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I am thus very close to one of the forms of anarchism, and I believe that the anarchist fight is a good one. What separates me, then, from the true anarchist? Apart from the religious problem, which we shall take up again at length, I think that the point of division is as follows. The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society – with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities – is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible.

~ Jacques Ellul

Here is the text of Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity from Google books.

http://books.google.com/books?id=55_Oa12YTt0C&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1&output=embed

The link to the book is here.

>Today Christ is born of the Virgin in Bethlehem. Today He who knows no beginning now begins to be, and the Word is made flesh. The powers of heaven greatly rejoice, and the earth with mankind makes glad. The Magi offer gifts, the shepherd proclaim the marvel, and we cry aloud without ceasing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.

(From the Festal Menaion of the Orthodox Church; hymns from the Third Hour and Matins.)

Nativity, by Andre Rublev (or a follower of Rublev?)
Moscow School, early 15th century.
From Zvenigorod. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 71 x 53 cm.

The following description by Alexander Boguslawski of this painting  is taken from here.

This icon is interesting for several reasons. Some scholars attribute it to Andrei Rublev or one of his close followers. That immediately makes us pay attention to the excellence of the icon’s composition and to the depth of the message conveyed by the author. Moreover, while the figures and actions are depicted clearly (elements of monumentality) there is also complexity in the number of figures and diversity of actions. At the same time, this complexity is carefully controlled and does not detract from certain important, spiritual ideas represented in the icon. One of these ideas seems to be the miraculous power of God and the perfection — the completion — of His divine will on earth. The painter succeeded in showing this “simplicity through complexity” by making each auxiliary scene reflect a reaction to, a consequence of or an event connected with the birth of Jesus. In this way his birth acts as a unifying force in this icon, as it has been for many believers around the world; these considerations add to the icon’s symbolic power.

Another interesting facet of this icon is that although Mary is the largest figure, she does not seem to be its most important (though perhaps she is the most visually noticeable) feature. Though one’s eyes may be drawn to her immediately, the entire composition of the icon reveals that it is what Mary represents – the power, mercy, and fulfillment of God’s will – that is given the most emphasis, not the woman herself.

The colors are warm and, by their complimentary nature, contribute to the unity of the whole. Touches of white are used to highlight both the cliffs and the clothing of almost all the figures – a notable exception would be that Mary’s clothes lack any such highlighting and, in consequence, appear very flat. Though this lack of highlights may be due to the state of preservation of the icon, observations of most, if not all, Russian Nativity scenes will reveal that Mary’s figure is usually depicted in an especially immaterial, “spiritual” way. Perhaps this was done to ensure that her presence, her very physical state of having just given birth, are both portrayed with fidelity to the spiritual reality of what has just occurred as opposed to the portrayals of the auxiliary figures, which are perhaps closer to physical reality.

This icon is quite faithful to the traditional iconography established for the Nativity of Christ. Important features of this composition include:

  • Mary (usually disproportionately large) as the central figure, resting on a bier
  • Joseph, usually tempted by the devil (an old man with a cane), but sometimes facing a shepherd
  • Baby Jesus swaddled in his cradle, shown in a cave
  • Two servant women preparing to wash or washing the baby
  • Angels, the messengers of God
  • The Magi bearing gifts
  • The shepherds, announcing the good news
  • A few farm animals. [C.B.]

© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2000

There are many depictions of baby Jesus, and of the Nativity. Sometimes baby Jesus looks like this:


Sometimes the Nativity looks like this:


Neither of these are accurate. The baby Jesus did not look like that and the scene of his birth did not look like that. We know this, but we don’t complain a whole lot. We are used to sentimentality at Christmas, and anyway we don’t have any photographs of the actual scene to compare.

If we are not going to be able to precisely and accurately create a perfect nativity, how then should we portray the birth of Jesus? This is a big question. Since the early days of Christianity many artists have tried their hand at depicting the scene. There are many approaches, especially since the painter is making up much of the scene and therefore has some freedom in what kind of message will be conveyed. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) depicted the scene several times. Here is one of those times:

Nativity, 1504, Albrecht Dürer, Staatliche Museen, Berlin


Here is another of those times:

The Nativity, 1514, Albrecht Dürer, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna


Consider the first of the the two engravings above by Dürer. It is the one with the earlier provenance and is somewhat more rich in detail. We see a medieval house and courtyard with a well. There is no attempt to replicate a Mideast Jewish home of centuries past. The house is dilapidated with portions of the structure falling apart. One might even sense a falling from wealth into poverty. Visually one’s eye is drawn first toward a crouching man pouring water next to the well. He is at the lower edge of the frame, but he is placed horizontally at the center. The building structures, from the sloping roof line, to the archway, to the diagonal rope of the well, all point towards the man. He is the central figure of  the picture. Secondly one sees the woman and baby to the left, within the house’s frame. She is also placed near the lower edge of the picture. 

We can safely assume that the man is Joseph, the woman is Mary, and the baby is Jesus. There are several key elements that make this image a “nativity.” Even without the engraving’s title we could assume (with our knowledge of western art) that an image where a baby lies as this one does, with a woman in a posture of veneration towards the baby as is this woman, would be a nativity. On the other hand, there are many elements that undercut the expectations of the genre.

