“Art That Dares” to Comfort and Discomfort

Images of Jesus are such common currency in our popular culture that we scarcely notice them, save to afford them a sentimental smile or an eye-roll of aesthetic disdain. From rappers in crucifixion poses on their album covers, to kitsch statues for your little softball player, Jesus is like Mrs. Dash, tossed in to spice up the processed images served up to our jaded palates.

On the one hand, the Incarnation means that Jesus really is standing behind us in the batter’s box (though he didn’t help the Red Sox much this week). We mustn’t get so churchy that we wall off certain areas of life as too mundane for his attention. He still knows when we’re stealing from the cookie jar.

On the other hand, casual handling of Jesus’ image domesticates it, robbing it of its power, as least as often as Jesus-ification elevates the subject matter in question. For me, kitsch images of Jesus can clutter up my mind and block my ability to visualize him as a real, individual, living person.

Kittredge Cherry at Jesusinlove.org has compiled a book of contemporary GLBT and feminist Christian art entitled Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ and More. Samples can be viewed on the gallery page.

I wanted to recommend this project wholeheartedly, but my reaction to the sample works was more complicated. The artworks are presumably meant to be affirming to one group of viewers, and disturbing to others. Jesus, I think, should be experienced as both affirming and disturbing to everyone. Mainstream sentimental Christian art is hampered by its clear-cut message, a trait that this project doesn’t fully escape.

Should the goal of this work be conceived as political rather than devotional, it’s easier for me to overlook the lack of nuance in some of the pieces I saw. It was similarly scandalous to some white Western Christians when people of color tossed out the blonde, blue-eyed image of Jesus in favor of a more African appearance. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. Most people today would add “black nor white”, but “gay nor straight” (though arguably contained in “male nor female”) is a tougher sell. Paintings like Becki Jayne Harrelson’s The Crucifixion of Christ deliver a shock that can’t be ignored.


My favorite among the sample pictures was Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin’s posed photo Sermon on the Mount. There’s a humor, absurdity and tenderness in the image of leather daddies hugging Christ’s knees, which lends a complexity not found in a lot of popular Christian art, gay or straight. This picture was also great because the men, though clearly sexual beings, were not relating to Christ or one another in merely a sexual way. Images of love between men always delight me, but the angel’s hand on Christ’s butt in F. Douglas Blanchard’s Jesus Returns to God was a bit much. Love, even between sexual partners (and they do make a cute couple), isn’t always expressed by groping, especially at a moment like this. Was the artist afraid we wouldn’t see them as gay otherwise? It’s a reductive visual trope that erases the non-sexual dimensions of a gay person’s life.

Christians who think Cherry’s project is scandalous should go back and read some classic Christian poems, with their ideological blinders off. Start with St. John of the Cross:

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he
(well I knew who!) was awaiting me
— A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

(translation courtesy of this website)

And how about this poem by the 17th-century metaphysical poet George Herbert:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

“Love”, in this poem, is another name for Christ. Who is male. From the first stanza, we can see that the speaker is obviously male too. Something to think about.

Poem: “Gratitude”

In green dusk the rowboat, cradled
on lapping waves, floats unmanned
like the largest among fallen leaves.
The wind leans on the pier, wood answers
its old spouse, not needing half the words
to understand the familiar reply.
And still the scrub grass grips, leans into 
      each slap
of water and reclines gleaming.
Every leaf silver in the last light
waving, though there are no more 
The trees are changing, cell by cell,
so slowly that they seem to be waiting
for something that is already present.
Flung by a scarf of breeze, a bird’s foghorn 
spreads its echo over the lake, telling 
      of distance,
dares ropes to snap and oars to slice
into the eely dark.
But I, having learned of gratitude
so late, my best gift was turning
to leave the grass untrodden, the boat empty.

      published in the 2007 Voices Israel anthology

Psalm 91: Because I Said So

I’ve always had trouble believing the more concrete promises of God: peace, food, shelter, protection, health. Spiritual ones are easier to fudge. I can’t see whether God has answered someone else’s prayers for discernment, peace of mind, comfort, or other invisible interior states. But I look around at the world where so many people are not peaceful, healthy, or materially secure, at least some of whom presumably are praying to God and are no less worthy than others (like myself) who have these blessings. Faithful people acting as God’s hands in the world can remedy some of these inequities, but not all. So what do we do about the many Old Testament passages where God seems to be promising something He hasn’t delivered?

