“Say what I sign”: The Languages of Love in “The Shape of Water”

(There be spoilers below.)

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be inhuman? These are two questions that Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, “The Shape of Water,” explores like, well, like the great sea itself. And as with the sea, there are many forms, both frightening and beautiful, that the film has found in its plummet-sounding of the monstrous and less common deeps.

If there were one all-encompassing theme that could sum up (but never label) “The Shape’s” answer to what makes a human human, I think it would be language. To borrow a scientific definition, human beings are language-making animals. As Dr. Hoffstetler points out at the beginning of the film, it is the creature’s capability for language that renders him “intelligent,” and therefore worthy of careful study and consideration. But film’s focus goes even deeper and wider than these terms. It presents a wide array of vessels designed to hold and convey the human shape. But just how truly these vessels hold, and to what end they actually convey, the fuller figure of the human being—this, I think, is what the film most wants to fathom.


The film is full of languages, some of them shallow, and some of them deep. Some of them are confining, restrictive, and denigrating, and some are validating, enlivening, and liberating.

Occupying a kind of middle level are the neutral mechanics of verbal and non-verbal language: the American English of most characters and the Russian of Dr. Hoffstetler (whose real name is Dimitri); the sign language of Elisa and her closest friends; the many meanings of body language, which can be inscrutable or threatening, happily perspicuous (as in a smile, or a certain stare) or clearly perilous (as in a sneer, or another kind of stare); and the simple potency of touch, which can be used for brutality or tenderness. Also in this middle ground, I would say, is the language of science, which can in its testing find realities deeper than sentience or else dissect bodies down to their raw materials, as well as the language of food, which can be a vehicle for connection (Elisa’s “egg” to the creature; what Giles’ “pie” hopes and appears to be) or an instrument for suppression and estrangement (the purported anaphrodisiac properties of Cornflakes; what the “Pie Guy’s” supposed service really means for the marginalized).

Toward the shallower end is the language of cliché and catchphrase, which tends to maintain the hunky-dory façade of Cold War hegemony, from the false and derivative affectations of the “Pie Guy” (his “Y’all come back now, y’hear?” from the Beverly Hillbillies—false and derivative itself) to the advertisements lining the highways that feature the artificial flavor of families beaming over green gelatin parfait.

There is also the cheap language of labeling, which comes out of the currency of assumption: for instance, Giles’ dismissal of the Amphibian Man as “inhuman,” or the frequent perfunctory references to Elisa as “mute” and the implicit treatment of her as sub-intelligent, when she is, in fact, far from speechless and dumb.

Even shallower is the language of authority, which for all its big bold all-caps mandates says very little: “IT’S EVERYONE’S REPSONSIBILITY TO KEEP THIS AREA SAFE AND CLEAN.” A subset of this is the language of prohibition, the morally rigid restriction of certain acts, including those of speech, as in the swearing and “blasphemy” decried by the ever-nervous Fleming. And still shallower, but also more unsettled by covert violence, is the language of bigotry, such as the “Pie Guy’s” homophobic use of the term “family” to ban Giles from the restaurant after his hapless self-outing, or Strickland’s backhanded comment to Zelda that she is unusual for being one of two children, as “your people” usually come from crowded families.

And finally, at the roughest end of this language spectrum, there is the language of coercion, of oppressive power, which regards the Amphibian Man merely to be an “Asset” for its uses in the Cold War and considers true “decency” to be winning wars over other peoples no matter the cost—the common kind being a mere “export” for lesser beings to grow weak off of. In short, this language goes beyond those of the subtly suppressive status quo—it goes further by making being in any form less than it is. It is the negative pole to possibility. It is the slightly more sophisticated expression of brute contest.

The language of coercion forms the great antagonistic force in “The Shape of Water,” and it is most fully manifest in the character of Strickland. Indeed, what makes his character so imposing is not just his violent action, but also the violent rhetoric with which he compounds it. (His cherished cattle prod is his swinging exclamation point.) Arguably, his words take on the hardest shape in the movie, colder and crueler and more absolutely implacable even than his touch.

He turns pop-psychological platitudes of The Power of Positive Thinking toward the service of negative power. He bends and sharpens the rod of moralizing into a scythe to cut down the dispensable identities around him, giving an aggressively sententious lesson to Zelda and Elisa about the meaning of the word “affront,” and claiming with categorical certainty that the creature he has caught fits squarely in this metaphysical caste. He twists the language of scripture into a cord to bind others to his limited literal idea of what the image of God looks like: himself.[1] Like his mentor in coercion, General Hoyt, Strickland ends up manipulating the more neutral, functional language in the process of manipulating others to do his will. In abusing the Amphibian Man both physically and verbally, he has “tamed” him. In intimidating and hypothetically (and therefore rhetorically) assaulting Elisa, he has attempted to make her “squawk.”

In these instances, Strickland’s language quite strikingly represents a form of thought that might be called the grotesque of playing God. He is superior to all—Zelda is less of a likeness to the divine than he, and the “Asset” is damned to deviant dissimilarity. He is the sole owner of scriptural interpretation. He is the nightmare version of Adam, subduing creation down to next to nothing. He is the idol of God’s ossified masculinity, a creator in his self-asserted sovereign right over the feminine, inspiring a voice where there was (supposedly) no voice through the throttling of his words.

But even deeper than this, and almost unbeknownst to him but clearly seen in the film, is Strickland’s state of himself being coerced. In the process of the film, we witness the immense pressure of the force behind his forcefulness, the hand pressing his hand. His admired mentor masters him maybe even more ruthlessly than he himself does his subordinates—for Hoyt promises a Strickland-shaped hole in the universe should he fail. Within this conversation, we see, for a moment, the face and words of the implacable Strickland turn to placating. This is one of the film’s great depths, that it sees in the figures of power the master will that most makes slaves of those who most closely identify with it. Though his language, like all language, represents his own personal thought and will, Strickland’s thought and will in turn are possessed by the impersonal force that he serves. Even his penchant for stupefying obscenity represents a pure, unsublimated drive in his society—put one way, it is the survival instinct now risen to the spiritual level, the hunger urge convinced that only total control is the truest food. Thus, Strickland stuns his victims with swearing not merely because he is an asshole, but because he desperately needs to eat.

It soon becomes clear just how infelicitous this devilish logos is inside the human form. The self-asserted God always dies in demonic utterances. Strickland harangues himself with his own blunt, repetitive language, as if the parlance of his position has possessed him. He gives himself a demented pep-talk about his one bare purpose, to “deliver”—a cliché twisted by a society’s frenzied urge for control, powered by an impossible and therefore monstrous manliness. For Strickland, in seeking to apprehend the supposed weapon insanely purported to win the war, strives like a mad father to provide an impossible permanent prosperity not only for his own family, but for the national nuclear family as well. Within this unforgiving grip, he loses his sometime iron grip on the situation, now literally tearing his own hand apart to grasp himself again. Even his name is evocative of the constricting country that he comes from—a strict land, strict coming from the Latin strictus for “to tighten.” He is the gnarled shape come out of an overly fixed ontology.


So far I have only gone from what I have metaphorically termed the “middle level” to the “shallow” end of the “language spectrum,” from the kind that performs basic functions to that which diminishes and dominates. In more mathematical terms, these language types range from the median to the lowest value in “The Shape of Water.” But the film’s moral gauge is not a circular meter—the dial does not spin closest to the highest value when it reaches its farthest opposite. It is not a flat gauge but instead a deep sense—namely, of desire, which is an instinctual surging toward something vast and pulling, a flowing out and a drawing in to some largely unknown and perhaps ultimately unlimited space. The film’s potentially infinite qualitative difference is the language of love, in all its dialects, both realized and not quite.

This language, unlike that of power, is entirely positive. Where the other negates, this affirms. Where the other restricts, this unleashes, and even enlarges.

The most common type of love in the film is platonic—that is, love as friendship, love as acceptance and appreciation. However, this is not to say that acceptance and appreciation are widespread. Rather, in “The Shape of Water,” friendship forms a close and often hidden community within the alienating society at large, and its languages present a more effective if covert communication between private personalities and experiences. Giles can safely confide his deepest desires unashamedly to Elisa. Zelda can voice her grievances and tell her stories and find an open ear—a silence no longer enforced on her, but rather given to her by a content listener. And with both Giles and Zelda, Elisa can speak her own sign language, and find ready interpreters of her socially muted self. These friends are to each other the rarest things in their respective worlds: partners fluent in each other’s particular languages.

(Similarly, Elisa bears a kind of receptive fluency for hearing the Amphibian Man’s songs as more than mere sound, more than the accident of an animal nature.)

But there are other shared signs besides signing, stories, and confession. For the film’s friends, food is a sign of intentional community. Between Elisa and Giles, there is a greater significance behind sandwiches—namely, the kind of daily care that makes Elisa a Ruth to Giles’ Naomi, a kinsman redeemer of the family for him who has no family. (Sadly, Dr. Hoffstetler/Dimitri’s butter cake stands as a tragically ironic instance of this.) Between Elisa and the Amphibian man, there is something far more fecund inside a hardboiled egg than sustenance—it is the hatching of an extravagant romance with otherness, and the birth of a form of communication that reaches further than words.

These languages are all expressive of found love—happy satisfactions of the basic human need for connection; but they do not articulate the profounder yearning of Elisa for the erotic—that state of love that is scarily ecstatic, that dangerous change that destroys the sad safety of separation to make wild new unions.

The language of color begins to express this yearning. Living cloistered in a world of overbearing green—classically symbolic of envy and lust—Elisa gradually acquires vivid red clothing—classically symbolic of romantic love generally and sexually desire particularly.[2] Through her shoes, coat, handbag and headband, she begins to stand out against her sickly, power-jealous backdrop. Contrary to Strickland’s only relationship to red—that of wrung blood—Elisa’s color represents the vital selfhood she has found in finding the Amphibian Man.

(Not coincidentally, it is after she has crowned herself in her red headband that Elisa takes up swearing in sign language—at Strickland, who is none the wiser, and furious at knowing so—and practically swims in the private power of her subversive love.)

The language of color spreads out into the language of visual art. Indeed, as many have noticed, the film is on a certain level a “love letter to old Hollywood,” to cinema generally, to creativity itself—and to the peculiar creativity of monsters.[3]

Throughout the film pictures, both still and moving, pop up as vivacious portals through which the characters can escape their dispiriting surroundings. Giles’ paintings are windows into a classic if confounded ideal of American happiness—and a compensatory way for him to relate to the society in which he has to hide. Likewise, his apartment is also filled with historical black and white photography, and his television plays movies from old Hollywood. The pictorial and filmic arts have given Giles a vicarious way to belong to a nonexistent golden age. And yet, these arts have a more purely positive power, for they are capable of gathering widely dissimilar people into a shared experience: the theater below Elisa’s apartment sits as an ample, if under-attended, venue for diverse ethnicities (and even a gill-man) to witness grand story and spectacle; sitting on a couch watching a Shirley Temple tap dance number, Giles and Elisa communicate fleeter than speech with only their feet; by the end of the movie, Giles has gone from the clean and safe commercial illustrations of the cheery all-white American family to a series of vigorous chiaroscuro portraits of the wild Amphibian man—his pictures in form and content now holding an actual, personal relevance for him, a passionate, fantastic reality to which he truly belongs. Even more so, Elisa’s donning of red, serves both to connect her with fairy tale and cinematic mythos and to compound these troubled traditions with her individual story of happy love. Through her red shoes alone, she rewrites a previous narrative of the tragic pursuit of impossible perfection with a quiet posture of actualized enjoyment.

Of course, visual art is not the only form that desire for common life takes. There is also that quickening art, music. The film shows that special strength of song to insinuate itself into the tightest environments, creating a swooning, swimming atmosphere even in a stifling bunker.

Elisa in particular uses music as a means for expanding her private longings for happy romance. In the middle of her menial and sometimes gruesome tasks—such as mopping up blood and other bodily fluids, or just generally cleaning up after boyishly hideous men—she smoothly slips into dance, turning her tool into a partner. After indulging her curiosity about the creature—that he may not in fact be a savage beast at all—and finding it true, she begins her first communications with the Amphibian Man by sneaking her records and turntable into the restricted area and playing titles like Glenn Miller’s “I know Why (And So Do you).” In this song in particular, the film, through the marriage of melody and lyric, conveys the still-submerged, not-yet-surfaced status of the erotic in life, and the special understanding of this that can occur between two people: “Why do robins sing in December? / Long before the springtime is due? / And even though it’s snowing the violets are growing. / I know why and so do you.” Indeed, music makes for much of the implicit bond that becomes the private world between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. When the threat of the outside world proves imminent to this privacy, Elisa still indulges in music as a kind of consolation, imagining a movie scene in which she and the creature can share one last dance, and in which she can finally have the voice to sing what can never fully be said.

And at last it is love’s communicable indescribability, its fluid shapelessness, that powers so much of “The Shape of Water.” This is the meaning that moves beneath the forms of character and reference, of politics and art, and rises up to crest resplendently in the figures of Elisa and the Amphibian Man.

How do these two convey this shapeable shapelessness? On a more surface level, but with profound effect, they do so through that seemingly primitive vessel, the body. When Elisa touches the purported monster, gently and affectionately, as if he were no monster, the creature’s skin begins to glow with blue bioluminescence. His skin shows the trails of her tenderness—a wondrous image for how one being can become a new creation because of another. And when the Amphibian Man touches Elisa, she awakens in more senses than one—she is not only healed and whole, but augmented. By giving her gills where there were once scars, the monster redeems the human, the Amphibian Man creates the Amphibian Woman—a being finally able to live where she feels most at home, not in the harsh dry air of the earth, but in the free-flowing boundlessness of the deep.

Indeed, it is in the image of the monster as a figure of romance that the film lifts up a symbol for human love. For it is in loving that human beings can best expand their realities. It is in loving that human beings can become one with otherness.[4]

The reckless love-making of Elisa and the Amphibian Man explodes and floods the lonely norm (literally speaking, her bathroom and apartment building). Indeed, it is in the nature of love to spread and reshape. Giles himself learns to communicate with the creature on his own terms—each holding the other’s bowed head in a kind of primordial communion, a strange, beautiful bond of trust. The cause of love rushes further outward than the original couple, encircling characters across rock hard identities of race and gender, across even warring nationalities and embattled species. The union of love creates communion for others, a common life where once only estrangement lived.

“Say what I sign,” Elisa tells Giles, and her friend listens. “When he looks at me, the way he look at me . . . He does not know, what I lack . . . Or—how—I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I—am, as I am.” Perhaps it is no accident that the creature’s initials spell “AM.” It is certainly no accident that it is Giles who confesses Elisa’s love, or that it is her friend who tells her story. It is not in the nature of love to be alone.

It is in the nature of love to do more than inhabit: in merely speaking, in merely appearing, it creates new worlds. It is a meaning too deep and wide to relate fully, or even closely. You have to resort to grand, outlandish gestures to try and touch on it.[5] At the end of the film, Giles resorts to the language of poetry: “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, it humbles my heart, for You are everywhere.” The film itself, through its fulsome logos of word and image, of sight and sound, of scale and sea, seeks to incarnate a wonderful, if all too often fantastic claim: that human beings, for all their monstrousness, can be most like the image of God when they love.

