The Last Crusade Reconsidered

•September 16, 2012 • 5 Comments

By which I mean the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What did you think I meant?

I can’t remember the last time I indulged in the Indiana Jones movies, but I checked out the two good ones from the library (you know which ones I mean, the ones without the boys) and re-watched them because I had some time. I can only assume that the last time I had seen these movies was sometime before I finished my bachelor’s degree in medieval literature and history. Why? Because after my degree, I have some problems with this last film (it is the last no matter how many space aliens you throw at the franchise!)

Overall, I think Raiders of the Lost Ark has held up better over the years than the other films. It simply comes across as less over-the-top. I mean in The Last Crusade we have Indy fighting a tank from horseback and let’s not forget the scene where his father brings down an airplane by scaring a bunch of seagulls. Or where the other plane crashes through a mountain tunnel. It’s all good fun to watch, but at some point it becomes so absurd that it’s hard to suspend my disbelief.

So what does my degree have to do with my uncomfortableness regarding The Last Crusade?

Well I accept that these movies are a sort of alternate history, as it were. But the way they try and conform crusade history and the Grail Legend to fit the movie is really jarring to me. Once again, like with the tank and the airplanes, it stretches my suspension of disbelief just a bit too far.

First let’s deal with the historical aspect. Indiana Jones finds out that the map to the grail starts from the city of Alexandretta. This city really does exist and really was renamed Iskenderun and was part of the Republic of Hatay (under French jurisdiction). It is also really on the route for pilgrims to take to Jerusalem. However, the movie clearly states that the crusaders laid siege to this city during the First Crusade for over a year and utterly destroyed it. We’ll ignore for the moment that the point of siege warfare was not to “utterly destroy” a city once captured; although they would definitely have been sacked, but then the city would be occupied rather than simply destroyed.

I’d like to focus on what the movie says about how long the city was under siege. One year. There’s only one city the crusaders laid siege to on the First Crusade for so long. Antioch. (This would later be pivotal to history because since the siege of Antioch took so long, the Arabs were able to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks. The Arabs were actually the crusaders allies at the time and even welcomed them as liberators).

So the film’s use of Alexandretta and it’s besieging over the course of a year bother me because of the pivotal point that Antioch occupies in crusade history. But, okay, maybe the filmmakers thought that Antioch was too well-known for the film and thus the Grail could not really have been hidden for two thousand years if Antioch was the beginning point for the map.

That brings me to the Grail. I’m not even sure where to begin on just how messed up the Grail Legend has become in The Last Crusade. But let me try. The elder Dr. Jones (Sean Connery) is apparently a medieval literature professor, the “kind students hate to get.” So he should be an expert on the Grail, right? Then why is pretty much everything he says about the Grail patently wrong according to the Grail Legend?

First, the Grail has nothing to do with Christ. Okay, I wrote that last sentence to be a bit provocative. The Grail does and does not have something to do with Christ. In the earliest Grail legends, the Grail is referred to as the “Sangreal” and it has nothing to do with Christ and perhaps even no religious connotation whatsoever. Although I suppose one could argue that it has a connection to pagan belief, which is possible. Originally the Sangreal was merely some kind of dish or plate that dispensed food. It was like a magic horn-of-plenty.

This is more Grail-like than any cup you may see

In the Arthurian cycle the Grail begins to take on a new character as an explicitly Christian artifact, although sometimes it’s still unclear as to what exactly the Grail is. The Arthurian legends are really a brilliant testament to medieval literature. They absorb numerous medieval legends into their own story structure. You know the legend of Tristan and Isolde from Germany? They find their way into the Arthurian cycle. So, over time, the Sangreal lost its earlier (pagan?) connotations and eventually (in some later versions) became the Cup of Christ which was used in the Last Supper and caught Jesus’ blood, then was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea.

