Speaking of God

Upon finishing Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust recently, I realized that it was the third introduction to theology I’d read in as many months. I hadn’t meant to read three books on this subject — I read, for the most part, at whim — but I had and so it seemed fitting to reflect on this subject. Here, then, are those reflections. 

Trust. That’s the gloss Rowan Williams gives to what’s usually called faith. By saying “trust” instead of “faith,” Williams is trying to restore the meaning of the word “faith” for Christians and make Christian language accessible to those who don’t speak it. It’s a helpful choice for the reader and a characteristic decision for Williams. A poet, translator, and theologian, the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s career has been marked by an insistence that words lose their meanings over time. It’s also been marked by an endeavor to restore those meanings, by restoring the oddness of Christian speech. 

That endeavor permeates his book Tokens of Trust. Originally given as a series of lectures while he was Archbishop of Canterbury, it is a brief, readable introduction to the Christian faith. The book — like many introductions to theology before it — follows the structure of the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. But if its topics is familiar, its treatment of those topics is not. Consider the discussion of God’s ‘Almightiness’: “God’s power is made clear in his patience and his capacity always to bring something fresh into a situation.” This is so, he writes, “because nothing outside himself can finally frustrate his longing.” This is hardly what comes to my mind when I think about God’s omnipotence, but it’s truer to the witness of Scripture than the image that does.

He demonstrates the same sensitivity to modern confusions on all the topics he discusses: Holiness, he explains, “isn’t a matter of achievement but of relatedness to Christ.” If we want to know what hell is, the best image is “of God eternally knocking on a closed door that we are struggling to hold shut.” Creation isn’t something God did way back when: it’s “an action of God that sets up a relationship between God and what is not God.” So too with angels, purgatory, the divinity of Christ, and the Church. He’s an adept translator of Christian doctrine, attentive to what was said by Christians throughout history and to how those words sound to modern ears. Like someone rubbing dust off of old trophies, each topic he touches shines as if it were new.

Like Rowan Williams, Robert Farrar Capon was an Anglican; unlike him he was an American. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: where Williams’ introduction to theology is a model of restraint, Hunting the Divine Fox is a study in excess. His pudding contains talking oysters, a few choice profanities, and plenty to displease serious Catholics and Protestants alike. It’s a riotous romp through the land of theology. 

This is riotousness with a reason, though: Capon thinks theology has lost its flavor. “What does it matter,” he writes, “if I can prove that lobsters exist, if you’re not interested in seafood at all? The theologian’s real job should be to work up your enthusiasm for the Lobster Himself.” He performs his job admirably. Capon has a vivid imagination and he puts it to good use in this introduction to theology.  

Capon’s energetic exposition isn’t quite as dependable as Williams’, but there’s plenty to taste here, especially in his discussions of the sacraments. A sacrament is, as he puts it, “a signal instance of something that is true everywhere but effectively manifested here.” He uses that definition to reconsider all the traditional Catholic sacraments, leaving plenty for this Protestant to chew through. He ends with Christ. “Because this is a temporal world — and because in a temporal world no mystery is ever visible except under a sign,” he writes, “God sacramentalizes the Incarnation. He presents it under a supreme and effective sign in Jesus.” 

For all his flourishes, Capon has plenty of substance. Beneath his sentences lies thought, study, and years spent serving as a parish priest. He may not be to everyone’s taste — at times he isn’t to mine — but anyone who reads him will see that the restores the taste to theology. And that’s a gift. 

Then there is Robert Jenson, a theologian little read in the church, but widely influential in academia. That will change, hopefully, with the publication of A Theology in Outline. Like Tokens of Trust, this book was originally a series of lectures and so is much more accessible than most of Jenson’s other work. Jenson’s style — here as elsewhere — consists of concision, which means that every sentence yields rich rewards, if it is given sufficient attention. For example: 

The Christian creed says ‘Ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father.’ That is to say, heaven is the right hand of the Father; heaven is where God’s power extends. When God comes to us, he comes from where he wants to bring us. And that “from” is heaven.

Note how carefully Jenson arranges these sentences: each one builds on the previous, like the steps of a syllogism. Jenson’s other chief virtue is illustrated here too: the singularity of his opinions. The definition of heaven he gives here is hardly typical of most Christian theology, nor is his idiosyncratic understanding of time (hinted at in the quote), but both evince deep reflection on God’s revelation. 

