Monday, July 21, 2008

The Stinker

With apologies to Rodin (the artist, not the nemesis of Godzilla) I painted this on my powder room door.

Stair forest

I made this mural after Kevin decided to lay wood strips over the seams in the ugly fake wood paneling that we painted over. I used caulking to make the branches. I experimented with using fake leaves but eventually settled on using spray foam insulation.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reflections on The Nightmare Before Christmas

After thinking about how I don’t see most of my neighbors except on Halloween, my thoughts drifted to the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. Perhaps this is all simply a way for me to justify my love of this movie which speaks to my inner goth, or perhaps this movie is allegorical and actually has something to say to Christians and Post-Moderns.

After a successful Halloween night of frightening children, Jack Skellington, a skeletal King of the Pumpkins, has a post-Halloween Ecclesiastes moment where he sings:

There are few who deny at what I do I am the best…

(he goes on to sing about how good he is at scaring people)

Yet year after year it’s the same routine

And I grow so weary of the sound of screams.

I, Jack the Pumpkin King,

Have grown so tired of the same old thing.

Oh somewhere deep inside of these bones

A longing that begins to grow

There’s something out there far from my home

A longing that I’ve never known.

Who here would even understand

That the Pumpkin King with his skeleton grin

Would tire of his crown? If they only understood

He’d give it all up if he only could.

I believe Jack would agree with King Solomon that fame, glory, and other treasures of this world are “vanity” or ultimately meaningless and unfulfilling. Jack then goes for a walk with his ghost dog Zero and happens upon a strange part of the woods with a circle of trees with doors on them. Each door has a different symbol on it including a turkey, a shamrock, a painted egg, a jack-o-lantern and a Christmas tree.

Jack opens the Christmas door and finds himself falling onto a pile of snow in Christmas Town. He is amazed by the snow, the colors (Halloween Town mainly being shades of white, black and orange), the smells and other sights. He also marvels at how different his own emotions feel: “In my bones I feel the warmth that’s coming from inside.” He keeps repeating, “What is this?”

I think it is also worth noting how similar (and generic) the elves look in contrast to the rich diversity of creatures in Halloween Town. Upon listening to the commentary, they even mentioned that some silhouettes of elves working were just flat 2-D cutouts. This blandness may be a refection on how we as Christians are sometimes less than “real” and are scared of revealing vulnerabilities and so create saccharine veneers. (I also wanted to note here how director Tim Burton grew up in Burbank, California which is, no doubt a very phony town in the shadow of Hollywood. Take a look at the pastel 1950s houses in Edward Scissorhands. In many of his movies, ordinary people are shown to be more scary and monstrous than those who first appear to be monsters.)

While Jack is gone, the entire community of Halloween Town is madly searching for him. Jack returns with Christmas artifacts, calls a town meeting in which he attempts to share the gospel of Christmas Town. “It’s as real as my skull and it does exist.” After describing traditions and showing some of his treasures, the responses of his neighbors indicate that they are unable to truly realize what Christmas is about because they are viewing it through Halloween lenses. For example, when shown a stocking, they joyfully inquire whether it contains a foot.

Jack is frustrated by their responses and sings,

“Listen now you don’t understand.

That’s not the point of Christmas Land…

Everyone please, now, not so fast,

There’s something here that you don’t quite grasp.”

He then says to himself, “Well I may as well give them what they want” and proceeds to twist his description of Santa into the frightening demon-like “Sandy Claws”. This is similar to how people attempt to evangelize through fear (fundamentalism) or giving them what they want (liberalism) both of which ultimately warp the nature of God. Reflecting afterwards, Jack says to himself, “Well at least they’re excited but they don’t understand that special kind of feeling in Christmas Land. Oh well.” Lots of people know about Jesus without truly knowing Him and feeling the peace that passes understanding.

In an effort to become a Christmas apologist and gain more understanding for himself, Jack then proceeds to read as much as he can about Christmas saying, “There’s got to be a logical way to explain this Christmas thing.” After reading about the scientific method, he asks the scientist Dr. Finklestein for some laboratory equipment to aid his quest to quantify Christmas. Jack’s friends notice that Jack is different and sing, “Something’s up with Jack”.

Meanwhile, Jack is performing experiments with candy canes, holly berries, ornaments and such things in an attempt to distill the meaning of Christmas.

Christmastime is buzzing in my skull.

Will it let me be? I cannot tell.

There are so many things I cannot grasp.

When I think I’ve got it, then at last

Through my bony fingers it does slip

Like a snowflake in a fiery grip.

Something here I’m not quite getting,

Though I try I keep forgetting,

Like a memory long since passed

Here in an instant, gone in a flash.

What does it mean? What does it mean?

These dolls and toys confuse me so.

Confound it all, I love it though.

Simple objects nothing more

But something’s hidden through a door

Though I do not have the key

Something’s here I cannot see.

What does it mean? What does it mean?

I’ve read these Christmas books so many times.

I know the stories and I know the rhymes.

I know the Christmas carols all by heart.

My skull’s so full it’s tearing me apart.

As often as I’ve read them something’s wrong,

So hard to put my body finger on

Or perhaps it’s really not as deep

As I’ve been led to think.

Am I trying much too hard?

Of course! I’ve been too close to see

The answer’s right in front of me!

It’s simple really, very clear,

Like music drifting in the air

Invisible but everywhere

Just because I cannot see it,

Doesn’t mean I can’t believe it.

