Archives For Humanity

[This post contains minor spoilers, but nothing you won’t get from reading the back of the book.]

All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See is one of those rare books that is actually difficult to put down. While most books that fit this category are white-knuckle thrillers that keep us reading because we need to know what happens next, All the Light We Cannot See is gripping beyond an action-packed plotline. C. S. Lewis once said that there are some books we read and wonder with excitement, “Will the hero escape?” while other books leave us thinking: “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.” For me, All the Light We Cannot See is that kind of book.

The novel is set during the second world war, and follows two main characters: Werner, a burgeoning young radio engineer/genius who is essentially forced to use his unparalleled gifts for Hitler’s cause, and Marie-Laure, a young, blind French girl whose father orients her to the world, only to have that world shattered. So the book is about the invisible spectrum that carries radio signals (hence the title), and it’s about living without sight in a beautiful and often terrifying world (hence the title).

The characters’ lives are ripped apart by the unimaginable violence of World War II. Doerr uses this violent backdrop to show us more about his characters than we would otherwise see. Flannery O’Connor explained the role of violence in fiction like this:

“It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…”

It is what Doerr reveals through this violent backdrop that makes the book so stunning. Doerr’s characters are wonderful; they are subtle, nuanced, believable, surprising, and inspiring. Doerr gives us likable characters who are full of hope and potential. The phrase “what you could be” is almost a refrain in the book. Most of the key characters view the world with wonder, with hope. But Hitler’s regime rips their worlds apart, and the characters are robbed of their reasons for hope and happiness, and instead given every reason to despair, to hate, to give up. Siblings are torn apart, fathers and friends and grandparents are imprisoned and/or killed, homes are stolen or destroyed in an instant, talents are bent to evil purposes. Ultimately, the world is shown to be a dark place (hence the title). Doerr illustrates this side of the world perfectly:

“It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?” (364–365)

But it is against this backdrop that Doerr shows us the light that is there, even when we cannot see it (hence the title). He convinces us, without directly saying so, that these things—buildings and music and books full of colorful birds—matter and are far more powerful than the deepest darkness ever could be.

Christian artists are infamous for insisting on saving all of their characters. (Think, for example, of God’s Not Dead, where all but one major character becomes a Christian, and the entire philosophy class acknowledges the superiority of Christian truth.) We need to grow in our appreciation for subtlety. We need to learn to value traits like faith, hope, and love—even when those traits are expressed in ways other than a repentant sinner “praying the prayer.” All the Light We Cannot See shows us bravery flourishing in big and small ways. A blind girl learning to navigate a sighted world, learning to recognize truth and manipulation, seeing what others cannot. A German soldier gradually learning that human dignity and love and friendship matter more than life or the prospect of torture. A father whose entire life has been given day by day in service to the blind daughter whose future is more promising than she could ever imagine.

Saint-Malo, France, the setting for much of the novel.

Saint-Malo, France, the setting for much of the novel.

One of the characters continually thinks of the hopeless miners who spend their short and overburdened lives deep underground, producing coal for a madman’s war. Throughout the book he is tempted to see life from a nihilistic perspective: everything is horrible and meaningless and then you die. But he comes to see life as a gift, however fleeting:

“He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.” (476)

These images are powerful. Doerr gives us our world—amplified by violence and then enriched through subtle acts of bravery and love and enjoyment of the world and a commitment to the value of humanity, to the preeminence of relational love. The other main character that runs throughout All the Light We Cannot See is a large gemstone rumored to make its owner immortal even as it curses all of the owner’s loved ones to death. The book never gets around to affirming or denying the legendary power of this stone, but it does give several characters the opportunity to discover what they value most, where their heart truly lies.

This is the power of reading fiction. We may not be living through the earth-shattering conditions of World War II or come to possess a cursed gemstone, but we do need to better understand the human condition, to value the life we have been given, to love the people who have been gifted to us. The light is there, whether we see it or not. And it is possible to summarize the Christian life as a process of coming to recognize all the light we cannot see.

