Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Occupy poster by Brooke McGowen

Occupy poster by Brooke McGowen

It takes little imagination to create a global state of terror and control. That is the basic dream of every dictator and of the dictator inside all of us. It takes much greater imagination to act upon the idea of a world beyond that.

— Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert[i]

An art that engages with self-empowerment, then, is about unleashing a sense of being in common, of being part of something bigger than a discrete human body, and of feeling a sense of saying both “I can” and “we can” at the exact same moment.

— Charles Esche[ii]

Give us grace to heed the prophets’ warnings …

— Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent[iii]

 

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel observed that there were three kinds of people in the twentieth century: killers, victims, and bystanders. But there were also resisters, who blended conscience and imagination to subvert the inevitability of controlling ideologies and plant the seeds of new possibility—even in the winter of despair.

Now, sixteen years into this new century, when the foundations of American democracy are being shaken and shattered by an authoritarian blitzkrieg, resistance is needed more than ever. It must be our civic duty, moral obligation, and spiritual vocation to question, challenge, mock, outmaneuver, and obstruct the monstrous axis of bigots and billionaires who are about to take power.

Sitting back and “giving Trump a chance” would be fatal. It is already perfectly clear who he is and where he is headed. Like the right-wing populists of Europe, he practices a politics of antagonism, channeling resentment, bigotry and hate into a movement fictionalized as “the people.” Anyone outside his movement, or critical of it, will be scapegoated and denounced. Argentinian philosopher Ernesto Laclau has described such populism as “a form of constructing the political through the division of society into two camps.”[iv]

So with the killers in charge, how do we act like resisters rather than victims or passive bystanders? Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian who has studied the lessons of the Holocaust, has written a 20-Point Guide to Defending Democracy, suggesting practical ways to work within the system before we lose it altogether. And I recently posted a Spiritual Survival Guide for staying grounded on a daily basis in the “time of trial.”

But since this blog’s ongoing theme is transformative imagination, let us also consider another kind of resistance, one which employs art and creativity to awaken people from their passive slumber and empower them with alternative visions. In a 1924 novel, Upton Sinclair made the case for an activist art:

“The artists of our time are like men hypnotized, repeating over and over a dreary formula of futility. And I say: Break this evil spell, young comrade; go out and meet the new dawning life, take your part in the battle, and put it into new art; do this service for a new public, which you yourself will make . . . that your creative gift shall not be content to make artworks, but shall at the same time make a world; shall make new souls, moved by a new ideal of fellowship, a new impulse of love, and faith—and not merely hope, but determination.”[v]

The problem with living within a particular “social imaginary” is that alternative ways of constructing our common life are not just utopian, they are literally inconceivable. As Slavo Zizek noted in a famous speech at Occupy Wall Street: “Look at the movies . . . It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you can’t imagine the end of capitalism.”[vi]

Art activism doesn’t just critique what is wrong, inadequate or incomplete. By enabling us to imagine alternatives, it breaks the spell of inevitability which the dominant hegemony has cast over us. A recent book, Truth Is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, provides many provocative examples. Here are some of my favorites:

  • When mathematician-philosopher Antanas Mockus became mayor of Bogotá in 1995, he borrowed strategies from activist art to help citizens re-imagine their city. He mocked the mythology of leadership by wearing a “super-citizen” costume, and cut a heart shape out of his bulletproof vest to demonstrate his shared vulnerability. He created an exchange of guns for toys in which the city’s children pressured parents to turn in their weapons. And he replaced the notoriously corrupt traffic police with 400 mimes, who used humor instead of fines to manage the flow of vehicles. In one of the world’s most dangerous cities, traffic fatalities were cut in half, and the homicide rate declined 70%.
  • During the oppressive regime of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian “laughtivists” painted the dictator’s face on an oil drum and left it on a crowded shopping street along with a bat. Passersby took the opportunity to bash the drum image until police finally “arrested” the drum and put it in their van, a comic scene widely covered by the media. “Laughtivism derives its power from the ability to melt fear, the lifeblood of dictators . . . and help to cut away at the leaders’ authority, which often stems from intense narcissism.”[vii]
  • In 2013, Enmedio, a “media prankster collective” in Barcelona, made striking posters of individuals whose homes were being foreclosed by a Spanish bank, and pasted them onto the façade of the bank’s central downtown branch. The invisible victims, and their stories, were thus made dramatically visible at the scene of the crime.
  • Large inflatables can create “tactical frivolity,” turning “a grim protest situation into a playful event,” making it “poetic, joyful, and participatory.”[viii] Who can resist a large inflatable? A tense standoff between police and protesters in Berlin became a game when an inflatable was tossed between them, and the two sides began to bat it back and forth.
  • The Yes Men impersonate the powerful with fake press releases and public appearances to create a “what if?” situation. For a brief moment they pranked the media into believing that DuPont was actually going to act justly by compensating the 100,000 victims of the Bhopal chemical spill. “Before the hoax is revealed, we think, ‘Am I dreaming? Could I possibly be living in such a world?”[ix] Such deception is not meant to last, but rather to make us wonder for a moment: Why don’t we live in such a world? And whenever “reality” is restored, it is never quite as absolute or secure as before. Maybe the evil we know does not need to be “the truth” after all.
  • Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping employs an evangelistic preaching style to target the consumerism and greed laying waste to the earth. With choral singing, preaching, masks and dance, his community occupies bank lobbies to proclaim a hectic judgment upon the sins of the system, troubling the sleep of customers and bankers and disturbing the complacency of business as usual.
  • The UK’s laboratory of insurrectionary imagination “merges art and life, creativity and resistance, proposition and opposition.”[x] Believing that collective action is enhanced by a shared sense of identity, they create temporary affinity groups which work together in the course of a protest. Masks and black clothing to create visual unity are one example. Another is “the rebel clown army,” using clowning to subvert any serious regard for the pretensions of the powerful. As was overheard on a police radio at a demonstration in 2003, “The clowns are organizing … the clowns are organizing … over and out.”[xi]
  • The Choir Project was founded in Cairo by Salam Yousry, inspired by Finland’s Complaint Choir. Both professional and amateur singers collectively write and compose songs about daily struggles, political conflict, and human hope. Then they take their voices to the streets, sometimes walking backward as well as forward, penetrating public spaces with vital questions. Unlike spoken or written protest rhetoric, their message is delivered in a medium that charms and allures. The practice has spread to other cities such as Paris, Beirut, London, Berlin, Istanbul and Warsaw. Imagine American cities radiant with the voices of such prophetic singers moving in our midst, making their psalmic laments an urban soundtrack for our desperate time:

I have a question
If I don’t voice it if I suppress it
My head will explode
What’s going on?

