Rituals of Remembrance

If you’re a regular reader of my (irregular) blog, then you’ll know that, from time to time, I contribute a short piece to the Christian Comment feature in my local paper. Below, you’ll find my latest: the theme that I felt called to was remembrance.


It’s a time of year dominated by remembrance. We remember, remember the gunpowder, treason and plot; we remember those we have lost in conflict. With the drawing in of the evenings – and the ever earlier drawing down of blinds – we remember the whirl of summer days that now seem so distant.

The rituals of remembrance are powerful, knitting us together as families, communities and nations. They are a way of celebrating our unity, reflecting on shared joy or grief. When we come together in remembrance, nostalgia for things past is often also the gateway to future plans, or to hope: the family that remembers and celebrates the birthday of a child also looks forward to that child’s future days; the nation that bows its head for two minutes of silence wonders how it can change itself, or the world.

The Christian faith has an act of remembrance at its very heart, one established by Jesus himself: communion. The sharing of broken bread and blood-red wine reminds us of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. When we reflect on that pain – recalling that it was taken in our stead – this act of remembrance also directs us forwards: we are to celebrate communion until Jesus comes again.

This celebration of communion is a celebration of Jesus’ victory on the cross, and a call to godly community. When we take part in that feast we remember that we are all equal in God’s sight – equally loved, equally desired – in a way that blows our cultural notions of equality far behind. We remember that we are all sons and daughters of God, and called to love with His love. Unlike many acts of remembrance – taking place annually – our reflection on Jesus’ sacrifice and his call on our life should be daily, and draw us ever more into communion with Him and with each other.

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Living, Post-Truth

pilate

 

I haven’t blogged much recently. Partly, that’s due to work and my now four and two year olds; much more, it’s due to expecting number three in a few short months.

I meant to post this piece back when I wrote it in February but, between morning sickness and the day job… well, you get the picture.

For context: I am on a circuit of writers who contribute to the Christian Comment section in our local newspaper. So, every couple of months, I get 300-350 words to give a short Christian comment on whatever I feel called to write. The piece that follows is what I wrote in February:

I have long wondered what epoch I live in; I’d read and learnt about the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism… what name would history give to our slice of time?

My curiosity has been sated: it seems I live in the Post-Truth society. Defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ – ‘post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016.

Our struggle with the nature of objective truth is not one peculiar to our time, our advanced culture, and our frenetic media-saturated lives. ‘Post-truth’ is really just a reframing of Pilate’s equally infamous question: ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:38).

The question has refracted throughout the canons of literature, philosophy and film, appearing over and over again – but rarely is it preceded by the statement of Jesus that sparked it: ‘In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” wrote George Orwell. No statement more so than Jesus’; in it, he proclaims that there is not only such a thing as objective truth, but that He is its voice. Or, as He puts it elsewhere: ‘[He is] the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [Him]’ (John 14:6).

In the Western world today, there is a kind of comfy discomfort in the term post-truth; we have solidarity in decrying the faithlessness of politics, and then feel justified in our behaviour. There is philosophical high ground in scoffing alongside Pilate – and then washing our hands of it all.

Jesus calls us to a higher standard than this. The truth isn’t just radical – it is transforming, redemptive, and awe-inspiring. Jesus longs for us to discover that, and to discover Him. He calls us to delve into the words of His Father, learn the truth, and carry it as a beacon into our truth-starved world.

On Eagles’ Wings

My collection of essays on eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s work launches today. To whet your appetite, here is the preface… Available now in paperback and e-book formats at http://www.lunapresspublishing.com/ .

The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the west. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.

“The Eagles! The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!” (The Hobbit, p.263)

If you are at all familiar with Tolkien’s work, then Bilbo’s cry – proclaiming the arrival of Eagles – will be no stranger to you. Indeed, it is somewhat of a hallmark of the Master of Middle-Earth, one rejoiced over and lampooned in equal measure by his lovers and critics: at the moment of crisis, the eleventh hour when darkness holds sway and there is nothing more that the heroes can do to win the day, these plot-armoured birds appear, our protagonists fall conveniently unconscious, and when the heroes awake, the good guys have won.