(All photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures)


[1] Not to mention his close but anxious identification with the figure of Samson, and his thrusting of the ignominious character of Delilah onto Zelda.

[2] For discussions of the cinematic significance of green and red in “Vertigo” and “The Red Shoes” and del Toro’s intentional use of this, see: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/12/the-shape-of-water-production-design; https://filmschoolrejects.com/vertigo-color-and-identity-32a2f013616c/

[3]http://collider.com/the-shape-of-water-interview-sally-hawkins-octavia-spencer/; http://www.horror-movies.ca/2017/12/review-shape-water-mesmerizing-love-letter-monsters/


[5] Perhaps it is the deepest and widest meaning of all—a reality so thoroughly below us and around us, and perhaps already so largely in us, that we forget that we would not exist in the first place without it. Perhaps, as water is to the earth, as water is to the body, so is love the preconditioned majority of our being. (If only we did not ignore ourselves to thirst. If only we knew how to fill ourselves—but then what would such a flood look like.)


“Lady Bird”: Sign of Contradiction

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.’” – Luke 2:34 (NRSV)

“‘Lady Bird’ wouldn’t work if the teenager at its center weren’t utterly lovable” – David Sims, The Atlantic


When Moses meets God, he asks the Divine for a name.[1] For us modern readers, it’s a fatuously causal thing to say to the holy of holy huddled up in a shrub. But for most ancient peoples, a name was a kind of ontic summary of a person or a god, a circumscription of their past origins and their present and future purpose. Hence the name Moses in Hebrew comes from the word “to draw out” (mosheh), referring both to his being drawn out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter and to his eventual withdrawing of the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt.[2] But the Deity’s, “I am” or “I will be,” name effectively contradicts the knowability of conditioned verbs: there is no completable action, past, present or future; there is only an open, ongoing being. God doesn’t say, “I am so-and-so.” God says, “I am.” According to scholars, this is God’s ultimate self-approval, God’s supremely self-assertive being.[3] It’s the kind of manners only God could get away with.

Or a teenager.

The self-assertiveness of teenagers has gotten a bad rap. Dealing with whirlwinds of questions, ideas, and all the proverbial feels, attempting to navigate the tempestuous climes of appearance and relationships, family and frenemies, they tend to come off to the seasoned majority of us as self-entitled novices of life. But we forget that they are heirs to a crowning humanity and, as far as they are concerned, have been charged with earning their title. Everyone else is mere audience to it.

Arguably no form of teenagedness has been so ill-used as teenage womanhood. It has inherited the thoroughly reductive, scandalously pejorative misnomer “emotional.” It has been given—but has not earned—the equally scurrilous term “hormonal.” I think we all have heard it, that belittling dismissal of impassioned problems, that lack of trust in potent personal conviction, that easy contradiction of avid contradicting.

It seems that over the years many of the audience have forgotten how noble it was, at least privately, to be at the center of life-shaping choices invested with super-charged feelings (those flighty, troublesome hormones). It’s hard for many of us to look back without laughing at the now-exaggerated seeming self-importance and see the very real sense of risk. What was it like to learn for the first time that to say “Yes” is also to say “No,” and vice versa? What was it like to feel the past-present-future hiss at our ventured self-expression? What was it like to know the self-affirmation in our contradictions?

Greta Gerwig seems to me to know. In her very first film as a director—a kind of coming of age for herself—she has answered these questions in the figure of one Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, whose character receives a peculiar grace from the irreplaceable Saoirse Ronan. Gerwig and Ronan have also through “Lady Bird” answered the above misunderstandings of teenage femininity and the “teenage years” in general. They seem to know the personal nobility—that is, the self-affirmed dignity and knowingness—of being contradicting.

Amazingly, Gerwig and Ronan have managed to portray the God-like gall of teenage self-assertiveness—which is the adolescence of the image of God, if you’re of the believing sort.


Call me Lady Bird.

From the outset, we know that our young hero has chosen a new name for herself and has demanded those around her—her family, her friends, her school (i.e., her whole community)—to call her by this self-elected name. As many critics have noted more generally of Lady Bird’s character, there are so many ways in which this common act of adolescent meaning-making could have come off as rude or bothersome. But, contrary to the customary responses of her mother, Lady Bird’s many forays into identity and relationship never strike us as insufferable. Far from it.

Her motivation to change her name is understandable, but her performance of it—or, perhaps at times, her pure lack of performance—comes off as quite unique. There is some obvious rebellion to it: when we first meet her, we soon see her in her Catholic school surroundings, stuck in the slow, lifeless file of students dressed in dull sameness to repeat the same prayers and responses in roughly the same dull voice. But through the camera we focus in on this young woman who calls herself by a different name, and see her head tilt in near melodramatic suffering, and watch her eyes roll back almost with a kind of saintliness. She is clearly one who refuses to live in uniform. She will not be another repeated figure. She will “stand out,” as the saying goes.

And yet her deployment of this name serves only to define her relationships, not write them off (although, to be fair, she does try her hand at social exclusion—such are the capricious manners of youth). Unlike the stereotype of the “troubled teen”—misanthropic but alienated, hostile but misunderstood, strong-willed but oh-so-vulnerable—Lady Bird seeks to determine her surroundings, not vandalize them, to better connect with them, not avoid them (even if she hopes someday to “escape” them). A surprising amount of the school scenes involve Lady Bird becoming an active participant in her community. She runs for school president under her fuller name—Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson—and creates an outlandish ad campaign—both possible physiological combinations of a half-lady half-bird individual—that seems specially designed to provoke a response (which it does). In fact, one of the great uses of her self-given name is just this positive provocative element: it reaches beyond attention-getting and strikes up conversation.

See, for instance, the scene in which she tries out for the fall semester musical. The priest-director of the production, reading off her name, asks with a wry smile if this is her “given name,” to which she says, in upright seriousness, “Yeah . . . I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.” On the one hand, this smacks of an unearned confidence—it’s the kind of thing only a burning bush could pull off, or else it’s a clumsy emulation of Dickinson in one of her archer moods. But on the other hand, the statement is of a just-being-honest simplicity, a matter-of-fact logic, and ultimately accommodating to the interlocutor’s outside understanding of herself. It is also clear that Lady Bird is most interested in pressing onward to the real business of proving her prowess—in this case, as an actor. Straight through the obvious mimetic thespianism—the hands austerely held behind her back, the flat, almost grave stare—and the naked thrift store sweater—a modern, minimalist approach to your aunt’s Thanksgiving attire—shoots Lady Bird’s direct sincerity.

But the question still remains: why specifically Lady Bird? The choice, admittedly, is curious. A fair number of critics have speculated about the possible “sources” of the name. The most likely references, as I see them, are such:

1)Coccinellidae, AKA “ladybirds,” “ladybugs,” “lady beetles”: a highly proliferated family of beetles, well-known to all post-preschool humans, typically of a reddish hue with black spots on their wing covers.

2) “Lady Bird” (composition): a 1939 jazz standard composed by Tadd Dameron (no relation to Poe). One of the most commonly performed pieces in jazz history. Served as a basis for the lesser known piece, “Lazy Susan”—a name Lady Bird McPherson understandably declined, perhaps for the obvious field-day it would have provided her mother.

3) Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson: wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and thus First Lady of the United States. Famous for her enterprising activities in the office, being the first First Lady to work directly with congress, undertaking an impressive number of civic projects.

So which of these could have provided Christine McPherson with the inspiration to rewrite her title? 1) bears some likelihood, through its sheer universality in the natural world (American or English) and in childhood experience. Plus the more foreign version of this common, under-noticed creature could have proved an ample vehicle for that strong adolescent impulse to be both known and distant. (And isn’t that, in a sense, one of the main modes or stages of adolescence—that esoteric juvenilia, that new version you just don’t get, that personal it you’re not with?)

2) seems to be fairly unlikely, unless the movie isn’t telling us something (or unless I forgot)[4]. Throughout the movie we see Lady Bird engage in a wide variety of music use—there’s splashy Stephen Sondheim; there’s a still Justified (post-Brittney, pre-FutureSex, -LoveSounds, -Trolls-related movies) JT; there’s amateur early ’00s indie rock and the dreaded “Dave” of Matthews—but in no scene do we see her imbibe anything that jives or bebops. In fact, the music that has the greatest influence over Lady Bird—or at least the music that she chooses to have the greatest significance for her situation—is, ironically for most of us, that most infamous single of the now largely disavowed Dave Matthews Band, “Crash into Me,” and this bears as much of a likeness to traditional jazz as Tiny Tim resembles hula music.[5]

In a general thematic sense, 3) may be the most likely, as the figure of Lady Bird Johnson would fulfill the “strong woman” paragon for the self-heroine Lady Bird McPherson. The biggest problem with this, as I see it, is that McPherson never appears to be terribly interested in politics or history—even when she meets the argot mumbling, key terms touting, People’s History twisting Kyle—nor does she aspire to anything approaching studious—quite the opposite, as her mother informs us, and re-reminds her, at the outset. When proclaiming her desire to go to college in the east, Lady Bird refers to Thoreauvian writers as a current reality. When her friend Julie jokes disparagingly about terrorism, Lady Bird’s responds with, “Don’t be a Republican”—hardly a discursive incision. Indeed, Lady Bird seems to inhabit that typical liminal space between lazy and committed, picking what is convenient while she continues her search for what truly concerns her. More than this, Lady Bird is a buff of nothing but the present as it pertains to the future—her future.

The answer, I think, is to be found in that very curiosity of her youthful choice, and not in the specificity of adult questioning. Being still on the verge of adulthood, Lady Bird still dwells in that amorphous boundedness of childhood. She is still learning to select her own society, but nothing yet is hard and fast. (As she would say, she does not have any proclivity for history or politics—“that we know of yet.”) Her attraction to the name “Lady Bird” may have a vague, perhaps subliminal, grasp of some historic or cultural significance, but it likely still lives in the fresh sound of the thing. It sounds meaningful. It sounds elegant, but also folksy. It sounds liberated, wild, free. Free and knowing. The fleetest linguistic vehicle to get her to “live through something.”

There is, to be sure, some of the greenest idealism in Lady Bird’s name—she introduces herself (“My name’s Lady Bird”) to Kyle with not a tinge of protective irony. There is also a bit of evasive arrogance in it: that teenager’s whim toward untouchability that parents hope and pray is merely budding self-ownership; that autocratic setting of oneself apart from those servile peers and all their coteries of associations. And certainly by requiring other people to call her by this new name she is usurping the role of parent of herself in relation to others as well—a move that could easily stray into pride or pretentiousness. And finally there is that most common indictment she gets from her family and closest friend, that she is self-centered, and it is hard to deny at least some neutral truth to this claim for anyone with a self-given name.

But as we follow her through what is no doubt her most pivotal year thus far, witnessing her in her most public and private vicissitudes, Lady Bird’s behavior is marked not so much by pride as confidence, not so much by enormity as eagerness. Of all the pretensions she operates under, arguably the biggest one is that she is entitled to radical agency in her life, which implies an eager, if callow, yearning for responsibility. And if she is sometimes self-centered in the negative sense—carelessly taking the hard work of her mother, the forbearance of her father, and the true love of her best friend for granted—she is also thus in the most positive sense. Lady Bird is centered in herself. Her intent is never secondhand: she wants to do the things she does because she, and no one else, wants to do them. And what she wants to do most is to be known—but properly, by herself and others. And that qualitative distinction is the real crux of her progress.

It is from the center of her self that we see Lady Bird choose to know and be known. If she evades, it is to avoid being misunderstood—being reduced to insignificance (hence she resorts to being from “the wrong side of the tracks”) or to risibility (as of a miniscule lower class to her wealthy schoolmates). But there is nothing the least aloof about Lady Bird. She is often the opposite of dismissive toward the other characters around her, no matter their age.[6] Through her name she commands not just address, but also interaction—a determination of relationship that in a way goes beyond mere coolness, or gets too close for it. One need only see her face-forward approach to any situation to tell this. Though she may, when compelled to be passive, slide lazily into that more stereotypical “teenage” eye-rolling, she addresses her interlocutors—from the cool kids to her guidance counselor—with wide, steady eyes, ready for the moment to meet her. And this is her problem.

Or, in a sense, this is the moment’s problem—the stumbling block of the people around her at this stage in life’s way. How can this “girl”—still becoming a woman, just recently a child—have the gall to rename herself? The name “Lady Bird” is a sign of offence, a sign at times for people to reject. Because in requiring everyone to address her by her self-given name, Lady Bird insists that everyone have an inordinate faith in herself. The name is a symbol of an extravagant trust in her choices, a belief that goes beyond the usual support. (It is this same self-trust that we see driving her to apply to schools far outside her grade range—a drive that is rejected with doubt and laughter.) In this name, Christine McPherson has created a new beginning—and while this is something that, in essence, every adolescent does and must do in order to become a fully independent adult, Christine’s leap to “Lady Bird” overshoots the common steps. It’s a leap that looks like a lunge, and loses its balance when it lands.

But it’s to the film’s peculiar credit that Lady Bird never falls. It’s Lady Bird’s particular strength that she maintains her own sense of balance—a kind of clumsy nimbleness that knows how to stumble elegantly. (Perhaps this is one of Greta Gerwig’s most original assets as an artist—whether actor, writer, or director—for in “France Ha” she wielded the same off-beat talent, “like a jazz drummer who pretends to flub yet knows exactly what’s up.”[7])

There are many times in the movie when Lady Bird slips or misses, or is taken down a peg. The first boy she says “I love you” to turns out to love boys. The first boy she gives her “flower” to turns out to be pretty petal-less—and gives her an unwelcome dismal lesson about the frequency of “unspecial sex.” She strays into the usually tiresome teenage seduction toward the cool kids club, and all too easily forsakes her time-tested—and clearly more lovable—companion, Julie. In an effort to impress these soulless peers, she outdoes them in cruelty, vandalizing Sister Sarah Joan’s car—and, in a tangible way, her religious belief and moral authority—with the words, “Just married to Jesus” (and all the appropriately garish, slapdash habiliments). And finally, she consummates her hoped for college freedom with perhaps the most clichéd pratfall of all: having too much to drink at a party, and waking up in the hospital.

But Lady Bird is always quick to recover. Though her first romantic relationship (at least in the movie) ends in a confused sense of betrayal, this is not the end of the relationship per se: Lady Bird has enough composure to see beyond her hurt to how fragile Danny is; and she evinces a sudden, profound openness not only to forgiveness (acceptance in spite of) but to compassion (acceptance because of). Though her ideas of love and love making lose their primrose innocence, she is able to share the experience openly and with equanimity to Julie, thus avoiding the flinching privacy of woundedness; she even finds redemptive humor in her disappointment—voicing a positive preference (“I think I preferred dry-humping”) to Kyle’s neutral-at-best declaration of resignation (“You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life”). And if this lively, red-haired Lady Bird does try to clothe herself in other people’s coolness, she soon undresses their meretricious habits to discover the pale truth. She gets out of the car, and goes the way of Dave (Matthews) and finds her way back to Julie—choosing for her prom date the person most mature adults would vote “least likely to regret,” her best friend. And if in a moment of proto-vainglory Lady Bird seeks to deface Sister Sarah Joan’s clerical aegis, she shows that deeper spirit to seek the truth when she’s willing to see the older woman eye-to-eye; she admits not only her wrongdoing, but also the fact that the nun’s faith is more than a compulsory taxonomy—in other words, that Sister Sarah Joan, like Lady Bird, has her own self-committed terms to live by. Indeed, the sister delivers through example an important lesson about all self-confessed symbols (and a memorable one about “love and attention”), and Lady Bird receives it: laughing at the obvious limitations, the unwitting silliness, of applying American matrimonial language to the man Jesus of Nazareth, Sarah Joan states in all seriousness that she has been married to Christ for many, happy years; Lady Bird, with a serene and unsarcastic smile, responds that he must be a lucky guy.

