Friday, August 30, 2013

RIP Seamus Heaney

Your translation of Beowulf will always have a special spot on my shelves.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Doctor and The Master

I promise this will be my last post about Doctor Who for a while.*

When I wrote about Doctor Who the last time, I talked about how the sci-fi trappings are just incidental to what makes the series great: the characters and their relationships.  Specifically, the central character of the Doctor is extraordinarily compelling, and like a lot of heroes in a lot of great stories, tells us something about our Hero in the Great Story of salvation history.

It may be misleading to refer to the Doctor as a Christ figure.  That makes it sound like he's just an allegory, or suggests that all of his choices are perfectly admirable.  The character of the Doctor is a man, who can and does make wrong choices.  He wouldn't be interesting if he didn't.

But truth through story is so much more subtle and yet more impactful than allegory could ever be. 

"The Master" is often referred to as the Doctor's "nemesis."  In many instances, he appears to be the typical sci-fi super-villain, an egomaniacal, genocidal lunatic, set to destroy individuality and re-make humanity in his own image.  And the Doctor is the one whose job it is to stop him, of course.  So in that sense, "nemesis" seems an appropriate word.

But the relationship is radically different at root than the usual hero/evil nemesis framework.

In the final episode of the third season, the Master has taken control of the earth with an army of cyborg/human hybrids, etc.  (This is still sci-fi, people.)

The Doctor is imprisoned and seems to be beaten.  The Master taunts him with images of the destruction he is wreaking on the world and with his own powerlessness.

Several times, the Doctor tells the Master, "I have one thing to say to you."  Every time, the Master silences him, usually violently.  But he keeps persisting.

"I have one thing to say to you."

What is this one thing he has to say?  Perhaps he knows a secret from the Master's childhood that, when spoken aloud, will cause the Master to psychologically self-destruct.  Perhaps he has a grand and sweeping statement to make about how the human race, despite its apparent weakness, has some hidden weapon that will ultimately defeat their would-be destroyer.

But no, that's not it.

"I have one thing to say to you."

And at the end of the episode, over the Master's screams of protest, he says it.

"I forgive you."

That's the one thing.  That's the driving force behind the Doctor's efforts to reach the Master and to stop his evil, destructive choices.

Of course the Master has one bullet left in his gun: the ability to reject the Doctor's forgiveness and to refuse his own ability, as a Time Lord, to regenerate and continue his life under the Doctor's protection.  He dies in the Doctor's arms, proclaiming his own death a victory.

Later in the series, the Master reappears, of course - reincarnated after storing part of his life-force in a ring covered in ancient know the drill.  (This is still sci-fi, people.)

The Doctor pursues him, and the two meet face to face once again.  The Doctor listens to him rave for a while, and then has this to say:
The Doctor: You're a genius. You're stone cold brilliant, you are, I swear, you really are. But you could be so much more. You could be beautiful. With a mind like that, we could travel the stars. It would be my honour. Because you don't need to own the universe, just see it. Have the privilege of seeing the whole of time and space. That's ownership enough.
The Master: Would it stop then? The noise in my head.
The Doctor: I can help.
Granted, I'm a little over-emotional lately, due to bone-crushing exhaustion.  But these scenes just sent me reeling.  Because that's what our Savior says to us.

I forgive you. You could be beautiful.  I can help.

Christ offers his forgiveness and his healing to us tirelessly, repeatedly, God himself with very human tears of pleading in his eyes.  He wants us so badly, and will never stop telling us how beautiful we can be if we agree to travel with him.

Frighteningly, we have the ability to refuse that love.  We can look into Christ's eyes as he holds us in his arms, pouring his life into us, and tell him we want none of it.  We are offered that choice day by day, minute by minute. 

It is also frightening, but also hopefully exhilarating as well, to realize that this is the love we are asked to imitate.  If we are true followers of Christ, we should want to look into the eyes of those who have hurt the world and us most deeply and speak those words: I forgive you.  You can be beautiful.  And we should mean them.

Sometimes Doctor Who annoys me, with its ridiculous aliens and its sometimes clumsy plotting and its occasionally inconsistent ethical framework.  But at its best, it's the kind of story to which all makers of stories should aspire, showing humanity in all its hurt and helplessness but challenging us to consider that there is something - Someone - infinitely greater and more powerful at work who has just one thing to say to us.

* Yeah, right.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Three days left of the Summer from Hell of Shakespeare, and I'm trying to keep this in mind:

Praise our God, all peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard;
he has preserved our lives
    and kept our feet from slipping. 
For you, God, tested us;
    you refined us like silver.  
You brought us into prison
    and laid burdens on our backs. 
You let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and water,
    but you brought us to a place of abundance.

