Author: Amy Green

The Last Jedi and Everyday Evil

It’s game night. We are playing a “social deduction game” where the object is to either assassinate the player who is Secret Hitler or to get Secret Hitler elected Chancellor, depending on whether you’re a liberal or a fascist. As usual, I am defending myself, and as usual, the people who know me best don’t believe a word I’m saying.

Finally, someone comes to my defense. “Come on, guys,” he says, holding up one of the world-famous chocolate chip cookies I’ve brought with me. “No fascist would make us cookies.”

“Yes, they would,” I say automatically. Then I explain that one of my philosophy professors had a song called “There’s a Little Hitler Inside of You.” Looking back, this didn’t help my case at all.

SecretHitler

It really is a fun game. You should try it.

Since I am getting strange looks from the people who met me twenty minutes ago, I don’t tell them that I’ve read dozens of books about racism and genocide, and most of the people involved were decent, mild-mannered neighbors who donated to charity, doted on their children, baked cookies…and turned away from a vast and sweeping evil that they could have resisted.

And I certainly don’t say that every time someone watches a movie or the news and tells me, “I can’t imagine how anyone could let something like that happen,” I think, You have such a limited imagination, my friend. Or maybe just a short memory. How long has it been since you dwelled on something dark and secret instead of turning away? Since you felt hatred for someone you didn’t really understand? Since you saw the way out of temptation and didn’t take it?

Not long, at least not for me.

While I’m thinking these things, the game goes on. I am, actually, a fascist (but not Secret Hitler). I get assassinated and the liberals rue the cookies they ate in confidence. They should have known better.

(more…)

The Best of 2017

(Disclaimer: this is momentarily going to be somewhat depressing, so go ahead. Skip to the fun facts if you want. I don’t mind.)

It’s the end of another year and the fourth birthday of this blog. Along with all the usual greetings wishing everyone a happy new year in person and on social media, I’ve noticed more people than usual commenting on how they hope this year will be better than the last one.

That’s a wish we probably all share after a 2017 that was hard by most measures—we had political strife, natural disasters, global tragedies, and a front-row seat to the decay that goes on when morality doesn’t matter anymore.

As a friend or family member, I hope your 2018 is without those sorts of trials, personal or public. As an imperfect person with half-finished thoughts living in a sin-stained world, I know your 2018 probably will be marked with the same signs of brokenness as the one before. As a writer who has continually been amazed by the grace of God at work in the midst of the craziness, I trust that instead of losing hope, you’ll be reminded to depend on the only one who is actually in control.

And now for the usual year-end recap.

Assorted Fun Facts

  • The Monday Heretic is up to 244 posts if you’re new to the blog and want a deluge of back-reading…but only 41 from this year. Out of 52 weeks, that means I wasn’t quite as consistent this year as in the past. No bonus points for me!
  • Besides the US, top countries for views are: Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa (a new entry in the top five countries this year).
  • This is the first year since the blog began with no posts that were actually a disguise for a secret code for some sort of escape room/puzzle challenge. Yes, really.
  • I’m running out of Lord of the Rings characters I can use for my annual Hobbit Birthday Party. I might switch to linking “gifts” to relevant places or significant props. If you’re a LOTR fan, you can help me out by commenting with your top three settings or top three objects in the books.

Most Viewed Posts

Gold: The Wise and the LeFous

I love that this post and its sequel, below, got just about the same number of views. And I hope is that each one didn’t get passed around to people who already agreed with it. This one was a challenge to articulate a difficult position in a nuanced way (I feel like that was a theme of many of my 2017 posts).

Sample Quote: “Our faith matters. It relates even to areas of our life like what animated movies to watch. This isn’t a ridiculous overreaction…as long as Christians thoughtfully and graciously make and explain their choice. What we watch may be important, but more important is who is watching us to see what Jesus is like.

 

Silver: LeFou Gate, Part Two

This is one of those posts that bothered me until I wrote it, the critical missing sidenote to the original that I think was more important because it asks tough questions. What does it look like to live out our beliefs? How does the “love” part of “speaking the truth in love” come in? Where have we failed to act like Jesus? I didn’t articulate everything perfectly the way I wanted to, but I’m glad I added this.

Sample Quote: “These are real people who you might have offended with your general anti-gay post about the movie because, no matter what your actual beliefs are, they are hearing that you wish people like them did not exist, or at least that you wish they’d exist silent and unseen.”

