Thursday, December 01, 2011


Frost was right when he wrote that nothing gold can stay. Artist Patrick Dougherty recently installed, with some assistance from Wash U art and architecture students, an enchanting sculpture near Forsyth and Skinker. It's absolutely fantastic, like something straight out of Arabian Nights. And it will not exist in two years.

"I make temporary works, and my sculptures, like the sticks they are made from, have a natural life cycle," Dougherty has said. "Ultimately all the sticks fall prey to the woodchipper and are reduced to compost."

I find this frank peace with impermanence both alluring and disconcerting. As much as I like to make things, write things, tat things, a good part of the satisfaction comes from the work's physical or digital here-to-stay quality. Hitting save, holding a fresh set of prints, sending a handmade item off to someone you know will treasure it many years, clicking the shutter--I kind of relish those comforting rituals. Of course, that sense of permanence is ultimately illusory; even Steinberg Hall (at left in pic) is subject to wear and decay over time. But what must it take to build such beautiful work, all the while certain that it cannot last?

As I wandered through the structures this week, one of the students who helped with the project was passing through as well. He explained a bit about the process, how sturdier saplings act as beams supporting the smaller brush materials that wind 20 feet up into the air.

"It's a lot of sticks," he said.

I paused to snap a phone pic as I left, not sure that I should, because a picture sticks around a lot longer than Dougherty's amazing work and seems somehow inappropriate. (An additional underlying issue is that taking photographs in general often feels to me a little compromised, like there is far too big a debt owed to that which fills the frame to frame it as my own. Still, I find it irresistible.)

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. A stubborn part of me resists it, but I think Dougherty, and Frost, get it right. This, too, will pass.

"That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet." -Dickinson

Monday, November 07, 2011


The prospect of damnation captured my attention early on, and I still can't quite exorcise my fear of hell. Not completely. I worry that, however unable I am to worship a tyrant, the tyrant really will turn out to be the one in charge, and he will torment me--along with everyone else who pencils in the wrong bubbles on this high-stakes multiple-choice test we call existence--for ages and ages and forevermore.

When I was six or seven, our Reformed Presbyterian church in Selma hosted a free-and-open-to-the-public outdoor screening of a film where teenagers die suddenly in a car crash and are transported (down a dark elevator shaft, if I'm recalling correctly) to final judgment and on to hell, except one or two in the group who had become Christians before the deadline. The cinematography and plot details have long since faded from my memory, but I can't forget the overwhelming darkness of the screen and the despair of the characters. That sort of thing has a way of settling down deep in your belly.

Depart from me. Depart from me, Jesus says to those on his left. You should have known better. You have the prophets. You have the scriptures. You are stubborn, stiff-necked, hearing but not understanding. You belong where there is only pain, regret, and eternal gnashing of teeth. I never knew you.

A book with a rose the color of brimstone on the cover appears in my mailbox. Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell. Love from a relative, no note. There are no streets of gold in this account, nor any seething volcanoes. But the RP author's hell is very real and very full of fellow human beings, nonetheless, and the reader is roundly forbidden from questioning the ethics of this: "We must grieve intensely over the damnation of even a single individual," the author writes. "Yet our natural compassion can very easily slip over into a dislike of the doctrine of hell itself." God is good. He knows best, and eternal torment of his unrepentant creatures is just and even glorifying to him. His thoughts are far above ours, his ways different than ours. Have a loved one, long gone, whom you're pretty sure didn't enter through the narrow gate? This author admits he is powerless to offer you any comfort but suggests you run to God who can comfort you upon the news of your loved one's eternal punishment. His is a peace that passes understanding, after all.

