Heart of a Samurai

In January 1841, a storm rages off the coast of Shikoku, Japan.  Five fishermen are out in a small boat when the storm strikes, snapping the mast, ripping off the rudder, and washing away the oars.  heart-of-a-samurai-coverThe fishermen drift out of control for eight days until they become stranded when their boat splinters on an island of rock.  Several months later, a ship approaches the island.  To the fishermen’s horror, their rescuers are the blue-eyed barbarians whom Japan has barred from her shores.  Being in the barbarians’ company—leaving Japan at all—means the fishermen may never be able to return home, for Japanese law declares that “any person who leaves the country and later returns will be put to death” (14).  So begins Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, a children’s book based on the true story of the Japanese boy Manjiro Nakahama who became known to the English-speaking world as John Mung.

Unlike his friends Denzo, Jusuke, Toraemon, and Goemon who refuse to be “poisoned” by their American rescuers, Manjiro bridges the cultural divide between himself and the whaling crew of the John Howland and learns their customs and language.  The Americans’ inventions fascinate him, particularly the useful things called “pockets,” which Manjiro has never seen before.

john-mung-drawing
Here is one of Manjiro’s drawings of “Bird Island” where he and his friends were stranded.  The picture can be found at this website.

Despite being homesick and worrying about his family—for whom he has become the breadwinner after his father’s death—Manjiro is bursting with excitement about the new world he has entered.  Curious, diligent, and smart, Manjiro finds friends and a foster family and forges a path for himself in the world of America.  All the while, though, he dreams of returning to his family and homeland, becoming a samurai, and “leaving footprints in the sands of time” by changing the world (76).  But how can a poor fisherman’s son, now an outcast, ever hope to accomplish these dreams?  Despite the many obstacles that confront him, Manjiro never stops fighting to realize his goals, and as the story progresses, Manjiro matures from an irresponsible boy to an industrious young man.  Overcoming the hindrances and bridging the divides that confront him requires of Manjiro courage and humility.  Gradually he learns that cultural prejudice and pride often mislead, and that both Japanese and Americans have much they can teach each other, if the other side is merely willing to learn.

Drawing on Manjiro’s own writings and filled with pictures he drew, Heart of a Samurai vividly captures Manjiro’s life.  Margi Preus skillfully combines fact and fiction to create a compelling retelling of Manjiro Nakahama’s life that will be an adventure for children to read.

Who are you?

‘Who are you?’ While quite formulaic in today’s culture and typically resulting in a formulaic response, this question, taken to its logical conclusion, points to a much deeper and foundational idea: that of identity.

The Problem

Identity is certainly not a new topic of discussion; however, it has lost none of its relevance or importance to contemporary conversation. As Americans, this battle for identity has been playing out in very real, tangible, and heartbreaking ways -ways that have become more and more visible as time has gone on. Slavery, while in many ways a result of cultural perversion and economics, was at its core an identity problem: defining men and women based on biology (skin color, physical ability, mental acuity, race, etc…), rather than on any reference to the dignity that God has given all mankind by the fact they are made in his image. Abortion, at its root, is a question of identity: whether an unborn baby is merely a clump of cells with no inherent selfhood of its own, or the converse position, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16), where at conception we have identity given by God himself. Transgenderism is inherently an identity problem: defining ourselves in ways that completely divorce us from any scientific and spiritual standard of reality (Macarther). However, while these are all examples of high profile and visible identity crises, it often takes more subtle forms. When asked to describe myself, my past and who I am, descriptors such as introvert, single, family guy, etc.etc tend to be some of the first used. Many people do the same: identifying themselves by their work, friends, hobbies, relationships, parents, organizations, entertainment preferences, and preferred foods. Not everything people identify with is ‘positive’, sometimes people identify themselves (whether they admit publically or not) by the ways others treat or treated them, or even by the things in their lives that they are most ashamed of: sins or failures in their pasts. While reality dictates that all of these things do indeed affect us, if this is where our ‘identity’ ends, then we are just as divorced from reality as the most insane person.

The Solution

Identifying the self with causes, relationships, and any number of other things is inherently insufficient in itself, and leads to the same core problem found in slavery, abortion, and transgenderism: man, left to his own devices, provides no absolute for defining identity, but subjects it to mere practicality, politics, and selfishness. So, where does one look for identity? For all men, believer and unbeliever alike, it is found in God alone. Calvin addresses this whenever discussing self-knowledge:

“True self-knowledge only comes after first contemplating the face of God and then, afterwards, looking into ourselves. We as sinful men think of ourselves as righteous, holy, and just, and when comparing with the world around us, can find ways to rationalize this belief. If our behavior is at least some better than another’s we have ‘justification’ for our self satisfaction[…]so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure ” ~Institutes, Bk 1, Ch1, Sctn 2

