5 for NYC

Another Wheaton wedding meant I spent three days in New York, NY a few weekends ago. There were of course, festivities: a bar-hour with the couple before their big day, the lovely wedding ceremony in the suburbs, and a swanky reception in Lower Manhattan. But there were also many liminal moments to observe the city, which provided me with plenty of anecdotal fodder for my mental image of America’s First City. In brief:

1. New York’s dungeon of a subway did not disappoint: before Robby and I arrived at our Airbnb we’d spent two hours on the train during which time we saw four rats, more than we’d seen in Chicago all of the previous year. The third hour we spent at Artichoke Basille’s Pizza, which had no tables, music blaring above us, and a closing time of 4AM: the quintessential way to end our first night in New York. 

2. Central Park was very beautiful. Yes, there is basically no green space anywhere else in Manhattan, but the trees! the lake! There was almost enough space to forget the self-consciousness that comes with being a tourist in Manhattan. 

3. We stayed in a neighborhood populated primarily by immigrants from Africa and the Carribean. The ad hoc bus system, the hundreds of tiny corner stores, and the accents I heard as I walked to the Metro all reminded me of life in Bujumbura, if only because so little in Chicago does. 

4. I got lost. A few times. All I had was a fold-out map some French tourists had left at the Airbnb (it was in French); my Blackberry was no help in lower Manhattan’s mess of unnumbered streets. I asked directions. A few times. I found out that even New Yorkers get lost in New York. And that they’re very happy to help. 

5. Monday morning I walked across Brooklyn Bridge to Trinity Church Wall Street with all my bags, since we had to check out of the Airbnb by 10AM. I must have looked the consummate tourist, lugging my rolling bag across Brooklyn Bridge; still, the sun was bouncing in jubilant salutation off the skyscrapers as I walked, warming my body enough for me to take off my fall coat. When I did arrive at the church, the priest spoke with such grace and artless self-assurance in her homily that it was a blessing just to listen to her. 

A single, three-day visit to a city like New York can only serve as an introduction. Still, it was enough to disabuse me of the extrapolation I’d patched together from pop culture. The city I saw was ordinary — a place where people live — not the glittering citadel of commerce and culture I’d imagined New York to be. And for that reason, it was much more interesting.

Math and Misery in Modern Art

 

 

During the day, the thing I think about most is math. This is surprising, not least to me: I didn’t take any math classes in college and don’t have a particular passion for the subject; nevertheless, my profession at the time is tutoring math, and so from 7:30 AM to 4 PM Monday through Friday I think about, talk about, and work on, math. When I arrive home at 4:30, I am usually ready to not think about math any more.

Usually. But when I saw this painting by Salvador Dali, I couldn’t resist: there was something irresistably math-y about it. And, like most of Dali’s paintings I’ve seen, also something ineradicably weird about it. Three things struck me at once:
1. This is a painting of Christ’s crucifixion.
2. The cross is very oddly shaped. 
3. Christ does not seem to be in pain.

My interest piqued, but too impatient to try to understand the painting more by myself, I Googled it. What I read confirmed my conjecture: the shape Christ is crucified on here is a hypercube, a mathematical term for a 3D rendering of a four-dimensional object. Though I’d never heard of a hypercube, I had recently been working with some of my students on 2D renderings of three-dimensional objects, called nets. For example: the wrapping paper on a box, laid flat on the ground is a net. One even seems to be included in the painting, on the chessboard floor just below the hypercube. Upon closer inspection of the painting, dimensionality seems to be the primary concept Dali is playing with: The hypercube represents a transcendent fourth dimension, on or in which Christ is crucified; the woman standing watching (his mother?) has three dimensions; the chessboard floor has length and width, and thus two dimensions; the horizon line in the background is a single dimension. So far, so geometrical. 

But what of the third point? There seems to be no evidence of violence in the painting, despite its subject. Christ’s hands and feet are immaculate, unblemished by crude nails, and he levitates both off the ground and away from the cross. His body’s shape is idealized and his skin glows against the golden hypercube-cross — more like the Beast at the end of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast than the ‘man of sorrows’ of Christian iconography. Were it not for the hypercube, it would appear that the painting illustrated not Christ’s crucifixion but his ascension into heaven.

