Friday, August 27, 2010

The Ink Beneath Your Skin

I moved most of my things into my new apartment today. And by most things, I mean everything but my bed. So now I'm at my parents' place, having decided that traveling a little bit out of my way to pass out on their couch--and to use the treadmill tomorrow morning (marathon mode, kids) before letting work suck out my soul--is well worth the gas money and the preservation of my sanity. I do not like moving. Do not like it probably because my OCD wires in on everything that's immediately out of place, imbalanced, scratched, scattered . . . anything and everything that's to be moved, essentially.

It's the process, obviously, more so than the end result, or the thought of perhaps leaving something behind. In truth, I'm actually pretty excited about this new place: capacious, less neighbors, more scenery, less concrete and more green, sidewalks . . . a place where you can be in the middle of everything without being in the middle of everything.

My new roommate got his first tattoo today. Some thoughts: it's rather odd, I think, how tattoos have become so ubiquitous and yet so taboo. But let us suppose that this is the only reaction one should expect from a nation governed, more or less, by a structured, corporate, typically conservative outlook. I do not think that conservatism is, by any means, a 'bad' mindset, anymore than I think that a 'liberal' philosophy is one for wishful thinkers or closeted hippies. But the idea of judging someone--minutely, blatantly, intentionally, accidentally--by his, or her, appearance, seems to me to echo some kind of fear or bias or dread, the basis of which is probably the anxiety of misunderstanding or of no understanding whatsoever.

Without objection, you may argue that judgements are passed everyday and on every person--the overweight, the malnourished, the dark or light skinned, etc. The list can go on and on with the unfortunate reality of prejudice and partiality manifesting itself greater and greater and greater.

But the Arizona-based Hispanic cannot choose his skin color any more than could the African American man of the pre-Civil Rights Act America.

The tattooed person can--and does so with every decision, every second of the needle's buzzing.

Perhaps this is why they are so dreaded: the simple fact that they proffer--usually--some kind of insight into your person. Tawdry or titillating, they are what you so choose.

But God forbid us if we were to ever accept humanity in all of its myriad persons and personalities. What kind of people would we be, really, if we were to judge people based on everything but their clothing, hair style, skin color, age, sex, weight . . . the ink beneath their skin?

And so among the four of my own, I think my Eliot tattoo is probably my favorite--the same line for which this blog is named. Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

The line in question is taken from Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I chose this particular line because it's always seemed to echo as much frustration and angst as it arguably did upon its publication in the 20s. Eliot saw the country--perhaps the world, too . . . I am not sure--as defined by the ideas of waste and decay, as if our very refusal to actualize ourselves--to wake up--has left us blindly clinging to the secular and to the superficial. And so since Prufrock is conscious of the society in which he lives, he feels ostracized--foreign and alien, as he cannot pretend to know less than what he already does. And what he knows is exactly what he must not become: something likened unto those around him and the world in which they live. A people and a place of no direction. So, alone and isolated, Prufrock struggles with the bold and unmitigated question: do I dare disturb the universe?

In essence, do I dare speak up, shout, make my presence known and show those about me how superficial, how mannered and vacuous, they and their lives have become? Do I disturb this parade of pomp and pretense, act differently, truly to be true, to protect myself and make a change, to err from the mindlessness and adhere to what is true and what is right?

. . . I try to disturb the universe every day. As much as possible. Indeed, it's the only wake the world up, to keep from falling asleep yourself.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"'Who said anything about being Christian? I'm not a Christian. Those who love me have come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims; some are Democrats, some Republicans and many don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and Daughters of God.'

'Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?'

'Not at all. Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you'"

-'The Shack,' p. 184

I finished Young's 'The Shack' today, as I planned to do. I suppose if we must dispense titles, we must refer to it as an allegory--whether it be 'high' or 'low,' that is for the real critics to decide, perhaps those who suggest--as the cover states--that Young's book will do for its readers what Bunyan's book did for its own. I guess we'll see.

But, for the most part, I cannot say that I am disappointed with it. Admittedly, there are sections--the camping trip, the hunt for Missy, various dialogues, and especially the ending--that are cursory, reading like a perfunctory overview of a Hallmark movie or a family vacation gone awry. But I think the real beauty of the book lies not so much in the plot as it does in the ideas it exudes--ideas made all the more effective with any number of lines whose beauty comes not just from choice words and phrases, but also from their source: the forgotten, nearly abstruse aspects of Christianity that, in its becoming something of an extrinsic social club, have been abandoned, nearly lost.

