Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Decadence of God (Homily 51)

"Why do you spend money for that which is not sustenance? Or labor for that which never satisfies? Harken diligently unto Me and eat that which is good and let your soul delight itself in richness." Is. 55:2

"You will show me the paths of life. In Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore." Ps. 16:11

How full is your God? How rich? How vast? How measureless and strong? Every false god is a thin, pale thing, whose pleasures are paltry and whose potency is fading. The real God of the real universe is no limp thing, no phlegmatic amoeba glazing over into apathy and weariness. His stars are bright enough to burn up the sky: the light is relentless and stretches to the uttermost. His goodness is all-consuming: whither shall you flee from it (Ps. 139:7-12)? On earth, it meets you at every corner, at every turn and tilt of your life, interweaving the texture of your existence with the colors of His presence. In Heaven, you find its very home, the fountainhead bursting all boundaries, pulsing with furious joy and love. And in Hell, you find it still, for goodness does not let evil go unanswered, and it will not release until it is paid the uttermost farthing, for love is as strong as the grave (Song 8:6-7).

Ask God for eyes to see His rich love. Ask Him to open the sight of the real eyes of your real heart to see the chariots of His fire encircling you, the pillars of cloud covering you, the columns of fire guiding you. Ask your Lover-God, for He desires to prove Himself (Mal. 3:10), to show Himself strong (Jer. 33:3), to put another brick in the wall, to fill your life with evidence insurmountable, so that no mouth will be able to gainsay it, not even your own. Ask your Father-God to make you speechless before His love, to strike you silent before the ignorant wrath of the skeptic or doubter, who being in the darkness outside cannot begin to comprehend the light. Let them rage; your joy is beyond words. Beyond categorization and argument. It is neither here nor there but everywhere, in every iota in the book of your life. It is beyond summary, which is all a part of the joy: it will take an eternity to express it, to know it, to trace every thread to its final consummation, for our God is rich. Decadently rich. Full to bursting with glory divine, calling everyone who thirsts to come to His waters (Is. 55:1) and taste and see that He is good (Ps. 34:8). Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Staying-Power (thoughts on music and art)

I have heard from some that "Christian" music is going through a kind of renaissance. The days of crappy pop-culture cloning are dying out, being replaced slow but sure by more substantive musical art. Such a sentiment may be overstating things a bit, but it's not completely without merit. Mainstay and mainstream juggernauts like Anberlin and Switchfoot have carried that torch for the past ten years or so (though the latter has begun to show signs of wear and tear), and current big timers like Mumford and Sons and hidden gems like My Epic cannot help but feed the excitement that the dark ages of CCM are finally fading away.

Like I said, it's overstated. Pop-culture is big business, and "Christian & Gospel" is one of the biggest money-mongers around. Chris Tomlin and WOW Worship aren't going anywhere, and mainstream Christianity's seemingly incurable drive to ape the world and its culture will continue to be an ever-present source of parody and scorn.

But my point here is not to comment on the current state of so-called "Christian" music, but rather to point out how unpredictable it can be. Junk and jewels often get spewed out in the same breath, and there can be diamonds amongst the rough, rough sewage that passes for "Christian" "art". This is a fact no matter what day it is or what generation of music (or film or literature or whatever) we're going through. The dark ages can still produce a Beowulf, and the latest generations can still produce horrors to the ears and eyes.

Case in point, I have two songs to share with you. One is "Light Up the Sky," a single released in 2010 by The Afters (your obligatory generic Christian band). The other is "Calling Out Your Name" by legendary CCM icon Rich Mullins. Let's deal with "Light Up the Sky" first. Regardless of your musical taste, try and listen carefully:

Now, look: I do not in any way question these guys talent or sincerity, and since I believe that God is big enough to use any and every thing for His glory, I don't even doubt the song's ability to touch people. (Its official music video is actually quite inspiring.)

