On Forgiveness: Forgiven and Forgiving

This is probably the worst title I’ve ever written for a blog post. But I think this post is going to violate a lot of the unspoken rules I set for myself when I adhere to when I blog:

  • Keep it short.
  • Break up blocks of text with images (preferable lolcats).
  • Write for your audience.
  • This is going to be long, which means I won’t have time to hunt down images, and I’m also writing it largely for my own pleasure and for the Lord’s: I’ve been gazing at God today, and I don’t just want to write it down: I want to proclaim it.

    Consider yourself forewarned.

    ****

    Forgiven
    I started reading Crazy Love by Francis Chan today. He has some videos posted on the website for the book, and he refers the reader to them at certain points. In one of the videos, he talks about how God forgives us because He wants a relationship with us.

    I’ve heard that a million times before and I believe it to be true, but something today struck me about the nature of the forgiveness that not only puts aside sin, but also desires a relationship with the sinner. God didn’t just forgive us because we needed the forgiveness. He didn’t just forgive us and then, after we were forgiven, say, “Oh, now you are clean! Look at how nice you look, all dressed in white. I would like to have a relationship with you.”

    When You Forgive and Can’t Forget
    I think everyone’s experienced this scenario: Someone wrongs you. You say you forgive them because you know it’s the right thing to do. But every time you see them, you can’t help but to hear the things they said to you (or about you), or think about what they did to you, and you rant to yourself, How can this person expect to get off scott-free after what he/she did??

    It’s clear to the person who wronged you (and everyone else who’s privy to the situation) that you haven’t really forgiven him/her. But you still insist, “No, I forgave.” So many people say, “I’ll forgive it, but I’ll never forget it.”

    When You Forgive and — Oh, Just Forget It
    Here’s another scenario: Someone wrongs you. You say you forgive them because you know it’s the right thing to do. You try really hard not to treat them any differently, but you can’t help but to be suspicious that they haven’t really changed, and that they’ll just keep doing the same thing to you or to other people.

    Maybe you don’t say anything because, after all, you said you’d forgiven them. It would be ungracious of you to say, “If you had really repented, then you wouldn’t be doing this or that.” So you keep it to yourself, but, now that your eyes have been opened to the depths of that other person’s sin and the shallows of their remorse, it changes your relationship. After a while, the relationship is practically non-existent. You don’t bear that person any ill will, but you certainly aren’t as close as you once were, and maybe you never will be.

    Just Plain Forgiven
    In both of the above scenarios, a relationship was lost because one person sinned and the other person had a hard time forgiving — that is to say, both people sinned. But God’s forgiveness isn’t like that. He didn’t forgive us and then cautiously wait to see how it would change us. He forgave us and then eagerly loved us. He didn’t just reserve judgment. He took care of it; judgment is no longer in the picture for the one who’s forgiven.

    What blows my mind is that God wanted to have a relationship with us. We killed His Son. He didn’t just die for us; He died because of us. I imagine trying to forgive the murderer of someone I loved dearly. After telling him I forgave him and maybe sharing the gospel with him, would I take him gifts in jail? Would I visit him? Write him letters? Would I pursue his friendship? Would I want to marry him, even though he was so messed up that he just killed someone I loved more than anyone else?

    That is exactly what God did. It wasn’t good enough for Him that our sins were paid for. He needed to pursue us, to draw us into a relationship with Him.

    Root Cause
    Ephesians 4:32 exhorts us to “[forgive] one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” But I think I always approached this in the wrong way. I would focus on just trying not to be mad at the person. I would tell myself, “Christ forgave me; I should forgive her.” “What she did isn’t nearly as bad as some of the things Christ has forgiven me for.” “This is really dishonoring to Christ. I need to just obey!” “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I let this go??”

    But what I didn’t think about was why Christ forgave me. It was because He loved me. God knows me; He knows all of my sins. And, yet, He loves me. I don’t deserve His love. But, because He loved me, He sent His son to die for me. And, so, forgiveness began with love, led to death, and will end in life abundant.

    Maybe instead of trying to be a better person and trying to do the right thing, I should try to see that other person as Christ saw me. That person was wrong, and she sinned against me. I was wrong, and I sinned against God. Trying to minimize the severity of the other person’s sin never helps. That’s man’s forgiveness; forgiving because the matter is trivial. That cheapens forgiveness. God forgives not because the sin is small, but because His grace is great. To trivialize the sin is dangerous and untrue.

