A Room of One’s Own

Why have there not been more great works of art by women? This is the question around which Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” spins. Its widening ellipses—one almost sees them on the paper, the pendulum swinging from the still point above—trace a path from Jane Austen to Christina Rossetti to Woolf’s own day. The reader need not recoil from dizziness, though, since the whole is balanced by Woolf’s confident, conversational tone. One almost feels one is with her, trespassing on the college green and pulling tomes from the shelves of the British Library. One wishes it were possible, she seems so amiable. For all her dissent from the norms of her time she has none of the shrill of a dissident and all of the dexterity of a wit. How deftly she skewers her opponents! Her case is admirably simple: a lock on the door and a check in the mail are necessary to write great work. Who are we to disagree? It is just these, she says, that have been denied women until the present time. Without privacy and material independence we cannot expect great art. Let us be glad she was afforded both. 

Between Hideous Covers

I live a double life. One life is evident to all—or at least to those who observe me at home or at work—but the other, which punctuates the former, is invisible. This is my life in books. That I read is probably obvious even to a casual observer, but watching someone read and reading are as different as observing a meal and enjoying it. Or, for that matter, looking at a book’s cover art and reading its contents. Here’s a look past those covers, into some of the books I liked best this year. 

2016 was a good year for reading. I read quite a bit and found a few authors I look forward to reading more. It was not a good year for cover art. All my favorite books of the year had terrible covers. Fortunately, appearances did not deter me—in each case I had it on good authority that the book was better than might be suspected. I’m glad I did. 

I’m not the first to think that my favorite fiction books this year, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, look like sleazy romance novels. I am, I know, at least a year late to Elena Ferrante’s parade. Belatedly, then: believe the hype—the Neapolitan Quartet is breathtaking (and not in a sleazy way). Each book is engrossing, enwrapping the reader in the mind of Elena Greco and the city she lives in, Naples. And the prose simply flies. If much modern literary fiction (that is, what I read of it) operates at the level of sentences, Ferrante’s plays on paragraphs and pages. I ingested the books accordingly. I’m looking forward to rereading My Brilliant Friend, though I’ll need my friends (ahem) to return it first. My thanks to Alan Jacobs for his review. It moved the book from “I’ll get around to it sometime” to my shopping cart. 

Last year I discovered (and became slightly obsessed by) Simone Weil. It may be too early to tell, but I think this is the year of Herbert McCabe. His life wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Weil’s, nor are his opinions quite so esoteric, but his writing has the same force. He combines the clarity of his master, Thomas Aquinas, with the verve of his model, G.K. Chesterton. I’m currently finishing my third book of his, the coyly titled, posthumously published God Still Matters. Like the others, it’s a plainly written and frequently thrilling book of theology; don’t let the cover art scare you off. For a taste, try his extraordinary homily on forgiveness.

I finished up most of Simone Weil’s published work with The Need for Roots. The brilliance she displays in her collection of aphorisms (Gravity and Grace) and her selected letters (Waiting for God) is here in her comprehensive critique of French society during the second world war. Neither her criticisms nor her recommendations were taken seriously, of course (Charles de Gaulle thought she was crazy), but they deserve close attention. Unlike so much political criticism in her time and ours, The Need for Roots digs deeper than metrics to the spiritual roots of her polity’s malaise. I wish someone would do the same for ours.  

If Simone Weil is a cocktail of Plato and Marx, garnished with the life of Christ, the other major book of philosophy I read this year, After Virtue, swaps out Plato for his pupil, Aristotle. It’d been on my list for a while and I’m glad I got around to reading it. McIntyre’s interlocking account of narrative, the virtues, and the good life is quite convincing, especially since his vision of the moral confusions of our days is so damning. Every time I read ‘justice’ now I wonder what the author means by that word. As a bonus it put me on a Thomistic kick—even if After Virtue is heavier on Aristotle than it is on Thomas—for which I’m very grateful. 

Alas, this year I read far too little poetry. I have no excuse for my failure: my roommate was gobbling it up and I could have easily picked up one of the books he’d recently sampled. Mark me down for more Les Murray, Seamus Heaney, and Jane Kenyon next year.

