Sunday, July 22, 2012

Castles in the Air

Dear Magus,

Since discovering ley lines some years ago, I have been forced anew to consider what it means to be both in a place but not in a place, grounded and yet not grounded, traveling and yet stationary. Ley lines, though tightly woven into the fabric of historical and substantial places, are simultaneously opportunities for fantastic flight from them into... well, the whither of ley line travel (much less than the whence) is a mystery still. We are in the early days of this science.

In any event, such travel has piqued my curiosity, and it also funded my hermeneutical horizons  anew with perplexing exegetical considerations. As I have mentioned before, although in this world we only have broken pieces of our core text, in other realms it appears they have, and are able to duplicate, their scriptures whole. Given how much we celebrate the recurring shattering of scripture as it seeds the world, the discovery that other "places" receive their scriptures whole and undivided is a source of wonder.

So, one such gentleman working in trade on the Baltic, shared this consideration with me in a recent letter: "The Bible does not exclude everything else but unlocks and discloses everything else." Well, precisely so, but I would have thought it did so in its shattered and incompleteness, not assembled as codex.

However, I can see how I have perhaps constructed a purist fantasy (even a fetish) out of our "distributed" text which as just as dangerous as purities that celebrate the unity and diachronic durability of a codex.

Philosophers do not want to recognize their own activity. They want to be pure philosophers and not authors, least of all poets. This means they want to be independent of what no poet is independent of, the sensuous and accidental. They want the theory of the text, not the physical writing of the text.

So it is never the Scripture that is needed alone, but the text as key.

My friend continues: "And though the senses may ever so deceive and history be ever so simple: I prefer them to all the castles in the air--only no purified, disengaged, and empty words--which I avoid like deep water and slippery ice."

This last has especially intrigued me, since the effects of castles in the air on recent geo-political situations has been so incredibly negative, horrific even. Those who live and fight from there, launching their remote drones, are so much more to be feared than those soldiers and officers who mix with the people and embrace the sensuous and accidental.


The Ecclesiast

p.s. Please forward this letter on to the Alpinist. I feel it may aid him in his various peregrinations.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Notable Steampunk: (Moving) Daguerreotype Edition

My undergraduate thesis advisor was fond of saying that "you can only read a great book for the first time once."  As a recent acolyte into the universe of steam, I lay claim to the delight for which words sought to prepare the way.  Following up on the Ecclesiast's recent post on notable new steampunk, I wish to submit my own sampling of artifacts, primarily in the realm of the visual narrative arts.

Avatar: the Legend of Korra Yes, it's a kids' show.  But anyone who followed the original Avatar: the Last Airbender series (discounting the insultingly horrific film adaptation) knows that, interwoven throughout the humor and cute characters are deep layers of engagement with powerful issues of identity, loyalty, tradition and innovation, and community.  The latest installation of the Avatar saga takes place several decades after the original, primarily in Republic City - a steampunk smorgasbord of Metropolis mixed with the early Roaring '20s spliced with ample experimentation in Eastern and Asian art forms.  In a world populated with "benders" (those capable of manipulating the four elements), unrest is stirred by Ammon and his Equalist party.  Too awesome - even if you have to wait for it to come out on Netflix or DVD!

Girl Genius  by Phil Foglio - I kept coming across this in various podcasts and websites, and this web-based comic does not disappoint.  Much like Scott Westerfield's Leviathan trilogy, much of the action here takes place in a more Eastern Europe locale.  Agatha H. is a "spark" - born with an innate propensity for ingenious invention with the ever-present risk of descent into mad scientist status.  The art is luscious and rich, the story-telling is fabulous, and the best part is - it's all free online!  So you can definitely engage at your own pace.  Like Korra, Girl Genius has the veneer of a young adult type adventure (as does much of recent steampunk, it seems), but like a slightly mad steampunk manifestation of Pixar, much depth and delight waits for those willing to become a child again!

The Last Exile - Admittedly, just recently started this series and have only seen a few episodes thus far. Like most of the anime reviewed in this post, the story is set in a neo-Victorian steampunk future, this time where aerial vehicles known as vanships are the technology of choice, echoing the glory days of dogfighters in and between the great World Wars.  Two nations, Anatoray and Disith, are locked in an endless war within the Grand Stream, a strange region between them, and class as well as international warfare features prominently.  A cadre of sky couriers are charged with transporting a girl who holds the key to unity while the factions battle in a world strangely reminiscent of late 19th-century Europe.  Even based on three episodes, I can tell this is gonna be a winner!

Trinity Blood - My absolute favorite adventure thus far, Trinity Blood takes place in an alternate Victorian-future Europe, again not unlike in Leviathan, poised on the brink of World War.  The world is divided between two powers - the Methuselahs, a race of immortal vampires who inhabit the role of an Enlightened Ottoman Empire, and the Vatican, which has assumed international power and responsibility for the future and fate of the humans (the vampires' capital is Byzantium, so read the East-West divide all the way back into Christian history as well).  In between is the nation of Albion (England) with its superior technology and alleged neutrality.  But the kicker: the Vatican employs a team of crack warrior priests and sundry clergy who are responsible for clandestine engagements with the vampires.  The main narrative centers around one Abel Nightroad, a "crusnik" - a vampire that feeds on the blood of other vampires.  Abel serves the Vatican devoutly, tortured by horrific memories of past misdeeds, and committed to the protection of innocent life at all costs.  So. Awesome.  Definitely an ego boost for us clergy types.  

