Thank you for coming today. As Grandma said every time we were together: “Isn’t this pleasant?”
She had a lot of inspirational little catch phrases we all remember:
Life is just so daily
Sweetie, anyone can handle anything for just a little while
This too shall pass, and of course
This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it
But today isn’t a day to rejoice. The LORD made this day for us to grieve. To feel sad. To hurt… but for just a little while.
I have the rest of my life to take comfort in my memories of her. Today, I want to mourn what I’ll never know again in this body, and what I’ll miss until it’s gone.
Sunset over the back field of her house. The sound of a train through her bedroom window, late on a Friday night. Waking up to an eternal Saturday morning in 1978 with French toast, Apple Jacks, and Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
Like all the dead, Grandma is now a place in time I can remember but never visit again.
That hurts. And it should hurt. It’s good for us to hurt like this. We shouldn’t push it away. Hurt is a gift from God, if we know what to do with it. In every way, Grandma taught us that.
My 31st birthday was 10 days after 9/11. I had been laid off. I was despairing after the attacks and from the wave of ugliness that seemed to wash over the American spirit after. I was spiritually homeless after finishing seminary and leaving the United Methodist Church. She could see how much I struggled with it all and gave me a very special gift, a gift my very Southern Methodist Grandpa received from his very New York Italian flight crew in WWII during a special audience with the Pope in Rome, in gratitude for the Allied Forces who’d helped liberate Italy and the Vatican from the fascists: a silver and mosaic crucifix blessed by the Pope that had hung on their family room wall.
She gave it to me to remind me of Grandpa, and that hope springs eternal. Without so many words, in the suffering Jesus on the cross, she reminded me they’d lived through it all before: the Dust Bowl and unemployment in the Depression, loneliness and despair, years of war that changed our national character for the worse.
Her gift shed light on something else, something we ignore in the world, and in her: that sweetness is only born in suffering. That we can’t get the one without the other. That a cross without the suffering Christ is an empty promise. It helped me keep going, find my next job, and even do what disenchanted Methodist seminarians often do: I became Catholic. And I met my wife, Rosie. And we had two of her many great-grandchildren. And life goes on, struggle and all.
And I share that because she knows we need more than her sweetness. She knows we need her struggle too. It’s so easy to think they don’t belong together. Grandma baked the best brownies you’ve ever tasted. But don’t forget she also beheaded a snake once in that same kitchen with a hoe. The divot is still there in the linoleum. She wants us to know if we skip the hurt, the grief today, then God can’t do his mighty work in us tomorrow.
Our job as Christians is to be perfected in God’s love, to be made ready for eternity in his presence. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2Cor 1:5) If we are smart, we take the grief of this life as God’s good gift to bake away whatever keeps us apart from him. That’s what Grandma’s been up to these last couple of years. She’s been baking. Thanks to Mom, and Tom, and Nestor, Grandma was able to receive her final gift of suffering as comfortably as possible.
The great mystic Saint Teresa of Avila, riding to one of her convents, once fell off her donkey into the mud and injured her leg. “Lord,” she said, “you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?”
And in prayer, Jesus responded, “That is how I treat my friends.”
“And that is why you have so few of them,” she replied.
Everyone who spent even five minutes with Grandma agreed: she was a friend of God. So I look back on her life, especially the pain of it and the way she let God bake it into joy and caring, and I say thank you, God, for loving her so much.
Thank you for the little girl abandoned by her father, who chose total devotion to her grandchildren. Thank you for the hard work in the shipyards, and the fear of carrying Mom to term alone without her husband during the war, It gave her 40 years of independence and devotion to Grandpa. Thank you for her needing a soft place to land after fleeing the dead farm in Colorado with her single mother, for through it she touched the lives of everyone in this congregation and city. Thank you for her long life, especially these last painful years together: the falls, the fractures, the struggle to breathe, to eat, or even to think. Thank you for showing us Grandma was your friend, and using her to draw us all closer to you.
