Noah: A Theological-Aesthetic Rorschach Test

Last week saw the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and with it a (predictable) storm of controversy from the evangelical community. Reviews have ranged from predictably critical to outright disdain to hostile readings, and from strongly (though not unreservedly) positive to more restrained affirmation of the film on aesthetic and spiritual grounds to especially measured theological and artistic engagement. In short, the responses spanned exactly the range one would expect from the evangelical community, which is itself deeply divided on the purpose, value, and meaning of the arts—decades of conversation on the topic notwithstanding. Noah[1] works as a sort of theological-artistic Rorschach test. We seem to find it in what we expect given its origins and our disposition.Noah_film

Rather than offer another review (which would add nothing to the conversation at this point), or decry once again the predictable evangelical response to the arts, or even critique reviews with which I disagreed, I thought it might be useful instead to ask where we stand today and point to a few places we might grow from this. Continue reading

email

Things I’ve Learned From C.S. Lewis

The world didn’t take much notice of C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963, the day he died. It was too frenzied by the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, which occurred in Dallas about an hour after Lewis died in his Oxford home, The Kilns. Every moment of JFK’s assassination aftermath and funeral was watched by the world. His exit of this life had the attention of billions. Lewis departed quietly. Word of his death traveled slowly to many of his friends, and his funeral was poorly attended.

Lewis’ inauspicious end, however, was doubtless for him the most auspicious of beginnings. That day, before all hell broke loose on Dealey Plaza, all heaven broken open for Lewis, and for the first time the longings he so eloquently articulated in life were satiated; the weight of glory made material. On that day, he drank joy from the fountain of joy.

csl

50 years later, Lewis is still drinking that joy–tasting at the fountainhead that stream of which we can only taste the lower reaches (but even so how intoxicating!). Meanwhile, for us, “the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.” But we carry on. And at least for me, the carrying on is a whole lot easier because of Lewis.

I’ve learned a lot from the man. His words have played a significant role in my spiritual, intellectual and professional development. Even before I spent a week living at the Kilns, sleeping in the room he slept in, I felt him to be a kindred spirit–a man who gave eloquent expression to my “inconsolable secret” and awareness of Sehnsucht.

The first time I visited Oxford was absolute magic. The “city of dreaming spires” was indeed a dream. One of the unforgettable moments from that first trip was an evening worship service at the University Church of St. Mary as part of the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge 2005 conference. Part of the program was a reading by British actor Joss Ackland of the entire text of “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon delivered by C.S. Lewis in the same church in 1941. It was quite something to hear those words–one of the most eloquent and profound sermons I’ve ever heard–in that church, on a humid summer evening likely similar to the summer night on which Lewis originally delivered the address.

Since then, “The Weight of Glory” has become one of my favorite Lewis works. It manages to capture an amazing amount of truth, beauty and longing in just a few short pages. I’ve read it a dozen or so times, and in re-reading it this week it struck me that there are a few key ideas that have particularly impacted me:

“We are far too easily pleased.”

The first part of “The Weight of Glory” examines desire and debunks the notion that it is wrong to desire too much; rather, argues Lewis, we desire too little:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to eagerly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion…is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

This idea rang so true for me. I had sensed, ever since I was a young boy, that my deepest experiences of joy were often intimately tied with longing. I loved reading great books and watching awe-inspiring movies. I loved traveling and camping and exploring the creeks and rivers of my Oklahoma youth. But each of these things only fanned the flames of exploration and the longing in my soul. They whispered of even greater wonders. And that was the joy. It was the realization that what stirred my heart most when I encountered something beautiful was not the thing itself; but the reality that it was only a glimpse of something more. “They are only the scent of a flower we have not found,” wrote Lewis, “the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

“We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”

One of my favorite sections of “The Weight of Glory” comes when Lewis elaborates on the bittersweet longing we feel when we encounter beauty:

We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light… For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can, no one cares. Now, a scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable Something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in the universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, the bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.

This section illuminated for me a connection between my faith and my love of art and culture. The longings stirred up within me through a beautiful film or a beautiful sunset were exactly as Lewis describes: unsatisfied desires to not just observe something so beautiful but to be a part of it. And yet there are barriers: “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.” For Lewis this is a reflection of the now-but-not-yet nature of glory, which he defines as the fact of being noticed and known by God, more fully than we have ever been known before (1 Corinthians 13:12). There’s a sorrow wrapped up within our present joy because we know the beauty, goodness and truth we touch in this life are only “through a mirror dimly.” But one day we’ll see the glory face to face. Lewis saw the glory 50 years ago today.

“There are no ordinary people.”

For Lewis, the “weight” of glory is the mind-blowing reality that we will one day be in the presence of God and a pleasure to Him, “a real ingredient in the divine happiness … to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.” This improbable notion is the weight of glory. But weightier still is the reality that every human we’ll ever know–our neighbors, our classmates, our enemies–will either be glory-filled in heaven or gloriously hideous in hell, and “all day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

What are the implications of this in our day to day lives? What Lewis says here is truly convicting, especially at a time when it seems so easy to abstract our enemies or wish ill upon the many people we encounter everyday (hundreds on Facebook, for example) who are irksome or difficult to abide:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

As with much of what I read in Lewis, I pray that I take these words to heart. I pray that I would always seek the “infinite joy that is offered us,” and that I would gladly, gracefully bear the weight of glory as Lewis did.

