The thickness of poetry

Poetry should be a part of every homeschooler’s curriculum. It should also be a part of every one’s life and continuing education, but we are homeschoolers so that’s my frame of reference. How many books of poetry do you have in your house not including your Norton anthologies? I hope it’s a least a few. It’s good to have a bunch, with some always lying near at hand. Regardless, pick up just about any book of poetry and you are bound to find something like this:

Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven–born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

— from Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, (lines 122–129), Willillam Wordsworth, (1804)

or this:

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley–
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp–
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people, hardly marching–on the hike–
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until, on Vinegar Hill, the fatal conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.

Requiem for the Croppies, Seamus Heaney, (1969)

I love these poems. They speak in a different way than does prose.

I once heard a comedian make some reference to the fact that nobody buys books of poetry. The audience found his joke funny. I don’t remember how the joke went, but I remember the underlying claim that seemed to make the joke plausible. For me, however, the joke sounded odd. You see, I love poetry and we have many books of poetry in our house. I have even written a few poems over the years and once self-published a small book of poems. It seems as clear as day to me that poetry should be part of every one’s life on a regular basis. That includes modern poems and old poems and old old poems. I don’t say this merely because I like poetry, or because one should be nice to poets. Poetry has qualities that are good for one’s mind, qualities that are hard to find anywhere else (think of the poems above). Poetry links into our humanness in ways that other written forms do not. Poetry stretches our elastic brains in directions that are akin to taking one’s ship over the horizon. Perhaps poetry is even good for one’s soul. I am convinced it has been good for mine.

One common aspect of poetry, and even some prose, is the tendency to be slow in offering up its secrets. Poetry calls for re-reading, pondering, musing, and explication. Good poems reward such scrutiny, and the best do so in spades. There is a richness in the best works of poetry that is largely unmatched. Monroe C. Beardsley, in his Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1956/1981), says the following about literary discourse, and especially of poetry:

Because it contains deep levels of meaning that are only hinted at through connotation and suggestion, a literary discourse has a kind of semantical thickness when compared with mathematical and technical discourse. This is not to be equated with mere vagueness, looseness, flabbiness, or wildness; it is compatible with precision and control. But it gives the discourse an air of being more than it seems to be at first glance, or even, sometimes, after prolonged contemplation; as if dwelling on it further would turn up new meanings, as if it were, for all its liberality, always holding something in reserve. Hence the experience of coming to understand a literary discourse is a kind of growth; not, as with a simple symbolism, that either we have it or we don’t, but a matter of more or less, of depth or shallowness. All this is especially true of poetry. (Beardsley, p. 129)

Reading and studying literary discourses, and especially poetry is, in the words of Beardsley, about growth. Understanding is not an on or off, all or nothing destination. We grow, develop, and nurture our minds when we give ourselves over to the task of meeting the mind of the poet. Now, we could say this about any art. Certainly prose and painting and music are potentially much the same as poetry. But regardless, we are trained to be consumers. We rarely take the time works of art require. I’ve heard it said that Goethe once remarked that great literature is as hard to read as it is to write. I believe it. Great poems are not consumer items, but rich artifacts that continuously reveal, continuously burn like the bush before Moses. We ourselves are revealed in the confrontation.

What I like about Bearsdley’s quote is the idea of “semantical thickness.” Poetry, and to some degree prose, often relies upon its ability to be so rich in qualities and meaning that it is like a rich desert that, on eating the first bite, one wonders if it’s possible to finish it in one sitting. Of course this analogy breaks down. Taking on this semantical thickness, however, takes effort. It might even take years as one matures through life’s experiences and can then see “new” things in a poem. It might be better to say the process of reading and studying poetry is more like a journey that sometimes requires a detailed map and a seasoned guide, and sometimes requires merely sitting still and listening. This is a good process for children and adults. It stretches the mind. It reminds us, as well, of the beauty of language.

So grab that book of poems off the shelf and dive into the thickness of poetry.

