I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”
When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husband—the kids are not allowed—the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day—in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair.
She must feel, I thought, so hot.
Compare that steaminess with a conversation I had at Northwestern, after I had talked about the effect of porn on relationships. “Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”
“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”
“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”
A habit is a shield. Time is always pushing at us, so slowly we don’t even notice. But that slow push has all the weight of a glacier behind it. Our feet slip and we don’t notice we’ve moved until we are already somewhere unfamiliar. Woe to him who loses track of the time. A good habit pushes back, giving us a brief respite in which to get things done. ‘Cause things must be got done.
I collect habits. I love trying out new ones. I hate the feeling of wasted time, that sinking feeling when you know the glacier has pushed you back a few feet. You let down your guard for one day, for one night, for one lazy Saturday morning, and you are faced with an eternity of trying to regain that lost ground. When the guard slips, it’s easier to blame the shield than the arm that held it. So I cast here and there for a replacement.
Coffee is the secret to the productivity of some. Cigarettes allow others to jumpstart their synapses. Some will say late nights, some, early mornings. The president of the United States wears the same suits, eats the same breakfasts, walks the same paths, his daily schedule carefully planed and sandpapered by the Secretary of Efficiency. I bulldoze myself out of bed at the same time every morning for the same reasons, or at least I try. There’s safety in a strong schedule.
Habits are more than productivity hacks. They are lifelines, the guardrails that tell you which path you’re on. I watched a Swedish movie and for the next two weeks, I drank coffee every day. I didn’t need the jolt, but I did need the security. The warm mug and woodsy smell told me that the present moment was enough. Coffee gripped the floor and held back the glacier. For a moment.
The trouble with the world is that it won’t be pitted against itself. A mug of hot coffee is a castle with paper walls. It won’t shield you from the world. It will pants you and point to your insecurities. When the world laughs, coffee will laugh, too.
I need a shield stronger than a calendar. I need boots that will grip the earth. I need a helmet that will focus my sight. I need a sword that will remain faithful, a breastplate to guard my heart, and a belt to keep my pants up. The only habit worth clinging to is the habit of holiness. Any other is a waste of time.
The Philosopher and the Potato
With knife in hand, I heft its earthy weight.
“Is it as real as I?” floats to my mind.
“Perhaps,” the spud rejoins, “you’ll find
“Your answer in the pot or on the plate.”
There’s this idea that to live out of conformity with how I feel is hypocrisy; but that’s a wrong definition of hypocrisy. To live out of conformity to what I believe is hypocrisy. To live in conformity with what I believe, in spite of what I feel, isn’t hypocrisy; it’s integrity.”
Rick Thoennes, quoted here by Brett McCracken
“Books are just screenplays with adjectives.” – Dan Mirvish
More and more, I am struck by the differences between writing a literary work (like a novel or a short story) and writing a screenplay. Writing a story is exploration. You are building a world from your imagination and you follow its contours for as long as you have the patience. Ray Bradbury said that when he wrote he was “at play in the fields of the Lord.” Of course, different writers have different habits, but in general, authors discover their stories through extensive exploration.
Screenwriting is completely different. Dan Mirvish is wrong. Screenwriting, by it’s very nature, is technical and precise. In some ways, a finished screenplay resembles a piece of music more than a work of fiction.
- Both a screenplay and sheet music are incredibly precise, yet leave room for “interpretation.” In fact, both die if life is not breathed into them.
- Both follow a conventional style, which moves from key or genre to variations on a theme, and then lands either on the tonic of the chord or hints at some future development.
Over the centuries, sheet music has developed a very specific format. This is partly due to the fact that many different people have to read the same piece of music and understand it the same way (with direction). If the first violinist is reading in a different format than the guy playing the bassoon, they’ll have trouble communicating.
Similarly, a screenplay follows a very rigorous format, which allow many different people to read the same thing and work together. In both situations, the director is the one who gives everyone a common vision and helps them interpret the document.
Once I noticed the mathematical similarities between the formats of screenplays and sheet music, I began to wonder if they were alike in other ways.
Donald Burrows writes how skillfully Handel keeps the music in his Messiah alive, “maintaining and extending musical interest by arousing, fulfilling, and diverting musical expectations.” This strikes me as a good summary of screenplay technique. In many engaging movies, narrative expectations are aroused, fulfilled, and diverted. If a screenwriter were called upon to always create something new and surprising, he would find the task all but impossible. But fortunately, he can use the audience’s knowledge of movie cliches and narrative arcs to make his story feel new. He can set the audience up to expect one thing, then deliver something else. We love it when movies do this, when they genuinely surprise us. It goes back to Aristotle’s maxim that each event of a satisfying story must inevitably lead to the next, and yet must still surprise us with their conclusion. Musical compositions often follow a similar pattern.