And then there are the delightful moments when Jenson’s succinct prose and his singular opinions meet to make memorable sentences: Heidegger was “the 20th century’s wickedest philosopher”; Humans are “praying animals”; He believes in the devil because “there does seem to somebody out there laughing at us”; Christ is the rabbi who interprets Scripture as only its Author could.  

Just as Rowan Williams makes words strange, Robert Jenson makes doctrine strange. At a few points he makes claims that make me genuinely uneasy — God’s identity occasionally sounds like it depends on the world’s — but his vast knowledge of theology makes engaging with him fruitful, even if doing so knocks me off balance. He shows what it is like to talk about a God that has “thrown everything off balance” (in the memorable words of one of Flannery O’Connor’s characters).  

Each of these books is a fine introduction in its own right. If you want a primer in Christian belief, or a graceful re-imagining of the same, Tokens of Trust is the choice. If its imaginative life you seek, look no further than Hunting The Divine Fox. And if you need to be knocked out of complacency, read A Theology in Outline. Each offers, in Jenson’s words, a “taste of Christian theology, that unaccustomed food.” With so many books that make theology just another very serious chore, each of these is a welcome reprieve from all that, an invitation to (in the words of one of my favorite theologians) “a rowdy banquet of those who gather, famished and thirsty, around Christ.”

How To See A Painting

Cestello Annunciation / Sandro Boticelli / 1489 / Tempera on Panel

First, go to a museum. Enter a gallery. There should be paintings on the walls; look them over. Are there any that draw your feet closer? Surely there must be at least one. Do not resist — go to it. 

Now look. Look at it like you looked at your brother: your unblinking eyes fixed on his, determined not to be the first to look away. The painting is your opponent: treat it accordingly. Document every detail. Note its frame, its size, and its colors. Ask questions of it. Entertain answers to those questions long enough to realize their inadequacy. Look at the painting as though it conceals a secret. Your only weapon is your obstinate attention. Wield it well. 

Soon you will realize that you can’t possibly win. The painting has beaten every would-be opponent since its first day in a gallery. And before that it bested the artist, who had stared until she could bear it no more. Prolong your defeat a little longer and look at the painting now as if you were the artist. A single detail hides hours spent painting and scrutinizing and re-painting this portion of the canvas. The painting itself hides a room, where an artist went, day after day, to make what you now see before you. Look with this in mind. As with the artist at the end of a day painting, you will reach a point where your fondness fades and you want to be free from your work. 

Look away. Wander around the gallery. The other paintings are worthy of your attention too; give them some. But do not give yourself to them. Flirt, but chastely: they are not yours and you are not theirs. Notice the red in that painting, the way that one looks like a photograph, how the light falls in the gallery. Soon you will be back before your painting. Prolong the separation a bit longer and read the description of your piece. 

Now look again. Don’t content yourself with a single vantage point. Like a precious stone, a painting only reveals its full glory when seen from every angle. Move around. Find a point in the gallery where the painting shines its particular light. Stay there. People will start to notice you. Good. Then people will start to notice what you’re looking at. Even better. Stay past when people apologize for walking between you and your painting; stay until they don’t see you anymore, until you become part of the furniture of the gallery, like the guard ropes around the paintings or the guards themselves, unseen until a visitor brushes up against a rope. 

You are invisible. Only now can you know what it feels like to be passed over by the hordes, or pointed at and then forgotten. As you stand with your painting, as its fellow, you are now privvy to what was a mystery before. Attention is no longer a weapon to wield, but the hand you extend in friendship. And as with a friend, nothing needs to be done. You can be content to stand in its presence. Before you believed the painting held a secret; now you know that the painting itself is the secret. 

Look just a little more. In a few moments you will begin to wonder whether it is you or the painting who is looking. Then, flee!

The Pleasures of Baking in an Age of Abstraction

I am a conflicted child of the Internet age. Though I try to limit my time online — I don’t have Facebook or a smartphone — it still holds an irresistible appeal for me. On Twitter, I often get lost in a maze of scrolling, tabbing, and linking. Afterward, when I emerge from wherever Twitter is, the room in front of me retains the artificial white of my Mac’s screen, as if the ghost of the digital world remained. Only when my eyes adjust do I notice I’ve been slouching and the slight pain in my back. I feel as if I’ve been absent from my body, and am only just now returning to it. 

