Four True Pilgrims

[A review of Paul Elie. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003. 472 pages plus notes and index.]

Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy lived parallel 20th century lives, often overlapping, as Catholic pilgrims, writers and searching human beings. This book seeks to make sense of their lives, to show their existential explorations, to illustrate the ways in which they influenced the world and each other, and it does so remarkably well. Thomas Merton, the Columbia graduate become Trappist Monk. Dorothy Day a journalist struggling to find her way in the world becomes Catholic reformer. Flannery O’Connor a southerner whose sole ambition was to become a Catholic writer of fiction, and Walker Percy trained as a doctor, nearly dying of TB and then leaving medicine to write. As Paul Elie puts it, “Four like-minded writers had become aware of one another . . . Already they are skeletally joined, as members of a body are joined. They will have no headquarters, no neighborhood, no university fiefdom or corner bar. They will write no manifesto pose for no group portrait. Their unity, rather, will be that of pilgrims who are taking different routes to the same destination . . .” (p. 200)

Three were converted Catholics and one (O’Connor) was a Catholic from birth, but all would wrestle with the meaning of their faith in the 20th century post-modern world. Each would share many of their struggles with the world through their published writings, and in some cases with one another. Day and Merton would never meet face-to-face but would carry on an extensive correspondence. Percy and O’Connor, both southerners, would meet only once yet Percy, the last of these four to die, would claim “Flannery” as his friend. The four would share several mutual friends whose roles in their lives would help carry their stories forward. All the while, as their stories are being told, we are getting a history lesson that spans from World War I through to Viet Nam, and much in between. We find that Dorothy Day was inspired by the work of Rose Hawthorne, the little-known (but my students should know) daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. They will all reject the “modern liberal Protestantism” that turns “religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power . . .” [quoted from a letter of O’Connor’s, pp. 340, 341].

All four would in one way or another continue to answer for themselves and for others, “Why believe?” And each in his or her own way would seek to answer this perennial question in writing, sometimes in fiction writing, most notably Percy and O’Connor. Their styles were radically different, reminding us that there is more than one way to seek and arrive at the same destination, that truth, while not relative is richly manifold. Percy would speak for all of them in answering the self-assigned question, Why not just believe in “scientific humanism?” His reply; “This life is too much trouble, far to strange, to arrive at the end of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e. God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less.” (p 446).

This is one of the most engaging books I have read in a while. It kept me up at night and eager to see what would happen next in these four engaging intertwined lives. Highly recommended.

Human Nature a la Mark Twain

 

Since my previous post about Human Nature I have come across some interesting remarks about Mark Twain’s declining views about human nature in his later life. These remarks are found in the interesting book by John T. Frederick titled, The Darkened Sky: Nineteenth-century American Novelists and Religion. It is observed here that from the 1870’s onward Twain wrote increasing scathing pieces about humans. These views were indirect in books like The Innocents Abroad, The Gilded Age and The Prince and the Pauper. It was to be in smaller writings like “The Curious Republic of Gondour” and “Some Learned Fables, For Good Old Boys and Girls.” These contain what Frederick describes as “rather vicious satire aimed directly at religious notions and slogans, . . .The chief target of the work, however, is human nature itself . . .” (pgs. 148, 149) By this time Twain had rejected historic Christian orthodoxy while standing fast on his belief in one God, and maintaining a substantial reverence for the person of Jesus Christ, while denying his divinity.

Yet it is after this rather dark period that Twain, in the 1880’s finally completes Huckleberry Finn, and his views of human nature in that book are far from homogenous. While there are contemptuous people portrayed, there are also people of positive goodness like Jim and Huck himself. As the story of Mark Twin continues to unfold his life will be first blessed with wealth, followed by personal tragedies and losses, and then financial ruin. Throughout this time, apparently until his death, he struggled and wrote about his continued belief in God but his decreasing confidence in the significance of Man. So, as a representative person, Twain in many ways forecast what we see now about one hundred years after his death.