 

Bronze: The Church’s Biggest Problem

Controversy! Also, I get to quote from my friend Greg’s book, Single Gay Christian, so here’s a reminder that it’s so good. This one has a message that I want to shout from the rooftops all year long until my voice is hoarse…and remind myself over and over till it finally gets through.

Sample Quote: “I am deeply, desperately afraid that we are destroying our witness in our pursuit of the Christian version of the American dream. The world is looking at what we’re doing—and not doing—and coming to conclusions about the God we claim to serve…and they’re not always good. Sometimes, we are silent when we should speak. Sometimes, we talk too much when we should listen first. Sometimes we just run away.”

 

Amy’s Favorite Five Posts

In no particular order, here are five posts I particularly enjoyed writing.

Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Why: All of the Advent Stories this year were delightful to write (there’s a good chance that I’ll continue with more carol stories next year), but Ernest’s prodigal son story has been brewing in my head for a while. I’m glad I got the chance to share it.

Sample Quote: “Charley thought it would a lark, an adventure, a response to the taunting of his friends who had enlisted to skirmish with those know-it-all Southerners and be back home with medals and glory in a few months. It’s been over three years. The war isn’t over, and for all I know, it never will be. We’ll just go on fighting and fighting until the Mason-Dixon line is nothing more than a boundary between two graveyards.

 

When You’ve Almost Lost Hope

Why: This one combines my favorite metaphor of the year with my favorite Storytime with Amy. After all these years, I can finally admit how I conned my way into my high school’s advanced choir without being able to read music. (Confession is good for the soul.)

Excerpt: “We’re the choir, church. Sometimes we’re not going to know what’s going on, and many times we’ll feel mildly terrified when it’s our turn to break the silence, but the world needs our song. Let’s go with what we know—the truth that’s gone so deep it’s a part of us—and sing it loud.”

 

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton Review Snow White

Why: This was just a really fun fact to stumble upon when researching for a Snow White retelling I was working on…and a chance for me to see myself in some of my favorite Inklings, but in a negative way. (And since Lewis is basically a fourth member of the Trinity to some, criticizing him does actually feel like heresy, so that’s a bonus.)

Excerpt: “When I elevate myself above those around me, when I interrupt people who are clearly wrong to bestow my great thoughts upon them, when I divide everyone into “us” and “them”—I lose focus on what matters.

 

Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr.

Why: This is one where I processed something as I was writing. I’m still not sure I’ve got it all sorted out, but it was an interesting connection, and I’m still working out the implications. Also, it’s one of the few movie-reaction posts this year.

Whether these connections make sense or not, wherever you are on the political spectrum, whichever order you use to watch the Star Wars movies, I think there’s a takeaway we can all agree on: don’t reduce people. Don’t forget that they are not causes or archetypes or walk-on roles in a saga starring you. They are people.

 

How Do We Respond to Radical Extremism?

Why: Of my responses to current events, this one hit me the hardest. There is tragedy here. There is also a challenge, hope, and some book recommendations.

Excerpt: “I want to be a brave person. Even more, I want so badly to live in a brave country. But we have to remember: courage takes action when the stakes are low, in the small things, and those million tiny decisions make us who we really are.”

 

That’s it, friends! Thanks for reading along on the blog this year. I appreciate you and the good thoughts and conversations you’ve sparked, whether in the comments section or a private message or in person.

If you want to look through past best-of posts, go to 2016, 2015, and 2014.

 

Advent Stories: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Tom Rutling

December 1870

Nashville, Tennessee, Fisk University

By all rights, this oughta be a pretty miserable Christmas. There’s no money for coal, we’ve eaten enough cheap beef that I swear I’m part cow, and the whole freedman’s school is probably headed toward collapse in a year or two.

But I got chocolate tonight. Actual chocolate, can you believe it? Oranges too. And so the world doesn’t seem so bad after all. Good ol’ Mr. Spence was feeling generous tonight, after we sang for him and his wife and some rich white folks at a Christmas social they had.

Mr. White—that’s George White, school treasurer, music instructor, and the tallest man at Fisk University, you can’t miss him—is starting up a choir. A cantata, he calls it, where we’re going to sing songs the proper way just to prove we can. I’m the star tenor, of course. Only because bossy Maggie Porter can only sing one part at once, though. I swear if she could do more, she’d take over soprano, tenor, bass, and director besides!

Mr. White’s got grand plans for some kind of fundraising tour. As if Mr. Spence would let him get away with that. Another one of his crazy schemes that’ll never take off, like as not. But it got us to put together a decent program for the school’s social, so that’s something, anyhow. Afterward, Mr. White let us into the kitchen for some sweets, then rushed on back to meet and greet with donors and such. So there we were, a dozen of us young people, all on our own.

