Friday Essay: The (Real) First Thanksgiving

This is a re-edited version of a post on my first blog.
Next Thursday, Americans will be eating a feast of ham, dressing, mashed potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and, of course, turkey. Thanksgiving is a great holiday that I personally enjoy (with all that good eating who wouldn’t?) and while I don’t admire everything about the Separatists, I still love Thanksgiving. But did you know this was not the first Thanksgiving meal in history?
No, I’m not going to talk about the Jamestown thanksgiving (December 4th) or even the Spanish one (April 31). This Thanksgiving meal is the greatest of them all and the oldest of them all- and one meant for all mankind to celebrate.
This Thanksgiving is very different from the other thanksgivings I mentioned. The pilgrims ate the fruits of their harvest and hunting, the Jamestown settlers actually fasted (which I venture to suggest is why we don’t commemorate it today) and the Spanish….well I like to think they ate barbecue for the first time but I haven’t clue. However, the very first Thanksgiving is a simple meal of bread and wine.
The Plymouth Thanksgiving was a celebration of God’s bounty and deliverance from starvation – good gifts to celebrate. The Jamestown settlers gave thanks for their safe journey, as did the Spaniards.  Again, good gifts and deserving of gratitude. But this first Thanksgiving was not about a harvest or a journey. It was about redemption.

It was far into the evening. In a little second-floor room in Jerusalem, a Jewish rabbi and His disciples were celebrating a great holiday- the Passover. This Rabbi, however, wasn’t an ordinary Jew, or for that matter an ordinary man. He was the promised Messiah, the Christ, God the Son incarnate in human flesh. He had come to redeem His creation and His people, and to begin His Kingdom. But first He must die a horrid death by crucifixion, the worst form of execution in the Roman world. Although He himself had done no wrong (indeed, he was sinless), the weight of man’s depravity would fall on Him the next day. Yet death would not be the end of the story, for in three days He would rise again.

But I’m getting ahead here. That night, as they were eating, the Rabbi took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. He said the strangest thing while doing this: “Take, eat- this is My body.”
Then He took the cup of wine, gave thanks, and then gave it to them. Again, He spoke saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
I’m sure most if not all of you recognize by this point the story I’m telling you. It’s the story of the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with His disciples. I’m also pretty sure most if not all of you are confused. How is this the first Thanksgiving?
Well, let’s start by examining how the early church (meaning first through the third century) celebrated Communion. First off, a lot different than we do. We sit quietly and think about how bad we are. They came together in fellowship around the table and rejoiced in the triumph of Christ. They understood Paul’s reminder that we “proclaim the Lord’s death” to mean we announce His victory over death and sin. They celebrated in remembrance of Christ as the King, the one who has given us life. In short, for them, Communion was a time of thanksgiving- so much so they called it “Eucharist” which means quite literally “thanksgiving”. It is a covenant feast, an earthly picture of the heavenly Marriage Super of the Lamb.
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we give thanks. What do we give thanks for?  for deliverance from sin, for our Lord’s triumph over death and darkness, and for the new life we have if we are His people.
I believe celebrating the Sacrament of the Eucharist should be a weekly practice in every Christian Church but sadly it is not. I understand not everyone agrees, and I must accept that. But at any rate, the next time you partake of communion remember, you are celebrating the first Thanksgiving.

Friday Essay: German Expressionism and Art’s Relationship to Reality

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Scene from Metropolis (1927)

This is another revised version of a short essay I wrote while at Reformation Bible College, on the topic of beauty in the context of philosophy. 

Introduction

In the early 20th century, a new medium of artistic expression emerged in the form of moving pictures. From simple depictions of everyday life to the fanciful fantasy pieces of George Melies, film possessed a wide range of capability. But out of all the makers of movies in the first thirty years of the cinema, none intrigues me more than the German expressionists. Visually, thematically and musically these are easily the best of the silent and some works stand shoulder to shoulder with today’s production. What exactly is German expressionism, though? This can be a difficult question to answer, but if we limit ourselves to the silver screen (as a unique 20th-century art form and thus the best representation of a uniquely 20th-century art philosophy), we might find our task easier. The basic idea of German expressionism was to portray a subjective view of reality, eschewing logic driven concepts for feeling and expression.