    Either Way, Someone’s Gonna Pay
    But remember that God loves this person anyway. When He looks at her, His heart swells with love for her. His heart is filled with compassion for her because her sin has overcome her to the point where she’s hurting others with it. Maybe she’s even callous to the severity of her sin — that should provoke fear and trembling in you. There’s no mourning in heaven, but she will certainly wish that she had not been so cavalier about sin while she lived on earth. When she’s made like Christ, she will love His glory more than anything else, and she will understand how dear these small opportunities to honor Him are, and she will come as close to regretting as you can when you’re engaging in perfect worship of the perfect King.

    And if she’s not a believer, the fear and trembling become unbearable. If she’s a believer, then Christ has paid for her sin; you should not (and really cannot) hold it against her. But if she’s not, then she will pay for her own sin, and that is a dreadful, dreadful thought. She will burn in hell because of what she did to you, and it will bring you no comfort.

    Back to Love
    So, anyway, back to Christ’s love: He loves her. He doesn’t just love her with a generic love, closing His eyes to her sin. He knows her, and He loves her for who she is; who He created her to be. I know that God sees us as though we’ve lived the perfect life of Christ, but I don’t think we show up to heaven as though we’re all just dressed up like Jesus for Halloween: “Oh, it’s My Son. Come on in!” “Hey, there you are again! Didn’t you just come through here? Well, no matter, go right through.” “Boy, you certainly move fast! I could swear I just let you in! Anyway, Mi casa es su casa.”

    No, He knows us intimately, and He will call us by name. There are things about me that I think He loves. I know how prideful that sounds, but it really isn’t if you remember that He’s the one who created me in the first place. I think He laughs when I crack a joke. I think He is proud of me when I write, the way a father swells with pride when his daughter learns how to write, “Hapy brithdy dady I love yoU.” He delights in us, and I don’t think it’s because He grits His teeth, shuts His eyes, and mumbles, “JESUS, JESUS, JESUS” to Himself.

    This is the tender, intimate love with which He loves us. This is the tender, intimate love with which He loves the person who has wronged you. God is pleading with you, “If you knew her as I do, if you loved her as I do, it would be a joy for you to forgive.”

    What is Impossible with Man
    Sometimes, we think that forgiveness might seem possible, but that reconciliation is a whole other ball game. Maybe you’ve heard or even been part of this conversation:

    “Yeah, we talked, and I forgave him.”
    “That’s great! So, you guys are good?”
    “Well… not really. I mean, I forgave him, but it’s still pretty awkward.”
    “But that’ll pass.”
    “I’m not so sure. I mean, I’ve forgiven him, and I don’t hold anything against him, really. But this is just one of those things; our relationship has changed, and I don’t think it’ll ever go back to the way things were.”

    My big question here is: Why not??

    Some people will balk at this question. They’ll think it’s insensitive. They’ll think it’s offensive. They’ll think it’s judgmental. They’ll think it’s naive.

    But that doesn’t answer the question. When God forgave us, it made our relationship with Him better. When He forgave us, He didn’t just pay our debt and then leave it up to us to pursue Him. He forgave us joyfully, and eagerly pursued a relationship with us. It’s what makes His love so irresistible. How can you resist the person who forgives you warmly when you confess and repent before Him, and then lavishes you with gifts and throws an arm around your neck and can’t stop introducing you as His best friend, and jumping up and down because He’s so excited that He can love on you all He wants now?

    No, Thanks
    Men are funny, though, and some of them just can’t receive this kind of love. There are the Javerts of the world who are offered grace and would rather die than receive it. Just because you extend this kind of lavish love and forgiveness to someone doesn’t mean that the offender will receive it. In that case, there really is nothing you can do.

    But be honest with yourself: are you relieved that you can blame the failure of the relationship on him instead of actually having to make good on the grace you offered? This lack of blame will be of no comfort to you if your offer was half-hearted. Your conscience will only be clear if your heart was the heart of Christ and you sincerely wanted to love the offender and laugh with him and fellowship with him and worship together with him. If this was your heart, you’ll feel grief, not relief, when he rejects your grace.

    And if he receives it — what joy! What a beautiful testimony of Christ! Christ exhorts us to love one another because this is how the world will know that we are His: if we love one another.

