overt Christian symbolism.
Now, I am not a Tarot scholar, and the only other tarot deck I have ever held in my hand resembled the Marseilles deck, which dates from the 17th Century. The imagery of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck is in the same tradition. This is important because, I believe, Charles Williams describes the Waite-Smith Tarot deck in his novel, The Greater Trumps.
“Time enough,” he said. “Listen, among them is not the Chariot an Egyptian car, devised with two sphinxes, driven by a Greek, and having on it paintings of cities and islands?”
“It is just that,” the other said.
The Greater Trumps is a the best example of William’s plundering of occult themes to make an overtly Christian point. Some of his other plot devices are too obscure, like his use of Neo-Platonic Ideal Eminations in The Place Of The Lion, or too downright weird, like whatever is the ascetic exercise used by Nigel Considine in Shadows Of Ecstasy. The Tarot, however mysterious it may have been in the 1930s when Williams wrote the novel, enjoys a high profile now.
I have to admit I stand in awe of Williams’ effortless use of occult themes in his novels. He never dismisses occult power out of hand, nor does he associate it strictly with the diabolical. You get the sense reading Williams that there is only One source of power, and all subsequent exercises of power through whatever mediation is either a discharge of rightful duty, or a theft.
The occultists in The Greater Trumps, Henry and his uncle Aaron, enter as thieves, attempting to obtain and exercise power that doesn’t rightly belong to them. Through the bequest of a distant relative, Lothair Coningsby has come into possession of the original deck of Tarot cards. These cards can be used not only to predict events, but to cause them; not just to interpret reality, but to generate reality. The occultists first try outright theft, but when this fails, as it must in Williams’ cosmos, they fall back on Henry’s legal and emotional relationship with Nancy, Lothair’s daughter, to effect a loan of the cards, and from this all the conflict in the novel ensues.
But it is not Lothair’s legal claim on the cards that ultimately foils the occultists, but the seemingly inconsequential claims of his sister, the aptly named Sybil, whose only claim on the cards or the characters is that she loves them indiscriminately and without condition. This love supports her brother’s legal claim to the cards, strengthens Henry’s and Nancy’s love until it becomes something apart from the lever that Henry (and Nancy) wished to make of it, and undoes all the mischief released by the cards as a result of the manipulation of this love.
All of Williams’ novels portray the only story there is; the struggle between the Empire and the City, between those who would illegitimately place themselves at the center and beggar the periphery in order to glut themselves upon the surplus and those who receive from the true Center, add their poor, derivative contribution, awaiting the day when the fissures are repaired, and the whole fabric is awash with light and power.
Yusef looked down from the the bridge to the deck and to the lone figure leaning over the gunwales on the leeward side, facing the open ocean. They were now in the most dangerous leg of the long journey. After the run up the long western coasts of Lusitania they ventured into the fierce waters off the shores of Cantabria. They were now two Sabbaths out from Al-Gadir, and Yusef had put his young nephew to the task of scanning the horizon for signs of the sudden storms that were so common in the region.
“He’s quiet, and a good worker. His father has taught him well,” remarked the quick-witted Greek physician they had taken on in Massalia when they were forced to winter there. “The crew likes him, ” admitted Yusef, ” and there is no small virtue in that.” Of all the voyages a merchant could undertake, the tin run to Brittania, or as its inhabitants named it, Prydain the Mighty, was the longest, the most dangerous, but also the most profitable. However, the long tedious stretches of coastal navigation, together with the lack of civilized harbor for respite, made for frequent and sharp disputes among the crew.
“The crewmen take their disputes to him,” observed the Greek. “Ay that,” affirmed Yusef, ducking slightly to maintain his balance on the bridge as a sudden gust pushed them forward with unexpected speed. “He has a keen sense of justice, and an uncanny sense for uncovering the truth. With a gang of cutthroats like we have on this vessel, that’s invaluable. They take his word as if it were that of our Moshe Rabeynu.”
The Greek continued. “If he were lazy, or a drunkard, he wouldn’t command the respect he does, but he works like a young Trojan when we put ashore for repairs. He has a keen sense for wood, always picking just the right tree and fashioning just the right beam from it. He would make an excellent shipwright if he were to take up that trade.”
“I doubt Yashu will become a ships’ carpenter,” admitted the merchant. “He’s too good for this messy world. He’ll come to a bad end for it. What was it your philosopher said about the too-righteous man and his destiny? “
“Yes, the Thick One.” The Greek laughed aloud. “I’ve read that myself, although there are few that can abide his rigor in these degenerate days. Those who name him as their master now prefer to dazzle the masses with thaumaturgy, mix potions, and interpret omens. Hear the philosopher himself, then;
‘ the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be impaled.’
