One of my favorite series of books right now is the Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, in which he has built an intriguing world around the insight that, at some level, religion is transactional. From this perspective, humans praise and worship gods, offer them sacrifices, and donate their time and wealth to the gods’ institutions, all of which increase the gods’ power and influence; the gods in turn use their power to bless their worshipers, offering tangible and intangible benefits both generally and to specific worshipers (in response to prayers or other petitions). With this insight, Gladstone then builds a world in which humans have identified and quantified the soulstuff that serves as the means of religious transactions, which in turn allows for the union of the religious economy and the purely human monetary economy.
The books take place in the aftermath of the God Wars, cataclysmic battles between the old regional divinities and Craftsmen and Craftswomen, humans who, having attained the power of gods through their study and accumulation of soulstuff, sought to replace divine authority with human power. Most of the surviving gods are in hiding or bound to humankind and the human economy by contracts far more quantified and detailed than the old covenants between gods and their worshipers. The post-war world is ruled by Craftsmen and Craftswomen who are simultaneously wizards and lawyers of the most careful sort.
The five novels of the Craft Sequence are thus an unusual but compelling mix of urban fantasy and legal thriller. In Three Parts Dead, the first published, a junior Craftswoman and a grieving acolyte team up to investigate the death of a god whose demise was engineered through manipulation of his contractual obligations. Another, Full Fathom Five, deals with strange happenings on an island where new idols with no native worshipers are used like offshore bank accounts.
Beyond being thoroughly enjoyable reads (where else are you going to find an amusing and plausible answer to the question of what happens when a caffeine addict is turned into a vampire?*), Gladstone’s novels are particularly thought-provoking for us as Christians. They force us to confront the possibility that we are treating religion as transactional rather than relational. Do I pray in the hope that God will do something for me or because I hope to deepen my relationship with God? Am I giving of my resources to help ‘the least of these’ in an attempt to love them as Jesus loves me, or to “score points for the afterlife” (as Weird Al phrased it in “Amish Paradise”)? Do I think of storing up treasure in heaven as the less tangible equivalent of saving money for retirement? And how might we be misunderstanding God if we treat worship in this way?
In a particularly resonant scene from Four Roads Cross, the leaders of a church confront this issue. Kos’ beloved consort Seril (the moon goddess to his sun god, as it were) was thought killed in the God Wars but has recently emerged from hiding, alive but greatly weakened. Kos has been covertly strengthening her with gifts of his soulstuff, but the human concerns to which he is contractually obligated have noticed something amiss and are threatening Craft action that will essentially lobotomize Kos if he doesn’t desist. During deliberations, Kos’ cardinals invite the novice who communicates directly with Kos to testify as to why he advised the god to continue aiding Seril despite the possible consequences. He says:
Last night, he led me to understand himself: Lord Kos loves, and he must fight to defend those he loves. He would not be himself if he let Seril fall, any more than I would be myself if I abandoned my friends, or my church. To turn from that truth is to turn from him – to deny our living god and satisfy ourselves with the worship of his dead image, of a picture on a wall that does not change or ask us to change. We must accept that he needs her, that he was less in her absence. You say I have endangered our god. I say I have grown to know him, and the greater danger lies in deafening ourselves to his purpose, in abandoning his truth for a version of him that may seem comfortable. Faith is a state of constant examination and openness. In faith we must be vulnerable. Only in this seeming weakness do we live with god.
We run a similar risk: it is too easy for us to follow a dead image of the divine that demands church attendance, tithes, or certain behaviors in exchange for wealth, health, and power. But the nature of our living God is to love, to give love freely in the hope that we will be similarly free in loving one another; the economy of divine love operates very differently from the monetary economy. That creates potentially scary uncertainty: there’s no price sheet telling us that a certain gift to the church will result in us getting a raise, handing this many sandwiches to the poor will bring victory to our football team, or saying so many Our Fathers will shave a year off our time in heaven’s waiting room. We can do everything right and still suffer bad things.
In that vulnerability and uncertainty, we must treat God as something more than an ATM which cannot help us if our account is empty. We cannot act as though Gladstone’s insight is true for us, that our religion is transactional, if we hope to deepen our faith during our journey through life. It is only in relating to God as a friend rather than a store clerk that we truly grow to know God.
*According to Four Roads Cross, it isn’t pleasant. Unlike those addicted to recreational drugs, who can drink the blood of human users to get their fix, coffee-loving vampires have to put up with the headaches and muscle cramps because “by the time I wake up, most of you have metabolized your caffeine.”
