All those days
you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
The time has arrived for me to share, with great joy, some important news of my life and vocation with all of you. As many of you know, during these past two years, I have been discerning the direction of my vocation, sensing that God was calling me in a different direction than my community – the Order of the Holy Cross. Throughout this process, there has been no doubt that I am a monk and would continue to be one. Monasticism is so central to who I am that I cannot imagine living my life in any other way.
But there are many expressions of the monastic life and it has been becoming increasingly obvious that I had to respond to that call. Hospitality is central to Benedictine life, and, in fact, in Chapter 53 of the Rule of Benedict (the Rule that Benedictine monks live by) it states that “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.” That connection of offering hospitality to and being present with both the poor and the seeker (pilgrim) has defined for me what it means to be both active and contemplative. And, in order to do so, a change had to be made.
And so, after much prayerful discernment I have requested that my membership in the Order of the Holy Cross be terminated. That request was granted late last week. I will be forever grateful for Holy Cross – for many years of prayer and service alongside good men. While this is not easy for any of us, it became very clear that it was the right thing to do.
On Tuesday, January 30th, I renewed (re-upped, if you will) my vow as a Benedictine monk with Bishop J. Scott Barker and the Diocese of Nebraska at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha, with my vow of stability being planted here in this diocese. My call to live a contemplative life combined with service to the poor and marginalized of our culture has been fully embraced by Bishop Barker and this Diocese. For me, this combination of the contemplative and active is exactly right and I am incredibly grateful to Bishop Barker and so many in the diocese for affirming and encouraging this call.
Our goal is nothing less than planting Benedictine life in the Diocese of Nebraska. We see that as a three-step process:
The first step is, well, me. By living here, paying here, and being given the great privilege of having already ministered in this geographically vast diocese, we have begun to establish the presence of Benedictine spirituality.
The second step is well underway and is called the Benedictine Service Corps which is scheduled to commence in August of this year. The Benedictine Service Corps (BSC) is a new Christian community plant in the Diocese, living in the context of Benedictine spirituality, according to a modified Rule of Benedict. Young adults interested in growing their lives of prayer, service and hospitality to community, especially among the poor and those searching for God, and the care for creation will be the members of this community. Already we have young adults who have committed to this year of service and others still who are seriously discerning it.
The third step will be called the Community of St. Benedict and will be a way of life for monastics and non-monastics to seek and serve God in the context of Benedictine spirituality. More on that in the next few months!
To serve God as a Benedictine monk is, for me, an awesome calling. It brings me so much joy that it’s sometimes hard to contain. With each passing year of my vowed life, I have often been more and more humbled by the “awe-someness” of what it means to be a Benedictine monk. I am eternally grateful to all those who have helped me to be that monk. But there is so much more monastic to “become”. Please pray with me during this time of transition and as we dive joyfully into the future. Peace in Christ.
Br. James, OSB
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for The Trip trilogy (2010, 2014, 2017, the latter two of which are on Netflix), and The Journey (2016, also on Netflix), although since these aren’t movies one watches for the plot, it won’t hurt you to read this.*
Among the claims of Christianity that are hard for us to believe is the assertion that love can and does conquer hate. When particular countries are constantly at war, when so much of world politics is defined by certain groups hating certain other groups, when we tend to focus more on how our neighbors might hurt us than how we might help them, it is difficult to believe that St. Paul knew what he was talking about when he stated that nothing whatsoever can separate us from the love of God. In America particularly, this difficulty is exacerbated by a culture that mostly talks about love within familial or romantic relationships, offering comparatively few examples of love conquering hate without blood or physical attraction underpinning that love. Of course, hate (and its constant companion, fear) makes for great visual entertainment in a way that love without dramatic conflict and romantic entanglement rarely does.
An exception to that is the small genre of conversational films, of which My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, 1995; Before Sunset, 2004; Before Midnight, 2013) are the best known examples. Such movies focus tightly (though not necessarily exclusively) on the interactions between two people, and the interest for the viewer lies not in the story (of which there usually isn’t much) but in the evolving dynamics of the characters in relationship as they talk.
