Write the Bird: Skepticism and Knowledge in the Age of “Fake News”

“My people go into exile for lack of knowledge.” -Isaiah 5:13

“Therefore be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” –Matthew 10:16 

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I began this blog with a couple of very post-2016 intentions. One was to question the media, specifically the nature of my increasingly mediated experience—my participation in media and its effect on me even without my choice or knowledge. The other was to make my America more than Donald Trump. This last intention I attempted largely through evasion of his name, which, after all, has become such a buzzword that it drones us out of other topics. And for a time it was easy enough to explore the contradictions and deeper resources of myself and my society as I saw it by using a healthy-minded skepticism. I was able to operate under the illusion (perhaps then-useful) that I was at least on a personal level outdoing the Internet by bringing my books to it, by filling my negligent corner of cyberspace with mile-long sentences and more timeless (or merely interminable) thoughts. I was writing essays in the magnanimity of Montaigne, not blog entries with the animus of a talking head. The many platforms might be ever-flattening themselves and their users, but as for me and myself, we would fill our souls.

I was, at times, really that unrealistic.

But over the past few months I have seen what I think are the limits of my attempted healthy-mindedness. With its zero-tolerance immigration policy, I have found it no longer viable to ignore the current administration even in my meditations. And with his most recent truth-claims and –denials, I have found it impossible to avoid thinking and writing specifically about Trump.

I have always known, primarily on a conceptual level, that healthy-mindedness has its limits. My Christianity tells me that skepticism must be twice-born in the grace that goes beyond human knowledge if we are ever going to know and be known really and truly. There is a knowledge-in-the-ultimate-sense to the Christian: behind and above and around the “I” is always God. I saw that this was true out of the corner of my mind’s eye, but recent events have turned my fuller attention to this truth that transcends magnanimous knowledge and its disappointment.

What does skepticism look like in the age of Trump? What do we know, and how do we know it, in this media-saturated atmosphere, where “narratives” and counter-narratives abound?

When Trump or some other pundit with less power speaks of “fake news,” what does the Good News say in response? When one person claims categorically to represent the truth, what do we Christians proclaim, we who follow the one who is the truth?

To answer this, I still think we need to go back to the books—and thankfully I know something about that.

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What Do I Know? Skepticism Then

The word “skepticism” is often equated with disbelief. When someone is called a “skeptic,” he or she is meant to be a non-believer. Often such a person is understood to bear a certain level of hostility toward a particular faith or movement. But in the traditional humanities, skepticism has been a generous and often genial discipline, responsible for amassing a wealth of affirmations about human existence. Skepticism, at least of the humanistic sort, questions in order to clear up—frequently, those vanities that are crowding one’s thought, or the prejudicial customs that keep one from accepting limitation, and thus from acquiring a more lasting form of happiness or humble contentment. In its disbelief of tacit assumptions and easy answers, it still believes the truth is out there, but deeper down and larger than we usually think. Such skepticism is thus more spacious than it is reductive. Think Hamlet over Hitchens.[1] But most of all, think Montaigne.

What do I know? This is the great question that Michel de Montaigne poses for himself in his once-canonical Essays. For Montaigne, such questioning is a way of getting past faulty or frilly truths to the real heart of the matter. There is such a thing as false knowledge to Montaigne. But underlying this claim is his understanding of human nature as paradoxical: we are too limited and multiform to be too purely the things we pretend to be.

Thus, Montaigne’s vision is an ironist’s—and yet his approach is clear and direct.[2] He is maybe the most helpful ironist in Western literature. In his musings, he seeks to be a mediator between human contradictions and the truer self. Seeking to evade the authorial pretension of objectivity, he speaks first and foremost from and about himself. But in unmasking himself, he finds certain shared fashions hiding a deeper shared nature. For Montaigne, the individual is bound in “body” (those things corporate and superficial) and primed with “soul” (those things profound and lasting), and his goal is to explode the outer with the inner.

Thus, much of Montaigne’s skepticism is meant to free the self from the constrictions of falsehood. Arguably the deepest falsehood for him is the taking of knowledge at secondhand: “We take the opinions and the knowledge of others into our keeping, and that is all. We must make them our own.”[3] Through the coercion of custom, individuals follow the ingrained habits of their society instead of the logic of their own innate reason. “Habituation,” he points out, “puts to sleep the eye of our judgment.” From an early age this enculturation creates a noetic dependency in each person: “Human reason is a tincture infused in about equal strength in all our opinions and ways, whatever their form: infinite in substance, infinite in diversity.”[4] So much of what we think we know we have been told to know. Thus, to borrow from Montaigne’s metaphor, so much of human argument is sleep-talking.

Many of Montaigne’s most memorable meditations are about the myriad casual vanities of society. He questions ultimate veracity of status symbols (he who wears a sword still has to take it off to go to the toilet[5]), and perfume (smelling “good” is just a preferred form of stinking[6]), and even the highest rank (on the highest throne, the king still sits on his ass).[7]

But some of his most useful inquiries delve into matters of opinion and morality. Under Montaigne’s lens, so much of the socialized world thinks and operates on a purely perfunctory level. So much of our “common sense” is particular. Our judgments about deviance are the pronouncements of our place and time.

