Monday, August 31, 2009

Anger, Rage, & Wrath

Speaking of exile. Speaking of wandering. Traveling. Speaking of the themes of exile, wandering, and traveling, of plots that treat these subjects. Recently, a friend has been blogging about anger, and he has got me thinking. This is always dangerous for everyone around me, because. Well. Thinking itself is dangerous, and it is particularly so in the undisciplined. Someone such as me. A person generally unrestrained by the discipline of orthodoxy.

It’s odd, isn’t it, that Christians—American Christians—are among the most angry people one comes across? How is that so, I wonder? I mean, Jesus didn’t command us to be angry. In fact, you’d almost think he told us to be the opposite. So what gives? Why all the anger? Why is it okay and maybe even preferred for Christians to be angry?

I say preferred because I get the idea from some of them that to be angry is a sign that they are good Christians. And that the angrier they are, the better they are as Christians. Oh, I don’t want to push this idea very hard. It isn’t ubiquitous. It isn’t determinative. But there is that vein. That way of thinking. That way of feeling. That one detects now and again among Christians one encounters here and there.

American Christians. And you’d think that poor Christians. Poor Christians in poor nations would be angry. Would be the angriest Christians, to the extent Christians are an angry people. But no. Apparently not so. The angriest Christians appear to be American Christians. Americans. The richest, most privileged people in the world. Odd.

So, to repeat: Why is it okay and maybe even preferred for Christians—American Christians in particular—to be angry? I don’t know. Its one of the starry night sky of questions I don’t. One of the billions upon billions of questions I don’t have an answer to. A propositional truth to offer. But I do have a couple of stories that I’d like to discuss.

The first is the Iliad. Which begins with the Greek word for wrath or rage or anger. And it’s the particular wrath of Achilles. The Greek hero. Who has acted haughtily with his king, Agamemnon, who has in retribution taken one of his concubines—one of Achilles’s concubines—for his own use. Achilles withdraws from battle, in anger (he pouts), humiliated by his king, and asks the gods to make things go badly for the Greeks. To punish his king and his friends. And so things go badly for the Greeks. So they are punished. His friends die.

Achilles’s colleague, Patroclus, dresses in Achilles’s armor and leads Achilles’s warriors, the Myrmidons, into battle against the Trojans, led by Hector, who have breached the walled Greek camp by the sea. The wine-dark sea. Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles’s good friend, thinking that he is Achilles. Achilles becomes even more angry. Sad first. Angry second. He reconciles with Agamemnon.

Then he returns to battle, finds Hector, kills him, and drags his corpse around for awhile, spending his anger on Hector’s dead body. Spending his wrath on Hector’s dead body. What an odd concept. I wonder why anyone would ever do such a thing. Sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? What would be the point? Pointless, as far as I can tell. Except for the venting.

And as I say “venting,” I’m thinking of something like a tea kettle. Boiling water. The steam needs to be vented. Otherwise the device explodes.

So anger makes us crazy, to some extent. We become subject to unreason when we give ourselves over to anger. To prevent ourselves from exploding, we do things that are crazy, if Achilles is any indication.

The other story is about Cain and Abel. The first and second sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is a farmer. Abel is a shepherd. Both offer sacrifices to God. God favors Abel’s sacrifices above those of Cain. Or is this only Cain’s perception? Is this objectively true or subjectively true? The writer doesn’t say. Cain gets angry. But Cain can’t do anything against God. That would be futile. So Cain murders Abel. God sentences Cain to a life of wandering in the land of Nod. Or something like that. Somewhere like that. If recollection serves.

So in both stories, the protagonist is wandering already (Achilles) far from home or is sentenced to wander (Cain) far from home. In both stories, anger plays a significant role. Or rage. Or wrath. In both, anger is involved in determining a permanent wandering outcome.