I’m making my way through Marilynne Robinson’s novels again. Housekeeping is, again, sublime. It has an austere beauty that’s quite distinct from the luminosity of Gilead. It pairs quite well with one of my favorite essays of Robinson’s, My Western Roots. Other fiction books of note include Anna Karenina, which deserves a far closer reading than I gave it, and The End of the Affair, a book that reminded me quite a lot of Simone Weil. And in nonfiction: The World Beyond Your Head, which is the best book I read that was actually written in 2016; Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, which continues my streak of reading a poet’s non-fiction and not their poetry; and a hat tip to Wesley Hill for putting me on to Robert Farrar Capon. The complete list of what I read this year is here

One thing I hope to do more of in the coming year is reading upstream. I did a bit of that—from Lesslie Newbiggin’s exceptional The Gospel In a Pluralist Society (about which I hope to write more) I went to Alasdair McIntyre who, in turn, directed me to Herbert McCabe—but I hope to get a little further upstream than I ventured this year. I haven’t read many ‘greats,’ the authors to whom the authors I read often refer. Plato and Marx and Augustine and Aquinas have endured neglect without complaint till now. 2017, I hope, will be the year I give one of them some well-merited attention.

Five Ways Aquinas Has Taught Me

I’m often familiar with a person’s reputation before I make that person’s acquaintance. It happens with people and, just as often, it happens with authors (though I suppose they are people too). Recently a string of authors–people I’d come to respect a great deal–spoke reverently of an writer whom I hardly knew. That person was Thomas Aquinas. Now, him and I are not total strangers–I was assigned part of his Compendium of Theology in college–but I haven’t touched his Summa Theologiae and felt I hardly knew him. But as I read Robert Farrar Capon, Denys Turner, G.K. Chesterton and Herbert McCabe, new discoveries themselves, I got to know Aquinas too, whose personality animated the pages of each successive book. Taken together they rendered a writer of unusual clarity and sense.

St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225 - 1274 CE
St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225 – 1274 CE

I’m embarrassed to admit I have not opened any of the Angelic Doctor’s books since these commendations. I expect I will and that I’ll be the better for it. For now, though, he intimidates me. Neither his style nor his subject matter make him easy to read (Flannery O’Connor, who read him every night before bed, notwithstanding) and I mostly read at whim. Still, I’ve learned a great deal from the “dumb-ox” and his winsome 20th century disciples. I don’t think the fact that my friendship remains at one remove should preclude me from sharing what I’ve learned (though I apologize to all serious students of the man and particularly Denys Turner). Without further ado, here are five ways Aquinas has taught me about God.

01.    God is beyond category. (Or, why God is not the best.)

One often hears that God is “ the biggest,” “the strongest,” and “the best.” The question to ask is, of what? To say that God is better than this morning’s sunrise, a Monet, or a farmhouse ale is not to compliment the divine. It is a category error. For God to be superlative is to presuppose that God shares something with what he is compared to. But what could God and any thing have in common? As Pseudo-Dionysus wrote, God is beyond both similarity and difference. There are, of course, places in Scripture where God is said to surpass other things, but this is only to point to the fundamental distinction between Creator and creation and the distance between them. Aquinas rightly recognized that the distance is infinite. God is beyond category.

02.    Creation describes God’s relation to the world, not simply a past event. (Or, how to not be a deist.)

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So begins Genesis and with it the interminable debates about what happened way back when. What’s interesting, though, and usually missing from these debates, is that Jews and Christians have traditionally interpreted these verses to mean that God created out of nothing. (Actually nothing, not inchoate pre-matter, a blander version of Play-Doh, but nothing at all.) Creation ex nihilo, says Aquinas, implies that all that is receives its being from the one Christ called Father. Without God’s loving attention at any moment I, my copy of Aquinas’ Compendium, and the dust gathering atop it, would cease to be. Creation describes that fact. Though ‘creation’ is also used to describe the beginning of the world, its more important meaning is one of relation: the loving attention God gives to all that is in each successive moment. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” 

03.    God’s freedom does not compete with our freedom; it enables it. (Or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love God’s will.)

Denys Turner's excellent biography
Denys Turner’s excellent biography

Christians get in all sorts of binds when they talk about the sovereignty of God and free will. Often, I suppose, that’s because God and humans are seen as part of some category, only God’s nearer the front than humans. On the one hand, then, there’s a great deal of anxiety about knowing and doing God’s will, and on the other, the (terrible) certainty that everything that happens must be God’s will. Thomas insists that this view is all wrong: God’s freedom does not compete with my freedom; it is its source. Just as God is beyond all category, God’s will and mine do not exist on the same plane, which means they cannot come in conflict. Any event, says Thomas, following Aristotle, has a number of causes. For instance, if I were to jump out of an airplane, the muscles in my legs, my decision to jump, and God’s continued will that I exist in that moment would all be causes of one action. Put negatively this means that nothing I do can transgress the bounds of God’s intent. Positively it means that God’s will can never be frustrated. 