Where is Mary and Jesus? They are placed lower left, small compared to the overall composition, and somewhat lost in the most detailed section of the image. Joseph is visually the central figure of the composition. And yet it is he rest of the picture, the dilapidated house and structure, the strong vertical elements drawing our eyes upward away from the figures, the arch and tattered roof, the tree growing out of the ruins at the very top, that make the nativity content seem almost secondary. This is a mundane scene. The people are little, the world is running down, the baby is of no real consequence. But, of course, we know otherwise. The history of the world, of all of creation, turns upon this baby. He is the incarnate God humbled. He will grow, mature, become a man who will teach, heal, die and rise to life again. He will return as king, bring into fullness his kingdom. The world, from that point onwards will never be the same; it is not the same even now. Then why not create an image more glorious, more focused on the savior, more rich in “God beams” and adoring onlookers? Where are the shepherds, the wise men, and the star glowing above? They are all absent, and I believe Dürer knew what he was doing.

The cute little pictures of baby Jesus and the quaint and sentimental nativities do not highlight the utter absurdity of the gospel. The way God does things is patently crazy. Many notable thinkers have pointed this out, but even the average person like myself can see the strangeness of it all. The wisdom of God is foolishness to humans. When Christ was born it was a huge event cosmically, but it was as insignificant as a birth could be humanly speaking. Mary and Joseph were ordinary people living ordinary lives. They were poor folk living in a backwater. Their daily lives were mundane, filled with common tasks. At least that is how everything they were and everything they did would have looked to you and me if we had been their neighbors.

Dürer knew this. In his engraving he captured the remarkable ordinariness of the event. It is a message of the humanity of Christ, the frailty of his life, the absurd contingency placed upon the incarnate God. Jesus was a marginal person. Of course, it is not a factual picture, as though Dürer imagined himself there in time and space, rather it is a truthful message of the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in radical contingency – not only contingent upon God, but contingent on these two young adult humans (Mary may only have been fifteen years old) and their community. And who are we? We are merely actors in a story. We are entirely contingent on our creator. We are glorious creations who are as ordinary as can be. Jesus was one of us.

That Joseph should be the focus of this nativity is key. Mary and Jesus are, historically and possibly cosmically, a kind of unit. Mother and son. They get their own portraits as well. There are many a Madonna with baby Jesus on her lap. In this nativity Joseph is serving his wife and son. Joseph doesn’t get a lot of play in Christian history. He is merely a member of the supporting cast, as he is here. And yet, are we not all members of the supporting cast? Is not, then, Dürer saying something about the rest of us in this nativity? Rather than drawing you into a sentimental nativity scene where one’s focus is on baby Jesus, we are given a scene in which the central figure is the one humbly serving the baby Jesus and his mother. It is as though we are told, “If this (God become man in the humble form of a baby) then this (you become someone for whom serving others is your vocation).” Dürer may be asking, in the most subtle way, where do you stand?

This might be a stretch, but notice the building has a sign hanging from its upper reaches. On that sign is Dürer’s signature. He may be making a connection, of sorts, between himself and this dilapidated building. Could he be saying symbolically that Christ has come to dwell in him?

Ten years later Dürer created another nativity scene (the second engraving above) in which he continued the ordinary human quality of the earlier engraving, but this time Mary is central, with all three players grouped together. It is less about the setting and more about these three humans in the midst of something they know is radically important though none else do. I imagine that Dürer had grown closer in spirit to this little family since the time he created the earlier engraving. In a sense one might say he moved from making a theological point of sorts to a position of affection. Can one not say this is also the same movement many of us make as God takes us through the process of sanctification? One thing for certain, Dürer was not making Christmas cards, he was telling us about his faith.

Final note: There is much more one could say about these engravings. Albrecht Dürer was part of the Protestant Reformation. He was profoundly affected by the social and theological implications of that historical sea change. He was also a key artist in the Northern European Renaissance. His art reflected changes in art at that time, which included changing perspectives on humanity, nature, and personal freedom. I have not bothered to dive into how these images are part of all that. Nor have I tried to unpack them phenomenologically or psychologically (in terms of the “beholder’s share”). They are far more rich and complex in those terms than this post warrants. If I tried I would be over my head, and this post would become a book.

Nativity, Marc Chagall, 1950. Galerie Art Chrudim.

Away despair! my gracious Lord doth heare. Though windes and waves assault my keel, He doth preserve it: he doth steer, Ev’n when the boat seems most to reel. Storms are the triumph of his art: Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart. Hast thou not heard, that my Lord Jesus di’d? Then let me tell thee a strange storie. The God of power, as he did ride In his majestic robes of glorie, Reserv’d to light; and so one day He did descend, undressing all the way. The starres his tire of light and rings obtain’d, The cloud his bow, the fire his spear, The sky his azure mantle gain’d. And when they ask’d, what he would wear; He smil’d and said as he did go,He had new clothes a making here below. When he was come, as travellers are wont, He did repair unto an inne. Both then, and after, many a brunt He did endure to cancell sinne: And having giv’n the rest before,Here he gave up his life to pay our score. But as he was returning, there came one That ran upon him with a spear. He, who came hither all alone, Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear, Receiv’d the blow upon his side,And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cry’d, If ye have any thing to send or write, I have no bag, but here is room: Unto my Fathers hands and sight, Beleeve me, it shall safely come. That I shall minde, what you impart;Look, you may put it very neare my heart. Or if hereafter any of my friends Will use me in this kinde, the doore Shall still be open; what he sends I will present, and somewhat more, Not to his hurt.  Sighs will conveyAny thing to me.  Harke, Despair away.