A reductive way of looking at it, perhaps; but the Eagles, and their ability to swoop in and save all at the last possible moment (without a focaliser to witness exactly how they do it) seem, superficially, to fly in the face of good story telling. You could even argue that they entirely undercut the narrative by making all the efforts of the heroes amount to… well, nothing. And then there’s that niggling question – if they had all this power, why in Middle Earth didn’t they step in before, and save everyone a good thrashing?

Tolkien was not infallible, either as a man or a storyteller, and while some elements of his mythos resist our attempts to pin them down (Tom Bombadil-o, anyone?), it is possible for us to understand the eagles – even if we continue to object to them. To do so, we need to look into Tolkien’s critical writing and, in particular, his concept of eucatastrophe:

…I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function… The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… [the] sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur… [gives] a fleeting glimpse of Joy, joy beyond the walls of the world… it can give to child or man that hears it… a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears… A tale that in any measure succeeds in this point has not wholly failed, whatever flaws it may possess. (OFS 68-69)

Tolkien’s treatise as to the purpose and function of fairy stories is as much a work of theology as it is of literary theory, culminating in his view that those stories that evoke the eucatastrophic turn ultimately reflect what he calls ‘the Great Eucatastrophe’ (73): the story of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, which is ‘the eucatastrophe of Man’s history’ (72) – and that the taste of Joy which we experience in fairy in the unlooked for ‘turn’ is a glimmer and a pointer to that supreme eucatastrophe in our own, primary reality. Tolkien leaves Plato – and his theory of forms – quite in tatters: for Tolkien story, rather than distracting us from the true nature of things by presenting pale copies and imitations, actually, at its pinnacle, has the potential to draw us closer to God. Better let those poets back into the Republic, Plato!

So how does this concept illuminate the eagles for us? We need to understand them as a narrative embodiment of Tolkien’s eucatastrophic theory; they are the unlooked for grace, the redemptive turn – such a strong glimpse of Joy that the protagonists cannot truly and consciously look on it.

Of course, not being God themselves, the Eagles don’t solve everything. Despite their intervention, Thorin still dies, Frodo is still so injured that he cannot remain in Middle Earth. But these aquiline amigos are a pointer to that presence beyond the walls of the world that was so instrumental in Tolkien’s life and writing. Perhaps, in choosing the Eagles to crystalise this concept, Tolkien had in the back of his mind a few verses from Isaiah:

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens…

those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint. (NIV Isaiah 40, v.26, 31).

As this preface might suggest, I’ve been fascinated, inspired and led by Tolkien’s concept since childhood. Whatever my line of enquiry into Tolkien’s work, the sequence of clues has always led to the same culprit: eucatastrophe. The book that you’re holding represents a kind of eucatastrophe casebook, a series of investigations into Tolkien’s work that reveal how overarching this theory was in his writing and mindset. It is a theory that has, in turn, enormously influenced my own genesis as a critic and a writer.

I invite you to join me on my journey into the eucatastrophic qualities of Tolkien’s stories – for, while it found its pithiest expression in eagles’ wings, its touch on the landscape of Middle Earth is entirely inescapable.

The Good Teacher

I’ve recently joined a team of Christians in my town who contribute regularly to our local paper’s ‘Christian Comment’. This space in the paper is a small space (300 words) to share a Christian perspective on a topical issue.

As a mother of children and a teacher of children, my next spot in the writing rota – for this Friday – was perfectly placed for a beginning of the school year musing. So, here it is.

The Good Teacher:

A good teacher is something you never forget.

I hope you know the ones I mean – the men and women who are more than simply educators doing a day job.

Good teachers inspire and sow the seeds of aspiration. They embody passion for their subjects and those in their charge; they care, deeply, about who you are, what you learn, and where you are going. It’s not just your academic pursuits that matter to them – it’s your growth as a human being.

The good teacher makes you feel welcome, secure and gives you parameters in which to spread your wings. They laugh and cry with you. They guide you when you fall short and have words of heartfelt challenge for you when you need them. They make you feel valued, telling you that you matter and can make a difference. They communicate something of wonder to you in a world where so much smacks of disenchantment.

They are the teachers in whose classes you give everything you’ve got.

Those teachers have a lot in common with Jesus. Called ‘rabbi’ (‘teacher’) throughout the gospels, the heart of Jesus is to see us flourish. In the classroom that is life, His word is the curriculum – and the objective of His lesson plans is to see us become all that He knows we can be.

