Friday, May 28, 2010

Negation and Position: The Necessary Questions and Inherent Dangers of Liberalism and Conservatism (as explained by an Original Orthodox Rebel)

The following is an excerpt (pp. 12-13) of T.S. Eliot's Christianity and Culture. Here Eliot talks about the dangers inherent in a closed ideology, both liberal and conservative:

[Liberalism] is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vague image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

It must be evident that I am speaking of Liberalism in a sense much wider than any which can be fully exemplified by the history of any political party, and equally in a wider sense than any in which it has been used in ecclesiastical controversy. True, the tendency of Liberalism can be more clearly illustrated in religious history than in politics, where principle is more diluted by necessity, where observation is more confused by detail and distracted by reforms each valid within its own limited reference. In religion, Liberalism may be characterized as a progressive discarding of elements in historical Christianity which appear superfluous or obsolete, confounded with practices and abuses which are legitimate objects of attack. But as its movement is controlled rather by its origin than by any goal, it loses force after a series of rejections, and with nothing to destroy is left with nothing to uphold and nowhere to go.

With religious Liberalism, however, I am no more specifically concerned than with political Liberalism: I am concerned with a state of mind which, in certain circumstances, can become universal and infect opponents as well as defenders. And I shall have expressed myself very ill if I give the impression that I think of Liberalism as something simply to be rejected and extirpated, as an evil for which there is a simple alternative. It is a necessary negative element; when I have said the worst of it, that worst comes only to this, that a negative element made to serve the purpose of a positive is objectionable [i.e., negatives need a positive; they cannot and must not become the positive]. In the sense in which Liberalism is contrasted with Conservatism, both can be equally repellent: if the former can mean chaos, the latter can mean petrification. We are always faced with the question "what must be destroyed?" and with the question "what must be preserved?" and neither Liberalism nor Conservatism, which are not philosophies and may be merely habits, is enough to guide us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Homily 5: On the Silences of God (as preached by an orthodx rebel)

"These things hast thou done, and I kept silent...." Ps. 50:21a

The silences of God are the great troubling aspect of His character, the one that we rail against the most. For believers, it is the source of the dark night of the soul. For unbelievers, it is thought to be a full-proof argument against belief. Both are haunted by the same wretched assumption: "If God were really there, then he would do/have done such-and-such." Of course, God has done such-and-such: by His Son and by His word. He is there, and he is not silent; but He does have silences. For human beings (meant for eternity but stranded in time), what God has not revealed remains hidden. Where He has not spoken, He remains silent. For now, we know only in part (I Cor. 13:9); that is the reality of our situation. But our incessant need to know everything to its fullest extent, for all the good that it has done, has often been our undoing. The tragedy of the twentieth-century was the realization of the limitations of human reason without the acknowledgment of God; the dawning horror of the unknowable devoid of the comforting truth that God encompasses the mysterious as well as the known. Without God, the unknown and unknowable become a terrifying void or a repository of our own limited opinions, either way serving as a reflection of our own emptiness outside of the Divine.

The paradox of the whole situation is that the silences of God are only bearable when it is the silences of God. If it is silence alone, silence without a referent, the revelation of vacancy at the foundations of existence, then all becomes nihilistic meaninglessness, a bloody campaign of survival cut short by the gaping maw of the grave, in whose belly the darkness and silence reign forever. The silences, the mysterious elements of reality, are only bearable when we know that there is a God behind it all who is working it all towards the highest good: "I will...set them in order before your eyes."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Adapt or Perish (and other follies of the time)

This article by Huffington Post blogger Alex Wilhelm really should not come as any surprise. I mean, seriously: the Huffington Post is a well known repository of inane progressive blather. Still, I find myself raised with what Brian Mclaren would probably call "conservative ire" at the article's ridiculous statements and conclusions made under the guise of the weak doctrine of egalitarianism.

The article starts out well enopugh, with Mr. Wilhelm stating what is indeed a "fundamental question" facing Christians today: "is it better to fit the church and Christianity to the world, thus keeping the faith relevant, or is it better to mold the world to the faith?" The use of the progressive buzzword "relevant" should probably cue you in to which side that he is going to take (if the very next sentence's not-to-subtle sneer at "conservative, literal Baptists" wasn't a larger and louder clue). Still, the issue he raises is an important one, as it has been the core question regarding the notion of "Christianity and Culture" throughout the ages. Of course, the Church traditionally (and even to this day) believes that its calling is to conform the world to the standards of God by calling all men to the Cross of Christ. Mr. Wilhelm's article takes the opposite view, however. As the article's title points out, Christianity must adapt or perish. Exactly why and how are where things get ugly.