Having said that, be honest with yourself: they sounded like The Backstreet Boys, didn't they? (Seriously, when the chorus hits and they do the "light, light, light"/"I, I, I" thingy, try some choreographed hand gestures. It totally works.) It's fluffy, it's predictable, it's safe, it's...fine. Really fine, mind you, but just fine. It came out two or three years ago, and you've probably never heard of it, since it is not built to last. Canned pop-art is never built to last; when it ever does, it was an accident. Their primary purpose is to be disposable and replaceable.

Again, this does not mean that they weren't fun in their day, but it does mean that there is nothing everlasting about them. And the sign of good art (in any medium or genre) is that it has something everlasting about it. It has "staying-power" across generations. Shakespeare was said to be "not of an age but for all time," and guys like him and Mozart remain, not because dead white guys shove them down our throats forever. How can they (being dead white guys, after all)? Rather, it's because they have staying-power: they resonant down through the ages.

Compare and contrast that song with this one by Rich Mullins. It first appeared in 1991, during the early heyday of CCM. I would argue that while both this and "Light Up the Sky" are perfectly legitimate works of art, there is something inherently different about Mullins', and that difference is its eternal nature. It has staying-power. What it says, how its says it, how the whole composition rolls and rides through the soul like the wind and the waves...it's truly a transcendent experience. There is a reason this song (and other Mullins songs) still speaks while others (though well-intended) fall silent in the end. It's because he's singing to touch eternity, while everyone else just seems to be living for the moment.

See what you think:

-Jon Vowell, et. al. (c) 2013

Monday, April 22, 2013

"...a beautiful city..." (Nolan's Defense of Civilization in The Dark Knight Trilogy)

Aristotle once said that man is a "political animal." He did not mean that we instinctively form voting blocks. What he meant is that human beings are fundamentally communal: they come together and form families, and many families come together to form communities, and many communities come together to form the city, the "πολις". Nations and empires also emerge from this ascension, but what also emerges is what we call "civilization," an ordering of human conduct and affairs around our communal instincts. Whether in the home or in the city, there is (or ought to be) a general sense of deference to those who share the space with you. We all belong to the city; we are all in this together. To be "civilized" is to respect your fellow man as a member of your community; to act otherwise is to go the way of the brute, the savage.

For millennia, civilization was thought to be a good thing, or at least better than barbarism. Heaven was often viewed as the place of ideal order and community, and thus Augustine lauds The City of God, while Charles Williams' Arthurian poetry contrasts the Christian image of Logres with the pagan wildness of Broceliande. The key to all of this is the idea of order: order is good, while chaos is bad. In the Christian worldview, the whole of existence is built on the order that is Christ (Col. 1:17), and the city (with its inherent civilizational bent) was  meant to be a concrete emblem of that order, of Christ, of heaven itself. Thus, order was beautiful, order was true, and order was good, and thus so was the city.

Not everyone agreed or agrees with this idea. There have always been anarchists and extremists who view order as the height of oppression. Ovid's subversive narratives in the Metamorphoses, the barbarism of the dark ages, Romanticism's revolutionary poetry and practices, anarchical terrorists at the turn of the 20th century as well as postmodern deconstruction at its end: history is full of those who would see order fall, fail, die trying. They have existed alongside and in tension with civilization, and the howling debate between the two rages on to this day: is civilization good? when and how does it become destructive? ought it to be defended? how ought we to defend it?

One of the most recent voices in this debate (I believe) has been director Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight Trilogy (henceforth, DKT). Ostensibly a set of Batman films, Nolan's work has been lauded for legitimatizing the "superhero" film as a genre capable of true cinematic quality and narrative depth. It was not just his move towards realism (as opposed to the visions of Burton and Schumacher), but also the serious substance that he gave to his films: they proposed intriguing scenarios, asked interesting questions, and provided powerful (and sometimes controversial) answers. One such scenario was the various dangers that can threaten the "city" (viz., Gotham, which comes from a nickname for New York City), which lead to questions about the inherent goodness and defense of civilization itself. I believe that Nolan's answer to this scenario and subsequent questions is that the "city," while far from perfect, is good and ought to be defended against all extremists.

