…what consolation have we in this human society, so replete with mistaken notions and distressing anxieties, except the unfeigned faith and mutual affections of genuine, loyal friends? ~ St. Augustine, City of God, XIX.8
St. Augustine knew that friendship was a gift from God—that true joy in life was not to be found without friends and the gift of their love and company. In fact, for Augustine, God’s grace of salvation is not something that is had in isolation but only had in the chorus of friendship.
Adam Eliot, the Australian director behind the 2003 Oscar-winning animated short, Harvey Krumpet, has made his full-length debut with Mary & Max, a claymation tale about two archetypal ‘outsiders’ who strike up a rare and deep, although unlikely friendship.
Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Toni Collette) is a lonely, friendless eight year old growing up in suburban Melbourne with an alcoholic mother and a taxidermy-obsessed and neglectful father in the late 1970’s who spends her days eating chocolate and drinking condensed milk. In her youthful curiosity, she finds a name and an address in a New York phone book. On the other end of that address we find Max Jerry Horowitz (voiced brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, doing his best New York Yiddish accent), an obese 44 year old Jewish man with undiagnosed Asperger’s whose only human contact is with his Overeater’s Anonymous group or his blind elderly Chinese neighbour.
Their improbable pen-pal friendship develops over a host of letters sent back and forth (letters which send Max into an anxiety attack each time he gets one). The story follows their friendship over two decades as it expands and contracts with the joys of life (love, dreams, accomplishments) and with its sometimes dark realities (anxiety, broken relationships, depression, suicide). As each of them try to struggle to feel their way to some sense of connection—to some sense of normalcy—their friendship grows and in fact, their salvation is found in their bond of mutual affection.
The film is a visual treat as it beautifully breathes and moves in hues of browns and greys. The handcrafted claymation, from the suburbs of Melbourne to the streets of New York, softens the depth to which this movie plunges the viewer (though animated, it is not for children). In any other medium, the film would have failed to hold the viewer. After watching the movie, if you’re like me, you’ll feel as if you’ve been given a gift, as if you’ve been allowed, for a few hours, to eavesdrop on the beauty of a friendship that knows not the boundaries of conventional relationships. This is a movie about friendship at its most raw—deep, dark, and dazzling at once and it sticks to your ribs long after it’s over.
After Mary has wronged Max, he recognizes that true friendship includes forgiveness, so he writes to her:
The hurt felt like when I accidentally stapled my lips together. The reason I forgive you is because you are not perfect. You are imperfect, and so am I. All humans are imperfect, even the man outside my apartment who litters. When I was young I wanted to be anybody but myself. Dr. Benard Hazelhof said if I was on a desert island, then I would have to get used to my own company. Just me and the coconuts. He said I would have to accept myself, my warts and all. And that we don’t get to choose our warts, they are a part of us and we have to live with them. We can, however, choose our friends. And I am glad I have chosen you. Dr. Hazelhof also said that everyone’s lives are like a very long sidewalk. Some are well paved. Others, like mine, have cracks, banana skins and cigarette butts. Your sidewalk is like mine, but probably not as many cracks. Hopefully one day our sidewalks will meet and we can share a can of condensed milk. You are my best friend. You are my only friend.
I think I’d be hard pressed to find a better definition of the church than this (and St. Augustine, I think, would agree!): a community of friends whose sidewalks—cracks, banana peels, and cigarette butts—meet and share in the joy of God’s covenanted friendship with us, warts and all.
One of my favorite songs of recent memory is Tom Waits’ Chocolate Jesus because it so well captures and subverts our Western culture’s obsession with do-it-yourself “spirituality” (a nefarious term which, by the way, now only functions as a short form for “anything goes”). With his distinctive voice, once described as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”, Waits sings:
Well it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied…
When the weather gets rough
Its best to wrap your saviour
Up in cellophane
A sweet, user-friendly, emotionally sensitive Jesus, that’s what we want! I had this song in mind as I watched the recent film, Henry Poole is Here.
It stars Luke Wilson as Henry Poole and a hodge-podge cast including George Lopez as Father Salazar, a Roman Catholic priest and Adrianna Barraza (of Babel fame where she played Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett’s Mexican nanny) as Esperanza, Mr. Poole’s nosy but well intentioned neighbour.
