Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #45”

So we’ve made it to the end now.

Somewhere on the internet more than a few years ago now, I read a very smart person detail a theory of story that centers one specific part of any narrative: the ending.  The context there had to do with the issue of religious texts, specifically the Christian Bible, and the need for a story about a world that is ongoing to imagine some kind of ending as a way of imposing meaning on the thing that is still in progress.  The New Testament ends with Revelation, an apocalypse, because the tradition of apocalyptic literature has always been about presenting the end of one thing and its replacement with something new.  John of Patmos’s Revelation is as much a political document as it is a religious one, serving as a manifesto about the injustices of the Roman Empire at the same time that it presents this fantastical vision of old suffering passing away into new flourishing.  The modern reading of the text as a vision of a literal future robs Revelation of much of its depth and consequently cheapens the whole of Christian visions for the future.  Perhaps it’s human nature that compels us to try to flatten out the Divine into something limited and containable.  We’re just as hungry for endings as we are repelled by them because on the one hand they bring closure and on the other they eliminate mystery.

The Wicked + The Divine is a series that I had to work to get into.  I’m pretty sure I’ve written in the past that my first reading of The Faust Act was underwhelming and more than a little confused.  I knew that Jamie McKelvie’s art was totally engrossing, but I had so many questions about the world by time I reached the technicolor splash of Lucifer’s not-actually-exploded head that I wasn’t sure why this particular series was the new hotness.  Perhaps the most fortunate thing about the timing of my picking up WicDiv is that it came at a point where I didn’t have much expendable income, and my relatively small library of comics demanded that I spend more than a single read-through with them.  The second time through things made more sense, and I felt some deep affection for Laura as she struggled with feeling like the sooner her life ended the sooner she’d be done trying to make sense of it.

In the intervening years I’ve become a fairly dedicated fan of Kieron Gillen’s comics writing.  My first exposure to him was his X-Men run, which revolves around the Schism, the thoroughly gonzo Generation Hope, and the Asgard-inflected crossover event Fear Itself.  He did some wild stuff in there, and that was within the constraints one of Marvel’s biggest serialized IPs.  To this day I’ve still not read his and McKelvie’s Young Avengers, although it sits on my to-read list.  I have read the entirety of Phonogram, and I continue to have the nagging feeling that I need to go back to it again.  Die is excellent, heartbreaking fun.  His extended Star Wars saga begun on his run in Darth Vader and carried on through parts of Doctor Aphra and the main title of the space opera series is deeply engrossing.  Something about Gillen’s style and subject matter seriously clicks for me as a reader.  Moreso than his style though, I think I’ve come to appreciate a core part of his ethos as a writer: Kieron Gillen doesn’t like mystery.

I don’t mean that in the sense that he doesn’t like to write mysteries; unanswered questions are one of the great pleasures of going through any of his extended narratives.  What I mean is that Gillen is a writer who always and forever sets out to demystify what he does as a writer.  It might be a holdover from his earlier career as a journalist or just a tic in the way he processes his craft; I don’t know.  The point is that even if he doesn’t want readers to know what’s going to happen next, he always works very hard to let you know exactly what he’s doing with a story.  My great joy in reading The Wicked + The Divine was always to go back and re-read the series after each major revelation; new facets in this ornate, crystalline structure would suddenly come into view and there’d be another layer waiting to be found in the old issues.  The only real worry was that as the end approached, the limits of the story would show.  You can’t have undiscovered country forever.  The mysteries, planned to become obsolete with time, would eventually give way to the full meaning of the work.  We’ve been warned this was coming for years; it’s still not easy to accept.

In the middle of the last arc of The Wicked + The Divine, my mother died.  This was back in May, so it wasn’t too long after issue #43, the one where Laura finally shows the others how to break Ananke’s cycle, was published.  I was in the middle of doing a re-read of the series on Twitter, and somewhere in the jokes and the half-clever insights I sort of hit a wall of realization.  My relationship with my mom was left in a holding pattern for most of my adult life because I never figured out how to communicate with her in a way that invited deeper understanding about who we were as people.  We were affectionate to each other, but the relationship felt shallow, at least to me, and I had settled into a kind of complacence about it all.  The finality of her death shocked me, not precisely because her life was over, but because the possibility of adding new dimensions to our relationship was gone.  The end came, and now there’s just the meaning of our shared time to turn over until my own life is done.  It’s no wonder that Gillen’s chosen to end The Wicked + The Divine with a funeral; how else could you finish something so preoccupied with mortality and ephemerality and the search for meaning in chaos?

They’re so cute together. (Cover by Olivia Jaimes)

Turning to the issue itself (what a long preamble), I feel slightly wary of posting an image of the cover here because it resolves one of the great tensions of the series: does Laura survive?  Monthly readers already know the answer to this; she does, and she has a long life after all the business with the Pantheon.  Trade readers, like I was before I decided I just couldn’t wait for the final arc to be done, don’t yet know what happens, and the twisty, turn-y nature of WicDiv kind of demands that the spoiler wall be respected.  Also, it’s been pretty clear in the online milieu that Gillen and McKelvie have wanted to keep the cover under wraps for now as well.  What can be posted here is the alternate cover by Olivia Jaimes which nods towards one of the most delightful turns of the epilogue, the eventual romance between Laura and Cassandra.  While their friendship has been pretty central to the story at various pivotal points, this last revelation marks it as a key anchor point in Laura’s character arc.  Issue #44 ended with the implication that Laura and Eleanor were OTP, but Gillen swerves that ship pretty deftly in the finale.  It’s most beautiful specifically because the elision of Laura’s life from the end of the Pantheon up to Cassandra’s funeral leaves plenty of space for anyone who prefers Eleanor and Laura together to imagine the shape and length of that relationship.  We only know that it ended; the rest is up to the individual’s headcanon.  There is a little bit of undiscovered country left for us to sit with.