How exactly does it get ugly? Let me count the ways:

(1) Egregious Historical Blunder: "The non-religious of the world will be quick to point out that this is in fact something of a new question, [i.e.] whether the religion should fit the culture or the other way about." 

As per the standard progressive repertoire, Mr. Wilhelm is incredibly ignorant of his own history, both as a Westerner and a progressive. The content and form of Christianity's relationship to the fallen world is not a new question or issue. The question has been around (and answered) since Christianity's inception (Matthew 5:13-16; 28:19-20), and the issue has been raised by progressives as far back as the 19th century (e.g., the students of the "higher criticism"). One can find "conservative ire" as old as Charles Spurgeon (in multiple sermons) or Dorthy Sayers (in her essays) railing against the notion that God's truth must be made "relevant" to suit the transitory whims of the surrounding culture (or as Sayers put it, "conforming Christ to men" rather than "men to Christ"). I must very "depressingly" say that, contra Mr. Wilhelm, there is nothing new under this particular sun.

(2) Outdated Humanistic Idealism: "As humanity progresses around the world, unlocking the science of the universe, time seems to move more quickly. The pace of progress accelerates, from the depressed call of 'nothing new under the sun' to the doubling of human knowledge every decade or so..., a more liberal interpretation of Christian doctrine could make space for science that promises the great, the life-improving, and the new...." 

Speaking with all the relevance and contemporaneity of the 1880s, Mr. Wilhelm seems to have entirely forgotten the twentieth-century (with its World Wars, Holocausts and other various genocides perpetrated in the name of revolutionary human "progress") and seriously thinks that we are any better now than we were fifty or even a thousand years ago. How could anyone be so naive? Yes, we have indoor plumbing and modern medicine. Well done. Nevertheless, it is still a fact of the real world that the generation of Facebook and the iPad still deals with man's inhumanity to man in the forms of genocide in Africa, terrorism in the Middle East, and political corruption and degradation in the West (just to name three). What, exactly has "science" done about these things? What can it do about them? Clearly, Mr. Wilhelm's notion of what is "great," "life-improving," and "new" only applies to the material world, of which we have progressed tremendously. But the human soul is still rotten, as rotten as it ever was; and "science," for all its wonders, cannot change or save it. More often, it simply adds to the problem, giving us new ways to degrade and kill each other.

(3) Bold-faced Contradictions: " is not necessary to replace the physical work and words of the Bible.... [This] adaptation of the religion's text and therefore the religion itself...manifests as a firm repudiation of the most odious passages (e.g., how to enslave, when to stone, and so forth are to be disregarded)..... The Biblical passages subjugating women to the back of the bus need to be let go.... The passages condemning people born homosexual as abominations need to be released.... The blatantly incorrect attempts at science and history in the book need to be shut out...." (emphasis added)

There is nothing else to say here, except that Mr. Wilhelm deploys a kind of new-speak typical of progressives: we don't have to literally "replace" anything. We can just ignore it and then it magically doesn't exist (or matter). Thus, we do not replace; we simply efface. I would like to ask Mr. Wilhelm what exactly is the difference in the end?

(4) Vacuous Post-modern Proposals: "[This is] the inherent problem with modern Christianity, and the exact thing that must change: the Bible [as] a ballast [i.e., a stabilizer, that which grounds and balances].... [The Bible can] become a new book via a fresh reading."

Speaking with all the relevance and contemporaneity of the 1980s, Mr. Wilhelm's central thesis (i.e., that Christianity must adapt or perish) is actually an odd attempt at decentering. If the current trend in culture is "a morality in flux" and thus a society in flux (one that cannot be "corralled"), then Christianity must adapt to the flux by fluxing with the best of them. If instability is the name of the "game" that Mr. Wilhelm claims we are so badly "losing," then all stability must be undone, viz., everything that is not in keeping with the times or is offensive to someone else's sensibilities must be jettisoned.

