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Monday, December 03, 2007

one for the road

This first week of Advent I offer a prayer from the pen and heart of Thomas Merton.
Merton was a Catholic Christian and also a monastic. A very thoughtful and
down-to-earth believer. Perhaps his words may speak to some of you. Personally,
I can pray this one from the heart, no problem. Maybe you can too. Here it is.
Christ be with you in all your ups and downs and level spaces this week.


My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road
ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I
really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your
will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the
desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that
desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything
apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me
by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I
trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of
death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never
leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

a state of wonder

Canadian pianist and musician Glenn Gould has this marvelous quote: "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."

I have taken this quote and altered it slightly to read like this: "The purpose of the Christian faith is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."

I think Glenn will not have a hard time forgiving me for tinkering with his words. His Christian background will amply prepare him for such an alteration and, in my humble opinion, the two terms - "art" and "the Christian faith" - ought to be interchangeable. The Christian life ought to be considered a work of art in progress, in the deft hands of a loving God who has an eye for beauty and originality.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

paint

The whole idea of it is old, at least for me.

I grew up with a brother who wanted to be an artist. An enduring memory is a Christmas Day when he was 15 or 16 and he spent the entire day on his bed in the room we shared reading The Agony and the Ecstasy. He was older than me by five years. Soon he was off to university for his Bachelor's in Fine Arts and south to the States for his Master's. Caught up in his world I brought it with me when Christ became the revelation that revolutionized my life. It did not take long for me to realize I was trying to mix oil and water. The first story I sold at 14 or 15 was published by an evangelical firm that gutted my fiction before printing it, something I did not know until I received a copy of what they were going to release. All the depth and complexity I had worked so hard to include in a story of a boy coming to faith in God was gone, vaporized. The firm didn't want art. They wanted a tract. Or to put it bluntly, propaganda.

Forty years later nothing has changed. It's actually probably worse. The evangelical publishing houses still want tracts, formulas, genre fiction that never slips out from under the locked doors of its predictability. They don't want art. Art is certainly not formula, certainly not predictable. It is messy and you never know where it is going to take you, simply because an ending has not been preordained in order to serve a particular genre. It's God and mud and blood and ink and cyberchips and the volcanic, unlimited human imagination.

Where the story gets really old is in the paint. Remember that oil and water don't mix? So oil paint and the waters of Christian baptism don't work well together. Or so somebody decided in the 19th and 20th centuries. Which my brother points out to me. (He who has read Rookmaker's Modern Art and the Death of a Culture with approval, arguing only that you can't go back to the Christian era, if Christians want to paint they have to do it in the now, the modern or postmodern era.) Which brings up his persistent point. Why did Christians stop painting works of art?

Trying to deny profound Christian influence in the arts of Western civilization is like trying to deny Everest is a tall mountain. The Christian influence is all too obvious and its impact is just as obviously far reaching. Bach and Handel and Hadyn. Milton and Herbert and Donne. Rembrandt and Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Tolkien and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But unquestionably the painting and sculpting stopped. At least it stopped making a difference.

Even though the first person mentioned in the Scriptures that is filled with the spirit of God is an artist, certain elements of Christianity have always been ill at ease with the arts. Somehow this attitude got the upper hand as the 19th century progressed. Did the Age of Enlightenment, pouring into the modern era, stop Christian artists from searching out Christ in paint and stone? Why didn't it stop other artists? Was it a Christian over-reaction to biblical higher criticism which challenged the veracity of the Bible? Did Christianity feel all resources had to be spent proving the Bible was literally true and there was no longer any effort made to support the arts? Did Western culture become less and less Christian and so less and less interested in Christian themes? Or did a certain spirit get into the Church that declared the arts not only frivolous to real faith but dangerous and in saying this gain the ear of an inordinate number of Christian believers and pastors?

I suppose if I was going to do Phd research on this topic I might find a number of reasons for the loss of Da Vincis and Rembrandts in the Christian faith. Personally, I think a whole wave of thought within Christianity turned its back on art as something that serious spiritual Christians might do. In particular, this affected the Protestant movement and the evangelical movement. In the same way Protestantism and evangelicalism should have kept monasticism but didn't, Protestantism and evangelicalism should have kept art but didn't. And the prints sold in evangelical bookstores prove it. As well as the absence of faith on the walls of downtown art galleries.

For a couple of decades there has been a growing resurgence of artistic activity within not only Christianity but, specifically, evangelical Christianity. It has not impacted Western culture yet in a way the Christian faith once did and there is still plenty of opposition with the evangelical Church to keep the flow of works small. But persistence of a few may mean the breaching of the dike that keeps Christ from talking to his world through literary fiction, poetry, theatre, ballet, popular and neo-classical music . . . and paint.

Then I will no longer have to admit to my brother that Christians, whose works of art have challenged and inspired the world, do not make paintings or sculptures anymore because they think art doesn't matter to God or humanity as much as a sermon or a tract or a book about the Anti-Christ and the end of the world. And he'll be able to look at a canvas and see not a formula in color but a living, breathing exploration of the spiritual dimension, no holds barred, no perspective barred, no Christ barred.

Monday, September 17, 2007

is God love or hate?