The saints are those who are made perfect in God’s love by embracing the pain of this life as their own share in his crucifixion. I will never be more confident that I have known someone who did that than I am of Grandma today, that we have indeed been blessed to live with Saint Edna of Livermore. So if you hurt today, if these are your dark times, then like her, take the grief you feel as your gift of suffering. Hold it inside you, let it bake in the heat of God’s love, and turn it to some good use for someone who doesn’t deserve it. Then, like her, you will know what it is to say, “This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
It’s been a nostalgic turning of the year. A first holiday visit back to my California hometown after a move to Washington was an important time to reconnect with family there, especially my aging grandmother who’s recovering in assisted living from a nasty fall. Working out of my father’s office for the week, I spent my lunch hours with her, and then went home to her house at night with my wife and two sons.
I made so many happy childhood memories in and around that house, it is often appears as a place of power in my dreams. It’s hard to watch the home age and the land change around it, wondering what the world is like when it is no longer here. I spent every Friday night out there with Grandma after Grandpa died, from elementary school to the time I left for college. So it was a bittersweet experience to put my own kids to bed in the tiny side bedroom that still has a sticker with my name on the door at kindergarten height. This is where Grandma and Grandpa met Santa Claus in 1974, when they slept in the downstairs family room for Grandpa’s last Christmas. Surrounded now by light industrial and condo developments, when it was built, the house was the only home on the Easternmost edge of a California railroad town on the very fringe of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the Depression through World War II, hobos used to chalk the fence posts down by the tracks to get a free meal from my grandparents after hopping off the boxcars entering town.
I remember standing on the fence watching the sun set and the trains going by, feeling very much like a seven-year old Luke Skywalker. That made it all the more poignant to see the new Star Wars movie with my father and two brothers one night down on First Street, where Dad took me to see the first one back in 1977.
If you’re the one person who still hasn’t seen it yet, there may be spoilers here. But hey, what can I say? I waited 32 years to learn what happened next. A spoiler or two won’t hurt anyone. Suffice it to say, as a first-generation fan, it was magical to see my original cast onscreen again. It has been criticized for being a mashup of the most effective elements of prior installments: masked villains, tiny mentors, deserts, snow, and forests. Even George Lucas has called it a “retro movie.” It is fun and flawed, with more emotional maturity than the first. A lot of that poignancy comes from the original cast of characters who have aged in story-time the same amount we have lived in the world off screen. Seeing it when and where I did, with constant reminders of the passing of time, I realized there’s a lot more going on in it than selling popcorn and introducing a fresh young cast. Where the original Star Wars trilogy was about growing up, the new one is about getting old, and that’s very much by design.
Consider the source material:
An immature farm boy learns his deceased father was in fact a knight, inherits his blade and begins his own quest to maturity and knighthood…
It’s a common enough theme, the classic Arthurian legend. It inspired Wagner and T. S. Eliot long before it inspired Lucas. In the Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell famously pointed out that Parzival was the jumping off point for Luke’s hero quest. Like Parzival, in the original trilogy, Luke meets teachers with a secret connection to his family, gets lost along the way, and ultimately becomes the knight his father’s heritage destined him to be. All well and good.
Thanks to Campbell, it started a generation of New Age obsession with the Hero’s Journey and following our bliss. Somehow, in all the excitement, we never noticed he only told the young man’s part of the story. The whole Baby Boom culture and its Gen X progeny was so entranced by the “Hero’s Journey” come to life, somehow we never noticed that Lucas left out the most important part. As Parzival, Luke never reached Act Two. We see him initiated, but to what end? The myth of Parzival makes that clear, but Star Wars never did. Until now.
