Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust XIX

I sighed. “We would overthrow the Temple,” I said. “We would slaughter all the Order of the Children of History in Ariel, and burn the Temple of the History to the ground. We would not leave one jade stone atop another.”

She looked to see that I was serious, then quite unapologetically laughed. “Ha! Del, they are priests and tax collectors all in one! Of course you want to kill them. Every mother in the Flats, I think, has a knife hidden in her skirts, just waiting for an opportunity! But this perhaps is only what everyone tells themselves. Nothing ever happens.”

I scowled. “You think we are afraid? Pseudonymous has been building our campaign for twenty years! There are hundreds of us, soon a thousand, and any one of us would give our lives to see that Temple come burning down. We’ve infiltrated the People’s Public of Guilds, and –”

“Wait, did you say Pseudonymous? The propagandist?” She clapped her hands and I drew her close, to stifle the sound. “I adore his broadsides! ‘Revelation is revolution’ and ‘Murder is their mortar’ and ‘Beware despair.’ I have to meet him! But I asked what you’d done, not who you were. And I think you didn’t say anything.”

I stopped her utterly; we had neared the thicket anyway. “It’s not an adventure,” I flared. “It will kill you, and you won’t be happy until it does, because that’s the way it works! I shouldn’t have brought you. It was stupid and selfish. You’ll endanger us – and the Temple was looking for you already! No. Don’t follow. Stay here. Hide in the bushes until I go in, then go back along the shore alone and up the stairs and forget everything you saw. Because you’re never coming back.”

Her face wanted to crumple in the way that women’s sometimes do, but she held it back with a steel set to her jaw and eyes flashed brightly in the moonlight. “Idiot!” she whispered, fierce. “The Historians found me the day before I came to you – that was why I did it! And I didn’t tell them anything because I didn’t know. I was still just following rumors!”

I motioned her to silence, but she continued. “I think the Temple flatters you. You perhaps have not done anything. The Historians are fine, the Temple is fine. The taxes, I think, are doing just fine as well. No one’s been kidnapped or extorted, you haven’t even tried to bribe the veilmen over to your side. Perhaps your revolution will be dull.”

“Adlasola, listen – it’s not a game! Historians will die, and the Temple will come down.”
She snorted. “I think perhaps it won’t. Perhaps you are those people who plan forever and give speeches and have meetings and never accomplish anything whatsoever. I think that makes you worse, because your rhetoric only encourages the Historians to oppress us more.”

I pushed her down before I turned away; I had heard more Blooded coming. I walked over to where those who’d already come stood in a circle in the center of the wood – there was barely even a clearing here, only a small space a span or so across where the trees had failed to grow, and ferns and grasses had come up. I could hear other Blooded picking their way through the woods behind me; I prayed that Adlasola stayed well hidden. Sensing my presence, the call of the Well of the Dead faded to mere anticipation, another trick that Ryn uses to magnificent effect.

But he didn’t say anything to the rest. Instead, Ryn turned to face me from the near the center, his face showing that he had quite expected me. “Del,” he said, “We need –”

Whatever he was about to say, I did not hear it then. Instead, a shrill cry cut the quiet.

“Guards!” Adlasola screamed, from precisely where we had last spoken, Torches flared just outside the clearing, someone was almost entirely upon us. “The Green Guard!”

Batyst eyes shot wide as he glanced around the clearing.

“Run, Blooded! To the river! Swim for the other side!”

And there indeed was our escape. Not thinking that we would dare the strong currents, the Green Guard, the Temple’s own independent police, had failed to surrounded the copse of woods entirely. The way to the river was quite clear.

With everyone else, I ran, thinking constantly of Adlasola. I could not call her name, or the guards would know to look for her. And the only danger she had brought tonight had been that upon herself. They would have been nearly upon her when she called out, only a pace or two away in the darkness, torches still unlit.

But I could not turn; the crowd of the Blooded pressed shoulder to shoulder to the river as the guards tried to close their trap around us. I tripped over rocks. Branches scratched my face and bitter fear burned my mouth and throat. Dead, I thought, dead if any of us are caught.

But the first of us reached the river’s edge, splashing into it. On either side burned the torches of the guards, pressing, their torches weaving spots of orange like fireflies at night. The first cold waters of the river soaked through my shoes.

Then some gap between the rocks on the shore grabbed my foot and wrenched all balance from me. I fell so quickly I could not use my hands to stop. M y head hit a patch of that shell rock that is common to the shoreline, and the whole dark world bloomed with color. I was uncertain at first what had happened; I was quite dazed. I rolled over on my back. I saw strange things, and decided to lay down there in the cool water, where perhaps the guards would fail to see me.

But, dear reader, a great broad hand reached to grab my shoulder picked me up as though I were a smallish sack of seed. It forced my shoulder against some great broad side, and I knew immediately who held me. Ryn Batyst’s great hand always grabbed my shoulder so, and I have been with him through the many depths of night. My feet barely touched the sand again before we reached water deep enough to swim. With all the rest of the Blooded, we swam together for the western shore, though he half-carried me.

Ryn laughed midstroke. “Their armor,” he said. “They can’t follow us. They’ll have to run back for the boats. They’ll be a watch just getting back.”

I wanted to laugh, too. It was that ridiculousness one feels whenever great danger has passed one over. I wanted to laugh, I wanted to flirt, I wanted to run for three straight days, but that was only my body speaking. My mind was quite distracted, as I fear it always will be now.

For, dear reader, when that stone had tripped me and I had turned over on the shoreside sand, I had looked up for a moment into the night, and I’d seen the leafy tops of the summer trees, and I’d seen the stars on a cloudless night, and I’d seen the loathsome blackness of the void.

But in the midst of those heavens, which must surely hold all the wonder and horrors of the gods, I also saw: three great spheres, round and large as moons. They were no satellites, not natural ones at least. They were not relics; their lights shone and blinked as brightly as those of the sentient torches in our city, and even from so far I could see the jade haze of their energy shrouds warding them against disaster. The spheres did not burn, because they did not fall from orbit. They did not fall, because those ships were crewed.

Thus I became the first person, so far as I know, to see the great change that has come to Thaeron. For the first time in a thousand thousand years, our world is not alone.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust VIII

“By day, the common,” she said, her knuckles still pressed against the frame. I could hardly see more of her, that hand alone being lit by that strange white fire of the sentient torches.

“In truth, the people,” I replied, still somewhat breathless from the walk.

Then she stepped out into the street, and I said no more. She wore only a simple taught wrap precisely the color of furrowed earth and a coal gray chemise snug beneath – and was more alluring than I dare express. Her pale round face shone in the moonlight, and her hair in the night could have been painter’s red itself, though I knew it much lighter by day. She has the eyes of a child both in roundness and in life, though her expression in that instant was of someone twice our age – and I guess we are very close in that. Her cheeks hold the high thin bones of a waif, but are fuller now than they must once have been, and the effect is as though she is always starting to smile about something she isn’t ever going to tell you, but is all in good humor anyway.

Of the rest, dear reader, I tell little, because her effects must be particular to me, else she would have been taken up into the merchant houses long ago. But suffice it to say that the wrap showed that, far from emaciation, she curved precisely as a woman ought to curve – and if she overshot the mark, it was stylishly so, her form all of one accord. Her beauty is not, I should take care to note, obvious, but rather natural, undeniable, and infectious, the sort you find yourself thinking about much later.

More specifics, dear reader, I must leave to your imagination, if for no other reason than that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her stand quite still. Her self-portrait turns out to be quite accurate: she is quite the opposite of any possible pose.

She crossed the street and took my arm in hers. “It’s the best a girl from the farms might wear, yes? You can walk me home, I think. We are leaving the plateau? I suppose we’ll take the Portage Stair.”

I nodded. “We usually don’t, but tonight we will, yes.”

We started walking south; the call of the Wells of the Dead increased to that point that feels an itch inside the skull. I decided that I absolutely could not let it be distracting.

“Then how do you possibly descend, without the guards noticing?” she asked. “Is there a tunnel?” Her eyes glimmered merrily. “Or is it perhaps a secret stair?”

“The smuggler’s gate,” I said, averting my eyes from a patrolling guard walking in the opposite direction. “They hide rope, hundreds of feet of it, all throughout the city. Boats come up the Profuse River each night, past the docks, to prearranged points around the plateau. The smugglers hammer a pulley into the cliff and tie off one after the other to carry up and down. A big crew and it’s done in less than a watch, the wares in a fence-house, the men in taverns, the rope recoiled, and nothing left but the little rock-hole the pulley made.”

Though all this we kept walking; I was glad to see when our steps fell in time together. “And of course,” I said, trying to anticipate her questions, “any petty criminal worth his salt memorizes the routes of the patrols.”

“The Blooded are brigands, then?” she asked. “Marvelous!”

“Some of us are, yes,” I said. “Enough to know that you shouldn’t leave your door open when you’re in your place alone.”

“Was it?” she asked, and I looked at her to see if she was serious.

“Yes!” I said, seeing that she was. “It’s dangerous. What were you doing in there?”

“Waiting. Not for you – how could I have known? And I think I don’t stay alone every night. But waiting. Do you ever listen to the city? Simply sit with it and listen?”

We neared that circle that marks the center of Ariel, the locus of all its power. It was of course nearly empty, with the great ashen doors of Speaking Hall closed to public petitioners after dusk, the Temple services of Dusk and Night’s Watch long ago concluded, and the White’s barracks not yet changing out the guard for those that specialize in vice and theft. Only some few pedestrians walked coupled just as we were, and two solitary petitioners made prayers over the Healing Well.

“I believe,” I said smiling, “that I more often smell it.”

She laughed, and this quite naturally was my reward. “No! I mean, we all do that, though the Faiths have been quite clever, channeling down through the rocks. Thank the Profusion for indoor pipes! Though perhaps the River does not thank us. But I mean: the people in this city live nowhere else, and work happens that is particular to here. Each city has a tone that is utterly unique.”

I frowned. “I have never been outside this city.” We had crossed the circle and were walking through that desultory district that comes between Ariel’s center and the Portage Stairs. The Gates, citizens call it, because it is there that Ariel welcomes its visitors with moneychangers and taverns, taxmen, customhouses and brothels, inns and the houses of the bondsmen who for a fee might orchestrate a friend’s release from prison.

She turned to me, her face all a mimicry of a sham-prophet’s shrewdness. “You will, young man,” she said. “You perhaps will go very far from here. And old I think! You will endure much longer than anyone has ever thought to live. And wisdom, good sir! Travel and great wisdom will you gain!”

I laughed. “Well done! But no Blooded expect to live so long, or even leave this valley.”