Which brings me to one of the other things I think about a good deal: theology. Is this, we might ask, a human Christ? The marbled, impassive flesh on display suggests something super-human, removed from the realm of bodily pain. And yet there is a certain tension to the piece: the vein’s in Christ’s arms are taut against his skin, as if he were trying to pull together these disparate dimensions. And speaking of dimensions, Dali was working on this painting at the same time as some of the great discoveries of modern physics were taking place, discoveries he took a great deal of interest in; is this crucifixion a metaphor for the fate of modern man in a nuclear world?

Whatever Dali’s intent, the Christ painted in Corpus Hypercubus is exceptional. Unlike the artists and theologians of the 20th century who emphasized Christ’s humanity to the exclusion of his divinity, Dali’s depiction shows Jesus as ethereal and transcendent, seemingly untroubled by his own death. Yet for all its numinous eccentricity, the divinity shown here begins, on closer inspection, to resemble the model modernism had sought to sweep away: the confident humanism of Renaissance painters. Sure, there’s a a pop-science twist and a brooding background thrown in — this is still Salvador Dali we’re talking about — but God looks for all the world like a lithesome European man levitating. 

After the cataclysm of the first and second World Wars, modernists banished the human form from the canvas and religious discourse from the Museum. How, In the wake of concentration camps and nuclear holocaust, they asked, could beauty and transcendence be depicted? Dali’s Crucifixion, for all its peculiarity, dodged the question. A more appropriate (and indeed Christian) response might have been to do what the Jewish painter Marc Chagall did in 1938, while Europe’s Jews were still in the grips of Nazi genocide: paint an asphyxiating Jew strung up on some timber, bleeding on behalf of his people.

 

 

Dix Paroles de Simone Weil

It is far easier to say — “Life is more important than anything I can say about it” — than to say — “Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.”

— W.H. Auden

That which is difficult to say, should still be said: Simone Weil’s writing is more important than anything I can say about it. I won’t say much. Simone Weil was a philosopher and mystic who lived in France in the first half of the 20th century. Brought up by secular Jewish parents in Paris, Weil studied and taught philosophy before her activity with labor organizing ended her teaching career. When she was 25 years old, she spent a year working in the Renault automobile factory, an experience that compromised her already weak disposition and forced her to give up her experiment in living in solidarity with the working class. During her time recovering, Weil had a series of mystical encounters. Though she refused baptism into the Catholic Church, spiritual matters dominated her thinking in her later life. She died in England at the age of 34, exiled from her homeland by the Nazis. She is believed to have died of voluntary starvation, which she had undertaken to protest the plight of her French compatriots.

Her writing is, by turns, brilliant and frightening, sometimes simultaneously. It is always lucid: what Leslie Fiedler called the ‘terrible purity of her life’ is reflected in her parsimonious prose. Here are ten aphorisms that I’ve been reflecting on recently (taken from notebooks and letters, collected in Waiting for God, Gravity & Grace, and Simone Weil: An Anthology):

1. It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day. 

2. Method of investigation: as soon as we have thought something, try to see in what way the contrary is true.

3. It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me.

 4. Social enthusiasms have such power today … that I think it is well that a few sheep should remain outside the fold in order to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different. 

5. To accept the fact that [other people] are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God. I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness. 

6. Love for our neighbor, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius. 

7. We are incapable of progressing vertically. We cannot take a step toward the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us. 

8. I have to be like God, but like God crucified. 

9. The children of God should not have any other country here below but the universe itself, with the totality of all the reasoning creatures it ever has contained, contains, or ever will contain. That is the native city to which we owe our love. 

10. Prayer consists of attention. 

Master

 

 

This is Sawyer. He is a six-month old golden retriever. As you can see, he is formidably cute. It was my pleasure to spend ten days with him in August. My parents were in Kenya at the time, visiting church partners, so I was tasked with watching and training my parent’s dog. I’d never owned a dog, much less trained one, so the experience was an education.

Henry Kissinger once described Lenin’s politics as a continuation of war by other means. Training Sawyer was a sort of inter-species politics, and a war between human and beast by other means. From the start of our time together one thing was clear: Sawyer was not at all clear about who was in charge. During the days we skirmished over walking routes and had stare-downs over meal times. On bad nights he would run in circles on top of the couches in our living room before settling down and sinking his teeth into the feathered-flesh of one of my mother’s pillows. I, in turn, would look at him sternly while I ate a peanut-butter sandwich. 