Only by “contemplating the face of God” can man gain any real understanding of who he is, how broken he is, and where his true identity is found. Because all men fell in Adam, they are ultimately defined by that fall apart from the grace of God: men living in active and willing rebellion. That is the identity of every man, woman, and child on this globe proceeding from natural generation -none is innocent. However, there is  another identity offered, one made possible through the sacrificial death of God himself in Jesus Christ. For those who believe, although still living in the realities of the fall, identity is found in Christ and his victorious and finished work. We are no longer vessels of destruction, but rather vessels of mercy (Rom 9:23-24). In the end, at the root of all, one of these two realities defines us, not our family, age, work, social circles, organizations, causes, etc. Either Adam or Christ.

Conclusion

The question of identity is incredibly important, and yet it is very easy as Christians to fall into shallowly defining ‘self’ in just the same way the world does: by starting with ourselves. Jesus is the answer to man’s broken identity, the anchor which alone can provide the mooring where men and women can thrive and by His grace become ever more as they were originally designed. Apart from Him we are all but rebels and traitors, destined for wrath and torment, and justly so. Who are you?

 

A Romantic Realist’s Valentine

First, the piano plays.  It’s a simple, delicate tune, with a touch of fancy added by one or two grace notes and a warbling little trill.  The listener is given a taste of the melody to come, and then a woman’s deep, deep voice begins.  Sings she:

I’ve heard of all those sad, sad songs where he and she are parted

And she dies for the love of him and he dies broken-hearted.

He lies in St. Mary’s kirk and she lies in the choir

And out of her grave grows a rose and out of his a briar.

So at last their souls entwine and now as one are climbing…

This, the final song on June Tabor’s album Rosa Mundi, a collection of songs concerning the titular flower, is called “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose.”  A violin will join the melody a little later, but overall, the orchestration stays simple and true. After all, what older, more classic trope than this, the two lovers that die for want of each other?  And that final rosy touch (pun quite intended) of the blossoming briars tangling together?  Why, I can think of two other ballads off the top of my head that use such a motif: “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” – depending on which version you’re listening to – and the penultimate track of Rosa Mundi itself, “Barbry Ellen.”  In both, circumstances and not a little pride keep two lovers apart, but only until death.  Now that’s love, no?

But then, in that last song, “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose,” as the melody soars with the climbing souls, Tabor sings:

Ten out of ten for true, true love, naught out of ten for timing.

And with that, we wryly land back on earth.

It’s true, you know.  We idolize the Romeos and Juliets of the world, forgetting that if the hero had just delayed his death by a few minutes – perhaps given another sobbing soliloquy – his lady would have awoken and all might have been well.  Truly, 0/10 for timing.  Tabor, or rather, the original poet, Les Barker, wants a different fate:

I don’t want that kind of love that grows so high on sorrow,

I want you today my love and I want you tomorrow.

A quick Google search for “famous lovers of literature” reveals lists of well-known couples, a good chunk of whom suffered unpleasant fates, often torn asunder and dying in fits of passion.  We read of them and sigh over them (well, some of us do, at least, and then only over some of them; others deserved their fates, in my opinion), but perhaps, as Tabor reminds us, there is nothing wrong with true love being happy.  I’m reminded of another tongue-in-cheek passage from the short story “The Stolen Princess,” by Robin McKinley, a favorite author of mine: “…they became the sort of lovers that minstrels make ballads about (although it was certainly unpoetic of them to be married to each other)…and the court became a more joyful place than it had been for many a long royal generation.  And minstrels did make ballads about them, even though they were married to each other.”

There is a time and place for roses, and many consider that time to be St. Valentine’s Day.  But I, the Realist, charge you, oh Romantic, to not idolize new roses growing from young graves; there will be time enough for them to blossom on old graves later on.

Here and now let’s drink the wine of life while life is ours.

Here and now my love entwine; it’s not just for the flowers.

And when time takes all away and death snuffs out this fire

Maybe then I’ll be a rose and you, my love, a briar.

Words

Growing up, I loved to write fiction–made-up worlds, characters, and situations.

As I’ve grown older, I find much of my writing has shifted into the realm of non-fiction. Stories from my life, people I’ve met, events I want to remember.

Reality is endlessly interesting. Growing up, the idea of modeling a fictional character off of a real-life one seemed dull and uninspired. Now, it’s hard for me to imagine writing a character that isn’t drawn from some type of real person I’ve encountered; the world has such a variety: prophesying bikers, affable-but-deadly veterans, hippies, heroes, and villains. No doubt, the intense variety is because the Author has more creativity than us all.

To be able to capture some of the complexity, beauty, and vitality of the world in a story–that is the goal!