Writerly Ambivalence

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

A quotation from Thomas Mann, via Alan Jacob’s eNewsletter:

I do not think that it is the essence and duty of the writer to join “with great fanfare” the main direction the culture is taking at the moment. I do not think and cannot from my very nature think that it is natural and necessary for the writer to support a development in a completely positive way by direct, credulous-enthusiastic advocacy — as a solid knight of the times, without scruple and doubt, with straightforward intentions and an unbroken determination and spirit for it, his god. On the contrary, authorship itself has always seemed to me to be a witness to and an expression of ambivalence, of here and there, of yes and no, of two souls in one breast, of an annoying richness in inner conflicts, antitheses, and contradictions.

As a writer, this strikes me as absolutely correct.

As a churchman, with firm convictions on particular questions, this is a personal challenge.

Writers can be ideologues, and many certainly are. But in my experience weighing and evaluating arguments, there has been that pull of “yes and no, of two souls in one breast,” etc.

Those who “support a development in a completely positive way by direct, credulous-enthusiastic advocacy” may not be thinking at all, or at least not thinking very clearly. They may be caught up in the spirit of an age, possessed, and in need of exorcism.

Good writing makes plain the tensions and trade-offs in any given debate. That doesn’t negate the necessity of plainly stating one’s conclusion, strongly and solidly. But after tracing out the contours of any given divide, stating your position can be offered with greater understanding, and more humility. Maybe that doesn’t get as many readers. Maybe the take won’t be as hot. But who cares about that, anyway? What matters is whether or not what one writes is true.

May Christ Illuminate Your Night

Sometimes I wonder why this trust in Christ who comes to illuminate our night is so essential for me. And I realize this comes from a childhood experience.

During the weeks before Christmas, I used to spend lots of time in front of a manger scene looking at the Virgin Mary and the newborn infant at her feet. Such a simple image marks one for life. It enables us to realize one day that, through Christ, God himself came to be with us.

On Christmas Eve, we would go to church. When I was five or six years old, we lived in a mountain village, and the ground was covered with snow. Since I was the youngest, my father took me by the hand. My mother, my elder brother, and my seven sisters followed behind. My father showed me, in the clear sky, the shepherds’ star that the wise men had seen.

Those moments come to my mind when I hear the reading from the apostle Peter, “Fix your eyes on Christ as on a star shining in the night, until the day dawns and the morning rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

Brother Roger, Brother Roger of Taize: Essential Writings

On this Christmas Eve, contemplate the birth of Jesus.

Gather with other Christians to remember, once again, the miracle of the incarnation. This evening, join a church to celebrate. Lift your voice in song. Bow your heart in prayer. Consider afresh the story. Behold the child, his mother, those first visitors, in the mind’s eye. Remember these beginnings to the Christ story, why this story is told, how it ends, and what it means. Allow yourself to wonder. Give pause, and worship.

If you find yourself in darkness, remember that Christ has come to us as the light of the world. Fix your eyes upon him, wait upon the Lord. A new day has come, and is coming. Christ is born.

Reading Scripture with Fourfold Love

I propose a fourfold reading of scripture. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.

1. The heart: Lectio Divina, private meditation and prayer, and above all the readings in the eucharist.

2. The mind: historical study of the text and its original contextual meaning.

3. The soul: the ongoing life of the church, its tradition and teaching office.

4. The strength: the mission of the church, the work of God’s kingdom.

N. T. Wright, “The Fourfold Amor Dei and the Word of God

I came across this proposal in an essay by Michael Gorman, “New Testament Theology and Spiritual Formation,” in Spiritual Formation for the Global Church: A Multi-Denominational, Multi-Ethic Approach, edited by Ryan A. Brandt and John Frederick.