We meet Henry Poole as a miserable and disillusioned man who goes into hiding in the docile middleclass suburbs where he grew up, seeking anonymity and the bottom of many bottles. He reluctantly buys a blue stucco house across the street from the home in which he was raised (reluctantly because as much as he wants to buy his old home, the family that now lives there won’t sell it to him). And so, he’s consigned himself to a life of seclusion, resentment, and hostility in a house that he is entirely disconnected from.
His isolation is interrupted by Esperanza, his pious Roman Catholic neighbour, who drops by to find out just who it is who moved into the house next door. During her initial visit, Esperanza discovers a water stain on Henry’s outside stucco wall in the likeness of the face of Christ. This discovery quickly, and in some of the most moving scenes of the picture, beautifully and sublimely becomes saturated with claims of miraculous power. This ironically leads to Henry’s eleventh-hour hideout turning into a community shrine.
Henry’s deep cynicism plays out in a series of efforts to rid the wall of the stain and to rid himself of his new ‘friends’ and their faith in this miracle. In fact, for most of the film, Henry is at pains to rid himself of this stucco Jesus as this is a Jesus that Henry definitely doesn’t want. This is not a do-it-yourself Jesus, or a sweet, sensitive, emotionally nurturing Chocolate Jesus but a persistent, relentless, and unyielding Stucco Jesus who completely maddens Henry with his presence.
I won’t give away anymore of the film, but I do want to underscore what this film gets. It gets that God’s grace is often a messy and unexpected thing that interrupts our plans and transforms us in spite of ourselves, especially in spite of our cynicism. The whole gospel message of death and resurrection, of repentance and forgiveness, and of transformation and reconciliation is all played out in this film in and through the face of Christ—which is a rarity indeed.
What else to look for: a stunning performance by one of the supporting cast, Rachel Seiferth as the dorky and inquisitive grocery clerk aptly named Patience.
I’m not a big video-gamer. With that said, I need to make a confession: it’s not because I’m anti-video game but because my parents knew full well that my addictive personality would have attached itself to video games and would never have let go. So, I was never allowed to own a game system growing up; although my brother and I were allowed to rent them over a weekend once in a while which would turn into sleep-starved days of video game binging that only served to underscore my parents’ point!
I went through university and graduate studies never owning one, but I was really too busy to notice. Either that, or I was too poor to buy one, I’m not sure which. Now, I’ve got my own family and life is much too hectic to even find the time to sit down and play video games. This is all to say that video game culture has never become a part of my life, until now.
My father-in-law recently purchased a PS3 (that’s a “Sony PlayStation 3”, for those of you who are not down with the lingo) to go with his new High Definition TV. We visited a few weeks ago and our four year old son was quickly introduced to this culture. Watching him clutch the game controller was like watching a smuggler holding onto his cherished contraband as a smile of wild hilarity mixed with mischievousness gripped his face. A racing game with intense graphics and pounding music promptly became his favourite. I should admit, partly because my wife reads this column and partly because I’m honest, that I got hooked too (now, two in the morning isn’t that crazy a time to be sitting alone giddily driving a rally car across the desert is it?).
What really took me by surprise was how proficient my son became at this game. After only a few tries, he was keeping his vehicle on course, passing other cars and making good time around the track. Not only that, driving home down the highway he was giving me lessons from the back seat on exactly how to pass other cars at high rates of speed!
Regardless, what I took from this little foray into the alternative reality of “Video Game Land” was how quickly and thoroughly our children are shaped and formed by what we put in front of them. Not only that, I’m amazed at how skilled and adept, at how well versed a four year old can become in the habits and skills of this culture.
While I’m aware and convinced of the potential dangers of video-game addiction and the abhorrent nature of some of these games that make Quentin Tarantino look like a younger, edgier Walt Disney, I’m not overly interested in weighing in on this. What I am interested in is the simply fact that these ‘alternative’ realities so deeply and completely capture the imagination of our children and young people (and sometimes even a husband or two!).
Our imaginations, especially those of children, are apprehended and formed by what’s around us. What the church often forgets and neglects is that it is in the imagination business, as deeply and completely as something like the video game industry is. We don’t often think of the church in this way, but it’s imperative that we re-capture this sense of ecclesial imagination if we are to be, in any way, a witness to God’s action in our world.