-- Psalm 66:8-12

Friday, August 23, 2013


To me, Scottish traditional music is the most beautiful in the world.

I like classical music and always have.  It's what I first learned on the instrument I always wanted to play, and some of it speaks to me very deeply.  I also like Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian chant and 60s rock and some old time and bluegrass and lots of more contemporary folk-inflected pop.

But to me, Scottish music is the most beautiful, and this remains true no matter how many arguments I hear about how this music or that is objectively better, or richer, or more complex.

I first heard Scottish music, really heard it, at the Ohio Scottish Arts School, a week-long Scottish arts workshop at Oberlin College.  My interest in the music had been developing for a while before that, and I'd heard plenty of recordings and even played some of it.  But I can't say I really heard Scottish music until I heard it played by my fiddle instructor, Bruce.

Bruce is short, squat and red-faced, wears hideous cutoff jean shorts and has a cauliflower ear from years of rugby.  When he's had a few (dozen) glasses of wine, he starts doing headstands in the middle of a session.

Also, he seems to have just up and swallowed the whole deep ocean of Scottish history and tradition, like that guy in the folk tale, and when he plays it just comes flowing out of him.  His fiddle is like part of his body.  I don't think I caught my breath for days after hearing him play for the first time.

Bruce gave me a scholarship to come back to the workshop the next year, which strangely might be one of the things I've received in my life that has made me the most proud.  To me it meant that he saw potential in me, so that maybe some day I could come close to doing what he does when he picks up a fiddle.

There's a word in Welsh that's not easily translatable into English: hiraeth.  It's most commonly rendered as "longing" or "homesickness," but those are oversimplifications.  To me it conveys much the same thing as C.S. Lewis's notion of "joy" and touches on that most fundamental of all human longings, the divine homesickness for a home we've never seen but that we know to be our ultimate destiny.

You can't go looking for this feeling - it just comes on you, brought on sometimes by the most trivial or unexpected things.  It is painful, because it is shot through with a deep awareness that we can't fulfill that deepest longing fully - not yet, not in this life.  But the hope is there too, the knowledge that there is a Person who can and will fill the emptiness, and that every small experience of virtue or truth or self-sacrifice or beauty is His footprint.

Scottish music is where I've encountered this feeling most often, and I don't think it's necessarily a coincidence that it's a Celtic language that actually puts a word to it.

This past weekend at Milwaukee Irish Fest, I discovered the first new band I've heard for a while that plays Scottish music the way I learned to love it.  They are from Nova Scotia, actually, and their music is billed as "fusion," meaning they use some non-traditional instruments and are inspired by different genres in their approach to traditional music.  But make no mistake - they are deeply rooted in the Scottish tradition and breathe incredible life and passion into it.

They have some absolutely kicking arrangements of dance tunes, but my favorite thing they played was a waltz.  When you find out that this tune was written as a wedding gift for a friend, it takes on an even deeper resonance, musically, emotionally, and even theologically. 

As Bruce would say, have a listen.

Jenn and Anthony's - Sprag Session

Friday, August 16, 2013


 I've always liked science fiction.  Star Trek is near the top of my Favorite Things list, and my dad had an anthology of classic sci-fi short stories from the 50s and 60s that I read cover to cover several times as a kid.  I've read Heinlein, Asimov, Vonnegut, et al.

Sci-fi is a philosopher's genre: a lot of sci-fi stories are essentially ethical or metaphysical thought problems dressed up with robots or mutants or parallel universes.  I like the way a sci-fi story will push some reality past its expected limits to explore the implications.

Given that I'm a sci-fi loving Anglophile, it's surprising that Dr. Who never really crossed my path.  I'd barely even heard of the show up until a few years ago.  Then, suddenly, I started hearing about it absolutely everywhere: the TARDIS popped up, like it does, all over my newsfeed and blog reader, month after month.

So I tried watching it, beginning with the 2005 reboot...and I couldn't get into it.  I really, really wanted to like this charming Northerner and his adventures in space and time, but for the longest time I couldn't manage to get hooked in.

Okay, relax.  I've gradually come around.  But it wasn't an instant love affair.

I think part of my slow start stemmed from the show's visual style.  The sometimes poor special effects are notorious, but it goes beyond that.  In general, I think the writers allow the storytelling to ride a little too heavily on effects, bad or good, and especially on the visual impact of various weird creatures.  I prefer it when the impact of a TV episode flows from the suspense and mystery and weird twists of a well-paced story more than from the fear and disgust and shock value of strange and unsettling images.  Star Trek keeps all of these things well-balanced, I think, whereas Dr. Who leans a bit too much on the latter.