In the Iliad, Achilles has a choice. He can either get great glory for himself in battle and die shortly, never to return home (forever a wanderer), or he can get less glory for himself in battle and return home, where he will die much later. These two outcomes are open to him. He chooses great glory and an early death. In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain can either endure God’s apparent preference for Abel’s sacrifice, setting his pride aside, and live in God’s general favor, or he can give full expression to his hurt feelings and kill his brother, since killing God isn’t possible.

Not that killing Abel will change God’s mind about the two brothers’ sacrifices. Not that God will like Cain better. He won’t. Killing Abel will do nothing good for Cain’s relationship with God. It’s crazy. Killing Abel is silly. But Cain does it anyway.

Isn’t it interesting that the logical consequence of wrath—of uncontrolled anger—is killing? At some point anger gets to be so great that someone has to die.

By the way, it has always struck me that Abel’s being a literal shepherd and Jesus’s reference to himself as a metaphorical shepherd is probably a meaningful symmetry or parallelism. The wrath of the Pharisees results in Jesus’s death, just as the wrath of Cain results in Abel’s death.

Are the Pharisees the descendents of Cain? The actual or metaphorical descendents of Cain? How about us? How about American Christians? Are we implicated anywhere here? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. Wrath is a form of insanity. When anger is allowed to grow, is encouraged to grow, it may become a monster. One does risk murder and mayhem. Literal and figurative.

Third story now. I’m thinking of a guy I knew. Married. Little children. Angry all the time. I don’t know why. He didn’t know why. Except his father was always angry. He learned early and long that to be a man means that you are angry. And so he was angry, particularly with his family. Venting. Yelling at the children. Yelling at the wife. Christian, mind you. Christian. Until one day, the marriage was dead. He had killed it. He had killed the love that she had for him. That he had for her. That they once had in one another. And so. She left him for someone else. And he was left with his anger. Or the ragged ends of it.

Literal or figurative. One way or another. Where wrath wants to go is death. That pure. That simple. Wrath wants something or someone to die.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Kingdom by the Sea

Here are a couple of paragraphs from Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea that notice something fundamental about why we continue, why we keep leaving our houses or apartments and travel out, wander out, blast ourselves out of where and who we are and into the unknown:

“The woods were full of singing birds, warblers and thrushes; and then I heard the unmistakable sound of a cuckoo, which was as clear as a clock, striking fifteen. The sun was strong, the gradient was easy, the bees were buzzing, there was a soft breeze; and I thought: This is what I was looking for when I set out this morning—though I had no idea I would find it here

“All travelers are optimists, I thought. Travel itself was a sort of optimism in action. I always went along thinking: I’ll be all right, I’ll be interested, I’ll discover something, I won’t break a leg or get robbed, and at the end of the day I’ll find a nice old place to sleep. Everything is going to be fine, and even if it isn’t, it will be worthy of note—worth leaving home for.”

It isn’t every day that we get to discover a cuckoo singing in bright sun, in a soft breeze, among warblers and thrushes. But the days we do find beauty or gentleness or truth or grace or lyricism or something quite blessed suddenly in front of us or all around us or partially revealed are the days that make us. Days that define us.

“Worthy of note,” he says. “Worth leaving home for.”

Well, yes. Yes indeed.

I’m thinking of my nephew as I write this. A young man who just completed a 340 mile paddle-sport race on the Missouri river a couple of weeks ago. I say paddle-sport because there were canoes and kayaks and things that were neither. He finished fourth, by the way, in the one-person-per-boat category. Day after day. Night after night. My hero! I just heard from his mother that he plans to do it again next year. Can you imagine?

My son just came back from a mission trip to Mexico with the youth group at his church. Remarkable experiences. Remarkable and wonderful changes in the young people who he helped to supervise.

My daughter just came back from a holiday in Puerto Rico. Had a lovely time frolicking in the sun and waves.