And everybody knows that’s when the real singing starts.

Now, I’ve got nothing against that white music. Some of the songs, hymns and things, they’re real nice. But they’re missing a little something, something that’s in the songs we learned before the War, when we were still slaves. Those, we only sing when it’s just us about.

Not like we’re ashamed of them or anything. Well, some of us are, maybe. They don’t have proper grammar and such like they’re teaching us in school. Mostly, though, it’s because they’re too special. Private. Not the thing for concert halls…but just right for the Fisk University kitchen on Christmas Eve.

Some call them spirituals because folks took the words straight out of the Bible. Hardly a one could read a Scripture if you put a book in front of them, and they wouldn’t admit it if they could, that being illegal and all. But some slaves got dragged to the fly-buzzed Negro gallery of their masters’ churches every Sunday, and they heard enough. (more…)

Advent Stories: O Holy Night

Helen Fessenden (1941)
James E. O’Neal (2007)

Helen in the late 1800s when she first met her husband.

HELEN: The year was 1906. Ships bobbed in the Atlantic that stormy Christmas Eve, monitoring the primitive radios that could only deliver a litany of dots and dashes, the stutter-slow letters of Morse code.

Until the charged air filled with…music. Something no one had heard before. Operators blinked in astonishment. What magic was this?

And then the deep, rich voice of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden introduced himself and read from the gospel of Luke. “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”

Hundreds of miles away, in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, surrounded by wires and meters and the radiating heat of the microphone, Fessenden smiled, raised a battered violin to his chin and began to play, even singing along for one verse. The strains of the beloved carol “O Holy Night” broke the silence in the first ever radio broadcast outside of a laboratory.

“O night divine” indeed.

I was there too, watching. Celebrating my husband’s achievements, even if I didn’t understand the years of technological labor it had taken to get there. I remember it like it was yesterday. My Reginald. The first broadcaster.

JAMES: The Christmas Eve Broadcast of 1906. It’s like one of those Hallmark Channel holiday movies, you know? All that was missing was an unexpected snow and George Bailey hearing the program from the bridge and deciding that life was worth living after all.

Except after months of research for the centennial, I’ve concluded that it’s all a lie. Or most of it, anyway. (more…)

Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1863

Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow

The older brother is the mature, responsible one, the younger carefree and reckless. That’s what everyone says.

But not in my family. One look at our family photograph, taken when my mother was still alive, and you can see at a glance: Ernest, the small, timid, logical one who preferred books to athletics. And next to him, favoring the viewer with a smile despite the photographer’s warning to the contrary, Charley, the golden boy, the ace scholar and champion sportsman…and now the Union army lieutenant.

Well, he was a lieutenant, anyway.

It’s been 25 days since we received the telegram that every family dreads. I remember that clearly because it came on December 1, the first day of Advent, the season of expectation. It sounds terrible to say, but I’d been expecting the news ever since we heard the causalities from Antietam. Our boys, our Boston-raised, tried-and-true Yankee boys cut down by the hundreds, thousands even.

But I didn’t expect Charley’s first letter, tossed on the table like an afterthought over a year ago. Father’s hands trembled as he read it. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.” That’s what Charley said when he ran off to join the Union army, as if he was compelled by an irrepressible instinct and couldn’t help himself. Then he went on about duty and love of country and sacrifice.

Even then, at sixteen, I knew it’s not the son who leaves who sacrifices. It’s the one who stays.

The telegram informed my father that a reporter friend of his had chanced upon Charley among the wounded in a Virginia hospital.

Of course, Father wanted to go to the capital right away, where the worst cases were being taken. I left my classes in military engineering to go with him, battling miserable December weather to scrounge a ticket on a late-night steamboat from Fall River to Washington City.

At least the prodigal son had the decency to come home and save his father and brother the trip.

Do you know how many times I wanted to blurt that out, every hour that the swaying of the steamboat and the muttering of the other passengers kept us awake? But I didn’t, not once, because I’m the son who cares about what his words and actions do to our father.

I just moved his armchair closer to one of the lounge’s small stoves and prayed. Not that Charley would live, but that Father would. (more…)

Advent Stories: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Paris, 1966

Mother Thomas More (Dr. Mary Berry)

Dr. Berry conducting in 1999.

It’s ridiculous, really. In my life, I have fled Belgium on the last train to Paris to escape invading Nazis. I have worked midnight-hour shifts at an infirmary in Rome during a deadly typhoid epidemic. I have fought with the distinguished heads of Cambridge University for years to be allowed to study a nearly-dead form of ancient music.

