Summoning the Sanity to Scream

Painting by Richard Stott (June 13, 2016). Used by permission of the artist.

Painting by Richard Stott (June 13, 2016). Used by permission of the artist.

Investigators at the scene were overwhelmed by the sounds of endlessly ringing phones coming from the bodies, as people continued to call, hoping for their loved ones to answer.

— CNN

We rise and fall and light from dying embers
remembrances that hope and love last longer,
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love
cannot be killed or swept aside.

— Lin-Manuel Miranda[i]

 

The Orlando massacre is the 179th mass shooting so far this year in the United States of America.[ii] It will not be the last. There’s too much madness, too many guns, too much hate to hope otherwise. We are angry and we are sad, but then what? Gun worship seems the most powerful religion in America. From presidents to schoolchildren, the blood of countless victims stains its altars. And however much we rage and moan we feel powerless to stay the hand of sacrifice.

Each time it happens, causes are discussed, solutions proposed, and we cry, ‘Never again!’ The pundits wring their hands, the NRA and gun-makers pause briefly to reload, Congress turns a blind eye, and then rat-a-tat-tat! More bodies strewn across our public spaces. The cycle repeats itself endlessly.

Why? Mental illness, social pathologies, alienation, racism, resentment, homophobia, hate, terrorism, profiteering by gun-makers, violence as entertainment, social media copycats, an American predilection for the quick fix and the fast draw—probable causes multiply exponentially.

Songwriter Dan Bern summarized the search for answers in his powerful “Kids’ Prayer,” written after the Springfield, Oregon school shooting in 1996:

And all the world descends to offer up their condolences
And offer up their theories what went wrong
And who and why and when and how:

It’s all the killing day and night on television
It’s all the movies where violence is as natural as breathing
It’s guns and bullets as easily obtainable as candy
It’s video games where you kill and begin to think it’s real
It’s people not having God in their lives anymore
Or it’s all of it, or none of it, or some of it, in various combinations …

As a hate crime directed against the LGBT community, Orlando adds a disturbing new dimension to the plague of gun violence. Whatever blend of madness and calculation drove the killer, he didn’t invent homophobia. He just fed off of it. It is still, sadly, in plentiful supply.

Decades ago, James Baldwin, who was both gay and black, wrote about the American capacity for self-delusion as to the extent of its own sickness. Facing up to our social pathologies, whether racism, bigotry, nativism or gun violence, would endanger the national myth of innocence. Better to remain silent and pretend everything is fine.

“But if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (I John 1:8). A sin unconfessed only makes us sicker. In a 1961 conversation with Malcolm X, Baldwin said:

If I know that any one of you has murdered your brother, your mother, and the corpse is in this room and under the table, and I know it, and you know it, and you know I know it, and we cannot talk about it, it takes no time at all before we cannot talk about anything. Before absolute silence descends. And that kind of silence has descended on this country.[iii]

In a gesture of protest, a Connecticut Congressman has vowed to abstain from the “moment of silence” which seems to be the only Congressional response to mass shootings. “Our silence does not honor the victims; it mocks them,” said Rep. Jim Himes.[iv]

Or in the words of Dan Bern, how many Orlandos will it take before we “summon up the sanity to scream?”[v]

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Note: The Pieta image is by British painter and Methodist minister Richard Stott, a member of last October’s Venice Colloquium. He painted it in response to Orlando. Thanks to Ric for letting me use it here. Check out his website, “I ask for wonder.”

Related Posts

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

How Far Can We Sink?

We are the singers of life, not of death

 

 

[i] Miranda delivered his “sonnet” during the Tony Awards, the night after the Orlando shooting.

[ii] Mass Shooting Tracker

[iii] “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” in Nobody Knows My Name, quoted in Nathaniel Rich, “James Baldwin and the Fear of a Nation,” The New York Review of Books, May 12, 2016, p. 42.

[iv] @jahimes, 5:45 pm, June 12, 2016

[v] Dan Bern, “Kids’ Prayer”

Tick Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.”

— Henry David Thoreau

I’ve been on a calendar, but never on time.

