Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Odd Thomas

Story — especially in the form of the novel and the motion picture — is a fixture in my life. I savor it like several of my friends savor their favorite concoctions at Starbuck's.

Story mirrors my life back to me, in the most unusual and arresting ways. On the pages of a well-conceived novel and in the sounds and images of a well-directed film, I often see my lights and shadows play across a canvas not my own, and as a result, find it easier to look at them, and then, as the title of this blog suggests, embrace them. I see in a particular character, and sometimes in several who populate the same artistic work, aspects of me, my personality traits, my foibles, my hidden desires, my oddities.

It was the latter that had me weeping as I read the last 50 or so pages of Odd Thomas, a book written by Dean Koontz. He writes in the Stephen King vein, but manages to do so at the cost of about half as many trees. To call this book a horror story, or even a mystery/thriller, however, is to put it in a box that can't hold it.

Odd Thomas is named for its main character, a 20-year-old man who lives in a smallish town in the Mojave Desert. Odd Thomas (that's the name on his birth certificate: someone apparently left off the "T") has a gift.

He can see the dead.

As the book opens, you learn that he also can communicate with them (though they cannot speak) and they have learned to come to him to seek justice. In fact, the book opens with Odd Thomas confronting a child molester and murderer whose crime had been hidden for years. As the man is borne away to jail, the young girl he had killed stands (unseen by others, of course) at Odd Thomas's side. Finally at peace, she waves goodbye and walks away, fading into Rest.

Odd Thomas has an unusual relationship with the town's chief-of-police, who has come to believe not only that Thomas can communicate with the spirit world, but that Thomas' vision, though not complete, is always reliable. Together, he and Odd Thomas have solved a number of crimes, and prevented an even greater number. The Chief, in fact, has become the father figure Odd Thomas never had.

Odd Thomas' gift however, is also an affliction. It is not an easy thing to see the dead. It is no comfort to know — and this, only in part — the horrors the future holds if something isn't done. He has, at best, only hints about the future, and he is not, for that reason, always able to parlay his sight into action soon enough. He suffers the pain of "if only ..." If only I had said something sooner. If only I had paid more attention to that feeling, that sense that something wasn't right.

Because of the enormity of the gift's burden, Odd Thomas has unburdened his life in most other areas, so as not to clutter up his mental and emotional landscape: He works as a fry cook, lives in a one-room apartment, does not own a car, and has never set foot outside the provincial confines of his small town life. At one pivotal point in the story, when a disaster of unprecedented proportions — one that only Odd Thomas can see coming — threatens to destroy them both, his girlfriend — the only girl he's ever had and the only other person who knows everything about his gift — suggests that they run off to Vegas and get married. He says "No." She doesn't understand this from the young man who has proposed to her regularly for several years. In Vegas, he explains — that much larger desert burg where the dark underside of life is painted with bright colors — he would be mobbed by the dead, who live tormented, caught between two worlds, in the aftermath of lives steeped in greed, lust, loss and corruption. He knows it would be too big to handle alone. He has all he can handle.

In the end, Odd Thomas acts. But not soon enough. He foils, almost single-handedly, a sinister plot by members of a secret coven of satan worshippers (including, ironically, several members of the police department) who want to make the world forget all about Charles Manson and other home-grown American terrorists. An enormous killing spree in a shopping mail is cut short, but not until the Chief has been shot and lies near dead, and 19 others die, including the girl he loved — the girl who said yes when his gift demanded that he say no.

I cried because I saw in this darkly imaginative tale a parable of the "how much more" sort that Jesus often told. Odd Thomas acted. He risked all — alone — to save many. But it wasn't quite enough. And he lost everything in doing so. But — and this is the kicker — at least he made the sacrifice.

How much more, then, should we who claim The Christ be willing to act? How much more should we be willing to make sacrifices? We also see the dead. They are all around us. Though they cannot speak, millions of unborn children cry for justice, right here in our burg. Infanticide in China is epidemic. Do you not know? Have you not heard? Millions more, born but bereft of love, warmth, light, are dying as they walk through our increasingly Godless culture, as mom and dad (if they happen to have one of each) pursue demanding careers and seek recognition, position, influence, power, money. The drop-out rate in our schools is at an all-time high. Drug use, violence, casual — in fact, almost meaningless — sex are the hellish hallmarks of a youth culture that is burdened by -- no, that worships — darkness, hopelessness and death. Outside our burg, women and children in Africa are bought and sold daily (sorry, the report of the slave trade's demise was a bit premature). Slavery flourishes. And it takes more subtle forms. Sweat shops in Asia clothe us cheap and make the rich richer. The list could go on for pages.

Unlike Odd Thomas, we are not alone. We are legion. And we have — or so we claim — the promise of help from the very God of the Universe himself. So ... when do we divest ourselves of the things that clutter our mental and emotional landscapes and truly step into the breach? Why do we need so many toys? Do we really need a bigger house, a newer car, another pair of shoes? The next cruise? And what is it about American Idol anyway? Satan no longer needs to tempt Christians to sin. In America, all the devil needs is distractions. the list here, too, could go on for pages. He only needs to blind us to the hurting people all around us. Simply create a distraction for each breach of justice that stares us right in the face.