The fact that Young portrays God as big, approachable, sometimes very funny African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit an elusive, 'out there' Asian woman is enough for me to dispense my respect. Very often, as the book suggests, people confuse Christianity with a very simplistic, very structured, very extrinsic form of living--a club of sorts, a gathering of tie-wearing subservients who aggregate if only to benefit from either a social atmosphere or the spewings of some dogmatic and egotistical pulpit pit-bull. Or perhaps both.

What Young reminds us is merely a restating of the argument Lewis makes in 'The Four Loves.' That Jesus was not at all the picture-perfect man within the context of the society into which he was born. Was not, in fact, for He was never meant to be. You cannot be psychologically 'stable' and societally form-fitting if the world spits at you, cries that you are a demon, and then strips you of your clothes and your skin if only to nail you to a tree and watch you slowly die.

I think 'The Shack' is a very good book for people who are not religiously inclined but still have questions concerning what is deemed religious--beginners, in essence. People who are hungry for that very thing which only God can satisfy, the thing that only an intrinsic, time-invested worldview can afford. So, I think the book is 'good' for everyone, essentially. If you are to ask me if I think it the best book in its form, using the best dialogue or the best devices, then no. In fact, I would recommend instead 'Mere Christianity' or maybe 'The Screwtape Letters.' Maybe even 'Letters to Malcom,' since those are the ones which have helped me personally by breaking some of the paradigms which so easily--and egregiously--crawl out of us when we become Christian. Since those modes of thinking are not, in fact, Christian at all.

Broken down, this religion came about by a dark-skinned Hebrew carpenter who wasn't even Christian at all--a rogue Jew who up-ended the rules and--even more shockingly--claimed to be God incarnate. Lewis makes the argument: you must decide for yourself whether Christ was in fact what he claimed to be, for He was either exactly that or else, a raving lunatic. The hollow arguments of His being simply another great moral teacher waste away, because His claims demand affirmation or refutation. The nonsense about His being simply 'moral' must fall away. Make your claim.

But I also think that Young answers very universal questions in dialogue that is basic, yet polished and approachable. The protagonist struggles with the loss of his daughter. Struggles even more so since she has died at the hands of a serial rapist-killer. From this one tragedy alone grows a web of grief in whose confines are caught all the members of his family. And the age-old questions regarding God in relation to suffering and grace and omnipotence and mercy, ensue.

And I think it is these 'age old' questions and their lucid responses which make the book enjoyable. This is not, mind you, to say that the concept of Christianity--of any religion-- can be whisked into pellucidity by means of one-line or one-paragraph responses. But I do not think this is the message Young puts forth. Instead, we get stepping stone answers to Stonehenge questions. Answers that satisfy, that are probably very correct, but answers that are 'beginning' nonetheless. Let us not forget the reminder to "work out your own salvation in fear and trembling" (Phillipians 2). And the argument has been made before that it is the saints who experience the midnight terrors, not the plain men with a spirituality unexamined--if they hold any concept of spirituality at all, mind you.

So 'The Shack' borrows, as duly noted, from any number of writers and philosophers: from Lewis and The Inklings to Chesterton and Eliot. And from many more as well. 'The Shack' is a microcosm of macrocosmically dispersed ideas. With his book, Young sweeps away all the trivial arguments of division and political agendas with the stark, ice-cold realities that Scripture very much foretells, that we very often forget and are too terrified to remember. Namely, he draws out the spiritual aspect of the Christian religion, leaving behind the structures and frameworks we have imposed.

And so God is a woman (remember, friends, that he is sexless). And Jesus scoffs at your WWJD bracelet (his life was for you, designed as the centerpiece from which our own history would flow, and was never meant to be imitated in that well-intentioned, yet dangerous sense). The Church is a Bride (so we are told, so we forget), and to love her is to love all of her--the myriad people and their myriad personalities. To claim that God demands your obedience is like speaking in metaphor: to make God out as an angry Gandalf, insatiably hungry for your pain and submission and sacrifice.

