22 March 2009

Darkfall come.

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those dwelling in shadow a light has dawned.
~Isaiah 9.2

One thing that has always fascinated me is the contrast between light and darkness. I'm not entirely sure when, precisely, the fixation occurred, but when it did, it refused to let me go. Show me a dark tale with a mere sliver of hope, and my whole spirit shivers in anticipation and excitement, my heart thrills and skips a few beats, my breath catches, and I can only fall very still.

The truth is, life and light are breathtaking. Mesmerizing. Like staring into a campfire only to be hypnotized by the crackling bright flames and curling black smoke, the musty scent of burning wood and marshmallows.

Better still, make it a cold, starless night atop a hill, city lights far below and to the very rim of the horizon. Just enough to tantalize.

The truth is, even the tiniest ember is radiant against the black canvas of a starless night out in the country - We city people don't see true darkness much. Out beyond the city limits, with nothing in the atmosphere (or very little) that shouldn't be there, past the street lights and cars, out past Walmart, beyond the reach of cell phone service...Once the cell phone dies and the flashlight winks out, once the PDA and GPS blink into slumber and the laptop goes...Quite literally, you can't see the hand in front of your face.

Darkness comes in flavors: Cold and oppressive. Warm and inviting. Ominous and alive with coming storm. It isn't always evil, but evil prefers the shadows crawling on the walls. Shadows can only conceal, not expose.

Well, one thing the Abyss can expose. But the moment it does, it shatters like glass and breaks.

And it must be black, not gray. Gray obscures the contrast and presents bleak, depressing, oppressing: Muted, weakened light pummeled by intoxicated, sickly haze and fog.

Possibly why I found the end of Children of Men so bleak despite the intended 'hope,' that wasn't true hope at all...

Anyway. The question of 'how dark' always arises in fiction - in any sort of media. Honestly, somewhere down in your core the human spirit senses the line of ill passage. The onionskin-thin thread that divides the glorious from the grotesque.

I'll be honest: I am forever drawn to the supernatural. My spirit cringes or thrills at the mere thought, the sight, smell, touch...

Yes, I am one of those strange people who considers the Veil between realms as near as the next heartbeat, close as the next breath -- and as far from our human sensory perception as a dog whistle. There is Darkness, there is Light. There is Sacred and Profane. There is Glorious and Grotesque.

My quest has been, over the last few years, to understand the line, to find the place where 'too dark' resides and avoid it. Two things have occurred to me.

Why am I trying to find out how far I can go? The Road to Destruction, the Wide Gate, is paved with the souls of those who used Evil to find Good. Temptation led to Sin, Sin gave birth to Death.

Second, and more recent - What if it isn't the proper question? What if, in other words, it's not a matter of 'is this too far?' but 'is this glorious?'

I just finished The Book of Names. I described it to my friend Holli as "Dark, mournful, and beautiful." Dark, because the themes are heavy; it's physically dark most of the time, and many of the situations themselves are dark. Mournful, because it's a tale of the Lost. Beautiful, because it's got The Magic.

Forgive me a moment - Magic, at least the way I'm using it, is that undefinable but very much sensational quality about a story that turns mere words to flesh and brings them alive. If a tale is lacking, it's usually lacking The Magic. Readers and listeners can forgive poor grammar or flawed mechanics as long as they're driven, spirited away by that unseen force we all know and love but can't really name.

Don't believe me? Why is it that we can hold a person's attention long enough to relay how we've gotten a speeding ticket or had a night of homework even if there's little plot involved, little character development, little structure, and little basic mechanics? A child's simple story of catching a bug can rivet the listener.

Because the art's in the telling. The Magic.

Remember that black night before the campfire?

Behold the light.

Alright, if you dislike the magic, call it awe, wonder, and amazement. Call it whatever you want, but it's spellbinding. This is precisely why pastors can show a single clip from a movie and leave us all breathless without actually having seen the entire movie. The writers, actors, directors - they spellbound us. This is why I can remember particular scenes from particular stories with intricate detail that I have not read in years.

Where am I going with all of this?

My friend Justin told me the artform is called chiaroscuro. It's an art term in which dark backgrounds create stunning foregrounds. And I suppose that's become the line for me - the subtle and stark contrast of the Veil itself.

"I may fall down, but I will rise.
It may be dark, but God is light."

I suppose between working on The Phoenix and the Dragon series, the last two Books of History Chronicles with Ted, and working on Bogswallow -- The question presents itself. And I've come to appreciate the unease. I don't think I should ever be comfortable in the Shadowlands, out in the Bogs where nothing, not even shadows, can live.

My aim is the glorious, to be sure. The Phoenix and the Dragon is all about becoming who we really are; Bogswallow is strictly about bringing the dead back to life.