The question of Laura’s series of one-and-onlies points towards the larger theme of this coda: all the survivors of the Pantheon, while bound together by the shared experience, have gone on to lead whole other lives independent of what they did when they were cool teens.  For readers, the great mass of The Wicked + The Divine is the story of the eighteen months between Laura’s attendance at Amaterasu’s New Year’s 2014 concert and her incarceration for Ananke’s murder after the confrontation with Minerva at Valhalla in mid-2015; for the characters, there’s forty years after that which both add layers of significance to their youth and diminish it as a part of larger lives.  The meaning of it all isn’t clear to them because they kept going, and examining, and living.  Cassandra’s death is an occasion to pause and reflect on the facet of the cast’s lives that the readers care about, but while it signals one kind of closure, everyone else continues on with other things.  There’s no great secret or meaning to be found here beyond the usual reaffirmations of human connection and bonding.  Zahid still mourns for Valentine and his ruthless love; Umar is haunted by spirits from his past; Jon can’t help but continue to make things just as Aruna has persisted through everything to make art; Zoe and Meredith have moved on from a moment to which they were never sure they belonged.  Everyone is just busy living because they’ve no idea what to do with an ending.

And it’s okay.

Leave Things Better

On Saturday morning Rachel Held Evans died.  I read the news while I was sitting in the car waiting for a long freight train to pass so I could check out the offerings for Free Comic Book Day.  I had heard, mostly by accident, that she had been ill.  It was the sort of news that tends to pass with mild interest and concern when someone you know of but don’t know has a misfortune.  Rachael and I had a brief conversation about it over drinks a couple weeks back; we hoped that she got better and expressed general disgust that some folks in the white evangelical church were taking the opportunity to score points on someone who was in a coma.  The whole episode feels sort of detached from reality at this point, a moment where you have to acknowledge the worst might happen but the sheer wrongness of it makes you balk.  The state of things slips your mind until you get the final news almost out of nowhere.  You wonder if it’s better to have had a little warning that slipped your mind or to face this new status quo with all the surprise and shock that comes from reading a headline about someone being dead at 37.

This news has a minimal impact on my life as it is now.  Held Evans had transitioned pretty solidly from being a regular blogger about progressive Christianity to being a professional author and speaker, so I encountered her ideas pretty rarely in the last few years.  On a purely practical level, it means one less account in my Twitter feed talking about things that I’m not really interested in; the goings on of the Church, outside the impact its shenanigans have on our society at large, don’t concern me anymore.  Her account was a vestige of an earlier phase in my life.

What I found myself meditating on the most over the weekend was the impact that Held Evans had on me years ago.  She was the first Christian thinker that I remember reading who argued that you could support progressive social policies without betraying your commitment to the faith.  Her writing on egalitarianism was essential to Rachael and me figuring out how we wanted to model our marriage.  When she wrote way back in 2008 about why she felt that Barack Obama’s proposed policies would actually lead to a reduction in the number of abortions performed in America due to implementing positive social programs to help impoverished families manage having more children, I saw a way of thinking about one of the keystone issues in evangelicalism that was markedly different from what I’d been taught as I was indoctrinated into the Church late in college.  I didn’t come around to progressivism until halfway through Obama’s first term, but that old post still resonates when I think about why women need bodily autonomy and the hypocrisy of the anti-abortion movement.  I’ve moved much further from the Church than she ever did, and there have been a lot of other influences since her, but I can say with confidence that where I am as a person today has its roots in her writing.

Acknowledging that, I then begin to speculate on the counterfactuals.  If Rachael and I hadn’t been exposed to Held Evans’s writing when we were, what would our lives look like now?  Would the trajectory be relatively similar, or would missing that first step have left us stuck in a faith tradition that didn’t really suit either of us?  Would our marriage be as good as it is now without those primers on egalitarian relationships?  I don’t know, and of course, I can’t know.  What I wonder about now is the reality that other people won’t have her as a guide to a similar place anymore.  How many folks are going to be stuck in a place of confusion and unhappiness with their faith because of all the things that she can’t say now?

In the end, everything there is to say feels inadequate.  This shouldn’t have happened, but it did.  The only thing left to acknowledge is that things are better because she was here.  Now that she’s gone, we’re all the poorer for it.

Thoughts on Outside the Lines

One of the few non-graphic books I decided to pick up last year is a relatively brief (only about two hundred pages) book on Christian theology from a queer theory perspective.  Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith by Mihee Kim-Kort, a Korean American Presbyterian pastor who is bisexual, falls in that category of pop theology that I used to consume with some regularity many years ago, but with the twist that this volume uses a progressive, non-proof text-y lens.  It’s taken as a given that the reader is comfortable with Christianity as a faith rooted in the advancement of social justice and that the exclusionary hermeneutics of the Christian Right don’t have traction.  From there, Kim-Kort launches into a series of personal essays exploring different social topics as experienced through Christianity and application of queer thought.