Who’s setting us back?
Who’s starving us?
Who’s destroying our joy?
Who’s calling us traitors?
Who’s dividing us?
Who’s repressing us?
What’s going on?[xii]

Art activism is as old as the Bible, from the prophets’ performance art to Jesus’ dramatized subversion of worldly power when he made his “kingly” entry on a donkey. The Book of Revelation, in its radical critique of Empire and its vision of a redeemed and restored creation, is a vivid counternarrative to encourage the faithful in a time of persecution.

In dark times, we can, we must, still live as children of the light—the custodians of hope—enacting rituals and images, as well as daily practices of kindness, solidarity and justice, to express and anticipate the emergent world of divine favor and human flourishing. As for the powers, God laughs them to scorn, and God’s friends, thankfully, are in on the joke.

So let the Resistance begin, in as many forms as we can imagine. May it always be courageous, creative, revelatory, empowering, passionate, constant, artful—and, by all means, alluring.

 

Related posts

Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now

“Rise Up” poster image by Brooke McGowen under Creative Commons License
http://occuprint.org/Posters/RiseUpSun

[i] “The Art of Activism,” in Truth Is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, ed. Steirischer Herbst & Florian Malzacher (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015), 57 This book, based on a 170 hour 24/7 teach-in, may be hard to find in the United States. I bought my copy this fall at one of my favorite bookshops, The Literary Guillotine in Santa Cruz, California. A more easily available book on the same subject may be Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution by Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell, to be published on St. Lucy’s Day, Dec. 13, 2016.

[ii] “Self-Empowering,” in Truth Is Concrete, 98

[iii] Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 211

[iv] Truth Is Concrete, 151

[v] Mammonart, q. in Truth, 63-65

[vi] Truth, 123

[vii] Srda Popovic, Truth, 120

[viii] Artúr van Balen, Truth, 138-9

[ix] Andrew Boyd, “Reality Bending”, in Truth, 154

[x] Truth, 185

[xi] John Jordan, Truth, 246

[xii] The Choir Project, Truth, 142-3 You can see the choir at work in Budapest on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RKC7zSgdyc

The World’s End (An Advent Manifesto)

Standing Rock police assault Water Protectors with fire hoses.

Standing Rock police assault Water Protectors with fire hoses.

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting.
It is also a time of protest and vision.

As the election consequences unfold, Advent seems less a ritual preparation for Christmas than a realistic description of where we find ourselves in a darkening world. Pitting hope against despair, Advent calls us to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” My last post proposed 7 Spiritual Practices for the Time of Trial. I want to follow that by revisiting a post from November 2014, an Advent manifesto which seems even more timely today. 

When I was 8 years old, I read in LIFE magazine that in so many millions of years, the sun would burn out and life on earth would cease. This worried me, so I asked my parents, “If the world is going to end, how come we say “world without end” when we pray?” And they told me what the Bible says, that heaven and earth may pass away, but God remains. That relieved some of my anxiety, but I still wasn’t sure I liked the idea of the world ending, even if God was in charge.

Of course the world ends all the time. When I moved from California to Puget Sound in the 1990’s, my first Northwest winter felt like a biblical apocalypse: the sun was darkened and the moon gave no light.

Who among us has not seen their world end? Adolescents exiled from childhood. Black teenagers robbed of their future. Elders deprived of their health. Unemployment …retirement …divorce … the death of a parent, a spouse, a child — in every one of these, a world comes to an end.

For anyone who has known serious loss, this is more than metaphor. The experience of grief can be so total and unrelenting that you can’t see anything beyond it. You can’t imagine the future. It feels like the end of the world.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. [i]

W.H. Auden was invoking apocalyptic metaphors to express personal loss, but shared, public worlds also come to an end. As in 1789, or 1914. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. 9/11.My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.

But why bring up such dreary stuff on this first day of the new Christian year? Shouldn’t we be breaking out the party hats, blowing horns and shouting “Happy New Year?” The wisdom of the Advent season is that it never begins with “A Holy Trinity Production,” or “The Creator of the World Presents.” No, it always opens with “The End.” Advent knows that every beginning involves some kind of ending. In this season’s Scripture, preaching and prayers, the present arrangements of collective and personal life are judged and found wanting. God’s imagination is far too rich and fertile to settle for our barren and diminished versions of human possibility.

Selfishness, greed, consumerism? Fear, racism and violence? Poverty, militarism, war, environmental degradation? That’s the best we can do? Really? God must be saying, “Come on, people. I made you a little lower than the angels, and this is what you came up with?”

George Eliot said “it is never too late to become what you might have been.” But to get to that “might have been” requires an Exodus into the wilderness beyond the way things are; an Exodus beyond even the best we can imagine for ourselves, into a place of unknowing, where only God possesses the language to speak our future into being.

So much of what we hear and pray and sing in Advent is profoundly disruptive. Bob Franke’s great Advent song, “Stir up your power,” gets right to it in the first line: This world may no longer stand. We are meant to be unsettled, to be driven beyond our narrow boundaries, our constricted realities, toward a beckoning horizon. The Christian life is a perpetual series of departures for a better place.

The world as it is – the world of racial hatred and toxic violence and economic injustice and perpetual war and addictive consumerism and pollution for profit and all the other evils which poison our common life – this world has no future in the emergent Kingdom of God.This world may no longer stand.

But the story doesn’t stop there. In my end is my beginning.[ii] Even when we have gone far astray, even when our story seems over, God remains deeply present in the processes of creation, tenderly leading and luring us into newness of life, making a way where there is no way, opening doors that none can shut.

Advent people do not just wring their hands or shake their heads over the latest news from Ferguson or the Middle East. We work and pray for something better. What we can do on our own is limited, but when we offer our priorities and energies to the larger purposes of God, Love will have its way with us.