So really all you have done is to judge God on man's level with your own conscience and emotionally-fueled spewings. You have placed limitations on He Who is infinite, forgetting that you stand by the dictations of time, acting, instead, as a god illimitable, with the powers to judge and eat up people in tow. What you have forgotten, however, is that the God you judge is the very compass by which you judge all others: the atavism from which the very values themselves are fully derived. By sawing off the branch on which He sits, you saw off the tree entirely, yourself included. That God is love and is good are not limiting factors but simply factors lovely and good. He offers everything He has, not that which He has not. Personifying God as some staff-carrying, white-bearded, redoubtable sage is to use metaphor in a limiting sense. It utilizes the human image and so excludes everything of the sublime. Should it come as any surprise, then, that God defined Himself simply as 'I Am'?. And should we raise our eyebrows that the creation of the universe is relayed in the context of a Hebrew folk tale?

Find a better, more concise way to fix "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" and I will acquiesce to the new minimalism. But remember, too, that our ancestors knew nothing of atoms and much of angels. To speak eruditely with all the talk of Newtonian physics and relativity and the time-space continuum would have been as laughable to the ancient Hebrews as the Genesis account reads inane and ludicrous to the contemporary skeptics. And so you have forgotten, again, that to worship a fully comprehendible deity is not to worship at all; rather, you lay at the feet of some projection your fears and angers and doubts and loyalties. You offer yourself in all of your contradictions. But only submission to the God of Whom you will never know everything can offer the terror and the beauty that only an Infinite Existence can exude.

Also--and I write now about something I think is very important, and very much neglected--Young takes a page from Lewis and Tolkien and writes that everything we know and see is nothing but the unreality--the shadow or the echo--stemming from some other ultimate world. So all that we have is a real lie, and, again, as in Narnia, the waking world is the dream and the dream the waking world. You must die before you die so as to wake after you sleep--in an existence timeless.

And so when Paul instructs his listeners to be slaves unto Christ, I think he means it in the sense of self-surrender, where one doesn't aim to necessarily parallel the life of Christ--indeed, we know so little of it--but to exude that level of spiritual inwardness and charity that only living in Him can proffer.

Also, I think Young handles the role of God in the framework of tragedy well. Perhaps addressing one of the oldest theological arguments of them all, he makes big arguments, again, accessible. But I think to get a better grip of the problem of pain, you should probably read 'The Problem of Pain.'

So when people claim that reading 'The Shack' changed their lives, I believe them. Not because it's a work of great profundity--complex or insanely wild--but because it wakes them up. And looking at the world consciously is better than to live in illusion. Especially when the tangible world is nothing but an illusion. Or allusion.

Whichever you prefer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Let's Get Lost Again in the Starry Night

“But enough of that for now. Let’s get lost again in the starry night. In the silence that followed, [he] simply lay still allowing the immensity of space and scattered light to dwarf him, letting his perceptions be captured by starlight and the thought that everything was about him . . . about the human race . . . that all this was all for us. After what seemed like a long time, it was Jesus who broke into the quiet.” –The Shack, p. 121

I didn’t have to work today, thankfully, since it was much needed and very self-gratifying. I start school in exactly one week. The statement alone brings all sorts of mawkish feelings and memories and reluctant feelings: am I really graduating, already, so soon, at twenty-one years old?

I am. So get ready, Josh.

Understandably, I’m caught in a flux that’s probably been occurring ever since the beginning of the year, and while the year itself is by no means over, I feel as if the remainder of it is so structured and so planned that to think in calendar dates is now the only mode of thinking at all. Another aspect of a cold, hard world stripped of its polish.

I’m running a breast cancer awareness 5k in September and probably another 5k, too (if I have time). While 9/11 is by no means a holiday—or maybe it is, since my calendar reads ‘Patriot Day’—it is my late grandfather’s birthday, and I’ll indubitably do my best to be with my mom at that time, since his passing—slow, drug-induced, pitiful—has scarred her. As it has everyone else.

My brother . . . my baby brother who has more tractor toys and Spongebob movies than he can count, who used to weigh less than I did while also being much shorter, who wanted toys as birthday presents and never clothes . . . my little brother will be thirteen. And I am very, very uncomfortable with this whole thing. Probably his turning thirteen makes my own growing older a little heavier. Because Jacob’s birthday has always been something prefatory to the year’s end. And Jacob has always been my ‘little’ brother in every sense of the word. But Jacob is growing up, already has a truck and will be (legally) driving in three years. He is almost as tall as I am and probably weighs more than I do. He will graduate middle school next year and will subsequently start high school—a journey over which I mean to pray manifold prayers, not that Jackson County is “bad,” but the mindset that Jackson County is the whole world, limited to hills and to hay, is something destructive and narrow. And I want my brother’s potential to be fully realized. Because I love him and because he deserves it. Also, the day after my brother turns thirteen, I’m running the Haunted Half Marathon. Costumes are encouraged, so I’m trying to think of something feasible that will endure a thirteen mile run and the sweat to ensue. Ideas are welcomed.