    Supermodel
    When God forgave us, He wasn’t just demonstrating His love for us. He wasn’t just demonstrating His power over sin and death. He was also showing us the power that we would have at our disposal through His Holy Spirit. He forgave us. US! We killed His Son! We spat on Him! We beat Him! We hurled sticks and stones and insults at Him!

    How can we believe that He can forgive us of all of those things, and then believe that He cannot empower us to forgive? He showed us it was possible when He forgave us. And He can empower us to do the impossible! He can!

    In His Shoes
    Once again, you might think I’m being naive or oversimplifying things. You might think to yourself, “She has clearly never been wronged the way this person has wronged me.” And you’re right. I really haven’t had all that much practice forgiving others. People in general are pretty good to me, and I very rarely find myself in a position where someone is asking me to forgive them. And, even then, it’s usually a pretty minor offense; something I didn’t even notice, or something that I totally didn’t take the wrong way.

    But I have spent quite a bit of time on the other side of that fence. I have sinned deeply and grievously against others. I have had to confess, repent, and ask for forgiveness many times, and for serious things. Sometimes, I hate that I’m always the one who’s wrong, that I’m the one who goes around hurting everyone else. I think people must despise me because I’m such a screw-up. It sucks to always be in the wrong.

    But, at the same time, it also gives me a deeper understanding of God’s grace than someone who never errs. I have received much grace, so I know that the well is deep, and the water good and refreshing. I’ve been able to study grace at my leisure because it keeps coming back to me.

    If we all understood more about our own sin, we would see, not that others’ sins aren’t as grave in comparison, but that God’s grace is so great as to cover over all of them!

    Like a Child
    And so what if I am being naive? I was reading in Mark recently about how the disciples were quarreling over who was the greatest, and Jesus called a child to Himself and exhorted them to be like this child. He could just have said, “Be more childlike,” but He wanted them to see an actual child sitting in their midst. This child wasn’t thinking about how to impress the disciples. But he also didn’t hang back because they were all grown-ups, talking about things he didn’t understand. Jesus called him and he came, and that was that.

    Jesus didn’t make the child study theology before calling him. Heck, Jesus didn’t make him study it after, either! He just asked the child to obey, and to come, and to trust.

    God wouldn’t call us to forgive one another if He didn’t also intend to give us the strength to do it.

    Murderers at Heart
    So, we know that hating our brother is like killing him in our hearts. But would you forgive him if he died to atone for that sin? If he said, “You’re right; I was wrong. I deserve to die,” and pulled out a long, scary knife, you’d probably hastily reassure him that, no, you really do forgive him; it’s all good.

    Don’t forget that somebody did die for that sin. Jesus died in order to pay for that sin. How can you take a sin that Jesus died to pay for and then demand that this person pay you for it when it’s already been purchased?

    Well, it’s easy to do that, actually, because we’re sinners. We exact payment when we have no authority to demand it. We take what isn’t ours. We usurp the authority of God and make ourselves judges over others.

    But you know what? Jesus died for that, too. Do you believe that God has conquered the sin of unbelief? Do you believe? Do you believe???

    Love Hopes All Things
    It can be tempting to view the repentance of the offender with suspicion. But God didn’t grant us forgiveness on the condition that we would never sin again. He knew that we would. When you forgive someone, can you do so even as you operate under the assumption that she will fail you again? And when she does, can you believe her when she says that she really wants to grow in this area and is trying to change? Even those who genuinely repent will fail as they are being sanctified.

    Can you hope all things in love for this person? God hopes all things in love for us. And His hope is not empty; He knows what He will do, and He has promised to sanctify us. We can hope all things in love for others because He hopes all things in love for us.

    She Loved Much
    When the sinful woman who came and anointed Jesus’ feet, He said that she loved much because she had been forgiven much. Whom did she love? She didn’t love Simon. Her focus wasn’t on him at all. She loved Jesus. She was consumed with thoughts of Jesus.

    Don’t obsess about forgiving the person who’s offended you. Trying to force obedience that way doesn’t work. Instead, fill your mind with thoughts of Jesus. Love Him much, dwell on Him and the beauty of His grace. You won’t be able to extend His love to someone else if you haven’t been filled with it first.

    In so many cases, we become so worried about doing what’s right that we forget to do what’s foremost: worshiping Christ. It doesn’t matter whether or not we forgive that person if we fail to worship Christ first. Love Him, and you will remember that you have been forgiven much by a God who will fill you with His very Spirit.