At the end of the week, tired from a day of half-obeyed commands, I watched P.T. Anderson’s The Master. In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a charismatic science-fiction writer turned leader of a group of spiritual seekers; Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams play his closest acolytes. Things go well at first: Joaquin Phoenix settles down a bit and gets to know this group of seemingly well-balanced folks. But even throughout the early portion of the film, something is off. In scene after scene, and shot after shot, the characters, and the camera, focus on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character. Hoffman, for his part, is buoyant and self-assured — always in command of the room he is in. It’s clear that he is the center for the group he’s formed: in one scene he tells Joaquin Phoenix’s character to walk back and forth between two walls, incanting the words of his choosing, as the group watches for hours. As the film continues, cracks begin to appear. The certainty Hoffman exuded, that the group had fed on, begins to be replaced by doubt. One of his followers, at the release of his ‘second revelation,’ asks him breathlessly about some discrepancies between the first and second. Hoffman reacts angrily and tells her off. The woman, bewildered, leaves him. As the doubts wear at the group, Hoffman increasingly asserts his dominance explicitly. Like flying chairs at a carnival loosed from their center, his followers fly outward, before crashing to earth. Joaquin Phoenix, whose life had been stabilized by the community, careens back into who he’d been before once he realizes he can no longer look to Hoffman for answers.

It was only when the credits rolled that I realized what had been irking me for the whole film: I was a cult leader. And Sawyer was my willful disciple. The same sort of power relations I’d found so reprehensible in a human community, were the basis I’d used for training my parents’ dog. Don “The Dogfather” Sullivan and the authors of Leader of the Pack had informed me that dogs are pack animals, and thus naturally disposed to rigid political hierarchy, and I’d believed them, and acted accordingly. Like Hoffman’s character, I’d established my own will as pre-eminent, and worked to abolish the will of my lone follower (unlike Hoffman, to limited success). Though I wasn’t too concerned — Sawyer is, after all, a dog — I did feel queasy about the analogy with The Master. 

As an undergraduate, I studied International Relations, which examines how nations relate to one another. Toward the end of my time at Wheaton, I grew tired of it: the theories of power I heard seemed crudely fatalistic and exploitative. I grew tired, too, of the way God’s power was sometimes talked about at Wheaton: God was powerful because he always got his way. The link between human power and divine power seemed too seamless, as if God’s rule was simply beneficent bureaucracy writ large. 

There’s a story I love in the book of John; my favorite in all the gospels. In it, Mary Magdalene is alone at Jesus’ tomb, weeping. A man approaches and asks her what is the matter. She replies: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she adds, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” The man replies with a single word: Mary. All at once the meeting is transfigured — for in speaking Mary’s name, Jesus reveals himself. In response, Mary exclaims Rabboni! and clings to him.

The word Mary uses, at this moment of poignant encounter, is Master. With this word, she shows that she recognizes this man who has found her weeping: it is the same Lord who called her, who she followed, and who was just crucified. But she also intimates something about the power of this man: he is her master even as he is her friend.

Rowan Williams, in a lecture entitled “Faith and Human Flourishing,” says that “dependence on God is radically unlike losing a struggle for power; losing your control; losing your autonomy.” God’s power, he says, is “absolute freedom to bring the Other into being, without fear, without rivalry, without anxiety.” God is not anxious to prove himself pre-eminent; his power is creative and hospitable: it is, as the psalmist puts it, “the steadfast love of the Lord.” It is this power that Mary experiences in the garden. 

A natural impulse, when the word power is raised, is to think of politics. It is easy to see power as a competition of wills and as depressingly ubiquitous. It is harder to see power in the quotidian care of a parent for a child, from their days in diapers through their transition to independence. But it is there, and its reverberations are felt in ways diffuse and enduring; love, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13, never ends. Power can be found in the most unremarkable places: Mary found it in the familiar embrace of her friend in a garden. It was this friend, who, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “let himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross” and it is he who manifests true power. For the cross is, as St. Paul writes, “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

Review of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It is a strange glory, the glory of this God.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

At the beginning of this summer, while on a trip out west, I started and finished Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’d been a while since I’d truly been hooked by a book, but the combination of Marsch’s readable prose and lots of free time proved for a riveting weekend of reading. I’d heard a lot of good things about the book — from Wesley Hill’s review in Books & Culture, Alan Jacobs’s recommendation, and the Christianity Today’s Biography of 2015 Award — and the praise is merited. I’ll offer just a few reflections on what I think makes the book distinctive. 

