Friday, July 27, 2007

Another quote from Flannery O'Conner:

This one (from Mystery and Manners) reminded me of the (negative) response of some Christians to the Harry Potter books, but it is certainly applicable to forming a reasonable faith-based response to many different art forms - books, music, movies, etc...

(she speaks from a specifically Catholic viewpoint, and names it as such, but this really applies to Christianity under any label. Substituting the word "Christian" for "Catholic" - if you are not of that particular persuasion - will amount to the same thing)

"If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists but insures it...and to convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages they consider obscene. It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don't have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.

It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost."

And I quoted part of this one before, but had I read the whole thing (as I just did today) I would have quoted the whole paragraph:

"There are those who maintain that you can't demand anything of the reader. They say the reader knows nothing about art, and that if you are going to reach him, you have to be humble enough to descend to his level. This supposes either that the aim of art is to teach, which it is not, or that to create anything which is simply a good-in-itself is a waste of time. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards. And this is certainly the obligation of the Catholic. It is his obligation in all the disciplines of life but most particularly in those on which he presumes to pass judgment. Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed. We reflect the Church in everything we do, and those who can see clearly that our judgment is false in matters of art cannot be blamed for suspecting our judgment in matters of religion."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Exclusion and Embrace

I am about halfway through an absolutely amazing book on the subject of forgiveness by Miroslav Volf entitled "Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation". In it, he examines (among other things) the root of conflict throughout the world and history in terms of Identity and Otherness, and why man-made solutions to hostilities always fall short.

Identity, with any particular group, often leads to a sort of defensiveness against the Other who does not share that identity. Groups have different ideas, values, roots, and various groups find themselves "at odds" with other groups around them because of that difference, a difference which is "always close to, and often the same as, hate". In the name of ethnic "purity", the defensive posture of Identity leads individuals and groups to drive out the Other. The Other must either change to be like us, or be wiped out of existence. One problem with this ideology is that one's Identity is partly made up of one's relation to the other. A great part of what makes me who I am is how I relate to those around me who are not me, not like me, and not a part of my group. Hence, to drive out the Other is in one sense to drive ourselves out.

Volf talks about the Christian response to this conflict of Identity and belonging in the world in terms of the scandal of the cross. If Christians, in baptism, share in Christ's death, and are therefore also raised with Christ, then Christ is the new "center" of our identity, not replacing but rather reorienting (transforming) while reinforcing our own identity around Him and His Kingdom. And this center is one of self-giving love. The scandal of the cross and of this self-giving love, writes Volf, is the all-too frequent failure of such love to bear positive results. It doesn't seem to "work", as we would wish it to. but it is the way we are called to follow.

The Christian is called to be separate from (though not removed or alienated from) his cultural identity. His allegiance is to God's Kingdom, but his uniqueness is not sacrificed because of that, but rather accepted as part of the body of Christ, a body with many different and unique members which all serve a unique function. Both distance and belonging are essential. It is essential to a Christian understanding of our new "Kingdom reality" that we "listen to the voices of Christians from other cultures so as to make sure that the voice of our culture has not drowned out the voice of Jesus Christ". Too often it is too easy for Christians to confuse their culture (and it's perceived benefits) with Kingdom values. Far from being "tainted" by other cultures through interaction (as "ethnic purists" fear), other cultures offer the possibility of enrichment.

A key concept to keep in mind is the fact that, within each of us, there is evil, there is the proclivity toward sin. It is easy for us to draw conclusions of a "good" side and a "bad" side in conflicts, but this division is deceptive. There is a tendency, on the part of any group that is liberated from oppression, to become the oppressors of those they have been liberated from. Conflict continues unabated throughout the world because neither side is really seeking an "end to the violence" (as is so often touted in the media), but rather they are simply seeking to become the oppressors over against those who now oppress them. It is about the desire for power and the frustration that comes from the desire for power being restricted by others.

Volf's insights have deep resonances with each of our lives, collective or individual. We all have "enemies", to one degree or another, and we all need to forgive and to be forgiven. One of the central prayers in Christianity is that God would forgive us as we forgive others. We need forgiveness, and we need to forgive if we hope to receive as much.

