Foxes and Friendship

“This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

This disclaimer appears before most traditional Disney films on the streaming platform Disney Plus. Films such as “Dumbo” and “Peter Pan” are now considered racist because of their outdated stereotypes.

Surprisingly, “The Fox and the Hound” has no such disclaimer.

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“The Fox and the Hound” is a bittersweet film about two friends who didn’t know they were supposed to be enemies. Indirectly, the film speaks to unjust prejudice, while at the same time acknowledging racism directly through the character of Big Mama. Tod the fox learns he can’t befriend Copper the pup because Copper is going to become a huntin’ dog. The wise owl, voiced by singer Pearl Bailey, warns Tod in her song “Lack of Education” about his possible elimination.

 

[Big Mama:] Now, if you’re so foxy and old Chief is so dumb
Then why does that hound get the fox on the run?
‘Cause he’s got the hunter
And the hunter’s got the gun
Ka-blam, elimination!
Lack of education!

If you pal around with that Copper hound
You’ll wind up hangin’ on the wall
Keep you nose to the wind
And you’ll keep your skin
‘Cause you won’t be home
When the hunter comes to call

[Tod:] Oh, Big Mama, I know Copper would never track me down.
Well, Copper, he’s my best friend.

[Big Mama:] Ho ho, your best friend!
Now, Copper’s gonna do what he’s been told.
Suppose he’s chasin’ an old fox in an old fox hole
And along comes the hunter with a buck shot load.

[Boomer:] Ka-ka-blam!
[Big Mama:] Elimination
[Dinky:] Lack of education!
[Big Mama:] You better believe it, Tod!

The truth of the matter is that either Tod or Copper will be shot if their friendship continues.

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Tod and Copper do not start out hating or fearing each other, but the world in which they live tells them a fox and a hound cannot be friends. Tod doesn’t want to believe that Copper will ever change, and it’s not till Copper comes back as a full fledged huntin’ dog that he has to “grow up” and accept reality.

Much can be learned about love and friendship from the tale of Tod and Copper. Racism is not natural, it is learned. Children at play do not have the same hang up as adults, unless they are taught. There can be no friendship where love is replaced with hate.

Our society is lacking true friendship because we do not know how to love one another. Ancient philosophers like Plato agree friendship requires a love for the good of the other. It requires a delight in loving the other and outdoing one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10). Problems in friendship do arise when there is not equality of virtue or vices turn up against each other. According to Cicero, friendship is an act of goodwill and must share a common value of virtue, which is a love for truth and beauty.

At the end of the “Fox and the Hound,” it is not romantic love that wins the day or obedience to masters. When Copper is attacked by a bear, Tod leaves his lady fox to save his old friend, even though he risks getting caught by the hunter. Tod could have easily chosen to return to the forest, but his love for Copper never changed, despite their differences. After falling from a log (similar to how they first met), Tod finds himself at the end of a shotgun. Thankfully, Copper steps in between Tod and the hunter just in the knick of time, returning the favor.

“Love” between friends need not be romantic. When these lines are blurred, true love, the selfless sacrificial kind, is lost. A distinction between these two loves must be defined. Lovers see beauty in each other and stand face to face,  but friends stand side by side in pursuit of a common goal — beholding beauty. Love in friendship is a different kind of love than romantic desire. Love in “The Fox in the Hound” is the type of powerful loyal love we see in Christ.

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According to John, there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for a friend (John 15;14; 1 John 3:16). In the end, there is no happily ever after for Copper and Tod. They each return to their separate worlds, but their friendship is so strong that it becomes more than a memory and it changes the hard hearts of their masters, mending even the human relationships in the film. Tod is still a fox living in the wild and Copper remains a hound dog living with the hunter, but their childhood friendship is honored. Their love and loyalty passed the test of time. True friendship never dies.

Grace and the Grotesque

“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where You are . . . Please help all the ones I love to be free from their suffering. Please forgive me.” – Flannery O’Connor

This prayer was written by O’Connor when she was not yet twenty-one. With everything going on in the world at the moment, its sentiment speaks volumes to my soul. I’ve felt the need to put myself aside to know how to feel, think and respond to what is going on in our nation. My heart aches from the pain, anger, and evil in our world. When the world seems too big, I often turn to literature. Not just as a place of escape (not escapism, which Tolkien argues is very different), but as an ethical guide and teacher of virtue.

