Today’s special guest: Julian of Norwich

I hope everyone had a happy Christmas.  I did.  This week I’m “working from home,” which generally means working on projects that are not directly connected to my job but that will ultimately make me a better contributor to academia, thus improving my job performance.  That’s what I tell myself, anyway.  One of my projects is a half-hearted pretense at working through the “reading list” (a pleasant fiction) for my candidacy exam coming up in May.  In between more enjoyable reading (the Life magazine retrospect on George Harrison, Harry Potter Film Wizardry, and the 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook), I’ve been struggling through some heavily footnoted excerpts from A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, more commonly known as A Revelation of Divine Love.  But this morning I came across a passage that required no footnotes and that I thought was lovely.  Without further ado (there’s already been way too much ado), here it is.

From Chapter 61.  “He” is Jesus.

“…when we fall, quickly he raises us up with his loving embrace and his gracious touch.  And when we are strengthened by his sweet working, then we willingly choose him by his grace, that we shall be his servants and his lovers, constantly and forever. 

“And yet after this he allows some of us to fall more heavily and more grievously than ever we did before, as it seems to us.  And then we who are not all wise think that everything which we have undertaken was all nothing.  But it is not so, for we need to fall, and we need to see it; for if we did not fall, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we are in ourselves, nor, too, should we know so completely the wonderful love of our Creator.

“For we shall truly see in heaven without end that we have sinned grievously in this life; and notwithstanding this, we shall truly see that we were never hurt in his love, nor were we ever of less value in his sight.  And by the experience of this falling we shall have a great and marvellous knowledge of love in God without end; for enduring and marvellous is that love which cannot and will not be broken because of offences.”

The Hobbit!

Anybody else excited?

Yes, we Hogwarts folks do enjoy Tolkien.  Why not?  After all, did you ever think about this: Merry and Pippin talk about this great kind of pipeweed called Longbottom Leaf.  Is that why Neville’s so good at herbology–because he had an ancestor who was an innovator in the the cultivation of hobbit narcotics?

God bless us, every last individual one.

What are your favorite adaptations of A Christmas Carol?  Here are some mini-reviews of ones that I experience every year, plus a few new ones.

1. Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Like many people, I suspect, I was first exposed to Dickens’ story through this brief–very brief–cartoon.  Its briefness makes it good for children with short attention spans, but it means that a number of great scenes (the child Scrooge in the schoolroom, the party at Fred’s, the pilferers offering their wares to Old Joe) have to be left out.  Perhaps even more disappointing, this version doesn’t use much of Dickens’ language other than “Bah humbug” and “God bless us, every one.”  But Alan Young as Scrooge MacDuck as Ebenezer Scrooge is memorable.  And I’ll always have a warm place in my heart for Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

2. The Muppet Christmas Carol. I haven’t seen this year’s The Muppets yet, but I’m interested to see whether Jason Segel and Amy Adams can give as un-ironic and moving a performance alongside a cast of Muppets as Michael Caine does in this movie which ranks easily among my favorite Christmas films.  Even though this movie left me for many years with the impression that Scrooge actually had two partners named Marley in the original version, I credit it with instilling in me an early love for Dickens’ style, since it does retain much of the phraseology of the novella.  When I read A Christmas Carol, I hear Gonzo’s voice.  Who doesn’t?

3. A Christmas Carol presented by the Almost Blasphemy troupe at Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, VA.  I went to see this American Shakespeare Center production last weekend.  It was decidedly geared toward the groundlings in the audience (in this case, mostly children), as evidenced in particular by the dance number at Fezziwig’s party (It was “Flashdance.”  Yes.).  A purist would not have enjoyed it, but a purist would not have enjoyed seeing Dickens done with Elizabethan theatrical conditions anyway.  I had fun.  As usual with ASC, the pace was brisk, yet the story felt unabridged.  I thought Marley’s ghost was particularly good.  He came out of a trapdoor in the floor!  (And he was a good actor.)

4. The version I have pieced together from a few of my students’ papers.  In which Marley’s ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Past are the same character.  I told them I would be able to tell if they didn’t read the book.

Win a book!

Hello, small but loyal group of followers!  Would you like to win a lovely hardcover copy of A Jane Austen Devotional or A Charles Dickens Devotional (both new from Thomas Nelson; my reviews forthcoming)?  I haven’t had a chance to see the books myself yet, but I have it on good authority that these are not just frothy gift books assembled from quotes found in a Google search–they contain substantial excerpts from the respective authors’ works, and they’re theologically solid too.

Here’s how you win: In a comment, send me your favorite quotation from an Austen novel or a Dickens novel (or both, if you’d like to enter both contests), and make sure you identify the novel and the character who speaks it, unless of course it’s the narrator.  Then explain in a few sentences why you like it so much.  I’ll pick the best entry for each author, and then I’ll arrange to have the book sent to you.  Please send me your entries by Monday, January 16.  That gives you about a month to reread your favorite novel if necessary.  I am prepared to be impressed!

