Thursday, April 30, 2009

Environmental Tackiness

On display this week at the ELCA Temple of Tackiness in my neighborhood:


Let's unpack those instructions a bit. (1) REDUCE Christ's church to a mouthpiece for a socio-political agenda. (2) REUSE artifacts of pagan spirituality, with or without sticking Christian symbols on them. (3) RECYCLE slogans and programs everybody else has seen through and moved on from, as Lutherans always do. (4) REJOICE in the opportunity to become just another part of the "Go Green!" background noise that has surrounded us on all sides throughout this year's month-long celebration of Earth Day. Hallelujah!

Legs On Ya

Last night I made my own lasagna, or as my brother used to call it when he was a wee tot, legs on ya. And God saw that it was good.

I've probably blogged on the beauty of homemade lasagna before, and to be quite honest, I don't do much that the package of noodles doesn't tell me to do. I must say though, that no storebought or restaurant lasagna can ever hold a candle to the stuff that comes out of your own oven. Perhaps this is because it takes an hour to bake it, so in order to serve it in a restaurant you have to cook up a bunch of it ahead of time and serve it warmed-over (and often, as a result, dried-out).

At risk of repeating myself, however, I want to plug the Barilla brand lasagne noodles, which don't have to be boiled, cooled, and painstakingly peeled off a piece of aluminum foil before you bake it. This makes the process of building a handmade lasagna that much simpler. The flat, rectangular slips of pasta are crisp and ready-to-bake when they come out of the box. The box also helpfully tells you the order in which to layer your five essential building blocks of lasagna: the noodles, the shredded mozzarella, the browned meat, the red sauce, and the ricota cheese mixture.

I enjoy making this kind of recipe, which essentially boils down to adding separate groups of ingredients together in a certain order. It's one of the reasons apple-upsidedown-gingerbread cake appeals to me. Plus, there is room for a bit of experimentation and customization within the basic structure. For example, the only herb I add to the cheese mixture is mint. There's really no need for parsley, basil, oregano, pepper, etc. Besides, your pasta sauce (which probably comes out of a storebought jar because, hey, it saves time) probably has those spices in it anyway.

Also, my browned meat mixture consists of equal parts ground beef and pork sausage, plus one onion coarsely chopped and mass quantities of minced garlic. Given a dish in which garlic works, one can hardly ever use too much of it. I have found, however, that it is just plain flavor overkill to use "Italian sausage" or, worse, "spicy Italian sausage."

My most important browning pointers? Besides, obviously, making sure the meat is fully cooked: (1) You can brown the pork and beef separately, then combine what you need for the dish and save the rest. Using too much meat can result in the top layer of cheese welding itself permanently to the aluminum foil, a major fault in any lasagna operation. (2) Feel free to add garlic to both the pork and the beef as it browns, but for reasons of timing add all the onion to the beef. You can wait until the meat is halfway browned before adding the onion. Contrary to what you learned from making Hamburger Helper, there is no need to brown the onion until it turns to complete mush. Thus, after baking the main dish, you'll still have onion chunks with a little body to them, the kind that bursts in the mouth when you bite into it.

Another trick is spreading the ingredients around so that each layer covers the full area of the pan without using up more than its share. I find that it takes a bit more than one 24-ounce jar of tomato sauce. So I tend to throw in the leftovers from a previously opened, partly used jar, regardless of differences in the flavoring between the two jars. The mozzarella can be tricky to divvy up, too. I rely (again, for reasons of speed and laziness) on storebought, pre-shredded packages of the cheese, typically starting with two one-pound bags of it and using half of one bag in the ricota mixture, then dividing the remaining three halves among the layers of lasagna as directed by the label on the pasta package.

One last caveat: Really, really do let this sucker cool down before you eat it. Having to scrape a layer of burnt skin off the roof of your mouth is not a cool way to end a meal.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

To Coin a Word

I like the phrase "to coin a word." It suggests so many cool things. It suggests that language can be treasured like money. It suggests that the right word at the right time may be rare and valuable. It suggests that the ability to invent new words is like the engraver's art, and that the process of bringing such a word into common usage is like the minting of money.

In the spirit of "sniglets," a kind of "funny money" as it were, I would like to present the following coinage for you to collect and display.

So, a male cat is a tom, all right? What if we call a neutered male a tim?

Thank you. No, please, you're too kind. I'm here all week!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Which Is Longer?

Yesterday, while driving from the Twin Cities to Saint Louis, I put a burning question to the test. Namely: Which is longer, the state of Iowa or Wagner's Götterdämmerung? I studied this vital issue by listening to the latter while driving across the former. The opera, which concludes Wagner's "Ring of the Niebelung" cycle of four interminable operas, came on the air as the last Metropolitan Opera broadcast of the season.

It started while I was still well within the borders of Minnesota. It played on one Iowa Public Radio station or another as I drove by Mason City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Keokuk. When I finally lost contact with the Met broadcast, 10 miles from the Missouri state line, there was still a good bit of Act 3 to go. Siegfried had just perished, and I know (thanks to Margaret Juntwait) that at least three principal characters had yet to die tragic deaths, interspersed with a great deal of Wagner's passionate and yet ponderously dignified orchestral music.

The opera wins. Although the results may be a bit skewed by the fact that I broke the speed limit most of the way, I think it's a fair result when you take into account my stops to refill fuel, empty my bladder, and refresh myself with food and drink. To be sure, Iowa from east to west might be another story. But then, I've never had an opportunity to compare that drive to a Wagner opera, and I'm unlikely to do so.

This drive home struck me as strangely unfamiliar. I have, after all, made several trips from St. Louis to the Twin Cities. But then I realized that, oddly enough, I had never driven straight back until yesterday. I had either made the trip by air, or (on at least two occasions) had gone home by way of my mother's home in Nebraska. So it was actually weird to see the southbound side of my regular route. And it's weird that it was weird.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Heavy-Metal Books

The exterminator came today to lay down some bait for the ants, who (as they do every spring) had moved into the neighborhood on a truckload of mulch and set up housekeeping inside the walls. While he was here, we somehow got to talking about books. He doesn't read much nowadays, but he fondly remembers enjoying some rip-snorting sci-fi adventures by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke. I happily gave him my well-thumbed copy of L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, assuring him that the book is pure fun and way better than the movie. (He claimed to have liked the movie. It takes all kinds.)

When I told him that I review kids' books for a Harry Potter fan site, he started asking me what I would recommend for his kid. I asked him what his kid was into, and he said "skateboarding and heavy metal music." For a moment I was stumped. Then the ideas started flowing. Some of these are books I have reviewed, some I have only seen in bookstores and thought about reading. But I hazarded to suggest them as something a member of the tattoos-and-piercings crowd might enjoy reading. And now, for those of you whose kids also belong to that set, I share the same list of recommendations with you (plus a few titles I might have mentioned had I thought of them):
  • Tithe by Holly Black: The first book in a series of dark, gritty, urban, modern fairy tales.
  • Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr: Likewise an edgy, tough fairy tale, complete with a playlist of hard rock songs to read by.
  • The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld: The start of the spooky, hip, slightly goth teen series called "The Midnighters."
  • I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak: A moving story narrated by one of today's wild young people.
  • Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven.
  • City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, also the first book in a series. I'm getting ready to read these last two.
This is just a place to start. I'm not about to judge anyone for liking heavy metal music. It's not a cultural stream in which I prefer to swim, but they have just as much right to enjoy a good book as anyone. If these books can lead them to develop a habit of reading, more power to them!

Overdrawn Tackiness

Featured this week on the neighborhood ELCA church sign:


Make fast withdrawals from your savings account in the storehouse of heavenly treasures! Check your balance in God's books quickly, securely, and confidentially! A nominal transaction fee may be charged! Do you wish to continue?