And finally, if Lady Bird does seem to crash the first time she really flies, she makes of the fall such a recovery that it doesn’t turn out as a fall at all. Waking up to a glaring, hovering light, and slowly coming out of boozy purblindness, Lady Bird sits up to see, a few beds across from hers, a boy and his mother. The boy has been injured in the eye somehow, and he holds his hand to his patch; the mother sits closely by, bent over with her arm around him. The image is a mirror of her previous years: child and mother, the past half now whole-seen. Now that she is entirely on her own, she sees her mother’s fuller presence.

I believe this sight is the seed of recognition that, after a second sight, leads to Lady Bird’s acknowledgment of her greatest foreground, her mother. After her awakening, Lady Bird leaves the hospital to wander the nearby streets. She eventually comes across a church, and, approaching the doors like a potential acquaintance, she goes in. She sees indeed a familiar sight—a choir of children singing together—and something spreads across her face. The next we see her she is in the church courtyard, her phone to her ear, leaving a voicemail specifically for her mother. The message is her only speech alone in the movie, but it is also her most communal statement in her life as we know it. It is a daughter giving thanks for her mother, a child’s gratitude for givenness: for love and care and life itself. It is Lady Bird becoming Christine.

In this closing scene, we see Lady Bird resolve the problem of her identity. It is to her credit that she has never placed herself too absolutely on her self-given name—she understands that quotes surround her. But of all the offences she has given (founded or not), the greatest and most unfounded are those she has given to her parents. She has been ashamed of them—asking her dad to drop her off some distance before getting to school, and later lying about her address, in order to avoid revealing her humbler origins—and she has been recalcitrant with their express wishes and concerns—applying schools well outside of their budget, even to the point of subterfuge with her mother. Indeed, the greatest conflict Lady Bird has in the movie is with her mother—their story is of the perpetual giving and taking of offense. Because in her mother Lady Bird finds her most circumscribing relationship. If Christine McPherson is the Tempest, Marion McPherson is the primordial whirlwind. Behind her every act of scrutiny—her quizzical looks and critical glosses—behind all of her anger and exasperation in every heated argument, Marion McPherson is asking her daughter, “And where were you when I made you?”

By seeing her mother’s part in her story—and reading her mother’s story of the both of them in her salvaged letters (the epistles of Marion)—Christine realizes that a certain faith has preceded her own. Before she believed in what she could be, her mother believed that she could be. This is the faith that has borne so much sacrifice—so much money, sure, but so much more that so-called “time and energy,” which is so much life spent caring, worrying, trying, hoping—and it is this faith that bears so much offence at the sign of that name. For the name of “Lady Bird” too often points to the daughter’s careless flight from the nest that took so much of the mother to make.

As many have noticed, it is significant that both daughter and mother have very “Christian” Christian names: Christine and Marion, variations on Christ and Mary. But it is also significant that the film, like Lady Bird, diverges from its sources even as it carries them with it. Like Sister Sarah Joan, it prefers Kierkegaard, the poet of dialectic and becoming, of fraught risk and passionate faith, to the guilty history of Augustine and the vast, cramping system of Aquinas. Like Kierkegaard’s Christ, Christine is a “sign of contradiction,” through her name indirectly declaring herself more than she immediately is.[8] Her name contradicts her contemporaries, who know where she comes from and know (or believe they know) what she is capable of. Like this existential (i.e. fully human and fully God) Christ, she yearns to find her believers: “‘Blessed is he who is not offended at me!’ . . . [Christ’s] joy over the believer is like a human being’s joy over becoming understood, completely understood, by another.”[9]

(LB and SK)

But the film even chooses to contradict—to lovingly part ways with—this formative source. Because unlike Kierkegaard—at least the early and rebellious and fertile (i.e. adolescent) Kierkegaard—“Lady Bird” believes in the potential for direct communication. It believes that people, without irony, without signs—without despair, without “the incognito,” without at last, pseudonyms[10]—that flawed, in-flux people can speak forth from their conditionality and in so doing be more than they are, or were. They can become, be created anew, not only through their ultimate privacy—in which the Wholly Other (God) knows them—but also through their healing relationships—in which another (family, friends) knows them—and crucially through recognition—in which they know themselves. “Lady Bird” puts its faith in the eyes and the mouth.[11]

This is the humanistic, the very positive theological anthropological core of “Lady Bird.” If there is a God in the movie, it is a God of given Grace (or the Grace of givenness): the gift is already planted and nurtured there; we only need to pluck it. The fullest manifestation of that gift is one’s total identity—i.e., one’s particular humanity. All may be in need of healing,[12] but everyone deserves becoming. Through Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, we see the worth of what we no doubt so often ignore. At least in my first viewing, and in my subsequent reflections on the film, so sanguine was this “teenager’s” essential humanity that I found myself trusting in her even as I disagreed with her choices (though I often approved of them too). I believed that deep down she was capable of becoming better, and that, given time, that deeper being would win out. I believed in a person—a very Christian thing, if said person is properly known.

During her first falling flight, Lady Bird drunkenly states, “People go by the names their parents give them, but they don’t believe in God.” The statement seems to be half-remonstrance, half-reflection. It seems, perhaps, to be a passing bit of bleary theology. But I believe it is also a confession of sorts. It is a prevenient profession of gratitude, a closer identification with that most Original Name, who speaks new life into being with a couple of words.[13]

(All photos: A24 Films)


[1] What’s in a name? Well, power, for one thing, but mostly other people’s. We do not choose the names we were given at birth, and not one of us gets to decide the meanings of the dictionary’s worth of names we’ve inherited. Our parents or guardians, if they were thoughtful, may have selected a name for us that circumscribed at least something of our meaning to them at the time, or what they thought or hoped we’d mean to the world in time—the monicker thus wrapping us up in vague or certain moral cerements. If they were considerate, they would at least have chosen names (first or middle) in no way resembling, even through the most garbled reproduction, anything in the verbal families of the crude or fatuous. For nothing besides a nose is more subject to humiliation than a name. In ancient times a name was the way to invoke a presence greater than attention; in modern times it is a social contract we never officially agreed to. If we like it, we are blessed with Abraham. If we don’t, we will enter the wilderness of words to earn a nickname. For the most part, we take them for granted. When someone calls our name, we immediately agree to its power. To refuse in any way would be to contradict more than mere words. To the person calling, such an act would seem nothing short of rebellion.

[2] See Robert Alter’s notes to Exodus 2:10 in his translation of The Five Books of Moses, pp. 313-4.

[3] See The Brown-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 218, and also Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, pp. 321-2n.

[4] Likely.

[5] Plus, as the AV Club has noted, besides being period sound-dressing, the (for most) now-detestable song primarily seems to serve the movie’s remarkably forgiving presentation of juvenilia, making the claim that the passing fads will one day lament nevertheless had a profoundly formative, even morally fortifying purpose to our younger selves.

[6] Indeed, even when she petulantly dismisses herself from the car—a locomotive self-jettisoning for the ages—I imagine Lady Bird getting up directly from the ground, slapping the clouds off, and staggering straight toward the now halted, now reversing car—puling louder to an approaching growl—to see just what her mother thought of this terrific stunt and gesture.

[7] Stephanie Zacharek, “Greta Gerwig Stars in Noah Baumbach’s Dating Manual, ‘Frances Ha.’” Village Voice (May 15, 2013).

[8] Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton UP, pp. 124-5.

[9] Ibid., p. 78.


[11] In this sense, “Lady Bird’s” anthropology may be more of Kierkegaardian Socratic (or vice versa) than Kierkegaardian “Christian” (maybe), as it prizes the act of recollection (Philosophical Fragments, pp. 9-14) over courageous faith (all of Fear and Trembling) out of existential despair (all of The Sickness unto Death)—at least, it seems to do so at this stage in life’s way.

[12] According to a recent Pastearticle, Marion is the film’s most broken vessel.

[13]yehi ’or = “let there be light.”

To Show God’s Love Aright: “A Christmas Carol” As Spiritual Physic

There is one line in literature that has haunted me the most. It’s no great surprise that it comes from Shakespeare—there are numerous words and phrases, lines and near stanzas, through which his voice (that voice of many voices) continues to echo in our culture. But unlike many of the most prominent Shakespeare-isms, mine lacks that anachronistic eloquence that so often enchants. It doesn’t seem to speak from some other world, a poetic past that never was beyond stage or print (or screen). It calls, rather, with the plain speech reserved for urgency and exclamation—a mode that we have kept with us—and from the all too common concerns of this world—the plights that continue to stay with us.

“O! I have ta’en too little care of this.”

It comes from King Lear himself, after he has finally agreed to seek shelter in a humble, anonymous hovel. It is a moment of sudden quiet, having been disowned and disinherited, and entirely dishonored, by his very own daughters, and following an agonizing period of racing toward and away from the edge of madness. In his silences, the status of his sanity sways in the air: his sense of selfhood far displaced, blown and tossed by the new howling center in the universe. He has striven desperately to identify himself with the storm, and thus maintain his prowess. But his will and the wind’s are not the same, and anything magisterial about him has been stripped by the extra-human wrath around him. There seems to be nothing left to do but die—to collapse, maybe curse, but finally give himself up to that ultimate dust.

Which is why what he says is so striking. Before he goes into that place of total resignation, Lear seems to recognize something. He seems to come to, and to come to a realization.

Throughout Lear’s progress from outrage to just plain raging, he has vacillated rapidly between different poles of his identity—from kinghood to fatherhood, from regality to agedness, and from fury to sorrow—and found no place in any one of them. He has sought, through his words and actions, to perform for himself as much as anyone else the man he once was, which was no less than the center of a microcosm. And it would seem that now, at the entrance to some meager shelter, he is once again trying on another doomed-to-fail crown—this time of royal mercy and beneficence. But his next mode of speaking is far from the earlier forced pronouncements of a defunct majesty. It is not the language of a king rhetorically clinging to his crown for dear life. Because what Lear suddenly chooses to do is pray:

In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty,—

Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

[Fool goes in.]

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O! I have ta’en

Too little care of this. Take physic, Pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show the Heavens more just. (III.iv.26-36)

The way I see this scene, Lear sees in the Fool, and in himself seeing and speaking to the fool, the perennial problem of poverty and abject suffering. He and his fool have become representatives of a nature-wide crisis. This fresh selfless focus alone is surprising—the revelatory “care” that Lear now recognizes radically transvalues the “cares of state” and kingly “cares and business” of that lifelong self that first appears in the play (I.i.50, 39)—and it has the wonderful paradox of giving Lear’s inwardness even more individual capaciousness (for he thought what I, at least, would not have expected him to think with such pride in such a storm). But further than this, Lear’s prayer presents an astonishingly nuanced theodicy. It is a cosmic drama with a human resolution. It is up to the powerful and privileged, Lear proclaims, to represent more than themselves and to reverse the logic of nature and culture, taking on the wretched and sheer wretchedness of the world, thus performing, and therefore providing, for the poor the justice of the Heavens. Lear’s prayer, at least for a moment, seems to drive homeward with a sense of ultimate “care,” earnest and determined, unsatisfied with itself as sincere, contemplative speech. It invokes not divine intervention, but human action. It is an empathic, demonstrative form of that old act of charity: the hand that gives also shakes, and proves Heaven’s solidarity with Earth. It is charity as a radically holistic kind of “care.”

And all of this anthropocentric, anthropogenic soteriology issues from that one moment of recognition—provided, of course, by those long, unforgiving hours leading up—which is so succinctly summarized in that sudden confession, “O! I have ta’en / Too little care of this.”

This line has haunted me because of its utter sincerity—and because of its utter brevity. Because, truth be told, the world of King Lear, the cosmos at least of this Shakespearean stage, is a thoroughly pagan one. In some ways, it is even worse—more evil than a mere chaos—because of the vibrant wills and profound souls that buck and mourn against the fates it dispenses.[1] Constantly in question are the essential meaning of “nature” (a word so frequently repeated throughout the play) and the ultimate trustworthiness of the gods for human beings. Just as fraught, though, is the issue of human nature, whether it is worthy of redemption even of Being Itself, or merely “cheap as a beast’s” (II.iv.269). Through the misfortunes that befall the proud, tyrannical, foolhardy Lear, they appear to be distant arbiters of sin. Through the storms and the tragic events of the plot—those horrifically “perfect” twists of fate—and the characters’ near ecstatic lamentations in response to them, the plural divinity seems monomaniacally cruel to all human bonds and well-being.

Lear’s prayer strongly resembles what liberation theologians call God’s “preferential option for the poor.” And he likewise seems to advocate for a theatrical form of voluntary poverty. It is easy to see why critics have read this play or its parts as a Christian one. For a moment, the least of these of the human race take center stage in the cosmic storm. But only for a moment. Because the human-originated providence in Lear is fleeting, and in fact never goes beyond the realm of speech into the form of action. It never has its birth in actuality. The cosmos of King Lear seems a severely impersonal one. Creation Itself bears only “eyeless rage” (III.i.8) in its relationship to human beings and, whether through madness or maiming, makes them in this most savage image. (Perhaps this is why Lear addresses the poor and pleads with the powerful in his prayer—because there is no chance of a compassionate divinity.) If the dimension of this play has any analog in Christianity, it must be the most negative and dispiriting and therefore the least celebrated in the Scriptures. Lear lives in an unholy Saturday, where the aftermath of a bloody Friday promises nothing good, except that Sunday might never be:

Kent: Is this that promised end?

Edgar: Or image of that horror?

Still, because of this overwhelming darkness, those lines of recognition have had for me an even sharper contrast—an effect not unlike a brief candle, all too swiftly gone, yes, but leaving an image of itself to linger indefinitely. An image of the humanity that is, the human present, and what humanity might be, the human yet to come.

*          *          *

For some strange reason, King Lear has always struck me as a Christmassy kind of play—as morbid and absurd as it sounds. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered that “the first recorded performance of King Lear occurred at court on December 26, 1606, during the holiday festivities.”[2] That is, the King of England, and all the rest of the hoity coterie, watched Lear made poor to pray and die unredeemed on the second day of Christmas. Perhaps it is because the inverse negative message of Christmas is human frailty that Shakespeare wrote his “scathing indictment of human institutions.”[3] For me personally, something in the play’s content, in its atmosphere and events, reminds me of the story and world of Christmas. Perhaps it’s that super-wintry weather. Perhaps it’s the pagan people seeking shelter and spying out hope in the inhospitable dark. Perhaps it’s because one prayer resembles another:

For he hath looked on the poor degree of his servant . . . Because he that is mighty hath done for me great things, and holy is his Name. And his mercy is from generation to generation. He that showed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, exalted them of low degree.[4]

And I don’t seem to be the only one. Charles Dickens’ now ubiquitous A Christmas Carol—that fabular story which has proved almost as much of a source-text for how we celebrate Christmas as the first chapters of Luke—is a drama deeply concerned with, even fixated on, the problem of poverty. It is the high cosmic drama of one stubborn rich man’s relation to the lowly.

