How’s That for a Christmas Gift by Gabriel G. Scheller

My family is historically bad at giving gifts. I remember being a kid and getting mostly what I wanted, but I was extremely rambunctious, hyper-active and outgoing. You could throw string and an old shampoo bottle at me and I would have the time of my life. However, like all teenagers, cynicism and an unhealthy obsession with being cool made me much harder to entertain.

I peg myself at about 13 when I stopped getting really excited for Christmas or even birthdays. This probably says a lot more about me than it does about my parents’ and brother’s gift-giving abilities, but I’m still a little skeptical. There was one year though—save for the X-Box Christmas (my parents never, ever bought me video game systems growing up). That year I had gotten punched in the face on Christmas Eve at the mall as I was trying to buy my dad a last minute gift (it’s a long story) and I got something I knew was a gem before I really even understood it.

Through all the disappointing shirts, socks and Christian rap CDs, I opened my brother’s gift to me. We always open one another’s gifts last. I think that year I got him a DVD of a movie I was sure he liked (I was wrong), but he got me Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995. Anyone growing up in the ‘90s would rather disown Power Rangers, The Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles than speak ill of the great work of art that is Calvin and Hobbes. So imagine my excitement when there in my hands was 10 years (all) of the Sunday comics in full color. Not only in color, but on one page was the final draft that went to the papers and on the adjacent page were Bill Watterson’s original sketches with his commentary on each one.

I was stunned.

Always having enjoyed drawing cartoons, watching cartoons, reading cartoons (I’m a kid at heart), this was a wonderful gift. What I didn’t realize at the time was that one sentence in the book would help me answer one of the most profound questions ever posed to me.

In February, 2006, our very own E.J. Park had an article published in Christianity Today with a title the editor probably thought was clever and funny: “A Tale of Two Kitties.” If the title is the first thing someone reads in a magazine, readers must have thought that Dr. Park’s article was cute, cuddly and possibly a little bit funny. This couldn’t have been any further from the truth and despite the moniker, E.J. asked America a serious and troubling question that has plagued me since I first heard him mention it in class.

Is there anything too sacred to be mass-produced?

Let that sink in for a second. Is anything too sacred to be painted on 10,000 t-shirts? Is there anything too sacred to be put on a billboard? Is there something so close to your heart that you would feel offended if a big corporation or even a small business put it on a coffee mug? Whoa! Way to change my world E.J. … ignorance was bliss!

In the article, E.J. referenced the great Calvin and Hobbes. Some of what he said I had already read in my book. Bill Watterson’s characters (a boy and his stuffed tiger) had captured the imagination of millions. In only 10 years, he was able to carve out and create a world so intriguing and so interesting that everyone wanted more. Watterson had t-shirt offers, TV-show offers, movie offers, everything one would think a comic strip artist would dream of. But defying expectations and probably baffling his family and friends, Watterson said no. The world he had created—the characters, the landscapes and the imagination were much too important to him. Too important to give Calvin another person’s voice and too important to settle the ambiguity of Hobbes by making him into a real stuffed tiger.

Dr. Park references all this and more in his article. (It was called A Tale of Two Kitties because Aslan was also referenced. I bring up only Hobbes here because I was more partial to Watterson as a kid than to Lewis.) If a man thinks his comic strip, a form that has never been taken seriously, is too important to merchandise, too sacred to mass produce, then how much more seriously should we take Jesus? How much more seriously should we take love, emotions, sex, etc.? Is there anything we as North Americans take as seriously as Watterson took his art? I don’t know.

It’s funny to me that the decision of one secular man could change and influence my life more than the hundreds of CCM songs that I have probably heard. His seriousness and devotion to his art have motivated me more than what have classically been called “great artists.” His decision to stand up for something that many other people probably thought was irrelevant was what forced me to finally look at my life and relationship with God. After years of church, countless youth groups and more snow retreats than I would like to remember, a cartoon cat and a smart-ass kid are what brought me closer to the Lord, to my art and to myself.

How’s that for a Christmas gift?

[©GGS 2007, all rights reserved.]

Note: This essay first appeared as the introduction to a paper titled Communication Credo that Gabriel wrote for his senior seminar at Wheaton College. He went on to write:

“In the same way Watterson did not want to sell his art short, I do not want to sell God, the people involved or my audiences short. I do not want to make holy moments into postcards and sacred tears into coffee mugs. I understand these decisions are aggressive. I understand I will not get it right all of the time, but as long as I sincerely believe in having a healthy respect for the sacred and a revulsion for the dehumanizing, I can be an ethical Christian communicator.”

 

 

 

Give Words to Grief

 

Jeff\'s Birthday 2004

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”

—William Shakespeare 

… as quoted in The Twenty-Third Psalm for those who Grieve by Carmen Leal

[photo: ©cas 2004, Santa Ana, CA]

Good Grief

The little booklet Good Grief  by Granger E. Westberg begins like this:

We spend a good portion of our lives working diligently to acquire those things that make life rich and meaningful—friends, a wife or husband, children, a home, a job, material comforts, money (let’s face it), and security. What happens to us when we lose any one of these persons or things which are so important to us?

Quite naturally we grieve over the loss of anything important. Sometimes if the loss is great, the very foundations of our life are shaken, and we are thrown into deep despair.

