The Myth Craft of Writing

Posted: April 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

It was about a year ago that my now fiancée used the word “writer” to describe me to someone she was introducing me to, and it felt rather awkward. Though I was two books in, and with a few more in my head, it never occurred to me that I was something that could be called a “writer.”

My skin still crawls a little when I think of it, but not because it is false, it just has never been a way that I’ve thought of myself. Naturally, I update this weblog too infrequently. I don’t write… right? Heck, I never took a typing class in my life, I just steadily hunted and pecked until I could do so at an alarming rate per minute. I’ve admittedly thought myself more poetic or prophetic than prosaic. The Englishman Robert Graves, another war-touched writer, once spoke of his craft as resulting “from an inspired, almost pathological, reversion to the original language… rather than from a conscientious study of its grammar and vocabulary.” (The White Goddess, 12. 1975 edition)

So while I steadfastly refuse to train myself, I should nonetheless practice. Even if the things in my head don’t always need to be said, writing them gives them form, writing makes ideas things to be explored, scrutinized, and refined. I will not, however, “blog” in the proper sense. I am more interested in committing to write what is in my head. Regularly. Irreverently. Forcing pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.

So, with that out of the way…

As someone who has studied with Stanley Hauerwas and fashions himself an adherent to virtue theory, I have found myself interested in mythology as a way of thinking about moral formation. Famous mythologist Joseph Campbell influenced George Lucas, who in turn influences us. Mythology is related to anthropology, but as Stanley has said, Campbell tries to do too much, he’s all over the place. But myths are not (even if in modern belief they are judged) “fanciful, absurd, unhistorical.” (13) Myths are somewhere between fact and fiction, between ineffable Truth and worldly reality. They tell us about our past without reducing it to a numbers game or a statistical analysis.

Virtue theorists like Stanley, Alisdair MacIntyre, and innumerable others will similarly lament the loss of virtue and advocate a return to the classic school of Greek philosophical fathers. A recovery of virtue challenges the modern “enlightened” assumptions that falsely reify the self as the locus of moral, social, political and other inquiries. Somewhere between deontologists (follow the rules) and consequentialists (greatest good for the greatest number), virtue ethicists declare that habits and practices make possible a good life in pursuit of excellence.

Graves, however, has a very interesting read of the classical Greek school of thought that virtuists value, founded by Socrates and carried by Plato and Aristotle. He suggests that myth preceded the classical school and that Socrates saw it as threatening his new religion of logic, that philosophy as a discipline made an uncompromising rejection of myth ‘as opinions of which no account can be given.’ (paraphrase, 10) The pursuit of philosophy represented what Graves calls “intellectual masturbation.” In other words, if philosophic schools began with an assumption that “an understanding of the language of myth is irrelevant to self-knowledge,” then it represented “the male intellect trying to make itself spiritually self-sufficient.” (11-12) Saint Augustine could have called it “navel gazing.” But he didn’t.

I am interested in this stuff through my critique of modern mass media, that it forms morally immature agents incapable of engaging decisively with the moral landscape of war. Campbell laments that there are no more rites of passage, that the modern world is bereft of ritual meaning. But he is wrong, for Lucas has provided the world with meaning through pixels and pictures. The epics we once as a species carried in our hearts and in our minds have been transferred to the screen. There is no such thing as a ritual-less society. I can’t remember who said it (though I suspect it was Stanley), but if we have no heroes as Christians, our culture will happily supply them. And it has. In classes I have taught, when asked about the etymology of their names, a simple majority of students cite their parents watching this television show or that and liking the character whose name they curiously inherited…

Warriors-to-be are gluttons for John Wayne and Blaster One. And folks like Stanley don’t know where to point for better guiding myths, more relevant and experienced guides in the moral density of war. They point away from war as best they can, as though its demise is not far off, or that we can cleanly extricate ourselves therefrom. We look to Augustine, himself no war veteran, and neglect Martin, Ignatius, Francis, and others. Hell, I discovered Graves by mistake through researching the Great War Poets (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon).