As far as prominent figures go, I will focus on Fritz Lang, whose films I have more than once enjoyed. Lang’s masterpieces such as Metropolis (1927), Die Nibelungen (1924), Frau im Mond (1929) and his one sound film of note, M (1931, starring Peter Lorre) all brilliantly showcase the cinematic results of the expressionistic philosophy. Another classic example, though not from Fritz Lang, is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by director Robert Wiene. All of these rely heavily on core elements of the expressionistic ideal which I will discuss in greater detail shortly.

I hope in looking at the basic worldview of the expressionists and at how that worldview drives their creativity, to show that art can sometimes best reflect reality by not replicating it but interpreting it.

The Method of German Expressionism

The worldview of German Expressionism may be summarized as follows:

The Expressionist, more or less ignoring historical truth, wished to pierce the outer shell of ordinary reality and descend from surface to depth, from appearance to essence, with the intention of subsequently projecting that core, in a highly condensed and concentrated form and with the utmost intensity, back into external reality, causing the latter to be- or at least to appear- distorted. appear–distorted.  [Ulrich Weisstein, “German Literary Expressionism: An Anatomy.” The German Quarterly 54, no. 3 (May 1981): 265]

In other words, German expressionism can be understood as three movements, first from the outer to the inner, the inner formulation of the outer, and lastly the projection of that inner formulation. Expressionists concern with the powers of darkness and “the people trapped by their environment” (John S. Titford, “Object-Subject Relationships in German Expressionist Cinema,” Cinema Journal 13, no. 1 [Autumn 1973]: 21, 24.) was the primary inner experience through which they processed reality and thus projected back again. This often resulted in distorted sets achieved by lighting and decor to create a catastrophic, threatening world.  In summation, their aesthetic was often a dark one, but not without echoes of hope, I should add. Lang’s Metropolis ends on a triumphant note, but it is a hard-won victory.

A second major aspect of the expressionist method was their use of object-subject relationships (Titford, 18). Anthropomorphism is a common element, with inanimate objects coming to life; on the other end, humans take on the characteristics of objects. Again Metropolis provides examples. The workers of the city who work the machine are themselves parts of the machine. The machine itself, however, is personified in Freder’s mind when it appears like the ancient deity Molech, a consumer of human sacrifice. Thus the parallel that Lang intends is complete.

We see that the division between organic and inanimate objects are torn down in expressionist cinema as characters have their humanity subsumed to abstract concepts they represent.

The Takeaway

We have to recognize that art cannot depict reality with absolute objectivity and accuracy. German expressionism says that art then shouldn’t be concerned with accurate replication but with capturing and expressing the subjective experience.

I find this a needed balance to sheer descriptive art. The beauty of expressionism is that it wants to portray the world inside the characters by making their inner world the world we see. While there is a subjective foundation, it is a recognition of subjective perception, not an attempt to make all reality so. After all, the subjective experience of the character becomes the objective image seen by the consumer. Expressionism definitely makes a valid point, and while I may not be entirely in agreement with the philosophical grounds, I embrace the results which not are not only magnificent works in their own right but have influenced art that came after.

 

Sources

Titford, John S. “Object-Subject Relationships in German Expressionist Cinema.” Cinema Journal 13, no. 1 (Autumn 1973): 17-24.
Weisstein, Ulrich. “German Literary Expressionism: An Anatomy.” The German Quarterly 54, no. 3 (May 1981): 262-83.

Friday Essay: Things with Feelings

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Bilbo Baggins is small, but he is more than a little human.

Growing up, I had a distinct preference in books and movies for human characters. I did enjoy stories about non-human characters. I loved the farmyard gang of the Freddy the Pig series, the classic Winnie the Pooh, the rascals of Uncle Remus and the relatable Garfield. You will notice a few commonalities – these are animals (or stuffed animals in the second instance)  and they exist in a world with humans.  But generally speaking, I prefer human characters. Especially in comparison to anthropomorphic inanimate objects.  I never knew why, but lately, I’ve been doing some thinking on the question – why do I prefer actual human characters over anthropomorphic ones? I believe my preference boils down to an understanding of what it means to be human.