I recall a preacher juxtaposing God's holiness with God's love in a sermon one Sunday morning many years ago. Which was a better description of the true essence of deity? He mentioned another person had once told him divinity was summed up in the Johannine phrase, "God is love." The preacher scoffed: "No! God is holy!" I wasn't much satisfied that Sunday morning, being around 16 or 17, and I remain less convinced today.

Perhaps he felt to reduce God essentially to love would render God too anemic or mushy or touchy-feely or . . . weak? I wonder if since then he's ever had the opportunity to listen to Rich Mullins' song where Rich calls it "the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God"? A United Church minister in my town astonished me by praying about God's "savage love" and it made me think of other metaphors and similes, "a love like thunder", "a storm of love", "a grim, unbending, unyielding love". I often think about the Song of Songs and how it describes love - a fire that cannot be put out, a fire more fierce than hellfire, a burning. A love that takes on the sword cut of human sin and the nail cut of the Cross is not a weakness in man or God, but a greatness.

So suppose you had God's holiness without love, what kind of darkness would that be? Even Paul knew love had to be the human bedrock or any action at all, even done in the name of God (or especially done in the name of God), would be a din like the din of the human hells of genocide, rape or war. And if true for us to hold to, true for God to hold to as well. For he who is human in Christ defines humanity for us all and it is from this essence of humanness that the milk of human kindness must flow or we are all doomed. Better a kind God than a merciless one, aloof in his flawless purity. Better a kind Christian than a perfect one who cannot stoop and risk being stained. Better a faith defined by kindness than one defined by power and might. Better the holy God totally caught up in forgiveness and pity than the holy God caught up completely in himself. Better the Christian caught up in the Cross and the bleeding than the Christian caught up in being a Christian.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

infidel

One of the books I read this summer was Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel. It is basically her autobiography about growing up Muslim and then growing up beyond Muslim. You may remember the brutal murder of her artist friend, Theodore Van Gogh, at the hands of a Muslim extremist in Holland a few years ago. There was a good deal of approval for this killing in the Dutch Muslim community. Van Gogh's crime? He made a movie, a very short movie, about the abuse of Muslim women. He and Ali dared to challenge Islam. For that he died and for that, and Ayaan's continued outspoken criticism against the abuses of Islam, she must have constant protection. She has now left Holland and lives in the US where she works with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC.

The book is a page turner. It stuns. But it is not only the issues that flame between her and Islam that ignite the pages. It is the parallels with evangelical Christianity. She, I must quickly point out, does not draw these parallels. But for myself the connections between major aspects of evangelicalism and rank and file fundamentalist Islam are too obvious to ignore. It almost made me break into a cold sweat as I read the book.

What parallels? For starters, intolerance. Evangelicals are very good at not giving any space to people who think and act differently than they do. Though there is supposed to be a separation of church and state in the west, there are many who would, like Islam, love to erase that distinction, make both one, and rule nations with their brand of evangelical Christianity - and a very ruthless brand it can be.

The subjection of women. Because subjection it is. Women can't teach men - women can't preach - women can't be pastors - women can't lead. We find a few verses in the New Testament, ignore a multitude of others, and condemn women to a second tier existence in the Body of Christ. And call it God.

Homosexuality. An Islamic Republic would execute them. When you listen to some of the rhetoric coming out of the evangelical camp, you wonder if they wouldn't do the same in a Christian Republic.

Not allowing people to choose. Evangelicals may not like abortion - I don't - but you cannot force a woman to bear a child. You cannot put a gun to her head, say she cannot have an abortion, and call it God. You cannot put the same gun to the gay man's head, to the gay woman's head, and say you cannot be homosexual, or have a gay marriage, and call it God. Christians have as ugly a history as Islam in this regard - the butchery of Jews and Muslims in Christ's name, forced conversions, forced mass baptisms, the slaughter of Christians by Christians - all because some people wanted to believe differently, be baptized differently, read a different translation of the Bible, take a different stance on the nature of God. I'm afraid that spirit of intolerance still broods in the evangelical breast. In fact, many would call it a mark of true spirituality - such people are celebrated as being closer to God.

Anti-intellectualism. Anti-imagination. Anti-literature. Anti-arts. I know as well as anyone the new flowering of the arts and intellect, yes, and even of tolerance, among evangelical Christians. I also know it is in relatively short supply and that mediocrity and ignorance still reign supreme. Evangelicals acclaim the depth and value of shallow and tepid books, they thump their chests and point to sales of the Left Behind series and say, "Look, we've made it, this is our literature, and it's making a lot of money." Crass, cruel, craven and commercial. Exalting materialism and ignorance and intolerance. Worshipping the shallow, affixing God to a bumper sticker or T shirt, hating gays, screaming at women who have abortions, calling themselves pro-life but supporting war and the death penalty, making abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research the most important issues, but saying little enough about Darfur and human rights issues and the environment, turning their back on centuries of sculpture and painting and writing by Christians (and everybody else). And calling it God.