04.    A soul is the life of a body. (Or, why your soul is not going anywhere.)

There’s a terrible C.S. Lewis quote that, like most terrible quotes associated with the man, is misattributed. It goes like this: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” It’s a particularly blunt summary of a tradition that places the body and soul in hierarchical if not entirely oppositional terms. One wishes Paul had chosen less confusing words than “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” but the blame lies with gnostic and Platonist metaphysics and their cultural progeny. What Aquinas offers is a different way to talk about the relation between bodies and souls. The soul, he says, is the body’s life, what makes it go. It isn’t a distinct entity. Which is why, when you die, your body must be resurrected for you to enjoy life with God forever. There is no ‘you’ without your body. 

05.    Our desires and the virtues find their end in God. (Or, how to not choose between happiness, virtue, and immortality)

We might categorize Christians in three groups: those that emphasize happiness, others that stress virtuous living, and still others that want to talk only about God. Each tends to view the others with suspicion, cognizant that each is missing something. Aquinas would trouble our scheme. For him, desire, virtue, and God are all bound up together. What we desire, says Aquinas, drawing on Augustine, is God, who is the end of our happiness. But we throw up all sorts of obstructions by our vicious conduct. The virtues, for Aquinas, are the means by which, through God’s grace, we live happily. The aim of both our desires and the virtues is God. We can only attain this aim once, as Job puts it, our flesh is destroyed. Yet in our flesh shall we see God.

Wit and Wisdom

I recently reread G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. I’d liked it when I first read it a few years ago, but at the time I hadn’t been sure what to do with some of Chesterton’s more dubious assertions and hadn’t given it too much thought. I’m not sure I’ll give it too much thought this time either—I don’t think it’s the sort of book that needs it—but I do want to register here that I found it thrilling this time, from start to end. The man has style. Unlike most of the books I read—serious books about serious subjects—Orthodoxy is blessedly free of self-seriousness, however serious the subject matter. I can’t think of another nonfiction book I’ve found half as fun. That’s a testament to Chesterton’s command of English, since sustaining a light tone without being merely frivolous is a good deal harder than telling it straight. Of course, Chesterton puts it better himself: “Solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light.”

the man himself
the man himself

There are plenty of one-liners in Orthodoxy. My favorite is this subtle jab: “Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.” It’s for good reason that Chesterton is still so often quoted today; He was a wit. But this might give the impression that Orthodoxy consist entirely of verbal slam-dunks, when each one-liner requires a great deal of preceding play to come off. Nearly all of them come at the end of a paragraph, as summaries of an argument he’s just laid out, and the paragraphs are just as lively as his famous one-liners.

At the end of a digression on language that begins the chapter “The Romance of Orthodoxy Chesterton writes this: “The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.” Orthodoxy is written with that principle in mind, which is one of the reasons it is so readable. Chesterton chooses short words whenever he can and avoids jargon altogether. The whole book is a good reminder that clarity of prose demonstrates clarity of thought and that confusion on the reader’s part often indicates the same on the author’s. 

But all this might lead one to think that Chesterton is merely a stylist, or worse, a sophist. Chesterton’s fondness for paradox might lead one to the same conclusion, since paradox is so often employed today by people too indiscriminate to tell the difference between a contradiction and a paradox or too lazy to do the same. There’s muscle, though, beneath the lovely skin of Chesterton’s prose. His wit is full of wisdom. Take this passage:

“We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening. No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?”

a fortunate find at Open Books - Pilsen
a fortunate find at Open Books – Pilsen

There’s something essential here about what it’s like to be a Christian, to believe that evil and good and sin and grace are real and to act accordingly. And it captures the excitement of living between these convictions, refusing to settle for just one or the other.

Sometimes one feels that Chesterton thought it would be too much effort to get up from his writing desk and see whether what he’d written was, in fact, the case. Sometimes he’s wrong. But he takes chances, and there’s something to be said for that. Much writing today is so modest in its claims one wonders if the writer has—not an excess of scrupulosity—but a lack of courage. I suppose I put up with some of the shortcuts Chesterton takes since I think he’s headed in the right direction. That direction is, of course, orthodoxy. It is as true today as it was in Chesterton’s time that orthodoxy seems a dull thing; a conformity to the theological standards of a bygone era. All the fun seems to be in rebellion. Orthodoxy, whatever its faults, demonstrates that precisely the opposite is the case. In Chesterton’s words, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Perhaps the best thing to say about this book is that, for all the wild gymnastics of its prose, Chesterton sticks the landing.

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.