That is a grim judgement on your young nephew, my friend.”
The merchant narrowed his eyes against the salt spray. The wind had picked up considerably. “No. The judgement is on us, ” The merchant turned and shouted to the young man below.
“Yashu! Any sign of a storm coming?”
“No, father,” the young man answered. “The wind and the seas don’t agree. The winds are playful and forceful, but the ocean doesn’t sing their tune. She is as calm as she has been since we rounded the Tower. In matters like this, I would trust the sea herself before paying heed to these inconstant winds.”
Suddenly, the doors to the middledeck flew open, and one sailor, a tall ruddy Gaul with an earring ran out, hotly pursued by another. The second sailor, a swarthy Syrian, had drawn a knife and bellowed at the first.
“Son of a promiscuous jackal! Violator of she-goats! I’ll have your egg-sack pinned to my wall! Give me back my goddess, you worshipper of cow-shit and sticks!”
The Greek took a step towards the bridge stairs, but the older man put a hand on his shoulder and restrained him. “Let Yashu handle it,” he advised.
The Gaul ran forward to the prow of the ship and turned, running along the leeward side of the deck until Yashu stepped into his path. The Gaul stopped short and the Syrian collided with him. “What is the dispute, brothers?”
The Syrian let the knife fall to his side. “This Gaulish pig stole my goddess while I was sleeping, young master, and put it around ‘s own swinish neck. A gift from my dear wife’s mother it is, to protect me on this long voyage.”
“Liar! False Accuser!” hissed the Gaul. “I swear, young master. This was given to me by Melita, princess of courtesans, young master, in Massalia these three months gone. I had thought it lost until I saw it around this ape’s neck, if you can call that wine-barrel a neck.”
“Let me see the goddess, ” Yashu requested. Sheepishly, the Gaul slipped the amulet on its leather strap off his neck and handed it to the young Jew.
“Can one man steal the favor of the Divine from another? Would this not turn into a curse?” he asked the Gaul . “The master of this ship is a Jew, and a devout one. Did you not fear that he would be offended by these superstitions? Would it not be better if I cast this into the depths of the sea, and thus end both the argument, and the offense? ” He swung the amulet around his head as if to toss it into the waves.
The Gaul exploded. “That’s just like a Jew! It’s true, then, isn’t it? You care nothing for the gods. You have no god in that famous Temple of yours, just empty air! Go ahead! Toss the goddess into the sea, then, and bring her wrath down upon us all!”
The Syrian, on the other hand, begged the young man not to toss the amulet overboard. “Please, young master! Let him have it. It’s mine, let him wear it for now. It will find its way back to me, by the love of my wife and her mother. I’ll win it from him at dice, or a sea bird will pluck it from his neck and drop it in my lap.”
Yashu handed the amulet to the Syrian. “He who enjoys the favor of the Divine, can he lose it by force, or by the craft of another?” He turned back to the Gaul, who by his demeanor had all but admitted his crime. “You still fear the winds and the waves? Here, take this.”
Picking up a nail and a pair of tongs, he heated the nail in the charcoal fire and bent it into a circle. After plunging it into the cold water, he wrapped a leather strap around it and handed it to the Gaul. “We are all of us alive by virtue of nails like this one. Do you think that the nails on this ship weren’t happy to continue their underground slumber? Do you think they enjoyed being wrenched from their beds by the smithies, scorched to the point of melting, then driven with force into the sides of this ship unbidden to support our enterprise? Yet here they are, and as long as they do what the Divine has called them to do, we can continue to do the same.”
The Gaul bent his head. “Forgive me, young master. Fear unmanned me, and made my stomach weak.”
Yashu laughed, and the laugh disarmed them all, even the merchant and the surgeon. “Fear will unman us all, if we let it. But fear not. This voyage will not end with us feeding the fishes. My uncle is a shrewd and generous man, and few of his enterprises turn out poorly either for himself or those who cast their lots in with him. You will return to Massalia with as much silver as you can carry. You will marry a dark-eyed maiden with hair like a raven’s wing and sire a cohort of strong sons and delectable daughters. As they said of Joseph the Comely in our holy books, you will see your children’s children’s children.”
At this, the Syrian gave the Gaul a sharp jab in the ribs. “Now, Gaul, that’s a better fortune than returning to that pockmarked whore Melita.”
May the Lord have mercy on my presumption