Sweeping generalizations? No, not really. I grow tired of people always saying, "Oh, but not all evangelicals are like that." The truth is, quite a few are. And a smattering of Christian liberal arts colleges and a new generation of Phds doesn't change that. The rareified air of an academic institution may lull some into thinking rank and file evangelicalism is just like what happens in those classrooms, but that's just not the case. The same thinking and exploring and listening is not out there in the mosque and the chapel. A few interesting writers who have Christian beliefs - Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner to mention three - doesn't change what fills the fiction shelves of most Christian bookstores (and trinket emporiums) and it has no bearing whatsoever on the formula fiction evangelical publishers churn out by the bushel - it's all about $$$$ and maintaining an insipid evangelical status quo. Painting? Painting is what evangelicals do to their kitchen walls when they want to change the colour scheme of their homes. It's what they sell in the bookstores - shepherds and sheep and fat cutesy angels and chrome crosses. A few good paintings hung in a few evangelical colleges and institutions does not change what the majority are buying and hanging and calling sublime.

No wonder I felt panic when I read Ayaan's book. Islam and evangelicalism have so much in common it's scary. And this sort of religious, political and cultural fascism is not diminishing among Christian evangelicals. Despite well-wishers to the contrary, it's on the increase, and a handful of thinkers and writers and sculptors have not changed the face of evangelical Christianity from cruel to kind. Not yet.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

godspell

When people say they don't think religions should proselytize, I have to smile.

I can understand someone not enjoying an aggressive in-your-face confrontation with a person wanting to convert them. A good number of people enjoy talking about spirituality if they feel they can be free to express themselves without a great deal of judgment and cant coming back at them. But to say religious people should never talk about their faith with anyone in a positive and persuasive light would mean of all the organizations in the world religions would be the only ones denied this freedom.

If we put it within a Christian frame of reference every corporate group has its gospel. Budweiser tells you - in ads full of handsome men and beautiful women - that if you drink their beer everything will be all right. You'll be popular, happy, youthful and sexy. If you drive a Ford truck you'll be a person who can handle anything, rugged, self-reliant. Budweiser saves you. Ford saves you. The right bank saves you. The right mortgage. The right cat food.

And the same is true in other areas of life. Every NGO has its gospel. Every government. The UN has its gospel. The WTO and IMF. They come to the world and its nations and people groups and they say, "If you do this, all will be well. Forever. Just give us your time. Give us your money. Give us your commitment. Trust us." In the middle of such a cacophony of voices why shouldn't a person of faith be allowed to say, "I also have an idea about all of this. Life, death, human rights, politics, poverty and wealth, justice and immortality. May I speak?" Many of the organizations that every day preach their gospel to the world over television and radio and DVD and the internet say no. Faith has no place in such discussions. Yet they ask the global community to put their faith in them and their products.

It is not as if religious groups are the only ones with doctrine and precise points of view and hold what they believe as sacred. Toyota is the same, and Dow Chemical, and Greenpeace, and Amnesty International and the World Bank. All of them say they will save you and all of them say they have the truth. They all proselytize. They all seek converts. Even atheism.

So into this mix those who believe in a Being greater and more authoritative than the UN or IMF also have a place. Of course organizations that wish to be seen as the ultimate authority do not like groups that claim to supercede their authority. This makes religious groups particularly threatening. But all the more reason that voices which worship God should be heard. For if commercial groups and ideological groups want to play God with people's live it would be nice to let God speak for himself through those that believe in him.

If Budweiser can speak to people of why it matters so much to drink their beer, or the UN can go to nations and say why it matters so much to follow their policies, Christians certainly have the right to go to the world and say why the gospel of Jesus Christ makes a critical difference in people's lives. It's sheer hypocrisy to say it should not do so, that this is wrong, an interference, the dirty word proselytism, when all the rest of the world does what Christianity and other faiths are condemned for doing. If all the others speak into the world's realities, its pains and pleasures and hopes and fears, and often for no other motives than power, greed and control, so should Christ. Portrayed properly, he only seeks the individual's good and the world's good, with no price tag attached and no hidden agenda of power for power's sake.

There is no shame in taking Christ's life and words to the nations of the earth. Not what he said. Not what he did. Not the love and courage he showed. No shame. No embarrassment. No disgrace. Especially considering the alternatives and the words they use and what they stand for. Let the gospel of Jesus be heard. Let people judge for themselves. Does commercialism save? Or capitalism? Or socialism? Are they ultimate? Are they transcendent?

Or is Christ's gospel unique set beside all the other gospels of the earth?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Reading The Whole World

I am taking a sabbatical in a few weeks (actually 20 days to be exact). Never had one before. I'm used to having a month off in the summer but now there will be three.

What will I do? Rest, people say. But rest comes in many forms. I have no desire to sleep in or sleep extra. But I would like to spend time in the wilderness, wouldn't mind heading down to the desert if I could, would love to flop by a mountain stream and just watch it go by and count the emerald bubbles.

Yet there are few things more interesting on this earth than stories and few stories more interesting than those that come from people far away in lands even farther away. "I had a farm in Africa . . ." writes Isak Dinesen and right away we want to go there and see this farm, walk its acres, see its animals and houses and the colours of its skies. I have read a lot of English literature but I confess to not having read enough of non-English literature, even in translation, even of those from other lands who choose to write in the English tongue instead of their own. Perhaps this is the summer to turn all that around.