It is generally understood that the most important aspect of a character in any story is their relatability. This does not require similar life circumstances, it merely requires the character to have motives, qualities, and struggles which the reader or the watcher can understand. I’ve never had to travel with a group of dwarves to their ancient mountain home to recover treasure and haggle with a dragon. But I understand Bilbo’s conflicted desires of adventure and home, the earning of respect and the development of confidence. Is this all there is to relatability, however? Is it simply a matter of relating to feelings? I recall reading an observation (in the form of a screen captured forum thread) to the effect that Pixar’s basic modus operandi is to create a story where something has feelings – toys, cars, bugs and of course even feelings themselves. I admire the creativity I suppose but I’m a little tired of humanity being boiled down to a matter of simple feelings.  I relate to Mr. Baggins on another level, a level I do not relate to with Lightning McQueen or Woody or even, honestly, Winnie the Pooh. Bilbo might be a “Hobbit” but biologically he is a human, just a little smaller than normal.

To be human is about more than feelings. My human existence involves a very physical dimension. I have two hands, ten fingers, two opposable thumbs, two feet, I walk on two legs in an upright position, I eat food that digests in my system and comes out again; I breathe, I have lungs and a complex arrangement of internal organs that protest if I injure them or eat the wrong food, I have blood flowing through my veins and a heart that quickens its pace when I run or get excited;  I can ache but also enjoy delights of a chilly breeze on a fall morning or the smell of sawdust. I can relate to actual human characters on a very fundamental level because I can imagine myself walking in Bilbo’s non-existent shoes and feel as he felt. If Tolkien’s Hobbit were an oak leaf or a potato, I would lose that level of connectedness.

Are these all exclusive to humans? Some are, some are shared with animals. But therein lies the fundamental flaw of anthropomorphic characters for me – they cannot be fully human. Animals come closer to emulating humanness than inanimate objects but only because they have the advantage of sharing basic physical experiences such as touch and smell. And yet, even with animals, the further a character is from the mammalian species, you lose more and more physical commonality. As a side note, I realize not all people share in some of the experiences I just listed. There are those unable to see, walk, talk, hear or those without limbs. But that does not negate the fundamental humanness of these abilities and experiences. After all, not all humans have the emotional capabilities either. But even those humans with “disabilities” share in the physicality of humanity. The issue is not about what do all humans do but about those experiences generally related to being human.

Am I saying that anthropomorphic characters are bad? No, they have their place. But I am leery of how heavily populated children’s media is with these wannabe humans. I am worried because of the message entire generations have internalized about what it means to human, a diluted half-truth that takes from them the full drama of humanness in all its ugliness and beauty. As a Christian, I believe that man is made in the image of God. I also believe that God the Son became perfect man, and lived a human life. Jesus experienced human life in its full physical and emotional state – he was truly man as the old creeds say. If humanity is something God himself made and did not disdain to share in, I think we should take care to preserve a full understanding of our humanity. Especially in the arts.

Friday Essay: Generational Community

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Robinson Crusoe is one of my favorite literary works of all time, both narratively and thematically. Defoe’s classic is packed with insights into the nature of man and especially man as an individual and in relation to society, or in this case the absence of society. In February of 2017, I wrote an article for Reformation Bible College on the subject of society in Robinson Crusoe and how the absence of community is Defoe’s commentary on the need for companionship. In that article, I wrote:

However, it is the sheer absence of any society that proves to be the greatest nemesis to our hero. He successfully meets and overcomes the challenge of food, housing, and clothing; he even finds methods of making pottery, a luxury to a man in Crusoe’s dire situation. He establishes three houses and keeps a cave as an emergency storage unit. He grows wheat and makes bread. He also tries to brew beer, though he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. But despite his abilities in these areas, he cannot overcome his loneliness […] For Crusoe, all of his work is pointless if he has no one to share it with. He might as well be dead. 

Defoe is showing us what God said in the Garden, that man needs companionship.  But instead of Robinson Crusoe, I want to talk about another staple of castaway stories, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and where the message in this novel both compliments and yet departs from Defoe. Unlike CrusoeIsland is not about isolation from one’s fellow man. We have a group of four men at the beginning, with some additions later on (or rather we have three men and a boy, but let’s not play at irrelevant semantics). But aside from surface differences, the books have deeper conflicts and thematic contrasts. Two major themes will be the focus here. First: Redemption of a single man versus Opportunity for mankind. In this theme, the novels differ. This will lead to the second topic: Incomplete Society, a theme where the stories share a common element but the authors approach the subject differently.  On a source note, while I prefer the recent translation of Island over the original (better rendering of dialogue and of course a correction of the  infamous alteration of Nemo’s last words from the more appropriate “Independence” to the cliched “God and Country”), I’m sticking to the original translation for this discussion because I have a hardcopy readily available and the differences are, aside from Nemo’s final words, not significant enough for me to warrant tracking down the recent translation.