If Graves is right about classical philosophy, then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are not the answer to the “fact” driven, scientific enlightenment of three or four centuries ago, they were its precursors. If the pursuit of logic produced Athenian youth more inclined to intellectual masturbation than to civic engagement, one can see why Socrates had to be put to death for their corruption.

But that’s just what’s in my head tonight…

Holy Fuck.

Sacred and profane so near one another they kiss, they cannot be distinguished. Death and life, giver and taker, embraced in one. Holy Fuck! Holy. Fuck.

Holy

A word that means “set apart,” that means wonder and awe and beauty. Holiness is body seeking Spirit, seeking communion, seeking God.

Being, breathing, basking, beautiful.

Fuck

A word that means nothing, that means emptiness, sterility, that means stripped of meaning, stripped of clothes, stripped of beauty and spirit. Body totally and utterly alone beside body totally and utterly alone.

Cocks, cunts, sweating, suffocating.

Holy Fuck

The words escaped my lips on a summer day one decade ago, perched atop an observation post in the desert of Babylon. Binoculars dropping from my hand, I saw… I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see. The impact area was supposed to be clear, it was supposed to be desolate, empty, safe. But I saw a body. I saw a body, something, someone crawl out of that hut, crying in the middle of the wilderness. I looked anxiously around; had anyone seen what happened? Holy fuck, what have I done?

Holy Fuck

The words left Peter’s lips at the very moment the cock cried out and the stranger was silenced. He was right. Whatever or whoever he was, he was right. But he’s dead, he is hanging from a cross there on the hill, the hill of the skull where I did not follow him, with the cross I did not pick up and carry. He was supposed to be God, here, among us, to save us from those fucks that killed him! He’s dead! How wrong I am and how right he was… Has anyone else seen me?

Holy Fuck

The words crossed Jesus’ mind, losing strength, unable pull his naked chest high enough to breathe, rusty nails scraping against bare nerve sending shock waves of pain through his arms and into his stuttering heart. Suffocating, bleeding out, breaking down, he was utterly alone. Was his cousin right, he who lost faith at the last, his head upon the chopping block, just as Jesus was losing his breath and his hope and his Father? Does God see what they have done? Where, to hell, has God gone?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Holy Fuck.

The words escaped the soldier’s lips as the blood and water spattered his face and he withdrew his spear. As the earth shook and the wind blew, there he stood: startled, scared, alone. Motionless, breathless, shocked. His judgment clouded by the enveloping darkness overtaking the land, he began wondering if he had indeed just killed their God. The sacred criminal there, upon the cross, without deliverance: no help, no hope, no holiness in this moment for him, for either of them. There is only death. Only fucking death, and the spear in his hands. Has anyone else looked upon the body I have pierced?

Holy Fuck

Sacred profanity and profane sanctity: death in life, God and sin, terror amidst hope.

My God, my God, what have we done? Why have we forsaken you?

I have been adding book reviews to my Recommendations tab, above. The latest to be added are two twin publications surveying Christian Attitudes Toward War & Peace, the first by esteemed Church historian Roland Bainton and another, later supplementary book by  Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (who added “Revolution” to the title). Check them out!

Screenshot 2014-03-12 11.53.11 Bainton’s book is reviewed HERE

Screenshot 2014-03-12 11.52.38Yoder’s book can be found HERE.

As I did with my first book, #Reborn4thJuly, I hope to compile reviews from my latest one, #ForGodandcountry. This is a way to recognize reviewers thoughtful reflections and interact just a bit with what’s being said about the book. The most substantial review thus far has been by Dana Cassell over at ERB Books. She gave a fair and incredibly thoughtful synopsis of the book that was so good that she said things I probably should have in my introduction!

One of my favorite lines of hers gives a look into my motivations for writing it in the first place;

If the church has something to say about violence, war, and military service, the only way it can speak with integrity is to engage deeply with the lives and the stories of those immersed in the systems of war we wish to critique.

You can click HERE to head to the website, or cut and paste the following URL into your browser; http://erb.kingdomnow.org/logan-mehl-laituri-for-god-and-country-feature-review. If you have seen one or are interested in writing one yourself, let me know! DM me on Twitter or leave a message in the comments section below!