And, like all good teachers, His door is always open to us.

Your school days may be far behind you – or you may be right in the thick of them. Whichever is true, know this: in the classroom of the Good Teacher, there are always seats for those who seek them – no matter how long the absence or late the homework.

To Have Loved and Lost: A Christian’s Experience of Miscarriage

Painful memories can – and do – just hit you out of nowhere. Recently, on one of those rare days that we had sunshine, I was in the garden with my little ones. My three year old son was having a wonderful time watering plants while I helped his one year old sister to toddle after him. My son refilled the watering can, andhappened to give special attention to a single white rose budding in the corner.
You might not think that the scene of my son bestowing such care on a single plant could move me to tears, but it did. The white rose had been a gift to us from dear friends, in memory of a baby that we lost two years ago.

Even though it’s very common, miscarriage isn’t something that it’s easy to talk about. As a Christian, it was an experience that I found incredibly difficult – and often still do. So I hope you will forgive me if this post seems less polished than it could be.

I had never felt easy about that pregnancy. Apart from all the emotions of joy and anxiety that we all feel when we discover that we are becoming parents, my husband and I were worried that the timing of this baby; the pregnancy was unexpected, and our son wasn’t sleeping through the night. We chose to leave the situation in the Lord’s hands, praising Him for His gift of new life and trusting that He would supply everything that we would need to be able to love and provide for our growing family. 

Ten weeks into the pregnancy, I began bleeding. My husband and I both knew that this could be entirely normal, but arranged a scan just to be on the safe side.

As soon as I saw the ultrasound images, I knew that something was wrong. The sonographer delivered the news: the foetus was weeks too small for its date, and had no heartbeat. The baby inside me was dead.

Perhaps you can imagine how we felt. Grief; rage; loss that words just could not contain. Gearing up to welcome a new member to our family, we had lost a child that we had never had the chance to hold – or even name. 

The grief at a miscarriage or stillbirth is not just at the loss of a loved one, but at the loss of a hoped for future that will never be shared. 

In my grief, I wrestled – with God, and with myself. Had I somehow been to blame for the baby’s death? Why had the Lord allowed me to endure such crippling morning sickness for so many weeks when the baby was lost? Why couldn’t He – the giver of life and Creator of all things – preserve this one, tiny life? 

All my husband and I could do was turn to the Lord. We tried to thank Him for the life we had been given, even though we didn’t know why it had been taken away. We declared His power over our lives and the life of our lost little one, blessing Him for that gift, and the gift of our young son. We prayed for His mercy and that, one day, we would have the wondrous of joy of meeting our lost child in heaven. It did not ease the pain – but it helped us to know that God, too, knew what grief it is to lose a child. 

For years, I had lived in horror of the idea of carrying a dead child, of my womb becoming a tomb. So deciding to wait for my body to miscarry fully on its own was something I was initially frightened of, even though it seemed right. And I found that it was not a horror. In those three weeks of waiting, I felt that I cradled my child for a while longer. It was not the lifetime of hugs that I had dreamed of, but it was something. It was time to say that we loved her, and time to say goodbye.

When the miscarriage finally came – late at night, when my son was sleeping – my husband and I both felt the Lord’s hand powerfully over that timing. Even when I had to be taken to hospital and the bleeding was so much that we had to opt for a surgical procedure, I knew that God was with me – in this case, in the talented, loving hands of the doctors, nurses and midwives who had – just as at the birth of my son – intervened and saved my life.

Just a few months after our miscarriage, a family member – who had also had a miscarriage, then gone on to have another child – told me: ‘Yes, it was awful. But we wouldn’t have our daughter if it hadn’t happened.’

At the time, those words had seemed callous, cruel. Unfeeling. But I think I now understand them: the daughter I now have – whose name means ‘My God has answered’ – would never have come to be if were it not for that awful time. It was a time when I learnt something about turning to the Lord in the valleys. Being alone without me while I was in hospital brought my son and husband closer together, and forced me to realise that they could cope without me (a tough, but vital, lesson for a young mother). And the child that we lost has made both of our children so much more precious to us.

It is now two years since our miscarriage. Time is a healer, yes, and the grief is not as it was then. But, even if it is easier to think about, and talk about, the loss remains.