In one of his most famous essays, “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne flouts the accepted wisdom of his time as a conditioned prejudice. No matter the specific national or ethnic clothing it may wear, a false sense of superiority is fairly universal:

“[E]ach man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. There is always the perfect religion, the perfect government, the perfect and accomplished manners in all things. Those people are wild . . .”[8]

For Montaigne, himself an avid reader, even books can be a form of pomp. “We dignify our stupidities when we put them in print.”[9] He sees in people a susceptibility to the illusion of magisterial officialism and permanence that comes with font. Behind each letter is still an imperfect hand.

Standard forms of communication themselves are often vexing to Montaigne. The interpersonal knowledge they give often amounts to little more than shallow gossip: “[W]e do nothing but write glosses about each other. The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarcity.”[10]

Thus it is not surprising that Montaigne holds fame, and even the highest nobility, in such low esteem. He writes from a time and place of almost frenzied known-ness. To be “noble” in the Renaissance meant to be “known,” specifically as the person who owned the land that other persons used. Private influence very literally absorbed public life. And so it is not hard to see how easily this known-ability could run away with itself. As a noble-man himself, Montaigne had known plenty knowns. For such self-focused and socially privileged individuals, prestige and power seemed to be their God-given rights and in line with the laws of nature.

Under Montaigne’s scrutiny, however, even the total praise of the people cannot defend oneself from the deeper truth:

“A man who does everything for honor and glory, what does he think to gain by presenting himself to the world in a mask, concealing his true being from public knowledge? . . . If you are a coward and people honor you for a valiant man, is it you they are talking about? They take you for another.”[11]

This is what skepticism looks like for Montaigne. His questioning can indeed reduce many vaunted estates to a lower station—and sometimes with seeming crassness: “Both kings and philosophers defecate, and ladies too.”[12] But beneath his hard truth-telling is a firm belief in the individual’s ability to know itself and others better, and perhaps in knowing better to be better too.

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Well, What Do You Know? Skepticism Now 

The Vanities of Social Media

To some degree, I think Montaigne is more necessary now than ever. From his Essays issue what I think are still some of our most sanguine examples of how to be skeptical. By reading Montaigne, I believe we can learn a gregarious questioning of ourselves, both individually and collectively. We can see in him how, during times of pretension and conceit, disagreement just might be the best form of interest, because at bottom of it abides a belief in a deeper truth, entirely acknowledgeable if only we took the time.

No doubt Montaigne’s What do I know? is still of great aid in this era of “fake news” and fake news claiming—if used properly. I find that an alarming number of the populace have prematurely answered this question—most often in a matter of seconds—with an I don’t know that or, more accurately, an I know that’s not true, and all before any real thinking’s begun. I know I share in this sin of selective skepticism, that willful distrust of anything or –one that does not come from my own prejudicial sources. I have seen in myself that at bottom of this habitual denial is also a tacit affirmation, a predetermined knowledge of the world and of my knowingness itself.

We are certainly determined by the customs of our mass-mediated time. Our world is suffocated with commentaries. The ways we have to give vain reaction to a removed event have so multiplied and accelerated that we do not realize how often we are drawn along by secondhand knowledge and shallow experience. Our bodies of opinions are more primed than anything resembling Montaigne’s “soul.”

But today there are worse falsehoods than the contradiction of “digital literacy” looking more like digital gossip. Through social media we can now participate in up-to-the-minute “stories”; but this has made our discourse come to resemble a series of headlines. In times of controversy, our comments rush ahead of our thoughts in an attempt to keep up with the pace. We could talk endlessly about the latest scandals, if we had the time, because they are new just about every second.

Some of this comes from a very twenty-first century vanity: the presumption that we can continually keep ourselves informed. But information, in the unchecked growth and increasing speed of our technology, has come to replace thought. Yet still we “follow” the threads as much as we can, led on by a fear that we will fail to be known by ourselves and others as knowledgeable person. In a sense, it’s one of the latest forms of nobility.

As a result, we are less reflective than we are referential. We may know less about where we side on a single issue and why than on where someone else does.

But what I think has fueled so much of our latest runaway news-race is a deeper and darker impulse. Since the 2016 presidential election, we have seen our society strikingly marked by an enmity far exceeding past cultural or political competition. To use a term of recent currency, information has been “weaponized.” It is indeed a news-race instead of an arms-race, a constant dash to get ahead of the other side’s story and catch everyone in the proper commentary.

Commentary indeed seems to be our current custom—but commentary of a cursory and cutting sort. If I am any indication, many people are less knowledgeable than they are opinionated. Many are less skeptical than they are cynical. They humanize less than they demonize. In our virulent urge to be utterly unlike our rivals in perspective, many have come to think and speak and behave in ways diametrically opposed to but intimately dependent upon the opposition. In their quest to create the starkest contrast, they seek to know without any sense of irony. They want to be so right that they will be completely incapable of contradiction. This is the vanity that they can be absolutely right in their views and can somehow win with information or opinion.

