High Street on Sunday

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I am on my way home from church. As my friend and I step out from the friendly bustle of Saint Ebbes Church, we breathe in the chilled air and open our umbrellas in unison; it is a wet and soggy day.

We chat and laugh as we ascend the streets towards the center of town. I consider how silly it was to wear ballet flats, as I tenuously traverse between puddles. The cobblestones shine in the drizzle, old and brilliant, and the street venders huddle in happy array under their booths with new souvenirs and overpriced post cards. As we turn the corner, we enter a fairly quiet street, and hear the old comforting and haunting tune of Silent Night straining from the saxophone of a young boy playing on the corner. Someone drops a coin in his instrument case. The boy looks to his father, and the father smiles encouragingly.

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A block, a smile, a wishing of good days, and my friend’s path parts with mine. As I turn the corner, I am met with the humming, lively and loud welcome of Highstreet. Every shop window and corner sign seems to call out “Come in! Come in and say hello!” The shop windows are dressed for Christmas. Mannequins sit clothed in luxuriously soft fur collars and in thick woolen sweaters ready to protect from the English chill. The cafe signs promise hot tea and hot chocolate, their coffee house jazz music slipping into the street, fresh pastries smiling from the windows promising warmth and thawing for cold fingers. As I pass by the pub, I catch the faint aroma of mulled wine, citrus and spices, wafting out, beckoning with inviting and steamy fingers.

There are no cars on this street, so pedestrians weave in and out on both sides of the street in a disorderly and dance of life. As people pass by each expression holds a world of meaning, and yet enters and forms the life of the street. Some pass kicking rocks, some pass singing songs. I’m on my way back from church, some are on their way to the pub. We are all here and we are all cold, and we are all on the same road.

On the corner beneath and awning a merry group of men play christmas carols. They nod and wink as passersby look on. Some stop and listen. In little clumps friends huddle under umbrellas, holding eachothers arms and happily shivering. From far away it presents a happy scene, this bouquet of umbrellas, bright and colorful, round and patterned. Did you know an umbrella can be a fashion statement?

Hurrah for umbrellas!

Hurrah for umbrellas!

As I finally reached the end of the street and continued my tromp home, I bookmarked the moment. These are the small but grand memories I want to keep in my soul as I head back to America. They remind me of the small delights of being alive, and communion of life we can share with oneanother; no matter how different we are, we all walk the same streets and have the same rain make our socks soggy and the same music make us want to dance.

I’ve reached my destination for the day, and perhaps many of my streetfellows have met theirs. But as I’m off to put on warm socks, and drink hot tea and write a paper, I feel a gladness. It is a lovely world we live in, for all its darkness, there is still joviality, laughter, and rainy days. I wish my Highstreet companions, and you wherever you are, a blessed and a dancing day!

I hope it involves tea.

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Why I call myself a Christian

Raindrops and Sunshine... It's been rainy a lot lately.

Raindrops and Sunshine… It’s been rainy a lot lately.

“Hi!” She said brightly, smiling behind the counter.

“Hello!” I replied. “How are you?”

I fiddled with my umbrella which created a smattering of round little puddles on the ground. It was a proper British rainy day.

I ordered a flat white, she recounted her day, and told me how she had found an apartment (she was househunting), and showed me the front of her trousers, which were soaked with water from the cycle ride over. We laughed together because I been rather fantastically splashed by a car earlier that day.

“So what are you studying?” she asks after a while.

For a moment, I was struck silent. I am studying theology, and I love studying theology. Still, I wondered what will she think if I say I’m studying theology? 

She would probably realize I am a Christian.

I wonder what images will pop into her head with that realization. What interactions has she had with Christians before me?  Were they kind? Were they pushy? Does she imagine tall ceilings, ringing with the echoes of shuffling shoes, and the scent of incense? Does she imagine judgement and vicious accusations? Bad imitations of popular music with the title of “praise-music” slapped on? Aside from all that…What kind of impression have I given to her of Christians?

I decided.

“I’m studying Theology and literature.”

***

Joy. Joyness. Joybells. Joy Joy. Joy to the World. Joysauce. Joy box. Joy to my heart. Joy down in my heart. Joybees. Joysephina. Joy bird.

It is amazing how many nick names you can create with my name. Over the years I have garnered a list longer than I can count of nick-names, puns, and songs in my honor. I suppose its the benefit of being named after an abstract concept. I often find that the mark of a new friendship is when someone makes a pun on my name, or dubs me with their own special brand of “Joy” nick names. It’s dear to me. It makes me laugh. It makes me feel loved.