I recently watched a pair of excellent conversational movies that remind us of the necessity of non-familial, non-romantic love to the good life and the ability of such love, developed in conversational relationship, to overcome hate. The Trip to Spain is the third of Michael Winterbottom’s films (condensed from television series) in which British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, go on restaurant tours of different parts of Europe. The trips are, in many ways, nothing more than celebrations of the good life: traversing beautiful scenery (of which Winterbottom gives us many lovely shots), eating excellent food, and talking with a good friend. Their conversations range from the purely silly (competing impersonations of Michael Caine or discussing Spanish history while deliberately confusing the Moors with famous Brits named Moore) to the deeply serious (professional struggles and jealousies or their difficulties in relating to girlfriends, wives, and children). Watching, I see a modern, upper-class distillation of several elements of the good life as identified in the ministry of Jesus. In addition to healing the sick and preaching the word, our Savior frequently left town or retreated up a mountain, to pray and perhaps be refreshed and recharged by taking in the scenery. Much of his activity seems to have taken place while dining, he scandalized the Pharisees with his willingness to eat with notorious sinners, and he left his followers with a ritual meal to observe. And I find it hard to imagine that Jesus and the twelve would have stuck together as long as they did, making only sporadic contact with their family and friends back home, if they did not genuinely enjoy talking to each other. The Trip movies remind me that Jesus liked time apart, food, and good friends, and that there is nothing selfish about making time for such things in the midst of our more active ministries of service. Sometimes embracing beauty, food, and fellowship in the face of difficulties is an important triumph of love over hate.
The Journey, although very different in tone, is also about a conversation while on a road trip between two fictionalized versions of real people. In 2006, talks at St Andrews between the British and Irish governments and leaders of Northern Ireland’s political parties led to a breakthrough agreement about the governing and policing of Northern Ireland, which a year later resulted in Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, leaders of diametrically opposed parties, having a close and effective working relationship as Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers. The film imagines the beginnings of that relationship when, during the talks, unusual circumstances orchestrated by MI5 compel the two to share a ride to the airport. Initially inhabiting separate spheres of stony silence, the two begin talking after a detour through the woods makes them wonder if MI5 is planning to kill them. Each winds up admitting things to the other that he could not admit to members of his own party (McGuinness’ regrets over some of the IRA’s violence, Paisley’s thwarted desire for martyrdom) and they together realize that part of the problem is that, to stop the cycle of violence with something less than total extermination or expulsion of one side, each party will have to agree to a peace that their own strongest supporters will hate. In the end, after reiterating that each despises what the other has stood for and done, they shake hands, agreeing to work together to give peace a chance. Although fictional, the core idea of the film rings true to the process, that peace, or at least a reduction in reciprocal hate and violence, had to begin with a deep conversation between two enemies who admit that, although they have no reason to trust each other, talking is better than killing. If we believe, as Genesis tells us, that God created humankind as good, then we have to believe that transformative conversations like this, shifting a relationship based on hate to one growing in love (or something adjacent to it), are possible.
As Christians living in hate-filled times, we must not only believe such conversations are possible but be open to participating in such conversations ourselves. Even when they are not personally felt, hate and fear in a culture have an isolating effect, separating groups according to skin color, gender, sexuality, political position, and other points of dissimilarity and through such separation making it harder for good-hearted individuals to cross such divides. But even in our smallest communities, there are individuals who social hate would pit against each other, and between whom real conversation could plant the seeds of love. And throughout this Diocese of Nebraska, there are plenty of opportunities to visit beautiful places, eat delicious food, and talk with friendly people so that, in the midst of all the hate around us, we will not lose sight of the good life that we hope, in Christ, all can enjoy.
The Rev. John Adams
I am getting ready to march. This Saturday, January 20th, I will join with a group of Nebraska Episcopalians at the Omaha Women’s March. We will be walking and praying together to support the lives, dignity, and callings of women everywhere. My reasons for choosing to march are deeply theological, and are connected to the dissonance between the fact that though women are created in the image of God, beloved of Jesus beyond all imagining, and have lead the Church from the foot of the cross and the first Easter Day, they are still objectified, exploited and persecuted in both the Church and the wider world in ways that conspire to diminish us one and all. I am especially mindful this day of the challenges before women of color, in whose lives the intersection of sexism and racism presents an extraordinary obstacle to overcome.