DKT is full of extremists, some more easily recognized than others. Of course, the Joker is the most obvious example. The self-described "agent of chaos," he sees "these civilized people" as monsters just like him: their "moral codes" (i.e., the deference towards others that creates civilization) are all flimsy facades, "dropped at the first sign of trouble." Unique in his anarchism, the Joker is not out to destroy the city but rather prove that it is already destroyed: we maintain the illusion of civility and order, but "when the chips are down, [we'll] eat each other." Thus, for the Joker, the city and civilization are not just bad; they are a "bad joke," and he feels called, like an unholy prophet, to point us all to the punchline.

The League of Shadows is a unique kind of extremism. Whereas the Joker sees civilization as so meaningless as to be illusory, characters like Ra's al Ghul and Bane see civilization as so paramount that they will destroy any and all that do not meet their ideal standard. Thus, they will "bring justice to Gotham," but it is justice in the void, cut of from any other balancing virtue (such as mercy or wisdom). They are so sure of Gotham's irredeemable corruption that they will not simply destroy it; they will let it destroy itself, whether through "fear" or revolution (two highly corrosive elements to any civilization). There is a certain satanic allure to both their and the Joker's extremism: civilization is often messy and imperfect, and the drive to burn it all down and either start afresh or just "watch the world burn" can become irresistible to those who have lost all hope for the city.

It is indeed possible to lose hope for the city, but it only comes when you first give in to another kind of extremism, an extremism that is far more subtle, and if you weren't watching the films carefully you would've miss it. I am referring to the extremism of characters such as Officer Jonathan Blake, Commissioner Loeb, and (most significantly) Harvey Dent. This is the extremism that says that the city ought to be defended, but its defense must always play by the rules of the city. Thus, Commissioner Loeb wants the "vigilante" known as Batman "off the streets," and Blake always works inside the system (often with an air of pretentious self-righteousness). In their world, the rules are the city, and to work outside of them is to not only defy civilization but also (in effect) fundamentally deny it. As Blake tells Gordon, "You've betrayed everything you've stood for." Why? Because Gordon broke the rules.

Gordon is an excellent counter-example to this, as he (and Batman) are there to teach us the hardest lesson of all: if you would defend the city, then you must get your hands dirty. This is a hard truth for many (esp. Americans) to swallow, but it is an incredibly necessary and relevant hard truth. When you run into people who "don't want anything logical like money," who "can't be bought, bullied, reasoned to, or negotiated with," you have to take them down for the good of the city. Furthermore, you must realize that more often than not "the systems fail" you (as Gordon says), and "the rules aren't weapons anymore, they're just shackles, ways for the bad guys to get ahead." In those moments, you have to do what needs to be done (what "needs to happen," as Batman puts it), not what will look good on paper. Gordon stated it perfectly to Dent: "I don't get political points for idealism. I have to the best I can with what I have." If you do not have this balanced view, if you succumb to the extremism of the system, then you will fall when the system inevitably falls.

Harvey Dent is the prime example of this fall. As Gotham's district attorney, he is the system, but he has balance in the beginning. He's willing to turn a blind eye to Batman's "outlaw" activities, mainly because they're accomplishing the goal of taking out organized crime (a cancer on any civilization). But he still believes that "we can be decent men in an indecent time," and when he discovers that there are those who will use your systems against you (as the Joker tells him, "I took your little plan and turned it on itself"), he falls into madness and despair. As Two-Face (the hypocrite, the law turned criminal), "the world is cruel, and the only morality [i.e., civilizing deference] in a cruel world is chance," i.e., chaos, the flip of a coin. This is what the extremism of the system does: when it fails (and it does fail), you run the risk of falling with it. (It is important to note that Officer Blake avoids this fate.)

One special case must be mentioned, and that is Alfred. In Batman Begins (BB) and The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR), he too is an extremist (albeit a sympathetic one). In the beginning, he fears Bruce's transformation into Batman is mere "thrill seeking" (a "taste for wanton destruction" as he says in TDKR), and in the end he wants Bruce to give up Batman and work with the police, instead of around them. There are two ironies at work. The first is that he sees Batman as an extreme action when, in fact, Batman is the proper balance (as we'll see). The second is that some of the best statements on that balance come from Alfred, all in The Dark Knight (TDK). This film is unique in that when faced with the Joker, even Batman feels the pull towards the extremism of the system: he will turn himself into and cooperate with the police because "I see now what I have to become to stop men like him.... Batman can't take this." It is Alfred who pulls him back from the brink:
B: "What would you have me do?"

