Infinite Waters

Return us to the place of setting sun over

Water, the crab pots hanging from

Breakers, liquid fire reflecting our past and

Present.

 

The brick house on the water stands, blue

Shutters, brilliantly in the fading burn. The

Smoke of future hovers on the coast, over

The haphazard rocks, indeterminate.

 

The large wooden door opens, to the

Chapel, where paths cross and holy words

Embossed toward the ceiling, beyond the

Roof to the sky, fly we know not where or

How.

 

Windswept trees groan against the falling

Veil of August, revealing the hairline of

September, the widow’s peak that will turn

To grey skies and later white snow.

 

Return us to the place of setting sun over

Water, the rain fallen brackish smell of all

Things drifting to ocean, to infinite waters.

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Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

I previously wrote an essay about the Atonement, laying out my view that God is in search of people to supply them with Love and Life, to counteract all that hinders Love and Life, to destroy Death. God wants to move all things to a grand reality of Shalom.

In writing that, I avoided going explicitly to the Bible. Scriptural interpretation can often be a fraught endeavor. Even still, I think it’s necessary. So, I embark in that direction here.

I am quite aware that not everyone will follow my way of reading the Bible. That’s more than fine. I have no desire to manhandle people into following the way that I understand the Scriptures and the Divine. I do, however, care about clarity.

My concern for clarity is a deeply moral one. It stems from, at least, two different Quaker testimonies that have influenced me, namely, integrity and plain speech. Integrity means more than just, “Don’t lie!” Integrity means that all you know and are should come into a unity. Additionally, the history of plain speech guides me into using words accurately and justly, even as I know they fall short.

With this caveat—that I will fall short in my explanation—I hazard forward.

As I’ve decided to level my weight against a particular theory of the Atonement, namely Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I will address the major passages used in that theory, of which there are six: Isaiah 53:4-6, 10, 11; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:18; Romans 3:23-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10, 13.

I think a definition of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (heretofore PSA) will benefit the conversation as we move forward.

So, in PSA, God desires to forgive people, because one of God’s attributes is love, yet God cannot simply forgive people of their sins because that would break another of God’s attributes, namely, justice. PSA holds that Jesus died to receive the EXACT punishment for the sins of every person for whom Jesus died. This substitution—Jesus for the sinful people—satisfies God’s attribute of justice and allows God to act in forgiveness. The nature of the punishment being exactly retributive is what distinguishes PSA from other types of Substitutionary Atonement.

Alright, with that in mind let’s move forward.

Isaiah 53 is a hotly debated text. Most Christians have viewed this passage as a direct prophecy about Jesus. Many Jewish scholars have understood this passage to be referring to the nation of Israel. Without going too far into that debate, I would say that these are not mutually exclusive options.

The passage does seem to be continuing the anthropomorphizing of Jerusalem that began in chapter 52. The servant of this passage is Jerusalem. It suffers the torments of the evil nations that seek to destroy it, but God promises that it will be whole again. It will be revived, and all the nations will answer to it. Jerusalem will establish righteousness among the nations. It will be the great exemplar. Even especially as it suffers the sins of the nations and seemingly perishes at their hands, it will rise and make a stand for righteousness. What I want to make clear is that there is no metaphysical carrying of sins here, rather there is a suffering of actual sins.

1 Peter 2:22 applies the words of Isaiah 53:9 to Christ. The previous verse of 1 Peter 2:21 calls Christ an example. It is under this notion of example, with Isaiah’s suffering servant in mind, that we need to understand 1 Peter 2:24 and 3:18.

Peter declares that Jesus “bore our sins,” which is to say that Jesus suffered the actual sins of those at that time, including Peter’s denial of Christ. Jesus bore these sins in order to set forth an example for all to follow. Rather than return evil for evil, we are instructed to turn evil into good, to turn the other cheek—to allow another’s vice to become our virtue, whether of patience or even amazingly…love (3:9-10). If everyone had a mind to do that, then there would be no vice.