And I. Well I just came back from pulling weeds from my yard. A few sweaty hours of that. The earthworms clinging to the weedy sod. Smelling of. Well. As I knocked the worms and the clods from the weed-roots, the earth smelled like something I’d badly missed and now, like some weird olfactory gourmet, was deeply glad to smell again.

We’re all travel writers, in a sense, I think. Taking note. Discovering what chooses to reveal itself to us, which turns out more often than not, quite miraculously, to be what we were looking for.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Weeeel! Then of course we have Joseph Campbell and his famous book, a book first published in 1949 and revised by him in 1968. (Shortly after this is when I entered the movie. I mean, I was born in 1950, but I read the book for the first time shortly after the 1968 publication and became aware of a certain. Oh. Pattern to things. A set of common story elements. A sequence. A quality of expectation. A resonance to experience. A familiar plot line.) A third edition was printed in 2008.

So here is Campbell’s brief overview of a story line that is repeated over and over throughout world literature:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

In fact, you might with justification say this story outline underlies millions upon millions of stories, perhaps billions upon billions, with each of us (or many of us) living or attempting to live out variants of it. Variants in which the variations and the particulars obscure the paradigm as the outer mantle of the earth obscures the molten core.

The movement is comedic. The boons are restorative. They tend to be salvific. Redemptive.

The plot requires travel, usually. Travel in the usual sense—moving across the earth. But variants can include metaphorical travel.

Classic examples of the plot are the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Buddha, Moses, Christ, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, George Bailey, Neo, and perhaps Oskar Schindler.

Do we all want to be a hero? No, I don’t think so. But we maybe all would like know heroes have existed and do exist. Some of us—maybe most of us—would like to claim that our stories have a kind of participation in the hero’s story. Or the hero’s story has a kind of participation in ours.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Pilgrimage

Then there’s the pilgrimage, in particular. In general. The going out. The traveling out and away from the familiar. The known. Into the unknown. To do what? To find God, of course. To find his presence or his evidence or his very being. To know him. To know him better by finding him out. Finding him somewhere other than home. Other than in the familiar places that seem.

That seem. Oh. To no longer be capable of containing him, maybe? That seem so familiar that mystery and magnificence and knee-knocking beauty have been driven out of them by experience. By the quotidian. By the grimness of the day-after-day-after-dayness of our ordinary lives.

And so we launch ourselves out onto what? Onto the road or the trail or the path or the river or the ocean sea that will we hope take us beyond the known world. Beyond the world we do not see any longer because it is too often seen and heard and lived in and into the world of the possibly strange. The possibly Other. The possibly sacred with his presence. Full of the light and magnificence of his presence.

And so the pilgrimage becomes a mode of literature. Becomes a kind of story we tell one another. A story that organizes our experience or our possible experience. And of course the quest is a particularly interesting variant of this. The true adventure. Where we are expected to blunder off the beaten path. Off the normal and expected pilgrimage routes. To find what? Why to find the wild God. The unexpected God. The God who can be almost anything. Who is not confined to the expected relics. The pile of expected bones or cloth or stone.

Or it becomes a visit to the Holy Man or the Holy Woman. Becomes a search for the one human or one of the few humans who speak directly with God or to whom God regularly speaks directly and who may or may not teach us how to Be. How to Be like him or her. So that we may be able to find God with us always. Immanuel himself.

But in any event, the pilgrimage becomes a story we can walk out into ourselves. Becomes a story we can make also for ourselves or of ourselves. And so we do this. Many of us. By the millions. The tens and hundreds of millions. And even the atheists and agnostics pick this up. Pick this genre up. And walk out into their own morphed pilgrimage. They hike up into the mountains. They hike out into the desert. They take the tour bus to the Grand Canyon rim or the cruise ship to the Alaskan coast or the cruise ship to Antarctica or to the Galapagos Islands.

Or they become scientists. They become wildlife biologists or marine biologists or geologists or climatologists or whatever, and they make their field work their pilgrimages. Their research becomes their own personal search for the Beautiful or the Wild or the Other, which are all forms of course of God. God in the world. God out away from the quotidian. The every day. The humdrum.