– “The Bag” from The Temple (1633), by George Herbert

The Second Shepherd’s Play Scene 8 
(Medieval mystery play, 15th century)

The stable or manger in Bethlehem The shepherds enter and kneel before the Virgin and Child.

First Shepherd

Hail, comely and clean, hail, young child. Hail Maker as I mean, born of maiden so mild! Thou hast banned I deem the devil so wild. The evil beguiler now goes beguiled.

(pointing to the Child)

Lo, Merry He is! Lo, he laughts, my sweeting, A welcome greeting!

(offering the Child some cherries)

 

Second Shepherd

Hail, sovereign Savior, for Thou hast us sought! Hail Nursling, leaf and flower, that all things hath wrought! Hail, full of favor, that made all of nought!

(offering a bird)

Hail, I kneel and I cower-A bird have I brought. Without mar. Hail, little tiny mop, Of our creed thou art the crop; I would drink from thy cup, Little day-star.

Third Shepherd

Hail darling dear, full of godhead! I pray The be near when that I have need. Hail! Sweet is Thy cheer! And my heart must bleed To see Thee sit here clothed so poor indeed, With no pennies. Hail! Thy hand put forth to us all—I bring thee but a ball; take and play with it withall, And go to the tennis.

The Virgin Mary

The father of heaven, God omnipotent, That set all aright, his son has He sent. My name He chose forth, and on me his light spent; And I conceived Him forthwith through His might as God meant; And now is the Child born, May He keep you from woe! I shall pray him so. Till the glad news as ye go, And remember this morn.

The First Shepherd

Farewell, Lady, so fair to behold. With thy child on thy knee.

Second Shepherd

But he lies full cold Lord it is well with me! Now we go as ye behold.

Third Shepherd

In truth already it seems to be told Full oft—

First Shepherd

What grace we have found.

Second Shepherd

Come forth! Now we are won!

Third Shepherd

To sing of it we’re bound: Let us sing aloft!

(they leave the stable singing)

-Source:pp.123-127. Medieval and Tudor Drama, ed. John Gassner, Bantam 1963. Found online here.

 

We have an old book called “The Æsop for Children.” In this book is a fable called The Astrologer. I want to present it here and then propose another ending. Here is how it is in the book:

     A man who lived a long time ago believed that he could read the future in the stars. He called himself an Astrologer, and spent his time at night gazing at the sky.
     One evening he was walking along the open road outside the village. His eyes were fixed on the stars. He thought he saw there that the end of the world was at hand, when all at once, down he went into a hole full of mud and water.
     There he stood up to his ears, in the muddy water, and madly clawing at the slippery sides of the hole in his effort to climb out.
     His cries for help soon brought the villagers running. As they pulled him out of the mud, one of them said:
     “You pretend to read the future in the stars, and yet you fail to see what is at your feet! This may teach you to pay more attention to what is right in front of you, and let the future take care of itself.”
     “What use is it,” said another, “to read the stars, when you can’t see what right here on the earth?”
     Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.

My alternative ending:

…”What use is it,” said another, “to read the stars, when you can’t see what right here on the earth?”
     The astrologer went home somewhat embarrassed for having fallen into the hole, but not yet convinced by the villagers, for he knew what he had seen in the stars.
     The next day was a great earthquake. The villagers ran from their houses and looked to the sky in fear for the sun had turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
     Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, including the villagers, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from this calamity that has befallen us! For the great day of wrath has come, who can withstand it?”
     Take care of the big things for the little things will be of no consequence.

Christians are often known for believing in some pie-in-the-sky story that gives them both comfort and guilt. This vision is often derided as wishful thinking and used as one of many excuses for not believing in the gospel. Others, many of whom are Christians, emphasize the here-and-now aspect of the kingdom of God (the kingdom of God is within you) and propose that Christians spend more energy looking at the world before them, helping others, feeding the poor, etc. They would deride the pie-in-the-sky idea as merely a means to avoid the world of the here-and-now. The truth being, we are called to help the needy and poor, we are commanded to love our neighbors, but we are also longing for the kingdom still to come. Though the kingdom of God has come in one sense—with the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the  spirit of God—we wait still for its final establishment and the corresponding removal of sin from our lives. Our problem, however, is not that we don’t pay more attention to what is right in front of us, and don’t let the future take care of itself. Our problem is that we are too easily rooted in the things of this world; too easily living in fear of what this world might do to us—holes in the ground and all.

In the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians we read, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” This does not mean to disregard the needy and poor, in fact just the opposite. But it does mean that we should be captivated by what God is doing in history, concerned for the future, knowing this world will pass away, and longing for the kingdom come. But we are told differently; the world would have us say it is of the highest importance, its villagers telling us foolishness is to miss the world’s details in favor of the bigger picture. If we listen to the villagers we may never again fall into the hole, but we then might be destroyed when we most need salvation.