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Four Book Reviews

Arabel and Mortimer
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Ages: 8+

Fans of Roald Dahl and Astrid Lindgren will love this book, part of a series about little Arabel Jones of "Rumbury Town, London N.W. 3½" and her pet raven Mortimer. Illustrated by the same Quentin Blake who so memorably decorated such books as The BFG and Danny the Champion of the World, and written by the same author who gave us The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Cockatrice Boys, it combines laugh-aloud scenes of mischief and mayhem with touches of whimsical irony and rib-tickling silliness.

Arabel and the family raven get up to some far-flung adventures, considering that she is the daughter of an easy-going cab driver and a slightly daffy housewife. Mr. Jones likes his football (that's soccer to you) and Mrs. Jones has an endearing way of muddling up her words. They both seem heroically tolerant of Arabel's feathered friend, who will swallow anything not bolted down and whose antics would be mortifying to most real-life parents. Part of what makes this fantasy so adorable is the way the Jones family takes Mortimer in stride.

In the three short stories (novellas?) included in this book, Arabel and Mortimer rescue a lost gem, run amuck on a cruise ship, save a zooful of zebras and camels from animal thieves, and put their special stamp on the unearthing of King Arthur's round table and the sword Excalibur. Mortimer samples the flavor of a table-tennis set, a bowler hat, and a sewing machine. He tests whether a riding lawnmower can fly, whether a grand piano can float, and whether a giraffe can climb a spiral staircase. And in spite of all his mischief, he and Arabel make lots of friends. Won't you be one of them?

I haven't yet read Arabel's Raven, the first book in this series. Evidently it is a series you can join at any point. I'm not sure how many different stories are in it, since they seem to have been published separately and collected in various ways. But I do recommend this charming series of humorous child-and-animal adventures to anyone who senses the comic potential of doughnuts, nose organs, lavender paint, and a bird that often mutters, "Nevermore!"

The Tale of Despereaux
by Kate DiCamillo
Recommended Ages: 9+

This Newbery-Medal-winning book by the author of Because of Winn-Dixie weaves together the story of a servant girl who wants to be a princess, a rat who wants to live in the light, and a mouse who wants to be a knight.

Those of you who, like me, read the book after seeing the delightful movie based on it may be surprised to discover how many memorable bits in the movie aren't in the book. The original story is much simpler and more direct. Yet for all its spareness, it packs a big message. It bears witness that, even in the world of "once upon a time," the route to "happily ever after" is fraught with pain, trouble, and disappointment. It shows the cost of not conforming, the harm that can result when a broken heart heals wrong, the rewards of courage and love, the importance of honor, and the power of forgiveness. Best of all, it has a character who says: "Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark."

Despereaux is an unusual mouse in many ways. Smaller than normal, born with his eyes open, interested in things other than scurrying and nibbling, he soon falls in love with a pretty princess and comes to fancy himself her champion. She needs a champion, too, when a vengeful rat and an envious serving wench target the Princess Pea in a plot involving the darkest dungeon in the kingdom. To save her, one very tiny mouse will have to accomplish some amazingly big things.

It's a gentle, lovely story in which each short chapter ends with the narrator turning toward the reader and looking him or her straight in the eye. DiCamillo has a way of explaining words and concepts that might remind one of Lemony Snicket, only without the latter's pedantic mannerisms. The book leaves more to the imagination than the film does, but it also rewards the imagination with a word-painting full of darkness and light, achieving the effect of great detail through an economy of means. It's the verbal equivalent of the painting technique after which one of the characters is named. It draws on all the senses. It speaks in the tones of a kindly adult telling a story out loud to a child. And it begs to be read over a bowl of savory soup.

Gods of Manhattan
by Scott Mebus
Recommended Ages: 12+

Thirteen-year-old Rory Hennessy is a level-headed boy. He has an eye for the plain, unvarnished truth. This is why he hates watching stage magic; he can always spot how a trick was done. Always, that is, until his sister Bridget's ninth birthday party, when a conjurer named Hex pulls off the impossible. Suddenly Rory's entire world is shaken. Soon he begins to spot other impossible things, like a cockroach rider waving hello from a rat's back. Within days, the familiar and mundane streets of New York are transformed into a wonderland in which ghostly pirate ships patrol the river, animals engage in kung fu fighting, and members of the extinct Munsee tribe stalk the paths of Central Park.

Rory soon discovers that he is a rare type of person known as a Light. He sees what really is, and he can enable other people to see it too. But this talent puts him in great danger. Someone has seen to it that most Lights disappear by age four. Only the fact that, somehow or other, Rory has managed to block out his talent has kept him alive until now. But the feral, childlike Strangers are after him now. And one of the immortal gods of Manhattan -- spirits from its past like Alexander Hamilton and Walt Whitman -- is after Rory's head, aided by an assassin wielding a unique knife that can even kill gods.

That doesn't even begin to describe the danger Rory is in. All he has to defend himself are a handful of the immortal children of the gods, known as the Rattle Watch; a clan of rat-riding warrior roaches; and a mysterious magician with questionable motives, served by a papier-mâché boy. I'm not sure whether to count one little girl who fancies herself "Malibu Death Barbie" as an asset in Rory's favor. For, all too soon, his adventure becomes all about saving Bridget.

Meanwhile, we readers are treated to a rapid, free course in the history of New York City. We meet many characters from its variegated history. We tag along on wild, and often scary, excursions into the past, where Rory and friends are threatened by gangsters, British troops, an albino alligator, and everything in between. A quest to right a 150-year-old wrong and restore the balance of Manhattan's spirit world veers to a supernatural bank heist, a spiritual journey, a surprise plot twist, the unveiling of a traitor, and a deadly trap. And the door remains open for more adventures in the world of Mannahatta, where gods like Peter Stuyvesant and Zelda Fitzgerald preside over such areas as nostalgia, guilt, trends, excess, wit, shoplifting, and street construction. The chronicles of Mannahatta continue in at least a second book, titled Spirits in the Park.

by Delia Sherman
Recommended Ages: 10+

This tale was written to disprove a theory, voiced by another fantasy author, that fairies never live in big cities. Delia Sherman grew up in New York City, and she knows as well as anyone who has ever visited the Big Apple that it is a magical place. If anything, it has more fairy folk per square mile than the average, in proportion to its higher population density. And since the mortals who dwell in the "New York Outside" (that's our world) come from all over the world, the fairy realm known as "New York Between" is similarly cosmopolitan. Beautiful or ugly, naughty or nice, there are so many varieties of Folk in the city that you'll really need the glossary at the end of the book.

Sherman developed this idea through several short stories before bringing it to bear on the novel. It's really a powerful idea, too: more convincing than the Mannahatta of Scott Mebus's Gods of Manhattan, more family-friendly (and less tongue-in-cheek) than Shanna Swendson's Enchanted, Inc., it forms the basis of a unique, urban fairy tale that will please folklore fans of all ages. Although the idea of magic existing in New York City isn't unique in and of itself, I know of no other author who has transplanted such a melting pot of "old country" magic onto New World soil, keeping its original character while adapting it successfully to its new home.

In the New York Between, Manhattan has been divided up between "Geniuses": powerful fairies who control particular areas. For example, our heroine, a mortal changeling named Neef, has grown up under the protection of the Genius of Central Park, also known as the Green Lady. In her quest, she meets other Geniuses, including the Mermaid Queen of New York Harbor, the Producer of Broadway, and the Dragon of Wall Street. She also meets her double, a fairy changeling who was swapped with Neef as a small child and raised by Neef's mortal parents.

Together, Neef and Changeling undertake three seemingly impossible tasks in order to get back into the Green Lady's good books and restore everything to the way it should be. It starts when Neef breaks a magical rule she didn't know about. Faced with a choice between being banished from the Park and being eaten by the Wild Hunt, she chooses a third option and goes on a quest. She mingles with selkie harbor cops, vampire actors, stockbroker dwarves and kobolds, the odd fictional character, and a whole roomful of bogeymen. She crosses paths with spirits from Asian, European, and uniquely American folklore, surviving by sheer chutzpah and the surprising usefulness of her fairy double. And she provides an entertainment full of laughs, changes of scenery, and familiar fairy-tale beings and plot devices transformed in surprising ways. New York is transformed, too. You may never look at it the same way again.

