Friday, March 19, 2010

What’s Happening to our Young People?

You have seen them and so have I: bright, enthusiastic young people leading worship, heading out on short term mission trips, collecting food for the food bank. And we think, “Ah, the future of the church is in good hands.”

But what happens to those young people in the years that follow? Do they fulfill their potential for church leadership. If so, why? And if not, why not?

Check out the rest of this post, and find some links to John Bowen's new book: What’s Happening to our Young People? – Highlights from John Bowen’s Latest Book

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 5

Part 1 begins here, and part 2 (on Clement of Rome) continues here. Part 3 (on Flannery O'Connor) can be found here. Part 4, on Sufjan Stevens, can be found here.

The Wrestler

When the Christianity Today movie blog reviewed Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, commenter Roland gave the film one star, and wrote the following:
My one star comes from if I would recommend this for Christians. Im not sure if this site is something thats promotional to Christian values but "The Wrestler" does everything BUT promote any kind of good meaningful message of any kind. As a Christian myself I can sit through this film objectively and see the real storyline and the helpless position the main character goes through. I do find it peculiar that the reviewer of "Christianity Today Movies" doesnt mention the 2 dozen shots of T&A , or the extremely graphic imagine of Rourke having sex in a bathroom with a stranger after snorting cocain. Interesting story to tell. If you like skin flicks.. this one is for you, probably not your pastor.

I'm not sure how Roland would feel about the fact that this particular pastor not only found The Wrestler to be theologically significant – unlike the Christianity Today review that made no mention at all about the theological content of the film – or what he might think about the fact that this pastor also commended the film to his parishioners in the parish newsletter.

That this film is intentionally theological is apparent in the very first few moments of the film. When Randy visits Cassidy in the strip club, she says:
'He was pierced for our transgressions, and was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.'
Randy: What was that all about.
Cassidy: It was the passion of the Christ. You have the same hair. You've never seen it? Dude you gotta. They throw everything at him. Whips. Arrows. Rocks. They beat the living shit out of him for the whole two hours. He just takes it.
Randy: Tough dude.
Cassidy, pointing at Randy: The sacrificial Ram!

But notice that Cassidy doesn't say that she is quoting Isaiah – she is quoting The Passion of the Christ. Later, Randy will play himself in a videogame with a boy from his trailer park. Cassidy's son will play with a Randy the Ram doll. We learn that Randy's real name is Robin when he quits wrestling for a short time to serve meat at the grocery store. We are constantly reminded that the imitation is never the fullness of the original. The crucifixion is mediated through the film The Passion, and this is again mediated to the Randy ignorant of both scripture and film; the video game perpetually simulates the high point of Randy's career; toys in the hands of a child act out live matches; Randy is both more himself and less than himself when he gives up wrestling and is given another name. Like the dying notes of the Christian narrative, Randy becomes increasingly removed from those things that make him himself, and increasingly difficult to recognize.

These reminders, but particularly the connections drawn between the wrestler losing his physical abilities in a kind of forced kenosis; his sacrificial giving of himself for the sake of the crowds; and through his abandonment by the single person that believed in him, we can't help but see that Jesus is both strangely present and absent in this man, like the faded Jesus tattoo in Randy's back. Grace is seen in Randy's love of Cassidy (despite her own failings), his friendships with the boys in his trailer park, and his attempt to make good with his daughter. One of the most moving scenes in the film is of Randy and his daughter, reliving once-lost memories, dancing and laughing together in a condemned and decaying ballroom. It is a moment of reconciliation, forgiveness, and love, sandwiched between his earlier abandonment of her, and his subsequent betrayal of her trust.

Yet despite the confidence of Cassidy, pointing out Randy's stigmata and confidently calling him the sacrificial victim, we are reminded throughout the film just how far Randy is from sanctified. He deals Vicodin and Percoset from his trailer; he continues to take the steroids that are so destructive to his aging body; he is estranged from his daughter through his own negligence. Yet grace penetrates this man's life, not despite of his sin, but because of it. Despite the fading notes of his own personhood, and his ignorance of the story of Jesus, Jesus remains an active, even sanctifying presence in his life. Randy’s fallen and sinful motivations become the very grounds of grace, whether that be his selfish self-neglect that leads to his presumed death at the end of the film – a presumed death immediately followed by a screen as empty and black as the tomb itself. The wrestling ring, where he acts out the costly battle between good and evil with his friends, is the location of his sacrificial death for the crowds, a death that arises out of his own ability to be anything more than a wrestler. There is no moral voice excusing Randy, or vindicating him; his life simply plays out, violently and yet strangely full of a grace made possible because of his own failings.