And so this pilgrimage genre becomes mighty among us, does it not? It becomes a way we organize and live our lives, as though we are characters in a pilgrimage story. As though we may understand ourselves and others around us and the physical objects and ideas of the world we inhabit in the context of this. And so some of us set out on our pilgrimages and live much of our lives in this genre, even though we could not tell you that this is what we are doing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Exile and Return

Of course one of the traveling stories. One of the traveling away from home motifs. Is the exile and return.

Or maybe just exile, in some stories. Just exile, and the story ends there.

Or just return. And the story ends there.

And so the Bible begins in this way. In Genesis. Adam and Eve exiled from Eden.

Or take the story of Cain, for example.

Abraham told by God to leave the country of his home and go elsewhere.

Or take the story of Ishmael in the Bible and in Moby Dick.

Moses leading Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt and into the desert, there remaining for many years.

The Babylonian conquest and the Diaspora. Then the return.

The return of the younger brother.

The return of Jesus to life. Then his departure for Heaven.

The return of Odysseus.

The self-exile of. Oh. Let’s pick one. Oedipus. Or some. Medea. Einstein. Lenin. Gertrude Stein. Charlie Chaplin. Huck Finn. Joseph Conrad. Nabokov. And so on.

The pilgrimage. Traveling out and away from one’s home to find. To find what? Meaning? God? Peace? Beauty? Freedom? Oneself? So the traveling out and away, in the case of a pilgrimage, is a kind of return, a kind of traveling home. The exile is the return, in a sense.

And so all traveling becomes either a going out and away from or a returning or both. Sometimes self-motivated. Sometimes coerced. Sometimes motivated by the hand of God. Sometimes by one’s own hand.

And so the younger brother imposes exile on himself but then changes his mind. Ambivalence itself. And returns home.

And the older brother becomes alienated in his own home. Becomes a stranger in his own home, alienated by feelings of jealousy, betrayal, anger, resentment, spitefulness. Alienated by his own selfishness. His own sinfulness. Alienated from his father and younger brother by something in himself. A thoroughly modern protagonist. An exile in his own home.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Oh, someone asked me the other day how my life is going. You know, just a kind of conversation opener. We hadn’t seen one another all summer. And so it was like, Who are you now? Who have you become? Are you the same person I knew before the summer, when we used to see one another regularly? Has anything important changed? Have you traveled? What have you learned? How does the universe look to you now?

But of course we don’t ask most of these questions out loud, usually. They are implied. They stand in back of the voiced question. The voiced concerns or comments. The voiced conversation openers.

So we have illustrated for ourselves here the apparent versus the real. The surface versus the depths. The seen and heard versus the unseen and the unheard.

When one is gone. When one leaves home and is either temporarily or permanently away, one does change. One does not like to admit to profound change, but it nevertheless happens. Happens all the time. To all of us.

We leave to go on vacation. We play by the lakeside. We take a hike through the woods. We kayak for an hour or drink a beer or dandle a grand-niece on one’s knee. Or we visit a relative. Or we make a telephone call. Or we look upon mountains we’ve never seen before. And we are changed.

Something shifts. It’s not always clear what. Usually not. But something has happened. We become different people. Upon our return, we experience our lives as if we were different people.

Being away is supposed to be good for one. I suppose it is. Or can be. Vacations are said to prolong lives. Reduce the stress. And so forth. And I suppose they must, with all the research that’s been done.

Time away from those one cares about also changes one. Changes the relation. Puts the relation in a different topography now. Puts it into a strange terrain.

And it’s like that with God, too. I think. One gets irritated with the other. One feels the stress of the relation from time to time. And so one takes a vacation. One leaves the other to his own devices. And takes some time away.