For more information on this talented and award-winning author, visit her website. Several of her stories have been published in anthologies, including The Faery Reel, The Green Man, and The Coyote Road. Some of her other novels are Through a Brazen Mirror and The Porcelain Dove. And I have been assured that she is writing a sequel to Changeling. I'll be questing for it!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Berlioz Week

Saint Louis had an opportunity to experience a rare cultural treat this past weekend, when our own Symphony Orchestra & Chorus performed Hector Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust -- which only comes around once every fifteen years or so. We had the advantage of having just put on the same composer's earlier (and more rarely performed) work 8 Scenes from Faust two years ago. So we've been fully inoculated with one of the great masterpieces of the romantic era.

What is The Damnation of Faust? It's a bit of this and a bit of that. It's partly an opera: it has been successfully staged, most recently a few weeks ago by the Met, though Berlioz never lived to see a staged production and, indeed, never seemed to feel one was necessary. It's partly a cantata or oratorio, making huge demands on the chorus (especially the men) and only four principal soloists: it works well, as we performed it, without costumes or scenery or stage business, simply as a concert work. It's partly a symphony, the culmination of Berlioz's development as a symphonist toward larger-scaled works in which dramatic narrative meets pure music: for in Berlioz's mind the music seems to have existed prior to the text.

What, once again, is The Damnation of Faust? It's partly a setting of the verse portions Gérard de Nerval's translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's seminal masterpiece -- seminal, that is, not just for Goethe but for 19th-century Western culture as a whole -- Faust: The Tragedy. That's already a pretty hefty pedigree, considering that Goethe rivals Shakespeare as a literary figure of worldwide importance; while he himself claimed to prefer Nerval's French translation to his own German original. Partly, it is also an independent literary creation by Berlioz himself, whose gift for melody, harmony, and orchestral color is matched by his literary skill in a proportion comparable to the gifts of Wagner.

As international Berlioz experts Hugh MacDonald and Kern Holoman argued in their pre-concert chat (which I heard both nights), The Damnation of Faust may reveal Berlioz at his best. It certainly benefited from its 20-year gestation period. And in last week's performance, it sizzled and glowed and bubbled and burned, it plunged and soared and danced and laughed, it staggered drunkenly and sighed mournfully, under the baton of David Zinman. This maestro conducted with a huge energy that belied the serious pain he was in, as evidenced by his gingerly way of stepping off the podium.

It was an infectious energy, too -- and fortunately so, for it helped the performers overcome several setbacks as well. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Rohrer performed beautifully as Marguerite, in spite of coming in as a last-minute replacement for another singer who bowed out due to illness. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen projected an enormous vocal and physical presence as Mephistopheles, in spite of also being ill at the time of the concerts. Matthew Polenzani delivered a nuanced and powerful interpretation of Faust, both as an actor and as a singer required to hit several "high C's." Eric Owens rounded out the cast in the brief role of a drunk named Brander. The orchestra played an interestingly textured and highly accurate rendition of a very difficult score, all under Zinman's firm leadership -- which also saved the chorus from a few near train-wrecks. And the St. Louis Children's Choirs' Concert Choir added an angelic touch to the final number in which Marguerite is translated into heaven.

A lot of people put a lot of talent and preparation into these excellent performances, but the lion's share of the credit goes to Zinman. It is even possible that his physical infirmity contributed to the phenomenal cleanness of his conducting gesture, the unheard-of efficiency with which he ran the rehearsals, and the sense of heroism that infused the high points of the musical sparkline. He spent less time getting more results, with hardly any unnecessary movement, compared to other conductors we have worked with. Facing him on the stage while he pulled the Turkish March (for example) to its triumphant close was so exciting that I almost laughed aloud. And yet the range and expressiveness of his gesture, in conducting a score packed with a variety of moods and textures, was such that one might dismiss rumors that the maestro was hurting.

We of the chorus did flub a bit here and there. On Friday night, we barely kept the choral recitative passages together, due to an unfortunate lack of eye contact with the baton; and in Mephisto's serenade (always a dangerous spot, also when we did the 8 Scenes in 2006-07) a missed cue might have brought the music to a halt but for Zinman's adroitness. Saturday, a slightly smaller audience witnessed a much better performance, when I for once did not feel at all oppressed by the size of the task, and rather enjoyed myself.

What was not to enjoy? The chorus played a huge cast of characters, including cavorting peasants, carousing drinkers, chanting worshipers, randy soldiers, rowdy students, nosy neighbors, sylphs, will-o'-the-wisps, dancing demons, worshiping angels, and (in the one passage for women's chorus without the men) a group of toothless old women praying to the saints at a wayside chapel. Their literal scream (as Faust and Mephisto ride down upon them en route to the abyss) elicited the first occasion in which I have ever heard a conductor tell a chorus, "That was truly bloodcurdling," and mean it as a compliment.

We sang a drunken "Amen" fugue that Berlioz intended as a wry joke on bad church music. We participated in a truly great operatic scene (the finale to Part III of four). We pulled off a number aptly titled "Pandemonium," complete with a made-up language interspersed with a list of demons. We sang one piece in which my section of the chorus sang thirteen lines of French verse to an unbroken string of sixteenth-note triplets. And we eavesdropped on a gorgeous love duet, a gripping evocation of nature, a thrilling setting of the Hungarian national anthem, and two pieces of fairy ballet music that would turn Mendelssohn green with envy.

My personal highlights were mainly small moments that revealed Berlioz's mastery of instrumentation. One piece of fairy music ends with a unique duet between harp and tympani, both playing very softly. Every appearance of Mephistopheles was heralded by startling trombone chords; his Air is also accompanied mainly by trombones, which often volunteered a wry note or so to underscore the sinister intentions behind that charming devil. Rich, unexpected harmonies and rhythms filled the evening, including a remarkable three-measure woodwind riff that filled a rest in the students' chorus, an ahead-of-its-time passage of tonal ambiguity during the Ride to the Abyss, a terrifying instrumental depiction of the tumultuous flames of hell, and a series of hunting calls played by a clutch of offstage horns.

Everyone notices the viola and cor anglais solos in Marguerite's ballad and romance, respectively; and that is understandable. But having sat quite close to the orchestra, I was privileged to notice other instances of Berlioz's genius. Who else has done what he did with three piccolos in the Ballet of Sylphs? Who else has achieved such an effect of tortured spareness as in Faust's solo in Part III? Who else could turn the entire string division into a giant guitar as in Mephisto's serenade? Berlioz used the orchestra to create audible images of a beating heart, a roaring kraken, galloping horses, flitting fairies, attacking birds of prey, and a distant artillery barrage. He creates a sonic depiction of hell that could rival a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, and a spun-sugar vision of heaven to shame Gustave Doré. He does it in music that is unmistakably Berlioz; no other composer would or could have written it. But it is also unmistakably the work of a powerful imagination married to wit, orchestral fluency, and a flair for balance and proportion. Put together, this adds up to a uniquely compelling musical tribute to one of the great texts in Western literature. How lucky am I to have been there when it happened, David Zinman style!

IMAGES: Zinman, Ketelsen (playing Mephisto in a different production), Owens, Polenzani, Rohrer, Bosch's hell, Doré's heaven.

Souped-Up Sub

I had lunch at Subway today. I often do, since there's a Subway restaurant in the building where I work. It can get a bit boring after a while. But today I tried a different combination of sandwich toppings, and came up with something rather special.

My order was a chicken breast sandwich on Italian bread. (I didn't realize until today that Subway actually had whole grilled chicken breasts, rather than the ones cut into strips and soaked in a sauce.) I had the sandwich toasted with mozzarella cheese, until it came out all crisp and melty. Then, choosing from the other toppings on offer, I added spinach, chopped onion, sliced cucumber and tomato, shredded carrot, a sprinkling of oregano, and a goodly squirt of olive oil. That was it!

