Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Marrone, Martinez, Rutkoski

The Multiplying Menace
by Amanda Marrone
Recommended Ages: 12+

Ever since a freak birthday party incident involving a cake-flinging chimp, Maggie Malloy has tried to avoid saying the words "I wish." Who knows what would happen if people found out about her magic wishing powers? But then a wish slips out on the last day of fifth grade, and what with a class bully's hair turning into a swarm of cockroaches, Maggie gets expelled from school. Now, to enable her entomologist parents to visit the bugs of the Amazon, she has to move in with her Gram in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and try to get into an exclusive school for gifted children. Do they have classes for kids with her kind of gift? Maggie doesn't think so.

Nevertheless, Maggie wishes her way through the entrance exam and starts to play fast and loose with the rules of magic—not that anyone has bothered to explain them to her—in order to get by in the fast-paced environment of Black Rock School. She also discovers that her Grandpa was a partner in a magic repair shop which is still run by the other partner, a nice old fellow named Mr. McGuire. He recognizes her power and begins to teach her the ropes, including the funny and sometimes scary things you can do with glittering powders, mirrors, cauldrons, and wands. But learning magic, even as an after-school activity, is no cakewalk when Maggie has to balance the concerns of a genius best friend, a disapproving grandmother, a sarcastic rabbit, and the annoying "popular girl" in her class who somehow seems immune to mind-altering magic.

Meanwhile, a dark wizard has been hexing people, causing other magicians to disappear, and setting dangerous traps for Maggie and her friend Raphael. With everyone she has come to care about in grave danger, she must race to solve the mysteries swirling around a stage magician called Milo the Magnificent. Lions, snakes, swarms of wasps, magically multiplying bunnies, a black cat turned yellow, and the chilling danger of being trapped "through the looking-glass" are only some of the risks Maggie must run in her maiden adventure as a sixth-grade sorceress.

This book, not to be confused with the "Multiplying Menace/Math Adventure" picture books by Pam Calvert, is the first in a series titled "Magic Repair Shop." So far two more books have been added to this series: The Shape Shifter's Curse and The Master of Mirrors. Marrone's adult fiction includes, at this writing, four supernatural romance novels: Uninvited, Revealers, Devoured, and Slayed.

Monster
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 16+

This novel shares its one-word title with an award-winning teen novel by Walter Dean Myers, to say nothing of novels by Jonathan Kellerman, Frank Peretti, and Christopher Pike; plus various works of non-fiction and the Oscar-winning 2003 film starring Charlize Theron. Dallas-based author Martinez overcomes this handicap with the strikingly original move of making Monster the name of its main character (full name: Monster Dionysus): a freelance animal-rescue officer whose specialty is "cryptobiologicals"—which is to say, monsters.

Monster is a pretty average dude, like many twenty-something single guys you know. He has a skin condition that causes him to be a different color every time he wakes up. These flesh tones range from ordinary shades of red, blue, and green to more sophisticated hues such as goldenrod and scarlet; but with each color comes a different superhuman power, such as indestructibility, teleportation, the ability to fly or to glow blindingly bright for a few moments at a time. His sidekick Chester is a paper gnome, which is like a miniature origami man who can transform into a bird, an octopus, or (most conveniently) a square of paper that can fit into a shirt pocket. His girlfriend Liz is a demon from hell—a succubus, specifically—which means a more than satisfying sex life and a lot of help paying the rent; but it also means an eternity of freakish torment as soon as she catches him thinking about another woman. Just your average working stiff.

Monster doesn't make a lot of money capturing magical creatures, and it isn't just because he's a bit of a slacker whose memory for spells is so spotty that he has to look everything up in a rune dictionary before he can do it. But that's all right. At least he isn't like most people, "incognizants" who can't perceive magic at all because their minds automatically filter it out—or like Judy, a "light incog" who can see creatures like yetis and trolls when they're right in front of her, but who forgets them soon afterward.

Oh yes, Judy. I almost forgot to tell you about Judy. It all turns out to revolve around her. Things start to get out of control when Judy spots a yeti in the ice cream freezer at the supermarket where she works nights. She calls the city's animal control hotline, and they send over a very blue Monster to handle it, and so their rocky relationship starts. They never really hit it off, but after facing a giant many-legged Japanese beastie, a herd of goat people, a hydra, a dragon, and the crazy cat lady who rules the universe, they come to respect each other. More or less. But mankind is about to face an apocalypse and Judy is right in the center of it. Monster is a character and no mistake. But does have the character to help her save the world?

This is a quirky, comical, very adult fantasy adventure set in a present-day city near you. Readers who have outgrown Harry Potter will be drawn in by the magical scenario in which Judy snaps, "You're calling me a muggle, aren't you?... I'm not a dumbass muggle." And even though she kind of is, she is the key to resolving a cosmic conflict that has raged for eons—part of a concept of the universe that will make Douglas Adams fans wriggle with pleasure. Both "adult" and "occult content" advisories are in order, however, as concerned Christian parents will note if they preview this book for their kids. It contains some R-rated imagery as well as the type of magic that can, for example, result in a mortal and a demon shacking up together. Also, though angels and demons are in it, it takes place in an atheistic cosmos that has evolved and disintegrated countless times. And angels, though tough on evil, are easy. If you know what I mean...

Too Many Curses
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 13+

Nessy is the kobold in charge of the castle of Margle the Horrendous, the latest in a series of wizards she has served. This means that she spends a lot of time dusting gargoyles (some of whom have heroes magically trapped in them), mopping the floor beneath Walter the Wall (who talks in letters made of blood), and feeding Margle's menagerie of monsters such as the Thing that Devours and the Beast that Should Not Be (mostly the results of the wizard's ghastly experiments). It's a lot of work for a tiny, doglike person, but Nessy does it cheerfully and she does it well. At times Margle actually seems almost grateful. Nevertheless, when Margle brings home the seed of a nurgax—a one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple creature that devours the first person it sees after hatching, then imprints on the second—it is Nessy whom the wizard decides to sacrifice. But even great wizards slip up, and when Margle does he becomes the nurgax's first meal and Nessy becomes its mummy.

This book is mainly about what happens after the wizard's demise. Nessy finds herself the mistress of a castle full of the wizard's former enemies, who remain transformed by an imaginative variety of curses. Some have been changed into animals, such as Sir Thedeus the fruit-bat, and one loving couple who exist in the form of an owl and a mouse. Others have been banished to less substantial forms, such as Echo (a disembodied voice), Yazpib (a wizard whose brain, eyes, teeth, and tongue are preserved in a jar of spirits), and Demented Dan (the skull of a psychopath, whose headless skeleton lives a completely separate life as the silent but friendly Mr. Bones). Plus the castle is loaded with non-human and non-living residents, such as the Hanged Man, the Drowned Girl, the Vampire King, the monster under the bed, and a wailing banshee who can only appear to warn of imminent castrophe (such as "saaaaltyyyy soouuuup!").

While many of these folks hope to be released from their curses somehow—if only Nessy can learn enough magic to manage it before another wizard comes to loot Margle's treasures—at the same time they form a quirky kind of family. So when a wizardess named Tiama shows up, demanding to see Margle, it becomes Nessy's mission to defend her family. There's only so much help they can give against a fiend who can kill with a touch of her finger, and who is hell-bent on opening the Door at the End of the Hall which Margle himself feared more than anything else. To save the castle and its colorful cast of curse victims, ghouls, fiends, and living armor, will require Nessy and her friends to confront the power of a demon, a hell-hound who hungers for the souls of the undead, and a power so chaotic that it could destroy the world. Heroism will be found in small packages. And besides dread, suspense, and contests of power between good and evil, their adventure will include a bit of romance and a lot of laughs.

This appears to be the most kid-friendly novel, to date, by an up-and-coming sci-fi/fantasy/horror writer whose other titles include Gil's All Fright Diner, In the Company of Ogres, A Nameless Witch, The Automatic Detective, Divine Misfortune, and Chasing the Moon.