I’ve often wondered what other art form is mostly closely related to the three-ring circus that is making a movie. Because both are storytelling, it is often linked to writing fiction, but I wonder if making music may be a closer cousin.
I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.
Ray Bradbury, interviewed by The Paris Review
I wonder if Bradbury’s metaphor may be useful in thinking about all art — art is a reflecting shield that allows us to safely glimpse an image of the future.
For many young people with safe and easy lives, the most heartfelt prayers often concern relationships with the opposite sex. I used to be embarrassed by this, since I felt a little panty-waisted praying for “wisdom” about “that girl” while reading:
Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up;
Fighting all day he oppresses me.
My enemies would hound me all day,
For there are many who fight against me, O Most High. (Ps 56:1-2)
No matter how many times you remind someone who fancies himself in love that David was worse off then he is, it doesn’t lessen the strength of his feelings. Sure, it’s easy to laugh at in retrospect, but at the time, figuring out guys and girls and how we’re supposed to interact feels like the weight of the world on a pair of skinny, pimpled shoulders.
But where in the Bible could we go to find a role model, someone who had navigated the Charybdis of relationships with the opposite sex and come out victorious on the other side? There aren’t too many Biblical characters who spend their days sighing over their secret love–and those that do aren’t worthy of imitation (2 Sam 13). In fact, most Bible courtships are somewhat… cursory. It usually involves several camels, a handful of gold jewelry, a quick conversation with a near relative, that kind of thing. It’s almost embarrassingly banal, and certainly doesn’t do justice to the emotional jungle that most teens find themselves in.
Of course, the Bible story as a whole is the story of Christ laying down his life for his bride, and it ends with a glorious wedding. But what does that have to do with young people whose prayer lives are only consistent when they’re twitterpated and it isn’t going well? Do high school crushes have anything to do with spiritual warfare?
Absolutely. In the very beginning, the relationship between man and woman, which God made to be the most intimate in Creation, is one of the first things that’s torn apart by sin. First, sin creates a rift between man and God, then it creates a rift between man and woman. The entire story of the Bible (and history) is a quest to rebuild those lost relationships.
The point is that being confused and in love (or in love and confused), does not by itself make young people foolish children who don’t understand the world and who just “need to grow up.” The feelings and emotions that run amok during the teenage years (and afterward!) are not peripheral to the Christian life–they are at the heart of what Jesus came to fix.
It’s also worth mentioning that the bewilderment doesn’t go away when a man and a woman are brought closer together. Because of sin, the closer the relationship becomes, the more opportunities there are for conflict and confusion. The battle of the sexes rages fiercely because the sexes are meant to complement one another. The good news is that when Jesus fixes our relationship with God, the downstream effects of that heal our relationships with each other.
In other words, don’t be embarrassed if your prayer life seems heavily concerned with what she did, or what he said. Yes, there are ways to blow these things out of proportion. But ultimately, it’s a struggle against the effects of sin, and that’s a fight worth fighting.
The New Yorker had a great write-up on Andrew Stanton, which I only recently got to read. Stanton was the second person to be hired as an animator at Pixar, and has gone on to direct two Pixar films, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, as well as co-directing A Bug’s Life. The New Yorker did this write-up in 2011, just before Stanton’s first live action movie, John Carter, was released.
My favorite thing that the article reveals about Stanton is how willing he is to ask for help. As a company, Pixar has always been willing to try new things, to learn, and to outdo themselves. It looks like Stanton may have contributed to that company spirit. Some of the best bits of the article are included below.
On preparing to direct:
To ready himself to direct [John Carter], Stanton dropped twenty pounds, ran fifteen miles a week, and, once on set, vowed not to go to his trailer or even sit down unless absolutely necessary: “I didn’t want to look like the privileged animation geek who’d cheated his way to the top.”
On directing live action versus animation:
Juggling weather and stunts and light and green screens—it’s like trying to do synchronized swimming with aircraft carriers.”
