Another Crucifixion

I spent half a day in Cleveland recently and I’m very glad part of the time was spent at the (free) Cleveland Museum of Art. The Italian Renaissance room, in particular, was wonderful. On one side were paintings in which the human form appeared bright and idealized. On the opposing were more naturalistic paintings and in the center was this one by Caravaggio.

It’s readily apparent that this is not a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion–the rope on the subject’s arms and his age suggest another crucifixion. I wasn’t familiar enough with Church tradition to identify this as St. Andrew but the description remedied my ignorance. Perhaps because I’m much more familiar with scenes of Christ’s crucifixion, as I looked at this painting I kept comparing it to those I’d seen before. Similarities and dissimilarities are evident at once. St. Andrew, like Christ, is the focus of the piece, and yet one senses that the true center lies outside the frame, as his eyes and the light on the right suggest. In both there is contorted flesh but blood is notably absent from this picture. One’s eyes are drawn immediately to St. Andrew’s right side–the spot where Christ was pierced–only to see that it is unharmed. 

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” As Lent begins I hope to carry this image with me as a reminder that discipleship is loving imitation, and not a replacement, of what Jesus did for us. 

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.”

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. 

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.

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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.

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.