The Cabinet of Wonders
by Marie Rutkoski
Recommended Ages: 12+

This book was partly inspired by a folk tale one of the author's Czech cousins told her, and it also incorporates a couple legends of the Roma—the people you may know as Gypsies—though one of them is more authentic than the other. It is based on a real period of history and includes characters based on such actual historical persons as Queen Elizabeth I of England, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and famous alchemist John Dee. It takes place largely in the city of Prague, which is real enough that I have actually been there; and both the astronomical clock and the "cabinet of curiosities" featured in this book are based on things that positively existed. But, as the author's note emphasizes at the end of this book, the story in it is pure fiction. This fact is made even more clear by the added remarks from Astrophil, a talking tin spider who could exist only in an imagination as lively and rich as the one behind this book. It would be a treat for Astrophil, and all the magic of this story, to come and live in your imagination too.

Astrophil belongs to Petra Kronos, the tomboyish 12-year-old daughter of Mikal Kronos, who has a gift for metal working. And I don't just mean that he's good at it. He can move metal objects with his mind. He can create intricate devices that move, and think, and talk, and even grow by themselves. Obviously there's magic involved in this, but the alternate history in which the Kronos Chronicles take place is one in which magic plays a significant role in everyday life. Not everyone can do it, and not everyone is comfortable with it, but there's a school for magic in the capital city, and many artisans in the prosperous town of Okno use magic to improve their products. Petra's friend Tomik and his father both have a gift for working in glass, for example; the elder Tomas makes worry vials that people whisper their guilty secrets to before going to sleep, and Tomik makes miniature glass grenades that can unleash lightning, floods, and even swarms of wasps.

But it is Mikal's gift that draws the notice of the king, a handsome youth with a keen mind and an undeniable charm that never quite conceal his underlying cruelty. King Rodolfo hires Mikal to build a magnificent clock in the central square of Prague, one which is not only breathtakingly beautiful but also unimaginably powerful. Then Rodolfo steals Mikal's eyes—either to keep the old man from creating anything as wonderful again, or to use them to see things in a magical new way—and sends the clockmaker home.

Petra vows to steal her father's eyes back. After running away to Prague, she infiltrates the Salamander Castle in the guise of a servant. Her only friends in the castle are a crusty countess whose skin sometimes oozes highly corrosive acid when her emotions are upset, and a Roma pickpocket named Neel, whose family would string Petra up if they knew the kind of danger she was getting him into. With their help she must somehow get past the best security that 16th-century technology and an added layer of magic can provide and plunder the prince's most prized possessions. In doing this she risks much more than her own neck. But she has no choice, thanks in part to a bit of blackmail by an English ambassador (or spy) who is convinced that the clock made by Petra's father is really a weapon that could destroy the whole world. If the prince figures out how to work it before she can destroy the clock's innermost heart, no one will be safe from the power of a prince so mad for power that he had his own eyes gouged out in order to see the world through the eyes of Mikal Kronos....

Not to be confused with a similarly titled book by Renee Dodd, this book begins the Kronos Chronicles, a magical series that continues with The Celestial Globe and The Jewel of the Kalderash. For more information about this promising young author, visit her website.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pope, Shevdon, Tolstoy, Toole

Ramage and the Saracens
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is the seventeenth of eighteen Lord Ramage Novels, a series about a British naval officer whose wit and dash brought confusion to the French and their allies during the wee years of the 19th century. Still commanding the frigate Calypso with the same officers and men who have been with him on so many adventures, Ramage once again proves to be a shrewd tactician and an admirable leader, blessed with more than his fair share of good luck.

His first stroke of luck is surviving an encounter with two French line-of-battle ships which take him by surprise, especially after the Battle of Trafalgar seemingly wiped the French off the sea. He then gives two French frigates a good pounding, sinking one and capturing the other, all without pleasing the admiral on the Naples station whose only concerns seem to be head money, prizes, and promoting the careers of his favorites. Since Ramage isn't one of these (somehow, he never is one of his admiral's favorites), he gets sent away one some dirty and thankless jobs. And though the admiral seems to have expected him to fail, he ekes out two daring victories against the most terrible and desperate foe: Saracens. Muslim warriors from off the coast of Africa, made fearless by the belief that death in battle against the infidel means instant Paradise. (Political Incorrectness Advisory: Teachers, there are some school districts where recommending this book could cost you your job.)

The Saracens have been raiding ports along the southern coast of Sicily, seizing fishing boats, strong men to row their galleys, and the nubile women to populate their brothels. Without any hope of saving those already taken, Ramage works out where the Saracens will strike next and sets a trap for them with his ship's carronades and swivel guns, musket-bearing marines, and seamen armed with cutlass, pike, and tomahawk. Even so they are outnumbered two to one, and the resulting fierce battle is touch-and-go. Even more dangerous, however, is his second mission. In command of a flotilla of two frigates and two sloops, and reinforced by three hundred soldiers, Ramage is to attack the Saracens' base and rescue their Sicilian slaves. What he had earlier dismissed as undoable must now be done, even though no charts exist for the (fictional) Saracen base of Sidi Rezegh.

Ramage is an unusual commander for his time. In some ways, perhaps, he may even be anachronistic: a man of present-day sensibilities thrown back into history. In a era when human life was spent with ruthless prodigality, Ramage is one leader who values the lives of his men and who takes every measure—indeed, every risk—to keep casualties to a minimum. If his inner life is troubled by anything, it is by preemptive guilt before every battle for the cost in lives should anything go wrong. Yet his men adore him, as do more women than he can really handle—and it is this book which "closes the circle" as to the fate of one of them. Just when you start to lose patience with his woolgathering over the Marchesa Gianna, the point of keeping her in the picture becomes clear. Trust Dudley Pope to make sure that his characters' interior monologues bear either an instructive purpose or a clue toward coming events.

And so, with only one more adventure (Ramage and the Dido) still to come, we brace ourselves for the end of a series of noble exploits, penned by an accomplished naval historian whose works, in addition to the Ramage series, include seven more novels and twelve works of nonfiction.

Sixty-One Nails
by Mike Shevdon
Recommended Ages: 14+

One moment Niall Petersen is an ordinary London commuter, married to his career and harassed by his ex-wife, fighting his way through tube-station traffic while having another kind of fight over his cell phone. The next moment he is dead, thanks to a massive heart attack brought on by stress. Just when you're thinking this could seriously bring down the life expectancy of main characters in novels, Niall comes back to life. But his old life is over.

The woman who brings Niall back calls herself Blackbird. She explains that the faerie magic she used could not have saved him unless they both had the blood of the Fair—I mean, Feyre—in them. A seer told her something big would happen if she waited that morning at the spot where Niall dropped, so it seems they are fated to be together. And since, by bringing him back from the dead, Blackbird prevented something evil from crossing over from another place and taking possession of his body, Niall will have to go on the run. They, with a capital T, know he's out there, and They will not rest until They destroy him.

You see, there are seven Courts of the Feyre, but only six of them sit on the Council. These include everything from trolls and dwarves to your basic winged fairies. The Seventh Court, which takes a rather fascist view on blood purity, has broken off relations with the other six and bides its time by exterminating everybody with mixed human and Feyre heritage. Once half-bloods start to show their powers, these creatures of darkness and evil can usually find them and kill them without much trouble. So Niall has a very simple choice: run or die.

This is a lot for a pudgy, divorced architect and father of a teenage daughter to take in all at once. He really doesn't quite believe it until something unspeakably nasty tries to surprise him in his apartment that night and causes a local policeman to die a horrible death instead. And then there's the weird powers that he begins to discover in himself. Powers that suggest the seemingly impossible: that Niall, now known as Rabbit (because names have to be changed to protect, well, everybody), is the same type of Feyre as the beings he is running from.

For reasons that I don't have space to explain here, Rabbit and Blackbird realize that the key to keeping the Seventh Court from overrunning our world and enslaving mankind lies in a centuries-old covenant known as the Quit-Rents. Here author Shevdon blends fancy with the type of fact that is even stranger, acquainting us with the legal and ceremonial office of the Queen's Remembrancer. To make a long story short, and thereby almost totally incomprehensible, this peruke-wearing personage must perform a ritual involving a sharp knife, a dull knife, a cane of hazel, six horseshoes, and sixty-one horseshoe nails. These ceremonies actually take place, and have taken place annually since the 13th century, as payment for a place in London called "The Forge" and a tract of land in Shropshire called "The Moors." And since no one can quite explain why the rents take this particular form, the explanation that their proper observance prevents all fey hell from breaking loose seems as good as any other.