As the Christian mystic Hadewijch put it in the thirteenth century:

Since I gave myself to Love’s service,
Whether I lose or win,
I am resolved:
I will always give her thanks,
Whether I lose or win;
I will stand in her power. [iii]

It is not always easy to stand in Love’s power and keep the faith. In some situations it is almost unimaginable. Forty years ago the African-American author James Baldwin wrote:

To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend – which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn – and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. [iv]

This passionate mixture of protest and love sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets who permeate our Advent lectionary, making their prophetic plea for history to be broken open by divine justice:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …
to make your name known to those who resist you,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! [v]

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting. It is also a time of protest and vision. Advent announces an insurgency against the way things are, a revolution to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, raise the lowly, gather the lost, free the captive, and bind up the brokenhearted. Advent re-imagines the world as paradise restored, a new heaven and new earth suffused with the peace of God.

this is the day of broken sky
this is the space of conflagration-breath
speaking border-trespass
this is the feathered swoop of heaven
on the wing of now …
forking lightning into language …
breaking god into prison …
breaking the truth from jail! …

This is the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
spitting flames of reconciliation
in the sky of war
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!

this is pentecost in your head
like becoming what you never dared
for the first time and forever

This ecstatic prophecy is from a poem by Jim Perkinson. [vi] He was talking about Pentecost, but his theme fits Advent as well:

“the day of broken sky”
the earth in conflagration
God breaking into the prisons
the truth being set loose at last
and “the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!”

And each of us, all of us, becoming what we never dared.

When Jesus tells us to stay awake, he is warning us not to sleep through the day of God’s coming. Stay alert. Pay attention. Don’t miss it! Become what you never dared. Shake off the sleep of complacency, the sleep of complicity, the sleep of despair. Awake and greet the new dawn.

Jan Richardson describes this dawning reality in her beautiful poem, “Drawing Near.” [vii]

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see…

Richardson accurately expresses the sense of distant horizon that prevents the dominant reality of the moment from closing in on us and locking us in. That reality wants to be believed as fixed and final, permanent and stable. But the horizon calls every finality into question, disrupting its stability with the boundlessness of divine possibility. The horizon draws our attention from what is given to what may yet be. Keeping our eye on the horizon, feeling its pull, is the spiritual practice of Advent. Richardson’s poem expresses the deep longing produced by the distance between the already and the not-yet.

And then the poet discovers what every pilgrim knows: the goal of our long journey is something that has already been inscribed deep within us even before our journey began. Even before the day we were born, we were marked as God’s own forever.

And that is where Advent ultimately leaves us – finding that the thing we have been seeking so long has been with us all the time – within us, and all around us. While we have been walking our Camino to the Promised land, our feet have already been on holy ground, every step of the way. And the God of the far horizon turns out to be the path as well, keeping us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world.

So when Advent people talk about the end of the world, we are speaking about end in the sense of purpose rather than termination. The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling,” and the apocalypse in our future will not be an annihilation, but a revealing of the world’s ultimate purpose and destiny.

Yes, all the inadequate, incomplete versions of world will come to an end (some of them kicking and screaming!), but creation as it was intended will be restored, not discarded. Like a poet who creates a new language out of old words, Love will remake the ruins and recover the lost. And the Holy One who is the mystery of the world will be its light and its life forever.

This Advent faith is expressed memorably in a short story by British writer Carol Lake, “The Day of Judgment.” On the Last Day of the world, God sails into England aboard a new Ark. But instead of bringing history to a close and pronouncing judgment on everyone, God leaves the Ark to enter the city of Derby. Heading for the run-down inner city neighborhood of Rosehill, he joins the crowd at a local pub, a multi-ethnic mix of the working poor and the unemployed. And there God gets so caught up in being with these people that he loses track of time, and the Ark sails away without him, heading off for the horizon of eternity. As the story describes it:

The Ark is on the edge of the horizon now, its destination the heartlessness of perfection. Most of the inmates already know what they are going to find – endless fruit, endless harmony, endless entropy, endless endless compassion, black and white in endless inane tableaux of equality. It sails off to a perfect world; the sky has turned into rich primary colors and in the distance the Ark bobs about on a bright blue sea.” [viii]

Meanwhile, God is still in that Rosehill pub, in the very heart of imperfection. If you had walked in there, you would have had a hard time picking him out. He blended right in. But if you were paying attention, you might notice that there was now something different about Rosehill. The old non-descript streets and dilapidated buildings had taken on a strange beauty. Maybe it was the warm slant of afternoon light, but people were beginning to see their neighborhood in a new way. And their own faces, too, seemed to glow with an inner radiance, as if they were carrying a wonderful secret, tacitly shared with everyone around them, as if they suddenly knew there was more to life than meets the eye.

They were still poor, the world was still a mess, but something new was in the air, a spirit of change was awakening. And from that day on, the people of Rosehill found themselves becoming what they’d never dared, for the first time and forever.

 

[i] W.H. Auden, “Twelve Songs (ix)”, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (NY: Random House, 1976), 120

[ii] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1974), 191

[iii] Hadewijch: The Complete Works, trans. Mother Columba Hart, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 213

[iv] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (NY: Dell, 1972), 194

[v] Isaiah 64:1-2

[vi] Jim Perkinson, “tongues-talk,” q. in Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 157-8

[vii] Jan Richardson, “Drawing Near” (http://adventdoor.com/2012/11/25/advent-1-drawing-near)

[viii] Carol Lake, Rosehill: Portraits from a Midlands City (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), 119

7 Spiritual Practices: A To-do List for the Time of Trial

Chi-Rho, ancient monogram for Christ (wall of Greek monastery in Meteora)

Chi-Rho, ancient monogram for Christ (wall of Greek monastery in Meteora)

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure,
one little word shall fell him.

— Martin Luther

Save us from the time of trial . . .

— The Lord’s Prayer

 

Last week’s question was, What happened? This week, we are beginning to ask, What now? After the tears and the shock, the heartache and the nausea, how do we pull ourselves together and begin to resist the downward spiral of hate, fear, and planetary suicide?

As I was refilling the birdfeeders in our backyard on 11/9, choruses of chickadees and juncos signaled their pleasure. The beauty of the natural world provided welcome solace on a grim morning, and for a moment I imagined myself an insular neutral in a remote Swiss valley during World War II, or a cloistered monk during the Dark Ages, quietly tending my little Eden while chaos raged somewhere far away.

