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Tony W. Cartledge | Blog


In our world ...

I don't have many Christmas traditions, but there is one thing I try to do every year: at some point during the Christmas season, I watch Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas. The 48-minute muppet special first aired in 1977, so it's been a part of Christmas at my house for more than 35 years. (You can order a copy, or watch on streaming video through Amazon Prime).

With music and lyrics written by Paul Williams, the homey musical offers a view of life that may be idealistic, but appeals to my soul because it speaks not only of hope in hard times and a willingness to risk, but of a generous love that makes room for everyone. That vision of life is sorely needed in a world as polarized, suspicious, and phobic as the one in which we currently live.

In a song called "Our World" (click the link to listen), Alice Otter declares 

Some say our world is getting too small

I say with kindness there's room for us all,

Our world is always changing, every day's a surprise.

Love can open your eyes in our world.

When night lays sad upon you, go watch a simple sunrise.

Love can open your eyes in our world.

The Otter family's love-based world is not the only one in evidence, though. A band of ruffians known as the "Riverbottom Gang" has an entirely different worldview, one that is darker, dubious, and self-focused.

Emmet and his friends join to sing as the "Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jugband" in a local talent contest, in which the local hooligans also participate as "The Nightmare." In a song called "Brothers," Emmet and friends sing about the importance of recognizing our similarities and accepting one another as family. A line from the song celebrates "So many things to learn, but we'll enjoy each lesson."

In contrast, the Riverbottom gang sings of their disdain for all but themselves. In "Riverbottom Nightmare Band," they proclaim "We don't wish to learn, but we hate what we don't understand."

And that's the bottom line, isn't it? When we take time to know other people, when we learn about others and appreciate our common humanity, hopes and dreams, then things like race and income levels and gender identity become less divisive.

If, on the other hand, we insist on living in a homogenous world that can only accept people like us, our tendency is to reject those who are different and "hate what we don't understand."

On the day (or night) Jesus was born into the world, he came as the fulfillment of a divine love willing to suffer and die so that "whosovever" may find life in him. Who.So.Ever. That's the world God calls us to inhabit: a world of generosity and grace.

Or, as Ma Otter puts it,

Our world says 'welcome stranger,' everybody's a friend.

Favorite stories don't end in our world.

That's a hopeful and starry-eyed vision, I know -- but isn't this a season for hope and for stars?


[Special thanks to for a nice tribute page. Video clips are also available on YouTube.]


More, and more ...

After living in North Carolina for 34 years, I finally got around to visiting the Biltmore House, famously known as America's largest private home. At 250 rooms and almost 180,000 square feet, the French Renaissance structure has few competitors.

I confess to having resisted a visit for so long because I thought it counterintuitive to spend $59 for the privilege of looking at someone else's extravagance.

And extravagant it is: George Vanderbilt's primary purpose in building it appears to have been an effort to prove that obscenely rich Americans could live just as much like royalty as any British or European lord.

The amazing thing is that he was only 35 and still single when he moved into his mansion-to-end-all-mansions. The house was impressive, of course, especially bedecked for the Christmas season, but even so, I was more taken with the 8,000 acre estate and its conservatory than with the pretentiousness of the house.

While growing up, I didn't know what a conservatory was, other than that Col. Mustard and Miss Peacock occasionally killed people there in the boardgame Clue.

Biltmore's conservatory is a collection of connected greenhouses featuring tropical plants ranging from cacti to anthuriums to an amazing variety of orchids, along with unusual poinsettias with crinkly blooms.

The big house was filled with fancy-dancy seasonal decorations, but my favorites were a few unassuming wreaths composed of living plants. It seems to me that the Christmas spirit is not captured best by lavish self-indulgence or brightness and color, but in reminders of growth and life, however humble.



On being useful ...

This image from at Asheville's Grove Park Inn get lots of company on Sundays through Thursdays during the Christmas season, when the public is invited to view a display of top choices from the National Gingerbread House Competition.

One of the first things you learn is that entries don't have to actually involve a house: this year's grand prize winner consisted of two panda bears eating bamboo -- though I guess one could argue that pandas live in dens near bamboo thickets, so that's a house for them. We didn't actually see that one -- it's off to New York for a special appearance on Good Morning America.

Nice digs for NC's state bird.The basic rules are that everything above the base must be edible, and it has to include gingerbread, some of which must be visible.  A number of entries included Santa Claus in various settings, along with castles, beachfront cottages, and a ship in a bottle. My favorites were a whimsical toy factory and a condominium for cardinals.