So when my son and daughter both cooed over the white rose in the garden it seemed to me – as they stroked the petals and tended the earth – that they were caring for the sister that they had never known. And it seemed to me also, for the tenderest of moments, that she was with us still.

This post also appears at http://www.annathayer.wordpress.com .

Pleasantly Surprised by Warcraft

An unusual thing happened this weekend: I went out, without my children. I took my husband to a movie. When I was child-free, there was a word for this kind of shocking activity. I think it was ‘a date’.
As a pre-father’s day gift, the movie that we went to see was ‘Warcraft’, based on the hugely popular ‘World of Warcraft’ MMO.
Things you need to know: I do not play the game, but my husband does. We are both fans of Tolkien, and so picking this as our date was perhaps not so enormous a gift of love as it would be if hubby decided to take me to see the latest screening of an RSC production (if you’re reading, love; yes, you may consider that a hint!). But you also need to know that after other game-to-movie escapades like It-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named-(But-Which-Involves-Dungeons-and-Dragons) , we both had reason to be sceptical. And we’ve all been through that experience of seeing something that we love be – well, ruined, in adaptation. The Battle of the Five Armies was the last example of this for me (a movie which I did not expect to actually be all battle).
I was pleasantly surprised by Warcraft. And I thought I would share with you why.
Firstly, I was impressed by the deft way in which the director double-bluffed his audience from the get-go; having led me to believe that his establishing shots would serve to establish sympathy for the human protagonists, we were instead taken straight to the keynote Orc characters – a chieftain and his pregnant mate. This unexpected opening was genuinely tender, and hugely successful – especially, I think, for someone like me – a young mother with little exposure to the game beyond what she has glimpsed over hubby’s shoulder.
There also seemed to be genuine respect for the source-game. I’ve seen my husband’s various characters flying around the Warcraft world, a landscape of Middle-Earth qualities – and many of the shots of the settings looked like loving evocations of places that players have adored for years. And so, while it was a little lost on me, I get the feeling that these shots would really speak to the game’s dedicated fans.
The visual quality of the film was certainly stunning; much like watching a Miyazaki, even if there were plot holes from time to time, the dedication to evoking the world was pretty riveting.
But there was also plenty of story to this film, and characters that you genuinely came to care about – human and Orc. Sure, there were a certain number of ‘sudden but inevitable betrayals’ (if Joss Whedon is remembered for nothing else, it should be that phrase!), but there were also some bold moves that I was not expecting. I won’t say too much more, but I will say that some scenes hit my husband and I, as parents, especially hard.
There were characters here that you could grasp and relate to; scholarly mages, powerful warriors, mothers, sisters, those outcast for their differences. They might have been wearing funny clothes and living in a fictitious land, but they were still us – even the orcs. 
My husband tells me that there were elements of the story that were changed between the very first game that the film is based one, and what we saw on Saturday. He felt that these were, overall, positive changes. It also seemed to both of us that the highly judicious editing left a couple of necessary scenes on the cutting room floor. Even so, there was enough story to carry through. 
Having been left somewhat disillusioned by The Hobbit’s fall into a mediaeval 300, I was genuinely delighted to be watching a film that used battle narrative to further a story, rather than leaving the audience feeling bludgeoned. 
My only real disappointment with the film came from a line of dialogue which left me, as a Christian, rather exasperated; following the self-sacrificial death of a main character, something like the following was declared: ‘He gave his life in sacrifice for all of us, now we must deserve it’. Of course, Warcraft has not set out to give fictitious form to biblical truths, but I felt so frustrated to see an idea so powerful to Christians – the sacrifice of a great King for his people – given a guilt-spin; because, of course, the whole point of the cross is that we don’t deserve it, and can’t earn it. But this, as I said, is a personal quibble, and one which is not fair to level at this film.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the whole film for me was a kind of tenderness; the sense that the director was handling something that he personally loved; an awareness that he was dealing with something that millions of other people also loved, and wanting to honour that affection. In this sense, the film was suffused with care and attention. And, even to a Warcraft novice like myself, it was notable, creating a sense not that I was an intruder to a secret club, but rather that I was being openly and respectfully invited to experience another world.
In short: I came away from the theatre having enjoyed two hours of story-telling which I didn’t feel was a slave to its stunning CGI, and with the feeling of having shared in a story that I know is so important to people across the globe. Now, at least, I feel like understand that passion a little more. And, if a second, or even third, Warcraft film was made, I wouldn’t need much convincing to go and see them. 
Our verdict? A successful date! 

