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September 2007

Spirit So Big

dream "There is no other day. All days are present now. . . . This moment contains all moments."  (C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce)

Fall has come to my home, and it's welcome.  A couple days ago the 90 degree heat finally gave way to chill 50-something mornings and 78 degree days, with sharply blue skies and radiant sunlight.  I opened the windows, and the sounds of the neighborhood returned to the interior of my home after the hermetically-sealed air conditioned silence of the hot and humid Summer --- the morning birds waking, the squirrels fussing about whose tree this is anyway and where oh where did I hide that nut, the slap of the newspaper on the driveway, the garage doors opening for the first over-achieving employees on their way to work, the thud of a pine cone (or sleepy bird) on my roof, the waking creak-stretching of my settling home.  I know I've been here before, last year, for sure, and the one before, but even, I remember, as a child --- waking in the morning before anyone else, listening.  I roll over, locate myself in time: 6:38 a.m.

Last night I took a drive in this air, the windows down and moonroof open to a nearly full moon, drinking up the blackness of the night and just-so-cool air, listening to one voice, that of Jan Krist, singing "And the spirit gets so big/ and the body gets so small/ The spirit clutters all life's corners/ and it spills into life's halls/ And the spirit gets so big" ("Spirit So Big," from Love Big, Us Small).  The heat came on.  Headlights probed the darkness.  At that late hour, the blacktop seemed noticeably relieved, restful even.  I've been here before, driving, dreaming,

I cannot now remember how many years ago it was that I first heard the music of Jan Krist, but it was unlike anything I had ever heard before, a revelation to me.  It was lyrically deliberative music, fresh out of life-experience, with a sound like the gentle encouragement of a friend.  Right now, I can hear these songs --- "Spirit So Big," "Put Her to the Test," "Wing and a Prayer," "Can't Close My Eyes" --- and a dozen times and places rush in, all present now, in this moment.  There's a first performance, unsure of herself, and yet painfully honest and gifted; more than a dozen concerts, showcases, and radio interviews in a places from Albuquerque to Cleveland to Peoria; difficult conversations and laughter among friends; the business of the business, and the music, always the music.  Ten or fifteen years later it's all here, all real, every day present now.

I'm not being nostalgic.  I'm not being mystical.  I'm not suggesting I want to return to some past moment that I've made larger than life by selective memory, or that there is some mysterious thing going on here that we can never, never understand.  It's just that it's my common experience that these images and remembrances of past events, people, and places are palpable.  The distance between them and me is paper thin.  They're here.  There's truth in what the aged mean when they say "It seems like just yesterday that. . .", and I know now what they mean.  In a real sense, It was just yesterday.  We've been there before.

6:40.  Was it just last night I was listening to those songs?  It seems I was tunneling back through the years in those moments and I'm still connected, always connected.  I roll over, close my eyes, and those places are still there, and I feel that if I put my hand out in the early morning air I might just touch them.  Almost.

It didn't have to be this way.  We need memories, for sure, so we don't repeat all our mistakes, forget our own faces, forget where we left our keys and even what the keys are for.  Memories could have been just the practical stuff, the stuff we need to get by, two-dimensional black and white text messages or soundbytes of "just the facts," and not the rich four dimensional realities they are.  And if everything matters, then this matters.  We're made this way for a reason.

I think it's because we're made for eternity.  Cast a line back to the deep pool of those opening chapters of Genesis where God fingerpaints the panoramic drama of Creation in great broad strokes, and I land here, on Chapter  1, verse 26, where the self-existent, Eternal One says "Let us make man in our image. . . ."  Reel that verse in and try to take hold of its slippery existence and you'll realize how difficult it is to grasp.  Certainly it means we image God in some clear ways.  Dorothy Sayers, for example, said we image Him as creators, and  we do.  Jan Krist does.  Everyone does.  But it's much more than that.  Marred as we are by sin, and fallen from the grand place we were intended to occupy, we still image God --- in his timelessness, his eternality.  When we sense the almost tangible presence of memories, we experience a fleeting and pale imitation of what He knows all the time, or all the not-time, that this moment contains all moments, that all days are present now.  Time drops away.  Everything's present now.

Driving, driving.  I've been here before.  In a '72 Camaro, my just sixteen -year-old self slicing through the darkness of four counties, after midnight, liberated at last from the confines of the walking/biking life, the eight-track playing The James Gang, Traffic, or Led Zeppelin, stopping late night in a foreign county for a Coke, and  laughing with my best friend John.  The air is the same, the same feeling of freedom and pure joy, driving with the music on.

