“I see only four possibilities.; They might attempt, like the Amish, to isolate themselves completely for the rest of American society, banning all art works except the scriptures. They might, secondly, attempt to impose a censorship program, allowing people (or trying to allow people) to see, read, or hear, only what the censors declare harmless or beneficial.  They might attempt to put their energies into harmless or “wholesome” arts like ballroom dancing, athletics, symphony orchestras that plays safe traditional music, hymnals, and fiction with clearly recognizable inspirational messages. Or they might try to develop a great art so powerful that it would counteract, by its very strength, the shoddy culture it opposes. [ In the end, we must accept that] bland art is no defense against powerful bad art.” (Emphasis added)

–       Wayne C. Booth from the University of Chicago when discussing if art and religion can go together in today’s world. (found in “Religion Versus Art: Can the Ancient Conflict be Resolved?” Wayne C. Booth, Arts and Inspiration: Mormon Perspectives, edited by Steven P. Sondrup. Brigham Young University Press: Provo, UT, 1980, pp 30 – 31.)

Bono introduced their song ‘One‘ during their concert in Milan this week as a call to activism for the audience with the G8 meeting in Italy this week.  Some challenging words – reminding the audience that while he is merely a ‘writer of songs’, there are those who are ‘writing history’ even as we speak:

‘It is well known that I have had some differences with your prime minister over promises that were made and not kept to the world’s poor. Italians have given so many gifts to the world… modern physics.. the renaissance.. the piano… the gift of song… from Puccini to Luciano Pavarotti to Jovanotti. In the next few days, at the G8, your leader will decide where he stands on the gift of life for people far beyond your shores. If you think he should do what he promised for the poorest and most vunerable in Africa, you need to let him know because he is not Increasing aid as he said he would. He is slashing it. Do you think he should do what he promised? He still can. Tomorrow. Thursday. Friday. We’ll be waiting to see if he does. I write songs… Berlusconi gets to write history… it’s not too late for his chapter to end with dignity… I want to dedicate this song for him… it’s called ONE.’

Shows that an old song can continue to breathe new life in every age…

Over the 4th of July weekend, our family visited Nash’s Organic Farm in Sequim, Washington.  It was a beautiful day to be out and walking around on the farm, picking strawberries, watching the progress of the herbs and root vegetables, and smelling the flowers that they plant to attract ‘beneficial’ bugs that will naturally keep down the aphid population.

One of the things that farms such as Nash’s are doing is getting people involved in the locavore movement: encouraging people to eat foods that are grown locally and thereby supporting a localized economy and community building.  Through the Farm Share program, people buy ‘shares’ in the farm and receive regular boxes of vegetables and fruits from the farm throughout the summer and into the fall.  We were there this weekend for a Share member ‘thank you’ program – bringing together people who had ‘shares’ to have lunch made from the vegetables made on the farm, tour the farm to see what’s ‘coming up’ in the rows, and spend time with the farmers.

I must admit, as a city boy, taking time to see the food I am eating made and cared for by people who genuinally care for the soil, love their trade and are inspired to farm as a means of building community was truly moving.  This is what essayist and poet Wendell Berry speaks of as the challenge to city people to learn to ‘enjoy eating’ once again for the sake of the earth. All these people gathering together around rows of lettuce and tomatoes, looking in wonder at the slow, steady process of the earth as it formed and fused these random elements of dirt, water, air and time into food that is not only bursting with nutrients that keep us alive, but simply beautiful beyond words to behold.

As we ate our lunches that only hours earlier had been growing from the ground beneath our feet and listened to a local blues guitarist playing under a tree in the shade by the creek, our three girls ran up and down the strawberry rows  filled with the joy and wonder of discovery as they found fresh strawberries hidden under leaves which they quickly popped into their mouths like candy.

There were small glimpes of the Kingdom of God in this moment – the gentle simplicity of being close to the earth, close with my family, close with other people in ways not mediated by technology or speed or power.  There was only grace and gift and presense – something of the moving of the planets and the stillness of silence collapsed into one strawberry picked by a four year old under a gracious noonday sun.  The fact that this all took place on the Sabbath was lost on me – or rather, I was simply lost in what Sabbath actually was for the first time in such a long time that I lost time in the moment.