I know that on Saturday I’ll be marching right alongside those women I know and love best, and I imagine I’ll be walking mostly in silence as they raise their voices in strength, unity, and protest, while I consider the ways in which I am a participant both consciously and unconsciously in structures, traditions and enterprises that keep women from fully living into who God creates and calls them to be.
Will I agree with every poster, chant or person in Saturday’s parade? Likely no. But I have not forgotten that the President of our country bragged about the criminal sexual assault of women who happened to cross his path, nor the appalling behavior of men across the professional and political spectrum that has been unmasked by the brave voices of the “me too” movement. This is a day, it seems to me, when inaction signals approval of the status quo. And I do not approve.
The Right Reverend J. Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi and, to be quite honest, will be incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t seen the movie*
The Last Jedi is a remarkably deep mine of topics for conversation among Christians; I could fill this entire essay simply by listing possibilities (some of which have been excellently addressed in Ben Varnum’s essays). The Luke-Rey-Kylo storyline traces the tension between rebuilding the past (at the expense of fruitful new directions for the future) and burning the past (without trying to preserve what might be worth keeping), which is always a fruitful topic of discussion for a Church with almost two thousand years of history. The conclusion of Luke’s journey as a hero speaks to both the power and limitations of people as symbols, reminding Christians that we must neither forget the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection nor detach our understanding of Jesus as symbol from the reality described in the Gospels. Poe’s character arc reminds us of the difference between being a war hero and a leader and the problem of male distrust of women within hierarchical structures, which are important issues for our lay leaders, priests, and bishops to consider as we struggle to find our place in this modern world and slowly move toward equitable representation of women at all levels of authority. Even Finn and Rose’s (totally unnecessary to the plot) casino sidequest illustrates the problem of defining good and evil in ways that fail to consider the morality of extant economic systems.
All of that said, I was particularly drawn to two parallel scenes in the film’s climax. In one, the First Order flagship is picking off the Resistance’s unshielded transports as they attempt to escape to a fortress on the nearby planet Crait. General Leia’s lieutenant, Vice Admiral Holdo, concludes that the only way the transports might survive is for her to turn around the otherwise-empty Resistance cruiser (which had been trying to lead the First Order away from the transports) and suicidally ram the enemy ship at lightspeed, crippling it (and giving us the coolest visuals of an already beautiful movie). In the other scene, the Resistance is fighting outside the base on Crait, attempting to prevent a First Order cannon from blowing a hole through the fortress door. When it becomes apparent that the Resistance speeders lack the firepower to disable the cannon, Finn begins a suicide run, planning to crash his speeder into the cannon, but as he approaches, Rose crashes her speeder into his, saving his life, telling him something along the lines of ‘we win this war not by destroying what we hate, but by saving what we love,’ and kissing him.
Within the movie, the parallel draws attention to the fact that not all suicidal heroism is created equal. Although the military situations are comparable (each act would buy the resistance time but cannot by itself accomplish a lasting escape), the characters approach the situation from very different places relationally and motivationally. At least in the movie, Holdo appears to be respected more than loved: Poe knows her reputation but couldn’t pick her out of a lineup and has no trouble recruiting confederates for his mutiny against her, while her interactions with Leia and the other crew look more like the relations between soldiers who appreciate each other’s capabilities than friends who enjoy each other’s company. Finn, by contrast, is shown to have warm (and possibly romantically-inclined) relations with Rey and Poe and a budding (if possibly one-way) romance with Rose; the trust Poe shows Finn in dispatching him on the sidequest is the trust between friends, not the trust a leader has for his most capable subordinate. Holdo’s decision is shown to be rooted in military tactics: she looks around the bridge for other options before concluding that nothing else will save the transports. Finn’s decision is personal: he intends to hurt those who hurt him even at the cost of his life. Holdo sacrifices her life because she believes that without doing so none of her subordinates will live, while Finn attempts to sacrifice himself out of desperation to eliminate the cannon by any means necessary.
