The Midwest as the Promised Land

Marilynne Robinson, Garrison Keillor, and Sufjan Stevens on the Blessings of Middle America

What was monotony in my teen eyes has metamorphosized: green vistas and golden fields spread flat as far as the eye can see, undulating slowly with the passing miles.  Anyone who has traveled across the American midwest can attest: boring can be beautiful.

From the outside this might appear to be a land of flatness and cold.  But those who have rested within its embrace know the truth.  Miracles happen here.  Epic betrayals, too, but hope springs eternal and the fields are ripe with redemption.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson provides the text of a dying father’s letter to his 7-year-old son.  “I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime– the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars.  It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand….  And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” (233)  Every life is a miracle, every act of forgiveness is an act of God.  The more prodigal the son or prodigal the land, the more bold a “wild gesture” it is to stay on and love anyway (247).  Even a dead father can reach from the grave with the promise of unconditional love.  Such wonders can happen in the city, too, but in a simple land, stripped of all worldly sophistication, such blessings taste all the sweeter.  Only in the darkness can a light shine the brightest.

Somewhere in Minnesota, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon eckes out its existence.  The mix of nostalgia and parody helps sweeten the sometimes bitter truth: life is difficult.  The title of last week’s headline: “In Lake Wobegon, all of the beautiful weather makes ones thoughts turn to death, of course.”  Yet this is “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  Even ordinary places can know greatness, however contrived, and in the dead of winter, thoughts of God and his provision are never far from the locals’ minds.

The strangest proponent of the blessings of the Midwest is Sufjan Stevens.  They say that he will write one album for each of the fifty states.  Maybe so, but he is taking his sweet time with the land he knows best.  Michigan wavers between the hopes and questions of faith.  “For The Widows In Paradise; For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti” reads like the promises of  Jesus to the widows and ophans of southeast Michigan.  Yet we hear also the longing of “Oh God, Where are You Now?”  The land is “paradise,” but it is greatly in need of God.  llinois is the haunt of aliens and of serial killers.  This is a land of repentance.  The most memorable refrain is “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” from “Chicago.”  This is also a land of love, but of a love that loses, whether to the complications of pre-adolescent same-sex attraction, or to the complications of cancer.  Yet thoughout all this, the glory of God can be seen.

This flat land speaks of wonders, if this land can speak, any land can.  It’s enough to “make me homesick for a place I never left” (Gilead, 235).  Love where you are!

Advertisements

Nothing New Under the Muggle Sun…

…But Don’t Let That Stop You From Going to the Movies

“There is nothing new under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

“It’s all been done before.”  (The Barenaked Ladies)

Only One has ever made anything truly original and new.  All stories are mere shadows of His Story.  Our best stories mirror aspects of that story: the beauty of creation, the bitterness of the fall, the joy of redemption.  Even if a story only captures one of those aspects, it can be beautiful simply because it rings true, however tragic.

Shakespeare himself realized that all the good plots were already taken.  What happens in his plays might not be original, but how always is.  That gives me hope.  A good story matters, even if I already know the ending.  And I can let myself off the hook as a writer, since every what I might say has already been taken, I can focus on the how

If you doubt whether this principle is true, think of every movie made in the last ten years.  Some have been overt ripoffs.  Eragon = Star Wars – Awesome + Dragon.  Seriously!  If you want a good laugh, follow the plot parallels: farm boy gets secret message from captured princess, the bad guys kill his aunt and uncle, and torch their farm, forcing him to follows a magical mentor who sacrifices his own life when farm boy rescues the princess, so that he can save the day in an epic dogfight.  It’s a good thing I love dragons.

Which brings us to Harry Potter.  If the what of Harry Potter isn’t original (Matrix + Lord of the Rings + Little Orphan Annie), what’s all the big fuss about?  The how!  Her plots are page turners, to be sure, but J. K. Rowling’s true success is in her character development.

(Don’t worry.  I haven’t read the last book or seen the movie yet, so no spoiler’s here.) 

Harry is a complicated guy.  He’s a loner, a leader, and a friend, these attributes ever in tension with each other.  Orphaned, ostracized by his surrogate family, ever-threatened by the forces of darkness, and untrusted by the media, Harry has always had to fend for himself.  He makes independent decisions, which can be impetuous and even rebellious.  Harry is unafraid to pursue what he knows to be right, no matter what those in authority say. 

Because of this, his peers look to him as their captain in the unseen war against the forces of darkness.  Though his anger problem and independence often get in the way, he has developped a loyal cadre.

But it is Harry’s friends who ultimately define him.  They are his by chance, by choice, and by that inexplicable magnetism that draws them all together.  Quite often, he does not deserve them.  But, no matter what, Ron and Hermione stay by his side.  Harry is not afraid to cooperate, usually, but his friends make sure to help him even when he doesn’t want it.  They would give up their own lives for each other.  Since birth, this is a boy who has been protected by love, and that is the most beautiful thing of all.

That is what we really want, isn’t it?  To be reminded that life is worth living outside the norms of society, that there is something worth fighting for, and that the love of friends always makes a difference and is always worth dying for?  We long to hear a new voice sing that same old truth to a new generation, and that is exactly what J. K. has done.  Read on!