Cover of Outside the Lines. (Image credit: Fortress Press)

The thing that becomes immediately apparent when you start this book is that Kim-Kort has in mind for her audience a group of (probably mostly white) Christians who are totally down with a progressive agenda but need a lot of 101ing on how to approach things like gender and race in a way that’s not exclusionary or othering.  She shares extensive anecdotes from her own life about what it was like growing up as a child of Korean immigrants and her experiences discovering her bisexuality in the context of a community that always encouraged the heteronormative path of marriage and children for its members.  Many of these stories are exceptionally gentle in their delivery, giving the sense that either Kim-Kort was particularly fortunate in how the people around her responded to her self-discovery or that she’s eliding much of the tension that typically arises from openly assuming a queer identity with a community that’s heavily invested in heteronormativity (a significant exception comes from a brief passage in one chapter where she acknowledges that her husband was initially uncomfortable after she began incorporating elements of queerness into her identity).  As to why this particular rhetorical approach is adopted, I suspect that part of it is the very prickly nature of bringing an essentially conservative community (even progressive Christians tend to be a little weird about queerness and race as social dynamics) into a more empathetic understanding of a thing it’s historically ignored or derided.  From my place on the progressive spectrum, it can feel puzzling to see so much care taken to preserve the feelings of an audience that holds relatively high privilege in comparison to the difficulty of the author’s own lived experience.  I have to remember that it’s one of the irritating parts of education around social issues that there’s a disproportionate amount of emotional labor that the teacher has to do in comparison to their students.

Once I came to peace with the fact that the book’s target reader is someone much less immersed in intersectional feminist thought than me (and I write this knowing that there’s a lot that I still misunderstand and get wrong), I was able to settle in and appreciate the text for what it is.  The breadth of Kim-Kort’s topics is relatively wide as she discusses gender identity, promiscuity, the nature of bodies as an essential part of human experience, romance and friendship as competing idealized relationships, and the insidious nature of purity culture as a mode for patriarchal control of women, among other things.  There’s a relative lack of depth on these topics, but as introductions to the central problems of various cultural assumptions common in American Christianity, Kim-Kort’s writing does a serviceable job while keeping things framed in a context that should be familiar to her readers.  She occasionally steers into territory that might come across as slightly scandalous to her readers (she has an extended meditation on the queerness of priest’s robes as women’s dress in a profession that’s historically been available only to men), but it’s mostly a very gentle expansion of ideas.  Her chapter called “The Friend Zone” irritates me primarily in its failure to say unequivocally that the concept of the friend zone is used primarily to discourage men and women from finding satisfaction in platonic friendship with one another.  Generally, I find the whole volume to be a mixed bag of ideas that is a net positive for pushing progressive Christians to think more carefully about how they react to encounters with queerness.

If you’re someone with a history in the American church who’s looking for a book about how to better incorporate queer thought into your conception of the faith practice, this one isn’t the worst option.  As someone who tends to feel a bit of anxiety when I set foot in churches these days, I never felt particularly put off by Kim-Kort’s writing or ideas beyond a general disappointment that she doesn’t go farther in her arguments.  If you know someone who is just beginning to explore how they can become more inclusive and progressive in their faith, then this book might be a good read for them.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine: 1373 AD”

The long and short of this issue is that people tend to be messed up in a lot of ways, and any religion that takes bodily mortification as a central tenet is going to exacerbate those messed up tendencies.  Maybe it’s my own history showing a little bit (that does tend to happen from time to time when I read and think about things), but the sorts of abuse that this issue’s Lucifer takes on herself from all sides feel particularly heart wrenching.  There are lots of ways to do fundamentalism, but they all seem easily recognizable for what they are when you’re no longer in it.  The deeply embedded self loathing tends to give it away.

The more I think about this cover the more I find to love about it. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this final period issue plays with the iconography motif that’s always been a central element of The Wicked + The Divine‘s visual aesthetic.  Framed in the imminently recognizable tradition of Roman Catholicism, the cover has Ananke and Lucifer presented in stained glass in the respective roles of penitent and absolver.  This is roughly what happens inside the issue, except that Ananke predictably lacks all remorse and Lucifer (cathartically) offers no absolution.  The story’s primary beats are caught in a single glass panel, much like how you would see depictions of significant events from the life of Jesus in a cathedral with the key points of each scene distilled down to a few key details that serve as visual touchstones for the stories the audience would have heard many times before.  There’s a nice connection in this cover between the modern comics medium and its sequential art forebears (what are the Stations of the Cross but an old comic and The Wicked + The Divine but a pageant of suffering leading up to the deaths of gods incarnate?).  You can even see the same reliance on visual motifs, a necessary component of a medium like stained glass that demands a simplified depiction of its subjects,  to identify characters like Ananke’s ubiquitous mask (which she doesn’t wear at all in this story) and Lucifer’s red eyes.

For a series about gods and how we relate to them, The Wicked + The Divine up to this point has largely shied away from exploring how modern religious believers would interact with the gods as a known quantity.  The one small nod we got in that direction back in the first issue with the fundamentalist assassins turned out to be a red herring, so there’s really nothing beyond this issue that explores the subject in significant depth.  In the premise of the series, which posits that the Pantheon’s world is exactly like ours except that figures resembling mythological gods appear every ninety years, the question of how these incarnations impact systems of belief is left up in the air.  Cassandra’s skepticism suggests that the lack of documentary evidence of the gods’ powers makes it easy for people disinclined to believe in them to ignore the whole thing, but that doesn’t explain what the effects on true believers might be.  This story, focusing on medieval France and a devout Catholic woman, finally considers the Pantheon in relation to Christianity; given Lucifer’s prominence in the historical issues, this has been an open question hanging in the background of each one-shot.  In 1373 it finally comes to the fore.

I never went to a church that did Communion like this, but it’s easily enough recognized. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue begins much like it ends, with an enactment of Communion (or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Table, or whatever particular name for the Christian tradition of symbolically, or metaphysically, consuming the body and blood of Christ you may be familiar with).  The sacrament serves as an introduction to the era and culture we’re going to be examining here; Europe is in disarray as the Black Plague has swept across it, and in Avignon a member of the Pantheon conducts her penance while awaiting her end.  This Lucifer is a Catholic nun, her horns filed down to nubs on her forehead and her place in her order permanently set outside the sanctuary where the diseased rats scurry.  She’s convinced of her own damnation while submitting entirely to the sovereignty of God.  Where every other Lucifer has been a rebel or iconoclast, this one instead embraces her role as the defeated in a larger cosmological game.