— Marilyn Monroe

 

The Clock is a 24-hour video by Christian Marclay in which each and every minute of a day is represented in one or more scenes from old movies. The exact time of any particular minute is either spoken by a character, seen in a close-up of a clock or watch, or simply glimpsed on a clock or digital display in the background as the camera pans across a room or street. For some particularly notable minutes, such as high noon, The Clock might draw from five or six different films over the course of 60 seconds. For less significant minutes, sometimes only one scene was found by the team of researchers, who spent two years viewing thousands of films in search of lost time. And for a surprisingly small number of minutes in the wee hours of the morning, a generic “middle-of-the-night” scene had to be employed (often from film noir).

The video is run by a computer program which goes to whatever the local time is when “play” is pressed, so the work itself functions as a reliable timepiece. When I watched it, in one sitting, in the theater of the Los Angeles County Art Museum two years ago, it started at noon on Saturday and finished at noon the next day. It was a memorable and vastly entertaining journey. I was especially struck by the degree to which our lives are organized by the mechanized measurement of time. Sure, we all know that, but to see scene after scene of alarms going off, children heading for school, lunch breaks, quitting time, dinners served, and so on, made the point in a way that could be a little unsettling. How free are we, really?

For me, the most unique part of that marathon viewing experience was the act of consciously noticing every single minute of a 24-hour period (except when I dozed briefly a few times, plus three quick bathroom breaks, hoping I wouldn’t miss much). Now it’s noon, now it’s 12:01, now it’s 12:02 … I didn’t need an extraordinary degree of mindfulness. It was actually quite effortless to stay focused on the screen. The diversity of the selected scenes was the perfect stimulant. When I watched Andy Warhol’s 8-hour film of a man sleeping in the 1960s, my mind wandered far and wide during that interminable screening of sameness. But The Clock kept me watching by showing a great many things, not just one big thing. Curiosity alone was enough to keep me paying attention. What will the next minute contain?

New Year’s Eve is, for a brief time, like viewing Marclay’s video. Tonight, the majority of the human race will pay close attention, minute by minute, to the passing of time in the countdown of hours, minutes and seconds to 2016.

Of course, there is no universal Now when everyone will shout or kiss in unison. As Einstein taught us, what time it is depends on where in the universe you are standing. Whether anything is past, present, or future varies with the location of the observer. At our house, we will bang the drum, strike the wind gong, and blow the train whistle in synchronization with a reality already in the past: the ball drop 3 hours earlier in Times Square.

Even further back, in 1949, Einstein’s friend Kurt Godël offered a mathematical proof for time travel. If time has a spatial quality allowing us to move backward and forward in it, then time in the sense of irreversible passing does not exist. Past and future become places we can (theoretically) go. And if this is so, then we are close to the old theological image of all times being simultaneous to God. As William Blake put it,

I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once
Before me.

Be that as it may, who among us actually lives above time’s flow, as though there is neither past nor present nor future? Who does not feel, particularly at turnings, transitions, and departures, what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt?” We live on the knife edge between old and new, memory and regret, loss and hope. When we dance tonight at midnight, may it prove just wide enough for our wild steps.

Would you have it any other way, this life of falling and rising, losing and finding? Virginia Woolf’s Orlando describes an alternative existence: the protagonist is free from the dictates of time, living on from century to century while everyone else is passing away. But not being wedded to any particular generation or era has a price. “Her loves are wild with passion, but seem to leave no trace, and by the novel’s end she is left occasionally wounded, but always without the pleasure of a scar.”[i]

It seems fitting that the world festival of the turning of time comes in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, since the Incarnation is God’s decisive embrace of the temporal and finite, while extending – simultaneously – an invitation to us humans to embody in ourselves the divine kenosis – the eternal self-emptying that constitutes God’s trinitarian life. In other words, both human and divine are all about giving over and letting go. Never just being, but also becoming.

There is much more to be said about all this, but the sun is low in the sky, and it’s high time to prepare a welcome for the New Year, which I pray will be full of wonder, delight, illumination, and meaningful change for you, dear reader, and everyone you love.

