Playdate at Stratford

(Christian Courier column, October 24, 2016)

14364840_10157727155080001_4965732285709268461_n2Last month I took my grandchildren to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Who was the most excited? Me! Taking them to their first play, sharing one of my favourite stories, being whisked away to that magical place where animals can talk and children have destinies to fulfill.

Jack, as C.S. Lewis was familiarly nicknamed, would have been delighted by the witty performance. After all, it was his own playfulness that led him to create a world where Roman fauns, centaurs and naiads live all higgly-piggly with Norse giants and lowly hedgerow creatures like robins and beavers. As the program pointed out, Tolkien, having laboured over his scrupulously well-ordered Middle Earth, was miffed by such mythological mish-mash, complaining, “It really won’t do, you know.” He was wrong.

The fun began with incredibly inventive staging. The play opens in a library, large screens offering a backdrop of thousands of books. And books become the building blocks for stackable props that morph into a train car, the Stone Table and ultimately the four thrones at Cair Paravel. Inspired architecture for an inspired tale.

A cheeky comedic tone lent a child-like air to the play, reinforcing the implicit expectation that we would, of course, be obliged to use our imaginations. After the Pevensie children leave London station in a train car made of books, the journey to Professor Kirk’s house is conveyed by a conductor pulling a toy train across the stage. The kids just howled. Similarly, a miniature sleigh and reindeer are “flown” atop the trees by a puppeteer just before a hearty oversized Father Christmas strides in with his bag of gifts. Again, appreciative laughter. Mr. Tumnus, hilariously, begins singing “Be My Guest” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) to his new friend Lucy and then checks himself in stricken embarrassment. Humour kept the tale light and its intent trustworthy, a marked contrast from the darker Tim Burton-esque fare often marketed as children’s entertainment.

Given the bookish flavour of the introduction, the use of projected imagery for background scenery was surprisingly compelling rather than intrusive. Panoramic wintry mountains extended the vista. We could “feel” falling snowflakes. The White Witch could point believably to her “house between the two hills.” Metaphorically, the depiction of vast natural landscapes worked to suggest the transcendent – a visual reminder of Peter’s question to the Professor, “But do you really mean, sir, that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner – like that?”

The screens also showcased battle scenes in silhouette to amplify the live hand-to-hand combat. Appropriately, for the youthful audience, the duels occurred in the shadows with spotlights illuminating only brief flashes of swordplay. Serious, but not graphic.

Spritely music and dance enlivened the action with Celtic flair. Crucial information was communicated via song lyrics; Mr. Tumnus’s relationship with Lucy was cemented in a companionable jig. Two songs in particular alluded to Lewis’s Christian themes. As Father Christmas’s sleigh sails through the sky, it’s accompanied by distant choir music rather than jingle bells. A second key song introduces the gloriously gigantic Aslan. Just before he emerges from a tent fluttering with pennants, a courtly entourage parades about a round table propelling dramatically upwards from the floor. Dryads, unicorns and eagles sing “Come to the table” as the four children and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver join the procession. The lilting Narnian hymn invites all who love Aslan to come forward: “There’s plenty of room for all.” The grandchildren didn’t notice, but this grandmother was blinking back tears as the lordly lion, both King and Sacrifice, ascended the dais.

The conclusion was deeply satisfying. The Pevensie children are reunited with Professor Kirk. As they relay their adventures, a cavalcade of Narnian creatures, including the White Witch, her trollish sidekick and Maugrim the wolf, step wonderingly out of the Wardrobe into the library. The entire cast then launches into a merry reprise of Mr. Tumnus and Lucy’s jig. I’m not sure Jack would have approved of the theological implications of that finale, but its pageantry offered sweet hope, maybe even the barest echo of Psalm 97:1: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice.”

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Walking with Siebenga and God

(Christian Courier column, August 22, 2016)fampics0003-1

When I was growing up in my tight-knit CRC triangle of home, church and Christian school, our communal economy was sustained by an unwritten code. You supported your own. You patronized CRC businesses and hired kids from your own congregation. If you had to pay a bit more for produce at Vandenbergs’ Market, well, so be it. It’s what you did. You invested in faith.