A: "Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They'll hate you for it, but that can be the point of Batman. You can be the outcast. You can make the choice no one else can make: the right choice."
Alfred understandably forgets his own advice by TDKR, as his concern for Bruce overcomes his understanding of Batman. Nonetheless, for one moment (or film) at least, he did understand the "point" of Batman: the police don't need Bruce Wayne to work with them; they need Batman to work around them, doing what they can't do, going where they can't go, being willing "to plunge his hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean" (as Gordon tells Blake).

Batman's "point" is to be a paradoxical balance. He is the defender of the city by going outside its systems. He ensures the success of justice by breaking the law. He only has "one rule" (i.e., he won't kill: "I'm no executioner"); any others are expendable. "At what cost?" we may ask along with Lucius Fox (a man also tempted by the extremism of the system). To that question, Batman gives no answer then, but he does later to Gordon: "The Joker cannot win." That is the view Batman maintains (through great struggle) throughout the trilogy, and it is the balanced view. The Joker cannot win; the extremists must not win. The city is good, and it must be defended, even if it takes drastic steps (like "burn[ing] the forest down," as Alfred puts it). That is the messy yet necessary paradox that Batman embodies.

Batman is for the city, for civilization, and he is for it against all comers, willing to even take its reproach in order to save it. ("You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things.... I'm whatever this city needs me to be.") The greatest image of this comes in the climactic battle in the final film. Bane, in seeking to "bring justice [i.e., destruction] to Gotham," has started a pseudo-revolution between the haves and the have-nots. Batman mounts his offensive against this extremist activity, and he does so with an army of police officers. This is significant because the police are symbolic of the city; their name even comes from the word "πολις". So when Batman faces down the extremists one last time (because he cannot stand by "while my city burns"), he does so with the literal embodiment of the city itself, all uniformed, marching as one, in defense of civilization.

It is fitting that when Batman is presumed dead at the trilogy's end, Gordon reads a passage from A Tale of Two Cities(!), a passage that could very well summarize the Batman credo, and the credo of all who would defend civilization:
I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see their lives, for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.
This is the final logic of all defenders of the city, of the dark knights and the watchers on the wall: we defend the "beautiful city" because of the "brilliant people". The city must be defended, for the city is good because people are good. It is not necessarily a moral goodness (for we are all sinners), but an ontological goodness: we are, and we make and commune after the image of our Creator. To attack the city and the civility that it stands for is to attack people per se; to attack people per se is to attack God per se, and that is the greatest anarchy, and evil, of all.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Stained-Glass God (as told by an orthodox rebel)

"Thy Maker is thy husband.... [He] has called you as a woman forsaken and brokenhearted, as a wife wooed in her youth but later abandoned.... Behold, I have created the smith who blows the coals in the fire and brings forth a weapon for his work; I have created the devastator to destroy. [Therefore,] no weapon formed against you shall prosper...." Is. 54:5-6, 16-17

Our God is a God of sovereign-love: all-powerful, righteous zeal and passion for His beloved. He is the husband that husbands ought to be, the substance to the many shadows of many men.

We do not understand this, and in our attempts to grapple with who God really is we often give in to our terrible simplifications. For some, God is nothing else but sovereignty, nothing but all-power. This is the error of hyper-Calvinists (and many legalistic sects). God is nothing to them but power: He saves because He is in charge, and He damns because He is in charge. If we don't like it, then tough. Who are you, oh man, to question this God? You are an irrelevant wisp on the wind, and to Him you mean less than nothing. In truth, it is a reverential position to take, but it is also a loveless, lifeless affair. God is the cosmic administrative taskmaster, and we are no more than the cogs and pawns of His perfect system. It is the way of Allah and not of Jehovah.