This was an unusual combination for me. Most times, by reflex, I top "whatever" with shredded lettuce, tomato, black olive, and mayo and/or mustard. I tend to avoid onions and peppers because I know people are going to smell it on my breath later; and I pass on the pickles because the type served by fast-food restaurants tastes rancid to me.

No matter how virtuous I try to feel, however, I must admit to myself that my usual recipe does not really contain any good, veggie nutrients, except maybe a few vitamins from the tomato. And the taste is a boring same-old, same-old. It's actually gross when this standard combo is served at meetings, when the bread has had time to get tough/soggy and the vegetables have begun to wilt. Today my taste buds were surprised by exceptional flavor, while my body got vitamins it has probably been missing for a while.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Three Book Reviews

Faerie Lord
by Herbie Brennan
Recommended Ages: 14+

Book Four of the Faerie Wars Chronicles begins when a fairy princess named Blue asks a mortal boy named Henry to marry her. And it totally freaks him out.

Life is complicated enough for Henry Atherton. His childhood best friend has a crush on him. His weak but nice father has a new girlfriend and doesn't have much time for him. His will and ambition are continually squashed by his snotty sister, his bossy mother, and her lesbian girlfriend. Three girls against one guy: Henry doesn't have a chance. Trapped by guilt and self-doubt, he has a vague, unfulfilling future ahead of him. But he's afraid to let go of it. And on some level, perhaps, he realizes that he doesn't have what it takes to reign beside the queen of the Faerie Realm, who also happens to be the queen of Hael (hell). No matter how much he loves her, Henry just isn't ready.

Two years later, however, a lot has changed. Queen Blue has grown into the power and majesty of her office. The demons of Hael have been liberated from enslavement, as Blue continues to pull together a new order in which Light and Dark Faeries, as well as her new demon subjects, form an integrated society. Her nemesis, Lord Hairstreak, has fallen on hard times. Henry is about to go off to University, and isn't sure he can take care of Mr. Fogarty's house and cat while the old ex-bank robber serves as Gatekeeper to the Faerie Realm. And now a plague has struck.

The temporal fever is a weird plague. It doesn't spread like a normal disease. It strikes young and old alike, making them age faster, eating up their future as their bodies pass through time on fast-forward. Henry's best friend, Blue's brother Pyrgus, has it. Mr. Fogarty is dying of it. And a strange prophecy suggests that Henry may find the cure for it... but only after going through an ordeal that could claim his life.

Henry, his friends, and their enemies are all caught up in yet another complex web of plots, adventures, death traps, and struggles against mythical figures, ghastly monsters, and powers of heaven and hell. Henry journeys through strange countries, befriends weird and whimsical creatures, talks to a voice from beyond, and undertakes not one but two quests. His courage, strength, and love for Blue are all put to the test as they both rush toward the climax in which, by saving each other, they may save the world.

This is a fitting conclusion to a series full of dark horror, sparkling magic, thrills, romance, and surprises galore. Both Henry and Blue have grown up a lot since they first met in Faerie Wars. Their growth as characters, and the development of their relationship, finally fulfills its promise here. In fact, until partway through this book, one may find it hard to see what Blue sees in Henry. As the narrative jumps from one character's point of view to another, you will constantly be on the hook of suspense. And the ultimate riddle will keep you puzzling till the very end.

Herbie Brennan, also known as J. H. Brennan, is the author of dozens of books, including children's picture books, horror novels, the eight-book Grail Quest series, and many non-fiction volumes on the occult.

Evil Genius
by Catherine Jinks
Recommended Age: 14+

Even at the age of seven, Cadel Piggott has the makings of an evil genius. His psychologist, Thaddeus Roth, spots it right away. Cadel's adoptive parents think he is getting counseling to cope with social adjustment problems; after all, the boy is hurtling through grade after grade, advancing ahead of students his age. But actually, Dr. Roth is encouraging Cadel to use his gifts to study systems, exploit their weaknesses, and bring them down.

Cadel's path of destruction begins with the Sydney rail system, then the roads. Soon he is sabotaging the social structure of his high school class. But it's all child's play until, at age 14, he has to choose a college. He chooses the Axis Institute, a program designed specially for Cadel by Dr. Roth and Cadel's biological father, the evil Phineas Darkkon, who has been pulling strings for the boy from a prison cell. The Axis Institute is so small that it offers only one degree program: World Domination.

Surrounded by people studying assassination, biological warfare, forgery, embezzlement, misinformation, and the philosophy of pure evil, Cadel focuses his studies on computer science (a.k.a. infiltration). Worming his way into the computer files of the faculty and staff, Cadel finds out a lot about the motives of the bizarre and creepy people around him. By the time he realizes that he's just not evil enough to belong there, there seems to be no way out. No way, that is, except to bring the whole place down.

Cadel is a fascinating subject. Misguided from an early age, trained to accept crime on a massive scale as normal behavior, even brainwashed to believe that the survival of mankind depends on people like him seizing power, he nevertheless remains human, vulnerable, and basically decent. The spark of conscience in him, the capacity to love and a desire to be loved in return, grow and grow until he sees no choice but to escape from the clutches of his father, Dr. Roth, and the sinister staff of the Institute.

But he doesn't know his own strength, or his potential to do great harm without meaning to. When Cadel decides to blow a hole in the Axis Institue big enough to escape through, he sets off a conflagration even he did not foresee. The resulting carnage is both shocking and, at the same time, obscenely funny. It's the kind of dark comedy that may appeal to fans of Edward Bloor's Story Time, served up with an ironic, upside-down view of right and wrong reminiscent of Artemis Fowl. The only magic in it, however, is the magic of technology, the power of love, the strength of desperation, and the explosive effect of long-kept secrets revealed at just the right time. For more of the same, you may be interested in the sequel, Genius Squad. Jinks is the author of many other novels, including most recently The Reformed Vampire Support Group.

Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 12+

In Fablehaven, siblings Kendra and Seth found out that their grandparents' country estate is actually a secret preserve for magical creatures. Some of them are nice, some are nasty; in fact, Kendra barely saved her family, and the whole preserve, from being destroyed when some of the nasty creatures took control. In the sequel, Rise of the Evening Star, the kids averted a plot by the evil Society of the Evening Star to bring Fablehaven down. In so doing, Kendra found out that she has become "fairykind," with a special bond to the magical folk that gives her unique powers.

In this third book in the series, Kendra's status as fairykind gets her invited to join the Knights of the Dawn, whose mission is to combat the Society of the Evening Star. She is immediately sent to a secret preserve in Arizona to help recover a magical talisman that must not fall into the wrong hands.

Besides the danger involved in seeking an artifact surrounded by deadly traps and guarded by a fierce dragon, Kendra has other worries. For one, she suspects that the Captain of the Knights may be a traitor serving the Society. Giving him the artifact could bring the Society one step closer to their goal of opening the demon prison of Zzyzx. Meanwhile, back at Fablehaven, a plague of darkness has begun to spread, threatening to turn all the creatures of light to evil. When that happens, Fablehaven will fall.

With her fairykind powers, Kendra leads the battle of light against darkness. But she does not fight alone. She is aided by a visitor from the past, a friend she had thought lost forever, and her brother who has special powers of his own. An impressive army of satyrs, centaurs, nymphs, and fairies fight by her side; to say nothing of a huge golem and other strange and wonderful friends.

But even if she can overcome this greatest-ever threat to Fablehaven's survival, she will still have to face the ongoing puzzle of what the Sphinx is up to and how he can be stopped. And that, readers will be delighted to learn, is a matter for future books to take up. I would not want this to be the end of the exciting, magical, and fascinatingly original Fablehaven series. But I needn't worry. The fourth book, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary, released late last month, promises even more suspense and supernatural adventure, and perhaps a bit of romance for Kendra.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Night to Sniff

It's a gorgeous night in St. Louis. Not too warm, not too cool; just a bit of a breeze; and the air is filled with a beautiful scent. Some widespread tree or shrub must be in bloom, its floral perfume approaching peak production. It's a perfect moment. Do have a sniff while it lasts, and rejoice! Spring is here, God is good, and tax day is drawing to a close!