Those days are gone. The cohesion that undergirded such tribal loyalty has dissipated. Those in the know will probably hasten to point out that there was a concomitant undercurrent of negative peer pressure that generated its own drawbacks and complexities. For the record, I do try to buy my spring bedding plants from all four local nurseries owned by Christians. And here at Christian Courier, we do encourage you to support our advertisers!

Christian artists in particular, though, still deserve that old-fashioned communal kind of backing. Christianity Today (June 2016) profiles David Taylor, a professor, pastor and arts leader whose vocation is to promote “art making by the church, for the church, for the glory of God in the church, and for the world.” Taylor’s mission, even today, bumps against three age-old tensions between Christian artists and their church communities: suspicion about art and its meaning, a misappropriation of art for didactic or evangelistic purposes and a dismissal of art as recreational or elitist, a diversion from the more important tasks of the church.

In contradistinction to those attitudes, Christian Courier has always been a welcome venue for highlighting artists who produce art from within the church. A case in point is Linda Siebenga. I have 1989 and 1995 CC issues featuring poems by Siebenga. Most recently, CC published her poems “Jeremiah and the Linen Belt” (June 27, 2016) and “Watching a Glacier” (July 25, 2016). That’s a long record of dedication to the arts for both CC and Siebenga! I applaud such resilient insistence that creating art is a God-glorifying activity. As David Taylor notes, “The arts are a fundamental way to be human. They are rooted in the work of the Triune God.”

Siebenga’s latest book, A Bruised Reed, continues her faithful poetic work of “voicing the whys of our existence” as she explained in a CC interview long ago. The book is divided into four parts with poems on Nature, Life, Books, Art and Poets and Theology. These categories demonstrate the breadth of her curiosity, her attention to both the created world and the transcendent sphere. In “Two Sets of Crimson Wings,” Siebenga alludes to that intertwining of realities: “we are some poet and a farmer / scraping the heavens with the galoshes of life.” The collection as a whole should be especially treasured by CC readers because these poems emerge from our shared heritage of faith.

Siebenga’s sensitivity to the ordinary beauties of farm and prairie is acute. Her experiential and tactile awareness of the “stuff” of creation sits easily and familiarly beside spiritual and artistic reflection, as in a stanza like this one:

Crimson flash of red-winged blackbird

in the thicket by the slough

singing and calling into the morning,

with sounds

poems only dream of.

For Siebenga simply everything can be a revelation of God’s provision or a “still life” moment propelling praise. From “khaki-coloured cornstalks” to “carrots with earth in their creases” to “pink-cheeked potatoes,” Siebenga’s lively descriptions renew hope. God’s munificence is all around us for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

While the poems about Nature and Life sparkle with fresh images and crisp wording, the poems about Books, Art and Poets and Theology have a plainer feel. Nonetheless, there is something about the bald directness of these poems that fits, that feels measured and right. Rather than an esoteric faith in an abstruse deity, Siebenga’s poems present a factual relationship with an everyday God who eagerly approaches us, who speaks to us conversationally in the Bible and who desires our companionship.

A Bruised Reed is available at siebenga@cciwireless.ca. Pick up this book and enjoy the camaraderie of walking alongside Siebenga and God.

 

What a book can do

(Christian Courier column, April 2016)

 
I can’t recall the title, but I clearly remember the first book that awakened me to suffering beyond a bloody nose or schoolyard snub. It was a small blue hard-covered book about the 16th century Spanish siege of Leiden. I sobbed to my mother: “Those poor Dutch people were trapped! They were starving! They ate dogs, cats and rats!” I was just a kid, but I’d discovered empathy.

 
Books continue to be a God-given opportunity for me to meet, understand and love my neighbour.

 
kinew_reason_you_walk_cvr[1]The Reason You Walk by Canadian journalist Wab Kinew is the unsentimental account of a father and son relationship inhabited by colonial subjugation. Kinew’s father, Tobasonakwut, endured a litany of horrors at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. He was given a new name, Peter Kelly. Every aspect of his native culture was demeaned — his appearance, his language, his religion, his traditions. He was strapped for offenses he didn’t understand. He was sexually abused by both men and women, vilified by a nun even as she raped him. He witnessed the beating of his closest friend by white men and ran, in vain, to get help. The nuns insisted later that the boy had died of tuberculosis.

