Several years ago, when I heard the Jewish writer Michael Chabon speak, I wrote furiously in my notebook to try and capture his words. I had read Chabon’s 2007 novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a detective story that imagines an alternate history in which Israel collapsed in 1948 and European Jews settled in Alaska. It was odd and untidy, but deeply affecting. Chabon said “I write books from the place where I live, in exile.” Chabon said his search has been for a home, a place to call his own. He said he feels like a stranger. He said he “was born into an interrupted culture, mourning the loss.” So, rather than wandering around lost, he began to “build a home in his imagination.”
Christians have to identify with his sense of exile. In 1999, when I was in the early years of Silent Planet Records, we released a compilation called Alien and Strangers. I’m listening to it now for the first time in a couple years. My words in the liner notes, while a bit overblown to my ears now, say what I felt then and even more so now: “WE LIVE IN DISCONTENT. WE KNOW THE BROKENNESS OF LIFE. WE LONG FOR WHOLENESS.” “Even in the good times, we sense our exile. We are strangely disaffected. All of us, indeed, are aliens and strangers, longing for a place called Home.” The cover art, supplied by artist Carol Bomer, is a painting of a shadowy figure perhaps trapped at the end of a corridor, hands raised, conveying a sense of displacement. Graphic artist genius Dave Danglis placed the painting on the screen of a surreal Fifties-era TV, a woman’s hand turning it slightly so we can view it, as if to say “look at who we are,” calling to us from a place outside of our time. Even as I listen to the variety of music on that disc, it seems to come from another world, and the songs are unlike anything I hear now.
We live in Babylon, among a people who have forgotten God, who suffer in their lostness and identity amnesia, who, like Chabon, long for Home. What makes Chabon commendable is his willingness to face up to it, to name what he feels rather than engage in elaborate self-deceptions. Exiled to Babylon, the Jewish people said things like “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). They wept, hung up their lyres, and longed for Jerusalem. In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, he exhorted them in God’s words to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:4-7). And He gave them a promise, that “ God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it” (Ps. 69:35).
Littered through Aliens and Strangers, in a prophetic and unplanned way, are the words of exile and promise of restoration. From the “inkwell of prayer” and “the reservoir of tears,” Jan Krist pleads “May God have mercy/ and come and heal you and me/ Come and comfort/ Come and steel you and me/ Against the ghosts and the insecurities/ God have mercy/ Come and heal you and me.” Matt Auten’s rich voice calls from eternity where He now resides. Rick Unruh sings of the “hungry ghost inside of me,” how “each time I feel his cup, I plant the bitter seed, of another hungry ghost,” and I hear in his voice the emptiness of chasing after what the world offers. And Pierce Pettis reminds us to hold onto “the kingdom come.”
Chabon is on to it. Embrace your exile. With a Godward imagination, look to Home. But settle into life in the world. Build, marry, have children, work for good, and pray for it. Always pray.