24 December 2013

Playing for Peace on Christmas Eve

So this is Christmas: Fort McAllister, Georgia, the Confederate fort that marked the end point of General William Tecumseh Sherman's epic, two-month scramble from Atlanta to the Atlantic--the "March to the Sea" that gutted the Confederacy, ensured Abraham Lincoln's re-election, and gave to humanity the phrase, "War is Hell."

So this is Christmas--or almost so: a short battle raged for fifteen minutes on the 13th of December, 1864. Thirty men died, including twelve of the fort's defenders. Over 200 were injured (the Confederates had laced the woods with land mines. One hundred ninety-five of the fort's defenders were taken prisoner. When the battle was over, a Union soldier raced to the ramparts and waved the Stars & Stripes, informing the U.S. Navy gunboats that the fort had fallen. By water and by land the way was now open to Savannah. Confederate forces quickly, humanely--abandoned the city and slipped into the swamps of South Carolina. Sherman entered the city on December 21 and sent a message to President Lincoln, presenting him the city as "a Christmas present."

So this is Christmas: four boys advance on the fort, 149 years after Sherman's forces did. They advance at a run--double-time as Sherman might have ordered. But there is no order in their assault. One advances through the open gate, the others leap into the moat, slide through the palisades, and climb the sandy walls.  "One, two, three...not it!" one of them calls. A chorus of "not it" replies, and a game of hide-and-seek commences.  A fort is a great place to play hide-and-seek.

So this is Christmas: the prophet Isaiah thunders: 
"Every warrior's boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end" (9. 5-7)
I find myself drawn to this kingdom--this government--where swords are used only as plowshares, spears become pruning hooks (2.4); where "the wolf will live with the lamb" and "the young child will put its hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain" (11.6-9). 

But I am not living in the Era of Isaiah, nor is it 1864. I circumambulate the fort, walking between the rampart walls and the river, trying to imagine the sight of ironclads in the water, tuning my ears to the echoes of guns. 

My thoughts are invaded from time to time by calls from the battlements, "Dad?" 

"I'm over here," I call back. 

"Uncle JD?" 

"Don't worry."

So this is Christmas: I think of Isaiah again, and I grin. I think of a new poem:
The field of glorious battle will become a ground of hilarious fun
    Your ramparts will become jungle gyms
Shouts will sound from children who use your cannon as see-saws
    Your artillery shells will roll like bowling balls
In the place where your ancestors were killed and imprisoned
    Your sons will hide and seek, your daughters will run and shout

So this is Christmas: a time when the Prince of Peace haunts the grounds of war.

So this is Christmas: war is over--at least here in Georgia it is.

And this Christmas Eve, in a prayer for peace, I long for boys to play in Afghanistan and Syria and in South Sudan the way I have seen my sons and my nephews play here.

So this is Christmas.

02 September 2013

Book Review: Willa Cather's One of Ours

One of OursOne of Ours by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love-love-love Willa Cather's work. She's one of my favorite authors. Why doesn't she get the respect she deserves?

I think it boils down to the era in which she wrote. The inter-war renaissance of letters that found Ernest Hemingway at his peak, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner and eventually John Steinbeck (a regionalist whose works compare well to Cather's). Think of it this way. Do you remember the third-best hitter on the 1927 Yankees after Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig? Would you believe Bob Meusel hit .337 with 105 RBI? That's where Cather stands among the American writers of her day--and in my book, that's pretty darn good.

In One Of Ours Cather focuses on the story of Claude Wheeler a farm boy who is trapped between two worlds: he's smart enough to go to a Christian college--and excel at a public university, too, much to his father's chagrin--but he's tied to the land, and he returns to farm his property when his brother, Ralph, gets a farm out in Colorado.

Claude is passionate enough to attract a girl-next-door type named Enid, but again, he's trapped between two worlds, able to provide amply for Enid, but unable to receive passion in return (which she saves for her religious activities, ultimately ditching him for the chance to be a missionary in China).

The war arrives, then, to solve an existential crisis of Claude's. This is where Cather moves from My Antonia territory into topical stuff: America's reasons to join the war.

Europeans who read One of Ours will find its treatment of World War I vastly inferior to the rich literature that Europeans produced--and continue to write--around the conflict. But OOO is one of the few American novels that described the war from our perspective (again, it suffers against the competition of Hemingway's superior A Farewell to Arms).

But Cather brings out a central truth of the American Expeditionary Force that I haven't found in another American source on the war. Claude isn't fighting for empire, and his soldiers joke about the silly slogan, "making the world safe for democracy." Americans like Claude fight for existential reasons:
"But as for me, I never knew there was anything worth living for till this war came on. Before that, the world seemed like a business proposition" [Claude says]
"You'll admit it's a costly way of providing adventure for the young," said David drily.

Americans fought for personal reasons, not political ones. That's the way we waged the bloody wars of the 20th Century, and it's why our culture found something to glorify in every battle, unlike the Europeans who had fought and died on the very same ground in France, Indochina and the Middle East.