The Agents of Fate

Robert Bresson was a genius and one of the most spiritual of all filmmakers. As a Christian I rejoice when I find works of art that speak to me as though another soul is whispering to my soul, calling me to contemplation, asking for my participation, seeking my redemption. Such it is with the brilliant film Au hasard Balthazar (1966). This film feels to me like Bresson cares about my soul, and yours too. If you have not seen the film from which these images are taken, set aside some time without distractions and treat yourself to one of the greatest works of art of all time.

“…the deeds of a man’s hands will return to him.”

– Proverbs 12:14

42 images of hands from Au hasard Balthazar (1966):

I was so profoundly moved by this film that I didn’t feel I could do any justice with a review. Instead all I could think of was to grab some images and post them above. I found myself over and over being drawn into the narrative through the images of hands; so Bressonian, so fateful.

A poem on reading the Gospels in Greek

Of my favorite poets Czesław Miłosz is in my top five (others are Yeats, Wordsworth, Heaney, and the fifth fluctuates I suppose).

by Czesław Miłosz
From The Collected Poems 1931-1987 (p. 234)

You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of caesars
On coins are different today. Yet still it is the same eon.
Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
And bread mean the same. So does the fickleness of the throng
Avid for miracles as in the past. Even mores,
Wedding festivities, drugs, laments for the dead
Only seem to differ. Then, too, for example,
There were plenty of persons whom the text calls
Daimonizomenoi, that is, the demonized
Or, if you prefer, the bedeviled (as for “the possessed”
It’s no more that the whim of a dictionary).
Convulsions, foam at the mouth, the gnashing of teeth
Were not considered signs of talent.
The demonized had no access to print and screens,
Rarely engaging in arts and literature.
But the Gospel parable remains in force:
That the spirit mastering them may enter swine,
Which, exasperated by such a sudden clash
Between two natures, theirs and the Luciferic,
Jump into water and drown (which occurs repeatedly).
And thus on every page a persistent reader
Sees twenty centuries as twenty days
In a world which one day will come to its end.

Berkeley, 1969
Lech Wałęsa, Czesław Miłosz and O. Mieczysław Albert Krąpiec circa 1981

Ironically, the poem above is about reading the Bible in its original, untranslated purity, yet the poem was written in Polish and then translated into English. Translations of poems suffer much of the same problems as do translations of scripture, though I think this translation reads beautifully.

On translating his poems from Polish into English (from the Preface):

The existence of this body of poetry in a language different from the one in which it was written is for me the occasion of constant wonder. It means many hours throughout the years spent over the texts with my co-translators, and is a reminder of their devotion and friendship.
My gratitude to that team is not only for the amount of time they spent on my verse, but in the first place for their active interest, their warmth, and a feeling that they gave me of artistic and intellectual affinity. Not the least important was our common sense of humor, for toiling we often laughed.

Can we not say, then, that to translate is to befriend the author? And that, by extension, all translations are reflections on friendship and all the vagaries that friendship is subject to?

Habakkuk on high places

[Warning: In this post I write on some verses in the book Habakkuk, which means that I am already over my head. I am no biblical scholar or minor prophet exegete. These are merely “personal response” reflections on some verses already well known by many others. Continue reading at your own risk.]

A sense of entitlement is as old as human beings, but it seems fair to say that we tend to have that sense more so these days than did our ancestors (though I do not want to create a false view of the past either). We live in a world where we expect many things to come our way, not merely because we are optimists, but because we feel we deserve them. Our society reflects this attitude on many levels. What disturbs me most is how much I find this tendency in myself.

From my limited observations I would say popular Christianity in America is no different in this regard. Christians today, like their non-Christian counterparts, feel entitled just as much as anyone. For many, it would seem, that sense of entitlement gets baked into their (should I say our?) theology. It’s not just a matter of hope, rather it gets expressed in may subtle ways that fundamentally come from the position that if one is a Christian then one’s life will go well. We might laugh at the idea of “come to Jesus and you will become wealthy,” but we often believe exactly that with only minor changes in the verbiage. We substitute happiness or health for the word wealth. We assume that our marriages and our children must turn out right because we are Christians doing what Christians are supposed to do. It is not only a life of Christian principles for living, but a life of blessings.

