Saturday, January 15, 2011


In that place, everything tasted of smoke. The fire was always burning there, and the windows rarely open. Rather, the fire was always smoldering inside of her, and her eyes were rarely open to let in the light, let out the smoke. The smoke leaked out through her joints, through elbows and knees where bones ended and began, through seams in her memories where one anxiety ended and another began. In those seams, there shone a brief crack of blissful uninvolvement. Yet even from those seams, the smoke leaked out. Everything in that place was being smoked, gradually. The couches, the bedclothes, even the wooden furniture: they all looked like people who had been sitting forever around a campfire.

The fire inside was always being fed. Papers, news from outside, words spoken by enemies, words spoken by friends who might become enemies, these were all fuel. She ate them up, barely chewing. They must have scraped her throat on the way down. Despite the damage done to her throat by the smoke and by all the rough edges that she swallowed almost-whole, she talked and talked.

The smoke poured out through her flapping, fidgeting mouth. The smoke got in the eyes of the people around her. She could see through the smoke; she'd been practicing for years. She hardly noticed it anymore, and in fact when she felt the fire burning low, she would frantically rebank it. (If it burned out, how would she keep warm? Would she even be alive?)

But the people around her were not used to the smoke. They squinted and couldn't see. All the food tasted of nothing but fire. They lost their appetites, but they never told her. They could see her building the fire, tending the fire. Sometimes this made them angry. Sometimes it just made them sad. One by one, they went away. They needed the open air.

Every time that someone came or went, wind would blow through the open door. The fire would flare up in the sudden rush of oxygen, but the smoke would dissipate for just a moment.

And then the door would close, and the fire would keep burning.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Voyage of the Dawn Treader"

My mother requested a blog post about the differences between the recent movie of "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and the original book by C.S. Lewis. I am simultaneously well-equipped to write about this, because Dawn Treader was my favorite of the Chronicles of Narnia, and ill-equipped, because it has been years since I read it... I might have to go read it now, actually... But I'll comment now on the biggest differences I noticed (and fact-check after I reread the book).

First, let me note that the reason I loved Dawn Treader the best is that it is one of those voyage/adventure books that feels like it could go on forever. The general structure is of traveling from island to island on the ship the Dawn Treader, sailing the uncharted seas on the outskirts of Narnia. In my recollection of the book, the various island episodes are fairly unconnected. In fact, in the book-on-tape version that I listened to (over and over) as a child, several of the middle islands were simply omitted, to be replaced by the line "And they had many more adventures." So when I eventually read the book for myself and discovered the Dufflepuds and other characters, I was thrilled to find more new story hidden inside this familiar book. This is perhaps the reason that I feel the book could just keep expanding, and why it is so clear to me that the island episodes in the book are relatively independent.

In the movie, however, this is not the case. To closely connect the islands and, I suppose, create a faster pace and more suspence (Heaven forbid there be a movie that actually takes its time in this day and age!), the movie added an overt villain: the Scary, Creepy Mist. At the first set of islands that Caspian and his crew visit, they find that the Mist has been menacing and kidnapping the Narnian inhabitants of these isles. Moreover, the Mist is getting increasingly powerful. The message of "Soon, it may be too late" hangs in the air. This discovery increases the urgency of their quest to find the Seven Lords, because the way to defeat the Mist (rather bizarrely, to my mind) is to lay their Seven Swords on Aslan's Table. They learn this and are commissioned by the sorcerer at the second island that they visit.

So at every island the Dawn Treader visits, and even while the ship is at sea, the Mist keeps tempting its crew. Lucy, Edmund, Caspian and especially Eustace Clarence Scrub are each tested (I won't say who passes and fails). Lucy's test has to do with envy; Edmund and Caspian are tempted by greed and status; and Eustace must outgrow his selfishness. Meanwhile, the themes of courage and self-acceptance keep surfacing. "Love yourself as you are" and "Have courage, take risks for the greater good" come across as the lessons of the movie.