What makes this Lucifer so striking is her sense of surety about her own identity, even before she ascends.  In a flashback, the woman comes to Ananke and declares before any other words can be exchanged that she knows that she is Lucifer.  The rationale for this self identification rests on her history: her mother died in childbirth, and her father resented his daughter as the cause of his wife’s death.  The loathing conferred by a grieving parent onto his child became internalized to the point that she actively identifies with the fallen angel.  It’s a terrible backstory, but the internalized self-loathing encouraged by a faith that requires constant self deprecation and supplication to the deity rings true.  When I was an evangelical, there were certain mental gymnastics that I was in the habit of doing as part of the faith practice; in a system governed by the doctrine of utter depravity, it wasn’t unusual to meditate on how unworthy I was of salvation.  Needless to say, this sort of attitude about my own self worth (really, it’s easy to devalue yourself when you have a regular mantra in your mind about your status as a helpless sinner who deserves to go to hell) did a number on me.  Lucifer’s self loathing is of a piece with what I remember about the darker parts of my evangelical days; it’s only in her resorting to flagellation and other physical punishments that Lucifer’s attitude about her own being feels more extreme.  While her final act serves to bring some sort of just punishment, however ephemeral, on Ananke, she spends her final breaths begging forgiveness for the crime of being who she is.

All I’m saying is that this is not that far off the mark from how abusive strains of Christianity make its adherents feel about themselves. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Speaking of Ananke, the version that we see in this issue is probably the most repulsive of the series to date.  I know that all Anankes are more or less the same person inhabiting an endless series of bodies, but this one, with her callous reflection on how she created the Black Plague as part of an experiment with the previous Pantheon and her general indifference at the effects of her actions beyond ruling them as a mistake she’d prefer not to repeat, really angers me.  We’ve seen in the Mothering Invention arc that Ananke is a ruthless killer who only cares about self-preservation, but the way that she inflicts mass death on the world on a caprice and then completely rejects any sense of guilt about her actions makes her deeply monstrous.  The whole point of the issue is to do an exercise in contrasts with Lucifer, who feels guilty about everything, including stuff that she has no control over, and Ananke, who feels no remorse despite her direct responsibility for at least one massive social catastrophe and scads of murders.  These two characters are worlds apart until they unite in an inverted Communion: the innocent devil delivers her corrupted body to an unrepentant sinner and burns the both of them to pure ash.  It’s all very “too much” which is always what WicDiv strives for.

Ananke’s whole thing about feeling constantly out of place and bewildered by the way the world changes is such an old person thing. I know feelings of displacement accompany aging, but I can’t think of anyone who deals with that angst less gracefully than Ananke. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Next time we’ll finally get a break from doom and gloom and talk about the issue with a load of ridiculous origin stories and more than a few excellent jokes (for a certain value of excellent).

It’s happened before. It’s happening again. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Re-Reading Magik (Part 3)

The Magik miniseries ran from the fall of 1983 into the winter of 1984.  That’s the same year that the original Ghostbusters was released and Jack Chick published his infamous anti-Dungeons & Dragons tract, Dark Dungeons (there’s a throwback post for you).  These three things all hail from disparate parts of the pop culture landscape; one was an obscure religious tract detailing the dangers of using one’s imagination, one was a major vehicle for a few of the late ’70s and early ’80s biggest comedy stars, and one (the subject of this series) was a tie-in to a comic that spun off from the Uncanny X-Men right when it was turning into Marvel’s biggest cash cow.  These creative works had nothing to do with each other, but they all feel tapped into a major phenomenon of that era: the satanic panic.

To get an idea of what the satanic panic looked like, here’s a bit from a post by Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk:

The rise of charismatic Christianity and talk of “spiritual warfare,” along with movies like The Exorcist, fueled a new dualistic supernaturalism among Americans. This was given credibility when we watched the news and witnessed the evil, grisly acts of murderous cults like the Manson “Family” and Jim Jones and the People’s Temple (Jonestown). A “satanic panic” arose in the 1980’s fueled by revelations of “repressed memories” indicating that large numbers of children had been subjected to Satanic ritual abuse (SRA). A new diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder looked a lot like demon possession. Christian comedian Mike Warnke made a meteoric rise to popularity, with outrageous claims of having been delivered from Satanism. He told stories that scared the pants off Christian parents and youth alike who flocked to hear him speak and to buy his books and recordings. Preachers engaged in a focused critique on rock music’s occult influence on young people, especially in the “heavy metal” genre. These years saw the rise of the “New Age” movement. Popular Christian fiction writer Frank Peretti wrote best-selling books about “spiritual warfare against a vast, seductive New Age conspiracy” that was taking place in towns like yours and mine.

This account is specifically from a white evangelical perspective, but it still captures the zeitgeist that much of America was feeling in the early ’80s.  The supernatural was real, and it was dangerous, and the worst thing it could do was get to your children.  Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wanted to poke fun at it, Jack Chick wanted to capitalize on it, and Chris Claremont wanted to use it as a backdrop for his version of a “Little Girl Lost” story.