But retreat isn’t really an option. It’s not just love of country that makes me unwilling to concede our future to “the power of the dog” (Psalm 22:19). The fate of the entire world is at stake. This country has enormous influence and impact. If the American heart gets painted black, the suffering will be universal.

A friend in Virginia sent me a Mexican proverb after the election: “They thought they’d buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” Exactly! We carry the power of springtime within us, to outlast the darkest winter and “restore earth’s own true loveliness once more.”[i]

Thinking about where to begin, I have reflected on seven verbs of spiritual practice. It’s a small offering to our ongoing collective conversation, and comments, arguments, and shares are welcome.

Pray

When evil threatens and courage fails, prayer remembers a greater power, the life-giving Source enabling us to endure and flourish. Both privately and in community, let us make daily intercession for our country, its leaders, and all who work to make it better. Let us also ask for the strength, patience, wisdom and courage to navigate the next four years. Our fiercest energies, anxieties, longings and passions are cries that will pierce the heavens. God support and save us!

But the prayerful life is not just a matter of words and devotional practices. It is a way of being, an all-consuming relationship of deep trust in the infinite and unconquerable Love who loves us. Even in times of suffering and doubt, the prayerful ones speak as if they are being heard. “Thy will be done,” cry the prisoners of hope. And, as Scripture promises, God provides.

If we are seeds, faith makes the best soil. We are not alone. It’s not entirely up to us. God will outwit our worst failings. Resurrection has the last word.

Fast

I have had to fast from the news since the election. The awfulness of the presidential appointments, the childish tweets, the widespread outbreaks of bigotry and bullying, the sneering of the haters and the fears of the vulnerable—it is all so ugly and maddening. Many of the discussions on social media are equally distressing. So many trolls, so much ignorance and bitterness. If I drink too much of the stuff, I’m soon spinning down the rabbit hole into a dystopian Wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser, to say the least.

But the peace of my soul is not the only reason for a news fast. Evil is like Medusa’s face. Gaze too long and you turn to stone, transfixed by horror. How do we hate hate without becoming hateful ourselves? The rage provoked by repugnant beliefs, bad behavior and delusional assertions can become addictive. It feels good to denounce the rascals and villains. It’s even entertaining to watch others do it. We think we are resisting evil, only to discover we are actually increasing its power as we succumb to its mesmerizing grammar.

Of course we need stay informed if we are to resist effectively. But bad news, whether fact or fiction, is like a plague. We should be mindful of its infectious toxicity. Remember to fast from evil and feast on goodness.

Repent

Every day ought to include honest self-examination: Where and how have I impeded or ignored the divine project of transforming lives and sanctifying the universe? How can I change my life to cooperate more fully with Love’s unfolding future?

Righteous indignation is natural right now, but it is also dangerous, because it may fail to “include itself in the problem against which it reacts. It judges in a divisive way, pitting ‘me’ against the rest . . .”[ii]

It is very tempting to point fingers and call people names, but that is not a constructive path to addressing the pain and anger festering in the American psyche. I’m not sure exactly how to pursue that path in a divided nation, but believe that the repentance of the “righteous” is an important step. Whatever injustices, slights, resentments or pathologies may underlie this election, we all have all played some part, even if only by passivity and default. However noble our intentions or wishes may be, we are all participants in a society where suffering is unequally distributed and great damage to people and planet is done every day in our name.

As Simon Tugwell writes in his book on the Beatitudes, even the “innocent” and the “good” are implicated in “the whole situation of wrongness, in which we and everybody else are caught up from the very moment of our birth.”

The saving image that comes to mind for me is the scene in The Brothers Karamazov when that dysfunctional K family is arguing and posturing in the monastic cell of Father Zossima. Their loud bickering, as bullying and shameless as a Trump rally, is especially shocking in the presence of such a holy and gentle man. The elder remains silent, making no attempt to intervene. Then, suddenly, he stands up, steps forward to one of the brothers—the one he intuits to be suffering the most—and kneels before him. Bowing his forehead to touch the ground, he says, “Forgive me! Forgive me, all of you!”[iii]

Prophesy

The practice of forgiveness and compassion does not mean we remain silent about what is wrong, unjust, or destructive in our common life. And we must never allow Trump’s behavior or crazy talk to be normalized. His promised actions, from mass deportations to torture to environmental destruction, are not the customary swing of the pendulum. And his proto-fascist attack on democracy has no precedent in our history. Such things are evil-minded folly, “leading us straight to tragedy.”[iv]

Like the biblical prophets and their American successors like Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and the Berrigans, we must denounce evil, confront the powers, envision the good, and exhort the better angels of our nature. Over the next four years, the unemployment rate among prophets should reach an all-time low.

That a majority of white Christians voted for Trump does raise troubling questions about the efficacy of religious teaching. As Clarence Jordan said fifty years ago, the biggest lie told in America today is, “Jesus is Lord.” But God is surprisingly resourceful, and the Trump years may be a refiner’s fire, forging a more faithful witnessing Church out of the flames. In any case, Jesus’ friends do not have the luxury of an uninvolved, privatized religion. We are being called most urgently to raise our voices, practice our faith, and minister to the vulnerable in the public square, whatever the cost.

As Thomas Merton wrote when the national conscience was being seriously tested in the 1960s, Christians must either “face the anguish of being a true prophet” or “enjoy the carrion comfort of acceptance in the society of the deluded by becoming a false prophet and participating in their delusions.”[v]

Love

In times of great calamity or loss, the need to connect intensifies and conversations multiply. In recent days, many of us have engaged with friends and strangers over coffee, on social media, at worship and in the streets, seeking comfort, encouragement, shared concern and collective wisdom. As labor activist Joe Hill told his supporters just before he was murdered by the state of Utah, “Don’t mourn. Organize!”