Arising out of this particular theologically charged aesthetic, where moral conviction is intentionally obscured or absent, and grace is made available according to the shape of sin and death, rather than despite of it, comes two implied criticisms. First, songs like Delia's Gone put the machines that churn out the kind of Christian art that offer the narrative equivalent of "Jesus is my girlfriend" under significant scrutiny, because they show the truth of a world mired in sin, and disallow any kind of propagandist isolationism where grace and the goodness of God become sealed away from the world God loves and redeems, a world under judgment and grace. Second, because it is a person of the Trinity who descends and interrupts through a graceful act while maintaining human freedom, it puts under scrutiny the narratives of the cult of the will, where moral self-betterment come without the intervention of the God from whom all good things come. As these artists probe the absolute boundaries of a world that God creates and loves, fallen and under both judgment and grace, we find ourselves pursued by a God unhindered by the depths of our corruption or even our seeming ability to forget, willingly offering himself to us according to that corruption, never disallowing human freedom as he offers to us his graceful redemption.


The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 4

Part 1 begins here, and part 2 (on Clement of Rome) continues here. Part 3 (on Flannery O'Connor) can be found here.

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens, an American Episcopalian and song-writer, offers another theological perspective on violence, this time from pop culture of a more recent vintage. In 2005 Stevens released a song on the album, Illinoise, about serial killer and rapist "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.":

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took of all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

We could hardly think of a person whose biography is more macabre than John Wayne Gacy's. He was convicted for the rape and murder of 33 boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. He buried 27 of his victims in a crawl space under the floor of his house. It's a story of a small business man, married with children, divorced twice, active in his local Democratic Party, who would dress up occasionally as pogo the clown. Stevens picks up on these kind of biographical elements, and offers us a portrait of a man with a mundane, middle class, bourgeois life of John Wayne t-shirts and swing-sets in the suburbs; a man who nevertheless, kissing his victims gently, chloroforms, rapes and murders them, hiding their corpses under the floorboards.

What I find remarkable about this song is that, while it follows the conventions of the murder ballad, it is also more than that. It has the hallmarks of the genre – it is descriptive, without a moral voice pressing to make sense of the violence. It describes characters either carrying out violent acts or suffering at the hands of another person's violence. There is carefulness with the truth. Stevens doesn't disfigure Gacy through any omniscient moral judgment against him. Rather, the acts speak for themselves. We have John Wayne Gacy, Jr. – a clown, serial rapist and killer. But there is also a kind of grace present, according to the internal constraints of the portrait. We are prevented from the simplicity of judgment, or of rationalization, and we are given a man with "quiet hands, quiet kiss, on the mouth." If this was a song about judgment, through a moral voice independent from the story, we would be prevented from seeing Gacy's life as a moment describing some kind of grace; if it was an apology for a serial killer, we wouldn't be able to plumb the depths of depravity. Instead, all these pieces of the life of this man and his deeds are laid out.

Most interesting in this lyric is the entry of the observer into the narrative himself as morally culpable. Stevens cries out "Oh my God", in both recoil at the horror, and in prayerful petition to the source of grace, inviting us to see a man, and a world of tortured relationships and deeds, subject to both grace and judgment. It leads to a horrible sympathy, even compassion towards a person whose behavior is inexcusable, but whose nature is shared*: "And in my best behavior," sings Stevens, "I am really just like him; Look beneath the floorboards; For the secrets I have hid". The significance, in this moment for this participating observer, is not judgment as though Gacy's story was no more than an opportunity for another morality tale. Nor is it a way of giving Gacy a free pass, chalking up his deeds to some equivalent of criminal insanity. It is an opportunity to find a fellow sinner, under judgment and in the hope of grace.

Sufjan Stevens, again on the album Illinoise, offers some theological reflection in the song "Casimir Pulaski Day", but this time on illness:

Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes

Stevens is working to his usual songwriting strengths here, with a story of another kind of violence, the kind of violence that disease is to a body, in this case cancer of the bone. A depth of sadness permeates, made even more powerful through the use of the mundane and the ordinary: sunlight on a shoulder, a person peeking a look at what someone was reading, the weekly routine of cleaning a house, and family pictures, but each punctuated by regret, weeping, and fear. The everyday is loaded, and freighted, with human failing, just as the terminal diagnosis of cancer is interrupted with a gracious gift. Stevens sums this up as a complicated, divine glory, arising from otherwise simple acts in the midst of tragedy: "Oh the glory that the lord has made; And the complications you could do without; when I kissed you on the mouth." The Lord's glory is not what simplifies, or what makes sense of things. It makes things more complicated. Nor does it mean that our character escapes from mourning his lover’s passing, nor does it mean that his lover escapes from bone cancer. The glory doesn't come with moral clarity; the glory doesn't come as contrary to the horrible death-dealing logic of cancer and it's effects on human relationships. The glory is a complicated interruption of a particular person's life as he copes with a friend's deathly illness.

