“Talitha Cumi’ [A Poem Written on the Occasion of the Death of a Child Recently Baptised] (2012)

Today I watched a child who I baptized in March of this year go home to be with her Lord.  I have decided to write a poem for Nautica because she is worthy of a poem.

She is certainly worthy of a better poem than this.  I am no poet and make no claim to understand poetry or the structure of it (which will be evident) or any such thing.

But if poetry simply means the expression of the human heart when it has been deeply moved, then I at least have warrant to put it here.  Regardless, it is for Nautica, and for her mother, Teona.

Talitha Cumi

[Written on the occasion of the death of a child recently baptized.]

Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

Mark 5:41

“Jesus is Lord,” she said

almost in a whisper

in March of this year

when I baptized her

the little girl

saying the ancient creed

before the body of Christ

who cheered and “amen’d”

“Jesus is Lord,” she said

when I asked for her confession

and the water was almost neck high

where she stood and smiled

“Jesus is Lord,” she said

three words

that have changed the world

(including her own)

she said it

and I buried her

under the water

and in the Name

but only for a moment

for she rose from the water

because death doesn’t get the victory

over those who say the Name

“Jesus is Lord,” she said

and we will bury her again

in earth this time

from whence she came

but only for a moment

for the ground will not hold her

just as the water could not

and she will rise

because of the Name

“Jesus is Lord!”

little girls don’t stay buried

death doesn’t win

then she said it in the water

now face to face

“Jesus is Lord,” she is whispering

and He is whispering back…

“Yes, and I love you little girl.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

This odd and eclectic little book contains a series of brief vignettes Vonnegut did for New York radio some years back.  The basic premise is that Jack Kevorkian takes him almost to the point of death (in a Huntsville, TX, death chamber) so that Vonnegut can go and interview dead people.  Each presentation reveals the upshot of these conversations.

The interviews are often humorous and sarcastic.  They usually wish to make a general point about this or that particular issue in American society.  They all reflect Vonnegut’s own interesting but usually leftist takes on American culture.

The book is intended to be a collection of witty social commentary, not a reflection on theology.  Even so, Vonnegut does explain his personal views on the afterlife:

About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War called themselves “Freethinkers,” which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, “If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?”

The question from Vonnegut’s grandfather is tragic, for, of course, it matters a great deal whether or not Jesus was God.  Regardless, it is a helpful insight into Vonnegut’s mind.  He appears to foster a respect for the historical figure of Jesus while harboring none for the identity of Jesus.  As a Christian, this is a fatal misstep, but it likely describes the position of many Americans who seek to hold to the teachings of Jesus (selectively chosen, of course) while eschewing orthodox Christianity.  (C.S. Lewis, among others, dealt, in my mind, a definitive death blow to this kind of attempted end-around run in Mere Christianity.)

Interestingly, there is no hell in Vonnegut’s book (as he points out more than once) so even Hitler is in Heaven.  Some of the people don’t really even want to be there.  Regardless, Vonnegut’s encounters are thought-provoking at best and mildly irritating at their worst.

To give you a taste, here is Vonnegut’s interview with Karla Faye Tucker:

It is late in the afternoon of February 3, 1998. I have just been unstrapped from a gurney following another controlled near-death experience in this busy execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

For the first time in my career, I was actually on the heels of a celebrity as I made my way down the blue tunnel to Paradise. She was Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again murderer of two strangers with a pickax. Karla Faye was completely killed here, by the State of Texas, shortly after lunchtime.

Two hours later, on another gurney, I myself was made only three-quarters dead. I caught up with Karla Faye in the tunnel, about a 150 yards from the far end, near the Pearly Gates. Since she was dragging her feet, I hastened to assure her that there was no Hell waiting for her, no Hell waiting for anyone. She said that was too bad because she would be glad to go to Hell if only she could take the governor of Texas with her. “He’s a murderer, too,” said Karla Faye. “He murdered me.”