If that happens, however, whence comes Christianity? Does not Mr. Wilhelm realize the consequence of subjecting Christianity (or anything) to the fluctuating and unstable whims of the culture? Obviously not, or else he would have progressed beyond such peripheral issues as "how to enslave, when to stone, and so forth...." Where is your courage, Mr. Wilhelm? Why stop at such shallow waters? Why not throw in some core tenets while you're at it? Or did you not know that many consider the exclusivity of Christ (held as the gospel truth by Christians because of His death and resurrection) to be offensive and out-dated by many (e.g., those who disagree with the doctrine of limited atonement)? Shall we jettison that? What about miracles? Them too? You asked us to disregard our so-called view of women. What about ours view of men? Of humanity? Of the Church? Of Christ? What grounds can you give us for not simply tossing the whole of our theology out the window? None whatsoever if the fluctuations of culture are to be our only guide, and that is the point. This type of lassiez faire religion that you advocate is no religion at all. It simply dissolves in a vat of personal opinions.

Oddly enough (though I'm not really surprised) one of the best comments for this article came from an atheist who put the point plainly: "Isn't 'changing to get with the times' in and of itself contradictory to the premise of a supreme being...? To me (as an atheist), although I disagree with religion in general, the act of changing your religion to keep that particular faith relevant has to be detrimental to said religion.....[D]oesn't that diminish the power that is attributed to that specific deity? I mean how powerful is your faith if you are willing to just change it as you go?" How, indeed.

Conclusion: Mr. Wilhelm, typical of most progressives, succeeds (mostly) in sounding objective and fair-minded, but his errors (as well as his biases) come through with close reading. In the end, his grand talk of "new readings" of the Bible in order to adapt Christianity to the times is nothing more than an attempt to do away with Christianity in its entirety. If Christianity succeeds only in aping the world, what good will it be? Or as Christ put it: "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men." (Matt. 5:13) Mr. Wilhelm asks us (in effect) to cease to be salty. Ah, sir, if we do that, then we cease to be Christian. Perhaps, however, that is what you wanted all along.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hell, Hollow-men, and the Ordeal of Regeneration (as explained by an Original Orthodox Rebel)

The following is an excerpt (pp.108-9) from Russell Kirk's Book Eliot and His Age. Here Kirk gives a reading of Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men":

These Hollow Men...are the souls that will be spewed out of His mouth. They choose to linger in their despicable death-in-life, rather than to pass through the jaws of death into "death's other kingdom," which might be Paradise. It is not that they have sinned violently: their vice is flaccidity of will. Life is for action, but they have not acted in spirit. Phlebas the Phoenician sailor, dying by water that he might experience rebirth, was more happy then they.

These Hollow Men dare not meet those Eyes--Christ's, or the reproachful eyes of Dante's Beatrice--that would demand repentance and the ordeal of regeneration; fearful, they hide in "death's dream kingdom," preferring illusion to transcendent reality. In one sense, they are the humanitarian and secularistic liberals who put their faith in the trauma of immanent perfection; in another sense, they are the large majority of mankind..., preferring the feeble comforts they know to the quest of the Chapel Perilous. [...]

No, it is safer to scuffle about in the dream kingdom, where no Eyes invade the darkness. By their timorousness, these Hollow Men have lost personality. They huddle together in a cheerless collectivity that is not community. They are guisers, scarecrows, venerating graven images, sightless.

Upon them falls the Shadow, frustrating their feeble aspirations: their ideas slide away unrealized, their gestures accomplish nothing, their imagination is sterile, their emotions wake no responses, their desires end in barrenness, their powers remain latent only, and their being itself is nerveless. Their attempts at supplication are tardy and vain: it is too late for them to profess faith with humility. They cannot even fractured atoms; they will put no match to gunpowder under Parliament House; their world ends "Not with a bang but a whimper."

[In] death's dream kingdom, in the desolation of cactus and prickly pear, such Hollow Men are confined forever. This poem is the last of Eliot's delineations of Hell. From "The Hollow Men" forward, he would be a Seeker still--but a seeker after "the perpetual star, multifoliate rose" of timeless love, now knowing that rose to be real. A man who has emptied himself of vanity and fleshly desire may struggle through suffering to that rose; but a Hollow Man, a stuffed man, stirred only by the wind of the dead land, circles endlessly round the prickly pear.