This is a book full of disturbing magical beings, weird rituals, high-paced action and danger, and a unique romance between two people who are (mostly) undeterred by an age difference of several centuries, perhaps because they can (usually) look any age they choose. Their sensitivity to iron suggests that such folk would find this an uncomfortable age to live in, though they have abilities to compensate. Niall's abilities are particularly unsettling, not only to us but to the woman who loves him, because they represent the greatest pain and evil that she knows. And whether the Council will ever extend its protection to a creature like him remains unresolved until almost the last page of this book—by which you will be glad to know that this is only Book One of a series titled The Courts of the Feyre. Its sequel, already in print, is The Road to Bedlam.

War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
Recommended Ages: 16+

I have had a copy of War and Peace on my bookcase for the better part of a decade without once cracking it. It seemed destined to be the quintessential doorstop. And though books like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix proved that big, thick, heavy books needn't be everlasting doorstoppers, the fact remains that I was intimidated. War and Peace's reputation as a big read is proverbial, with heavy going through crowds of characters, a vast sweep of events, and long stretches of dry prose in which the plot goes nowhere; and that's without accounting for the strange manners of Russian noblemen in the time of Napoleon, and references to characters by first name and patronymic (such as "Pyotr Kirillovich"), which come naturally to native Russian speakers but which tend to blur together for everyone else. And then there was the question of time. What time was I going to spend reading this book, when I have little enough time to read the myriads of books that I actually expect to enjoy?

And then one day I found the answer written on my windshield. For some time now, I've been looking through that windshield for anywhere between ninety minutes and two hours every business day. I had used up all my patience with the available radio programming, had found out that keeping my car freshly stocked with CDs of classical music was a lot of work, and had happily moved on to a series of audiobooks borrowed from the County Library, when it hit me: Now was the perfect time to read The Book You Always Said You Were Going To Read Someday. And with British actor Frederick Davidson reading it aloud to me while I drove, it would be painless. Or, at any rate, I would be a captive audience, prevented by my seat belt from putting the book down and leaving the room to do something else, should any distraction come a-temptin'. So I took out Tolstoy's masterpiece in two thick sets of disks, 47 in all, and immersed myself in it while my body went through the mechanical motions of driving to work and home again each day. For, like, 5 weeks.

First, I must give Davidson his due for making the best of what must be one of the toughest jobs in the recorded-book industry. I am aware that authors and professional readers differ as to how much an audiobook reader should dramatize the book. How far should he go in playing characters with distinct voices? How much should he ham it up? With most books, however, there is room for a wide range of interpretation. With a book like War and Peace, a worldwide cultural treasure featuring some 40 speaking characters, an actor must walk a vanishingly thin line between atrocious taste and incomprehensible tedium. Nevertheless, Frederick Davidson kept his balance from one end of the highwire to the other, presenting each of the main characters with his or her distinctive voice without ever stepping away from his role as the storyteller.

Tolstoy, however, doesn't manage this last trick. I risk heresy by finding fault with what is widely accepted as the greatest novel in world literature, just as I risk becoming absurd after cheerfully recommending a thousand inferior books with scarcely a quibble, but there it is. Tolstoy's 1869 novel set a new standard for novelists to strive toward, and he set some then-groundbreaking precedents in their approach to storytelling, but he could not do so without risking some structural awkwardness. And awkwardness is what I call it when the narrator pauses increasingly often in the latter parts of his tale to deliver himself of fragments of a treatise on the historiography of the Napoleonic Wars and, in an inexorable crescendo of abstraction, on the philosophy of history in general. I call this "groundbreaking" where, in its earlier instances, it foreshadows the journalistic approach of many of today's most exciting authors, who move between fact, fiction, and philosophy with an ease that stimulates the mind as much as it entertains. I call this "awkward" where, particularly at the end of the novel, the ponderous inertia of the nonfiction material staggers, and finally stops, the forward momentum of the story. Fair warning: Leo Tolstoy does not shut up until long, long after the story is over.

But it's one serious story. No, I tell a lie; it's a thick, complex braid of stories, all bound up around the wars involving France's Emperor Napoleon and Russia's Tsar Alexander I. The novel embraces events between 1805 and 1820, with special emphasis on the 1812 war in which Napoleon led a vast army into Russia and advanced as far as Moscow without losing a single battle, only to turn tail in a disastrous retreat that ultimately cost him his empire. Between attempts to reshape his readers' view of history from a series of deeds accomplished by geniuses and heroes to a tissue of accidents in which luck, chance, and the dutiful persistence of a bunch of historical nobodies told the tale, Tolstoy as if by accident tells his.

The main characters (you may want to make a note of this, in case there's a quiz), judging by who ends up alive and happily married at the end of the book, are siblings Nikolai and Natasha Rostov, the middle two of four children belonging to a cash-strapped provincial count; Pierre Bezukhov, the favorite and thereby best-educated of his father's numerous "natural" children, who by inheritance becomes one of the richest men in Russia without having the first idea what to do with all his money; and Maria Bolkonsky, the pious daughter of a landed prince whose eccentricity and cruelty have made her a lonely, lifelong martyr. A lot happens before they get to be happy couples, however. Nikolai gets involved with a poor orphaned cousin named Sonya, who is neither designing enough for you to hate properly, nor self-sacrificing enough for you to love. Sonya breaks the heart of a ruthless scoundrel named Dolokhov, who retaliates by cheating Nikolai out of a fortune at cards and, later, plays a role in Natasha's disgrace. Natasha, meanwhile, breaks the heart of Nikolai's friend Denisov, who later shares your heartbreak when the Rostovs' youngest child gets himself killed while hero-worshiping Dolokhov. Natasha is also vaguely courted by a cynically ambitious young brave named Boris Drubetskoy, who seems like a nice enough lad at the beginning of the book, only to leave you rejoicing to see him married to an irritating ninny named Julie Karagina.

Then Natasha gets engaged with Maria's brother Andrei, whose first wife died in childbirth after he miraculously returned from the dead, having been wounded and taken prisoner by the French at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805). But an adventurer named Anatole Kuragin plays a vile trick on Natasha, and so her romance with Andrei goes into Tragedy Mode, lightened only by a deathbed reunion after Prince Andrei fares less miraculously at the Battle of Borodino (1812). Luckily for Natasha, Pierre is waiting in the wings, having loved her all along even though he foolishly married Hélène Kuragina (Anatole's equally vile sister, foisted on Pierre by her manipulative and greedy father). Tolstoy drives with one tire on the solid white line of propriety in order to give us enough hints to understand that Hélène dies of complications from an abortion, as a result of trying to be married to three husbands at the same time. Nikolai and Maria have, in the meantime, fallen in love with each other, but the Rostov family's financial embarrassment almost proves to be an impediment to their union in the final real crisis of the novel.

There. If a shorter synopsis of the main plotlines of War and Peace can be given, I would like to see it. Even so, I haven't begun to describe the novel's relish in the customs and living conditions of its period, the problems uniting (and sometimes dividing) the rude Russian peasantry and the sometimes repulsive, in many cases monoglot French-speaking noblepersons who literally owned them. You get to meet Napoleon and the Russian commanders who confronted him in some of western history's biggest battles up to that time. You get to go along on a fox hunt, a fancy-dress ball, a number of dinner parties, an affair of honor, and even some of the secret rites of the Masonic Lodge. You get to meet politicians, soldiers, cads, hussies, flawed but sympathetic heroines, foolish men who grow into admirable characters, and a handful of people too lovable to live long in this world, along with mobs, demagogues, fools (some of them holy fools), gossips, wits, traitors, and (singled out as the worst sort of people) diplomatists. Some of them are real, historical people. Others merely represent the types of people Tolstoy imagined when he thought of his grandparents as young adults.