The Rev. John Adams
The Eggplant: April 27, 2017
The Fast and the Fictive
When I was in Seminary, one of my classmates would joke that, if she were not called to be a priest, she would spend her time painting supper scenes from the Fast and the Furious movies, under the name Dom Tintoretto. Most of the time, people didn’t get the joke: Tintoretto was a Venetian Renaissance painter perhaps best known today for a Last Supper that contrasts dramatically with Da Vinci’s famous depiction thereof in its use of shadow and showing the table from a diagonal. Dom Toretto, played by Vin Diesel, is the protagonist of the Fast and the Furious series, now at eight films and counting.
The Fast and the Furious movies are one of Hollywood’s more curious franchises. After a modestly successful 2001 film about street racing and two less successful sequels featuring mostly new casts, in 2009 the franchise began pivoting by assembling a team of the most popular characters from the previous movies, led by Dom Toretto, and telling stories of heists and vehicular warfare among the criminal underworld. The result is a juggernaut that has become one of the most financially lucrative movie franchises and is still going strong.
Even moreso than Kong: Skull Island, these are movies that you watch not for the plot and dialogue but for the ridiculous action: a chase with a bank vault attached to the cars, a tank fighting on a highway, a car chase on ice featuring the unexpected appearance of a submarine. But beneath all the fun mayhem beats a surprisingly strong heart: Dom’s version of ‘honor among thieves’ is his code about family. More often than not, his team winds up in these crazy schemes because “you don’t turn your back on family” even when doing so would be the only way to avoid a world of trouble. A common feature of the franchise, in its quieter moments, is a scene where Dom and his team sit down to a meal together and, in a prayer before eating, Dom or another character thanks God for their family.
Setting aside the curiosity that movies with such a high quotient of violence and death are among the only blockbusters to include such explicitly Christian scenes, it’s fascinating that Dom’s family, for whom he willingly enters all manner of dire straits, is almost entirely fictive. With the exception of his sister, who eventually marries another member of the team, none of Dom’s ‘family’ is related to him by blood. The team is a group of friends who, between common interests and shared experiences, have become as close as family and chosen to treat one another as such.
This sort of chosen family is a very Christian idea: St. Paul, in his references to his disciples as his sons and other Christian leaders as his sisters and brothers, frequently uses the language of this fictive kinship, that we who are not related by blood from our birth are related even more surely in the blood of Christ. Today, we most commonly see this in addressing priests as ‘Father’ or ‘Mother,’ but beginning with Paul saying that he has become father to the runaway slave Onesimus (Philemon 10), this notion of fictive kinship has often guided Jesus’ followers in our efforts to relieve the suffering of others as though they were our children or stand with the oppressed as our siblings.
And Dom Toretto’s family features several traits that ought to define our own fictive kinship with our fellow humans. Dom’s family is, at least by the usual standards of Hollywood casts, incredibly diverse. Men and women are equal members of the team, and a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds are present. Too often, our Christian families lack such diversity, with most or all of our fictive kin sharing our race and ethnicity and women being reduced to inferior members.
Dom’s team also features a constantly rotating cast of characters, as old family members are killed or retire from the criminal life and new members join the team. The ease with which new members are assimilated is sometimes startling, perhaps because Dom has a curiously optimistic view of human nature: he seems to be positively inclined toward almost anyone he encounters who doesn’t threaten his family, and even when he himself is endangered, he sometimes retains that positive view. *Spoiler alert: spoilers for The Fate of the Furious follow.* For example, in the Havana-set opening scene of the most recent movie, Dom engages in a street race during which his opponent uses several tricks that nearly get Dom killed and spectacularly total his car. After Dom wins anyway, the opponent admits that Dom has earned his respect and Dom chooses to neither take his prize for winning nor otherwise punish this cheating foe. Said foe later shows up playing a small but crucial role in Dom’s plan for getting out of the pickle he finds himself in, suggesting that this is a potential future member of Dom’s family.
We Christians would do well to emulate Dom’s willingness to forego revenge despite the harm he endured, but even that pales in comparison to Dom’s willingness to forgive. After a cyberterrorist kidnaps Dom’s infant son so he will betray his family and work for her, he seeks help by reaching out to the Shaws, a literal family who opposed Dom’s team in previous movies and were responsible for deaths among Dom’s family members. At the end of the movie, Deckard Shaw delivers the baby to Dom, who forgives Deckard for killing Dom’s ‘brother’ Han and welcomes this former enemy to the family table. Given how well many Christians bear a grudge, even against our fictive kin, Dom’s forgiveness and welcome of someone who killed his family into his family is remarkable.