Most Christians approach the study of the Bible with a genuine desire that the Holy Spirit would impart knowledge of how to love God more fully and serve him more faithfully. Openness to God and a desire to gain knowledge of God’s will are a wonderful beginning. Lifting one’s heart to God is an essential first step for spiritual growth. But God calls us to love him with all of our being, heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Gorman argues that the purpose of the New Testament writings is spiritual formation. The gospel stories, Acts, the epistles, and Revelation present a “theology seeking faith,” or “theology seeking spiritual formation in its hearers and readers.”

Seeking God with the heart, deepening faith by applying the mind, asking God to sanctify the soul, and exercising God-given strength to act upon conviction work together to move the believer toward Christian maturity. If you begin with a heart set upon God, wonderful! Go further. Engage the mind, open the soul, and ask for the strength to live a life pleasing to God.

The Capacity to Love

I receive the musician Nick Cave’s newsletter The Red Hand Files, where he responds to letters. One correspondent wants to know about love, another wants to know how to avoid a broken heart, and Cave addresses their questions in tandem. In Issue #177, he writes:

The surest way to avoid a broken heart is to love nothing and no-one — not your partner, your child, your mother or father, your brothers or sisters; not your friends; not your neighbour; not your dog or your cat; not your football team, your garden, your granny or your job. In short, love not the world and love nothing in it. Beware of the things that draw you to love — music, art, literature, cinema, philosophy, nature and religion. Keep your heart narrow, hard, cynical, invulnerable, impenetrable, and shun small acts of kindness; be not merciful, forgiving, generous or charitable — these acts expand the heart and make you susceptible to love — because as Neil Young so plainly and painfully sings, ‘Only love can break your heart.’ In short, resist love, because real love, big love, true love, fierce love, is a perilous thing, and travels surely towards its devastation. A broken heart — that grief of love — is always love’s true destination. This is the covenant of love.

[T]o resist love and inoculate yourself against heartbreak is to reject life itself, for to love is your primary human function. It is your duty to love in whatever way you can, and to move boldly into that love — deeply, dangerously and recklessly — and restore the world with your awe and wonder. This world is in urgent need — desperate, crucial need — and is crying out for love, your love. It cannot survive without it.

To love the world is a participatory and reciprocal action — for what you give to the world, the world returns to you, many fold, and you will live days of love that will make your head spin, that you will treasure for all time. You will discover that love, radical love, is a kind of supercharged aliveness, and all that is of true value in the world is animated by it. And, yes, heartache awaits love’s end, but you find in time that this too is a gift — this little death — from which you are reborn, time and again. I have only one piece of advice for you both, and it is the very best that I can give. Love. The world is waiting.

The first portion is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis, who wrote:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Love makes alive. Christian people believe love is the animating force of the universe. It is the generative self-giving virtuous energy that binds together God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the dynamic overflow of this personal, eternal dance of relationship which gave birth to the creation. We’re made to love because we were made by love. And, with our loves having been corrupted by the fall, our wrongly directed loves must be redirected by a more powerful, more beautiful, and more deeply truthful love. We have been redeemed by love and we are drawn and destined by love, the God who is love.

I recently heard the artist and filmmaker David Lynch say, “Negativity is the enemy of creativity.” Love, on the other hand, is creativity’s great friend. Acts of love are creative acts. Love brings forth life, not only in us, but in others.

Nick Cave writes that the world needs love, and that the world needs the love of each unique person, even with all the risks that entails. W. H. Auden wrote, “We must love one another or die.” But why is that the world’s need? And from whence do we receive this capacity for love?

The world needs love because it is the world God has made. The world also needs love because it is broken. Our capacity for love comes from God, who not only loves us, but works through us to flood forth the healing, binding and restorative power that is love.

We tap into this capacity when we see with clear eyes the degree to which we are loved, evidenced most fully in the work of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. Love incarnate, love embodied, love given sacrificially, and love raised up to reign forever. That love, the love of Christ claims us, changes us, and commissions us. We’re made for love, to love, by love, to give love.