Music Is Medicine

Mark Beuving —  July 14, 2015 — 1 Comment

The title of this post is probably enough. We all know what it’s like to somehow feel better or consoled or validated or inspired after listening to a piece of music—as if by magic. And magic is not the worst term for it: much of music’s power comes from an indefinable quality ingrained in this mysterious art form by the Creator. Many have tried to explain why it is that music is so powerful. No one has succeeded.

In this post I won’t be trying to explain the “active ingredient” that makes music medicinal; I simply want to honor the power of this gift of God and commend it to you as an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Flannery O’Connor, a legendary Catholic fiction writer, explains the art of fiction in a way that helps me understand what music is doing when it helps me feel better. “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate,” she explains. In other words, when you have something to say that can’t be said, you turn to art—in O’Connor’s case this meant fiction writing. She says,

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

A kind statement from a loving friend that “Everything’s going to be alright” is important. But there’s another dimension at work when we hear the Five Stairsteps sing “O-o-h child, things are gonna get easier; o-o-h child, things’ll get brighter.” The words mean what the words mean, but their poetic arrangement allows them to mean more, and the music itself is an added balm, another layer of significance and exploration and auditory compassion.

Headphones2

Wheaton literature professor Leland Ryken adds some helpful thoughts here:

“A rich confusion of awareness lies below the level of our consciousness. Artists reach into that confusion and give it an order. As we stand before a painting or listen to music or read a poem, we suddenly see our own experiences and insights projected onto the details of the work before us. Artists turn our pain into art so we can bear it. They turn our joys into art so we can prolong them.”

This thought was recently beautifully expressed by the band U2 in the song “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: “We got…music so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” Bono was apparently inspired when he heard the Ramones as a youth, and found in music something that spoke to him deeply, a reality that he expresses in the song:

Vinyl“Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”

Bono has written about his early experiences with music, and speculates a bit on what was happening to him deep down when he listened to the musicians he loved:

“When I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for…my ‘soul’ I guess. Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music.”

The National acknowledges this type of connection when they sing (in “Don’t Swallow the Cap”):

“If you want to hear me cry, play ‘Let It Be’ [The Beatles] or ‘Nevermind’ [Nirvana].”

I’m not trying to be overly mystical about all of this. My point is ultimately very simple: music often “speaks” to us more deeply than words can go. We could take a “mystical” approach that views music as a type of impersonal magic. Some Christians feel threatened when they hear arguments about a “power” of music that supersedes logic. But we shouldn’t feel threatened by this. Instead, we should remember that God is the one who designed music. Music is his gift. That indefinable quality that makes music so powerful was implanted by God. Music has no power aside from what God has placed within this amazing art form. Rather than downplaying the power of music, we should acknowledge the power and beauty of God’s good gift.

I’ve always loved the introductory song on Wilco’s self-titled album, which introduces the whole album with: “This is an hour of arms open wide, a sonic shoulder for you to cry on. Wilco will love you, baby.” For me, Wilco is a great place to go when I need a sonic shoulder. You might choose to go somewhere else. But the point is, music is medicine because God has made it so. May we find comfort and hope and empowerment as we explore God’s gift, and may we sense the loving arms of the Creator as we experience the healing that often flows through this mysterious part of his creation.

For more on this and other related subjects, click here.

I have written several posts in defense of social media (for example, here, here, and here). My basic argument has been that social media is a series of platforms that are not inherently harmful. I have expressed concern over the way that many people use social media—replacing true friendship with “likes,” superficializing relationships, making unhealthy comparisons, etc.—but my argument has been that it comes down to each person’s heart. If you are a committed friend in real life, then social media can only supplement those friendships, giving you an added dimension to help you stay connected.

I still agree with the basic thrust of my arguments, and I still find the common arguments against social media silly. (The most common argument I encounter is that social media is distracting and time consuming, and I still think my arguments in my earlier posts sufficiently address these concerns.)