These vanities have led us to some very questionable ways of behaving. When it comes to communicating, many of us employ only partial civility. We fail to see the in-group favoritism behind our selective silence: an epithet is not as false if we think the point is true; rudeness gets a pass when we agree.

And these same vanities have led us to some highly specious ways of knowing. When it comes to gathering information about any current event or issue, many of us practice a kind of secular antinomianism. There is, for some of us, only one trusted news source, and this single authority serves its audience as the living truth in a world of lies. Alarming as this may (or really should) sound, this is the narrative structure that many Americans have begun to operate under. What scares me about this trend is that it seems to point not only to a shift away from healthy skepticism, but also to a veering toward unhealthy belief, specifically belief in media. For some this belief may in fact invest itself in a generic “brand” or “type” of news source. Many see the media for what so much of it really is: a virtual marketplace where the consumer can choose which news outlets he or she wants to view or read or listen to. Many individuals thus rather knowingly select their news according to their own “leanings.” For many others, however, I have found this belief in media to be invested in a specific channel. The reasoning behind this selectivity, as I have heard it, tends to be either that said channel “tells both sides of the story” or that it “tells it like it really is.” With either rationale, such viewers seem to hold to a naïve cultural fundamentalism in which the television network has the capability, if not the consistency, of being morally “trustworthy”; for all practical concerns, the reports from this source are completely inerrant and universally true.

Whether one practices the savvier approach to the media or the more singular supersessionism, both I think subscribe to certain surprisingly sincere assumptions about the media’s “truthiness” and moral dependability. Whether one leans left or right, both sides seem to me to be united by sentimental or uncritical trust in a supposed un-self-interestedness behind the page, the screen, or the speaker. Both share an innate cultural amnesia about the big business behind being “fair and balanced.” Both also forget about the complicity of the self as a consumer of “information.” Often one is left only quantitatively more informed after choosing to read or watch or listen to a specific source of news. Whether one engages in active confirmation bias or the passive “spoon-feeding” of media, the logic behind the narrative of one’s life remains in truth a tautology, a story whose conclusion is already essentially decided. Morally speaking, this means that one’s agency is never held very responsible for the knowledge it acquires, just as one’s opinions are never in danger of being proven wrong, both of which mean that one’s character is never in a position to be improved. Personally speaking, this means that one’s beliefs and actions (i.e. values and voting habits) gradually come to resemble one’s preferred form of media.

And this is true of both sides—or rather true of two sides. For just this past summer studies have come out showing that media preference has become perhaps the greatest indicator of many people’s political identities. (And I would also wager, to some extent, religious identities as well.) Instead of “Democrat or “Republican,” or even the more general “liberal” and “conservative,” alliances have been drawn between two channels: CNN and Fox News.

The dreadful irony here is that the initial benefit of choice has become a detrimental illusion. When knowledge, packaged as “news,” becomes a commodity, information turns into a kind of food. When this food becomes fast, and when the need for it becomes fear-based, ingestion of it becomes a kind of mental gorging. Just as we enjoy it to the point of bloating, we are afraid to starve ourselves of it for a second. Meanwhile, the only ones who grow truly healthy, who increase in strength and power according to their nature, are the media juggernauts we once chose to create. We the consumers are largely consumed.

Trump: Representative Man

But this picture of post-2016 election media is really incomplete without a proper image of Trump. No other topic has proven more discussed or divisive than his presidency. No other figure’s words have been more referenced or reacted to than his. No one has shown himself to be a better representative of the vanities of our present media than him. And thus he is deserving of considerable skepticism.

Perhaps the single greatest proof of this is his Twitter account. Indeed, his activities on this platform alone have been so copious as to warrant a book-length collection. Through Twitter in particular Trump has used media to exacerbate the vanities of presumptuous knowledge, arrogant opinion, and illusory authority. There seems to be no limit to the topics that he feels licensed to react to and pronounce his opinion upon. Whether it’s to do with the most sensitive matters of state—his sudden firing of James Comey, say, or the intentionally private preview he was given of the monthly US jobs report, or blaming a member of his own cabinet for a supposedly “Rigged Witch Hunt” against him—or with nation-wide cultural issues—the low quality of the news or certain TV shows, the NFL protests, the innovation and potential sale of 3D guns—Trump is a thorough participant in media whose obsession and position of power help to perpetuate the attention-machine.

In fact, the “power” in his position to some degree more closely resembles that of “fame” or infamy than proper political prestige. His approach to the presidency appears to come directly out of marketing; his embrace of controversy shows that in his mind any publicity is good publicity. He has spent a considerable amount of official time and statement denouncing those outlets that criticize or lampoon him. (He has, for instance, considered it entirely right and proper that the American people know just how low he thinks the quality of SNL is.)