A couple years ago, a visiting poet at Wyoming read aloud from a piece titled "Torture." That word echoed over and over in the poem, for a number of minutes, bringing the audience a little closer to Abu Ghraib, to Gitmo, making us a little less able to ignore those abuses. That's not unlike my experience reading scripture more closely, more repetitively, in the last five or six years--certain words, certain phrases, certain stories begin to stick in new, troubling ways, until you can't patch over them like you used to. Paradox degrades to contradiction, mystery to madness, until finally you realize that if hell exists, everything else--every endeavor, every good meal, every smile, every breath, every breakthrough, every book, every new life--is rendered utterly meaningless.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A very necessary film

"There are sermons that instill dogma. But the better sermons, in my experience, are the ones that promote discussion. That's the kind of film I was trying to make." -Vera Farmiga
For Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground seems to have been a movie she needed to make. And as it turns out, it's one I needed to see, as a fairly recent apostate. The consistently sympathetic--and realistic--portrayal of a small Christian community throughout the film is challenging and honest. Believers would be hard pressed to find instances of lazy caricature or mockery. Corrine, the main character who eventually finds it necessary to leave that community, is complex as well--not painted as a victim or angel but a genuine, flawed, intelligent human being.
While Corrine's path is central throughout, the film takes a wide-angle approach to its depiction of that journey, so that the supporting characters take on real shape and color as well. When tragedy strikes the community and Corrine's faith begins to unravel more quickly, the camera does justice to both the lack of belief emerging on Corrine's face, as the group sings a heartbreaking rendition of "It Is Well With My Soul," and the determined trust that is evident in other faces in the crowd.

At the same time,
Higher Ground doesn't shrink from tackling common issues in the evangelical church--the damaging and very real consequences of patriarchy, the use of fear to elicit conformity, and the gap between those who insist they hear God's voice and sense his will and blessing and those who, like Corrine, invited him into our hearts long ago, some of us many times over, but are not privy to anything like those revelations.

It feels rather dull to simply rave about this even-handed approach to what is considered an easy target (religion), commending the movie most of all for its rare, "balanced" approach to exploring that target. But Farmiga's directorial debut does that so beautifully, telling a simple story of an ordinary woman's life and friendships and heartbreaks, leaving this viewer inspired to be more relentless in seeking accuracy and depth in my own endeavors and interactions.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Against nomenclature of the good

"None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did ... What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more." -Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays

"'God,' the very attitude of the word--for the lives of words were also palpable to me--seemed pushy. Impatient. Quantifiable. A call to jettison the issue, the only issue as I understood it: the unknowable certainty of being alive, of being a body untethered from origin, untethered from end, but also so terribly here." -Lia Purpura, On Looking


In his unexpectedly gentle memoir Crazy For God, Frank(ie) Schaeffer remembers his well-known father in stories that conflict with the stalwart Francis Schaeffer of evangelical, religious-right lore. The complicated portrait that emerges is one filled with light and dark, where the elder Schaeffer displays a fierce temper, months-long battles with doubt, terrible moods, and also an enormous heart.

The sources and consequences of these personal attributes are legion, and it is not my purpose here to review or summarize Frank Schaeffer's book, though I do recommend it to anyone trying to better understand the world of the elect, or its reluctant strays and apostates. But several moments in Crazy for God crystallized for me a central issue that I think has left many people, including me, banging our heads against theological walls. I'll term it a territorial nomenclature of the good and worthwhile--the insistent naming and narrowing down of the sacred, the mysterious, the loving, by established communities of faith.

is habitual pinning down was occurring long before the Schaeffers, the rise of the religious right, or Abraham Kuyper's much-quoted conclusion that "there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"--a mantra that is now used to justify religious appropriation and interpretation of all sorts of good art, secular efforts toward the good of humankind, and the manifold events of daily life. But today's world, and Crazy for God, is certainly rife with examples. The wonderfully inventive movie Inception is reduced to a one-dimensional allegory by a Christian magazine. A Facebook friend writes, "Thanks for that rainbow, God--I needed that!" the same day that Japan endures a devastating tsunami. The countless instances of good stuff that unassuming, unbelieving, decent people quietly do day by day is chalked up to mere "common grace" only possible because the Christian god has not let those seemingly good people behave as badly as they so want to inside.