This contrast is relevant because, as Christians, we follow Jesus, who chose to die on the cross rather than rally twelve legion of angels to save him (Mt 26:53), who told his disciples to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” losing their lives for his sake (Mk 8:34-35), who said “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). As we were reminded in seminary, preachers must be very careful with the texts about self-denial and self-sacrifice because, historically, they have been applied to reinforce rather than reduce power differentials in Christian societies. Women have been told to deny themselves to support their husbands, giving up their ambitions and personal comforts to care for men. In America, Black slaves have been compelled to sacrifice their lives in service of white owners, for no nobler cause than a profitable cotton crop or an immaculate house. These texts have often been used to keep the poor and powerless in their place rather than to encourage the rich and powerful to make real, painful sacrifices in service of others.
But when Jesus tells us to deny ourselves and suggests that sacrificing even our own lives is an act of love, he is not talking about the poor becoming poorer to benefit the rich or the powerless giving their lives for the powerful. Jesus held a power greater than any person on earth, yet he chose to die to save everyone who has less power. The call to love your neighbor as yourself is an invitation for those with power in a given system to give it up in love of others so that all can choose self-denial rather than some having it forced upon them. Vice Admiral Holdo, a powerful and respected figure, sacrificed herself in service of those under her authority, dying alone instead of attempting to escape alone. Finn, a hero with authority so limited that he couldn’t even commandeer an escape pod, tried to sacrifice himself in anger and frustration over his powerlessness against his oppressors, before Rose intervened to insist that instead of dying alone, he live or die together with the remnant of the Resistance. The former shows how the powerful might sacrifice even their lives in loving service of others, as Jesus commands; the latter reminds us that, for those denied worldly power, living together in the face of oppression may be a greater sacrifice, and a greater act of love, than dying.
And on that note, my thanks to all of you for reading the Eggplant through its first dozen columns. Have a happy Christmas and a blessed New Year!
The Rev. John Adams
I am bringing you good news of great joy… Luke 2:10
This past August 21st, I found myself in west-central Nebraska on the Martin Ranch. Four of us had driven from Omaha – departing at six in the morning in a torrential downpour – and aiming to get to McPherson County by noon. That would mean we arrived just as the moon’s shadow was beginning to cover the sun, and that we’d have almost an hour to settle in and watch, before totality.
If you were living in this part of the world in the summer of 2017, there is no way you could miss the build-up to the solar eclipse. There were newspaper articles, and experts on the radio and TV coverage, even special edition magazines at the grocery check-out counters. I’m sure that almost every one of you looked up at the sky at some point on the big day… and that many of you, like that Barker family, actually made the journey to reach the path of totality and see this thing yourselves.
I had read a bunch of those newspaper articles, and listened to a number of those experts, and so I actually expected quite a lot from this phenomena, but even still, the reality of the event moved me much more deeply than I had anticipated. I was touched by the subtle, gradual disappearance of light from the sky in the hour proceeding totality. I was awestruck by the sublime beauty of the 360 degree sunset and the strange behavior of the birds and bugs as the light disappeared. When I took off my glasses to look into the face of the constant, reliable and warming companion that is our sun – now suddenly and impossibly it would seem – all blacked out, I could not stop the tears from coming.
But what surprised and moved me most, was the amazing array of human beings who came to see this thing and be part of this story. We were young and old and apparently from every walk of life. Not from just Nebraska or the middle-west, but from virtually every state of the union, and scores of other countries from across the globe. There were license plates on the interstate and in motel parking lots from New York and New Mexico, from Texas and Tennessee, from British Columbia and even Honduras. Who knew you could drive a car from Tegucigalpa to Tryon? When we pulled off highway 97 to say “hi” to a group that had an especially fancy-looking set up pointed at the sky, we were surprised to hear New Zealand accents. They’d hauled those telescopes almost 8,000 miles!
To me – this was the really staggering part. To see such a broad and diverse slice of humanity, all brought together by the same marvel, all gathered into a community of wonder and delight. And to be part of that band – all of us gazing towards heaven, knit together by a shared experience of wonder and hope, each one of us an actor in a story that we are unlikely to ever forget.