So weirdly enough, those Dom Tintoretto paintings would be an entirely appropriate hobby for a Christian. For a culture that looks upon the Last Supper (both the Da Vinci painting and, often, the event itself) as stuffy, old, and irrelevant, the suppers in the Fast and the Furious movies offer a more contemporary vision of Christian fellowship, where gender and race do not divide, where radical forgiveness is extended, and where everyone is family.
The Rev. John Adams
*Spoiler Alert: The following Eggplant contains spoilers for Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla (2014), the Revelation to John of Patmos (~95), the good movies of M. Night Shyamalan (1999 and 2000), and Holy Week (~33).
For those who don’t spend time in the geekier corners of the internet, a spoiler alert indicates that plot details will be discussed, so if you have not yet seen or read the above and wish to do so without advance knowledge of their stories, read no further. If you have already experienced the above, have no interest in experiencing the above, or believe that knowing plot details will not detract from your enjoyment of the above, proceed.*
Earlier this month, Warner Bros. released Kong: Skull Island, an action-heavy monster movie that joins Godzilla (2014) in establishing the MonsterVerse (a shared cinematic universe analogous to the Marvel Universe in which fourteen superhero movies and six shows since 2008 have taken place). Immediately following the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Kong follows a team of scientists who are taken by military helicopters to a newly discovered, skull-shaped Pacific island. After the helicopters are destroyed by the gigantic gorilla of the title, the scattered survivors encounter further monsters and learn more of the island’s history during their struggle, inspired by Apocalypse Now (1979), to reach their extraction point before the appointed time. Among their discoveries is an isolated human tribe that, according to an American pilot stranded there during World War II, identifies Kong as their god.
Like Godzilla before it, much of the conflict in the film derives from the problem that, upon discovering that such monsters exist, some of the human characters want to destroy them all while other characters recognize that the titular monsters are beneficial to people, at least insofar as Godzilla can fight other monsters far more effectively than human weapons can and Kong defends all the island’s inhabitants, including the people, from the predatory, reptilian Skullcrawlers. In one scene in Kong, the surviving soldiers, who are hungry for revenge against Kong for killing their compatriots, almost come to blows with the civilians who only want to escape with their lives, while in another the civilians, having recognized Kong’s nobility, initiate a Mexican standoff in an attempt to defend the gorilla from the soldiers who are attempting to burn him.
Given that the natives identify Kong as god, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a potential sliver of real world religious metaphor in that conflict. Two groups of people who ostensibly have the important things in common (they all come from the world outside of Skull Island and all want to get back there) part ways and almost kill each other over their different interpretations of god’s intentions: the soldiers see Kong as an oversized Vietcong, an enemy combatant who killed Americans and thus must be killed in turn, while the civilians see him as a king justifiably defending his home and dependents from potential threat. Like the people in Kong who struggle to come together to join the island’s god in fighting the Skullcrawlers, we in the real world fight one another, even Christian against Christian, over different understandings of God’s character, instead of joining with God to combat the real monsters of the world: violence, injustice, hunger, oppression, disease, climate change, etc.
Our inability to come together in the face of such ills is especially frustrating because, in Scripture, we have already read the ultimate spoiler: the monsters that would divide us from the love of God and one another have already lost. The God who defeated death also beats everything else that separates us from God. We spoil the ending every time we recite the Creed, celebrate with a Eucharistic Prayer, or otherwise remember Christ’s death, resurrection, and future second coming. Satan and Death and all those forces that sow hate and fear to prevent people from loving and serving each other as Jesus commands will be thrown into the lake of fire. Our failure as humans to unite against these monsters does no more than delay God’s final victory over them; one would hope that these spoilers in Scripture would galvanize us to join with God instead of feeding each other to the monsters.
But as those who at least occasionally visit the geekier corners of the internet are aware, not everyone responds to spoilers the same way. There are those who deliberately seek out spoilers as a way to whet their appetite; some folks happily go to the movies to witness the visual spectacle even after reading and dissecting a bootleg copy of the script (if you’ve enjoyed a movie that you saw after reading and rereading the book on which it was based, you’ve experienced something similar). But there are also folks who simply cannot find pleasure in the movie if they’ve already been told that, for example, Samuel L. Jackson is the villain or Bruce Willis is already dead.
As a story, Holy Week has been spoiled to the point that even folks who’ve never set foot in a church (and never intend to) know that the sequence of events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday ends with Jesus’ resurrection. And with regard to Holy Week, many Christians react to those spoilers in the second way, having no interest in watching the story unfold but wanting only to join in the Easter celebration at the end. Perhaps these are the same sort who, knowing God will win, find more pleasure in conflict with other people than in joining God to fight monsters.