Recently, I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor, who was an Irish Catholic living in Savannah Georgia during the 1950’s. Her insight and experience is different than mine, yet her fiction describes people we all know and have met before. Her writing is factual, not fantastical. As a Catholic novelist of the Protestant South, O’Connor did not try to sugar coat reality. In her letters, she explains that the church and her faith in no way hinder her creative writing or storytelling abilities, but rather enhance them. As she puts it, “The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them” (O’Connor’s essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”).

O’Connor is an expert of the grotesque, grotesque in the gothic sense, and her stories are frightfully realistic, even comical at some points. In her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor explains Southern fiction is always considered “grotesque” by those who are not from the South and is only realistic if and when it is in fact grotesque. After all, fiction starts with human knowledge. The grotesque is often covered with compassion as way to excuse human weakness without judgment. But in the South the whole view of man is still for the most part theological. O’Connor explains Southern writers do a better job writing about freaks because they are still able to recognize them.

While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God . . . it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

O’Connor’s literature does not mirror society to “lift it up” in thought. Instead of giving a mock damnation or mock innocence, O’Connor suggests writing a Dante, a balance of realism and romance. 

I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now. I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the tired reader.

The grotesque and ugly are supposed to shock us because they are signals as to how things actually are underneath. In her final collection of short stories, O’Connor wrote three stories with extreme religious themes: “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” and “Judgment Day.”

Revelation

At first glance, the ugliness in “Revelation” is found in the rude white trash Mrs. Turpin comes into contact with while waiting in a doctor’s office. Mrs. Turpin is described as a very large woman whose presence makes the waiting room seem small. She is your typical middle class white woman with the “bless your heart” sarcastic manners of Southern politeness. Immediately, Mrs. Turpin judges everyone by the quality of their shoes. She is the type of woman who, when she can’t sleep, asks herself who she would chose to be if she could not be herself. If given the option of being a n*gger or white trash, she prays God would make her African American, but not a “trashy one,” a more clean respectable kind, like “herself but black.” These are the inner thoughts of Mrs. Turpin. 

While waiting for the doctor, Mrs. Turpin talks to the “pleasant woman” in the room who is her equal while trying to ignore the “white trash woman” and the ugly fat girl, Mary Grace, next to her. The whole time the ladies are speaking, the girl glares at Mrs. Turpin with a look that could kill. The women discuss whether the blacks should be sent back to Africa and agree a good disposition is better than being pretty. Just as Mrs. Turpin thinks how grateful she is that she wasn’t made black, a white trash or ugly, the fat girl throws her book at Mrs. Turpin’s face and tries to choke her. As the girl is being sedated by the medical staff, she sneers at Mrs. Turpin, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.”

Mrs. Turpin lays in bed haunted by the girl’s remark. Mrs. Turpin tells the black help about the incident, but she is only annoyed by their flattery. She then marches to the pig parlor to argue with the hogs. She yells at them, disgusted that she would be likened to such creatures, then she has a vision of saints ascending to heaven. At the top are white trash cleaned up and blacks in white robes. At the bottom are hard-working average people like herself, yet altered so that “even their virtues were being burned away.”

Mrs. Turpin would rather cry, get angry and defensive than admit her attitude is uglier than the people she comes into contact with. She is like a pig with a ring in her snout (Proverbs 11:22). She is like us if we do not repent of our pride. 

Parker’s Back

“Parker’s Back” is a story about false devotion. O.E. Parker is a profane tatted man who marries a religious woman, Sarah Ruth, who has a talent for “sniffing up sin.” Parker never wanted to get married, her of all people, and he is gloomier than ever. To spite his wife, he decides to get anther tattoo, or as she calls them, a “heap of vanities.” She would say, “At the judgement seat of God, Jesus is going to say to you, ‘What you been doing all your life besides have pictures drawn all over you?'” Dissatisfied Parker decides to get a tattoo not even Sarah Ruth would object to — the image of Christ on his back. At first the tattoo artist refuses. “I don’t put tattoos on drunks,” he says, “You’ve fallen off some. You must have been in jail.” “Married,” is Parker’s reply. Regretfully, the artist draws “a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” across his whole back. No one can look at it without trembling in fear. When he shows it to Sarah Ruth, she rejects it as idolatrous and Parker is left sobbing by a tree. Parker discovers God even though his wife does not recognize him or the image on his back.

