Life at Home Upon Returning from a Theology and Arts Conference

“How was your weekend?” a co-worker asks. (I’ve just returned from a three-day Theology and the Arts conference at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina.)

How to say… it was the most inspiring event I’ve been to in a solid five years, I watched some really important poets read verse that made me cry in its beauty and brilliance, and it was a ridiculous privilege to listen to the some of the brightest minds in theology and the arts today discuss Creation and New Creation. Instead, I simply nod: “It was great” and go about my office(ial) duties, all the while wondering to myself what is the definition of “eschaton,” “mimetic,” and “Principio,” and what is Judith Wolfe doing right now. And how my life is such a confluence of difference, how I go from squeezing in between MDivs and PhDs to find a seat, to speaking to someone about the dress code, watching 9th grade girls giggling in the corner, preparing remarks for conservative Mennonite patrons at PTF, re-stocking the toilet paper, and wondering how to get students to sign up for my newspaper class.

All the while my soul is literally mopping the floor in Goodson Chapel.

Ah well, I keep all these things and ponder them in my heart.

Every evening after school, I come home and put on some tea (a little pre-run caffeine), and sit down with Michael O’Siadhail’s new poetry book, The Five Quintets. In my bare feet and business-wear, I step out on my new, secluded, second-story deck (I just moved) and sip tea, and read some of the best poetry I’ve encountered. (I discovered O’Siadhail at Duke Divinity School’s DITA conference two weeks ago. After listening to a lecture in which he outlined his latest volume and then read to us, I’ve become completely enamored with his reliance on form, his grasp of language and philosophy, and for that matter, I suppose if Duke’s renowned New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hayes, introduces O’Siadhail as having written one of the most important works in the English language that will be published in our lifetime, one does sit up and take notice.) (Not only that, but order the poetry collection from Amazon immediately!)

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After tea and sonnets, we change into running clothes. It’s about 6:00 o’clock and it’s soon golden hour. The sun is moving toward setting, casting a golden hue through all the forest-green trees. (The running’s been so great in my new neighborhood, I’ve been leaving my iPod at home – it’s THAT good around here.) I found this excellent route with virtually no traffic and all the best scenery: muscular horses, a pasture of lambs, a lonesome swan, a miniature pony…

It’s amusing to me how fulfilled I feel living out in this part of Lancaster county. I never really took myself for a country girl, but I’m flooded with memories of my childhood on the Ohio plains. I remember my friends who milked cows and the way their clothes smelled, I remember playing with kittens in my friend’s haymow, rambling in pastures spotted by craggy oaks, taking long walks down farm lanes, bike rides with Dad, the miles of corn, the quietness, the solitude.

It’s been so long since solitude like this.

I pass a farm lane, and it occurs to me that everyone knows this lane. Everyone knows who has walked this lane. Everyone knows who drives this lane. Everyone knows how to drive down this lane. Everyone knows what goes on this lane. The ruts, the gravel, the weeds, the hat, the arm dangling outside the pickup truck… a cat picking its way along the corn… This knowing occurs to me, and I inspect it.

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I easily finish my evening run, ending with a negative split. After cleaning up, I pull out Bach and practice Singet Dem Herrn, plus more than a dozen other pieces for an upcoming concert. The Russian doesn’t come so well. There are more pieces, some German. I think of Papa, and my pronunciation of Herrlichkeit. Two hours later, I heave a deep sigh, and start cooking dinner.

I’m eating by 9:00 p.m., opened up to the Word, and soon I’m crying again. I’ve been crying nearly every evening at dinner since I moved to my new place. I’m so grateful for this space, a second-story apartment above a rambling country home, lightyears closer to work and church. I feel entirely lucky.

I think about the winding drive home from school yesterday, through fields bursting with life, and I think, “You know, on these roads I feel the most ‘at home’ I’ve ever felt since moving away from home in Ohio in 2013.” And I get this huge lump in my throat because some of you know how big of a deal that is for me.

There is a paradise this side of heaven that bursts softly through the clouds. It quietly rests on the most unsuspecting of us.

You know, Christian Wiman says, “All art is making visible what is not visible.”

Perhaps that is why I blog at all. Perhaps this blog (while you’ll have to pardon its “particularities,” and “definite pictures”) is a little temporary installation, lit up by that “Paradisal light.”

