Bible Thumping

By Dyana Herron.

I once saw a girl beaned in the head with a Bible.

Her attacker was a well-muscled star of our middle school football team, so his throw was hard, accurate, and had a bit of a spiral.

To be fair, the weapon wasn’t a full Bible, neither was it large. Someone in this guy’s group of cronies had procured a box of those miniature New Testaments kids are given in Sunday school, and brought them in his backpack with the intention of evangelizing—through force.

I noticed something was up that morning in the gymnasium, where the buses unloaded and students lounged in the bleachers waiting for the bell to ring so we could go to homeroom. With only one teacher—usually a distracted gym coach—on duty, it was easy to get away with mischief, and many of the students, hormonal and restless and facing another day of Algebra and cafeteria food, had mischief in their hearts.

Usually this manifested in mostly benign ways—spitballs, lewd shouts, or dropping someone’s clarinet case beneath the bleachers, so the unlucky student had to navigate the sticky darkness beneath to retrieve it. But on this morning it transformed into something more sinister.

From my seat across the basketball court, I noticed a few students stand up and begin moving at once. Without realizing at first what was happening, I watched as a pack of good old country boys surrounded a bunch of black-haired Goth kids—eyes heavy with liner—like a pride of lions might surround a herd of gazelles. By the time the prey raised their eyes, it was too late: they had been accosted by the words of Jesus.

Afterwards, whistles were blown and the ensuing fight broken up, but on my way to first period I saw a girl, walking alone, on the receiving end of a long pass. I knew little about her except she had dark hair that hung to her waist and a fascination with vampires. The Bible hit her in the back of the head and she whipped around in shock, blood drained from her face, tears pooling in her eyes.

Rumors spread throughout the day of assaults that continued across campus when no adults were around to see. I witnessed no others myself, but after lunch I found a few loose pages from the gospel according to John, with gold-rimmed edges lying in the mud. The words spoken by Jesus were printed in ink the color of blood. [Read more…]

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Our Rumbling Nation 

This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world, as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and un-redressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion.

As I was reading these lines from the final page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I couldn’t help thinking of the current rumbling earthquake in our country. Though not yet with physical violence—or not much so far—we seem to be experiencing a sort of civil war.

Or, more accurately, an uncivil war.

This isn’t why I pulled Uncle Tom’s Cabin off my shelf and began re-reading the yellowed pages of my 1981 paperback edition. I’ve been interrogating the hundreds of books on my shelves: am I going to read you again, or am I going to throw you out, or pass you on to my church’s second-hand sale?

I hadn’t read Stowe’s 1852 masterpiece for decades, so figured it was time to give it another try. Though sometimes sentimental or melodramatic, it does hold up: it paints a multi-faceted picture of the various forms of evil that the institution of slavery took.

It’s commonplace (though true) to say that our country is still living with the after-shocks of this evil.  How many of the people who voted for Donald Trump did so in the spirit of backlash of having to live for eight years under a Black president? Of course, people’s motivations for voting are too complex to single out one factor.

Yet in campaigning, Trump did play the racist card. And so far, as President, he has slapped much of the deck onto the table: Mexicans, Muslims with non-European ethnicity, Native Americans who are resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. [Read more…]

Listening to Beautiful Darkness

Waking from the Nightmare

auroradescendingintomaturity

A little girl awakens in an autumn wood. She stands, looks up through the red-orange fire of the leaves to see a small patch of white sky. Then she brushes the leaves from her cardigan and walks out of the frame.

Someone screams.

The idyll is broken. We’re back in the nightmare forest in the middle of Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness, where a host of tiny creatures struggle for survival.

The scream came from one of the creatures, a feral sort of china doll with an enlarged head, who eats maggots and eventually comes to live in the rotting skull of the very girl from the dream. Feral china doll wakes up grunting, “Nightmare . . . Nightmare!” as if we’re the weirdos for having hoped that the book thus far had been the dream, that the girl was not dead but dreaming the graphic novel’s bizarre horrors.

I’ll admit that the first time I read Beautiful Darkness, I found it morbidly fascinating but too unpleasant to enjoy. I granted, with many online, that the artwork was gorgeous and dramatic, and that the plot was a kind of feminist anti-fairy tale. Still, I felt it demonstrated a kind of casual nihilism I see in lots of contemporary horror.

Then we had a presidential election, and half the country thought they were in a nightmare. The other half said they’d been in a nightmare, themselves, for too long. A host of conservatives screamed, “I told you so” to a liberal consensus. With deep pain and frustration in their voices, they moaned, “You didn’t listen!”

I don’t know how to process the complexities of the divide in this country. I don’t know that I listened well enough, or that, with what light I was given, I used what platforms I had to advocate enough for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Or that it would have made any difference.

But I know I want to listen better, for what it’s worth. And I can start not only with those around me but with this book. How can it change me?