I was reciting Psalm 91 the other night as part of the Compline (evening) service in the Book of Common Prayer:

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say [b] of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.

4 He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

5 You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,

6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

8 You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 If you make the Most High your dwelling—
even the LORD, who is my refuge-

10 then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;

12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

13 You will tread upon the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

14 “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.

15 He will call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.

16 With long life will I satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

As usual, I said this psalm with inner reservations that, if consciously articulated, would sound something like this: Statistically, some people will probably receive this kind of protection from God, but there’s no guarantee He will do it for me, since obviously there are other believers who suffer all the wrongs described in the psalm.

And then I thought: If we could look at our situation and logically deduce that we would receive these blessings, God would not need to promise anything. God’s faithfulness is highlighted by the fact that His promises contradict the logic of the world. We believe it against the evidence as proof of how much we trust Him.

I’m rather uncomfortable with this conclusion, having grown up as an intellectual first and a Christian second. It also doesn’t explain why some people don’t get those blessings, as I said before. Perhaps God wants us to get out of the whole game of comparing ourselves to other people as a barometer of whether He is working in our lives.

Psalm 131

1 My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.

2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

3 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

Christian Books Resource, and Some Thoughts on Pascal’s Wager

Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan maintains the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, an extensive collection of theological classics that can be read online for free. Whether you’re looking for a pithy quote from Saint Athanasius for your blog, or an alternative to computer solitaire during those low-energy afternoons in your cubicle, CCEL is the place for you.

I came across this resource via James Kiefer’s thumbnail biography of Blaise Pascal at The Daily Office yesterday, which is worth quoting below for its elucidation of an often-oversimplified argument:

Pascal’s Wager

One argument used by Pascal has been much ridiculed and (in my judgement) much misunderstood. It has come to be called Pascal’s Wager, and may be stated thus: “If Christianity is true, then you stand to gain infinitely by accepting it. If it is false, then you stand to lose only a finite amount of well-being by accepting it. Therefore the odds make deciding to become a Christian the sensible move.”

This has been attacked with great bitterness and vigour. First, it is said, this argument makes the Christian a cynical opportunist, who accepts Christ, not out of love or gratitude, but out of a calculation of which side his bread is likely to be buttered on. Second, it is said, it supposes that the world is ruled by a Power who rewards those who are lucky (or opportunistic, or sycophantic), while punishing the others. Third, it is said, the proposed argument is logically as well as morally defective, in that it simply assumes that Christianity and secular humanism are the only possibilities to be considered. Let us introduce the theory that the universe is ruled by a Power who detests Christians, so that if you die a Christian you will boil in oil forever, but otherwise you will party forever. Now the choice is not so simple as Pascal would make it.

On a Lollipop theory of heaven, these objections make sense. By a Lollipop theory, I mean one that views heaven and hell simply as arbitrary rewards and punishments handed out, like giving toys and sweetmeats to some children, “because they have been nice,” while giving switches or lumps of coal to other children, “because they have been naughty.” Those who understand Heaven and Hell in a Lollipop sense are (on my view) quite right to find the Wager argument wanting.

But suppose that by heaven we mean an eternal union with Christ. When persons seek to understand (by a study of the Scriptures or by participation in the life of the Christian community, or by seeing what is perhaps Christ at work in the lives of Christian friends) what Christ is like, or what it would mean to be in a right relationship with Him, some of them (not all) conclude that to be in such a relationship is such a glorious prospect that it is indeed worth making the central goal of one’s life.

They are in a position rather like that of an athlete who has made winning the Boston Marathon his top priority. If you want to win the Marathon, then you train for it. You eat a healthy diet, and all that. Perhaps this is a waste of time and effort. Perhaps there is someone in Germany who is so much faster than you that you will never beat him no matter how well you prepare. Perhaps the Boston Marathon will be called off because of a Third World War or an invasion from outer space. All you know is that you have a better chance of winning if you train than if you don’t. And if the Boston Marathon is all you care about, then that is all you need to know.