Of course, the Carol is also the fairy tale version of Lear’s human family tragedy. (This is not to say that Dickens had this play specifically in mind—though he did draw on Shakespeare frequently, and some have argued that he may be in conversation with another of the Bard’s tragedies in his very deployment of ghosts.[5]) Both wizened world-wielders come to see their less than child-size smallness in space and time. Both confront the death-by-starvation of the personal at the hands of their own past and present clinging to power. But there is a certain very real sense in which both Lear and Scrooge find themselves in the form of archetype—which is to say, in a “spiritual” state. More than this, they find themselves staring across the bond of a spiritual relationship at an all-too-close other. In both strangers and acquaintances, in the homeless and in relatives, these men discover themselves as indelibly attached to the poor. What these great men do affects the humble and in return affects themselves.

It is as if Dickens sought to better Lear’s fleeting instruction. Because just as the Spirits demonstrate potently and repeatedly the presence of the poor, the poor themselves speak from their struggling situations. Through the effective intervention of the divine, the poor are given their own stage, and act and speak their fuller parts. They no longer keep to the crowds and corners—they come through the front door, and straight to Scrooge’s bed.

The Carol presents to the reader a wide panorama of impoverishment, impressively spanning even distances in time. Really, like cosmic directors, the spirits deliberately display to Scrooge a diversity of scenes from different stages in the human drama. Dickens’ man of aging power becomes audience to the many humble dinners of the poor (pp. 91-2),[6] to the meager means of underprivileged families (the Cratchits), and to the essential sources and effectual curses of human iniquity (the figures of Want and Ignorance). Through these ghostly visitations, the wretches and pomp now have divine mediation.

But it is through the figure of Tiny Tim that the most physic is given; it is through Tiny Tim that the heavens seem to be made most just. Like other members of the lowly class, Tiny Tim benefits from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s “sympathy with all poor men” (p. 92)—like the rest of the laboring and disenfranchised, he and his family enjoy the sparkling of joy from the Spirit’s torch; but, though Tim is not as indigent as other figures featured in the panoply, he comes off as infinitely more vulnerable. In part, this is because he is a child, and carries with him Dickens’ romantic innocence and tenderness. But it is also because he is more personal in the story, especially through the brimming affections from Bob (his father) and the earned endearment from Scrooge (his “second father” (p. 134)). This profound fragility makes Tiny Tim’s very limited lines in the story seem paradoxically eternal. He is an example in a double sense: both of how to be and what to save. He is

[a]s good as gold . . . and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see. (p. 94)

It is this child that gives voice to this story’s central instruction—it is he who points, not to himself, but through and beyond himself: “remember.” It is this child in particular that concerns Scrooge in his nascent selflessness. After he is reborn to the world, it is to this child that Scrooge becomes a kind of kinsman redeemer, buying him back from death. It is hard not to see this resolution as the positive opposite, the answer to the problem, the dream to the nightmare, of Lear’s catastrophe of the family.

Now, in this comparison, there are issues between genres and authors that bear closer consideration. For instance, as a Dickensian grotesque in a holiday “Ghost Story,”[7] Scrooge’s character and life take on much softer edges and infinitely more comedic tones than the deeply flawed and diminished protagonist of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. Both agree that nature can be cruel to human terms, but even as the streets of London are covered with a “misanthropic ice” (p. 52), the Carol’s fog has a cheering luster and the delicious thickness of “a colossal cake.”[8] Most operative to my purposes is the pretty stark distinction between the “theology” of Lear’s stormy eschatological cosmos and the Carol’s warm and glowing heaven(s) on earth—indeed, through the Ghost of Christmas Present, there is an unseen immanence, a many-roomed House of the Lord. For unlike the ancient pagan land of Lear, the Victorian London of the Carol is a fictional universe in which “the gods” intercede. (Or, in the words of that cheery number in “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” it is a world in which “the saints can employ us.”[9]) There is no doubt that Scrooge always has a choice, while Lear decries persuasively that he is “[m]ore sinn’d against than sinning” (III.ii.58). Though both acquire a fearsome conviction to change, one accomplishes his restoration, and the other is broken to the point of literal heartbreak. Most crucially, the Carol’s is an earth in which the All of heaven has come down. Where Lear urges humanity to show the heavens more just–this implying a divinity on trial–the Carol proclaims a wonderful counselor who can direct others in how (in the words of another carol) “to show God’s love aright.” The Carol‘s is a world with a definite Savior, whose birth has opened up a holy family for all peoples. And yet—to contextualize further the theology—it is a Savior in a certain style, just as it is a heaven housed in a domesticated world, behind which looms a readership that can afford to indulge in normative hope.

These are all factors that show the limits of the Christmas Carol as an answer to Lear. They show both gaps and tensions in my pairing of the two “accounts.” Personally, they are issues that stem from concerns which, if harkened, will help keep me honest. They will keep me from having a soft-sentimental view of the world, which is really a complacent one, which is really subtle selfishness. Truth be told, most of the effectual drama inherent in the Carol has become so popularized, so normalized, as to bear none of its original intention as insistent challenge to my cozy goodness, too much like Scrooge’s “solitary” being (p. 46).[10]

Nevertheless, perhaps there is a creative tension between the play and the story. Perhaps Lear can play physic to the pomp of Christmas, just as the Carol can show “a chance and hope” to very seasoned despair (p. 63). For me at least there is that voice, still and small amidst the world’s storms, but thundering in my mind, that says within my “insistent challenge” there toils an imperiled call. Beyond the artifice and my interpretation of it pants reality. Sometimes, in the actual world, I will see someone in strife, and truly feel a fate worse than my own frailty, if only for a moment. Sometimes a person has been as big as the world.

And there is still that remarkable achievement—indeed underappreciated for its utter rarity—of the portrayal of a joy that wounds like loss, of a happiness as strong as heartache. Perhaps this kind of denouement is best portrayed through performance—hence the whole-body tremens I get every year from “It’s a Wonderful Life”; perhaps it takes real human faces and real human voices to pull the thing off, but for me even the written image of Bob Cratchit, trembling in preparation for real enmity, only to be met with ultimate fellow-feeling and the most extravagant reversal of his fortunes—for me, this wild marriage of the unbelievable and the real is really something to be seen. It is a scene like a vision, a sight that seems to move me toward action, and it has often had the power, if only for a moment, to shed warmer, seemingly clearer light on the world I’m about to reenter. For what are my petty problems, when I have just seen justice more than fulfilled?

This sense of beneficence like sheer presence, this feeling of a widely spreading “Christmas Time,” has followed me long after the reading or viewing, but never long enough. It has stayed with me most in the remembrance of that line that is a new life sentence, which has proven so memorable that it haunts me like the most beneficent assurance, that we can care better than beautiful speech: for “Scrooge was better than his word” (p. 133).


[1] In other words, compared to the relatively flat types of classical tragedy, the characters in Lear are all too human, which is to say all too Godlike for earth, and all too beastly for heaven.

[2] Claire McEachern, introduction to King Lear: A Longman Cultural Edition, xi.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luke 1:48-52, Geneva (Shakepeare’s) Bible.

[5] See Harry Stone, “Giving Nursery Tales a Higher Form” in Modern Critical Views: Charles Dickens, ed. Harold Bloom, pp. 154-5.

[6] All quotes from A Christmas Carol refer to the Penguin Books edition of The Christmas Books: Volume 1, ed. Michael Slater, 1982.

[7] For a discussion of Dickens’ deliberate drawing from “nursery tales” in the writing of the Carol, see Stone, 153-160.

[8] G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens_(Chesterton)/VII

[9] From “One More Sleep ’Til Christmas” by Steve Whitmire.

[10] Though in his preface Dickens himself declared his intentions pretty softly—“My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land” (p. xxix—his depiction of the presence and subsequent absence of Tiny Tim ring out a kind of alarm.

Do You See What I See? or, Hallmark’s Curious “Heart of Christmas”

“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.” -G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered

“Monday is a day on the calendar. Christmas is . . . Christmas.” -Holly Jensen, “One Starry Christmas” (a part of Hallmark Channel’s approximately two-month-long “Countdown to Christmas”)

* * *

There’s a special kind of optimism to people who love bad movies. There’s another kind of optimism to people who hate them. When it comes to Hallmark Christmas movies, I believe I enjoy both.

The first kind of optimism is of the “so bad it’s good” sentiment. Like any aesthetic judgment, it is a matter of personal taste—really, of personal perception and attitude. It is both beneficent and haughty because it forgives from a place of temporary safety.[1] It laughs at and not with. If you are anything like me, watching such a movie makes you feel like a master of all realism, and a better director of yourself in general. You witness, as if from your own wishing, a delightful magic far rougher than Prospero’s playing upon the screen, creating for you a brave new world of innocuous failure. What fools these attempted “people” are, and what fun that you are not them (right now)! You may never stay in such a world for long, but you’re glad to have slipped in to see the spell of substandard filmmaking work otherwise functioning human beings into awkward aspects speaking clunky speeches.

The second kind of optimism is far more complicated and, therefore, more often misunderstood. It comes, I think, from a highly idealistic place in the human being—perhaps there’s even a certain part of the brain that, when seeing a bad movie, becomes especially enflamed in certain folks. It’s the kind of optimism that lies deep inside the heart of every sincere criticism. It’s the vision of the truth so absent in the falsehood. Whenever a person with this particular optimism decries a bad movie, they are mourning the missing goodness. The goodness that might have been. Such movies can provoke a near-prophetic outrage in such cases: everything could have been different, and this visionary viewer sees it all too well. These people could have avoided disaster. They could have told the truth.

Now, if it’s a particularly vacuous “bad” movie, and a heavy-handedly “Christmassy” one at that, you better believe such a viewer will be turning Jeremiads from the couch. But what if such a “bad” movie somehow found itself “in the family way,” growing fruitful and multiplying to such aggressively promiscuous extents that it waxed mighty on two whole channels? What if a profound holiday, once understood as a compound of “holy” and “day,” became watered down into a shallow widespread genre? What if that genre became the water people swam in? Well, then you might just feel yourself the only righteous and blameless one on the flooded earth, finding plenty to complain about with more than a month to go till Thanksgiving.

* * *

As many Americans (and, I presume, Canadians) know, it has apparently been the Christmas season for over a month now—the yuletide having started a few days before Halloween. As many Americans (and, again, Canadians) know, this is thanks to the Hallmark Channel(s). As many Americans may not know, they have been celebrating Christmas in Canada for much of this time, and this is thanks to Crown Media. This, and so, so much more.

Over the past “Christmas” season, I have come to a strange “appreciation” for Hallmark Christmas movies. Thanks to their extensive output over the past sixteen years or so, I have just this year already seen more holiday “films” than I can count white faces in a manger. Indeed, this body of, um, “work” is so large it’s literally in the hundreds[2]—they could populate a small, insufferable town with their Christmas catalogue alone.

I need not tell you about the two general “types” of Hallmark Christmas movies—the good folks at Gold Crown will be happy to inform you just about every commercial break, just in case you’re worried you’re getting too much mild, non-threatening drama and not enough bland, unconvincing romance, or vice versa. Needless to say, these people have by now made enough of both to fill nearly every hour of the day with their special recipe for snow that never melts and never makes a mess of immaculate hair and clean landscape architecture.

Because of this frosted superfluity, I have had the chance to see enough of these “holiday” movies to find some common elements, maybe even essentials. I’ve gotten my hands on the infernal snow-white formula.

Much like a peppermint syrup, it’s a sickly-sweet concoction, and if you drink it in small doses, and mixed with richer substances, you can get nice and sprightly, for a time. But have too much of it and it alone, and for too long, and it’s as good as poison—a weak, slow-working poison, but poison nonetheless.

* * *

There is much to appreciate in a Hallmark Christmas movie. Much to laugh at, much to loathe—much to love to loathe—and much to wonder bemusedly about. The phrase “once you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all” somewhat pertains here. There are indeed certain elements that almost invariably make up the Gold Crown chemistry of bubbly Christmas cheer. But these works are not without their variations, and much of the actual fun I’ve had in watching them has been in spotting the old types with new traits.

For example: in this new movie there may be yet another stubborn grinchly character, yes, but this one flouts the easy earlier stereotype of being a male from the city, for it’s a male from the city originally from the country. Like nearly every handsome Hallmark humbug, he’s somewhere on the right side of forty and of the clean-cut caste of humanity—the kind of man who is seemingly incapable of growing an errant hair below his eyebrows; nevertheless, this is a different Scrooge with a different haircut and different coloring and probably different modeling agency. He still wears the familiar blue—usually in sweater form—which signifies his not-yet-ness (which is practically Jewish); but coupled with his tepid but incessant interest in the spunky and festive female lead, this character’s blue presence represents a prevenient conversion experience to the “true meaning of Christmas” to come in about forty-five minutes.

[Hint: the true meaning usually entails romance and/or career success.]

In the interest of expediency, here is a list of some of the apparently required ingredients for making a Hallmark Christmas movie—a veritable recipe for the so-called “spirit of the season.” If you truly believe, you will consider it a Decalogue for Christmas purity. Just follow the stars below:

*All leads, and most supporting cast, will be ostensibly good-looking.

(Image courtesy of E! News Online.)

Everyone will have presentable, inoffensive facial features and perfect, ostentatious teeth—indeed, with the sound off, the picture should play like a teeth-whitening commercial that’s had dreams of stardom. Moreover, no actual, genuine emotion should mar the players’ faces. Men, for instance, will be made a little lower than the angels, and little better than mannequins. A solitary tear may stream down the leading lady’s cheek, but only if said tear has a twinkle to it. Such cases qualify as make-up.

*Older actors will not be too old in behavior or appearance.

Generally, they will fall into two categories: the funny and the wise. Goofiness may turn into wisdom, but the reverse is just dementia.

*Clothes will be perfect as a clothing catalogue is perfect.

Indeed, visually, the movie should come across as the cinematic equivalent of an L.L. Bean ad.

(This scarf now on sale for $39.95.)

*Conversely, all scenery will be likewise perfect.

No purportedly “old” or “abandoned” property will be too unsightly—i.e., truly derelict or run-down.

Any weathered materials, whether they be barns or houses or brittle-looking sleighs, should be of the most patterned, manufactured authenticity, and should make “Fixer-Upper” look like “Survivor” for reclaimed wood.

And there will always be just enough winter to fluff up the scene. This can’t be stressed enough.

*All star-power will be faded—i.e., the biggest names will be distant ones.

Any has-beens over forty will be mostly relegated to the dignified supporting cast. William Shatner, for instance, is and must be impervious to all holiday crises, lest the audience lose interest, or become abashed; and no one wants to see Wallace Shawn doling out Christmas magic for long—including Wallace Shawn. These movies are the media’s greener pastures, after all, where the shepherd of Tinsel Town hath put out his old and lame sheep.