And so too, we come, this holy night. For an hour or so we step out of the headlong rush of the holiday season and all the trimmings and trappings that together conspire to distract us from the simple and wondrous story that lies at the heart of Christmas. The story about a God who loved creation so deeply, that he surrendered all the power and might of divinity to become human like us. The story of how that same God – now made flesh – inspired a choir of angels to come down from heaven to sing the praises of that new born child. The story of how the poorest, loneliest and least hopeful among us all, were drawn as if to fire, to see this baby, and then go tell the whole world the news of what they’d seen.
I fear that far too often, the ways in which we spend the precious, fleeting days of our lives have little to do with this story. While the child born this night comes defenseless and vulnerable, depending entirely on our human capacity for love to survive we, by some sinister illogic, choose to respond to the dangers that beset us in life by building walls and arms and armies rather than following his path of love. While the child born this night comes with nothing, given to parents so poor that a barn becomes a nursery and a feeding trough a crib, we are driven to prove our worth by an insatiable appetite for wealth, even when we see the Creator of the universe bestow upon humble Mary and Joseph the greatest status ever gifted to humankind. While the child born this night unites the witnesses of his birth across boundaries of culture, class, race and ethnicity, we – blind to that image of one humanity set so clearly before us – let fear of those we deem unlike ourselves run our lives, and selfishly, care for tiny circles of kin, who ask nothing of us by way of change or growth.
I am afraid that far too often, the way we spend the hours – the way we spend the precious days of our lives – has little to do with this story.
And yet we come.
Drawn to this story as it is told in the Bible and in Church, in children’s books and in the movies, in television cartoons and in art that hangs on museum walls and in second-grade classrooms. Drawn to this story, as it told in carols sung by cathedral choirs and country & western crooners, as it is told in the imperfectly recalled account in the grace prayed by a tipsy uncle at Christmas dinner. Drawn to this story, as it is remembered and celebrated on this holy night, across every tribe and language and people and nation, the entire world around. We are compelled to come, compelled for reasons that are mixed, complex and just plain dubious, enticed by exactly this story, on this winter night.
And that is just as it should be. When God becomes human, this whole creation is hallowed, and every one of our individual lives is exalted and blessed, and there is set before us – if we would just embrace the opportunity – the chance to know once and for all and forever that we are beloved. It does not matter who you are. It does not matter where you come from. It does not matter what you have done. On this night, God comes to you and for you as a human child. I need you, God says. I need no one else in the world more than I need you. Will you love me?
That’s the invitation of this night. That is the invitation of this story that is so irresistible that we would stop unwrapping gifts, and put down our wine glasses, and venture out into the cold in the middle of the night, and come to this place and this company.
Both beautiful or terribly scarred we come. In our diapers and our dotage, we come. Gay and strait and black and white and rich and poor we come. No matter the continent from which our ancestors hailed, regardless of how we were raised, where we were educated or whether we’re properly documented. Whether we were our very best selves this week or whether we arrive this night burdened with the worst kind of guilt for the most appalling behavior, we come …
Like the shepherds, and the wise men, and the innkeeper and the angles, we come.
John Knox wrote:
In the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and in all that the life of Jesus was afterward to reveal, there is the message that not only is there a God, but that God comes very near.
To believe that God is above us is one thing. To believe that God is a strength sufficient for us is another and still more inspiring confidence …
But to believe that God is not only almighty, not only all-sufficient, but that he is God with us, God the near, the understanding and the intimate – that is best of all. The eternal God, coming down into human life.
My sisters and brothers all – when you step out of this place and back into your lives later on tonight, I pray you will carry the words and the message of this story in your hearts. God has come to us. And everything we need to know about our God and everything we need to be in relationship with our God is made true flesh, in an infant child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in bucket meant to feed farm animals. He needs you every bit as much as you need him.
Never forget the wonder we came to hear about this night. And never forget never forget the simple invitation that he offers: will you love me?
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Christmas Eve, Trinity Cathedral, 2017
Advent Prayer Offerings from the Diocese of Nebraska Creation Community
With Christmas Eve on Sunday this year, we have only a few hours to experience the Fourth Week of Advent and prepare ourselves before beginning our celebration of Christmas. Already sunset is a minute later than it was at the Winter Solstice on Thursday. Though winter’s chill remains awhile more, the light outside us will soon be noticeably brighter. The darkest days are behind us for another year; the inner light we’ve been kindling in our journey through Advent continues to glow, soon to be matched by brighter light outdoors.