For some, these insistent conclusions about the ultimate meaning of everything become suffocating. This was true for Frank Schaeffer, growing up at L'Abri and then working on overtly Christian films, and it also appears to have been somewhat true of the great patriarch himself. While Francis Schaeffer's legacy is one of Bible-believing theological confidence and worldview-shaping academies,
Crazy for God suggests this man was most happy and free when he did not feel burdened by some great, assured "calling" but paid more uninhibited attention to the world:

"I never saw Dad so happy as when he was looking at and discussing art. His face literally changed. He looked younger. At night when we ate in restaurants, Dad never said grace over meals. It was as if Dad and I had a secret agreement that away from L'Abri, we would pretend we were secular people. Anyone overhearing our conversations would have assumed that Dad was an art historian. If God got mentioned, it was as a subject of art. Dad left his Bible at home."

A year before his father passed away, and post-apostasy, Frank Schaeffer returned to the painting he had abandoned in order to focus on the production of "How Should We Then Live?" in early adulthood and just sat by his father's side, painting some of their favorite haunts from memory:

"I pinned and propped up the art all around my father, turning his hospital room into an impromptu gallery. The warm friendly scent of the linseed oil overwhelmed that hospital smell. I held Dad, and we cried together. And Dad answered my thoughts when he said, right out of the blue, 'We had fun in Florence, didn't we, boy?'"

I find I cannot relate to very many of the confident, happy-go-lucky theological conclusions that my more evangelically inclined associates embed in their observations of daily life: "Ah, what a beautiful day. God is good! Praise Him!" "I am making a career change because God has called me to X. I'm nervous, but being in God's will is the best place to be." "Motherhood is such an important calling. I am so blessed." What I can relate to is Francis and Franky Schaeffer, guru and heretic, feeling overcome by death and love. Marveling at a beautiful St. Louis day, even though I really can't say how it all arrived here on earth. Crying over the suffering of a grandfather far away. Laughing as my two-year-old niece tickles her sister.

Why can we not let inexpressibly good things be? Why must we name them something outside of what they already are? Why must we try to correlate everything to a divine being that, for the vast majority of us, remains deeply shrouded in mystery and contradiction? Perhaps the most devastating theological "truth" that was impressed on me growing up was that outside of the orthodox gospel there was only despair. Our only hope was in Christ, and nothing else mattered if this idea was not what I meticulously ordered my life around. I wonder if Christian leaders would be quite so insistent about this if they knew just how bereft it leaves those who find they genuinely cannot understand the world in the same way.

Well, I don't want to end on that note, so ...

"Let Emily sing for you, because she cannot pray." -Dickinson

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


A few weeks after Richard’s wife died, he offered me a pair of her shoes. He pulled a box out of a crumpled Macy’s bag and handed it to me.

"Her feet swelled up when she was sick, so she never wore them," he said. "I bought them for her, but they wouldn’t fit. What size do you wear?"

Sitting down on the sofa in my apartment manager’s apartment, I lifted the lid, only to find shoes that I knew immediately I would never wear. They were my grandmother’s shoes—practical canoes for walking and living, with a medium-brown tone and modest metal decoration at the toe—and completely off limits for at least another 35 years in my mind. The shoes were marked size eight.

"I’m usually size seven," I said, instead of the seven-and-a-half that is the truth. Richard didn’t seem to have heard and motioned for me to try them on. He watched me slip into Helen’s shoes and stand. They were on the big side, but functional. I thought about just taking them—that was the decent thing to do. That’s what he wanted.

I’d run into Richard on my way out the door that morning, and he’d given me a ride to the metro station. It was cold, and he was pretty much insisting. I hadn’t really talked to him since the day a few weeks back, when we crossed paths at the mailboxes and I asked him how things were going.

"Fine," he’d answered, then paused. "My wife died." I’d had no idea and didn’t know what to say.