Indeed, Trump’s sense of influence as a leading figure in social media has only led him to incite more controversy and incivility. His Tweets have become their own brand of click-bait. He is, in this case, far removed from the example of Lincoln, whose words were meant to preserve the Union even as they espoused and implemented changes that many Americans found strange, untrue, or threatening. Trump, as we have seen over and over again, has no problem, and indeed seems to relish, the espousal and implementation of the strange, the untrue, and the threatening. Here I think we see the difference between the former lawyer and the continued businessman. The one never gave up his attempt to persuade; the other will not let go of his monopoly in the market. In his tenacious drive to be at the center of the media fray, he is less a president than a provocateur.

This is not a complete surprise. After all, for some time now, much if not most of Trump’s market has been the media. He is and continues to be a media personality. What we are seeing is thus what many have right termed his “reality-star approach to the real world.” In his constant commentaries on other leaders alone, calling even foreign allies “weak,”[13] he is less a president than a competitor.

Of course this is not to present Trump as an isolated case. No matter how big an individual he may think himself to be, he is intimately connected with the greater culture. He would not be the faulty known quantity that he is were it not for the faulty forms of knowledge that he operates within. Thus he reinforces the vanities whose pretense his self-image is dependent upon.

He feeds the reductive tendencies of mass-communication through labels and epithets. In his constant denigrations of his enemies—calling James Comey a “slime ball” and Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog”[14]—he demonstrates his internal commitment to representing the bellicose self-promotion of the media over the plural identities of the United States.

He sharpens the schisms between parties, whether political, cultural, or religious, through arrogant, aggressive, and absolutizing claims. In giving spiteful partisan comments that he knows will get a negative response from the opposition—“So much for the big Blue Wave, it may be a big Red Wave”—he shows himself an exploiter of the woefully unproductive culture of schadenfreude in contemporary politics. Unsurprisingly, he reserves his greatest vanities for his own supporters:

“My supporters are the smartest, strongest, most hard working and most loyal that we have seen in our countries history. It is a beautiful thing to watch as we win elections and gather support from all over the country. As we get stronger, so does our country. Best numbers ever!”[15]

In Tweets like this one I think we see just how absorbed Trump is in the shallowest forms of socially mediated knowledge. His communication here betrays a level of thinking so general and superficial that it completely avoids nuance or fact. So sloppily pompous is the quality of its language, so impossibly superlative are its claims, that it is hard to see anyone taking it seriously. In its haste and casualness, in its entirely uncritical self-indulgence, it reads more like a negligible entry in a comments section than anything from the desk of a president.[16]

But herein lies the truly troubling fact of Donald Trump’s media participation: he is not merely a persona; he is the president. His words have consequences. His thoughts and opinions have actual effects in the real world. His reactions to current events have influence on his supporters and his detractors. It should not be only the Department of Justice that considers his Tweets to be official statements. As a president he is a public servant of the entire United States. To some very real degree, what he says and does represents the rest of us.

But what Trump really represents about us is our consumption of and by the media. The narrative by which he knows the world is highly selective and utterly self-privileging. In calling his own public detractors “losers and haters,”[17] he reveals his opportunistic understanding of “the American people.” He does not know the dimensions of American life that do not agree with him, nor does he wish to. Like many of us, he would like the world to be as he knows it, which is to say wants it, to be.

The real danger of Trump is his treatment of the political dimension of his position in society with social media’s dominant conflict-custom. In his frequent antagonism with “Fake News,” especially his statements about the press being “the enemy of the American people,”[18] he demonstrates his desire to own a monopoly on truth. Indeed, this topic is arguably his greatest obsession. Unlike previous presidents, he cannot let bad press go undenied. This, I believe, is because Trump overwhelmingly embodies our vain belief that truth is a commodity. The kind of truth that Trump sells is the most impressive truth there is. It is absolute, it is complete, it is solid and strong and supreme. Thus, Trump treats his performance as the president as a kind of competition.

As a person, Trump represents our vain attempt to dictate the news. As a president, he resembles a dictator denying conflicting reports: as he brazenly told a recent assembly of veterans, “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Like many of our more vociferous citizens, his is a false and overweening skepticism, thrusting the preferred truths that he holds to into the views of others. But as the executive politician of our democracy, his words have the impact of actions. When he treats information as both subservient to the self and authoritative over other selves, he threatens to enforce a faulty narrative onto other perspectives. In other words, his fight against “the Fake News Media,” as much as it is complicit with and conditioned by the media, nevertheless goes beyond the personal illusions of selective news.

This has become dangerously true of Trump’s constant conflict with intelligence agencies and the justice system (whose authenticity he has often liked to undermine in quotation marks[19]). In his presidency Trump has gone well beyond breaking bureaucratic decorum—he has sought to obliterate his responsibility to outside checks and balances. He has treated conflicting intelligence as competing interest, gradually rebranding the evidence of eight different agencies under one ignominious label, that specter the “deep state.” This narrative further promotes his image as the lone renegade out to clean up the corrupt old town. The problem is that Trump is not alone, and his image is only advertising. It is not true for the world outside his will and whim.