Courage and self-acceptance are both good messages, but they are not the messages of the Dawn Treader that I remember. In refocusing on those two ideas, the movie reshapes many aspects of the book. The order of the islands is changed, two islands are combined into one; the Mist becomes the enemy to defeat; the voyage of the Dawn Treader becomes a quest to save the world, in which the actions of individuals hold great weight; and the power of Aslan is diluted.

That last assertion might seem like a bit of a leap. Let me explain.

Both the book and the movie explore the idea of transformation. The most powerful instance of this is Eustace's transformation, as physically enacted in his turning into a dragon and eventually regaining his humanity. The book and movie treat this episode very differently. In the book, as long as Eustace is a dragon, the whole crew is stuck at the island where he was transformed. He helps them repair their damaged ship during the day, and at night he mourns his plight. After many days (I believe), he is somehow led to a pool, and has an encounter with Aslan. Eustace scratches off his dragon skin, and wriggles out of it. He feels lighter, freer. But when he looks in the pool by the light of the moon, he finds he looks just the same. He is still a hideous dragon. So he peels off another layer. And another, and another. I can't remember how many he has to remove, but each time it feels less pleasant, though he can see himself shrinking and shriveling, getting closer to boy-size, leaving dragon-dom behind.

But at the last, he is still wearing a dragon-skin and he can't bring himself to score it deeply with his claws so that he can finally writhe his way out. In the end, he needs Aslan to lift his heavy paw, and slash this deeply hidden dragon-skin wide open. It hurts, it hurts, but when the skin peels back, finally, Eustace emerges as a human again. Victory has come to him, and victory has made him small and weak and naked. When he returns to life as a human, he lives differently. He has been humbled, and he has had to see that he needs Aslan.

So the lesson of the book's dragon-transformation is surrender and dependence and reliance on Aslan (God). Transformation takes time and pain and the deliverance of a higher power.

But in the movie, Eustace is redeemed from dragonhood only after he saves the ship and its crew from the Mist, by fighting the seamonster/dragon that the Mist makes itself into. Eustace has to demonstrate that he has learned courage and confidence (largely from Reepicheep) before he can be returned to his true form. When he is changed back into his boy's body, the transformation does happen through Aslan's intervention, but the process is full of flashing light, fire, red and gold, and triumphant music, and brilliant daylight. It's not darkness and a hidden moonlit pool, it's not humility and pain and labor. Instead, it's magic. Aslan doesn't even actually touch Eustace; he just makes scratching marks on the sand and suddenly swirls of gold and bright sparks surround the dragon-Eustace and lift him up and spin him around. When the cloud of glory disperses, Eustace has become a boy again. Abracadabra!

In the movie, Eustace earns his humanity by fighting the dragon. Then, like clockwork, Aslan appears in the middle of the sunlit sandbar, draws runes on the sand and bam! Eustace is a boy again. Here, transformation or redemption is not initiated by Aslan/God, but rather by the good deeds of the one to be transformed. Moreover, the process is fast and sparkly, instead of slow and almost tortuous, as though it's just a superficial change in appearance, rather than a deep inward change created by Aslan's redeeming work.

This episode captures the fundamental difference between the book and the movie. In the book, everything depends on Aslan. There will be no fatal consequences if the humans fail in their mission to find the Seven Lords. Aslan is what really matters. In fact, I believe that in the book, a major reason for their quest is the search for Aslan's country. This does not feature at all in the movie as a motivation.

In the movie, you see, human effort is vital and effective, and transformation comes through willpower and courage, and you earn it, and ultimately it depends on you. Saving Narnia from the evil Mist also depends on you. If you fail, it could be the end of everything. Aslan has his table and his country, but he's not doing anything to help you out along the way. You are on your own.