On his quest to become a knight, Parzival is a bit of a buffoon. Dressing in home-made, ill-fitting armor emulating his father, he stumbles through adventures without knowing the first thing about chivalry, honor, courtly love, or compassion. Eventually, he wanders to a wasted land, ruled by a wounded king he finds fishing in the murky waters surrounding his ruined kingdom. It is the Fisher King, and his castle is none other than the Grail Castle. Inside, Parzival witnesses a silent procession involving a bleeding lance that wounded the king, and the Holy Grail. But naive Parzival makes the mistake of silence. He fails to ask a question the king and all his court have been waiting for, a question that would heal the king and restore the kingdom. Consequently, the castle vanishes. Parzival awakes to find himself alone in the moors and spends the rest of the tale trying to make his way back to ask the healing question.
Eventually he meets an old hermit priest, who instructs him in the way of true knighthood and of his family legacy. The Fisher King is Parzival’s uncle, charged with safeguarding the Holy Grail. Because of his wound, he is unable to father children to pass on its legacy. Only the Grail Knight can set things right by asking the healing question. Through the path of suffering, Parzival learns compassion. The way to the Grail Castle reopens to him, and when next he sees the Grail ceremony, he is ready. He asks the healing question, unlocks the power of the Grail, heals his uncle, restores the kingdom, and becomes the new Grail King. The End.
I propose that the writers are building the new Star Wars trilogy on the same Parzival foundation George Lucas laid for the first one. All the elements setting up the missing Act Two are there. Consider the deus ex machina in the final scenes, where Artoo just happens to contain the rest of the map leading back to the vanished Luke Skywalker. Notice, though, it’s a question (from BB-8) that unlocks it. And where does that question lead? To the ocean world of Ahch-To, the site of the first Jedi Temple. There an aging, wounded Luke Skywalker sits among its ruins, surrounded by endless gray seas.
As in Parzival, a question opens the way to the wasteland of the Grail castle. Here, the Parzival of the old trilogy has become the Fisher King of the new, waiting for a healing question that will allow him to restore the Kingdom (the destroyed Jedi Order) and pass its custody on to a new generation (Rey?). The new characters are all vibrant and exciting, but it is the old man’s quest that drives the arc out of this movie into the following films. Star Wars has finally gotten around to the rest of the story. If it catches on, perhaps that’s good news for a youth-obsessed culture, all fitted out for the Hero’s Journey these past three decades, but without a clue where to go next.
Just what is that healing question? It changes with the storyteller. In the earliest version by Chretien de Troyes, it’s “Who is served by the Grail?” In the expanded version from Wolfram von Eschenbach, it’s “Sir, why do you suffer so?” Either way, the question shows compassion, the key to becoming the Grail Knight. And if you replace “The Grail” with “The Force,” then you’ve got the likely master arc running through the new trilogy.
Q: Sir / Master, why do you suffer so? Who does the Grail / Force serve?
A: I was wounded by the lance / lightsaber, and only it can heal me. The Grail / Force serves the Grail King / Jedi Master.
Episode VII ends with Luke, a Jedi Master looking every bit the Fisher King, confronting the mysterious Rey handing him his father’s lost lightsaber, sharing a long, meaningful stare with no question asked. This is Parzival’s ceremony of the Grail Castle filmed on IMAX, and it leaves us with questions of our own.
Is Rey the Grail Knight he is waiting for? Has the Force awakened in her to restore Luke’s ruined kingdom, the Jedi Order? It’s implied she may be one of his old students, hidden away where she’d find the Milennium Falcon to carry her back to him when the time was right. In that theory, Luke trusted the future of his ruined kingdom to the Force to guide her home, knowing it would lead her to the map, the ship, and the blade until she was ready to find the castle. As a failsafe, he left the missing part of the map hidden safely within the memory of his R2 unit, who would know when to retrieve it once hearing the question asked. As in Parzival, only the true Knight could ask, because only the true knight had developed the compassion to do so.
Or, like Master Yoda said a lifetime ago, could there be another? Star Wars never steers too close to the original myth. It keeps the landmarks, but plots a different course between them. Writer Mike Klimo’s amazing Star Wars Ring Theory explores the very deliberate chiastic structure running through the first six films, how they fulfill leitmotifs in character, setting, and scene composition, while introducing variations around recurring themes. If the new creators are doing something similar, then Rey may be a bit of a red herring, her question left unspoken precisely to set up and thwart audience expectations.