What (moving) steampunk daguerreotypes do you enjoy?  Recommendations are always welcome, and we'll share more as we are privileged to enjoy them!  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Christ in Japan: A Walk with Toyohiko Kagawa

To the Ecclesiast
Princeton, New Jersey
August 1914

My Dearest Ecclesiast,

As the hurricanes of war rumors reach the shores of America from the butterfly wings of the Balkans, I pray this correspondence finds you well.  There are, as always, plenty of matters between us to discuss. However, given the present climate, it seemed a potential word of encouragement to relate to you a most extraordinary encounter from a recent visit to my alma mater, Princeton University.

I was lost in contemplation of the stunning array of recently imported trees along Alexander St. when I quite by accident stumbled into a gentleman who, from the look of things, shared my desire for a quiet walk.  Such a blunder is surprise enough.  But I was more surprised to learn, upon helping him from the ground, that he was, in fact, Japanese.  Readjusting his spectacles, he introduced himself to me as Toyohiko Kagawa, and informed me he was just finishing up his studies at the theological seminary.  He invited me to join him on his walk, and in so doing, he unwittingly imparted to me the great gift of inspiration and witness.

Mr. Kagawa was born and orphaned in Kobe, where he was subsequently raised by American missionaries.  He studied at the Tokyo Presbyterian College and Kobe Theological Seminary, but it would be a grave injustice to his character to circumscribe his extraordinary story within the limits of formal education.  For, in 1909, disheartened by seminarians' endless propensity for doctrinal hair-splitting - what our own Lutheran theologian Augustus Vilmar has scathingly labeled a "theology of rhetoric" (they are Presbyterians, whether they be Japanese, American, or Martian!) - he endeavored to live his Christian vocation in a quite different fashion.

Mr. Kagawa related it thus: "I read in a book that a man called Christ went about doing good. It is very disconcerting to me that I am so easily satisfied with just going about." So what did he do?  He moved into the very worst slum in all of Japan, right in his backyard in Kobe!  He continues to keep a residence there, in a three-walled hovel, no less, not even dignified enough to call a shack.  He related tales that, quite frankly, put the bourgoise self-satisfaction we call "charitable giving" to shame.

Any money he manages to make, he uses to buy food, medicine and other supplies for his neighbors.  He is regularly identified as an "easy mark" by roving groups of thugs, and like the Apostle Paul, has endured all manner of beatings and ridicule for the sake of the Gospel.  While attacking him, one such group noted that they had heard he was a Christian - at which point, like Blessed Francis of Assisi, he stripped himself naked and handed over his clothes to them!  He told me of how Christ became more real to him than any reading of Calvin or Luther when, each night for four years, he held the hand of a known murderer as the man struggled to fall into a fitful sleep.

All of this he related, not as one who boasts on glory, but as a man who, it is clear, wishes to know only Christ, and Christ crucified.  While living such, he also managed to make himself many municipal enemies as he organized shipyard and slum workers.  He is in fact at Princeton precisely to more closely study the conditions of social injustice and poverty that plague the poor, in the hopes of returning to more effectively organize them.  But mark my words: he is no socialist.  In fact, he denounces socialism, communism, and especially capitalism as all fragmentary reflections of the greater, holistic truth of the Gospel, which goes beyond their sum in its power to transform the world.

And, in all this, perhaps most pressing for us in our historic moment, Mr. Kagawa is an ardent pacifist.  You know from our correspondences that this makes him instantly my brother and friend.  He believes the resources of faith are better channeled towards alleviating the violence done to the poor, as well as to the earth (he has the most curious agricultural theories which, somehow, he's managed to develop on the side of his other pursuits here at Princeton).  He has high ambitions of returning to his homeland to begin the reform of society.  And if any man I have ever met possesses the ability, the vocation, and the compulsion of Christ in faithfulness, it is he, Toyohiko Kagawa.

Kagawa with his class at Princeton Theological Seminary
My only grief for Brother Kagawa is the pain and consternation caused him by the wranglings of a church enslaved to its glorying in its doctrine.  You know me, and you know my commitment to sound doctrine.  But that such a man as this should be ignored, ridiculed, and denounced as a dreamer (even before the racial and ethnic epithets begin to fly) by what are considered some of this nation's brightest and best future theologians and pastors - let us say merely that it bodes not well for the future of the church's witness.  For a true witness has walked among us, and here, he walks as one unknown.

And yet, even in this grief, Mr. Kagawa remains resolute.  When I asked him if he tried to argue with them, he sadly shook his head.  The way of the cross - the way of descent - has always been a scandal, he reminded me.  Your Luther spoke of this, and you above all should know this.  He reminded me of that other amazing youth I met in my travels, young Ludwig Wittgenstein, when, with sad but resolute eyes, he looked at me and whispered: "you don't need to say much when you're hanging on a cross."