What’s that you say? It was brought to England? Then why are Indiana Jones and his father looking around in Turkey? I have no idea. If the elder Dr. Jones is a Grail expert and a medieval literature professor, he should know this as well. So why aren’t they poking around in Cornwall or somewhere? Is it because it’s harder to fight Nazis if you have to explain why they’re in England in the 1930s? But then why are they in the French Mandate in the 1930s? Sigh, movie plotting.

Okay, so the Grail is not the Cup of Christ nor is it somewhere in Turkey nor did the Crusaders ever have any interest in the Grail. Their goal was Jerusalem, more specifically the Tomb of the Resurrection. The Arthurian legends absorb other stories into their structure, but even they didn’t go that far. They stayed pretty well confined to Western Europe.

Lastly, at the beginning of the film Indy’s friend and curator of a museum informs Indy that the quest for the Grail is “the quest for the divine in all of us.” Um… What does that mean? And how did this museum curator get that out of the Grail Legend? It’s nowhere in the earlier iterations of the Sangreal. When the Sangreal becomes the Holy Grail, the quest does not have to do with searching for “the divine within us.”

What is this crap?

The Grail Quest has numerous causes. You could write an entire doctoral thesis on the reasons why the Grail Quest is undertaken in the Arthurian legends (I’m sure some people already have). But searching for “the divine in all of us” is not one of the reasons. The Knights undertake the Grail Quest as… well, as a quest. That’s what Arthurian knights did. They undertake the Quest to be a “light in dark times.” They undertake the Quest for their own (to borrow a theological term) sanctification. I suppose you could say that is similar to “the divine in us”… But wow, would I phrase it differently.

In the end only one knight (Galahad) or three knights (Galahad, Percival and Bors) succeed in the Grail Quest (depending on the source), which does not mean that they win the cup. They merely find the Grail (and the wounded Fisher King) and contemplate it. And again, succeeding in the Grail Quest had nothing to do with the “divinity within” these knights, unless you consider the fact that it is only through God’s grace and plan that they achieve their Quest. Again, I would not phrase it as a “search for the divinity in all of us.”

Now you can see why I said that I must not have seen these movies since I got my degree in medieval literature and history. Because having this knowledge sort of ruins the movie for me. Ironically, if you want a decent film about the Grail Legend, you should watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Seriously. It makes fun of the legend, but it is also incredibly accurate to the story in many ways. No surprise given that the Python crew were all well-educated and one of them (Jones I think) went on to make a good educational series about the Crusades.

It’s kind of sad that The Last Crusade is somewhat ruined for me because I really want to like this film. The chemistry between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford is perfect. The scene with Indy and Hitler in Berlin always makes me laugh (that sounds horrible doesn’t it?) The movie has a zeppelin. Zeppelins are awesome. It’s got John Rhys-Davies. He’s even more awesome. It doesn’t have an annoying kid.

So maybe this is a sign of me getting old and crotchety.

I want to like The Last Crusade. But Raiders of the Lost Ark is really the best movie out of all of them now that I just can’t get past all the bits in The Last Crusade that completely contradict the Grail Legend and Crusade history.

“I Cannot Read and Therefore Wish All Books Were Burned”

•September 14, 2012 • 5 Comments

This title is taken from Christopher Marlowe’s iconic play Doctor Faustus. It is a phrase that has been on my mind recently when I reflect on various current events. But first, perhaps some context will be useful: These words are spoken by the allegorical (and demonic) representation of Envy. Mephistopheles has conjured up representations of the seven deadly sins as a “pastime” for Doctor Faustus who was recently doubting his choice to serve evil. The seven representations parade before Doctor Faustus and give little speeches that summarize what they are.

The speech from Envy has stuck in my head recently, because it is a fascinating twist on what we usually think of envy. The usual understanding of envy is something like “My neighbor has a heated swimming pool, I want one too!” We tend to think of envy as wanting something purely for ourselves first, and then possibly denying it to others second. But Christopher Marlowe switches this perspective around. Envy says that he does not have something (literacy) and so rather than take it purely for himself, he would simply deny it to all others through a “scorched earth” practice. Envy does not care about even having things for himself; in his selfishness he paradoxically turns outward to others and commits acts of violence upon others. The selfish desires are subsumed by outward violence.