Remember, the true Jedi / Grail Knight learns to walk the warrior’s path with compassion. They balance the dark and the light. On his way to becoming a true knight, Parzival blunders rashly through the story, trying and failing to be his father, in armor that’s too big. He only becomes a knight when he learns true chivalry and compassion from the priest and returns to the Grail Castle to undo the damage of his past failure. True, Rey is a bit of a cipher so far, but she doesn’t act rashly, hiding in a helmet with daddy issues. That sounds like another character entirely: Kylo Ren.
But he’s the villain, you say. Well, so far. We’ve seen role reversals before in Star Wars. Anakin was supposed to be the chosen one, but he became Darth Vader along the way. If writers have a chiastic structure like Klimo’s in mind, then what more appropriate reversal than having the seeming villain turn out to be the new Grail Knight in the making: a temperamental, Dark Side wannabe, obsessed with his family legacy and hiding in a helmet… but with an undeniable attraction to the light. Villain? Now, perhaps. But in good Star Wars fashion, I sense a hero in the making. I’m calling it now: Kylo Ren is the Grail Knight and hero of this trilogy. Of all the characters, he’s the one with the most potential for growth and the biggest healing if he opens himself to compassion.
If so, there’s another interesting element: before his return to the Grail Castle to heal the kingdom, Parzival confronts a knight who turns out to be his half-brother. Evenly matched, they fight to a draw rather than to the death and discover their hidden connection. They overcome their crusader era enmity and swear to serve the Grail together. The secret sibling in an important Star Wars trope too, thanks to Luke and Leia. If it plays out here again as the Grail Kingdom motif hints, there’s an undiscovered family connection somewhere down the line. The mystery of Rey’s absent family certainly leaves room for discoveries, but don’t forget Finn’s is a blank slate too. In fact, the Grail Knight motif makes him even more interesting in retrospect as the anti-Kylo Ren: a knight without a family, driven to get out of his white armor entirely. Regardless of whether the Grail Knight who can restore the Jedi is Rey, Kylo, or even Finn, it seems likely two will confront each other again as enemies but unite as family somehow before the Grail Kingdom / Jedi can be restored.
Back to Grandma’s house. I wish we had the Grail here, but all we have is compassion: the ability to sit with her, help her eat, and talk with her in disjointed conversations in and out of pain meds. As the week drew to a close, although I feared it may be my last stay in her house, I left feeling very much restored. In some small way I had introduced my own next generation to her legacy, sharing the surroundings and stories I loved with them, while spending important healing time with her.
In one of the uglier bouts of the inevitable fanboy snark, an online troll criticized Carrie Fisher’s age, appearance, and performance, labeling the movie a “rest home flick.” The classy actress tweeted back in top form:
Youth&BeautyR/NOT ACCOMPLISHMENTS,theyre theTEMPORARY happy/BiProducts/of Time&/or DNA/Dont Hold yourBreath4either/ifUmust holdAir/takeGarys
My latest entry at the Catholic Bibles blog, this time on an obscure edition of the Knox Bible from last century. Though different than my usual StoryWiseGuy fare, I do reference Star Trek, Star Wars, Tolkien, Harry Potter, and Graham Greene. I’ll link to it here in case it’s of interest. Feel free to check it out.
My faith and geek lives are converging. Small wonder, since the same well waters both: imagination. After all, what is a geek but someone who enjoys imagined worlds as much as the real one? And what is the life of faith, other than enjoying a real world that comes from a bigger imagination than my own?
I know that’s perilously close to Hallmark, but bear with me. There’s a big difference between active imagination and empty sentimentality. One is often lost in the noise of the other, especially at this time of year. So I’d like to set the record straight.
For those of us living in calendar time, the end of the year is coming soon, and that can mean only one thing: Christmas!*
[*Insert culturally appropriate solstice festival of your choice.]