It’s sort of comical how obviously Belasco’s design is cribbed from traditional depictions of the devil. Also, note Illyana’s caption at the bottom of the panel where she admits to herself that she’s attracted to what Belasco’s offering despite knowing it’s dangerous. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

In retrospect, I think it was this evocation of the satanic that really appealed to me when I first read Magik about a decade ago.  In the years immediately after I graduated college I was very deeply immersed in the white evangelical subculture, and while this was the late ’00s, within white evangelicalism we were still in a lot of ways stuck back in the ’80s.  The concept of spiritual warfare, which asserts that all worldly conflicts are also overseen by equivalent conflicts between the forces of God and the devil, was a major aspect of white evangelical life.  It’s easy to see the echoes of this concept descending from the satanic panic of three decades earlier.  The conflict of Magik resonated with other Christian-branded media I consumed at the time like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (published in 1986), which tells the story of a battle between angels and demons in a small town where a New Age cult has infiltrated the community and begun brainwashing people into devil worship.  At the time I didn’t really grok that these different areas of pop culture were related in theme because they were all made in a span of time when much of American pop culture was preoccupied with these motifs.

What all this means for Magik is that while it’s pretty obviously a story about abuse, when I first read it I was drawn to the corruption elements in the story because they reflected the internal struggle that white evangelicals recapitulate for themselves all the time.  When you see the world as being fundamentally a struggle between your baser nature (never forget that the Calvinist idea of utter depravity is the harm that keeps on harming) and the influence of a morally upright divinity trying to exert its influence on you, it becomes pretty easy to relate to the scared little girl who finds herself attracted to the temptations of power offered by the red man with horns and a tail (and only a left arm because who doesn’t love visual coding to reinforce the untrustworthiness of sinister people?) while continually chastising herself for being tempted at all.  Even the final issue’s conclusion, where Illyana sees herself succumbing to Belasco’s influence and choosing to spare him to keep from becoming exactly like him, is fraught with subtext about refusing to engage with the devil using his own methods.  Illyana wins the fight, but her solution for coping with the corruption is to bury it inside her.  In the final pages of the series, she uses her powers to not only escape from Limbo, but to also alter her appearance so that she doesn’t look like she’s just spent seven years in hell.  It’s one last bit of obfuscation to help the X-Men accept her as an innocent victim when she feels at least partly complicit in the changes that have happened to her during her formative years.  Inside she feels depraved, but she puts on a shiny facade in a way that’s highly reminiscent of the ethos of white evangelicalism to never let inner difficulties show because those simply aren’t accepted by the larger community.

There are words to be said about Illyana’s appearance as this story progresses, but I think that will have to wait for another entry. Suffice it to say, her growing horns and a tail are pretty extra for a sequence that’s more satisfying to read as her reclaiming her agency from a long time abuser. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Musing on Prayer and Other Things

The other day I shared on Facebook this post from Samantha Field about her reflections on how prayer operates in her life.  It’s a good read that opens up some significant questions about the topic at hand.  She starts off by listing out the three most commonly cited aspects of prayer’s function in Christian practice:

I was taught that prayer is a combination of a) something we’re supposed to do for God just because, b) a conversation where two people get to know one another, and c) the means we have for asking our deity for things.

This is stuff that totally resonates with me from my evangelical days.  After I converted, a massive part of my spiritual education was built around developing good “quiet time” habits which were split between reading the Bible and praying to God.  I was supposed to do this stuff because it was how I got to know God better; the fact that prayer always felt like a one-sided conversation where I had to be the person keeping it up (I am very poorly practiced in sustaining conversations that don’t revolve around a topic in which I take an interest) didn’t especially help my enthusiasm for the activity.  Of course, this sort of reluctance was expected from a baby Christian, and my pastor at the time had a saying about it that went something like, “It starts as a duty, turns into a devotion, and eventually becomes a delight.”

He was really thrilled with the whole alliteration thing.

In the whole six years that I was really serious about the evangelical thing, I don’t think I ever got past the “duty” phase with prayer.  There was this expectation that when you prayed to God you had to follow a particular format: acknowledgement and glorification of God, thanksgiving, intercession (that’s a fancy word for praying on behalf of other people), and only at the end putting forth any of your own requests.  Somehow I internalized from this that prayer as a method of asking God to do things for you was something of a last resort; God’s will was always meant to be the top priority, and since the aim of Christianity as I understood it at the time was to better submit oneself to God’s will, that meant that asking for things was kind of a frivolous exercise at the best of times and downright ungrateful at the worst.

As a side note, I recall this need to constantly express gratitude as a major source of emotional turmoil, because sometimes things just weren’t that great.  The constant reinforcement of the idea that people are worthy of eternal punishment just for existing didn’t help matters much either.

So in my experience with prayer I was hesitant make requests, and I didn’t really get the whole “get to know God better” thing because that seemed like a task that was better served through just reading the Bible (keep in mind that this was during a time with my Biblical hermeneutic was still, “what it says on the page is what it means; don’t think too hard about translation and transmission of the text”).  I latched on to the idea that prayer was something you could do reflexively while you were reading; God knew all your thoughts anyway, so why not just approach time reading Scripture and reflecting on it as your prayer and be done with the mess?

In my transition out of evangelicalism one of the first casualties (if you want to call it that) was my quiet time habit.  Shifting hermeneutics made reading the Bible on a daily basis a challenging prospect (and after my recent attempt at reviving the practice for Lent, I realize it’s just not something that I prioritize), and the discarding of inerrancy only sealed the deal.  I lost the one thing that I had been able to hold on to as a way of performing prayer, and I’ve been sort of adrift with the practice ever since.

Field talks extensively about her own practice of prayer in her post-fundamentalist life, and what I find so resonant about it is her emphasis that prayer is most effective in a communal setting.  Here’s how she describes what her small group does:

For 15-30 minutes every week, everyone gets to share what’s on their mind and heart with a group of people whose only job is to listen. It’s not a problem solving session, and while common experiences and advice might get shared that’s often absent or not the point. The entire point is that a person gets to share what they care about, or what troubles them without interruption– and they’re doing it in the context of the belief that this moment of vulnerability is sacred. Each week, I’m asking them to care about what care about, and the response is always unanimous: yes, we care. Yes, we will listen for as long as you need. Yes, we will bring this to God. You’re important, you matter, and not just in a metaphorical sense. We will purposely set aside time and space to listen to your heart.