At a very basic level, the church imagines a different world, not because it’s in the business of making stuff up, but because it follows Jesus who, in himself, brings God’s imagination to bear on all things. When the church gathers as followers of this Jesus, it can’t help but imagine that everything is different because this Jesus showed up on the stage of history and imagined God’s very kingdom into existence.
Much as our imagination is trained and shaped by what we spend time with—be it videogames, movies, television, the internet, or the ever-beloved IPod (a word which, by the way, my spellchecker recognizes!)—the church’s imagination is shaped and trained in its worship and in its life together. It’s in this life together, in our liturgy, where we learn to inhabit and act out this kingdom among us. Our communal reading of Scripture, our prayers, our table fellowship, and our peace-sharing are some of the habits that shape us; they are some of the spiritual disciplines that form us and ought to form our children.
But our church has often failed children and young people at the fundamental level of capturing their imaginations and worlds with the amazing and exhilarating adventure of the kingdom of God. We continually make the same mistake the disciples did—we assume that this kingdom of God stuff is grown-up and important business.
I’m fully conscious that it’s not easy for the church to keep the attention of children and young people these days. Maybe it’s because we live in a world where there is so much sheer competition vying for the attention of our children that the church is fatally doomed from the start, or maybe, just maybe, it’s because we ourselves aren’t sufficiently hooked.
We all know what Jesus did to the herd of swine in the gospel story when he allowed the demons who were harassing the demoniac to enter into the herd grazing nearby. Not a PETA poster moment, for sure.
Three weeks ago in Egypt, the government there began a pig slaughter on a slightly bigger scale: some 350,000 pigs were led to the slaughter for fear of the dreaded “swine” flu. Countries all over the world began to ban pork imports from North America and we saw news clips of well-intentioned people (usually in the grocery store, mid-shopping) telling the reporters that they were eliminating pork from their diet, “just in case.”
What these stories intimately share is the fact of possession, of being possessed. In the gospel story, the demonic possession of the pigs leads to their plunging death off the cliff. In our more recent dealings with swine (which extends far beyond Egypt’s rash reaction), it is us, as a culture that is possessed. We are a society that is possessed by fear and being possessed by fear always ends in death.
The days following the swine flu outbreak from Mexico were a newsmaker’s dream and an opportunity for our culture of fear to kick it into high gear. A new, hybrid flu that was unheard of with a catchy name, and an increasing death count—what more could the networks ask for? We were then all witnesses and participants in a quickly escalating panic.
Why did alarm spread so fast even though this flu turned out to be nowhere near as fatal as a regular seasonal flu? Why were we so quick to panic? I think Frank Furedi, in his book Culture of Fear, hints at why when he reminds us that “the risks that kill you are not necessarily the ones that provoke and frighten you.” What does he mean by that? He simply means that while we are afraid of what statistically usually kills us (cancer, heart disease, and stroke) we are, as a culture, more pointedly afraid of terrorism, school shootings, pedophiles, serial killers and these new killer viruses (which, statistically, come nowhere near to the risk of the big three above).
So, again, why did panic spread so quickly over a flu that we now know was overblown? I think the answer is that, as a culture, we’ve transformed fear, like everything else, into a commodity that is bought and sold and we’ve become proficient peddlers and consumers of fear. In other words, just like sex, fear sells. And just like selling sex, marketers, advertisers and producers hold a vested interest in shaping our collective imagination and influencing our desires to line up with what they’re selling—and we’re buying.
In his book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott-Bader Saye makes the observation that in Scripture when we meet an angel from God, they begin their message with “fear not”. Why is that? He says he always thought that it was because angels must be such imposing and frightening figures. But there’s more to it than that. He thinks the reason they tell us to not be afraid is that the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us. And I think he’s right.
Thomas Aquinas taught, eons ago, that disordered fear is a result of disordered desire. Simply put, we fear in deformed and distorted ways because our imaginations, and consequently, our desires are screwed up—which is another way of saying that we are a sinful people who can’t imagine a world of quieted fear and so we act, think, and speak accordingly.
You see, this culture of fear is all about shaping our imaginations through the various rituals that make up this culture from the ways and forms our news is disseminated to the methods with which producers market their products as the ‘safe’ alternative to their competitor’s. This is an embodied cultural reality that is practiced over and over again in order to intentionally form us to be a certain kind of people—in this case, scared.