November. I suppose this is when things will begin to finally become tangible. Christmas music will begin playing on the first (I’ll make sure of it!), and this year, at least, Christmas is synonymous not with gifts or decorations or all the nostalgia made for some low-grade Hallmark movie, but with my degree. In truth, I am not sure why I have so much ambivalence regarding December 18. To graduate is not to be ‘free,’ but rather to be in some sort of actualizing middle ground. And while I do know where I’m going (at least for the next two years), I suppose I would be stripped of humanity itself if I didn’t feel two hundred different kinds of emotional contradictions, all of them gilded with memories too painful and beautiful to forget or to want to forget. Maybe that’s it. Everything has been leading up to this one point, this one piece of paper. Guarantees were never made, and the only motivating factor was the sheen of pure idea: what do you want to do and where would you like to go? Well . . . everything and everywhere.

Therein lies the problem.

December . . . I suppose December will suffice itself.

But back to today. The twenty-third day of August. I intentionally slept in, grabbed coffee, wrote my emotionally-fueled Ground Zero Mosque blog, took a nap (I deserve it), and ran. The run, probably more so than anything, was most refreshing—more so than the nap, much more energizing than the coffee. If you know me really you know I really run. Probably obsessively but certainly not ridiculously. I’ve made it a point to run one hundred miles a month, which sounds obstinately crazy, but in reality, it’s not too terrible.

But today felt different, and I think the major difference was, rather simply, in the weather.

Whether you believe in global warming or not (and I can’t imagine any literate person who wouldn’t), the fact remains that the world is getting hotter. And this summer in particular has been a fine testament. For the first time, I’ve noticed my grandfather avoid being outside—something I thought I would never see, unless he were, say, terminally ill. My brother avoids being outside as much as do the most active and advantageous of my friends. Myself, I have eschewed running outside at all, if possible, opting for a treadmill, or waiting so late so as to run at 9 o’clock when the world simmers at a more comfortable 85 degrees.

But today was different. Today felt like fall, really felt like fall. The sun bright and pinned minutely against a cloudless perfect sky, so that the light in August crept out in perceptible rays and everything glowed and the wind made everything feel calm and serene and palatable. And I suppose that’s why I’m mauling over the future and the past and again writing—redundantly—about how I’m to come to terms with more change than I think I initially expected.

What I forgot to mention was that I also bought a book.

For quite a while now, The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young, has topped bestsellers and has been mentioned as one of the novels which may help ‘define’ my generation. So for those purposes especially, I have avoided it. Many bestsellers today –let’s say most bestsellers today--are geared toward appealing to the sentimentalists (enter in Norah Roberts and Nicholas Sparks) or to the manic pre-pubescent tween girls whose sexual appetites are glorified and exaggerated by pedophiliac vampires (enter in Stephenie Meyer). Let us suppose it has to be this way: Faulkner wrote ‘Sanctuary’ simply to become famous, and earned his money as a poverty-stricken writer sending out manuscripts to Hollywood. Steinbeck lived as one stripped of luxuries. And even today, the lyrical and remarkable Cormac McCarthy has admitted that to live as a writer of serious work is to live as a man in serious poverty.

But I’m giving ‘The Shack’ a try. And so far, I’m rather impressed. It’s redolent of a (and I mean this in a very complimentary way, even if I must be crude to be complimentary) dumbed-down C.S. Lewis novel. Or maybe, a more ‘accessible’ Lewis novel. Maybe like a contemporary ‘The Great Divorce.’ Maybe.

What I do like about the novel thus far is the very open, very naked dialogue between the protagonist and the delineations of God: all three of His aspects, portrayed in ways most people, I think, would be most uncomfortable in contemplating.

So God is an African-American woman (though she admits, rightly, that she is a spirit, and is free of gender, just as Lewis supposes angels are free of gender), the Holy Spirit an elusive, fleeting Asian woman, and Jesus . . . Jesus is the Hebrew who walked the earth some two thousand years ago, scars and all.