Suppose that I have made the goal of union with Christ all that I care about, or more probably, have decided that it is a great enough good so that it ought to be all that I care about. Then every course of action is to be judged by the single criterion, “Will it move me closer to my goal of union with Christ?” Obviously, if Christ is an illusion, then nothing will move me closer to him, and it does not matter what I do. But if He is not an illusion, then obviously seeking to love Him, trust Him, and obey Him is more likely to get me into a right relation with Him than the opposite strategy. And so it will be the one I take.
Lately I’ve been wondering if salvation is more of a continuum than a bright line between sheep and goats. What Kiefer calls the Lollipop theory sounds like some sermons I’ve heard in evangelical churches where the official line is that only Christians are saved.

Basically, the default scheme is that everyone goes to hell except those people who have accepted Christ. But what does that acceptance actually consist of? Abiding in Christ and being remade in his image is a slow, bumpy, lifelong affair. To discourage constant paranoid scrutiny of one’s religious feelings (“is my faith enough to be a saving faith?”), some preachers will distinguish between the decision for Christ, which gets you in, and discipleship, which is more of a long-term process. In my opinion, that reduces baptism to a magic formula, a form of works-righteousness, where we force God to move us from column A to column B via external acts that have not yet transformed the whole person (for how could they?). It severs the logical connection between faith and its reward.

It seems to me that faith is recognizing that eternal union with God in Christ is the most desirable of all goods, and heaven is experiencing that union. God doesn’t need to send people to hell because they idolized lesser goods. Darkness isn’t the punishment for being blind, it is being blind. As C.S. Lewis might say, at the end of time, we will all see what gods we really worshipped. Some Christians may be surprised. I hope I’m not one of them.

John Koessler on Holy Emptiness

John Koessler, chair of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute, wrote an incredibly moving essay in Christianity Today about how emptiness is the precondition for blessing. Once again Jesus reverses our worldly values, such that the depth of our neediness becomes the measure of God’s opportunity to fill us with good gifts. Some excerpts follow:

My mother was hungry most of her life. She cooked daily for us, but rarely sat down to eat. Unable to stomach the food she’d prepared for the rest of us, she ate her own meals at odd hours, nourishing herself on a strange combination of the ordinary and the exotic. One day she might eat a baked bean sandwich smothered in ketchup; the next, broiled lobster.

Mother blamed her eating habits on a childhood of poverty. Born six years before the Great Depression, her earliest memories were of hunger. Her family was so poor they often went days without eating. When there was food, it was never enough. Sometimes all they had to share between them was a can of beans.

Mother looked hungry. As thin as a wraith much of her life, weighing an almost skeletal 90 pounds, her erratic diet eventually consumed her, shredding her bowels and leaving her emaciated. Unable to keep down food, she died in a hospital bed connected to tubes that provided nutrients for her weakened shell of a body.

My father, on the other hand, died of thirst. A large man with a hearty appetite, his experience was the polar opposite of my mother’s. He was raised in comfort. The son of a medical doctor, he observed the poverty of the Great Depression from a distance, never worrying about his next meal.

He started drinking in his teens, I suspect. By the time he reached adulthood, he was a full-fledged alcoholic. He couldn’t start the day without a shot of liquid napalm, which he purchased by the half gallon. Like my mother’s strange hunger, his thirst for alcohol was the end of him. He spent the last days of his life waiting to have his dry lips moistened with a damp swab, unable to drink water because of his alcohol-ravaged kidneys.

Their experiences are not lost on me when I read Jesus’ blessing in Matthew 5:6. Blessed are those who hunger? Hunger and thirst signal need. They are symptoms of emptiness and unfulfilled desire. How can they be a source of blessing?

The fact that Jesus says he is talking about hunger and thirst for righteousness clarifies little. He seems to have put the emphasis in the wrong place. Why not, “Blessed are the righteous?” Hunger implies a lack of righteousness. Jesus’ proposal is so radical, it turns our notions of God and righteousness and blessing on their heads. He blesses what most of us would curse.

According to Jesus, when we draw near to the kingdom, it is better to come empty than full. We are tempted to think that righteousness is the condition we must be in to be blessed. Jesus says the opposite. Righteousness is the blessing; hunger is the precondition….


Why is blessedness associated with hunger? Because those who bring their hunger to Christ will be filled with his righteousness. Thus, righteousness must be a gift before it can become a practice. The promise of righteousness is offered to those who are empty. It belongs to those who are aware of their lack.

We cannot labor for Christ’s righteousness. Even if we wanted to work for it, we could not expend enough effort to obtain it. If we wanted to buy it, we could not offer enough money. We can’t get it by loan. The only way to obtain righteousness is to receive it.