As followers of Jesus in this culture, we are called to be a living alternative to it. Jesus, like God’s angels, told his disciples over and over again, “fear not”. As the church, our liturgy is all about shaping our imaginations through the rituals that make up this alternative culture of the church. Nowhere is this more clearly, visibly and physically true than in our practice of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is an embodied reality that is practiced over and over again in order to intentionally form us to be a certain kind of people. It is the act of the church whereby it remembers who she is as follower of a crucified and risen Lord. So, it is in the ritual practice of the Eucharist that we learn that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us—which puts us deeply at odds with this predominant culture of fear which feeds off this fear of death.
As Bader-Saye notes, this isn’t about telling ourselves not to fear. Our fears are primal, overwhelming and overpowering. We can’t just tell ourselves to feel less fear—that would be disingenuous. What we need is for our desires and our fears to be re-ordered, or rather, rightly ordered. In other words, our overwhelming fears need themselves to be overwhelmed by something bigger and better. That is what we recognize and practice in the Eucharist. In consuming Jesus we are consumed into the body of Christ; we are consumed into a wonderful adventure where our fears are rightly ordered because we know this story to be ultimately hopeful and not tragic.
So what, in the end, of the pigs? It is our task, as those people whose imaginations are shaped and formed in the Eucharist to embody that imagination in our world through practices that upend the culture of fear. Being a people that don’t buy into the consumerism of fear is a good first step and is part and parcel of our commission as followers of Jesus in our world. We ought to be God’s disciplined people in a scared world—a people who practice hospitality to strangers, who love enemies, who bring gentleness to violence, a people who, in our day to day lives, are dispossessed of the demons of fear and filled with God’s Spirit of peace.
After visiting the IKEA in North York a few weeks ago, I had to ask, “What does IKEA have that we-the church-don’t have?” This question is at once tongue-in-cheek and a sober one. On the tongue-in-cheek end of things, they’ve obviously got more comfortable seats, a great deal of marketing geniuses (have you seen their commercials?!) and a multi-million dollar advertising budget! On the sober end of things, IKEA, as a culture, presents and represents a challenge to the church. This was made sharply apparent to me on this particular visit. On our way out, after buying a new door mat, some Swedish meatballs (if you’ve ever had their Swedish meatballs you know what I’m talking about!), a table lamp, and a lint roller (wow, I’m just realizing how random that purchase was) we were confronted with the following advertisement:
IKEA North York presents…SENSTATIONAL SUNDAY MORNINGS!!
Sunday Mornings are a great time for family, big breakfasts and coming to IKEA! Starting on February 22nd and running on
March 1st, 8th and 15th. IKEA North York will have another great reason to come to IKEA. We will have 2 crazy offers on great products.
From 10am-12pm the Sales team will reduce 2 good products at 50% off!
There will also be a great reason to bring the kids…
From 10:30am to 11:30am kids can enjoy a fun activity in the restaurant!
This advertisement was flanked by a picture of a happy nuclear family full of joy, optimism and looking so über-cool with their new IKEA gear. So there it was: “Sunday mornings at IKEA”-what every family is looking for! Drop the kids off at the activity center, eat good, inexpensive food and funkify (please excuse my creative vocabulary) your life at unbeatable prices all in one Sunday morning!
Now the reason that IKEA (bless its soul for where else could I find a lint roller for that price?) represents a challenge to the church is because it’s out-narrating the church; it’s beating the church at its own game of narrating and embodying a story about what life is all about. It’s not IKEA alone that’s successful here but it’s a good representative of the whole culture of commerce and consumption and its ideals. In fact, the whole industry of advertising is based on successfully narrating a way of life-a way of life that you can’t help but want to be a part of.
Do you know why IKEA is so successful? I mean, we’re in the middle of a recession and the place was packed with people with their carts full of stuff (ours included). The reason IKEA is thriving is because it knows its story, it knows how to tell and embody its story of consumption at fair prices. It knows its end goal, its reason for being. In other words, IKEA knows how to do its IKEA thing, and it performs it well. In fact, walking the halls, you can read the narrative about how IKEA came into being. They sure know how to tell a story.
