Reading the Season: The Book of Ruth

For the past seven years, I’ve a special post at Christmas which I’d named Reading the Season, just to help me dwell on the Reason behind all the festivities. Some past authors I’d read include Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw. This year I’m going back to the source material, The Bible, for my Christmas read. And no, my selection isn’t from Luke 2, which Linus so eloquently delivers every year in the delightful A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I reread the little love story in The Book of Ruth, one of the earliest parallels pointing to the Christmas story. This time I found it particularly relevant. So here it goes…

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A long time ago in a land far, far away a man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi, together with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, had to pack up and leave their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah to escape from a famine in the land. As migrants, they travelled to a foreign country called Moab.

Alas, Elimelech died soon after and left behind Naomi and their two sons. Years passed, the sons married two Moabite gals, Orpah and Ruth. Could it be the food there, for not long after Naomi’s two sons also died. Bitter and despondent, Naomi sent her two daughters-in-law back to their own family and began her lone journey to return to Bethlehem.

But Ruth was adamant to follow Naomi back to where she came from with this moving vow:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.

Touched by her loyalty, Naomi let Ruth travel with her back to Bethlehem. She was like a migrant all over again. To the people there Naomi, if anyone still recognized her, was now widowed, sonless, bitter and destitute. The two women didn’t even have a refugee camp to take shelter.

To survive, Ruth went out to the fields to glean the grains left by the harvesters. It happened that they were in the fields of a kind landowner Boaz, who after noticing Ruth and hearing of her love for her mother-in-law, told his workers to leave more grains in the fields for her to glean. Yes, it just happened that she’d come to the right field.

When Naomi learned of Boaz, she saw a glimpse of hope. Definitely this was more than the food bank; this generous landowner actually was a relative belonging to her late husband’s clan. Out of desperation, she sent Ruth on a risky mission: to go to Boaz at night and approach him tactfully, letting him know of their ties in kinship.

Lo and behold, Boaz, an honourable and compassionate man, was harbouring a deep and ardent love for Ruth. That night, though surprised to see Ruth, he received her readily and with respect, restraining and keeping his torrid passion well under wraps, umm like… Mr. Darcy.

According to the law of the land, the closest relative had the first right to redeem the lands that Naomi’s late husband Elimelech had sold and to marry Ruth to carry on the family line. But lo, Boaz wasn’t that person; instead, he did the honourable thing, extending the first right of redemption to the closest relative, yes, like umm… Mr. Collins.

And it happened that Mr. Collins was willing to buy back the land but wait a minute, he couldn’t take Ruth as a wife. There could be reverberations, for Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite. Further, the land was for her to continue with Naomi’s family ownership, and would not be under his name. “I pass,” he said in the sight of ten elder witnesses. Phew!

So only then did Boaz declare not only his willingness to redeem the land once owned by Elimelech, but also his desire to take Ruth as his wife to save her from destitute, poverty, and childlessness. How marvellous it was that Boaz, a legit kinsman redeemer according to the laws, was also truly, madly, and deeply in love with his redeemed.

And we are definitely indebted to the two lovers for producing the line of descendants, for Ruth later became the great grandmother of David, from whose ancestral line generations later came Jesus.

With this beautiful ending I come back to Christmas 2015, and ponder on the lowly birth of Christ at the manger, to become our Kinsman for the ultimate purpose as Redeemer.

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.”  – John 1:14

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The Risk of Birth

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

                              – Madeleine L’Engle

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Previous ‘Reading The Season’ Posts:

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Staying Awake in the Garden

I came across this image in Biola University’s Lent Project. It is by the Austrian children’s book illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger. Among several awards she had won, Zwerger received the acclaimed Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration—the highest international award given for “lasting contributions to children’s literature”.

Staying Awake in GG

Its title is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, from her book Stories From the Bible. Without condescension, Zwerger’s image speaks with clarity such that a child can easily grasp its essence. Three people dozing off, each against a tree. From a distance, under a massive dark cloud, a tiny, lone figure walking towards the ominous void. The illustration is perhaps one of the rarer perspectives that accompanies this narrative:

“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”    – Matthew 26: 36 – 46

What struck me is how modern the feel; these three guys could be anyone. And they are so casual too, like, barefoot in the park. Considering the horrific mission their Master is facing, their body language speaks avoidance, indifference, and, even betrayal. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak – blame it on the good supper – they’re totally oblivious while their Master in a distance, alone, is fighting the most anguished battle of his life.