    My Prayer
    Precious Savior, I love You. I love You because You first loved me. I’m breathless from thinking about Your forgiveness. And I’ve only barely tasted it.

    I can’t wrap my brain around the fact that You wanted to have a relationship with me. You love me! I can’t believe it, yet I know it to be true. I’m so glad, Lord; so glad! Thank You!! Thank You for forgiving me!

    Your cross is beyond beautiful. Your gospel is so sublime! You are the very definition of the word!

    And You have said that You will make me like You. I can’t wait! Thank You for helping me to understand more about forgiveness today! I long to be so full of Your Spirit that I’m able to forgive as You do.

    I’m thankful that I can ask You with confidence: please forgive me for withholding my love from others. Forgive me for my petty prejudices, the million ways in which I judge people for not being like me, which I seem to think is the unforgivable sin. Forgive my pride and my critical spirit. O Lord, that You would take these sins from me! I long to be free of them! Would that I could wake up tomorrow and think only kind thoughts of people!

    Thank You for showing me what a dummy I am. It’s been hard having to face my inadequacies at work and at life in general, but You have humbled me and brought me low so that I might see the heights of your love and grace! Do it again, Lord; do it again! I love standing in awe of You; bring me still lower, until all I can see is Your majesty!

    Help me to believe that You can make me like Christ. Help me to believe that You can give me victory in this area. And help me to believe that You’re coming soon.

    I love You, Jesus. Thank You for letting me dwell with You today. Thank You for refreshing my spirit with Your love. May I drink as deeply of it tomorrow.

    Regular Read: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

    Lady SusanLady Susan by Jane Austen
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    One of the most best things about Jane Austen’s books is her social commentary. Her books are, for the most part, lighthearted in tone, but they also brought to light serious issues of that day and called into question the justice of issues like entail, social status, and the politics of courtship and marriage. She packaged her social commentary in a delightful narrative filled with plenty of wit and romance because a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

    But she doesn’t do that in Lady Susan. Unfortunately, without the wit and romance, Austen’s social commentary is like watching an episode of “The Real Housewives of Regency Era England.”

    Lady Susan Vernon is a calculating, manipulative social climber who cares nothing about anyone but herself. A widow in her late twenties with a daughter who is of an age to be married, she likes to keep her daughter far away and plenty of irons in the fire. Among her admirers and potential suitors are a married man, her brother-in-law’s brother-in-law (her brother-in-law’s wife’s brother), and a young man that’s she’s actually trying to manipulate into marrying her daughter.

    Her lies and scheming are just plain ugly to behold. Some may argue that Austen’s showing that Lady Susan lives in a society that forces her to be manipulative in order to survive, but I think that’s a load of King George’s shorts. Austen doesn’t paint Lady Susan in at all a sympathetic light. Even Emma, a character only Austen herself was supposed to like, is miles more likeable.

    The scheming and plotting sucked any joy out of the book for me. And everyone else’s helplessness to withstand Lady Susan’s machinations were just as annoying, if not more so.

    It’s an epistolary novel, so you also lose Austen’s delightful asides and observations; you only get to hear the direct perspectives of the characters. It’s a pity that the characters are so yucky.

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    #CBR4 Cannonball 31: The Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman

    The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of YouThe Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Despite the fact that Dream himself isn’t much in this volume of The Sandman, it’s still a great exploration of the world of dreams. We get to see some nightmares in this volume, and they’re truly disturbing.

    I love how Gaiman blurs the lines between dream and reality in this one. It leaves you looking at the room around you and wondering, “Is this real life?”

    We find Barbie in New York City. When last we saw her, she was living with her boyfriend, Ken, in Florida, boarding at a house with Rose Walker, who turned out to be a living dream vortex (stay with me). She’s now living in a small apartment with a motley crew of neighbors: George, a seemingly innocuous man with a dark secret inside; Hazel and Foxglove, a lesbian couple about to face an unexpected crisis, and half of which we’ve met before; Thessaly, a “vanilla” girl who’s a lot deeper than she looks; and Wanda, who used to be Alvin.

    We’ve seen into Barbie’s dreams before. But we’d never expect Barbie’s dreams to affect the “real” world she lives in.