Homily 4: On Incarnation and Revelation (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the Lord of hosts...." Ps. 48:8a

There is the mystical quality of God: the Trinity incomprehensible dwelling in light inaccessible. Such mysteries are a source of great beauty and wonder. God, however, is not merely the God of the mystic. He is also the God of revelations within space-time history. The word of God (itself a revelation) is not simply a rule-book. It is written and recorded testimony to what God has done before and will do both now in Christian living and in the end with the final "revelation". God is a revelatory God, a sacramental God, an incarnational God: what has been heard has been and will be seen before our eyes.

God's relationship to His people and this world is not one-sided. He does not hide in absolute obscurity, leaving us to do all the work of worship and salvation in total blindness. The temple at Jerusalem was not a house of man where the people grope about in the dark for the unknown god. It was God's house, where His presence dwelt, where the high priest met with Him, where the people could commune with Him. God is a God of communion, of connectivity, of communication. There is not excuse for anyone; there is no impenetrable black box. God has revealed Himself in His word (II Tim. 3:16), by His Son (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 1:1-2), in the fabric of nature (Rom. 1:19-20), and even in our own moral conscience and imagination (Rom. 2:12-15). Our God is a God of revelation, of incarnation, of knowable communication: what has been heard has been seen and will be seen again (I John 3:2).

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

C Hymn

"Kaleidoscope cascade of
Contradictions and conclusions,
Consorting their conundrums in a
Coalescence of confusion and clarity.
The call cuts the corraded clogs
Of klutzes and cranks who
Cue their clues from the
Collapsed crutches of killers
And creeps."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

B Hymn

"The belief that brokenness
Can break the barrenness bends
The borders of brains and balances
Bent over backwards to beseech
The bigots and barons of
Bloated blight."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Homily 3: On God's Transcendence (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"God is our refuge and strength.... Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof." Ps. 46:1-3

God's transcendence is a matter of comfort and joy. He is not entangled in the web of our follies; he is not drowning with us. He stands outside on solid rock and thus is in a position to save us. The God whom we serve is not troubled or shaken; moved with compassion and justice, but not shaken. He remains a sure and secure refuge, a solid objective referent to guide our fledgling efforts. It is true that we worship God because He is with us in the incarnational sense, but we also worship Him because He is beyond us in the transcendent sense.

We most certainly need an incarnational God, a God who is with us in the midst of our subjectivity and can sympathize with our weakness. But we also need a transcendent God, a God beyond the troubles of earth and the schemes of men, a God who is not the product of those troubles and schemes. The only hope for mankind or the earth does not lie in mankind or in the earth, for all such things are caught in the net of Sin laid down at the Fall. We need help from the outside, an objective and knowable personality reaching into the midst of our subjective and confused personalities. In fact, the Incarnation implies and requires transcendence in order to do us any good, for if God was and is merely "one of us" then He would be just as lost and helpless as we are. If we are to have a truly incarnational God and all that it entails, then we need a truly transcendent God and all that it entails as well.
-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

The Murderers of Murderers Cannot Comfort Themselves (without the risen God)

" of the world, who have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fill with thy hidden treasure; they are full of children and leave them the rest of their substance. As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness. I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness." Ps.17:14-15

The lost do not focus on the right things. They cannot focus on what matters. They try: the lingering remnants of the image of God continues to pine and grasp desperately for what is real, and great motives and movements, intentions and institutions are thought up and actualized. But they will always miss the mark, and thus they will always fail. Invariably, some rabbit trail will dominate the conversation. Some particular will decimate the whole. Thus we get strange and sad anomalies, such as the call for peace while decrying the will to fight for it, or a demand for liberation while deconstructing all the very forms and methods of liberation. There is a cry for community coming from the very people who are destroying everything that has ever unified people together. At every turn, every well thought out plan that disregards the presence and promises of God falls apart. Meanwhile, we continually stumble over our own feet and wind up in the mud yet again.