2013 in review

Posted: January 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

outrageous

Several weeks ago on Veterans Day, I watched as Duke University held its annual ceremony to honor members of “the next greatest generation.” Every year on November 11th, Duke Chapel rings its magnificent bells 11 times in remembrance of the Armistice signed in 1918, ending WWI. In the century that has followed, the bell tolls have come to represent a moment of ceremonial silence to remember all veterans that have followed. The tradition of maintaining one minute of silence in recognition of the sacrifices made by this courageous group of people has been, for many veterans, a necessary and cathartic ritual. For many veterans and their loved ones, violating this one yearly moment of silent reflection is on par with sacrilege.

As I watched from the bottom of the Chapel steps, I was therefore outraged that organizers this past year had a handful of veterans-to-be, the Duke ROTC Color Guard, plow right through the solemn occasion. The young cadets began stepping in time just as the first, somber toll sounded, which prompted the National Anthem to be blared loudly all the way through the remaining ten. This insensitive oversight is only one of many recent events to besmirch Duke’s otherwise seemingly spotless brand.

Prior to the ceremony, I had drafted (and later published) an article about some of the ways in which veterans at Duke have been fighting against institutional policies and habits that impede their successful and holistic pursuit of higher education. In the weeks since Veterans Day, a small group of students, alumni, and community allies have received numerous offers of support and pro-bono services to fill the gap left by Duke. Larry Moneta, Vice President of Student Affairs, met with me back in April, after which I was left with the impression that peer to peer communication was a mutual concern and priority, since vets process best with other vets by providing one another a place in which our most painful experiences can surface without judgment.  Keeping these memories out of public view is our way of protecting those we love, but we all must eventually process them with one another or risk bottling up volatile emotions associated therewith. However, in a recent phone call with Duke administrators, I was told that helping student and alumni veterans connect with each other was “the last thing [Duke is] attempting to do.”

“Keeping these memories out of public view is our way of protecting those we love, but we all must eventually process them with one another”

Besides peer-to-peer communication, reliable sources like the American Council on Education (PDF) suggest that a dedicated office and staff are highly effective in helping student veterans excel in higher education. Despite this, Moneta has insisted that there will not be a center for veterans at Duke any time soon. In fact, not one dollar at Duke is dedicated to permanent programming, staff, or space to consolidate information and resources for this next greatest generation despite having the 15th largest endowment in the nation. Had one been in place, when Congressional representatives visited last month in conjunction with a visit from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey (a Duke alumnus), the University could have communicated better with various silos graduate and professional schools in search of veterans with whom our elected officials could meet. If Duke had a center for veterans and military students, there would be more than three undergraduate student veterans, because calls from the Marine Corps Leadership Scholar Program and the Pat Tillman Foundation would more likely be returned in a timely manner.

Had there been a space in which even community volunteers could work and meet with veterans, many of the difficulties related to veterans matriculating at Duke could be avoided. After all, Duke has relied upon free labor before; a webpage that has recently appeared was constructed by staff with no such explicit responsibility to student veterans. To this day, there is not a single job description at Duke that makes reference to veterans programming. Had Duke allocated funds and resources specifically to the unique and overwhelming challenges of their own fastest growing student population, perhaps the crippling academic ambition and subsequent depression would not afflict anyone, much less student veterans like Alex Ney, whose 2009 suicide was the catalyst for the student group Duke Veterans.

Dedicated centers, of course, are resource intensive, and I understand Moneta’s hesitancy to tackle this complex issue. But complexity and limited resources have not kept Duke from ensuring there are centers serving their African American, female, LGBTQ, or other minority student populations. These centers have positively enriched the Duke community and insure that the university sees their constituents as integral to the Duke name.  For example, African American students were able to critique a January 2012 study that undermined their academic strength and reinforced marginalization.  At the time, Duke spokesperson Mike Schoenfeld called the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture “a gem.”

Student veterans, however, are left to fend for themselves. Were this an article about a more recognizable and statistically significant group, I wonder if political will would allow the situation at Duke to continue. If it were the case that veterans made up more than four percent of the American populace, numbers might prove an adequate inducement of change. Providing adequate and attentive care to this subgroup will never succeed as a numbers game. Places like Duke will only ever offer services like these because it is the right thing to do in the wake of two devastating wars (or maybe in recognition of the institution’s gains from military related research and funding).