Annunciation

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos 
HymnGreeceVIc
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

         ______________________________
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.


*painting Virgin of the Annunciation, Antonello da Messina (c. 1470’s)

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     I tell you that I have a long way to go before I am—where one begins. . . .
     You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
     Resolve to be always beginning—to be a beginner!

~ Rainer Maria Rilke (p. 25)

In faith I am a beginner. Not out of choice but out of discovery. I used to think I knew a great deal about faith. I grew up in a Christian world, a world of church and prayer, of bible memorization and summer camps. I wrestled with issues and theology, but mostly I was a good poll parrot. Life, what really should be called the hand of God, taught me otherwise.

Of course we can consider the popular perspective of maturity as that of being in Truth, that is, a residing in Truth. This residence is a settled, comfortable, solid groundwork of doctrine and praxis. We take the train and arrive at maturity; we hope our bags have made it too. Maturity is a kind of location where one has achieved an objective state; an objective certainty. At least that is the idea we promote. But is it true? For the believer, the one who trembles and fears, who is still running the race, the state is more subjective; for true faith is subjectivity as our friend and brother Søren Kierkegaard said. This is not a discounting of objective truth, for I believe both God and the rock kicked by Mr. Johnson exist, yet while we demand our proofs and our miracles we are still left with a frightening proposition, that

God is a subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness. The existing individual who chooses the subjective way apprehends instantly the entire dialectical difficulty involved in having to use some time, perhaps a long time, in finding God objectively; and he feels this dialectical difficulty in all its painfulness, because he must use God at that very moment, since every moment is wasted in which he does not have God. (Kierkegaard, p. 211)

And in this I am a beginner. My Christian life has been a slow movement from objectivity to subjectivity. Perhaps I am an old hand at inwardness, but each day brings me back to new and challenging realities. The tremblings continue. It is when my faith begins to take on the aura of objectivity that I have learned to tremble the most, for I know the subjective will come rushing in like a strong wind that forces open a poorly latched door. And yet, I long for nothing in this life more than that; for my problem is not with what I know, rather it is with who I am. It is a venture of the greatest importance, of the gravest implications.

The truth is precisely the venture which choses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite. I contemplate nature in the hope of finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety. The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty. But it is for this very reason that the inwardness becomes as intense as it is, for it embraces this objective uncertainty with the entire passion of the infinite. In the case of a mathematical proposition the objectivity is given, but for this reason the truth of such a proposition is also an indifferent truth.
     But the above definition of truth is an equivalent expression for faith. Without risk there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so that in the objective uncertainty I am out “upon seventy thousand fathoms of water,” and yet I believe. (Kierkegaard, pp. 214-215)

Yet what is risk? Is it not a beginning? To risk is to try, to dive in, to take the chance. In arriving at one’s destination risk dissipates like morning mist rising from the earth. In faith one is always risking, always aiming, always trusting, always in the morning mist (though beautiful it may be). The road still lies ahead. The goal is still to be reached. The opposite of faith is the creed. Creeds are man’s attempt to deny the objective uncertainty, even using words like “mystery” to obfuscate the point of uncertainty. That is why Christendom is creedal and true belief has no part with creeds. Do not misunderstand me, a man of faith can enter through the church doors and say his creed, but in the darkness of his room he tosses the creed aside and trembles. In the sacred halls of religion he is a man of stature, of grace and theology, but in his room he is at the beginning once again, crying to the only one who can save him, for alas he has risked it all.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, from Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties: Translations and Consideration of Rainer Maria Rilke, by John J. L. Mood, 1975, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

Kierkegaard, Søren, from “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the ‘Philosophical Fragments’,” in A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall, 1946, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

I recently listened to parts one and two of “A Celebration of Beauty” from the Circe Institute‘s 2003 conference of that same title. Andrew Kern was the speaker and he spoke of his mother dying of cancer and of how, even in death, we find beauty. Death and beauty are not things we tend to put together very often. Death is ugly in many ways. We don’t like it or want it, but it is a part of our existence. For the Christian death is no less worrisome on one level, for Christians are as human as anyone, but on another level death is not so troubling. As Kern spoke I was reminded of my grandmother’s passing and the poem I wrote in remembrance of her. My grandmother was someone who loved beauty. She was a Christian who knew that death was not so much an end as a beginning. Her name was Lily, which is also the name of my eldest child.

Lily

The slight curve
of an otherwise flat sea
plumb line of time
was your vision
Oil paints and
Japanese floats
your talismans
sacred promises
your great hope

I am thinking of you Lily
I am thinking of the beautiful
mystery of you
and of the world
you made
And I am thinking
of the boy that was me
and old cracked sidewalks
and green apples
and blue rooms
and pool tables
I am thinking
of basement treasures
and ice cream
and Thanksgiving holidays
under your bed
watching color tv
I remember Olive Street
and station wagons
I danced in your house
climbed into cherry trees
played with cousins
falling exhausted
on the livingroom floor
I learned the history of my father
and of his father
I heard stories of great uncles
living the West with big chests
I learned the wonder of nature
always changing
always awesome
And I knew I was
a part of history
descending like leaves
to the ground of time

And you were
always there

You saw the world
daughter of Beaumont
traveler in beauty
wife and lover
mother and giver
You saw the world
with an eternal heart
and infinite eyes
You knew this world
would never hold you
You were ready for death
not from resignation
but an unfathomable longing