Near the beginning of his book The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of DistractionAlan Jacobs recounts how he lost his ability to focus while reading books: the briskness and brevity of reading online had made it difficult for him to be absorbed in a book, something which he’d previously enjoyed without difficulty. The restoration of that pleasure came from an unlikely source: his Kindle. Jacobs found that pressing the ‘next page’ button on a Kindle gave him something to do while reading. With his Kindle in hand, he won back the joys he’d once known and his capacity for sustained attention. 

Distraction, though, is not the only pernicious consequence of time spent online: Abstraction is another. Often, after I close my computer and as I wait for my eyes to adjust, I wonder what unites the world and its backlit representation. What does my Twitter feed of arguments, thinkpieces, and news share with the silent room in front of me? Limited to the sense of sight, the world can seem an abstract entity. So too the self. Words and images cannot capture the idiosyncrasies and dynamism of personality, much less those aspects of identity manifested by the body. Yet our online profiles do represent us, albeit imperfectly, and this introduces a certain cognitive dissonance. Whenever I update my Twitter profile I feel caught between my avatar’s sparkling eyes and my own, squinting to make sure the photo is centered.  

About the same time I started using Twitter more often, I began baking bread. The early results varied in quality, but I enjoyed the process immediately. I loved the way the loaf’s aroma filled my apartment, the dappled crust when it was fresh from the oven, the warmth it gave my hands, and of course, the taste. It took a few months, though, before I knew to listen to my bread. At first, it is silent: shocked by the cool air on this side of the oven door. Then it erupts. The kitchen fills with the sound of the crust expanding and shifting, like continents sliding apart from one another. Now each time I bake I look forward to that moment. More than any other part of baking bread, it is listening to a fresh loaf that joins the pleasures of creating and receiving from creation. In that moment I am a worker and a witness: pleased by this thing my hands have made and surprised by what the world has contributed to it. 

It’s this that frustrates me about time spent online: I have nothing to show for it. As soon as I close my computer, anything I’ve written or read is inaccessible to my senses. And while I rationally know that it still exists, without the assurance of my senses I’m susceptible to the suspicion that it doesn’t. Worse, most of what I read online I don’t discuss with other people, isolating it still more in my memory. Baking, though, gives me something to show. Each loaf is a tangible assurance that I am a self whose actions exist independently of my mind. Bread, too, disappears but it is remembered with the mind and the body, often as the occasion of a meal shared with friends. 

I’ve recently begun preparing dough before going to work. Since I’m absent for most of the day, I can’t give the recommended number of folds, which help strengthen the dough, trapping the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast inside the dough and giving it elasticity. When I get home from work and shape the dough I can usually tell that it doesn’t have the cohesion it should. But baking surprises me. Whatever my missteps in the process, the loaves are always transformed in the oven — misshapen spheres of dough enter, golden domes emerge. Each time I’m grateful for the work the materials themselves do to make up for my incompetence. Pulling a beautiful loaf from the oven after failing to give it the attention it should require feels a lot like grace. 

Baking bread isn’t all pleasure, of course. I’ve burned the bottoms of the last two loaves I’ve baked. I didn’t mean to — I’d forgotten to flour the bottom of the Dutch ovens. The charred result was a reminder, though, that the world exists independent of my will. Iris Murdoch has a lovely passage along these lines. Learning Russian, she writes, “is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Bread may be a reality you can swallow, but this hardly negates her point. Baking reveals a world with constraints — the ingredients, time, and temperature— that reward patient attention. Only by apprenticing myself to the materials can I collaborate with them in creation. 

What renders Twitter so engrossing — its frictionless navigation — is also what renders it surreal. Thanks to superfast connectivity, I can go where I please, when I please, without needing to consider time or space. It is a world without constraints. And yet my Twitter feed is mostly national politics, media brouhahas, and anecdotes of the lives of more people than I could ever know. It is a world at larger-than-human scale, impervious to the will of just one more user. This peculiar combination — ease of navigation and immensity of scale — is alienating. The world and my self seem like twin abstractions, immeasurably distant from one another. 

A finger inadvertently grazing the inside of the oven is enough to bring me back. There’s nothing abstract about a thumb throbbing from contact with metal heated to 475º F. The shock of pain and the resulting welt remind me just how close my self is to this world. And ever since we burned through our oven mitt a few months ago I’ve had plenty of reminders. 