    Gaiman has found a clever and creative way to pose the question of how our dreams affect our everyday lives. It may be unconscious or conscious, but our dreams do play a part in shaping how we view the world around us. What’s important to us at the moment may actually be as insignificant as dust that will blow away in a moment, yet it leaves a lasting impression in our hearts and minds — much like Gaiman’s graphic novel.

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    #CBR4 Cannonball 30: The Sandman, Volume 4: Seasons of Mist by Neil Gaiman

    The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of MistsThe Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Oh, wow. Just… wow.

    Season of Mists moves the story of Dream along. He is one of the Endless, along with his siblings, Death, Desire, Despair, and Destiny. Destiny calls them all together and, as a result of this meeting, Dream goes to Hell to free someone that he wrongfully condemned there ten thousand years ago. But the going won’t be easy because he offended Prince Lucifer (often referred to as “Satan”) the last time he was there.

    Things aren’t difficult in quite the way that Dream expected. This volume subtly makes the point that the harder option isn’t always the punishment that we expect it to be, and that the easy road isn’t always the boon we think it is, either. Gaiman tells a very subtle allegory here, and it’s beautifully told.

    Neil Gaiman is a serious genius. I can’t wait to see what the next volume is like.

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    #CBR4 Cannonball 29: The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

    The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream CountryThe Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Holy cow, I had no idea just how good this series would be. Dream Country doesn’t even do all that much to move the plot forward, but it’s so compelling that it’s still nothing but a pleasure to read.

    There are four unrelated stories told in this volume. The first is “Calliope,” about Richard Madoc, a writer who captures the Muse (like, I mean, the Muse, Calliope) and holds her captive in order to write brilliant things. She calls out to the Grey Ladies (the Fates) for help, and they tell her to ask Dream (known to her as Morpheus). We then see the terrible price of compromising integrity in the pursuit of success.

    “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” tells the story of the world before recollection, when cats ruled the earth and humans were merely their pets. This all changed when, one day, a human started to dream of ruling the earth himself. This dream spread until a thousand people dreamed it, and it then became reality. A Siamese cat now roams the earth, telling her story and urging other cats to believe and dream, that they might rule the earth once more.

    “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a really fun one. It shows the first-ever performance of Shakespeare’s famous play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was implied earlier in the series that Shakespeare struck a bargain with Dream in order to become a famous writer. This performance of Shakespeare’s play is put on for the fantastical characters in his play, many of which are real, and friends of Dream’s. It’s a nice bit of meta.

    midsummer night's dream

    Oberon, Titania, & co. arrive to watch the debut performance of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

    “Facade” is about Urania “Rainie” Blackwell, who is transformed into a half-goddess, half-human by coming into contact with the Orb of Ra. She’s lonely and desperate, unable to interact with humankind because of her grotesque, half-human appearance, and she can’t even kill herself because she’s part goddess. Death (Dream’s younger sister) happens upon Rainie as she returns from taking a woman in the building who fell off a stepladder. She can’t take Rainie, but she gives her some helpful advice that allows her to find release from her suffering.

    The stories don’t appear to be linked in any way, but they help you to get a bit of a feel for some of the main characters in the story. It doesn’t do so by direct revelation, but rather by showing you the effects that they have on others, which shows the reach of their influence and presence.

    Dream Country is a heady read, and could stand alone as its own work.

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    #CBR4 Cannonball 28: The Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman

    The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's HouseThe Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    I said in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes that I trusted that the foundation laid therein would be put to good use. Well, Gaiman exceeded my highest expectations.

    We already know that Dream is the king of the dreamworld, but he was imprisoned by an occult group for seventy years. Now that he’s escaped, he’s trying to rebuild his kingdom. But there’s a complication: a girl called Rose Walker. The girl is a human dream vortex, and unless she’s destroyed, Dream’s kingdom could be destroyed. That sounds so much simpler than it actually is, which is a testament to Gaiman’s genius for storytelling.

    There are also some dream beings who have rebelled against Dream, and are trying to create kingdoms of their own. They’re trying to interfere with Dream’s attempts to rebuild his kingdom.

    There’s little I can say to adequately praise the beautiful artwork and breathtaking narrative in this volume. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t wait to read the next one.

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    #CBR4 Cannonball 27: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

    Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I was disappointed. I thought the romance was rather cobbled together, and Catherine Morland seemed the most dimwitted of all of Austen’s heroines.