I really can sympathize with Jack as he tries to sort out the mysteries. Then, he becomes a bit prideful (with which I also sympathize) with thoughts similar to the words of the serpent in the Garden of Eden when it convinces Adam and Eve that they can become like God:

You know I think this Christmas thing

Is not as tricky as it seems.

And why should they have all the fun?

It should belong to anyone.

Not anyone, in fact but me!

Why, I can make a Christmas tree,

And there’s no reason I can find

I couldn’t handle Christmastime.

I bet I could improve it too

And that’s exactly what I’ll do.

He then shouts, “This year, Christmas will be ours!” and all of the inhabitants of Halloween Town are given tasks to do for the Christmas takeover, giving each holiday element a Halloween twist. Jingle Bells is played as a dirge. Instead of stuffing stockings with gifts, gifts of holly bedecked skulls are put down the mouth of a colossal snake. Three trick-or-treaters named Lock, Shock and Barrel set out to fetch Santa so that he might have some time off. They promise Jack that they will not involve the evil Oogie Boogie Man but cross their fingers and then sing a song about kidnapping Sandy Claws and about the terrible things they plan to do to him. They are motivated by fear of Oogie Boogie and attempt to appease him by sacrificing Santa, but are also acting out of sheer delight of torturing.

After accidentally bringing the Easter Bunny, they finally succeed in capturing him. Much to Santa’s shock and protest, Jack takes his hat and tells him his plans to handle things this year so that Santa can take a break. As Lock, Shock and Barrel cart Santa away, he asks them to release him, saying, “Haven’t you heard of peace on earth and goodwill toward men?” To which they reply, “No!” as they take him to Oogie Boogie’s lair. Oogie then proceeds to mock him proclaiming: “Well, well, well what have we here? Sandy Claws, huh? Oooh, I’m really scared! So you’re the one everybody’s talkin’ about? This can’t be the right guy.”

As the Oogie Boogie man continues harassing him in his gambling themed house of horror, Jack is playing the role of Santa Claus, delivering the frightening and dangerous gifts that the townspeople have created. His coffin sleigh (pulled by skeletal reindeer) is eventually shot down by the army and Jack lands in a cemetery on a book held by an angel statue where he sings sadly.

What have I done?

Find a deep cave to hide in.

In a million years they’ll find me only dust

And a plaque that reads “Here lies poor old Jack”.

But I never intended all this madness. Never.

And nobody really understood.

How could they? That all I ever wanted

Was to bring them something great.

Why does nothing ever turn out like it should?

He goes back and redeems himself by rescuing Santa who then sets things right. He flies over Halloween Town and snow falls for the first time. Finally, Jacks friends understand Jack’s transformative incident with Christmas Town as they frolic in the drifts. They needed to experience it for themselves.

While that is the end of the movie, I wanted to add some details and comments about the minor character Dr. Finklestein, the scientist as he is the embodiment of a creator whose nature is significantly different from that of God. Many people mistakenly identify God with these characteristics. The first time we meet him, he is in his wheelchair (showing a lack of power), yelling at one of his creations, a rag doll named Sally who had given him deadly nightshade so that she might escape. He yells, “You’re mine, you know. I made you with my own hands.” She replies, “You can make other creations. I’m restless. I can’t help it.” He urges her to simply be patient.

Later, he rightfully suspects her of poisoning his soup again and says that he won’t have any unless she has some first. She says that she isn’t hungry and he tries to give her a guilt trip by replying, “You want me to starve! Me to whom you owe your very life…” After she pretends to have a taste, he slurps the soup down and, poisoned, falls asleep giving Sally the opportunity to run away again. When he awakes with a headache he yells, “You’ve poisoned me for the last time, you wretched girl,” and locks in a tower room.

Sally the rag doll flops out of her window and lands hard, causing her arms and legs to fall apart. She takes out a needle, and sews herself back together (man as self sufficient). Later in a reverse manner of the Prodigal Son’s father, opens her door saying, “You can come out now if you promise to behave,” and then finds her missing.

Fed up with her, he eventually makes a new and improved woman, and says, “You will be a decided improvement over that treacherous Sally.” Opening up her duck bill shaped hinged metal skull, he puts in part of his own brain (thus losing intelligence) from his own duck billed hinged skull and says, “What a joy to think of all we’ll have in common. We’ll have conversations worth having.” He then kisses the bit of brain and the skull lid closes down on his fishy lips. I’m so thankful that our creator is not like Dr. Finklestein!

Essentially today, the residents of Halloween Town have indeed taken over Christmas. What would it look like if the citizens of Christmas Town (Christians) took it back? What would it look like if they redid Halloween?

Hilltop of the shadow of death- a cheery way to start a blog

Last year I realized how I am surrounded by death. When I walk to the Carrick Library, I pass by three cemeteries, two funeral homes, a monument (headstone) business and am greeted by yet another graveyard next to the library. People are dying to live in my neighborhood. Figuratively, I am also surrounded by the walking dead, wandering around like sheep without a shepherd. The hollow eyes of decaying buildings gape through weed jungles. Graffiti and litter snarl at passersby. These initial realizations put me in a state of grief and depression but I am realizing that the way out of the abyss of my feelings is not denial of the chaos and destruction of the people and places that surround me, but rather finding ways of resurrecting and redeeming them. The power of re!