Indeed, in his mercenary yet cavalier approach to political leadership, Trump has shown just how little knowledge he has of the greater moral casualties that can and have come out of his publicity battles. By attempting to sever his connections to the other two branches of government, he has done more than campaign after a monopoly of trust: he has also twisted the already skewed political hermeneutic of many Americans toward the level of contemptuous conspiracy theorizing, and he has established for himself and his allies a pernicious pattern of absolute self-authorization and abject disbelief toward outside arbitration.

This pattern has become appallingly actualized in the Trump administration’s practices. Trump’s presidency has created a culture of competition and distrust that values surprise as an administrative strategy. This has meant that policies can strike with little or no warning, depending on how close the concerned party may be to the executive. Both the “travel ban” and the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy had just this effect. But the unseen consequence of this Big-Business approach to government was that it “sowed confusion and anger” among contingents, further solidifying competitors who should have been collaborators.

And as we saw just this summer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have continued the President’s trend of categorically dismissing responsive criticism and conflicting facts: not only do illegal immigrants have no validity for asylum—domestic abuse and gang violence being apparently unworthy of or dishonest about any credible fear—but the government itself has the most ultimate authority of all (being “very biblical”).

This zero-tolerance of other verities has reached well into Trump’s major alliances in the media. What many medical authorities (and really anyone with imaginative sympathy) took to be the birth of a potentially lifelong trauma for immigrant children Laura Ingraham dared to call “essentially summer camps.” Most galling of all is perhaps Sean Hannity, the so-called “shadow chief of staff” whose mendacity apes and aids the President’s own. In his responses to the egregious separation of approximately 2,000 immigrant children from their parents, Hannity attempted to shift the blame from Trump to Congress. When Trump, facing widespread criticism, eventually reneged, Hannity spun this backing down as Trump’s intentional correction of the flawed system: “Another president signed it, but he fixed it.” Hannity employed a thorough web of falsehood in defending Trump’s ignorance of good government, whether of the proper protocol for implementing legal change or of the full ramifications of his totalizing policy. His allegiance to his ideology has completely ruled his reason.

But this only brings us back full circle. Because like Trump, Hannity is representative of a greater problem. As a newsman, he is the news. As media users, we are the media. We are, at this point, self-perpetuating. Both Trump and Hannity would not have acquired or at least kept the power they have were there not people who support them. They are representatives of what drives so many of us.

So what is it exactly that drives us? What at bottom compels us to know and be known in faulty knowledge?

Perhaps in this Donald Trump can serve us once more as somewhat representative. As in most things, his significance will be that of exaggeration, but there may be some slighter truth inside.

In a now-famous interview recorded with the New York Times, Trump displayed a rare lapse into self-reflection—even as he denied its viability for himself. “I don’t analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” he told the reporter. He went on to talk about a small variety of topics, such as his heroes (“I don’t have heroes”), his history (“I don’t like talking about the past”), and his respect for others (“For the most part . . . you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect”). But later on, when asked if it bothered him to get all the attention that he draws, his answer was I think rather telling: “No,” he said, “I think what would unnerve me is if it didn’t happen.”[20]

As the Times article acutely shows, Trump sees knowledge only in terms of status. This misconstrual may seem to make him an exceptional case, but status is really a symbol of a deeper state: power. And behind power is pride—what some of us secularly call “self-interest.” It is not enough for Trump to own things—he must own attentions. The irony of this power is that in growing large it cannot stand, for it has rejected any notion of outside support. The irony of this self-interest is that it fails to know itself, for it wills to forget its origins and its limits.

Perhaps there is an implicit vanity in the adage that “knowledge is power”—the prideful belief that we can know something, anything, well enough to have control over it. Perhaps it’s what has led us to confuse power with knowledge. Perhaps in our wolfing facts we really hunger to be certain. We want less to know, than to be known, even if it is to be known as knowing.

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What Don’t I know? The Limits of Vanity

To Montaigne, the search for knowledge eventually leads to the understanding that any ultimate knowledge is vain. It is oneself that one finds in the attempt to master truth. So much of what we see is our own shadow. Honesty admits a big enough picture to see this. Hubris, for all its bigness, has far too small a view.

Like us, Montaigne lived at a time of intense debates. Many had to do with the nature of the human being (the material body, the immaterial soul) and the human society (the government, the church). Through his skepticism, he saw that any complete agreement would be impossible on this side of things. The sides were too many the conceits were too heated to be hospitable to unity. As he saw it, much of the conflict came from overconfidence:

“[People] do not know the natural infirmity of their mind: it does nothing but ferret and quest, and keeps incessantly whirling around, building up and becoming entangled in its own work.”[21]

Everyone knew, and knew that they knew, and knew that they knew better than the others who knew. But even if everyone knew that they did not—even if they, like the skeptics, knew that so much of their knowing was thinking—even still, Montaigne avers the limits of knowledge as an end-in-itself.