It’s a fascinating perspective when one looks at acts of violence being committed against others in our societies (and around the world) and see if they fit into this Marlovian depiction of envy. I wonder how many acts of violence have been committed purely because the violent cannot understand something about their victims and so determine that they must be burned? And perhaps Heinrich Heine had something of this in mind when he looked at books being burned in Berlin and famously prophesied that “Where they burn books, soon they will burn people.”

Violence towards the unknown; the legacy of Cain. He didn’t know why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and his rejected, but he could easily have said with Envy “I cannot offer an acceptable sacrifice and therefore wish all sacrifice to cease.” Then he fell upon his brother and murdered him.

What Did Paul Do With His “Thorn?”

•September 12, 2012 • 1 Comment

I think a good passage for us to read when our sins and failings confront us is where Saint Paul speaks of the thorn in his side that he three times prayed to be removed. God’s response was merely: “my grace is sufficient.” Suppose for a second that these few words don’t necessarily mean that God’s grace is sufficient to keep us from falling into sin, but rather that God’s grace is sufficient to be there for us when we repent after inevitably sinning. After all, God is merely saying that His grace is sufficient for us. One way or another, it is enough.

I’m sure we all have those “favored” sins, ones that we seem to fall into time and time again. Likewise, some of us probably find particular sins to be unproblematic. Maybe some of us feel no temptation toward drunkenness, lust, or the purchase of a Malaysian automobile.

Lord, have mercy

There are some sins that are simply unattractive to some people. Incidentally I was recently reading a section on “salvation” in a theological encyclopedia that I think has some relevance here:

“Anabaptists have a unique approach to original sin, an approach that supports their understanding of salvation. They affirm the historical reality of original sin, but deny that its power over the individual is final and absolute. That is, they hold that evil has entered the world through the first human parents and that all people are sinners because of the ongoing effects of that act. Yet the effect is not understood as total and debilitating. Something of the image of God, given with creation, remains. This provides a point of entrance for the Spirit of God.”

I think the fact that many of us have no attraction to some particular sins perhaps has something to do with the fact that the power of sin is not final, absolute, and debilitating. Something of the image of God remains. Nevertheless, some people find themselves falling into the same temptations because they may have a particular “thorn.”

Struggling with one particular issue can be disheartening. We can easily feel like we have experienced no growth, or worse. We can start to doubt God and our salvation. Such feelings are understandable, but owe more to our emotional state than to any accurate theology. It can be very difficult. Especially if society tells us there is nothing wrong with what we call sins. Especially if society even encourages us to indulge because it’s “healthy” or “natural.”

So why would we sacrifice our own desires when to simply indulge is easier and may even be perfectly acceptable by society? Well, first of all, does society have the final word on morality? I likely don’t have to list all the historical examples disproving society’s claim to morality. In the end, if you claim to be a Christian, then you take your morality from the unique singularity that is God’s revelation in human history as portrayed in the Bible and lived in the Church.

Maybe this makes me, and every other one of us, neurotic by society’s standards. But then again, maybe we should be neurotic by those standards. Maybe it’s society that breeds neurosis. Why should we expect to be healthy when our lives are both sickness and health? So is it any surprise that we all experience “thorns?” Even persistent ones that may not always be able to resist? But don’t worry, simply repent and keep going. “My grace is sufficient.”

Jews Question Their Future in Germany

•September 11, 2012 • 3 Comments

I suppose you could call this post the second part of my recent post on “Immigrant Life.” Except that the stories come from German citizens who are Jewish.

This quote in particular was rather damning:

Israel’s former chief rabbi, Meir Lau, who survived Buchenwald concentration camp as a boy, recently said on Israeli radio, “It’s amazing to see that Germans are becoming sensitive to the cries of a baby. It wasn’t something I experienced in my childhood.”