You knew
what you were giving up
your flowers
the seasons
the green valley
and verdant hills
the birds at the
backyard feeder
the squirrels and
rainy days
the joys of your children
and their children
your collection
of yellowing photographs
the memories
of your old friends
the daily reminders of
your old creaking joints
your frail and bruised body
your failing health
your history

You knew
none of it would last
And you were right

I brought you your husband
wheeled him to your bed
I stood there
amongst the family’s
outpouring of love
as you whispered
your goodbyes
holding bony hands
speaking secret codes
123 I love you
and the silent space
between your eyes
two souls
speaking out six decades
with fear
and trembling
and joy
a feast I have yet to eat

I was there
beside your bed of pain
and your incoherent moans
watching your simple
agony gestures
watching your pleading brow
watching your God
severing you from
this earth
your dying body
a poem in the dust
giving you up
I was there
helpless before
my own destiny
weak and frightened
a bystander
a witness
a grandson
a saint

It rained the day we buried you
a soft bittersweet rain
But you were already far away
already becoming memory
You could not stay
I knew that
You soul was too big
a caged bird calling
to the sky
a flower
too beautiful
for words

Lily
white and pure
you shine
in golden light
enveloped
in purest love
your goal
finally reached
your hope
come true
your dreams
manifest
and now only
the kingdom
and the rest of us
waiting to join you

(1998)

I am reposting this post from my other blog. It was originally published a couple of years ago. I have added new thoughts at the end about where I am now with the topic discussed. I hope you enjoy.

Are we not postmodern?

My brain often works best by comparison. In this post I want to briefly compare the postmodern impulse in art making and the post-Christendom worship of the emergent/emerging1 church. I fully admit my ideas are not fully baked, and yet the process of putting them forth might teach me a thing or two.

Somewhere in the transition from the 1960s to the late 1970s Art reached its end. The end was prefigured by such notables as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. The end of art wasn’t really about the end of art, but about the end of a series of historical/cultural problems and intuitions tackled largely in succession since the Renaissance. What happened over time was a decline in interest in those issues as they either were solved (“solved” is a rather subjective term with regards to art) or they were found no longer relevant. The world changed and so did the world of art.

But art never stops. Art will emerge as long as humans exist.


Hymn, by Damien Hirst, 2000

What happened (one thing that happened) was a new impulse, that of appropriation. This impulse was already coursing through the veins of art; Picasso appropriated, Johns and Warhol appropriated, and many others. But with postmodern art artistic action began to twist free from the weight of art history and the art’s weighty lineage. Art and art history began to work more and more independently from each other. Of course that independence wasn’t complete, but art makers felt that art had become fundamentally divorced from meta-narratives. Now the appropriation of anything and everything was possible – even appropriation of that weighty lineage. In this sense art finally became art.


Portable War Memorial, by Ed Kienholz, 1968

What is meant by appropriation?

To appropriate something involves taking possession of it. In the visual arts, the term appropriation often refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of new work. The borrowed elements may include images, forms or styles from art history or from popular culture, or materials and techniques from non-art contexts. Since the 1980s the term has also referred more specifically to quoting the work of another artist to create a new work. The new work does not actually alter the original per se; the new work uses the original to create a new work. In most cases the original remains accessible as the original, without change.2

Key here is that last part. The “original remains accessible as the original, without change.” This is a kind of quoting without quoting; a kind of objective theft for subjective purposes. One could say it’s a synthesis, something new from something old that becomes new merely through the act of appropriation. In this way an old work of art may become a new work of art fully within a new context – and seen as a new work of art because of new ownership as it were. But this should be expected, for “there is nothing outside the text” as Jacques Derrida once said.3


After Walker Evans 2, by Sherrie Levine (1981).

Keeping this in mind I want to shift gears a bit.

Christianity has gone through (and is going through) similar changes. Christianity is one of the great meta-narratives in world history. However, many Christians (some of whom prefer the term Christ followers) have begun to twist free of their traditional moorings. They see their faith and Christianity as two different entities. Faith is no longer strictly about being a member of a particular group with its set of proscribed codes, mores, or rituals. The focus has shifted more toward Jesus and away from the historical church. Jesus has become the deconstruction force, deconstructing Christianity.


Jesus has a power lunch with the money changers?
(Why I put this picture in here I don’t know.)

If faith is a passionate, existential belief in the lordship of Jesus, then Christianity as an external religious set of practices can be other, is other. This otherness allows the multiplicity of historical and cultural expressions of Christianity to be appropriated as the “believer” sees fit. One is no longer bound by a tradition, rather by faith. Christian practices and disciplines from any branch of the church and any time period can be appropriated by the Christ follower on an as needed basis. Logically, then, practices from non-Christian sources might be appropriated as well. If being a Christ follower is no longer about religion (or being religious), then religion, as a set of optional practices and disciplines, becomes a non-threat.

More and more Christians today are seeking old, and very old, religious practices – going back to the historical church and gleaning. I assume the idea is that through the course of the modern era we may have lost some good things. I assume this is more true for Protestants than Catholics or Orthodox. The question on the table is whether these practices are meaningful and might they negatively influence one’s faith – a real fear for many Protestant apologists. I don’t have an answer for that at this time. I am both curious and wary, and certainly interested.