And so.

Here’s to art-making.

Poets, and Me, at Duke Divinity’s Theology and the Arts Conference

Spending 3.5 days in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School, listening to some of the brightest minds discuss theology and the arts is among one of the finer weekends I’ve had this year.

A Conference

Duke’s Initiative in Theology and the Arts (DITA) exists to promote “a vibrant interplay between Christian theology and the arts by encouraging transformative leadership and enriching theological discussion in the Church, academy, and society,” and it does so by encouraging “rigorous scholarly work and effective, imaginative teaching that fosters the biblical vision of a new creation in Jesus Christ.”

You understand, then, why I was completely excited to secure my ticket months ago to its 10-year celebration this September. On Thursday evening, director Dr. Jeremy Begbie spoke to us on the conference’s theme: Creation and New Creation, reminding us how this is the plot line of the entire Bible, whereby God makes and remakes (a process known by anyone who chips mortar, mixes paints, or plucks strings, over and over, hours on end).

The Mastermind Behind It: Jeremy Begbie

Begbie continues to be a leading figure in the field of theology and the arts, especially at Duke where he’s known for concert lectures, his theological lectures bring interspersed with piano performance. (You can get a sense for those here.)

Begbie quoted Rowan Williams who was once asked what it is that seminarians should teach, to which he replied, “I’d like them to sense the pressure out of which Christianity burst.” This kinetic pressure, so creational, lived in each of us this weekend, as we sat spell-bound to Malcolm Guite and Micheal O’Siadhail reading poetry, or to Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s Awet Andemicael singing “Witness.”

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Notes from Begbie on Bach in the First Plenary Session

Bach is Begbie’s eternal hero, and Begbie spoke of the way that New Creation appears in Bach’s work, in which New Creation doesn’t flow out of the old; it is, in fact, new. He also remarked that the New Creation doesn’t flow out of artists living in the “cheerless gloom of necessity.”  (All the more interesting to remember, then, that Bach lived surrounded by death, as it were, as he buried 10 of his own young children.) (Also exciting to read these things into Bach’s Singet Dem Herrn, which I’m rehearsing for an upcoming concert.)

Begbie also encouraged artists to avoid reductionism, or to avoid that “nothing-buttery,” which is the tendency toward implying things be “mere” or “nothing but,” which breeds a sort of unimaginative skepticism for our enchanted world.

He also conceived artists as witnesses, witnesses to something they didn’t invent, or witnesses to Someone.

Everyone Meets Malcolm Guite, Inspired Writer of Sonnets

Before DITA, I had only heard of Malcolm Guite in passing, and I knew plenty of my friends greatly enjoy his poetry. To be sure, I wasn’t disappointed. Malcolm Guite’s morning homilies were an absolute pleasure, each ending with a transcendent poem. I do not know which it was that brought me to tears, the light of Goodson chapel, Guite’s bearing, or his enchanted verse – the kind that feature “an imagined world in which you encounter the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, and when you come out, you see more enchantment in everyone.”

Guite’s first homily was a jolt, a spark, like the delight of passing through the wardrobe. He reminded us that anyone, at any moment, is in the first morning. In God’s grand picture of time, we’re so close to the beginning of things. God is creating at every moment, and in the scheme of things, the cosmos is just now being created.

Guite has finished a book on the theology of Coleridge, and he quoted Coleridge as saying, “The primary Imagination I hold to be … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.” Guite also imagined poems as a veil between the poet and the reader. He then reminded us how God lovingly brings us into the act of creation, and that the Principio is here, right now! (By the way, most of Guite’s poetry is available on his personal blog where you can listen to recordings of him reading his work. Try “Trinity Sunday” which he read to us on this first morning.)

Guite & Wolfe Discuss the Inkings

After morning worship, Guite was joined on stage by Scotland’s own Judith Wolfe, the inimitable Inklings scholar, for their plenary session titled “Inklings of Heaven: Creation and New Creation in the Work of Lewis and Tolkien.” Wolfe is the director of the graduate program in Theology and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews, holds multiple degrees from Oxford, has published works on Martin Heidegger, and is the general editor of the Journal of Inklings Studies. (!) (Even better, she’s the most articulate woman I’ve ever heard speak, live or recorded.)