A Most Pressing Theological Issue

•September 10, 2012 • 2 Comments

Concurrently with Why I am a United Methodist, I was also reading Bishop Willimon’s book Who Will Be Saved? In one of the later chapters, Bishop Willimon addresses a theological problem that has (likely) plagued scholars for years:

“It is now time for us to tackle one of the most important questions of the Christian faith: How tall was Jesus? Only once does anybody comment on the height of Jesus. In Luke 19:3, Luke says Jesus was ‘short in stature.’ I know, you always took that ‘short in stature’ to refer to Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, so they told you in Sunday school, was the little man who was so short that he had to climb up a sycamore tree to get a good look at Jesus parading through Jericho (Luke 19:1-10).

But what they should have told you is that, in the Greek, ‘he was short in stature’ could apply as well to Jesus. Verse 3 can read, Zacchaeus ‘sought to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd could not, because he [Zacchaeus] was short in stature.’ But it could legitimately be read, Zacchaeus ‘sought to see who Jesus was, but could not on account of the crowd, because he [Jesus] was short in stature.’

Jesus was so short Zacchaeus couldn’t see the little rabbi for the crowd. In the earliest days of the church, critics mocked Christians’ claim that Jesus was the Messiah saying that no real Son of God would be this short.

I’ll make the call. Jesus was short, maybe as short as John Wesley. He was so short that the big man about town, rich Zacchaeus, had to climb up a tree just to get a peek at little Jesus.

Only Luke tells the story of Jesus entering Jericho, spotting sleazy chief tax collector Zacchaeus, and then inviting himself to the old reprobate’s house for a party, once again, intruding. Luke is generally rough on the rich so it’s odd to have Luke’s as the sole report that when Jesus went to Jericho, he went to the house of a rich man.

Zacchaeus wasn’t just a ‘tax collector’–lackey for the oppressive Romans, financier of state-sponsored terrorism against his fellow Jews–he was the chief tax collector. Therefore, he was not only a robber but also was rich. (Caustic Augustine said that a rich person is either a robber or the son of a robber.)

And he was the only person with whom Jesus feasted when diminutive Jesus came to Jericho. Just in case you didn’t get the joke back in Luke 15 after parties were thrown for the stupid lost sheep, the worthless lost dime, and the profligate lost boy, Luke rubs our collective nose in it one more time: a dinner party with Hitler’s henchman in Jericho. When we again grumbled, ‘He’s gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!’ Jesus responds (again), ‘Like I told you in Luke 15, the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. When are you going to admit to my strangeness?’

Back in Luke 15, the problem was ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (Luke 15:2). Here it’s ‘He has gone to be the guest of… a sinner’ (19:7). And Jesus says to us grumblers (note that it wasn’t the ‘sinners,’ but the ‘righteous,’ who murmured against Jesus’ chosen companions), ‘Today salvation has come to this house’ (19:9).

Let’s attempt one more definition of salvation. Salvation is whenever Jesus intrudes into your space, whenever Jesus makes your sinful table the site of his salvation feast, like he did for Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus didn’t invite Jesus to dinner. Jesus invited himself. Hardly anyone in Scripture chooses Jesus or decides to be saved by him. The gospel is a story about Jesus’ choice and decision for the lost. That’s why we grumbled, still do. ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner!'”

John Wesley Instructs His Followers To Sing

•September 10, 2012 • 9 Comments

This post was has been somewhat inspired by a post from a blogfriend about singing. John Wesley of course knew the long history and liturgical importance of hymn-singing. His brother Charles of course knew even better. Charles Wesley wrote a few thousand hymns including the hymn that has traditionally been the first hymn in every Methodist hymnal: O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.

John Wesley also knew the importance of “orderly” singing. He saw that even in singing hymns our egos can be active. Here follow John Wesley’s directions for singing:

I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

IV. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

So you can see why the Methodist Church has often said that our hymnal is our centerpiece of theology. And I think Wesley’s directions are a decent guideline for church singing. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

The Labyrinth and Healing

•September 9, 2012 • 1 Comment

A touching news article on how the meditative practice of walking the “labyrinth” has affected one Chicago woman’s life, especially in the wake of the murder of her son.