Clearly, the intent is to use Tucker as a vehicle for Vonnegut to stress his disapproval of the death penalty.  As a literary device, it really is quite effective, regardless of whether or not one agrees with Vonnegut’s views on this or that issue.

So here is my own take on this book:  if you’d like to kill a little time by observing the musings of an interesting, often short-sighted, occasionally insightful and frequently humorous humanist, check it out.  Christians will find some aspects of the book disheartening and sad, and they should.  There is limited value in the work.  It does show the inner mental workings of one of America’s more interesting writers.  For a Christian, though, the book oftentimes lapses into the kind of modernistic and vapid platitudes one may encounter on any street corner on any given day.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five takes its place alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as one of the truly compelling (and oftentimes satirical) commentaries on the horrors of World War II.  I have been intending to read Vonnegut’s classic work for a good bit of my life now and regret that it took me this long to do so (actually, my Kindle read it to me on a trip to Memphis and back).

The book follows the story of a young World War II soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who, like Vonnegut himself (who appears in his own novel), survived the hellish firebombing of Dresden by American and British forces in 1945.  As a prisoner of war assigned by the Germans to a construction detail in the city of Dresden, Vonnegut and other American soldiers survived the firebombing while holed up in an underground German slaughterhouse (#5).

Vonnegut’s approach to explaining and describing the horrors of Dresden through the experiences of Billy Pilgrim is masterful.  The book has rightly taken its place as a modern classic.

Pilgrim, Vonnegut tells us, has become “unstuck in time.”  It’s the late 1960’s and Pilgrim, now a widower in his 40’s, begins to tell people, much to the chagrine of his embarrassed daughter, that he was once kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  So the story is essentially Pilgrim bouncing from one point of time to another, including the war, his childhood and his abduction by the Tralfamadorians.

As the tale progresses, Pilgrim reveals a mind that has resigned itself to a kind of fatalism concerning the fallenness of humanity, though he seems to want to hold on to free will as a principle.  He has fascinating conversations with the Tralfamadorians concerning free will, concerning the nature of time, concerning the elusiveness of peace and concerning life itself.  He shows an amazing and often humorous sense of detachment and disinterest in the events of the war, to the great irritation of the other American soldiers and the general amusement of his captors.

Vonnegut uses the character of Billy Pilgrim in profoundly effective ways to offer observations and hints concerning his own resignation to the maddening absurdity of war and the vicious cycles in which humanity finds itself.  Though an agnostic/atheist/humanist (depending on which of Vonnegut’s statements you read), he makes frequent and (apparently) positive references to Jesus, most interestingly when he mentions that the Tralfamadorians are more interested in studying Charles Darwin (who, Vonnegut tells us, saw dead bodies as an inevitable reality of existence) than Jesus Christ.  In another instance, Pilgrim chooses to read a science fiction book about a man who decides to go back in time 2,000 years to the events of the crucifixion to see if Jesus really died.  Pilgrim is depicted as a Christian, though he possibly loses his faith.  It is hard to tell.

Again, the book’s designation as a modern classic is well deserved.  Slaughterhouse Five is a thought-provoking discussion of human nature, life, death (every death scene in the book is tellingly followed by the refrain, “So it goes.”), sin, virtue, war, society and human nature.  It is a helpful, interesting and, in many ways, saddening glimpse into one agnostic’s efforts to make sense of the depravity of man.


Some Reflections on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Last week I had to go out of town and found myself with an eighteen-hour road trip (round-trip).  So, to kill the time, I routed my Kindle through my car stereo speakers and downloaded a free copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to listen to on the way.  Why?  I have no idea, really, other than that I wanted to listen to something fictional, something that I had never read before, and something that would not require much thought.  For some reason, I thought of Frankenstein, downloaded it, hit text-to-speech on the Kindle (which worked well with this book, with the speech setting on “Slower”), and headed on down the road.

In summary, it was amazing and, frankly, very thought-provoking.