So when the main character looks in the window, and sees a transparent reflection of himself, at once him and at once a world seen through him, he sees this glory again: "Oh the glory that the lord has made; And the complications when I see his face; In the morning in the window; Oh the glory when he took our place; But he took my shoulders and he shook my face; And he takes and he takes and he takes." This is where he meets the lord, in the self that is at once not himself, a lord who "takes his place," and reaches out to take the character by the shoulders, shaking his face. There is no miraculous interruption of the narrative and the cancer deals death's blow. The grace of the Lord's glory saves no one from that particular violence. And yet, this is the moment where the glory, and grace of the incarnation, penetrates most deeply into him, even as he is shaken by the Lord who takes and takes and takes.

part 5: The Wrestler, and Conclusion


After Criticality

I find myself in a relatively unique place in my church, and among my peers. Or maybe more accurately, because I find myself in this church, I also find myself in a unique place among my peers. Because so many of my peers, who both grew up within and without the church, no longer find themselves within the church, I find myself relatively alone. Since my vocation is within the church, I spend some of my time reflecting and thinking about why this is true. Why did all those friends, all the children of our faithfully attending parents, not emerge to a life lived in the orbit of this church that their parents love so much?

There are two things that came together, in my parent’s generation, that have given rise to this situation. The first is that my parent’s generation are the last generation of Christendom. Along with their parents, my parents lived in a time when institutional loyalties could be assumed, including institutional loyalty to the church. But both these things - “institution” and “loyalty” - are no longer part of our preferred intellectual and social landscape.

But this is not the whole story. There was another intellectual shift taking place. If you’ll permit me to simplify some rather complex ideas and historical ideas, there are three broad categories within the intellectual history of the West. These fall into roughly three ways of thinking: pre-critical, critical, and post-critical. Things are rarely so simple, and they aren’t in this case. But bear with me, because they are helpfully illustrative of what I’m attempting to explain.

Just as critical thought was being heavily introduced within the intellectual life of the lay members of the church, Christendom was on the edge of it’s rapidly eroding cliff. Our favourite bugbears, like John Spong, were writing popular level books, and introducing critical methods of reading scripture. And many members of the church latched onto critical thought, entering into a phase of hyper-critical readings not just of scripture, but of our theological, doctrinal and ritual heritages. This was, in its own way, life-giving. Bringing all of the critical intellectual advancements into the church, the same ones made outside the church for so many years, meant some protection from the accusation of being backward, and old fashioned. It afforded some response to those who would accuse us of being pre-critical. No, this church could be part of the broader intellectual landscape, and find some legitimacy in that. So, from the inside, many of us went into hyper-critical mode, dismantling and discarding many of our inheritances. But they stayed in the church, because some sense of institutional loyalty lingered.

We ended up in a rather curious place. Because critical notions had taken so long to filter into the church popular, we had two generations - a more generally pre-critical generation and a more generally critical generation - sitting alongside one another in significant numbers. They seem to have made an uneasy peace, held together by what? You guessed it. Institutional loyalties.

But what happens when the resources of a movement like the church are systematically found wanting, while at the same time the last remaining thing that kept things together - institutional loyalty - is discarded too? The institution, and the movement, fall apart. And it finally has very little left to offer it’s children.

So, it comes back to me. Why me? Why do I remain? I have as little institutional loyalty as many of my peers. My hunch is that I got lucky, and was able, under my circumstances, to make an intellectual move.

You can’t grow up in the church that belonged to my parents without encountering critical notions very, very early. Everything was at stake and under question. But rather than take hyper-criticality for granted as a good thing (along with the concomitant dismantling of scriptural, theological, doctrinal and ritual inheritance) the critical approach turned back in on itself. The critical method itself comes under scrutiny. Without discarding criticality, criticality comes to be seen as not quite enough; and we realize that there is life, and intellectual vigor left within the tradition. Perhaps not a static pre-critical tradition, but the tradition nonetheless.