It would have to be a big novel to deal with all of this. With a good reader selling it to you, in spite of the sometimes tedious speculative passages, War and Peace seems big enough without being too big. And now that I've been dunked in it, I have lost my fear of it. So I think it likely that I will really read the doorstop that has been holding down the bottom shelf of my bookcase for the past decade. I may also invest in a video of the Oscar-winning, 1968 Soviet film based on the book, or (even more likely) in a recording of the opera version by Sergei Prokofiev, which I listened to many years ago without the benefit of having read the book. It's really that strong a story. And it doesn't hurt that it shows a remarkable side of one of the greatest conflicts in history, about a people whose apparent weaknesses prove to be Reason #1 why you should never mess with them. I daresay if Hitler had read this book with even the slightest comprehension, he would never have invaded the Soviet Union. And if I had read it ten years ago, I could be on my twentieth time through it by now...

A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
Recommended Ages: 16+

Barrett Whitener read the green deerstalker cap off the audiobook edition of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which enabled me to finish a book I had started months earlier and misplaced amid the confusion of two overnight bags, a briefcase, a laptop bag, and a tote bag. I am glad I had Whitener's voice to bring to life the dialects and voices of all the characters in this book, published over a decade after its author's self-inflicted death by carbon monoxide poisoning. The story behind this novel is most tragic; indeed, it is almost a miracle that it was ever published, thanks in part to the persistence of the author's mother and the support of author Walker Percy. Yet the book itself is a comic masterpiece, a novel that makes you squirm and laugh in equal proportions. It populates New Orleans, U.S.A. with a cast of characters loopy enough to be worthy of its title, and sets them loose in a complex, sprawling farce that pokes fun at the absurdities of life among the idle rich, the idle poor, cops, crooks, blacks, whites, leftists, right-wingers, sexual deviants, and many other types whose struggles give the lie to the name "the Big Easy."

At the center of these struggling masses of characters is one whose oddities, listed in order, would make a description too long for this poor review. His name is Ignatius J. Reilly and, in spite of holding a master's degree, he has no job and he lives with his mother. Flatulent, obese, tortured by crippling insecurities and yet difficult to pity because of his readiness to exploit those who pity him, Ignatius would like of all things to be left alone in his filthy bedroom to scribble incoherent diatribes in his collection of Big Chief notebooks. But when his tippling mother finds herself liable for damages in a car accident, she forces him to seek gainful employment. And so he begins to carom about the city like a well-padded billiard ball, irrevocably altering the course of everybody he collides with.

Ignatius tries a filing job at a factory that makes pants. He moves from there to a career as a hot dog vendor. Wittingly or unwittingly, he also gets caught up in a couple of short-lived political movements, an illegal pornography ring, an unhappily married socialite's benevolent projects, a massive lawsuit, an undercover police investigation, and the collapse of a popular professor's academic career. As ineffectual as Reilly seems to be when it comes to achieving his own goals, he proves amazingly effective as an agent of chaos and ruin wherever he goes, whatever he tries. And in his career of destruction he always finds reliable support in the fresh and unique daftness of each person he meets.

Whether Ignatius Reilly is a true original or a typical specimen, taken from a typical sample of 1960s New Orleans culture, is now for us to discuss. Alas, we will get no help from the author on this question. One could, to a disturbing degree, read Toole as a prophet of things to come throughout this country. But it would probably be ridiculous to do that while, at the same time, enjoying the bold, vivid, often grotesque strokes of this portrait of our nation's most colorful city in the midst of what might have been its most colorful era. The contradictions and compromises within its central character might be, in a sense, Toole's portrait of the city itself: a swollen, smelly, loud, outrageous life form; charismatic yet offensive, cultured yet coarse, overwhelmed by its own sense of history; helpless to escape its inertia on the one hand and to check its momentum on the other. And though each member of the book's ensemble cast seems unchangeable in his or her craziness, all their lives do indeed change on contact with Ignatius—who himself, the most seemingly changeless of all, finally makes the big change the whole book has been building toward. We can never know whether he has escaped from one craziness to another, or from the fate of one considered crazy to something better. But if you're like me, you'll giggle to think of the possibilities, long after the book has ended.

Reading Prokofiev's Second

Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his Second Symphony in Paris over a strenuous nine-month period in 1924-25. It was dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky, one of the great supporters of the major composers of his time, who conducted its premiere in Paris in mid-1925. Though it has never been very popular, and at the time of its first performance was met with sharp criticism, Prokofiev's Second has grown in the estimate of serious music lovers ever since.

Structurally modeled on Beethoven's last piano sonata, this symphony consists of only two movements: the first a taut, stormy, and dramatic sonata-form movement; the second, a set of variations whose depth of introspection provides a counterweight to the first. In spite of its reputation as the most brilliantly original of Prokofiev's seven symphonies, it is among the least performed because, frankly, it is a very strong flavor. The composer himself confessed that he didn't entirely understand it.

Here is a recording of Movement I for you to try for yourself.From this you can perhaps understand why Prokofiev described his Second Symphony as being made of "iron and steel." It is driven by almost incessant rhythmic energy. Its instrumental colors have a metallic brilliance. Its contrapuntal texture is thickly busy. Its harmonies, though tonal, are full of spiky dissonance. And its themes have a nervous edginess about them. An imaginative listener could hear in this music a grim musical landscape of a machine-driven world in which colossal forces are always colliding. Individuals in this world must either work at a fevered pace to fuel these machines or be crushed under their wheels; or, perhaps, by clinging to them with a white-knuckled grip, they may be carried along by the momentum. It's a tough, gritty movement dressed in shades of red, gray, and black, with a powerfully masculine energy that only thinly conceals a strain of neurotic anxiety. Not what you would expect in a great symphony, it's not entirely pleasant to listen to, but—and there's no use trying to explain this—I like it more every time I hear it.

Here is the the beginning of Movement II, which Youtube breaks into three segments.It is twice as long as Movement I, but its breadth and depth balances perfectly against the concentrated kinetic force of Movement I. It begins with a broad oboe theme, repeated by the strings, in a mood of outward calm. Variation 1, beginning around the 2'30" mark, has a more brooding aspect, with the theme in the low strings under an accompaniment that sounds vaguely troubled. A faster variation starts around 5'20", moving from an air of nervous lightness into a more heavily frenetic mood. Listen for motives from the theme being passed around the orchestra. Variation 3, coming in at about 7'30", carries forward the same energy but with a harsher mien. Instead of Variation 2's vision of ambiguously malignant fairies buzzing around the bottom of the garden, the evil pranksters depicted in the third variant have hobnailed boots on. What do you think is going on in the bassoon solo at the end of this variation?

Here is the second Youtube segment of Movement II.Other users have left some interesting comments on this video, in reference to Variation 4: "Magical and acid... It's like Prokofiev is poisoning me, killing me softly. So, so beautiful, yet malevolent..." My comment in reply: "Malevolence I don't get from this. Perverseness, maybe. Elegant, lyrical, serene wrongness." The lush harmony and orchestration of the accompaniment cannot overcome the fact that it is in the "wrong" key for the theme, and the result is something peaceful and lovely, yet at the same time strangely out of order. Truly remarkable music! Then at 5'45" in the above video comes Variation 5, whose headlong vehemence conceals the shape of the original theme so well that it all but disappears altogether.

Here is the third and last segment of Movement II.Variation 6 opens in the orchestra's lowest register, soon adding its highest register with nothing in between. With gathering energy, ideas from the first movement work their way into the argument, eventually combining with a statement of the variations' theme. The drama continues to build, pitting different instrumental choirs against each other (brass vs. strings, etc.), until the conflict reaches a pounding climax, about 4'10" in the present video. Then the mood relaxes again and the original oboe theme returns as at first. The movement concludes with a low-key coda full of ominous ambiguity.