But for me, and I hope for you as well, when it comes to Holy Week I have the first kind of response to the spoilers. We don’t attend the services of the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil) for the plot (just as I didn’t see Kong: Skull Island because I was interested in the story). We go to bear witness to what we already know we will see, in this case not the fun mayhem of a giant gorilla taking down a squad of helicopters, but what Jesus gave out of love for us. We take the time each Holy Week to bear witness to Christ’s love as expressed in washing his disciples’ feet and serving them his body and blood, in facing betrayal by his friend and whipping by his foes, in dying on a cross and rising from the grave. And by doing so, we can then bear witness of that love to others.
So I encourage you to spend extra time at church on April 13, 14, and 15, experiencing the story of Jesus’ Passion even though it has been spoiled for you many times over, because it is through reliving that familiar story for ourselves that we can share it in loving and serving our neighbors.
The Rev. John Adams
The Eggplant: February 23, 2017 – Lend Me Your Ears
When I was in Seminary, one of the lessons repeated in many classes and contexts was that to be a good pastor is to be a good listener. As a priest, both members of your parish and others will often tell you about things going on in their lives, and your first instinct is usually to identify the problem and propose a solution. To be a good pastor, we were told, you must unlearn that instinct and simply hear people out; sometimes they do want your advice or a theological interpretation of their troubles, but often they just want you to hear them, because others in their lives or the world at large seem not to be listening.
This lesson comes back to me during this week every year; on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, we always read the story of the Transfiguration, in which God’s voice tells the disciples present to listen to Jesus. One of my mentors, a retired Methodist pastor, asserted that “listen to him” was the most important part of that reading and that any Transfiguration sermon not emphasizing it was doing the congregation a disservice.
While I am not inclined to go that far, I do agree that listening is as important a skill for every Christian as it is for clergy. In general terms, listening to our neighbors is an easy way for us to love them, requiring only our time and attention. To love those we encounter and treat them with the respect they are due as fellow children of God, we must listen to them seriously. In more particular terms, Jesus identifies himself with the poor, oppressed, and disadvantaged (Matthew 25:31-46 for example), so listening to such neighbors of ours today is one way we can follow the command to listen to Jesus here and now.
This Saturday (weather permitting), some of us Episcopalians from the Nebraska Panhandle will be engaged in such listening. Widening our Circle, a day of prayer and sharing organized by The Rev. Tar Drazdowski and led by Brother James Dowd, is an opportunity for us to listen to our neighbors on the Pine Ridge Reservation and exchange stories with them directly rather than repeating the narratives about their lives that we often hear in the media.
Exchanging stories with neighbors whose experiences are very different from ours helps us to recognize our common humanity rather than fixating on the ways in which we differ (religion, gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc.). Exposure to more perspectives expands our appreciation of God’s creation and guides us to love our neighbors who are not ‘like us’ just as God loves them. Such listening can also illuminate ways in which we or our forebears have failed to show such love.
Probably my favorite author at present is N. K. Jemisin, who writes fantasy from a Black female perspective. Her first published novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is set in a world reshaped by an ancient war among the gods; Bright Itempas, the victor, enslaved his surviving enemies and handed their chains to his priesthood, who conquered the world using the power of their divine captives. Jemisin tells her story from the perspective of Yeine, a young woman from the ‘barbarous’ fringes of the empire who finds herself summoned to the capital and thrown into the vicious political machinations of the ruling family and fallen gods scheming for freedom.
Besides being an intriguing story engagingly written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was an eye-opener to me as a male Christian of European descent. As the novel progresses, it’s revealed that the war of the gods was primarily between Itempas, god of the sun and proponent of order, and Nahadoth, his brother who embraced night and chaos. The empire blessed by the former resembles the colonial expansion of western Christianity insofar as, in the name of religious devotion and the bestowal of order, it believes in conquering a people and then reshaping their religion and culture into the mold of the conqueror. Yeine’s experience as a conquered person partially exposed to both her own culture and that of the empire bears disconcerting parallels to the experience of Black Americans, Native Americans, and others who are not of European descent, particularly in the ways she is not accepted by her powerful family even when she does succeed in conforming to the capital’s expectations of her.
This story, this fictional version of the attitudes and dynamics that govern race relations in reality but which I often fail to notice, proved indispensable in helping me listen to my neighbors at a time when they were describing things so far beyond my experience that, even listening, I could not comprehend. But even when we find it difficult, we must listen to Jesus by attending to our oppressed neighbors, lending our ears to their voices and our eyes to their stories. Because we are called to love our neighbors, I encourage you to take the time to listen attentively, and to seek out the stories of those who look and act and think differently from you, so that in understanding their perspectives, you may come to love them as God does.