In the meantime, I leave you with this lovely praise of temporality from D. H. Lawrence:

Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallization. The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished. Herein lies its transcendent loveliness. The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation…

Don’t give me the infinite or the eternal … Give me the still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment: the moment, the quick of all change and haste and opposition: the moment, the immediate present, the now… Here, in this very instant moment, up bubbles the stream of time, out of the wells of futurity, flowing to the oceans of the past. The source, the issue, the creative quick….[ii]

 

Related post: The Angel of Possibility

 

 

[i] Colin Dickey, “Reelin’ in the Years”, Lapham’s Quarterly VII:4, Fall 2014, p. 221

[ii] ibid., 117 (from D. H. Lawrence, the preface to New Poems, 1920)

We are the singers of life, not of death

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

“The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

– Marilynne Robinson[i]

Gonna rise up, burning black holes in dark memories,
Gonna rise up, turning mistakes into gold.

– Eddie Vedder[ii]

One of my favorite stories by the naturalist Loren Eiseley recalls a moment of awakening. He was napping in a forest glade when a sudden commotion of birds roused him from sleep. They were circling a raven which clutched their small nestling in its beak. It was not only the nestling’s parents crying in protest. Birds of half a dozen other species also began to join in. “No one dared attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries.” The raven sat unperturbed on its perch, a perfect symbol of pitiless mortality – “the bird of death,” Eiseley called it.

It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death … For in the midst of protest, [the birds] forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.[iii]

On Sunday night I experienced a similar miracle of transcendent exultation in a new musical at the Seattle Repertory Theater, Come From Away. A musical about 9/11 might sound like a dubious idea, but it succeeds brilliantly in turning the darkness into a song of unconquerable life and resilient spirit.

Like the birds in the glade, Come From Away shifts its focus away from the familiar 9/11 narrative of horror and death to tell a powerful counter-story in which the bonds of community and kindness prove stronger than the forces that divide and destroy. Like the utopian “no-places” of Renaissance romance – say the forest of Arden or Prospero’s island – the small town of Gander in New-Found-Land is on “the edge of the world,” a liminal space where both individuals and social groups, free from conventional and habitual constraints, can explore alternative ways of being and being-together.

An island town of 9000 people, Gander had once been a key refueling station for transatlantic flights, and its remote airport is still relied on for emergency situations. When all North American airspace was closed on 9/11, 38 planes were rerouted there, bringing nearly 7000 people who needed to be housed and fed for six days. The logistical challenges were enormous, but the emotional ones were even greater – so many people from different cultures, stranded far from home in those surreal days of uncertainty, shock and anxiety. Their planes had found a place to land, but what about their hearts?

Over those six days, remarkable bonds formed among both Newfoundlanders and passengers. It was an experience of love and goodness which none of them would ever forget. Ten years later, many of the “plane people” returned to Gander for an anniversary reunion to re-collect that extraordinary experiment in community. Two Canadian playwrights, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, went there as well, spending a month listening to thousands of stories. In four-hour interviews with hundreds of people, Sankoff and Hein compiled a remarkable record of the human spirit.

The play’s title is a Newfoundland colloquialism for “immigrant.” In a time when many are bashing immigrants as “them,” such a powerful reminder that we have all “come from away” feels like a well-timed gift of grace. As the Bible puts it, we are all strangers and pilgrims on this earth[iv], and the essential human project is the overcoming of fear and division to make connections and create community.

Sankoff and Hein were fascinated to learn that Newfoundland is where all the continents crashed together eons ago. “So, geologically,” they said, “there are pieces of Africa, Europe and America all right there. It’s this wonderful metaphor for the world coming together.”[v] The theologians say that we are made in the image of a God whose essence is relationality, and that human nature is most fully realized in communion. What happened in Gander was a test of that thesis.

The stories collected in 2011 were gradually consolidated into a coherent musical drama, with 12 actors representing nearly a hundred characters. There are no flawless heroes, exempt from the fears, frailties and foolishness common to all of us. There are no villains either. They are just people making their way through an unknown land without a map, exhibiting an innate desire to do good to one another. Both recognizable and sympathetic, these characters stood in for all of us, and what we might become.

And how brilliant to make it a musical. The driving Celtic rock score by a nine-piece onstage band was irresistible, and the songs made you want to shout and dance, even as tears streamed down your face. Beautifully crafted by Sankoff and Hein, the infectious music made us all believe in our common vocation as the singers of life against all odds.