As we pray this Sunday for God to purify our conscience, we might consider how we can more justly share God’s gifts to us so that the poorest people among us might not only live, but thrive. Our nations and institutions need some deep, systemic changes so that that the earth, worn down like the poor by our greed and selfishness, can be renewed and restored. Working for justice for all is daunting at this point of our history, but we know that just when the days get darkest, the light becomes more apparent. Advent prepares us to recognize and embrace the Light that is born on Christmas and to count on God’s promises, and our faith in Jesus in turn gives us strength for the work of environmental justice.
Advent Prayer Offerings from the Diocese of Nebraska Creation Community
When I was a child, the December days before Christmas Eve dragged along , and I wanted nothing more than for Christmas to be here now. But my memories of a mid-twentieth century midwestern childhood also include memories of snowball fights, games of fox and geese, feeding birds, tracking animals, and going for evening walks with my dad as the streetlights illuminated big snowflakes falling. It seemed Christmas would never come, but now I realize that the fun of early winter made those days of waiting rich and full.
Our Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent asks God to “speedily” help and deliver us. At Church of the Resurrection in Omaha, we sing “Soon and Very Soon” during Advent. As adults waiting for Christmas, we yearn not only to know more fully Christ’s presence among us, but also for help in amending our own lives so that we are ready to receive Christ when he comes.
Advent Prayer Offerings from the Diocese of Nebraska Creation Community
“Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation,” according to the Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer. By that definition, our disregard for the environment is indeed sinful. Our repentance this Advent season requires us to examine our neglect of the environment that sustains life on this earth and to change our way of life so we are better stewards of the gift of God’s creation.
Advent is also a time when a walk outside can reveal much to bring us joy: winter birds, sometimes footprints in the snow, soft pink light at sunset, and dazzling stars at night. When we look around and notice the wonders all around us, we realize that repentance returns us to a place of great love and great joy in God’s creation.
This week we pray:
Merciful God, you have sent us prophets in the form of scientists and environmental advocates who can teach us how to better care for the gift of your creation that sustains every living thing on the earth. Help us to better hear them and learn from them, that we can continue to find joy in your creation and pass along the gift of your creation to future generations. Give us penitent hearts and such joy in your creation that our desire is to do what is right. We pray this in the name of the Son that you sent to live among us because you so loved the world. Amen.
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.*
Ragnarok is perhaps the most enduring aspect of Norse mythology. The heroic gods of Asgard and their treacherous foes meet in a final battle that spells doom for both. The Einherjar (who died gloriously in battle) and the legions of Hel (who did not) will slaughter each other. Fenris Wolf, the gigantic son of Loki, will slay Odin, the king of the gods, only to fall at the hands of Odin’s son Vidar. Odin’s son Thor, the god of thunder, and Jormungundr, the Midgard serpent and another spawn of Loki, will end each other, as will the trickster god Loki and Heimdall the watchman. Surtur the fire giant will burn the nine realms, but after the destruction new life will spring from the world tree. (For an introduction to these stories, I would highly recommend Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.)
Early in November, Marvel released Thor: Ragnarok, the third standalone film starring the character based on the Norse god of thunder. Although a movie that was a straight-up retelling of Ragnarok myth could be awesome, this is not that movie (although, as a genuinely funny and consistently entertaining superhero movie, it nonetheless flirts with awesomeness). The relationship between the Thor movies and the mythology that inspired them is tenuous at best: the Marvel characters of Thor, Loki, and Odin are recognizably drawn from their Viking roots, but the plotlines of the movies have little to do with the myths. Ragnarok is most definitely revisionist mythology, appropriating a few elements from the story in service of a radically different plot.
Interestingly, Ragnarok is keenly aware that it is revisionist mythology, and a significant theme in the movie is how we re-imagine our stories for our own ends. Upon his return to Asgard, Thor walks in on a play retelling the conclusion of the previous movie (Thor: The Dark World). The play was apparently written by Loki, who secretly took Odin’s form and position as ruler of Asgard at the end of that movie, and the writing recasts those earlier events so that Loki dies a hero’s death and receives praise from his adoptive father and brother (Odin and Thor). The play’s blatant (and highly amusing) reinterpretation of events that have gone before reminds us that even the treacherous Loki is a hero in his own story, and sets the stage for the movie’s fascinating reinvention of Ragnarok.