Christ followers walk a labyrinth

Why does this interest me? I came to a deep re-evaluation of my faith as an undergraduate (more than 20 years ago). I was an art history major, a film studies major, and part of a college ministry team in a large Baptist church. I began to have too many conflicts between my faith (which I held to be true) and the Christian culture in which I was immersed. My Christianity was deconstructing, but only because my faith was stronger. I began to see that the outward forms were of little consequence compared to my pursuit of truth and my beliefs. Interestingly art played a big part in this. Art is what helped me realize the freedom that resides at the center of the story of Jesus. I saw artmaking, which is such a natural human thing to do, chafing under the weight of Art’s meta-narrative. Breaking free did not destroy artmaking, in fact artmaking flourished. Breaking free merely lowered the dominance of the meta-narrative a few notches. I think, similarly, I knew intuitively my faith could handle some freedom.

And so I left that Christian culture behind for a while. I took a breather. But I did not leave Christ behind. In fact my faith became stronger, my theology more grounded, and my hope deeper. Now I am at the fringes of that culture again and wondering.

Modern Christ followers, many of whom are part of what is sometimes called the emerging church, are appropriating many religious practices – trying them out as it where – in much the same way that artmakers are appropriating many things from both “within” and “without” the art world. And just like with artmaking, if one’s faith is authentic then one has great freedom in one’s practices.


Image by Luke Flowers from this article

Phyllis Tickle has recently articulated the idea that the emerging church is really part of a wholesale worldwide emerging, religious and otherwise. She has also likened the shifting and changes in Christianity to be like a great rummage sale, where people sift through what is there, what has come before, what others have done, to find what they need and what they didn’t know they needed. According to Tickle these rummage sales tend to occur within Christianity about every 500 years or so. The current rummaging includes searching for spiritual practices that have been lost, long unused, or never before used in the current context(s). These practices include anything from how we “do” church, to how we pray and fellowship, to classic disiplines like solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, sacrifice, study, worship, celebration, service, confession, and submission. Most of these practices were never truly promoted or explored in my Christian upbringing, and they are largely foreign concepts to a consumeristic culture.

I am not yet sold on the idea of spiritual disciplines. I am still inclined to think of a truly spiritual person as being one in whom the Spirit of God is at work – which I see as a one way street: God invading a person’s life. And I am inclined to think that one cannot move or change one’s spirituality through any action unless God initiates and completes the work. Yet, just as with all issues of God’s sovereignty and human action (and choice) there is what we know of God and what we actually experience every day. With that in view I can see spiritual disciplines as offering tremendous encouragement and I find myself increasingly curious about exploring disciplines. I also see them as being very much a matter of personal choice. Regardless, the re-emergence of disciplines and practices is evidence of a church extending beyond the modernist model of Christianity, which I see as generally positive.

1. I am purposely conflating these two terms, though many would seek to separate them, because under the umbrella of this particular topic one finds the comparison still holds true.

2. “Appropriation (art).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Sep 2008, 15:40 UTC. 17 Sep 2008

3. I believe that quote is found in Of Grammatology.

New thoughts since the original post two years ago:
For several years I was seeking a new kind of Christianity or , at least, a new kind of Christian culture. I kept running up against my aversions to modern Protestant versions of the “faith,” and I wanted something that had more substance in terms of culture and practice. However, whatever kind of Christianity I found would still have to have some basic theological foundations that were largely reformed, for I am a child of the Reformation in many ways, though not strictly. Out of curiosity the emergent/emerging church became a focus of mine for a while. In some way it still is and some of the key players in that movement (if it can be called that) are still on my radar, but less so these days. I appreciate some of the hermeneutic approaches and the emphasis on one’s personal process in coming to truth. But the more I look at popular alt-church trends the more I find that church, religion, practice, or most of anything we call worship or the Christian life just doesn’t mean squat. Not that there is no value whatsoever, but none of it is truly substantial. Faith is radically inward. Faith is what is truly substantial. Faith gets worked out in a person’s life in works that cannot be adequately predicted or proscribed. And there is nothing that a person can do, no practice, no spiritual discipline, nothing, that can affect any meaningful spiritual change in a person’s life. You cannot grow your faith. Only God can do that. If he chooses to work through some spiritual discipline or some ancient practice in someone’s life then that is his choosing and the individual’s benefit. But if there is anything that a study of the New Testament cries out to us regarding religion is to beware of pretense. It is is a bigger trap than mere sincerity can avoid. My searching has only clarified this for me.

On the whole, though, I do not see my observations in the original post above as necessarily indicating a negative situation for Christianity. The postmodern situation highlights something very important that can get lost in a primarily Christian dominated or influenced culture. That is, faith is fundamentally existential, which means that it requires the individual to make the decision, which means that the choice needs to be a free choice. Postmodernism throws everything up for grabs and pushes the individual into a more radical posture. It calls into relief the meta-narrative of Christendom as narrative. If we strip away the trappings of Christian culture one can no longer rely on the safety that culture provides. One has to now wrestle with the issues rather than having them answered before one even has a chance to ask. Kierkegaard dealt with this issue in his Attack Upon Christendom. The problem, as I see it, in not with postmodernism per se, rather it is with the sad reality that many (most?) people today do not seem to have the intellectual foundations to be able to accept this freedom and turn it to good. Our present age appears to me as a sea of people floundering in the waves and grabbing anything that looks substantial. Freedom without discernment is a deep and wide ocean where everything and nothing looks like salvation. But of course discernment, like faith, is one more undeserved gift from God.