I don’t plan on giving up Twitter any time soon: it’s directed me to places I never would have found otherwise, on and offline. But the time we spend online changes us in ways that are still becoming apparent, in these early days of the Internet. If reading can be a balm for our collective loss of attention, then perhaps baking can help heal the lives we live in abstraction. Often when I’m on the train I’ll be seated next to someone dragging their thumb down their phone’s screen, over and over, refreshing for notifications again and again. What they — and I — need is to be restored to the many pleasures of this world. And the best remedy may be something else to do with our hands, even if it occasions a blistered finger.

Bad Movies and Bad Religion

Over Christmas break, my brother, father, and I went to see “Creed”. My brother, who recently has picked up an interest in boxing, was thrilled to see the film. But I — for reasons somewhere between snobbery and suspicion of films involving Sylvester Stallone — was hesitant. My father wanted me to go, though. It may take some suspension of disbelief, he said, but it will be fun. I went. It was fun. And it turned out the film involved very little suspension of disbelief. Without some of the wilder improbabilities of the previous Rocky films, and with enough playful jabs at the melodrama of those films, “Creed” worked. All of us enjoyed it. 

There are films, though, that work only if you suspend disbelief. Take Pixar’s films, for example. Nearly all of their films are fantastic, in both senses of the word. Each is premised on taking a childhood fantasy seriously — What if our toys came alive when we weren’t around? What if there really are monsters in our closets? — and the result is usually, well, fantastic. Each film asks us to accept the initial premise in order for the world they create to work. And work they do: Pixar’s writers ensure that all the eventualities of their premise work themselves out, in comic and dramatic fashion.

There are other films, though, that only function if an initial suspension of disbelief is prolonged throughout the film. Unlike “Toy Story” or “Monsters Inc.” these films only work if their plot points aren’t examined too closely. “High School Musical” comes to mind. During my own high school career it was all the rage. It featured a dashing cast, catchy songs, and a vision of high school that transcended the banality of the one we went to every day. It was fun. But even in high school, I could see that once you began reflecting on the film, instead of being absorbed in it, the movie fell apart. The plot is predictable, the dialogue clichéd, and the premise absurd. 

Of course, there’s a place for watching movies with one’s critical faculties in abeyance. They can deliver us — temporarily — from our world and into one in which evil is routed and true love rewarded. Sports movies, romances, and action flicks give us a chance to escape. But the pleasures of these films tend to dissipate after a few viewings. It becomes difficult to suppress the feeling that something crudely transactional is taking place, as if happiness can only be purchased at the cost of reflection. 

The job of a critic, writes A.O. Scott, a film critic with the New York Times, is “to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is, to insist on subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny.” This is not, he adds elsewhere, “in order to ruin everyone else’s fun” by pooh-poohing films that are plebeian, but in order to respect the fact that we, as humans, are both emotive and intellective creatures (to borrow from Alyssa Wilkinson’s wonderful review of A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism). Good films bear a little scrutiny. Rather than taking away from the pleasures of film, criticism can provide more enduring pleasures. 

Now, I rarely go to the movies. My income and location in Chicago don’t encourage it. But I do go to church. An aside from a recent lecture by Rowan Williams got me thinking that a similar dynamic is at work in religious experience. He says, “In being invited to confess Christ as divine and human we are not being invited to suspend our intellectual faculties and accept a contradiction, in the good cause of obedient piety. We are being invited to do some hard work.” Faith, in other words, shouldn’t ask us to stop thinking (as if willful ignorance could constitute obedience to God) but to begin thinking inside the realm entered through faith. 

Just as bad movies demand that we suspend our critical faculties in order to enjoy them, bad religion requires something similar of us — that we don’t ask questions, don’t examine the words we confess, don’t have doubts — since that will ruin the experience. And it really will: anyone who has sung some of less artful contemporary Christian worship songs knows that they fall apart under a little inspection. Bad religion fears reflection, since a little critical distance can see cliché, cheap sentimentalism, and predictability for what they are. Like a movie that tries to orchestrate our emotional response, bad religion leaves us feeling like we’ve been manipulated. 