*All star-power will be white—i.e., actors of color will hold positions of honorable periphery.[3]

While all protagonists and main characters will at least read as white, actors of visible difference will play characters of utmost dignity whose tangential presence alongside and/or service to the central cast, the fictional community at large, and the plot in general will form a kind of bland tokenism. Such characters will perform accessible functions in the world, and their respectable prowess over their respective professions will render them friendly, non-threatening, non-dramatic—and therefore subservient, impersonal, unrealistic—representations of their race/ethnicity. Indeed, these easy, ever-smiling characters, with their knowing looks and sing-song ways of affirming the main characters of their fictional importance, while seeming to have lives of their own, will have even less personal life and history than the main characters themselves—which is to say, hardly any existence at all. Should this subtle racism prove still too covert, think Uncle Remus in a double-breasted baker’s jacket.

Acceptable vocations for these characters: baker (see above); coffee shop server; short-order cook—really anything in the food service industry; the occasional modestly soulful minister or flatly benign teacher.

*The city will be a fun place to visit, and an evil place to live.

New York, Chicago, and most other major US cities will look surprisingly clean and Canadian from up-close. Indeed, “the City” should be by-and-large the same generic nowhere metropolis—charming, whimsical, surprisingly clean, and ultimately empty. Think cold, blank modernism, aggressively flat and linear, a sterile backdrop of concrete, glass, and metal. This is a place where Steve Jobs might have designed his sarcophagus.

Moreover, should “poor”-type people be shown living in “the City”—being strictly main characters who will eventually not be poor—their apartment/unspecified dwelling place should be impossibly large and unaffordable by contemporary American standards, as well as free of the inevitable mice and cockroaches and full of a cutesiness to rival, well, a Hallmark store. (Indeed, every angle of the place should read like a display window.) Needless to say, these characters’ clothes should appear clean, well-sized, and up with the latest fashions—as if they each had a personal shopper at the Gap. These plucky characters may be struggling, but through some invisible benefactor they have never had to look less than middle class. For these reasons—their essentially immaterial financial straits and their apparent occupation of the increasingly mythic middle class—such characters are perhaps the most fantastical of all in the Hallmark Canon, and therefore the hardest to pull off. Window dress your urban scenes with caution.

*Small town and countrified living are closest to godliness.

In fact, rural, so-called “middle” America in Canada is practically down the street from the pearly gates (atop of which, one presumes, there sits a Gold Crown, and dangling from that perhaps a Snoopy Keepsake ornament). Certainly they share the same county as the Heavenly Neighborhood. Indeed, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of setting in Hallmark Christmas movies. It is arguably the most ubiquitous trope in the oeuvre. And while it would be an insult to quality to call the setting “a character in its own right,” this essential recurring place-type does bear certain “characteristics” and does help to harbor a certain overall “personality” in the otherwise worldly world.

Like a genuine keepsake, these towns purportedly never change. The many faces and names that make it up will never leave—and if they do, they will surely return to it void from their mistakes of choosing career over family or love or sincerely baked goods, ready to be filled by those faithful, ambitionless stand-bys. Moreover, if they ever do leave, they will surely do so in their early twenty-thirties, and will return before they have had the chance to forget their past or to age beyond their attractiveness.

These humble, down-to-earth communities may be goofy or slow or even backwards, but they will surely thwart the outsider. They will make him to rage with a cheerful quirk. They will shatter his power-posing with sprinkles. They will cast burning cocoa upon his head.

*Quaintness is most of “what Christmas is all about.”

Though there will be two higher meanings than this (see the final star below), they will not be all that much higher after all. You see, the common “spirit” that glows to a glare through every Hallmark Christmas movie will be one of quaintness—that is, quaintness of a kind. It will not be quaintness in the original, now-obsolete sense, as in “expert” or “skilled.” It will be quite close to the more current usage, as in “pleasingly or strikingly old-fashioned or unfamiliar,” except that the “old-fashioned” will be modernized, and the “unfamiliar” will be assimilated into an embattled hegemony. It will be quaintness co-opted.

On a superficial level, this normative quaintness will be the true source of the thoroughgoing presentability and cutesiness I’ve discussed above. It will also come out in gags and jokes that offend no one and delight just as many. It will create novelty professions—jobs like woodworking, interior design, and jack-of-all-trades for the family ski lodge; the dual appointment to local innkeeper and mayor of the entire town; owner and proprietor of a whole slew of possible shops and restaurants; and, my personal favorite, the position of department store Santa for plucky single mothers[4]—and it will churn out a fair number of glorified hobbies—like ice sculpting, candy making, or gingerbread baking and architecture—all of which will serve to give the customary base an original seeming and easy to remember flavor.

“Which Hallmark movie do you want to watch?”

“Oh, how about the one with the firefighter who falls in love with the volunteer veterinarian who’s also a non-traditional student? You know, the one about the cat-lovers? You know, the one about the couple who connect in the grocery store while talking about paint shades?”

(This is also a good time to brush up on some character writing basics: arrange your traits like a gift basket of trending interests. These are people made more by a commodity culture than their own choices.)

And if all else fails, insert a gazebo.

(It helps if you strangle it with lights.)

Or, better yet, a Christmas tree farm.

(Yeah you are, fam.)

However, on a deeper level, this quaintness will carry a greater moral import. It will be the image and likeness of plain goodness, giving all “wholesomeness” an absolute appearance. Through quaintness, the viewer will be able to locate the spiritual in the literal, and stop at the outward sign. There will be pre-selected schemes—of colors, of clothes, and, beneath it all, of inbred nationality and culture—that “the spirit of Christmas” must choose to dwell within, and they will be of the most standard and bland forms of the “pleasingly old-fashioned.”

Quaintness will take part in a light and frothy Manichean battle between good and evil—or good versus badness, anyway. After all, the recurring narrative in practically every Hallmark Christmas movie will pit the small town against the metropolis, the rural against the citified, the traditional against the modern. Like all genuine manifestations of quaintness, the good and pleasant people and places and things will stand apart from the big, bustling, bullying world. They will go on truly living and loving, forgotten by or simply risible to the hyper-professional, money-hungry, grudge-hugging, sorrow-loving masses, until “just the right moment” when their humble truth should appear like a CGI sparkle-swipe across the screen. But unlike truly quaint things, these small Hallmark towns will actually hold a broader populace beyond their modest cast of extras. Over these sleepy little villages will loom a large minority that often calls itself “majority.” For in these cozy zones you will find a dimension of forgotten values inhabited by 110 million viewers.[5]


*The movie will have no other gods but family and comfort.

These will be those twin highest meanings in every movie. They will be the source, power, and end to make these holiday cards live and move and have their blandest being.

First, “the family.” Christmas will almost invariably be about “being with the people you love”—i.e., the people you already accept, or the people you have come to fall in love with. All roads will lead to the family room. All paths will lead to where you come from, not to where you are going. Where you are needed is where there is no need. All Christmas dreams will come true—being about that togetherness of especially similar people. Indeed, the power of family and certain close friends will be a very special revelation. For in truth you need your family and friends more than the future and its potential strangers need you, and vice versa. For your family is proof that you are already saved, though you may not know it. Though the world may distract you, and though you may forget, the family (often under its tetragrammaton of “home”) will surely remind you. It will redeem you from the loveless world, and shut its door between you and it. The world should be so blessed to have a family like yours.

And yet, beyond this heaven of the family looms the ever-present eminence of comfort. For even the exalted family (and some friends) of the story will function as so much furniture for the site of comfort to arrive. Words like “home” and “family” and “love”—and, of course, the overarching label of Christmas itself—are really just symbols for the state of oblivious safety that is viewership. And beneath this obliviousness is that blessedness of the couch.

Thus, through the plenary power of all the sentimental moments and greeting card platitudes, these movies will make to viewers a bold, if covert, claim that not even the Bible dared—a claim that the Israelites were too busy with exile to pay any mind to, and that Jesus was too much of a careerist to admit: that TV ownership is, in some sense, ultimate.

Do You See What I See?

“To an open house in the evening / Home shall men come, / To an older place than Eden / And a taller town than Rome. / To the end of the way of the wandering star, / To the things that cannot be and that are, / To the place where God was homeless / And all men are at home.” -G.K. Chesterton, “The House of Christmas”

“We own Christmas and we are going to do it in a bigger way and a better way and really speak to the spirit of the season that I don’t think any of our competitors do.” – Michelle Vicary, Vice President of Programming, Hallmark Channel[6]

* * *

I hope that I have made clear enough why I occasionally enjoy and highly distrust Hallmark Christmas movies. Taken individually, they can be pretty good bad movies. Taken corporately, they are very terrible tradition. They may be occasionally acceptable as larks, but they would be totally unacceptable as liturgy. This may seem like a painfully obvious thing to say, but consider, again, the plainly Babel-sized public that frequents these channels, and in so doing has helped to build up Crown Media to the towering giant it is today. If “celebration” means to frequent or honor with time, these movies are well on their way to becoming new practice.

Now, I can imagine some people arguing that these superficially clean and family-oriented movies are “refreshing” and “a nice change” from the usual fare on television. I can attest that a soda sometimes is refreshing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Hallmark Christmas movie industry is very much like McDonald’s. For like McDonald’s, this industry provides easy, immediate pleasures with predictability and consistency. But just as it can play “comfort food” to our tired, hectic workaday selves, it can also bloat our sense of safety into a heavy, spiritless languor. In other words, in Hallmark Christmas movies I see a kind of situational consumerism, a craving for comfortable places and moments, which taken without moderation could one day contribute to a crisis in our inward health.

When I see a truly “good” movie, I see a new person or situation represented to me. I am “in a new place,” I am “transported,” as the platitudes go. When I leave a good movie, I take the new pattern of that represented person or situation with me, and so am a little newer myself. I come out of the theater changed in my thinking about what it means to be human, at least in some selective sense. I get up from the couch already stretched. Movies, in such cases, can give me safe opportunities for crisis, for challenge, even for intervention.

In the drama of a typical Hallmark Christmas story, one gets the feeling that nothing ever really was at stake, the endings being merely tidier versions of their beginnings. All loosening ends are simply tidied. The characters, as I’ve stated, make no real claim on our understanding of how life is lived, or might be. There are no real strangers in the Hallmark universe, and therefore no one is truly recognizable. There is no shock of likeness. There is only the nearly abstracted home and family, the alpha and the omega. Hallmark is in this airy heaven, and all is right with the world, because nothing was every really wrong with it. In effect, such movies call the viewer to stay on the couch.

Still, the biggest objection I can make against these movies is a necessarily particular one. It comes from my own personal understanding of tradition, which is maybe the most public form of privacy. When I speak from this perspective, I attempt to speak with others who seem to have seen the same Person from similar angles. This is all to say that my most effective criticism may not affect many besides the most likeminded.

But to me the story of Christmas is still too big not to try to tell. The Person of Christmas is someone I believe we can be, and the Place of Christmas is something I believe we can find and maybe even reserve. To call these two things “Spirit” is to ransom a stolen word, and to recall a reality beyond our elision.

But I do not find anything resembling the Person nor the Place of Christmas in Hallmark Christmas movies—unless it be through their absence. Indeed, if these movies can be said to have any sort of “spirit,” it is the same that suffuses every Thomas Kinkade painting. Everything is covered with that cottony kind of snow that seems to promise warmth, and everything glows with an empty light. The whole town is a shining surface, lacking depth, and nothing really lives behind those snugly shut doors.[7] At its worst, it is the illegitimate spirit that is born when a specious moral purity weds itself to an inveterate soulless prosperity. Hovering over every scene is a snow-white paraclete without any fire. When I am at my most prophet-like (or simply my sourest), I see these movies as playing Colgate to our enamel souls.

(The House of Christmas according to Thomas Kinkade. The electricity bill is astronomical.)

If I can speak of “we” with any good faith, I believe that we of the confessing sort have grown gradually silent—or muted, as it were. We have forgotten that we were called not to be comfortable, but to be comforted and to comfort. For the gift of Christmas is not a passive reception of ease or the confirmation of complacent safety. Nor is it a conceited privilege of irony. To say, “The gift of Christmas is the active stance of giving” sounds like an intellectualization of a cliché, so thoroughly have we turned the language of gift to selfish ends. To say, “The gift of Christmas gives us to further giving” sounds dangerously close to “the gift that keeps on giving”—or I am an abject cynic. Like all clichés, these statements are much too light, because they are too abstract—they do not tell us enough of how to give. They do not point so directly, like the Spirit of Christmas Present, and say, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.”[8] They do not say as plainly as Tiny Tim that to look at the crippled is “to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see”[9]–that ultimate optimism that sees power made perfect in weakness. But no matter how refractory we have grown to the words, this is the how of the “holiday celebration,” the holy day we are meant to frequent.[10]

Indeed, perhaps the greatest crime (in my mind anyway) that these movies are ultimately guilty of is the claim they almost all of them overtly make: that the “this” they present “is what Christmas is all about.” And, indeed, this sense of ownership over Christmas (see the second epigraph to this section) seems to run deep within the operations of Crown Media. It surely cannot be the attitude of that Vice President of Programming alone. They claim to have the key to the House of Christmas. In fact, they have even at times claimed to be its “Heart.”

And perhaps the greatest threat these movies pose is their success with a viewing, voting, and voluntarily praying public—stated otherwise, to American Christians. Now, this is a topic for another blog, and a blog for an entire book, but I will say here that over the past year or so, and in the form of many different quarrels and events, the so-called “Church” in this country has been faced with the crisis of its multiple allegiances. Some would say “dual,” but in truth the ties we have are much more legion—for within what it means to be an American (or a “Christian” for that matter) in the twenty-first century is actually less of a duplicitous service to two masters and—at least on our worst days—more of a subtle infection spreading over living hosts. Needless to say, we are casual celebrants of an empty church, the Church of Comfort. Such a congregation is too tasteful to approach the world’s mangers; such a sanctuary is too inoffensive to take up any kind of cross.

This is not to say that every Christmas movie should necessarily feature a nativity scene, or even have one somewhere in the background. It is my belief that many if not most of these nominal visuals present an empty manger. Still, I appreciate—or I want to be able to appreciate—that these sites of churchly kitsch at least tell the lesser literal truth of the manger, no matter how caricatured their Incarnation might be.

At the very least, the world of Hallmark is a very different one from the traditional world of Christmas, which, coincidentally, better resembles our national and global and historical situation. It is that world in sin and error pining which you can sometimes hear being sung of in the background as you shop. It is the story too close to history for comfort, that real-life drama which risks a thrill of hope.

I believe—which is to say that I have felt and thought, have experienced and considered, and finally have come to trust—that we find ourselves in a wonderfully difficult position. It is in fact that good old impossible position, which the church fathers and mothers knew long before Christmas ever stumbled merrily onto the scene. We bear the good news of knowing we must try to do justice to Justice itself when we ourselves are so unjust. We have the great joy of wanting, needing, to convey the Truth when we can sound so false to each other.

Perhaps that is why a self-acknowledging cartoon can say it so well—why, from the mouth of humbly two-dimensional boy with a blanket, standing alone in an awkward silence, the words of “what Christmas is all about” can still sound so convincing.