I became convinced that the tradition can still speak into, and through, the whims of any individual’s ability and desire to discard or keep what is personally relevant or irrelevant. Not all my peers made this move; many of us took the hyper-critical stance for granted, along with the resulting notion that the tradition received has no legs left to stand on. And as I mention, combine that with no sense of institutional loyalty, and we all go missing.

One of the curious situations that I often find myself in, then, is that of being under the very critical evaluation of the last generation left in the church. When I make it known that the tradition we have has great value, and that it can be life-giving apart from a simply hyper-critical and parasitical relationship with it, I appear pre-critical and as an enemy to the critical camp. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Hyper-criticality has been tested, remains a part of our landscape, but it has been found wanting. Hyper-criticality does not give life on its own. And so I find myself in a healthier place, albeit a lonely one: in love with the teachings of my mother church about this strange God of ours, not because of any sense of institutional loyalty, but as a simple response to the Triune God, revealed in the God-man, who calls me home into the fullness of life according to his gracious will.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae

I found these while preparing the Anglican preaching component of my Anglicanism class: every volume of Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae, for free download.

Internet Archive Search: horae homileticae



Friday, December 11, 2009

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 3

Part 1 begins here, and part 2 (on Clement of Rome) continues here.

Flannery O'Connor

When novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor spoke to Eastern Lansing High School in 1956, she "said that modern writers must often tell perverse stories to shock a morally blind world. Later, when she addressed Notre Dame that same year, "O'Connor insisted that her own use of the grotesque was meant to convey a shocking Christian vision of original sin. "To the hard of hearing you shout," she said, "and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." "

What makes O'Connor so phenomenal is not her subject matter – original sin – but in her unwillingness to bring any kind of overarching, omniscient moral voice of judgment against her characters. Rather, along with the creator that Clement describes, she allows her created object to unfold according to its own particular internal logic. Yet even this internal harmony within her stories, grace penetrates, always according to the internal demands of the fallen lives of her characters, through a disjunctive and shocking penetration that nevertheless does not break the rule of harmony.

This layering of order, sin, and grace wasn't always understood by her reviewers. Upon the release of her first novel, Wise Blood, one New Yorker reviewer wrote that "there is a brutality in these stories, but since the brutes are as mindless as their victims, all we have, in the end, is a series of tales about creatures who collide and drown, or survive to float passively in the isolated sea of the author's compassion, which accepts them without reflecting anything." When O'Connor's longtime friend Betty Hester wrote to O'Connor, in response to that same New Yorker review, commenting that these stories really were "about God", O'Connor's response was that it was "startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it." The New Yorker reviewer wasn't wrong; there certainly is brutality in her stories, and O'Connor does look upon these brutish, colliding, drowning creatures with compassion. What is significant is that O'Connor, in her descriptive narratives of sin and sin's consequence, never withholds compassion until some moral judgment is heard, thus disallowing any abstracted moral high-ground on the part of the observer.

That O'Connor could see so penetratingly into the reality of sin, and nevertheless so unrelentingly disallow any moral omniscience, is not because she was able to divorce her artistic production from her Catholicism, but because she was able to integrate them. She was influenced particularly by Jacques Maritain's lectures on Art and Scholasticism. "Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian", wrote Maritain, in a passage that O'Connor marked out in her copy. Writing again to Hester, O'Connor says "I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement." Biographer Brad Gooch writes of the influence of another Catholic novelist François Mauriac on O'Connor:
"Flannery received from the lost, often amoral characters of this living Catholic novelist the same thrilling permission she received theologically from the Thomist definition of art, in Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, as a "habit of the practical intellect," rather than a speculative or moral activity – the territory of theologians and saints. As Maritain concluded, "The pure artist considered in the abstract as such, is something completely unmoral." The job of the Christian writer, understood in this "thirteenth century" way, was pure devotion to craft, to telling strong stories, even if they involved atheists, hoodlums, or prostitutes . . . As she would later spell out this enabling notion in folksier language to Betty Hester, "you don't have to be good to write well. Much to be thankful for." "
It was dogma that made the reality of sin accessible possible for O'Connor, because as Rowan Williams observes, writing on O'Connor as an artist, belief adds to the artistic vision, rather than subtract from it. O'Connor herself observes that "the Catholic writer, insofar as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all it's horror, been found by God to be worth dying for." Because of his dogmatic conviction, "the Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe . . . He feels no need to apologize for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God." Williams notes that for O'Connor, "doing justice to the visible world is reflecting the love of God for it, the fact that this world is worth dying for in God's eyes," and that O'Connor "is always taking for granted that God is possible – thinkable or accessible or even manifest – in the most grotesque and empty or cruel situations; she pursues the unacceptable in the ironic faith that the pursuit will vindicate God, at least to the extent that God is intrinsic to whatever is uncovered in the work of writing." If Hester is right, and O'Connor's stories are "about God," they are about a God whose grace, as disruptive as it is, still penetrates the stories according to the structures we live in, the structure and order of sin, but sin that is at once a moment of judgment and grace.