Are these guys named Peter, James and John? Why, they could be you and me.

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The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick

(It is impossible to review The Tree of Life without writing about what it is about, hence: Spoiler Alert for this post.)

“The Tree of Life” is the fifth feature film in the forty-year career of the reclusive director Terrence Malick. It received mixed reactions at the Cannes Film Festival in May this year. There were boos and applause. That it finally won the top prize at the festival, the prestigious Palme d’Or, indicates which side was gratified. But, it is a film that needs to be experienced personally before one takes side, and maybe seeing it more than once.

Watching the film is an experience in itself. It starts off with this quote from Job 38: 4 and 7:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

With this premise, the film pours forth mysterious yet majestic visual sequences depicting the cosmos, our molten earth, prehistoric era where dinosaurs roam, early life forms, the roaring ocean, blood streams, fetal heartbeats. The first part.

Upon such visuals we hear a voice over:

There are two ways through life — the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way…

From the macro scale of the universe we now focus on the micro, something with which we can identify, a family. We see it from the point of view of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn). An architect now, Jack is haunted by memories of his past, in particular, the death of his younger brother at age 19. We see scenes of his parents receiving the bad news. We hear his yearning for the people he loves through his whisper in voice over: ”Brother, mother.” We are then privy to Jack’s childhood days in 1950’s Texas.

From the O’Brien family we see how grace and human nature play out. Jack’s childhood in Waco, Texas, begins in innocence. With a capable father (Brad Pitt) and an almost angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) who is loving, nurturing, grace manifest, young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) early days are blissful. Two younger brothers later, the siblings form a close bond. But as the boys grow older, the father becomes stern and strict, callous with his sons, demanding total obedience, expecting love where the seeds of fear are sown. From this character, we see human nature manifest in its destructive, self-seeking mode.

Other incidents further shatter the once blissful young life. Jack goes to town with his mother and brothers, he sees a crippled man make his way awkwardly across the street. He also witnesses the unlawful being arrested. While at the swimming pool, he watches a boy drowned despite frantic rescue. We hear young Jack’s whisper in voice over: “Was he bad? Where were you? You let a boy die.” The problem of pain, suffering, and evil begin to churn in his mind. Direct questions to God, not unlike Job.

Watching his father’s harsh handling of his sons, young Jack slowly discovers that he himself too has the latent capacity to not just think, but to commit wrongs, “I do what I hate.” In a moving scene, after he has hurt his little brother, Jack becomes remorseful and asks for forgiveness. We see the power of love at work. We also see his innocence slowly taken over by conflicts in his heart, love and hate, good and evil… grace and nature.  The second part.

Jack’s father loses his job and the family has to leave town. The uprooting is the most painful the boys have experienced. Everything is lost, it seems, friends, the house, the neighborhood, memories, … But among the loss, we hear the graceful voice of Jack’s mother: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by… Do good, wonder, hope.” Yet poignantly, she experiences the most devastating blow later, the death of her own son. We hear her heartbreaking whisper in voice over: “Where were you? Did you know?” Again, reiterating the questions that were on Job’s mind.

But ultimately light takes over darkness. We are assured that all is not lost. We hear Jack’s yearning whisper, like a prayer: “Keep us, guide us, to the end of time.” In the eternal scheme of things, shown by the display of the magnificent cosmic visuals, we see all members of the O’Brien family reunite and bathed in a warm bright light. Jack once again embraces the ones he loves, his mother and his brothers. He also stands shoulder to shoulder with the one who has inflicted in him the mixed emotions of pain, anger and love, his father, now reconciled under the brilliant light.  The third part.