But then even this can fall under the Golden Crown.

* * *

Now, obviously Christmas has long been the victim of rampant commercialism—long before the earnest notice of that most humble cultural critic and schoolyard theologian, Charlie Brown. And it is in fact ancient hat to swap Christmas back for a popular, watered-down paganism. Some of this, I truly believe, stems from a quite sincere and wholly practical purpose in the long, dark winter months. Christmas is like fire to our created goodness when it has grown cold. Thanks to the medievals, the feast found in an old, heady, hearty heathenry the older mirth of being creaturely. But Christmas warms more than the earthly body: it feeds deep into those roots we set in time called memory. And it was, after all, the most ultimate form of memory of this time-bound life that created “God-with-us,” just as it was the most devoted form of memory of the Word that dwelled in flesh “among us” that handed down to us the Christmas story.

Thus, to disallow any or all of the particular (and more than merely material) traditions and trappings we humans have built up in celebration around this central meaning would be to cut ourselves off from the light that powers our growth, which in turn connects us to others. We cannot feed if we are starving. We are not called to be iconoclasts to nature so long as we call it creation. After all, as the most original Christmas story goes, it was in the body in all of its desperate fragility and capacity for comfort that the Creator visited creation.

But there is a further conclusion to the Christmas story. Its conclusion is much like its beginning. It explodes our little star of understanding, and ranges a whole universe from it. It states that there is a bigger body than “my own,” a broader family than “my own,” a greater love than “my own.” There is a further comfort, and a deeper home, which may seem farthest from all human reaching, which nonetheless encounters us in very flesh. The true meaning of Christmas doesn’t destroy our understanding of good things—which, according to the story, the divine appreciated before we ever did[11]—but rather stretches and expands far beyond our limitations. It realizes our likeness with the Original.

This is what I meant when I talked about that second, deeper optimism. To see a world of exquisite disappointment, of consummate incompleteness and consistent falsehood, is, I hope, to see more than what it isn’t. Perhaps this is why Christmas movies are so especially scandalous to me, for the Nativity seems to me a story of a surprise certain women and men never expected but always hoped for.[12]

This is why the only mild thing about Christmas is called “mercy.”[13] It is that good old traditional mildness that means warmth and gentleness, and paired with mercy it is the greatest surprise the earth has ever seen. For the mercy we have so long sung our ears numb to was once and still can be the most utterly needed, utterly unexpected thing. It flouts all cold logic of inevitable disappointment, and flies in the face of fallen seeming. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.”[14] To those who have the luxury of viewership in this existence[15], it covers the dead gray world with sudden brightness—indeed, not unlike the morning after snow; but this thief-like mercy would steal into even more of what we choose to view. For it seeks as family those whom we would leave unseen. It makes a home where no one ever would.

(The House of Christmas according to Rembrandt. While the baby Jesus shines quite strikingly, notice also how the humble lamplight serves to illuminate the rough surrounding of the stable even as it warms the soft faces of the people.)

We all know the beautiful phrase “good tidings of great joy” so well that it hangs in our air like a festive decoration. It has been a long time since many of us have had to hold a hope beyond optimism. It takes a true story to wake us up to the truth that is Ourselves beyond our current faulty copies and shameful mockeries, to that Humanity accomplished which we might attempt. May we soon find ourselves in the midst of such a story, all of us.


[1] This is what some have referred to as that often fun, sometimes snotty “ironic viewing stance” that younger people in particular love to take behind unisex glasses. The kind of “best worst movie” that inspires such a stance belongs to what some entertainment critics have called “paracinema.” For a brief discussion of these two topics (and how they relate to what many would deem the very best worst movie of all time), click here.

[2] And more where that came from: http://christmas-specials.wikia.com/wiki/Countdown_to_Christmas

[3] At least, all pre-the-year-of-reckoning-that-has-been-2017 star-power will be white. Perusing the latest line-up of Hallmark Christmas Movies, I have counted a record three movies featuring minorities in leading roles. The rest featured the usual exemplars of toothy, omni-manicured whiteness.

[4] This last and most peculiar vocation from my own particular favorite of the HCMs, “Christmas at Carwright’s.” It is, quite simply, the best of the “so bad it’s good” variety. There’s the wonderfully unbelievable premise—a buffoonish holiday As You Like It with bewilderment instead of wit working behind the gender-bending guise. There’s the novelty of seeing Wallace Shawn play an angel who talks to God on an outmoded cell phone. There’s the added appeal of seeing Shawn love his role as much as an aging man who’s been woken up mid-afternoon after working graveyard. There’s the joy of seeing a grown woman look constantly flabbergast behind a false beard, her eyes, caught between it and an over-furring wig, resembling those of a terrified Shih Tzu. There’s a lot here to fill a shamefully joyful season.


[6] Quoted in the E! News exclusive, “‘We Own Christmas’: How the Hallmark Channel Found Massive Success with the Holiday Spirit.”

[7] At least in terms of snow and landscape architecture, this comparison holds some water, I think. In a fair number of the Hallmark Christmas movies I’ve seen, there is a rather generous use of what might be called fow (as in fake snow, and pronounced just like faux), which gives off the remarkable impression of being an empty solid, like foam, and together with the shining, recently hosed-off pavements (which never freeze, despite the purported wintry air) looks like a live-action version of a Kincaid painting.

[8] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, from The Christmas Books, vol. 1, p. 108.

[9] Ibid., p. 94.

[10] These being the truer meanings of the words.

[11] Genesis 1:31.

[12] This is the world-weary, and therefore seemingly dogged, but actually childlike faith that Reinhold Niebuhr termed the “pessimistic optimism” of Christianity. See “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, Yale University Press, pp. 3-17.


[14] Luke 2:30-1.

[15] That is, that ontological spectatorship, having the time, the material wealth, and that peace of mind misnamed “comfortability”—in other words, all of those givens common in our “Christian” nation.

The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone

America has never been an Eden—unless you’ve found an alternative history or Bible. At least as far as I understand the past 200+ years, this nation has never been too long without some form of conflict. We’ve waged a revolution to gain our independence. We’ve suffered a Civil War to save our union, as well as our claim to anything approaching actual equality. We’ve entered—and in some cases initiated—many contests overseas, and we’ve sustained many disputes at home. In every case we’ve never fully agreed on the right and proper course of action, or even why we should act in the first place. Indeed, at times our concerns are so disparate, and so diametrically opposed, and so asymmetrically proportioned, that in some very real sense it is absurd for me even to use the word “we.”

Still, by many countries’ standards, I think that the United States does excel at having a high volume of public opinion, and that volume may be said to represent a kind of consistency. “We” have tended to speak as if we were all directly involved in our country’s many doings. And this is good, and this is true, if we take our democratic ideals seriously. In some generic sense, at least, we have often communicated to each other with urgency and utmost concern, as if something deeper than our lives depended on it. This is also good and true. It is absolutely necessary: the moment we stop speaking to each other will inaugurate a kind of death not even the Civil War could accomplish.

And yet, lately I am finding, inside of myself and around me, a new sense of urgency and a new form of involvement—which is to say, a new form of communication. (By “lately” I actually mean the past decade or so, which is relatively “new” even in the American scheme of things.) As I’ve already mentioned, this past election season threw our new forms of democratic participation into stark relief for me, and I’ve spent many an idle moment and post mulling over what it means to be an American on 21st century social media. One commonality has stood out significantly to me. Now, I am aware of the dangers of neutralizing through generalization; and I don’t think equivocation is a productive way to solve a plurality of detailed problems. But by my lights, to be an American at this moment means (among multitudinous other things) to have a sense of urgency, and this urgency, as I see it, is to react—as quickly and clearly and absolutely as possible. It seems to me that we have a virtual sense of duty to a socially mediated nation.

Now, I want to make it clear from the get-go that I am not gainsaying the reality of our problems themselves. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the most bedeviling problems our national discourse faces is unfortunately the persistent debate about the veracity of many of our “issues” instead of any thorough discussion about possible strategies for approaching and ameliorating them. However, I believe that the habits of thinking that we have acquired through the employment and maintenance of social media as our major—perhaps our primary—venue for communication are novel, untested, and sometimes troubling, and therefore all the more in need of consideration. In myself in particular, I have noticed these habits influence my cognition and my decision-making with such an immediacy that they might as well be reflexes. And so, at the very least, I write in the hopes of seeing just how much of me has changed, and whether those changes reflect, enhance, or shatter that person I would like to call “myself.”


My Country, ’Tis of Me—Virtually

We have always had things we care about deeply, but now we have things we care about quickly, hastily, and flagrantly. We have had fervor before, but now we carry it in our pockets. I myself have felt the wriggling anger in my muscles at a person or post that flies in the face of my morals. Sometimes I truly believe that someone has broken with my understanding of our democratic code, and that person henceforth stands out in my mind as a real and present threat to my America—even though, being represented in their tiny picture and limited text, they are at most an icon of a threat. Now, there may be a real point to the notion that anyone who speaks an unconstitutional word stands in danger of representing a rhetorical threat, which we should oppose and resist rhetorically in order to protect the rights of ourselves and future others; but nowadays I find that the sense of duty, the sense obligation, to rebut any such speech has been intensified to the point of necessity. I don’t just want to rebut them—I want to rebuff them, completely, and within the panting seconds. Such a reply would be an immediate defeat of them—whoever they are. Such a defeat necessitates a more brazen language.

We wage a war of opposing reports all the time. We keep an uncountable tally of strident headlines everyday, sometimes by the hour. “Such-and-Such Politician CRUSHES Some-Other-Politician.” Or, in the place of “CRUSHES,” we’re just as liable to see “DEFEATS,” “BLASTS,” “HUMILIATES,” or “SLAMS.” (Or, in the case of today, “SCREWS.”) I confess that I have enjoyed a sense of smug satisfaction at seeing some individual or group called a name—and in our 2017 currency, many of our labels have the same value as epithets—even though my tradition and resources, not to mention my experience of myself, tell me this can’t sum up the full complexity they face (or choose not to face). No matter how aptly the term at this time may circumscribe their faults, and no matter how they in their faults may insist on reducing themselves, in the inalienable processes that they indisputably are, individually and circumstantially, they always retain the possibility of changing their minds.

With this unceasing reportage and this inveterate sense of embroilment, I have come to realize that I have my own virtual nation inside of myself, and I have a sense that others contain their own virtual nations as well. Really, mine takes the form of many versions, depending on how I feel and who I talk to, what I’ve read and what day of the week it might be. This virtual nation of mine materializes most on my screens, but it continues on in particular forms, colors, and textures (or lack thereof) inside my mind, and often behind my foremost thought-life. It has primed me to witness and respond to virtual national conflicts. It has even trained me to search for them.

Of course, we all have different narratives with which we veil the world. Sometimes the pattern will match some portion of the phenomena we come to face—perhaps we have woven it from carefully observed experience—but other times the images we’ve rendered and reinforced for ourselves prove all too turbid not to blind us to the facts, whatever they are, leaving us to wander disappointed and perplexed in search of the story we thought we were in. Often—too often—we become frustrated and grope after easy answers. These narratives can be temporary, like the anticipation of how a birthday party will go, or the fear of speaking to one’s in-laws or boss. Or they can be long-lasting, like the jagged figure a person cuts when they hold beliefs sharply opposed to one’s own.

But through this virtual national narrative—at least in my experience—reality roils with how I think or believe things should be and how they seem to be on social media. It is steady, turbulent type of cognition, an oil-and-water stream of consciousness. The shapes of my ideas may be constantly changing, flowing into new forms, but the pattern of the media is disruptive, yet statically so. I see too many people only as explosions of propriety or, perhaps more commonly, as furtive suspects of injustice. Either way, according to my socially mediated instinct, the people around me are probably complicit of something they should be abashed about. But most peculiar of all is that this newly born virtual nation of mine calls me to enact it, and react for it, constantly. I am duty-bound to do something about all these ideological fires people are setting; I have to rush out this instant to my finger tips and with a fervid tapping correct the erroneous-to-the-point-of-harmful opinions I will almost never hear in the waving tones of a human voice. I may be at a patio table, drinking an iced coffee, reclining with the sun on my outstretched feet, but I am living in an eveningland of strife.


Streamed Consciousness: The Not-So-Silent, Not-So-Private Reader

Social media has become a very personal concern for me, not just because it proposes to be news, but in large part because it has become such a pervasive form of reading. Like any reading practice, it can’t but influence the way we think and write, think and speak, think and see, think and behave. Thus, even as social media informs me of the world, it inevitably forms me like itself.

On emotional, epistemological, and relational levels, I struggle with the “information” delivered to me and with my handling of it. The things I want to click on and post and repost only serve to reinforce my hardening patterns. The people I want to affirm are a semi-conscious select society, and hardly a surprise to prejudicial thinking. I worry that I am in danger of depriving myself of the personal enlargement that can only happen when the self encounters and absorbs novel difference, whether through literature or through first-hand contact. In person, I have seen myself watch the stream of someone else’s speech for any resemblance to those unsayable infractions I have read about so often. I search the screen of their face already reading incorrectness or opposition. It is now an incipient habit of mine sometimes to regard family and friends as potential strangers to my uninhabited sphere of moral purity and to see strangers of certain seeming as known adversaries in an ongoing exchange we have never personally started.

Perhaps the most vexing aspect of this is actually the “reality”—really the realities—that these social mediations point to. The “content” of the reading, at the most basic level, is often indeed a real-world problem, and therefore right and proper cause for concern. However, the ways in which the problem is mediated is itself problematic. Each event is made a tiny object in the flowing stream of myriads. Upsets, scandals, and catastrophes rush alongside each other until they are replaced by the next hour’s surge. This is what we have now grown accustomed to calling “information overload.” But just how this reality affects our relationship to ourselves individually and collectively, both near and far, and to our devices, now closer to us than ever, should give us pause.

For me, the crisis has often been normalized. The situation, whatever it is, has been shrunk down to a story, which I in my haste often shorten to a headline, and the issue has been turned into a sensation. In other words, in this fast and furious war of images and text, far ranging but far from first-hand, the media is marching on.

To what degree does social media more often inform me of itself, of its unslakable thirst for attention, than it does about the world’s many goings-on? If I can hazard an overarching estimation, I suspect that the media is winning more than anyone else, certainly much more than “the people,” and that necessarily includes the executives who benefit so astronomically from the business of mediating everyone. Insofar as I can safely speak of “the media” as a monolith, I think this is true—and, really, we do entrust our synapses to some pretty big names behind the wires. Perhaps this is why ours is an increasingly singularizing culture. Single issues play the role of household names, until another issue comes to replace them a day or week or hour later; scandals unite people in chatter just like the new Coke. Single people often play the hero-villain to our sense of the many-storied world, setting verbal fires like Iago. When one person seems to charge across our screens, it is because the media has gladly followed the trail of misdeeds and the piles of ill-repute; for its food is pure attention, and it is by nature a scavenger. To what degree do we ourselves—we human beings who supposedly run or at least uphold the media—become scavengers of stories, regurgitating them for each other in some mash of vague verbatim?