I am used, of course, to the pop culture Frankenstein, he of the bolts-in-the-neck.  I suppose I’ve seen two or three versions of the story on film.  None of them match the book.

The book has stayed with me a bit, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this amazing story in no particular order.

  • I KNOW that the monster is not named “Frankenstein.”  Frankenstein is the doctor: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.  But man, oh man, it’s hard to break that habit, isn’t it?  The monster has no name, other than “monster” or “demon” or somesuch.  But I suspect that battle is lost, as far as popular culture is concerned:  witness the name on the bobble-head picture fronting this post.
  • I was surprised at how little the book actually says about the actual means of creating the monster.  The actual act of creation is passed over very quickly.  There are hints earlier, of course, of harnessing electricity for reanimation, but the act is never shown.  In fact, when the captain of the Arctic-bound ship asks Frankenstein how he did it, Frankenstein grows utterly incensed at the question and refuses to say (since he never wants it done again).
  • That story really is a brilliant example of how to elicit conflicting emotions: you simultaneously sympathize with the monster, even as you loathe his cold blooded-ness.
  • Ditto for Dr. Frankenstein.
  • I was surprised at the eloquence of the monster, even to the point where Dr. Frankenstein has to warn the captain not to be swayed by his eloquence.
  • Mary Shelley’s writing really is beautiful.
  • The interplay between the story and the Genesis account of creation really is fascinating, if you think about it.
  • I was really hooked when the monster describes to Dr. Frankenstein his sensations on reading Milton’s Paradise Lost (what a fascinating picture), and his perceptions of how he is like and unlike Adam and Lucifer.
  • In doing some follow-up reading on Shelley, I was amazed to find how much the book really is an interaction with Paradise Lost.  (i.e., God is referred to as “the Victor” in Paradise Lost, etc.)
  • The book is a powerful and damning indictment on the cruelty of man.
  • The book is a probing exploration of the limits of man’s knowledge and the limitations of the natural sciences.
  • I kept wandering if Shelley was making some commentary on the Christian story in this book:  i.e., man is created, abandoned and cursed by his creator, who he is simultaneously drawn to and hates (I’m not saying that is the Christian story, of course.  I’m just wondering if Shelley was trying to summarize her own take on Christianity through the character of Frankenstein.)  Maybe not, but I think it likely.
  • I hate to say it, but I’ll probably be hunting down a biography of Shelley now to figure this out.
  • Shelley’s description of the physical features of the monster are more terrifying than anything I’ve seen in the movie renditions (i.e., yellow skin, watery eyes, etc.)
  • Oddly enough, it was wonderful hearing the story read.  There’s just something about hearing scary stories, no?
  • The book is amazing.  Read it (or, as I did, listen to it).

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz


I’m still reeling from this book, so you will have to be patient.  Mrs. Richardson and I finished it last night, and I found it to be, in a word, astounding.  Of all the novels we’ve read together, this will go down as one of the most memorable.

Originally published in 1959, the late Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the most profound, unsettling, haunting, effective, and brilliant novels I have ever read.  It’s a scifi cult classic, and with good reason.  I think I agree with Time magazine’s initial assessment of the book as “Extraordinary…Chillingly effective.”

I should probably call my father and apologize to him, for he has been telling me for years that I really need to read this book.

He was right.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the future and tracing the events of the human race primarily through the lens of a monastic community in the deserts of western North America called The Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz. The book consists of three movements dealing with three different periods of time:  the 26th century, the year 3174 A.D., and the year 3781 A.D.

The first period deals with the resulting dark ages of ignorance, savagery, and brutality following nuclear holocaust (the “flame deluge” in Miller’s memorable terminology).  The Order of Leibowitz is a monastic community determined to preserve “the memorabilia,” or the remains of the past society of men.  The second movement finds the order dealing with an increase in scientific knowledge, the beginning emergence of the human race out of the long darkness of its own ignorance, and the reconstruction of the basic contours of society.  It is, however, a time also of great strife and war.  The final movement finds the human race in a state of great technological advancement but plagued by the old, consistent malady of man’s moral, societal, and ethical corruption.