But I am shaken by these verses in Habakkuk chapter three:

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom
         And there be no fruit on the vines,
         Though the yield of the olive should fail
         And the fields produce no food,
         Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
         And there be no cattle in the stalls,
18 Yet I will exult in the LORD,
         I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
19 The Lord GOD is my strength,
         And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
         And makes me walk on my high places.

How am I to take this? Why should Habakkuk, when all has been taken away, exult in the Lord or rejoice in God? Think about the words: The fig tree not blossoming, no fruit growing on the vines, no olive oil, to food from the field, no flocks, no cattle; in essence no ability to sustain life, to provide for one’s family, one’s children. It is a picture of poverty, destitution, and hopelessness. And yet, Habakkuk still looks to God, not because God will be his strength, but is his strength. Habakkuk is walking surefooted on high places. In his suffering he is lifted up. God has not left him, not abandoned him, nor forsaken him. God is still good.

Habakkuk does not appear to have a sense of entitlement. He would not, I dare say, be a popular hero to many today who claim the moniker “Christian.” I doubt he would be able to build a successful mega-church or be the “President’s pastor.” I sense that most would turn away from him, even those who religiously read the Bible cover to cover every year and have seen these words before. My comments may be harsh, but they come from my understanding that the gate is narrow that leads to salvation. Fortunately, many would not turn away. I hope to God neither would I.

I cannot say I fully get what Habakkuk is proclaiming. I think I understand it. I believe I know what he means and can see in his words profound truth. But I am good at deceiving myself. If I am honest I know I live my life thinking that these words are for others. I will not suffer destitution I say to myself. And if I do, surely I will cling to “the God of my salvation.” Will I? Will you? There is no telling, not really, until we are there in the midst of it. If I have a strong sense of entitlement then clinging to God in either the hurricane of suffering or the slow torture-rack of trials will be that much harder.

A question I have is what are these hind’s feet and these high places? In much of the Bible the idea of high places have to do with the erecting of altars for worship. Usually these high places are for pagan worship and are to be avoid or torn down by the Israelites. I don’t think that’s what Habakkuk has in mind here. In Psalm 18:33, David says:

He makes my feet like the feet of a deer;
         he causes me to stand on the heights.

In this verse we have both the idea of high places (the heights) and hind’s feet (feet of a deer). Both the high places and hind’s feet point to escape and refuge. This is the idea in Habakkuk as well. But in the Psalms it makes sense to flee to a high place, for David is referring to enemies and battles. In Habakkuk it is basic necessities of life that are missing. Why would Habakkuk need hind’s feet and high places because the fig tree refuses to blossom or the olive fail? Maybe this is merely an expression that our salvation, whatever that may be, comes from God. What is most interesting to me, however, is that the salvation that comes is necessary because of the destruction brought by God.

The book of Habakkuk is about judgement. Habakkuk writes that God is going to bring judgement through the agency of the Chaldeans (Babylonians). This judgement will mean destruction, which in turn will mean devastation of various kinds in the land, including physical suffering and even death. So, in this sense the loss of basic life necessities does ultimately come from enemies and battles. And yet, we must remember that it is God who brings calamity. It is God who is entirely in charge of the world. If we have salvation it comes from him, and if we have hope it is because of his promises. And if we have hope in the midst of troubles it is because God offers us hope as he also brings about our troubles.

If I look at my life I do not see any Chaldeans coming over the hill. My life seems rather complacent and safe from major calamity. I do not know what the future will bring, but I make my plans based on fairly common assumptions that life will remain good and free from destruction. This could change. There are prophecies about the last days which speak of tough times. But I don’t see immanent “signs” like many claim to see. On the other hand, there is a kind of daily suffering that we all experience. Life is vanity and striving after wind, as we read in Ecclesiastes. We experience spiritual death in our lives because of sin. We struggle in trusting God and often live in fear of the world around us. And we have a hard time imagining that what is bad in the world is also in God’s hands. Habakkuk complains to God. But he also says at the beginning of chapter two, verse one:

I will stand on my guard post
         And station myself on the rampart;
         And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me,
         And how I may reply when I am reproved.

And then in verse four:

Behold, as for the proud one,
His soul is not right within him;
But the righteous will live by his faith.