For others, however, God is nothing but love, nothing but all-passion and all-affection. This is the error of religious liberals and progressive-types. God is nothing to them but raw emotion, a omnipotent sentimentalism that cares little for truth or clarity. All that matters to Him are our feelings and that He meets them all and hurts none. Thus, all "hard" doctrines must be rubbed out completely or be so blurred in revision that it is the same thing as being rubbed out completely. All so we can be assured that "love wins," even against itself. In truth, it is a sympathetic position to take, yet it is an enterprise doomed to failure. God's love means absolutely nothing except what He has said about it, and too often we confuse and conflate the "love of God" with our own shallow sense of tolerance. It is a house of cards that will never survive the thousand natural shocks of life.

God is not "Power or Passion". He is not "Truth or Love," "Doctrine or Compassion," "Holiness or Authenticity," or any other of our false dichotomies. He is both/and and not either/or: both power and passion, truth and love, doctrine and compassion, holiness and authenticity, the "Maker" and the "husband". He is all good things, without division or confusion. It is we who divide and confuse, because we are confused and divided---in ourselves and with each other. This should be no surprise. We are our own worst enemy, our own great and constant failure, which is why it is so paramount we move past ourselves, past everybody else, past all agendas and plans and man-made movements and draw close to the God of sovereign-love, whose simplicity answers all our insanities, whose infinite diversity fractures our rigid systems into a glorious stained-glass window, and whose all-encompassing absolutism consumes our discrepancies like the sea swallows the rain.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Almost Atheism (the confession of an orthodox rebel)

"He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. [...] Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief." Is. 53:3-10

I have seen a trend in mainstream Christianity, in all denominations and traditions. It has (perhaps) been an ever-present shadow to the substance of orthodoxy, but our modern realities of media and celebrity have made it more acute. It is in books, podcasts, T.V. and radio programs, blog posts, and even a few movies now and again. It is the siren song of our generation, and I call it "Syrup Christianity," an overly sweet, congealing parody of the traditional Faith. It is a "Christianity" of uncritical optimism, whose marshmallow God of warm fuzzies and easy explanations always makes sure that his real children are tolerating each other and having their "best life now." Yes, Osteen is a popular variant of this strain, but he is hardly alone. There are many others.

There's the "happy church" variety (whether Catholic or charismatic or fundamentalist) where every sermon or homily and every congregant or parishioner has been greased with fake smiles and forced exuberance because everything should be right if you're "right with God." There's also the "comfy doctrine" variety, where either serious reformed types tell you that Calvinism gives us no grounds for tears or anguish (for surely Calvin was not a man of sorrows) or serious radical types tell you that "love wins" in an unqualified, hazy way (for surely our versions of Hell and damnation are the scary concoctions of old curmudgeons).

Then there's the "culture of simplicity" where every Lifeway special or Cloud Ten production shills its cartoonish versions of light and dark, where the good is of the conservative Southern Baptist variety and the evil is some kind of New-Age atheism (and always a real jerk). And there's the "politics of triumphalism," where on the Right an American theocracy is trumpeted with jingoistic fervor, and on the Left the Kingdom of God can only be brought about by a socialist progressive agenda; in either case, legislation and activism are our only salvation.

I have rejected those answers, rejected them because they are all, at bottom, the same thing: "Syrup Christianity". They are all of the faith of easy answers and the eternal sunshine of spotless minds. Theirs is that world called "Perfect" that Walgreens always warned us about. Sorrow, fear, doubt, darkness, despair, death, loss, the insidiousness of evil, and fighting long defeats: these things mean nothing to them, nothing but irritations to be ignored, misrepresentations to be cleared up, or sins to be repented of. It is the religion of Job's friends, and with all due respect to its many adherents, I say a plague on all your houses. I want nothing to do with any of you. You are so unlike Jesus.