Yes, we have the big names. Sean Penn as adult Jack appears only sporadically. Brad Pitt nails his role as the stern and difficult father. The relatively new film actor Jessica Chastain is grace embodied. In an interview she recalls that director Terrence Malick had asked her to watch a lot of Lauren Bacall movies to prepare for her role. But the most impressive of all is Hunter McCracken playing young Jack. The casting is brilliant here. His mesmerizing portrayal of a conflicting boy incubating the later character of a tormented adult Penn is deeply moving, a reflection too of Malick’s sensitive direction. As with his other films, cinematography is superb. You’ll have plenty of time to savour the long sections of cosmic and natural wonders.

“The Tree of Life” is for the patient viewer. It is a slow movie, and rightly so. You have to take the two hours and eighteen minutes as a respite from your busy schedule, and experience the film as a quiet meditation on life, family, God, and relationship with Him. It is also a portrait of love, faith, doubts, and promise. It poses questions in whispers, and answers with majestic visuals in silence, and at times, in engulfing themes of torrential music. Smetana’s “The Moldau” still flows through my mind at 4:30 a.m.

Boos or applause, what does it matter? To quote Bresson: “All is grace.”

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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CLICK HERE to read my post on another Malick film, Days of Heaven (1978), which won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

A Serious Man (2009)

UPDATE:  A Serious Man has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in the coming 82nd Academy Awards, to be held March 7th, 2010.  Joel and Ethan Coen receive a nod for Best Original Screenplay.

Do we go to the movies to be entertained, or to search for meaning and answers about life? For those who frequent Ripple Effects, you probably can guess what my stance is. Yes, allow me to answer a question with a question… Why must the two be mutually exclusive?

I’m all intrigued about films that explore deep subjects and yet remain as comedies, or, dramedies, as the genre has evolved in recent years. A Serious Man is one such films, entertaining and yet hauntingly serious. But it’s not entertaining with a big splash of hilarity. It is a dark comedy, a film that makes you chuckle in a most poignant way. It’s the deadpan humor that strikes deep. The subject matter in A Serious Man deals with the inscrutable question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And, if we can’t find the answer to the why, then at least, how should we then live?

The film has been described as the most personal of Joel and Ethan Coen’s works; others see it as the most Jewish they’ve done, or even somewhat autobiographical. The setting is 1967 Minnesota, where the Coen brothers grew up.

A Serious Man has won the 2009 Independent Spirit’s Robert Altman Award, and accolades for its screenplay.  It’s one of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Films of 2009. Michael Stuhlbarg’s excellent performance receives a 2010 Golden Globe nom for Best Actor, Musical or Comedy.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college physics professor, a conscientious man who just tries to live his life minding his own business, trying to do what is right.  Yet, it’s trouble he finds everywhere he turns. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is divorcing him for their mutual friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); his daughter Sarah (Jessica Mcmanus) is stealing from him to do a nose job; his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is taking drugs even as he prepares for his bar mitzvah; his unstable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is staying uninvited in his house and has no intention to leave any time soon.  On the career front, his student Clive (David Kang) is bribing him for a passing grade; his tenure committee is making decision on his future while an anonymous letter is circulating, defaming him. At the same time, his chest x-ray result is back, and, an ominous tornado is making its way to his son’s school. I’m exhausted just to keep up. Can anyone explain why Larry is having so many problems while he is only trying to be a mensch, or, a serious man?

Larry goes searching for answers from three rabbis. While the first two cannot give him a satisfactory answer, the third, the most senior, is too busy to see him. Who then is left to help him through all his troubles?

Many critics equate Larry’s predicament with Job of the Bible, a righteous man facing incredulous torments. But Larry is no Job. He may attempt to be a righteous man, but he is not totally blameless. I feel the film may reflect the notion described in the book of Ecclesiastes even more:

… And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also.  Why then have I been so very wise?’ … this too is meaningless.

Ecclesiastes 2: 14 – 15

If we have no control over the bad things that happen to all, it’s only natural to question why we ought to be good then. If his wife runs away with another man, is it justified that Larry should lust for another woman? Since bad things will happen to the good and the bad alike, why bother being good? Do we act prudently because we expect positive consequences, or, do we act prudently because it is the right thing to do, period. And now, the moment of decision, the bribe…

A Serious Man throws at us more questions than answers, expectedly so, for who has all the answers? It is in such precarious situations that we look into our hearts and search ourselves. Instead of a challenge thrown at HaShem, God, I see the film as one that’s turned towards us: what would I have done?