“Yet you are so cavalier! You say such serious things and then you laugh about them. One wonders if perhaps you do not believe, or if you are not honest with yourself.”

We reached the top of the Portage Stair together; it stretched far away from us on either side. “It is, I think, that we feel more sadness than anyone else could hope to imagine, and we’ve grieved for so long that it all becomes frivolity. I’m doing you a great disservice by taking you.”

She grew quiet at this and we paused, looking out over the valley. The moon was bright and shining on the lake the Profuse River makes at the docks, and on the snows of the peaks and on the glaciers of the mountain passes – and, far overhead, yet looming very near, on the twinned silver spikes of the Needles, which I have not yet introduced. I’ve neglected to include those incredible towers, perhaps, precisely because they are so inescapably apparent, from every street and corner of Ariel. But these are not buildings in the sense that humans make them. Our edifices bear faults of caulk and seam, evidence of mortar and wear and flawed or rough construction.

But the spires that stand atop the cliffs of the gap where the Profuse River slides southward through the mountains – their artifice shows no fault at all. The Needles are remnant towers of the Profusion, crafted by the gods themselves. They rear like great slivered fangs from either side of that gap for thousands of feet, meeting in height even the peaks of local mountains, and their tips, the Historians say, are no wider than a finger. Yet their great round bases, broad as the Temple itself at sixty strides across, are so much a part of the cliffs that one wonders how they might ever have been separate, that the Needles did not spring wholesale from the mountainside. They have no sides, because their bases and heights are circular, to what the Historians say is geometric perfection. And on all the thousands of such Needles scattered throughout the continents and seas of Thaeron, no one has ever found so much as a solitary crack.

One truly wishes that someone knew what all of them were for.

“Did you hear,” I said, lest Aldasola not be entertained, “that the Faith went up to wake one today? To wake a Needle.”

“What?” she laughed. “That’s absurd. They choose the Faiths precisely because they can’t wake machinery at all. They’re why Profusionist technology’s prohibited here, and why the city’s sacred. And why, in all the Profusion, would the Faith go up and wake something that no one knows how to actually use?”

She took the first step down, and I followed. There were eight hundred more, the Portage Stair being, besides the Needles and the Speaking Hall, the great outstanding feature of Ariel. They span nearly fifty paces, with a great broad ramp running up the middle between two sections, for the teams of oxen and bullocks to pull their carts. And all, of course, in the smooth crushed and polished white stone of Ariel, quarried up out of the Profuse River’s bed. It is a stone unique in all Thaeron – not even the jewel city Kasora can claim to have it – and the stair was built to be Ariel’s great welcome to the world.

“Oh, you should hear the rumors,” I said, to her delight. “The Faith went up to contact the great fleet that relic ship fell away from. The Faith went up to ask the Needles why the High Temple in Kasora does not answer his inquiries. The Faith went up to ask the veilmen what precisely it is that Needles do! How could you have missed all that?”

Even going down the stair we stepped as though we were one soul, though I feared I could not take her where she wanted.

“Well,” she sighed. “I’m afraid I am quite bored by politics.” It took me a long time, even after that, to make up my mind, and longer still to speak it.

“You can’t follow me,” I finally said, when we had reached the bottom of the stair and strode along the boardwalk that joins them to the docks. “Not the whole way. Not yet. I have not spoken with our master. The Blooded will be suspicious. Your presence would disrupt the ceremony. But observe, and you’ll see more of the ceremony than I will, though I have not told you enough to understand it.”

I led her to the left along the quay, and toward that long stretch of shore that squeezes between the Dock Lake and the base of the southern Gidwinn Mountains; in some places, it was barely broader then a cart. But just before the base of those cliffs upon whose tops the Needles stand, the shore flares out again into a peninsula, where there grows a dense copse of trees. From there, the Blood of History called.

“Well?” she asked, when I suppose my silence had gone on long enough. “What are you all about? What is it that the Blooded actually do?”

Monday, June 28, 2010

Matthew: On the Pastoral Tone of the Sermon on the Mount

This was for me the most valuable/enjoyable of the readings of the class so far, though at first I wandered where Lischer was going with it. Yet the second half really shone. “The Sermon seems strangely bereft of a pastor; yet what it offers can best be characterized as radical pastoral care...its chief actor is not a chosen professional but the people themselves.”

Amen! In my brief time (as a non-Lutheran) here, I’ve been amused whenever people talk about clergy being “pastoral” in their care for people; my thought has always been “But they’re just being human.” Which is not to go on some kind of personal rant, but it is to say that if people took the Sermon on the Mount seriously we might move toward a Christian version of the Jewish understanding that rabbis are professional Jews. Pastors are professional Christians. They do what we’re all supposed to be doing anyway.

Perhaps that is what people meant, and I just haven’t been hearing it?

Beyond that, it’s interesting how empowering the Sermon on the Mount can be if taken in the manner Lischer suggests. “Pastoral care in this sense can no longer be separated from ‘administration’ but now, instead of training Christians to be committees, the church will train them to be pastors, those who care for their brothers and sisters in the stress and conflict of daily life.”

The Sermon on the Mount isn’t a sermon at all. It’s not a moral purity code to whose lofty aspirations we cannot possibly rise. It’s a guide for how to live, as humans and as Christians and as Christians in community, much the same as the Decalogue was for the Hebrews, and without all the legalistic consequences.

Perhaps that’s what all sermons are meant to be, and I just haven’t been hearing them?

The eschatological nature of the Sermon is less easy to discern; the language certainly isn’t eschatological. But “an indicative with the force of a promise” doesn’t require stars falling from heaven to address the already/ not yet of God’s coming and present kingdom. All it has to do is direct and exhort communities of people into God’s vision for humanity – and there is the Sermon on the Mount. It’s promises, made by God, are so certain that we already have their benefits. “What we do now is a downpayment on the perfect peace, harmony, love, purity and worship that will characterize the End.”

Indeed. What all sounds so impractical – and the Sermon certainly sounds that way to us – is at bottom eminently pragmatic, and that’s the wisdom of taking the Sermon pastorally, and, I would add, the value of taking Scripture seriously to start with. To interpret Scripture is to apply it. To apply it is to live with its considerations foremost in one’s heart and mind, to be ‘shocked’ into a transformed way of life. The Sermon on the Mount addresses itself specifically to this purpose.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust VII

Chapter Three

July 41, 440 Y.A.

“The Blooded do not proselytize,” once said Ryn Batyst. “Those who come are called. Those who are called, come. And they come alone. The Wells of the Dead do not make exceptions.”

We spoke in the urchin’s tongue I had learned long before the Temple found me; this pidgin language has the great virtue of sounding like nonsense that only simpletons might understand. It has been of great service to the Blooded.

“But how does that work?” I asked, still exuberant after my first successful Blooding. “The Wells of the Dead have slept for a thousand years. How can they elect a single soul at a specific time and know that it’s the right one? And how in all the Profusion do they possibly agree?”

Batyst laughed. It was spring and the cormorants cried out upon the lake – that is, where the docks reach out into the broad deep waters of the Profuse River to greet the Profusionist and common ships. We were standing atop the Portage Stair, where we had agreed to meet, because the crowds would ensure our anonymity.

“That,” said Ryn Batyst, “neither the Blood of History nor the Wells of the Dead have ever deigned to say. Nor do they say who does the choosing, or how they cooperate. It is not for nothing that we call them our mystery.”

I started to object, but Batyst raised a finger to caution me.

“But it is no mystery why we do not ourselves reach out. The Blood ensures our loyalty. We ourselves cannot. And simply failing to report recovered Profusionist technology to our dear Temple carries the penalty of death. Can you imagine if the Historians knew we were using it ourselves? Never forget, Del – we are dead if we’re discovered. It’s not worth the risk.”

Then he turned to look me in the eye – we both had been admiring the westward view over the lake and up the hills on the other side and up, up into the snows and glaciers of the Gidwinn Mountains – and did what Ryn Batyst always does. He promised more.

“The Blood of History, Del, proselytizes more capably than you or I could ever hope to do. The Wells of the Dead have safely expanded our ranks for decades. And it is the beginning. It is only the beginning. Today there are hundreds. There will soon be thousands. And by the time the Blood of History is done there will not be a soul in this city who will not hearken to the Wells of the Dead of Ariel!”

His hand upon my shoulder felt like the weight of truth itself. “Only,” he said. “We must be patient. We live on truth’s time, not our own. The Blood of History decides who becomes Blooded. We ourselves do not.”

So on the day that she came to me, Adlasola Oso waited as I slowly measured out her seed. While my hand remained steady as a mason’s, I do not know how it did not shake.

“You must be patient,” I whispered, peering down into my sacks so that none could read my lips. “We serve the Blood of History, and we come only when it calls. In a few nights or a week, probably no more than two, I will come for you. Can you tell me where you live? Quietly, you are still my customer.”

She nodded, “Corin’s Row in the Flats, beside the shrine to the sixteenth Faith, number seven.” She slid her coin toward me across my counter. I stood up again, settling the larger bags again behind me.

She lived but ten blocks from me – and little better. I nodded too, and handed her the paper pouch carrying her small cupful of seeds, my eyes still fixed upon the ground.

“I know it.” I said, pocketing her shilling. “I’ll knock before midnight. I’ll say ‘By day, the common.’ If you are ready and alone, answer ‘In truth, the people.’ If you say anything else, or if you say nothing, or if you are not alone, I will leave. But if you say that, I will take you to the Blood. Wear loose dark clothing and shoes for long walking, and do not expect to return before the dawn. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” she said, her eyes wide. Already, I thought, she goes deeper than she expected. I felt suddenly that if she went with me, then she would surely die.

“You’ll gain nothing,” I said, low and quiet. “The night I enter, no one dares to paint.”

She flared, and was devastating in her beauty. “Then I think perhaps you all are cowards,” she said, and in a whirl of robes – I remember she was wearing blue that day, the azure of the summer sky – she was gone within a crowd of masseuses, those women who wear their own sleeves shortened to show their oiled hands.

It was precisely, I imagine, the sort of exit she always makes: abrupt and without any kind of explanation. Even in that first encounter she seemed one of those who lacks that otherwise ubiquitous capacity which men call self-regard.

I stood for ten minutes shuffling through my sacks and did not call out a price. I remember very little else which occurred that day, and profited almost nothing for the afternoon. I’ll never know if the morrow would have returned my mind to normal; the Blood of History called me again that very night.