So, those passages do not mean that Jesus died on the cross to pay for the fact that I lied yesterday. Not exactly. Jesus died because actual people lied about him and murdered him. The passages do want us to understand that all vice leads toward spiritual death and dissolution, that to stop this ignorant cycle we must be righteous, but they do not elaborate a theory of exact retributive justice.

In other words, I am to look to Christ, see that he died in the midst of sinful people and because of sinful people, and I am to follow his example—to live and to tell the truth no matter the consequences that may come from the unrighteousness of other people, or from me correcting my own unrighteousness—in this instance, confessing that I lied and making it right. My conscience is to be awoken by Christ’s example.

As we move now to our passage in Romans, we need to remember that this letter, like Isaiah, is a piece of writing that has inspired a mountain of books in commentary on it. But here’s my exegetical sense of things when it comes to Romans 3:24-26 as understood in its context.

Much is said about the Greek word hilasterion, which appears in verse 25. The debate has surrounded how this should be interpreted, with the main options being propitiation, expiation, sacrifice of atonement, and mercy seat.

The first three in that list all have a sort of pagan feel to them. They draw conceptually from pagan notions of sacrifice. I hate to sound judgmental, but…they all have this notion that God requires that God’s justice be balanced by a human offering a human life. I find that revolting—as per Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4; Jer. 31:29, 30; Ezek. 18:20—and I firmly believe that’s not at all what Saint Paul was saying. Let’s look closer.

The notions of demonstration and forbearance are very important in this context. What they point out—what they demonstrate—is that God was the one acting. The hilasterion was not primarily coming from the human side of things. It can’t be the pagan notion of a human giving something to God in order to get a favor in return. No, it was God publicly displaying something.

What was God displaying?

Well, verse 25 talks about God forbearing sins. And since, in the previous chapters, the history of sin in the world is recounted, we are to assume that God has been forbearing since the beginning. But if God is up there, forbearing all of this, it might look to a skeptic like God isn’t doing anything in order to eliminate sin. So, to show what God has been doing and what God plans to do, God sends Jesus as a demonstration that God is both just and a justifier.

God shows how bad sin is, proving it by sending a righteous man into the world, a man who is accused of being guilty then murdered. But God also shows that the only way to overcome injustice is through forgiveness and mercy. God intends to be a justifier by motivating people to be forgiving and merciful, by eradicating vengeance through love, therefore promoting Life.

God has spoken a true word in the public demonstration of Jesus as the hilasterion, the Mercy Seat. God has been merciful for the entirety of time, not counting sins against people, rather intending that they forgive one another, that they be reconciled.

Brief pause: I haven’t said this heretofore, but reconciliation is the main biblical word for Atonement. Atonement comes from an English amalgam: At-one-ment, to be one with someone. The notion is consonant with reconcile: to return to council with someone after parting ways.

Ok.

God gave Christ as a demonstration—as proof—of God’s intentions toward us, to be God for us, so that we would be “fully assured that what God had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:21). We parted ways with God, but God wasn’t happy to let us slip into death and destruction, to move into un-freedom. God wants us to be free, to be alive. This is God’s promise to us. We are to look away from the past and toward the future, toward Life, toward the Resurrection.

Toward the Recreation…

And now we take a look at 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says “God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” And given the fact that Paul often equates sin and death, almost inseparably at times, and righteousness and life are often equated (Rom. 6:16), I believe we can see what Paul means in the above statement through the parallel statement here following. In verse 5:15, Paul says, “…and he died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and rose again on their behalf.”

It’s not that Jesus became our sin, strictly speaking. It’s that Jesus died. He entered the state that sin brings us to enter. Jesus receives the wages of sin: He dies. But it’s not because he sinned; it’s because of those who sinned against him. Jesus entered death, and it’s important to remember that death is unholy, as per the tradition (Num. 19:10-22). This is Paul’s, at bottom, meaning: Jesus was ritually unholy while in a state of death. In this sense, Paul could say that Jesus was sin—not because Jesus took on our exact sins in some metaphysical sense. No. It’s ritual, symbol.

Jesus entered this state on our behalf, because he wanted ultimately to move us toward Life. Jesus wants us to recognize that people can move through and beyond death toward eternal Life. We can live now in light of this promise. We can leave fear and resentment behind. So, it’s not sin or death that are the real concern.