Wendell Berry cites the poet William Carlos Williams in “What are People For?” with these challenging words:

there is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination

I am thankful to have yielded my imagination yesterday to the farm… and it has made all the difference.

The great Australian poet Les Murray came and spoke to the Center for the Study of Literature, Theology and the Arts @ University of Glasgow, Scotland some years back and I have been thinking about his poem “First Essay on Interest” as it relates to the challenge of postmodern theory and continental thought in relation to the de-centering center of faith:

Interest…that blinks our interests out
and alone permits their survival, by relieving
us of their gravity, for a timeless moment;
that centres where it points, and points to centring,
that centres us where it points, and reflects our centre.

It is a form of love. The everyday shines through it
and patches of time. But it does not mingle with these…

Recently I was poking around on wordpress.com (the new home for the blogsite) and checking out other blogs about religion.  The introduction to the ‘blogs about’ section on wordpress.com for ‘religion’ has the following statement of purpose:

One of the many gods and goddesses the ancient Aztecs of Mexico worshipped was Cihuacoatl. Her temple was dedicated to soldiers and mothers who died in childbirth, which makes sense — both are warriors, in their own way. While the world’s most common religions tend to get most of the media’s attention (often for political or even violent reasons), the diversity and creativity of human spirituality is incredibly challenging to suppress. Our beliefs form our identities; therefore, we hang on tenaciously.

I like the emphasis on ‘identity formation’ as a core concern for what constitutes religious faith, but the emphasis on human beings is what I find increasingly troubling.  I mean, is the only reason (even the primary reason) that people have a religious faith is to figure out who WE are?

I suppose this brings us back to Immanuel Kant and his grand reversal of the subject – object.   Prior to Kant, human beings were the object of consideration of God what is the subject of all things – that which gives and sustains meaning.  Kant argued (rather successfully) that this the roles are reversed:  we as human beings are the subject that consider and ultimately sustain the reality of objects in the world of which God is one such ‘object’.  In this way, as with the definition above, we ‘hang tenaciously to the objects such as ‘God’ only for the sake of our so-called identity.   I just think there is more to it than that.  Sure, I am as much an egotist as the new person, but I have been awakened to a world much larger than myself and certainly larged than I can adequately reason and ‘even imagine’.

In the Hindu scriptures, there is a wonderful story of  the demon of egotism (Mamāsura) who had attacks Gaṇeśa Vighnarāja (the elephant headed God familiar to many).  In order to defend and overcome the onslaught of Mamāsura, Gaṇeśa Vighnarāja throws his lotus blossom at him. Unable to bear the fragrance of the divine flower, the demon surrenders to Gaṇeśa.

Perhaps we need to ‘consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air’ (Matthew 6: 25-33) as Jesus suggested in the Sermon of the Mount. a bit more time outside of OUR heads and perhaps we can realize that who WE are isnt nearly as important nor foundational as we think.

In the 2001 film Zoolander, Ben Stiller plays a male model Derek Zoolander  who is capable of seemingly endless sharp focused facial poses – Blue Steel, Le Tigre, Magnum – that are ultimately the same face.  It isnt like Ben Stiller to embrace the depth of Greek tragedy, but this alone captures the heart of ‘persona’ – the Greek notion of theatre where multiple ‘personas’ or masks are used by one actor.  The audience accepts the masks as truly distinct characters with the knowledge that in the end there is only one ‘true self’ under all the masks.  The question that drives so many people is simply finding what our true face is under all the masks/persona that we wear and inhabit.   Derek Zoolander so eloquently put it “I ‘m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.”  Identity and meaning haunts even the ridiculously good looking it seems.

One the questions that drives much of my work is the question of identity.  Put plainly: who are you, who am I, and why? Granted, this seems like a fairly benign area of reflection and almost self-evident: there you are, here I am, so what?! That said, scratch a bit deeper and there is a swirling confluence of influences struggling (or better yet often resigning themselmes) toward some place in the make up of an individual.  I am fascinated by the way people seemingly change overnight as well – going from a coward to a champion through a series of reletively small, incremental shifts.