6:45.  The alarm sounds.  I've been here before.  I put my feet on the floor, rise again, making memories, imaging God, surrounded by a crowd of witnesses, all the places I've been, the people I've known, the things I've done, all with me now.  And I'm thankful: I've lost nothing.  Time has passed, I've moved on, people have left, I'm older.  But they're all here, all with me.  I'm timeless.  I'm built for eternity.  The body gets smaller, but the spirit's so big. 

Thank you, Jan.

What Lies Ahead

grass"The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world."  (C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce)

One wonders if Lewis was being tongue-in-cheek because, of course, The Great Divorce, like The Last Battle or any book dealing with what lies ahead, speculates about the factual details of Heaven.  Lewis makes this statement at the end of the Preface to his fantasy, reminding the readers that "[t]he trans-mortal conditions" of the story are "solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or speculation at what may actually await us."  His point is a moral one, to be certain, and yet however fantastical, his is an imagination rooted in an actual belief in the factuality of Heaven, and so what he imagines is bounded by the truth he does know about that place.  Thus, The Great Divorce is worth reading not just for its moral import but also for the vision it gives of what we might find in Heaven.

Our narrator is just off the bus from Hell.  His fellow passengers do not find this "vacation" to their liking.  The grass is more grass than the grass they remember.  It hurts their feet.  It is more substantial.  In fact everything is more of what it essentially is.  The colors are richer; the music, indescribable; the beings they encounter, more human.  It is, in sum, the really Real, more real than anything they have known.  However, our visitors find it unbearable.  Most of them even want to return to Hell, to their own petty concerns, to a lonely and gray existence.  For sure, Lewis has a point to make:  the condemned choose Hell, and keep choosing it, unable because of their pride and arrogance to give up their cause, whether vanity, self-importance, or whatever.  Yet I'm more interested in the fascinating glimpse of what they were rejecting and what Lewis is suggesting about Heaven's nature even here on the edge of Heaven.

Have you ever caught a glimpse or heard from a distance the sound of the Really Real, something beyond what is here?  I suspect you have had what Lewis elsewhere called “patches of God-light on the woodlands of our experience.”

It’s a beautiful, crisp Fall day and you’re watching your children play on a playground, the breeze blowing the leaves, the sunlight falling in mottled patches on the adjacent forest floor and warming your face, laughter settling in on you, and you close your eyes and think it doesn’t get much better than this.

You’re listening to some haunting bit of music from a movie soundtrack, something that stirs emotion and fills your mind with images from the movie, of a peaceable homeplace someplace, a family gathered with each other around a table, and it seems as if Home has come over you, and you’re completely at rest.

You're standing at a music festival at the back of a large open air circus tent, watching and listening to a succession of singer-songwriters take the stage, each song like a message to just you, and you might as well have been floating just above the scene you're so entranced by the sound and words.

You just walked in someone's old home and the smell of the place --- a musty mix of lived-in-ed-ness --- and you're home again, back to your first home, that small stick-built post-war bay boomer cottage on a quite street in then suburbia, and the people and places of that home, for a moment, crash in on you, tangible as the present life in front of you, and you smile.

Or maybe it's just the robin that just turned and met your eyes straight on in some extraordinary avian-human mind-meld. (Maybe that one's just for extreme birders.)

And yet every experience like this also has in it the sense of loss, of unfulfillment, of some unrequited need, a sense that there must be more and a knowledge that the experience will, sooner rather than later, end.

Compared to Heaven, to the really Real, Lewis said that our life here was a life in shadows, every experience, even the worst, holding in it something of Heaven, our souls being molded now to receive the greater substantiality of that place.  Seeing a tree, a scenic vista, or children playing, or hearing great music, whether Mozart, Yes, or Johnny Cash, we see potentialities, or at least a glimpse of what is possible in a place where blue is really Blue, or a C chord is fuller and richer than we can imagine, or the smell of fresh brewed coffee or homemade bread so rich and full that in our present state we might be overcome (like if we had the nose of a bloodhound, even now).

Seen this way, reality is iconic.  With the Spirit's help, we see through it to a greater Reality. 

Now . . .God help me pay attention.

[The Great Divorce is the first book in the Great Books series sponsored by Every month you read a different classic book, and you receive a CD that interprets the book, giving background on the author and important themes. If you're interested, check it out here.]

Making God Smile: The "Lost" Disc

MgssqcovWhen my cohorts and I at Silent Planet Records created Making God Smile: An Artists' Tribute to the Songs of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, we had so much good material that we could not fit it on one disc.  So, in order to honor the man and the artists who donated the songs, we released the 2-disc version of the recording on the internet only.  It quickly sold out.  Many people have requested the nine songs on the bonus disc, so many that we now refer to it as the "lost" album (shades of the original Smile),  so we make them available here for those who have purchased the single disc version and want "the rest of the music."