Actually, the Resurrection is the point, because it points to the grand new reality that God has in store for his creation, namely, New Creation. In verse 5:15, the New Creation is put in terms of living for the sake of Christ. In verse 5:21, New Creation is described in terms of righteousness.

The notion of New Creation was hinted at back in chapter 4, verses 10 and 16: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body;” “…our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” New Creation is stated outright in 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, she is a new creature.”

With this New Creation comes the need for ambassadors to declare its reality, in order that people may begin living it now. In a verse that hints very much in the direction of Romans 3:25 and of God’s forbearance of sin, Paul says that “…God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). To spread this message is to be involved in Atonement, in reconciliation—the promotion of Love and Life.

I see a clear example of this kind of reconciliation in Ezekiel 18:27-28: “Again, if a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”

Now, the last verse in the list of traditional PSA texts is Galatians 3:13, which says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” Saint Paul is quoting a verse from Deuteronomy to make his point. It’s perhaps best that we take a look at the Deuteronomic context.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 spells out what it means for someone to be cursed of God by hanging on a tree. Verse 22 tells us that it’s a man who “has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree.” This verse is interesting in a two-fold sense: 1) It implies that not all sins are worthy of death, which helps to jeopardize PSA all the more; 2) Jesus does not fit the bill for someone who has committed a sin worthy of death. So, Jesus doesn’t meet the realistic qualification for an actual curse.

Verse 23 can help us to understand how Jesus might, in Paul’s mind, be considered a curse. The insight comes from the command that the person hanged on the tree should be buried on the same day as he was hanged, “so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” So, it seems then that Jesus could fit the bill as one who was ritually impure or defiled, ritually under a curse, if not actually cursed in the strict sense. This assessment should harken back to 1 Corinthians 5:21.

Christ was falsely accused, ritually accursed, but he actually died. Let’s put this together with what it might mean in the context of Galatians.

Paul goes on, in Galatians 4, to elaborate his distaste for the stoicheia, the weak “elemental things” of the world. He mentions the earthly rhythms of days, months, and seasons. Yet, the notion of stoicheia goes deeper than that, as Paul was certainly aware. Ancient Greeks, like Paul’s audience, would have understood elements like earth, fire, wind, and water to be the foundational material that make up the world. These are the stoicheia. Paul believes that in the death of Christ these things are overcome. There’s a New Creation on the rise.

In light of this, Paul spends much of this letter arguing vehemently against the fleshly practice of circumcision. Paul understands this to be a vestigial stoicheion of the tradition. Or as Paul puts it: “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a New Creation.” There is a new ritual, owing to a new reality, which Paul promotes among the Galatians, namely, baptism.

So, Paul believes that Christ’s death was a sign of the end of an age and the Resurrection is the dawning of a new one, demonstrated sacramentally through the change of rituals from circumcision to baptism. The Resurrection is the New Creation that has happened for Christ, though not yet for us. Even still, we are to live in the Spirit, looking forward to the New Creation and attempting to live as if we are in it now, because in our relation to Christ we are. Whatever Law might have cursed us in the past is now no longer a threat. There’s a new reality rising. So, be of good faith.

In all of the passages that we’ve surveyed, it seems to me that none of them sets forth a notion that there is an exacting exchange of retributive justice. I don’t believe that PSA stands up to close scrutiny.

Rather, God has sent his Son into the world in order to demonstrate God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus does this through ritual, symbol, and the heroic act of remaining righteous in the face of evil’s worst attack. In Jesus, we actually witness God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

I believe that mercy triumphs over judgment, as Saint James said so long ago.

And as it was said even longer ago:

“Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? ‘For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. Therefore, repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:31-32).

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Atonement: A Mystical View with Quaker Influence

In his book, The Double Search, Rufus Jones intimates the notion that Atonement is a process. In other words, it’s not a one time, one off event. What’s more, it must be a process, because it involves humans, people. People are finite but unfinalizable, to use Bakhtin’s expression.