I have hesitated to describe this summons. The closest approximation is that it starts as appetite. One begins to look forward to the Wells of the Dead as one anticipates satiating hunger, or satisfying other attractions of the flesh – that same warm tingling, a sort of low dull fire. But it does not stop at this; rather, the burn becomes an itch, the crawling becomes particular, and then one feels as though a worm burrows within one’s skull, and it is only walking toward the acting Well of the Dead the relieves of that particular discomfort. If you still do not come – in some few hours it feels as though every cell within your skull has utterly combusted, and the worm within your brain is digging out through one’s own head.

The way to the Well of the Dead is the way, the only way, into coolness and relief. Most Blooded come as soon as they are able. Few have fought it very long. And no one has ever dared discover what happens if one resists entirely.

I say all this, dear reader, because for Adlasola Oso I delayed. The call of the Well of the Dead came to me from the south and west, near the Needle Stair; I knew this as clearly as I knew that her apartment lay to the north and east, near the tip of the plateau. The walk would add an hour to the journey; a wiser soul would have picked a better night.

But to the north and east I went, as soon as I had closed and locked my door. As I did, I hid my key inside my boot, loosening my rough cloth trousers over their tops, so that no pickpocket could reach it, but Lud the stevedore would find it readily. I worried already about Adlasola – who would see her to her rooms, if I was to be unconscious? Whom could I trust? And what could I tell Batyst, if I could not avoid him?

Such thoughts carried me to her door; I do not remember precisely how I got there, and it does not matter – all the little streets of the Flats crook and meet alike, one block of rooms very much undistinguished from another, even to those like myself who once called the alleys of Ariel our home. But I was warmer than I should have been and sweating by the time I reached the shrine of the sixteenth Faith, and paused there to take my breath.

Unnamed, undistinguished and only dimly remembered, a shrine is all he gets, a marble statue of a man kneeling, as all the Faiths have knelt, to drink the vial of Letherium by which he forsakes his previous life entirely, and forgets everything he has done before that day. Thus each Faith can serve the world selflessly for another forty years or more – if the grace of the Profusion grants it, though of course it seldom does.

Her door was open, a possibility I had not anticipated. There was no light inside, and I wondered suddenly if she had gone or never lived there at all. But a knocking sound came from just inside.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Christology: On Moltmann's The Crucified God

I thought I was taking on a lot to do Schleiermacher, but here comes you and Jurgen Moltmann – and you did very well. So far as I can tell, anyway. And you’re right to point out so many of these crucial points. I do think it is key to remember, as it is with all theologies, what preceded them – in this case, the ‘death of God’ theology of Barth, Niebuhr and Tilich. Against classical theism, it might sound like such a contrast to say that God actually died on the cross in some way – but against people who already thought that God had already died in some real sense, it must matter that Jurgen says God died on the cross, that this was, in some sense, already Auschwitz.

Living in the wake of Moltmann and Niehbur, as well as Nietzche, it’s hard precisely to know what to make of all of this – a bizarre mixture of comfort, because clearly we’re not, this generation, coming from the pro-Platonic side of things, but also disconcerting because it is precisely in the wake of not one, but repeated genocides and the stangely personal event that was 9/11, one starts to wonder if it might be better if there were a God who didn’t seem impotent in the face of human evil, who we didn’t seem to hold so much power over, no matter how we got it, that Jesus doesn’t just keep getting back up on the cross.

Having read Moltmann on the Spirit and the Resurrection, I feel he does put together something salvific ultimately, but hearing Jesus described as an ‘emergency measure’ raised my eyebrows here. I myself have talked about the crucifixion as a crisis, but a crisis has, at least in literary terms, a resolution – it is the climax, with all these chiastic overtones. But in an emergency those things don’t necessarily have to happen. An emergency isn’t part of a story. An emergency is just what happens to people. People come through crisis; people die in emergencies. So to me Moltmann here, in his Trinitarian focus, in its focus on the cross alone, is profoundly true but ultimately incomplete. I can’t find it hopeful. I don't know that there's a God here strong enough to trust.

Later, Moltmann says, if I remember correctly, that the Cross is the Resurrection is the Pentecost, that it’s all part of the one thing, and there I think he’s on to something. That’s what I’m looking for. Moltmann here in many ways is something that I’ve already heard; it’s something that the world keeps telling us over and over and over: we really did kill Him. And I agree, but I’m listening for something more. I want the rest of the story.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust VI

After that, of course, I remember nothing else; I woke pained and dazed within my rooms. Ryn and I must often both be carried to our homes as though we were too drunk; at least the guards, whether white or green, never question that sunrise scenario. But the Blood of History is far less pleasant than inebriation. It induces something of that state that men call coma, and the more one lingers in the Blood the longer it endures.

All for that which does not care for us. Once, all the Blooded who entered a particular Well of the Dead must have experienced the same memory, shared the thought and feelings of one, and only one, dead person. It would have had no purpose in any other way. Now, whether due to corruption or merely long senescence, one Well of the Dead invites each of us to remember a different ancient dead. Sometimes, it repeats. Sometimes, the Blood of History seems to have no control over itself at all.
So it is not surprising that the Blood itself has never, under any circumstance, called any living soul by name. Until, of course, it did precisely that last night.

By the time I woke it was nearly noon and hot. I had missed the morning’s market profit, the bulk of the day’s prosperity. I felt quite ill. Whatever one might say of the Blood of History, one can never declare that it is natural. The human body does not like it. Often the illness endures for an entire day thereafter. Perhaps this too is due to the degradation of the Blood of History.

I went to work regardless. I was some time getting dressed. My head ached interminably – that’s always the worst of it, of course, and I ate no lunch, though by that time I should have been quite ravenous. Still, I picked up my heavy sacks of seeds and put on the tan tunic and trousers I had washed the day before and stepped out the door, into the light of Ariel’s brilliant whitewashed day.

This made my head ache even more, of course, but if I continue to detail my agony, dear reader, you will think me dull as a drunkard; another’s pain is never nearly as interesting as one’s own, a defect in that trait which men call sympathy. But suffice it to say that I could not have vanished within the crowd, most of whom were brawny workers returning to work after taking their lunch at home. I say this because, while some would put it to the lingering grace of the Profusion to have us meet again a stranger we first encountered only days before, I say only that he would have recognized me easily.

“Have you heard, brother?” the baker asked as I was bending over to pick up my sacks after a rest. I squinted and looked around; sweat poured over my eyes and I could not see much more than the broad fa├žade’s of Ariel’s low buildings – none of them rise more than three levels, a limit imposed by Historian imposition that no building should surpass the Temple’s supposedly majestic height.

“Heard what?” I asked, recognizing him instantly from his deep voice.

“Anything! That a starship has crashed in the Fackablest, in the northern forests, and that the Faith has asked Dovan Santu himself to look for it. That the Eyes of Thaeron have closed and the High Temple has sent no couriers. Any of it?”

Shouldering my sacks, I answered him. “Those all seem like natural reactions,” I said. “Dovan Santu is Guardian of Nogilia and its valkyries; no veilmen could find it faster, and the Free Cities won’t care to look. If the Eyes of Thaeron have indeed closed, then Kasora will be doing their best to investigate and won’t take time for writing missives – because our courier system is horribly outdated.”

The baker furrowed his brow.

“But perhaps,” I added, as I started walking, “you mean to say that the actions that precipitated those events are extraordinary. And indeed they are,” I smiled, “but I can have nothing to add to everything that must already have been said.”

The baker grunted as he walked beside me. “You have a better way with words than me. And you’re certainly right. But you said the other night that you weren’t with the Temple anymore. And I see your scars by daylight now. So, friend, why all these sacks? What poor trade holds you back?”

I showed him my talisman on its pocket-chain.

“Sowers’ Guild, then?” he asked, and nodded when I showed him the talisman on its pocket-chain. “A small but venerable brotherhood.” He looked again at my sacks. “You take the remnants from the barge?”

I nodded; we continued through the various alleys that separate the Market from the district of the Flats that I call home.

“Every Forday it comes for the farmers in the valley,” I said, “massive as a field itself. Seeds from Sepira, Nogilia, Nesechia – everywhere that’s fertile. The farmers always buy in bulk, of course, and the orders never come out even; I take the leavings for a price. Then I hump the sacks up to my place, and from my place to the market. Nearly everyone has some kind of garden on their roof.”

We reached the Market at last, and I wondered why he had not asked for my name, or I for his. Perhaps it was the camaraderie of the market itself. Those who sell there, for all their diversity, always feel some solidarity.

As well they should: crushed more finely here than elsewhere, the famous white stone of Ariel becomes in summer the fine cloud that covers every mountebank, charlatan, and honest man who barks a ware, and anyone who might think of buying it. Because the Market has so few solid buildings to act as windbreaks, that particulate saltates into every beef flank, rice ball, watercress salad and fish fillet available, as well as limning every silver urn, clay bowl, gold carafe and any wicker basket or wooden jug or plate. It works its way into every cotton shift, twill shirt, fine silk chemise or makeshift woolen trouser that any poor hand has sewn, not to mention the tomatoes, plums, artichokes, potatoes, honeydew, durians and strawberries that come from my seeds – or the breads, pies, cakes, torts, and spiceloaves produced by my new acquaintance.

“I rent from Gurloes,” I said, “and sell under his protection.”

The baker grunted an affirmation, and I readjusted the burden of my sacks. “You’ll be to the east then,” he said, “toward the chandler’s row. You’re in your eighth year?”

I nodded. He understood, then, that I was an orphan. “The Temple saw to my apprenticeship when I turned sixteen. They said that people trust me, and I’ve always been able to keep a ledger.”

The baker walked east and I followed; the bakers’ row lay beyond the chandler’s. “Well, they’ve got to be good for something, the Temple. In two more years, you’ll have an apprentice of your own. I’ve had ten now, and they’re good business. Customers know that you’re established. You’re doing alright, for where you come from.”

With the end of this speech he stopped; we had reached my booth. “Well,” I said, “I cannot very well just starve, can I?” I laughed, and the baker did as well. I turned inside, and he held out his hand.

“The Profusion keep you,” he said.

I nodded and shook it. “The Profusion keeps us all.”

I have not seen him since, and doubt I ever will, though I could have sworn I felt his presence lingering on the corner. But I was already opening my sacks and pulling out the smaller bags of seeds within them, having found it better to keep variety rather than quantity of wares. I had just absently placed the first of these on my counter when I felt a warm hand upon my own.

I looked up and found myself looking into the eyes of Adlasola Oso, though they were half-hidden by strands of her scarlet hair, caught in a stray brisk breeze. “A cup of sunflowers,” she said, “for my garden.” Then she leaned closer and whispered, “I seek the Blood of History. They say you know the way.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust V

I still remember the night of my first Blooding.