The language of filling in Christ’s beatitude underscores another important aspect of the blessing. Righteousness works from the inside out. We usually go about it the other way around; we try to work on it from the outside in, as if it were a matter of externals. If we worship in the right building, perform the right rituals, wear the right clothes, and are seen with the right people, we are righteous. If we read our Bibles and pray in the morning, give a tithe of our earnings on Sunday, control our tempers and restrain our passions the rest of the week, we are righteous.

But if we listen to Jesus, we begin to understand why he attracted the sort of people who came to listen to his preaching: hookers and thieves, trailer trash and lowlifes, people who dwelled on the outskirts, in places where decent citizens refused to travel. If we dare to hear Jesus rightly, we understand why respectable, law-abiding people such as ourselves wanted to silence him. It is because this word of Jesus has the power to strip us of all we think we’ve achieved. This beatitude robs us of what we thought we had acquired and leaves us naked, destitute, and empty. If we are to have righteousness as Jesus defines it, we must receive it like beggars, letting it transform us from the inside.

Above all, Jesus’ promise in this beatitude shows us that true righteousness leaves us craving more. We tend to think of righteousness as a standard. Like the little boy whose progress in growth has been marked inch by inch on the kitchen wall and compared to his father’s height, we hope that we, too, will measure up someday. Yet there is no limit to God’s righteousness, as if we could accumulate and eventually exhaust it. God has an infinite capacity for righteousness, and so do we. This is the secret to savoring the blessed hunger Jesus describes. Natural hunger is all about emptiness. The hunger Jesus blesses is about never being filled.

Such is our lot—and our blessing. As worshipers of an infinite God, we are always longing, always filled.

See also:
Book Notes: Jesus Mean and Wild
“The type of experience we’ll have with God for eternity: an endless falling in love, an endless fascination, an endless pursuing of the mystery of God — and the fact that we are never fully satisfied is precisely one reason we’ll find the kingdom of heaven such a joy.” –Mark Galli

Judith & Gerson Goldhaber: “Noah and the Flood” (excerpt)

Award-winning poet Judith Goldhaber and her husband, the artist and physicist Gerson Goldhaber, have just released a sequel to their well-received collaboration, the illustrated poetry book Sonnets from Aesop. Their new collection, Sarah Laughed: Sonnets from Genesis, embellishes familiar Bible stories with humorous and mystical elements from midrash and folklore. Willis Barnstone writes, “Sarah Laughed is utterly charming, poem and icon…In the best tradition of imitation it illumines the Abrahamic religions.” The Goldhabers have kindly permitted me to reproduce the following excerpt from their “Noah and the Flood” sonnet sequence:

ii. The Time is Coming

God spoke to Noah when he became a man
and said, “The time is coming — build an Ark;
storm clouds are gathering; soon you will embark
upon the seas, as outlined in My plan.
Make the Ark as sturdy as you can —
line it with pitch, strip gopher trees of bark
to shape the hull, and lest it be too dark
cut windows, and a doorway.” Noah began
to do what God commanded, but worked slowly,
hoping in time the Lord might change His mind
regarding the destruction of mankind.
He begged the wicked to return to holy
customs, but they answered him with jeers.
And thus went by one hundred twenty years.

iii. The Laughing Stock

At last the Ark was finished, and it stood
three hundred cubits long, and fifty wide,
three stories — thirty cubits — high inside
constructed out of seasoned gopher wood,
the laughing stock of Noah’s neighborhood.
“A flood?” the people mocked, “I’m terrified!
Look! Over there! Is that a rising tide
I see? Boo-hoo, I promise to be good!!”
But then Methuselah died, and a malaise
descended on the people, for they knew
that God had stayed His hand until the few
good men still living reached their final days.
A dark cloud veiled the sun; the sky was bleak,
and Noah sniffed the wind and said, “A week.”

iv. Bird to Bird

Compared to getting humankind to heed
the urgent warnings, putting out the word
to animals was easy. Bird to bird
the news was spread at supersonic speed.
By nightfall all the beasts of earth had heard
the message, and they readily agreed
to group themselves according to their breed
(scaly, hairy, hard-shelled, feathered, furred)
and line up in a queue beside the Ark.
Birds sang and cattle mooed and lions roared
as Noah gently welcomed them aboard
and sealed the door against the growing dark.
At last, on bended knee, nose to the ground,
he gathered up the ants, lest they be drowned.