Certainly the media is not merely a runaway juggernaut raging inside of a vacuum—there do remain real human beings behind it, who have created it and continue to run it. There remain the people like you and me who perpetuate its work. Theoretically, I think, the media could serve other incentives, should we ever show a corporate desire for depth and dialectic. We could readjust our systems to support further consideration and keener connection, if only we were not so geared toward fracture and estrangement. And so, yes, the media has run away with itself. But we are doing the chasing.

And I believe we are becoming more like it everyday. I can see the image of my screen reflected in myself. Take, for instance, my use of language to attempt to respond to some awful event or action. Back in the days before my smart phone ever possessed more than my pocket, a news story would loom in my thoughtlife for much longer a duration before I ever responded to it. Or, if I did respond to it, it was through that original “face time” with real people talking together in-person (look at all those qualifiers to point to basic conversation). Perhaps most striking of all, back then the thought never once crossed my mind to make some official statement to some personal public. I had none back then. Instead, I would store the story up inside my brain alongside other likewise tragic or frustrating or confounding memories. Consternation could make connections to King Lear; fear, if it was fear, could have a network through extended contemplation that would stretch out to Isaiah and the Psalms.

Now, I’m not saying that this doesn’t or can’t happen nowadays. But at least for me-myself it’s happening less often and, when it does, with much more time and effort. When I see something that I would find truly morally outraging if only I were to sit with it to think and feel it through—to honor it like the throbbing thing it is—my first instinct is to click, and post, and leave a two-word caption—an adverb and an adjective intended to denote real outrage that end up devoid of any impact through the oft-repeated formula. How deeply disturbing is “Deeply disturbing!” to a reader when they have seen it at repeatedly pedestrian times—while eating cereal, and also while waiting for a bus, and also while sitting on the toilet—and while doing other everyday mental tasks—while looking at movie times, and also while texting someone back, and also while thinking about a work thing? In my better moments, I have a passion enough for a will to actually refuse to let this sophisticated handful of sand reduce my language to mundanity. In my off-times, when my hands are busy and my eyes are free to open thinking, I contemplate being someday better able to pray and work and work and pray to keep the floods of social media from washing away the images of living people and their troubles in its anonymizing froth.


The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone—Sometimes

It should be clear by now that I have major qualms about participating in social media, even if only as an on-looker. Indeed, I sincerely believe that it has a pernicious potential, both morally and cognitively, which is also to say relationally. If this present period is any indication, social media has the power only to exacerbate the more negative tendencies of human beings residing close to conflict. Within political disputes, this form of communication often seems best suited for divisive, retaliatory language, for the spreading of speedy comment about minimal information or thought. I personally have taken many a “social media sabbath” and considered myself far better off. I can often say to others with full impunity, “You could do worse than drop your phone in the toilet.”

And yet I hold inside of myself an abiding belief in “democracy,” and a firm conviction that this term requires discourse to be anything approaching a reality. Beside, behind, and below the many disembodied pundits I give internal ear to, I also hear the voices of certain principles I was taught to believe I shared with others. More ingrained than my American original sin of an Eden affronted, a lapse into pre-democratic hostility, even more inherent than the image of my virtual America, is the far older Image that I bear and share whether I know it or not. Both of these sources teach me to do more than watch and judge. Both teach me to speak and act when injustice, rhetorical or otherwise, is being done to the people and the Person. How then could I do nothing?

My internal dispute in a very small way resembles to me a much greater and much more public one that occurred last century between two famous brothers. They too subscribed to foundational American principles of democracy and freedom, union and independence; and these two men were already at this time figures of sterling theological reputation. Both were considered major authorities on matters of personal faith and the just society, and the relation between the two; neither one of them agreed with the other on the proper way to react to a major international conflict.

The two brothers were H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr. The conflict was the mounting war between China and Japan in the early thirties. The dilemma was the published debate in The Christian Century between the two brothers over intervention: should the US step in and put a stop to the enormities of the Japanese empire? What did it mean to be an American and a Christian reading a newspaper constantly reporting real atrocities?

In his piece, “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” H. Richard Niebuhr viewed the fighting across the Pacific as a quagmire untenable for foreign aid. He fully empathized with the heated desire to go and act in a real, effectual way—but what could an average citizen, or even a church congregation, or even a whole denomination, do? How could the proponents of human freedom and human salvation possibly do their work in the middle of literally dehumanizing contests? Thus, writing to a socially conscious, ethically motivated readership, and as a social ethicist himself, H. Richard gave voice to a prevailing sense of moral consternation.

“[W]e are eager to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do. We pass resolution, aware that we are doing nothing; we summon up righteous indignation and still do nothing; we write letters to congressmen and secretaries, asking others to act while we do nothing. Yet is it really true that we are doing nothing. Yet is it really true that we are doing nothing? . . . When we do nothing we are also affecting the course of history.”[1]

For H. Richard, there was nothing potentially liberative, either politically or religiously, that could come from spreading wider the violence of war. “The problem we face is [thus] between various kinds of inactivity rather than of choice between action and inaction.” To H. Richard’s lights, there were ways in which the church, both individually and collectively, could still embody the kingdom of God as Christ does in the Gospels. This was through faith in God. As H. Richard himself admitted, the option was not an attractive one for a modern American Christian. “It appears to be impracticable because it rests on the well-nigh-obsolete faith that there is a God—a real God.” How could one sit still when the press was running with the furies of the world? But for H. Richard, and for anyone who took the theology proper of Protestantism seriously (and really for anyone who took the claims about the total freedom of God in scripture—the God of the prophets and Jesus—seriously), there was always a living God working with or without human participation. Grace—that freest, fullest reality—could and would continue to create a very real connection between the life of the soul and the life of the world.

And so for H. Richard the duty of the Christian, American or otherwise, was at such a time as this to take up the cross of helpless inaction. From there the faithful could leave behind the often all-too-worldly impulse toward doing something and work quietly inside of the faith that something was “being done.” Such a faith opened up a worldview of “the total divine process” in human history, in which the tumultuous flow of events could hold a reciprocal communication with “human thoughts and prayers.”

For Reinhold Niebuhr, however, inaction was not the only possible option—and it was not, in fact, the most appropriate or crucial one. While he admired and largely agreed with the “pure love ethic” at the heart of his brother’s position, Reinhold nevertheless did not believe that such an ideal “can ever be made the basis of a civilization.”[2] No nation, no individual could realistically accomplish the impossible standard of a literal, Christlike “ethical perfectionism”:

“All this does not prove . . . that we ought to apply the words Jesus, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ literally. If we do we will never be able to act. There will never be a wholly disinterested nation. Pure disinterestedness is an ideal which even individuals cannot fully achieve, and human groups are bound always to express themselves in lower ethical forms than individuals. It follows that no nation can ever be good enough to save another nation purely by the power of love. . . . [T]he ethical and spiritual note of love and repentance can do no more than qualify the social struggle in history. It will never abolish it.”

For Reinhold, God did indeed move and work through the lived processes of history; but God did not surprise history out of its undeniable logic—or, at the very least, God did not participate in history without calling into it other participants. “[A]s long as the world of man remains a place where nature and God, the real and the ideal, meet, human progress will depend upon the judicious use of the forces of nature in the service of the ideal.” It was up to God to reveal the ideal of perfect love; it was up to human beings to perceive it, to adjust their failings in the hopes of coming a little closer to it, and to hope for the day when grace would finally achieve it. To Reinhold’s lights, the only option for the person hoping to avoid any actual fault or failing led to “asceticism or apocalypticism.”

In truth, the two theologian brothers agreed on a fair number of fundamentals. In their estimation of the situation, and their analyses of the divine and human places within it, they were thoroughly protestant. But where H. Richard emphasized divine sovereignty apart from human agency, Reinhold stressed immanent grace within and despite human endeavors.

I find that both positions are instructive for a consideration of how to act on social media. While there are obvious limits to comparing the grand-scale quandaries surrounding one nation’s potential military intervention in the Pacific theater with the more pedestrian issues arising from a casual-to-constant participation in socially mediated disputes, both circumstances yield the question of the benefits and detriments of involvement—to act or not to act (virtually or otherwise); and, indeed, in my mind at least, the sense on social media has been one of intervention—the confrontation with a somewhat threatful piece of news or rhetoric. To my mind, we very definitely do consider virtual things actionable, if only in a virtual sense.

This means, to me, that we must cultivate a virtual form of social ethics. We have long kept a skeptical eye on the Internet—and it has arisen to the forefront somewhat recently—but the question (or, for some, crisis) of our socially mediated morals should always be in our minds. I would like to submit—at least at this point in my life and thinking about the subject, and in my most current participation in the national, public moment—that we strive toward a more dialectical understanding of social media.

This means having a more critical awareness of the many ways in which we participate in social media and how it continues to influence our thinking and decision-making. I find the Niebuhr brothers, taken together, can illustrate a helpful balance of human possibilities on social media—perhaps some of them largely untried—and of human limits in any digital action, individually or collectively.

Already there are ways in which our social media has shown that “life in history,” even digital history, “must be recognized as filled with indeterminate possibilities.”[3] Some of the positive possibilities of this technology have long been documented—from its very beginning, for instance, it has been a place of rapidly successful connectivity. Without the collaborative formation of a “Broad Community,” the further sharing of information between disparate peoples across enormous distances would never have occurred. To take perhaps one of the most realistic (read: non-virtual) and positive applications social media has had recently (and maybe ever), the successful passage and settling of many refugee families have been thanks to the rapid spread of information between other newly displaced families. Refugee teens, who are facing an even greater threat to their whole selves at a time of already fragile identity, have been able to build a special kind of resiliency through social connections, many of which have been aided and enhanced through online communities.[4] And, not unrelated, the free spread of and access to information from across the globe has helped to “lift the veil” of stories that otherwise might have gone unnoticed or been kept covered up, giving rise to “new ways of understanding.”[5] Indeed, in these examples alone, social media appears to be a “place” of seemingly innumerable and potentially ameliorating possibilities.

And I do really believe it can be. I still believe we can turn our weapons back into tools, our screens back into lenses. In this glass we can find a peculiar kind of mirror. Its images can change if we do. On a national, public level, this could mean challenging ourselves to try heretofore unexplored ways of communicating with each other. We have shown ourselves plenty of what we can do with the speed and efficiency of the internet; but I wonder at how much further we could fill it with thought. Our technology has encouraged us to be clear and concise—about as perspicuous as caution tape, and about as thoughtful. Now we might encourage ourselves to be assiduous and self-examining. From the presses came both scandal sheets and Leaves of Grass. Thus, to speak on a very practical level, perhaps we could show ourselves more just, by affirming more than negating (when the time is right), by reminding more than renouncing, by asking, and listening, before we choose to react. Social media really could be a place where we connect with other selves, and find our own selves growing larger.

But this will have its limits, and I believe there are real dangers if we ever invest social media with anything like a salvific potency. As Reinhold, looking back on the failures and catastrophes of the twentieth century, recognized, “[E]very effort and pretension to complete life, whether in collective or individual terms . . . every desire to stand beyond the contradictions of history, or to eliminate the final corruptions of history must be disavowed.”[6] Just as we enjoy and can further explore the myriad possibilities of social media, we also increasingly risk ironic limitations to any thoroughgoing digital lifestyle. Our enhancement can become entrenchment. Our human powers can become post-human bugs.

I have already covered a number of ways in which this already has been true for me. But I would like to highlight some issues that I believe pose a problem for our very natures, and for our future being.

The first of these is obviously the baneful nature of our political discourse. Just a cursory Google search of “social media and political discourse” will bring up headlines like “The Toxicity of Online Political Discourse: How Platforms Are Poisoning Our Conversations” and “How Social Media is Ruining Politics” show just how rancorous and besetting our exercises in communication have been of late. The good news is that we are conscious of our failings. The bad news is that the consciousness of them will become banal to us—we may make the threat to online discourse anodyne by posting so much and doing so little about it.

Indeed, I worry that our hatred of each other has become too much like entertainment. There are real reasons to worry about this. Inherent in the operation of the media are the drives of curiosity and excitement, fear and scandal; more deeply inherent in all of these is a strong self-interest—we watch that news segment at the airport because it interests us, because knowing more about it will give us something to talk about, sound smart about, or feel threatened and therefore, by a more animal logic, feel provisionally safer from. Our instinct to know is not a bad thing—until it is mixed with pure spectatorship. We wouldn’t watch a movie (at least, most movies) and take it as a personal, actionable threat to our ideals or selves. But this is exactly what we do. And there are people who know this, and profit from it. They are in the business of our contempt; their success currently depends on our willingness to click on rancor.[7] They are what Reinhold called the wiser “children of darkness,” who prey on the foolish “children of light”:

“The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the power of anarchy in both the national and the international community.”[8]

I fear that we have somewhat of an “ideological taint” in us that keeps us believing in our current modes of discourse as effective, and from seeing the “moral cynicism” that often more truly propels it.

But even our ability to discourse itself and the deeper abilities behind it—of reading and thinking and expressing ourselves—are already showing signs of real change for the worse. A recent study from UCLA is but one of many waving a red flag about our self-consumption in digital culture: “As technology has played a bigger role in our lives, our skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined, while our visual skills have improved.”[9] The ability to think and imagine, that leaping of the mind beyond the eyes’ seeing, is what Calvin associated with the soul. We will have to think seriously, and work carefully, to prevent ourselves from losing it.

To speak again very practically, I believe (and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me) that we could do a hell of a lot worse than to make concerted returns to good old-fashioned book-reading. Studies continue to show that reading real books is the age-old, time-tested enhancement of consciousness. Certainly, as stories like those of the recent refugees illustrate (and a many million others), information is important, sometimes crucial, to how we freely determine ourselves. The spread of digital literacy may have similar socially liberating properties as standard literacy had in manuscript and print cultures.[10] But it will also always be the classic—perhaps even canonical—mode of private self-exploration and –expansion. In books we find a reciprocal relationship between ourselves and a person far away or long gone. We may disagree with what we find, but the mental investment of having to find in the first place precludes any easy or flippant response. We have already made the opposite person’s meaning by paying our mind to the incarnate print. (John Milton happened to think that a good book so much bore the imprint of the person that made it, that it could rightly be considered “the image of God, as it were in the eye.”)[11]

On an even more personal level, the benefits of private, silent reading of real books is really immeasurable. There is the growing perspicacity it affords. There is the mental clarity—what Samuel Johnson meant when he said, “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant.” There is extension of lived experience through imaginative identification. There is nothing quite like reading vivid fiction. Whether through large characters or flat shimmering types, through a vast and crowded panorama or one lonely solipsist, fiction gives us a safe unbounded space to inhabit unmet humanities. This of course has the very germane social benefit of fostering empathy in the reader. But it also has the neurological benefit of engendering “cognitive reserve,” that extra map of synapses so instrumental in staving off the effects and behaviors of Alzheimer’s disease.[12] In other words, reading in this mode nourishes our memory, which is, after all, where we do all of our thinking in this flow of time. In other words, reading may keep us from losing our souls—for at least a little longer.

Now, there are many, many other things we could be doing instead of staying on our phones—talking with our dinner companions, for one; going for walks and finding new birds, for another; taking a bath, learning guitar, even writing our name might be better, at times. But I hope it is clear that what I am looking for—first and foremost in myself—is a dialectic, a balance, in this technology to often going overboard. There is a grace to doing nothing on your phone—sometimes.