Judgment Day

The final story is a reworking of her earlier story, “Geranium.” In the story, Tanner, an aged white man from Georgia moves in with his daughter in New York, as long as she promises she will burry his body back in GA. When a young African American couple move in next door, Tanner gleefully calls them n*ggers, which is what he called his black friend Coleman back home. His daughter seriously rebukes him.

“All right now you listen to me,” she said. “You keep away from them. Don’t you go over there trying to get friendly with him. They ain’t the same around here and I don’t want any trouble with n*ggers, you hear me? If you have to live next to them, just you mind your business and they’ll mind their business. Live and let live.”

Of course, the old man does not listen. He tries to befriend the New York natives and greets the man as “Preacher” and assumes he is from South Alabama. Tanner’s motives are misinterpreted and the young man slams him against the wall, causing a concussion and stroke. The final blow is when the old man decides to leave the city and return home, but on his way out the door he has another stroke. The angered neighbor finds him at the bottom of the stairs and Tanner mistakes him for his companion Coleman. Instead of helping him up, the black man stuffs the old man’s head and arms between the spokes of the banister where his body remains until his daughter finds him dead. “Bury me here and burn in hell!” was the curse that haunted Tanner’s daughter, so his body was dug up and shipped back to Georgia. While alive, Tanner was stripped of his pride, but his body finds peace.

O’Connor loves to use symbolism in her writing. In all three of these stories, there is conflict socially and spiritually. A conflict of pride and grace. The characters receive revelations from God and by consequence become images of Christ themselves. Mrs. Turpin has a change of heart only once she has her vision. Parker, who’s real name “Obadiah Elihue” represents a biblical contradiction, experiences awakening even though his legalistic wife, who also has a biblical name, rejects him and the Christ on his back. “Judgment Day” is the most potent of all because it leaves the reader wondering if Tanner got what he deserved, since refusing to work for “n*ggers” in GA is what made him decide to move in the first place. He seems innocent but his manners are a mere appearance of friendship in the traditional black-white relationship.

O’Connor uses what is considered grotesque to reveal what is actually grotesque — the heart of sinful man. Manners and appearances only cover the ugly of “what-is.” How someone appears on the outside does not always reflect what is true on the inside. Man judges based upon outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). O’Connor understood that man is a fallen creature and was not afraid to be honest about the hypocrisy of humanity. Yet she does not leave out hope. There is hope for every sinner in Christ. Her stories are difficult to digest because they are realistic, almost more realistic than reality itself. But extreme examples can reveal truth and cut through our personal deception of what is actually grotesque. Like a Dante, she exposes our sinful hearts by putting aside appearances and opinions to show us what is actually ugly. To know what is truly good and beautiful, we must “push ourselves aside” and learn what is truly grotesque. 

 

A Hidden Life and the Coronavirus

As I reflect back on this time of quarantine in preparation for my return to the real world, or as it is now being called, the “new normal”, I remember how it first began. Quietly and unexpected, much like the film A Hidden Life.

Based on a true story, the film is about Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who faces execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II. Before watching Malick’s masterpiece, I read a review that described it as a film about religion, not war. Instead of picturing Jewish persecution of the Nazi period, the film asks ethical questions about good and evil, right and wrong, and how much one would suffer for what they believe to be right. A line that stood out to me in the film, since they are few and far between, echoes this assessment. When asked by the prison captain if he is afraid of death, Franz responds, “A man worth anything has only one thing to consider: whether he is acting rightly or wrongly.”

Many of us these days have had to ask ourselves if we feel fear in the face of possible death by coronavirus in this global pandemic. Yet the power behind fear is often fear itself. Fear of death, but also fear of pain. No one wants to suffer, but especially if it goes against what is considered the “right” thing to do. 

Power and control through fear and pain are evident in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s novel is a political commentary of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany, but elements of Big Brother are still seen today. In the story, doublethink is the ability to hold two polarizing views at the same time. Love is hate, war is peace, slavery is freedom. We live in a dualistic society that in many ways cannot agree on how to address this crisis. There can be a sense of camaraderie by saying, “Stay safe!” to your neighbor from a distance, but there are also neighbors calling the police on each other if someone coughs or breaks quarantine. We have forgotten how to love one another because of fear. As a dystopia, 1984 may seem over the top and unrealistic, but it still communicates the danger of totalitarian thought and practice in society today. 