Forgiveness, for Volf, is not simply each going their own way without further conflict. This is not real forgiveness, which entails reconciliation. We do not ask of God to forgive us by letting us go our way as he goes elsewhere as well. Rather, we wish to be reconciled to God, to be "embraced" in his love. And so, forgiveness and reconciliation with each other can entail no less. Reconciliation begins, at it's most essential, with the willingness to embrace. This embrace cannot fully or truly happen until the sins committed have been addressed and dealt with, but without the desire to embrace the other, forgiveness hasn't even begun, no matter how "peaceful" the situation may be at present. Sin must be dealt with, not ignored. And ultimately, sin forgiven is sin forgotten - as if it never happened.

At present I am only just over halfway through this book (finished with the first major section, other issues being dealt with in more specifics in the latter half of the book). Even there I can't begin to do it justice in any sort of review. I've barely even scratched the surface of this books depths. Suffice it to say, I can't imagine a better work on the subject of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Action words

For most of my life, whenever I've wanted to get to know someone - get inside their head, see what makes them tick, what inspires and motivates who they are as a person - I've always asked what books they read and what music they listen to. I've always felt that these 2 things would give me a core understanding of what influences a person to be the kind of person they are, what is affecting and shaping their thoughts and emotions, books and music being the two things (in my world anyway) that have the most direct and intimate / personal influence on thoughts and emotions.

But there is a key question that I have neglected to ask people, one that affects who they are more than any books or music could, and that is: What decisions and actions have you taken in your life? I believe a person can best be understood and known by understanding what they have done in their lives, and how and why they have made those decisions and taken those actions.

Two people can read the exact same book and come away from the reading experience with two completely different effects upon their lives, even if both take actions influenced by the reading of that book. This tells me that it is the reader, the person, bringing something to the reading, and not simply the book itself, that is the greatest factor in what that person takes from a book, how that book influences their life. The bible is probably the greatest example of this. Millions of people have read the bible, continue to read the bible (even looking at any one given translation of the bible), and still there are vast differences in how that affects their seperate lives, to the point that they even fight amongst one another over the meaning and application of the bible's words.

And then there are many who take no real action at all based on what they've read, and simply continue to read and read, study even, as an end in itself. Reading is and can be a pleasurable experience, in and of itself, absolutely. Books bring an inner pleasure like few other things can. The cultivation of an interior life is, I believe, essential to a truly happy and fulfilled life. Few things can make it into our inner being the way the words of a good book can. Music reaches past all our defenses and resonates with our very emotions. Our inner experience is made exponentially richer by engaging ourselves in the art of a good book or piece of music. But it is, basically and perhaps essentially, a self-centered activity. Eating food is a self-centered activity as well, so I'm not saying that in the completely negative sense of that phrase. It is necessary. But our outer-life is just as necessary. We need to live the life we are inwardly cultivating.

There is a pernicious belief, not just among Christians, but people in general (readers in particular) that reading is an action unto itself, that if I have read something, I have accomplished something. And to a certain degree, this is true, but in another sense, this is nothing more than the fostering of an illusion. We can come to believe that we are living a certain kind of life, when in reality we are simply reading about that kind of life. Christians especially can fall prey to the belief that reading the bible is a way to live out their faith.

This is similar and related to the notion of salvation that many Christians have in modern times - that salvation comes by giving mental assent to certain propositional truths put forth in the bible, especially those having to do with Jesus...claiming to "believe" in Christ, believing the proposition that he is the son of God, died for our sins, rose from the grave, etc. "Believe" meaning, not its biblical connotation of literally "trust in, cling to, rely on", but the more modern notion of thinking it to be true. Like believing George Washington was our first president. Not like believing a chair will support our weight as we proceed to sit in it (put our trust in it to hold us up, rely on it to work, through the action of sitting on it). We generally don't give much thought at all to whether a chair will support us or not, we just sit down. Many Christians seem to do the opposite with regards to their "belief" in Christ - thinking and talking a lot about it, but not "doing" it. Theoretically, a person could "get saved" in the modern sense of the term, and not do much else than change their mind about certain "spiritual" concepts. But biblical salvation is a changed life, not just a mental change of opinion, and it doesn't make sense apart from repentance and following a new way of living. Action is required. (there's a whole tricky discussion about salvation through works vs. faith here that I'm not going to get into right now. suffice it to say that I believe salvation is a gift of God and not something we can earn on our own, and yet to do nothing is to reject that gift).