Prokofiev himself didn't think as much of this symphony as his most appreciative fans do today. Its premiere was not a happy event, and subsequent performances have been rare. The composer meant to revise it into a three-movement work late in his life, but he didn't live long enough to do so. So we are left to wrestle with the work as he first wrote it in the prime of his creative life. I think it is worth wrestling with, especially compared to some of Prokofiev's other symphonies, which are uneven in quality and sometimes show scant effort to create anything original or even worthy of the name Symphony. And I also think we can be grateful that Prokofiev did not subject this symphony to the same kind of "socialist-realism" redaction as his Fourth Symphony. Better that it should remain as it is, with all the uncompromising pessimism of its first movement and the disturbing beauty of its second.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stewardship, Debt, and Forgiveness

Here is tomorrow's sermon on Luke 16:1-9, the one-year Gospel for Trinity 9, which I will be preaching the St. Louis city LCMS parish where I usually serve as organist. I also preached on this text last year. The other texts for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 22:26-34 and 1 Corinthians 10:6-13. Also referenced, without citation, are Luke 12:42-48 and Matthew 25:14ff.
People nowadays tend to be shocked and confused by the parable Jesus tells at the beginning of Luke 16. He tells about a rich man whose steward, or man of business, was caught embezzling from him. Instead of demanding that he turn over his accounts immediately, the rich man gives his steward a little time to set things in order. The crook takes advantage of this opportunity to do some last favors for the people who owed his master money. And what is the result? The master is pleased with his crooked steward, praising him for his sharp dealing. While we may be shocked and offended at this seemingly immoral outcome, Luke tells us that the Pharisees were merely amused. After Jesus goes on in the next few verses to say things like, “You cannot serve God and mammon,” Luke says: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him.”

They derided Him. That is to say, they held Him in derision; they mocked and ridiculed Him. They were not so much scandalized as titillated by Jesus’ backward ideas, His naïve outlook on life, and His persistently preaching a message that they considered out of date and out of touch. Theirs was much the same response that faithful Christians get from today’s secular world. It should come as no surprise. Jesus is hitting them where it really stings. He is attacking their god. And theirs is a god many of our generation also serve: Mammon, otherwise known as “the almighty dollar.”

So much for what the Pharisees made of today’s Gospel. But what shall we make of it? For today, we’ll have done well enough if we learn about three things from this Gospel. The first is STEWARDSHIP. The second is DEBT. And the third is FORGIVENESS.

STEWARDSHIP is the aspect of the parable where you and I are like the rich man’s business manager, or steward. The accounts in the steward’s book did not belong to the steward, but to the man he worked for. But all that property, money, and even debts, were in the steward’s hands to use in the rich man’s name. Some stewards had more freedom than others to do what they saw fit, and some of them abused their privileges—skimming a little for themselves, sometimes more than a little. But it wasn’t theirs. All the assets they controlled were really the property of their masters, as were they themselves. Yes, stewards were slaves. It could be a comfortable life, as slavery goes. They even had some authority over other slaves. But it was only delegated authority. They carried out their masters’ will in their masters’ name. All the deals they made to buy this or sell that, were valid only because of their master’s good word. It was as though their masters had made the deals themselves. In the eyes of the law, it was not the steward, but his master acting. It would be difficult for the master to renege on a deal made by his steward without damaging his own “credit score.”

How is this like the relationship between God and you? Name anything that you own. Is it yours? Who made it? Who gave it to you? Was it something you purchased from money that you earned? Well then, who provided you with the job that brought that money to you? Was it your hard work and study that earned that job? Well then, who gave you the physical and mental equipment to do it? Was it your parents who passed their abilities on to you and gave you the upbringing you needed? Well then, who gave you to them? Who opened the doors which, if kept shut, would have forced your life onto another path? Who created the raw materials? Who gave mankind the ability to use them? Who guides history? Who was there before it all came into being? Who will take it all away someday? God is permanent. In this world, you are temporary. So who really owns the place you call home, or your household gods, or the works of your hands? You may control them now, but after you are gone, you can’t even tell who will have them.

You think you own so many things, but none of them is really yours. Your home, your belongings, your family and friends, even your body and mind, are all the property of your Lord who made them. But He gives them to you as a stewardship. He delegates to you the right to carry out His will with them in His name. And what you do with them is really what He is doing through you. He lends you your spouse for a time, until death do you part. Even though you will still know each other, and even love each other in heaven, it will not be as man and wife, because you will both belong to the Bridegroom, who is Christ. He takes your children away when they are drowned in baptism, but gives them back as foster children to raise in His name. They are His children now. Everything else that He gives you is like the talents that the rich man in another parable gave his servants to invest while he was away. He will come back to claim it all from you, and you will account for it with interest, because it is not yours but His. And like the steward in today’s parable, we will face a particularly strict accounting if we have authority over other servants and debtors of our Lord. If we are found to be unfaithful, this stewardship may be taken from us, even if we somehow escape with our souls intact.

DEBT is the aspect of the parable where you and I are like the oil merchant and the corn broker who owed the rich man money. I can’t give you a precise figure in today’s dollars, but it was a lot of money. In an economy where most people lived on pennies a day, it was enough money to buy either hundreds of barrels of oil or thousands of bushels of wheat. It would be very risky to go into that kind of debt. There are so many ways it could become impossible to pay it back. And the option of not paying it back wouldn’t be taken lightly. Your lender could end up owning you. Literally. Like a slave. And selling off everything you called your own, including wife and children, house, furniture and clothing. And if you weren’t worth much as a slave, you could end up rotting in jail. Jails weren’t like today’s nice boarding houses with barred windows and outdoor recreation time. Back then, to be sent to prison was more like being thrown down a sewer, with a manhole in the ceiling instead of door or window. It meant spending the rest of your life in a dark, filthy hole. And unless someone sent you food at their own expense, it wouldn’t be long.

If you appreciate where the rich man’s debtors stood, perhaps you can begin to picture where you stand as debtors to God. Unless you are one of those people who have no conscience, who can commit any act without scruple or remorse, then you probably have at least some awareness that you are a sinner. Perhaps it doesn’t trouble you very much. Perhaps you have become so good at justifying your behavior that you can’t think of anything really wrong that you have done. Perhaps you have schooled yourself to get angry at any self-righteous hypocrite who mentions your faults, when they have faults of their own. Perhaps you have gotten so numb from always beating yourself up over the same sin that you no longer feel any guilt about it. Perhaps you are so tired of repenting of something you feel you can’t help, that you’ve decided it isn’t wrong anymore. Or perhaps you have fallen so low in your own esteem that you no longer expect better of yourself, so you don’t really care what you do. But apart from these possibilities, let’s suppose that you know you are a sinner.

You have a debt to God that you simply cannot repay. No matter how hard you work at it, you’re just getting deeper in debt all the time. Such is your sin—not just the bad things you do, but your very self, your whole nature polluted with evil desires, rebelling against God, poisoned and dying and in part already dead. You are over your head in debt, and not just to a creditor, but to your Creator. He made you, and He can unmake you. He gave you all things, and He can take them away again. And unless your debt is paid, a prison awaits you that makes the dark, filthy hole I described before look nice. And you will be there a very long time. We all by nature have such a debt toward God that, on our own, we cannot hope to repay it, or to escape a penalty worse than death.

FORGIVENESS is the dimension of the parable where the steward’s stewardship comes to bear on the debtors’ debts. And that is the part of the story that holds the highest importance for us. The steward forgave his master’s debtors. For the purposes of this story, he only forgave them a portion of their debts—enough to be helpful to them in their struggle to repay what they owed. In the reality of sinners before God, we must receive forgiveness of all our debts, since it is not in our power to repay them. This forgiveness is possible, and indeed it is real, because the righteous Son of God suffered the death of the unrighteous for us. The perfect obedience of that holy Person, who is both truly God and truly Man, makes His death the perfect sacrifice to cover all our sins. His holy resurrection from the dead bears witness that God has accepted it, that it is indeed finished, perfect, complete. And so forgiveness given in the name of Christ, and according to the command and promise of Christ, has the same power and validity as a receipt signed in Jesus’ blood, saying, “Paid in full.”

You are like the debtors in Jesus’ parable. You desperately need debt relief. And you should be grateful to whoever gives it to you. Such a man is your pastor, who stands between you and God in the same way that the steward in Luke 16 stood between the rich man and his debtors. Imperfect and unworthy though he may be as individual person, his office as a caretaker of his master’s treasures makes what he does valid, when he acts within the limits of his office, and when he acts in his master’s name. This is equally true of the steward’s position as it is true of the office of pastor. He carries out his Lord’s will in his Lord’s name.