To begin, Wolfe borrowed Neubuhr’s notion of “metaphysical dreams” to suggest two compelling ways of intending the world which we see today in many political landscapes: conservativism (a dream in which we do not know the future, so we shore everything up for ourselves) and liberalism (a dream of progress, in which our world is eternally progressing, and it is the worst possible thing to be left behind). Wolfe suggested we raise two pillars over and against these dreams – Creation and New Creation – for a third way of intending the world. In this metaphysical dream, art, then, is one of the most basic human expressions.

Wolfe went on to quote Tolkien from his “Mythopoeia” poem which addressed C.S. Lewis in his state of unbelief in order to demonstrate Tolkien’s conviction that unless we see the world as created by God, we do not see it all. Our imaginations only come fully alive when we imagine a Creator, and become co-creators in his story. We do not see the reality of earth, unless we see the Person who created it.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Wolfe argued, then, that for Tolkien, the ability to see the world at all *has* to be through the imaginative.

Guite quoted Lewis’s “On Ways of Writing for Children” in which Lewis responds to the question: do fairy stories promote withdrawal and send “you back to the real world undividedly discontented, the pleasure consisting in picturing yourself the object of admiration?” “Do fairy tales,” asked C.S. Lewis, “teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment… instead of facing the problems of the real world?” Are fairy stories nothing more than compensation to which we run “from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world?” Guite, like Lewis, responded with a firm “no.” “By contrast, it is in imagined worlds that you encounter the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, and when you come out, you see more enchantment in everyone. This is literature of the New Creation, not stories where we’re briefly compensated by shock, and, returning to the surface, we find ourselves unprepared to live life well.”

Creation and Creators in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

Wolfe and Guite contrasted the dissimilar creation stories in Tolkien and Lewis, Wolfe citing Tolkien’s creation story in the The Silmarillion. While some of the creation work is reserved for Eru himself, some of the creation is Eru and the angels singing together. (It’s to be noted that song is a means of creation; he gives them a theme to sing, a sort of music that becomes the world.) So creation has two dimensions in Tolkien: some is reserved for God himself, but some is reserved for us. Wolfe notes how this preserves the freedom of the co-creators and the creator. On the other hand, Guite noted how Lewis worried of idolatry in the language of “creating.” Lewis does, though, like Tolkien, draw on the idea of song in his creation story in The Magician’s Nephew. (Imagine. Imagine Malcolm Guite reading you passages from The Magician’s Nephew on a random Friday morning.)

Wolfe expounded how Lewis shies away from particularities and the body, toward a Platonism, demonstrated in his remarks about Milton in his A Preface to Paradise Lost:

“The naif reader thinks Milton is going to describe Paradise as Milton imagines it; in reality the poet knows (or behaves as if he knew) that this is useless. His own private image of the happy garden, like yours and mine, is full of irrelevant particularities—notably, of memories from the first garden he ever played in as a child. And the more thoroughly he describes those particularities, the further we are getting away from the Paradisal idea as it exists in our minds, or even in his own. For it is something coming through the particularities, some light which transfigures them, that really counts, and if you concentrate on them, you will find them turning dead and cold under your hands. The more elaborately, in that way, we build the temple, the more certainly we shall find, on completing it, that the God has flown. Yet Milton must seem to describe—you cannot just say nothing about Paradise in Paradise Lost. While seeming to describe his own imagination he must actually arouse ours, and not to make definite pictures, but to find again in our own depth the Paradisal light of which all explicit images are only the momentary reflection. We are his organ: when he appears to be describing Paradise, he is in fact drawing out the Paradisal stop in us.”

This fascinates me as a writer and a poet, for writers constantly think of perfecting the image of a work, of recreating glimpses for audiences to carry with them, but Lewis here questions throwing one’s energy into that part of the work, and he does so due to a sort of Platonism. (Hmmm, what do I think of Platonism?)

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Tolkien, though, sees creation as a much more humble act, as described in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.