As O'Connor plumbs the depth and meaning of sin, and the infiltration of grace into it through her underlying dogmatic commitments, she is able to let her characters see out their ends according to the aesthetic limitation of coherence and harmony within the work, without any need for an omniscient moral voice. In O'Connor's stories, sin- and violence-as-such without the exercise of rationalization or omniscient judgment apart from the acts themselves, is exactly where and how grace breaks through, albeit imperfectly – imperfectly because grace itself operates according to the world given it, with reference to God's created order able to envelop the disorder of sin with a loving act of re-creation. God, or the creator of the object, allows for the order and coherence of what has been made, but nevertheless is interested in a coherent, disruptive redemption of the disruption itself.

Our single example from O'Connor is her story "The Enduring Chill", where we see a work with coherence, without any stabilizing moral omniscient voice, and with a disruptive grace – though we find this all over her work, in places like her journal (where the title of this paper comes from, as she writes about the death of her father), or in other more specifically violent stories like "A Good Man is Hard to Find", where grace happens at the very moment when a mother recognizes her son in the serial killer putting a bullet in her head. Again, in "The Enduring Chill," the characters engender very little sympathy; their world is rife with sin and death; and there is an explicitly dogmatic interruption that is, while it is entirely disruptive, consistent and coherent with sin, judgment and mercy according to the internal tension of the narrative.

In the story a young writer named Asbury comes home for what he thinks is the last time, convinced that he is dying. Asbury is far less than gracious to his mother, even though she takes him in. Instead, he is irritable and argumentative. After settling into her house, Asbury asks for a visit from a Catholic priest, in order to spite his Protestant mother. Asbury hopes the priest will be an educated and worldly conversation partner; but the priest he gets, Father Finn, is irritable, blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, has no idea who James Joyce is, and would rather exhort his pastoral charge to pray for purity and the salvation of Asbury's atheist sister. Father Finn peppers Asbury with questions from the catechism, ignoring Asbury's attempt at conversation about "the myth of the dying god". Pray for the Holy Ghost, says Father Finn, who will come when Asbury is able to see himself for who he is.

It is Asbury's illness that is his moment of penetrating grace, like the needle that draws Asbury's blood as his doctor quietly sings a hymn. "Though he grew rapidly worse," writes O'Connor, "his mind functioned with a terrible clarity. On the point of death, he found himself existing in a state of illumination." The death that he thought would be his final vindication and opportunity to blame his mother for his artistic inability, becomes a moment of absolute clarity when he is confronted with the truth: he was not going to die. Instead of the inexplicable death sentence he hopes for, Asbury's chills are a result of drinking unpasteurized milk in another, earlier attempt to spite his mother. The result was undulant fever, not fatal, but something that he would live with for many years. This is the moment of clarity described by Father Finn, and Asbury experiences
the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold. His breath came short. The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.
Grace descends, because of his act of malice, not in spite of it, and the judgment of a lifelong chill becomes the very moment that the Holy Ghost falls like a shard of ice. There is no judgment apart from what Asbury has done, and there is no grace but the grace made available because of his chill. Asbury's grace is the Holy Ghost descending, "emblazoned in ice". And it is this world, that of the unlovable and the implacable, that is visited by the descending Holy Ghost, purifying Asbury through his illness, not allowing him to escape it, either through a miraculous healing or even death. His illness, caused by a spiteful act, becomes a terrifying grace.

part 4: Sufjan Stevens


Friday, November 13, 2009

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 2

Part 1 begins here.

Around the time that the gospels were being written out, and a generation after the Apostle Paul had written to them, another letter was sent to the Corinthians, this time from Rome. There had been a leadership change at Corinth, and Clement* was not happy about it. So Clement wrote to Corinth in order to urge the usurping leaders to desist, to repent from their pride, to restore the former presbyters to their positions of authority, and to restore "peace and harmony" within the church in Corinth.

