Saturday afternoon, I joined son Neil and his family to see “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the wonderful C.S.Lewis story, now a big-screen movie. Wonderful movie, although a little puzzling for our 9 year old twins. “Grandpa, why is the lion roaring?” “Why did the lion die?” That sort of thing. As we exited the theater, I was remembering how my children were introduced to Narnia and why we did not venture very far into that land of fantasy and allegory.
It was the mid-70s and our children ranged in age from about 7 to 13. Thanksgiving weekend, our family had rented a cabin at the Tishomingo State Park in Northeast Mississippi. The air was wintry cold and just right for a blazing fire. On Thanksgiving morning, while mom was preparing breakfast, I said, “Kids, come here. I have something I want you to hear.” They had no idea what to expect. I began reading page one of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the first volume in Narnia. We literally had to force them to come to breakfast, they were so caught up in the story. After breakfast, I read some more, then we all went for a walk down the wooded trails. They could not get back to the house fast enough; they had to know what happened next. C. S. Lewis has long been one of my favorites, but more for his theological writings than for the fantasies. The kids, now adults with families of their own, and I have great memories of that time. However, I think, if you asked them, they do not know why we did not progress too far into the ins and outs of the Narnia tales. But I know. They got too complex. Too many characters, too much symbolism, too hard to keep straight.
I admit to being a little puzzled by groups that have printed up religious literature about Narnia to hand out in their neighborhoods and in the malls. I admire their evangelistic zeal, only wonder if they are misreading the curiosity the movie will provoke about its deeper meaning. We remember when Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” appeared, churches set up counseling centers near cinemas and stationed their people near exits, ready for them to emerge with yearnings to know this Savior. In most cases, the response was minimal. Again, I appreciate their willingness to be used of God, just question the effectiveness of these movies in presenting the message of Christ. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the best these movies can be expected to do is stir one’s curiosity so that he will go read the book. I cannot tell you how many times I have walked out of a theater and gone straight to the library to learn more about the subject. One of the first times was “A Man For All Seasons” about Henry VIII. Later it was “Khartoum” on Chinese Gordon. These days, it happens several times a year. We hope that’s what “Narnia” will produce, people wanting to know more about the meanings of the allegory. If some progress from that to knowledge of the Savior, it will be worth everything.
Sunday morning, I attended Riverside Baptist Church in River Ridge, a mile from my house. This was one of the first churches to begin ministering after the hurricane. Pastor Jim Caldwell literally lived in the church yard handing out food and water for weeks, alongside church members and volunteers from around the country. I was thrilled to see the church filled and the worship service vibrating with vitality. Shortly afterwards, I preached for Faith Baptist Church, meeting temporarily in the chapel of Rayne United Methodist Church on St. Charles Avenue. They welcomed back their displaced worship leader, Lori Wagner. Lori is choral director of Newman High School in Uptown, but was temporarily laid off when Katrina scattered their student body in every direction. “They’ve called me back to work,” she said, and resumes her choral work at the school early in January. I said, “You’re going to have a hard time telling people where you evacuated to.” She laughed. She spent the time in Paris.
Lori has friends who pastor a Baptist church in the French capital. When they heard of her situation, they called and said, “Great time to visit.” In the meantime, the Paris church’s music minister, another Louisianian named Scott Sontag, was returning to the states for a short visit and had said, “Don’t worry about another music director; the Lord will provide.” Then Lori walked in and took up where Scott had left off. Her days were free for browsing the streets of Paris, sitting in cafes, visiting museums, driving in the countryside. “I had only high school French,” she said. But there’s nothing like living with the French to learn the language. And there’s no place like home, either.
The local reports indicate that our citizens are really getting into the Christmas season at the stores. What stores are open say their sales are up forty percent or more. Is this the old thing of trying to assuage our grief by spending money? Or is it simply that with fewer stores open, the ones that are in business get all the business? Someone probably knows.
Soon after Katrina, some people began spreading a rumor that “they” had dynamited the Industrial Canal levee in order to protect the French Quarter, Uptown, and the Garden District. Last week, a displaced resident by the name of Dyan “Mama D” French Cole testified before a Congressional Committee that this is what happened. No matter that the flooding destroyed homes of the rich as well as the poor, whites as well as blacks, the rumor persists that the “powers that be” did this to the Blacks to protect the Whites. Another puzzle to me: the city of New Orleans has been predominantly Black for decades, and it has elected mostly African-Americans to power positions for as long. So it would appear that the “powers that be” would be Black. But charges of racism seem to be racist themselves, at times. Monday morning’s Times-Picayune ran a long feature explaining how the bursting of concrete levees as well as a barge beating against one that finally collapsed would all sound like explosions. No one has any evidence of any levee being dynamited. But that’s one of the rumors making the rounds.
A Black columnist in New Orleans writes Monday morning that anyone who knew Mama D could have predicted her testimony. “Her outbursts at school board meetings are so contentious and unreasonable as to make me wonder whether she is interested in education or air time.” Lolis Eric Elie went on to say, “I don’t believe the levees were bombed.” They weren’t necessary, he writes. Poor engineering and shoddy workmanship were sufficient to blow these levees. When asked why Mama D was chosen to appear before Congress, a congressional aide for Representative Cynthia McKinney said, “Sometimes you need people to stir up the pot, to get people talking.” Elie says, “The problem is, they’re talking about how crazy we are (down here).” The result, he writes, is that the testimony before congress gave the nation one more reason to doubt that the people of New Orleans deserve their sympathy and support.
Another story occupying a lot of air time on local talk shows is the cursory examination which the levee system received just only a few weeks before the hurricane. Officials from the Orleans Parish Levee Board joined with engineers from the State Department of Transportation and Development and the U.S. Corps of Engineers for the annual inspections. Experts say this group should have been able to examine no more than 10 miles of levees a day. But they did 120 miles in one morning, most of it from inside their vans. Official records document the exact times they met, left, arrived at various locations, walked around, and arrived at the restaurant for lunch. Lunch, I believe was about 1:30 pm, then they were done. The levees were pronounced sound. You can understand why the citizenry is outraged. A letter in Monday’s newspaper calls for the names of these groups to be printed so the public can deal with them.
A couple of years ago, the Times-Picayune tried to raise a ruckus over the baffling system of tax assessors to be found only in New Orleans. While every other parish in the state has one assessor, New Orleans has seven. The result is contradictory assessments for houses of the same size and age on adjoining blocks but in different districts. To no one’s surprise, your assessment had to do with who you knew. The legislature just could not bring itself to stopping this outrage, however, presumably because of the political power of the assessors, some of whom inherited their jobs from their parents. As the newspaper said, “Keeping them on the payroll (in the past) wouldn’t drive the city into beggary,” so nothing was done.
It’s different now. Mayor Nagin has laid off half the city’s work force, and the city has lost most of its population. It’s time to correct this outrage. We’ll be watching the state legislature. But let none of us down here in the bayous wonder why the rest of America thinks this is a land of corruption and deal-making. We earned that reputation and now have to deal with it.
When FEMA awarded contracts to companies to provide trailers for displaced citizens, a couple of odd things occurred. They handed out multi-million dollar contracts to companies that had just been created and did not even have Louisiana licenses. A couple of brothers in my community who owned a motorcycle shop received a contract for–get this, now–$108 million. Another outfit, that claims to be Louisianian, was a shell corporation actually headquartered in Jacksonville and had no license to operate in this state. Meanwhile, established companies say they’re having trouble getting business from FEMA. Plus, it turns out the local brothers are related to the state treasurer of the Democratic Party and a state legislator.
How did that line from the old Pogo comic strip go? “We have met the enemy and he is us.”