At the Grove Park Inn, the real show is the inn itself, which is named for Edwin Wiley Grove, a 19th century Asheville entrepreneur who developed a special formula of quinine to prevent malaria, and made millions from sales of "Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic." Grove got interested in real estate and made pots of money, bought 408 acres of land on Sunset Mountain, and along with partner Fred Seely of Detroit, designed and built the Grove Park Inn, which opened in 1913.

The inn's Great Hall features massive fireplaces built of huge granite stones, some weighing several tons. A few of the stones have quotations or clever sayings painted on them, and I was particularly taken with this one: "Nisi utile est quod facimus, stulta est gloria." Said to be from the Roman author Phaedous (15 BCE-45 CE), it means "Unless what we do is useful, glory is foolish."

That's a good thought to begin the week.


Interpretation gone awry

The appropriately massive memorial service for anti-apartheid activist and former South African president Nelson Mandela monopolized the news Dec. 10, as thousands gathered in a driving rain to hear an ark-load of speeches from political and religious leaders from around the world.

By the next day, attention had shifted from coverage of President Obama's remarks (well-received by the crowd) and South African president Zuma's speech (booed by many) to a man who stood just a few feet away from them as the official interpreter for the deaf.

It quickly became apparent -- to deaf people, at least -- that the man wasn't actually using sign language and his constant gesticulating made no sense at all. The African National Congress then came under fire for hiring an apparent fraud and putting him in such close proximity to world leaders -- especially since he has appeared at previous official occasions where he was criticized for incompetence. 

Since then, the man in question has been identified and interviewed. His explanation? Thamsanqa Jantjie says he suffers from mental illness and had a schizophrenic episode during the event, hallucinating and hearing loud voices that distracted him and prevented him from interpreting accurately -- but he didn't leave the stage because it was such an important event that he thought it best to stay, even though he wasn't actually interpreting.

I'm in no position to judge the man's competence in sign language, his mental condition, or his motives (though he was well paid for the event). If I had to stand through a five-hour event trying to translate an interminable string of speeches, I'd probably have some sort of episode, too.

The occasion reminds me, though, that all types of interpreters bear a heavy responsibility to communicate the message they've been given with accuracy. This is particularly true for those who stand in pulpits and take on the task of interpreting "the word of God for the people of God," as we often say in response to a reading of scripture.

Not all of the Bible is the direct "word of God," of course: most of it consists of words about God, or about the people who have sought through the years to live in relationship with God and to understand God's ways.  This long story of spiritual struggle has such value to those who continue participating in the ongoing story of God and humankind, however, that we consider it to be sacred and look to it with reverence.

Those of us who are in a position to interpret the meaning of scripture have a responsibility to go beyond a mere surface or literalistic reading of a passage, and to interpret with sensitivity to the meaning of the text in its historical, cultural, and religious contexts. We must likewise consider the significance of any particular text within the larger message of scripture, always being aware of the old saw that "a text without a context is a pretext."

When teachers or preachers fail to take the task of interpretation seriously, they run the risk of speaking for God in ways that are meaningless, meandering, or downright misleading. Perhaps the flap over incoherent interpretation at Mandela's memorial can yet provide a usefeul service, reminding us that the message of scripture is too important to be interpreted in ways that amount to little more than a flapping of the hands by someone responding to loud voices that turn out to be his own.



A time, two times, and half a time ...

Daniel's cryptic reference to a three-and-a-half year period for the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes comes to mind when I try to get my head around what time it is.

It's the last week of the semester and the middle of the Advent season, but I'm preparing for spring classes, writing Bible studies for Lent, and within a week of a wedding. That's at least three and a half times, and they're happening all at once. 

I have so much going on that I've been forced to make a list, something I should probably do more often.

The problem with making lists is that I don't know where to start and where to stop. Do I include "do the laundry," "cook dinner," "walk the dogs," "grade papers," "work on spring semester syllabi," and "write a blog" for the sake of completeness, even though I'm unlikely to forget those tasks? Do I include appointments that are already on my calendar, which is a long list of its own genre, or should I just stick with the bushel of immediate errands to be run, groceries to garner, and gifts to be bought? And do I include "Get some exercise, you lardbucket!"?

The best thing about lists, aside from not forgetting things, is the joy of marking things off as accomplished, even though that's both another job and a fleeting pleasure, as the last task is always to make another list.

I may or may not become an inveterate list maker, mainly because I already have so many pots on the stove that making a list seems like just another thing. Then again, without a list, I could forget some really important thing, or end up making three trips to the store instead of one.

Whether I write it down or not, however, one thing I'll keep in mind is to count my blessings. The hustle of constant activity may be tiring, but having nothing to do would be deadly.

Hey, it's a busy Monday. Bring it on!

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