A large portion of the Christian community believes the contrary. Many, maybe most, Christians—especially in America—understand the Atonement as something more or less like this: 1) God is just 2) Sin is unjust 3) Sin makes God angry 4) God must punish sin in order for there to be justice. 5) But God is also loving, so he sends his own Son to die and take on the penalty for our awful sins, thereby balancing the scales of justice through a seeming act of love.

This, for so many, just simply is the Gospel.

Let me be straightforward, I don’t assent to the logic of this five fingered discount. This view is closely associated with the Evangelical tradition. I don’t belong to that tradition.

I am a Christian Mystic, and though I’m not a Quaker, I closely associate with the Quaker tradition. There is no consensus within the Quaker tradition as to what the Atonement is. So, what I’m about to set forward is my own view. At the same time, Quakerism does have its own vibe, and I’m going to be consistent with that frequency. So, here goes something.

Well, maybe I should talk about that vibe for a bit. Maybe I should give a few pointers toward how a Quaker might think or act, toward what many Quakers have believed, do believe.

A major foundation for Quaker belief is the notion, extending from George Fox, that there is “that of God in everyone.” This has wide ranging implications, but one thing it means consistently is that every person is related to God at some deep level. No one is ultimately separated from God.

There is another closely related, yet still distinct, belief that there is an Inner Light. Many Quakers have understood this to be Jesus. As a Christian Mystic, I agree. This belief implies that all who are guided by the Inner Light, by Jesus himself, are capable of receiving insight from God. It’s not just the prophets or apostles, of Scriptural fame, who are able to receive messages from God.

Some modern Quakers have taken this notion to mean the elimination of sacred texts. I don’t follow in that leading. I am all for the use of sacred texts. Why wouldn’t you want to be guided by the wisdom of the ages?

The Bible, of the Old and New Testaments, are the sacred texts to which I’m most closely tied, from which I’ve learned the most. I do learn from many other sacred texts, but the Bible feels like home.

I should say, as a final word of introduction, that I don’t understand the Bible to be the literal Word of God. I believe that these Scriptures testify to God’s leading in the world, God’s inspiration. From these Scriptures, we can gain insight into who God is and how God works in the world. With that, we can then better distinguish true leadings from the actual Inner Light versus those promptings that are just our own voice and desire. I take this to be very important.

Alright, so enough with the vibe; let’s dig in.

To articulate any theological position is to build something of a house. And every house needs a foundation. My study of the Bible, my encounter with Jesus, has led me to believe that God is Love and Life. One can see this clearly in the Gospel of John and in the epistle of 1 John.

Maybe we should define Love and Life. I think that Aquinas’ definition of Love is great: “To will the good of the other.” This covers a ton of ground, from parents relating to children, to neighbors lending a helping hand to each other, to spouses living in harmony. And Life…well, life is known to us all simply by the living of it. We know what helps Life, and we know what hinders it.

Sin, then, is anything that stands in the way of Love and Life. I’m not afraid of using the word sin. It’s true that it has been used poorly, destructively, in the past, by emotionally abusive clergy. No doubt. But sin understood as that which stands in the way of Love and Life would, I think, make most people perk up and agree.

I think God agrees.

Love and Life, then, is what we want. These I take as the two most universal desires. And yet, we live in a world wherein which these desires seem to be suppressed at every turn. What gives?

Competing desires: That’s what. We need to survive, and so we do things that help us to survive. Too often, we do these things in spite of others rather than in efforts to help them. We care for ourselves, but we don’t love. This is the problem that needs solving.

We the people are caught in this conundrum. And God has decided to help us out of it. God is Love and Life and so God acts in accordance with this character. God wills our good.

I see this most clearly and insightfully in the Life of Jesus the Nazarene. Jesus teaches us the way of Life. He pours himself out in Love. I believe Jesus to be the example, par excellence, of God working in this world. He shows us, demonstrates, the way of God in the world. This gets him killed. But! God is not content to leave things there. God brings Jesus back to life, changed for sure, but changed to a Life that will not die.