I hope to write a little more about ‘The Shack’ later, not out of fan-worship, but because I believe its success is pretty surprising considering the ideas it exudes. I’m not sure if controversy of any sort has ensued.

But since when has good writing ever been free of ridiculous slander?

Harry Potter, The Grapes of Wrath, The Satanic Verses . . .

C.S. Lewis on politics . . .

I am a democrat… I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretentions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent.

But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt.

C.S. Lewis on politics. Source: Lewis 1966:81-83.

Some Thoughts on the Ground Zero Mosque

It has been said that the Ground Zero Mosque is both an abomination to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and, on a much larger scale, to the American nation as a whole. It has been said that this place of worship, placed so closely to what we have come to know as our own sort of 'sacred ground' can not be tolerated if we are to remember and if we are to move on--if we are to be the nation we were set out to be.

But I do not believe this.

Perhaps today, more so than in recent decades, our country stands divided by very stark and very terrible lines of politics. It was recently said in my Shakespeare class that the world's people can probably be divided into one of two groups: Democrats or Republicans. I guess this is true.

I do not know much about politics, and though I respect it--know that it is necessary and good despite its failings and mishaps and pejorative name--I can not sit here as a twenty-one year old student and claim to know that I have all the information I need to form a solid, monolithic argument. I have in my head as much literary knowledge as I do Biblical--and on the sidelines are the components of what I have come to know growing up: the simple, agrarian people from whence I came and everything that I've learned hitherto. So . . . .

What I have come to know--and correct me if I am wrong--is that this country more so than perhaps any other, affords that which could only seem idealistic if were not made basic fact and daily practice. Freedom not just of religion but from it. I believe, in the most basic and rudimentary of arguments, that this is the idea that enables me to sit where I do now and to sit where I do on Sunday morning, not because my religion is instilled in the government as some pillar, but because my religion is too beautiful, too elysian, and ultimately too Good to be placed within the confines of man's political box. And so what we have instead is a mutual respect and the ensuing mutual exclusivity, where God is God and not the white, middle-aged, patriotic American capitalist our society would like Him to be. The wig-wearing Deists who penned our country's philosophy had no interest in this Jesus character--had no interest only if it were the recognition of him as a moral teacher and nothing more, to be placed along all the other myriad moralists who have fallen on the right side of history.

And so I believe this is why Jesus instructed His followers to obey the government and its rulers--not because they are omnipotent or infallibly just, but because if you are to change a person--and therefore change the world itself--you will get nowhere with your guns up and loaded. You must lay aside your weapons and your ego. Lewis notes that you will never speak nakedly if you preface your conversation with, "Let us converse." And so if you are to bring others into your worldview, you must take Paul for his word--know that he really meant what he really said--and associate with the lowly. But you will get nowhere with this browbeating and nonsense about God being the foundation of this country. He never was, never would He want to be, yet I fear that He may be dragged from Heaven and forced to be so. Because we have forgotten who we are, and so we have forgotten what we are.

This is where I think we are with the Ground Zero Mosque argument. Because we are not a nation of Christians, though it should be noted that the majority claim to be so. But claims can only go so far. Perhaps if the selfsame seventy percent of those who oppose the building of this mosque were Christian in the sense that I, myself, have come to know, they would recognize that Islam is just as old--and just as big--as Christianity, that the religion is not one of terror, but one of peace--an idea even the obstinately conservative George W. Bush was more than willing to note in the week following the September 11 attacks.

We are quick (and not very reluctant) to forget a lot of things. We forget that we are a sort of grandiose hodgepodge of ideologies: from Agnostics and Atheists to Buddhists and Zoroastrians. In the middle, of course, we have our Christians and our Satanists, our Hindus and our Jews, and also our Buddhists . . . as well as our Muslims. But for some reason, we have silenced a very common and very basic fear; namely, that the people who attacked us nine years ago were Muslim and not abject terrorists. It is the same fear that the mosque's opponents are not speaking now, are believing but gilding with these silly arguments of patriotism and of probity. So to be American, now, is to be as un-American as one can be: to wrap yourself comfortably and without regret in the basest of fears and in the most sophomore of arguments so as to hush the people toward whom you hold fear and, very probably, a sort of hatred.