But Love won’t let us stay huddled in circles of the like-minded. In a 1969 BBC production of the gospel story, many are bewildered when Jesus commands them to love their enemies. They start to grumble at such a hard teaching. “It is easy to love only those who love you,” Jesus tells them. “Would I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?”[vi]

How do I love my enemies even as I reject and resist the harm they inflict? As hard as it may be to cross the divide between ourselves and those who offend or outrage us, God will not let us do otherwise. There is no “us” and “them” in the Kingdom. Simon Tugwell puts this as well as any:

“It is theologically and philosophically disastrous to envisage heaven and hell sitting side by side forever, each bearing witness to the failure of the other . . . According to the classic Christian ascetic tradition, it is always futile to squander our anger on one another. That is a waste of anger. Anger is made to be directed against the demonic, not against our fellow men and women.”[vii]

Let it begin with our crazy relative at Thanksgiving dinner, but eventually, like it or not, we’ll have to work our way up to loving Steve Bannon and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as well. Unimaginable? Jesus never said it would be easy.

Serve

In the Book of Common Prayer, the newly baptized commit to a lifetime of service, to “persevere in resisting evil … to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself . . . to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”[viii]

In all my post-election conversations, my friends have expressed a fresh resolve to be changemakers, to take on some new commitment that will make a difference. Episcopal priest Bill Teska, a friend in Minneapolis, offered a longtime activist’s suggestions on Facebook:

“It is time to get busy. Go to meetings. Go to demonstrations. Give whatever you can to organized non-violence resistance. I would say that qualifies as almsgiving, because the end is the defense of the poor and helpless.”

And another priest-friend, Gary Hall, posted this on his blog:

“We must, like the earliest Christians, be prepared to present ourselves as a counter-force and counter-culture to imperial values and norms… As alienated as we may now feel, we will find our antidote to depression in civic engagement on behalf of the gospel, confident that a new day is coming to be born.”[ix]

There are countless ways to light candles in this darkness. Find yours.

Hope

 Last weekend many of us were wondering how the first post-election Saturday Night Live would find anything funny in what America had just done. But instead of the expected opening comedy skit, the brilliant Kate McKinnon simply sang Leonard Cohen’s aching lament:

… And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Thanks be to God, history’s outcome is not up to us. Whatever follies we commit in sin or ignorance, God’s kindnesses are never exhausted. Should heaven and earth pass away, the Love who loves us remains. Kill the Author of life and she will rise again. This is our radical, wild hope. It is why we sing Hallelujah even at the grave. Even in the deepest hell.

Practice this hope every day, every hour. And pass it on.

 

 

 

[i] From an Advent hymn, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry”, words by Charles Coffin, tr. Charles Winfred Douglas after John Chandler. The Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #76

[ii] Simon Tugwell, The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1985), 87

[iii] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 74-5

[iv] Marty Kaplan,” Taking Our Country Back,” Moyers and Company website, Nov. 15, 2016: http://billmoyers.com/story/taking-country-back/

[v] Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (68), q. in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 374

[vi] Son of Man (BBC Television, 1969) With an interesting script by Dennis Potter, this can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9atVsTh4C-0

[vii] Tugwell, 87-9

[viii] Rite of Holy Baptism, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (New York: (Oxford University Press, 1979), 304-5

[ix] Gary Hall, “Responding to the Election” (Nov. 15, 2016): http://figbag.blogspot.com/2016/11/responding-to-election-paper-for-madres.html

Members of the Same Body? A Post-Election Homily

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1828)

Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1828)

What just happened? Has half the country endorsed hate, fear, ignorance, racism, white nationalism, misogyny, sexual assault, xenophobia, environmental suicide, nuclear instability, and a war against the poor, the immigrant and the “other?” It has certainly given us the sickening prospect of unprecedented vulgarity, cheesiness, immaturity, dishonesty and self-dealing in the White House for the indefinite future.

Is this a case of “they know not what they do?” Those who proudly wear swastikas or Klan hoods, or wallow in the swamp of alt-right delusion, knew exactly what they were doing, but they are relatively small in number. A far larger faction has argued that while Trump might be a “scumbag” (to quote a Facebook friend who voted for him), his opponent, seen through the lens of misogynist fears and Republican fictions, was far worse.

Then there are the pragmatists and cynics who accept the Trumpian nightmare as unavoidable collateral damage in the war for political victory, ideological supremacy, “moral” and “religious” agendas, control of the Supreme Court, and economic privilege. They might cry a few tears for the victims, but somewhere deep down they “love the smell of napalm in the morning” because “it smells like victory.”[i]

And for the many who have swallowed Trump’s vague promises at face value, he is the strong man who will cure what ails them and make America great again. But the authoritarian dream is a con game, “a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[ii]

Trump has great appeal for the dispossessed who burn with resentment and pain, the ones so long ignored, laughed at, or forgotten by a world which has left them behind. Trump’s very awfulness makes him the perfect weapon for striking back. “To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites.”[iii]

Of course, my own sense of bewilderment and shock at the outcome brands me as one of the arrogant and clueless elite. For the crime of writing my last post, Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now, I have had to sweep up my share of broken glass. But where do we go from here? Are truth and reconciliation viable options in such a divided America? Can’t we all get along?

I addressed this very question in a homily following the presidential election in 2004. It was preached at the Episcopal cathedral in Philadelphia, where I had spent a week getting out the vote. The same lectionary readings will be read in the churches this coming Sunday. Portions of what I preached then remain relevant today, and I publish them here:

At the end of the eighteenth century, the President of the United States, supported by the religious right and a wealthy elite, began to round up dissidents and throw journalists in jail. And he garnered support for this assault upon civil liberties by stirring up fears about war and foreign enemies while dividing the country along the fault lines of self-interest and resentment.

The Vice President, deeply disturbed by this mockery of America’s founding ideals of liberty and the common good, tried to summon hope.

“A little patience,” he wrote, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. … If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.”

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1798.

Eighteen centuries earlier, Jesus surveyed the prospect of imminent public disaster, and how the game would run against his own followers:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be earthquakes, famines and plague.
And you will be hunted down, arrested, thrown in jail.
Some of you will be killed.
But don’t give in to fear.
Endure. Endure. Keep the faith and you will be saved.[iv]

Jesus’ prophetic vision mingled the political with the cosmic. Jefferson’s concerns were more specifically political, but he also sensed that larger issues were involved. “Principles were at stake.”

But if principles are at stake, is any common ground possible between opposing views? Compromise is the enemy of conviction. As the prophet Malachi wrote:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts…[v]

In the end, Malachi suggests an alternate possibility: The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.[vi] But is that only possible once the demonized “other” has been eliminated?