Note that these nine songs will be sent to you on CDR only.  We have no plans to manufacture more 2-CD versions of this release in original packaging.

Here is a track listing:

1. Caroline, No --- Frank Lenz & Richard Swift
2. With Me Tonight --- The Lost Dogs
3. You Still Believe In Me --- Jeff Elbel & Ping
4. God Only Knows --- Kate Miner
5. Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) --- Jacob Lawson & Riki Michele
6. Sloop John B --- Irwin Icon
7. Good Vibrations (Guitar Ending Mix) --- Phil Keaggy
8. Tom Prasada-Rao & Amilia K. Spicer --- Your Imgaination (Extended Mix)

Bonus Track

9. Brain Wilson's Room --- Harrod & Funck

Murder, He Wrote: A Review of Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski

fieldwork While I'm not given to reading murder mysteries, Mischa Berlinski's first novel, Fieldwork, is much more than a typical mystery.  Rather, it is a rich character study, one that turns popular generalizations on their head.  It is also firmly rooted in place, in this case, Northern Thailand, a land which comes alive with the author's richly descriptive prose.

Early in the novel, we learn that Berkeley-educated anthropologist Martiya van de Luen has murdered Christian missionary David Walker.  Both van Leun and Walker interact with a tribal people known as the Dyalo, primitive rice-growing natives who follow an animist religion filled with oppressive and demanding spirits.  The Walker family --- fourth generation missionaries --- seeks the conversion of the Dyalo and their liberation from the spirits; Martiya, who first went to Thailand to live among the Dyalo for her fieldwork, seeks to understand them but, increasingly, is drawn into their world such that after the completion of her fieldwork she cuts ties with home and lives among them. 

The author puts himself in the novel as an expatriate journalist living with his girlfriend in Chang Mai, working as little as possible and drifting through life, when he becomes fixated on the stories of van Leun and Walker.  We go with him as he asks who are these people and why did they do what they did? In the process, we learn a  lot about what Christian missionaries are really like, as well as a lot about anthropologists.  We find out that the missionaries are a lot more normal and anthropologists a lot weirder than most people know.

To write his novel, Berlinski talked with many missionaries.  The research is evident.  As the author said in a recent interview:

"The amazing thing about the missionaries was that they weren't weird at all.  In fact, they were totally normal people who had done this amazing thing: they had left everything behind, learned these strange and very difficult tribal languages, took amazing risks with their lives — and they really weren't odd at all, personality-wise.  In fact, most of the missionaries I met seemed totally down-to-earth, good-natured, warm, welcoming, honest people, the kind of people who drove the kids to car pool and made tuna casseroles for sick neighbors.  They were just very normal people, most of them, who felt themselves in possession of a truth so startling and important that they absolutely had to share it."

This is a refreshing perspective, unlike one we might expect to encounter on coming to a mainstream novel like this.  This bit of narrative from Berlinski may help demonstrate the point:

"There was simply no telling what would come out of a Walker mouth at any time.  Anna Walker, Judith Walker's cousin, told me that before the Flood, it had never rained.  We ended up having a long conversation about whether this was really possible, because wouldn't you need rain after the Fall but before the Flood when Man was forced to plow the Earth?  I'm not entirely sure I got the better of the argument.  Ruth-Marie Walker was not the only Walker to refer to biblical characters in precisely the same tone of voice that one might use to describe the neighbors who let their dog run loose: 'I can't talk about Saul, he just gets me so frustrated.'  She was referring to that Saul, mighty king of Israel.  James Walker, David Walker's brainy cousin, used in a single sentence the words 'eschatological' and 'dispensationalist,' and I had to ask him what they meant.  I asked Sarah Walker, Thomas Walker's sister, what she would have done with her life if she had not been a missionary.  She paused a second, and, wrinkling her nose, told me that she had always regretted turning down a  position offered her once while on home furlough working at a perfume counter in a mall.  She thought she had a good sense of smell."

In this sense, the novel is a helpful corrective to a stereotypical vision of missionaries as weird fundamentalists bent on Americanizing the innocent savages.  It also is a corrective to popular visions of anthropologists as intellectuals simply involved in the mere dispassionate scientific study of native peoples.  Rather, the latter come off as Martiya van de Leun does, as ones who sometimes develop a mystical attachment to their calling, making them prone to want to be remade in the image of the people they are studying.  And that's what we see happen to Martiya in the story:  like a undercover agent gone too deep, she descends further and further into the Dyalo world and, in the process, becomes much stranger than the Dyalo.  That she killed David Walker is but a small part of the story; the real story is who she is and who the Walkers are.  Ultimately, one ends the book with a deep appreciation for the missionaries --- the ones engaged in true and life-long fieldwork --- and a suspicion of anthropologists as ones who use the native people for their own ends.