I cannot subscribe to the belief of the mosque's opponents any more than I can believe that those who attacked us were truly Muslim. In as much the same way that I believe that Hitler--through his own tyranny and perversion of Scripture--was really Christian, though he justified his acts in the name of Christ. It would be a similar situation with someone prohibiting me from leading a Christian missionary group to Auschwitz. Not because they are justified in their claims, but because they act out of fear, and the inane reality that they will see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe, with or without justifiers.

"But surely, Josh, you felt the same way in the beginning? Felt the same biting and nagging when you heard 'mosque' and 'ground zero' in the same sentence?"

But of course I did. In much the same way I was afraid before I started kindergarden, before I first drove a car, before I got on a plane, and before I started college. But fear has never been a good, whole justification for a belief system. This is why, I think, Proverbs tells us that fear (of the Lord) is the beginning of knowledge--we are never told, however, that it is knowledge. In truth kindergarden was rather fun, driving very enjoyable, the plane ride fascinating, and college all too memorable. For this reason, I know the initial bite is nothing but the most basic of human emotions coming into play: fear, of something I do not fully understand and will not until I make the effort to study it.

President Obama has recently been criticized for his support of the Mosque, as well as for the remarks he made. I, myself, find them rather insightful and eloquent. For he makes the argument the Christians (is that what we should call them?) have forgotten: namely that under law and the protection thereof, Muslims have a right to worship wherever they so please. In another statement, the President remarked that he did not specify anything regarding the 'wisdom' of placing it so near Ground Zero, but that he could not express disapproval over Muslim worship unless he were willing to express disapproval over Christian worship--or Buddhist or Hindu or any other of the myriad religions.

So this is where we are--lamentable and unconscious people. I have said before that it would have been better had I been born a hundred years ago: before "In God We Trust" had to be emblazoned on our currency (do you think I could forget that I trust in God?), before Christianity was a political force to reckoned with, and before God was a politician.

At the end of the day, friends, we forget also that Jesus was a dark-skinned, Middle Eastern, Jewish carpenter whose commands resemble socialism more than they do capitalism. Let us thank God, then, that God is not a lobbyist.

And so that is why I support the Ground Zero Mosque. Not because I adhere to Islamic theology or because I feel that it--like my own religion--is the fullest manifestation of objective reality, but because to prohibit its nascency is to rescind everything that I have come to know and love about this country.

And, friends, I refuse to reason by fear. I am not so childish as to do that.

Also, have we forgotten, too, that the mosque in question is not actually *on* Ground Zero?

Just some thoughts . . .

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It Reminds Me of Straw (cont'd.)

Leaving off from where I left off before, the delineations of Lewis's version of Christianity are replete with myth--with what he very readily calls "magic" not so much for lack of words, but rather as a means to remind us that the only way to appreciate him is to understand the very real and very terrible reality that the Christ story is full of paradoxes and indeed can only be so as it is the ultimate manifestation of that which we call truth: a story where we must say "magic" so as to speak of "objective efficacy which cannot be further analyzed" (103). But what most people consider real and what others may consider false might indeed be one in the same--might, mind you, but not certainly. A hill which looks blue from afar is just as real as the same hill which is more green upon approaching . . . but the states of 'green' and of 'blue' are both equally good facts (Malcom). And so, God is as Lewis notes, the closest and most distant Being one could know, just as the fictive Aslan is both great and terrible. In an argument which I do not have time to fully consider, let alone address, Lewis reasons a rather unconventional view of 'other' religions which most people have been more than willing to overlook in their hero-worship; namely, that Lewis viewed religions outside the fold of Christ as different mediums through which those particular peoples can and may (and do) reach God. Perhaps this argument in particular is contingent upon his view of myth in relation to reality in relation to Objectivity. If Abraham was justified by faith and faith alone (and he was, mind you), what of the isolated natives who cling to Pantheism--people who have heard nothing of the Christ story and if they had, may very well have cast it aside as inanely ludicrous--a guess, I think, history has shown to be more fact than speculation. A situation we read of in Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart.'

But perhaps the most interesting and complex issue dealt with in 'Malcom' isn't the idea of prayer itself--the best medium of which is probably prayer without words, an act most people will never achieve--but rather the idea of space in relation to time--briefly mentioned and done so only in the form of "guesses."