Our interest in this letter is Clements thoughts on harmony, because within his conception of harmony he describes a particular aesthetic, and how it relates to human sin. The prime example of harmony that Clement describes is the harmony of the created cosmos, from the course of the stars, sun, and moon, the cycle of the seasons, right down to the sexual relations of the smallest of creatures. It is this harmony that is offered to the Corinthians as an example of holiness. When Clement's audience fails to live up to the harmony seen in the created order, the act of kindness that is the cosmos turns to judgment, as they fail "to conduct [themselves] worthily of him and to do the things that are good and pleasing before him, in harmony." In this way, the created harmony of the cosmos acts both as model of human behavior, and as a judgment against their own disorder and sinful behaviour.

This isn't, however, what is most striking about Clement's letter. What is most interesting is how crucifixion and resurrection function within this frame. During his extended homage to the harmony of the created order, and what this kindness means to the church in Corinth, Clement shapes this created harmony into a distinctly Christological form. Clement connects the "Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood . . . was given for us" with the order and harmony of the universe established by God. The blood of Jesus itself is part of this cosmological harmony, along with the resurrection revealed within this same harmonious order. The universe operates according to an internal coherence; human persons are called to modulate within this harmony, even though we often choose sin; the "blood of Jesus" is not injurious to the harmony. The harmonious creation of God contains within its own order a Lord Jesus who sheds blood for the life of the world. The crucifixion doesn't ring a sour note, but is well within, even revealing the breadth of the harmonic spectrum of creation, and is part of its coherence. This is not, to be clear, an apology for death and violence – Clement urges the Corinthians to do what is good and pleasing to the Lord. But the blood shed, and the resurrection life given, are unapologetically oriented to the grain of the universe.

There are two points that arise from this. The first is my contention is that there is an aesthetic of sin and grace present here. The created object, in this case the entire cosmos, has a rhythm to it, an internal coherence. This harmony inherent within the created object, proclaiming the truth insofar as it maintains internal coherence, is interrupted by a dyad of sin and redemption, revealing grace while it remains an act under the weight of judgment. But the interruption that is the crucifixion and resurrection, while it is disruptive and unique, is a showing of an underlying harmony, a single note revealing the tonal centre that brings the rest of the harmonic structure of the created object – the cosmos – into greater coherence. To put it simply, the interrogation of sin (whether it is the disorder of the Corinthians, or the crucifixion), while it remains sin, also offers the opportunity for grace, all within, and consistent with, a framework of the harmony and internal coherence of the created object. What we might say, playfully taking some license where Clement's argument is not fully resolved,** is that sin is a kind of competing harmony that, as it is interrogated, may initially sound harmonically discordant; but that it’s discord, listened to carefully and on its own terms, is exactly where we find the deeper ground of a more complex harmony, and an opportunity for a revelation of grace, just as the Corinthian sin became an opportunity to explicate the grace of the crucifixion and resurrection within a coherent and harmonious cosmos.

My second contention arising from 1st Clement is related to the first. If we were to look at human culture itself as a single aesthetic production with this frame, a helpful model emerges. Think for a moment of a multi-stringed instrument, and the harmonic phenomenon called sympathetic vibration. When any single note is struck, other strings begin to vibrate even without themselves being struck, producing tones harmonically related to the note of the single string. These sympathetic vibrations, though not as loud as the string plucked or bowed, offer a harmony far richer than a chord because the strings themselves each vibrate at more than one frequency. Clement's notion of harmony can profitably be thought that way. The event that is the crucifixion and resurrection is the single note struck, revealing and bringing forth a cosmological harmony already present.

The cultural extension of this notion of harmony goes like this. The event of the crucifixion and resurrection is the sounding note which sounds all those sympathetic vibrations, making the harmony of Christendom. Nearly all artistic production within the culture of Christendom has sung, in different ways, the event that is Jesus. But as the central note that is the crucifixion and resurrection culturally speaking, is silenced, the sympathetic notes of the harmony will still ring, but will be slowly weakening without the sounding note itself, and increasingly drowned out by competing harmonic structures – something like the competing harmonic structure of the Corinthian sin that brought some incoherence to the harmony of the cosmos. Culturally, without the coherence of that sounding note, we end up with cultural artifacts that might sound and look like they are connected to central Christian narratives, but are in fact disconnected and slowly dying out for lack of the cultural coherence we once knew. It’s like we are Richard in Blue Lagoon, trying to remember the Lord's Prayer and miffing it nearly completely, mixing it up with the pledge of allegiance; all the while without realizing that we have offered the object of our affection at the altar of a forgotten pagan god.