Although this is a relatively long novel at 320 pages, I never had the sense of being bogged down.  It was descriptive and detailed without being tedious.  The dialogue was utterly believable.  And the characters are ones who will stay with me and live in my imagination for some time.  Finally, the perspective provided by an outsider to faith who can sympathetically listen and write about those of faith is invaluable.  He deserves our thanks.  Who, after all, Christian or non-Christian,  wouldn't want to spend time with the Walkers? 

Buy the book here.  Find out more about the author here.

A Gallimaufry


Now there's a word you can use everyday, right?  It simply is a literary way of saying hodgepodge or jumble, which is what this post of miscellany is all about:

  • Great Books:  if you want to read some classic great books, and then would like someone to help you understand what you just read, you may be interested in the Great Books program sponsored by Breakpoint, a ministry of Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship.  Every month you'll read a different classic book, beginning with C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, and then on to The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (which has already licked me once), and Augustine's Confessions.  You get a CD each month by Ken Boa which contains a summary of the important themes, key quotes, and applications.  I'm giving it a shot.  Care to join me?  Sign up here.


  • Bible Study:  I'm a Bible Study Fellowship flunkie.  I just couldn't keep up with the work and chafed under the rules.  I need more grace.  I think Finding Purpose, a ministry to men here in Raleigh, may be just the thing to get me back into regular Bible study (as opposed to its devotional use, or simply reading it, which comes easier).  A friend of mine, Russ Andrews, directs this ministry, founding it after leaving his job as a Broker for Triangle Securities and getting an M.Div from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  It meets for 22 weeks, on Tuesday nights, at Edenton Street United Methodist Church.  There's a short lecture and then a small group study.  And homework.  We'll be studying John.  If you want to get on board, be quick about it.  Email Robert Boone here if interested.


  • A Literary Bible:  I'm intrigued by a new study Bible being released on September 25th.  Entitled The Literary Bible, this ESV edition focuses on the literary style of the Bible.  According to the short description the publisher posts, "The ESV Literary Study Bible approaches the Bible as literature and shows how the application of literary tools of analysis helps tremendously in reading and understanding the Bible. Readers are introduced to the literary features of each book of the Bible and to each section within each book. While traditional Bibles are reference books, this is truly a reader’s Bible. The format and commentary make it ideal for private devotional reading, for preachers and Bible teachers, and for use in group Bible studies."  You can read a 16-page brochure on it here, and pre-order it here.  I plan on getting one, as I would appreciate this not new but needed perspective on the text.


  • Amaze Friends With Word Power.  I've enjoyed the RSS feed from this web site, which sends you a word each day.  Where do you think gallimaufry came from?  Some are useful, some funny, and some completely and totally useless because you can't use them in conversation or you'll sound like a nerd.


  • A Literary Weekend.  I have to get to this conference next April and I want to go to this one too when it rolls around again.  Oh what will I do?  I'm not  a conference kind of person but I'd really like to attend these.  I want to to meet that talented wierdo Sufjan Stevens and speak to author Mischa Berlinski.  Care to go?


  • Ramson Upgrade:   Ransom Fellowship's website has had a major upgrade.  I enjoy Denis Haack's discerning mind (and taste in music) and wife Margie's humor.  A Francis Schaeffer protege, Haack covers films, books, and controversial issues and knows how to ask the right questions even though he doesn't have all the answers.

And that's quite enough gallimaufry for one evening.

The Story Behind Their Eyes

jury "What is the world afloat in?/ Who was it, caused my heart to form?/ Was there a promise spoken/ on the day I was born?/ What is the spell that makes me free?/ Who is the villain I must fight?/ Please, can anybody, please/ Tell me the story of my life?

"Story of My Life," by Peter Mayer, from Straw House Down)

Unlike most people, I actually want to serve on a jury.  Unlike most non-attorneys, I figured I'd probably never have that opportunity,  So last week, I answered the summons to appear for jury duty at the local superior court with resignation, knowing it unlikely that I would actually make it into the jury box.  You see, on criminal cases at least, few defense counsel would want a sometimes prosecutor on the jury.  So I knew it was likely a monumental waste of time for me, the attorneys, and the court.  But you don't disobey summons.  And besides, as I later found it, it wasn't a waste of my time at all.