“Church” names a story, it names a people, it names a certain performance; simply put, it names a way of life. Being a part of the church means being a part of this performance, embodying this way of life. The church tells and lives out a story about what life is all about. In doing so, it narrates an alternative story to the one our culture, so effectively told by IKEA, does. What does this mean? It means, simply, that the church tells a different story than our world does. This ought not to come as a surprise, since the Jesus we follow embodied an immeasurably different story than did the world of his day.
But it’s when the church forgets who she is-when she forgets what her story is-that the church misses the whole point of this following Jesus thing. It’s then that the church starts to listen and buy into the stories that are told around it; stories like the myth of redemptive violence, or the story of unlimited consumption of resources, or the story of homeland safety and security at all costs, or the story of self-concern over the concern of those on the edge of society. Maybe it’s as simple as the story of “the best bang for your buck”-a story told without narrating anything about the condition of the production or the producers of our goods. The stories told around us are legion and often very attractive. When the church forgets to do its church thing, it loses its way.
Remember what happened to Israel when Israel forgot to do its Israel thing? Babylonian captivity, period. So, when we bemoan the state of the church, or when we contemplate the nature of cultural shifts and what role the church should play in them, we need, above all things, to remember that the malaise the church finds itself in (call it whatever you like, “ecclesial recession” is one of my favourites!) is first of all a loss of identity, which is a long way of saying that we find ourselves in our own Babylonian captivity.
Answers? Well, I get asked a lot, probably because I’m a young priest, about how the church is going to move forward into the future. And right now many Dioceses in our church are working with strategic plans as they look to that future. Let me add something that’s seemingly obvious but that gets lost ‘on the ground’ as it were: no amount of strategic planning, no number of core values, no measure of problem solving will secure the future of the Anglican Church in Canada if we are not willing to radically re-think what it means to be a church in a culture that has by-and-large forgotten about the church! Before we crunch the numbers, before we throw solutions at our problems, what this Babylonian captivity ought to engender and create is a penitential community-a community that can acknowledge our collective failure to embody the gospel call to live out the Kingdom of God in our world.
Answers? I only have one. Only God rescues. Only God takes unfaithful Israel back. Only God can rescue his people. I’m writing this on the tail end of Lent as we approach the celebration of resurrection. At Easter we tell and embody the story in our services, in our pageants, and in our choir choruses, of a God who rescues, and in the resurrection rescue of love that raised our Lord from the grave, rescues us as well. That’s good news; and, it’s incomparably better news-and a much better story!-than Sensational Sunday Mornings at IKEA.
Last year’s Oscars were all about the dark and the tragic with No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood going home with some of the top nods (two of my favorite movies last year, by the way). This year’s Oscars were more light-hearted—there wasn’t much of the tragic with Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button or with the runaway indie hit, and Oscar’s little darling Slumdog Millionaire. There was, however, one nomination this year for best actor that, if you weren’t paying attention, was easy to overlook.
Richard Jenkins, who played the dead father in HBO’s Six Feet Under, stars in one of last year’s best films, The Visitor. This is Jenkins’ first major lead as he’s been playing supporting or character TV roles for the last thirty or so years (most recently as the gym manager in Burn After Reading). Jenkins plays Professor Walter Vale, a quiet, self-loathing, and eminently bored economics professor who’s entirely dissatisfied with his life. Widowed, Vale spends his down time trying to learn the piano in an effort to emulate his late wife, a classical concert pianist. He’s been giving the same lectures for years on end, just changing the date on them so that nobody catches on.
By a turn of events, his department head forces him to go to an academic conference to read a paper he nominally co-authored (which he hadn’t even read!) when the primary author backs out. When Walter arrives at the apartment he maintains in Manhattan, he’s startled to discover a young couple living there. The young man Tarek, a Syrian djembe drum player and his girlfriend Zainab, a Senegalese jewelry maker were conned into subletting his apartment and were equally surprised by this intrusion! In an act that shocks Walter as much as it does Tarek and Zainab, he asks them to stay while they figure things out.