For those of us living in Christian liturgical time, however, the year ended on November 29, and that can mean only one thing: Advent!
Chocolate-filled countdown calendars aside, Advent is not “a time to get ready for Christmas.” It’s not about decorating and cocoa. If you haven’t darkened the door of a church in a while, you may be surprised by what you hear at this time of year. You probably expect readings anticipating cozy manger scenes and snowy silence, newborn babes, peace on Earth, and gentle, soothing hope for a jaded world.
If so, keep looking. No room for that in this inn.
No, when Advent began last Sunday, the first words of the religious year were:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.” –Mark 13:33
In the religious imagination, Advent is the time to get ready for a new world, made perfect by God. The season is its own spirituality, not an adjunct to another holiday. These four weeks are marked by all the wonderful, rich, destructive/creative language of the prophets of Israel, calling impatiently for God to send his chosen among us, to unmake the unjust and broken world and fashion it again according to his own imagination.
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be?” –2 Peter 3:10-11
So, Merry-freaking-Christmas! Grab the emergency kit and pile into the Winnebago!
Surprisingly, Advent is the holiday of the Apocalypse, preparing oneself for judgment and the unmaking of the world. We just celebrate it immediately before Christmas to close the emotional loop. Ordinary time comes to a fiery end in darkest November, so that everything can start fresh in a stable as the days grow light once more. When all that fierce yearning on the page finally culminates in Christmas, the readings shock us with their sudden silence. The practice of Advent is a literary adventure, its narrative dissonance a thing of beauty. The Christmas candlelight that strikes so many now as cloying becomes something else entirely once the stars have melted from the sky.
In a world where Christmas and religion itself has been emasculated with sweetness, I long for a faith that dares to be more powerful than worlds. I suspect I am not alone. Like any child, I yearned for Christmas. Now, like any geek, it is Advent I look forward to all year. Religious or not, geeks are especially attuned to the spirit of Advent. We are used to the end of the world, after all. It’s the signature theme in our chosen vice: genre fiction. Thirty years ago, for instance, worlds lived, worlds died, and nothing was ever the same.
DC Comics was turning 50 and having a late mid-life crisis. They had published the monthly adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest for decades. Their stable of characters, now hundreds deep, had been created or acquired through World War II, Viet Nam, and the Cold War, somehow surviving each cultural shift, yet struggling to connect with each subsequent generation. To remain relevant, the publisher had created a complex fictional multiverse to house their vibrant cast of spandex-clad characters. The original Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had emerged before the Manhattan Project. Their old four-color adventures seemed quaint to the modern geek of the Atomic Age, but were cultural vanguards that couldn’t simply be abandoned.
The solution seemed simple: give them their own fictional world. By the 1970s, the Superman I read each month wasn’t “the same” Superman that my father had read as a boy. Though there was no official transition, it was just understood that my adventures took place in the current publishing line, deemed “Earth-1,” while my father’s had been relegated to a parallel universe simply called “Earth-2.” The line stayed fresh without jettisoning heritage. My Clark Kent, after Christopher Reeve, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, lived in an apartment at 344 Clinton Street and worked as a television news anchor. Dad’s Clark Kent, the original intrepid news reporter, grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing to age and have unpublished adventures there. Occasionally a story would cross between worlds, the characters would meet, and we’d be treated to a nostalgic little update on the thrilling days of yesteryear.
However, as DC continued to acquire intellectual property from other publishers, they brought them into the fold on their own fictional, parallel Earths. Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel (Shazam!) now took place on Earth-5. American Comics’ Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters? Earth-X. Blue Beetle and the entire Charlton Comics catalogue of characters now comprised Earth-4. By the start of the 1980s, it was a bit of a mess. DC Comics had invented the superhero, but was bleeding market share to upstart Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, The Avengers). Moreover, the newsstand was dying, and independent publishers captured more and more of the direct market that replaced it. So they did the unthinkable: they destroyed their worlds and started over.