Besides the silent suffering of Franz in A Hidden Life, the steadfastness of his wife, Franziska, is most inspiring. When the local priest and villagers can’t persuade Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler, they pressure his wife to try and convince him to change his conviction or ignore his conscience. Unlike Job’s wife who tells her husband to curse God, Fraziska stands by her man and does not try to dissuade him. Despite the struggle and persecution she faces, Franziska never stops loving or supporting her husband, even when she knows his choices will take him away from her loving arms and leave their children fatherless. Franz’s stance for truth is heroic, but Franziska’s loyalty demonstrates how true love casts out fear. 

In 1984, Winston and Julia go against Big Brother by meeting in secret. In contrast to the previous couple, their “love” is selfish and does not pass the test of suffering. When they are captured by the Thought Police and taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured, they betray each other and their emotions, even to the point of wishing the other would suffer instead of them. To save their own life of simple comforts, they deny that they ever loved, and in fact they never did. In the end, their love for each other is replaced by a love for Big Brother.

When faced with fear and suffering, who are we more like, Franz and Franziska or Winston and Julia? To whom do we swear and in whom do we trust? Would we choose to stay true to love or run away in fear at the first sign of danger? Do we turn away from the sick and poor, or run to them in aid? 

As Christians, we should be citizens most recognizable by our love, not our fear. Let us be an extension of Christ in a scared and suffering world. If we cannot stand for truth and love, we are no better than Judas the betrayer. But like Peter discovered after his denial, there is freedom in Christ. While in prison, Franz’s captors torture and taunt him by saying his actions do not matter, that the war will still go on without him, and that his resistance will soon be forgotten. All he has to do is sign a piece of paper and he will go free. He’s asked, don’t you want to be free, to which he replies, “I am free already.” 

Franz was not just a man of conviction, he was a man of faith. I pray my faith will outshine my fear in the coming days.


PC: IMDB

Naked and Clothed Worship: Communion with God in Quarantine

Do you ever have moments where you see, hear, or read something that instantly makes you think, “I need to write a blog post on that”? Well maybe not, but it happens to me frequently, though I usually do not take the initiative to write said blog post. Just such an incident happened recently, and since I am in quarantine, I figured I would actually write it.

In his classic work Communion with God,[1] the 17th c. theologian John Owen reflects on the general concept of communion stating that it “relates to things and persons,” and that it entails “a joint participation in any thing whatever, good or evil, duty or enjoyment, nature or actions” (Works 2.7). Closely connected with the concept of communion is that of union. The latter is the foundation of the former. Owen utilizes the example of David and Jonathan, saying that the union of love which they had for each other resulted in the communication of acts of love (Works, 2.8). With this distinction in mind, Owen offers a definition of communion with God:

“Our communion, then, with God consisteth in his communication of himself unto us, with our returnal unto him of that which he requireth and accepteth, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him” (Works, 2.8-9).

Owen goes on to argue that believers have distinct communion with each person of the Trinity: “That is, distinctly with the Father, and distinctly with the Son, and distinctly with the Holy Spirit” (Works, 2.9). The distinct communion we have with each person is seen in the distinct distribution of gifts (see 1 Cor 12:4-6), and in our distinct approaches to God:

“Our access unto God (wherein we have communion with him) is διὰ Χριστοῦ, ‘through Christ,’ ἐν Πνεύματι, ‘in the Spirit,’ and πρὸς τὸν Πατέρα, ‘unto the Father;—the persons being here considered as engaged distinctly unto the accomplishment of the counsel of the will of God revealed in the gospel” (Works, 2.10. See Eph 2:18).