v. A Mighty Cry

The sun turned black, and lightning streaked the sky,
somewhere behind the clouds a strange light bloomed
and faded, and at last the thunder boomed,
bringing the first drops. Then a mighty cry
arose from those who’d chosen to defy
the warning signs, and callously resumed
their sinful ways. “Even now you are not doomed,”
despairing, Noah cried, “repent or die!”
On board the Ark, through unbelieving eyes
the animals beheld the death of man.
Sworn adversaries since the world began
wept freely as they said their last goodbyes.
Even man’s ancient enemy the snake
shed bitter tears that day for mankind’s sake.

Church of the Holy Cow

The artist Steve Emery, who blogs over at Color Sweet Tooth, put up a thoughtful post some months ago about taking some time away from the noise, conflict and complications of the church in order to reconnect with God. Commenting on the impending Episcopal schism, he wrote in March:

Why do we leave a church? Because we no longer consider the worship of the others to be true? Because we fear our own faith or the faith of our children may be damaged by hearing what we consider to be wrong ideas? Because we no longer believe the Spirit moves in the presider, and the Eucharist is thus somehow invalidated?

For now I find these questions beyond me, and not mine to answer. This may change.

In my case I did not leave a church in particular, though it was events in a particular church that precipitated my departure. I left organized church in general. I needed to leave, like a man who needs to clear his head at a concert or a party by going outside and breathing some cold fresh air. I was seeing the defects of organized church in a way that blocked seeing anything else. I’ve become some kind of a cow, I think. Recent visits to church left me feeling sleepy and benign, with dew from the fields still on my shaggy bovine hide. I was OK being there, enjoyed the company and worship, found God there as congenially as elsewhere, but I was happier to return outside. I know God will eventually turn me back into a man…but for now I’m learning by being cattle.

Six months later, Steve writes:

Sometimes, when I’m the most confused or hurt about something, my prayer takes the form of just standing beside Him and reaching up with my little hand to put it in His. I don’t see Him in these prayers, I just put my hand in and try to stand still. I have to do it over and over again, because I’m not good at standing still. But I don’t think about whether God is grossed out about all the mud on my legs, the way my clothes haven’t been changed and are full of grass stains, the way my little hand is wet and clammy, or the way the other hand’s thumb is probably in my mouth. He doesn’t care and I’m too busy just needing Him to give it much thought. That’s the best I can do much of the time.

Or, to shift to my current metaphor, I’m just munching grass over here in my shaggy coat, rain or shine, trying to take it all in and not fret so much. He doesn’t withhold the rain or the sunshine because I’m just a stupid cow or even if I’m a wicked cow. He’s just good and I just love being here with Him. And once in a while I hear a voice like yours and it makes me look up and pause in my chewing. It definitely seems to be where I belong at the moment.

I’ve gone on a very similar journey this summer, having forced myself to defer the question of which church to join (if any) until Labor Day. Steve’s attitude of childlike humility is the essential factor that keeps a church-vacation from backsliding into spiritual individualism and rejection of the body of Christ. I’ve tried to resist the temptation to codify what I am doing as something that everyone should be doing, or even as something that will always be right for me. I put my grubby little hand in my Father’s and say “I need a nap” and I trust that He will wake me up in time for supper.

“Talent”, Fatalism, and the Artist’s Fears

One of my favorite “books for writers” is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Whether you need to sustain your faith in a long-term project or gather the courage to leap into a new one, this little book is an invaluable aid to identifying and overcoming the fear-based myths that prevent you from doing your work. One of those is “talent”:

Talent, in common parlance, is “what comes easily”. So sooner or later, inevitably, you reach a point where the work doesn’t come easily, and — Aha!, it’s just as you feared!

Wrong. By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work. There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have — and probably no worry more common. This is true even among artists of considerable accomplishment.

Talent, if it is anything, is a gift, and nothing of the artist’s own making….Were talent a prerequisite, then the better the artwork, the easier it would have been to make. But alas, the fates are rarely so generous. For every artist who has developed a mature vision with grace and speed, countless others have laboriously nurtured their art through fertile periods and dry spells, through false starts and breakaway bursts, through successive and significant changes of direction, medium, and subject matter….