In her book on the musical genre, Jane Feuer observes that “musicals are unparalleled in presenting a vision of human liberation … Part of the reason some of us love musicals so passionately is that they give us a glimpse of what it would be like to be free.” But she cautions that the genre can also fall into the trap of being about nothing more than its own energy. “In its endless reflexivity the musical can offer only itself, only entertainment, as its picture of utopia.” In such a case, the musical remains self-enclosed fantasy, untranslatable into daily reality.[vi]

But Come From Away, grounded in remembered stories of real goodness, offers something more than a temporary escape into fantasy. It proposes the richness of human community as an authentic prospect, however imperfectly realized in actual practice. The merging of Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers into a single song was but one of many scenes in which the characters discovered that their best selves were grounded in the interrelatedness of mutual belonging.

And to the extent that this play manifested an ideal by which our failures to love one another might be measured and found wanting, it was not unlike liturgy. Neither theater nor liturgy are “real” life, but they can still exert a transformative power. Through symbol and metaphor, song and story, they can suggest a hypothetical alternative to our tired old stories of decline and fall, luring us toward a higher vision of human becoming. When we rose to our feet at play’s end for a prolonged ovation, we were not just thanking the company for a good time. We were, at least for the moment, subscribing to its vision. Whatever it was they showed us, we wanted to be part of it. As Marilynne Robinson puts it, human community is “a work of the imagination”[vii] – a life-giving story we tell as we strive to make it real, in ourselves and in our world.

When the house lights come up, we all go our separate ways, and the vision weakens in the glare of ordinary time. The same thing happens after a liturgy. Yet something of the dream remains. The intuition of a better way of being lodges deep within us, and over time, if properly nourished, it may produce real outcomes.

 

 

Related posts

 

Remember

No Place like Home

After Paris and Beirut, what kind of story shall we tell?

 

 

[i] Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 33

[ii] Eddie Vedder, “Rise”, from the film, Into the Wild (2007)

[iii] Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957), 174-5

[iv] I Peter 2:11

[v] Interview with Shirley Fishman, Come From Away program notes (Seattle: Encore Arts Programs, Seattle Repertory Theater, Nov. 2015), 15

[vi] Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), 84

[vii] Robinson, 29

No place like home

Over the rainbow photo

We didn’t have enough eggs this morning to make the walnut pie, so I headed out at dawn for the village grocery. On the way, I played Charles Ives’ “Thanksgiving Day”, a tone poem permeated with fragments of American hymnody. Ives said that the clashing moods of major and minor chords represented “the sternness and strength and austerity of the Puritan character, and it seemed to me that any of the major, minor, or diminished chords used alone gave too much a feeling of bodily ease, which the Puritan did not give in to.” [i]

The irony of driving my car to the store while contemplating Puritan rigor did not escape me, but I did pass a solitary runner braving the cold drizzle, and joined my spirit to his propitiatory sacrifice.

Ives’ cacophony of broken tunes resolves in the end with the choral singing of a New England hymn:

O God, beneath thy guiding hand
Our exiled fathers crossed the sea;
And when they trod the wintry strand,
With prayer and psalm they worshipped Thee.

We are all exiles: from the Garden of Eden, from our mother’s womb, from the homes we grew up in, from ancestral lands, from pasts best abandoned and futures that never happened. Longing for home is the human condition.

As Dorothy knew, clicking her red shoes, “There’s no place like home.” And on the fourth Thursday of November, millions of Americans go wandering in search of that place, real or imagined, where they were always welcomed and known and understood.

Frank Baum, author of the Oz books, was never quite satisfied with Dorothy’s choice of Kansas over Oz. In his sixth book of the series, Dorothy moves back to Oz, dragging Auntie Em and Uncle Henry with her. As Salman Rushdie notes, “Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world.”