"I will behold thy face." We have lost the real things; we have lost God. We try to get Him back on our own, or we try to get along without Him. Both routinely end in disaster. We cannot get to, or invent, the one thing that can account for and encompass every particular and thereby give us a proper framework for all the questions; and we have been going mad ever since. When God is lost (or disregarded), all is madness and folly. Without Reality, all that is left is Illusion (or illusions). Those of us who have been found by God must fight this insanity and despair. We who have been brought back to Reality by the blood of Christ must bring as much Reality back with us as we can.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

She's a Fighter Girl

"Somewhere between hither and thither, someone start the seance
Here and now and summon to us this girl:
Embattled since birth; bleeding from conception.
Inception of the morning star that sent her to us
Shooting up and out like a flare screaming against the night,
A heavy burden of burning placed in her heart.
False fathers and foes seek to make her fire a prey
In their schemes of sadness. She flutters and fights,
Girl, like a mad one. Sorrow on sorrow makes
Her happiness a vapor: floating, fleeting, failing.
Tethered to pain like a ball and chain. Can't see the forest for the mysteries
Etched in her mind by the hard hand of the mourning star.
Read her lips and longing as she strolls away like a rolling wave,
Girl. She rises and crashes like a rolling wave, beat down by the moon's
Invisible pulse pounding her back against the rocks and rocks and
Rocks while she rises still; she rages still against the night
Like a candle, like a flare, like the morning star."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Homily 2: On God's Truth and Our Subjectivity (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"O send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me. Let them bring me unto thy holy hill and to thy tabernacle." Ps. 43:3

The Christian does not seek their own private opinion or interpretation. The Christian is out for the truth, out to find the way things really are. We will not be satisfied with anything less than absolute reality breaking into our existent living and penetrating to the deepest fiber of our being. We are not pragmatists: our life is not built around practical rules and codes of conduct. It is built around a relationship to the Truth, Truth in the shape of a person. It is not a sterile, static, or monotonous affair done on Sundays with pale faces and forced piety. It is not an abstract metaphysical enumeration, the whipping boy of academics. It is an active and adventurous endeavor, full of vitality that weaves its way through the stuff of life. We do not follow the voice in our heads, nor the private interpretation of our subjective experiences. We see and do all things in the light of God's truth, truth revealed to us both in the general and special sense. The half-guesses of our subjectivity are satisfied, moment by moment, by God's objectivity.

All of this truth and guidance are not meant for intellectual enlargement; we are not here to become sagacious gurus. The truth and light of God comes to us for one purpose only: so that we may be lead to Him. "Let them bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacle." God calls us (and those we bring with us) to communion with Him and nothing less. Every moment of existence, whether in joy or sorrow, is not to make us more clever or amiable while we struggle to survive. Rather, it is to draw us closer to Him by making everything that He said about Himself real in actual experience. This is the Christian life: the reality of God flooding every aspect of existence until there is nothing else that we (or others) can see except God incarnate all around us and in us.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Kind of Secular Liturgy (versus the one necessary liturgy)

"Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire. Mine ears hast thou opened! Burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. [...] I delight to do thy will, O my God. Yea, thy law is within my heart." Ps. 40:6, 8

The unbelieving world is all about outward manifestations devoid of an inner reality. This is true not just on a philosophical level but also on a practical one. The concern is with doing good rather than being good. As long as there are outward acts of charity, the private greed does not matter. As long as there are outward gestures of reconciliation, the private bitterness is irrelevant. As long as there are outward actions of selflessness, it makes no difference what private advantage that I plot for myself. Almost all good activities of the world are an outward show, a kind of secular liturgy meant to impress ourselves, others, or (if we're in a religious mood) God.

It is true that some flashes of true magnanimity happen here and there. The lingering residuals of the imago dei sometimes flicker and burn, but they always fade. True acts of goodness are the exception, not the rule. They never last, and for every one of them there is easily a hundred self-centered corruptions waiting in the wings. Our actions cannot save us; they are constantly undercut by the fallen human heart. Consequently, it is never actions that concern God; it is always the heart (Is. 1:10-20; Rom. 2:17-29). The advocacy of good being is often written off as impractical and apathetic idealism. Such thinking is nonsense. What you do is a direct result of who you are, and if you are rotten then what you do will be rotten in some way. It is who you are that is the problem; thus, there is only one necessary liturgy whereby men may be saved, only one outward manifestation intimately connected to an astounding inward reality: the Cross of Christ, where God reconciled the world back to Himself (Rom. 3:23-26; II Cor. 5:17-21).