Tie-In Stupidity

Film tie-ins are stupid, but they're an unalterable fixture in our commercial world. At least since Star Wars, no blockbuster family movie has been complete without a collectible toy, soft drink container, breakfast cereal, line of clothes or jewelry, video game, etc., etc., etc.

Sometimes I pity the suckers who are taken in by this stuff, like the kids who just had to have all the crappy trinkets tied in with the Twilight movie. At other times, I have to check my own desire to grab a piece of the memorabilia. I'm proud to say I have (mostly) resisted the temptation, even refusing the free poster I was entitled to after waiting in line at Borders for my release-day copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

My greatest vulnerability, however, is the book tied in with a movie. If a movie is based on a book, and I know I'm going to watch it, I will often buy the book and read it first. Sometimes, if the book is based on the movie - a novelization of the screenplay - I'll read that too. Diane Duane's novelizations of the 1980s Star Trek films beguiled many of my teenaged hours, thrilling me with daring concepts that weren't even in the films. I was probably not even a teen when I read William Kotzwinkle's novelization of E.T., yet I still relish the memory of the alien's-point-of-view passages in that book and how they admiringly described Dee Wallace's character as having "a nose like a based-in Brussels sprout."

I have even bothered to review some film-tie-in novels, such as Millions (though whether it is a novelization of the film is debatable) and The Amazing Compendium of Edward Magorium (though it is only loosely connected to Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium). I have also discovered some wonderful books after enjoying the movies based on them, though admittedly my reviews of those books may have been colored by memories of the films.

For example, a sharp-eyed reader had to correct me when I incorrectly gave "Luke" as the name of the main character in The Witches, a name revealed in the film but not in the book. Likewise, I had to step carefully in reviewing The Neverending Story because the movie had made a strong impression on my when I was a child, but I only discovered the book as an adult. Judging by how awfully some book-to-film adaptations turn out, it's probably a good policy that I read the book first. Otherwise, I might never have bothered after seeing the movie version of, say, Five Children and It; or, I might have felt let down by the spareness of the book compared to the souped-up glitz and glamor of the film, as in the ongoing Chronicles of Narnia movies.

But the full extent of the stupidity of movie/book tie-ins cannot be appreciated until you behold a book adapted from a movie that was, in turn, adapted from a book. The first time I noticed this phenomenon it had to do with Planet of the Apes. The original book by Pierre Boullé inspired a series of movies and TV programs a generation ago; Tim Burton filmed a 2001 remake; and a novelization of that screenplay was then published and sold alongside Boullé's original novel, to the confusion of would-be readers.

This is commercial stupidity at its most staggering. But the same kind of monkey-business is still going on. Recently I spotted a DVD of the movie based on Kate diCamillo's book The Tale of Despereaux, bundled with an audio-book recording of the "junior novelization" based on the screenplay. In other words, a children's book based on a movie based on an award-winning children's book. And the original book hasn't even been out that long; the first edition came out in 2003.

Now, I have yet to read the original book. I plan to do so soon. I'm torn as to whether I want to touch the "junior novelization." I can't think of a more effective way to screw up my personal visualization of the book. And I can't help but wonder why an author would consent to such a thing being done to her work. Perhaps she had no choice. Perhaps, in signing over the film rights, she also gave the studio the right to establish all kinds of movie tie-ins, all the way to replacing her novel with a film tie-in book that they own outright and can exploit as they see fit.

I suppose this is no more cynical than Disney ransacking the Grimm Fairy Tales and, after turning many of them into animated films, disseminating storybooks based on their own version. Now, thanks to Disney, if you recite the names of the Seven Dwarfs (Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, and Doc), members of every generation now living can pick up on the cultural reference. They would probably be shocked and discomfited by the unfamiliarity of the tale as told by the Brothers Grimm. This bit of folklore has been irreversibly changed by passing through the filter of Walt Disney's 1936 film and his company's subsequent tie-ins.

Is this wrong? Perhaps not. Perhaps it only seems sinister when you see it happening to an author who is still trying to live off her work.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ordering the Middle Book

I hate it when I have the first and last book of a trilogy, but can't find the middle book. Sometimes I don't realize this until I am already in the middle of reading it. Sometimes it means I don't dare start reading the trilogy until I can remedy the matter. And sometimes it takes years to complete the set.

Today I placed a used book order online. Two out of five of the books I ordered are the second book in a trilogy of which I already own the first and third book.

First there's Olivia Kidney Stops for No One, originally titled Olivia Kidney and the Exit Academy, by Ellen Potter. It goes between Olivia Kidney, which I have already read, and Olivia Kidney and the Secret Beneath the City, which I recently picked up for peanuts. I had tried to get both sequels, but unfortunately my order for the second one was canceled when the supplier realized it wasn't in their inventory. So I'll have to wait a bit longer to find out what happens next! [EDIT: There is apparently also a book titled Olivia Kidney Hot on the Trail, but I don't know where it fits into this series. As far as I know, it might be an alternate title for one of the other books. This series is so confusing!]

Then there's Johnny and the Dead, book 2 of the "Johnny Maxwell Trilogy" by Terry Pratchett. I have owned book 1, Only You Can Save Mankind, and book 3, Johnny and the Bomb, for ages; only I haven't wanted to read them without book 2 in hand. Now I can finally crack this series open!

But that's not all. I also bought Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken. It's not part of a trilogy as such. It's simply the first book in a long series of stories about a little British girl and her pet bird. I found out about it while reading one of the later books in the series, Arabel and Mortimer. Though I may not hunt down every title in this series - some of which seem to recycle previously published material - I felt that catching the beginning of the series might be worthwhile.

Plus, I finally purchased the last book in Michael Lawrence's Withern Rise trilogy, titled The Underwood See. I had long since read the first two books, but while I waited for Book 3 to come out in paperback, all sign of it (hardcover included) disappeared from the local bookstores. It occurred to me that I could get it used or not at all. And really, I can still feel the "hook" at the end of book 2, Small Eternities.

The fifth book on my order was another Joan Aiken title, The Shoemaker's Boy. I just found out about it while going through Fantastic Fiction's list of titles by that author. There are plenty of other promising titles on that list, but one has to start somewhere, and this looked like a good starting place to me.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Faust vs. Faust

A couple years ago, we of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus sang the marvelous 8 Scenes from Faust by Hector Berlioz. This year - this week, in fact - we are performing his "dramatic legend" The Damnation of Faust. Later on I'll post a general review of the latter. For now, I only want to write about the difference between these two closely related pieces.

The 8 Scenes is a youthful work, composed in the heat of inspiration when the 25-year-old Berlioz had just discovered a French translation of Goethe's masterpiece. It was published at the composer's own expense as his Opus 1, and eventually reworked into the larger, more mature work some 20 years later.

We are very fortunate that Berlioz's attempts to suppress his first opus did not succeed. Not only in comparison with The Damnation of Faust but also on its own terms, it is a piece worth knowing. 8 Scenes is a flawed masterpiece, marked to be sure by its composer's immaturity and impetuosity (perhaps even coarseness), but also stamped with genius. Indeed, in its brash energy and immediate inspiration, one may prefer certain points in the 8 Scenes to their counterparts in the more mature and dramatically integrated Damnation. Berlioz gave with one hand, but often took away with the other.

Some of the pieces from 8 Scenes were imported directly into Damnation with hardly any alteration. For example, No. 4, Brander's song about the rat, shows up in the Auerbachskeller scene where Mephisto introduces Faust to the pleasures of drunken revelry. Berlioz keeps the same quirky melody and the same refrain for the men's chorus. He only adds a mock-solemn "Requiescat in pace" as a final touch, and integrates it into the surrounding scene.