But if poorly made films and poorly done liturgy ask that we leave our intellects at the door, good art and the best of the Christian tradition invite our intellects inside, to explore the world made possible by trust. Let me illustrate with an example. Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an extraordinarily ambitious film. During its 138 minutes of run time, the camera roams from the creation of the universe, to dinosaurs doing battle, to a group of small boys frolicking in the wake of a truck spraying pesticides. Unlike most films, “The Tree of Life”, does not tell a protaganist’s story, but the whole narrative of life itself. Where most films are driven by dialogue, “The Tree of Life” is impelled by the force of its images. For many, it was a frustrating film: critics lamented the hubris of trying to tell a story about all of life; viewers found it boring. They weren’t willing to accept Malick’s premise and so they didn’t trust the film. Others, like A.O. Scott, did trust the film. And because of that trust they were able to appreciate the beauty of the strange world that Malick renders. Scott writes that the film “stak[es] out well-traveled territory and excavat[es] primal, eternal meanings.” “The Tree of Life,” he says, “ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them.” 

Like “The Tree of Life,” Christianity requires trust. We can’t enter without some faith in the story it tells. But once we cross the threshold we are rewarded by the world we are given. We begin to see the beautiful coherence of this world and the rewards that come from trying to understand it. Those who make a habit of thinking about God can understand the extraordinary architecture of the world of God, just as a film critic can find rich themes in details the casual viewer would miss. 

And yet, there comes a time when even the critic is at a loss for words, if only temporarily. That moment came for me when the credits of “The Tree of Life” rolled. I stayed in my seat. Someone began to applaud to my left, but I was silent. I didn’t know what to say or do. What had I just seen? I knew I would need to watch the film again to know. Pure worship of God does something like that. It presents us with a bewildering excess of meaning, before which we can only fall silent. 

A Pilsen Quartet

I. 

On December 2nd, fire built another hole where a Pilsen building used to be. A few months previous, an apartment building two blocks north of ours erupted in flames. They say it was arson, retaliation for some betrayal. The corner still smells like charcoal. The summer before, a house in our alley blackened overnight. This most recent building, though, was special. It was Nuevo Leon, a Mexican restaurant at the heart of Pilsen. I’d been there many times. And now on the radio, on the way to work, this: “A Pilsen establishment burned down last night, the popular restaurant Nuevo Leon…”

It was a remarkable place. One night I stayed till closing, helping a friend finish writing her birthday bucket list. We added a half marathon, a trip abroad, salsa dancing lessons. Just then, a waitress took the hand of a surprised busboy, laughing over his protests, twirled, danced with him up a few stairs, around a vacant table. We watched, rapt, glad to be graced by this spontaneous scene. 

It’d been there for fifty years, an anchor of good tortas and tostadas in a neighborhood buffeted by change. Pilsen families and couples came for breakfast, tourists from abroad and artists from Halstead Street for dinner. It was an intersection point for lines that otherwise never crossed. They say someone left a burner on, that there were drums of oil uncovered, an employee napping on the level above had smelled and it had been too late. The owners say they will rebuild. It was insured, after all. 

I jogged past a week after the fire, just to be sure it wasn’t some mistake. Plastic construction sheets covered up what wasn’t there. 

II.

The lake lies four miles east of Pilsen, much too far for it to be visible even on clear days. In Hyde Park, I lived just a few blocks from the water. There was a comfort in that. I could escape to a vista unfenced by apartment roofs or industrial chimneys. Or, in the summer, I could escape the heat by going for a swim. Could that is, since I rarely did. Still, there was a liberty in knowing there was something capacious nearby. 

There is water, too, in Pilsen: just south of it, a small strip of the Chicago river. In the morning, the banks brim with light from the rising sun, like the skyscrapers downtown. But unlike skryscrapers or the railroad tracks and factories that surround around it, this part of the river is gratuitous for the city’s purposes. It’s relative obsolescence for human use — transport, fishing, or energy — gives it a certain charm. Its only service is to be a boundary between Pilsen and Bridgeport. 

The Loomis Street bridge straddles this divide. Once, while crossing the bridge on my bike, a man in an unmarked car told me to get off the sidewalk. I did as he said. As I finished crossing, I realized he hadn’t had a badge. I noticed a few feet further on a man standing guard, with a shirt that said simply ‘Security.’ I left. My mind, naturally, explored the most unnatural explanations: a secret rendez-vous, drug runners, business down by the water. I thought of calling the police and asking, but thought better of it. Nothing came of it. 

III.

The air is bad here. Smog, like fog on a cold day, sometimes coalesces on the ground into a fine silt. 