Language Talks About the Culture

The truth is that languages dances ever so lightly on thought. One proof of this is how terminology’s meanings quickly bend according to thought patterns. University of California linguist George Lakoff, for example, has notoriously suggested that the Democratic Party could attract more voters by altering the labels they apply to things of political import, such as calling income taxes “membership fees” and trial lawyers “public-protection attorneys.” Lakoff’s idea has seemed less urgent since the Barack Obama phenomenon created a Democratic ascendance on its own, but the idea could have had at best a temporary impact. Terminology doesn’t shape thought, it follows it.

Consider terms such as affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words composing it mean: “affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was artful and gracious, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy. Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with the same negative feelings they had about the policy it referred to, such that today it is uttered with scorn by many. Welfare is similar. The contrast between the core meaning of the word and its modern political associations is instructive, in that one can easily imagine a Lakoff in the 1930s proposing exactly the word welfare as a label for government assistance. Notably, another term of art for the same policy, home relief, rapidly took on the same kinds of negative associations. Similarly, if an issue commonly attracts dismissive attitudes, those accrete to any new terms applied. This happened quickly to urgently intended terms such as male chauvinist and women’s liberation, as well as special education.

Changing the terms can play some initial role in moving opinion, rather like God getting the globe spinning under the deist philosophy. But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics. Mere terms require constant renewal as opponents quickly “see through” the artful intentions of the latest ones coined and cover up the old label with the new one, applying to it the attitudes they have always had. Only in an unimaginably totalitarian context that so limited the information available to citizens that constructive thought and imagination were near impossibilities could language drive culture in a lasting way. This is why Orwell and 1984, expected references at this point in my discussion, are not truly relevant here. In the real world, language talks about culture; it cannot create it.

John McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, p. 159-160

Here’s John McWhorter, saying something that has relevance to every church debate I’ve ever heard about whether to call the congregation’s primary gathering space the worship center or the sanctuary, or the piece of paper handed out at the door the bulletin or a worship folder. Is it evangelism or outreach? Are we Christians or followers of Jesus?

When disagree over terms, or when their is some push to change them, we assume that be changing the terms we will change the culture. But that’s not true. As McWhorter notes, changing terms might start a conversation, “But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics.”

I’ll confess that I’ve been a leader who has shifted terminology or made changes in the effort to create an institutional shift, while neglected to enter into the debate with fellow congregants about why a change in approach is needed. And in most every instance, that move has resulted in tension. Thinking I was putting a shortcut into effect, instead, needed changes could now only be enacted after taking an even longer way around.

I do think language is important, and I wonder if McWhorter is amiss that language is far more descriptive than generative. It seems to me that shifts in language can result in new ways of seeing, and new ways of action. I think the way that we pray, the words that we speak, and the terms we apply matter a great deal. I also think that the language of faith is not only a spoken form of communication, but that it must also be embodied in habits of individuals and the community.

I think the important here is that getting the words right is not enough. There must be a culture, a way of being, that accompanies the words that describe it, and the description must accurately match the reality being described in ways both concrete and abstract.

Share the Christmas Story with Confidence

Photo by Gareth Harper on Unsplash

The Baptist Standard reports few Americans have the Christmas story down cold.

The Lifeway Research study sourced in the article found:

Slightly more than 1 in 5 Americans (22 percent) say they accurately could tell the Christmas story found in the Bible from memory. A plurality of U.S. adults (31 percent) say they could tell the story but may miss some details or get others wrong. Another quarter (25 percent) could only give a quick overview and 17 percent say they couldn’t tell any of it.

I guess this is news, insofar as the Christian community should know we have a story to tell that others are unfamiliar with. We shouldn’t assume everyone knows how the gospel writers recorded this event. And, within the Christian community, we don’t know it as well as we ought, and that’s a reality that needs to be faced. Therefore, we need to tell this story first to ourselves, so that when we tell it to those outside the community of the faith, we tell it right.

You may already know the Christmas story. The details are recorded in two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us the story of Jesus’ life. Only two of these writers focus explicitly on the events of Jesus’ birth.

These accounts are not identical. That’s important to note.