“In truth, knowledge is a great and very useful quality . . . But yet I do not set its value at that extreme measure some attribute to it . . . That I do not believe, nor what others have said, that knowledge is the mother of all virtue, and that all vice is produced by ignorance. If that is true, it is subject to a long interpretation.”[22]

In Montaigne’s view, the point of skepticism’s deeper knowledge is humility. As one scholar has put it, his philosophy is a really an “ethics of judgment”: he prefers “to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition.”[23] Beneath this judgment are deep beliefs about the human creature, because a creature it is in Montaigne’s Hellenistic-Christian mind. The true source of our being lies in some profound sense outside of ourselves. This same source is also the source of true knowledge.

Thus, beneath all of Montaigne’s questioning is an acknowledgment: that only God needs no improving. The rest of us—the human race—must not forget that capacity for correction and fulfillment which has been imparted to us, that old thing called the “soul.” “[W]e hang on to the branches and abandon the trunk.”[24] For Montaigne, our purpose is not to be right but to live well. Not to kid ourselves as absolute, but to accept ourselves as processes. Not being true, nor even true to ourselves, but being truer to our truer selves.

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The God’s Truth 

I continue to find Montaigne inspiring, but I know he has his limits. For as useful as he continues to be, some of his baseline beliefs about humanity are in fact more Hellenistic than Christian. His basic attitude of reservation—that impressive rhetorical repose that informs so much of his writing—owes much more to Socrates than Christ. His understanding of human contradiction comes from the Socratic paradox and not the Christological. He is more concerned with knowledge than love.

In the Christian’s eyes, Montaigne’s humanism may be too optimistic. For anyone who takes the traditions around Genesis 3 seriously, the human tree of knowledge is not a little weedlike. Like Montaigne, such a Christian will likely affirm the ultimate dependency of human knowledge on God and its final defeat in death. But they will also probably want to claim the serious obstacles to soulful improvement and the ability of love to go beyond them.

By now I believe that we are caught inside a vicious cycle: we make ourselves in the likeness of our devices, just as our devices bear the image of our pride. It is a slowly dehumanizing genesis where our tools, far from stewarding our better impulses, greatly accelerate the cultivation of our egotism. But the garden of humanity will dry up to a very narrow patch under the shadow of our knowingness. No individual can truly survive without his or her roots, and no society can stand that separates itself from the greater resources that ground it.

To my eyes we are practically overrun with vanities. Conceit has certainly spread well into our conversations, whether private or public, personal or national. What we think we know we know, while all along we believe that our knowledge is power. No wonder so many contrarians and cynics have found a voice. When the discourse is so choked with airs, no wonder only the most cutting words work.

Added to this more universal sin—the general tendency toward falsehood to the image of God in everyone—is the more relative injustice being done in our context—the special falsehood committed against the image of God by some. With the Trump presidency, not only truth, but also corruption has taken on a highly selective meaning within an alarming amount of the populace. Polls have consistently shown that Trump’s most ardent supporters do not view him as being in anyway untrue, either to facts or to morals or to law, largely because their view of what America should be privileges what America supposedly used to be—a myth for which Trump has claimed forcefully and repeatedly to stand. In this hermeneutic, “traditional identity” trumps all other forms of identity. The greatest perceived threat to this traditional identity, and thus the most in need of being decried, is the infringement of the myriad and wildly divergent identity politics of “the Left.” Of the many faces this corruption has had, that of the immigrant is of course one of the most heinous. But muddying this exclusionist Americanism are the facade of party loyalty and the proprietary righteousness of pro-life politics, both of which habitually ignore the often multiple and glaring wrongs of their candidates in favor of total opposition toward a singular evil. For many, it seems, the image of “America” has grown so enormous and solid that it has fashioned an ossified social sensibility around it. It appears that opinion has become epistemology. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any constructive talk about unconscious bias coming off as anything other than attack.

And so how on earth are we practice a healthy skepticism nowadays? Currently Montaigne seems to me a rather rarefied case in his naïve attempt to speak his mind to others “in good faith.”[25] How are we to question ourselves, when we won’t give each other any quarter? How to be understood, when to reflect is to be seen as lengthy and thus to be almost immediately overlooked; when to question someone merely confirms what he or she already thought we were: an enemy?

One plausible approach is to be sharper skeptics—to work harder with one’s questions, and firmer with one’s facts. The time of Montaignean repose is over. The time of active reading and assiduous fact-checking is here.

This is no doubt necessarily true, but I believe it is not sufficiently true. To my lights such a posture will have to be balanced with humility if the vanity of proof is to be avoided. For those of us who are Christians, we are called to be as wise as serpents, yes, but also as harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16). How do we seek out higher truth without lording our knowledge of it over others? How to we know without convincing ourselves of control of the matter?