As I said, in Island, the heroes’ see their circumstance as an opportunity, while in Crusoe, the hero’s dire situation serves as a means of personal redemption. Shortly after confirming their location is an island, the following manifesto is said by the sailor, Pencroft:

“If you like Captain, we will make a little America of this island! We will build towns, we will establish railways, start telegraphs, and one fine day, when it is quite changed, quite put in order and quite civilized, we will go and offer it to the government of the Union. Only, I ask one thing…It is, that we do not consider ourselves castaways, but colonists, who have come here to settle.” (78)

Pencfort’s declaration is crucial to establishing the tone of Island. Compare this to Crusoe’s “State of affairs” list, where considers the evil and the good of his situation. The “evil” is related to his loneliness –  “I am divided from mankind, a solitaire, one banished from human society (72)” – while the “good” consists in God’s providence and his deliverance from death – “But I am alive, and not drowned as all my ship’s company was (72)”.  Crusoe does eventually see himself as master of the island, but his understanding of his situation remains functionally the same. His efforts are toward colonization but survival and escape. The fundamental factor at play in their differing views, it seems, is society. For Crusoe, there is no society, which means his only purpose is to live with the hope of rescue and in the meantime improve himself. For Verne’s heroes – the colonists-  the situation is different, with a group of men stranded together. Naturally, their thoughts turn towards taking dominion of the island, transforming their new home into something like the world they once knew.  But what about Friday? When Crusoe eventually finds the native and is no longer a solitary man, his goal does not change. Is this merely a cultural or period distinction then? Can we reduce the issue to a matter of Crusoe not being a “Yankee”?

Culture and period certainly play a factor here, but in their differing circumstances and background, one similarity remains- neither Crusoe nor the Colonists have a true society. Crusoe recognizes this incompleteness – his first action upon finding and teaching Friday is to reconsider his ideas for escaping the prison of his island.  But what is this blind spot that the Colonists of Verne’s story ignore? The inability to guarantee the second generation. Crusoe sees the ultimate pointlessness of his work without others to share with or pass it down to. The Colonists see themselves as beginning a new American state,  but so long as only these three men and a boy are the sole inhabitants of the colony, the efforts have just as little meaning as solitary Crusoe’s.  Neither book mentions this idea, but it is a question and a conclusion the reader cannot escape: True society consists of both the current and future community.

Consider the first words God spoke to a human being:

And God blessed them, and God said to them, Bring forth fruit, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heaven, and over every beast that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28, Geneva)

To fully subdue the earth, there must be the continuation of life, new generations – simply put there must be families and there must be children. All of these words are hated by the progressive elements of our society. The simple reason for why Verne, himself a devout Catholic and no stranger to these truths, ignores – or allows his characters to ignore – this element in their task of dominion lies in his target demographic (boys), and his focus on adventure and general avoidance of romantic storylines. But Verne’s personal views and literary intentions aside, I think the hubris of the Vernian Colonists in imagining themselves the conquerors of their island when they had no heirs to inherit their hard-won kingdom, reflects the hubris of our day in believing ourselves advanced and progressive while downplaying the importance of organic families, children, and generational heritage.

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In Robinson Crusoe, the lack of current society is an evident and explicit evil. In The Mysterious Island, the lack of a future society is a subtle but implicit evil that, thanks to their eventual salvation, is avoided.  The most meaningful and lasting legacy a man and woman leave are their children – not their work, not their achievements. These are good things but without future generations to enjoy them – they lose value. A great book is meaningless if there is no one to read it, a scientific progression pointless if no one will pick up the baton, a house dead if there is no one to live in it a hundred years hence.  Without future generations, there is no legacy, no important achievements. For a community to be true, good and beautiful, it must be generational.

Editions: 

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe, Tom Doherty Assc: 1988

Verne, Jules. The Mysterious Island, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1946.

 

Friday Fun Post: An Original Play

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Looking through my old files for some essay content, I came across this project for one of my Humanities classes my sophomore year. This was an allegorical play in the style of John Bunyan that three other classmates and myself collaborated on and performed (I wrote the actual script and story, but we contributed together towards the idea). So, I thought I’d see about putting here for y’all to enjoy.  I’ve done a few edits to make it flow smoother but tried to preserve the original as best as I could. I hope you like it!

 

 

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