A Name to Watch: Discovering Beth Moran

Jacket Image

Here’s somethingthat I love: discovering a new, post-1830s writer (long in-joke story, to be dutifully explained another time!) who is talented, pithy, and not well known enough. So: this blog post is an attempt to redress that a little. And to write everything that I could not write in my word-limited commendation.

I was approached by the lovely Lion Hudson – who publish my own novels – and asked if I would consider reading a title with a view to giving a commendation. Ego suitably massaged, I said I should be delighted. The quirkily ring-bound proof that appeared on my doorstep a couple of days later was for ‘The Name I Call Myself‘ by Beth Moran – due for publication next month.

Now, I had heard of Beth Moran – like me, she was an award-winner of the IndieFab awards with her novel ‘Making Marion’ back in 2015. Unlike me, she had won gold in her category. Additionally, her praises had been sung highly to me by our local Christian book shop owner who, a year ago, was practically on tenterhooks for the next novel. And I – saturated with the works of Shakespeare et alia – looked at the cover, discerned chick lit, smiled, and thought: not for me.

Wrong.

Maybe it’s that I’m in a different phase of life, now, but Moran’s latest book caught me at once. The blurb was skilled, intriguing – of the kind that left you thinking ‘I can guess where this story is going to go, but I want to read to find out if I’m right, and I’m ready to have the cockles of my heart warmed by a predictable romance plot, and then I shall feel smug because I predicted it. And it will probably be an alright read.’.

Wrong. It was more than alright. And not really predictable.

From the first paragraph, I knew I was dealing with a pro. Believe me: as a novelist whose fantasy trilogy was almost the length of ‘War and Peace’ (that’s a lot of editing!!); as a literary critic well versed in the subtle arts of the grammarian and rhetorician; as a teacher far too accustomed to the pony-story that could use a few more choice structural and descriptive devices… Well, I know quality when I read it. Moran has quality – buckets and buckets of it.

Let me just share with you the commendation that I wrote, and expand on it:

‘Moran is a worthy inheritor of Austen’s mantel: her writing is witty, engaging, funny, poignant. She tackles the realities of love, loss, abuse and redemption with insight; considered without being heavy-handed, light-hearted without ever compromising on emotional depth. This is chick-lit as it should be – a page-turner whose heroine is transformed and whose journey is not superficial, but edifying and emboldening.’

I mean every single word of it.

Inheritor of Austen? High praise, but true. Why? Because Austen looks at the roles, constrictions and difficulties that women find themselves in, contrasting what the heart wants against what society expects. Moran’s heroine, Faith, is caught in a rather Austenian dilemma, replete with social expectations and complications. Like Austen, Moran explores this position with humour and wit, and her heroine, while no doormat, has a lesson to learn.

Something else that impressed me about this book was its ability to weave between a harrowing backstory and the kind of humour that we so expect from our chick-lit heroines. As a mum to a 3 and 1 year old – and a fairly geeky one at that – I found myself laughing out loud at the depictions of the character Marilyn’s life with tiny tots, and enjoying a really broad spectrum of cultural references. Moran can go from these scenes to the truly troubling realities of what it is to be a survivor of abusive relationships, and the shadows that that can cast.

That weaving is part of what makes Moran’s talent so notable, but there’s more to it than that. In my commendation, I mentioned that I feel that this novel is exactly what chick-lit ought to be: far from being submerged in the consumerist superficialities of the chick flick; far from revelling in a series of comical one-night-stands in the quest for ‘true love’; far from reducing the heroine to a quivering, objectified trophy for a perfect man – Moran writes a female protagonist whose journey not only changes and emboldens her, but edifies the reader, too.

Wholesome, challenging, funny, engaging, reality-checked writing, with a sluice of accomplished technical features and exquisite literary devices that gel together into an effortless read? That about sums this up.

Don’t know Beth Moran? Check out this novel when it appears next month. I know one thing for sure: at the earliest opportunity afforded to me by my wee ones, I shall be acquiring Moran’s other novels, and watching out for the next one!

This post also appears on my sister-site, www.annathayer.wordpress.com .