I got a degree in Psychology and English Literature as an undergraduate in part to discover these contesting resources of the self – the demons and angels that haunts the recesses of our id, ego and superego and the artistic expressions of that inner-life writ large upon the canvas of creativity.  Theology has been an area of further exploration – how do we reach beyond oursleves, our limited humanity, and seek meaning and depth in sources so far beyond our grasp as to seem ridiculous and sublime at the same instant?  A hymn to God? A book that professes to divine the Divine?  On the surface such attempts seem utterly foolish, yet there is such a hunger to know (as Matthew Arnold penned it in The Buried Life) “from whence we come and where we go” as to put the seemingly ridiculous attempts at forging identity into the realm of wonder and awe.

Even the really, really, ridiculously good looking understand this…

Of the top five things that factor into my sense of ‘being’ is the strange reality that I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Even writing about it feels odd akin to discovering that you are actually adopted or better yet, that your entire life has actually been shaped and sustained by a force you least expected.  Think of the great plot twist in Dickens’s Great Expectations when Pip realizes after so many years that seemingly pragmatic humanist rise to fortune under his own cunning and skill only supplemented by the wealthy Miss Havisham, but was actually the result of a dark benefactor shaping his ends that he encounters as a boy: Magwitch.  Pip’s so-called self-made journey is nothing more than a (havi)sham in the end.

My life has been such a bildungsroman as well – times when I had the audacity to think that I deserved my life, that the accomplishments and failures that marked out the data points of my days were of my doing alone – that I was the egoist and ‘overman’ of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in so many ways.  Yet the truth is that I am not so much an architect nor a cartographer worth of this sojourn by any means.  No, the reality is that God is very much a reality and my vocation has been bound to who God is for quite some time akin to what the Gospel of John sees as the intimacy and fury of a fruit bearing branch engrafted to a deeply rooted vine.

It is not an easy vocation by any means and the further I can ‘into’ it (I was ordained in 1995) the more mysterious and just plain weird it all is.

I am currently reading Charles Taylor’s magnum opus A Secular Age this summer – a sprawling 800+ page tome that seeks to locate the contours, valleys and peaks of this so-called ‘Secular Age’ in relation to the West.  No one is better suited for this challenge to be sure than Taylor.  In the introduction he speaks of his task as essentially’re-telling the story of the West, as he puts it “to get straight where we are, we have to go back and tell the story properly.” (29)  Part of the story Taylor wants to tell is that over 2,000 years the issue of God’s Death (after William Hamilton, Tom Altizer) or ‘Dying’ (think the Victorian anxiety surrounding Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach as the ‘Sea of Faith’ recedes into the distance) is vastly overstating the condition of modernity.  God is not retreating from the public sphere – what Taylor terms the ‘subtraction’ theory in that God is being pulled out of discourse inch-by-inch as Fox News would have us believe.  Rather, according to Taylor, God is very much still a core component of society and continues to be so.  Now I am not going to redact the 800+ pages of his tome (it is certainly worth the read though!) but he does paint a compelling argument.  Sooo… why am I rambling on about Charles Taylor in reference to the vocation of pastor? The fact is that as long as society continues to seek and be sought by a very ‘real’ God, the more I will be found in the mix of the conversations and silences that follow waiting for the still, small voice to nudge us yet again – the rough beast of WB Yeats’ ‘Second Coming‘ slouching ever so nearer and nearer toward Jerusalem to be born among us yet again…jeff with stoll - wedding

“It’s just that for so many people that I know, Christianity’s this matter of … it has everything to do with morals. Christianity is a religion about morals. And they will even talk about Jesus. And they will say kids need to know about Jesus so they won’t smoke, drink, or dance, or go with girls that do, and all that kind of thing. And I kinda go, ‘That’s not why people need to know about Jesus. The only reason—the only possible excuse for talking about Jesus is because we need a Savior.”