In these two verses we see Habakkuk drawing a connection between faith in God and awaiting God’s reproval. If we feel a sense of entitlement then we have a hard time drawing that line. We want to see faith, especially fervent faith, as leading to good things happening. We want to see our lives going well because we demonstrate that we are on God’s team by our faith. But we do not see with God’s eyes much of the time, if ever. We are often blind and proud. I know that I am. Habakkuk seems to understand that one has to deal with God on God’s terms only. There is no other playing field. Our relationship with God is not a level playing field, it is not in balance.

I do not know what God has in store for my life, my family, or this country. I am not a prophet, minor or otherwise. But I do know that God is sovereign. I know that he rules my life and all that is in it, including the good and the bad. I hope that I would keep watch like Habakkuk, that I would live by faith, and that, when calamity comes, I would be willing to exult in the Lord and know that he is my salvation. And, in contrast to what I see in the world around me and within myself, I hope that I become the kind of man who, like Habakkuk, “will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, And how I may reply when I am reproved.”

Note: The image at the top is, I assume, supposed to be of Habakkuk. There are a lot of blogs using this image in reference to Habakkuk, but I found no specific reference to who it actually depicts or who painted it. But I like it anyway.

"a woman clothed with the sun"

Who is this woman? Is she Mary, the mother of Jesus? Is she Israel? Is she the Christian church? Can we know?

Revelation 12 (English Standard Version)

1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.

Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Painting by William Blake

13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.

Theology and the Narrative Arts

I am posting this from an old, now defunct blog of mine. But I feel there is enough good stuff in it to warrant posting again here. It was originally posted 21 April 2008.

In this post I ruminate on the relationship of art to our belief, or absence of belief, in God, god, or gods. As is typical for me, my train of thought is more lurching than steady, and my end goal is more personal than pedagogical.

Our lenses
I love Pasolini’s seminal film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). It is a work of great and simple beauty. It is also a powerful film that flies in the face of the overly sentimentalized and often lifeless cinematic versions of Jesus’ life that came before. And yet, Pasolini, though he seems to be taking the story directly from the words on the page (the Gospel of St. Matthew), understands Christ through his own political and personal commitments. In other words, Pasolini, the devout Marxist, unabashed homosexual, and hater of the Catholic Church, saw a Christ that was both thoroughly materialist (philosophically) and politically radical (of the socialist ilk).

An earthy, socialist Christ
Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus
Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)

As I understand it, for Pasolini, Jesus was a kind of pre-incarnate Karl Marx (rather than the incarnate God) who challenged the status quo of his day, and died as the earliest socialist martyr. Pasolini’s belief in the non-existence of God played a big part in how he saw Jesus and why he made the film. In a sense one could say Il Vangelo secondo Matteo is a kind of materialist corrective to the church’s position.

As I said, I love Pasolini’s film, but he got it wrong. I say this because of my own beliefs about God and about Jesus which, though personal on the one hand, are also objectively true (arguably). My understanding of God is integral to the set of the “lenses” through which I look at the world. In other words, the difference between me and Pasolini is not really about any of his films, rather our differences go back to our presuppositions about God, truth, and the goals of human existence—even if we may agree on many things, and no doubt I am generally in awe of Pasolini as an artist.

Certainly great works of art are not, in our experience, predicated on any particular belief about God. [Though I would argue they could not exist unless God exists.]

The God Who Is There
I have been thinking lately (and off and on for a long time) of the role that theology plays, or does not play, in how one approaches watching a film, looking at a painting, listening to a piece of music, or reading a book. So much of what we get out of a work of art comes from what we are able to bring to it, especially what it is we want from that particular work of art, and of art in general. What we want, I believe, is deeply affected by, and even grows out of, whether or not we are convinced of the existence of God, or god, or many gods, or none at all. So much depends on whether we are convinced of some ultimate meaning in the Universe, or whether we believe there is no ultimate meaning. And so much depends on how honest, even ruthlessly honest, we are with ourselves about these issues and their implications.

I use the word theology specifically. The term “theology” is a compound of two Greek words, θεος (theos: god) and λογος (logos: rational utterance). What I am interested in is a reasoned and rational examination of God, not merely of some vague spirituality (but that’s another presupposition isn’t it). What I find critical is the blunt question: Do you (do I) believe in God? How one answers that question has profound implications across the board.