Questions for Hollywoodland

Now that the Golden Globe nominations are out and award season approaches, I would like to throw a couple of rhetorical questions into the vast sea of opinion that will soon begin roiling.

1. We’re going to be seeing a lot of clips from Moneyball over the next few months.  I want to know what the new, trim Jonah Hill thinks when he sees the fat guy in those clips.  Does he hate that guy?  Does he feel sorry for him?  Does he say, “Cheer up, old boy; you’ll be well rid of all that soon enough.”  Or does he think, with a shiver, “There but for the grace of God go I . . . again”?

2. Why can’t the Academy (or the Hollywood Foreign Press, etc.) deign to give one acting nomination to someone from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2?  I know it’s got a lot going against it: an ensemble cast, placement in a series involving multiple directors (instead of a neat, self-contained package like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings), the fantasy genre, and the label “children’s movie,” which even the last few films haven’t been able to shake.  I also know that I’m just a silly fangirl, but I think even a more objective observer might be willing to admit that Ralph Fiennes deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod for his riveting portrayal of Voldemort, and that Alan Rickman also deserves one for his equ…ally (get it, superfans?) riveting performance as Severus Snape.  (You don’t have to be on screen for more than a few minutes to garner a Supporting Actor/ess nomination; cf. Viola Davis in Doubt.)  And let’s not forget Daniel Radcliffe.  He would have to be in the Best Actor category (duh), which is harder to break into, especially for a 22-year-old who’s been playing the same role for ten years.  But nobody can justly deny that Daniel Radcliffe has established himself as a serious contender in film.  He won’t get nominated for an acting award this year (unless it’s a Tony?), but we haven’t seen the last of him.

All flesh shall see it together

Last night, due to the cancellation of coffee shop gig by a local Celtic family band (more on them later, hopefully), I had the unexpected joy of attending a community choir’s performance of the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah.  I always have something of a beatific experience when hearing Messiah live–I’m usually one of the first to spring to my feet when the Hallelujah chorus begins.  This time, however, I had the additional pleasures of a beautiful setting and good companions.

The performance took place in a lovely old church, the kind that when you go in the front door, you walk directly into the sanctuary.  This architectural feature implies two things: first, the emphasis is on worship, and second, a visitor shouldn’t have to wander around looking for the service.  We sat over to the side, so I had a little trouble seeing the choir, but I had other things to look at, like Christmas trees, banners, and stained glass, as well as other things I enjoy seeing in churches, if only because of the novelty of the old: pews and hymnals.

I also got to look at people, one of my favorite activities.  The sanctuary was nearly full, and not just of older people who look like they attend a lot of cultural events; there were numerous children, only a few of whom looked bored, and–how do I say this without sounding like a classical music snob?–well, we parked next to a car with a NASCAR bumper sticker.  I also enjoyed watching the people who sat on either side of me in the pew: the two friends I had come with.  The one on my left had never heard most of the Messiah; the one on my right is an experienced singer who had participated in performances of the oratorio before.  The one on my left pulled out his phone and took a video during the Hallelujah chorus; the one on my right did interpretive hand motions (which I think were at least partly intended to make me laugh one of those awkward silent concert laughs) during at least one of the recitatives.  I have no doubt that they engaged in these activities not because they were bored, but because there is something about Handel’s masterpiece that makes everyone want to be an active part of it.  (I felt the same way.)  At one point, I watched both of them conducting with their hands in their laps.

What struck me perhaps most of all is that this was not a particularly masterful performance of the Messiah.  The choir and orchestra were perhaps too small to really nail some of the more “epic” pieces; the soloists were clearly amateurs.  And we did discuss some questionable interpretive choices in the car afterward.  But something about those old melodies and even older words can redeem even the most mediocre performance and draw everyone in, from a Handel newbie to an often critical seasoned performer (and, somewhere in between, Penelope Clearwater, who sings along with the Messiah CD in her car).  The Messiah is for everyone.  And yes, there’s a double meaning in that sentence.

Tea lovers, raise your cups.

I got a red Hamilton Beach slow cooker, courtesy of my parents, at Walmart on Thanksgiving night (what crowd-phobic Tess Stockslager–I mean, Penelope Clearwater–was doing at Walmart on that night of all nights is another story for another time), but I had not used it until this past Saturday. Since then, I’ve used it three times with great success.  One of those successes was a chai tea much more flavorful than that weak stuff you get in coffee shops (there’s a reason they’re not called tea shops).  I got the recipe from a cookbook simply titled Crock-Pot: The Original Slow-Cooker–Recipe Collection (2008), but I made a few adjustments.  For example, I couldn’t find whole cardamom seeds at the grocery store, so I used a teaspoon of the ground stuff (thanks, Charity).  The other adjustments were similar.  To enhance flavor, I used as many different varieties of tea as I could: Earl Grey, Lady Grey, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Yorkshire Gold (thanks, Allison), and a tea that was already flavored as vanilla chai.