Take for example the way that religious iconography operates in Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, where specifically Christian religious artifacts are consistently presented as items of power. However, there is no allowance within the mythology of that universe for any explanation of where that power might find its source. The cross and the holy water are divorced from any narrative, other than their magical usefulness. They are put alongside any number of other magical artifacts or rituals that are entirely fictional: orders of monks, amulets and talismans. The cross and the holy water are evacuated of their original significance outside that particular universe, becoming magical weapons no different than the others. As such Whedon’s imaginative universe is little more than derivative of any robust, Christian theological imagination. Rather, the power of the cross and the holy water is simply a dying echo of a story no longer told, and I would be hard pressed to find much of enduring theological significance in such an anemic Christological vision. Whedon’s vision shows, in this way, the dynamics of cultural discord, without either submitting it to a coherent dogmatic vision, or interrogating the discord on its own terms. In fairness to Whedon, he makes no claim to be operating within a Christian imagination, but rather within an existentialist one. We can, nevertheless, faintly hear the dying harmonies as they are overtaken by other philosophical notes.

So, without pressing too hard on Clement's notion of harmony, two things emerge. The first is a theoretical poetics of coherence within the created object, both governing the structure of the object and further revealed through the interrogation of sin. The second is of a cultural aesthetic lacking the coherence of a shared narrative, whose resonances are still heard as they are dying out, as scattered and disconnected cultural artifacts, slowly drowned out by competing philosophical systems. Pursuing the significance of a Christian dogmatic imagination, we will leave the echoes alone to die out, looking instead to O'Connor, Stevens, and Aronovsky as creative artists pursuing the coherence of a created fallen world, under both grace and judgment, in the hopes that through this pursuit we will discover a living God able to gracefully break through the most depressing and fallen of worlds.

* There is no direct evidence to ascribe this letter to bishop Clement of Rome, and there is good reason to doubt the connection. However, for the sake of simplicity I will use the tradition ascription rather than the clunkier " author of the letter."

** Clement certainly thought that the sin of the Corinthians was disruptive of the natural harmony of the cosmos. But because the crucifixion is part of this natural harmony, yet is so certainly an act of sin, he leaves the tension of the complex harmony of the Corinthian sin unresolved.

part 3: Flannery O'Connor


The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 1

I had the opportunity to present a keynote address to the Canadian Institute for the Study of Pop Culture and Religion in September. As I prepare my manuscript for publication, I will be posting the sections here. Enjoy!

A number of years ago, as I listened to Johnny Cash's American Recordings for the first time, I was taken aback. The first track on that album was a re-recording of Cash's murder ballad, Delia's Gone, a story of the cold-hearted murder of a woman by her jilted lover. Because Delia's Gone is written according to the conventions of the murder ballad, there is no independent moral voice narrating any kind of judgment for the violent acts described, such as the female victim being tied to a chair, shot in the side, visibly suffering, being shot again, now to the death. The lack of moral voice is extraordinarily unsettling, because all we are left with is the single voice of the unrepentant killer. Only a cold rationalization of the act itself, and even a commendation of misogynist violence to the listener remains, Cash singing that " . . . if your woman's devilish, you can let her run; Or you can bring her down and do her; Like Delia got done."

Cash's biography makes this recording all the more startling. Cash was a man of faith and an ordained minister. He was a man who did prison concerts out of simple obedience to Jesus's command in Matthew 25:35-36 to visit the prisoner. "I'm trying very hard to be a practicing Christian," said Cash. "If you take the words of Jesus literally and apply them to your everyday life, you discover that the greatest fulfillment you'll ever find really does lie in giving." Most surprising, though, is not that Cash recorded Delia's Gone early in his career, but that he re-recorded it so late. This second recording, unlike the first, cannot be explained away as a reckless instance of a young man living the show-business life. No matter how tempted we might be to try to categorize Cash's artistic production according to some schema of "backsliding young man recording murder ballads" and "older faithful man recording hymns", we can't. Because of his choice to re-record Delia's Gone, Cash actively resists that schema.