I have read some books from far away, of course. All Quiet On The Western Front, burned by the Nazis, is a German book, and even in translation the prose is magical. It had a profound impression on me as a boy and I will always remember a passage the author wrote about the soldiers marching in the driving rain - it rains on the trenches, it rains on the mud, on their faces, on the dead, in rains in their hearts.

Dumas counts for France with his adventure novels on the three musketeers (actually four): "All for one and one for all." Ah, if only the world was really like that. But sometimes, you know, it is. And Victor Hugo of Les Miserables fame counts for la belle France also: "They covered his hands with kisses. He was dead."

Russia is easy. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Chekhov. Turgenev. Sholokov - And Quiet Flows The Don. Pasternak - Doctor Zhivago. Solzhenitsyn - One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Russia is easy.

What is not so easy, at least for me, is to say I've read the stories of the Indonesians or Malaysians, the stories of China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Vietnam and Cambodia, Denmark and Norway, Chile and Brazil and Colombia. The fiction is out there all right. Some names have been carried to me by the nuthatches and sparrows and robins. Some by CBC and CNN. Some I've found listed on Amazon. There is much out there. Where to begin?

Somehow I've decided to begin with Africa, a continent that people often mention as if it were one country instead of many. I have read some African writers - Alan Paton of Cry, the Beloved Country; Andre Brink of A Dry White Season; Nadine Gordimer of The Conservationist. But my intention this summer is to try and read some literary works from each of Africa's countries - Botswana, Sudan, Chad, Mali, Kenya, as well as the nations of North Africa - Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and, surprisingly (for isn't it a nation of the Middle East?) Egypt.

The point of the matter is you can be a tourist in a country and learn nothing about the real people and the way they really are when you are not looking. If you live in the country for a few weeks or months or years you can learn something, for sure. But when a good writer writes of their people and their land then you get to the heart of it fairly quickly. Not that I undertake to read the whole world, African nations included, just to gather in some sort of international information that will allow me to blather on, ignorantly, at a party of friends. "Well, you know, the famous writer of fiction in Ethiopia says . . . " This should be a matter of the soul, stories that come into you and make their home in you and never leave. They work on you in the night and by the bright rays of the day, and they humanize the planet and all the news reports, and they dye your imagination with the colours (and they colour outside the margins too, which your art teacher told you never to do). Everything changes once I've read hundreds and hundreds of the good stories of the earth, not just those written by Americans and Canadians and the British. Not that those nations cannot plant rich fiction in me. But it is time to leap over the garden wall.

I know that I will not like some of the stories and sometimes that will be my fault and sometimes theirs (no matter how the critics praise for I know critics well enough to accept they will praise the worst writer just for being ethnically unique, or politically correct or incorrect, or writing about an atrocity or injustice no one else has written about yet). But it is my hope that I will find enough sun and shadow to delight me and bring that deeper rest to my soul I crave.

A friend says persons come back from their sabbaticals to stay a year or less at their old jobs and then move on. Some never come back. I have no idea which of those people I will be, if any of them. But I am going on safari and it is certain that I do not know when I will be back and who I will be when I arrive at my front door which will be shut tight against the October winds.

christlike?

If someone says, "Oh, that person is Christlike," they usually mean the person is being gentle and compassionate and forgiving. And there's nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Where problems come in is when people think that the ONLY way you can be Christlike is when you are gentle and compassionate and forgiving. And that's just not the way it is.

Such records as we possess of the life of Christ most definitely portray a man inclined towards peace, a healer, a person who sided with the underdog and the marginalized. But the idea of perpetually portraying Christ as some sort of Christian-Buddhist monk, going placidly and unthreateningly on his way, or a kind of backwoods mystic in touch with nature and the divine and floating from place to place with an ethereal expression on his face is not the Christ of the ancient literature - and that's the only literature we have about what he was actually like.

I suppose it started with emphasizing his attitude at the crucifixion - submissive, passive, silent, acquiesecent in the whole murderous process. So this then became the quintessential definition of Christlike - stories about how he forgave and healed and had mercy for all kinds of people just puffed this definition a little bit more. Not to mention the famous words from the Sermon on the Mount - "love your enemies, turn the other cheek, give blessings for curses."

But the Christ portrayed in the gospels did not always act the way he acted at the crucifixion. Far from it. When they hurled a woman at his feet and wanted to stone her to death he faced the lynch mob down and didn't flinch from their murderous fury. When his sense of right and wrong could take no more he boiled over at the religious leaders and called them hypocrites, sons of hell, blind guides, blind fools, gravestones, rotten corpses, dead men's bones, snakes, vipers (Matthew 23). When he saw the spiritual centre of his people being corrupted, the Temple, a sanctuary that was supposed to house the very presence of the Holy God, he roared with rage and threw tables and money flying, ripped the cages open that held birds and animals, made a whip with his own two hands and drove animals and the sellers and the moneyhandlers out of the Temple grounds - drove them. Submissive? Passive? Docile? Placid? Hardly. Christlike? Yes. Because he was the Christ and therefore all of his actions were Christlike. But we choose to select only a few of his attitudes and only a few aspects of his personality, deify them, and call only those few sacred and Christlike. Yet all aspects of his personality were.

