15 November 2011

Not on One's Own Strength

A short word about an uncomfortable fact, introduced by Langston Hughes:

Gather up
In the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved,
The desperate, the tired,
All the scum
Of our weary city
Gather up
In the arms of your love—
Those who expect
No love from above

How often does God speak to us through each other when our ears are dulled to Him? And how often are we effective vessels? If I am lost and alone, vacillating between fury at God and denial of his existence, do you realize that you are his representative…his translator…the carrier of his words and love to those who don’t even believe in it?

From a Jon Foreman song based off of verses in Isaiah and Amos:

“Give love to the ones to the ones who can’t love at all
Give hope to the ones who have no hope at all
Stand up for the ones who can’t stand at all”

At first blush it’s a deeply intimidating, if thrilling, commission. I am not up to that task in and of myself. I get irritated nigh to the point of violence with the people who stand on the walking side of the escalator and with anyone who uses valley-girl speak…and I’m supposed be a representative of God’s love?

Thank goodness it isn’t my capacity to love and serve I'm dealing with here. I'd be done for. It’s God’s capacity we’re talking about. That changes it from an “assignment” or an impossible command into something different…not an outflow of some frantic humanistic flailing to ‘do the right thing’ (whatever that is on the given day or decade), but an outflow of God’s nature.

Can’t this:

“Gather up
In the arms of your love—
Those who expect
No love from above”

Somehow lead us to understand this: that it is God “who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4)

It is precisely because of my (extremely) limited capacity to serve and love that know I must learn to lean on God’s. I know now more than ever that the only other option is eventual, complete hypocrisy…slowly wasting away and running dry, like a rank body of water without inlet or outflow.

Don’t want that to happen. So, as God offers in the book of Amos, let’s argue this out, so that we don't mistake the world's ideas of justice (or our own) for God's:

01 November 2011

Searching for the Right Things in All the Wrong Places

Below is my attempt to delve into the appeal of Paranormal literature. Though not so old, it is already becoming dated (Dystopias are the new thing, it seems). Trouble is, I don’t read Young Adult Paranormal literature. I like reading about it, because it produces interesting discussions…I just don’t enjoy reading paranormal romances. Not my thing. The real reason that I even had enough information to write this is because I have a book-review addiction, and an affinity for snark: YA (young adult) paranormal romances produce scads of both. So, having read more reviews and snark pieces on this style of novel that I care to admit, I was more or less able to pick up on the trends as an outsider, and form on opinion on the ‘why’ of the thing.

Bookstore shelves are stuffed to bursting with Young Adult paranormal novels these days. Not only that, but the contents of these novels, per most genre fiction, fit neatly into a comfortingly familiar plot structure; young girl meets mysterious, inexplicable boy who also inexplicably loves her despite her plain humanity. The boy will turn out to be one of the following; fallen angel, vampire, werewolf, faerie king or some such mystical being.

It is not a bad set-up and though the famous (or infamous?) Stephanie Meyer had a firm hand in popularizing the sub-genre, she was hardly the first person to put this fantasy to paper. The appeal is obvious; the tension of two different worlds, a heavily exaggerated version of a cultural or class conflict—a ‘higher’ being drawing a lower into some epic, earth-shattering romance. ‘Meant for each-other’ to the impossible extreme.

Catering largely to teenagers, but appealing to almost the entire age spectrum, the gist I get from my critical-book-review addiction is that most of these tales break down into a series of tension-fraught make-out scenes, with the paranormal conflict laced throughout so as to make all this hormone-charged behavior so much more epic than it would otherwise be.

Is it surprising that teen girls want romance? Hardly. Is it a shock that they find the exploration of sexuality in these books fascinating? Not at all. Is there more to this obsession with otherworldly romance, than meets the eye?

Absolutely. And the desires buried in the text go beyond the secularly obvious.

So let’s begin at the beginning (“and then, when we get to the end, let’s stop!”): Otherworldly. Something beyond our normal parameters. What is it that draws people to the “other” which can’t be defined, contained or at all transformed? It can’t be discarded. The lure is too strong. The mysterious “other” is what it is and it’s worth your time (Why? Because). Some people wonder and question. But she knows. That nameless girl who represents all the heroines in these stories knows. Therein lies the appeal. The very idea that there is no concrete explanation is half the draw.

But, wait a minute…why is it always a girl being drawn “upward” into this mystical romance, and not the other way around? We could cite sexism or marketing strategy. The trope sells like hotcakes. But that’s an insufficient explanation. Why does the formula resonate?

Well first of all, from a strictly story-standpoint…it’s the most basic Cinderella tale: being rescued from the normal, from the mundane, from the unpleasantness of regular life.

But from a broader, spiritual stand-point, I think we can answer that question of resonation when we recall that the church is referred to as the ‘bride’; a woman, plucked from obscurity to become something far beyond her natural capabilities. The same metaphor is used in the Bible to describe God's relationship with Israel, most particularly through the prophet Hosea. She was meant for it, somehow...in spite of the circumstances, and in spite of herself, even.