A strong claim of Tolkien’s, despite his cautious moments: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien thus departs from Lewis’s misgivings of the created (seen in the scene of the painter arriving to heaven in The Great Divorce, in which Lewis’s character rebukes the eager painter arriving to the heavenly scene, eager to paint, and the heavenly character indicates that, no, “looking comes first,” to which the painter, not a little miffed, says that he isn’t much interested in a place where they haven’t got much use for painting.) You see, for Lewis, the imagination is a means by which to break out of this world which is unfinished. (Why would one need to paint, then, once in the presence of the Real?)

But for Tolkien, he sees the imagination and creating as an act by which we usher in the New Creation: “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the happy ending. …[I]n Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”

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Next We Meet Micheal O’Siadhail – Ireland’s Poet

Mind you, this was one whirlwind of an hour, after which the intensity quickened, for Duke’s renowned New Testament scholar Richard B. Hayes introduced Ireland’s Micheal O’Siadhail, who according to Hayes has recently published the most important work in the English language that will be written in our lifetime. It is hard not to scoff at such grandiose magnanimities, yet he went on to describe the scope of O’Siadhail’s work: “In his poetic work, he holds a conversation with the key figures in art, politics, economics, science, and philosophy of the last 400 years of modernity in order to answer the question, ‘Where are we going?’” Me: THIS IS NO SMALL TASK, ARE WE SERIOUS HERE?

O’Siadhail took to the stage and outlined the utterly dazzling structure of his 600-page tome. Riffing on Dante’s three cantos, he chose instead a five-part structure (in part because T.S. Eliot has already done The Four Quartets) and besides, O’Siadhail needed a fifth circle. There are five sections of the book, each outlining significant figures in the five disciplines of the arts, politics, economics, science, and philosophy.

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Each quintet is then divided into five cantos. These cantos and their characters represent for O’Siadhail movements within modernity: Canto 1 characters are traditional figures (Milton, Ruben, Handel, and Donne), Canto 2 figures are those liberated from traditional strictures (Goya, Wordsworth, Beethoven), Canto 3 (representing hell) are those characters fixated on ideologies and “isms,” exacting extreme control (Margaret Thatcher, Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, and Stalin), Canto 4 characters are those who envision a new future, who try to fix things and seek a new direction, however imperfectly (Dostoevsky, Rothko, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot), and Canto 5 represents perhaps a bit of the New Creation which the entire conference celebrated – those saints and stars, and the New Creation of heaven itself (Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Marc Chagall, and Messiaen.)

O’Siadhail thus creates conversations between these characters and himself as he questions them on their life and work. And of course, each quintet celebrates its own poetic structure, the first being sonnets interspersed by haiku, or “saikus.”

After O’Siadhail read his epigraph, a poem to Madame Jazz (in the manner of invoking the Muses), he read to us from various characters, after which Hayes questioned him regarding his work. Among other things, he asked:

“Who is Madame Jazz?”

“The life force that we all want to dance to.”

“Perhaps the Holy Spirit?” Hayes smiled.

“That, too,” O’Siadhail replied.

Hays specifically asked O’Siadhail where it is that Jesus appears in his work, since O’Siadhail seems to envision the New Creation, and had even remarked that T.S. Eliot belongs for him in the fourth canto category because “he gets the fire, but the not the Resurrection.”

O’Siadhail responded, “Christ is not there overtly, but I allow every character the last word, which is their redemption, and my compassion. That is my Catholic faith.”

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The conversation quickly turned to O’Siadhail’s use of form. O’Siadhail remarked that he used tradition and innovation, which is what we need in our world today. “Form is freedom.” There is tradition and spontaneity, and O’Siadhail remarked that it is very American to think that nothing is authentic unless it’s spontaneous. (!) He also explained, “The Beatniks allowed us to leave and now return to the form.” Besides the patterns of feet and rhyme, O’Siadhail also remarked that using persona poems in some ways allows us to say what we could not say. “Truth,” he quoted Coleridge, “is the divine ventriloquist.”

Friends, we’ve only arrived at lunchtime of Day 1. As I’ve said before: this event was a match that sparked something inside me that hasn’t burned for some time. It was completely humbling to sit at the feet of these scholars (in such an intimate space – maybe 300 guests), and in another blog post, I’ll chat a bit about Christian Wiman, Bruce Herman, Natalie Carnes, and that other great old chap, N.T. Wright. Stay tuned!