But the question is already on the table. We have inherited it. We can’t get away from it, just as we can’t get away from a myriad of other questions. And how we live our lives, including the art we make, is directly related to our answer. Art is a part of how we live our lives and, in many ways, emerges from the very heart of the matter. This is as true for Pasolini as it is for Spielberg as it is for Tarantino.

Often a work of art has, embedded within it, the answer to the question. Sometimes that answer is obvious. More often the answer is like backstory, a kind of presupposition that sits in the background and informs the art out front, as it were.

Moral Objects
A work of art is, in some ways, a mysterious thing. Like love, we know what art is, but we can’t always nail it down and give it a clear definition and well defined boundaries. Art emerges from deep within our humanness. Every culture and society has organically produced art, that is, art which emerges naturally from within that culture or society. When I was an art history major many years ago I was introduced to many ancient works of art, via slides of course, like this exciting number:

Seated female, Halaf; 7th–6th millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Syria
Ceramic, paint; H. 5.1 cm, W. 4.5 c
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This little statuette dates from nearly nine thousand years ago. Most likely it is a symbol of fertility. And most likely it was part of the symbolic rites and proto-religious system of that time. Many thousands of figures like this one have been unearthed. This little object speaks volumes about what was important to that ancient culture, like the importance of fertility to agrarian societies, and the importance of sexuality, and the very human need to supplicate before a god for one’s well-being. It also speaks of the human tendency to create symbols and to understand the world in terms of abstractions.

What I find interesting is how ancient and deeply ingrained is the human need to grasp at metaphysical solutions to the everyday muck of life problems, fears, and desires. I also find it fascinating that humans have to make physical objects that express the metaphysical, the ontological, the teleological, etc.

Even the Israelites, who had seen the ten plagues on Egypt, who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, who had the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, who had seen the walls of Jericho miraculously fall, and who had seen many other wonders of Yahweh, still created the golden calf, and still kept idols of other gods in their houses, and still built or maintained the high places (religious sites on hilltops to worship gods other than Yahweh). Today we have our idols and gods too—witness the way we worship our sports teams, or entertainers, our possessions, ourselves, for example.

Moral Stories
What humans have always seemed to enjoy are stories of moral dilemmas played out in both mundane and fantastical ways. Consider the medieval mystery plays. These were more than merely pedagogical in nature, they were social events that brought people together and incorporated some audience participation, including talking back to the characters during the performance.

I hear that in some movie theaters in other countries (I write from the U.S.) audiences are very vocal and even talk to the screen, as it were, and critique out loud the actions of the characters while the film is playing. Regardless, quiet or vocal, we all seem to gravitate toward the moral. We like passing judgment, we like justice, and, interestingly, we like wickedness too. However, without some kind of absolute from which morality emanates, having a moral opinion is, in final terms, as much comic as it is tragic.

Medieval Mystery Play

So why do we continue to hold moral positions in a morally relativistic and credulistic world? If I had a clear answer I could probably chair some philosophy or psychology department somewhere. My guess, though, is that we will invent an absolute if we can’t find one. In other words, if one doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, or in something big enough (God for example), then one will invent a substitute absolute, for example: an economic or political system, or a biological and physical set of laws, or maybe an absolute that claims there are no absolutes. Regardless, the moral story still digs deep into our souls.

Even the most mundane and vapid kinds of films have some moral content which can be understood within a larger framework of meaning. Consider this audio review by a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle of the recent film Tranformers.

Only Physical, or Metaphysical?
As I take a look at the popular art of today, that is, television shows (i.e. CSI, Survivor, et al) and film (i.e. Michael Clayton, Enchanted, et al), I see worlds presented that do not include God, or any so-called traditional god, that is, a creator deity with whom our destiny lies. These are materialistic worlds, worlds in which stuff is the ultimate reality, where there is no final truth, and where one can find no source of meaning of life. Interestingly, the goals of the characters are still all about meaning, and soul searching, and truth.