A few weeks ago a car was parked next to the fire hydrant in front of my apartment. This was not unusual, so I didn’t notice the first time I passed it. On returning to my apartment, though, I saw a few neighbors gathered around the green sedan. I joined them. There were holes in the glass. Around each were circles of white, like the crest of a wave frozen in a photo. It happened last night, they said, just around the corner. They pointed to the red streaks on the driver’s seat belt.

The week after I’d seen the car, I went on my usual run around the park. I was on my third lap, the second to last, when I felt some strange vibration in the air and heard shouts from a group of boys across the street. I skipped a step. I stopped. I saw something black in one of their hands, then I saw them disperse, exultant. Airsoft guns. They hadn’t hit me, but thought they had. I continued my run, watching for them when I came to the same spot again. They were gone by then. 

IV.

There is very little earth to see in Pilsen. I notice on my runs around the neighborhood. Even for my urban sensibilities, greenery is too sparse here. It is as if the neighborhood was modest, and so covered itself in concrete clothing to hide its verdure. Only when I run down Cullerton do I get a glimpse of what lies beneath. It’s quiet on Cullerton. Because it lies between 18th and Cermak, there aren’t many cars and despite the feel of a boulevard, there aren’t any shops. Quiet, too, because trees from both sides of the street stretch and meet above the middle, creating a natural colonnade that shelters the street from noise. In the fall, it looks like a tunnel of fire. 

Heraclitus famously believed all things were essentially fire. Into an infernal, eternal flux everything came and went, and the fire continued. His fellow pre-Socratics, Anaximenes and Thales, preferred air and water as the basic stuff of the universe. No philosopher, to my knowledge, has chosen earth. 

What makes this place Pilsen? The evidence seems to support Heraclitus; fire and flux are familiar here. But there is also the earth. All these apartments, restaurants, and stores have sprung up from the dirt between Halstead and Western or from the ashes of a building that came before. Perhaps Pilsen isn’t fire alone, but earth forged by fire, earth destroyed and recreated, like a brick in the facade of Nuevo Leon.

Space for Friendship

I met my best friend in fourth grade. Tim was new to my school and to the city. Our first playdate was spent rummaging through my giant bin of K’Nex for pieces to construct our skeletal skyscrapers, mostly in silence. He was, like me, naturally bookish and reserved, so it did not take long for us to become friends. Our friendship was built around things we both enjoyed — construction toys, Lord of the Rings, and math — which, as we aged, became activities embedded in communities and institutions— after school Algebra, AYSO soccer, youth group and Academic Decathlon. As middle school ended, and with it the imperative to have a best friend, my social circle expanded, but Tim and I would continue to be friends through high school. 

Since then, I have given up K’Nex: I have found other ways to spend time with my friends. But I miss the materiality of my childhood friendships; then ‘being friends’ meant constructing a fort together or sharing an earbud on the busride home. Like many graduates of private colleges, I now live and work far from many of my friends from college. I’m very happy to live with my closest friends, and yet even with them I lack the common purpose and space our college’s campus supplied. 

And so I was eager to read Wesley Hill’s new book, Spiritual Friendship. I have followed Hill’s work since I read his first book Washed and Waiting, an elegant reflection on being a gay Christian called to celibacy. Now a Professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, Hill brings a more capacious perspective to this book, while still supplying the personal urgency that animated his first.

The problem with friendship today, as Hill sees it, is that it is a relatively weak bond. Freudian suspicion, an unhealthy exaltation of marriage, and the premium we in the West place on personal autonomy, Hill says, have made it hard to be good friends. All true, and I think Hill is right to focus on the last, perhaps most actionable cause. As he says, “What we need now isn’t disinterested, disembodied companionship. We need stronger bonds between brothers and sisters in Christ. We need ways to voluntarily surrender our freedom and independence and link ourselves, spiritually and tangibly, to those we’ve come to love.” While this way may require us to sacrifice our freedom to choose, it gives us the freedom to be something, that is, a friend.

What kind of friendships does Hill have in mind? Here he is at his very best, leading us at a dash through the history of friendship. Fittingly, he brings along a whole company of friends: theologians Pavel Florensky and Dietrich Bonhoeffer drop by, as do writers aplenty — Iris Murdoch and Tom Stoppard — along with screenwriters and visual artists. The primary figures, though, are C.S. Lewis (especially “The Four Loves”) and Aelred of Rievaulx, whose own treatise supplies the name for Hill’s (and for the group blog Hill helped create). It is in Aelred’s time that Hill finds the prototype he is searching for: the practice of “vowed friendships.” Up until the modern period, vows were a way for friends to affirm their mutual commitment and ask publicly for their communities to help them uphold their commitments to one another. 