It’s an expression of prayer as relationship not just between the person and God, but among the community of believers.  I find it most remarkable that Field has found a group of people where group prayer doesn’t operate as a way of spreading church gossip (if you’ve ever been in a group that did prayer requests, you’ve probably observed this sort of behavior).  She acknowledges that that’s a rare quality to find, and it only works in this setting because everyone trusts one another enough to not talk about personal things outside the group without express permission and to not use sensitive information against people later (I’ve seen both of those violations happen to people I care about, and it’s a huge thing to establish that kind of trust with your group).

For myself, I don’t know that I’ll ever find a place for prayer in any form within the rhythm of my life.  I find that faith is something best practiced in community, and absent a faith community that I trust it will probably continue to be a less prominent part of my life.  That’s not a suggestion that my identity as a Christian is gone; it’s just not something that receives the same metacognitive attention it did when I was in evangelicalism.

Thoughts on Castlevania

After a month of preparing to move and another month of actually moving, we’re finally (sort of) settled in our new place in Portland, and that means that I can get back to blogging!  The extended mental break has been really nice, as the predominant attitude about my blog has shifted from “ugh, I need to write something…” to “man, I really want to write something.”  It’s been a pleasant change, and with the sudden need for a new computer (my old one, which is approaching a decade of active use, decided somewhere in California that it doesn’t like most of the internet anymore) I’ve been really itching to get back to writing.  Fortunately, my replacement laptop (a lovely little Chromebook which has significantly stripped down functionality but an impressive battery life and low weight to make up for it) arrived in the mail today, and I’m raring to go (there’s also the teensy matter of a bunch of electronic chores I need to do that I was putting off until I got my computer, but that’s none of your concern).

So, the first thing that Rachael and I did after we got internet set up in our apartment was boot up Netflix and watch some television to pass the time while we await word on what’s going on with everything we own in the world (it’s a long story that deserves its own post).  We started off catching up on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic because we apparently never finished watching Season Five a while back (the likely explanation is that Rachael was still in graduate school when we started it, and we stopped because she didn’t have time to enjoy it with me).  Following that, I decided I wanted to explore some of Netflix’s newer offerings while Rachael did some of her own work.  I had heard that there was an animated Castlevania series that had been developed for Netflix, and I admit I was curious.  I’m a longtime fan of the side-scrolling iterations of the series (ever since Symphony of the Night) and I have a passing familiarity with the lore, so I thought the animated series would be a fun indulgence.

Castlevania netflix titlecard.png

Castlevania title card. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t realize the series was so short (it has only four twenty-three minute episodes in its first season), but given the quality of the animation (this was obviously a pretty expensive series to make) I don’t mind.  General impressions are that it’s a very “dudely” story (this is the word Rachael uses to describe stories that revolve almost exclusively around men and their feelings); it only contains two female characters, and one of them doesn’t survive the first half of the first episode.  If you are off put by stories that revel in manfeels, then this will not be a series to your liking.  Because the animation is so high quality, there level of gore is remarkably intense; people regularly get dismembered and maimed during action sequences, and there are no discretionary cutaways.  If you’re easily squicked, this is probably not the series for you.

Now, caveats aside, I really enjoyed Castlevania.  I was prepared to settle in for a thirteen episode saga of Trevor Belmont reluctantly setting out to defend Wallachia from Dracula’s monstrous hordes, and then was pleasantly surprised to see the story arc wrapped up neatly at the point where Trevor has assembled his allies, successfully defended a single city, and is ready to renew his family’s mission.  There’s plenty of ground left to cover in the course of this story, and I’m curious to see where it goes.

The single most intriguing thing about this version of Castlevania is its exploration of the intersection between faith, superstition, and scientific thought.  The games have always toyed with these motifs, but the side-scrolling platformer is not really a genre that lends itself well to especially deep storytelling.  I’m not too familiar with the plots of the early games, but I think the animated Castlevania is meant to be a retelling of Castlevania III, which is chronologically the first story in Castlevania lore.  The inciting incident here is the execution of Dracula’s wife, Lisa, a physician whom the Church accuses of witchcraft.  Lisa is the only human who isn’t afraid of Dracula’s supernatural powers, and her willingness to come to him for insight into how to be a better doctor marks her as the only good product of humanity he has ever encountered.  Her murder throws him into a rage, and in retaliation he assembles an army of demons from hell to wipe out humanity in Wallachia.  It’s the conflation that the Church priests (and the Bishop most specifically) make between science and supernatural knowledge that’s most fascinating here.  This world clearly has supernatural and magical elements; Dracula truly is immortal and possesses vast powers, but he and his son are also clearly skilled engineers; Dracula’s castle is filled with mechanical and electrical marvels that exist far outside the realm of human knowledge in the late fifteenth century.  Even Trevor, whose family specializes in fighting the supernatural, seems familiar with some of the same scientific concepts.

The equivocation that the Church priesthood makes between the supernatural and the scientific perhaps isn’t the most original of plot points, but I think it’s novel to the Castlevania series that it’s been so explicitly established here; tensions between the superstitious aspects of religious practice and carefully skeptical rationality of scientific thought have previously just been window dressing for a horror-inflected adventure story.  Serious grappling with the Christian Church’s history of trying to crush other avenues of knowledge as heretical or demonically influenced is a new one for the series.