I have no patience for any system (either "secular" or "sacred") of life or thinking that makes no room for darkness and evil, real darkness and real evil. I am never more frustrated than when staring into the eyes of bald-faced optimism, with its naive temperament and clueless disposition. Do I believe that all shall be well? Of course: you can't be a Christian and believe otherwise. What I do not believe is that the road to redemption will run smooth or straight from our end, that things are somehow going to get better and better. It is all a lie. "Evil-doers shall wax worse and worse," and the Kingdom of God comes, not with rainbows and rays of summer, but with fire and thunder, and the violence of violent men, and blood pouring from the winepress of God's wrath. Christ will come indeed, but in righteousness to "judge and make war." All weapons will be beat into plowshares, but not until the final slaughter, of which Canaan was but a type and shadow. Apocalypse is our final eucatastrophe.

I am not morbid, and though I carry about a healthy does of pessimism, I am not a pessimist. What I am is someone who takes evil seriously, seriously enough to want real answers for it and solutions to it beyond childish dismissals or excuses. You cannot explain it away, nor is it reducible to soundbites about homosexuals or capitalism. Evil is real, evil hurts, and evil finds a way in. We are called to hate it ("abhor" it), not ignore it. God certainly hates it. As a man, He wept in anguish at death, met corruption with an almost reckless violence, and always carried a note of contempt in His words to not only the Pharisees and Sadducees but even the devil himself in the wilderness. I ask you: is your God big enough to hate evil? Hate it enough to do something about it? Mine is. He has to be.

My stake in this is neither political or even philosophical. Rather, it is deeply personal. For fifteen years, I lived in the same house as a chronically ill person. My mother's diabetes had somehow spawned a mysterious neuropathy that doctors have yet to explain adequately. All they know is this: it is eating away at her nerves, leaving her hands and feet in a paradoxical state of ever-increasing agony and ever-growing numbness. For fifteen years I watched this evil work its malice upon her. For fifteen years, I have seen the tragedy and the horror of the Fall. I've seen her lose everything she loved: teaching, playing the piano, hosting parties, seeing friends, attending church. All was swallowed into the void, and now all she can do is sit, sit, sit, sit, sit. And I do not like it, not one little bit.

How can you dwell in the presence of such suffering and walk away with easy answers about evil? I couldn't. I prayed for her healing everyday, but it never came. She only got worse. I prayed she'd be healthy enough for family events so she could get out and enjoy herself, but she often didn't (and still doesn't). God seemed to abandon her to this fate, and no smirking sentimentalism from the prophets of progress could come close to touching such a thing. In truth, I took them all to be one massive, monstrous joke; or worse, an insult straight at my mother and my heart. The religion of Job's friends is an affront to all Jobs, including my own.

Yet there is one more thing I must say about my Job: she has kept the faith, neither has she charged God foolish with her lips. I can remember, years ago, driving her to one of her numerous doctors. Her foot was in danger of collapse (again) and it needed to be set right. On the way home, I expressed to her my thoughts about her condition. I ended by saying that if anything could make me an atheist (I feared), it would be if she died without ever being healed. She listened to me patiently, sipping on a drink from Sonic, and when I finished she told me that she too had her moments of dark despair and doubt about God's purpose for all this. But she concluded with these words: "God has a plan. Even for pain. Don't let my pain shake your faith. It doesn't shake mine."

From that moment, I knew I could never be an atheist. There could never be an argument good enough, and I defy any skeptic to try. I have found a Faith that faces pain, that can face pain. Without fear, without a blink or flinch or shake. And that is the Faith I want. That is the Faith I love. Not the syrupy "faith" of Modern American Christendom, all pathetic smiles and perfect (or nebulous) explanations, but a Faith whose God has a place and plan for evil and pain. The Faith acquainted with grief and sorrow. The Faith of my mother. The Faith of Jesus, who was stricken, smitten, and afflicted, enduring the cross and its shame, who humbled Himself even unto death. My Jesus knows death, knows pain, knows darkness. He did not deny the dark but walked right into it, screaming up and out into its night like a flare burning blood red, and the darkness could not overcome Him. It has overcome all else except this thing, this one true thing, this new thing, this God-man who heals with His stripes, and was pleased to be bruised, crushed, and put to grief.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Failures of Doubting (Homily 50)

"Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches, [and] walk by the light of your fire and the torches you have kindled! This you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment and sorrow." Is. 50:10-11

Control is the very opposite of trust. Do not misunderstand: it is not bad to make plans. Those who trust make plans and act on them. Faith is more than common sense, but it is not less than it. You are free to make plans and move on them, but you must beware to not trust in the plan. That is the key. It is not about your actions but your reliance. If your reliance is on God, then your action is of faith. If your reliance is on your plans (and your ability to fulfill them), then your action is not of faith, and whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). So make your plans and act on them, doubting nothing except your plans and actions.