Likewise, he faithfully transmits No. 5, Faust's song about the flea, only changing Faust from a tenor to a baritone. This is actually a very significant change, and I'm not talking merely about the tone-color of the solo voice. Among the most striking touches in the 8 Scenes was the casting of Mephistopheles as a tenor rather than a bass/baritone. In Damnation he reverts to the conventional casting of this role. One might say this change was necessary to make the larger work hold together dramatically. But one might also see in it the touch of a maturer and thus also more conservative hand. Is this an instance of the older Berlioz correcting an error of his younger self? Perhaps. But in correcting many such "errors," he may also have bled the work of some of its originality and vibrancy. Plus, in my recording of The Damnation of Faust, baritone José van Dam opts to sing a lower melody on the fifth line of each stanza ("Cruelle politique!" in the last verse), rather than the more difficult but also more memorable high road. Making Mephisto a baritone came at a cost.

Another case in point: No. 2 of the 8 Scenes, the peasants' song and dance. Originally scored for a mezzo-soprano soloist, joined by the choir at the end of each verse for an explosion of mirth ("Ha! Ha! Ha! Landerira"), it reaches its final form in Scene 2 of The Damnation of Faust as a purely choral piece interspersed with comments by Faust. In working this number into his dramatic scheme, Berlioz really trashed it. First, he pulled the stanzas apart and stuffed the spaces between them with an unrelated, and in my opinion uninspired, peasant dance idea ("Tra, la, la! Ho, ho!"). Then he actually changed what had been an exquisite melody, lowering its effectiveness.

In the 8 Scenes version of this tune, the third line of each stanza is sung to a musical phrase that effortlessly combines asymmetry with a sense of careless rightness, and the melody of the fourth line highlights the rhythmic drive of the tune. In Damnation, the third line of the text is set, instead, to a longer and more balanced phrase that seems more mannered and less organically connected to the tune; while the fourth phrase exchanges its headlong directness and its punchy rhythm for a calmer phrase, repeated twice, in which the peasants seem to flourish their skirts. To my ear this is definitely a case of an older and more conservative composer rounding off the corners of a youthful piece, a piece that had been better left alone.

The Easter Hymn (No. 1 in 8 Scenes, Scene 4 in Damnation) also suffers, arguably, from the composer's second thoughts. In most details the two versions are identical. However, when the women's chorus joins the men for the second iteration of their hymn, the difference becomes clear. The mixed chorus writing in The Damnation of Faust is delicate and lovely, but tame when compared to the scrapped, earlier version. The women's voices merely form a part of the steadily moving choral texture in the later work, whereas in the 8 Scenes they contributed glowing cascades of notes, like strewn flower petals floating to the ground before the feet of an ecstatic religious procession. To know that sound is to love it, is to miss it when the elder Berlioz replaces it with a more modest (albeit exquisite) evocation of Gothic architecture.

Marguerite's two numbers from the 8 Scenes - No. 6's ballad of the King of Thule and No. 7's desperate romance - seem to have crossed over to Damnation without much change. It is hard to imagine how Berlioz could have improved pieces of which one of my friends in the Symphony Chorus said something like, "I'm often torn as to whether Berlioz was a genius or a charlatan, but after hearing these pieces I would forgive him anything."

No. 7, however, ends with the remarkable chorus of soldiers, accompanied by brass and drum signals and scored to sound like they marched up from the distance and faded out of earshot again. In the Damnation, this soldiers' chorus is split into two pieces. In the first instance, the soldiers sing their entire chorus without any hint of fading in or out, and without the brass-and-drum signals that made such an impressive accompaniment in the 8 Scenes. Then, in a tour-de-force of Berlioz's specialty of combining two melodies contrapuntally, the soldiers are joined by a crowd of university students singing a bawdy alma mater ("Iam nox stellata"). After introducing both songs separately, Berlioz combines them and brings them to a glorious finish.

Much later, both the soldiers' and the students' songs come in for a reprise at the end of Marguerite's romance. This time we do hear the brass and drums, and the marching singers do seem to fade away in the distance, while the heroine breathes a sigh of despair on realizing that Faust will not come to her. Here Berlioz achieves the fade-out effect more quickly and economically than in his first essay. But the price, for those of us who know and love the 8 Scenes, is the loss of the original setting of the soldiers' song with brass-and-drum accompaniment throughout.

No. 8 of 8 Scenes is perhaps an artifact of Berlioz's youthful vigor at its most awkward. Mephisto's serenade is a gorgeous melody showcasing the full range of the tenor's voice, and it really sounds nice when accompanied by nothing but a solo guitar. But as a conclusion to the 8 Scenes it is undeniably anticlimactic; so much so that, when the SLSO performed it under Pinchas Steinberg a few years ago, we moved it up ahead of No. 7. Though one hearing the guitar version might wish in one's heart to hear an orchestral setting of the serenade, the fulfillment of that wish in The Damnation of Faust comes, again, at a cost. Having changed Mephisto from a tenor to a baritone, Berlioz replaces the guitar with pizzicato strings and woodwind flourishes; he even adds parts for the men's chorus. All these touches are nice in their way, but in transposing the piece downward Berlioz also sacrifices some of the yearning intensity of the tenor version.

Finally, there is the sextet of sylphs, No. 3 in 8 Scenes from Faust and part of Scene 7 in The Damnation of Faust. Which version is better? This case is a split decision if there ever was one. The 8 Scenes version is scored for six soloists taken from the chorus; the chorus itself, or at least a semichorus, is to sing the final version. By using the full chorus, the elder Berlioz risked sacrificing some of the clarity of articulation demanded by this fiendishly tricky piece; but it was arguably a worthwhile risk, since the chorus is better able to invest the whispery iterations of "De sites ravissants," etc., with a soothing murmur and a suggestion of insect-like buzzing. Plus, in rewriting the sextet, the more mature composer brought greater economy to bear. The piece becomes more tightly constructed, clocking in a good 25% shorter than the first version.

On the other hand, some of the alterations are no improvement. Though recognizable as a version of the same piece, the later version needlessly alters and/or dispenses with perfectly serviceable passages from the original sextet. Listen to both pieces side-by-side, and you will very likely spot bits from each that you prefer over their counterparts in the other. I particularly liked the chromatically descending lines toward the end of the sextet in 8 Scenes, which suggested to my mind the dripping of a drugged nectar onto Faust's slumbering lips. I also find it fascinating to compare the different settings of the faster section ("Là, de chants d'allégresse," etc.), in a major key in the 1826 version and in a minor key in the 1846 version. Both pieces are wonderful to witness, and I grieve for some of the 8 Scenes touches that didn't make it into the Damnation version, but overall I think this is one piece that did benefit from the attentions of the hoary head.

Which is better: 8 Scenes from Faust or The Damnation of Faust? It's a complex question. Without the one, we would not have the other. In many ways, I feel the original pieces from 8 Scenes surpass their later incarnation in Damnation. But in revisiting his youthful pieces, Berlioz did tighten them up and intelligently integrated them into an larger dramatic structure. And all that goes without even mentioning the numerous additional numbers, many of them for the chorus, with which he rounded out the later work.

I have made it through few waking hours during the past weeks without thinking of the drinkers' chorus from the top of Scene 6. I can't help but snicker impiously at the wry "Amen" fugue improvised by the same drinkers after Brander's song. And near the end of the "dramatic legend," we visit hell and heaven in that order, experiencing Pandemonium (complete with incomprehensible lyrics sung to a devilish anthem and a demonic waltz) as well as the apotheosis of Marguerite (with the choir of angels ending the whole work by singing, "Come! Come!"). But I'm getting ahead of myself. You'll hear more about all that in a few days.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Stewardship: A Unified Theory

Last night I was gossiping with a couple of Lutheran friends, and I caught myself grousing about the way today's church sticks its fingers into people's pockets. It's as if everything the church does reduces down to an appeal for money. One can certainly come away from the average "stewardship message" with the idea that "stewardship" equates with "contributing money to the church."