Student veterans, however, are left to fend for themselves.

It is time for Duke to stop paying lip service to my generation of veterans. A perfunctory webpage is window dressing at best and insultingly superficial at worst. Those who were instrumental in setting it up obviously failed to provide the kind of attention and insight recent veterans could have provided back on November 11. Had Duke put their money where there mouth is by funding a veterans center in which student, staff, and faculty veteran voices are honored and collected, organizers would not have been so callous. Until Duke can see my generation of veterans as human beings in need, warranting no less concern and respect as others, the university recklessly endangers its coveted reputation. Duke must do everything in its power to pro-actively recruit, respect, and retain this next greatest generation… or slip away into mediocrity.

What do you think, how high a priority should Duke University make services to veterans?

Advent 2

Posted: December 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

The second week of Advent in the Christian Liturgical calendar focuses on hope, and the readings are from Isaiah 11. If you’ve ever googled “the peaceable kingdom” you might see the scene depicted by the prophet, in which the lion eats straw like the ox and lie down with the lamb. Bears will graze alongside cows, and wolves will live alongside lambs and leopards alongside goats. Little children will play near snake nests and one of them, from David’s lineage, will lead the rest of us in this upside down kingdom of God.

Today in church, I couldn’t help but cry in mournful anticipation when we would get to see the wrong things made right in the world, in my world. I heard the readings twice, since I attend two churches regularly. In the evening, I was selected to read the passage, and again my heart broke and my voice cracked as I read verses 3&4;

He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.

Needy is not something I feel myself, as I have had the opportunity to see extreme poverty and my life is far from it. The image that stuck in my head was a picture I took in Iraq, or thought I took at least. I just spent over an hour poring through old data CDs looking for it, but to no avail. As I heard these holy words, I recalled a woman sitting outside the main hospital in Samarrah in October 2004, which to military historians would be known as Operation Baton Rouge. To this young woman, it was the night she lost her child.

I remember it so vividly that I could probably draw her fingerprints. They stood out because her hands were soaked in what must have been the blood of her child. The pale raised flesh of her prints stood in stark contrast to the crimson stains resting in the valleys of her scarred fingers. Her palms were open limply toward the sky, begging God and the nearest uniformed friend of mine for answers as to why she suffered so. The infantryman had no idea, let alone about the whereabouts of the child. I remember the amber glow of the incandescent bulbs from the only working generator in town reflecting off the snot and tears covering her face.

The image itself is troubling, angering. Imagine if you were the person who took that poor child from its loving mother. Predator drones were not in use then, but it was a predation nonetheless. In this season of Advent, during this week in which we hope for this world to be turned upside down, this woman continues to cry. Hers is the voice I hear when we sing the hymn so popular this season;

O come, o come God-with-us,
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight,
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

Hope is not optimism, it recognizes the injustices so rampant in our world and enables the faithful to live lives that anticipate righting grave wrongs. This righting is what we look forward to in Christ’s coming in under three weeks. Advent is a mournful month, a deep reckoning with these things our world is made up of, like lions and tigers and bears and predator drones and infantrymen. When the day we await finally comes, it is not the prey who undergo fundamental change, but the predators like me and my friends who did those things our society asked of us. Violence, however necessary we might genuinely think it is, will cease. The powerful and the violent will be made ‘right,’ and those who are weak and powerless will have much less change to undergo. They will be vindicated, as Jesus was by himself being weak in the eyes of the world.

The terrible wisdom we predators acquired in this world of death will be washed away. All that will be left to know will be the Lord. This child the Church awaits will lead us in wisdom and understanding, in planning and in strength. We will be stricken by the rod of his mouth, and those who insist on remaining in wickedness will cease to be. We will not harm or destroy, nor study war anymore. We will lie down and weep with parents whose children we took and break bread in the presence of our enemies. Things will finally be right, and there will be every reason to rejoice.

But until that day, we wait…