The real secret of the ruby slippers is not that “there’s no place like home,” but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz; which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began. [ii]

Whether you celebrate today in Oz, or in Kansas, or out there somewhere along the Yellow Brick Camino, may it be with a grateful heart and blessed community. And if you need directions home and don’t have your ruby slippers, you might try Raymond Carver:

Left off the highway and
down the hill. At the
bottom, hang another left.
Keep bearing left. The road
will make a Y. Left again.
There’s a creek on the left.
Keep going. Just before
the road ends, there’ll be
another road. Take it
and no other. Otherwise,
your life will be ruined
forever. There’s a log house
with a shake roof, on the left.
It’s not that house. It’s
the next house, just over
a rise. The house
where trees are laden with
fruit. Where phlox, forsythia,
and marigold grow. It’s
the house where the woman
stands in the doorway
wearing sun in her hair. The one
who’s been waiting
all this time.
The woman who loves you.
The one who can say,
“What’s kept you?” [iii]

[i] Liner notes by Paul C. Echols, Charles Ives Holidays Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (CBS 1986)

[ii] Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz (London: British Film Institute, 1992), p. 57

[iii] “Waiting,” by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: The Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf)

Whose world is it?

GTU Jesus icon face

I teach a course on “Jesus and the Movies,” examining nineteen features made on the life of Jesus between 1912 and 2014. And one of my favorites is a South African production, Son of Man (2006), which sets the gospel story in a fictional twenty-first century African country.

It begins in the desert, with Jesus and Satan sitting side by side atop a tall sand dune. There Satan offers Jesus the familiar temptations: use your power, dazzle the world, bow down to me and I will give you everything you desire.

Jesus listens for a while in silence. Suddenly he turns to Satan and shoves him off the ridge. As Satan tumbles downward – Milton’s fall of Lucifer comes to mind – Jesus shouts after him: “This is my world!”

Satan comes to a stop at the foot of the dune. He picks himself up and looks back defiantly at Jesus. “No,” he cries. “It’s my world!”

The film cuts abruptly to a village caught in the crossfire of a civil war. Terrible atrocities are taking place, making Satan’s point perfectly. It’s his world after all.

Tomorrow is the Feast of Christ the King, created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally observed at the end of October as a prelude to All Saints Day, it was later moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, where it provides both a grand finale to the calendrical Christ narrative and a dramatic overture to Advent. In 1970 it was adopted by other churches using the Common Lectionary, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

The pope was responding to the apocalyptic violence of World War I, where evil and madness seemed to have seized control of the world. He wanted to establish a clear reminder that it is Christ to whom the future belongs; it is Christ whom we must follow and serve.

Or in the words of Bob Dylan, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

While the imagery of Christ as Lord of all may require some unpacking for interfaith dialogue, the pope’s original encyclical was clearly focused on Christian practice. If we profess Christ as our way, our truth, our life, then, in the pope’s words, “none of our faculties is exempt from his empire.”

But what do we do when Christ’s “empire” is in conflict with our other allegiances? How much do we give to Jesus, and how much do we hold back? Jesus gets Sunday mornings; does he get the working week? He gets our spiritual life; does he get our worldly affairs? Does he get our relationships, or our stewardship of time? Does Jesus get our politics, our economics?

Clarence Jordan was a Baptist preacher, New Testament teacher, and farmer in rural Georgia. In his celebrated Cotton Patch Gospels, he translated the Jesus story into a southern idiom, explaining that “the Scriptures should be taken out of the classroom and stained-glass sanctuary and put out under God’s skies where people are toiling and crying and wondering; where the mighty events of the good news first happened and where they alone feel at home.” [i]

In the 1940’s, in the middle of “the Good War,” in the heart of the segregated South, Jordan founded Koinonia, an interracial, pacifist farming collective using a communitarian model more like early Christianity than late capitalism. For his faithfulness to the dominion of Christ, he and his community were harassed, shot at, and bombed. The local church expelled him.

He was often invited to speak to groups around the country, and he would ask them, “What’s the biggest lie told in America today?” He’d let the question sink in for a bit, and then he’d say, “The biggest lie told in America today is: Jesus is Lord.”

I first heard this story when I visited Koinonia in 1980 and had a long conversation with his widow Florence (Clarence died in 1969). And in these latter days his words ring truer than ever.

Last year the Ohio legislature, hoping to derail the Affordable Care Act, blocked an expansion of Medicaid that would provide health care to 275,000 people who had no coverage. But the governor, John Kasich, made an end run around the legislature and got it done anyway.

As he said at the time: “For those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.”