There was not much more to say, and we parted ways at Nassau St.  I wondered what all this extravagance looked like through eyes that, in Kobe, wake each morning to the sweaty brow of a murderer whose quiet night was bought at the price of the witnesses' sleeplessness.  I wondered what all of this theologizing we do sounds like to ears filled with the cries of prostitutes, children sold to the upper classes for horrific acts of rape and intercourse, to thugs shouting out for bread.  I wonder if such a voice can be heard over the echoing of the batteries and the chattering of rifle fire.

But such a voice exists.  In Kobe, in the slums, in a place most people have never heard of, in a country most still consider to be savage and oriental.  But, by grace, that voice took on flesh, and walked beside me in the still beauty of Princeton, and reminded me that, in many ways, it is I, in my finery and comfort, that live in prison.  And that freedom can be found in the shadow of the cross.

May we continue in the spirit of Toyohiko Kagawa, turning our minds, our dreams, our bodies and our spirits to the path of discipleship and love.  Lord knows, even if we are but a smattering of the healing rain of peace that falls upon the iron backs of the implements of modern warfare, we will become a chorus to the voice that declares, in the midst of chaos and death: "behold, I am making all things new."

Yours in faith,

The Alpinist

PS: More on Mr. Kagawa's journeys can be found in this pamphlet.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Endless Pieces: Disjecta membra poetae

[notes of experimental theology and mechanics from James Watt, transcribed by S. M. D. 
It seems that Watt discusses the Bible]


this is not an attempt to bring together what can never be fixed into a whole.



the ancients called this problem the "Disjecta membra poetae."  Horace lamented that he lacked the full poems of some of his predecessors.  We have to make do with the shattered pieces that remain.  Even we cannot craft a pot in full, without seams or tears.


some see an over-arching world, that these countless writings from antiquity agree, assemble together a script, and set in motion a play that one can live in.  This collection the church calls its book is no world.  Our world is in steam, a steam that tosses around these fragments and torn papyri.


even the individual sections of this book are not one.  They are torn out and belong to other places.  Even if our mechanics assembled them, stitched them together as this ancient writing suggests they may be, we still do not know their purpose.


my gears can wind them out and repeat them into all shapes and into new texts.  The steam can bring them to new homes and graft them onto and into other stories, interrupting them and giving them new life.


shards and fragments do not make a whole and can be be reiterated over and over again to fit to new places.  My gears grind one way or in reverse, their teeth locked into each other as they spin.  Irregular pieces fit nowhere and everywhere.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Notable New Steampunk

Looking for a new entré into steampunk? Enough new artifacts have come to our attention in the past month or so that I list them here for newbies looking for a first read, or died-in-the-wool steampunkers looking to broaden their horizons.

1. Rush's new album Clockwork Angels. I admit I haven't followed Rush's career that closely, but this one brings them solidly back into my attention. It's an incredible prog album. To illustrate it's significance for steampunk theology, I offer the lyrics to the second track, BU2B:

I was brought up to believe
The universe has a plan
We are only human
It's not ours to understand

The universe has a plan
All is for the best
Some will be rewarded
And the devil take the rest

All is for the best
Believe in what we're told
Blind men in the market
Buying what we're sold
Believe in what we're told
Until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker
Loves us all to death

In a world of cut and thrust
I was always taught to trust
In a world where all must fail
Heaven's justice will prevail

The joy and pain that we receive
Each comes with its own cost
The price of what we're winning
Is the same as what we've lost

Until our final breath
The joy and pain that we receive
Must be what we deserve
I was brought up to believe

The entire album is framed with an "epic" narrative--this is the voice of one character within the larger narrative. Depending on availability of time and level of nerd-iness on a given evening, I may offer further reflections on the content.

2. Scott Westerfield's YA Leviathan trilogy. I'm intrigued by how much of great new steampunk is for the YA crowd. Scott's isn't the only new steampunk trilogy out there. Browse that section of the bookstore and you'll come across quite a lot. The Alpinist turned me on to this trilogy, however, so I'm giving it a read. Rather than proceed historically straight from the Victorian period, however, this one launches from the start of WWI.

3. Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D'Art. Perhaps some people will take issue with my claim that a novel about Vincent van Gogh and the Impressionist period in France is "steampunk," but if so, then I point you to...

4. Beyond Victoriana: A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk. It's a web site and blog, not a book. It does illustrate how heavy the punk side of steampunk really can be, and illustrates to a great degree why I think the steampunk movement is fruitful for theological discourse. 

5. A Contemporary In Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as a Radical Enlightener, by Oswald Bayer. What if there was an alternative to the direction things went in German philosophy and theology, influenced as it has been by Hegel, Kant, and others? The answer may be Hamann, and it is intriguing to imagine a world that proceeds from Hamann forward.

That should be enough to keep everyone busy for a while. And please offer your suggestions back at us.