Facing down the mob was Christlike. So was lacing into the religious leaders. So was clearing the Temple. So was feeling anger at death when he faced the tomb of Lazarus. So was impatience and exasperation with his disciples. So was confronting people on wanting more free food from him instead of real spiritual food. So was his anguish and fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. It's all him. It's all Christlike.

How do we explain the way he acted at his arrest and whipping and crucifixion? He knew he needed to go through with it. He had accepted the fact that his death was the only way the world could be saved. So he submitted to it. At that moment he played the lamb. But at other times, such as at the Temple, he played the lion. Flip through the pages of the Apocalypse. Look at John's vision of Jesus as walking fire. Look at the conflict between Christ and evil. Metaphorical language it may or may not be, but the passive Christ he is definitely not.

What about the famous language in the Sermon on the Mount? How could someone who made a whip and who told his apostles to strap on their swords (Luke 22) say those things - love your enemies - turn the other cheek? Well, the same one who told his disciples to pull out their eyes if they saw evil or pull out their tongues if they spoke it. Did Peter go about tongueless for denying Christ? Were the apostles known as the one-eyed crew? Christ spoke with word pictures and stories and adjectives and yes, hyperbole, to get his points across. He overemphasized to make things stick. But he demanded no one's eyes or tongue. And he and his followers did not go about with red cheeks because they'd let others slap them so often. Nor did they go about naked because they kept giving their clothes away to those who asked for them. Nor did they keep getting diverted from their mission to go from village to village by constantly putting everything on hold and travelling with someone twice as far as he wanted them to. So what was the point? The same as the point about plucking out eyes and cutting out tongues and being born again: "Take these things to heart. They are crucial. Don't fill your eyes with evil and lust. Don't fill your mouth with curses and threats. Don't hate your enemies - look for ways to be reconciled, look for ways to make friendship, seek peace and pursue it. Don't get caught up in a blood feud and take eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, no, instead break the vicious cycle and look for ways to create relationship and love, not harm. Begin a second life different from the first."

I am a great admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of what non-violent protest accomplished in the United States in the 50's and 60's. But as Joyce Carol Oates said at a talk in Michigan in 2004, "It would never have worked in Nazi Germany." No, because the Nazis would have mowed them down or trucked them off to Treblinka. Even in the US, King's movement would have failed if the marchers had not been protected by federal troops - with guns and helmets and live ammunition. Without that armed protection King would have died long before 1968 and so would many other leaders and followers of the movement.

Many Christians have become pacifists because of their reading of Christ's teachings. Tolstoy comes to mind, King we have just mentioned, and lately Wendell Berry has joined their ranks. I have a number of very good friends who take "turn the other cheek" literally (but not "cut out your tongue"). I respect their decision to walk this path. I have even tried to walk it myself. But ultimately I came to realize I would fight in self-defense and in defense of others, I do believe in law enforcement and the proper use of the military, I do believe there are times individuals and nations need to resist with force. (For instance, had it been up to me, I would have sanctioned the use of force by Romeo Dallaire's UN troops in Rwanda and I believe such force, though it would have cost hundreds of lives, would have saved hundreds of thousands.) I embrace this way of thinking not to perpetuate violence but to end it, not to foster hate but to curtail it, not to nurture vengeance but to prevent it. (Just as the Federal Marshals and National Guard assigned to protect King and his followers sought to do.) And I do this as a follower of Christ, a christwalker, seeking friendship and peace rather than enemies and war. But seeking peace and pursuing it is not always won without force of arms or personal resistance.

Jesus was not a pacifist. A pacifist as we have come to define the term does not indulge in the use of weapons (a whip) or the use of a vitriolic tongue (Matthew 23) or violence (clearing the Temple). On the other hand, Jesus did what he did to bring about good, to bring about justice, to try to build peace. Unquestionably, the Bible from Genesis to Revelation points to an ideal world of friendship, a world absent of tyranny or violence or warfare. It was Jesus who said that those who live their lives by the sword - define everything in terms of warfare and violence and destruction - die by the sword. Jesus did not call upon us to kill in his name or build a political empire in his name or rule the earth with an iron sceptre in his name. But nor did he ask us to be doormats for injustice, to let evil overwhelm the weak and oppressed, to stand by and watch the innocent slaughtered and never act in their defense. He did not say the truly spiritual person would never feel outrage at human wrongs and atrocities, never explode with fury at the genocide of Rwanda or of the Kurds or of the Armenians. He never said it was not Christlike to speak up forcefully, never said it was not Christlike to challenge and confront with anger, never said it was not Christlike to use violence to resist the violent. We said that. And we've made a religion out of it.

To be Christlike means to imitate all aspects of Christ's personality, not just those aspects we like the most or which most conveniently fit into our ideologies. Christ is no one's ideology and he fits into no man's pocket, no woman's purse. The one who says, "Well, Jesus is a pacifist, " is off, but so is the one who says, "Well, Jesus is a killer." The one who says Jesus is a peacemaker is closer to the truth (as long as they remember how Jesus fought for peace at the Temple), and the one who says Jesus is a warrior is closer to the truth (as long as they remember how Jesus told Peter to sheath his sword during the arrest sequence in the Garden of Gethsemane). Christ is a person of balances struck and if we do not strike those balances we miss what matters the most, the heart of Christ. He did not join the zealots and seek to kill Roman soldiers and restore a political power to Israel. He helped a Roman centurion, in fact, and he did not tell him to stop being a Roman soldier, or any kind of soldier, he did not say to him, "Your servant is healed, now go and sin no more, take off your uniform." There is never a sense in Jesus, just as there is none in Paul, that there isn't a place for an armed police or an armed military or an armed government or an armed justice system which holds the power to incarcerate or liberate. Such a way of viewing life or defining the Christian faith does not come from Christ. It comes from others. But they tip the balance and the Christlikeness is lost.