Imagining the KingdomHowever, I recently read an excellent critique of social media practices in the important work of James K. A. Smith, specifically in Imagining the Kingdom. Smith’s concern throughout the book is that we give much thought to the intellectual ideas we encounter, but few consider the practices that shape us at a preconscious level. And it’s this preconscious element inherent in everyday practices (or liturgies, as Smith likes to call them) that shapes us the most.

Smith contends that as we scroll through friendships and use our touch screens to manipulate whose updates we will see—choosing who to interact with, how to present ourselves, and who to ignore—we are actually being shaped by these seemingly innocent practices. It is absolutely true that your heart matters for the way you interact with Facebook: if you have a superficial approach to friendship, Facebook will aid your superficiality. But Smith’s point is that Facebook itself is not neutral. It orients us to the world in a specific way, and that orientation shapes us deeply, at a preconscious level.

Think of it like a boot camp for life. What sort of training is a person receiving by using Facebook on a regular basis? She is engaging in a world where everything is under her complete control. Friends are accessible at every moment, inconvenient interruptions are non-existent; or, if a friend goes on a political rant, he can be immediately muted or permanently banished. Interactions always happen at her own pace—friends wait patiently to fit into her schedule.

Don’t get this wrong. The point is not that Facebook is evil or that it was designed in an effort to make us into bad friends. The point is simply this: every activity in our world carries an inherent orientation toward the world. I am thankful for the added connectivity that social media adds to my friendships (particularly those who live out of town), but I must take seriously the way in which social media frames my interactions. It’s naive to imagine that Facebook is not training my heart.

Social Media Distraction

At this moment, I still believe that Facebook and other social media are wonderful means of interacting with my friends and the rest of the world. But I must take seriously Smith’s caution that the platform itself plays a significant role in shaping me. I have to keep an eye on my formation, my training. To what extent do I find myself frustrated when my friends don’t fit my schedule? How annoyed do I get when I have to respond to a political rant instead of simply muting it? Do I try to surround myself with only those people I find interesting? If I see these things becoming reality in my life, I’ll know that my training is off base. I agree with Smith that social media is tendentious—it is pushing me in these directions through the effortless power it offers me to manipulate my world. And I agree with Smith that social media is not trying to convince me to view the world in these ways, it is actually training me to do so at a deep level.

So I partially recant of some of my praise of social media. I at least want to add another dimension to the discussion. Perhaps I was right to say that Facebook itself is not the whole problem—it’s more about how we use it. But I need to add Smith’s important recognition that it’s also about how Facebook uses us. Social media is not neutral. Pay attention to the way it orients you to the world, to the way it shapes your desires. All of us are being shaped more often and more deeply than we think.

 

Christians talk a lot about being “filled with the Spirit,” but what does that actually mean? And how is it accomplished?

Paul’s command to “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18 is intriguing. The form of the verb “filled” that Paul uses is what’s called a present passive imperative. Without getting nerdy, that means it’s a command that we are to obey in the present tense (present + imperative). But the odd thing is that it’s in the passive voice. We are commanded to “be filled.” Are you seeing the significance? Paul is commanding us to be doing something that must be done to us.

This raises an important question: How do I receive something that is outside of my control? If it’s the Spirit who fills me, then why is Paul directing that command to me?

I find this deeply mysterious and often frustrating. It’s easier if there’s a procedure I can follow, something I can simply do to fulfill this command. But it seems more mysterious than this—a realization that should not surprise us when we are discussing the workings of the Spirit.

James K. A. Smith is often helpful with this sort of thing. In the following quotation, Smith is exploring French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of how a person “falls” asleep. Smith suggests that this account might help us in thinking about being filled with the Spirit:

“I cannot ‘choose’ to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. ‘I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there’ (PP 189)[1]. I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed—but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. ‘I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep “comes,” settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be” (PP 189–90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome. What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls ‘habitations of the Spirit’ precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?”[2]

Bed

Smith is suggesting that our embodied practices (“liturgies” is Smith’s broad term for these practices, whether they be “sacred” or “secular”) might prepare us to receive the Spirit’s filling. We ourselves are not doing the filling—that is the Spirit’s work. But by engaging in specific embodied practices—the eating and drinking of communion, the posture of our knees on the floor in prayer, the raising of our hands in worship, the use of our vocal cords in praying, singing, or reading Scripture—we are training our bodies, and thus our whole selves, to be receptive to the Spirit’s filling. The power of our bodies and of embodied practices (liturgies, broadly conceived) is the subject of Smith’s book (and an important earlier book), and he convincingly argues that human beings do not primarily consist of the thoughts in our heads, but of the desires—the love—that fills our being and is directed at objects around us.