When Owen argues that Christian worship is given to each person of the Trinity (Works 2.11-14), he states an interesting distinction in regard to Christian worship. Our worship can be either “purely or nakedly moral” or “as further clothed with instituted worship” (Works 2.11). In talking of the worship which is given to the Father he states, “These graces [viz. faith, love, and obedience] as acted in prayer and praises, and as clothed with instituted worship, are peculiarly directed unto him” (Works 2.12). What Owen means by “naked” (or “natural,” “moral”)[2] worship is the worship which the believer renders to God on a day-to-day basis, whereas “clothed” worship is in reference to more formal worship (such as Lord’s day worship) which God has additionally instituted. Whether we are talking about naked or clothed worship, these are the means by which we have communion with God. Here is how Owen puts it:

Faith, love, trust, joy, etc., are the natural or moral worship of God, whereby those in whom they are have communion with him. Now, these are either immediately acted on God, and not tied to any ways or means outwardly manifesting themselves; or else they are farther drawn forth, in solemn prayer and praises, according unto that way which he hath appointed (Works, 2.11).

One thing that this peculiar time of nationwide quarantine has demonstrated to us is that human beings are communal. We often like to conceive of ourselves as independent individuals who are able to pick and choose where, when, and how we enter into social engagements. But times like these show us how much we depend on others to supply us with things which are fundamental to our daily existence (food, drink, clothing, medical care, and, perhaps, sanity). It seems to me that now is a good time to consider the concept of communion.

While we reflect on communion, I hope that we do not terminate our reflections on the daily human interactions to which we (rightly) long to return. May our souls long and faint for the courts of our Lord (Ps 84:2), but may we also remember that because of Christ, we can sing a song of Zion, even next to the river of Babylon (Ps 137:1, 4). For the moment, providence has stripped us of public worship, but we can still worship and commune with God in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Communion with other humans is a natural and very good part of life, but communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, is life (John 14:16-23; 17:3).

[1] All citations of this work will be from William H. Goold, ed., The Works of John Owen, vol. 2 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009).

[2] Words such as “moral” and “natural” should not put us on guard when we remember that these are graces worked in the hearts of believers which flow from their union with Christ.


Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

An Open Letter to My Christian Friends

Dear Reader,

This morning I read a recent article posted by the conservative writer, Rod Dreher. It included some very insightful comments about the nature of certain people’s responses to Coronavirus described in a couple letters he received. His analysis of what was written to him is the most convicting line in the article. It is what I hope you will take away from this open letter to think about as we approach the Lord’s day. He says, “This, my friends, is what apocalypse does: it reveals.”

After I read this, I instinctively asked the question: how is my time of isolation revealing a preparedness for the coming of the Lord, or how is it not? What am I grasping at?

I must confess that my heart has been in desperate search for comfort, security, and a sense of normal routine. I find that the desire for this, and its highly regarded place in my life, often serves as a mask which hides the state of my soul from myself and others. I think this is the case for many Christians in America. We let our work define us. We do it in such a way that the presence of sin and the necessity of faith routinely sit on the back burner of our minds. Because of this, a sad irony persists in our lives. The irony is that too little attention is paid to who we presently are before God, even though our presence before God is what will finally be established when we step past death into eternity, or when Christ comes again. This will be what lasts of us.

In this crisis my sin appears to be more evident, and my resolve against it seems to be in short supply. However, I don’t think this is actually the case. My sin was always evident, and my resolve against it has always been in short supply. The only difference between the recent past, and the ongoing reality of life during Coronavirus, is that I am more aware of it because I have more time to think and less distance to put between me and my thoughts. Stated bluntly, not having what I want shows me what I really want.

Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). This is my heart’s desire that emerges from a cluttered mind: when the end of this pandemic comes (and it will surely come), I want to have passed through it by faith, as I want to pass though the rest of my life and death by faith.

Repentance means living a life that corresponds to hope. I know what I hope in, and I hope in a Christ who promises to sustain His Church through all seasons of life. In the slowness of my soul I am “slouching towards Bethlehem” to find a vision of life in the apocalyptic turbulence of these times. I hope that this is your desire and pursuit as well.

I will end this letter with the opening question from the Heidelberg Catechism: “what is your only comfort in life and death?” I leave it to you to look at the catechism for yourself and prayerfully appropriate the answer as we approach the Lord’s day. I will do the same.

May God be with you,

Stephen

 


Here is the complete article by Rod Dreher. I suggest you read it: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/are-we-christians-the-rich-young-ruler-covid-19/

I think the 3b is an accurate definition of apocalypse: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocalypse

I quoted a line from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming

Here is the Heidelberg Catechism for those who do not own a physical copy: https://students.wts.edu/resources/creeds/heidelberg.html