I'm not conversant in Einstein's theory of relativity, but what I do know is that it left an indelible impression on Lewis--an impression which can have only acted as a reinforcement to the idea that everything we see and know is "a real lie." The couch I'm sitting on and the walls about me are good so long as I take them for what they are--not 'solid' realities, but rather indications of some other Reality. This is not Mysticism, again not hyperbole. As in Narnia, you must travel 'further up and further in' to realize that everything you had known before was both true and false, real and unreal. Physics has only shown us that this couch is not a couch and these walls not walls, but rather aggregations of atoms at whose centers and in whose depths exist not pictures or tangibles, but mathematics. And so you get the morning after the dream, where the realization is one in which . . .

"to be God is to enjoy an infinite present, where nothing has yet passed away and nothing is still to come. . . The Dead might experience a time which was not quite so linear as ours--it might, so to speak, have thickness as well as length. Already in this life we get some thickness whenever we learn to attend to more than one thing at once. Once can suppose his increased to any extent so that though, for them as for us, the present is always becoming the past, yet each present contains unimaginably more than ours . . . . our creaturely limitation is that our fundamentally timeless reality can be experienced by us only in the mode of succession." (109-10).

Expanded just so, the idea must extend complimentarily to theology, where "God exists not in space and time but space and time in God." I think this has why it has been so hard for me to pray, and for so long seemed so ludicrous. One prays--and by one I mean for this purpose a Christian--because he is told to, in much the same way that he is told not to forsake the assembly (and so must sacrifice his Sunday mornings to services), not to lie (when the idea is so tempting, the means so easy), and not to steal (when it is all too feasible to do so). But I do not think prayer is simply a matter of discipline. We are told that God is love, but to argue reflectively is to speak an untruth: love is not God, not always. Charity, yes. Mere affection, no. When we are told that God loves His creatures and wants us to be happy, we are not told that the way to achieve this happiness will be easy, will be handed to us, or will even be at once easily recognizable. The way up, as Eliot reminds us, is the way down. Free will leaves virtue open to ascent or to retrograde; it has not given us the excuse to 'break rules' since rules were created to protect man from his grievous and lamentable status as a Fallen creature. We will fail, we are told. But we are given no right--indeed have no right--to transgress the biting and clawing nag within us--universal morality, Lewis calls it. But back to prayer . . .

In this same short book, Lewis criticizes both the intelligentsia and the common people: extremes, you could argue, for he criticizes them in what they lack and for what they forget. The person of less intelligence--not the idiot--may come to view his Christian theology simply as obeying the old man with the white beard. But who in history has every perished for believing in or praying to such a thing? The danger, I think, lies in propagating what is only some tenuous shadow--an echo--of some greater and thicker Reality. The elite, Lewis argues, have argued that prayer is ridiculously as aims to create predictables: you pray to control that which you, alone, cannot. But "to live in a predictable world is not to be a man," for much of history--life itself--depends a very great deal on unpredictables. We do not pray for our story to be written for us: the cold and lonely truth is that we must write it ourselves in the ink of choice. In much the same way, it is the intellectuals who forget that the Author of the universe created a Word to overarch the very nature of human history. Lewis speaks, naturally, of Christ, who, from His own prayer in Gethsemane--filled with as much anxiety as it was with trembling--to his slow and barbarous torturing on the cross--a scene which did not become a symbol of Christian theology until after it had been forgotten--, exudes a parallel situation to our own.

We are shown the uncomfortable anxiety and the public ridicule and the taxing march to death because it is our own.

We were never guaranteed anything but the cold, hard reality that this world is the wrong one: the middle ground of wrongs and rights which can lead to some deepened, timeless reality where the beings there know nothing of morality. "Joy is the serious business of heaven." And I think this is what Lewis is getting at, for the most part, in 'Malcom.'

But only guesses. So that upon reflecting on your own thoughts, like Aquinas, you might respond that it reminds you "of straw."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It Reminds Me of Straw

It is August 19, 2010. In four months--less than 120 days--I will have graduated college and, so, will have realized that once highly evasive goal, will have made the 'one day soon' a very heavy 'now' and the 'that' a 'this.' Things are changing. Indeed, are changing so rapidly and surreally that time seems more than ever to be the cold and lonely abstract the world very much would like to ignore. But for once, I can't. This is not hyperbole, I think, in as much as it is a step back--not from my responsibilities mind you (they're here to stay, let's face it), but from the whirlwind, the chaos, the thing kids called growing up and the thing the grown-ups call 'daily routine.' Now more than ever, the weight of the world is becoming fully tangible: now, when what I would like to do and what I need to do, what could be done and what probably at one point actually will occur, wrestle and fight and claw for dominance one over the other. And so amidst working and papers and books and running and that small distraction I call my social life, questions surface, as daunting as they are demanding.