A friendship ensues between Walter and Tarek over the next few days. Tarek teaches Walter to play the djembe drum and, in one of the most poignant scenes of the film, they both join a drum circle in Central Park. On one occasion as the pair travel the subway with their drums in hand, Tarek is mistakenly charged (profiled?) with turnstile jumping (not paying for the subway) and is arrested. The thing is, Tarek along with Zainab (and as we learn later, Tarek’s mother, Mouna) is an illegal immigrant. He is held in a detention center downtown and Walter finds a new energy in his life as he advocates for Tarek, hires an immigration lawyer and befriends Tarek’s mother. Walter and Mouna being to develop a deep friendship as together they await Tarek’s fate.
While this movie deals with the larger realities of immigration, identity, and cross-cultural communication, it is, at bottom, a movie about radical hospitality. Walter learns the truth of his life when he steps into somebody else’s, or rather, when they step into his. As the church, in our geo-political, post-9/11 reality, we hear much about the immigration “problem”. Tersely, these so-called problems—an increase in crime, an increase in job losses, an increase in language barriers (to name a few)—are said to accompany the rise in immigration. Tom McCarthy, the writer and director of the film, doesn’t tip-toe around this, but rather puts the issue right into the space that Walter rightfully ought to occupy—his own apartment!—and so throws the issue of the ‘other’ into sharp relief, bringing it right to our doorstep.
Walter has two options available to him: security or the vulnerability of hospitality. He can call the police; he can secure his home against the otherness and all the difference that accompanies the intrusion. Or he can embrace the difference; he can accept the otherness of the intrusion and so witness the transformation of the other into a neighbour, into a friend. Indeed this is what happens and Walter learns that this transformation is not only objective—that these people have turned into his neighbours—but entirely subjective as well, as he realizes that he has become a neighbour; he himself transforms into a friend to these strangers. That’s what the practice of hospitality does.
Christ’s call to neighbour-love is a call to radical hospitality in all its messiness; it’s a call to welcome the stranger to our table, to Christ’s table, no matter what the barrier might be. Now this might sound cliché and somewhat overstated, but when we have an analogy of the church in the figure of Walter Vale played out for us on the screen, this cliché gets some traction.
The church, in its everyday existence—the church of parking lots and potluck suppers (to borrow a phrase from Stanley Hauerwas)—continually wavers between extending hospitality and an illegitimate concern over its own security. The church, with its narcissistic tendencies, tries again and again to protect itself against the intrusion of the stranger, against the presence of the different. We tend to circle the wagons, as it were, around our little corner of the truth. When we do this we obscure our witness; when we sit in self-concern, we block out the presence of the crucified Christ—we simply deny that the Kingdom of God is come. Yet, when the church opens itself to the messiness of hospitality, the Kingdom is played out in the middle of our messes. This movie embodies that openness and so is a wonderful analogy of God’s reign among us.
Our oldest son started JK this year which, amongst other things, has freed up some of my time in the morning. So, instead of working on my dissertation, or preparing a sermon, or doing anything productive at all, the other morning I decided to enter the world of the morning talk show (cartoons have long overtaken the morning prime-time slot in our house). So, I tuned into Live with Regis and Kelly so that they could transmit their positive TV vibes to me and invigorate my morning. What did I get? I got a pep talk from Regis about “feelin’ fine in ’09!”—their slogan for the first week of January.
Apparently, 2009 is going to be a stellar year—at least if your only source of information is the morning talk show circuit! However, if you’ve been paying any attention at all in the last few months, the slogan “feelin’ fine in ‘09” ought to ring about as hollow to you as it does me. It strikes me that Regis telling me that we’re “gonna be fine in 09” is about as trustworthy as that cowboy hat wearing jewelry salesman on TV telling you he’s going to give you reams of cash for your used jewels. It’s such a thin veneer! As I’m writing this, Canada’s premiers are trying to agree on an economic stimulus package, the American economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, and we’re looking at record job losses all over the Western hemisphere. All is not well, it seems, after all.
It’s not that I don’t like Regis—I’m sure he’s a great guy. It’s just that Regis, at least for me on this morning, funneled the whole artificiality that our culture (especially our commercial and consumerist culture) brings to bear on the social and political realities of our time. Our culture, it seems, is constantly putting on the Emperor’s new clothes and walking around as if everything’s ok. As long as we’ve got our entertainment (I, for one, am waiting impatiently for the new season of LOST!) and all our other little distractions, we can try—in the end, always in vain—to coat the reality that we’re not doing fine.