There are few opportunities in cultural life today to be in close quarters with a random cross-section of the community, all involuntarily called out of the community to engage in a very public task --- deciding the guilt of a fellow citizen.  Yes, we go to athletic events, concerts, and movies with strangers, but they generally remain that way and we have no significant task to do together.  So I don't know another place like the jury pool to throw you together with a diverse group of people not of your own choosing to decide a weighty matter.  I was excited to go and actually be a part of a jury.

Arriving at the courthouse, I entered the jury lounge.  Quickly looking around, I confirmed that I did not know anyone.  Even superficially, it was a diverse group.  African-American, Indian, and Middle Eastern minorities were sprinkled in an otherwise white group.  The Indian man was speaking loudly on a cell-phone, oblivious to the mostly silent crowd around him.  People were reading, some women were knitting, and eventually two men struck up a conversation.

After about 1/2 hour, we stood and took our jurors' oath together, all moving to the nearest Bible.  I noted no exceptions.  It was a solemn moment, really, and I wondered what folks were thinking.  For me, it was a special moment ---- all these diverse people solemnly promising, swearing on a Bible, that we would impartially administer justice.  The only other group oath I had taken was in the baptismal ceremony in church.

Shortly thereafter, a group of about 40 of us in the pool were called out and directed to a courtroom, where we took our seats in the first four rows of the gallery.  The judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, the accused, and other courtroom personnel were waiting.  Once seated, we were given some basic information about the case, introduced to counsel and the defendant (who turned to face us, looking somewhat uncomfortable in an ill-fitting suit), and told how the jury selection process would work.  The defendant was accused of driving over 15 miles in excess of the posted speed and then attempting to elude arrest.

Much to my surprise again, I was among the first 12 jurors selected from the array (the larger group of potential jurors in the courtroom) to be seated in the jury box, an elevated couple of rows on the side of the courtroom.  I've been in front of a jury box but never in one, and you do have the sense, from that elevated position, that you are on display.  I felt a bit self-conscious.

Next up was voir dire, a time when first the judge and then counsel, all with great apologies, ask some basic questions about background, questions which can grow more personal.  It's their right and obligation to probe our life experiences to determine if we can be fair and impartial.  It was a valuable moment for me, a time when my fellow jurors became human, became real.  There were a couple software engineers, a salesman, a student, a retired teacher, an elementary school teacher, Mrs. Briggins (who worked in public relations), and a physicist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who commuted to his job in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and who, I learned, had a DUI conviction about ten years ago.  We were asked if we would raise our hands if we had ever had a speeding ticket.  Seeing so many hands, we were then asked just to raise them if we had never had a ticket.  Only two people had never had a ticket.

Mrs. Briggins indicated she had a brother who, in his younger years, had drug and DUI convictions, but was now OK.  On a second round of questioning, we learned that she had another brother who also had problems with the law.  He's OK now.  On a third round of questioning, we learned that she had been a witness in a child support proceeding.  She was the child.  We also found out that she had been in an accident where the other driver was charged with DUI.  She became emotional.  The judge dismissed her.  For a moment, the story of her life opened up for everyone to see, and I could understand, maybe, why her brothers had difficulty.  A broken home. 

And that's how it went, this gentle prying open of peoples' lives.  I too was asked about what I did for a living, about my wife and children, and about 50 people know some things about me now that I might not have told them in a normal, superficial conversation.  Rather than a roomful of strangers, we suddenly became quite human, and quite imperfect.

The defense counsel and the defendant conferred, and then, along with a tee-totaling elementary school teacher, I was dismissed.  I may not have made the jury, but I came away a little bit richer, more aware of the human story behind all the strangers I see everyday.  Maybe that's a start toward loving my neighbor --- just to see them as human, to see a little of the story behind their eyes.

Elitist Art


"The aesthetic problem of bohemianism is that in looking down their noses at ordinary folk, artists cut themselves off from the rich texture of common life that has always inspired the greatest art"  (Gene Edward Veith, Jr., in State of the Arts)

When I visited two small New York City art galleries earlier this year, I was perplexed and disturbed but not surprised by what I found there.  In one gallery, a nearly empty room contained a handful of paper-maiche creations: a phallic tree branch emerging from the wall, an ear emerging from another wall, and what appeared to be a bee-hive resting haphazardly in a corner.  In the middle of the floor there was a ring of stones, simply stones.  There was no explanation for what we saw, and the curator could add little except the idea that the artist wished to blur the distinction between humanity and nature (a very post-modern impulse).  What I did understand was the price: $3000 for the phallic tree limb, over $25,000 for the entire exhibit (provided you have a room within which to properly exhibit it.)  If having been to graduate school I fail to comprehend this, most people would think it a foolish waste of time and certainly not anything worth paying anything for.