I am uneducated. There, I said it.

Sure, I’ve been to school, and I know how to read. I also know a few things, including a lot of trivia. But the more I learn the more I am convinced that I am largely uneducated. I am also convinced that many adults, especially those who have been to college, do not think this way about themselves, but they should. It is a kind of catch-22; the more one knows, the more one doesn’t know. In other words, it takes being educated to realize one isn’t. So, I guess I am both. I could become disheartened, but in fact it is just the opposite. The world of knowledge is before me and that is exciting.

Being a homeschooling parent I am also interested in the concept of a classical education. A classical education includes a lot of reading. If you are looking for some good books to read, and you want to spend several decades reading them, take a look at both of these lists:

Adler’s book list
Professor Cadbury’s book list

I want to read them all.

Now I love books, but I have to confess a problem: I love to buy (or check out) books more than I ever read them. I have stacks and stacks of books. I’ve gotten rid of more books over the years than most people have ever owned or, for some, even held in their hands. I’m not saying this is a good thing. A lot of the books I have are classics. They range all over, but probably most are works of non-fiction, including a lot of philosophy, theology, history, and biography. The fiction is a lot of European and American classics, and mysteries. I also have a fair amount of poetry. Regardless, most of these books sit on their shelves or in their piles having been started several times each but never finished. Novels are the worst for me.

With that in mind I am embarking on a plan. Or, at least, attempting to embark. The plan is not really my own, but I am willing to embrace it and try to make it my own. And like most grand schemes announced by bloggers, mine will likely suffer the usual fate of making it gloriously to sometime next week and then failing due to some minuscule, but entirely “understandable,” problem. Regardless, here is my plan: I will read through the book list proposed by Susan Wise Bauer in chapter five of her book: The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. That chapter is titled: “The Story of People: Reading through History with the Novel.”

Here are the books on her list:
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605)
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1679)
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1815)
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1838)
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
Nathaniel Hawthorn, The Scarlet Letter (1850)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851)
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)
Leo Tolstoy, Ann Karenina (1877)
Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1878)
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (1884)
Stephen Crane, The Red badge of Courage (1895)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
Alert Camus, The Stranger (1942)
George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (1956)
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1972)
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977)
Don Delillo, White Noise (1985)
A. S. Byatt, Possession (1990)

You will notice the books are listed in chronological order of their publication. That is part of Susan Wise Bauer’s strategy. To read in order of publication date is to also read through the order of the history these books are a part of; it is to see just a little more the significance of each novel as they pertain to their time and place. In this way one gets a sense of the novel’s development.

I realize some of you are laughing because you know I will never get through this list, and others are laughing because you are surprised I have not already read each of these several times and even wonder why the list is so short. Hey, I’ve read a couple on the list, and started a few others more than once. Anyway, I am thoroughly excited about tackling such a great list of books. I hope this project will provide some genuine and lasting educational substance to my life.

I figure if I give myself two or three years I should be able to get through the book list without killing myself, but it will still be a difficult push for me. It might even take much longer depending on how much work I want to do with each book, such as note taking and re-reading. Susan Wise Bauer also provides some good advice on reading, a history of the novel, and thoughts pertaining to each of the books. I picked the novel because that’s the kind of book I have the most trouble getting through. Unfortunately I am a rather slow reader, though I am also working on my reading mechanics; my eyes tend to go back over the words I just read (back and forth) which slows me down considerably. I also tend to daydream when I read. In fact it is difficult for me to read more than a couple of sentences before I start making connections with other things and my mind wanders. It is my bane!

So what do you think? Is this something you would do?

This is a great and thoughtful talk: A Contemplation of Liberty by Andrew Kern from CiRCE Institute. It is an audio (not video) recording. So grab a cappuccino (or, if it is evening, a glass of red wine), get your pen and notebook, tell your homeschooled children to quietly practice their Greek declensions, sit back and enjoy.

whosit: Andrew Kern

Some notes…

Mussolini’s quote on relativism:

“Everything I have said and done is these last years is relativism, by intuition. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology, and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories, and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascism.”
—Benito Mussolini, Diuturna (1921)
“Truth fishing:” The seven Liberal Arts were divided into the Trivium (“the three roads”) and the Quadrivium (“the four roads”).
The Trivium consisted of:
  • Grammar
  • Rhetoric
  • Logic
The Quadrivium consisted of:
  • Arithmetic: Number in itself
  • Geometry: Number in space
  • Music, Harmonics, or Tuning Theory: Number in time
  • Astronomy or Cosmology: Number in space and time
From Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto XXVII, lines 124 through 142:
When all the stairway under us had sped
And we had reached the highest step of all,
Virgil fixed his eyes on me and said,
“My son, now you have seen the temporal and
The eternal fire, and you have reached the place
Where on my own I can discern no further:
“I’ve brought you here with intelligence and art.
Let your own pleasure guide you from now on:
You’re through the steep and through the narrow ways.
“See there the sun that shines upon your brow;
See the young grass, the flowers, and the shrubs,
Which here the earth all by itself produces.
“Until those beautiful, rejoicing eyes
Come, which in tears moved me to come to you,
You can sit down or walk among the flowers.
“Await no more a word or sign from me.
Your will is straightened, free, and whole — and not
To act upon its promptings would be wrong:
“I crown and miter you lord of your self.”