The dream of forging a new order with blood and fire has mesmerized much of human history, and the Bible sometimes veers in that direction, the direction of “sacred violence”—violence that intends a better world.

Sacred violence has its allure: the dream of remaking the world with force. It’s the dream of terrorists, it’s the dream of the Christian right, and if we ourselves are honest, it’s a dream each of us can understand. Who among us could not suggest a few “arrogant evildoers” as appropriate stubble for God’s cleansing fire? I’ve got my list.

But the Bible, unlike the terrorist, tends to take the point of view of the victim of violence, a perspective which destabilizes all notions of violence as sacred or good. The Son of God hanging on the cross makes all violence suspect.

When the last of the prophets, John the Baptist, considered the tree that fails to produce good fruit, he said, “Chop it down and burn it.” But if we did that, if we really did that, what would be left but a world of stumps and ashes?

When Jesus began his ministry, he renounced the Baptist’s axe, and let himself be nailed upon that barren tree. And by his act of powerless love, he awakened us from the mesmerizing dream of violence and vengeance and victory over our enemies, and made the earth fruitful at last with the feast of forgiveness, the banquet of reconciliation, the food and drink of new and unending life in God.

But how far we now seem from such reconciliation in our civil war between red and blue, rich and poor, rural and urban! If right-wing extremists hate the idea of being in communion with progressives in America, the feeling is certainly mutual. How do we live with these people? How do we dance with these people? Are we not in fact “two nations under God?”[vii]

O Jesus! O Jefferson! Where lies our hope in such a time? Can we endure, as Jesus counsels? Keep on keeping on. This too shall pass.

An imperial, bellicose, gluttonous America is unsustainable in the long run. Reality is simply against it. Whether it’s environmental disaster, economic collapse, civil strife, a Middle East quagmire, or the spiritual costs of building our politics on selfishness and lies, the bill will come due. Must it be the cleansing fire of apocalypse?

Or is there a way of national transformation not so costly to the earth and its people? Is it possible to forge together a political and economic life guided by the better angels of our nature?

In 1630 a little ship called the Arabella brought a group of immigrants to the shores of this country. Their leader, John Winthrop, preached to them before they disembarked: We shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

His words would be taken out of context in the 1980s to celebrate a selfish and greedy America of unbridled private interest, where it was believed that the opposite of “wrong” was “poor.” But in fact, the heart of Winthrop’s sermon proposed a vision of the common good that remains unsurpassed in its description of public life as the space where we act out our essential connectedness:

…we must be knit together in this work as one… We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.

Is this really possible? Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.

Jesus says, “Endure. Keep the faith and you will be saved.” [viii]
Paul says, “Never tire of doing good,”[ix]

Is anybody listening?

Related Posts

We Are the Singers of Life, Not of Death

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

[i] Robert Duvall utters this famous line during a battle in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979)

[ii] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West,” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51

[iii] David Wong, “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind”, Cracked, Oct. 12, 2016: http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-trumps-rise-that-no-one-talks-about/  Wong’s analysis is a must-read.

[iv] Luke 21:10-11, 16-18

[v] Malachi 4:1

[vi] Malachi 4:2a

[vii] Thomas Friedman, New York Times, Nov. 2004

[viii] Luke 21:19

[ix] II Thessalonians 3:13

Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now

bosch-hell-cub

Whatever happens on Election Day, the fact that close to half of American voters are willing to embrace the most dangerous and disgusting presidential candidate in American history makes me tremble for my country. With just three days until we choose our fate, here’s my top ten of the catastrophic nightmares currently slouching toward Washington.

1) Climate change       Environmental policies rooted in denial, ignorance, and greed would do irreparable damage to this planet. Time is literally running out. Four years of suicidal idiocy could be irreversible. For this alone, a vote for Trump is both senseless and unforgivable.

2) Nuclear threat      Giving control of the world’s most powerful military, not to mention the nuclear codes, to an emotional toddler is clearly insane.

3) Fascism       Believe me. I alone can make America great. Everyone else is stupid. Trump is part of a worldwide erosion of democracy by a resurgent authoritarianism. Fear and hate have made many sell their souls to naked power. When fascism spread in 1930’s Europe, Americans were confident that “it can’t happen here.” Now we aren’t so sure.

4) Hatred     Racism, bigotry, misogyny, bullying, scapegoating and political violence have been making a shocking comeback, with Trump as their enthusiastic cheerleader. He has endorsed and normalized the most vile sins of the American shadow. God help us should he and his alt-right thugs and cronies ever come to power.

5) Supreme Court    Imagine a Trump majority for the next 25 years.

6) From Russia with love     Trump’s crush on Putin, combined with his own stupendous ignorance, would make him Russia’s perfect fool. Throw in Trump’s extensive financial ties to Russia, and the downside risk to global stability is considerable.

7) Republicans strike back      If the right gets its way, millions will lose their health care, the rich will get richer, the earth will be plundered, minorities will be oppressed, the debt will explode, and the lucky few will escape to Canada.

8) Cultural debasement      Under Trump, the Puritans’ shining city on a hill would become a putrid swamp of vulgarity, sleaze, bigotry and selfishness. I don’t really understand why so many Christians love this guy. To quote Holden Caulfield, “Jesus would puke” at the shameless vanity of Trumpworld.

9) Corruption     Trump’s businesses, already suspect for their history of exploited workers, unpaid contractors, cheated investors, and shady international ties, would not go into a blind trust, but be carried on by his children. That should go well.

10) Stupidity     When I was laughing off the Trump candidacy in a London pub a year ago, a British woman gave me a sobering warning. “Watch out,” she said. “When Boris Johnson ran for mayor of London, he made the whole political process dumber. Trump could do the same thing to you.” And as we have witnessed, the bar has been lowered beyond belief. We are in danger of electing a man of unfathomable ignorance and stupifying shallowness, who has neither capacity nor desire to learn or grow.

That’s my list and I’m sticking to it. God save our country from such a fate. I have recently read about conservative pastors warning their congregations that voting Democratic would condemn them to hell. I myself would never presume to foretell the afterlife of any voter. But I am pretty sure of one thing. No one need go to hell if Trump is elected. Hell will already have come to us.

 

Related posts

Can This Be Happening? Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

How Far Can We Sink? – Donald Trump and the Vortex of Rage

Dreading and Hoping All: Thoughts about Halloween

img_2957

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all.