Ok, that last might be an overstatement, but it's not far off. Let me just put this really succinctly: the book is about grace, the movie is about effort. That is the difference, and that is why Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of my favorite books, but "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is not one of my favorite movies.

p.s. Please comment and correct me if I got facts wrong!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hearing vs. Control

Chasing butterflies through the internet led me to an essay about listening/hearing/mystery/paradox, containing this paragraph--
I, too, am a schemer, a performer anxious to have something to say that will impress. I, too, have said too much, using words to wound instead of heal, to manipulate instead of to free. “The simple fact of being able to express an opinion,” Henri Nouwen says, “to set up an argument, to defend a position, and to clarify a vision has given me, and gives me still, a sense of control.” A sense of control over the conversation, so it can go where I am most comfortable, so it can remain where I like it, so that I never have to admit I don’t know. This is one reason I am more apt to talk than to listen. If I talk, I can remain in control. If you talk, who knows where we’ll end up? “I like to do all the talking myself,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “It saves time, and prevents arguments.” (Denis Haack, "On Learning to Hear")
which cut me to the quick. Control: I'm addicted to it. Sometimes I look to words and arguments and self-expression to be my savior. Only a few hours ago, I sent off a very long expression of my opinion. It is full of vulnerability but it is also full of criticism, and though it is an admission of my lack of control of the situation, it is also an effort to exert control over it. Twelve days ago, I set out to write a brief confession/confrontation, and it grew, as I wrote it over the course of several days, into a monstrous essay, over 5,000 words long. Today, I brought it into the light again. I cleaned it up. I trimmed some scraggly parts, I sharpened a few edges.

And now I have unleashed it, I have sent it flying and flapping out into the world. I sent it to one particular person, and I don't know whether she will welcome it or do battle with it. Will it be to her a dove of peace, bearing an important message? or will it be a dragon, whose purifying fire threatens to destroy?

Having spoken, at great length, now I will be still, and silent. "She who has ears to hear, let her hear." I am listening for the sound of wings, feathered or scaled. I am waiting to hear what comes next.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Anger poem

Since the questions blog is asking about anger right now, here is a poem I wrote on the subject. But it's from Achilles's experience as recounted in the Iliad. This is *not* how anger feels for me. At least, I don't think so.
Like honey dripping so slowly
from the golden comb
onto my waiting tongue
extended, reaching for that sweetness
to fall – I need
just one more drop of
anger: it is so sweet.

The bees arrive
buzzing, and they zoom into my
open mouth, down
my gullet, buzzing endlessly,
and they swarm into my unguarded
ears, shooting into
my brain, where they buzz and
buzz until they recollect
every drop of sweet honey.
My sis thinks the last stanza is too much, too much. The bees go too many places, she says. What do you think?

The lines, from Lattimore's translation, that sparked the above poem:
“that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man's heart
and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey.” (18.109)
I hope you believe me that this poem happened because of the Iliad, not because of any event or feeling in my life. It's part of my thesis project.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


Two complementary ideas in my New Year's resolution(s): trust and fear. This semester was a season of being forced to acknowledge my insecurities, one by one. They popped out of corners and slid out of shadows. They nosed me from behind, like shy dogs; they crashed against my windows. And this semester was a season of finding myself held, soothed, brought inside.

Big changes are coming in 2011, in my external life. In my internal life, I want to see big changes, too. Having realized I am so dominated by fear (fear that floods over me, fear that drenches me, fear that knocks the air from my lungs), I have begun to want freedom from fear. I want to lie in the sun of security, and finally dry off, out of the reach of the waves. I don't want tidal waves of fear happening at the drop of a word, at the twist of a smile. I want to live in love, not fear: "Perfect love casts out fear. She who fears is not made perfect in love." I want to trust, instead. I want to trust O. more, trust my fellowship more, trust my friends more. I want to trust God more.

Freedom from fear, freedom to trust. For 2011, I resolve to graduate out of fear into the liberty of love.

On one way of reading

When I read your words of lament and sorrow, they are dyed silver-blue, deep purple; they are gray like clouds; they shift like rain that falls like pinpricks and darkens the world so slowly, slowly. Every raindrop chills. The fallen water shines in the cloud-filtered light; the fallen words echo in my fog-veiled mind.