Christlikeness is anger over injustice as well as the ability to forgive the perpetrators of injustice. Christlikeness is calling a spade a spade as well as speaking mercy to a wrongdoer's heart. Christlikeness is resisting evil with force under certain circumstances as well as choosing not to use force to resist evil under others. As with many things in life, the trick is to know when to act one way or the other. In terms of following Christ, it is impossible to get it right if we let pre-conceived philosophies or ideologies, on one side or the other, lock Jesus into a rigid inflexible posture. There is no substitute for reading Jesus's words for ourselves and turning them over in our own minds, putting aside for a time the spin others put on them, just as there is no substitute for a spiritual life in terms of comprehending Christ's intentions, a life that includes the supernatural as well as the natural, prayer as well as action, restraint as well as resistance, a time for war and a time for peace.

Christlikeness does not mean the more spiritual person is the person who never fights back. The one who never fights back may well be the less spiritual person. I would have wanted someone to fight for me at Auschwitz.

Christlikeness does not mean the more spiritual person is the person who never gets angry. Christ got angry over injustice. And the person who is not angered by atrocities of war (genocide, rape) and of peace (serial killing, rape) does not seem to me to be a very spiritual person at all - unless we are going to start defining spirituality in terms of lack of feeling and lack of emotion, as some have always done.

Christlikeness does not mean the more spiritual person is the one most docile and passive. That person may well be the one most withdrawn and most uninvolved and most disconnected with the fate of others. The one who acts and who is on the move and doing things and busy may well be the one most like Jesus, under the circumstances, because Jesus himself was often just like that - so busy he hardly had time to eat or sleep. On the other hand, the person all over the map for Christ may not be Christlike at all in how they do what they do in his name and may be abusers of themselves and others.

Christlikeness is all the traits Christ exhibited played out in our human lives in the proper places and at the proper times. Not more than this. Not less than this.

It is a great freedom to live this way. Of course, the responsibility is great. We always say that and it is true. But the liberation of our personalities, so that all aspects of who we are can be included and made spiritual in the life and person of Christ, is a greater freedom than most of us have ever known or felt.

Christlikeness is being all of who Christ is.

And as well as being many other things, Christ was a warrior and a lion.

He was also, in the words of poet T.S. Eliot . . .

". . . Christ the tiger . . . "

We cannot keep losing the balance as we have done.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Burning Books

Most people know the Nazis burned books. They most likely don't know which ones. Jewish writers, of course. But you might be surprised to know they burned Bambi because they were afraid it might make the hearts of their jungvolk too tender, Helen Keller because they were busy killing off their physically and mentally challenged and didn't want a role model for such people running loose in the German imagination. They burned All Quiet On The Western Front because it was an anti-war novel written by a German and the fascists wanted Germans ready and eager for war. They burned Hemingway for the same reason - A Farewell to Arms - but also because he supported the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War of the late 30's. Some of Jack London's political works were burned, Thomas Mann was attacked because he supported the writers the Nazis had exiled, Sigrid Unset's books were torched because she criticized the Nazi regime.

The Nazis were masters at mixing nationalism with Christianity and then twisting Christianity into new and exotic shapes. I wonder sometimes if we are not becoming masters of the same thing in North America. Consider how difficult it is to get published by a Christian publishing house unless you are not only Christian but evangelical Christian and not only evangelical Christian but a certain kind of evangelical Christian. Mainstream is formula fiction, the predictable, the superficial, the politically correct. If a writer who is a Christian, even an evangelical, pens something different, however true and well done, it does not get printed because it will not sell enough and it will not sell enough because the mainstream will not purchase complexity, depth or thinking fiction. Mainstream wants a slick ride of the imagination that reinforces all traditional thought patterns, challenges nothing, and is real about very little of the human experience or the Christian spiritual experience, good or bad. It wants the same old. But not the same old God. Just the same old way of talking about a same old way of looking at God. They want safety but not safety in growth towards the real. They want safety in a reinforcement of human tradition. And above all they want to promote it - they want propganda, not exploration, not discovery, not risk. They want a calcified Christ.

And combined with this there is the belief that you must vote a certain way and support a certain political party and be a certain kind of patriot to be an acceptable Christian - this is true of the right and the left. Certain books that support left or right versions of the faith are acceptable in one camp or the other and are similarly rejected in one camp or the other. It makes me wonder which books would be burned if mainstream or off-mainstream Christianity had its way. Would some mainstreamers burn The Message? What about Frederick Buechner's writings, or Flannery O'Connor's, or Walker Percy's, or Wendell Berry's? (I mention authors who admit to a Christian bent in their lives.) We might have some nice bonfires across Canada and the United States. All the moreso if the off-mainstreamers burned books they considered too orthodox or the mainstreamers also started adding to the fires non-Christian writers they didn't approve of.