In the second half of his book, Hill sets forth a vision for what “vowed friendship” could look like today. Overall this is a helpful and perceptive vision, though I wish Hill had provided more. I appreciated his inclusion of the story of the failure of one of his own friendships; a sobering and necessary reminder of what is at stake in any relationship of depth. In the closing chapter he recommends some specific practices to enrich our friendships: acknowledging our need for friendship, choosing to stay with friends, and practicing friendship in community. It is this last practice I would like to examine in a bit more depth.

*

Growing up, what I loved about K’Nex was that each creation did something: the sum of these spindly sticks and their connectors was more than their plastic parts. I built clocks and tanks, roller coasters and vending machines, and with them won a few minutes of appreciative attention from my parents. My friendship with Tim was like the K’Nex towers we’d first bonded over: a structure that was composed of the pre-made forms of our adolescent activities, that ultimately did something: brought us together. Without the institutions — our AYSO league, Chicago Public Schools, Academic Decathlon — and the communities within those instutitions — our soccer team, our after-school algebra group, our Acadec team — our friendship would have had no space to form. 

In adolescence, friendship’s uses are obvious: friends make crowded cafeterias tolerable, help us with our math homework and, in the secrecy of a sleepover, listen to us talk about things we never could otherwise. These uses, and the friendships that form because of them, come from finding and spending time with friends in common spaces: a cafeteria, a soccer field, an attic. It is no surprise, then, that I formed my best friendships in college, in the confines of the classroom, dorm floor, and cafeteria. 

After college, though, those common spaces dropped away: most of my life in Chicago is spent in spaces of intimacy or anonymity. In spaces of intimacy, I can enjoy time with friends in the quietness of their apartments, but these spaces lack the communal character that, as Hill points out, friendships need to be sustained and to extend beyond themselves. Meanwhile, spaces of anonymity — buses, bars, supermarkets — afford few opportunities for striking up friendship, since they lack the constancy and constraint of a common space (unlike, say, a small town grocery store). Common spaces, ones where we can’t choose who is there, but where there is the possibility of repeated encounter, are hard to find after college. Perhaps increasingly so in our society, if the success of companies that enable us to choose who we spend time with (Uber, Tindr, GrubHub etc.) is any indication. 

Hill rightly notes that our ability to always choose debilitates our friendships. But he underestimates, I think, one of the ways our premium on choice has undermined our friendships: the loss of common spaces. This is bad for finding friends — as Alan Jacobs once pointed out in a Digital Literature course, when we can always choose, serendipity can’t operate— but it is worse for deepening existing friendships, since friends often need the support and purpose that come from outside the perimeter of their friendship. For Tim and me, that support and purpose came through our school, our church, and our soccer league — spaces made possible by institutions. For my parents, these same spaces enabled them to make and deepen their own friendships. Single people, though, like myself and Hill, are not bound by necessity to institutions in the same way children and their parents are, and for that reason are less likely to reap the benefits of the common spaces institutions create. And as singleness extends later — the average age of marriage for Americans is now 29 for men and 27 for women (the highest in modern history) — or is lifelong (for those, like Hill, called to celibacy), that will apply to more people. 

If Hill is correct that “friendship can and should be understood along the lines of a vowed or committed relationship, much like a marriage or a kinship bond” (and I think he is), then the common spaces where friendships can be found and flourish will need to be revitalized. How can that happen? To Hill’s helpful suggestions at the end of his book, I would add that we might start by checking our innate distrust of institutions, by more readily putting up with places where we don’t know everyone, and by committing to a few common spaces. And perhaps the best common space to commit to is a local church. Sunday morning is one of the few times during the week where I am in a space with strangers and have a realistic chance of striking up a friendship. It is certainly not always an easy place to meet people. But at its best it can be, as my pastor put it in yesterday’s homily, “a school for love.”

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy,” Rowan Williams writes in The Body’s Grace. If the church is to fulfill this calling, it will need to take more seriously the vocation of friendship and work to make spaces for Christians to live out this calling. Spiritual Friendship is a welcome introduction to that endeavor. 

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.

 

 

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.