And when one returns to the other. Well. There seems to be so much that for a long time is left unsaid. Seems better left that way.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Just finished the novel Home, by Marilynne Robinson. A fine novel. But of course I think novels are our philosophy and theology and poetry and cosmology and meaning in large measure these days. Along maybe with movies, which one might think of as light-weight novels. Or novels for the light-footed or light-headed or light-hearted.

In any event, as I have said in an earlier post, narratives of whatever kind can be all these things—our philosophy, our poetry, our cosmology, our meaning—altogether, if well done. And often if they are poorly done also. They help us understand our place and time and being and living by giving us characters somewhat like ourselves. And placing these substitutes—these simulacra—in worlds that are kind of like our own. By doing this, they help us imagine what our own stories are really getting at. Where they may come from and where they are headed. What they are about. Maybe.

Home does all this and is, as I say, well done. Very well done. It plays quite directly with the idea that we live in stories that are much greater than our own, larger stories that may help explain our own particular stories. Stories from the Bible, especially.

The Biblical story that resonates throughout Home is the story of David and Bathsheba. Jack Boughton, son of a Christian minister in Gilhead, Iowa, (who has isolated himself from his birth family for 20 years as the novel begins) is from his earliest memories estranged from his family and community. He steals. He causes mischief of various kinds. He wonders off by himself. He rarely participates fully in the life of the Boughton family. He is almost always gone. Out of the house and who knows where.

Jack in his estrangement struggles to understand himself. His embarrassing and self-destructive and self-isolating behavior. Well into the novel, he brings this up with his father, Robert Boughton, who is dying. And with his father’s old friend, John Ames, also a Christian minister. He tries to get them to help him sort out the Old Testament understanding of God versus the New Testament understanding of God and how God acts in the world.

He suspects that he—Jack Boughton—in himself might be a curse on his father and his father’s religion. Just as Absalom—in his rebellion against his father—appeared to be a curse on King David for David’s sins of sexual immorality and murder. He appears to wonder whether his father and other leaders of American Christianity haven’t been apologists for slavery and racial discrimination. He seems to wonder whether this isn’t their sin and whether he isn’t his father’s punishment for this.

And he seems to wonder whether the child that he fathered as a teenager, out of wedlock, didn’t die (as a toddler of an infection) as his own punishment, for his sexual immorality, his thievery, his torment of his father and the rest of his family.

Jack is married to a black woman, but he does not tell his father or his father’s friend John Ames. But he does ask them questions about the story of David and Bathsheba and about predestination. He seems to regard himself as someone whom God has created to play a role in his father’s story. Perhaps he has been created simply to be destroyed, after his usefulness as a torment for his father is at an end.

Jack isn’t a Christian. He knows Scripture quite well, but he is not persuaded. He takes what appears to be an Old Testament view—that God punishes his people—and attempts to understand his world and his experience using this view of God. He attempts to get confirmation from his father and John Ames, but they are ambivalent. Equivocal. Neither marches in with the New Testament story, either—with the unmitigated joy of salvation and redemption. Which is of course odd. Given that these two are, as I say, Christian ministers, and Jack is their inexplicable favorite. They love him deeply but are also quite. Well. Hostile toward him as well. Aren’t human beings odd? Even in novels? Particularly good ones?

Full of contradictions. Full of ambivalence. Paradox.

And so this idea that the story of our lives may be understood in light of other stories—particularly the stories of the Bible—comes up again in this novel. Comes up faithfully again and again throughout the history of literature. Sometimes explicitly, as in Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and sometimes implicitly, as for example, in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (communion of the saints—1 Corinthians:12). One might almost think of all of the works of western literature as being so many footnotes to the Bible and footnotes to one another. And if one did, one might begin to see a bit—and only to a depth of about one eighth of an inch or so—into the world-wide sea of our stories and how they may well all intersect and work together somehow like so many elements of one ecosystem to make us who and place us where we are. Which can be—like the characters in the novel Home—at the bottom of the sea sometimes, struggling for air.