    It improved upon the second reading, though. I think my problem with my first read was that I was expecting it to focus too much on the romance. But upon reading it a second time, I realized that the strength of this book is its emphasis on friendship, especially in regard to avoiding bad ones.

    Catherine Morland is seventeen, and visiting Bath for the first time. Society in Bath is exciting, and young, na├»ve Catherine is taking it all in with much excitement. She’s overjoyed when she’s befriended by Isabella Thorpe, one of the prettiest and most popular girls in Bath. At Isabella’s urging, she begins calling her by her first name, spending all kinds of time with her, and even doing a few things that she might not have thought proper back home in Fullerton.

    Isabella flatters her endlessly, but is also oddly inconsistent in her behavior. She declares that she won’t dance unless Catherine gets a partner, but soon abandons her to dance with Catherine’s brother, James. She declares that she doesn’t care at all for Frederic Tilney, but, somehow, always seems to be talking to him. But Catherine, loyal to the core, insists to herself that Isabella must have a good reason for her behavior, or must not know how her behavior is affecting others.

    In the meantime, she also makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. Catherine likes Henry almost instantly, and she’s glad to find that she likes Eleanor, too. Eleanor’s not as flattering or flashy as Isabella, but she’s steady and likeable.

    udolpho

    The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe, one of the gothic books that Austen references in Northanger Abbey

    Catherine’s also a great reader of gothic mysteries. She longs for the excitement and romance that she reads about in these books, and her desire for adventure gets her in a bit of a pickle down the line. Austen uses this to gently encourage the reader not to put too much stock in what you read in books — even as you read hers.

    The resolution of the romantic entanglements still felt a little too neat to me, but the friendship angle is still a good lesson to learn today. It’s good to have an open temperament, and to be willing to get to know and like people. But it’s also good to exercise discernment because there are many who would prey upon the unwise and take advantage of their trusting natures. Don’t become jaded, but don’t be a fool, either.

    It’s a nice, little morality play, and it teaches an important lesson: don’t be blinded by flattery in friendship. A true friend doesn’t flatter, but tells the truth, whether it’s complimentary or not.

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    #CBR4 Cannonball 26: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

    Preludes and Nocturnes (The Sandman, #1)Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    The Sandman is an interesting premise, and the first volume of the graphic novel has a lot of promise. I hear it gets even better as the series deepens, so I’m looking forward to getting into Volume 2.

    An occult group, in an attempt to capture Death, accidentally traps and imprisons Dream instead. He escapes after seventy years, and his kingdom has since fallen into disrepair. He has to regain his tools for rebuilding his kingdom: a pouch of sand, a helm, and a ruby.

    That’s such a gross oversimplification of the beauty of the first book that I’m rather disgusted with myself for not being able to describe the intricacies and nuances of it. But it’s clear that Gaiman, while still finding his direction in these first few books, is taking his work seriously and really trying to weave a tale like none other ever seen in comics. It can be at times macabre, at other times humorous, and at still other times truly magical.

    The first volume does a solid job of laying the groundwork for the rest of the series. It’s really whet my appetite for more. While it didn’t quite blow me away as a standalone volume, I appreciate that Gaiman is taking the time to lay the framework of the series, and taking his time introducing us to Dream so that we’re encouraged to invest in the character, instead of getting cheap and immediate payoff.

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    #CBR Cannonball 25: Dancing under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien

    Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's GulagDancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Side Note: If you can help it, try not to read too many books about death camps too close together. It can get very depressing and then, even worse, you could become numb to the suffering.

    My friend let me borrow this book at the same time that she lent me Unbroken, and I was cautiously optimistic about it. But it was a mistake to read the two so close together because I couldn’t help but to compare the writing, and Dancing Under the Red Star, sadly, could not compare.

    Karl Tobien, the author, is the son of the book’s subject, Margaret Werner Tobien. In some cases, an author close to the subject is able to add depth to the story by virtue of personal knowledge and a more intimate understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, a lack of writing ability will trump all of that. It’s not that Tobien is a terrible writer; he’s adequate, I suppose. It’s just that his level of writing ability can’t really do justice to his mother’s amazing story.