The main thrust of Ragnarok entails a wholly new spin on the backstory of Odin and the nine realms. After the events of The Dark World, Odin has been approaching the end of his life exiled in Norway. His death releases the bonds that kept Hela imprisoned, and she appears and quickly proves herself more powerful than Thor or Loki. Instead of being Loki’s daughter and the queen of Hel (the realm of the undistinguished dead), this version of Hela is Odin’s firstborn and served as the leader of Asgard’s armies during the conquest of the nine realms. Afraid of her ambition to expand Asgard’s rule even further and regretting the bloody conquest that had already taken place, Odin had Hela imprisoned and written out of history so effectively that neither Thor (who Odin sired in the hope of handing the throne of Asgard to him instead) nor Loki (who has a tendency to ferret out secrets) had any idea of her existence. When Hela enters the throneroom of Asgard, she tears down the frescoes depicting the nine realms at peace under the benevolent guidance of Odin and Thor, revealing another set of frescoes beneath them showing Odin and Hela as conquerors slaughtering their enemies. Unlike her father, Hela feels no guilt over their past and is proud of her martial exploits and cruelty. Although the film doesn’t draw particular attention to it, this scene serves as a marvelous indictment of the European and American desire to forget the atrocities of the past and pretend that our colonialism was all for the good (because, if our ancestors did it, then we can’t challenge the morality of it).
After an adventure as a gladiator on another planet entirely, Thor returns to Asgard with new allies to fight Hela in the hope of averting Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard. As it becomes increasingly apparent that Hela is unbeatable as long as she’s drawing power from Asgard (as is her birthright), Thor concludes that instead of canceling the apocalypse he must instigate it, because destroying Asgard is the only way to prevent Hela from conquering other worlds. Loki commences Ragnarok by manifesting Surtur, and his flames bring an end to both Asgard and Hela. In this complete revision of the myth, a few familiar elements of Ragnarok have been appropriated for a sequence of events that is no longer the end of all things but merely the destruction of one realm and the death of a super-villain (and of course the eradication of hordes of civilians and minions, but who’s counting?).
Having passed Thanksgiving, we are now firmly within secular Christmas season, a time of inescapable holiday music, evergreens and lights decorating everything, and ubiquitous reminders to show our relatives and friends that we love them by buying them things. The most common Christmas stories lack even a tangential relationship to the Biblical Christmas story: a bearded stranger in red sends his minions to spy on children before entering their houses with presents, an oppressive curmudgeon is frightened into acting with basic human decency, a reindeer is bullied because of his physical difference until that difference proves useful to the other reindeer.
Sometimes it even feels like we are revising Christmas in the Gospels to something far less world-shattering, as Ragnarok did with Ragnarok. The birth of Jesus is an ugly thing, at least according to Luke: a boy is born to an unwed mother in the ancient equivalent of a garage, surrounded by animal dung, in a town in which she was an unwelcome stranger. Yet in Christmas pageants, crèches, and sometimes even sermons, the birth is reduced to something cute and “aww”-inspiring, and in those same stories, we tend to forget that this child came into the world to end the world as we know it, to overturn imperial orders based on power and inaugurate a new kingdom rooted in love. In almost direct contrast to our secular revision of Christmas, Jesus’ birth calls us to live in a new world in which my wants as an individual and our wants as a group do not come at the expense of another’s needs. Where our revisions of Christmas seek to overturn nothing more dramatic than a child’s ranking of her favorite toys, the Gospel Christmas story seeks nothing less than the end of the world as presently ordered.
So as we enjoy the music, the lights, the piney smells and minty tastes, the presents, and all the other trappings of our current revision of Christmas, let us not forget that, in the Bible, the Christmas story is the beginning of a radically different plot, one that challenges us to live in love for enemies and strangers as much as relatives and friends. Let us heed the warning of Mary, who knew her son would lift up the lowly and fill the hungry but scatter the proud, send the rich away, and bring down kings. Let us remember that, in resurrection as in Ragnarok, the old world must die so that the new may arise.
The Rev. John Adams