Rather than harmonizing the two and telling the story as a seamless whole, I think it is more faithful to the story to be clear concerning which details come from which account, and to understand why the authors present the story of Jesus’ birth as they do.

Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience living in the Gentile world, and includes details in his gospel to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope for a Messiah.

Luke wrote for a Gentile audience who would have been familiar with the stories of the Old Testament, but had different concerns, such as how Israel’s Messiah could also be the Lord of all the world.

Matthew’s account tells us of Joseph’s inner conflict following the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, the appearing of a star, and the journey of wise men who came to visit Jesus from the East, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Luke’s account includes the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, Caesar’s census, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, an inn with no vacancy, shepherds, the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields, and the first visitors to see Jesus in the manger.

The Christmas story, for Christian people, is one of those stories that is important enough for us to learn and to be able to tell it with ease. If you have a Bible on your shelf, however, you can pull it down, crack it open, and read an account. Many people can search on their phone or use an app even if there isn’t a Bible handy. Then, you can talk about what it means.

Christians believe that on the very first Christmas God entered history in Jesus of Nazareth. This event was a continuation of God’s involvement in history and the marking of a significant new chapter.

God appeared to us as a human being.

Tiny. Vulnerable. A gift.

This is the miracle of the incarnation. God brought to fulfillment the promises regarding the Messiah, a Savior, a King who would redeem humankind from sin.

The world has never been the same.

The wise men came in reverence and the shepherds came with wonderment and awe.

Mary treasured these things in her heart.

We ponder them still.

We tell of them.

We should tell them well, and with confidence.

Flip Books

J’s been making flip books in art class and her teacher shared videos from Andymation as examples.

This is super cool.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to artifacts, things that we make and leave behind. I have a collection of notebooks that contain journal entries, sketches, photographs, collages, hand written notes, ticket stubs, and the like. I’m hanging on to J’s flip books, too, and other artwork the kids have made.

Don’t Buy the Hype

Photo by Ruben Gutierrez on Unsplash

Around a man who has been pushed into the limelight, a legend begins to grow as it does around a dead man. But a dead man is in no danger of yielding to the temptation to nourish his legend, or accept its picture as reality. I pity the man who falls in love with his image as it is drawn by public opinion during the honeymoon of publicity.

Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings

Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish economist and diplomat who, in 1953, was appointed as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. Markings is Hammarskjöld’s only book, his personal journal that was found and published in 1961, following his death caused by a plane crash. He began his diary at the age of twenty. It contains brief remarks, observations, insights, and poetry.

As a public figure, Hammarskjöld understood the pitfalls and dangers of life in the public eye.

As unknowns enter the public square and become “known” figures, a story is offered of the accomplishments, actions, and deeds that make that person deserving or worthy of their position of power and influence. Hammarskjöld observes the dead, likewise, have legends that are told about them. In eulogy, most are remembered well, spoken kindly of, and praised for their admirable qualities. We know these words of praise are not the sum total of a person’s life, but they are the words we would like most to remember and keep. But unlike the dead, the living can buy the hype, fall in love with their image, exchange their authentic self for a persona, and fall victim to an illusion.

Ministers, like everyone I suppose, are prone to this temptation. The nature of the pastoral office places the minister in the public eye. For the minister who “plays” at pastor in the pulpit or on church grounds, but who is something else entirely in their private life at home, ball field, or grocery store, the incongruities between the projection and reality will reveal themselves in time. It may not be plain to the minister, at first. But these incongruities will be seen plainly by everyone else.

Sadly, it can be the case that everyone else knows you are a fraud long before you do.

In the spiritual life, it is vitally important to know yourself, your flaws, weaknesses, besetting sins, and shortcomings. It is also important to know your strengths as well. If things begin to go well in your life and ministry, if people begin to speak well or praise you for who you are or what you are doing, it is best to be prayerful, to be on guard against pride and self-delusion. Stay in touch with reality. Don’t fall in love with an image that is false.