Now, good Christian stewardship will most often involve contributing money to the church. But the equation "stewardship equals putting dollars in the collection plate" is false. The word "stewardship," in the biblical sense, covers a great deal more. It means that everything we have, we have received. Every ability we possess, every right we enjoy, every freedom we exercise, every relationship we partake in, all our possessions, powers, and privileges, are gifts from God and properly belong to Him. He gives them to us in trust; He can take them away from us at any time.

"Stewardship" means the freedom we have, as trusted servants, to use the Lord's things as if they belonged to us - knowing that we must one day give an account. "Stewardship" is a daily exercise of our faith in the One who provides us with all that we need: an exercise that both demonstrates our faith and strengthens it. God-pleasing, accountable, Christian stewardship is that use of our Lord's gifts which best glorifies Him and serves our neighbor. It is, in short, an act of faithful love.

Clearly, there's a lot more going on in Christian stewardship than "putting money in the collection plate." Maybe for many Christians that's a good place to start practicing the spiritual discipline of stewardship. We care so much about our money: how to earn it, how to stretch it to cover our present and future needs, how to enjoy its abundance, how to cope with its scarcity. We have bills; we have debts; we have taxes and, hopefully, tax returns. To turn over a significant proportion of our earnings to the church may seem a big enough challenge to our faith. But make no mistake: it is an act of faith. It is a confession that God has provided, and a gesture of trust that He will continue to provide.

But that is not where the dollars in the offering basket most nearly touch the heart of the matter. For those same dollars are also an investment in preserving the ministry of Word and Sacrament, in spreading the Gospel, and in instructing the young in faith (whether they be old or young in years). The same gift, returned in part to Him who first gave it, is an exercise in locating our most cherished treasure not in our bank account, or in our investment portfolio, or in any earthly property, but in the Kingdom of God.

The dollars, time, and energy we deliver to the church are acts of stewardship mainly because they tear our devotion away from earthly things, and develop in us an appetite for heavenly things. For the true, lasting treasures are not earthly but heavenly, not visible but spiritual, not perishable but eternal. The best gifts of God, and therefore also the best stewardship, are concerned with these heavenly, spiritual, eternal treasures: namely, the grace of God in Christ, His forgiveness, His presence, His dwelling in us here and our dwelling with Him forever.

God has poured all these treasures into His Word and Sacrament. Through this ministry we catch men and haul them into God's kingdom, making disciples by baptizing and teaching them according to His Word. From this ministry we continually receive the forgiveness we need to cover our sinful lapses and to give us courage in the hour of spiritual trial and, ultimately, death. To this ministry we therefore supply all that we can afford, not only in monetary gifts but also in our arts and industry, our prayer and submission, our time and energy, even in some cases devoting a lifelong career to it.

We make these sacrifices because, of all acts of worship we could render to Him, nothing pleases God more than our receiving His gifts. We make these offerings because we trust Him to supply us in every earthly need, and because we value our heavenly treasures more highly. We give these gifts because, as stewards, we recognize that He has already given us so much, and because in respect to His Kingdom we want Him to enrich us with all His fullness.

Having made a big noise about biblical hermeneutics in this blog, I had better be able to back all this up with Scripture, soundly interpreted. Fortunately, I can. First, let's study the word "stewardship" as the New Testament uses it. Then, let's look at the concept of "stewardship" as Jesus and the apostles described it.

New Testament forms of the word "steward" occur only 12 times in the old King James Version, 15 in the New KJV, 15 in the old RSV, 12 in the New RSV, 14 in the NASB translation, 8 times in the ESV, and never in the NIV.

Luke 8:3 describes Chuza, the husband of Joanna (a female disciple of Jesus) as Herod's steward: which is to say, a high-ranking servant with responsibility over his master's property and business affairs; a manager, an administrator. John 2:8-9, in some translations, uses the word "steward" to describe the servant in charge of the wine at a wedding feast. We can take these literal uses of the word as a reference point for understanding the figurative sense in which the New Testament speaks of "stewardship."

In Luke 12:42-48, Jesus uses the words "steward" and "slave" interchangeably in a parable about the administration of the church. The steward is that slave whom the master makes responsible for the other slaves. His proper task is to feed them their rations in due time, not to beat them or to live the high life on their food and drink. When the master returns, he will reward the steward who does the former, and will punish him who does the latter - all the more so if he has knowingly disobeyed.

This parable seems to speak of the holy ministry and its brief to "feed" the church until Christ returns. Blessed is the minister who uses his stewardship of God's gifts in Christ to nourish us spiritually. Woe to the minister who uses ditto to lord it over us or to enrich himself; woe to him especially if he knows better.

In 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, St. Paul speaks of himself and other ministers of the Gospel (see chapter 3 for context) as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God"; stewards who, moreover, must be found faithful. Again in 1 Corinthians 9:16 ff., Paul describes the preaching of the Gospel as a stewardship. He does not boast about it because it is laid on him as a necessity. If one serves the Word willingly, the work is its own reward; if unwillingly, it is as one "entrusted with a stewardship," neither enriching oneself nor abusing one's power.

In Ephesians 3:2, Paul speaks of "the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you." In Colossians 1:24-29, Paul says he became a minister of the church "according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God...striving according to His working which works in me mightily." Once more, in Titus 1:7 ff., Paul requires that a bishop (pastor) be, among other things, "a steward of God."

St. Peter urges Christians to minister to one another, each according to his gifts, as "stewards of the manifold grace of God" (1 Peter 4:10). In verse 11 he makes it clear that he is speaking in the context of a church service, as in preaching the Word ("speaking the oracles of God") and conducting the liturgy. This seems to be complementary to Paul's exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:24 that "the Lord's bondservant" be "able to teach."

A word translated as "steward" appears in Galatians 4:2 in the sense of a regent or guardian who holds an inheritance in trust until the rightful heir comes of age. Paul likens the Law to such a steward, before the coming of Christ. Except for this instance and the cases of Chuza (Luke 8) and the wedding butler (John 2), the word "steward" in the New Testament always seems to have some connection with the eternal, spiritual, heavenly gifts of God's Kingdom in Christ; it could even be argued that the New Testament uses "steward" as a title for the pastoral office. But the crucial case remains to be examined.

In Luke 16:1-13 we find another parable about a steward: the dishonest or unrighteous manager who, having been denounced for squandering his master's property, was about to have his stewardship taken away. What did this man do to protect his future? He went around to his master's debtors and forgave some of their debts, using his authority as steward to make binding deals on his master's behalf. His master then praised him for his shrewdness!

This parable of the "unrighteous steward" is often the text (or pretext) for a "stewardship message." But when interpreted as "Christ's principles on how Christians should manage their money," it is a very perplexing text. Verses 9-13 come off as a string of loosely related proverbs rather than an application of the parable, which is how they seem to have been intended; while, if they are application, they seem to make the parable signify monstrous and bizarre things.

For several years, I have held that this parable is not Jesus' treatise on the ethics of fiscal stewardship. In an essay that I really thought I had blogged (but I can't find it now), I wrote that in Luke 16, Jesus is talking about the ministry again. When the dishonest steward gave his master's word to those debtors, he bound the master with his own word. Likewise, when the minister of God's gifts forgives your sins in Jesus' name and on the authority of God's Word, you can be certain that God will not go back on it - even though that minister is imperfect and sinful himself.

Partly I was guided by the context of the surrounding verses. The parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7), the lost coin (15:8-10), and the lost son (15:11-32) are all about God's readiness to forgive every sinner who repents. Indeed, Jesus claims that God is pleased with sinners who seek His grace rather than with righteous people who live by observing the Law. In the previous two chapters, Jesus had used a variety of examples to illustrate how the Jews of His time, due to their literalistic and legalistic application of God's Law, would miss out on His Kingdom while the heathens, who had no righteous works to their credit, would inherit instead. And in the verses following the parable of the dishonest steward, Luke 16:15 ff., Jesus warns against justifying oneself by works, urging all people rather to receive His gifts in humble faith. In 17:1-4 He instructs us to forgive each other tirelessly rather than causing one another to stumble (by withholding forgiveness) and thus incurring God's wrath on ourselves. In 17:6-10 He puts obedience to God's Law in its proper relationship to faith: a believer seeks no favor or reward for his obedience, but renders it freely as what is due to a just and loving God.