And yet here I stand, working on a simple academic article, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Bested by an empty page.

You see, I’ve solved a mystery. Just a small one. Outside of my little corner of the world, you may not have even been aware of it at all. But you’ve heard of the song being questioned, surely: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a favourite of Christmas services and concerts the world over.

The translator of the song, John Mason Neale was, like me, an English musician and a scholar. Unlike me, he was an Anglican. His particular controversy was founding the Society of Saint Margaret, a group of women trained to nurse the poor and sick. Too Catholic, the naysayers of the 1800s said, as if it was the pope who gave dignity to women and instructed true believers to serve the least of these, rather than Jesus.

Neale’s bishop disapproved, his congregants muttered, and others went farther. Death threats. Stoning attempts. He was once physically attacked at a funeral for one of the women he had dedicated his life to serving.

I would have liked Neale, I think. I know what it’s like to disagree with my superiors, with the masses, with the mindset of an entire generation.

His friend Thomas Helmore is credited with the music that accompanied the translation, though he in turn attributed it to “a French Missal,” a medieval liturgy similar to the Gregorian chants I’ve dedicated my life to studying. (more…)

A Cynic’s Guide to Thanksgiving

This is for the one who dreads the magical monotony of the incoming Hallmark holiday movie season.

For the one who grouches about the blatant commercialization of the holidays every time a Black Friday ad comes on, and sometimes even when it doesn’t.

For the one who feels a compelling need to explain that the snippet of praise on the Thanksgiving place card is actually from a psalm where David is asking God to slay his enemies, and would you like to talk about the implications of that over pumpkin pie?

I am right there with you, my friends. Let’s talk.

After the hurricanes and fires and shootings these past few months, I watched a number of people post this quote from beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers.

Part of me said, “That’s lovely and a very appropriate way to direct children’s attention after a tragedy and also, seriously, Mr. Rogers rocks that sweater.”

Another part of me said, “But…that’s not enough.”

It wasn’t the part of me that scoffs during cheesy lines in movies or expects to be double-crossed in games of Risk or writes satirical song parodies. That’s more surface-level.

It was the deeper part that loves both redeemed villains and fallen heroes and finds it easier to mourn with those who mourn than rejoice with those who rejoice and marks the pages of books with a special symbol for paradoxes.

Yes, there is beauty and strength in stories about people helping each other, and I’m thankful for those who make the right choices in the face of disaster, even at great personal risk.

But I look outside at the world and inside at my own heart and know that selfishness takes the day more often than not, sometimes in terrible ways. There is more destruction than reconciliation. It’s more common for people to reach for bitterness than forgiveness. In the war of the Image against the Fall, when I look around…sin nature seems to be winning.

And Thanksgiving is coming.

Sometimes, at least to me, this time of year can seem overly sentimental. Writing out your blessings seems great for the preschool set, but the appeal can fade along with crafts like candy corn turkeys and construction paper Pilgrim hats.

When I start to think this way, I have to remember:

  • Contentment takes courage. So does faith, even the simple faith that I sometimes pretend is inferior because I don’t have it. You know what doesn’t take much risk at all? Snarky comments about the state of society. Witty takedowns and sendups of everything that’s wrong in the world. Stances on issues that make us feel superior to all those people who just don’t understand. As the dour and disapproving Anton Ego in Ratatouille put it, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” The truly brave act isn’t cynicism. It’s joy.

 

  • Stories about the Image—the ways in which humans display attributes of God, whether that’s human interest stories of sacrifice or movies about grace in the face of adversity—need to be told. They remind us of what we ought to be, sure. But maybe it’s even better that they remind us of what we sometimes fail to be, because that points us to the one who is perfectly loving and holy and just when we are not.

 

  • Paul wrote Philippians, famous for its references to joy, while he was in prison and wrote it to a church undergoing persecution and opposition. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” wasn’t written first on a rustic pallet wall decoration or a calendar of inspirational kittens, it was a solemn charge to a suffering church, as were many of the promises and exhortations of the New Testament.

 

So what do we do?

We celebrate Thanksgiving, like the saints have been, officially and unofficially, for centuries.

We collect paradoxes and adjust our expectations toward the already-not-yet reality of our world, both bitter and sweet.

But we don’t get too comfortable, because there’s a better story coming. That’s what we’re living for, and all the blessings we have here are shadows cast from that ultimate reality.

And I’m grateful.