Chai Tea

2 quarts (8 cups) water

5 cinnamon sticks

8 bags black tea

8 slices fresh ginger

3/4 cup sugar

16 whole cloves

16 whole cardamom seeds, pods removed (optional)

1 cup milk

1. Combine water, tea bags, sugar, cloves, cardamom, cardamom, cinnamon sticks and ginger in 4 1/2-quart slow cooker.  Cover; cook on HIGH 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

2. Strain mixture; discard solids.  (At this point, tea may be covered and refrigerated up to 3 days.)

3. Stir in milk just before serving.  Serve warm or chilled.

Planning ahead

Have you ever thought about what you want to be said at your funeral?  I have.  I don’t mean what I want people to say about me.  Of course I want people to say nice things about me.  I’m talking about the program–the message, the readings, the songs.  I look at it this way: it’s one of the few times, perhaps the only time, a captive audience will be gathered to hear exclusively about things that I care about.  So I might as well take advantage of it.

Along with I Corinthians 15 and “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” from Handel’s Messiah, I want my funeral to include a reading of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 6.  And since I happen to have the Norton edition of Donne’s poetry sitting here at my desk, I thought I would share that sonnet in its entirety here.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

            Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

            For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep which but thy pictures be,

            Much pleasure; then, from thee, much more must flow,

            And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

            And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell.

            And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,

And easier than thy stroke.  Why swell’st thou then?

            One short sleep past, we live eternally,

            And Death shall be no more.  Death, thou shalt die.

An album that ages well

This year Michael Buble (I haven’t figured out yet how to add an accent mark on WordPress–don’t laugh at me!) released his album Christmas.  Because MB is young and about as hip as an old-school crooner can be, and because he doesn’t have a mediocre acting career to rival his discography, he often, unfortunately, overshadows an artist who was making Big Band-style Christmas albums and sounding uncannily like Frank Sinatra long before little Michael came on the scene: Harry Connick, Jr.

Last night I listened, as I do at least once every year, to Harry’s first (and best) Christmas album, When My Heart Finds Christmas.  It has sappy moments, as you might guess from the title.  It has no logical flow–a funky number about Santa Claus is followed by a solemn, haunting piece about Jesus.  But it has fourteen of the greatest Christmas arrangements and originals ever recorded.  Here are a few reasons for its greatness:

1. Harry is never reluctant to let the band be the star.  On sweeping numbers like “O Holy Night” and “What Child Is This,” there are long sections of orchestration during which our crooner doesn’t get to show off his voice.  But Harry is fine with that.  This is a band album, not a solo album.

2. He’s also not afraid to–yes–remind us what Christmas is all about.  “The Blessed Dawn of Christmas Day,” perhaps my favorite track (though it’s hard to pick), actually contains the line “Jesus died for me.”  Most CCM artists don’t even go that far on their Christmas albums!

3. Harry can do funk, not just jazz and classical fare.  “I Pray on Christmas” and “Must Have Been Ol’ Santa Claus” break out of the smooth, Sinatra/Buble-style mold and reveal Connick’s New Orleans roots.

Ok, I’m not a music critic, but trust me: it’s an album worth listening to.

But death isn’t the end!

Today I thought I’d give myself a break and share someone else’s work–Plato’s, that is.  The following quote comes from the character Glaucon in Plato’s Republic.  It reminds me of some people you might know: Jesus Christ, Sydney Carton (the guy from A Tale of Two Cities), Bruce Wayne (especially in The Dark Knight), and one of my Hogwarts professors, Severus Snape.  It also–shameless plug–reminds me of Jack Donnelly, the protagonist of the novel I wrote.

“Beside our picture of the unjust man let us set one of the just man, the man of true simplicity of character who, as Aeschylus says, wants ‘to be and not to seem good.’ We must, indeed, not allow him to seem good, for if he does he will have all the rewards and honours paid to the man who has a reputation for justice, and we shall not be able to tell whether his motive is love of justice or love of the rewards and honours. No, we must strip him of everything except his justice, and our picture of him must be drawn in a way diametrically opposite to that of the unjust man. Our just man must have the worst of reputations for wrongdoing even though he has done no wrong, so that we can test his justice and see if it weakens in the face of unpopularity and all that goes with it; we shall give him an undeserved and life-long reputation for wickedness, and make him stick to his chosen course until death. In this way, when we have pushed the life of justice and of injustice each to its extreme, we shall be able to judge which of the two is happier . . .

“They will say that the just man, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified, and learn at last that one should want not to be, but to seem just.”

Of course, Socrates sets Glaucon straight.  Read The Republic to find out how.