Stanton’s precepts are often invoked at the studio, particularly “Be wrong fast” or “Fail early.” He explains, “It’s like every movie is a kid, and no kid avoids puberty. Just dive through it—get that outline that should take three months done in one, so you get the inevitable bad stuff out of the way and have more time to plus the good stuff.” Another Stantonism is “Do the opposite”: if a woman is going to spurn a marriage proposal, Stanton will open up possibilities by wondering, “What if she said yes?” He urges writers proposing a fix for a balky scene to “finish the sentence”—to follow their change’s consequences to the end of the movie, to insure that it works throughout.
On the Pixar world:
“We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.”
“Pixar is the healthiest place to be because our movies got famous, not the moviemakers…”
I couldn’t get up in the morning or get to sleep at night if I thought perfection was possible. In between, though, you have to trick yourself into believing it is possible, which is dangerous.”
His father Ron, on his son’s gifts:
There are some people who have a knack for creating confidence where no confidence is justified, who can inspire a solution to the problem simply by believing a solution can be found.”
On distilling movies:
He read and reread Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” which taught him to distill movies to one crisp sentence before making them. For “Finding Nemo,” it was “Fear denies a good father from being one,” and, for “Wall-E,” “Love conquers all programming.”
On asking for help:
Stanton told me, “I just felt, I suck, I suck, I suck, and they’re going to replace me.” One morning over the Fourth of July holiday in 2001, while he was visiting his parents in Rockport, Stanton woke before dawn and wrote a mission statement. He admitted to himself that he’d been at once stiff-necked and craven. “Try to get fired,” he wrote, as a corrective. “Don’t be concerned about box office, release dates, audience appeal, Pixar history, stock prices, approval from others.” He added, “You have a gift for looking at the world with a child-like wonder. . . . You lose that and you lose it all.” After this reckoning, he began to ask colleagues for help, and the main thread of the film, Marlin’s quest for Nemo, finally came together: kids thought it was hilarious, and adults found it almost unbearably poignant.
Sometimes, when we speak of “Christian stories,” we are quick to clarify that by “Christian story,” we mean a story that happens to have Christian themes. We do this because, weirdly, Christian has become a genre of fiction, rather than the most natural and honest way to tell a good story.
At the same time, there are some stories where the patterns and logic of Christianity are prevalent and rich, and somehow integral to the story, like the chocolate part of a chocolate cake. It’s no insult to call these “Christian stories,” because not only are they honest in how they present the world, they also smell like Christ. An air that kills, from yon far country blows…
Take the Harry Potter stories. Wonderful stories, full of humor and excitement and mystery. There are truthful moments of friendship, darkness, self-sacrifice. They are quite simply, great yarns. But Harry Potter’s adventures occur without any undercurrent of Christian truth. Rowling is as honest as she can be, but in the end, what does she have to contribute? “Dumbledore is gay.” Thanks, Mrs. R. Moving on.
I don’t want to belittle the Harry Potter books. They are fantastic. But in comparison, take the Narnia stories. Yes, yes, I know. We’ve all heard it, Lewis’s stories are the best thing since paedocommunion. But just go back and read them. Pick one up at random, flip to any page, and start reading. Lewis is a man who was submerged in the Christian faith and it comes across in every paragraph. There are good stories, and there are good stories that are also marbled with Christian fat. Lewis’s stories are the latter.
On New Year’s Eve, I traveled back from Louisville, KY, via train, plane, and automobile. Once I had settled myself into 24A and plugged in my headphones to muffle the whine of the engines, I cracked open The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. I read during takeoff. I read as we flew. I read as the train rattled into the Philadelphia station. I turned on the dim yellow light above my Amtrak seat and read the whole way home.
I have read few books capture the bloodlife of Christianity as powerfully as this one. You know those books that you need to put aside every few chapters, just because the riches are too plentiful? Throughout The Dun Cow there were so many Biblical allusions, to write them down would be to replicate the story word for word.
The plot is this. In the old days, when the Earth was still at the center of the universe, it was the prison for a creature named Wyrm, evil incarnate. God had placed him in the center of the planet and locked him there. Then God set Keepers to watch over him. These Keepers are the animals, Lord Russell the Fox of Good Sense, John Wesley Weasel, Beryl the Hen, Nimbus the Stag, Ebenezer Rat, and their Lord, the King of the Coop, Chauntecleer the Rooster. For the most part, these animals have no idea of the importance of their duty. They spend their days eating, sleeping, fighting, squabbling, and for Chauntecleer, lording it over the rest of the animals.