Today is a very special birthday in my life. My daughter Coco Madalena was born on this day in 2005. She was born prematurely, with a serious heart defect, and she was surrounded with love. She died in January 2006. I wrote this poem in 2007 remembering her.

These streets are named for you
But they are empty
Waiting for your voice
Your touch, your soft skin, your cry,
Your tender body

A single bird in a sky full of birds
Touches infinity
And knows nothing of it
I know you are beyond that sky
I know you have also touched the infinite

Where did we leave off?
Tiny fingers
Little wrinkles on your knuckles
Small hands in the hand of God

And I cannot walk these streets
Without waiting for you
But I will come, you know I will
And you will greet me
(June 2007)

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I completed my degree with a decent GPA due to grade inflation, yet I couldn’t comprehend the French in Henry V, the Latin phrases in the National Review magazine, or the English in The Federalist Papers. I couldn’t tell you a single constellation, the name of an African country or an Australian province. I could not say what century Charles Martel, Pepin the Short, and Charlemagne lived in, whether they were related to one another, or what kingdoms they ruled. I could read very quickly, but to this day my vocabulary is limited. I knew a major change was needed in our family’s educational approach when I had difficulty in explaining to my son why he should write “should’ve” rather than “should of.” I knew “should of” was grammatically wrong, but didn’t know enough about the parts of speech to explain why.
~ Leigh A. Bortins, The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, p. 33
I am a product of a mix of public education, private education, and self-education. I know just what Leigh Bortins is talking about in the above quote. I am only now able to critique my own education and the educational systems I see in our society because I took it upon myself to become educated beyond that produced by my formal training. My ongoing education has come in fits and starts, often meandering and without focus. I am still rather ignorant and I have a lot to learn, including learning about learning.

Education is hard and humbling work. It takes years of struggle. That is often the way with valuable goals. What is most valuable is usually most costly. One of the most important activities in which adults can participate is to nurture and to guide the education of young people. The most important relationship in this activity is that between parent and child, but it is an activity for us all. Providing a quality education is one of the greatest gifts any adult can give a child. In fact, one might call it a duty.

When we pay our taxes to fund government education are we fulfilling that duty? Although we can point to a few great public schools here and there, for the most part the answer is a resounding no. But still, and with great frequency, students matriculate through our government school systems, even through to graduate school. I have two bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees and I doubt I could properly parse a sentence today. I should have been able to do that long before I even reached high school. I received a lot of schooling but a mediocre education. Poorly educated students, which include the majority of students today, go on to be the creators of our culture, run our governments, and teach in our public schools. We can do better.I do not believe the issue with government schools is primarily that they have the wrong methods (which I believe they often do) as much as they are aiming at the wrong goals. Though I frequently disagree with the methods I believe government schools actually come close to achieving their goals, which I find frightening. This is not to say there are not many great teachers in public schools. I am sure there are many and I salute them wholeheartedly. But like the rest of us, public school (and many private school) teachers suffer from their own education, as well as from the prevalent educational theories popular today. The goals we have greatly affects the methods we choose. The goals of education in this country are, for the most part, wrong. Hitting the wrong target is not a success. We need better goals. We need the goals of a classical education.

I believe we should begin with fairly straightforward and simple goals, somewhat like the following taken from The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education by Leigh A. Bortins:

Someone who has acquired proficient levels of literacy can analyze and synthesize a variety of ideas from a wide range of documents and defend her conclusions by using the source text. This is a much higher, nimbler level of literacy than just being able to read a novel or newspaper. (p. 19)

The classically educated are not defined by their occupation so much as by their breadth of knowledge and understanding. (p. 40)

A classically trained [high school] student would have the skills needed to read the original text, ask and find answers to her own questions, and clearly present her findings to her audience. (p. 55)
Those kinds of basic goals seem like they would be easy to achieve, but they are difficult. Most people do not have those skills or breadth of knowledge, not even when they complete college. I know this from both observation and personal experience. When I taught at the local state university I was encouraged by the enthusiasm of the students but greatly discouraged by their scholastic and intellectual capabilities. In short, they suffered from being poorly prepared. Something needs to change.I am less and less convinced that the agents of the change we need should primarily come from the ranks of state certified teachers. I believe it is parents who must take the reigns and lead the charge.

As an interesting aside, if you are inclined to think future educators would be the most likely do what it takes to become well educated, think again. According to this article, from which the title of this post comes and which is anecdotal for sure, those students working towards their teaching degrees are comparatively the worse offenders when it comes to cheating their way to degree completion. Unfortunately we do not have figures on the scale of the cheating. Hopefully the numbers are small. But even if they do not cheat, one wonders how an educational system that is in desperate need of wholesale reform, including radically different foundational principles, can produce teachers with the capacity to produce that needed reform. I would hazard that it cannot.

This is one more reason why we have chosen to homeschool our children, though it is not the only reason.