The characters or contestants are driven forward by things or ideas that they deem important. This is basic story telling. This is fundamental script writing. But it doesn’t make sense if there is no final meaning in the universe, otherwise it’s just a cruel game. Why should we care that someone is searching for something that doesn’t exist? Or even if, for some untenable reason, we do care, why should they search? (Why should anyone wait for Godot?) Consider this quote regarding the modern predicament:

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s accelerating advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament.

~Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind
What does one do with this? How does one come to terms with a spiritual wasteland, or an irresolvable predicament? Is it such that rational human beings must suffer the conflict of a great desire for meaning in a world that has no ultimate meaning? Is religion an answer or a placebo? No matter what we do we do not get away from these questions. How we solve them, or come to terms with them, is a big deal (or maybe it is also meaningless). My contention is that there is a God, that that God is there, and that that God is knowable. But am I deluded? I don’t think so. And the person who thinks I am deluded believes from a place of conviction as well. I find this more than fascinating.

Michael Clayton

What most recently sparked my thinking about all this God and art stuff was a recent viewing of Michael Clayton. The story in this film plays itself out in a Western (geographically & conceptually), materialistic world where there is no transcendent god. It is a thoroughly modern view of human existence. There are no moral absolutes. And yet, Clayton is a man in search of himself. He is in desperate need of a positive existential moment. He needs to make a self-defining, self-actualizing choice so that he can move beyond his cliff-edge existence and become who he should be. He needs to make the right choice even if it is difficult and painful, even if it means giving up who he has been. There is nothing narratively original in this aspect of the story. It is as timeless as a Greek tragedy. [Note: Need implies the metaphysical. There is no “need”, no meaningful calling or longing, without transcendence.]

The film’s story revolves around a legal battle in which a company is being sued for its harmful actions. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the attorney working the case. Unfortunately for his law firm and for his client he is deeply troubled by the case. He feels he is defending murder, in a sense. The firm sends Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to talk with Edens. Part of that conversation goes like this:

Michael Clayton: You are the senior litigating partner of one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. You are a legend.
Arthur Edens: I’m an accomplice!
Michael Clayton: You’re a manic-depressive!
Arthur Edens: I am Shiva, the god of death

“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Wow. Where did that come from? Shiva, the god of death? It certainly grabs one’s attention, and it sounds rather cool, but why, in this film, out of nowhere make a reference to one of the principle deities of Hinduism? I say “nowhere” because there is no indication throughout the film that any of the characters believe in any kind of god or religion. In fact, it could be argued that the problem facing all the characters is that, because there is no god, no ultimate reality to which they are finally accountable, they are lost in a sea of moral floundering. Morality becomes personal preference, personal conviction, and power.

Making a reference to Shiva, the destroyer and transformer Hindu god, makes some sense then. First, Edens feels like a destroyer, or at least one who defends the destroyer. He has personal convictions of wrongdoing and it is eating away his soul. Second, in a world personal morality one can choose, as one needs or sees fit, any god that works for the moment, so why not Shiva? Shiva becomes Eden’s god of choice because the concept of Shiva explains his convictions somehow. Shiva is his self-image for the moment. Tomorrow it might be a different god. Maybe Vishnu or Brahma. Or maybe a Sumerian god.

Interestingly the reference to Shiva comes up again. Once Clayton confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) with the fact that he has carried out Eden’s plan to expose the company, we get this bit of dialog:

Karen Crowder: You don’t want the money?
Michael Clayton: Keep the money. You’ll need it.
Don Jefferies: Is this fellow bothering you?
Michael Clayton: Am I bothering you?
Don Jefferies: Karen, I’ve got a board waiting in there. What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael Clayton: I’m Shiva, the God of death.

“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Again it’s Shiva, the god of death, and this time the line is used as a final punctuation to the film’s climax. However, unlike Eden, Clayton uses the line more for its effect on Crowder and Jefferies than from a sense of personal identification. What might that effect be? Within the context of the film, and within the context of a largely non-Hindu society, this line comes as a kind of shock, a non-sequitur of sorts, that specifically draws attention to itself. I imagine the filmmakers intend the line to read something like “I am the fictional, mythological god Shiva (in a metaphorical sense of course) who is bringing about a kind of death to you, a death that you are powerless to avoid.” In other words, we are not to assume that the filmmakers or the characters actually believe in the existence of Shiva, rather the idea of Shiva is appropriated in order to convey something meaningful. It becomes a “helpful myth” to underscore the moment. [Note: Many materialists see all religion this way. Religion is the “helpful myth” of choice for the individual in the moment—but no more.]