“What is this?” I had asked Ryn Batyst; we sat on the ground atop one of the Wells of the Dead after I had come out. I was wet and cold, skin covered with slime and shivering in the darkness. “What is happening to us?” Somehow, the Blood of History arranges it so that he is always present when someone is incepted – even those, like myself, who do so alone, though of course I did not know it yet. So far, Batyst had not even given me his name.

“It began more than a thousand years ago,” Ryn replied, his voice deep and resonant. It was a stranger’s voice just then, though I would come to know it better than my own. “Before the War of the Faith, before the wars between the cities. Before the collapse of the Profusion itself. The Blood of History is of the Profusion. When humanity lived scattered through the stars in perpetual exaltation. It was no static time, but a dynamic one. Humanity ascended to ever-higher levels of complexity and capability.”

“And immortality,” I said, remembering my instruction; in that time I was still quite pious. Ryn appeared to me as a darkness within darkness; I was afraid of him, because I feared everything then.

“No,” Ryn replied again, “that is another lie from the Temple. Human life in the Profusion could only be prolonged. The gift of artifice, the gift of machines, gave humans nearly everything they could imagine. But it could not defeat death.”

“But the woman I met in there, in that place,” I said, pointing to the Well, the first Well of the Dead I had ever entered, “She lived during the Profusion.”
Batyst looked at me for a very long time, and I know now that he concealed astonishment. I had just given him the second sign of my election, that I would remember the Blood of History as he did.

“Finally,” he said, “on Thaeron, on this very world, a few humans gave up preserving their bodies. They focused instead on transforming their minds. Since they could not escape death, they would transcend it. So the Profusion created new machines that allowed the people share one another’s memories. To step into each other’s souls. Like nothing else in the universe, these machines worked with flesh instead of electrical components. And they functioned like a living brain.”

I sat dumbly upon the earth; I was still very much disoriented, and my clothes were a mess, their dampness making me nervous and impatient. “Is that what all the red gel was? What whispered in my head?”

If Ryn heard my question, he ignored it. “But they were not a mind for the living. They were a mind of the dead, that remembered everyone who died. The people named it the Blood of History. It was that color and held the memories of those who were interred. They placed the Blood in the Wells of the Dead that surrounded their city. And they gave their tombs the ability to lure other humans into them.”

“And to incorporate the memories of the living,” I guessed, and Ryn started at me again, his face impassive. I had, I now know, just spoken the third sign the Blood of History had given him. What the first one was, I doubt he’ll ever let me know.

“Then the city became isolated in these mountains and collapsed, either during the Profusion or after it, during the wars between the cities and the time without time. The machines of the Blood of History slept through all of it, just as they slept through the time of the first Faith and the four hundred years after it, as this city Ariel grew up among them unknowing. And they slept as the later Faiths and the Historians came to see Ariel as the center of the world, and to conduct here all of its affairs.”

Ryn smiled – that was by far the most pleasant aspect of this very serious man. He smiled, and you knew that he held the kind of joy that could destroy people, that it was an aspect of his power.

“They slept, Del, until one night a blacksmith went walking in the valley because he could not sleep. And then they called him in.”

“You woke them up?” I asked, because that was the only part of his speech that did not have the cadences of ritual.

This time Ryn did not look at me so long, but laughed for the first of many times. “No, Del” he said, “I did not wake them up. But they did awaken me.”

I had said, eyes wide, “I still feel it, the exaltation. I felt so alive in there!”

Ryn Batyst shook his head. “No, Blooded. Those are only chemicals, an unfortunate component of the Blood. Even the Temple uses similar ones in incense, though in smaller quantities. And you will be quite ill afterward. When I talk about waking up, I am talking about being born again. I am talking about seeing the Profusion as it actually occurred. I am talking about knowing how to live. Mere moments of the Profusion contain more truth than a thousand years of Temple dogma. And those are the miracles, Del. Those are the revelations that are going to shape this world anew.”

Now it was I who shook my head. “But I don’t remember anything.”

Batyst looked long and hard into my eyes, and held my wrists so that I could not look away. “You will, Del. No one else has until tonight – no one else but me, ever. But you will, and you will remember more than anyone.”

At this I laughed. “How do you know that?”

He smiled gently. “I know that, Del, because not all knowledge is kept in archives, in dusty vaults beneath some Temple. I know because the Blood of History told me so.”

I could find no response to this. Ryn stood to go, then stopped.

“There is something else,” he said. “I need to warn you. The Blood of History requires sacrifice. It has been too long isolated. It needs our strength if we are all to continue. It doesn’t happen very often, perhaps once a year. But sometimes a Blooded goes into a Well of the Dead and does not come out. It gives no warning, but we all believe the process is quite painless. There is no body later.”

That was the not the first time I learned this lesson, and it will not be the last. The human mind is not capable of comprehending the indifference with which machinery regards our individual mentality.

Yet last night I trusted myself to them again, and into a Well of the Dead I fell.

The experience, of course, cannot be described – except to say that it must be like being born. Inside a Well of the Dead, you fall into an ocean of thick red fluid; it feels boundless because you cannot move. That is why you fall into it backwards, in the manner of the executed – it is the most comfortable position the Blood of History supports, if comfort actually applies in that place. The Blood holds you and supports you and does not let you breathe of your own accord. Rather, it subdues you until you take it in and it can infiltrate your lungs; the Blood of History is quite safe enough to breathe. You know that it is red because the Wells of the Dead, when woken, provide their own illumination. Then begin the recollections.

They are usually quite like dreams, only more vivid than you have ever known, and the dead whom you are about to dream approaches you in your mind and introduces his or her self. And a person’s memories in full contain more information from all the senses than one can possibly experience. To live someone else’s life as though it were one’s own quite surpasses the limitations of our language; perhaps that is the beginning of the corruption that affects all the Blooded now.

But this time I did not dream. This time I did not remember anyone else’s past, and I did not meet any ancient dead. Rather, I met someone who I knew immediately had never lived; I saw and felt and smelled the future. I met the world’s salvation.

She wore loose white robes, and crimson hair flowed around her face. She lay buried in the earth.

A wind blew the soil away, a wind as dark as the emptiness between the stars. It rose around her like a fog, though it did not touch her. Its whisper grew to a roar that I thought would drive me mad. But she rose and stood and walked through it as though it were a summer breeze.

She strode the streets of Ariel. At each step, her breath repelled the black wind. In one hand she held a quicksword, in the other a starspear. Her steps shook buildings. Her starspear burned to pierce the blackness. Her quicksword sliced the darkness as though it were but paper.

Above her nine moons circled; she reached up to drag them down. Nine demons followed them, creatures of the void. They stood a third as tall as any man, and their wings would have spanned any room. Their skin matched the black wind that surrounded them; it had been their breath. Their wings and horns burned with black flame, and their arms became curving, glowing swords.

She breathed and they drew back. She slit their eyes. She pierced their breasts. Around her, her breath became a white cloud. The cloud solidified into walking forms, veilmen and Profusionist machines. She called them her army and they cleared the demons away. When she reached the fallen moons, she crushed them in her palms.

Around her, white buildings sprang entire from the earth. Their spires reached the stars. Their whiteness matched her breath and skin and robes. The night become a day brighter than any other, and promised not to end.

“Come, Del Tanich of Ariel,” she said.

She climbed atop the cliffs of the Word of Faith, straddling the Profuse River. The white swarm sang beneath her, and the white city swept across the world, a roiling whiteness that grew and rose and brightened till it was all I saw.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Matthew: On the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke

On the Infancy Narratives of Luke and Matthew

'The Messiah? That's Jesus' - so Jon Sobrino summarizes the Christology of the New Testament. The infancy narratives have the same kind of backward-to-us logic: the righteous one promised from David that will lead our people into freedom? That's Jesus, says Matthew. The powerful one prophesied from old that will save the whole world by bringing good news to the least of these? That’s Jesus, not Caesar, says Luke. We know the scope of the saviors because of the scope of genealogies: back to Abraham the father of a nation for Matthew, back to Adam the father of all mankind for Luke.

Three sets of fourteen generations in Matthew establishes a secession of eras divided by events key to Israel’s identity and deliverance (monarchy and return from exile). Matthew now implies another. In Luke, four instances of women in scandal provide three gentiles and an adulteress serving “as instruments of the Holy overcome obstacles.” From Mary in Luke, where Joseph is silent, we get the Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent away the lowly.” From Joseph in Matthew, where Mary is silent, we get the angelic annunciation via dream: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In Matthew we get the narrow Moses-like escape from the slaughter of the innocents; in Luke we get the appearance of a host of angels to a few good shepherds. In both, it presumably matters who is going to be led. For Matthew, Israel, who may or may not follow; for Luke, the shepherds themselves are led, and could be just about anybody – which is, presumably, something of the point. In Matthew, the wise of other nations come and give obeisance to the righteous one born in Israel; in Luke, an actual Temple priest in the heart of Israel is stricken dumb as a consequence of his disbelief of the message of one who “will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (emphasis mine).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust IV

Chapter Two

July 37, 440 Y.A.

“Welcome, Blooded, to our mystery!” shouted Ryn Batyst.

All the other Blooded cried out in response, a roar that threatened to escape that evening’s secluded glade. Rarely have the Blooded been more excited than they were that night; I shrank back further into the inksome shadows.

Ryn Batyst, master of anticipation, showmanship and prophecy, a mountain of might in the form of man. A blacksmith by trade, with hair now going gray but shoulders and thigh both still broad, he lives atop his shop in the narrow strip of buildings behind the Market on the city’s eastern edge – and chairs the Public of Guilds of the People which advises the Faith on citywide affairs. The greatest infiltration we have thus far accomplished, and it was committed by our founder, the one who opened up the Wells of the Dead.

He says, of course, that I was first, that I will always have been the first. But I would have been an infant when he opened the Wells of the Dead, and am little more useful than one now, as I’d demonstrated at the Temple. Of this news would already have reached him, of course. But I dreaded relating the details of my failure to him anyway; I did not want to see Ryn Batyst that night. And because the Blooded are not many, only one small thousand, and far fewer still are called at once, I skulked in the shadows and waited for the Wells of the Dead to open, lest he notice me beforehand.

We were all waiting like that, of course – the Wells never open until all the called ones come. Tonight we gathered in the eastern valley, in the foothills of the mountains, near the Profuse River’s fabled source. The springs are thought quite sacred; the dead, of course, reside there nonetheless. The dead reside everywhere around this city, though they only let certain people know it, and are a city unto themselves.