Darkness to light.
Death to life.

My God and my Father, Master of Lights, Invisible, stay my hand, guide my feet. Lead me in the way everlasting, for you are most glorious, and I yearn to give you glory. Yours be dominion and power and majesty and honor forever. Shaleh.

29 July 2008

The church and xenophobia

I have just been speaking to a friend who had been very involved in one of the biggest refugee camps that was started shortly after the xenophobic attacks began to hit the news some months ago. In short, the concerns he raised have shocked me. Once again I have been reminded that the fools who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

These xenophobic attacks that made headlines across my country and further afield have now dropped out of the news into non-existence. Or have they? The media has lost interest in the story. It’s old news. So the public has lost interest along with it, and all the while thousands of people are still living in unforgiving circumstances in refugee camps scattered across the country. Too terrified to return to the communities they fled. Many are desperate enough to want to return to their home countries (which are also deeply ravaged by poverty and violence) so that they can at least die on home soil.

Apparently a recent poll has revealed the attitude of about 65% of the South Africans interviewed, namely “they’re all criminals anyway” and “these foreigners should just get out of our country and go back where they came from!” (Of course, need it be mentioned that these comments don't seem to be directed toward all the European foreigners working and studying in our country?)

The prevailing attitude towards this “problem” is more and more beginning to resemble the same mindset that existed in the early days of the apartheid era (and apparently also resembling the onset of the Nazi regime in Germany). As I stood there amazed at what I heard, I was more shocked to realise that these comments were exactly what I could imagine coming from the mouths of people in my own family. Not too long ago, they could have been my words.

On the surface South Africa seems to have come a long way from her dark past of racially discriminating laws and policies… but has the mindset behind them really been changed? Have we taken the lessons that were so painfully learnt and applied them in our lives? Or are we merely happy to go on, oblivious to the cries around us, as long as they don’t intrude into our own personal space?

I sometimes watch the news together with a bunch of the guys from our college residence. When the xenophobic attacks started making headlines one friend stunned me with a revelation: If the xenophobia had to reach our college I’d be the only one left in the room. The friends I had been watching with included my Zimbabwean fiancĂ©, some other Zimbabweans, an Angolan and his German wife, an Ethiopian, a Tanzanian and even one guy from the Sudan.

Looking around that room I was both horrified and awed. Horrified that people could possibly wish harm on any of these people merely because of their nationality, and awed by the vision of God’s grace in creating from people of so many different backgrounds one family.

Our government likes to put the attacks down to “criminal elements”, because crime is an easier thing to deal with than the deep underlying hatred that leads one man to turn on another, ignoring his humanity and right to life. But the problem goes much deeper than crime. Its root is in the heart, and the heart is where the healing is needed if our country is ever to be reconciled.

But what role are we, in the church, to take in this reconciliation?
In Ephesians we read of how Jesus Christ’s own blood was the price it took to break down the dividing wall between men. So we as the body of our Lord would be ignoring that very high cost that he paid if we were to neglect to take seriously his call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).

Personally, I get easily overwhelmed by things of this magnitude and often wonder what I could possibly do. But we as the church have a responsibility to not stand by and with our silence support the status quo when that status quo demeans the humanity of our brothers and sisters. Prayer is a start, but we need to be willing to put our prayers into effect if we are to truly desire an end to the hatred.

My friend’s solution is both simple and profound. We need to make these nameless, faceless people into our family. We need to take them as our friends. Because only then will we be unable to stand by and do nothing in the face of their suffering.

The love of Christ ought to compel us to action, to give us a desire for justice and mercy. These are our brothers and sisters out there. Some belong to our body. Others are lost. But they are God’s creatures, deserving all the dignity and respect and love that come with that. And when we get to know them, we will find ourselves able to love them and eager to see their troubles ended.

19 July 2008

Speak Your Word to Me

Lord, speak Your Word to me.
From holy, ancient-yet-timeless texts,
Speak Your Word to me;
Through the lips of redeemed humanity,
Speak Your Word to me;
In the outworking of day-to-day life,
Speak Your Word to me.

Lord, speak Your Word to me.
In songs of heartfelt adoration,
Speak Your Word to me;
Through unbounded evil and abounding good,
Speak Your Word to me;
From blogs and radio and magazines and TV news events,
Speak Your Word to me.

Lord, speak Your Word to me:
Speak life to the lifeless soul;
Speak hope to the hopeless heart;
Speak joy to the joyless spirit;
Speak rest to the restless mind;
Speak power to the powerless man;
Speak light to the lightless woman.

Lord, in countless ways, speak Your Word to me;
Lord, speak Your Word to me.

— James F. Salmon © 2008