I’ll be looking forward to seeing if another season gets made and where it intends to go with these ideas next.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty (4/21/17)

I bought Crypt of the NecroDancer and Thomas Was Alone last weekend.  I have not been doing much writing this week.  Therefore, have a small link roundup while I try to gather my wits to write about something more interesting.

Politics

  • “Georgia’s 6th is a Democratic Win” by Jamelle Bouie.  Bouie is one of my go-to sources for political analysis, and it’s really heartening to see that things are trending in a better direction since the November election.  I would have been happier if John Ossoff had won outright, but if we see this sort of performance in other special elections over the next few months, then I think Bouie’s point about this signalling a sea change in the electorate is a solid one.
  • “Georgia’s Progressive Renaissance” by Michelle Goldberg.  Related to the Bouie piece, a look at the grassroots movement that made Ossoff competitive.  I am rarely proud of my home state these days, but this is one of those times.
  • “Still a Factor” by Isaac Chotiner.  Bill O’Reilly’s ouster should have come years ago, but we take our victories where we can get them these days.  Chotiner discusses how the worst parts of O’Reilly have metastasized in the form of 45, who has pretty much the same schtick, but with slightly less self-awareness.

Current Events

Gaming

  • “Final Fantasy VII’s Cast, Revised.”  The artist featured here did some pieces where he redesigned the core cast of Final Fantasy VII as Black people (and in Barret’s case, as an Asian dude).  I quite like it.

Faith

  • “A Match Made In Heaven” by Molly Worthen.  This is partly a review of Frances Fitzgerald’s new book The Evangelicals, which details the history of the white evangelical movement in America.  It’s mostly an exploration of how the core values of white evangelicalism led to adherents’ overwhelming support of 45 (*cough*besidesracism*cough*).

Music

  • “Kendrick Lamar’s Complicated Political Score-Settling” by Spencer Kornhaber.  I’ve only listened to Damn a couple times since it came out last week; hip-hop still isn’t a musical genre I take to easily, but I liked Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered enough to want to sink into his new offering.  All the reviews I’ve seen suggest that there’s a lot here to love once you pick it apart.

Mental Health

  • “Semicolons and Blank Spaces” by Ben Sheppard.  I met Ben years ago when I first moved back to Athens.  He was getting ready to go to some far off northern place to study theology.  We hit it off so we did the Facebook friend thing, and ever since I’ve followed what he’s been up to with interest.  Ben’s a smart guy who has always been really honest about his experiences with depression, and in this essay he puts a lot of things in perspective.

Lenten Reflections: Week 6

Following my post from last week, my friend James sent me a pdf of Augustine’s Confessions.  I’ve never read the Confessions, but in light of my observation from last week that one of the things I’m beginning to find comforting is the idea that faith is practiced in dialogue with generations of thinkers trying to suss out what they think God is like.  Augustine is pretty foundational to Western Christianity, so his Confessions seems like a good place to start.

The first thing that immediately springs to mind in starting the Confessions is that Augustine seems to have an immense love of paradox.  The first four chapters of Book I are entirely standalone, dense paragraphs where Augustine is waxing philosophical about the nature of God.  The third chapter goes on at length about the paradox of God’s omnipresence, leading Augustine to meditate on whether this means that God is located within Creation or outside it, and if the whole of God can be simultaneously contained in everything or if individual parts of God exist in individual things.  There’s also an interesting bit where he ponders if the size of the object impacts how much of God exists within it (does a blade of grass objectively have less God than a person?).  This whole exercise is weird and discursive and feels like it’s somehow diminishing the quality of God; I don’t think most people are accustomed to thinking about a person in terms of amounts that fill different sized vessels.  That I still think of God in personal terms and find it odd that here at the beginning of the work Augustine is playing with ideas that de-personify God strikes me as… weird.  Maybe this is just a bit of strangeness that will be easier to grok when I get further into the text; it seems that wanting to think of God in personal rather than quantifiable terms would be a foundational part of a faith that’s predicated on believing that God incarnated as a person.

Of course, when I say all this I’m overlooking the fact that the translation I’m reading makes exclusive use of the familiar “thou” when Augustine addresses God.  Yes, it’s a translation, and no, I don’t know enough about Latin to make a judgment about if Augustine is intentionally using a more familiar form of address.  This feature of the text could either be an artifact from the translation being published in 1955 by a scholar who appears to have a relatively conservative view of Christianity if the introduction is anything to go on, or it could be a reflection of the Western Christian tradition I’m grappling with; either way, it does indicate a rhetorical stance where Augustine, even as he knows these thoughts were going to be published, treats God as something of a conversational partner.  This sort of posture isn’t one with which I’m totally comfortable; I grok the concept of prayer as direct address to God, but writing my thoughts towards God down for others to read is a different sort of animal.  Like I wrote last time, I feel much more comfortable with the idea of the faithful sussing out the nature of God among themselves rather than the direct conversation model that I recognize as being from evangelicalism.  It’s probably worth recognizing for myself that that tradition has much deeper roots.

Augustine’s decision to write his text as a direct address to God likely ties in tightly with his decision to title the writings his Confessions.  Confession to God of sin is a major part of Christian practice, and since much of the Confessions are ostensibly about Augustine’s own journey to conversion and realization of his own sins, the format makes sense.  I’ve been pondering the significance of confession in a more modern sense, and one idea I’m playing around with is the concept of confession as understanding of self.  To be able to identify one’s own faults is not precisely an easy task, especially if one’s faults have inflicted a lot of harm on other people.  No one likes to feel like they’re in the wrong, and the act of confession forces them to confront that reality.  In terms of good Christian practice, I’m trying to understand confession as a parallel for the act of self examination.  The assurance that God is supposed to offer as a person of infinite love and acceptance helps ease the difficulty of confronting our flaws and trying to pursue a better example.