Even at best talent remains a constant, and those who rely upon that gift alone, without developing further, peak quickly and soon fade to obscurity. Examples of genius only accentuate that truth. Newspapers love to print stories about five-year-old musical prodigies giving solo recitals, but you rarely read about one going on to become a Mozart. The point here is that whatever his initial gift, Mozart was also an artist who learned to work on his work, and thereby improved. In that respect he shares common ground with the rest of us. (pp.26-28)

Another myth that is deadly to art-making is “magic”:

Imagine you’ve just attended an exhibition and seen work that’s powerful and coherent, work that has range and purpose….[T]hese works materialized exactly as the artist conceived them. The work is inevitable. But wait a minute — your work doesn’t feel inevitable (you think), and so you begin to wonder: maybe making art requires some special or even magic ingredient that you don’t have.

The belief that “real” art possesses some indefinable magic ingredient puts pressure on you to prove your work contains the same. Wrong, very wrong. Asking your work to prove anything only invites doom. Besides, if artists share any common view of magic, it is probably the fatalistic suspicion that when their own art turns out well, it’s a fluke — but when it turns out poorly, it’s an omen. Buying into magic leaves you feeling less capable each time another artist’s qualities are praised….

Admittedly, artmaking probably does require something special, but just what that something might be has remained remarkably elusive — elusive enough to suggest that it may be something particular to each artist, rather than universal to them all….But the important point here is not that you have — or don’t have — what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. Whatever they have is something needed to do their work — it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it. Their magic is theirs. You don’t lack it. You don’t need it. It has nothing to do with you. Period. (pp.33-34)

The Bible, understandably, takes a dim view of magic. Thus I found it particularly helpful to see my reigning writer’s-block myth tagged with this label. Magical thinking, for me, is what happens when I look to the success of my work to shore up my belief in God’s faithfulness, instead of taking that belief as bedrock and letting the work build on it. “I haven’t written a good chapter in two weeks — the mandate of heaven must have passed from me!” 

For no obvious reason, I grew up afraid that God was Tennessee Williams and I was Laura in The Glass Menagerie. I didn’t understand why so many people’s lives just stalled, trapped in meaninglessness and dysfunction, when they had started off like me, believing they could do anything. In literature, there was an author who set such characters up to fail, sacrificing them to the storyline. Perhaps someone already knew that my story would end as another tale of someone whose dreams outstripped their pathetic destiny. Could I spot the clues, and if so, what should I do about it — fight the tide, or reconcile myself to insignificance?

The Psalms and the Hebrew prophets tell a different story. God’s chastisement is always a prelude to restoration. Even the “vessels of wrath” passage in Romans 9 — the closest the Bible comes to supporting my fatalistic neurosis — is only a hypothetical.

In this context, what might it mean for the failure of some aspect of my writing to be “for my own good”? Salvation by grace breaks the chain binding works to self-worth. Therefore, when I’m blocked, my first assumption should not be that God wants to take me down a peg, but that I can learn something useful about what was wrong with my original agenda for the work. This depersonalizes the issue, and also gives me hope, because the failure itself is not the divinely desired outcome but only preparation for starting off again in a new direction.

I figured this out yesterday, and the writing went very well. But what about today? Keep on keepin’ on.

Divine Impassibility? A Jewish Perspective

No, not impossibility. For the non-theology-geeks among you, impassibility is the doctrine that God does not suffer or have emotions in the human sense. This assertion is disputed among Christians, and seems to appeal more to Calvinists and others who are anxious to preserve God’s absolute sovereignty. (If that sounds absurdly presumptuous, well, I phrased it that way for a reason.) I lean toward believing that it’s an unbiblical notion that crept in from Hellenistic culture, which understood perfection as changelessness. By contrast, the Bible tells us that God is faithful and eternal, but this need not mean that God is unaffected by events. Rather, it means that God’s loving nature and His promises are completely reliable. 

Writing in this week’s Jewish World Review, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo connects the de-personalization of God to a loss of moral significance for human emotions and actions:

…[T]he term G-d…often stands for completely opposing entities used by religious and quasi-religious ideologies. All of them agree that “G-d” affirms some Absolute Reality as the Ultimate. But, they fundamentally disagree as to what that reality is all about. For Benedictus Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher and Jewish apostate, and other pantheistic thinkers, He is really an “It,” a primal, impersonal force, identical with all nature — some ineffable, immutable, impassive, Divine substance that pervades the universe or is the universe. G-d is only immanent; He is permanently pervading the universe but not transcendent, a Divine spirit which has little practical meaning in man’s day-to-day life.