Slipping from this gallery to the one next door, I thought at first that I had discovered something beautiful.  The walls were covered with large, colorful, and quite realistic paintings of children.  The curator said that the artist was inspired by a series of German books of fairy-tales for children.  As I looked around, however, I quickly sensed a dark side to the whole exhibition.  In a couple of paintings, boys were only partially clad.  In another, a young boy and girl wore black masks, and so on.  In another two children were kissing.  The whole thing seemed like a sick joke.  Once again I could only wonder who would buy such art.  I was informed that one painting cost over $10,000.


My excursion comes to mind because of another recent attempt at public art, a forty-foot long Carrara marble bench and semicircular wall adorning a new transit (bus) building meant to honor bus system employees.  Cost: $420,000.  The article, "Sculpture Puzzles Bus Drivers It Honors," demonstrates that this sculpture is an enigma to practically all of the employees, all of whom make only $25,000-40,000 a year.  The bench and wall include pieces of black granite meant to recall big bus tires, and images of "objects that confirm the work. . . such as mechanical parts of the bus."  Judging from the reactions of employees, none of whom were apparently asked what kind of art they might like, they'd simply like a comfortable place to sit with some shade.  They didn't get either.  It's like that other monumental waste of my own municipality's money on public art: Light+Time Tower, by Dale Eldred, a metallic looking Light_time_towercell cell tower look-a-like installed in the median of a local highway in 1995.  I suspect most folks are barely aware of it and, if they do notice it, would not consider it artistic or beautiful but simply wonder what its function is.  I don't think there was a lot of community input on this "public" art either.

Two things are going on here.  First, there is an elitist mentality among art bohemians, the idea that only "we" (the art elites) know what is good art.  Art commissions spend public funds on "public" art without significant input from the communities they serve.  When a community protests and the politicians become involved, they cry censorship.  For example, in the example of the transit station bench and wall, some of the employees could have been asked what they thought would be a beautiful public space.  I suspect they would have mentioned some quite functional and practical things, like shade from a hot sun, or comfort.  But prompted, they may have had more creative ideas.  It doesn't take a Ph.D to appreciate beauty, and given for what passes for art in the ethereal world of the art culture, you wonder if they know anything about beauty. Much art is ugly or disturbing.

On the other hand, art need not be dumbed down to the level of someone who thinks the best art is typified by, say, the pretty pictures of flowers you buy in a gift shop.  People can be educated and their appreciation of what is good and beautiful nurtured.  I suspect the transit building example is one that could have worked (and may still work), provided there had been an attempt to actually talk with some employees during the design process, some education of the employees as to what the artist was trying to do (he was, after all, trying to infuse his design with elements from their everyday life), and a consideration of function and comfort (shade, comfortable seating) along with aesthetic design.  The two are not mutually exclusive, you know.  But I doubt they'll ever appreciate the price paid for a bench and wall.

Art is not, in the end, just for the elites but for common folk like those transit workers or commuters passing by that piece of hardware in the median of the road.  As Gene Veith says, "The greatest artists have never been those who think themselves superior to the rest of the human race.  The greatest artists are those who are most fully human.  They show in their art that they share and understand the everyday struggles and demands of life."  Great artists incarnate meaning and beauty in a form that can be appreciated by everyone, if they have eyes to see.  God did no less.

The Paradox of Man


[A]ll things grow more paradoxical as we approach the central truth"  (G.K. Chesterton)

Less than two weeks ago the man who hired me for my one and only job as an attorney was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison.  He took part in a scheme to funnel funds through his trust account to offshore accounts, thereby running afoul of tax laws and anti-money laundering laws.  Ironically, and sadly, he will serve time in prison with some of the same type of people he sent to prison. 

Confronted by this horrific scenario, we who were his former associates collectively shake our heads.  What happened? Why did he do it?  And yet the better question is why do any of us not do the same thing and worse?  This man was an encouraging, motivating leader who had a great deal to do with shaping the office within which I work into an exciting, productive place with highly motivated, competent, and dedicated people.  He loved his family.  He cared about his state and community.  He was always supportive of me when, as an attorney, I had much to learn.  Much good could be said about him.

What can be said about the paradox and inscrutability of biblical truths like incarnation and trinity are just as true about man.  As well as you know a person, as well as you think you know yourself, you never really grasp the full truth of who they are.  Human beings are paradoxes and mysteries, simultaneously capable of great altruism and grasping greed, self-sacrifice strangely intertwined with vanity and pride.  Even when I think I know my own motivations, I suddenly realize that my motives are mixed, as when I show an interest in what someone is doing only because I want them to ask me what I am doing.  It's tragic, really, and yet the best response I have to such tragedy of character is laughter, or at least a smile, and an appreciation that in some ways I'm helpless to do anything about the drama that's being played out.  The comedy of it is very close to its tragedy. 