Robert Adams

Robert Adams, former English teacher turned photographer, has been described as a philosopher of photography. His two books, Beauty in Photography and Why People Photograph, certainly authenticate his credentials. Of the two I especially appreciate the former. He argues that form is the essence of beauty, and makes this claim about its importance: “Why is form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.” (pg. 25) There is a touch of existentialism in his position as he notes, I believe rightly, that, “With a camera, one has to love individual cases. A photographer can describe a better world only by better seeing the world as it is in front of him.” (pg. 26) Furthermore, “Photography can always be new, because the surface of life keeps changing.” (pg. 84) Perhaps this is part of the attraction of street photography today. This is a small book of only 108 pages published by Aperture, and it is surely worth the read.

Why People Photograph is a collection of essays written since the publication of Beauty in Photography. If you were to come to this book hoping for an answer to the question, why do people photograph you would be disappointed. These are essays and reviews written, as the forward says, “for a variety of occasions.” As with the former book he ranges widely in quoting from his own readings; Aristotle, Aquinas, William Carlos Williams, C. S. Lewis and Keats, to name a few. And as with the former, there are wonderful quotable lines like, “A saints gift to us is a life, but an artist’s is mainly a vision.” (pg. 90) Again, “Art does not deny that evil is real but it places evil in a context that implies an affirmation . . .” (pg. 181)

Both of these books will reward the thoughtful reader whether a photographer or one who simply appreciates the arts.

[This is a simultaneous post on both of my blogs.]

Human Nature

As I watched the dystopian story Divergent with two teen girls (my younger daughter and her friend who call themselves fangirls) I was struck by the claim of the female leader of the intellectuals that the problem is “human nature.” In a world where higher education increasingly devalues the Humanities in favor of hard science and technology (I speak as a Humanities teacher) this makes sense, and may be believed by more people than we think. In his book The Face of God, Roger Scruton puts his finger on the problem: “Take away religion, however; take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’, which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind, and with it our kindness.” (pg. 72)

The biblical story of humans created in the image of God is the high water mark for idealism about human nature. But it is curious to me that another film I recently watched, Noah, puts the ideal of the image of God on the lips of the villain rather than Noah, who comes across for part of the story as more of an anti-human environmentalist than a man of God who owns the sixth day of the creation narrative. Of course the villain misuses the concept to serve himself. Nevertheless, Noah, or someone in his onboard ark family, could have said something to redeem the image ideal while he was ranting about killing the newborn girls. But it was not to be in this Hollywood version of the story. Are these two films telling us something about the popular mood toward formerly sacred beliefs? Of course they are. That is what art and entertainment does best.

The Scariest Verse in the Bible

It would be an interesting exercise to ask a group of people who are biblically literate what they think is the scariest verse in the Bible. My expectation would be that some passage in the Apocalypse would come to mind. However, I have another opinion on the subject. I think the scariest verse in the Bible may be Isaiah 1:15, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I look the other way; when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen . . .” (NET Bible) I think there is nothing worse than being ignored, treated as if your words and person are of no account. For me, the idea of being ignored by God, of praying without hope of being heard is the scariest of all thoughts. Any problem can be overcome if God is listening. Just search the Psalms, for example, for the word “hear” and see how often the Psalmist pleads with God to hear him, or confesses his faith that God does hear him. This is the great comfort for all biblical believers; that God hears and is attentive. This is why Jesus offers the comforts that he does by saying we are more valuable than the sparrows, and God takes note of each one of these (Matthew 10:29-31). To be truly heard is to be respected and loved. To be ignored is to be disrespected and perhaps hated, or simply not considered at all. We have all, probably, been ignored by other people in our lives, and it is painful, sometimes intensely so. But to be ignored by God is the same as being cast to the outer darkness. That is why I think Isaiah 1:15 may be the scariest verse in the Bible.

The Cloisters

For people of faith and people just interested in historic European religious art and architecture a visit to the Cloisters in northern Manhattan is a must while in the vicinity of New York.

The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, New York City.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has gathered relics and parts of monasteries from many places in Europe and the United States into one place and reconstructed them to form a beautiful museum.

Gothic Chapel in The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, New York City.

The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, New York City.

The museum contains over 2,000 works of art and most of it dates from the 12th through the 15th century European period.

The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, New York City.

This is a peaceful place. One could imagine lingering here all day in meditative thought and prayer, or at least serenity of soul and freedom from the pressures and pains of daily life.

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I cherish the memory of my visit last year and hope to return soon. In fact I wish I was there right now.