It is virtue that lasts, that’s eternal. Jesus was virtue incarnate. He will last. And the message is that the more we live like Jesus—into virtue, into Love and Life—the more we will be living a life that will last. Sin will not last. It’s what stands in the way of Life. Another name for it, then, is death.

God’s plan is to show us the way and give us the power, if we want it, to live in the way of Love and Life. But sin is so easy. It’s easier to wreck a house than to build one. Entropy is a lazy man’s game. Holiness, on the other hand, is an epic, an adventure. And I’m calling anything holy that promotes Love and Life. It takes a real mensch to pull off holiness. That was Jesus, and he is with us—by means of the Inner Light—to empower us along the way to our own holiness.

It is this energy, this power, this guidance that I am calling Atonement. Rufus was right. It’s a process. I surmise it will be an adventure that takes us even beyond the boundaries of this world we live in.

So far, I’ve kept things on the horizontal plane. But Atonement, as our good man Rufus points out, is a double search.

I’ve talked a bit about God’s empowering us to make things right between ourselves, on the human plane. I haven’t made a mention of how we relate to God, or if there is something that needs to be made right between God and people. That, after all, is the whole basis of the Atonement in the mind of most Evangelical Christians, indeed most Western Christians.

I’ve decided to talk more about how God has provided the teaching and the power to go along the way of Love and Life. And I think that’s the right emphasis. At the same time, it’s necessary to understand that we are not exactly putting our best foot forward when we are acting against Love and Life in the various, even small, ways that we do.

God, though, is an eminently better person than we are. God is not concerned to hold a grudge, rather God would just assume that we are children in need of an education. When we don’t consent to do things in accordance with Life and Love, then God is content to let us find out for ourselves what the consequences are, even after warning us what they would be.

We do need to get things right between God and us. Thankfully, God is good enough to take the initiative. And however content God is with letting us discover the consequences of our actions, God is not content to ever give up on us. Not ever. Not even after we die.

The final goal of all of this is that everyone would be holy as God is holy, that everyone would Love and promote the Life of others. When this happens, we will be living in harmony. We will be experiencing what the ancient Hebrews called Shalom, which means more than just peace. It means a state of existing where everyone promotes the welfare of everyone else whom they can.

As Walt Whitman once asked, “Is it a dream?” To answer in accord with him: No! I think it’s the only state of being that could count as fully real. Everyone reconciled, every wrong act righted. This is Good News. Let’s get it started now! I hold you in the Light. Amen.

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Exorcising the Zeitgeists

Symbolism was a movement in art and literature that can trace its roots to the mid-1800s, though its real maturation doesn’t occur until the end of that century.[1] It begins with the French writer, Charles Baudelaire and his publication of a volume of poetry called, Les Fleur du mal.

Interestingly, there is some American influence here. Baudelaire was much affected by, and even translated, the work of the Maryland based Edgar Allen Poe.[2] Besides showing the literary background of Symbolism, this fact points out an early instance of American literature starting to prove its power in the middle of the century when America comes into its own.

The major players of Symbolism include some of the most well-known names in French literature: Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé. The influence of these writers would extend to T. S. Eliot and James Joyce among many others. The visual artists are less well known: Victor Vasnetsov, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Edvard Munch.

There’s insight to be gained through seeing the transitional nature of the Symbolist movement. One could look at this movement in a few ways, but it seems important to see it is as a movement from 19th century Romanticism to 20th century Modernism.

We should, of course, be careful to hold on too tightly to labels like Romanticism, Symbolism, etc. It’s best to describe these, thinking of them as moods, feelings—or if we must as zeitgeists. They don’t describe strict doctrine so much as a dominant outlook. The early 20th century literary critic, Edmund Wilson, warns us of all of this, yet he doesn’t shy away from using the labels.[3]

Wilson goes on to explain Symbolism as a movement that continues the Romantic revolt. As he explains, science and math were developing so as to draw everything, humans included, into a mechanistic worldview. There seemed no room for human freedom or emotion. Romanticism enters the scene, a revolutionary ready to fight against the determinisms of society and science in favor of the individual and her emotions. This movement occurs during the late 1700s into the early 1800s and deeply affects culture, giving it the air of freedom. But many begin to understand Darwin’s discovery in science, rightly or not, as yielding a deterministic frame, so human freedom and emotion are again in need of recovery.[4]

Symbolism was deeply concerned with the depth of reality. It was a movement that attracted a religious element of society. As was typical in 19th century Europe, the majority of that religious element was Christian. Nevertheless, there was also a notable Jewish representation.