So the parable of the dishonest servant stands in the center of an extended discourse that contrasts faith (the receiving of Christ's holy gifts, which alone pleases God) with works (seeking to be justified by obedience to Law, which turns the best deeds into deadly sin). Why, then, would Jesus suddenly, and for this one parable only, choose to instruct us in the correct use of our finances? It isn't merely that the standard interpretation of this parable makes no sense. It actually militates against the clear sense of the surrounding passages. And it turns verses 16:9-13 into a litany of non sequitur epigrams, connected only by a general topic of stewardship and their position in the text.

An interpretation of this passage more in keeping with its context and the analogy of faith (i.e., all that Scripture teaches about stewardship) also happens to make verses 16:1-13 work as a unit. Jesus is not, in fact, teaching us about money. When has he ever said anything about money that wasn't, after all, an analogy to the Kingdom of God? When has Jesus ever put a value on money, except in contrast to the imperishable, spiritual, heavenly treasures? This case is no different. In the parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus is instructing us to forgive one another as we would be forgiven by God. See also Matthew 5:21-26; 6:14-15; 18:15-20.

In Luke 16:8, Jesus begins his application of the parable by explaining why the master praised his steward's shrewdness: "For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light." This is a statement that causes endless difficulty in interpretation. I propose that all this difficulty can be cleared up by understanding the unspoken words that logically belong at the end of the sentence: "in their generation." It is a completely balanced thought: the children of this world are wiser in applying the things that pertain to this age than the children of God's kingdom are in regard to its gifts. The sons of this age make better use of their "unrighteous mammon" (16:9) than do the sons of light with regard to their eternal, spiritual, heavenly treasures in Christ.

If a crooked little weasel like the steward in Luke 16 knows how to apply his master's good name and authority to forgive debts to his own advantage, how much more could Christians achieve by means of the authority to forgive sins? If a dishonest manager can thus make a place for himself in the homes of his ex-master's debtors, why can't we believing sinners make peace with each other by handing around little morsels of the boundless forgiveness God has granted to us? To our everlasting shame, we "children of light" are not so clever in using our treasures as the "children of this world" are in using of theirs.

Jesus says in Luke 16:10, "He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much." Our chief gift, our highest treasure, is God's forgiveness. Our debts toward each other are "the least" compared to our debt toward God ("much"). Can we expect to be forgiven in much if we do not forgive each other in the least? We are stewards of all God's gifts in Christ, the greatest gift being His forgiveness. Will this stewardship not be taken from us unless we share it with each other? Such lack of forgiveness would be unfaithful stewardship indeed. It would mean failing to properly use what God has given us, or to return even a small part of it to Him. It would mean failing to confess and exercise that faith which holds His forgiveness to be a good and abundant gift. It would be living not in accord with the Gospel, but in ruthless adherence to the spirit of the Law. It would be inviting the fate of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35 (another parable richly complementary to this one).

In Luke 16:9, Jesus issues the at first perplexing advice, "Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." One may be immediately tempted to interpret it thus: "If you throw enough money around, you might attract more people to your church, people who will be happy to see you when you arrive in heaven." But the context is crucial here. There is nothing in this parable to suggest that Jesus could be talking about "spreading money around." Rather, he has been talking about forgiving debts. Within the church, among the "sons of light," that translates to holding no debts against each other, considering everything you own to be the common possession of all, willingly parting with anything your Christian brother or sister needs so that you may be built up together as living stones in an eternal, spiritual house. See also Matthew 10:8; Acts 2:44-45; 20:35; 2 Peter 2:5. The fact that this has never worked out in practice bears witness that the sons of this world are indeed shrewder, etc.

In Luke 16:11-12, Jesus continues his application of the above parable with two parallel questions. "If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own?" In both, notice what is being asked: not whether one has earned much, or given much, but whether one has been faithful. Notice, too, that the first question contrasts "unrighteous mammon" (filthy lucre) with "the true riches," i.e. the grace of God in Christ. And notice how the second question changes the contrast from terms of "earthly treasure vs. heavenly treasure" to "stewardship vs. ownership."

What Jesus is asking, then, is first: "How can you handle God's gift of forgiveness when you can't even use His material blessings as a faithful steward? What use can God's grace be to you, when your conduct regarding food, clothing, money, etc., shows neither awareness that He has provided them nor trust that he will continue to do so?" And secondly, Jesus is asking: "If you live this life without faith or trust toward God, how can you expect to receive an eternal inheritance?"

Here the concepts of faith as "receiving" and trust as "relying" get mixed up with the concepts of faith as "reliability" and trust as "holding on behalf of the rightful owner." In this life we can be but stewards, by faith, of the gifts and treasures of the Kingdom to Come. But when it comes, when the dead are raised and when heaven and earth are renewed, we will inherit that Kingdom and take full ownership. The latter cannot come without the former. By trusting in God's promises (forgiveness etc.), we now hold their present fulfillment in trust, like guardians of an heir who has yet to come of age; but we also confidently hope to own it outright when we ourselves inherit it in the rebirth of all things. With that faith which believes and receives God's gifts, comes the Spirit to deal "in good faith" with them; that is, to be good stewards of them.

We need the gift of faith from God. In good faith, we constantly use the gifts He faithfully pours out through Word and Sacrament, especially His forgiveness, so that we may be built up in faith. As disciples of Jesus, we are ready to devote every earthly blessing, every shred of "unrighteous mammon," of which we are stewards in this life, to preserving and spreading the eternal treasures in which we trust and which we now hold in trust. As Paul says in Philippians 3:7, we are ready to spend and/or lose all things (pertaining to this world) in order to gain Christ and the inheritance of the sons of light. (See also Acts 26:18; Colossians 1:12). That is why "stewardship" can so easily be confused with "giving money to the church." As true Christian stewards, we must realize that the church's ministry and witness is our most precious treasure; we can afford to lose anything but that, and will give up whatever is necessary to keep that one thing needful (Luke 10:42).

There are other passages that, without using the word "steward," provide additional insight to the concept of stewardship. Those familiar with "stewardship messages" may especially recall the parables of the Minas (Luke 19:12-17) and Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In fact, I reckon that today's common understanding of the word "talent" to mean "a special ability" arises from the use of the coins in the latter parable as a metaphor for the work each of us can do for the Kingdom of God, according to his or her ability. The ability to forgive one's neighbors, however, is inherent in being a sinner who lives by God's forgiveness. I have already cited Matthew 5, where Jesus admonishes Christians not even to come to God for forgiveness unless we have already made peace with each other. To do so would come perilously close to tempting God (Matthew 4:7). And as the Minas & Talents show, to bury this gift from God and try to live without it is to invite a terrible judgment.

Jesus gives us Luke 16:13 as a final conclusion to his unjust-steward parable in order to remove any possibility that we might mistake his intentions in verses 9 and 11. "No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." Jesus does not want us to be disciples of money. Nor does he want us to go and make disciples of money. We should not even try to split our loyalty between Christ and money. So He is certainly not advising us to run the church like the Temple of Mammon it so frequently resembles these days.

The church's job is not to grow or succeed. The church's job is to be faithful and to make disciples. We, as members of the church, do this not by spending or making money, but by receiving God's perfect gifts through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and by sacrificing all that we can afford (!) to preserve and spread that ministry. As we live in faithful stewardship of God's boundless gift of forgiveness, we forgive one another daily and hourly. And whatever we give to the church, we give to no one's glory but God's, expecting no reward, but offering only what is due to our Lord and Provider, and trusting Him to supply all that we lack.