Imagining the KingdomCould it be that just as sleep “settles on the imitation of itself which I have been offering to it,” so our obedience to practices like singing to one another, giving thanks verbally, and performing acts of mutual submission actually make us receptive to the Spirit’s filling in our lives? These activities are listed, after all, along with the command to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5.

We could try so hard to be filled with the Spirit, and in a certain sense we should. Be the sleep analogy helps me to step into the mystery a bit. As Smith says, “Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome.”

Smith’s analogy does not lessen the mystery of being filled with the Spirit for me. I still can’t say that I know precisely what to do. But I find the analogy helpful, and I find myself motivated to actively welcome the Spirit, to engage in those postures that make me receptive to the gift.


 

[1] Smith uses the abbreviation “PP” to refer to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962).

[2] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013) 65.

Small Theology

Mark Beuving —  May 7, 2015 — Leave a comment

The Beuving Family (Web) _0095I can remember looking forward to the day when I would have kids with whom I could have theological conversations. Not that this was the reason I wanted kids, I just thought it would be exciting to teach my heirs some amazing theology.

My daughters are now three and five years old. I have not begun reading them theology textbooks at bedtime, nor have they heard me speak the words “justification,” “pneumatology,” or “hypostatic union.” But we have certainly had plenty of theological conversations.

These conversations always arise unexpectedly. I don’t plan theology lessons for my girls; the theology invites itself into our regular conversations. Often, a character or plot development in a movie or TV show will lob me a doctrinal softball, and I’ll take a swing. (I’ll ask my girls questions like “Will Hiccup ever see his daddy again, even though he died?” or “Why do you think Rainbow Dash is so sad?” or “Who else do we know who died and came back to life again?”) Sometimes these turn into great conversations, sometimes they don’t. We never go very deep, but sometimes we have meaningful (if not complex) conversations about important theological truths.

We have talked about God’s constant provision and the importance of valuing God’s gifts when my daughters have complained about the dinner menu. We’ve talked about having compassion for the poor when both of my girls threw fits about the kind of sheets mommy put on their beds. We’ve had several chances to talk about human depravity and the importance of forgiveness when kids at church or at preschool have been mean.

My favorite theological conversations lately have come when we sing to our girls at bedtime. I’ve been singing part of Mumford and Sons’ “After the Storm”—the girls love it. I’ll sing, “There will come a time, you’ll see / with no more tears / and love will not break your heart / but dismiss your fears.” Then I’ll stop and ask them, “Did you know that someday we won’t cry or be sad anymore? Do you know when that will be?” It’s a perfect chance to talk about the return of Christ and the reality of heaven.

I also cycle through the verses to “This Is My Father’s World.” Every night I’ll sing a couple of verses, and every now and then we’ll talk about what the song means. Just last night my five year old asked me what it means that God “shines in all that’s fair.” So we talked about God’s omnipresence, his power in creation, and the goodness of God’s world. We did this without using any big terms, which was a great exercise for me.

As I looked ahead to the time I would talk theology with my kids, I also pictured them much older than preschool age. But I’ve been surprised at how often I get to talk theology with my girls. I shouldn’t be surprised—I know that theology is practical. I know that everything in this world relates to God. But somehow, I didn’t expect theology to be so readily applicable to so many of the things my daughters experience so early in life. For me, it has been a great reminder that everything is theological, and that God cares about—and is active in—every detail of our lives, no matter how small our lives may be.

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