Book: The Sword of Six Worlds by Matt Mikalatos

Click to check out Sword of Six Worlds on Amazon!
Click to check out Sword of Six Worlds on Amazon!

The first time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was probably 10 years old. I just remember enjoying the story, marveling at the magical world of Narnia. As I grew up, I heard that The Chronicles of Narnia were spiritual allegories, and as I reflected on the plot of the book, I could see what they meant. I didn’t actually reread that first book until college, and the story’s blatant theology caught me off guard (J. R. R. Tolkien famously called the books ‘crude allegory’).

In retrospect, I’m glad college-me was more spiritually perceptive than 10-year-old me.

I would’ve loved the chance to read Narnia with my parents, for them to help me see the biblical themes. I can imagine that such a book would be a useful tool for parents today looking for a fun book to help their kids talk about Jesus and theology at their level.

Enter Matt Mikalatos’ new book The Sword of Six Worlds: a tremendous book and wonderful resource.Continue reading

Muslim Monsters

Before 9/11, Islam was just another weird world religion that the vast majority of American Evangelical Christians didn’t really think about – in the same category as Hinduism and Buddhism. But in the wake of 9/11, we realized that over a billion people in the world are Muslim. And many of the countries most hostile to America are mostly Muslim.

For the last decade, we’ve demonized Muslims. But using Dr. Scott Poole’s methodology, we know that our monsters say more about us than about those we monsterize.

What does the Monster look like?

Is this representative of all Muslims?
Is this representative of all Muslims?

The picture of Monstrous Muslims we have in our collective Evangelical imagination looks roughly like this:

Muslims are hell-bent on conquering the world. They’ve established a beachead in Detroit and are going to kill or convert every person in America to Sharia law. They hate women and freedom. They embody a particularly insidious brand of religious fundamentalism. And this isn’t just fringe Muslims. This violent fundamentalism is woven into the very fabric of the Islamic faith.

That some Muslims believe these things is certain. The question is whether those beliefs are representative of all Muslims.Continue reading

Remember the Masada!

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

The view of Masada driving up to it. Even from here it looks intimidating!After saying Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the morning of Thursday, November 11, Thomas and I picked up our rental car and left Jerusalem.  After getting turned around only once, we headed East and South, towards the Dead Sea and Masada.  The transformation of the countryside was immediately evident as we quickly entered the Judean Desert.  Any trace of greenery vanished and we were left with large, brown hills sloping endlessly away in all directions.

We turned and headed south at the tip of the Dead Sea, and it wasn’t long before the Sea fell away before us on our left while the caves of Qumran – where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered – loomed high on our right.

Looking out over the Dead Sea. The haze is actually chemically produced by all the crap in the Dead Sea.

In almost no time at all, we reached Masada, a mesa rising out of the Judean Desert surrounded by nothing and looking out over what was once known as the Devil’s Sea.  It feels like the loneliest place on the whole planet.

A model of the Northern Palace, complete with private baths and everything. It's three levels and built into the northern cliff face. Which is awesome.

History of Masada

Masada was originally the site of one of Herod the Great’s palaces, built as a sort of ‘last resort’ in case things got really bad for him.  It’s grotesquely inaccessible, but Herod managed to deck the whole top of the mesa out with nothing but the best, including two palaces, a full swimming pool (in addition to public and private baths), three small ‘guest palaces’ and of course two full fortresses.  He also devised an ingenious system for delivering water up to Masada, so that the whole complex could be endlessly self-sufficient.

Looking down from the top level of the northern palace to the lower two levels. The original stairs from levels 1-2 were destroyed in an earthquake. Which totally made me feel safe.After Herod’s death, Masada was basically abandoned for 70 years.  During that time, Rome increased their hold on Israel until in 66 CE, rebellion broke out.  This First Jewish War (66-73 CE) brought the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple (70 CE) and was a major turning point in the history of both Judaism and Christianity.

Battles were fought all over Israel (including on Mt. Megiddo, which we’ll see on Saturday), but the Jewish Rebels’ last stand was here at Masada.  The rebels climbed the mesa and dug in as the might of Flavius’ Roman army spread around them.  The siege lasted three months, during which time the Romans constructed a ramp that allowed them  to break down the walls of Masada.  On April In a fierce battle, the Romans breached the walls of Masada near the end of the day; because it was so late, and because victory was now assured, the Romans broke for the night, intent on finishing off the Jews the following day.

The view of the Judean Desert and Dead Sea from the top level of the Northern Palace. The large dirt squares are the outlines of the Roman encampments. These completely surrounded Masada, along with a siege wall.

Here you can still see the ramp the Romans built to ascend the side of the western cliff face. The Romans BUILT A RAMP UP THE SIDE OF A CLIFF. Do not mess with Rome, my friends. They will get you NO MATTER WHAT.That night,  the Jewish rebels made a terrible decision: rather than face certain defeat and enslavement, they would kill themselves and their families.  They set fire to the store rooms and killed themselves.  When the Romans came onto the mesa the next morning, they were greeted only by corpses.  In the wake of the mass suicide, Masada was abandoned for nearly 2,000 years.

The Masada Shall Never Fall Again

The public SWIMMING POOL Herod built. Dude loved him some freestyle. Probably not the rap kind though.Until the mid-1800s, we knew about Masada only through Josephus (a Jewish writer from just after Jesus’ time).  But archaeologists located Masada and began to excavate it, and it quickly became a pilgrimage site for Jews from around the world (remember that this was about 100 years before the state of Israel would exist).