So when your pastor tells you that your debt to the Lord is forgiven, you can rely on that as though the Lord forgave you in person. When your pastor baptizes you or your child in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you can trust that the Holy Spirit has been given together with rebirth, new life, and the forgiveness of all sins. It is just as though Jesus Himself poured the water, with all the signs of the Holy Spirit and the thundering voice saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” When your pastor gives you bread and wine to eat and drink, claiming that it is Christ’s true body and blood, you can accept that, on the strength of the promise Jesus made on the night He was betrayed. All that He gave for your salvation is in that food, and now He is coming into you, to fill your dead body with His life.

You are forgiven. Your debts are erased. Or rather, in Christ, they are paid in full. It is not just a historical fact that happened once, but that may or may not apply to you now. It is not just a spiritual treasure, for which you must wait until you get to heaven before you can collect it. It is not just one side of a covenant, as though God did His part, but now you must do yours. It is all yours, right now: forgiveness of all your sin from one end of your life to the other, and of the sins that are on your conscience now. And it is all on Christ Jesus. You need not wait for an angel to bring you the news. You need not wait for the sky to be darkened or for the earth to shake. Jesus has spoken, and it is so. Today, in this hour, and whenever a called and ordained steward opens God’s treasure to you, through the Word of absolution and the Gospel of peace, this forgiveness comes to you. You may cling to it with the same confidence that the rich man’s debtors had when they walked away with legal documents showing what he had forgiven them. In Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, yes, even when you forgive one another as Christian brothers and sisters, God’s forgiveness is as certain as the promise behind those linen-paper notes that say “legal tender for all debts public and private.” Even more so, nowadays!

And this, when you think of it, is our most precious stewardship from God. Above all things, we must take care of this office of forgiving and retaining sins, preaching and teaching and administering the sacraments. Christ has given us His pastoral office so that through it, the fruits of His cross may be available to us in all our daily debts and failures. In Luke 12 Jesus warns His stewards, as picked servants who are tasked to feed and care for all their fellow servants: They must be found faithful when their Lord returns. In a similar way He also warns us not to lose this treasure, or bury it, or despise it, but to value the Office of the Keys as highly as you would value your salvation from sin, death, and hell. Where is this warning? It is in the words, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”

If only we children of light were as wise in using the true spiritual treasures, as the children of this world are regarding the things they value! If only we guarded the Office of the Keys and the forgiveness of sins as jealously as they guard their filthy lucre. And so I beg you, do not be unforgiving toward each other; and do not let your hearts and ears be closed to the faithful steward your God has sent you. Rather forgive, and accept the forgiveness given in Jesus’ name, as your highest stewardship and worship of God.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Obvious Tackiness

This week's lighted-sign message at the neighborhood ELCA Temple of Tackiness:

IS GOD A NOUN OR A VERB?

Wow. We're on that level, are we? This church is sure to be a bubbling well of religious knowledge, innit? The present sign makes the ELCA look as desirable (as a place to pursue spiritual inquiry) as a restaurant sporting the sign pictured here. And while we're asking interesting questions, how about this one: Is tackiness on holy ground a venial or a mortal sin?

Shreds of a B-Movie Screenplay

[Interior. A biker bar.]

TOUGH GUY
I'm gonna hit you so hard that when you get up, a different actor will be playing you.

...

[Exterior. The edge of a cliff.]

CHARACTER ONE
Are you serious? That's completely idiotic!

CHARACTER TWO
Don't blame me. It's in the script.

...

[Interior. A psychiatrist's office.]

PATIENT
Doc, I feel like my life is a B movie.

DOCTOR
Sorry, would you repeat that? The boom mike was in the shot.

...

[Interior. A bedroom.]

WIFE
I heard a noise downstairs. Why don't you go check it out?

HUSBAND
Are you crazy? Can't you hear the creepy music?

...

[Interior. A torture chamber.]

VICTIM
Why are you doing this to me?

VILLAIN
Because it's in my contract!

...

[Interior. A bedroom. The love scene.]

WOMAN
Oh... this is never getting past the censor...

...

[Exterior. The climactic standoff.]

HERO
I know you won't shoot me.

VILLAIN
You do, eh? What makes you think so?

HERO
Because in 10 seconds, we're in SAG mandated overtime.

VILLAIN
Curses! Foiled again!

...

[Exterior. Two characters gazing off-camera in wonder.]

SHIRLEY
Oh, Ned! It's breathtaking, isn't it? Don't you wish everybody could see it?

NED
Too right, Shirley. There's no way we have the budget for this!

...

[Interior. A police station.]

WOMAN
Is this Missing Persons? My mother has disappeared.

OFFICER
Have you checked the cutting room floor?

...

[Exterior. The woods at night.]

WEREWOLF
Rawr!

VICTIM
Aw, you big phony! You don't scare me. I bet that snout comes right off! Oops...

WEREWOLF: Dammit!

...

[Exterior. A field.]

WOMAN
Look, it's a zombie! Shoot it! Shoot it now!

HERO [steps forward to take aim; a faint crunching sound is heard]

ZOMBIE [stops shambling]
Sounds like you found my contact lens, then.

...

[Exterior. The crime scene.]

WOMAN
He's trying to say something! What's he saying?

HERO [placing his ear next to the VICTIM's mouth]
He says... "This is the last time you'll catch me doing my own stunts..."

...

[Exterior. The same, take two.]

WOMAN
He's trying to speak! What's he saying?

HERO [with his ear next to VICTIM's mouth]
He says... "Get out of my key-light, jackass..."

...

[Interior. A biker bar.]

EUGENE
Boy, does that guy hit hard!

JOE
Eh? Do I know you?

EUGENE
Come on, Joe! Do you know me?! It's me, Eugene!

JOE
Huh. You look different somehow.

EUGENE
That's what I'm telling you!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

How to Listen to a Sermon

Here is tomorrow's sermon on Matthew 7:15-23, the one-year Gospel for the 8th Sunday after Trinity, which God willing I will preach tomorrow at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Campbell Hill, Illinois.
This is awkward. I stand before you for the first time as a guest preacher. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. Your pastor and I barely know each other. He isn’t here to criticize me or to defend himself. And yet the lessons drawn for this week of the church year, oblige me to talk about your pastor, and any preacher or teacher you hear—whether in this church or another, on TV or radio, through the internet or in a book. The question is how to listen to them, how to judge them, how to tell whether they are feeding you or misleading you, how to spot a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You have no personal knowledge of whether I can preach my way out of a wet paper bag, and yet I am here to tell you HOW TO LISTEN TO A SERMON. I can only suggest that you pay careful attention; then, after comparing what you hear to the doctrine you have learned from faithful, reliable, and legitimately called teachers, you can make up your own mind.

Let’s start with half of a verse from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:18a, Jesus says, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.” Suppose that a minister told you that these words mean that infants need not be baptized. He reasons: God creates each of us and gives us our spirits, so we must be born sinless. God would never create anything evil. And if we’re good by nature, we cannot sin. Just like Jesus says in Matthew 7:18a, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.” As ridiculous as it sounds, many people are taken in by that very argument. But you should not be. Either because you were taught to know Scripture better, or because you are wise enough to look up passages quoted at you to see whether they are used correctly, you will quickly find the minister was twisting Matthew 7:18. You only need to read the second half of the verse, which says, “Nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” This doesn’t support the spin that we are born in sinless innocence.

Or step back even further. In Matthew 7:17, 19, Jesus says: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit... Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Now suppose a minister tells you that Jesus is talking about sins versus good works. Jesus would be saying, “Only sinful people commit sins. Godly people do only godly works.” What do you do? You recall where Paul writes in Romans (3:23) that no one is without sin, even the best among us stumble in our weakness (Romans 7:7ff.). And we also know God is the One who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). He overlooks our sins and declares us righteous for the sake of His Son. If we could not please Him except by doing only good works all the time, none of us could be saved.

But again, when you hear a preacher putting that spin on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7, you are equipped to judge whether he is feeding you or misleading you. Remember the Word of God that you have been taught; or, if you cannot remember, look it up. And observe what else is missing from the context. In verse 15 Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” Then He says, “You will know them by their fruits,” and so on, until in verse 20 He concludes, “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” “Beware of false prophets” is Jesus’ topic sentence for that whole paragraph. It tells us what He’s talking about in all those other statements. Taken by themselves, those statements could seem to be about sins versus good works, saints versus sinners. Taken with their topic sentence in verse 15, their meaning totally changes. Jesus is talking about prophets. Which is to say preachers and teachers of God’s Word. And so Jesus’ sermon, like mine, will eventually explain HOW TO LISTEN TO A SERMON.