There is another kind of knowledge, almost unknown to us by now, that I think we sorely need to relearn. It is the Hebrew Bible’s understanding of knowledge. The word “to know” in Hebrew has many meanings. In fact, the definition and variants of yada (ידע) cover over two pages in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon. Thus, to know in Hebrew can also mean to learn, indicate, announce, narrate, perceive, observe, discern, distinguish, experience, or consider; to be acquainted, physical, or intimate with; and to be skillful or to be wise. As many scholars have noted, the book of Genesis uses this term as loosely synonymous with “had experience of” or “cohabited with,” but with the “legitimate possession” of love.[26] Still, the plenary comprehension of this word is far richer, far more capacious in what it can look like.

By the time it gets to Isaiah, yada has come to mean the knowledge that God has of humanity, which is that fullest form of intimacy, being simultaneously understanding and love. This is why the lack of it is so atrocious to the prophet: “Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3); “They do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands” (5:12). The people in their conceited knowledge have come no longer to know each other as known (yada) by God. They have even denied this kind of knowledge to “the innocent” by invalidating their “rights” (23). In a deep sense, the violent separation of social ties that Israel experiences through injustice is the logical consequence of self-arrogating wisdom: “Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!” (22). And thus Isaiah intends the full import of yada when he says, “My people go into exile for lack of knowledge” (5:13).

(The prophet Isaiah in all his humble humanity; wood engraving by Barry Moser.)

Even the highest human knowledge can fail to know in the most vital sense. According to the Bible this failure is in fact the norm: in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Human wisdom and understanding have failed to save [humanity] from pride, presumption, and arrogance.”[27] For us today the Book remains far deeper than the screen.

It seems to me that our situation cries out for a certain mysticism. We must find time to retreat from our idolatrous patterns, which have grown so golden—so hard and fast and godlike—that our minds may fail to soften toward forgiveness from any error, whether on behalf of ourselves or on behalf of others. We need to find a space and time beyond the news, so that we might return to that wider world before our knowledge. This is what Heschel calls “radical amazement,” that “knowledge by inacquaintance,” that childlike insight that we did not create the things we see.[28] Because in the grander scheme the world is never ours to know to the fullest extent, but rather to live in within our growing limits.

It is by re-cultivating this kind of reflection that we might come to see in our gaping limits our close connectedness. We might see in our createdness the createdness of other things, including, of course, other persons. By recognizing our limits, we might know more fully the God for whom there is no limit. Instead of being driven about by our own conceits, we might find ourselves filled with prophetic sympathy. This form of knowledge reaches to “the heights of religious consciousness of transcendent spirituality.” Such knowledge “knows no bounds within the horizontally human”; it sees with “[t]he assurance of worth, the religious legitimization of feeling and affection, [which] spring from the vertical dimension within which [divine] pathos moves.”[29] By coming back to common life, we might be better able to communicate.

As a Christian person, I believe the communion of Christ is really a continuation of prophetic sympathy. The yada of Isaiah becomes the agape of Jesus. Indeed, in Jesus we see true words become true flesh, true knowledge become true action. We see love. This is why it has been so distressing to me to see so many “Christian” people fighting the many inforwars with such digital sympathy, because they seem to be battling too often for the god that is their truth. But the truth as the Christian scripture claims it, the God’s truth, is that Christ does not care about rightness as we currently know it. Scandalously—both for his contemporary Jewish and Hellenistic society and for our own socially mediated age—he sets truth itself at a subservient level. He does not say “God is truth”; he says God is love (1 John 4:7-21). He does not say “truth is knowledge,” but rather truth is me—my way, my life (John 14:6). And finally, as if his knowledge did not turn our wisdom enough on its head, he says, And I am most of all the least of these (Matt. 25:40-5). Truth has never been a king, and truth is certainly not a president. Truth is a helpless child, a worthless pauper, an absolute nobody.

The kind of knowledge I am calling for cannot come solely from technology. It comes from what many still know as “spiritual practice.” It is understanding turned into doing, contemplation fulfilling action. It is also knowledge for the long-term, because, after all, we will still be human beings even after Trump. Though many may be feeling to the contrary, this current administration will not last much longer, in the grand scheme of things; but it seems safe to say that our technological society will only continue to grow indefinitely. We must not let these fractious times shape us for the future. We must keep to our knowledge of what is true in any time.

*

Write the Bird

So, what do I know? At the end of the day, what do I know despite what I do not know and no matter what I know is not? What do I know despite what others may know?

I know that while we chase the words of one man the minds of many thousands of children are sinking into senescence. I know that as I cultivate my personal outrage over political infractions I am complicit in a number of “scandalous slow-motion disasters” in the private and public lives of young people.[30]

I know that when I subbed in a high school study hall last year, I could tell just by their handwriting which of the students on my sign-in sheet were from a low-income background. Having been an early childhood educator, I could see in the crookedness of their letters the marks of an unstable and therefore technically “improper” grip on the pencil. I could easily imagine how a grown-up of more privilege might see their script as merely “bad.” A teacher might call it “illegible.” A boss would likely think it “messy.” But I knew that behind their hands were their childhood fingers, struggling mostly alone to keep a hold on this thing that they knew for some reason they would need for their lives, scratching the shapes that already bore such an intimidating character over their identity. To any passerby, having only a surface-level knowledge of them, their writing would have looked weak or childlike. To me, having known so many children who have had adult help along the way of shaping their letters and thus forming their minds, their names looked stunted, but set, crooked only as if from a fight with an invisible hand trying to keep them still.