 
Tobasonakwut’s suffering remained private for much of his life. But the childhood nightmare dogged his marriage, his parenting and his emotional health. Gradually, determined to retrieve his dignity and his cultural heritage, Tobasonakwut achieved a remarkable transformation, becoming a national leader and advocate for his people. In 2009 he travelled to Rome to meet Pope Benedict XVI, offering him a feather as a symbol of reconciliation. Kinew sums up his father’s legacy: “He had grappled with his pain, with his anger, and with his grief. Now, we had seen him conquer those things with love, a love he extended to his fellow human beings, including some who had hurt him.”

 
51fb-u69ShL[1]Katherine Boo’s book, behind the beautiful forevers, is an expose of life in the seething “undercity” of Mumbai, a sprawling slum beside its elegant airport. Abdul, a Muslim trash picker, one of ten children, is supporting the family because, as he says, his father is a man who is “too sick to sort much garbage, not sick enough to stay off his wife.” Abdul’s beleaguered future is thrown into even greater jeopardy when he is wrongfully accused of murder. We also meet Asha, slumlord by virtue of her body and her political savvy. Her ruthless scamming has but one goal — a college education for her talented daughter. Ironically, her “most-everything girl” ends up despising her, still trapped in Annawadi because of her mother’s fraudulent schemes.

 

 

Behind the beautiful forevers is a galling read. Boo demonstrates how brutish economic conditions give birth to morally unconscionable realities: “The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.”

 
25622897._UY1217_SS1217_[1]The Illegal is Lawrence Hill’s latest work. Olympic-hopeful Keita Ali, a black marathon runner, grows up in dangerous Zantoroland. His journalist father is murdered for documenting political corruption. With the help of an unscrupulous sports agent, Keita escapes to Freedom State.

 
As a person with illegal status, Keita becomes enmeshed in complexities. Worse, his sister Charity has been kidnapped in Zantoroland and is being held for ransom. Keita takes huge risks, competing in public races to win the money he needs to free his sister. His terror is compounded as various individuals all want a piece of him — politicians, criminals, reporters and athletic promoters.

 
The fictional, futuristic setting of The Illegal allows Hill free rein to explore current issues without pinpointing particular countries. But to my mind — perhaps because I read it immediately after the impeccably researched beyond the beautiful forevers – the novel lacks the rigorous believability the subject matter demands. Nonetheless, it’s a gripping story that highlights the difficulties refugees face as they flee oppression.

 
Each of these books fostered my empathy for those who are different from me. My neighbourhood is expanding; so is yours. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” I have a choice to make. Will I avert my eyes from the suffering of others or will I choose to be a good Samaritan? Educating myself is a step in the right direction.

A good idea gone bad

(Christian Courier review, Oct.12, 2015)

IMG_0196My friend Joanie has read To Kill a Mockingbird 78 times. Yes, you read that correctly. Atticus is her hero, and she strongly identifies with Scout. She couldn’t wait to pick up her pre-ordered copy of Go Set a Watchman, pestering her bookseller to release it to her early. He wouldn’t.

Joanie has an extravagant personality. When she told me that she hated the book, I received her input with indulgent reservation. I didn’t expect to agree with her. However, the much touted “new” book by Harper Lee is indeed disappointing. Go Set a Watchman was submitted for publication in 1957, reports Tabatha Southey in the Globe and Mail (July 17, 2015), and is widely accepted to be the raw material from which To Kill a Mockingbird was born. Some sections are repeated almost word for word.

In Go Set a Watchman, Scout, now Jean Louise, has grown up. She’s home from New York to visit her aging, arthritic father and to foster her romance with Henry Clinton, assistant in Atticus’s law practice. Calpurnia has long since been replaced by the formidable Aunt Alexandra who still runs the household. Uncle Jack Finch, briefly noted in To Kill a Mockingbird, emerges as another significant character.