I believe the propensity to name is a part of being human. 

When we become closer friends with someone, we tend to give them a special name. I call my friend Elena my “Amoeba”… This may sound insulting, but trust me, it is not. To us its a term of endearment, fraught with smiles and laughter and many memories. That’s how names are; they mean something to the people who have them, and the people who give them.

We do not only give friends names; we name other things too.

Companies name products that will be memorable and definable.

We name places, streets, and landmarks.

Auto dealers name cars, and then we name them too (my cars name is “little blue”).

Historians identify periods in history by naming them according to significant events or rulers.

Philosophers name ideas.

We name things to understand and define them, and to know what sorts of things they are. We need names to identify people, objects, and concepts. Names carry meaning and emotional content, both negative and positive. Think of the name “Mr. President.” We use that name to identify who someone is: the leader of a country, or person in a position of power in a company or organization. We use the name to understand what he does, or what we expect him to do, and to say “this is what you shall do and no more.” We use that name to define him as a figure and symbol; that name holds him accountable. The name “Mr. President”  carries such weight; the very name contains expectations, respect, disappointment, hope, history, partisanship, vision, memories.

Names are important. 

Christian.

This is a deeply meaningful name. Christian, or “Christ-one” began as a simple name for the followers of the Jewish rabbi who was crucified, and, they said, rose from the dead. It is a name that has journeyed through generations, across continents, into dictionaries, headlines, and innumerable books. The history and evolution of the names of those who call themselves “Christians” would surely warm the cockles of any budding philologist’s heart.

When someone says “I am a Christian,” that name defines them, to others and themselves, in a deep way. It suggests a way of living, a set of beliefs, and a faith in a specific historical person. Throughout the centuries, the name has varied in language and lexicon, but the claiming of the name of Christ, the Jew, and the Nazarene has remained. The Apostles claimed that name. Francis of Assisi claimed that name. Many of the great artists and composers claimed that name. Those who promoted slavery claimed that name. Those who abolished it carried the name as well. Today, the persecuted Christians in Iraq claims it. The congregants in large shiny mega churches claim it. Small congregations in the plains of Texas claim it. Churches singing anthems of hope claim it, and churches screaming platitudes of hate claim it.

But, what does it mean for me to claim the name of “Christian”?

That morning as Amy asked me what I studied, I was momentarily held back. At first I felt guilty; Was I somehow ashamed of being a Christian?

I love Christ. I am His, and I wish to tell other of his love, love them with a love like I have been loved, tell them of the story I am a part of. What momentarily held me back was a desire to qualify what I meant by saying “I study theology.” I wanted to clear away the holy host of connotations and say,

“ My reasons for being a Christian are not because I have a political agenda, or because I want to judge people, or because I have a problem with modern science. I have never picketed at a funeral. I don’t like badly made preachy art. I don’t look down on you. I am a Christian because I love Jesus and because He makes sense of my world!”

I once heard a friend say they wished we could stop using the name “Christian” and come up with another name for Christianity, to do away with some of the negative connotations. The name of Christian carries a long history, and there are moments of that history, and even its present connotations, which are painful, ugly. Sometimes it seems like it would just be best to not associate ourselves with a name with such a heavy back story.

But I think that defeats the point of claiming to be a Christian. In choosing to be named with Christians, I am not claiming a perfect history. I could never live a life perfect enough to make the name of Christian perfect—in fact I think it’s pretty arrogant to think that we, in all our modern perfection, could make perfect the name and history of Christianity. We, like the rest of the participants in history, might have truly heroic moments, but we would also inevitably mess up. It’s an unfortunately exasperating part of being human.

That was exactly why Jesus came. Humanity, although it bears the image of its maker, can never seem to get it quite right. The whole Old Testament is a vivid story of a great and loving God giving a people His own name so that the rest of the world might know what He was like, and their desecration of that name through their rebellion, acts of injustice, and sin. They were representing the name of God badly. Christ came to show us what that name truly meant, and what the true God was really like. That is what it means to be a Christian: to claim the Christ who shows us what the name of God means. In claiming Christ, we do not say that we have everything right, but that Christ is the whole picture of God’s love, and brings wholeness to our brokenness. When I claim Christ, I claim my inadequacy, and I claim forgiveness, and I claim a future redemption.