Of course, this realization is nothing new for the church, or, at least it shouldn’t be. The church is the place where we come together to admit that we aren’t fine, that everything is not ok. The reality that all is not well is nothing new for the church and this puts us in a rather unique position. We live in a world that is in constant denial of brokenness. We try to deny our pain, be it emotional, physical, spiritual or mental. We deny our fallibility and our finitude; we deny our limits, with death being the big one. This is all to say that, in short, we try to deny our humanity by covering it up with an artificial smile and a spurious “everything’s ok!” thumbs up.
Within this culture of denial the church is reminded weekly in its confession that something’s amiss, something more than a faltering economy. In fact, the church confesses that the entire economy of our lives—the why and how of it all, all the way down—is broken. The Lenten season, which is around the corner, is the time that the church takes to remind itself of this and in doing so, bears witness to this reality for the whole world. Lent, it should strike us, is a deeply counter cultural and entirely subversive practice.
This is why the world needs the church—to tell it the truth about itself. We bear witness then, not with the plastic smiles of a thin veneer, but with the joy, that in our brokenness, in the very fissures of the fabric of our existence, we find the cheerfulness and optimism that only the cross engenders because it is there that we find, or rather are found by the God who came all the way down. In fact, this is why the whole world—or at the very least Regis Philbin—needs the lessons and practice of the Lenten season.
Usually at this time of year Bing Crosby is crooning out his rendition of “Jingle Bells” to anyone within earshot as they walk through their local mall. In fact, it was the day after Halloween this year that my wife and I were walking through the mall and we were surrounded by the sounds of your run-of-the-mill Christmas carol whose sole purpose of wafting down into your ears in the first place is to lull you into a retail reverie of impulse buying.
This is what the Christmas carol has been reduced to in our consumer culture: a safe, trite, and effective marketing tool. But then along comes a collection of Christmas songs, that at least for me, has the ability to rescue the Christmas carol from this Babylonian captivity.
Sufjan (pronounced Soof-yawn) Stevens’ Songs for Christmas, a 5 CD box set of traditional and original Christmas songs from one of our best contemporary troubadours of indie folk-pop, entreats us throughout to remember who it is we are singing about with time-honored carols like “Once in David’s Royal City” and manages at the same time to cut through the sentimentality of the season with the hilarious “Get Behind me Santa!”.
However, it’s Sufjan’s orchestration of the songs—that is at once so simple and at times even haunting—that makes this album what it is. It’s a Christmas album to be certain (and a fun one at that, with the ebullient “Come on, Let’s Boogy to the Elf Dance”) but it’s one that protests the warm and fuzzy harbour that Christmas has become in our time. The reason for this is that for Sufjan the singing of Christmas carols is not a harmless or innocuous business but a rather dangerous one.
Sufjan’s ability to get to the theological heart of what it is we ‘celebrate’ at this time of year is rare to find in the church, let alone in a musician. But Sufjan is unrelenting. In the liner notes to the album, Sufjan asks:
What did the angels renounce in the wake of the shepherd’s trepidation? ‘Have no fear,’ they petitioned with trumpet blasts and a garish display of constellations. But that’s like waving a gun in a bank lobby and demanding: ‘Everybody stay calm!’
What Sufjan gets is that Christmas is an apocalyptic event; it’s about the terrifying coming of God. Further along he confesses that “Christmas music poses a cosmological conundrum in requiring us to sing so sweetly and sentimentally about something so terrifying and tragic.” That’s Christmas; that’s the demand made of the church: sing about the coming of God, the coming of the One who will unsettle everything.
I’m reminded about Karl Barth’s observation about theological speech: “We ought to speak of God…. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.”
This is the same obligation and inability that the prophet Isaiah faced in the presence of God: “I am lost, my lips are not clean, I cannot speak, but my eyes have seen the King!” And what happens? God touches his lips, and Isaiah answers the call of the King, “send me!” Singing Christmas carols is possible because God has touched our lips. Like Isaiah we have seen the glory of the King, we’ve been touched by God in Christ and we are obligated to sing about it, not with sentimentality but with urgency!
And so, this album is Sufjan’s way of recognizing both his obligation and his inability; his own attempt, while waving his gun around, to tell us to stay calm. So steady yourself in this season as you sing your carols and as you await the coming of God, and by all means STAY CALM!