Today Masada has entered into the popular Jewish cultural imagination.  They speak of a ‘Masada-complex’, which is basically a ‘you’ll-have-to-kill-me-first’ mentality.  Some divisions of the Jewish Defense League are sworn in on Masada, with the phrase, “The Masada shall never fall again” included in their oath.

The stairs leading down from the second to third levels of the Northern Palace. The original stairs. That's way old.What struck me most about the Masada was how little connection I have to it.  It doesn’t play an important role in my history, and as a non-Israeli, I relate to the story of the Jews there less even than I do to the story of the Alamo (because I’m not Texan, either).  The introductory film presentation and all the literature (maps and signage) make it very clear, however, that Masada is a vital piece of the Israeli identity.

The story that’s told is one of Jews who would rather die free than live as slaves.  And as rhetoric goes, it’s great stuff.  But that’s not really the whole story.  The Jews weren’t just any Jewish rebels.  They were Sicarii – a radical splinter group who had broken off from the Zealots (who were already pretty radical) because they weren’t radical enough.  The Jews at Masada were not typical first century Jews.  They were a fringe movement, lead by a charismatic (but probably slightly unstable, as leaders of these movements tend to be) guy who, when the chips were down chose the easy way out.  I couldn’t help but think of Jonestown (where, granted, the CIA threat was much more imaginary than the Roman Empire).

Remembering Masada Well

Looking out into the Judean Desert from the Southern Tower, built over the one weak spot on Masada. This is NOT where Rome chose to build the ramp. Why go the easy way when you could do it the hard way? Just so everyone knows not to mess with you EVER.I think what disturbs me about Masada is that what happened there was not the result of normal, everyday persons put into extraordinary circumstances.  The Sicarii were fringe revolutionaries.  But because of the way we are now reimagining their stories, their response to a cause that seems overwhelming and insurmountable has become laudable.  What’s working into the Israeli psyche (and that of any visitor to Masada) is that the most courageous response to overwhelming violence is a stubborn refusal to compromise and bitter acquiescence and passivity.

This cannot be true.  We must never give up pursuing peace.  Masada ought to be a reminder of the dangers of following zealots.  A lesson that meeting overwhelming force with force only ends badly.  That if we want something better than death, we’d better get more creative.  Masada ought to be a tragedy, not an inspiration.*

*Of course, I’m the comfortable American who says this not having been a part of a people without a land for 2,000 years.  In that way, it’s impossible for me to know fully what Masada means to the Jewish people.  But I do not believe that remembering a glorified, sterilized Masada is helpful or redemptive.

11-15: Why Batman is the Best

batman_inc_111. Batman really is the best literary character.

I know I’m going to get crucified for this, but it’s true.  Batman is all about what it means to be human.  He lives in a world that is broken at a fundamental level, and he himself is a victim of that world – he watched his parents murdered in front of him.  And in a world where evil seems overwhelming, in a world full of beings with supernatural powers, the Batman is only human.  He has no special abilities.  He has only his will (and a giant pile of money).  As silly as it sounds, I think the Batman speaks to that deep part of us that rages against injustice, that refuses to believe the world is just a random joke.  That part of us that knows something’s broken and wants to fix it.  That part of us that believes we can do more than everyone else thinks we can.  That part of us that knows there’s more to being human than what most people settle for.

12. Violence doesn’t solve anything.

The thing about Batman is that he’s fictional.  There’s a reason superheroes don’t really exist: they can’t.  The world really is broken, but it was broken by people.  We broke (and continue to break) the world by trying to impose our own kind of order on it.  Something like 7 billion wills all trying to get the world to march to the beat of our own drums and we wonder that chaos seems to be the order of the day?  And somehow we’ve gotten it in our heads that the answer is to try harder than everyone else.  That if we are louder or stronger or more powerful than everyone else, our way will reign supreme.  But that’s not true.  Violence only begets more violence.  Violence can be effective in the short term, but it doesn’t fix the fundamental problem, the break at the core of who we are.  It only makes it worse.

13. The worst kinds of violence aren’t physical.

In fact, physical violence might be the preferable.  Its effects are more immediate, more visible, but they fade more quickly as well.  The more insidious kinds of violence are those that leave scars on our souls – emotional abuse, degrading another person’s spirit.  Crushing other cultures not by the sword but the commercial.  Teaching someone that difference is dangerous, that conformity is humanity.  Making someone else feel less human because s/he doesn’t fit into your idea of a perfect world.  That’s much worse.

14. Power is dangerous.

And that’s scary, because as soon as you have influence over another person, it’s possible (even likely) that you’re going to hurt him or her.  None of us is perfect; we all try to remake the world in our own images.  And that means we’re always at risk – always toeing the line between really engaging another person and colonizing him, remaking her to fit into our world.

15. The best place to be is uncomfortable.

Safe is easy.  And easy is dangerous, because easy is comfortable.  When we’re comfortable, we get complacent and we quit paying attention.  We stop asking hard questions.  We start to think we’re the king of our castles.  Being in an uncomfortable space reminds us that we’re not in control.  That the world is stranger than we like to remember.  That other people really aren’t the way we want them to be.  The uncomfortable spaces are a very good place to meet God.

As I write this, I’m sitting on the balcony of a Dominican Institute in Cairo listening to the Muslim call to prayer echo across the city.  I’m pretty far outside my comfort zone.

Who’s your favorite character?  Where have you been the victim of violence?  What about the perpetrator?  And how comfortable are you where you are?