There was a group, attached to the Symbolist movement, known as Les Nabis. This name is a French term derived from the Hebrew word for prophet. This group comprised Jewish and Christian artists who associated closely with one another in a common artistic and spiritual temperament.[5]

While the great nemesis of 18th century Romanticism was the Rationalism of the same century, Symbolism’s great opponent was the Naturalism and Realism of the 19th century, largely set in motion by the developments in Biology, the greatest achievement being Darwin’s.[6] This does not imply that Symbolism was anti-science or even anti-Darwin.

Symbolism seems more concerned that we avoid reductionism. Math and science are excellent tools, but the Symbolists were asking questions about purpose. Math and science reveal aspects of the structure of the world, but they are mostly descriptive. The Symbolists were looking for something more prescriptive. They wanted a message from eternity, values that were timeless.

When you look at Victor Vasnetsov’s The Knight at the Crossroads, you want to come alongside the knight and say, “No, don’t give up. Look beyond the grave stone to the light in the distance. It may be setting…But it will rise!”

When you view Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ Young Girls on the Edge of the Sea, you behold a beautiful, if mundane, scene of French women by the water. But you notice that it’s three women…that, oh, it’s the three sisters of Fate; it’s the Trinity—it’s all of these at the same time. You see one woman beholding her belly, another looking out at the sea while fixing her hair, another sitting in repose, perhaps sadly, next to a hill which you begin to look up until it goes out of the frame.

You look at all of this until you realize that you’ve been looking at Eve, Mary Magdelene, and Mary the Mother of Christ. Christ is assumed as you look up that hill and you’ve just viewed the entire symbolic tradition of Western art in one scan of one painting. This is the value of Symbolism.

The goal of Symbolism is to take the eternal and bring it into the present. I take this straight from the Symbolist manifesto, which says, “In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”[7]

Here, I think, is a way to view all of this: Rationalism knew well how to go for the structure of things, but its structure remained in the form of bones, and mostly dry ones at that. Romanticism had to put flesh and marrow to these. Naturalism and Realism focused on the particular and the surface of things. They could see these bipedal forms walking about and even dancing on occasion. But they missed something. Symbolism had to come along and breathe the spirit into them, to move past the surface and find life itself.

Romanticism privileged Nature and the genius individual. And it privileges the past, particularly the Middle Ages. While you need these to get things started, you can’t stop there. Symbolism could see the beyond while looking at the things among us. It hints at the future, even while it privileges the present.

The future of Symbolism is in some ways past for us and some ways present.

Modernism took the stage after Symbolism exited. There were many factors involved, but World War I was perhaps the greatest. For all the shellshock of war, Western culture could not get much beyond the present, nor could individuals break from the trauma and the absurdity of life, remaining stuck in their own heads. The balance of eternity and present broke, with our attention turned to our own injured minds. Fracture is the pervading metaphor of Modernism. This is how you get T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mark Rothko’s as well as Joan Mitchell’s color fields.

Postmodernism, I believe, is only the inevitable extension of the Modernist outlook. And this fragmented view ruled the 20th century. What will the 21st century bring? What will our counterpoise be? Where is our spirit?

[1] Symbolism. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolism_(arts)

 

[2] Symbolism. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolism_(arts)

 

[3] Wilson, E. (1931). Symbolism. In Axel’s Castle: A Study In The Imaginative Literature of 1870 To 1930 (pp. 10-11). New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

 

[4] Wilson, E. Axel’s Castle (p. 6).

[5] Les Nabis. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Nabis

 

[6] Wilson, E. Axel’s Castle (pp. 7-8).