From the top: Beware. You have been warned. Remember this warning, and be on the lookout. False teachers will come. They won’t be wearing black cowboy hats, or horns, or a sign around their neck that says “Your Enemy.” They will come to you like wolves in sheep’s clothing. There won’t be any visible mark to distinguish them from true preachers. They may seem just as charming and learned and well-spoken and reasonable as faithful preachers and teachers, if not more so. Their manner of life may be exemplary. There may be a certain something about them that you instinctively want to trust or imitate. But Jesus warns us not to be deceived by a handsome face, attractive clothing, a noble character, or a warm personality. You will know them by their fruits.

Now let’s all have our laugh out at Jesus’ mixed metaphor. What could He possibly mean by the fruits of a sheep, or the fruits of a wolf? More pertinent is the question, what “fruits” come from a prophet, false or otherwise? What fruit does a preacher or teacher yield? His fruit is the direction His teachings lead you in your faith and life. If his teachings lead you away from Christ and His doctrine, if they lead you into sins forbidden by God—or even into “good works” not commanded by God—then the fruit is bad and the tree is bad; the man is a false prophet, and you must not listen to him. On the other hand, if his teaching confirms you in the doctrine and way of life you have been taught on the basis of God’s Word, then you must listen to him, support him, cherish him, encourage him, pray for him, and give thanks for him, as though God Himself was speaking to you and opening the doors of Paradise before you.

And now we come to an even tougher question: How are you supposed to tell whether his fruit is good or bad? You really only have two choices: Either to be firmly rooted in the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3)—so firmly rooted that you can readily tell the difference between truth and false teaching, and can fight firmly for the true faith—or to be like the Jews in Berea, who “received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). If your faith has not yet been planted very deeply and firmly, that leaves you only one option: to be daily and constantly in the Word. Besides the Bible, read as much as you can understand in the Lutheran Confessions, the writings of Luther, and other authors who bear witness to the same doctrine.

Don’t stop learning Christ’s doctrine until you know the biblical answer to every question. If that time ever comes—though it is most unlikely—then keep studying the Word so that you may not forget. And if you love your children, teach them well, so they may be fully armored against false prophets, whether they come to them clothed in the sport coat of a high school science teacher, or in the comely form of a future husband or wife, or in all their busy lives’ tempting alternatives to going to church. If you want to protect them from false prophets, know your doctrine, teach them to know it, and teach them why it matters.

Why? Because you are on a spiritual battlefield. You can’t afford to go without the weapons and armor of a spiritual warrior. The devil is not only a fierce and active foe, but also a wily one. Sometimes he tries to crush us by brute and sudden force, while at other times he works at slowly and quietly undermining us. His aim is to destroy our faith, to take us away from Christ, to rob us of salvation. And when he isn’t beating us into despair through suffering, conflict, pressure and temptations from the world around us, he may be trying to tempt us into complacency and to sneak into our midst without our noticing. Persecution is one of Satan’s bold plays, right out where Christians can see where the evil lies; the only question then is whether we can bear it. But with false teachers, Satan infiltrates the holy of holies, disguised as people we respect and trust. And the seeds of false doctrine that they sow grow into trees whose fruits make us sick, and whose roots and branches tear us apart. They, mind you—the false teachers, not the faithful—cause the divisions that rend the body of Christ, the scandals and controversies that embarrass us, and the doubts that make us even readier prey for the wolves.

The only armor that can protect us is God’s Word. And that’s not just a piece of pious, figurative language. It doesn’t mean idly accepting the status quo. It means constantly grappling with the holy Word, and wrestling strength out of the holy Sacrament. And this grappling with the Word is not like wrestling with a padded dummy that you can easily throw down. It’s more like clinging to a huge rock with nothing but your fingers and toes. If you want to stay there, you need to get as strong and deep a hold on it as you can.

How can you tell whether someone is leading you astray? How can you measure his teachings against the Word of God? In a commentary on this text, Martin Luther answers: “Everyone should see to it, above all, that he is sure of his cause and of the doctrine. In his heart he should be so well grounded in it that he can stick to the doctrine even though he sees everyone on earth teaching and living contrary to it. Anyone who wants to move along in safety simply dare not pay attention to any of the outward masks in Christendom and guide himself by them. He must pay attention only to the Word, which shows us the right way of life that avails before God. For example, you must hold on to the chief part, the summary, of Christian teaching and accept nothing else: That God has sent and given Christ, His Son, and that only through Him does He forgive us all our sins, justify and save us” (LW 21:254).

Again, Jesus tells us: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” Even some who call upon Him by name, and preach in His name, will hear that awful sentence. The question for you is whether they spoke according to His Word, whether they led you toward or away from Christ, whether they held up as God-pleasing the works God commanded or ones invented by themselves. Say to yourself as Luther says: “I shall test them where they ought to be tested, as to whether they serve to strengthen my faith in the Word: that Christ died for me; that through Him I may obtain piety and salvation in the sight of God; and that I should carry out my station [in life] and pay faithful attention to it” (LW 21:273–274).

Meanwhile, real prophecy is taking place here. Called by God to serve in an office commanded by God, a man of God stands here every week to proclaim to you the Word of God. And if he doesn’t exactly predict the future, your pastor is called to tell you things that you cannot learn by experience or with the senses. Nevertheless, these things are as true as though God Himself spoke them. Things such as, “Your sins are forgiven.” And as for miracles—how about Baptism? All your pastor does is say the words by which Christ commanded us to baptize, and add water; but miraculously, the water becomes a bath in the Holy Spirit, and you or your baby becomes God’s newborn child. Or how about the Lord’s Supper? We put in bread, wine, and the words of Christ. What comes out is Jesus’ true body and blood, which we can physically eat and drink, and which actually gives us the forgiveness of sins.

A false prophet can indeed give you these things, because these miracles are tied to the office instituted by Christ and the words spoken by Christ. Even an unbeliever could preach the Gospel to you without any additions or subtractions, and so comfort you and build up your faith, though he would not share in the salvation that he brings to you. Jesus does not tell you to look into your pastor’s heart. He tells you to observe his fruits, which is to say, his teachings. What does he tell you to believe? How does he tell you to live? And do these teachings match the right interpretation of Scripture, in which you have been so carefully instructed?

Jeremiah (23:16–19) tells us that God does not want you to listen to false prophets. He means that you should not obey what they teach. Jesus, on the other hand, tells you to listen and to beware. But He tells you this so that you may safely eat of spiritual food, drink the spiritual drink, and take the spiritual medicine that He so richly serves you in sermon and liturgy, in Word and Sacrament. He wants you to feel free to follow the faithful shepherd He has given you, so that through your pastor, Jesus may protect you from wolves and fill you with His precious gifts. Jesus wants you to hear God’s Law in its fullness and purity, so that you know how to live in a God-pleasing manner, and so that you recognize when you are not doing so; and He wants you to hear His Gospel in all its sweetness and power, so that when you falter and stumble along the way, you may not despair but believe that your sins are forgiven through Jesus’ willingly shed blood and through His slain and risen body. And finally, He wants you to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and with the confidence that, as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Jesus Is Enough

Coming tomorrow to a St. Louis city LCMS pulpit: This sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, based on Mark 8:1-9, with an assist from Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 6:19-23, Genesis 2:7-17, and Hebrews 6:4-6.
In his award-winning children’s book Millions, Frank Cottrell Boyce depicts an adorable little boy named Damian, who has visions in which saints appear to him. It’s a beautiful story. But when St. Peter appears to Damian, he tells him a version of today’s Gospel that is supposed to be wise, but really is foolish. According to this version, Jesus didn’t really make food appear out of nowhere when he fed the crowd. Rather, Jesus set an example of sharing that inspired others to do the same. Cottrell Boyce paints a word-picture of hundreds of people remembering the apple in their pocket, or the sandwich under their hat, or the piece of chicken tied up in their handkerchief. Instead of waiting for a chance to eat by themselves, they sheepishly took their own food out and shared with their neighbors. And that, says Cottrell Boyce, was the real miracle.