The Rev. John Adams+
The Eggplant: January 26, 2017
Eastern Nerd and Western Priest
by The Rev. John Adams
Greetings, Nebraska Episcopalians! At the request of our illustrious editor, I am inaugurating a new monthly (or something close thereto) column for The Nebraska Episcopalian. Depending on the season, this may entail me addressing questions from our readers, sharing thoughts from my ministry, finding the spiritual in books or movies, or pontificating on subjects heretofore not contemplated. Given such unexplored possibilities, I am dubbing this column “The Eggplant,” in homage to the short poem “Pentecost” by David Craig: “What is this Holy Spirit? / And what is it doing in the eggplant?” Whatever you read here, it will on some level reflect the fact that God’s Spirit moves mysteriously, often in the things we least expect.
Being a priest in Chadron, Nebraska (and quite enjoying both the parish and the town) was something I never expected. After growing up in Northern Virginia, I thought I was going to the wild west when the Spirit called me to Omaha as a Resurrection House intern. I never imagined that I would like the city so much that I would want to stay, or that the welcome I received there would open me to the possibility of living and working elsewhere in the state. So now, as the Bishop’s Society Curate serving as priest-in-charge at Grace Church, I find myself living and working in a place very different from the suburbs of Washington.
There are many things I like about living in Chadron (being able to walk everywhere, the low cost of living, the beauty of the hills and forests, and the general niceness of the people among them), but I do find myself missing the presence of a bookstore. I’ve enjoyed fantasy and science fiction novels since middle school, with the consequence that it didn’t take me long to exhaust the small library’s supply of books on my to-read list. But a happier consequence of being a nerd for that long is a willingness to listen to the Spirit speaking even through things that, on the surface, have absolutely nothing to do with God.
Take, for example, the X-Men movie series, to which I was first introduced in college. The series is driven by the fictional relationship between ‘normal’ humans and ‘mutants,’ where the former are afraid of the superpowers awakened in the latter during adolescence. With the exception of one minor character who prays as a Christian, God goes unmentioned across six movies, even though one might expect some folks who develop unusual powers to wrestle with those powers as divine blessing or curse, or anticipate theological and Biblical arguments in the mouths of normal human politicians and preachers condemning mutants as unnatural offshoots to be controlled or eradicated.
But over the course of the series, as some normal humans have tried to deal with mutants by making them register with the government, suppressing their powers with a medicinal cure, using them for involuntary scientific experiments, and killing them all, and mutants in turn have responded in a variety of ways, including hiding their powers, using those powers to help humans, attempting to rule the world through fear, and trying to kill all the humans, a theme that I find very Christian has emerged. The movies’ happy endings, such as they are, occur when the mutants and normal humans who are committed to living and working together thwart the designs of those who would rather dominate or destroy the other.
Setting aside the superpower element, it’s not hard to see parallels between this fictional series and the real world, where certain groups of people fear other groups who differ from them and seek to dominate or destroy them through laws, threats, and violence. We see it today in the conflicts around differences of sexuality and gender, race and language, religion and nationality, and in the efforts of those who, like the films’ heroes, strive to maintain peaceable and equitable coexistence despite the fear and mistrust.
But for us who follow Jesus Christ, we are called not to fear those who differ from us but to love them as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). This requires from each of us a commitment to see those who differ from us as human just as we are, a willingness to turn the other cheek rather than pursue revenge when we are wronged (Luke 6:29), and the will to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). And fictional and secular as they are, the X-Men movies offer us some ideas of how we might do that in a modern world where those who differ from us might possess weapons of mass destruction, or might be willing to harm literally anyone, or might just be changing the neighborhoods around us by their mere presence. Or to consider another angle, at baptism God awakens in us the superpower of loving even those who differ from us; just as the mutants wrestle with questions of whether to exercise their superpowers only to the benefit of other mutants or in service of all humankind, sometimes to the point of sacrificing themselves, we too must ask ourselves whether we love only those who are ‘like us’ or share God’s love with all.
So that long tangent serves to a) offer an example of finding the Spirit moving in something we might not expect, b) serve as a recommendation of the X-Men movies to those who have not seen them but are not turned off by the idea of superhero movies (just as films, all six are entertaining, with two being excellent and only one being a bit of a trainwreck), and c) provide an idea of one direction “The Eggplant” might take. So please do leave comments and questions on Facebook and let us know what you’d like out of this column. Thanks for reading!