“The time of our exaltation is at hand” boomed Batyst. “The age of liberation will soon be here!” Another heightened cry died as Batyst waited for silence, looking out into the faces of our motley throng.

Who are the Blooded? They can be anyone, really – and often are. The smuggler standing on the hillock above me tonight, leathers creaking and face blackened with soot even when not at work; the young scribe in lay service to the Temple, clad in that ubiquitous pale jade robe of the uninitiated, he will spend his entire life writing missives for Historians and never learn anything of value; the newly rich merchant from one of the mansions on the hill behind the Temple, and an utterly horrible man; an ancient farmer and his wife from the valley, a rare and placid pair who never speak to anyone but to whom Ryn has entrusted his life on two occasions.

He had all their attention now. “Thaeron’s Eyes have closed,” he began.

The crowd of Blooded responded only by becoming quiet. We rarely consider anything beyond our own vale – even Batyst says that our own troubles certainly suffice. But Batyst rarely disappoints.

“You know that the Eyes of Thaeron have long orbited the world, high above our atmosphere. And you know that they make possible the instantaneous communications between the cities – even those on separate continents. And you know that they have not failed to function in recorded human history – they have not failed since time began again! But fewer of you know, because it is only preached by the most superstitious of Historians (and because we are not known for listening) that the Temple has on record a prophecy that their failure will augur the ending of the world.”

Batyst paused, and some new initiate gasped; Ryn prophecies the end of the world at least once every other month or so. I feel he must surely be correct, but I listen mostly for his information, of which there is none better.

“Well, Thaeron’s Eyes have closed,” repeated Batyst, “and we now live on a world that cannot see. But we already knew that, didn’t we?” And here he paused again for the crowd to chuckle. “Thaeron has never seen. Those who should not have power at all have power over all! Grasping, clawing like the blind, the Historians hoard their treasures in the Temple.

“All hail the Historians! Ill Keepers of the Wells! But the Blood remembers what the Profusion knew: that a blind world seals the eyes of its people, and cannot still walk. We all know the Temple controls the very objects which have now ceased to function. Why have they done this? To exercise still more control. What they once gave, they have taken back.

“We cannot be surprised. Every day our Head Historian writes new laws. Every day he makes new taxes, but where does our money go? He looks at you, and you, and says this is what you should do, and this is for you, but everything, everything is really for our Temple.”

From beneath my feet came a low, slow rumble. I sighed in relief. The opening of the Wells of the Dead ends the call that had been the sharp ache in my skull for some three hours. And I would be the first to answer. I always am: Batyst says that I must lead the way, just as he urges everyone until the last. Sometimes I believe that is the only reason I accept Ryn’s flattery: I cannot resist being first Blooded of an evening. In all the heavens and all the long lost worlds, there can be no experience quite like it. Silently, I slid off my tunic and my trousers; one enters the Wells of the Dead much in the same way that one was born.

“The Temple,” Ryn was saying, “grows more powerful when Guardians cannot speak to one another, when the Faith must wait for couriers. So they lock this world in darkness. So they would ask us to forget the light that we have had.

“But the blind world bleeds. A world finds other ways to see. For what are Linking Orbs? Thaeron finds seeing children, the children of History! We are Thaeron’s eyes!

“You see, brothers, sisters, the Eyes are not the only things in Thaeron’s skies, nor are they the only thing that sees. Yes, some of you saw it – a ship of the Profusion has crashed upon our world. A ship that once spanned stars has fallen down to earth, the past has come back to us in fire and in flame. And I ask you – did it ask the Temple for permission? Did it ask the Historians where to land? No, the past, the Profusion, our most sacred illumination and our most prized abundance – it is wild. It is wild, and it is free. It comes for those who seek it.

“And we do see it coming. We see the fire and the flame. We see the rising sun, red with the Blood of History. Because now, brothers, sisters, the Temple in Ariel stands alone. It cannot ask Kasora for its help. The Historians of our city have undone themselves! Thaeron’s Eyes have closed because they cannot fathom what they see. They see the daughters and sons of History rising from the earth!

“Now we wear shadows and veils and speak in whispers, but we are waking up! The Blood of History is stirring! Our time is nearly here!”

From beneath me came the final thud as the door to one of the Wells of the Dead slid fully aside at last. Its sentience probed my mind like an itch. Batyst, as always, had time his speech perfectly: all the Blooded had felt it open, and upon its last lines I would sink silent and naked into the earth. It is the way the Blood of History prefers us, and I relaxed my mind as Batyst roared in the darkness.
“Blooded, the time is coming when we will rise, and that time is nearly here. It is written in the sky! Those who History calls will be her children, and we will rule the way our gods intended, the way the Profusionists lived, the way that will bring the Temple of History burning to the ground!”

Beneath the soles of my feet the soil separated; the tiny machines that guard the Well swept all else away as the Blooded shouted their final exclamation. The itch inside my brain became a fire I could not resist; machines care little for our wills. My feet and ankles sank through sand and stone and into Profusionist metal. Taking a deep breath and spreading my arms, I let myself fall backward. The Well of the Dead had opened, and the Well of the Dead let me in.

Christology: On Schleirmacher's Christmas Eve

The four men of Schleiermacher’s Christmas Eve present four fairly orthodox renderings of Jesus Christ – that is to say, the Incarnation which we celebrate on Christmas and Christmas Eve. We can tell that this is what he’s doing because the children’s guessing the gifts prefigures the adults guessing the meaning of Christmas in speeches, and four versions of this meaning reflect from four mentioned gospels: four already extant presentations of Christ.

Roughly summarized,

the first speaker Leonhardt describes Jesus as
1) the historical man around whom the church has added many long traditions;

Ernst presents the Incarnation as
2) a worldly presentation of Christ’s eternal nature, in which all can participate;

Eduard celebrates the Incarnation as
3) a celebration of and benediction upon essential human nature reborn and complete;

and Josef, refusing to answer in the same manner,
4) experiences the Incarnation in an innocent and childlike way, free of, or perhaps beyond, the human ability to express it.

Leonhardt, a lawyer, presents his case in the clearest fashion, and a few quotes might suffice: “the very ease with which we believe in the miracles presumably performed by him chiefly arises from our festival.” By saying ‘presumably’, Leonard casts doubt upon the miraculous, and by linking our credulity with ‘our festival’, a church holiday, Leonard inextricably binds Jesus to Christian tradition, “attitudes which would have no power in the sheer telling.”

Yet the same tradition which preserves Christ through ritual diminishes it by forgetting its historical subject: “the personal activity of Christ on earth seems to me to have far less a connection with it than most people realize.” Of this distance he is openly critical: “it remains doubtful whether it was all in accordance with Christ’s will that such an exclusive and tightly formed church should be formed.” Merry Christmas to you too, Leonhardt.

Where Leonhardt remains more focused on the tradition/church, for the worth of the Incarnation Ernst turns much more to the nature of the Incarnation itself. And the essence of the Incarnation is joy “the mood which our festival is meant to incite.” It is temporally unique – joy is only in this way at Christmas—and its “effect is realized within its entire scope.”

That is, “everyone is occupied in preparing a gift,” and “people are planning together for it, working to outdo each other.” Of this feeling, “some common inner cause must underlie it,” and “this inner ground cannot be other than the appearance of the Redeemer as source of all other joy...innermost ground out of which a new, untrammeled life emerges.”

For Ernst, the Incarnation is the Joy which gives us joy, as we give joy to others. Thus, Ernst contradicts Leonhardt by saying that however diminished the tradition may be from its origin, in so far as it relies on its origin the Incarnation, it cannot depart from it.

Eduard, for his celebration of Incarnation as human nature, refers to the ‘more mystical’ gospel of John, where “the Word becomes flesh.” That the gospel lacks a Christmas story fails to bother him, as Christmas is its entire spirit. Because the flesh is finite and Because the Word/Logos is thinking and knowing, the Incarnation is “the appearing of this original and divine wisdom in that form.” For Eduard, Incarnation is the resolution of finitude with infinity; it is the completion of human nature.

Thus, “what we celebrate is nothing other than ourselves as whole such a state there is no corruption in man, no fall, and no need of redemption.” Where Leonhardt is the proto- Marcion/historian (Jesus was a man) and Ernst the proto-Donatist (our joy is really God’s joy), Eduard is the essential Athanasian, as he signals by his talk of being and becoming, essences and union. But he is also essentially humanist, as he describes humanity as “a living community of individuals,” and highlights the importance of experience, “one may as it were call the first free, spontaneous outbreak of fellowship at Pentecost,” and “a woman also sees Christ in her child – and this is that inexpressible feeling a mother has which compensates for all else.”

It is a similar difficulty of expression which prompts Josef to differ from all the previous – “I have not come to deliver a speech but to enjoy myself with you.” For him, Christmas, “creates...a speechless joy, and I cannot but laugh and exult like a child.” He encourages his fellows, referring to the women, “think what lovely music they could have sung for you, in which all the piety of your discourse could have dwelt far more profoundly.” He says again, “Today all men are children to me...I too have become just like a child again.”

And he behaves like a child, describing himself as being born again, and “taking part most happily in every little happening and amusement I have come across.” This is possible because of a certain innocence of wrong: “The long, deep, irrepressible pain in my life is soothed as never before...pain and grieving have no meaning and no room anymore.” In this respect, Josef completes the move that has grown through each of the speeches as they emphasize experience more and speech and reason less – which is, as far as I know, one of Schleiermacher’s real themes.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust III

I nodded again when the baker drew near. “Everyone likes the days, with sun glaring off the buildings and the streets, all that crushed white stone, mountains soaring overhead. And not shadows, but vistas from every open corner. What a sight! They say the Profuse River looks like a silver serpent, shimmering north and west and south, through all those hamlets and fields.”

He looked like I was having him on - and perhaps I was. But I meant it, too. We kept walking down the temple’s broad jade stairs.

“But I prefer the evening. The sitars strum in the streets, lovers walk past them, hand in hand – not something everyone would notice. But the sun’s not been down an hour, so there’s no ugliness, no smugglers or gangs, no dealers fleeing white guards or courtesans fleeing guards ones.

“No, brother,” – I gestured to him – “this is our time, when honest merchants and craftsmen finally rest, walking home by light from the sentient torches, smelling dinner along the way – rice and beef and eggs. Just listening to our own familiar strides on streets worn smooth by centuries of those who’ve done the same, carrying nothing heavier than the coin in their pouches, and thinking nothing higher than the women in their beds. A beautiful evening – and our beautiful evening, too.”

From the corner of my eye I saw the man smile, genuinely moved. I was satisfied, though I will likely never see the man again. Ryn says that I should talk more often with the citizens.