"Bought at a price"

Like the last post, this is the body of an email I wrote, replying to a friend's question about Scripture.

The question:
"The verse 'You are not your own; you were bought at a price' really struck me. What does it mean?"
Let's start by taking a look at the pieces of this verse. What are they saying?
  1. "You are not your own." You don't own yourself. You are not your own master; Someone else is. This means you are not in charge of deciding what is ok and what is not ok (like how you are not your own judge; only God is the Judge), and you are not in charge of deciding what is important or deciding what to do with your life. --Which raises the question: Who is my master? Whose am I?

  2. "You were bought at a price." Someone bought you (which is why you don't own yourself) and the purchase was costly to the buyer. Someone wanted you enough to pay the price to say to the world, "This person belongs to me; this person is precious to me." --Which raises the questions: Who bought me? What was the price?
Note: I've been writing "you" because that's how the verse is phrased, but of course this is you && me && O. && all the Intervarsity kids && all the people at our church && just everyone who is following Christ.

Ok, so those questions: Who is my master? Whose am I? Who bought me? What was the price?
Clearly they are connected. The one who is your (our) master and the one you belong to and the one who bought you should all be the same person. This is the person who paid the price for you. So who is that?

You probably have a pretty clear guess already that this Person is Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins, who is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. Death is a pretty expensive price to pay...

But I'm getting ahead of myself. To really know if the Owner/Master/Buyer is Jesus, we should look at the context of the verse. "You are not your own; you were bought at a price" is verse 19-20 of 1 Corinthians 6, so... what's going on in the rest of the chapter?

And actually, we should also ask: What's going on in the other parts of the verse? "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies." (v. 19-20).

Two chains of reasoning here:
  • v.19: The Holy Spirit is in you => Live as though your body is a temple (holy).
  • v.20: Someone bought you => your body doesn't belong to you => honor God with your body. [implication: God bought you => your body belongs to Him => honor Him with your body]
So I think from that context it's pretty clear that the one we belong to is God. Verse 19 specifies that the Holy Spirit (who in theological terms is one of the three Persons of God) lives in us, and we are temples of the Spirit, i.e., we belong to the Holy Spirit. But what about Jesus? and what about the "price"? Where does that come in?

If we look earlier in the chapter, it's dealing with several topics that might not initially seem related (lawsuits, food, sexual immorality). The connection is that the argument explaining what's wrong with all of the wrong behaviors. This argument is essentially the same as the one in v. 19-20: we are belong to God, we are united with God, so we need to act like it! In explaining this idea, Paul first states is in a much more expanded form than what we were first looking at. Verses 9-11:
"Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor [other sinners] will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
Verses 14-15 deal with this idea also. We are united with Christ, so how can we not live like Christ?

So, even though the chapter is addressing various behaviors, actually the ideas are all about who we are, not about what we do. The ideas are about identity, not about laws. The fundamental problem when we sin is not that we are breaking rules, but that we are acting totally out of sync with the real identities that God has given us. Our identity lies in belonging to God. "You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God."

This is like how our identity is also as the sheep that belong to Jesus in John 10. "[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice." On our own, we are lost and helpless. But we are not our own anymore; Jesus has found us / bought us / freed us from sin / brought us into the family (compare: John 8:34-36).

I could keep writing for pages and pages about what it means to belong to God, but I think this email has gotten long enough! :) But really, most of the Bible is about exactly this topic. What does it mean that we do not belong to ourselves? What does it actually look like to obey God? For what price did God buy us? Why would he want to buy us in the first place? So keep reading, and it will gradually become clearer and richer. In particular, you might want to read Romans 6, which also uses the metaphor of being slaves to sin and then becoming "slaves to righteousness" because of Jesus. And then if you read on through Romans 8, Paul moves beyond the limited slavery metaphor to the truer image of us being adopted into God's family.