Christ is what makes the name of Christian significant, because he shows us what it truly means. In being a Christian, I want to point people to Christ, saying “He is what it means to be a Christian.”

I think we need to keep calling ourselves Christians.

We need to call ourselves Christians to remind us that if Jesus is our Lord, at the core we are not the “intellectually-immaculate-ones” or the “socially-just-ones” or the “perfectly-good-ones.” We will never perfectly represent his name. We need to remember that our primary identity is Christ, his death and resurrection. We need to steep in the reality of being His, being “Christ’s-ones,” and let that shape our hearts and lives into the forward motion of grace.

We need to call ourselves Christians for the sake of our suffering sisters and brothers. There are Christ’s-ones around the world dying for what they believe, and for what I believe. This summer I was lucky enough to hear a talk from a woman named Baroness Cox, who lobbies in the House of Lords for persecuted people groups, and especially Christians around the world. When someone asked her what we, as comfortable Wester Christians could do to help, her answer was suprisingly simple “Pray, and help where you can of course. But most of all live your Christian life well. Others are dying for this faith that we share, the least you can do is live your life faithfully.” We must claim Christ because we are not ashamed to say we share the same faith that others are dying for.

We need call ourselves Christians for the sake of those who don’t yet know Jesus. We shape the names we are given. I cannot conceive of someone named “Seth” who is boring, because all of the Seths I have encountered are out of the ordinary, talented, and quirky people. It is the same with the name of “Christian.” With every Christian someone meets, they form a broader understanding of Christian. There have been moments of ugliness in Christian History, but there have also been moments of awe-inspiring faithfulness, bravery, creativity, and redemption. I want to be the sort of Christian who shapes peoples view of Christianity in a good way. I want people to encounter Christ in me. The sometimes negative way Christians are viewed will never be changed if Christians with integrity don’t humbly and boldly take the name and give that name a different history. For that reason, I will claim the name of “Christian” every day, and pray for the grace and humility to do it honor.

As I write this, I find myself back in the coffee shop again, and I feel a renewed conviction to be aware of the aura I am leaving with my presence. I am thankful for the name I bear.

I am studying Theology.

I am a Christian.

I am Christ’s.

Why are the “good” characters always boring?

Oh no, we're talking about good characters in books again? *YAWN* Give me Milton over this any day.

Oh no, I’m really interested. Tell me more.

This last week I wrote a paper on “Till We Have Face: A Myth Retold” by CS Lewis. It has long been one of my favorite books, and it was a delight to delve deeply into its world and ideas. The book retells the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of the jealous sister. Lewis does a remarkable job of writing the story in a way that helps you to sympathize with the anti-hero of the story. Orual is complex, passionate, conflicted, self deceiving, bold. Though she proves to be the character in the “wrong” she is incredibly compelling, and her feelings are very relatable.  What struck me this week, however, is how comparatively boring and flat Psyche (the picture of love and faith in the story) is. She seems to walk around in a perpetual state of delight, blessing things and being beautiful. If she had an aura, I imagine it would be rose pink. She is beautiful, but she is inaccessible.

I do not say this to disparage the story… it remains one of my favorite and most deeply touching. But it did make me wonder… why is it that “good” characters tend to be portrayed in such a boring way?

It seems that people have a hard time conceiving of a legitimately good and compelling character, and tend to fluctuate to one extreme or the other. This also seems to relate to the idea that “good” people are really rather boring. I am reminded of my childhood memories of Elsie Dinsmore who was impeccably “good,” but seemed to have no contact with us mere mortals who are sometimes exasperated by our nasty, brutish cousins.

In response to these “goody-two shoes” characters, there are the harrowed hero’s of modern literature like Katniss, for whom one rings one’s hands and wonders if she will ever just do the right thing, goodness gracious!

It seems that writers can’t find a happy medium. It reminds me of a post I posted a long while ago about whether or not Aragorn is a compelling character… click here for that post. Over all, I find that this elicits the question: Is there really such a thing as a good, relatable, and compelling character?

As I’ve pondered this, I think it comes down to what mean when we say a “good” character. It seems that often goodness is viewed as a lack of badness. Elsie, for instance, is good because she doesn’t lie, she doesn’t skip church, and because she isn’t her naughty cousins. Of course, these are all in theory “good” things. My contention however, is that they are viewing “goodness” as dependent on “badness,” because to prove that something is good it must have a lack of bad.