Of course there is localized burning going on anyway. CDs and DVDs go into the flames along with books pastors and churches have decided are unholy. I am aware that in Acts early Christians burned books. But these were books connected with the black magic of their pasts. Not books of poets or storytellers, not Homer or Virgil or Cicero or Herodotus. Paul himself quoted several writers and poets who were not Christians or monotheists when he was on Mars Hill. Quite often Christians will quote favourably the lines - "in whom we live and move and have our being" - and connect these words to the Christian God, thinking they are quoting scripture. In fact they are quoting Paul quoting a pagan who Paul believed got it right.

Those who embrace secularism like a religion burn their books too, they have their lists of what one can read and what one can't, many in these ranks are high priests and priestesses of what is politically correct. But just because there is fascism across the board in our society that does not mean it should be the province of those who claim they've walked with the son of God. In fact, considering Jesus's way of treating others, especially the marginalized and ostracized, it should be exactly the opposite. Christians shouldn't be starting the fires, thy should be putting them out. And Christians shouldn't be shutting people and their books down, they should be letting them speak and then disagreeing or agreeing as they choose. What they must not be are nothing more than the Departments of Mind Control or Belief Control or the Fascists of the Human Spirit. People come freely to Christ or not at all. You don't like something? Say so. But do not kill the people you disagree with or dishonour their journey or struggle. Tell me, whatever happened to grace among the Christians of North America, I don't care which camp? Whatever happened to the Jesus who touched those others considered unclean? Why has Christianity become more law and less freedom? Less about seeking and more about seeking only what others say you can? Why aren't Christians known as the promoters of the eternal quest instead of as the controllers and stranglers of it? What good is finding God if you never really found him anyway but just went along with what you were told?

Are we trying to create a Christian State, with all its rules and regulations and capital punishments, especially towards the arts, are we trying to establish a Christian Republic or Empire - or are we trying to call forth the kingdom of God? Because they are not the same. Jesus never formed an army or wrote a constitution or declared himself a world ruler. His kingdom was meant to be salt and light and yeast in dough and a seed that became a tree for all the winged creatures, no matter what a person's profession, lawyer, doctor, politician, author. But it was never meant to be Empire. Not in this world. It is one thing to influence. Another to control. Christians were never called to be despots. Never called to bring darkness and ignorance. Never called to rend and tear. They were called to bring light and liberty and the pursuit of truth, confident the true God would be found if a true quest were permitted. We are not the book burners. We are the people of the book. We are the readers and the writers and the thinkers and the wonderers.

"Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." Heinrich Heine, from his play Almansor (1821).

"Where they have burned books they will end in burning human beings."

Monday, April 09, 2007

Chocolate Jesus

I had just said I was dreading the day when the confectioners would decide public opinion and public demand were in their favour and chocolate crosses and chocolate Jesuses came out at Easter. Crosses filled with marshmallow or a sticky creamy sweetness - or crosses that were hollow. Angels of white chocolate, dark chocolate or milk chocolate. Jesus - hey, I'm gonna eat his foot first, I'm gonna eat his hands, I'm gonna eat his nose, I'm gonna bite off his head. The height of the trivialization of the Christian faith. And I feared I might see them first in Christian bookstores - "It's great, just great, sales are great, and we give them a free colour booklet of the Easter Story along with the milk chocolate Christ figure. It makes the gospel message hit home with them."

So there it was as I checked the internet news at the beginning of my day. A Chocolate Jesus! Fuming, I clicked into the story. A sculptor in New York, a gallery in New York, a Chocolate Jesus entitled My Sweet Lord. The New York Catholics were up in arms. Complaints were sizzling into the gallery. Boycotts and public protests were threatened. Well, it was not mass produced little Jesus figures filled with nuts and raisins. Still, it seemed to me a bad idea at Easter to make such a figure. Imagine making a chocolate Muhammed to commemorate the day he ascended to heaven on his horse.

The controversy continued and I did not think much more about the Chocolate Jesus until I actually saw a picture of it online and on TV. The sculpture was surprising. It was Jesus on the cross though there was no cross. Somehow I had it in my head the whole thing was a sculptor's stunt to gain a day or week of notoriety and that the Christ figure would be a caricature of sorts. But it was not that. The figure had great dignity. The chocolate gleamed darkly over arms and legs and face and chest. It was simply and powerfully done.

I thought: Well, then, if this Christ figure had been done in ebony or marble or stone there would have been no complaints. It's a work of art. It's sublime. There is a quiet strength about the whole piece. But because Easter bunnies are made of chocolate, and this Christ figure has been made of chocolate at Easter time, people have reasoned the sculptor has meant to equate the son of God with Peter Cottontail and trivialize and mock what is holy and sacred. So the gallery shut down the exhibition. A mistake, I came to realize as I viewed the dark Christ.