Beauty and Power in Church Architecture

Last month, I began to build the case that Evangelicals possess an aesthetic that is reasoned, deliberative, and theologically informed. Contra the critics who charge that beauty is neglected in Evangelical circles, I find the comeliness in multipurpose worship centers equipped with retractable basketball stanchions. No, really.

To support this contention, I offered the parallel of Mormon architecture. Their institutional commitment to beauty—evidenced by their extravagant cathedral-like temples—has not dissuaded them from building cookie-cutter stake centers for the ordinary use of local congregations. They choose that fresh-from-Costco look deliberately because it serves the proper ends of week-in, week-out congregational life. Evangelicals, I maintain, have been equally reasoned in their design of church buildings and, therefore, should not be dismissed as aesthetic philistines.

But, the interlocutor protests, if Mormons have temples and Roman Catholics have cathedrals, what appropriately lavish oblation to beauty is found amidst the Evangelicals? When does extravagant, non-utilitarian artistic expression come to the fore and result in the construction of a truly marvelous facility?

Evangelical Church, Grand Valley, Ontario, Can...

Evangelical Church, Grand Valley, Ontario, Canada (1910) (Photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections)

Never.

Well, not precisely never, but basically never. And this, too, is theologically informed.

The Institutional Church is Corruptible

Look around in your town. If it is anything like mine, most of the “beautiful” church buildings are inhabited by congregations who deny the resurrection, the virgin birth, or the deity of Christ. Yet the name-brands on those institutions—men like Martin Luther or John Wesley—were certainly orthodox, Spirit-filled men of God. Indeed, if you go back to when those local congregations were founded, I would bet many of them were constructed by God-fearing folk and the heresy and heart-hardening seeped in subsequent generations. Continue reading

Evangelical Tracts and Real Art: Gungor and Creation’s Goodness

You know music has power when it has you shivering while running in hundred-degree heat.

Güngör’s Ghosts Upon the Earth is like that, though. From the opening track, the album screams its willingness to be and do something terribly different from most Christian music of the last quarter century. For one thing, this is an album, not just a collection of songs. For another, the musical skill on display here combines with a willingness to forge a new sound, rather than retread the same old pop-rock milieu one more time.

Musical and lyrical unity in an album is a rarity today in any genre, but this album tells a story. Indeed, it tells the story.

But back to those shivers.

“Let There Be” is the first and only time to date that any piece of art in any medium has struck me with the same force and intensity as Tolkien’s glorious description of creation in The Silmarillion. One suspects, given some of the commonalities between the two, that Güngör is familiar with “Ainulindalë”, Tolkien’s magnificent chapter of sung creation and sung rebellion and sung divine triumph.

Ghosts Upon the Earth sweeps from this divine moment of joyous creation through an idyllic, Edenic revel in the delight of yet unbroken fellowship with God before plunging through the Fall and into the longing that pierces every heart in this age. But the hope of resurrection comes soon in the proclamation that “when death dies / all things live”, and this theme of hope then undergirds the painful journey that follows. Every joy that follows in this album is tinged with sorrow, but every moment of despair gives way eventually to hope. Again: this is a journey. It is beautiful and broken.

Gungor-ghostsGüngör’s first album, Beautiful Things, had musical interest in spades but sometimes at the cost of musical intelligibility. Much of the album – the titular track the main exception – required repeated listens before I could “get” it, and the recording never entered my regular listening. It was, like many classical pieces I have studied, interesting but not consistently engaging. But here, the band has achieved something remarkable: they have kept the same musical interest and complexity, but in such a way that every song on the album is engaging. You can sing this stuff with them, but you can also dig deep, deep down into the musical guts and find there remains yet more to plumb. That’s hard to pull off.

If you take a look at Güngör’s blog, you’ll note that Michael Güngör has criticized the typical evangelical approach to art, and rightly so. This album isn’t just a piece of music; it’s a salvo in a war against a reductionist understanding of art that typifies so much of evangelicalism. If it has become something of a cliche to attack the evangelical approach to art, there nonetheless remains a need for pieces to fill the gap, and there remains too the need to educate.

One reviewer on iTunes noted that the album confused him. It is not, he said, a typical worship album, and the lyrics were not all perfectly suitable for use in evangelism. You can not simply hand this to an unbeliever and expect them to come away understanding the gospel perfectly. The reviewer seemed particularly confused by the second track, “Brother Moon,” with its references to “Brother Moon” and “Sister Sun” and “Mother Earth.” I was bemused by his concern. Every reference to nature points right back to its Creator. The song points toward an innocent, nearly Edenic delight in unbroken fellowship with God and in all his hands have made. In the end, the album is as gospel-saturated as one could wish. But this was too much lyrical and intellectual complexity for someone looking for an evangelistic tract in the form of an album. Continue reading

Truth, Beauty, and Rob Bell

My friend Trevin Wax says wise things in response to Francis Chan’s book on hell:

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T….