Control is all about doubt: doubting God and His presence, providence, promises, and power. To trust in our own strengths and wits above all else is the essence of unbelief, and it creates two kinds of people. The first is gripped by an impenetrable pride. They are unshaken in their self-confidence and never think to question themselves. Their end will be anger: anger at others for doubting them, anger at God for being greater than them, and anger at themselves when their plans fail, as they will always fail. The fire of their torches will burn them up.

The second kind of person is gripped by an impenetrable fear. They are always shaken by the ordeal of decision, because they believe it is all on them, and their loneliness becomes a crushing burden of anxiety. The never think to turn to the One who is greater than them, for they do not think their even is anyone greater than them. Their end will be despair, of both their situation and themselves. They see their torches for what they really are: pathetic, paltry lights revealing nothing but shadows and the enormity of the darkness.

In truth, both the prideful and fearful strains touch us all at different times. They often come packaged together because they spring from the same source. Still, different people will manifest one side more readily than the other as well as fall to its consequences more easily. The point is this: trust is a hard game, but it alone can lead to peace; control is an easy game (it is the most natural thing in the world to trust yourself), but it can only lead to anger and despair. Pride and fear cannot sustain themselves; their fires will be the doom of those who lit them. But he who trusts in the Lord shall never be ashamed, for His fire never fails: its light has pierced the deepest darkness, and that darkness could not, nor ever could, overcome it. Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Friday, April 12, 2013

Foucault VS Lewis (a fragment of a discussion on meaning)

Foucault: It is all very well for you. Claiming the origin at the back of all discourse. What benefits you receive! What power! But I am full of doubts, and you are full of ignorance. Perhaps your Origin does exist, but it makes no difference whether He does or not. I don't think you've got the idea of the rind: the thick outer skin of derivatives and endless dispersions which we call (in each turn) "truth". Picture reality as an infinite globe with this very thick crust on the outside. Its thickness is a thickness of words. Words endlessly refracted and repulsed by each other, splintering forth into a thousand possibilities, potentialities infinite and vast! We are born under the surface. Under the text. Piling more and more over our heads. If your Origin exists, He's not in the globe. He's outside, like a moon

Lewis: Even if that were true, my friend, He did not stay there. He was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Foucault: So you say, and claim it to be the central happening of all that happens. But can you not see that it is merely another displacement? Another dispersion? The Origin cannot survive the derivatives, for they are parricidal to the core.

Lewis: Indeed they are, and were.

Foucault: I see what you're thinking, but it is all folly. There is no central happening of all happenings. There is no center, no tyrannical focal point for the discursive field, but millions and millions of discourses with their own centers, leading either nowhere or (what is better) to more and more "centers" for ever. I defy your God! I defy him with all the power of words and empty spaces and repetitions and dispersions and make Him bow down before bigness. How can you claim that there is a center for all the universe? You were born years ago and it is from old, and most of it is dead space were you cannot live or think or speak your private truth-to-power. Look at it all unblinkingly and you will see that there is no center. No Origin living or dead or resurrected. No plan or meaning or summation of the discursive play. As soon as you think you see one, it melts away into nothing, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea; or else it mutates into some other plan that you never dreamed of, and what was the center becomes the rim. Thus I doubt if any shape or plan or pattern was anything more than a trick of your own eyes, cheated with a hope informed by a panoptic force outside of and shaping your fragmented self. I ask you: to what is all this spiraling nothingness driving? What is the morning you speak of? What is this Incarnation of the Origin to be the beginning of?