It should also be noted that there is a male version of this trope and the sci-fi/fantasy world is positively saturated with it. The farm-boy/rogue/outcast who turns out to be the ‘destined-one’/king/savior-of-all-mankind. The parallel here is a bit more overt and accepted than in vampire “chick-lit”. ‘Messiah’ figures in literature are very common. But, for some reason, it’s the bride/Cinderella figure that is the current money-maker, cultivating avid fans who line up for book-number-whatever like it’s Harry Potter or something. (I definitely get the appeal of both tropes, but I like the more action-y fisticuff characters my own self…those are on the up-and-up in YA female-oriented literature as well, a la Hunger Games). It’s a dime novel that doesn’t look like a dime novel, essentially.

The trouble with both tropes is that these messiah-types and lover-hero types, however otherworldly, are inevitably filled with human flaws and selfish actions. Even the ostensibly ‘perfect’ ones come off as tin men and nobody likes them because there’s no such thing. We do not know how to make what we do not understand. We write human messiahs with supernatural powers, because that’s all we can manage. We turn them into the ideals of what we want to be, or how we wish we would be loved. We are trying to satisfy a desire we were created to have…and which can be fulfilled...but only by God.

Vicariousness isn’t gonna cut it…but it sure has oceans of market-appeal: Romance, Sci-fi, Fanstasy, Video Games, Role Playing, Chick-flicks, Super Hero movies etc.

Now what about the fact that, in many of these teen novels, the mysterious male lead often treats the smitten girl condescendingly...even unkindly? He’s a “bad boy.” He’s “dangerous.” What does this say about our society? Do women want to be pushed around without explanation? Do they want to be treated poorly? Must the man keep his epic secrets from them? Must he deal with her so strangely? Must he be so difficult to understand? Must the heroine feels like she’s kept in the dark?

(Frankly that would annoy the ever-loving daylights out of me in a guy character, but okay, it seems to be really popular)

Well, I’m not alone in my belief that women don’t want to be treated like this by any actual, human man (that’s a different discussion called “unhealthy relationships”) but only by a fantasy ideal whose otherwise inscrutable behavior is derived of irrefutably loving motives. They want to be loved and pursued in this very unique way by this incredibly unattainable person. So he gets invented on the page. These heroic figurines can’t live outside of the lines they’re typed in, yet they represent the notion of something powerful and all-knowing that we less-knowing humans long for.

To suss this out, I can only recall that the heroes of both the Old Testament and the New struggled with the genuine hardship of following God. He didn’t always make sense to them. He was not always easy to obey. His judgments could be devastating. His followers have been known to endure heartbreaking delays, persecution and periods of silence, loneliness and pain. Sometimes he permits horrible things to happen to those who love him, as in the cases of Job and Joseph.

But He was worth it to them. He is worth it to us. Also they were worth it to Him, which is the confusing bit. His thoughts are not our thoughts neither are our ways his ways. I’m tempted to say to this entire genre of paranormal romance, as if to a person, “close…so close, but no cigar.” The crucial facts are missing, so the passion is misdirected.

This is where the central problem is. No human is worth this particular breed of trust and devotion. No glittery hero either. So obsessions are created around these human impossibilities to compensate for this giant misdirection away from God towards Man. We should love and serve each other, not idolize each other. Are we setting young girls up to idolize and idealize the men they date/marry? Yes, I suspect so, and it’s easy to see how that will go awry.

It’s perhaps too simple for me to dismiss these teen fantasies as merely that. But in our modern world, in which ‘youth culture’ is dominant and worshiped, the vamp-and-werewolf literature of today probably bears a more accurate representation of people’s deepest desires than the Andy Hardy-and-Nancy Drew of yesteryear. Young adult literature is dubbed excellent if it is bilingual; speaking equally to its target audience and to the generation that raised them.

This is the tricky part; these sorts of books are the fluff of our day. These are the sugar-coating idealists. The wistful dreamers. The seekers of happily-ever-after, producing ‘spunkified’ versions of old-fashioned damsels-in-distress. The cynicism which surrounds these mouthfuls of cotton-candy can quickly melt their thin cry for something ‘other’—oh how much hilarious snark they have produced!—because it is so very thin. It hardly knows what it’s asking for. It’s caught in the mire of a life unperceptive of God.

As C.S. Lewis observed about ungodly or perverse affections, “Eros, turned upside-down, blackened, distorted and filthy, still bore the traces of his divinity.” So, are sewage weeds better than nothing growing at all? At the very least, they show a lack of resignation to the pervading philosophies in which all deep desire is dismissed as childish folly; love is a lie, faith is a fairytale and destiny is for dungeons & dragons.

So perhaps my respect for these pieces of literature is scant, but my empathy is substantial. This washed-out fantasy love can be seen for what it is beneath all the teen angst: yet another translation of a deep, unshakeable desire to know, love and be loved by Someone enigmatically “other”—the only One who stands so wonderfully beyond our natural selves—to be in the otherworld, with the One who created the world.