To the person who does not believe in Shiva, such a line might merely have a kind of cool factor, like an ironic t-shirt. To a devout Hindu this line might be somewhat disconcerting —I don’t know because I am not a Hindu. What is interesting is that none of the characters have made an actual conversion to any religion, or even gone through any particularly religious experience. Edens has had mental breakdown because of deep moral tensions. Clayton has crossed over into a personally powerful existential decision. But neither have obviously embraced Hinduism. (If I missed something, let me know.)

Interestingly, the narrative arc of Michael Clayton follows a traditional Western style morality tale. And yet, one could say the characters, who do not overtly believe in any god, still wrestle with issues that derive their moral content from a Judeo-Christian heritage, and then, ironically, symbolically claim a Hindu god as justification for their actions. I find this both puzzling and not surprising. It is exemplary of the pluralistic/post-modern society that I live in.

In the film’s final shot we see Clayton riding alone in the back of a taxi. It is a meditative shot. He does not look happy or fulfilled; it reminds me of the last shot in The Graduate (1967). Maybe he is, but his countenance is rather sullen. Has he saved himself by his actions? Has he found redemption for who he was? How can he be sure he has actually changed as a person? None of these questions are answered. One could say that finally he made the right decision after a life of bad ones, and that is good. Although on what basis can we judge? But one could say that he still has not solved the deeper question of his existence. After all that his life is meaningless and he will eventually die. The film offers no hope. It cannot based on its presuppositions.

The radical truth is that in a world without a God that stands as an ultimate source of meaning, then any decision made by Clayton cannot have any meaning. His final decision, though it may resonate powerfully within us the viewers, doesn’t really matter, no matter how personally, existentially transforming it may be for him. At best one can say he made his decision, so what. Any decision would have had the same value. But, of course, we know deep down that can’t be true. We live knowing there is right and wrong, and what we believe we believe to be true. Because of those beliefs the film succeeds as a kind of cheat. We let it work, we fill it with meaning, though it does not deserve such grace.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Consider the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s brilliant 1989 film about morality, choice, and justice. In this film Allen explores how morality flows from where one begins, that is, from the set of presuppositions one claims about God, the universe, our existence, meaning, etc. He also seriously toys with our expectations (our need) for justice to win out.

The film is also very much about the existence, or non-existence, of God, and what that means. I love this quote from Judah Rosenthal:

I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

There is something both sinister and humorous about it. It also represents our modern tendency to analyze ourselves and mistrust our motives.

But there is so much more to consider in this quote and in this film. The following three part video analysis by Anton Scamvougeras is an excellent overview of the film’s themes. If you have not seen the film, then don’t watch these clips yet; first go watch the film!

When I first saw Crimes and Misdemeanors I was both stunned and thrilled. At the end I thought “perfect”, that’s how it should end, with him getting away with murder, not because I wanted him to, but because I so expected him to get caught and I liked the irony. Allen turns everything on it head and gets us to think. Thinking is a good thing, especially about truth and morality.

Our view of God has a great deal to do with how we understand and appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors. If there is no God are the characters and their actions meaningless? Is our desire for justice merely a temporary chemical reaction to a situation that emerged from the chance combination of sub-atomic particles? Or do we live as though our desire comes from someplace more profound?

[Side note: In Star Wars, when the Death Star blows up the planet Alderaan, do we merely observe the rearranging of material particles (something of ultimate inconsequence), or do we assume that blowing up a planet and its inhabitants is an act of evil? Get over it old man Kenobi, you moralist! That was no tremor in the force. Probably just gas.]