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Homily 1: On Life and Light (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light shall we see light." Ps. 36:9

Herein we find the source of all good things, the fountainhead of true life and living. What do those who are dead know of living? They know nothing but the grave, and even we who have been made alive have only shadows and half-whispers, making our hearts ache for the substance and symphony (if we are still awake and hungry). Many in the Church have been lulled to sleep by the constant drone of the world and modern religious life, falling face down in their own private mud, having lost the sound of the sea in their ears. Meanwhile, the dead march on into their ditches, believing that they have found the whole when all they have is stained and strained particulars. It is by grace alone that the sound and presence of real life haunts them again, the grace of God that sends again the echoes of His goodness and beauty. We know nothing of real life until we are one with He who is alive, and how will they know about He who is alive unless someone tells them about Him?

Our mind's eye cannot yet comprehend the reality of His beauty; He has scattered it abroad like flaming pearls across the dark pit. Those who are blind cannot see them unless He sends them light. People talk of real things: real love, real joy, real peace, real beauty. What do they know of such things apart from God? We who are His see only dimly (I Cor. 13:12); those on the outside see only darkness, a darkness that serves only as a mirror for their own emptiness. Such a horrible state should shake our souls with compassion. There is a whole world of people out there missing true life, who cannot see and be a part of what they were meant to see and be a part of. Let us, therefore, lead them to the place of light and life (John 1:4).

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Two Fundamental Facts of Life (as told by an orthodox rebel)

"Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all." Ps. 34:19

"Many are the afflictions...." This world is a terrible place, its remnant beauties continually caught in the looming shadow of the Fall. There is a darkness here that does not sleep. As night is continually somewhere on this earth, so evil stalks us without pause. Too much of mainstream Christianity is a naive, sheltered affair: the religion of amiable smiles and white picket fences. Those who say that "God is in His heaven and all is right with the world" mean well, but they are wrong on both counts. Things are certainly not right with the world, and it is good that we fully grasp that fact. Perhaps our "relevancy" would raise just a bit if we took the reality of evil seriously; the Cross, which stands at the center of our faith, reveals that God takes evil seriously. Yes, a better day is coming, but we're not home yet. For now, we live, not in naivete, but in hope, hope in the midst of wretched shadows.

"...but the Lord delivers...." Furthermore, God is certainly not just "in His heaven". He is with us, in the midst of those wretched shadows as well. We err (and do an unbelieving world a disservice) by ignoring the darkness, but we equally err by placing the light completely far off. The dawn is indeed in the distance, but the stars are out right now, "glowing knives" that "cut right through this darkened sky." Redemption is a current affair, not a far off dream. Now is the day of salvation far more than tomorrow is. In addition, as the body of Christ, those indwelt by the Spirit of God, we carry about in our mortal flesh the presence of God Almighty, and we serve as a continuation of Christ's ministry until He comes to finish and fulfill it. Thus, God is not simply in His heaven; he walks and works still in the dark and twisted environment that we are so used to and yet so weary of. So let us say instead, in contradiction to those well-meaning fellows mentioned earlier, "All is not right with the world, but God is with us."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

...fragment of a post-structure...

(folio continues)

The city blockade draws a line in the sand
that the heavenly hosts dare not cross
for fear of falling into our halting metaphors:
entanglement and strangulation.

We fear true beauty and the bloody hand;
the grotesque and grim our only solace,
Our image echoes, a wilderness of mirrors:
cracked and distorted.

(folio cuts off)

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

A Continuous Bumbling (as a view of human history)

"The Lord brings the counsel of the heathen to nought; He makes the devices of the people of none effect. The counsel of the Lord Stands forever, the thoughts of His heart to all generations." Ps. 33:10-11

It was Charles Williams (of Inkling fame) who taught us to never have a condescending view of the past and to remember that we too are merely another "period" of time, just as they were. Perhaps it is the plague of each generation that comes forth to consider themselves on the cusp of some kind of monumental greatness. This is because, as the latest people that just happen to be walking about, they stand where the mostly knowable present kisses the currently unknown future. Uncertainty breeds excitement as well as despair, and we always sit (if our view of history is biased and blind) with the constant notion that, whatever happens, this is "it". It never is "it," however. Ideas and institutions come and go; empires turn to dust. We shall (if the end is not near) be subsumed into history, and whether we are admired or scorned (or simply belittled) depends on the nature of the periods that will proceed from us.