This post is essentially the body of an email I wrote to a friend who asked about how to reconcile these verses:
  • "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." (Old Testament law, somewhere in the Pentateuch)
  • "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." (Jesus speaking, Matt. 5:38-42)
  • "Scripture cannot be broken" (Jesus speaking, John 10), "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (my friend misattributed this to the apostle Paul, but this is Jesus speaking, Matt. 5:18-19)
My friend's question:
"So what does this mean? Does this means Scripture can be broken? Or is the New Testament self-contradictory?" (I would also add: Does the NT contradict the OT?)
My reply: First off, both of the NT verses you quoted are actually things that Jesus said. So if there is a contradiction, Jesus would have to be contradicting himself. In fact, when Jesus says, "until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matt. 5:18), he says this immediately after saying that his own relation to the Law is not that he is going to destroy it but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). From there, he goes on to make those statements, "You have heard X was said, but I tell you Y." (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, etc) So if Jesus is contradicting himself here, he would have to be totally crazy and not credible in any way at all (in my opinion), because those "You heard X but I tell you Y" statements look like they are actually supposed to be the evidence for and the explanation of his comments on the Law and Prophets in general.

If you haven't already, now would be a good time to read all the way through Matt. 5 and if you want the fuller picture, all through Matt. 6-7 as well.

Even though it may look like Jesus is invalidating various Old Testament commands, he's actually expanding upon them. He is actually explaining their full significance, their true meaning, the spirit behind them. For instance, let's look at the one you specifically asked about: "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." (Matt. 5:38-39). Is Jesus contradicting or overruling the original commandment?

No. He is actually making a stronger command, in the same spirit as the original. This is easier to see if we look at some other examples:
  • v. 21-22:
    "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subject to judgment."
    Obviously Jesus is not telling them that murderers are no longer subject to judgment. He is not saying that murder is now ok. What he is doing is deepening the command. The original law was about an action (murder), but Jesus says, "It's not enough to refrain from killing someone. If you are really following God, you won't even get into an emotional state where you would want to kill anyone." The new life is about the spirit, the heart, the thought.

  • v. 27-28:
    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
    Again, Jesus is clearly not saying it's okay to commit adultery. He's saying it's just as bad to be in the frame of mind where you want to commit adultery. You could be following the old rule against adultery, even while violating its real meaning every day. Again, the way of Jesus requires a change in your heart, not just in your actions.
So, what's going on in verses 38-39? The answer has to do with the real meaning of "Eye for an eye": This is actually a limit on the severity of revenge or punishment. In the surrounding culture when the Old Testament law was given, it was common to take a revenge that was vastly disproportionate to the original offense. For instance, your brother lost his eye to someone, so you go out and kill the person who caused your brother to lose his vision. The law here is meant to say: Your brother only lost an eye, so the punishment given to the one who hurt him can only be as severe as taking an eye from him. No worse. (This is pretty much like the Code of Hammurabi, I believe.)

We could express this in mathematical terms: the OT law requires punishment to no greater than the original offense or damage. It does not require the punishment to be equal to the original offense.

Jesus's reframing of the law, then, is telling them: Don't just refrain from going overboard in taking revenge. Instead, don't take revenge at all! Do good to your enemies instead of repaying them evil for evil. (Compare: v. 43-45, about loving your enemies.)

In conclusion, Jesus is not contradicting himself, and he is not contradicting the OT either. Instead, he is explaining the real meaning of the OT law. He is explaining what God's kingdom looks like. It's similar to John 4, where Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman, and she asks about the correct place to worship. That's like asking which is the correct rulebook to follow. Jesus tells her, "The time is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth." That's like saying the right way to live is not about the rules, but about the Person behind the rules and the Spirit that the rules try to describe. To be clear: the Sermon on the Mount isn't meant as a new set of rules but as a portrait of life with God. What does it look like to actually fulfill the law, what does it look like to truly follow God, what does it look like to worship God in spirit and in truth?