I am convinced there is no such thing as a story without some moral content. 
Either a series of events are purely a-moral, an arbitrary grouping of cause and effect acts without meaning, or they are, in some way, the result of decisions. If decisions are involved then those actions have meaning and therefore have a moral dimension. I see narrative as being fundamentally the result of decisions and therefore fundamentally moral.

But as soon as we make a moral claim we assume an absolute. We might say our claim is purely cultural or situational or merely a personal decision, but we don’t really live that way, we don’t really believe it. When we say war is wrong, or rape is wrong, or Nazi death camps are wrong, we assume a universal. We know they are wrong. And if we claim universals then what is our foundation? This is the very point at which our belief or non-belief in God, god, or gods, has the most gravity. This is also a good time to go and re-read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Woody Allen leaves the question open in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he is relying on the fact that we cannot. He creates in us a tension, and something to talk about. Michael Clayton leaves us somewhat satisfied, yet under its surface there is no final meaning, its only opinion. What is great about both of these films is how they tap into the very human predicament of having to sort out the deep questions of how we are to live our lives and upon what are we going to base our choices.

I can be in awe of an artist even though our beliefs about God may differ. What we have is a common humanity, which is a truly profound, fundamental connection. Even so, it is worth calling out our differences as well, not for the sake of creating divisions, but of understanding each other and seeking the truth. For we are, by nature, truth seekers. But then that’s another universal I am claiming.

>’Goodness = what comes next’

>Evolutionary Hymn
C.S. Lewis

Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future’s endless stair:
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us,
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.

Wrong or justice in the present,
Joy or sorrow, what are they
While there’s always jam to-morrow,
While we tread the onward way?
Never knowing where we’re going,
We can never go astray.

To whatever variation
Our posterity may turn
Hairy, squashy, or crustacean,
Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,
Towards that unknown god we yearn.

Ask not if it’s god or devil,
Brethren, lest your words imply
Static norms of good and evil
(As in Plato) throned on high;
Such scholastic, inelastic,
Abstract yardsticks we deny.

Far too long have sages vainly
Glossed great Nature’s simple text;
He who runs can read it plainly,
‘Goodness = what comes next.’
By evolving, Life is solving
Ail the questions we perplexed.

On then! Value means survival –
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity.
(Far from pleasant, by our present
Standards, though it well may be.)

>Mindless Menace of Violence

>In light of the shooting in Arizona today that left several people dead, including a 9 year old girl, I am reminded of a speech by another politician:

I wonder how compatible or incompatible the concepts outlined in this speech are with biblical Christianity.

Note: When I first posted this I made mention of the shooter being an Afghanistan war veteran. That information was erroneous and came from early but false reports. I have removed that information. I apologize for any misrepresentation.

Wordsworth, Wonder, and the Modern World

William Wordsworth: The World Is Too Much with Us (1807):

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Where are you today, right now? What have been your thoughts, your actions, your cares? What are your lists? What are your duties? In what is your tiredness and worry?

Do you still wonder at this world? How well does your soul know the works of God? Or are you forlorn and do not know it?

For me, I have too often given my heart away getting and spending.

At times I, like Wordsworth, envy the ancients. To see Neptune in a stormy sea, or Thor behind every lightning bolt, or Hyperion in every course of the sun, is to see wonder and strangeness and mystery in the world. Fortunately, the God who is above and behind and beneath all those things, is more than sufficient for wonder and strangeness and mystery.

I must remember that no amount of modernity, no apparent successes of the Enlightenment Project, no prevailing skepticism or popular cynicism, no hurried and buried life can truly compete with the natural wonder of what is there and with the one in whom all is contingent.

When we set aside the stories of the ancients as mere myths (are they really only mere myths?) let us not set aside wonder. Do not let the wonder go to waste; for we are the creations of God, and so is all that is.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:14, ESV)

Wonderfully made. Full of wonder made.

* My thoughts for this post were sparked by Andrew Kern in a lecture he gave for the Circe Institute on Socratic Dialog, though he is not responsible for the ideas I present here, which may deviate from his intended meaning.
** The image at the top is of a grove near our home that was entirely removed for a bike path ‘improvement project.’ It was one of my favorite groves and I’m glad I got a picture of it before it disappeared. Click on it to enlarge, and then lose yourself just a little in the image.