— William Butler Yeats[i]

The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom then should I fear?

— Psalm 27:1

 

When children assume alternative identities to roam the streets on All Hallows Eve (Halloween), they are performing an ancient ritual of interaction between the realms of the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. The proliferation of characters from pop culture may have diluted the otherworldly explicitness of the more traditional ghosts, monsters and witches, but the strangeness remains. Whatever the costumes may be, for one night an entire generation disappears into a procession of fantastic and otherworldly beings, disturbing the settled normality of our neighborhoods.

The American Halloween traces its origins to Samhain (“summer’s end”), the Celtic New Year marking the end of harvest and the onset of winter. As the zero point between an exhausted past and time’s renewal, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was considered a critical moment for both nature and humanity. Life itself hung in the balance (would Spring ever return?), and the boundary between the visible world and whatever lay beyond it grew thin and porous. Spirits, fairies, and even the human dead were thought to be abroad at such a time, because everything was at stake and everyone wanted a vote in whatever happened.

The ancient Celts were ambivalent about the disruptive presence of so many immigrants from the Other Side. They lit fires and carried jack-o-lanterns to guide and warm the spirits in the autumnal night, but also to ward them off. They set out food and drink not just for hospitality but also for appeasement. They wore masks and costumes to imitate and honor the uncanny beings, but also to scare them away, or prevent them from recognizing and harming the vulnerable humans behind the masks.

In their uneasy relationship with the mysteries of death and transcendence, were the Celts so unlike ourselves? We sense in otherness both threat and gift. It stirs both dread and hope.

I know that some Christians, both past and present, have fretted about the “paganism” of seasonal rituals, as though deep attention to the rhythms and patterns of cosmos and psyche will deform rather than enrich our collective wisdom. But I think we would do well to consider the gifts of ancestral experience in the matter of living harmoniously with time and nature. How might we use pre-Christian dimensions of All Hallows Eve, for example, to take us deeper into an authentic spiritual practice of embodied, earthly existence?

Many years ago, as liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, I designed an All Hallows Eve ritual incorporating the Halloween themes of mortality, anxiety and the otherworldly into a eucharistic celebration for All Saints’ Day. The luminosity of saintly lives would shine even brighter, I thought, against the deepest black of our mortal uncertainty and fear.

Our publicity described the event as “an autumnal ritual to mark the season of darkening with ancient customs, wherein life and light are reaffirmed. We will conclude with a festival eucharist for All Saints’ Day.”

Many participants came dressed as their favorite saint (broadly defined to include such non-canonical moderns as John Muir, Emily Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day). Those without costumes were provided with a symbol to carry, such as a lantern (truth-seeker), book (theologian or writer), musical instrument (musician), or protest sign (activist). Everyone wore a mask to help us disappear for the moment into an anonymous collectivity.

Some 200 strong, with drums, kazoos and other noisemakers, we processed outside, around the block, behind a large papier-maché sun, which would soon enact for us the season’s decline into winter. When we finally made our way into the church, our only light was the flickering glow of a few dozen jack-o-lanterns scattered around the interior.

Once everyone was inside, with the sun symbol lifted high at the head of the nave, the presider said:

As the sun departs from us, depriving us of light and warmth, call to mind the things which make you afraid or anxious, the things which darken your own lives and turn your hearts cold. Consider as well all the forces and follies which threaten the health of this planet and the well-being of God’s creatures.

And when the sun has gone, take off your mask, and face the darkness with all the trust and faith that is in you. We are not alone. The true Light of the world remains, hidden within the deepest night.

Audio of flowing electronic drones began the fill the vast Romanesque space as the sun made its slow way back down the nave and out the door. Once it had disappeared, the music faded out, and with thoughtful solemnity we all began to remove our masks. Our true faces revealed at last, we simply waited in the quiet darkness with prayerful attention.

Several minutes passed.
Then an unaccompanied singer, somewhere in the dark, broke the silence:

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,
who thee, by faith, before the world confessed.
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia.[ii]

This initiated a series of theatrical blackouts depicting the saints. A spotlight would come on to show a performer employing words, music or movement to represent a particular saint. When the spot switched off, another saint was illumined in a different part of the church. There were nine saints in all.

After the final blackout, all these saints, now robed in white and carrying candles, converged toward the altar as an unseen narrator read from Revelation 7:

After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .

The saints were all standing together at the altar when the reader concluded:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . .
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Then the saints all raised their candles high and shouted with one voice: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” The organ began to play variations on Vaughan Williams’ great hymn for All Saints as our own hand candles were lit by the saints moving among us, until everyone was joined in a luminous refutation of eternal darkness.

The eucharistic feast of the redeemed had begun,

and God, as promised,
proves to be mercy clothed in light.[iii]

 

 

 

 

[i] “Death,” q. in Sandra M. Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 127

[ii] Text by William Walsham How (1823-1897), in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 287

[iii] Jane Kenyon, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

It Ain’t Me, Babe: Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize

One of my prized 45s is this obscure single, released Dec. 21, 1965.

One of my prized 45s is this obscure single, released Dec. 21, 1965.

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.[i]

All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row [ii]

Little red wagon, little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like [iii]

Whenever the Nobel Prize for literature is announced, the American response is often “Who?” In our cultural insularity, few of us know their work or even their names. Not this year. Everybody’s heard of Dylan, and many can recite his lyrics.

The surprise in 2016 stems from the bursting of old academic wineskins. What constitutes literature, anyway? Some of the literary establishment are unhappy that a songwriter tainted with lower-brow genres of popular culture (and currently performing in Las Vegas!) should steal the laurels from more “serious” candidates such as Syrian poet Adonis or Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It’s “a joke,” fumed one French writer. A Scottish novelist dismissed the Nobel committee as “gibbering hippies.” [iv]

But if the linguistic arts trace their origins to the sung poetry of shared rituals, and Homer, the father of western literature, was a blind singer-songwriter who never put pen to paper, then Dylan can justly claim an ancient lineage, and stretching the definition of literature to include his work seems more restoration than innovation.