The lawmakers howled. How dare he put the needs of the poor above our political agenda! So this is how the governor explained it to one those legislators, whom he knew to be a fellow Christian:

“Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did to keep government small; but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer.”

Governor Kasich, himself a Republican, was denounced by many in his party for appealing to a power higher than their ideology. The Wall Street Journal, wanting to make it clear that Jesus, lover of the poor, was not in fact Lord in America, offered a tart response: “Republicans get a vote before St. Peter.”

In Matthew’s gospel, the last parable Jesus tells before his arrest and crucifixion pictures all of humanity gathered before the glorified ‘Son of Man’ – the Lord of history – who reveals that he has always been among them in the bodies of the poor and needy: “I was starving … I was naked … I was an undocumented alien … I had AIDS … I was a convict …”

Everyone is of course quite surprised. But they all take his point. When you kneel before Christ the King, it won’t be at the foot of a mighty throne, but before the holy icons of “the least of these” – the vulnerable, the marginalized, the broken, the forgotten.

Well you kneel to the Lord and you will bless yourself…
Ain’t no need to kneel to no one else. [ii]

[i] G. McCleod Bryan, “Theology in Overalls: The Imprint of Clarence Jordan”, Sojourners (Dec. 1979, vol. 8, no. 12)

[ii] Bob Franke, “Trouble in This World (It’ll Be All Right),” on Heart of the Flower (Daring DR3016), © Telephone Pole Music, 1995

God and the imagination are one

HS dove

Following this blog’s inaugural series of dispatches from the Camino de Santiago last spring, readers of The Religious Imagineer may have noticed a curious diversity of topics: saints, seasons, nature, culture, theology, Scripture, liturgy, art, theater, circus, classic cars and cinema. And perhaps they wonder, what ties all this stuff together?

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. When Isaiah Berlin explored the implications of this ancient Greek saying in his celebrated 1953 essay, he argued that Tolstoy was by nature a fox but by conviction a hedgehog. His interests were wide and his eye for the particular was acute, but he sought to contain the world’s multiplicity within a single defining idea.

I can relate. And the one big thing for this blog is found in a line from Wallace Stevens:

We say God and the imagination are one …
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

This might be taken as a secular celebration of the human mind, reducing God to one of its creative fictions. But if I read Stevens with the hermeneutic of a believer, “God and the imagination are one” is not necessarily a matter of either-or. It might also mean both-and. God dwells both in the mind and outside it. Imagination is both a way we reach beyond ourselves, and a means by which the transcendent finds a home in us, enabling us to see with the eyes of God and the mind of Christ, and to act accordingly. To say that God and the imagination are does not mean for me that they are identical, but that they participate deeply in one another.

The Creator’s “Let there be light!” and Jesus’ refusal of the tomb’s finality are the supreme biblical examples of divine imagination. But there have been countless imagineers engaged in the work (or is it play?) of bringing the new heaven and new earth into being. The activist imagining peace, the oppressed imagining justice, the forgiver imagining reconcilation, the mourner imagining joy, the saint imagining a new way of being, the theologian and the artist imagining the beauty of the infinite in the particular, are all practitioners of the holy and transformative task of conforming the world more closely to God’s image.

When Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his hometown sermon, he embraced such prophetic imagination as his own vocation.

The Imagination of God is upon me,
for she has sent me to bring good news to the poor.
She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of divine favor.

So to return the original question about The Religious Imagineer’s diversity of topics, I would say that imagination is the unifying subject of this blog. How do we say the unsayable, see the invisible, dance the impossible in our images, rituals and stories? How do we attend to the traces of God amid the chronic unknowing of secular modernity? How do we imagine the really Real and the not-yet?

Video artist Bill Viola, the subject of an earlier post, has observed that “in the Middle Ages they painted the sky gold in the paintings … It was realism they were after – reality of the divine effused through everything in the physical world.” That is my theme as well.

As ever, thanks for reading.

You can never go fast enough

IMG_2839

Last Sunday I came across a classic car show in a Seattle suburb. The bright colors and streamlined shapes were impossible to resist. I stopped to join the crowd in rapt admiration of the immaculately restored Mustangs, GTO’s, T-Birds, Corvettes and other beauties dating as far back as the 1920’s. As sculptural objects they offered the tangible pleasures of sweeping lines, voluptuous curves, and an exuberant array of intense colors. But there was more to it than the allure of shiny objects. The classic cars lining the streets were also saturated with nostalgia and myth.