With sharp eyes, Jean Louise assesses the present against her idyllic childhood. She revisits Finch’s Landing, reviewing family history and reflecting on her place in it. She tries to picture herself as Henry’s wife, joining the coffee circles of Maycomb’s upper crust. She mourns her former home, now an ice cream parlour. She remembers Jem, who has died, and Dill, who is traveling the world. She finds pretty much everything in the present not to her liking.

The crux of the novel occurs when Jean Louise attends a town hall meeting, watching from the balcony. A concerned citizens’ council is discussing “the Negro issue.” Both Atticus and Henry are there. In fact, her father introduces the guest speaker whose words are a mashup of racist slurs, “separate but equal” pronouncements and twisted Christian slogans. “Color-blind” Jean Louise flees in utter disarray, betrayed by the two men she loves most. She cannot fathom their complicity. In one of the more poignant scenes, she rues her childhood naiveté: “Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts. I looked only in their faces.”

In 1957, in Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee hit upon a cutting-edge premise. A young woman returns to her southern home to see her community with more mature eyes, vanguard of a generation increasingly attuned to racial justice. But the book itself detracts from its promise.

The writing is not strong. Even granting the intrusive authorial voice and faintly flowery style of the time, the novel leans far too heavily on “telling” rather than “showing.” The dated prose, lacking an appealing storyline like that of To Kill a Mockingbird, quickly becomes annoying. And that’s another problem. The plot is paper thin. No action propels the story forward. The few main characters are sketched rather than carefully constructed, the exception being Uncle Jack, who injects a certain charisma.

The better parts of the book are Jean Louise’s forays into her past, familiar Scout moments that are, for the most part, comedic and amiable, although occasionally too drawn out. In this novel, Maycomb itself, inhabited by all those endearingly quirky neighbours, does not exist, except as a one-dimensional stage. A few passages hint at the organic quality of community life, but in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise is set apart from the town, looking on without love.

And for me, that’s the blatant weakness of the novel. The tone. This is a self-righteous and mean-spirited Jean Louise. A critic who sees a truth that undoubtedly needs to be addressed, but lacks the wisdom to muster up more than recoil and reactionary aggression. Her vicious rant against Atticus renders her completely unlikable by the conclusion.

But read the novel for its 1950s sociological value, if not for its artistry. Cringe at the callousness of the commonplace n-word and at slurs we now identify as patently xenophobic. Palpate the fear of seismic cultural change. Glimpse the embryonic struggle about the role of women in society.

As I was writing this review, I read an article by Peggy Rosenthal in the September issue of Image (imagejournal.org) about a current controversy surrounding an antique menagerie carousel in Rochester, New York. The merry-go-round displays a “pickaninny” image, a stereotypical cartoon of a black child meant to ridicule and demean. Rosenthal contemplates the dilemma engendered by this illustration on a National Historical Landmark still in use by children today. How does it impact them, especially African-American children? Is it enough to merely attach a plaque explaining historical context? Is it revisionist to remove such an image? Or is it so clearly racist that, like a swastika, there is simply no question that it cannot be tolerated?

Rosenthal’s article points to the enduring duty of the watchman — to spot danger, to protect the vulnerable. In our Christian context, we are called to be on the lookout for our neighbour. Next to loving God, it’s our highest responsibility. Harper Lee’s vision in Go Set a Watchman was laudable; her literary execution less so, but the book is a sobering reminder that racism remains an enemy, without and within.

 

 

 

Lila has her say

 

(Christian Courier Review, April 13, 2015)

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Frankly, it’s a little unnerving to review Marilynne Robinson’s latest work Lila, a novel that revisits Gilead and Home. I’m so smitten with Robinson’s prose, I can’t even pretend to be objective. I agree with Mark O’Connell, New Yorker contributor, who said, “When I say that I love Marilynne Robinson’s work, I’m not talking about half of it; I’m talking about every word of it” (“The First Church of Marilynne Robinson,” May 30, 2012). A dazzling wordsmith, Robinson captures the evanescent radiance of the physical world, while simultaneously conjuring the transcendence of the world beyond. It’s exhilarating and consoling to read a book in which the lustre of the Christian faith is revealed with such sympathetic polish and God’s sovereignty delineated with such gravitas.