There are a million such, they say, in this city and its surrounds. Though one could traverse Ariel in a day, one could never understand its contradictions. Even at its very core, arranged in a triangle of edifices stand the Temple of History, the Barracks, and the Speaking Hall. They are buildings in the grandest ancient style, with great broad sides, columnar vaulted spaces, and doors and windows that eight men could pass through abreast. And in them reside the Historians who make laws in their supposed wisdom, the Captain who speaks for all the veilmen of the world, and the Faith who, by consensus of the people, has the power to reject Historian laws outright.

By then we had finally left the Temple stairs behind, and walked toward that circle of stone which those three buildings quite intentionally surround.

“It doesn’t feels like ours, though, does it?” said the baker, when we reached it.

“Imagine the history. This is the Healing Well. It saved the first Faith, who saved us all from the Wars Between the Cities. The officials here have kept the peace for four hundred years. How can a man just walk through?”

“Because the Healing Well no longer functions,” I said. “And because the real soldiery, the veilmen, are not permitted here. In the old cities, nothing ever changes.”

I said no more - his sidelong glance indicated that he was not Blooded. If I told him that I would burn the Temple to the ground this very night along with all its holy men, he would not understand. We walked for a long time in silence.

“We should not be ungrateful,” he said, after we had entered the heart of the residential district called the Flats, on the western side of the city, where all the lesser merchants live. The shrine to the thirty-second Faith stands at the very end of my own street. We stopped together to consider his bowing, stony head. “One would hope the grace of the Profusion still infuses and influences everything.”

“Lingering like perfume,” I said, “to sweeten our health and salve our wounds.” I smiled sadly. Because I am ungrateful – all the Blooded are. One only ever can rebel against that which gives one everything, because there are no other candidates.

“Ah, look,” the baker said, pointing back over the Temple’s outline of dome and spike and spire, “Perhaps the exultants have heard our conversation. Isn’t that supposed to be a sign?”

I followed his indicating finger toward a streak of fire in the sky and shook my head. The street around us was filling with a dull whisper that deepened to a shriek as the fire came toward us from the south.

"No,” I said, over the noise. “You are thinking of a meteor, but those are smaller, and make no noise. This comes too close and fast.”

“Then what is it?” he asked. The trail of orange and yellow flame streaked over our Gidwinn Mountains and fell sharply toward the Fackablest, the vast boreal forests of the north. “Something from the gods themselves? Ha! Perhaps they’re returning from the void beyond the void.”

I shook my head. “No, but it is a relic of the Profusion – built on or near a world like this one. That plume came from the engine of a starship. The crews are long dead, of course. But their equipment still guides them to their destinations. When no machines help them here – and Thaeron’s ceased to work during the Wars Between the Cities – the ships stumble into the atmosphere and burn. The veilmen will find the wreckage soon.”

The baker looked uncertain. “Is that an omen, then, Initiate?”

I shook my head. “I’m no longer part of any Temple. But yes, it is an omen. It will only happen once or twice in our entire lifetimes. I have not seen one until tonight. Only, we should not try to guess its meaning. The Historians will debate its nature for a decade before they even begin to guess its significance.

He laughed and I nodded; we shook hands and blessed each other in the name of the Profusion. He walked away whistling into the night. I opened my doors and wondered suddenly if she might have seen the relic, too.

She – the artist that Historian Senre wanted me to name is Adlasola Oso. I found it signed in a branch in the background of her self-portrait, hidden. I stopped and looked at it again by candle. Why was she asking for the Blooded? What rumor has she heard? Nearly all are true: our secret rituals, our false names and confusions of identities, our revolutionary plots, our meetings like carnivals of darkness.

But if she has to ask, the Wells of the Dead have not invited her. I pray they never do. I pray she never finds a single Blooded or discovers what we want to do. I pray that she only keeps painting until we or the Historians are done, just as I pray that my own door has closed for the last time tonight. I pray she does not hear the call of the Wells of the Dead, because that call leads unto death itself. Though all the Blooded know it will kill us, we all answer nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Matthew: On the Evangelist's Rabbinical Style

Not to sound contrarian, but honestly, I think it would probably be better for our interpretation of Matthew to think of Jesus as a rabbi/ catechist. Reading Matthew to try to reconstruct its author is a bit like reading 'The Scarlet Letter' to learn about Nathaniel Hawthorne, without knowing who that is, and then going back and reading his book again to see how your hypothetical person would have written the thing – I mean, yeah, you can do it, but it’s a bit off.

But, yes, Matthew’s author certainly seems to have an interest in rabbinic teachings – both to borrow their pedagogical style and to depart from their tradition. An ordinary reader, especially if reading one of those antiquarian versions of the Bible with Jesus’s words in red, would soon notice that Christ’s teaching are lumped together here in a way much less predominant in Mark and Luke. It starts to look like five discourses with travels and miracles in between, with the denunciation of Jerusalem being the beginning of a Matthean climax.

They’re the flavor of the gospel, if not precisely its purpose. Jesus uses rabbinic language: “but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. Jesus repeatedly talks about revealing things, Jesus begins preparing his disciples for Jerusalem after the Pharisees come seeking signs and even his disciples do not understand him, and Jesus teaches his disciples after his resurrection once again to that they will comprehend the scriptures. He even gives to Peter the power of binding and loosing, the pseudo-rabbinic practice of deciding which laws are optional to follow and which are not.

But to say that Jesus and/or Matthew’s author is a rabbi is not enough; there was obviously more than one kind of rabbi in first-century Palestine. He’s not like the Baptist, who “proclaims threats of damnation, repentance, flight from the world.” He’s obviously not like the Pharisees, who he condemns in Jerusalem. He’s obviously not the Sadducees, who don’t believe in an afterlife and only hold Torah as scripture. Indeed, his path swerves abruptly from theirs, as he is “deprived of his mission’s success amongst his people by the Jewish peoples’ and their leaders’ own guilt” (Dobschutz 34).

What kind of rabbi is Matthew’s author, then? “The best understood as a mirror of the competition and conflict between the Christian Jews for whom Matthew writes and formative Judaism, the movement that eventually evolved into Rabbinic Judaism” (Hare 408). This fits the Judaism we know from Matthew’s rough dating after 70 CE, the trend of Judaism and the Jesus movement in the Synoptic Gospels themselves, and a certain psychological sense: change comes from within.

The harshest critics of a movement often come from disillusioned proponents of that movement. This framework might even make more sense of the somewhat muddled Christology: the Matthean tradition might have been genuinely breaking new messianic ground. Novelty is often composite, so it might be reasonable, if not exactly logical, that Jesus would be “a human, divinely empowered Messiah, whom God will one day install as king and judge” – and one distinctly flavored by a wisdom and rabbinic tradition, and certainly worthy of worship (Hare, 410).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust II

In the next instant Senre turned toward Marl with an abrupt whirling of his dark jade robes. He raised a finger, as though he suddenly remembered something –and Marl’s knife nicked at my throat in a blink. I jerked in astonishment, which movement meant only that the blade pressed more closely against my skin.

Senre stepped toward me. I was doomed. They knew everything, and I would be tortured until I died or gave up my accomplices. With clamped jaw I bit back a low despairing cry. Marl clamped his vice of a hand against my forehead. My head was tilted back. I feared for the Blooded – I would not hold out. I have never been known for my resolve.

But with a rustling sound Historian Senre drew from his sleeve a scroll of ordinary parchment. He unfurled it close before my eyes. I froze my face, lest I show reaction. Upon the tanned sheet was sketched in gray the portrait of a young artist, who sells her art in the row of market stalls across from mine. I knew her instantly. She brings four or six paintings each morning and produces more throughout the day, selling them in turn.

“Do you know this woman?” Senre asked, imperious.

I balked. She never speaks to me. Rather, she walks past in calm determination, as though we are not colleagues. Were only I so cool. When I see her, my mind whirs like the frames of a daguerreotype, and no words in all Thaeron could catch up with them. A sort of mad electric paralysis seizes me, as though I were an epileptic. I, who hired a girl the first night I left the Temple’s care, stammer to say hello.

But her brisk soft step elides my comprehension. I cannot decide if she is floating or simply mimics the marches of the veilmen. And I cannot possibly declare her station, in this city where class and caste determines everything. Some days she dons jade, the light green of the robes the pious wear. Sometimes it’s gold or scarlet or yards of turquoise cloth, but most often she wraps herself in dresses of loose white linen. I have no idea how she keeps them clean, or how she manages to dress like rich and poor in turn.

She, at least, is never dusty.

Marl twitched the knife against the skin of my throat again. “He said: do you know this woman? We’ll know if you lie, we always know.” But my mind was not with him.

Daily, I curse myself for cowardice. My only consolations are that she rarely speaks to anyone, and that, at the height of my boldness, I purchased one of her self-portraits. It cost me a week’s earnings, as she would have known – I shout my prices for all the passersby to hear. But I could not help but buy it. Somehow, she had drawn herself in motion, walking by the canvas. Her dark red hair trailed as she passed, ringlets shivering in her wake. I did not negotiate. She reminds me of someone I knew or liked a long time ago, but who’s now vanished, gone beyond recall.

“No,” I said at last. I shook my head. “I have never seen her. I swear that I have not!”

The porcine senior motioned again. Marl delicately drew the blade across the base of my throat, cutting not a bit. “Good,” boomed Senre. “We believe you, but… have you ever heard of the Blooded?”

My mind lurched. I could not possibly have been more confounded. Were they toying with me, not satisfied to simply have me in their grasp? Or were they, indeed, simply probing for information? To lie to the Historians carries penalties of imprisonment or worse. But I had already deceived them once.

“N—no,” I stammered, “What are they, one of the smuggler’s gangs?” I trembled. “No! I swear I do not know!”

Each shiver of fear brought forth another tiny drop of blood from my throat. The Head Historian’s gaze bore upon me with murderous intensity, reckoning the calculus of our entire interview. He had, if rumor held, assassinated his predecessor to take the seat of Ariel. And right now he would be training Marl to do likewise to the Head Historian of some other city. His eyes held no evidence of that trait which men call compassion. The horror of the Historian’s rigorous training is that it actually works. They indeed master their emotions to some unfathomable degree.

But at last Senre withdrew, sighing. He nodded to Marl, who cut my bounds and turned away, holding the knife before him as though it had been soiled - I supposed it had. Standing at my feet, Senre pointed to the scroll he still held in his hand. Marl vanished behind a heavy jade-dyed curtain.