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Reading the Season: Fleming Rutledge

Two things I always do whenever I go to Vancouver:  Check out the indie movies and visit the Regent College Bookstore on the UBC campus.  I admit before that gloomy December day when I entered the Regent Bookstore,  I had not heard of the name Fleming Rutledge.  Thanks to Regent’s gigantic book sale, I came out with, among others, two of Rutledge’s titles:  The Bible and The New York Times and The Battle for Middle-earth, a commentary on Tolkein’s writing.  For the purpose of basking in the Christmas Season in a more meaningful way, I delved right into The Bible and The New York Times.

The theologian Karl Barth has a famous axiom that says sermons should be written with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  This book is evidence that Fleming Rutledge has taken this motto to heart in her over twenty years of preaching and teaching ministry.  The book is a compilation of her sermons delivered in the 80’s and 90’s from the pulpit of Manhattan’s Grace (Episcopal) Church where she has served for 14 years, as well as from her visits to other churches in Eastern U.S.  As for her writing, Annie Dillard has commented that, “this is beautiful, powerful, literary writing.”

The 34 sermons are arranged according to the liturgical calendar, all eloquent reflections on the meaning of the occasion, from Thanksgiving to Advent, Christmas to Lent.  I’ve heard numerous sermons in my life, countless I dare say, but I admit this is the first time that I read through a compilation of sermons and thoroughly enjoy them all like a page-turner.  They throw light on events of our world, from politics to popular culture, addressing them as springboard to a spiritual perspective albeit not without practical wisdom; her commentaries on the human condition are incisive and spot-on.  I’ve come out heartily admiring Rutledge’s intellectual prowess and literary repertoire, but above all, her boldness in proclaiming what may not be politically correct in this day.

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The four Advent Sundays are preparatory for the main event of Christmas.  Rutledge reminds us that without recognizing the darkness we are in, there is no need for the Light.  Oblivious to unresolvable conflicts and the depravity of our human condition, we would not be desperate enough to search for truth and redemption.  Without being shattered by tragedies and wounded by sorrow and grief, we would not be genuinely seeking solace and healing.  And, not until we see the absurdity of our human world, we would not humbly seek meaning in the transcendent.

In one of her Advent sermons, actually exactly today, the last Sunday of Advent, Rutledge relates the spiritual experience of John Updike one time when he was alone in a hotel room in Finland.   He was besieged by a sense of awareness that pulled him to confront what he called a “deeper, less comfortable self.”   She quotes Updike’s own words:

“The precariousness of being alive and human was no longer hidden from me by familiar surroundings and the rhythm of habit.  I was fifty-five, ignorant, dying, and filling this bit of Finland with the smell of my stale sweat and insomniac fury.”

Rutledge notes that at the time:

Updike is in the prime of his life, at the peak of his powers and the pinnacle of his fame.  Yet even a celebrity has to be alone with himself at three o’clock in the morning, even as you and I.

If we approach Christmas in such a state of  “deeper, less comfortable selves”, then we might come closer to appreciate the magnitude of its significance and meaning.

Annie Dillard has commented that Rutledge “writes as a person who knows she is dying, speaking to other dying people, determined not to enrage by triviality.”  The world situation today is grave, our hope lies not within but beyond ourselves.  For this reason the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Emmanuel, God with us …

This is the meaning of the Virgin Birth:  God has moved.  God has moved, not we to him in our impotence, but he to us.

This is not the Season to be merely festive and jolly.  Christmas is the celebration of the Grand Entrance into humanity, thus reason for deep rejoicing.

“All hopes and fears of all the years,

Are met in Thee tonight.”

 

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Art images:  Rembrandt’s Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary and Adoration of the Shepherds

Click on these other ‘seasonal reads’:

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw

Reading The Season:  Madeleine L’Engle

Reading The Season:  C. S. Lewis