In another part of the world, miles from the domain of Chauntecleer, Wyrm hatches an evil plan to release his representative, his Antichrist, into the world. The story of Senex, the enfeebled old rooster whose hunger for respect allows Wyrm’s general, a loathsome creature named Cockatrice, into the world, is one of the saddest parts of the story. It is Abraham putting his hope in Ishmael. It is Adam eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. It is Saul in the power of the evil spirit, hunting Israel’s future king to kill him. Cockatrice betrays this rooster, steals his hens, and begins a campaign of destruction that reaches all the way to Chauntecleer’s Coop. It is up to the animals to kill the serpents and put a stop to the destruction.
It’s a great story. Let me just highlight two things:
Liturgy: In two ways, the story reveals the strength of liturgy. First, the story itself fairly burns with Biblical allusions, in a way that reveals how thoroughly Scripture-soaked its author is. In various parts of the story, Chauntecleer is a picture of Moses, Joshua, David, Nehemiah, Job, Paul, and Jesus. The birth of Cockatrice is a twisted Incarnation. At one point, John Wesley the Weasel has his own aristeia during the battle. “On the left hand he killed a hundred as if they were paper. On the right he killed five hundred.” Without even knowing it, the animals are pictures of God’s people.
Second, the story shows how familiar traditions and liturgies are one of the strongest defenses against darkness. Chauntecleer’s duty as Lord of the Coop involves crowing to let the animals know what time it is. He tells them when to rise, when to feed, when to lie down, when to sleep. As the clouds descend and cover the sun, “a lid locked over the whole earth,” Chauntecleer’s crowing is the only thing that keeps the animals together.
Instead, from the place where he was, he began to crow compline, the seventh holy hour of the day. Cool, smooth, restrained, a silken lariat, the Rooster gave his animals, in the darkness, a point of recognition. He covered them with the familiar. He announced his presence. Then he drew them back from the edge. He blessed them right gently, crowing nothing of the battle for tomorrow–but naming every one of them their names. Names, one after the other, with a prayer for the peace of each one: That was compline on this particular night. (p. 185)
Chauntecleer’s voice becomes their greatest weapon. Though he doesn’t know it, Chauntecleer has been preparing his whole life for the battle against Cockatrice. He only needs to do his duty, but do it with more strength and greater faithfulness than ever before.
Heroes (male and female): Chauntecleer is the hero of the story, but he is not like the heroes that we usually read about. He is vain and pompous, fearful and at times deeply, deeply disappointing. But he protects his domain because is its Lord. He rises to the occasion because it’s his job, not because there’s something special about him. And the story has no illusions that Chauntecleer is “just one of the boys” either, like Bruce Willis trapped inside a skyscraper on Christmas Eve. Chauntecleer is the leader, he’s in charge, and that means he has to be the one to make the call. And he does. He leads the animals as best he can. Only we (and a few of the characters) get to see his fear and cowardice.
Perhaps more astonishing than the honesty and empathy of the Rooster is the portrayal of Pertelote, Chauntecleer’s beloved. This is going to sound very odd, but these two chickens have one of the most romantic scenes I have ever read in a fantasy novel. (Granted, that narrows the pool quite a lot.) But it’s incredible how the story captures Chauntecleer’s love for Pertelote, his frustrations at not being good enough for her, and her strength and support of him in his mission to protect the world. Not to give too much away, but ultimately, Chauntecleer’s failure in the story is as great as his victory. Were it not for Pertelote, the Rooster would have learned nothing. He would never have asked forgiveness of those he harmed because of his lack of faith. Thanks to the iron gentleness of his wife, however, it is his redemption that we are privileged to watch at the very end, “the last and the best battle of all.”
Every page of this book fairly crackles with meaning. More than that, the pages crackle with opinion. Or, to use the old-fashioned word, truth. There is no middle ground in the story, but there is mercy, pity, sorrow, laughter, repentance, forgiveness, evil. Loss is portrayed in stark, unapologetic terms. So many stories try to make their heroes relatable through doubt—but if he believes nothing in the first place, there is nothing to doubt. Chauntecleer’s doubt is real, and it is painful. But it makes the victory all the more sweet.
Plus, how many times do you get to read an epic fantasy novel about chickens?
(Disclaimer: If I’ve offended anyone with my dismissal of Harry Potter as Christian literature, I’d love to hear your arguments in its favor. I’m quite open to being convinced otherwise.)
Well, so that is that.
Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week -
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully -
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done,
That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio