A New Christmas Poem

I have a story in my head, of an old shepherd minding the camp while the younger men take the herds out to graze. At first I thought to tell the whole story in verse, but that proved to be too much. Then I began to write the story, with little bits of verse by the old shepherd, interspersed throughout. That also proved too much to finish by today. But the bits of verse hung together fairly well, so I polished them up a bit this morning. The story will come as I have time.

The Shepherd’s Rhyme

by Jim Thorp

O fallen are the souls of men and death the sinner’s doom

And who but you, O Lord of all, can make the desert bloom?

And who but you, O Lord of hosts, can split a winter’s night

To flood the weary world below with wonder, warmth, and light?

The heart, a stony seed within; a man, the dusty ground

And who but you, Creator blest, can make new life abound?

And who but you, O Lord above, our sunshine and our rain,

Can soak and swell a shrivelled soul and make it sprout again?

The crocus blooms, the rocks rejoice, the dry rills run with water

The heavens ring: A king! A king! is born to virgin daughter!

c.f. Isaiah 35

Holiday Movie Break: Fatman

It has come to my attention recently that many of the movies I take time to write about I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend. Sometimes I see a new take on my favorite old stories and genres: westerns and martial arts; sci-fi and time travel; fantasy and fractured fairy tales. They may be thought-provoking, but somewhat strange; often they are objectionable in some way that makes me guard against a full endorsement.

Last fall I caught wind of an upcoming movie called Fatman, featuring Mel Gibson as a world-weary Santa with a price on his head. You may know that I am a big fan of the Man in Red in almost any interation, from the saintly Bishop of Myra to Father Christmas in Narnia to the Right Jolly Old Elf of my own childhood traditions. I imagined a foul-mouthed and violent “bad Santa” bent on revenge of some sort, and I was not a fan of the idea. The trailer suggested I wasn’t far from the truth:

But then somewhere along the way I read a review that suggested it might be a bit more than it appeared. I hemmed and hawed until almost Christmas, when my older kids suggested we watch it. So we did. After the initial viewing, I was concerned that I might actually like the movie. I spoke in hushed tones to the few others I knew who had seen it. Many of them kinda liked it too.

Still, I didn’t write about it. Give it a year, I thought, to see if the novelty wears off.

Well, it didn’t. So here goes.

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Book Break: Technopoly

Now for something completely different: I haven’t been writing nearly enough and am way behind on books I’ve read and would like to share. Most of the books I share are fiction, spiritual, or both. Technopoly by Neil Postman is neither.

This book came to me as an unexpected Christmas gift from our son Brendan’s friend Nick, who was his roommate at University of Mary and is now a seminarian for the Diocese of Milwaukee. Brendan has always been a curmudgeon and skeptic regarding technology; Nick, not so much, until he started reading more deeply on the subject. Then, he started spreading the word, including by giving our family a lightly used paperback copy of Technopoly.

One of the concepts that intrigued me as a young anthropology major was the idea that, at a certain point, our ancestors began to compete technologically rather than biologically, meaning that, at a certain point, our ancestors crossed a threshhold and were no longer strictly beholden to their biology to survive—the fittest was not necessarily the fastest or strongest hominid, but may be the cleverest one, with the best tools.

I’m certain that, soon afterward, our ancestors saw another defining characteristic of our species: Our solutions to problems often cause other, unforeseen problems. Indeed we can see this in the anthropological record, with evidence of hominids using “tools” to club each other to death beginning nearly half a million years ago.

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Last Call: A Christmas Dialogue

This year’s Christmas poem is a conversation and a modest attempt at Shakespearean style. The inspiration popped into my head several weeks ago: an imagined meeting of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, who are sharing a pint of “Christmas cheer” at the end of a seemingly successful year of sowing strife and division. The line that came first to mind was from the Flesh: “The spirit is weak, and the flesh is always willing.”—which survives in a modified form.

For whatever reason, I remain taken with the idea of Satan struggling to accept that he has been defeated by an Infant and His Mother. A few sparks from literature and pop culture also came to mind, for example, C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Scrooge’s promise at the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to discuss Bob Cratchit’s situation “over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop,” and the exchange between Captain Jack Sparrow and Gibbs in the Tortuga tavern in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

It may be easier to print and read in this format. Apologies to the Bard—I hope a few of you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

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Scene: A dark corner of a noisy tavern, lit by melted candle stubs and a large, crackling fire. A table with three chairs and three tankards. Two figures are seated: the World, slight, anxious and in constant motion; the Flesh, immense and languid, with eyes that rove around the room. A third figure, the Devil, well-dressed with a commanding bearing, approaches, and the first two rise.

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Embrace the Impossibility

When we first moved to Minnesota 17 years ago, I worked for a marketing agency in downtown Minneapolis. I was conspicuous as one of the only conservative folks on staff, and my honesty, joy and general lack of cynicism earned me the nickname “Farmboy” from at least one colleague. I was regarded as a good writer and editor, but so naive and old-fashioned as to be quaint.

At the time, our oldest son Brendan was in in early elementary school. Someone on the bus began to mock him for believing in Santa Claus, and Bren responded that if Santa didn’t visit their house, it was because they didn’t believe in him. When he told Jodi and me about it afterward, he ended the story with, “I’m glad you guys still believe in magic.”

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