In truth, the common thread throughout each epoch, and, in my opinion, the primary concern of Miller’s novel, is precisely the problem of original sin and man’s refusal to recognize that all political and social attempts at reestablishing Eden on the earth inevitably dissipate into barbarism and, ultimately, self-destruction.

Miller was a tail-gunner in WWII, and he knew well the ravages of war.  He participated in the bombing and destruction of a famous monastery in Italy, an event that had a dramatic impact on his life and, obviously, his writing.  He converted to Catholicism (a point that must be grasped if the novel is to be understood) but later lived in adultery, became extremely reclusive, and, finally, died at his own hand in 1996.

Miller understood theology very, very well, and the book is marked by both theological depth and, at times, density.  Some readers may find the copious Latin references burdensome, but they are quite germane to the story and helpful in creating mood and context.

Miller is thoroughly Augustinian in his view of the sinfulness of man.  More than once the abbots of the Leibowitzian order pontificate on the disastrous effects of both the Fall of Man and man’s refusal to see and understand the radical implications of that Fall.  This aspect of the novel reaches its apex in the concluding thoughts of Abbot Zerchi during the second nuclear holocaust as he lay dying.

“The trouble with the world is me…Thee me Adam Man we.  No ‘worldly evil’ except that which is introduced into the world by Man – me thee Adam us – with a little help from the father of lies….’Me us Adam, but Christ, Man me; Me us Adam, but Christ, Man me,’ he said aloud.” (330)

In truth, Miller’s handling of harmatology, soteriology, and theophany in this novel are quite impressive.  Along the way, the novel also offers powerful reflections on war, technology, and euthanasia (particularly in part 3).

In many ways, it’s harder to describe an overwhelming book than a lesser one, and I find that I’m experiencing that even now.  So perhaps I should simply end with this:  A Canticle for Leibowitz is everything a great book should be.  It is thought-provoking, psychologically and emotionally engaging, challenging in the various dilemmas it offers the reader, memorable in its descriptive force, and, ultimately, expressive of the grand verities of the gospel.

This is undoubtedly one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, and I intend to read it again.

A great, great read.

Highly recommended.

“Miss Clora” [A Poem for a Lady I Never Knew] (2010)

Yesterday, a number of Dawson citizens spent a good bit of time searching for an elderly lady, Miss Clora, who had wandered out of her home the night before. (I was not part of the search party.)  Her body was found yesterday afternoon.

I never knew her and I do not think I ever met her.  She was a stranger to me, and I to her, much, I’m sure, to my loss!  But I’ve been thinking about her death.

I’m going to ask for pity here:  I am no poet and I know very little about poetry other than that I like to read poems I like.  But I’ve written a poem for Miss Clora that I thought I might share here.  It’s simply my effort to honor the passing of a lady who, by all accounts, was a wonderful person.


“Miss Clora”

(A Poem For A Lady I Never Knew)

She wandered, Miss Clora did
As folks sometimes do
When the years have been long
And the mind grows tired
And the feet get itchy for a walk

She wandered out, Miss Clora did
Two nights ago, just taking a walk
And it was noticed she was gone
And the search parties looked
A good bit of yesterday

And they found her, Miss Clora
In the late afternoon, yesterday, outside
Where she had wandered
And she was gone, Miss Clora was
Gone, but the body remained

And I never knew her, Miss Clora
Just saw the picture on the Shell station door
Where folks walk in to pay for gas
While Miss Clora walked out
Just to take a walk

And I wonder about her wandering, Miss Clora
(While the rest of us walked our routines)
How she decided to walk out
And nobody will ever know why
“She was confused,” we’ll say

But could it be that she, Miss Clora
Smelled Christmas in the air
And thought of Another who walked
And went out to meet Him
And met Him walking too, right here in Terrell County?

Merry Christmas, Miss Clora!