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

The substance of Trevin’s recommendation is, of course, exactly right.

But we ought to be careful about where we put the target and even how we praise Bell’s approach.  He’s obviously an effective and popular communicator, but then so (in his own way) is Thomas Kinkade.   They resonate with different demographics, of course, but both of them offer an aesthetic aimed at the lowest common denominator.  That has its own value, in the way that U2’s music has its own value.  But the intentionally populist approach inevitably must absorb the scintillation of the masses into its form, and the masses are sometimes more moved by what’s easy than what is beautiful.

As Trevin notes, conservative evangelicals are playing catchup when it comes to aesthetics (though see Matt Milliner’s work or David Taylor’s for signs of hope).   But there is no sense in buying a stock at its peak, a danger that those who see the strengths of Bell’s approach will be in danger of.  Bell will continue to make his mark and inspire both devotion and censure, no doubt.  But rather than look to Bell for guidance, some of us should hunt for the neglected and forgotten resources that can guide us to a form and style that manages to move without sacrificing substance.  Perhaps idiosyncratically, I think Augustine might be a good place to start.

Of course, walking down this path is a bit of a trick if you have to sell books.  We live in an aesthetic environment that has been so watered down by mass exposure to words and images that the genuinely beautiful creation risks being dismissed as “boring.”  It is easy to view the Mona Lisa and wonder what the big deal is.  But to gaze, wait, and listen for the strains of the world beyond takes the discipline of a saint, and in the last analysis it is saints that we desperately need.

All that to say, I’m not ready to call Bell’s work beautiful, despite his overwhelming popularity and ability to connect with my generation.  Because we live in a world where beauty is hardly valued and her imitators adored, we need a more subtle way of discerning what will be around in 500 years from what we will have forgotten in 50.  That’s neither here nor there when it comes to Bell’s work directly, but it does leave space for a conversation about the aesthetic merits and limitations of Bell’s approach in such a way that requires us to look beyond Bell toward the beautiful itself in order to discern whether his work will endure.  Because though it may not always be popular, the beautiful will almost always last.

 

The Gospel According to Trees: Thoughts from Muir (there will probably be a lot of these)

When I read That Hideous Strength for the first time, I was impressed by Lewis’ deep appreciation of the ancient forests and trees. In the novel, the forests serve as a counterpoint to the ugly, progressive for the sake of progressive, and hyper-rationalized world of the science lab, and an indication of the spiritual nature of the living world. It also reminded me that there are two sides to environmental preservation. Though we often focus on the practical benefits (you know, like not starving or causing wide-spread devastation), Lewis knew that there was something inherently (and mysteriously) good about being amongst the older members of our earth. This passage by John Muir (written during part of his public campaign for national parks) reminded me of that same sentiment.

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be detroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.

Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primevil forests. During a man’s life only sapplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees – tens of centuries old – that have been destroyed.

It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these western woods – trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forest of the Sierra. Through all of the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time – and long before that – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalances, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools. I guess Uncle Sam will need to do that.

The Dying Christian to His Soul

Vital spark of heav’nly flame!
Quit, O quit this mortal frame:
Trembling, hoping, ling’ring, flying,
O the pain, the bliss of dying!
Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife,
And let me languish into life.

Hark! they whisper; angels say,
Sister Spirit, come away!
What is this absorbs me quite?
Steals my senses, shuts my sight,
Drowns my spirit, draws my breath?
Tell me, my soul, can this be death?

The world recedes; it disappears!
Heav’n opens my eyes! my ears
With sounds seraphic ring!
Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
O Grave! where is thy victory?
O Death! where is thy sting?

~ Alexander Pope

Nothing Behind the Curtain – Reflections on a Wedding

Cross-posted at Notes from a Small Place, where I’ve had several posts related to marriage lately, hence the disclaimer below.

Disclaimer: I kinda-sorta want to apologize to people who find so many marriage posts annoying or are bothered by sentimentality. But I say “kinda-sorta” because really I want you to abandon your cynicism so you can recklessly throw yourself into the joy. So this is a half-disclaimer that is part apology and part a call to repentance for your skepticism. Sometimes there is no trick. The wizard isn’t hiding behind the curtain. He’s right in front of you. Things really can be that good.

At the end of The Last Battle as the Pevensie children join Aslan in the New Narnia the lion-hero looks at them and says, “You do not look so happy as I mean you to be.” Much of the time, that is our experience in the world: We do not look so happy as our gracious father means us to be.

And yet there are days when New Creation – wholeness, grace, and joy – come crashing into the old. When you’re standing next to one of your best friends, a guy you’ve been to war with many times over and will continue to stand by forever, and watch as the chapel doors open and his bride walks down the aisle toward him… you feel New Creation breaking in. You see the cracks forming in the foundations of a broken world and you know someday the house will come crashing down.

Continue reading