Also, philosophical and ethical reflection is not as front and center in Dr. Who as in a lot of sci-fi.  It's there, and I'm seeing it more now that I'm two seasons in.  But a lot of episodes follow some pretty well-know sci-fi tropes and plot devices: robots who want to kill us, robots who want to make us robots, and of course zombies.  Lots and lots and LOTS of zombies. There's not all that much treading of new ground or asking of probing questions.

However, as I said, I've now settled in and I'm enjoying the show quite a lot.  I think the real genius of the series lies in the characters rather than the plot, and especially (of course) the central one.  The sci-fi trappings are actually kind of non-essential to what makes the show great.  That's why some of the best episodes are the time travel ones, because they delve a little deeper into the characters by placing them in a different historical and cultural context.

Speaking of the Doctor: am I the only one in the universe who likes Christopher Eccleston's Doctor best? I'm not really qualified to have an opinion on this since I've so far only seen him and David Tennant.  Well, I did go back and watch one episode of Classic Who from the 70s, but the Doctor was unconscious for most of the episode, so I really didn't learn much.

Anyway, Christopher Eccleston's Doctor just has more...substance to him that David Tennant's.  His performance has so much more weight and nuance and charm and doesn't rely on yelling and slap-happy bluster.  David Tennant is adorable and Scottish, but lacks a little in artistic maturity. Also, David Tennant's Doctor and Rose get way too gooey.  What is with all this hand holding and incessant hugging?  Harumph.

And then there's that smile, which somehow carries the weight of the Doctor's thousands of years of pain and loss.  That's acting for you.

UPDATE:  About David Tennant?  I take it all back.  Still love Christopher Eccleston...but David Tennant is a more than worthy successor.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


I'll hopefully be back to writing soon, though not for at least a week.  I have two article deadlines coming up and my husband is going into yet another tech week, so we're pretty much in Bare Minimum Mode for the time being.

In the meanwhile, I had to share this post from Fr. Longenecker, because...well, it's just perfect:
"I’m a liberal in the classic sense of the word–meaning I wish to have an open mind and an open heart to the viewpoints of others–seeking to embrace and affirm all that is beautiful, good and true in every philosophy, culture, group or perspective. I wish to have an open heart to those in need–to have a preferential option for the poor, to be suspicious of hypocrisy, cant, croneyism and the establishment powers. I want to be liberal in the administration of God’s love for the lost, the needy and the disenfranchised. I like the radical call of the liberal–I admire the maverick and the rebel amongst them. I follow a table turning Jesus.

I am a Conservative because I wish to conserve all from the past that is beautiful good and true. I believe if a thing ain’t broken you don’t need to fix it. I am a conservative because I trust things that have stood the test of time more than that which would replace it. I’m conservative because I want to conserve and repair something old and precious rather than junk it and get something new. To put down roots and grow deep and strong I want to value all that has been tested through generations of thinking people. I’m conservative because I want to make sure those good things from the past continue to live and be relevant and dynamic in the world today.

I’m progressive because I believe God’s Spirit is always doing something young, new and fresh in the world. God’s work is ever creative, ever new and ever bold. I’m progressive not because I believe that the progress of mankind is inevitable, but because it is possible. I’m progressive because all creation is groaning for redemption and God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. He is not dead and he is not done. He is not done with me and he is not done with our beautiful world and he is not done with the human race. I am progressive because I believe in his loving providence the best is yet to come.

I am Traditionalist because tradition provides the roots whereby the new work of God can blossom. Tradition is the trellis on which the vine can grow. Tradition gives the structure, the discipline and the wisdom which instructs and channels the powerful work of the spirit. Tradition treasures the beauties of art, music, architecture, literature and drama which echoes from the past into our age and gives us inspiration and guidance on how to go on. Tradition on its own is dead, but tradition with the power of the spirit is a dynamite that can transform the world and transform me.
I refuse any particular category and will kick out of any box, and I encourage readers who wish to be fully Catholic to do the same."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Healing, Continued

The church is a mother: It must reach out to heal the wounds, yes? With mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we don't have any other path than this one: before anything else, curing the wounds, yes? It's a mother, the church, and it must go down this path of mercy. It must find mercy for everyone, no? I think about how when the Prodigal Son returned home, his father didn't say: 'But you, listen, sit down. What did you do with the money?' No, he held a party. Then, maybe, when the son wanted to talk, he talked. The church must do the same. When there's someone ... but, it's not enough to wait for them: We must go and seek them. This is mercy. And I believe that is a kairos: This time is a kairos of mercy.
-- Pope Francis, at that interview (translation courtesy John Allen)