Lewis: The beginning of the Great Dance, though we do not talk of it "beginning". It does not wait to be perfect until all is gathered into it. We do not speak of when it will "begin". It has begun from before always. There was no time when all things did not rejoice before His face as now. The dance that we dance is at the center, and for the dance all things were made.

You would add words to words in lumpish aggregation, or discourses to discourses and dispersions to dispersions, but you shall never come near His greatness. Times without number He has circled the world while we were not alive, and those times were not desert. His own voice was in them, speaking His infinite Word, which dwells (all of Him dwells) within the word of the smallest discourse and is not cramped; the entire discursive field of play is inside the Word who is inside all words and it does not distend Him. They are also at the center. We are not the voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where we cannot come. Where there is, there is the Word of the Origin, speaking life into every hollow void, filling all ontos like blood fills a wound.

Each word is at the center, with all terms and categories. The discourses are at the center, with every dispersion they create. The field of play is at the center. The fragments of every soul are at the center. Where the Word of Origin is, there is the center. He is in every place. Not some of Him in one place and some in another, but in each place the whole God, even in the smallness beyond thought. Each thing was made for Him and by Him and lives and moves and has its being in Him, and He is the center. You say there is no way out of the text? I say there is no way out of the center, save into the Bent Will which casts itself into the Nowhere.

All this seems planless to your darkened mind, because there are more plans than you looked for. But in the plan of the Great Dance, plans and discourses and dispersions without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else is directed. All that is or was or is spoken or will be spoken is but a spark shed from the fire that is the endless utterances of the Word of the Origin, and no mouth can gainsay it. There seems no plan because it is all plan. There seems no center because it is all center, and within that still point the field plays on.

-Jon Vowell, et. al. (c) 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Sacrament of Waiting (Homily 49)

"...they shall not be ashamed that wait for Me." Is. 49:23b

Trust is a matter of waiting. Waiting to see what happens. Waiting to see what unfolds. Waiting to see how it all turns out. Waiting to know whether or not the endeavor was successful, or the enterprise was worth it, or the action had its consequences, or the person kept their word. Trust is all a waiting game, a frustrating yet common game, feeling more like a necessary evil than a necessity.

Waiting is not about sitting still or inactivity. On the contrary, waiting is often when we are at our busiest. We fill out applications. We make calls, make connections. Go to this place and that. Get involved in this thing or that. We make assessments, weigh options, keep our eyes open and ears to the ground, and do our research, all while continually puttering about in our daily work and hobbies and habits. Truly, waiting is more than a static thing. You could almost call it an ecstatic thing: we feel ready to explode at any moment.

Reality is always a paradox on some level, and intimately woven into our bustle is waiting. No calls have been returned. No letters (for good or ill) have been received. No significant or special someone has presented themselves. No one rewards or even seems to acknowledge any of your contributions. Therein is the paradox. In the very midst or all our doings, we can only sit, sit, sit, sit, sit. And we do not like it, not one little bit.

Waiting is a frustration for anyone, but for the child of God it need not be a source of despair, for as said earlier waiting is where trust begins. Even after our best efforts to make something happen, there is always the period of silence and uncertainty. Into that void come doubts and fears and the diabolic death spiral that pulls us into ourselves: "What else could I have done? I should have done more! It's all on me!" It is not all on you, and that is what the silence teaches us.

The book of Isaiah is saturated with the promises of God, complete with fantastic proclamations and wild resolutions so unexpected and counter-intuitive that you would think God is mad. But He is not mad. He is the only sanity left, and He is teaching us how to think straight. The times of waiting are for our sanity, viz., they are meant to turn us to God. "This thing is not in my hands. It is too big for me." That is the beginning of sanity and peace.

When the waiting does finally end (as all waiting does), it will be so much sweeter than any instant gratification, for "thou shalt know that I am the Lord" (vs. 23). If things were easy, then God would be as unreal as vapor. It is in the trying that He is made real. In the birth pangs, He is enfleshed. If we would have a real God in our lives, then we must let the waiting play itself out. We must go about our business in hopeful expectation of God's goodness. That is how we live. That is how we trust. That is how we taste and see that the Lord is good. Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013