I would like to hold a more chastened view of social media, even when I affirm the viewpoints articulated in it. Both Reinhold and Richard hold a chastened appreciation for all human agency, and their writings help inform my thoughts on possible virtual actions. Certainly, neither one of them would deny that there resides a mysterious reality pointed to in the biblical phrase “the image and likeness of God,” a resemblance which should never be reduced and only all the more seen and portrayed. Both would second Calvin’s observation—really his proclamation—that “[m]anifold indeed is the nimbleness of the soul which surveys heaven and earth . . . Manifold also is the skill with which it devises things incredible, and which is the mother of so many marvelous devices.”[13] And yet both would aver that no matter how high humanity’s achievements may rise, now matter how far or much our devices may reach, there remains an unavoidable base “self-interest” behind even apparently high-minded endeavors. There can be an inescapable element of self-centeredness in every democratic program, virtual or otherwise, an inherent trait of fallenness in all religious works—again, virtual or otherwise. But beyond this arrogating self, there is also a vast, pluralistic universe whose multiplicity and complexity create conflicts that often thwart and dwarf any human enterprise. We will only continue to find limit at the end of our abilities. We will find that irony is, in Marilynne Robinson’s memorable phrase, only a little less pervasive in our universe than carbon.”

At his more pessimistic, Niebuhr believed that it was only after a real ironic experience of our limits had occurred that real productive change could happen. This change would originate in what he called “creative despair,” the real chastening. I hate to think of “the inducement of the ‘Godly sorrow’ which worketh repentance”[14] for the Internet—I cannot and do not want to imagine how that might happen. But my sources tell me that such points are unavoidable, and indeed history shows them to be fairly imminent. My sources also tell me that this is when hope and faith are most likely to be born into the world. We may only continue to hack ourselves to pieces of text, but we may be made new in our lowest points, by a Body and Breath and Word that we barely recognize.

My sources tell me that America, yours or mine, virtual or actual, is but another nation among many, that democracy is but another device of human making, and that actual freedom will one day be put to rest in the realest Freedom.

He rests wars to the end of the earth.

He breaks the bow and splinters the spear.

“Let go and know

that I am God.

I will be lifted in the nations,

I will be lifted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:9-10)

The word that I have rendered “rests” more technically means “causes to rest” or “makes rest,” and comes from the very same root as the word “Sabbath”; thus, the verse could in fact read: “He sabbaths wars to the end of the earth.” The verb famously translated as “be still” (from the Hebrew raphah) more literally means to “let go” or “let drop,” to relax one’s hold of something. It is often used in reference to the resting from work, the relinquishing of anger, or the weakening of might. Similarly, the verb often translated as “exalt” (from the Hebrew rum) more actually means to “be lifted” or “high,” to “rise” because of someone else’s doing.

My sources tell me of an end to conflict beyond human duty, but open to our participation. It is a time of letting go and raising up of a Peace surpassing all our devices.

(Photo credits: William Klein and Lisette Model.)


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Grace of Doing Nothing”: http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_theology_the-grace-of-doing-nothing; originally published in The Christian Century (March 23, 1932). All subsequent H. Richard quotes are from this article.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Must We Do Nothing?”: http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_theology_must-we-do-nothing; originally published in The Christian Century (March 30, 1932). All subsequent Reinhold quotes, unless otherwise cited, are from this article.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 2, p. 207.

[4] See: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/07/30/540002667/how-do-refugee-teens-build-resilience; and also: http://www.teenvogue.com/story/im-16-years-old-and-im-a-syrian-refugee.

[5] From Crisis, Exposure, Imagination: Lifting the Veils, eds. Jordan E. Miller, Craig Condella, and Fred Abong, p. 1. A sample is available here.

[6] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 207.

[7] At least with certain “news” outlets, I am in no way exaggerating. I will not point any fingers, but I hope you know what I mean. There are other ways to write of the world, even when people are making themselves scandals. The times I have hazarded a comparison of different platforms this has proven true—as true as the verifiable difference between television news and a documentary.

[8] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, pp. 10-11.

[9] http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/is-technology-producing-a-decline-79127

[10] To give one more recent example: as Toni Morrison points out, “literacy was power” to the newly emancipated but still culturally sub-human slaves, “a way of assuming and proving the ‘humanity’ that the Constitution denied them.” Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” from Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser, p. 189.

[11] John Milton, Aeropagitica.

[12] http://www.npr.org/2017/07/21/537016132/lisa-genova-can-alzheimers-disease-be-prevented

[13] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Ch. V, paragraph v.

[14] The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 206.

Out of the Mouths of Pop Stars

There is something really special about the forwardness of kindergarteners. They are always going outward in the burst of their beliefs—only to do a candle’s dance at the breeziest response. Their honesty is often halfway to the truth.

As five and six year old human beings, they typically straddle a threshold of development between the fluid and the firm, the personal and the social, the intuitive and the factual, the feeling and the concept. They live in an era of personal cartography, drawing clear-cut boundaries on the newly charted maps of their own worlds—little Alexanders of cognition. Indeed, even though it’s usually at this time that a child will leave the nebulous but porous realm of “parallel play” and enter the wide, definite, transactional world of “socialization,” the egocentrism is still strong, and other egos come as a shock. Sometimes, the confrontation with another “me” can have the smack of scandal. Why, with the entire world still throbbing out to me, should this stranger-kid stab it with their standing in my place in line? Thus, still overflowing with their first four years’ intuition, they lap and splash over the levies they have started which will form those narrow canals we call “learning.” Sometimes, when the storm is just right, they fairly wash it over with themselves. Believe me: as an early childhood educator, I have done some wading. A couple times a month I may be baptized by the flood.

But this liminality in kindergarteners provides for so many strange new things, some of them baffling, some of them wondrous. Continue reading “Out of the Mouths of Pop Stars”

Marilynne Robinson: Making the Given Great Again (Part 1)

There are many books I love that I would almost never wish upon my loved ones. When asked about these volumes (the rarest honor), I embark on a high and glowing encomium, only to slow down with wary admonition, and stop with a shrug. I feel the need to protect my friends and family from getting caught in Dickinson’s webs, for fear those words which are to me like continents of light will read to them like nought after nought after nought. I feel guilty for the length of half of my favorites. I only mention War and Peace if I am feeling the need to arrogate to myself a more Napoleonic status in the conversation; the same goes for The Brothers Karamazov and piety (or philosophical seriousness). I am overly apologetic about the generosity of Dickens. Bleak House is excellent, but it’s crowded full of characters, and those characters are so aspill with their own words—as if his Victorian, literary excess should make a mess of others’ tidy, twenty-first century brains.

But there is one author I frequently find myself wishing more people had read. One reason for this is aesthetic: she is accessible in the optimal sense. Whether through novel or essay, she writes of things available to common perception. She appreciates the capaciousness of common language—for instance, the potential inclusiveness of a word like “thing.” Her work consistently seeks to show the huge in the small, the unsaid in the said, the cosmic in the everyday. In this sense, she is a distinctly religious stylist: a positive puritan of prose, an inheritor of a long American estate of seeing the grand (or the Grandest) in the plain which we know best through Cather, Anderson, and Hemingway, but stemming even farther back than the prose of the King James translators to the Hebrew narratives from which it came. She takes nothing for granted, because she sees everything as given. No detail is spare; every word bears the meaning of considerable attention. This is all to say that, in the mercenary terms of commerce, the reader of this author’s work can receive abundant compensation for so little time and expense—if they have eyes to read it.

But another reason is more particularly social, even moral—perhaps I should say humanistic. This author represents, in her upbringing and background, her education and continued reading (or self-education), in her interests and commitments, an assemblage of identifications becoming less and less common in our society (or at least in our discourse). The labels she has chosen for herself overlap peculiarly, and together bear no easy summary. Sometimes they seem to press against and out of our small, symmetrical, isolated picture of political, intellectual, and religious identity. She shares commitments and interests beyond our expected boundaries. Her terms, taken together, resist the unhealthy satisfaction of pert association. It is for all this variety and contradiction of belonging that she is an individual.[1]

I am talking, of course, about the individual in my title, Marilynne Robinson. For about the past two decades she has been exemplifying all (and more) of the qualities I mentioned above. Her work serves to continue the multiple traditions she finds formative and instructive. However, it should be stated that, for all of her diverse influences, Robinson first and foremost identifies as a Christian and an American.[2] For all of the things she finds formative, these two are in some deeper sense normative. Nevertheless, like the totality of her labels, Robinson’s own Christianity and American-ness bear no easy summary. Those swift and simple associations that form the mind’s lazier morals will likely swerve to a stall in a variety of synaptic dead-ends. (Incidentally, these are the kinds of cognitive cliffs that William James identified as moments of truth.) Robinson’s work attempts to give those dead-ends firm and effective connections.

The things Robinson seeks to connect her readers with can be summed up, I believe, as the given. As her latest book of essays shows, Robinson regards all things as endowed with the quality of givenness. This givenness of things may be the unifying theme of all her recent work. More important, this move of Robinson’s to give connection to the given may be an important departure for American discourse itself—a departure that is in fact a return.

Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson: Making the Given Great Again (Part 1)”

Thou Shalt Remember

Sickness unto Rest

There’s a certain memory I do not want to remember. As you can see from my distancing language, I don’t even want to call it mine. But lately it keeps coming back into my mind—interrupting my thoughts at odd moments, and filling my attention when I happen to slow down.

The phrase that just came to my mind is “brought low.” Knowing what I don’t want to remember, I can see why.

Before I lived in New York, the words “brought low” would have had a ring of quaintness to them. I might have said the phrase in a kind of affectation, a blandly dramatic gesture that made vague fun of my self-centeredness. But at twenty-seven, with a masters degree in old books and the paginal equivalent of two theses to my name proving useless to the job market and more and more fruitless to myself; with so many scores of books and names and thoughts that formed the often shaking, sometimes crumbling sky-castled future I had built up in my mind; with two-households’ worth of student debt and a wage below a living; with viral tonsillitis in my throat and rancidity in my heart, I was, quite literally, brought low.

It was a sunny afternoon, and I was miserable. I was taking a quick break—really a panting respite—between my two jobs at the time. I had just entered “the workforce” and had found—I thought quite luckily, at first—a job teaching mornings in a Gifted and Talented third-grade classroom at a “High Achieving” New York public school. To attempt something approaching “supplemental,” I also worked afternoons as a mentor/“manny”-type to a preschool-age boy. Being my first year working in the school system, I quickly felt as if I was toiling beyond-time and falling sick semi-monthly. But as anyone who has worked multiple part-time jobs knows, sickness in such cases can be a kind of curse: you cannot rest for long, because you do not have the “time” (i.e. money) allotted to you; at a certain point, you may have to tax your health and simply shoulder through it, or else you face the extra tax and insupportable burden of empty hours and a shortened paycheck. What I had been struggling to carry, through too-many weeks of fever and sweat and pus and pangs, had turned my time into a desperate thirst for numbers. I drained my well-being to fill my timesheet. Continue reading “Thou Shalt Remember”


[For my mother.]

In the past year or so the word “great” has gained a peculiar currency. That currency may be starting to wane, at present, but I have continued to wonder what the term means for myself and others. For at least nine months I have been asking myself what greatness really looks like.

And what have I found? Continue reading “Greatness”

Pocket Picking

Pocket Pic

“They tell us that on the last day the sea will give up its dead; and I suppose that on the same occasion long strings of extraordinary things will come out of my pockets” (G.K. Chesterton, “What I Found in my Pocket”).

This is what I found in my pockets this week: keys, a pen, a wallet (mine), my cell phone, two bark chips, several wrung out flower petals (of unknown origin), a blue plastic bead, a ladybug hairclip (not mine), a Lego hand, and two broken pieces of white sea glass.

Who thinks about pockets these days? We take these poor, repressed, underpantsed things for granted.

When I stop to think about it, my pockets have always served me well. Without them, I would not be literally going places; without them I would not get home. I am convinced that on innumerable occasions they have saved my brow from the sweat of remembering, just as they have saved my mouth from admitting my poverty. I actually trust in my pockets. (In the case of money, of course, I trust my wallet as well. It is a double-coverage kind of faith.)[1] After all, a pair of pockets is a steadfast second set of hands.

But over the past several years, my pockets have begun to surprise me. In them I have noticed a new dual-importance growing. The first is vocational; the second is technological; both, you might say, are trans-personal. My pockets are connecting me to people.

The first is this: my work has involved my pockets in carrying more than my own personal effects. In teaching preschool- and kindergarten-age children, my pockets have become a veritable treasury of trinkets. Many’s the time I get an importunate hand pressing on my arm, with two round eyes leaning ever closer to me, and a little voice urging, “Hold this for me . . . Hold-this-for-me-please.” I only accept these miniscule burdens if the child doesn’t have any pockets of their own—if they are wearing a dress or sweatpants, or have those shallow, sewn-in flaps that hardly count (so why bother, Gymboree?)—or if the gewgaw in question would be safer with me—especially if it turns out to be Johnny’s mommy’s credit card, or Jane’s dad’s Masonic ring. But most of the time, when I take these tiny things upon myself, it is for the good grown-up reason that they are not appropriate in the activity or at school at all.

But lately—in truth, over the past decade or so—I have also noticed a presence in my pockets even more importunate—and, if it can be believed, even more imperious—than the nimbuses flaring from the children’s treasures. It has been burgeoning to a great concern, beyond an ingrained habit or a necessary evil, to the point of actual bodily care. It is my cell phone.

It rests in my pocket, but it emanates such an aura of utter relevance and necessity that I forget my very personal attachment to my pants. If I were to plunge into a lake, my heart would cry out for my phone, not my clothes or my life. Certainly not my hair. Were I to fall from a bridge, I am certain I would use the duration of the plummet to check if my phone was indeed woefully trapped in my pocket. I cannot completely disavow that the thought wouldn’t cross my mind of flinging it to the safety of dry land.[2]

(It’s not just me, of course. Whenever someone drops their phone the room gasps and flinches. The world watches in silent hopes of survival. If we happen to misplace our device, we sense the phantom phone inside our pocket or purse, despite what our fingers say. Sometimes it seems to me that the seat of my pocket, that place on my leg where a pocket has always resided, has now grown a mass in the shape of a phone. A sensory tumor.)

But it would be false to talk about my cell phone as a presence in my pocket without discussing what it really represents: people. Or, people of a certain sort. Indeed, I act as if I hold many people in my pocket. Some of them I communicate with directly, over literally long distances, as if they were virtually in the room; most of them I merely watch and scrutinize, or read as literal proofs of human errancy. To my mind they are manifestations of our “current situation,” which is always changing and ever increasingly urgent, sometimes doomsdayish. Whenever I have a free moment—even if it’s only an idle minute better spent staring into some suggestive texture on the wall—I pull these people out and try to “keep up.” Most of the time, when I am working or with real enfleshed people, I feel my cell phone’s clutches on me—a kind of vague and unwitting obsession with a thing that is merely sitting inside my pocket, yet a screen that is always promising to show me sign-people and threaded wonders. Continue reading “Pocket Picking”