Lila is monumental. In addition to Christian topics like the Bible, baptism and talking to Jesus, the novel probes romance, labour, language, education, parenting and more. It’s just that comprehensive a story. But, fear not, it’s a story first, one that enthralls. The protagonist, Lila, is incandescent, with gritty spirit and fierce, though unschooled, intellect. A peripheral character in Gilead and Home, Lila is now given the chance to speak and, in fact, gets the last word.

A neglected child, Lila is rescued by Doll, who steals her to save her. At first, Lila resists: “If there was anyone in the world the child hated worst, it was Doll.” Lila’s later perception of her rescue is unwittingly biblical: “And she had a thought that she had been born a second time, the night Doll took her up from the stoop and put her shawl around her and carried her off through the rain.” Doll proves her love repeatedly – caring for Lila on the run, eking out a living as a migrant worker, sacrificing for her at every turn. Her selfless acts build to a towering, if blurry, reflection of God.

The crux of the novel is Lila’s question: “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.” Her childhood deprivation, confinement in a brothel and loss of Doll lead Lila to a grim view of existence: “… why didn’t it roar and wrench itself apart like the storm it must be, if so much of existence is all that bitterness and fear?” And so, Job-like, Lila challenges the Almighty: “But if God really has all that power, why does He let children get treated so bad? Because they are sometimes. That’s true.” Her own life is evidentiary.

Lila’s indictment of God is brokered by Congregationalist pastor, John Ames, whom she marries, a Gomer and Hosea parallel that dumbfounds them both. She asks him, “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something?” So Rev. Ames is called upon to defend God to his wife. Can his deeply cherished theological convictions satisfy Lila? Can his faith salve her brazen need? He concedes, “Lila, you always do ask the hardest questions.”

His first response is brusque: “I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end. Why it’s pointless to ask them.” Nonetheless, within the incongruity and ordinariness of their marriage, within the practical earthly kindnesses they offer one another — home, garden, respect, friendship, and, finally, a child – a halo of sacred space opens up for tender spiritual discourse.

As readers know from Gilead, Ames is ill. His looming mortality presses him to grapple earnestly with Lila’s question: “Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God is his freedom offers to us. Things are hidden in the mystery of God.”

But, as Lila and their son are baptized by his hand, she reaches some conclusions of her own about the mystery of God. Within that mystery, she determines, Doll will not be lost forever, and the puzzle of election will be resolved: “She thought maybe, just by worrying about it, Boughten would sweep up China into an eternity that would surprise him out of all his wondering. God is good, the old men say. That would be the proof.”

Lila the nobody, child without a name, lands, providentially, in Gilead where she does indeed find balm. And a voice. Even her preacher husband is eager to learn from her: “I know you have things to tell me, maybe hundreds of things, that I would never have known. Things I would never have understood.”

The boundlessness of Lila’s “last word” will generate debate among Christian readers. It already has. Check out Linda McCullough Moore’s “Lila: A dissenting view” (booksandculture.com). But, for me, Lila’s own wild trajectory to salvation validates her extravagant hope. If grace could fall on her, it could fall on anyone, on any wild, brave sinner with “the fire infolding itself” within.

 

 

 

 

 

God visits Toronto

(Christian Courier review, Feb. 9, 2015)

God visits Toronto

DoveBathurst-220x300A divine visitation in Toronto? Would it be detectible? Welcomed? After all, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John1:10). Patricia Westerhof’s debut novel, The Dove in Bathurst Station, winner of the 2014 Word Guild’s Best Contemporary Novel Award, probes the complexity of discerning God’s presence.