Where are you going and what are you doing?

And for once, there's a grey area where there should be clarity--fog where there need be light. C.S. Lewis once remarked that to live in a pre-constructed world is not to be a man. Indeed. The underlying idea is that when plans and schedules dominate reality, the end result is some kind of routine devoid not so much of spontaneity as of humanity itself. A world, you could argue, replete with shadows.
Is it lamentable to talk about time and all of its abstract implications as if decades have past when the calendars and photo albums speak only of singular years: a year ago today, two years, three years, four, five?
I do not think so. To look back in awe is to look forward with eyes wide open. And so, the questions still remain. This is what I've decided, and this is where I am.

Declaring a major in literature yielded almost immediately as many ambiguities as it did satisfaction and temporary security. But with graduation approaching more quickly than I would like to admit, phase two--whatever it is--demands attention, some finality--at least as far as decision-making is concerned.

I've decided to pursue a MA at UTK. It's a two year program that I can get fully financed if I teach a composition class--something feasible, I think, so long as I understand at all times that the 'point' of composition classes is not to shape and mold future Faulkners, but to inculcate students with the creative tools and ideas necessary to interact in the highly diverse, highly unpredictable 'real world.'
At once, though, other questions arise: over whom will you write a thesis? What will be your area of speciality? And, if I am to be so crude as to leap over years, what happens after?
Concerning the last question, I haven't the slightest clue. Indeed, should be terrified if I were to have an inkling of an answer. But with its cousin questions I have building blocks upon which I hope to build greater certainty. American literature is where my heart lies. Nothing makes me happier than reading and writing and there can be no doubt that a job inclusive of these loves is a job nearly perfect--as perfect as imperfections will allow. Whatever that is, wherever it may be, sign me up at once.

"For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" -St. Matthew, 6:25

Recently, I have finished a book on prayer--'Letters to Malcom'--by C.S. Lewis, a book considered to be one of his minor works of fiction, odd, though, as it is also his last. Less than 130 pages long, the book follows on the coattails of 'The Screwtape Letters,' in as far as the book itself is written in the form of lucid yet sophisticated letters between Lewis and the fictional Malcom--someone we later learn, in a letter mentioning modern physics, is probably a man of science. Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because it re-emphasized Lewis's view of Christianity as myth fulfilled--a theology bound in as much magic as it is in metaphor. Indeed, there could be no other way. Imperative is the understanding that a belief in God--or in any deity--and the subsequent belief system--if a person is so driven to subscribe to one--is contingent upon the supernatural, as nothing exudes more of the supernatural than the mere belief in God Himself.

But I also appreciate Lewis's deviations from contemporary thought. Lewis, throughout his apologetic writings, stresses the grievous state of Christ's church--specifically, the divisions from within. Viewing Christianity as the philosophical apex to which all the antecedent Pagan myths had led, Christian theology was the fullest and heaviest realization of objective reality. And so, when Christ uttered that He was God, the words escaped, Lewis notes, and exist now as the most radical words ever spoken by human lips (Mere Christianity). And so:
"Broaden your mind, Malcom, broaden your mind! It takes all sorts to make a world; or a church. This may be even truer of a church. If grace perfects nature it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity which God intended when he made them, and Heaven will display far more variety than Hell. 'One fold' doesn't mean 'one pool. . . . what pleased me most about a Greek Orthodox mass I once attended was that there seemed to be no prescribed behaviour for the congregation. Some stood, some knelt, some sat, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing. I wish we Anglicans would follow their example. One meets people who are perturbed because someone in the next pew does, or does not, cross himself. They oughtn't even to have seen let alone censured. 'Who art thou that judgest Another's sevant?'" -'Malcom,' p. 10

Christians--mind you, those who fully adhere to the Christian faith as faith and not as social club--are told to pray without ceasing. At once, however, the questions arise: if God is omnipotent, omnipresent, would He not, then, know of my trials? My temptations? My failures and my successes?

Why pray to He Who already knows? The process would, logically, prove redundant. A waste of time.

. . . I'll finish this later. Food and friends calleth.