I don't mean to suggest, as might a mystic, that we can't really know anything, that everything is mysterious, but simply that knowing what we do makes us acknowledge what we don't know, that the more I know myself and others the more I realize what mysterious bundles of paradoxes we are.  Ultimately, only the One who made us truly knows us.  And this is not surprising.  He made us in His image, a finite representation of His infinite being which, after all our searching out of his nature and character, is incomprehensible.  In Concise Theology, J.I Packer summarizes it like this:  "God is great, says Scripture: greater than we can grasp.  Theology states this by describing him as incomprehensible --- not in the sense that logic is somehow different for him from what it is for us, so that we cannot follow the workings of his mind at all, but in the sense that we can never understand him fully, just because he is infinite and we are finite."  As his image-bearers, something of God's incomprehensibility is caught up in who we are.  The natural response is humility and worship, not worship of man but of God who man bears to the world.

The man who hired me, the one I worked under, is a good man, but, like me, a bent man.  It's just that his paradoxes are more evident, more public than mine.  Right now I don't think he can smile or laugh at this drama, though he may in time find the humor in God's grace, in the public humiliation of one who is built for glory and  favored by God.  On another day, he'll shine, his paradox undone, the darkness of this moment supplanted by pure light.

The Better Politics of Stories


If you've been a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that despite its variegated content it does assiduously avoid commentary on one set of topics --- politics and social issues.  It's neither apathy nor lack of opinion that prevents me from eloquence on such things, but both fear of embarrassment and principle.  First, I feel woefully ignorant about most social and political issues, and sometimes the more I read about them the more ambivalent and confused I become.  I don't watch the network news because, like the late Neil Postman, I want to be educated and not entertained with news.  Well, no I'm not actually like Postman. He's a really smart guy. I read the newspaper.  I read enough to know what I don't know.

But my second reason for my reluctance is on principle: I dislike the Manichean tendency of most political and social discourse, the sense that the issue is black and white, that there is a clear choice between right and wrong and, the writer would tell me, "I'm right and they're wrong."  I also don't like the prevalence of ad hominen attacks (attacks on the person), as when commentators simply call a politician a "liar" or otherwise suggest that they are stupid, lazy, or immoral.  The language of many commentators is so acerbic; witty is one thing, nasty and biting is another.  The language of talk show hosts, many politicians, and political weblog writers is tiresome and unilluminating.  I know this is a gross generalization, but I think it largely true.

In a recent editorial in our local newspaper, Peder Zane, who usually reviews books, nails the problem with much of the social and political advocacy surrounding big issues.  In "Rhetoric Heats Up, Reality Fogs Up," Zane asks "Are we being told the whole truth about global warning?"  He notes that one of the statistics used by Al Gore and other advocates of serious (and expensive) action to combat global warming is that the 10 hottest years in American history have occurred since 1995.  When it was subsequently pointed out that the statistic was dead wrong, NASA retracted it, but there was little to no coverage of the retraction.  Advocates of global warming action continue to use the statistic or, at best, ignore the contrary evidence, and conservative pundits trumpet the error as proof that the whole thing is much ado about nothing, or at least nothing we can or should do anything about.

What Zane concludes is that the error was buried or ignored because it constitutes an "inconvenient truth."  The findings don't necessarily undermine the case for global warming, but they do complicate it.  Complicated stories are difficult to sell to the public.  They do not create a groundswell of support.  Complex issues like global warming are full of research findings that are at times contradictory, paradoxical, and incomplete, with every conclusion qualified and provisional.  This leads to a public waxing over of the eyes --- a loss for the advocate.  And yet most people instinctively know that most things are never so simple, never so cut and dried.  Why?  Because we know that's how people are, their actions full of mixed motives.  And we know that's how we are.

Furthermore, we Christians should know better.  Despite the perspicuity of the Gospel --- its plan of salvation so simple and clear that even a simpleton can understand it and come to faith in its truth --- when we attempt to plumb the depths of each truth --- like Trinity, Incarnation, God's sovereignty and individual freedom, to name a few deep truths --- we grow in understanding and, yet, at the same time realize how utterly mysterious and paradoxical these great truths are (and how far short of understanding the mind of God we are).  It doesn't mean we don't act on what we know, and yet a humility undergirds our action, a deepening knowledge that the more we know the more we realize how much we don't know, the more we know God the more we realize just how incomprehensible He is.