    Margaret Werner moved to Gorky, Russia, when she was a little girl. Her father worked for Ford, and he moved to the factory’s plant in Russia during the Great Depression, hoping to improve his family’s situation. Unfortunately, things were even worse in Russia than they were back home. But Carl Werner was not one to go back on his word, so he kept his family in Russia.

    russian yoda

    Because he was American, he was eventually arrested and sent to a work camp. His family never saw him again. A few years later, Margaret was also arrested for treason and espionage. She spent ten years working as a prisoner. She survived, and eventually became the only American woman to survive the gulags (and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s right there in the title).

    Margaret’s survival is nothing short of miraculous, but Tobien’s telling of his mother’s story is oddly lackluster. He kept emphasizing that his mother was the only American in all of the camps. Who cares? Did she suffer more because she was American? Countless Russians died, too. Were their lives worth less? Stalin’s cruelty knew no bounds; we’ve got that. Does it make him so much more of a monster because he wrongfully imprisoned an American woman?

    I also had an issue with the title of the book. It led me to believe that there would be more about dance in it, like in Mao’s Last Dancer. But there was no mention of dance until well into the second half of the book, and it was only a small part of the story even then.

    russian breakdancing

    Karl Tobein is a Christian, and his mother became a Christian later in her life, too. I can appreciate that the cruelty of the gulag helped her to believe in the existence of God, which primed her to believe in the gospel later on. But the inclusion of so many random references to God, with only brief mentions of Margaret’s later faith in the appendices, made them seem tacked on just for the sake of mentioning God. I’m a Christian, so I can understand that urge, but if Tobien wanted to share her testimony of faith, I wish he would do it straight out and all at once, instead of scattering it throughout the book.

    Ultimately, it’s an amazing story that isn’t told very well. I blame his editor.

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    #CBR4 Cannonball 24: Blankets by Craig Thompson

    BlanketsBlankets by Craig Thompson
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Blankets is aptly named. Imagine pulling out an old blanket and wrapping it around yourself. Breathe deeply of its scent; of dust and mold and mothballs, with a whiff of winter nights and pillow forts. For Craig Thompson, writing this graphic novel must have been like pulling out his past and immersing himself in it, inhaling the euphoria and pain of innocence lost.

    Craig was raised in an evangelical Christian household. He was picked on by others and unpopular at school. He had to share a bed with his little brother, Phil. One year, he goes to a Christian winter camp, where he meets Raina. The two have an instant connection and begin a long-distance correspondence that culminates in Craig’s visiting Raina for two weeks.

    Thompson paints a stark, sad, and unfortunately accurate picture of many churches and evangelical groups in America today. It made me really sad to see the kind of church he grew up attending. They taught him vague principles without any scriptural evidence, governed him by guilt instead of pointing him to the grace of the gospel, and were more concerned with outward conformity than inward renewal. Far too many churches like this exist, and then wonder why their youth abandon their “faith” as they grow older. I grew up in a church similar to that. I grew up feeling isolated and marginalized at church, which I resented because it just didn’t sit right with me that I was being rejected at the one place that I thought had no choice but to accept me. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the true gospel (beginning with my own sinfulness and need of a Savior) and stopped thinking so much about myself and started thinking more about others.

    lone wolf

    And the whole trend of encouraging young men to go into ministry as a ploy to convince them not to abandon the faith is sad and ridiculously unbiblical. I’m thankful that Thompson had the foresight not to go into ministry out of guilt or because he was flattered by older men who told him they thought he’d be great at it. I don’t know any teenaged boys who know themselves well enough to know whether they’re called to ministry. Oh, and you have to be called. You can’t just appoint yourself to this role, and if you’re not sure, other people can’t make that decision for you, either.

    *steps off soapbox* But the novel isn’t just about religion. The novel is also a raw look at first love. Most of us are familiar with the rush that comes with that first infatuation; the first time we meet someone who turns our insides to goo. And even more amazing is the moment when that person reciprocates your feelings.

    But, then, real life is a lot harder than you want it to be when you’re seventeen. Raina’s parents are getting a divorce, and she’s often left to care for her developmentally disabled adopted siblings, Ben and Laura. Craig wants to support Raina, but the reader is left mumbling to herself, “Get outta there, kid; it’s going to be too much for you.”

    Blankets is a beautiful coming-of-age story about family, friendship, first love, and learning the ropes of life. The artwork is superb and the story, well-told.

    But it did leave me quite sad. Once you leave that innocence behind, there’s no getting it back. It happens to all of us, but that doesn’t make it any easier to let it go.

    View all my reviews

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