“Well, she has heard of the Blooded even if you have not,” Historian Senre said.
“Beware them, Del Tanich. They are criminals, terrorists. The white guards tell me I am chasing rumors. But the Blooded would destroy this city and kill anyone who opposed them, and this woman asked for them by name. Another prisoner recently described her. Our artist is quite fantastic, don’t you think?”

For a moment I thought he was asking about her again. “Oh,” I said, after a too-long delay. “Yes. It’s striking. She could be a real person.”

Senre nodded, once, while he undid my bounds. “She is. And while we would not harm her, we would ask her a number of very pointed questions. Why would a decent person seek out the Blooded? Has she been recruited? How do the Blooded do so? Find her, Del Tancih. While we cannot offer you any official capacity within the Temple, we might be able to find you some… opportunities. Opportunities – and privileges.”

Senre nodded once again to indicate that I could go. Still trembling, I mustered as much conspirator's calm as I could manage. I rose and walked dazed toward the great double Temple door. Of course, not even for the Blood of History itself would I give her over to any such as them. But the walk across the broad stone sanctuary was sobering, and seemed to last for several distinct eternities.

As I left I thanked the lingering grace of the Profusion that Head Senre’s familiarity with me had dulled his perceptions. He had known me until I was nearly sixteen, but that was eight years hence. Doubtless, because he sees me at Temple every Octday, he believes I’ve remained the rashly pious youth that I once was. He believed my petty thieves’ tricks because I’ve never been arrested for a crime.

In this manner I drove away my fear by the time I pushed the Temple doors apart. This evening’s knife was hardly the first pressed against my neck – and it will not be my last.

So I stepped outside into the cool night air of Ariel, nodding to a tall man with hair like a mess of straw. He was leaving the Temple by another door, and would have just finished the Prayers of Dusk, those devotions that mark the extinguishing of last lights in the face of coming darkness – and all our time upon this world. Thaeron lives, we know, at the end of the long diminution of humanity’s worthy days, the last dregs of the benefits of the Profusion throughout the galaxy.

“Beautiful evening, yes?” he asked, shuffling in my direction. He he clutched in his hand the simple talisman of the Baker's Guild, a copper emblem of a loaf of bread.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Christology: Athanasius Speaks with a Historical Jesus Scholar

Mediator: Hello, and thank you both for coming. Let’s get right to it – neither of you are saying the Incarnation’s not important.

Charlesworth (C): That’s right. Jesus Research allows us to see the world as Jesus saw it, and to know Jesus as the world first knew him. Christian theology is historical theology, and we start with the person of Jesus, or we start nowhere at all.

Athanasius (A): ...And it’s the Word becoming flesh that has salvific significance. Failure to understand this event has devastating impact. Jesus the incarnate Word of God appeared to his followers and five hundred other persons besides before ascending into heaven. This completed His triumph over death, or all is vain. Perhaps that is what you meant, Jim?

Mediator: Actually, I...

C: Historians cannot answer that question. It’s theological. We can only point to the faith of his followers.

A: Of course it was theological. Jesus was God. Do you think it wasn’t theological that Jesus was born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, as you say? Do you think it wasn’t theological that Jesus preached in Galilee? But are you saying that you have no answer to the one question that matters most of all?

C: You see it is a question of methodology. The faith of his followers might be some evidence of the resurrection, but it might also be evidence of later additions to the canonical texts, you see.

A: What later additions? Have people been adding to them since my list?

Mediator: A point of clarification, here,...

C: What? Oh, no, not in that way. We’re talking about the alterations to the texts before you collected them, from the original texts and oral traditions, the Q community, the M and L people...

A: Does the church not still judge the books I named as sufficient for salvation? Or is everyone saved, that you search for more? What are these 27 questions that you would ask of Jesus, and why are none of them whether or not He is the Son of God? How could you possibly ask everything but that?

C: I depends what you’re reading the gospels for. You see, history acts as a certain check on some more speculative theologies...

A: Indeed, the Incarnation ended much speculation about who the Messiah was and what salvation properly concerned. It sent our imaginations in the right direction, toward victory over death and the restoration of our nature in Christ. History and theology indeed! The heavens torn in two! God reaches right down in!

C: Now see here, history isn’t quite like that, it’s more a matter of certain inductive procedures....

Mediator: Well, it appears our time is up. Thank you both for coming.
C, A: And thanks for moderating...Josh, was it? Thanks again.

Mediator: It’s what I do.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Matthew: How Luke and Mark Differ

In the film Star Wars, the young Luke Skywalker is told that he may become a Jedi warrior like his father, and that he may be the one who had been prophesied to restore balance to the mystical power known as the Force. He will defeat the oppressive Empire and remove evil from the energy that animates the universe.

In a cosmic victory, he will quite literally save the world. He will save everyone.

The choice of the young man’s name Luke for the film cannot have been accidental. The gospel of Luke is the story of the miraculous savior of the whole world generally, and the savior of the downtrodden particularly. He is the one who will fulfill the prophecies; the prophecies were about him.

And in case of the gospel, those prophecies were that he would bring: “the proclamation of the good news to the poor, the recovery of sight for the blind, and the setting free of those who are oppressed.” The poor, hungry and excluded are specifically blessed – even the women, who are also an eminent concern for Luke, (think Leah) and who are frequently with Jesus. The rest of the disciples who follow Jesus are faithful if flawed (Han Solo and Chewie) and not only witness Jesus’ miracles, but are also empowered to go out and work on their own in the power of the Holy Spirit, which is always with them, especially in prayer.

As for the other Gospel, Mark does not name himself as author, anymore than Luke does. Think instead of the one who was marked: marked by secrecy, suffering, and most importantly by God; Mark is the gospel of the one marked by God to be the King, though not in a sense that anyone is ready to understand.

Mark is generally considered by scholars to be the earliest gospel, the one least affected by church tradition, and the one most probably like the historical Jesus as he was first understood. And there is something of reality about it: if nothing else, Jesus’ mission must have felt as urgent for him as the language of the gospel implies, and as the frequency of his works in Mark indicates.

Jesus is marked by irony, by his own awareness of his identity and purpose against the world’s disbelief and ignorance – an irony that Jesus himself perpetuates. The disciples are marked both by Jesus for his ministry and by significant failures and lack of understanding that lead them to abandon Jesus in the end – and the crowds that follow Jesus are marked by their own fickle behavior, praising Jesus and then, too, demanding his execution.

Yet the text for us is clear: the passion of Jesus of Nazareth anoints him as the Son of David, the Son of Man and the Son of God alike.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Editorial: God Miracles.

God Miracles.

Come, O Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen

“Fairy tales are more than true,” writes G.K. Chesterton, “not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that they can be beaten.” Now a number of the scriptural commentaries I read this week almost made me think there were dragons in these texts. They were uneasy with miracles happening, historically, in this world, and they thought you might be, too. And maybe you are, I don’t know. And I do understand the concern. Miracles are hard to believe. That’s something of the point.

And we should be uneasy, in a way. We don’t live in a miraculous society. We live in a scientific one, a technological community where the events that draw us together are the release of the latest gadget or the finale of a beloved television series. If our lives were fairy tales indeed, our wizards would be more likely found in a board room than a woody glen, more likely working in the hospital’s surgery than in the hospital’s chapel. Rational, comprehensible inquiry and explanation are the very means by which we navigate our lives.

Only, I didn’t get that memo. It’s just never occurred to me, really, to doubt those things that I can’t understand. I use my computer every single day – couldn’t imagine doing good work without it. Yet I don’t have the slightest idea how it actually works. And yet again, that doesn’t stop me from relying on it for a minute. How many things in our lives are like that? How many things do we use every single day, that we would miss terribly, but we have almost no idea how they actually work? Can any of you point to the place your power actually comes from? Your water? How many of you could take apart the door of your car and put it back together, no questions asked?

Now I’m not saying that any of those things are miracles. And I’m certainly not equating my ignorance or yours with the work of God. For what it’s worth, I think simple indoor plumbing is no less wondrous than the most complicated binary code. But what I am saying is that I wonder if we might play around with Chesterton’s words a little bit. I’m wondering if we might say that “Miracle stories are more than true, not because they tell us that something occurred, but because they tell us that hope comes from God.”

See, it’s not the explanation that matters. It’s the assumptions that we bring to it. Miracles stories are the ones that tell us what we actually rely upon – whether we understand it, or not. Miracle stories point out to us what we think is ordinary, and ask if we might be wrong.

When Elijah comes in out of the wilderness, he must truly be a mess. He’s been out in the desert, he’s sandy, he’s been eating with the crows, he’s run out of water – and the same God who brought the famine that caused Elijah to flee into the desert is the God telling him to come out.

Now the point of the story is not Elijah, to be sure. But I’m saying: he was a wild man at this point, just as untamed and unpredictable as the God who had been with him in the desert. It’s not for nothing that John the Baptist will get mistaken for him later. There’s a power here. And that power, present in Elijah, walks into the home of a widow, a widow who’s marginalized and vulnerable and nearly starved herself. And he demands food and drink, as God told him God would provide.

See the question? What do you rely upon? See who God’s asking it to? Elijah and the woman both. Everyone gets that question. Because everyone relies on something. Elijah’s been asking God for food and God has provided, but now he thinks that provision has run out. So God sends him to see someone who doesn’t have any food at all. Talk about an object lesson.

And it goes for the woman, too, right? She knows she doesn’t have any food, not that matters. And she doesn’t have any means of getting any. She’s alone, cut off. Her son isn’t grown enough to work, and so they are going to die. This is her last meal in a dried-out, famished land in a place that doesn’t have protection for widows or orphans – because this isn’t Israel. This is Sidon, Phoenicia, northern heathen soil, the kingdom of Queen Jezebel.

And the widow invites in a wild man, this illegal immigrant, in out of the desert. And whatever Elijah heard out there, she doesn’t say anything about God commanding her. Maybe God did, maybe God didn’t. But in either case, she’s at the end of her rope. What she relies on is used up, as far as she’s concerned. But she invites him anyway.

You can’t tame God, you can’t predict God, but maybe you can invite the power of God. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,” says the Psalm. What do we rely upon? Miracle stories are more than true, because they tell us that our hope comes from God. And that’s the rest of the story. The oil keeps pouring out forever, this oil just keeps pouring and pouring – and maybe that sounds a bit more dreadful to us, now, but back then, back then it was a good thing, oil pouring out. And the bread isn’t used up and the kid and the widow and Elijah all live.