One last note before I wrap this post up: in the seventh chapter of Book I, Augustine goes off on this discourse about how even though he doesn’t remember being a baby, he’s totally sure that babies are full of sin, seeing as they cry when they want something, regardless of whether what they want is good for them or not.  He’s sure of this because he’s observed babies being jealous of each other.  This sequence is amazing because he assumes that the motivations of infants are more complex than just wanting the things they need to survive, and that the fact that they cry means they are being manipulative little sinners.  In what I’m sure will be the first of many such moments, I have to disagree with him completely just based on a rudimentary understanding of childhood development, but also because seriously, he’s saying that babies are sinners who deserve to go to hell.  One of the fathers of the Western church, folks.

Lenten Reflections: Week 5

This week I read the book of Ruth. It’s a short book–only four chapters.  By publication time I may read something else, and if that happens then I’ll probably have other things to discuss here, but in the mean time I can say a few things about what I read and move on to another topic that has been on my mind a little bit.

First, Ruth.  This book provides a short account of how a foreign woman became integrated into the genealogy of King David.  Ruth was a Moabite, and she married one of the sons of Naomi and her husband (all the men do have names, but they die at the start of the story and they’re not really that important other than for establishing the Ruth feels a familial bond with Naomi despite being an in-law; it’s sort of like the starting scenario on Bunheads but without the dancing and terrible pacing).  Naomi is an Israelite, and when her sons and husband die, she decides to move back home instead of living as an alien widow in another country.  She releases her daughters-in-law from their obligation to her, and one of them chooses to go back to her own family; Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, putting herself in the position of the alien widow living in another country.  When they return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown, Naomi instructs Ruth to glean wheat behind the workers of her relative Boaz, presumably because he’s kin and she knows that he won’t have his workers chase Ruth away or beat her for taking part of their harvest.  One thing leads to another, Ruth has a sexual encounter with Boaz, and Boaz goes before the elders of the town to get another cousin of Naomi’s to give up his right to marry Ruth and carry on her first husband’s line.  Ruth marries Boaz, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is a simple, straightforward story that provides a glimpse of compassion carried out in a social system that could be less than compassionate.  Even before Boaz decides to pursue marrying Ruth he’s depicted as a kind person who gives her and Naomi grain to make bread for themselves rather than letting them glean.  He recognizes that there is an order to things, and someone who’s more closely related to Naomi has right of first refusal to take Ruth as a wife, so he acts in the socially preferred way all the while clearly having a desire to marry Ruth himself, presumably because he has fallen in love with her.  Still, if you subtract the element of romantic love, what we see from Boaz is someone who recognizes when people whom he has limited obligation to are in need and goes beyond what would be mandated to do what is right.  That’s admirable stuff, especially when you remember the context is that Naomi is a widow who has been away from home for a couple decades at least, and Ruth is a foreign woman with no prospects at all.  Boaz gets nothing out of his generosity here (I mean, besides the fact that he clearly finds Ruth attractive), but he understands the right thing to do and does it.

So I like the book of Ruth; it’s short, simple, and straightforward in its message.

The other thing that I’ve been thinking about in the last few days is on the personal nature of God.  In expressing my frustration with the practice of reading the Bible daily last week, someone reached out to me to offer their thoughts on the whole quiet time concept.  One thing they pointed out was that they felt like it was meant to be part of an ongoing conversation between a person and God.  Many of the texts of the Bible purport to reveal the character of God, which is a perfectly valid purpose for any religious text.  What the comment got me thinking about though was about the whole aspect of evangelical Christianity that emphasizes the idea of the “personal relationship” with God and Jesus.  I don’t know if this is a phenomenon that’s peculiar to white evangelicalism.  I can see where it comes from; if you assume that the Bible is divinely inspired, and your definition of divine inspiration is built on the idea that God dictated each word and phrase to the authors of all the Bible’s texts, then it is reasonable to suggest that the Bible acts as a conduit for direct conversation with God.

I totally get that.

The problem is this: what if you don’t understand inspiration in that way?  God is very much a subject of the texts of the Bible, and I think it’s a collection of writing that’s valuable for understanding the traditions that gave rise to early Christianity.  In the sense that the Bible is about God, I think it’s divinely inspired.  You have generations of writers presenting ever refining iterations on what they believe the character of God must be.  I’m just not the kind of Christian who believes that the Bible is a book from God anymore.  The fact that I prefer to describe it as a set of texts rather than as a unified document with a unified, divine author is testament to that.

So with this shift in hermeneutic, I find myself trying to figure out what my new angle is supposed to be.  The model that I’ve actually been drawn back to repeatedly is the one presented in Judaism.  In addition to the Torah, which is treated as scripture, the Jewish tradition also has the Talmud, which is the collected commentary from rabbis about the Torah.  Part of religious engagement in Judaism requires reading Talmud, which (at the risk of probably being overly reductive) is a formalized method of grappling with the theological perspectives of others and learning to position yourself within that ongoing conversation.  Rachael pointed out to me recently that one of the major advantages of this model is that it trains adherents to become comfortable with existing within a tradition with lots of disagreement among fellow practitioners.  The ahistorical, God-wrote-every-book-themselves approach to reading the Bible pushes Christians towards a more isolationist attitude, I think (this is a pitfall of the non-magisterial approach of Protestantism in general).

So when I recalibrate my understanding of what I’m doing when I read the Bible, I think that I need to take into account the reality of conversation within my faith tradition.  If I’m going to continue with quiet times, I think the next logical step for me may be looking for texts outside the Bible to meditate on different aspects of God.  Being reminded that the faith is a communal project that’s been in progress for millennia is a really comforting idea, and one I’d like to pursue more.