Mankind is a creature in transit, which is why we are an unreliable foundation. Our state of transition is neither good nor bad; it is simply a fact, a fact that undercuts our reliability, a fact that we must deal with (and often fail to deal with). There is never an ultimate consensus amongst ourselves, either in past eras or this one; our few lines of convergence eventually dissolve into a myriad of separate views and opinions. As Chesterton put it once, we all can pretty much agree on what's wrong, but we have no agreement whatsoever on how to make it right. Everyone thinks that murder is wrong and peace is good; but start asking questions like how to eradicate murder and secure peace, or even how to define "murder" and "peace," and a hundred people will give you a hundred different ideas and definitions. This lack of ultimate consensus is just another example of how we cannot save ourselves. History from the human side is one long continuous bumbling about to the next batch of well-intended plans and atrocious errors. History from the Divine side, however, is the continual, consistent unfolding of the will of God, whether or not we understand the whole of it yet. That is why he is the only reliable thing: "All may change, but Jesus never." One comfort that belongs to the Christian is the knowledge that in a world of transition, God is a sure and stable consistency.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

Monday, May 10, 2010

An Invitation to the Dark Side (so that we may better love the light)

"...this is your hour, and the power of darkness." Luke 22:53b

My own artistic and aesthetic style has found pleasure in the darker side of things. This is not to say that I find no pleasure in goodness or beauty. Quite the contrary: the beauty of Pachebel's "Canon in D" moves me just as much as the sadness of Albinoni's "Adagio". I have found, however, that beauty and sadness (indeed, a beauty in sadness) both have the power to stir and strike the soul. This is an aspect of storytelling that I have often advocated: goodness and beauty without the reality of evil and sadness is mere shallow sentiment and blind optimism, a fragile facade that will easily shatter against the sterner stuff of life. Likewise, evil and sadness without the reality of goodness and beauty is mere shallow cynicism and blind pessimism, a snarling despair with its face too embedded in the mud to see the starlight. Both beauty devoid of sadness and sadness devoid of beauty are a kind of madness that many unfortunately revel in (for an example of the latter, check out the films of David Lynch, if you dare).

Christ and God are both incredibly relevant to the reality of evil and sadness, of "the power of darkness." Any Christianity that does not claim this is a false Christianity. Hope means nothing if there is nothing to despair. Redemption loses its glory when damnation loses its terror. The good becomes banal when evil becomes trivial. All God's love is so much useless sentiment if there is no Sin or Hell to save us from. This is not about putting the latter over the former; actually, putting one over the other is the problem. Our life has beauty but it also has sadness, and any worldview that cannot account (either philosophically or artistically) for all the realities of life is not worth following.

Think about it this way: in the best kind of stories, there needs to be a hero and a villain; and if the story is to have any real power or force to it, then (amongst other things) the hero must be truly heroic and the villain truly villainous. The power of the heroics is felt only in direct correlation to the power of the villainy. The more prevalent the evil and the more desperate the situation, the more powerful the heroics strike us. Think of it in specifically Christian language: the greater we understand the "power of darkness," the greater we understand the meaning (and subsequent beauty) of the Cross. We evil and sadness are allowed to be seen as they are, their contrast with goodness and beauty (viz., the goodness and beauty of God) will drive us closer to the goodness and beauty.

It is hard to talk about this without people immediately assuming that you are referring to childish caricatures and cardboard cutout characters with no substance or depth. We have had our imagination awash with such abominations (sadly, both from Christian as well as secular sources) that it is hard for us to conceive of something truly heroic or villainous without them. Furthermore, the atrocious nonsense spewed from the drooling maw of postmodernism has caused us to see "hero" and "villain" as oppressive categories that must be done away with, replaced with more "serious" roles where no one is hero or villain (and subsequently, no one is heroic or villainous). Such representations in art are always vacuous unless they betray their own principles and allow for real heroics and villainy to slip through the cracks.

The notion that "serious" art cannot allow for unapologetic representations of good and evil is ludicrous precisely because it is untrue (I have dealt with the principle underlying such nonsense elsewhere). Movies perhaps show this best. We would quite easily say that the main villains of No Country for Old Men or The Dark Knight were truly and unapologetically evil,  and yet we cannot claim them to be simple or "cardboard" as characters. Their evil is obvious, but it is also solid; its substance and depth make it all the more a threat. Likewise, the actions of Brendan Gleason's character in In Bruges or the nature of Frances McDormand's in Fargo were truly and unapologetically heroic and good, and yet we would not call them childish or caricatures. There heroism and goodness is obvious, but it too is solid; its substance and depth make it all the more desirable, especially when contrasted with their correlating villains (the same could be said for the heroes of The Dark Knight).