The Gospel story is just that --- a mysterious story where not everyone acts the way we expect, where even God surprises us.  There's an adulterer and murderer who is deemed "a man after God's own heart.."  Another murderer is chosen to lead God's people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.  One murderous zealot becomes an apostle; a liar, too.  Even Christ himself has a prostitute in his ancestral line.  In true stories, there are all kinds of surprises.  People aren't always what they seem.  Things are complicated, wrapped in mystery, and sometimes impenetrable.  And yet these good stories seem so much more true than most of the "stories" told by the advocates of political and social action, who so often ignore or gloss over inconvenient truths because they don't fit their story and may distract the audience who may waver in their support.  As G.K. Chesterton once said, "The simplification of anything is always sensational."  Complexity is not.

I don't know a lot about politics and have even less of use to say about it.  I don't know what causes global warming, and I don't know what to do about it.  I'm trying to understand.  I'll act on what bit of truth I have.

But I do know people.  And what I read in stories (the good ones, anyway) tell me more about what to do in life than Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, or most blogger-advocates.  That's the politics of stories.  That's the Gospel.  That's the politics of the heart and soul.

Beyond Passable Writing


When I was 10 years old, at most, I was a card-carrying member of the Science Fiction Book Club.  Those days I seemed to read all the time, at least in this genre of fiction --- greats like Ray Bradbury, Robert Henlein, and Issac Asimov were a steady diet.  There was a floral pattern set of soft chairs in my mother's living room (still there but much faded now) in which I would recline, sometimes for as much as four or five hours at a stretch, ignoring calls for dinner, deep into other worlds, dreamily lazing my way through long afternoons.  When I finally put the books down --- because, finally, my mother could not be ignored, or bedtime was nigh, or a friend came calling --- I sometimes couldn't wrench myself from the imaginary world and into this world.  I didn't hear what people said to me sometimes.  Or I walked around for a half hour or so feeling profoundly alienated, voices sounding strange to me, muffled, and the houses and streets pale and mundane, a great let down after where I had been.  Sometime around then I happened to read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, a tale of a twelve-year old boy's coming to life one summer, discovering the wonder of the world around him.  I was disappointed it was not science fiction, and yet reading it I knew I had stumbled on something grand.  And perhaps it was a part of my own coming alive.

After that, I don't remember reading fiction again, that is, merely for my own pleasure and not as an assignment, until I read a series of Christian novels by Bodie Thoene sometime after higher education.  They were entertaining and certainly passable writing, but looking back at them, I realize that they were not great literature.  I read them because I found them in a Christian bookstore, the same place I found much of the music I listened to at the time.  The message music and message books I trafficked in at the time seemed like sanitized versions of other popular novels.  Thoene's historical fiction reminded me of James Michener's heavily-researched historical fiction, for example.  I didn't really know good literature from bad literature.  But the books in the Christian bookstore seemed safe.  There were no sex scenes and not a trace of profanity.  Furthermore, they had neat resolutions --- perhaps a conversion, a reconciliation, or a new understanding of and reliance on God.  They were not bad, but they were not good enough, not nearly good enough.  So, with few exceptions, I stopped reading Christian lit and took up with better literature by pagans and Catholics and theologically suspect Christians, people like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Frederick Buechner, and J.R.R. Tolkien (who I read, enjoyed, and really didn't understand back in high school).  I can't settle for merely passable writing any longer when there are greats to be read, masters of storytelling, authors who capture the human story in their fiction.

I am reminded of this because of the excellent article by Donald T. Williams in the most recent Touchstone Magazine entitled Writers Cramped.  His question is where are the evangelical Christian writers who are of the caliber of T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O'Connor, just to name a few.  O'Connor provides the substance of his analysis of their absence, in her observation that "[t]he sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate human reality" and her conclusion that "[y]our beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing."  As Williams notes, when this distinction is not understood, "Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda."  O'Connor was nourished by a worldview which was orthodox and true and which informed all she wrote, by a church that recognized and appreciated her vocation as an artist, and by the sense of mystery that the sacramental focus of Catholicism provided and which carried forward into the mysteries that writers explore.

Williams concludes with a challenge for evangelicals to recover biblical emphases that nurture the arts and artists:

Our failure to encourage our people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; and our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate, with our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failure to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.  They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that we think we have been right about.

Next time I visit my mother I may take along a copy of Dandelion Wine, sink my middle-aged body in that seemingly shrunken chair, and remember what it was like to be twelve, so I can better remember what it's like to be 49, to be human, to have a sense of wonder at life.  I'm done with passable writing; I want the best, I want the ones who can truly see.