This is not so for Judaism and other monotheistic religions. For the Jewish tradition, G-d is not an idea or just a blind force but the Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, Who, besides being immanent is also transcendent, surpassing the universe which is His creation. He has the disturbing habit of being everywhere and anywhere, and He is known to interfere with anything and everything. He is a living G-d who is a dynamic power in the life and history of man, moving things around when He sees fit and smiling or getting annoyed with His creatures when they have blundered yet again. But, most importantly, while He does not fit into any category, He has, for the lack of a better word, “personality” and His own consciousness. His essence cannot be expressed, but He can definitely be addressed.

This radical difference in the conception of G-d makes for an equally profound divergence in attitudes about all life and the universe. While in pantheistic and other non-monotheistic philosophies, He has no moral input, nothing could be further from the Jewish concept of G-d. For in Judaism, He is the source “par excellence” of all moral criteria. According to pantheism and the like, the world is eternal, without a beginning. As such, it does not have a purpose since purpose is the conscious motivation of a creator to bring something into existence. It therefore follows that in the pantheistic view man cannot have any purpose either. He, like the universe, just “is” and, so, moral behavior may have some utilitarian purpose but no ultimate one. For pantheism it is not the goal of man to be moral but just a means to his survival. Would moral behavior no longer be needed as a means for man to survive, it could be dispensed with.

On a deeper level, the pantheistic world view sees the universe as an illusion — an unreal, shifting flux of sensory deception. As such, it needs to be escaped. Made from a purely Divine substance, it could not accommodate any physical reality and, therefore, could not have any real meaning. Neither could man. Once his physical existence is branded as an illusion, he can no longer exist as a man of flesh and blood. Nor are his deeds of any real value. Since it is the body, which gives man the opportunity to act, and man’s body is seen as part of the deception, it must follow that all man’s behavior belongs to the world of illusion as well. It is this view that Judaism protests. G-d is a conscious Being who created the world with a purpose. And this world is real and by no means a mirage. Man’s deeds are of great value, far from an illusion; they are the very goal of creation. Judaism objects to the pantheistic view of man since it depersonalizes him, which must finally lead to his demoralization. If man is part of an illusion, so are his feelings. So why be concerned with a fellow man’s emotional and physical welfare?

Paradoxically, this pantheism infiltrated western culture via the back door. When we are told by certain modern philosophers that man is only physical and his body a scientific mechanism in which emotions are just a chemical inconvenience, we are confronted with a kind of pantheism turned on its head. While pantheism denies the physical side of existence, this so-called scientific approach rejects the spiritual dimension of man. In both cases, emotions are seen as part of an illusion, and, therefore, they are to be ignored.

Judaism, on the other hand, declares that it is emotions that make man into man and that they are of crucial importance and real. In fact, emotions are central to man’s existence, since they are the foundation of moral behavior. While pantheism teaches that moral criteria belong to the veil of illusion, Judaism declares them to be crucial. It is for that reason that Judaism views G-d as an emotional Being. By giving G-d, metaphorically speaking, emotions, these emotions are raised to a supreme state. If G-d has emotions such as love, mercy, jealousy and anger, then they must be real and serious and not to be ignored when found in man. While some philosophers considered such anthropomorphism as scandalous, the Jewish tradition took the risk of granting G-d emotions so as to uphold morality on its highest level and guarantee it would not be tampered with. For the sake of man even G-d is prepared to compromise His wholly Otherness, albeit not to the point that He would be projected as a human being.

Read the whole article here. (JWR is reader-supported, so if you like it, consider making a donation.)

Rabbi Cardozo is describing an Incarnational worldview, one that Christians take a step further by claiming that God was in fact “projected as a human being” in Jesus. I’m always wary of philosophical moves that widen the gulf between God and humanity, in a way that obscures our ultimate reconciliation rather than merely whetting the appetite for it. Note that God’s sovereignty is not threatened because it was still His initiative to “compromise His wholly Otherness”. The one who “taking the very nature of a servant…humbled himself and became obedient to death” (Phil 2:7-8) does not need us to wipe away His humanity in order to restore His dignity.