Fans who had read for decades, and kids like me, were transfixed by a year-long epic called “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” In it, all of DC’s characters in all of DC’s worlds band together to stop the Anti-Monitor, an all-powerful cosmic force that feeds on the death of one fictional dimension after another. A convoluted, fan-driven story that doesn’t always hold up to modern scrutiny, it can still pack quite a punch. Gone is the original universe of the old Superman and Batman stories. Both Supergirl and the Flash sacrifice their lives to stop the Anti-Monitor’s plan. In the end, only five alternate realities remain and avoid annihilation by merging into a single reality, sharing a single history. In one stroke of the pen, the publisher combined all of its far-flung properties into a single world rich with new storytelling potential. Characters that before could never meet, now could team up… or had even been friends for years. Fan-favorite alternate versions of characters from the 1930s could still stick around as legacy characters, inspiring younger heroes by the same name. Characters could be relaunched entirely for fresh takes on familiar stories. Some could be written out entirely.
Though there have been minor tweaks throughout the years, the latest in 2011, the “Crisis” of 1985 brought the advent of a new trend in imaginative fiction. Shocking in 1985, the idea of demolishing stories and starting them over now permeates popular culture. Everywhere you turn in genre fiction, stories are getting retold, rebooted, and reformed for new audiences. No longer a Victorian, Sherlock Holmes is now a fixture of modern London on the BBC. Thirty years and five series of Star Trek were effectively unwound in 2009 through a time-travel plot eliminating every episode and movie ever filmed, and replacing every character except for Leonard Nimoy. The 1970s sci-fi camp of Battlestar Galactica became masterful television drama in 2004, sharing only the names of the original characters. This summer, Godzilla rose again for the first time, but on the American side of the Pacific. A new take on Planet of the Apes is breathing new life into that old franchise. Director Bryan Singer patched up his flawed and popular X-Men series with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Like Star Trek above, a time travel plot removes past entries in the series… only this time, just the bad films! James Bond took a mulligan in Casino Royale and although time travel wasn’t involved, it may as well have been. Judi Dench had just replaced “M” for Pierce Brosnan’s seasoned Bond, only to have the series rebooted under her, playing the same character for Daniel Craig as a Bond in his first adventure. Even Scooby-Doo is about to be rebooted next year.
UPDATE 12/15/14: Looks like the Scooby Gang isn’t the only one getting a do-over makeover. After 73 years of unbroken publishing history, Archie Andrews and the Riverdale High Gang are being rebooted for modern sensibilities. An epic combination of creators Mark Waid and Fiona Staples will start readers afresh with a new Archie #1 in 2015, going back to the “origin” story of the classic Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle and getting the gang together for the first time… all over again.
In a way, this is nothing new. Folk and tall tales are meant to be reinvented with each retelling. Until now, however, media properties have not. We tend to look at them as snapshots of their time, moments frozen on film that rerun with our own memories on the late night cable of our lives.
It’s tempting to see this merely as a lack of creative imagination, a crass cashing in on worn-out franchises and middle-aged male nostalgia. After all, the list above reads like the contents of a fourth-grade boy’s bedroom floor in 1980. That would be true, if only the properties proved inferior to the originals. As a fan, however, it’s painful to admit: the results are often amazing. Where the originals may be “classic,” the re-imaginings are “powerful.” More than just remakes, they offer a depth of characterization and plotting the old versions aspired to yet simply couldn’t contain.
Instead, I see a popular culture that’s making favorite fiction into oral tradition, a kind of urban renewal of the imagination. Similar to the religious imagination, geek culture must move beyond the collector stereotype of “sealing the past in plastic.” Like prophetic faith, it is learning to let go of the idols it’s made of its playtime. If favorite worlds are going to live, and become the best versions of themselves, then they must die and be recreated in love. It’s not “another Hollywood remake.” It’s geek evangelism.
Kind of exciting really. Like a rebuilt engine in a classic car. Like old wine in new wineskins. Like Advent.