Mainstream Christianity has been too weak and/or silent on the reality of evil and sadness. The world does not want or need a place of sappy sunshine and endless amiability. What is wants and need is an acknowledgment of and answer for the darkness that permeates the actually life that they live. People have the villainous with them whether they want to admit it or not; what they want and need is the heroic. We have gone on for long enough giving them sentimentalism and feel-good solutions. The center of Christianity is where evil and goodness, sadness and beauty, merge with an thunderous collision, and the echoes of that collision are to reverberate in our mouths, with our hands, with our lives. We must proclaim (in story and song and sermon) the entirety of the good news: evil and sadness are real and matter, goodness and beauty are real and matter, and goodness and beauty will win in the end.

-Jon Vowell

To Hell and Back (as a summation of human history)

"Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my rock; be not silent to me. Lest, if thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit." Ps. 28:1

A world without God is Hell and nothing else. This is a truth that must be re-established, for though it is very obvious to the naked eye, it nonetheless has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle of our lives. The turn of the 20th century saw several then-obscure, later-prominent people realizing this truth about the consequences of God's absence, but rather than seek God they chose instead to seek out some new thing that was either in or by themselves. The results were disastrous and futile. What, exactly, can adequately replace God? If he is merely a socially constructed delusion meant to control the masses and fool ourselves, then perhaps we can construct a replacement. If, however, He is exactly what He has revealed Himself to be in His word and by His Son, then there is nothing that can replace Him, for there is nothing under the sun that can encompass the whole of reality, the whole of our experiences, and give it a total and satisfying shape and meaning. Only God gives the grounding and framework to answer all of the questions. All other "solutions" contain glaring gaps in them that grow into an abyss. If God is gone, then all is Hell; if He is silent, then we are in the pit. There is no other place to be.

Whatever others may tell you (with their eloquent pontifications), our current state of affairs is nothing new, our cultural and political corruptions are nothing new, our institutional failures and insanities are nothing new. It is simply the same long, sad story of history: humanity trying to find peace and happiness outside of God. There is no such thing. You'd think that if God was merely the creation of our own minds and/or institutions that it would be easy to move on. Our inability to move on, to find adequacy for life and the great questions of the soul speak volumes to His reality and existence. From Him and in Him are all good things. In Him and Him alone do we live and move and have our being. Separation from Him is death and death only. He is the "rock," the solid and stable ground; all else is quicksand and the mist of darkness.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010

The Faith of Christ (is to be our faith, too)

"Into thy hands I commit my spirit..." Ps. 31:5a

Faith means a willful, deliberate resting in the Lord. If every thing, circumstance, and element of your life and the whole of existence is in His hands, then you can and should rest in those hands. Stress and fear come every time that we fight against those hands: "I must take control!" Not only should you not, but you also cannot. Nothing is in your control except the choices of your own soul, which usually boil down to only two options: will I rest in God or willfully remain restless?

Resting in God is neither fatalism nor monotony. It is not for the apathetic or those who prefer a static existence. What it does mean is going with a near reckless abandon into the circumstances that have been handed to you. "By faith, Abraham...went out, not knowing where he was going" (Heb. 11:8). How utterly foolish! That is exactly what true resting in God does: you become a seemingly foolish and reckless person in the eyes of others. This is not about being a clown or dangerous; this is about going here or there, doing this or that solely because God has directed your circumstances there and not because you know for absolute certainty what will happen next. It is this certainty in God (and in His promises to lead and protect) and that uncertainty about tomorrow that gives peace and excitement, security and adventure, to life. You are ever at rest but never sitting still.

Our Lord uttered the words of Ps. 31:5 because His was the life of faith too, even up to the portals of death. It seems unimaginable that our Lord was accosted by doubt, yet His temptation in the wilderness and prayer in the garden seem to suggest that He was capable of it, though he did not succumb. As the one who was made Sin for us, the only hope He had of escaping death was the promise of His Father (see Ps. 16:10). He rested in that promise, and the servant is not greater than his master: if we would know the Christ-like life, then we too must rest in the presence, power, and promises of the Father.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010