“Pocket Full of Violet” and Other New Poems by “Conway”


My prison pen pal “Conway” continues to make great strides in his poetry and artwork. As I mentioned in last month’s post, conditions have improved at his new location, where he has a job in the library and access to colored pencils and a typewriter. I hope to reproduce some of his drawings here soon. He often picks up themes from the classics he has been reading and reworks them in a voice that’s all his own. He sent me these poems after reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. I heard some echoes of Eliot’s closing section (“What the thunder said”) in the first poem below.

In his July 17 letter, Conway writes,

“…The other day while going through work change (strip search) the lady (if you wanna call her that!) searched my lunch (state issue baloney, apple, bread & mustard) well I had put a scooter pie inside the bag, I had purchased from canteen — she said I was not allowed to have it, who knows what (security risk) this would present, ‘the great marshmallow pie war’ so I ate it, you know, destroyed the evidence, literally….

“OK now on to bad news, they shot me down Calif Supreme Court on my writ of Habeas Corpus. So now I must file in Federal court. The basis for the appeal is #1 violation of contract (plea agreement) being as there was no mention of 3 strikes law in original plea bargain in 1987 that if I was arrested for non serious crime I would receive life in prison. I have good federal case law that confirms my argument plus the due process doctrines. It’s hard to get anyone’s ear on this stuff, though. Everyone is so caught up in their own drama they could care less about all the people stuck in here on an illegal law, as long as they have their big screen TV and what-nots….”

From July 26:

“I’ve been going to work almost every day since I got assigned to Vocational Education Clerk. So not much to blabber about, except last Saturday we had a yard down incident (upper yard) I’m lower yard, but they make us all prone out on our belly when they answer an alarm. Any rage, it was 109 degrees and I had my shirt off yard shorts on and was walking the concrete track with a buddy, so we belly crawl off the blazin hot concrete (stayin low) over to the grass field in the center of yard and, were obviously lookin to see who got got, so to speak, and I noticed that the grass was itching real bad, and thinkin it had just been a long time since I laid in the grass, I commented to my buddy “man this grass itches” about that time he looks over at me and says “Dude you got Ants all over you” Sure as heck I’d laid myself smack dab on an ant hole, so we slow crawled sideways and I brushed the critters off me, feelin like the interloper. Crazy huh? I know an Ant can’t move a rubber tree plant, but they sure moved me 🙂  “

Pocket Full of Violet

What love can clutch me
will remain forever, sheltered inside
the refuge of this stone heart
among a lazy river of stars
rising to meet my eyes awake
searching this endless silence
waiting for a break, carefully.

Chances & chains connect our soul
with so many sighs undone, reflecting
glittering like glass marbles
framed in stone and drowned by tears
shuffled savagely by foul years.
Broken fingers of the wind
departed softly unheard, and wept
swept through a lost window
behind another dull evening moon
bringing the bright kite
with a pocket full of violet
waiting beyon this wall
heavy on my heart
promising a new start
in an empty chapel
built by the lean,
mean and broken, spider’ web.

I sat alone in the pew
behind myself, daring my heart
to turn the key and cope
pierce this fierce dark with hope…



A spider hurls his rope up high
into an invisible windless sky.
His silk flag floats down
spinning a sticky town.

He laced up a Butterfly begging to be free
he swallowed her, but won’t feast on me
I wave my middle finger, curse & mock
he smiles and points at his key to my lock.

Someday, he motions, but not just yet
I wonder, do spiders ever regret
forget the paralyzed pleas of their prey
cursing the web, his bite, this Day…


Little Brick 

This little brick went to prison
that little brick went home
that little brick went missin’
this little brick’s on his own
that little brick the cops hassle
put the little brick back in jail
built a little brick road & a castle
brick by brick straight to hell…


The Gavel

When the Gavel came down it glistened
   should’ve splintered from the sound
echoing in my mind, still shaking the ground
   no one else heard but I listened…

When the gavel came down I bled
   while my family mourns, I’m alive still cold
buried in concrete on steel shelf
   filed away, story untold

When the gavel came down
   we all shut the book on life, in this scene
a library of lost souls
and everywhere in-between

Then the gavel spoke, deafened
   I started to choke, lost my mind
for all life to spend
   in this library of prison, when
the gavel gave its final decision…