While Dylan’s jumping the queue ahead of American writers like Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Don DeLillo might seem inappropriate to some, it is at least defensible. Oates herself calls the award “an inspired and original choice. His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the best sense, ‘literary.’” [v]

Dylan has certainly had his down periods of uneven albums and terrible concerts. I myself have endured one too many evenings of mumbled words, mangled melodies, and an almost contemptuous stage presence. But to sustain such an influential and ever-evolving body of work over half a century, bridging the cultural divide between high and low, making the play of language a lever to move the world, is an astonishing achievement. His poetic and musical gifts have so often given voice to the collective longing of our “subterranean homesick blues.” They have also taken us inward, to the places of the heart where “we sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” [vi]

As Bruce Springsteen has written, “Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become. He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans . . .” [vii]

Dylan was the soundtrack for my own coming of age. During my first year of college in 1963, a classmate thrust Dylan’s first album into my hands. “You’ve got to hear this,” he said. As soon as that growling, barbaric yawp started blasting out of the speakers, I was spellbound. Like so many others, I took up the guitar just so I could play his songs. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (from his second album), was my first attempt (key of D with its easy chords). By my senior year, dozens of Dylan songs were in my repertoire. I even learned the ten-minute “Desolation Row” by heart, once performing it on Rome’s Spanish Steps, by the house where Keats died, during a post-graduate summer of hitchhiking Europe with my guitar.

In Berkeley on March 28, 1965, I caught one of Dylan’s final all-acoustic concerts, just before the release of Bringing It All Back Home, the first album in his unmatched trilogy (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde would follow). Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were sitting up front. Hippies and Hell’s Angels mixed with students and professors. The hall was charged with anticipation. From “Gates of Eden” to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” it was an amazing night.

It was the first time I ever heard “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Top 40 radio, or even Dylan’s previous work, had not really prepared me for the trippy ride “upon that magic swirling ship.” Behind its dazzling succession of vivid images, I recognized something primal and urgent, the call to leave everything and to follow, to look everywhere for the “windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”

As a poetic equivalent of the kingdom of God, the windy beach where the Spirit blows, the space of supreme aliveness, is too little found, and never possessed. And yet, now and then, I have danced beneath its diamond sky with one hand waving free, and hope to do so again as grace permits.

I was also in the crowd on September 3 of that same year, when Dylan played the Hollywood Bowl, backed by The Hawks (later The Band) along with Al Kooper on organ. There all the songs from Highway 61 Revisited were performed in public for only the second time (after a New York concert the previous week). Since the album had yet to hit the stores, it was my indelible first communion with the image world of Dylan’s surrealism. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”[viii]  Indeed.

The encore was “Like a Rolling Stone,” the one song we already knew from the radio. Before beginning, Dylan searched among his harmonicas in vain, then spoke into the microphone, “Anyone got a C harmonica?” As I remember it, 17,000 harmonicas came flying onto the stage, and soon we were all shouting with one voice, “HOW DOES IT FEEEEEEEL?”

When, in 1966, I crossed the country to study at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my guitar and my Dylan records came with me. In a school play, I sang an adapted version of “With God On Our Side” to parody the horrific biblical conquest narratives. I wrote an article on the prophetic theology of Dylan’s lyrics in the seminary journal. And I incorporated fragments of his haunting religious poetry from John Wesley Harding into a multimedia senior sermon (you can hear the audio collage here).

In later years, Dylan’s preeminence in my life’s soundtrack receded, although his masterpiece of anguish and longing, Time Out of Mind, managed perfectly to coincide with my own midlife dark night of the soul. Lines like “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” may not have been balm in Gilead, but they kept me company until the dawn.

These days I occasionally sing old favorites like “Ramona,” “She Belongs To Me,” “Chimes of Freedom” and “Buckets of Rain.” And I never tire of leading friends and retreat groups in heartfelt renderings of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “I Shall Be Released.”

Everyone’s got their Dylan stories, but at their core is a mysterious absence. Dylan’s identity has always been veiled by a succession of fictions, evasions, conversions and withdrawals. He has given interviews full of absurd biographical narratives.[ix] Even before he was famous, he invented personae to protect himself from the prying projections of others. From fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem, that hype you and type you, making you feel you gotta be just like them. [x]

Does it matter whether we ever know the real Dylan, or find him a relatable personality? Or are the songs enough? Is their mysterious power to speak to us and for us enough?

“It’s like a ghost writing a song like that,” Dylan said about “Like a Rolling Stone” 40 years after recording his greatest hit. “It gives you the song and then it goes away. It goes away.”[xi] The ghost, the geist, the spirit blows where it will. The artist prepares to receive it, and learns how to give it away.

Another Nobel Laureate, poet Czeslaw Milosz, concurs, insisting that the artist’s vocation is to be “a secretary of the invisible.” Deliver the message entrusted to your keeping, then get the hell out of the way. It ain’t me, babe. This has been the essential kenosis of both art and spirit since the beginning.

Take Caedmon, for example. An illiterate herdsman in seventh-century Britain, he was suddenly commanded in a dream to sing the story of creation. Without learning or training, he began to sing words unknown to him, gifts from the same ghost who visited Dylan. Thus was English poetry born.

Denise Levertov imagines Caedmon’s in-spiriting in a poem of her own. He is huddling for warmth at night with the beasts of the barn, when suddenly the air is filled with “feathers of flame, sparks upflying.” The cows remain oblivious and calm, not seeing what the poet sees as “that hand of fire / touched my lips and scorched my tongue / and pulled my voice / into the ring of the dance.” [xii]

 

[i] Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (Bringing It All Back Home)

[ii] Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)

[iii] Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain” (Blood on the Tracks)

[iv] “Writers divided on whether Dylan deserves Nobel prize”: https://www.yahoo.com/news/writers-divided-whether-dylan-deserves-nobel-prize-180943929.html

[v] ibid.

[vi] Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)

[vii] Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born To Run, q. on Springsteen’s website: http://brucespringsteen.net/news/2016/bruce-springsteen-on-bob-dylan

[viii] Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man” (Highway 61 Revisited)

[ix] To delve into the strange world of Dylan interviews: http://www.vulture.com/2007/10/the_ten_most_incomprehensible.html

[x] Bob Dylan, “Ramona” (Another Side of Bob Dylan)

[xi] Robert Hilburn, “Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2004

[xii] Denise Levertov, “Caedmon”, q. in Edward Hirsch, Poet’s Choice (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006), 15