Marta Elzinga is seeking a sign. A high school guidance counsellor, she is ironically unable to counsel herself through her own challenges, both past and present: the suicide of old boyfriend, the irresponsibility of her husband, depression about her career and her future. Complicating everything is her heritage of faith. Her father, a Christian Reformed pastor, has always placed his choices in God’s hands. But Marta’s faith is tenuous, plagued by doubt. She believes most major changes in life happen randomly. In the face of such arbitrariness, she is immobilized, admitting to her sister, “I don’t have a plan, you know that. I never have plans.” She longs for divine intervention.

And God shows up. Maybe. Marta witnesses two incongruous events in succession. A wild mink, running free at Toronto Island Airport, stops for an instant to look directly at her in a peculiarly intense way. Then, even more outlandishly, a pigeon boards the subway at Bathurst Station, imperturbably riding along beside her until it chooses to exit “like royalty” at Christie. Marta later identifies it, more correctly, as a rock dove. She accepts the signs as prophetic, “telling her something, inviting her to something,” but her vacillation still stymies her. Should she leave Matt? Apply for a better job? Confront her past, the fear about her culpability in Aaron’s suicide? The visitations comfort Marta, but only to a point:

Her sure belief that God was telling her something had not wavered – but telling her what? Simply that God was involved in her life, that God was with her? If so, his presence didn’t seem to be improving things much. That was probably a blasphemous thought.

Restless, Marta takes up a dubious “hobby,” exploring the subterranean geography of Toronto. Urban spelunking is illegal, but she likes it. She is soothed by the terrain below the metropolis, “laid out in untangled lines,” so different from her knotty life on the surface. The trips beneath the city become a physical first step to another kind of exploration, one she has been resisting – a spiritual journey. Her reluctance echoes that of the biblical Martha who also struggled to step away from the familiar and choose the “one thing needful.”

Gaining momentum from her underground adventures, Marta joins a church study group on Julian of Norwich. Venturing out even further, she flies to Alberta to seek closure about Aaron’s death. There she learns at last what the mink and the dove have been telling her.

In careful writing that rewards careful reading, Westerhof tackles those vexing theological questions – Is God here? Does he have a plan for me? How does God’s will intersect with my responsibility? Blunt doctrine, cut from the fusty pages of 16th century documents, is pasted into real life — in Nazi-occupied Holland, insular prairie communities, Toronto. Her characters are flawed and irresolute, believably frustrating, but they are delineated fairly, with clear compassion, and so we care about them.

Westerhof’s adroit use of spelunking as a motif for spiritual pilgrimage reminded me of Annie Dillard’s masterful essay “An Expedition to the Pole,” likewise structured around an extended metaphor. In the perilous, ill-equipped 19th century expeditions to reach the Poles, Dillard finds an apt illustration for our pitifully inadequate efforts to meet God. She chides, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

The Dove in Bathurst Station takes God as seriously as Dillard urges. In the dark tunnels, in the visitations of a mink and a dove, Marta is drawn out by “the waking God” to a place of no return. She can’t go back to her life as it was. Her future is unpredictable, but glimpses of grace and possibility light the way.

Westerhof’s novel deserves the commendation it has received. A few passages might be considered mildly graphic, but they are certainly not gratuitous. I look forward to her next book.

 

 

 

Approaching boldly despite risk

(Christian Courier, February column, 2014)

 

At 58, I’m still learning about the Bible. Lately I’ve been learning about chiasmus, a literary structure of inverted parallelism embedded throughout Scripture designed to highlight the main point of a passage. The more I learn, the more astounded I am by the redemptive coherence that binds together these disparate books of literature, history, gospels, epistles and apocalyptic visions.

SurprisedAgnostics and atheists who convert to the faith sometimes see this more readily than those of us inured to astonishment by familiarity. Memoirist Carolyn Weber exclaimed: “I have to say I found it the most compelling piece of creative nonfiction I had ever read. If I sat around for thousands of years, I could never come up with what it proposes, let alone with how intricately Genesis unfolds toward Revelation. That the supposed Creator of the entire universe became a vulnerable baby, born in straw, to a poor girl who claimed to be a virgin and who was betrothed to a guy probably scared out of his wits, but who stood by her anyway. It unwinds and recasts the world and our perception of it: that the Holy Grail is more likely to be the wooden cup of a carpenter than the golden chalice of kings. No wonder this stuff causes war, I thought as I read, between nations and within each of us” (Surprised by Oxford).