This seems a rather backwards understanding to me. It has been the Christian tradition to understand sin and evil (or badness, if you will) as the lack or corruption of goodness. Goodness is the genuine article, and badness is the masquerading fake. Goodness, therefore cannot be well defined as a lack of badness… it’s entirely the other way around!

That is where the problem comes into literary characters. When we view characters in stories as good only in so much as that they do not do bad things, they become vacuous and insipid characters. A truly good character would be one more complex, more complete, more full of bursting green life and reality. Next to a truly good character, a complex bad character would wilt as it is only a bent frame of the goodness for which it was created.

Another element of this tension we must understand is the reality of the fall. If there is evil in the world, and a cursory glance at the news will reveal there is, a character who is simply unaware of evil, or temptation cannot be deemed good simply on the merits of ignorance. I think sometimes this idea sneaks into how we judge people… It can easily lead us to believe that those who are tempted less are to be praised more than those who fight temptation daily. I believe firmly that truly good characters, and indeed people, are not good for lack of temptation, but for triumph over it.

But in all of this, as a Christian, I find I must look to Christ. All of the goodness in us is due to our reflection of the good image of God in us, and Christ is the living, breathing, fleshy embodiment of that goodness. Jesus is anything but insipid. He was tempted, but he prevailed. He is full of compassion, anger, grief, jocularity, affection, hunger, humour, indignation, love, compassion… he is full and real in a way that no human this side of heaven will ever be. But surely, he shows us that good characters are not good because they are “not bad” but because they are more thoroughly alive and full of goodness. After all, evil is only a poor imitation.

I believe we must adjust our pictures of “good” characters, because it profoundly changes how we think of, and indeed try to live, good lives. I wish there were less characters who were not not-bad, and more who showed the lively and verile strength of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.   A character who embodies these cannot be boring, because to have any of these characteristics comes in dramatic conflict with the world we live in, the kind of conflict that makes a complex, conflicted, strong characters.

I don’t know about you, but stories have always inspired and informed me. They help me make sense of my life and to imagine how I might live. That is why I think it is so important to examine how we present good characters. To me, goodness is not a lack of badness, but a full dynamic person, denying the corruptions of evil, and reflecting the image of God. This kind of hero lives in the world I live in: where there is temptation, but there is also strength to overcome it. In the end, I think I side with Anne of Green Gables: “I think I’d like a hero (my edit) who could have been wicked, but wasn’t.”

A Day in the Life: Research Day

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Hello, world!

I think at home my friends and family often to tend to wonder what it is that I do at Oxford. By the looks of my Instagram account, it appears that I spend my days in states of contrast, varying sharply between a general reverie over all things Oxford, English, and Atumnal, and feverishly stewing my brain over fat books till it turns to intellectual oatmeal. Incidentally, I think that really about sums up my life here, but to indulge any further curiosities and my own whimsical mood, I have recorded below a day in the life of an Oxford student.

A Day in the life of an Oxford Student: Research Day

7:00 AM: A steady, growing beeping noise enters into the land of your dreams where Pope urban discusses with Richard Dawkins if science really is at war with religion (you really have been reading too much.) As the beeping grows more distinct, you find yourself groggily coming to grips with reality. You are groggy due to your late night last night which you spent A) writing a paper that is due at 10 (Oh no!… I need to edit that paper) B)Having  the sorts of deep theological/ridiculous conversations that only occur after 1:00 AM with your floormates C)Watching episodes of Sherlock (because, you deserve a break, yeah?! Yeah!) D) Writing a blog post, because 2 2,000 word essays a week is not enough, and you just wanted to wring you brain a little more dry. Either way, the past is past, and you need to go to the Library and get out those books before your lecture at 10. It is time to greet the world.

7:56: After an epic war of mind over matter, you finally managed to make yourself get out of bed and assemble a presentable appearance for the day ahead. You congratulate yourself for making it out of your room before 8:00 AM. This is going to be a productive day. So productive, I think you deserve to make eggs for breakfast instead of a bowl of cereal. It won’t put you behind that much!

9:20: Okay, so eggs took a while. Eh! I’ll just save the library till after the lecture. It’s fine. As my friend John says, I’ve got oceans of time.