The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, New York City.

The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, New York City.

If I lived in NYC visits to the Cloisters would be a regular routine.

Big Country

In the 1958 movie, The Big Country there is a wonderful fight scene between the characters played by Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. The drama is set up early in the film as a tension is made evident between the ranch foreman (Heston), and the eastern ship’s captain turned westerner (Peck). After considerable escalation of these tensions the Peck character agrees to fight the tough cowboy ranch foreman. But he only agrees to do so on the condition that no one else knows or observes their fight. Here is where it gets cinematically and metaphorically interesting. As they walk out on the vast prairie for the fisticuffs the camera slowly backs away, exposing the enormous landscape that surrounds these two little men with their little grievance pounding each other’s bodies into exhaustion. The symbolism is easy to read.

Acoma Indian Pueblo land, New Mexico

While I traversed some of the great landscapes of the west this summer I often thought of that scene. The vistas go on seemingly forever out there. This picture from the Acoma reservation in New Mexico captures some of my feeling about this disparity between the smallness of people and the greatness of the land. Can you see the two couples in this scene? As the Psalmist says, “What is Man that you are mindful of him?”Acoma Indian Puebo land, New Mexico

The Funky Bible

If you are interested, as I am, in southern culture and in the late 20th century music scene, then by all means watch the documentary Muscle Shoals. (It is on Netflix) What an interesting story, and especially for me as I just finished reading and reviewing the book Imagine that said so much about the Christian faith and modern music. In the documentary I heard repeatedly the use of the word “funky” to describe the kind of music being produced in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It is a funny word. One dictionary says it means “earthy” or heavily rhythmic, or even odd and unusual. Is that not the Bible? I do not mean the Bible homogenized and sanitized as from a typical American pulpit. I do not mean the Bible tamed to suit the fashion of some America subculture. I mean the Bible in all its raw power. It is earthy with its honest and sometimes dirty portrayals of the human condition with all its tragedy. It is heavily rhythmic in its drum beat that depicts the bounding, pounding heavy breathing Hound of Heaven relentlessly pursuing the hearts of the people. And it is odd in its portrayal of a profligate God whose grace seems to know no limits. Yes, I think the Bible is funky.

Hope

On a morning news program today they reported a connection between Robin Williams’ Parkinson’s disease and his depression leading to suicide. What struck me in the report was this: the reporter turned to the doctor and said something to the effect that we should give people hope. She responded with some words concerning the treatability of Parkinson’s. Hope was, for me, the operative word in that exchange. Without hope we humans have little to live for. Hopelessness is the great enemy of human happiness. Without hope we may survive, but we cannot thrive.

In the only New Testament effort to define faith in a single sentence, the writer of Hebrews connects faith with hope saying; “Faith is the assurance (hupostasis-that which provides substance) of hope, the certainty of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith and hope are married. If we lose faith we lose hope, and faith is lost if hope is lost. As with everything else in the world this connection is not limited to explicitly religious thought and experience. It applies to all of life because God has designed us that way.

Humans who love and care about this world must be about the work of providing hope to others. So I applaud the broadcaster who thought immediately, let’s give the people hope. Yes, let’s!

Review: The Burning Word

This is not the sort of book I usually read, but when I met and talked with its author this summer at the Glen West conference in Santa Fe, well, I had to read her book. Judith Kunst is a scholar, poet, wife, mother, and biblical explorer (not necessarily in that order). Having grown up in a conservative Christian home she, like many, eventually needed to find her own way with her faith and the Bible. Somewhere in that journey she discovered the Jewish way of Midrash. In an intricately woven account of her scholarly discoveries, mixed with a substantial amount of autobiography, she demonstrates what Christians can learn from their Jewish forerunners, what she calls “the tradition behind my tradition.” That tradition, she says, “celebrates conversation more than information.”

Once I started this book I could hardly put it down. It is fresh, informative and touchingly honest. Perhaps my own love of the book is enhanced by having met its author, but I believe many will appreciate what she offers here without that privilege. The notes and glossary in the back will help those who want to continue the study of Midrash beyond this slim introduction.

[Judith M. Kunst. The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash. Brewer , MA: Paraclete Press. 2006. 151 pages.]