Marsch’s biography is meticulously researched — the degree of detail is truly extraordinary; a result of years spent in Germany, and access to sources other biographers of Bonhoeffer never had. But what is most remarkable is how seamlessly Marsh interweaves anecdotes and historical background, diary entries and selections from Bonhoeffer’s  published work to create a biography that breathes. A unified narrative voice speaks throughout, linking the disparate pieces of Bonhoeffer’s life and times. The voice he offers is also judicious: Marsh does not refrain from making judgments, yet he does so without being intrusive; he is candid about sensitive topics without being sensationalist.

Bonhoeffer was, of course, a man of unusual charisma, conviction and courage. Ultimately he was killed by the Nazis because he believed being a disciple of Christ meant acting contrary to the authorities of the age. Marsch’s fascination and admiration for Bonhoeffer are clear, and inspire the same qualities in the reader. But his prose never succumbs to facile adulation: his portrait is appropriately sympathetic. In a recent piece in First Things, Carl Trueman argues that American evangelicals have anachronistically grafted Dietrich Bonhoeffer into evangelical history. But Marsch steers clear of this temptation: the Bonhoeffer rendered is distinctly German and Lutheran. His theological convictions change over the course of his life, and are rarely as self-assured as those ready to co-opt Bonhoeffer for their own kulturkampf

On a more personal note, this book was revitalizing. As I read Marsch’s account of Bonhoeffer’s life, I was struck by just how richly variegated it was. I had never heard about Bonhoeffer’s time as a junior pastor in Spain, or much detail about his travels in the United States. At the level of a day or a week, life is rarely exciting, but speeding through the story of a extraordinary man, my life seemed full of possibilities. And this, I think, is precisely what a biography should do: turn us from the contemplation of another’s life to a richer understanding of our own.

Warmly recommended.

Leaves of Glass

It took 316 days for it to fall — my one artistic accomplishment a mess of glass shards on the hardwood floor. The sculpture, a self-portrait, was the relic of a lonely summer in college, that I’d made mostly from recycled materials. Now it looked like it would need to be thrown in the garbage. Yet once I picked my way closer to it, I could see that, despite its fall, my sculpture was mostly intact. I placed it back on its shelf, swept up most of the shards, and dabbed up the rest with a piece of wheat bread. 

That was last Tuesday; the same day, incidentally, I bought this website. Ever since graduating from Wheaton, I haven’t had much of an outlet for writing and consequently haven’t written much. I hope to change that here. One of my former professors, Alan Jacobs, writes about the pleasure of reading at whim; this is my attempt to write at whim. 

Of course, there’s something unavoidably hubristic about having one’s own website. As I looked down at my sculpture, prostrate on the hardwood floor, the passage from 1 Samuel 5 came to mind: “when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon [an idol] had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD”. George Orwell, in his essay, “Why I Write” says that the first reason writers write is “sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about.” He’s right, of course: any kind of public writing brings with it the temptation of pride — a temptation I am not immune to, and about which my prostrate sculpture seemed to warn. Still, my motivation to write and to have this site isn’t entirely egotism. 

Orwell goes on: 

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

This too is a motivation. It’s my hope that I will be able to articulate some of the beauty I see around me. While I was in Burundi I wrote a haiku a day for that purpose; I aim to do something similar here in prose. To articulate beauty requires a skillfulness of speech I lack, but can be honed through practice. This is a space for trying. 

And then there’s a third reason Orwell doesn’t mention: Writing is a difficult pleasure. I enjoy it — even when all the right words elude me. I’ve found that the practice of writing focuses my attention, concentrates my memories, and denies me the comfort of thinking I know what I think. And so it is a skill I’d like to practice and cultivate. 

In his essay, Orwell says that writers “desire to share an experience which [they] feel is valuable and ought not to be missed.” Which brings me to you. Ever since there’s been paper, people have shared their lives through written words; with the advent of digital communication, sharing can take place almost in real time. This is my attempt to share some of my life. If you’d like, you can follow along, in any of the usual ways offered by the Internet (RSS, email updates, following the blog). I’ll be posting every week or two, with reflections on life, books, and God. We’ll see where it goes. You can share with me through comments and email and hopefully, you can keep me humble along the way.