9:48: You are now walking to your lecture through the university parks AKA the wonderland of fall and Oxford. You can’t believe you live here. You triumphantly crunch a perfectly goldened leaf under your foot. You breath in the autumn air, as crisp and reviving as an apple. You smile at the old man with the umbrella (why does he have an umbrella? it’s sunshiny!) who is walking his dog. What a day! What a world! What a life!

9:57: It begins pouring rain.

10:04: Your walk was slightly dampened (pun intended) by the rain, but you are unbeatable, and this is your favorite lecture: Beowulf! The professor (who holds the same position as Tolkien) opens by reading a fitte of a poem in old English, which sounds like a language Gimli would speak. The LOTR nerd in you rejoices, and you draw a heart in the margins of your notes. The lecture is full of references to dragons, duels, pre-Christian England, and friendly jabs at Tolkien’s translations (did I mention the professor holds the same position that Tolkien once held at Oxford?). You get caught up in the story and ruminate on the deep impact the arrival of Christianity had on England. Hmm.

11: 42: The lecture was so wonderful you just had to discuss it with your friends and the other students afterwards (this will help with ideas for your paper right? Collaboration? You also want to hear the Scottish girls say “dragon” just one more time). You look at your phone and realise its almost noon and you still haven’t retrieved the books for your paper. Ah, well. Almost noon. You’ll eat first; a woman has got to eat, hasn’t she?

1:11: You have eaten and are finally in the library. You’ve written down the call numbers for all your books. You start on the ground floor, where you easily retrieve your first two books, and generally feel like a pro. The Bodleian is a maze, but you are the master. Now for the Gladstone lower link… you descend into the abyss of the basement of the Bodleian through not one, but two ominous stairwells. In the basement you find your particular shelf and begin to role away the others to get to it (these shelves are all one tracks to consolidate space, you see). You go down the long corridor of books, and as you do so, someone starts to role the other shelf, enclosing you in between rows of metals shelves. You suddenly panic… what if you get locked in? Crushed by the shelves? You contemplate whether it would be better to cry out, breaking the eternal silence of the library, risking the wrath of the librarians, or be crushed. You can’t decide, but luckily the shelf stops rolling. All is well.

2:15: That took longer than you thought, but you finally have your books! Time to frantically read until your lecture at 4:30.

2:22: You are settled in a corner at a tea shop, a whole pot of tea heartening your strength. Let it begin.

4:27: Two hours later you have successfully read/skimmed a source, extricated 24 quotations (22 of which you won’t use), and posted a photo on Instagram. Lecture time.

4:31: You are now in your lecture. This lecturer is not quite as compelling, and prefers reading off the page for the entirety of his 55 minutes session. This gives you ample time to contemplate (read: become anxious) about how much you have to research for this paper. You ponder whether it will be practical to try to read while you are walking home. The lecturer just said something which sounded important. You write it down.

6:25: After the lecture you walked home at almost superhuman speeds and settled down in an abandoned corner of the common room to feverishly make up for lost time in your reading. It is now dinner time, and you promised yourself you would leave early, but as you walk in the kitchen full of rich smells and laughing faces, you realize these people are a gift, and you shouldn’t rush. You each your fill, you share the moments of your day, you ask what they thought of that one lecturer’s fascinating claim, you laugh and nod with your fellow dine-ers. What a wonderful thing it is to be a human, and to interact with other humans.

7:45: You are not seated in the common room with the same people you sat with at dinner, except now laughing faces have been turned sombre as the night of research looms ahead. Almost 12 hours ago you were congratulating yourself on efficiency, and you are now gazing at a pile of untouched books to read for your paper, making a pact with yourself that it will not be so again. With the resolve of a mouse intent on consuming a whole wheel of cheese, you open your first book and dive in.

11:46: You shut the book, and wave goodbye to the faithful few with their noses still buried in fat books. The night flew by, but you did make progress. As you patter about your room, ticking off your nightly rituals you contemplate your day, the beauty you encountered, the stories you engaged with, the food you tasted, the leaves you crunched, the people you laughed with, the ideas you wrestled with. What an un-ordinary life it is you are getting to live for a while. You wonder how it will help you live your life when you return. As you wearily crawl under the covers, you pray and thank God for the special time he has allowed in this beautiful and strange place called Oxford. As you close your eyes, you smirk to yourself and tell yourself emphatically that tomorrow you will be productive. But as you drift off to sleep, your mind seems to brook a rebuttal: perhaps after all this, the growth truly isn’t in the productivity after all, it’s in the process… and what a wonderful process it is.