NPC Wrap UP

 

The National Pastors Convention ended at noon yesterday. I’ve been to many conferences over the years, and I must say this was one of the most enjoyable. Beeson Divinity school professor/author/painter Calvin Miller touched on why this was true for me. In his session on Celtic Christianity, he described how different events attract different audiences. I was at home with this audience. Not only that, but the organizers were wonderful hosts to us journalists. I’m sitting right now at a dining room table covered with books, some of which the publishers would, no doubt, like me to mention. This brings me back to my first post from the convention. In it, I mentioned the fact that a session moderator had asked the audience not to blog about it. At least three others have now done so. Specifically, he asked us not to blog “provocative one-liners” and then he or someone else jokingly stated: “What happens in the Critical Concerns Courses stays in the Critical Concerns Courses.”

When I was at the Better Watchdogs Workshop back in September, we had a discussion about when groups that actively seek publicity suddenly bar the press from reporting on a public or semi-public meeting. There was not clear consensus on what to do in such situations. I said that I would comply with such a request, but vocally protest it and take it into account in future reporting, which is what I have done here. Let me add another thought: If authors and their publishers don’t want the press to report provocative one-liners, perhaps the authors should refrain from spewing them. It seems to me they do so to get a reaction. Both audiences and we in the press might also do well not to take the bait. Better to ignore declines in discourse than to advertise them.

Speaking of Calvin Miller’s session “Praying as a Creature to the Creator: Finding God in the Thin Places of the World He has Made for You,” this was the only talk I attended for personal edification. I have appreciated Miller’s writing and looked forward to hearing the sage speak in person. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what he said. Partly this was fatigue, partly it was his speaking style. He was like a whirling dervish, flinging out poems and jokes and sturdy bits of wisdom with some sense of structure, but a structure I couldn’t follow. I suspect I might be like him as a speaker, struggling to express something coherent—only I don’t like chaos. I’d also skip the fat American jokes, as any regular reader of this blog can attest. (I’m sure the attractive, ample woman beside me didn’t appreciate them either.) And I would skip the multiple reminders to buy my new book, though I think he can be forgiven since he mentioned that his previously held eschatology had fooled him into not planning for his golden years until he was in his fifties. I had already bought The Path of Celtic Prayer at any rate, and don’t regret it.

I only wish I had gone to hear Jim Wallis talk about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, instead. I had heard Wallis on Thursday evening in a short interview with Efrem Smith. Even Smith was skeptical of Wallis’ protestations that he is not advocating a Religious Left to counter the Religious Right. Wallis said he is preaching spiritual revival, for without it, neither party will effect real change.

Krista Tippett‘s interview with Bishops Rucyahana and Wright was impressive. She picked up on some of the themes I spoke with Bishop Rucyahana about regarding the Anglican splintering. (Wright corrected my reference to it as a “split” in my interview with him.) I encourage anyone who cares about our world to check the Speaking of Faith website for the air date. Currently, an interview with the late John O’ Donahue is being featured. I’d never heard of O’Donahue until bloggers began reporting his death earlier this year, and then a dear Irishman who is not a churchgoer told me his “relations,” as he calls them, were friends with O’Donahue. I’ll be acquainting myself (and my friend) with him shortly.

Long after the convention site had cleared, I spent 30 minutes with N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham, England. Wright gives fully-orbed answers to interview questions and I had a lot of them to pack into a short span of time. They centered on two themes: his thoughts on the Anglican “splintering” and his thoughts on what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence.” I’ll not share what Wright said about the Anglican situation, except to say this: He rejects the critique of Dr. Vinay Samuel in The Anglican Mainstream that his position on the Global Anglican Future Conference is essentially racist. I intend to explore this theme elsewhere.

As to his views on the emergents, he spent time with some of them at Soularize in the Bahamas last year and thinks there are some serious Christian thinkers among them. He hadn’t heard of Peter Rollins, who has been described to me as the premiere “emerging” philosopher, and was unfamiliar with Rollins’ more questionable ideas. He thinks the emerging church is a reasonable response to the modernist mega-church construct. A couple times Wright had said post-modernism “preaches the Fall” to arrogant modernism. I asked him if he didn’t think post-modernism communicates an arrogance of its own. He agreed, which may be why he is stressing “post-post modernism,” an idea he defined for Tippett. My notes are unclear on this point, but he said something about the church leading the way forward as society is fumbling about between modernism and post-modernism.

Here’s what struck me about Bishop Wright:

That he is a brilliant scholar and orator is obvious. I have now heard him talk passionately about the importance of prophetic voices several times. (I couldn’t agree more.) In this context, at the closing communion service, he gave an erudite description of courage as the culmination of countless small decisions over time that lead those who have it to make incredible sacrifices when it counts. So I asked him, “Who are our prophets?” He was a bit startled and said he had been speaking theoretically. After a minute or two, he named the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. For example, he said Williams had effectively argued against euthanasia before the House of Lords. I threw out a couple American names. He affirmed Jim Wallis, even if he disagrees with Wallis in bits.

Here’s the thing: In the preface to Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope, he confesses to potential critics that he has not really known grief. He has not known grief. Sit with that thought a moment. He talks about courage and prophecy as theory. Well articulated ideas are vital to life and society. I am grateful for them. As a journalist, I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of them, but I have been intimately acquainted with grief and have known something of courage. Such experiences change everything about how one views the world. My enthusiasm for Wright is a bit chastened by this revelation.

In the Intro to Philosophy class I attended when I was interviewing Dallas Willard, he mentioned three kinds of knowledge: reason, experience and authority. I can lay claim to the first 2/3 of the equation. As a journalist, 2/3 of a whole may be enough to find the gems amidst the bunk. There were a lot of gems at NPC.

[photos and text © cas, San Diego, CA, 2008]