Paul says, in that famous chapter on Love in 1Corinthians13, (and I paraphrase): Even if I read all the best books in the world and listen to the finest music, but have not love, I have gained nothing.

The Imitation of Christ says: "Certainly, when Judgement Day comes we shall not be asked what books we have read, but what deeds we have done; we shall not be asked how well we have debated, but how devoutly we have lived"

Life is action taken, not just thoughts thunk. Thoughts do absolutely affect our actions, but they have to become action, they have to make it out to our real lives, otherwise it is like a bodybuilder who sits and does nothing but eat the best foods and the highest quality protien shakes but doesn't actually work out. That person, like us, will get fat and bloated if what he is taking in isn't put to use in what he does with it. Yea I say unto you, it is even likened unto a car sitting at a gas pump, always being filled with gas and never being started or driven... (sorry) :-)

so... what decisions have you made and what actions have you taken that have made you the person you are today?

I have spent the greater part of my life collecting the best books and music that I have been exposed to and could find, and have amassed a drool-worthy library, but as I sit here and look around at all these wonderful books and CDs that I have spent the vast majority of my life reading, listening to, and collecting, I can't help but think that maybe I've missed something - like the point of it all...


Here it is, the middle of the freakin' summer, and I've only read 7 books this whole year. The last thing I finished was Flannery O'Conner's Complete Stories, and that was 2 months ago. By this time last year I had read over 20 books. And so the pendulum swings...

I'm not in step with the whole Harry Potter craze. Don't get me wrong, I love those books, but I'm about 3 books behind now. and those are some thick mofos. I have about 10 other books I'd like to finish before I get to those. maybe this fall I'll try to catch up... In the meantime, I'm in the middle of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer - a book that was banned upon its release for indecency and obscenity, for decades we free Americans weren't allowed to read it. I'm not sure how that all works, but it obviously didn't. Does censorship ever do anything but the opposite of that which it sets out to do? I'm also reading Flannery O'Conner's Mystery and Manners - an excellent book of non-fiction, mostly dealing with the subject of the art of writing, novels, Catholicism, and the meeting of religion and literature. great stuff which I will be quoting here soon...

If you're any good at math, you've figured out by now that I've been back from Cornerstone for a few weeks now. It's been a fairly busy month for a slacker like me, so I haven't had the time nor the energy to sit down and write. And as Annie Dillard says, if you let the work go for even a day, you'd better come back at it with a chair and whip in hand... this here post is one of them "I forgot how to do this and so I'm gonna practice a few lines" posts. I'm still not sure if I ought to be writing for a reader or just for myself. I know you're reading this, dear reader, but I think I'm supposed to pretend you're not there if this is to be anything worth its purpose. Self-consciousnes is the enemy, the twin brother of everydayness...

I'm writing this at 6am, and I've noticed that summer birds sound different upon waking than spring birds do. This sacred hour of the dawn (or, as I like to call it, bedtime) changes with the seasons, and I've never noticed this before. Spring birds at dawn are probably one of my favorite sounds, indicating that the long dead winter is finally really over, and the resurrection from the dead is maybe still possible...

speaking of which, for some reason the passing of Tammy Faye both shocked and saddened me. Seeing her last interview made me gasp once again at the horror that is death. The life had literally been sucked right out of her, and she was nearly nothing more than a talking corpse at the end, and listening to her awakened the constant struggle within myself to come to grips with a God that allows us to know such horror. If I have doubts about the existence of a hell in the face of a loving god, I simply have to ask, why this hell now? 2,000 years later, after Christ came to save the world from sin and death, and we are still dying in the midst of evil all around us...

I'll try to post something more detailed about Cornerstone at some point soon, along with a few other stoney ideas I have rattling around in my head...