Nostalgia longs for a time when nostalgia didn’t exist because everyone “then” was happily embedded in the present. As Svetlana Boym observes:

At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. (The Future of Nostalgia, p. xv)

Those classic cars were time machines, transporting us into memories both real and imagined. They did not function the way ruins do to produce a melancholy awareness that all things pass away, for these were not dented, rusting hulks. They appeared flawless and bright, impervious to decay, inviting us to re-experience lost time as if we were still there.

The soundtrack of my youth played over loudspeakers. Drive-in trays held plastic replicas of burgers and shakes. A Howdy Doody doll gripped the steering wheel of a convertible. Nostalgia all around. But it wasn’t just personal associations that tugged at me. I also felt communion with a vanished golden age. Classic cars are tangible signs of a less anxious time before fossil fuels, air pollution and climate change became universal worries. A 1980 Tom T. Hall sums up that lost era with a haiku-like refrain:

Back when gas was 30¢ a gallon,
and love was only 60¢ away.

Of course cars are more than just present objects or past memories. They are vehicles designed to propel us ever forward, down the road to whatever Promised Land awaits us. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the Italian poet whose Futurist movement obsessed over novelty, assailed the snail’s pace of the “sleepy” culture prior to the automobile. “Time and Space died yesterday,” he declared in 1909. “We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” For Marinetti, a racing roadster hurling the spirit of its driver across the earth in a headlong blur was “more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

Not everyone was equally thrilled by a culture of ever-increasing velocity. In 1910, the French writer Octave Mirbeau called “automobilism” a mental illness with “a pretty name: speed.” It makes us “impatient to get going once [we have] arrived somewhere, because it is not somewhere else, somewhere else, always somewhere else.”

But “somewhere else” is the American dream. Pilgrim ships and covered wagons were just the slow-motion precursors of the endless road movie that drives our culture. We are a people enamored of open highways, limitless horizons and liberating journeys to the distant places where we can reinvent ourselves.

Road imagery is abundant in American song. All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood … We’re riding out tonight to case the Promised Land (Bruce Springsteen) … When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide / Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide (Jackson Browne).

And how many times have the movies put us behind the wheel of a classic car in the desperate search for self and meaning? In countless films protagonists flee an oppressive local situation at 70 miles per hour, whooshing toward Somewhere Else in an ecstasy of freedom. As Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard tell it, those drivers want to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.” Thelma and Louise were perhaps the only ones who ever made it that far. When, pursued by a posse of police cars, they run out of road at the edge of a deep canyon, they just keep going, leaving time and history behind as a freeze frame catches them in mid-air. Then they and their car dissolve into a screen of pure whiteness, where their fate remains eternally beyond our view.

It is one of the most exhilarating endings in cinema, an eschatological leap of liberation and transcendence. But many road movies detour into darker terrain, and the perpetual motion of aimless wandering can find no lasting place to dwell. Flight from culture and place constitute the classic quest for regeneration, but if you lose your way and never reconnect with something beyond yourself, you may just die in the wilderness. The American inability to dwell is part of our shadow side, with disastrous consequences for our psyches, communities and natural habitats. For more on that, read Wendell Berry.

The futility of purposeless mobility, of speed going nowhere, is perfectly expressed in the ending of Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s brilliant 1971 film about a couple of pals drifting around the country in their souped-up ’55 Chevy, picking up street races where they can. The minimal narrative structure has pretty much evaporated by the last scene, where the Driver (all the characters are nameless) revs up his engine for one more race. “You can never go fast enough” is his mantra.

The final shot shows him in silhouette from the back seat, his hair blowing wildly as the car picks up speed. This shot also freeze-frames, but instead of dissolving into the white transcendence that embraced Thelma and Louise, the image begins to burn and melt, as if jammed in the projector. Whether you see that burning frame as an image from Beckett or from Dante, it’s not a happy ending.

Those classic cars have brought me this far, but now I’ve run out of road. How do I end? FADE TO WHITE.