Inside Out

nightmareI have come around to believing Beautiful Darkness works as a disturbing critique and warning about the primitive evil that lingers beneath our trite civilities.

The bizarre premise involves the humanoid citizens of a young girl’s imagination escaping her body after she dies, mysteriously, in the woods. Aurora, the fantasy embodiment of the girl herself, takes charge of feeding and housing the refugees, blithely promoting principles of fairness and generosity.

It soon becomes apparent that everyone is prepared to profit from Aurora’s leadership, but no one really shares her values. Rather, each character proves a creature of whim, appetite, and even violent instinct. Those that show any ability to deliberate use their reasoning powers to manipulate others for their own gain.

In the end, Aurora has to decide how best to deal with this host of dangerously destructive imps that seem to keep following her around.

The book is all about people’s blithe indifference to one another’s suffering. Worse, it’s sometimes about direct violence and society’s willingness to shrug it off if there’s something more entertaining to do. One large character literally eats a smaller one. A bystander says, “What did you just do?” but the large creature says, “Wanna play? Look, it’s like I’m pregnant!” and a person’s death becomes a perverse joke.

Characters steal from one another. They torture insects. They kill animals that had previously helped them, then eat their raw flesh. Betrayal is casual, murder is the stuff of games. It’s Lord of the Flies meets Strawberry Shortcake. Except all the Pastry People keep smiling and playing their baked-goods games.

It’s disturbing to think that the “big” folks in our society might consume the “little” ones, in more subtle ways, and somehow the rest of us would be complicit in laughing at it.

Teach Your Children Well

sohungryThis book does not try to force a message, and there’s no happily ever after in sight. The death and loss are too isolating, and Aurora’s hope seems to lie in a large human male who is associated with many violent images and may have caused the death of the human Aurora.

One way you can read it is as the human Aurora’s imagination living on after her, and her ego, the creature Aurora, doing her best to negotiate growing up in a world made dangerous by nature and cruel by people. If she overcomes, it is not by remaining purely good but by making hard choices maybe we’d rather she didn’t have to make.

Without anyone to teach her better, Aurora learns to “do what it takes” to survive. That’s a phrase used by self-proclaimed realists to justify morally questionable actions, and Aurora, eventually donning the pelt of a former mouse ally, is en route to becoming a tiny dictator of a world of one.

To see justice in the individual, Plato imagined the person as a city and the parts of the self as its citizens. Here, a child dies before maturing, so the parts of herself are arrested in pre-adolescence. If Beautiful Darkness is a parable of human evil, then it takes a rather banal view of original sin as a child’s lack of empathy, distractibility, and reflexive violence without conscience.

The book thus indicts those traits in ourselves as shamefully immature. How, after all, can we hope to train our children in doing good if we continue to act in any way like children? In an age of parents pouting about their children on social media while police shoot black parents’ children, there may be an audience that needs to feel the grotesque but profound disturbance of a book like this.

And may we each take the fanciful Auroras in our lives by the hand and, rejecting vengeance and rage, lead them down paths of righteousness.

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Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.

The above images are from the text reviewed here: Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness.

Parting the Veil

edited abstract dark by Jim Lukach on flickrThe light on the ceiling of our bedroom is slanted in a parody of the open doorway, letting in the blue glow of a nightlight from the hall. This nightly and usually innocuous shape hides something in the darkness tonight; I see it creeping in the light box, plotting something against me, about to attack.

Nightmares, night paralysis, and obsessive fears are not new to me. They have been part of my life since I was three and my mom took me to a psychologist because I wouldn’t leave her side, not even to go to the bathroom at home.

When I was eight and still unwilling to let my mom leave me alone in my room at bedtime, my mom, in an act of desperation, performed a sort of exorcism on the closet door that held the faces of dark monsters and demons in the grains of wood.

In order to fend off those terrors of demons and monsters in my late teens and twenties, I took comfort in a less mysterious Christianity. I went to grad school, I studied theology, I became skeptical of great religious emotion. I thought I could plaster away my sensitivities and obsessive thoughts behind a wall of intellectual belief. And it worked for a while.

But my pretense of intellectual faith and skepticism of religious experience didn’t last. [Read more…]

Evil’s Share

Johann Heinrich FussliIt has been said that one of the most effective means by which evil can have its way is to convince us that we are too abominable to love. It’s not a bad tactic. When our faults are catalogued back to us, the inventory is hair-raising and earth-shattering.

This is one of the methods attributed to demons, unsurprisingly; they shock the conscious self through the exposition of things it knows but won’t look at, has suspected but never acknowledged. This takes the self to a place from which it is loath to return. Amazed at the true level of its depravity, it exacts a self-imposed exile and seeks its own annihilation.

And yet, for all of the destructiveness wrought by the demonic motive, there is something searching about it as well—a hunger perversely akin to the longing of those who seek a better end. Evil desires its level, but can only destroy it in the attainment. A famous literary work supplies the example. [Read more…]