Called out of darknessPopular author, Anne Rice, of Interview with A Vampire fame, re-converted to Catholicism late in life and exulted in a similarly lyrical vein about the Gospels: “Also something else has happened to me in the study of these documents. I find them inexhaustible in a rather mysterious way. . . . I’m at a loss to explain the manner in which every new examination of the text produces some fresh insight, some new cascade of connections, some astonishing link to another part of the canon, or the Old Testament backdrop which enfolds the whole. The interplay of simplicity and complexity seems at times to be beyond human control” (Called out of Darkness). Always arcane, Rice has recently been in the media spotlight again for proclaiming, “I quit being a Christian.” Disenchanted with the church, she claims she is still a Christ-follower.

The CRC’s Contemporary Testimony defines the Bible as the “very breath of God,” a revelatory exhalation to help us know him better and walk with Jesus in new life. The Holy Spirit, like a monkish illuminator, gilds the text, transfiguring readers in its glow. Still, as Tanya Runyan’s newest book of poetry suggests, the hallowing can be harrowing.

Second-Sky

Our difficult rising’

Second Sky (Wipf and Stock, 2013), is an opportunity to scrutinize that divine resuscitation close-up. The words of St. Paul blaze their way through Runyan’s daily activities; they hammer her conscience, sand off impurities and shape her experiences, finally, into 24-carat poems about what it feels like to be refined by a living, breathing God.

Set in Yellowstone Park, “Approach with Boldness” examines how unwitting tourists have been steamed to death by the geyser’s hissing power. Imminent danger lies beneath tinted pools with lovely names like Morning Glory and Black Opal. Imagine the first hunter, eons ago, says the poet, discovering this “second sky” breaking through the ground, laughing as he “thought nothing of reaching in.” The poem, a commentary on Eph. 3:12 where Paul encourages us to approach God’s throne with boldness, contains an implicit warning. Be wary. Be aware. Death comes before new life.

The same caveat occurs in “Newness of Life.” A South African man wakes after 21 hours in a morgue fridge:

“Some burst alive

on the pyres of the Spirit

Some blink open

slowly, alone, packed in ice:

How did I get here?

I never knew I was dead.”

In “Buried With Him In His Death” the poet imagines dying with Jesus, literally, “until we both gave out.” Together they are wrapped and packed in aloe by Joseph of Arimathea and buried in the tomb: “The stone rumbled over the window of light, and then our difficult rising began.”

For Runyan, the “difficult rising” is aligning St. Paul’s divinely-inspired words with a thyroidectomy, driving home in a blizzard with three children in a car, or living next door to a rusting camper and its slovenly, alcohol-blurred tenant. The same ordinary things that we, too, struggle to line up with God’s Word.

This book will re-ignite the wonder of the Bible for you. Runyan’s poems gleam like those illuminated initials in medieval manuscripts, reverently introducing the holy text. But be prepared. God’s Word is not chained (2 Tim. 2:9).

 

Approach with Boldness                                      Eph. 3:12

 

Yellowstone National Park

 

We creak on boardwalks above geothermal pools –

Black Opal, Morning Glory, Emerald Spring.

Clear and bright as cups of Easter dye,

they sputter and hiss to remind us that we stand

atop a caldera heaving molten rock.

 

Each path begins with the illustrated warning:

a boy in a baseball cap breaks through the surface,

parboiling his feet. I hear the story about the 9-year-old

who lost himself in the steam and plunged into Crested Pool.

They recovered just eight pounds of his body.

 

Or the man who swan-dived into Celestine Pool

after a yelping dog, emerging with blanched irises.

That was dumb, he mumbled for his last words,

skin peeling in sheets. Thousands of years ago

the first hunter to wander into this basin

 

must have thought he discovered a second sky

breaking through the ground, a miracle of sorts,

if he knew about those, radiating in the snow.

He laughed, bent his face over the rising steam,

and thought nothing of reaching in.

 

by Tania Runyan