But Mark tells us that the multitude had nothing to eat. They had all run after Jesus unprepared, and now they were too far out in the country to get home without fainting of hunger. Seven loaves and a few fish were all they had. The disciples knew this would not be enough to feed everybody. But Jesus went ahead anyway. And after everyone was full, there were as many large basketsful of leftovers as there had been loaves to start with. This makes a mockery of Cottrell Boyce’s explanation. Even supposing some people in the crowd had a private stash of food, after they shared it with everybody, how do they have anything left over? Even suppposing there was a loaf of bread tucked up the back of every other person’s shirt, how do they end up with seven large baskets full of leftovers? If they had that much food to start with, why would Jesus be concerned? Instead of a miracle, or even a touching example, the feeding of the crowd would be a joke.

The miracle cannot be explained by science—not even social science. All attempts to make it jive with reason or the laws of nature, end in confusion. The story of Jesus feeding the crowd must either be believed or doubted. It speaks for itself. And what it speaks to those who believe is more than the fact that Jesus is powerful, or even that He is God. The message of this miracle is that JESUS IS ENOUGH.

There are a lot of ways you could take that statement. And some of them are clearly false. For example, you could take “Jesus is enough” to mean that if you believe in Jesus, nothing else really matters, and so you don’t need food, drink, shelter, work, or even air. But that would be absurd. God gives you those things so that you can live; without them you would die, whether you have Jesus in your heart or not. Or you could take “Jesus is enough” to mean that, once you’ve let Jesus in your heart, it doesn’t matter what you believe, teach, confess, or do. So none of our doctrines matter, especially when they involve differences with other Christians; none of God’s commandments matter, the difference between right and wrong doesn’t matter, and sin doesn’t matter, because we’re already saved. But none of these thoughts has anything to do with Jesus’ miracle of feeding the crowd, or what it means when it shows us that “Jesus is enough.”

Consider this week’s Bible verse from the “Congregation at Prayer” [a supplement in the Sunday bulletin] from Ephesians 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Now let’s look at Paul’s words more closely. You have been saved, he says. What have you been saved from? You have been saved from sin, from God’s judgment against sin, from everlasting death and punishment in hell. You have been saved by what? Paul says, “By grace.” That means totally for free, without paying anything or doing anything to obtain it. Another way to explain “by grace” is to say, “Because God is pleased with you.” How did you go from being a sinner, condemned to death and hell, to having God be pleased with you? Paul says, “Through faith.” What faith is that? Is it a quality in you, like an ability to endure troubles? Clearly not, or Paul wouldn’t have added, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Is it a virtue that you have, like being faithful to God? Clearly not, or you would not need to be saved for free. The faith through which God has saved you is the result of you being unmade and remade by God. So Paul says you are God’s workhmanship, created in Christ Jesus. God has drowned you and raised you from the dead, He has killed you and caused you to be born again by water and the Spirit, in baptism.

Faith is part of the new creation God has made you in Christ. And it is specifically through that faith that you receive God’s saving grace. The faith that comes from God in the washing of water and the word. Not a faith that bargains with God, or that is delivered to God as payment, but a faith that receives all good things from God as a gift, through Jesus. This faith relies on Jesus because He is enough. His incarnation in the womb of a Virgin makes make this one man’s obedience enough to cover the disobedience of all. It makes one man’s sacrificial suffering and death enough to end the curse of the Law against us. It makes one man’s resurrection from the dead enough to destroy the hold of death and hell upon us. It makes one man’s ascension to the throne of God enough to ensure that wherever God is present, Jesus can be there with His perfect manhood.

He can fill each of us, and live in each of us, and give His body to each of us, and He remains whole. However much He is needed, however far apart the faithful may spread, however deep and dark and sordid and sick and earthly and fleshly and weak and unworthy our condition may be, Jesus is there with us. His forgiveness is enough for whatever our sins. His body and blood are enough, no matter how desperate our need. His Word is enough. His strength is enough. His faithfulness, His compassion, His power to change hearts and to comfort the afflicted can never be exhausted.

All of this seems to violate the principles of mathematics, science, the laws of nature and reason. If you take away from anything, it cannot remain the same. If you divide something up, it cannot remain whole. If you consume something, you can’t end up with more than you started with. It’s just like dividing seven loaves and a few fishes between four thousand eaters. Reason and nature militate against the possibility that all those people could have been filled on that small amount of food, even supposing that some of them brought a few morsels to share with each other. Certainly there could not be more left over than there was to start with. But in this, Jesus shows that He is above nature and reason. He made them, He can unmake and remake them, and He exists outside of them. And so whatever He promises you, even if the thought of it being true is inconceivable by any stretch of the imagination, nevertheless that promise is true.

It is true that your sins are forgiven. And that means more to you than perhaps you know. For as Paul points out in today’s Epistle from Romans 6, the wages of sin is death, just as God warned Adam and Eve that the penalty for breaking His command was, “you shall surely die.” Now Paul does not say, “The wages of sin was death,” but “is death.” Sin is still sin, and it is still deadly, even for you. Your sinful desires still lead to sinful acts, and both can still destroy you; in fact, both will damn you, without the gift of God in Christ Jesus. This danger does not disappear when you are baptized as a Christian, or when you profess faith in Christ, or when you ask Him to be your Savior, or ever—until your present life comes to an end.

In fact, the danger is worse for us as Christians, because we have so much more to lose. For we were once citizens of the kingdom of Satan, and like all our fellow citizens, we were enslaved to him, hand and foot. All of our members, every part of our body, and even our soul belonged to sin, and served sin as slaves. But now Christ has freed us by His death and resurrection. He has given us God’s grace and a rebirth in faith. He has delivered us from bondage to sin, and made us slaves of God whose fruit is holiness, and whose end is eternal life. To have tasted the heavenly gift of the Holy Spirit, the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then to fall away again, would be a terrible loss.

The wages of sin is still death. So we still need Christ to save us, and to feed us. We are still like that crowd who could not make it home unless Jesus fed them. We have nothing in ourselves that can sustain us for the journey. It must come from Him. But what comes from Jesus is enough. Though our daily sins still carry the wages of death; though the world we live in plagues us with temptations to give up our faith; though Satan is trying harder than ever to destroy us, we have Jesus through Word and Sacrament, and Jesus is enough.

He might not be enough if He was far away, shackled to a chair in some hermetically sealed vault in the distant heavens. He might not be enough if we could only have him in us through our feelings, our dreamings, our imaginings, or our memories. He might not be enough if He was only present as a spiritual influence, or as an example for us to follow, or as a giver of wisdom and advice and rules for living.

But Jesus is more than all of these things put together. He is God, and He is Man, a person that no science or philosophy can comprehend. He is fully present here and now, personally and bodily, in His Word, in His Sacrament, in me and in you, though how this can be passes all understanding. But He is also the one who has ascended high above the heavens, that He might rule over all things. He is not limited by physics or calculus, by what we can think or what we can imagine. He is truly acting, loving, living, and giving to you all that you need, and overflowingly, abundantly more. He is now speaking to you, and if this were a Communion Sunday He would soon be feeding Himself to you.

How you can know this and not hunger for Him is beyond my understanding. If you were half as sinful as I am, you would pine for the body and blood of Jesus every day, let alone every week. You would feel that you needed His forgiveness again an hour after receiving it, if indeed that long. But beyond our understanding, yours or mine, is the fact that though we need Him every day, every hour, every minute to save us from the wages of our sin, Jesus is always with us, and what He gives us is enough and more than enough. And it remains enough, even after we have slipped and stumbled again, because He has borne our sin once for all; because He reaches out with His forgiving Word and Spirit and Body and Blood from an eternal throne that is both intimately near us and infinitely separate from our concept of time and place.

There are any number of realities we do not know, because God has not revealed them to us. We do not need to know them, perhaps we can never understand them, but this He makes known to us through the miracle of feeding the crowd: Jesus is enough. And that miracle is only one of many ways He has made this known. Without Him we are lost. But in Him we are saved. And though He has now created us anew for the purpose of doing good works, we know that we are not at all saved because of good works, but only because of Jesus. We know this because “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And to have that life, it is enough to have Jesus.