For what the sculptor had succeeded in doing was taking a substance that is considered no more than mouth candy, and by fashioning a dying brooding Christ out of it, had ironically changed the candy into a substance made profound by the significance of its subject. Jesus had not been changed into candy. Jesus had changed the chocolate into something more, a substance capable of doing far more than sweeten the mouth, a substance capable of challenging the stone and marble and wood and iron and copper of the sculptor's art. No longer meant simply for bunnies or eggs or Pot of Gold boxed treats, a chocolate crucified Christ had transcended those shelves of Easter indulgences and made the mix of sugar and cocoa worthy of fashioning objects of excellence, reflection and, yes, veneration. It was the shallowness and frivolity of what we now call Easter that was transformed. Not the other way around.

I hope we may see the Dark Christ again and that he may be displayed properly and at length and the artist given the respect that is due. There is more of Easter in that sculpture than is found in millions of homes whose carpets are littered with the bright foil of chocolate eggs unwrapped in haste and with little inclination towards a faith of any kind.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ashes

When it was my turn to honour Ash Wednesday among the churches of our town I went to my wood stove and scooped out ashes that were white and grey and black. They did not look any different than the ashes of my father and mother which are in two stained glass urns near the oak desk where I write. The ashes of the stove are not ashes of bones and nails and human faces loved. But they are the ashes of memory of those faces I kissed.

For the wood was burned in the fall when the weather turned cool and I spent more hours sitting in my chair across from the stove, reading and wondering and remembering. Wood was burned on All Hallow's Eve and All Saints Day. It was burned on Christmas Eve. It was burned on my birthday in January, Bobby Burns Day. It was burned on Valentine's Day.

And not only on those special occasions but whenever friends gathered and the air and stars outside were sharp. To talk and joke and drink coffee and tea. To pray. To crack a book or Bible. Even strangers came around the fire. And the dogs too, a brother and sister, snow dogs, Malamutes, sled dogs with their thick fluffy fur who value the dry wood heat in its season, who carry memories themselves of ancestors and kin who huddled around fires and around themselves for the warmth they could get on a long Arctic winter night.

All these experiences were in the ashes. All the feelings. The humour. The hard memories that can bring water to the face. Prayers. Hope. Despair. The Incarnation. Immanuel. My birth. My death. All these ashes were mixed with water to honour Christ who loops birth with death, and death with resurrection, Christmas wih Easter, our old births with new births, tomorrow and eternity, heaven over hell, light over darkness.

So I put these ashes on people's foreheads: Baptist foreheads, Mennonite foreheads, Pentecostal foreheads, Anglican foreheads, Catholic foreheads. And something different, on people's palms, remembering the nails, and people took the ashes on both of their palms too: women's palms, men's palms, children's palms.

What we burn, our nights, our thoughts and dreamings and fearings, our ashes are what we are, black and white and grey, and it is also where Christ is and where all people are.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Kentucky's Wendell Berry

Now here's a guy who was asked to come to Stanford and teach creative writing by no less a person than the late great Wallace Stegner. No, Berry said. And no he said more than once as Stegner and Stanford pressed. Years and years later, as stories continued to pour from Berry's imagination, Stegner admitted that Berry had been right to stay on his family farm and pen literature. For if he'd come to Stanford who knows but that half or more of Berry's stories might never have been written? Not only because of time constraints - the university and students and colleagues would have kept him busy - but because Berry would have been disconnected from his ancestral land, the land that nurtures the bulk of his writing.

It's a good thing for all of us to remember. Do what you know is good for you to do, what is right for you to do, and make sure you plant yourself in an environment that allows you to do it. And maybe something else - know yourself and what's good for you better than other people do.

Berry has written so many poems and novels and short stories and essays that I would have to write a dissertation on this blog to discuss half of them. So let's just put it like this: Like many writers before him, Berry has created a fictional world full of houses and acreages and plants and people and weather that goes on for hundreds of stories. This gives him the freedom to talk about everything under the sun. Suppose Emerson or Thoreau had hunkered down and created a county and a town with their imaginations and then went on to write a thousand tales about the people in that county and town? Or suppose Robert Frost or Carl Sandburg decided to do the same? Bend their poetry to prose and create an entire new world of personalities and families and all the windfall of generations over decades of living and birthing and working and praying and dying? Lots of times when I read Berry's words I think of wooden hoe handles rubbed smooth by two or three generations of hands, I think of split rail fencing, I think of soil and air and rain. So I think especially of Frost. And then I think of the eternities that such rough-hewn writing evokes. His works are all about connectedness and the tale is told in a lifetime of different ways.

Berry's spirituality is of a Christian bent. He is not shy about admitting that. The way his Christianity bends may not be to everyone's taste. But then, your spirituality is not to everyone's taste, nor is mine. In any case, good things grow out of his Christ soil. Honest things. Straightforward things. Maybe you'd like his writing, maybe not. Find out.

If you like poetry, start with his poems. There's lots of them and you're sure to find some gems that bear down well on your soul. As for his world-creating stories of fictional Port William, Kentucky, where does one start? At the beginning? Maybe not. There might be a time when it's right for you to go back to the beginning like an historian and start reading from there. Until then, why not just drop right down into the middle of the tales and see what happens? His stories stand on their own. I would tell you to pick up the book "Fidelity" and begin with the title story of that collection of short fiction. You can listen to me or not.

Berry is still with us. Keep that in mind in case you want to write him or visit him or go to a book signing. It's good to have him around. Good to have him talking and walking the land. It makes the world less lonely.


The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.