In the car, his eyes started to fill with just a few blocks to go.

"You can say what you want, but I do miss her," he told me. "We have a queen-size bed, and I still sleep on my side. I don’t want to take her space."

I wish I’d accepted the shoes that day. After declining them, I was next offered several of Helen’s suit jackets from the closet, and there was no way I could feign a need for those.

"I bet Macy’s would take the shoes back, since they’re brand new," I said. He explained he’d tried that too late, and such a return was no longer an option because the shoes had been on clearance.

As I prepared to go, Richard picked up a bright conference brochure and handed it to me. He’d just seen the much-loved/despised Joel Olsteen, friend of Richard’s pastor at Faith Church St. Louis, speak the other day. It was just great, he said. I nodded, again not knowing what to say. He struggled to tell me something, but couldn’t quite get it out.

"I go every week," Richard said. "If you ever want to come … I’m not bothering you, I’m just, like I say, I go ever week . The kids come running up to me after. They call me the candy man."

Richard reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of wrapped strawberry candies, the kind with the chewy middle. They're one of my favorites, I told him, and I took one.

"Take more," he said.

I declined again, popping the first in my mouth, and shifted toward the door.

"Thanks, Richard. I’ll see you around. You take care."

The next weekend, Richard buzzed. When I opened my door, he held out a whole bag of the candies, and I gladly accepted it.

I live in a different apartment building now. So I don’t see Richard often, though occasionally I spy him sitting out on the stoop a half-block down as I pass by the old street on my walk home from work. We wave.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Manners may prevail"

I've Emily on the brain this weekend:

Abraham to kill him/
Was distinctly told -
Isaac was an Urchin -
Abraham was old -
Not a hesitation -
Abraham complied -
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred -
Isaac – to his Children
Lived to tell the tale -
Moral – with a Mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Poem #1332

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The dark side of the talents parable

What follows is something I wrote a while ago but was reminded of this week. It gets at one of the main issues that led me to distrust the God described (at certain points) in the Bible.


In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus likens the coming kingdom to a master who goes on a long journey, leaving his property in the hands of three servants. The first receives five “talents” (units of money), the second gets two talents, and the third is given one, “each according to his ability.” There are no explicit instructions about what’s to be done with these allotments, but the first two servants get to work “at once,” Jesus says in the story, each of them doubling the original amount by their successful stewardship of the master’s property.

“But the man who had received the one talent,” Jesus says, “went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”

When the master returns to “settle accounts,” the first two servants get rave reviews: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” The contrast with his response to the third servant could not be more stark.

"I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed,” the servant begins. “So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you."

His confession is an honest one, giving a straightforward account of his actions. But he’s done for: "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents … throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"

The master’s reprimand is troubling in its focus on the stupidity of the servant, who is roundly dismissed as a wicked, slothful fool, and who receives no meaningful response to his admitted fears of the master’s tactics.

But there is an even harsher magic at work in the master’s rebuke, and that is that the master fully acknowledges himself to be a hard man, reaping where he has not sown, and seems, if anything, a little proud of the trait. Jesus does not address the ethical issues that the master’s cruelty raises. That appears to beside the point in the story.

And what is that point? This is not one of the parables that Jesus goes on to unpack for his baffled disciples, but here’s my guess: that it makes you worthless and lazy and even evil not to buckle down and please and obey, in anticipation of reward. (Ouch.) Hesitations, questions, doubts—these distract and destroy.


I wrote that at a point when my own hesitations, questions, and doubts had finally overwhelmed me past the point of return. The lighter side of the parable still stands--the value of putting to use the things we possess, the skills we have. But words are powerful, and as someone who was instructed to take the words of scripture to heart and to take them to be authoritative, I took to heart not only the master's commendations but also his insistence that he harvests where he has not sown and gathers where he has not scattered seed. And I found I could no longer worship such a master with any confidence or sincerity whatsoever.

Thursday, January 20, 2011