[7] Symbolism. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolism_(arts)

 

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Oneiric Thoughts on Crywolf’s Cataclasm

I used to lie around and listen to music for hours. I lay there, creating films in my head that would go along with the music—putting a film to score rather than the other way around. Anyone else? Anyway, adult life has cut that practice down to just about non-existent.

But then comes along the new Crywolf album: Cataclasm. Yes, I did spell that correctly.

I want to say that this discovery was like finding an oasis in the desert, but that’s a thoroughly clichéd description. Instead, I’ll talk about déjà vu for a minute.

I used to experience déjà vu every other day, or so it felt. I would be engaged in an experience and then start to sense that imbalanced feeling that I had already done this. Once the experience and that feeling subsided, I would remember that I had a dream about this very thing, exactly the way it was unfolding.

I remember one time when I was on a road trip. A buddy and I decided to go on this trip after our first year of seminary. We left from Philadelphia to head West. Eventually, we made it to Oregon.

As we were blazing down a switchback on the coast, making our way down to the ocean, I started moving into a dream that I had before. The texture of reality changed to this kind of experiential tertium quid. Sometimes it can be unsettling to move into this liminal space-time. Not on this occasion.

As this was happening, I announced with—what to my friend was—an overly enthusiastic: This is the land of my dreams! The evergreen trees, the sound of the ocean, its smell, the sight of Killer Whales in the distance, me coming face-to-face with a Seal: these were all out of another time for me, but yet present.

My discovery of Cataclasm was none too different. It was not literally déjà vu, but the album creates an oneiric feel with its genius transitions between songs, its orchestral arrangement of sounds that seem to span centuries in a single moment. This album is, in the most deeply etymological sense, wonderful.

With track names like The Queen of Fiji, Akureyri, and Anachronism we’re meant to be taken on a journey through space and time. With Act Two: A Shattering in F# Minor, and Act Three: Looming we know this is meant to be phonic theater. Epithelial and Epilogue: [Ossuary] alert us to a certain tinge of romantic angst.

We put our headphones on. The Queen of Fiji starts in a tenor range; it starts on ground level, on the earth. It rises to a Sam Smith-like soar into falsetto heights. Icarus be damned. You’re hooked, thinking that this dude has the vocal skills required to do something new. These vocal chops are only furthered and illuminated by his production savvy.

Listening to the transition from The Queen of Fiji to Wake [E-bow] is to hear a master technician at work. Like déjà vu, this transition captures the odd quality of being in two different realities at once. Where does one end; the other begin? It’s difficult to make a distinction between the ending and beginning of these two songs without the almost arbitrary cut of the time tracker. It is Crywolf’s skill in using ambient, environmental sounds that ties much of the album together.

Essentially, he’s created an entire world. The album is basically a sci-fi romance story, set on a planet of Crywolf’s design. Frank Herbert eat your heart out.

It’s this artistry that moves the pointy, technical precision to fullness.

With his hands masterfully on the dials and his heart e-bowed on the strings, Crywolf is able to take all of the energy and intensity of a late-80s exercise video, cut the glam hair, and make something that the 90s wouldn’t have completely covered in grunge.

I envision Kurt Cobain, donning a dress, and coming to a house party hosted by Crywolf. Really, there’s something for everyone on this album. It’s astounding.

Are you a Justin Timberlake fan? Listen to Slow Burn. If you like Andrew Lloyd Weber, listen to Anachronism or Epilogue [Ossuary]. These might awaken your ears to hunt for some Steampunk sounds. If so, check out Act Three: Looming, which could also serve as a number during a theatrical set change, or it could be scored over a photomontage in a film.

Speaking of film scores, maybe you want something minimalist, something reminiscent of Philip Glass—or better, Arvo Pärt. If this is your thing, set your headphones at the ready for Act Two: A Shattering in F# Minor. This piece reaches heights higher than falsetto.

This song is obviously a descendent of Gregorian chants, but the resonance is more modern. There’s a digital, almost platonic, purity to it. All of the dust and stone reverberation of the cathedral has left it. This is haunting, a little sad maybe. Whatever else it might be, I know it’s holy.