The war passes almost as a series of R&R visits to households in France. The battles are short and graphic. The final two chapters are well researched and vividly rendered, but they can't get away from the shallow self-indulgence that was Claude's war...and in relation, was America's as well.

View all my reviews

24 March 2013

Give Me This Cup: A Meditation for Holy Week 2013

It's almost Easter.

The senses awaken: a whisper in the air, "spring is almost come," and the smell.  Dirt writhes with worms, flowers burst to life.

My mind goes back. I see a cross.

And hanging there, a man looks back at me.

Or maybe he's not looking directly at me. His eyes seem distant--deadened by pain and heartbreak

He says, "I thirst."

My first instinct is to help him, although soldiers guard the condemned, and his mouth would be three feet out of reach even if I did make it to the cross.  I see a soldier wrap a dirty rag around the end of a branch. Perhaps he was listening, too.

The soldier dips the rag into a wooden bucket. He twists it in there.

I wave my arm at the soldier.  He doesn't see me.

I cry out--he doesn't understand a word I say--"That's not what he meant!" I call.

"I thirst."

13 February 2013

30 Psalms

The weeks between Epiphany and Lent are among the darkest of the year.

Sure, the sun sets before I can return home from my teaching job on most days, but they are spiritually muddled, too.

I blame New Year's resolutions. The Christian calendar has plenty of opportunities for reflection and the practice of discipline (like Lent), but resolutions throw a secular wrench into the works. I often spend January trying to lose weight, exercise more, avoid eating out, etc.  It is usually one of the more unexciting times of the year to practice my faith.

This year, I made a resolution that resolved this dilemma. In the six weeks between Epiphany Sunday and Ash Wednesday, I would write out 30 psalms by hand.  This idea isn't new, but the practice was for me. I accomplished my goal this week with two days to spare.

(Here's I need to give a shout out to my academy friend, Doug Pratt, who posted the idea to Facebook before Christmas. At the time I read it, I thought how silly it would be to try something like this during the busy, holiday season, but later I was inspired to try writing out 30 psalms after Advent.)

I just wanted to post some of the things I learned about the psalms during this encounter. I have extended my obsession with the Jewish Temple to meditating on psalms 42, 84, 95, 103, 130, and 40 in other blogs on this site, so I won't spend a lot of time on analysis on this blog.

  • I tried to be "led" to psalms. I'd hear one referenced in a sermon or on a Facebook post, and I'd plan to transcribe it.  For example, after one NFL playoff game, I saw Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis wearing a shirt that said, "Psalm 91." I hate the Ravens with the bitterness only a Cleveland Browns fan can know, but that night I transcribed the psalm.
  • I saved Psalm 30 for one of my last. It was a most pleasant discovery, especially given the context of Lent:  
    • "What is it to be gained by my spilled blood, by my going down into the pit?  Does dust thank you? Does it proclaim your faithfulness? Lord, listen and have mercy upon me! Lord, be my helper!" (verses 9-10).
    • What follows soon after is a foretaste of Easter: "You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop. Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever."
  • I was surprised how many of the 30 psalms dealt with the theme of revenge and retribution. I think of psalms as expressions of praise and devotion. In fact, many of them follow a pretty simple formula:
    • "I acknowledge you, God, and I write your praise
    • ---> "No other divinity is like you."
    • ---> "No other nation is like yours."
    • ---> "There are people who oppose your king/your nation" (they're the same thing in the psalms).
    • ---> "Please punish them severely. OK?"
    • ---> "Then you will be acknowledged and praised once again."
  • I love to worship, and I believe the Psalms represent exemplars of worship.
  • But I consider the act of begging God to avenge himself upon my enemies to be a sacrilege.
  • I transcribed from the Common English Bible--a recent translation that is supported by a number of mainline Protestant denominations--that had been given to Owen when he completed confirmation classes at church. It was the first chance I'd had to really get into this Bible.  
    • The language of the CEB was, well, common--as opposed to rich (I prefer the NIV or TNIV). For example, I searched and searched the words, "Be still and know that I am God" (46:10).  So many translations of the Bible fail with the psalms because the King James owns the rhythm and the texture of the words. Reading a translation of the 23rd Psalm without "he leadeth me beside still waters" is about as off-putting as versions of Shakespeare's that rephrase Hamlet, saying, "To exist or maybe not to."  
    • In the CEB, Psalm 46:10 reads: "That's enough! Now know that I am God!"
    • Really? Can one replace "be still" with an exclamation point? It's jarring. And the rhythm is totally off. At least the double meaning remains
    • The CEB overuses exclamation points. I get it with the psalms--they're emotional, they're passionate. But only poor writers mistake exclamation points for passion, yet that's what the translators of this version have done. I won't bother to count them, but 40-60% of the sentences in the psalms I transcribed ended with exclamation points, which is 39-59% too many of them!
  • I'm not sure if you can read from the picture, but the psalms I transcribed were the following: 2, 5, 8, 14, 18, 19, 22, 27, 30, 40, 42, 45, 46, 51, 63, 77, 79, 81, 89, 90, 91, 100, 110, 115, 121, 127, 137, 139, 146, 150.