As it is, a lot of us don't even do church anymore, we mostly just talk about it. Argue about it. Define it and redefine it. Write books about it. More distractions.

When do we be the church?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

American in Paris

I've been away from the blog for a while.

No, I haven't been in Paris for a month. But I did spend a week there at the beginning of April. April in Paris is supposed to be beautiful, but based on my time there, I wouldn't know. It was a work-related trip.

There's a big trade show that happens in Paris each year, and I was there representing my publishing firm. I worked 17 hour days, walking the show floor all day, then sitting in the hotel lobby with my Powerbook (the only spot the Wi-Fi worked) until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, connected to my office back in Colorado, trying feverishly to meet the drop-dead deadline for our magazine's May issue. Aside from a very brief dinner with our staff at a cafe a few steps down the street my first night there (from which I excused myself early because I had to get back to the hotel to work), I thereafter saw the inside of my hotel room, the inside of the hotel lobby, the inside of the subway station (steps down to it were right outside the hotel front door), the inside of the subway train, and the inside of the Paris Expo exhibit hall.

While there, I received e-mails from friends back home, asking me about the Paris riots and strikes. Apparently the U.S. press was showing riot scenes in full color on the evening news. I neither saw nor heard a single word from anyone about the riots from any Parisians while in Paris. If it hadn't been for the e-mails, I might have passed the week without ever knowing that just a mile or so away, Parisians and the Paris police were doing battle. (Sorta says something about the way the media tend to shape our view of reality.)

I did get a glimpse of something else, however. The run up to the Paris trip, the trip itself, and its aftermath has provided a sort of squeaky-hinge turning point for my life. "Squeaky hinge" in the old black-and-white "B" movie sense of scary foreboding.

In the two weeks prior to the trip, I was the object of several prophecies, the substance of which was that I have for some time lived a sort of hermetic life, a life apart, a sort of monkish existence, but that time has drawn to a close. Paris was a sort of pinnacle point of that life — a sign — isolated and preoccupied by my work, unaware of either the delights or the riots in the fabled City of Lights. The last night I was there, I had the latest in a string of tornado dreams, which for me have always prophetically preceded periods of significant personal change that always involve what I guess you could call profound deconstruction. Last time around, six years ago, I had a series of six or seven dreams, during each of which I observed a single tornado. I lost my home, my job and my family. The recent dreams involved two and, in the Paris dream, six or seven tornados. Naturally, I'm a little nervous. I'm still waiting to see where all of this goes, which explains, at least in part, my prolonged absence from the blog.

But as I entered Holy Week, at least one thing of significance crystallized. Yesterday, is the day we now call Good Friday, the day that at the time seemed like the End, but actually proved to be the Beginning. The day that we — oh yes, I think most of us eventually must admit that we'd have been in that crowd shouting "Crucify him!" or at least slinking away in fear while it was done — condemned him to the cross. Tomorrow, we celebrate the day that Jesus walked away — alive forever — from Joseph of Arimethea's tomb, having defeated both sin and death.

I think The Church often misses the ultimate significance of that act, and gets lost in the details. For many years, I certainly have. But in that two-part act, Jesus became the Hinge of History. Prior to the cross, Jesus proclaimed the last days of God's dealing with a "special" group. His sayings, parables, teachings and healings progressively dismantled the idea of "ins" and "outs." Anyone willing to read the Gospel accounts guilelessly, in humility, can't miss it. The folks he was speaking to certainly didn't miss it: Jesus rebukes were not for "sinners" but primarily for those who presumed to draw the lines that separate sinners from God — always placing themselves safely on the God side of the line. Jesus crossed the line, and took a stance squarely on the other side, with the sinners — those whom he explicitly stated he was there to save. That's why they crucified him.

On Easter, Jesus greeted first Mary of Magdala — he didn't greet a man and certainly not one of the religious elite of the time, but a woman of questionable reputation, one the religious folks of the time would have placed far over on the wrong side of the line. Why Mary? I think the answer is simple. First, he loved her and she had returned his love. But second, how better to underscore his point?

During that three-day period, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, Jesus became the Door to the Eternal and proclaimed the Eternal Yes of God. And woe upon woe to us, the naysayers, the blind judges, the self-appointed dividers of sheep and goats — a group among whom I still, to my great dismay, so often find myself numbered.

As long as we attempt to be our own yes, by saying no to others, by continuing to insist that lines be drawn, we remain whitewashed tombs.

But Jesus left the tomb. If we chose to remain there, examining the empty grave clothes, then we cannot partake of His resurrection life. What possible hope is there for us?

Only to admit that we belong, with Mary of Magdala, on the wrong side of the line, stuck fast in the kingdom of darkness. We must admit it, because — hallelujah! Glory!! — Jesus is there with us, able to turn even our deepest darkness to incomparable Light.