Except – that’s not the end of the story. The boy does die, of illness. So Elijah and the widow both accuse God of killing him, because hey, the God who gives us bread and oil must also be the God who gives out life and death, that’s not a hard thing to think. And God doesn’t deny the charge. But after Elijah lays himself out on the boy, the God who stretches out over the universe brings the boy back to life. Because we’re really supposed to get it: there isn’t one miracle. There aren’t even two miracles in this story. The story is miracle from beginning to end.

The purpose of the miracle story is to show us what we rely upon, which is God. So for those of us who believe in God, it’s miracles all the way down. Miracles aren’t exceptions. The most outlandish thing that can happen to us, someone rising up from the dead, can only build upon the miracle that we are here to experience it at all. Elijah’s should be dead, and would be, without God. And the most ordinary things, the everyday things, our bread and oil, these also rely on the unfathomable, untamable power of the creator of the universe.

Miracle is the water that saturates our lives. And miracle stories are more than true because they show us that our hope comes from God. They show us that on which we can rely.

“Do not put your trust in princes,” says the Psalm. “in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, on that very day they perish.” But “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow... The Lord will reign forever.”

So when Jesus tells the widow of Nain not to weep, we should not be surprised. Or at least we should not be surprised very much. Because the God who weeps with us is always the God who hopes with us, who brings hope among us, who sets the prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down. You can’t tame the power of God. But you can invite it in. And the hope here is that sometimes hope can come to you whether you ask it in or not. This widow never even speaks to Jesus, and the boy is already dead, already in the hearse, pretty far gone.

But if the Elijah story is about the wild, untamed power of God, this story is about the wildly compassionate character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s the first time that Luke calls him Lord in this gospel. Why? Because Jesus is the one who risks becoming impure to revive a dead person, Jesus is the one who restores life to the bowed down, and Jesus is the one who gives the mother back her son. Jesus is the one in whom all things are possible because Jesus is the one who will do it for the least of these.

So it’s not that Jesus is Elijah reborn and repeated, it is that Jesus bears the power of Elijah, and then some, without Elijah’s apprehensions and faults and misgivings. Jesus is the anointed one, the one on whom oil has been poured out, as he brings life to the lifeless. So she doesn’t have to confront him. Our Lord saw her, and that was it, he came over. That’s the character of God. That was all it took for a miracle to happen.

Because a miracle isn’t something strange that happens to happen to us. A miracle is the work of God, which we cannot escape. God...miracles. That’s a verb. It’s God’s verb. Miracle is what God does, whether we know it or not. And that is what we can rely on. Maybe that doesn’t leave us much to do, I don’t know. But maybe that also leaves us to see everything in a different way. And I don’t know how to express that myself, it’s so strange, so different from what we ordinarily expect. So I can only read to you from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and that’s how I’ll close. It’s called ‘God’s Grandeur.’ Perhaps you’ve heard it:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil...
...nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went,
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust I

Whisper From the Dust

Ah, Ariel, Ariel,
The city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
Let the festivals run their round.
Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be moaning and lamentation
And Jerusalem shall be to me like an Ariel.
And like David I will encamp against you;
I will besiege you with towers
And raise siege-work against you
Then deep from the earth you shall speak,
From low in the dust your words shall come;
Your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
and your speech shall whisper out of the dust.
- Isaiah 29:4

Chapter One

July 31, 440 Y.A.


It started with a knife – but then, I suppose, it always does. Apprentice Marl slid it across my left cheek as though filleting some small animal. It scalded and seared and I bit my tongue to keep from shouting. He peered into my eyes – seeing, I imagined, whether or not I suffered. Whatever he glimpsed, he smiled thinly from beneath his jade cowl. And heated the blade again for the next incision.

Soon I would carry six scars in sum; four I’d gotten in years before. It was dark and hot in the Temple’s greater anteroom and I was half-blinded by the torches on either side of my face. I sweated like a madman. The ropes that bound me to the chair, ostensibly for my own protection, chafed my wrists abominably.

When Marl smiled I hated him, because I had once wanted to be in his profession. Too, we hold more than a passing semblance. Marl has my long winding frame, grand column of a nose and high cheekbones – but lacks my unkempt mane of auburn hair and desultory fragments of unshaven beard. Though our eyes are both soft brown, his reflect the piercing light of education, where mine, I’m told, convey the dull ache of protracted malnutrition. He smelled of incense and of parchment; my friends say I stink of the summer sweat and dust of the Market – but then, of course, they do as well.

Marl’s eyes in that moment served as the mirror that showed me how I could have been, given sufficient opportunities. My dejected gait could have been Marl’s stride of unconscious self-assurance. His medications could have prevented the illnesses that pocked my skin in infancy. His shelf of dusty historical tomes could have been my edification. And the dark, soft, heavy jade robes that give him access to the Temple’s vault of electric Profusionist wisdom, the arcane knowledge of the gods of history, could have settled upon my shoulders just as well as his.

But they never will, entirely for chance of birth. We Blooded have never been the only ones who wanted to end their privilege. We are, however, the only ones who will be able to.

“You are marked, Del Tanich of Ariel,” said Historian Senre, from behind me. The old Head’s words rumbled from the darkness. “You may not study at this or any other Temple of the History of the Profusion. You may not enter the trials of the Order of the Children of History again. Your formal service to the Temple and the Order both are ended. This, I, Senre, Head Historian of the city of Ariel, decree. ”

I might have mistaken his voice for that of the gods of the Profusion, were they not gone from this world entirely – and if I had not seen the fat old man nearly every day for twelve interminable years. The Temple cares for orphans, you see, and Senre has headed the local Temple for as long as I can remember. So it was Senre who took me off the street when I was very young, Senre who funded my meals, and Senre who, through my teachers, steered me toward the studies of Rhetoric and Sums. I owe very nearly everything to him.

“Yes,” I said, “I fear I shall always be a disappointment.” And I fear I will be ashamed whenever I finally do kill him.

As soon as my mouth was still, Marl took the chance to make the other incision, on the right this time. And he had not chosen the knife, long as both his hands, for delicacy. Heated to glowing orange along the edge, the blade would scar forever. I will for all my life bear marks like those of hardened criminals, or those who desert the veilmen – though mine, of course, will slant crosswise instead of vertically.

Still, shame will burn my cheeks, just as it has before. Each two scars bring me closer to my death — eight is the death knell. Any serious offence will now mean my execution.

“Do not take it hardly, Del,” said Senre. “Few have the stomach even for a second trial, let alone a third. When they fail, they feel themselves slipping toward the grave, though they are only ever sixteen or twenty-four years of age. Strange, is it not? Do all intend such heinous crimes? The righteous fear not – that’s what you should remember, Del. These mark you as a necessarily honest man.”

“Or an incompetent criminal,” I said, even as I winced. I kept forgetting to be insincere. Marl still stood over me, inspecting his work, turning my neck this way and that. He was not gentle. I began to suspect he’d enjoyed employing that blade – a state ill befitting a Historian. They should not enjoy anything.

Senre clucked, walking up along my right side. He had the soft jowls and red face of the obese, and his fingers when he reached for the nearest torch were thick and shortened like a child’s. But he strode manfully when he carried it with him across the room; one could clearly see authority and bearing and something of that athletic trait which men call grace. He maintains his rank despite the public embarrassment of his physical appetites. He knows his weakness and compensates for it by intellect. Following the Revised Orders, he has even let his hair grow out a bit, though of course the top of his head is always bald.

Apprentice Marl, finally releasing his grasp, carries no hair on his head at all. The same discipline which keeps his head meticulously shaven means also that he follows the Old Orders, the unaltered ones that Historian Staleph himself pronounced four hundred years ago. Marl’s young ascetism consequently knows no bounds – and no compassion.

It made me wish Historian Senre had wielded the blade. He, at least, would have been quicker. The whole ceremony was dragging on. The tiny, silvery, dust-like machines in the testing box had slid away from my hand nearly an hour before; they had not clung to it and warmed my skin. And there would be no faking their benediction. As shrewd as Historians are, machines are not to be deceived at all. Since those in the box had not hearkened to my call, he slim metal pages of the Histories of the Profusion would never scroll their lines before my eyes. They will remain to me always as dim and blank as stone.

My scowl just then was no affectation. And without reservation I let the Historians see it. Infiltration would have been a master stroke for all my kind. But commanding the electric Histories of the Profusion would have been sweet satisfaction to me. I would not be Blooded in the first place, after all, were I not fascinated by the past.

Yet I was glad of the coolness as Senre took one torch, at least, suddenly away. And gladder still when the senior Historian beckoned Marl over to him room’s small desk, against the far wall. Marl scowled as much as I had, but went. Doubtless, Marl the Apprentice would have not have hesitated to mark me dead there on the spot, solely to exercise control.

“You merchants are so self-conscious about your associations,” Senre said, writing.
“You need not be. Oh, I know there are those elements in the market who oppose the Temple, who consort with smugglers and would crassly purchase power with wealth – all of that is quite banal. But they are not many, I think, and driven solely by their own self-interest they cannot be very much adept, after all, at cooperation.”

I almost did not hear him. Glad to see again, I was watching the light of the torch’s flame limn the brass and gold and jade of the Temple’s intricately ornamented side. The vaulted ceiling and the tops of the columns that supported it were lost in darkness. But along the way the light threw shadows among the relief carvings of the gods of the Profusion departing the galaxy and the gods creating Thaeron by artifice. Machines the size of many cities, spiraled like shells, scooped up mountains and carved out the ocean between the continents. Where those great engines of the Profusion have gone, of course, absolutely no one knows.

To be certain, no one knows what the gods of the Profusion looked like either, but that stops no Temple from displaying their likeness everywhere: humanoid beings made entirely of light, people as we believe we might become through exaltation, winged with wisdom and casting not shadows, but illumination. What our gods actually were matters, I suppose, only to a very pious few.

“So the merchants of Ariel do not pose a threat to you,” I said, distractedly. I knew he was writing the letter to the High Historian that would formalize forever in the Jade Temple of Kasora what had happened to me here today in Ariel. “And, ” I added, “they happen to pay considerable sums to the Temple in taxes. They must constitute a tenth of the Temple’s revenue by now.”

Senre did not pause his writing. “Come now, Del, it is not good for you to be insulting. We do not tax the merchants for their coin. The donations of the people keep us comfortable enough. There, I said it – though Marl here would disagree, never in this life are we freed of base desire, never in this life does reason liberate our souls. But we need no merchant money. Rather, you need the wisdom to see that not all things can be counted in your coin.”

Marl, to please himself, wandered back to my side; he sniffed and brushed dust off of the beige collar of my best but tattered tunic. I wondered, dully, why he hadn’t put the knife away. That was as far as my conjectures went; despite my urchin streetcraft I did not see anticipate my next adventure, already set in motion.