I leave this album feeling fuller. I think anyone would. I know that I haven’t wasted even a second of my time, however adult my life may be. It’s good to be halted from monotonously moving through tasks. Although, I’m already thinking about my next task. Where’s my camera? There’s a film to be made.

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A Whisper of Abraham by Catherine D. Prewitt and Austin B. Ricketts

“There’s a wooden folding table

But the leaves are in the attic

Under boxes and boxes of porcelain dolls.

I thought about their faces last night

And the faces of my family

And for some reason I was

Endeared to a pile of rocks,

To whom I do not have to speak.

For though they cry, I would

Never hear them, maybe

A whisper of Abraham.”

 

The sky is empty now of stars.

A box is full of heirloom jewels.

 

She took it upon herself to fold

The table, then folded herself

Upon the table. Whether fetal

Or failed, she’s veiled, entombed.

Petrified, “This attic womb,”

 

We hear her cry.

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The Depth of Return

I am continuing to read Henri Nouwen’s Lenten meditations, From Fear to Love, in tandem with Anthony Bloom’s book on prayer, Beginning to Pray. Each has been insightful on its own, but the conjunction of the two is powerful. The overarching model of the Prodigal Son, from Nouwen, is especially poignant for learning how to pray. It seems that every attempt at prayer is simultaneously an attempt at making our way back to God.

Nouwen makes bold use of the aforementioned parable and says, “I want you to know that you are the younger child, you are the older child, and you are called to become the parent who loves unconditionally.”

The younger child he paints as obviously needing forgiveness. Everyone knows it. The older child is a different story, he thinks. The older child resents the Father’s forgiveness. He just can’t accept it. It’s not a reality that exists for him. That kind of forgiveness is wrong—it’s unjust. And so he resents.

But the Father forgives. He lets it all pass away, every last bit of wrongdoing that his Prodigal has done. He’s only happy to receive him.

I know that I have been all three of these characters at different moments in my life. I have had times where I resented others who I thought got off way too easily. But I have also gotten off too easily myself. I have known the mind of each of those parabled children all too well. Even still, it would be dishonest to neglect that I have played the role of the Father on some occasions as well. I thank God for the grace that was given me in those moments.

These are all outward affairs.

Nouwen wants us to take a look inside. Sometimes we can forgive others with more ease than we can forgive ourselves. It’s probably all too familiar. You hear that internal voice criticizing something that you’ve just done, maybe a mistake that isn’t a big deal. This is the older child in you. Or perhaps you’ve done something that seems unforgivable. You run, looking inside yourself for some good thing you’ve done in the past so that you can hold that up and claim that you’re not all that bad.

But it is a rare person who can actually forgive oneself. Can anyone actually forgive oneself—I mean really forgive?

It might be possible, but it seems highly unlikely. Nouwen’s model of realizing that you are all of the characters in the parable becomes heightened when you take it inside yourself, seeing how you interact with yourself in your own head. This is where Nouwen meets up with what Bloom is doing in his book on prayer.

Bloom is asking us to go inside ourselves. He’s asking us to look and see what we find. He believes that most people live from the outside, taking things into themselves. This shouldn’t be the case, he thinks. People should be living from the deep source within themselves. By this, he ultimately means God. He means meeting God as the source of your own being, your own life. But you do this by realizing that you don’t sustain yourself. At this point, you realize that the source inside of you is something other than you. And this is the only “outside” source that you should concern yourself with when it comes to the core of who you are.

To find this place, this source, it’s likely—if not necessary—to go through a Broadway drama of emotions. You will be that older child. You will resent yourself. You’ll be that younger child, too. You will run away even as you run toward the source of life. Our emotions are complicated, if beautiful, realities. There will be fluid overlap in all of our searching.

One thing will present itself as sure. In all of this wavering, all of this sea-tossed uncertainty, it becomes clear that there is a unity holding all of it together. There is the One, the source. In the moment of discovering this, you will be free. You will let go of resentment, knowing that you partake of the same source of life as those you resent. If you need to be forgiven, you will be. You will know that this Life has given your life as a gift. And while you might not be forgiving yourself here, you will have come to know forgiveness in and through yourself, through the Life that gives you life.

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