We cannot assume that because Cash professed to be a Christian, he would be preserved from tasteless artistic production. However, upon reflection, it is my contention that Cash was doing something faithful, theologically significant, and part of a particular American, theologically driven, cultural tradition. Within the context of the whole American Recordings album, does two things. One he places it alongside other songs of redemption and grace. The second is that the narrative of Delia’s Gone remains discrete as a story. Deliah’s Gone remains distinct, with a coherence of its own, while making room for this particular story to be placed within a larger theological schema that includes the possibility of the redemption. But by allowing Deliah’s Gone to remain discrete, the unfolding of the drama of sin is allowed to impact the listener in full force without any mitigating moral voice of judgment. The world of Deliah’s Gone is pursued by the God who redeems, but that world includes human choice which, in this case, takes a disastrous and destructive turn. God pursues the people of this world not because the good and moral choice is possible and right, but for the opposite reason: because the moral good is not pursued, and needs a God who can redeem despite the depths of human depravity.

As such, Cash defies any notion that theologically charged artistic production should be reduced to moralistic, pious religious propaganda; nor does American artistic production necessarily need to conform to narrative apologies for the cultic power of the will. And he's not alone; Flannery O'Connor, Sufjan Stevens, and Daren Aronofsky each in their own way resist reducing their craft to pietism. My contention here is that the pursuit of violence, illness and death is theologically significant, allowing a dogmatic imagination to examine the significance of a created, fallen world under both judgment and grace, and offers an alternative to the more common American story of human potential as an ultimate good. As we will see, as we look at Flannery O'Connor's fiction, Sufjan Stevens' songwriting, and the film The Wrestler in more detail, it is in the pursuit of the fallen where we find some of the most profound illustrations of God’s graceful pursuit of a world under judgment.

part two: Clement of Rome

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On Not Being a Franciscan

Seeing as I wouldn't want to rain on any Franciscan parade, I thought I would post this post-feast.

It was upon hearing this story that I knew, for certain, that I am not a Franciscan:
. . . they had already gone more than two miles, and Brother Leo, full of surprise, said to him: "Father, I pray you in God's name tell me in what consists the perfect joy."

And St. Francis replied: "When we arrive at Santa Maria degli Angeli, soaked with rain, frozen with cold, covered with mud, dying of hunger, and we knock and the porter comes in a rage, saying, 'Who are you?' and we answer, 'We are two of your brethren,' and he says, 'You lie, you are two lewd fellows who go up and down corrupting the world and stealing the alms of the poor. Go away from here!' and he does not open to us, but leaves us outside shivering in the snow and rain, frozen, starved, till night; then, if thus maltreated and turned away, we patiently endure all without murmuring against him, if we think with humility and charity that this porter really knows us truly and that God makes him speak thus to us, then, O Brother Leo, write that in this is the perfect joy.... Above all the graces and all the gifts which the Holy Spirit gives to his friends is the grace to conquer oneself, and willingly to suffer pain, outrages, disgrace, and evil treatment, for the love of Christ!"

In that weather, I'll take my Scotch inside, by the warm fire, thank you very much.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Praying for the martyrs of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan

From The Anglican Planet RSS feed:
Once again the Archbishop of Sudan has issued an urgent appeal in the wake of rampant violence. On Aug. 29, in Wernyol, a town in Southern Sudan, at least 40 men, women and children were killed, including the Ven Joseph Mabior Garang who was shot at the altar during Morning Prayer. Many more were wounded. Garang was Archdeacon of Wernyol and the Archbishop's Commissary in the new Diocese of Twic East. The attackers were reported to be well armed with new automatic weapons, trained and organized and dressed in army uniforms. Consequently in the view of the church, this was not a tribal conflict as commonly reported, but a deliberately organized attack on civilians by those that are against the peace in Southern Sudan.

In an earlier attack in mid-August the Lord’s Resistance Army (a terrorist group) killed three people, including a lay reader. The attackers abducted children from an Episcopal Church building, looted and vandalized a hospital and forced thousands to flee their homes. “These attacks imperil the fragile peace process in Sudan and could be prevented with more international government attention,” said the Most Rev. Dr. Daniel Deng Bul Yak, Archbishop and Primate of the Province of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. If this violence continues, “there is no hope of conducting free and fair elections in these areas in 2010 and no hope of a fair referendum on Southern secession in 2011.” The Primate urges other governments to make peace in the Sudan a priority and to provide humanitarian assistance to the 39,000 displaced and wounded.

Blessed are you, gracious God,
creator of heaven and earth;
you are glorified in the assembly of your saints.
All you martyrs bless you and praise you,
confessing before the powers of this world
the great name of your only Son.
Therefore we join our voices with theirs,
and with all who have served you in every age,
to proclaim the glory of your name.

Preface of a Martyr, Book of Alternative Services, Canada