I know that these students are far from exceptions. I know that many students in this country do not get the appropriate care and education they so sorely need at the earliest age. Indeed, I know that the first stages of a child’s development are so expansive and malleable that a healthy or a harmful change in their environment can have the effect of a blessing or a curse for the rest of their life. The least knowable brains by adult standards are actually the greatest growing. It is an incredible irony that we of the narrow, arrested mindsets have such a profound responsibility to them.

And in fact I know that it is for just this kind of irresponsibility that the gentle Jew from Nazareth reserved his most damning invectives (Matt. 18:6). We must change our course of systemically leading the little ones astray; we must redeem the generations we have abandoned to an ignominy of our making.

How are we supposed to do this on such a grand scale? I honestly don’t know. But on the smaller scale I have some thoughts. They come from a true story.

A friend of mine teaches art in inner-city schools. She is an itinerant teacher—“portable” or “mobile” is how I think her district spins it—and so she goes about visiting different schools on her schedule. Many of the classrooms she goes into have students that are taking art for the very first time. In one of these classrooms, she was in the middle of giving instruction for representational drawing, showing the kids a photo of a bird and modeling which shapes they might want to think of when they made their own version—when a child interrupted her and asked, “Can I write the bird?” Many teachers I know would have been caught up in the interruption. And many adults I know would have been quick to correct the child: “Raise a quiet hand . . . You mean, can I draw the bird . . .” But my friend knew more about the child than either of these parties of grown-ups. She knew that he did not say “write” because the child did not have access to the word “draw.” She knew that if the child didn’t have access to the word “draw,” then that child probably didn’t have access to drawing itself, let alone to an environment that looks at birds simply for the experience of looking at them. And thus she knew that what the child was really hoping to know with that question was whether or not he could know, finally and for real, a world so different and distant from his own. The child wanted to know if he could truly belong to a world of fuller beauty and life. The child wanted to know yes.

To know in this way, you have to know more than your usual knowingness. You have to go beyond your terms to someone else’s, seeing with the window of innocence and not the mirror of rightness. You have to peer through the useful illusions of your maturity and once again spy the world wide like a child. You have to make the smallest thing into a being of massive importance. You have to realize that only the dove will save you from your serpentine shrewdness. In other words, you have to write the bird.

Notes

[1] As in Christopher.

[2] On Montaigne’s “overwhelming directness,” see Harold Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, p. 119-21.

[3] “Of Pedantry,” p. 122.

[4] Montaigne, “Of Custom,” in The Complete Works, translated by Donald Frame, p. 96.

[5] “Of Sumptuary Laws,” p. 239.

[6] “Of Smells,” p. 277.

[7] “Of Experience,” p. 1044

[8] From his famous “Of Cannibals,” p. 185; second emphasis mine.

[9] “Of Experience, p. 1009.

[10] “Of Experience,” p. 996.

[11] “On Some Verses of Virgil,” p. 780.

[12] “Of Experience,” p. 1013.

[13] @realDonaldTrump, Jun 9, 2018.

[14] Ibid., 7:17 AM – Apr 13, 2018 and 6:31 – Aug 14, 2018, respectively.

[15] Ibid., 9:12 AM – 16 Jun 2018.

[16] Although, interestingly, in his frequent use of all-caps in other tweets he also represents an old-timey newspaper.

[17] Ibid., 6:04 PM – 11 Jun 2018.

[18] Ibid., 4:48 PM – Feb 17, 2017; later redacted.

[19] See Trump’s own recent admission of this tendency to Fox News.

[20] From the New York Times’ coverage of the “Trump tapes” interviews: Michael Barbaro, “What Drives Donald Trump? Fear of Losing Status, Tapes Show.”

[21] “Of Experience,” p. 995.

[22] Apology for Raymond Sebond, p. 387.

[23] See “Michel de Montaigne” in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[24] “Of Presumption,” p. 581.

[25] “To the Reader,” p. 2.

[26] See Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, p. 29, n.1.

[27] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, p. 118.

[28] Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, p. 131.

[29] Heschel, The Prophets, p. 397.

[30] See Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Ch. 9.

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Somewhere Between Salem and Gehenna: Christian Complicity in the Immigration Crisis

Comfortability is not a word, and it is far from a theological norm. To put it otherwise, such a concept does not spring from the impassioned heart and mind of God, and it does not issue forth from any of the Name’s unsettled messengers. The word “comfort” does, but not this modern mode of being (and, one might even say, inveterate life-goal). The concept of comfortability is nonexistent in the vast majority of our truly rugged human history, so agonized and antagonized. Comfortability is, in fact, an exclusively modern first-world contrivance, and a very current idol in our country—the infinite abstraction of an earthly boon.

I should be clear from the beginning, first and foremost for myself, but no less importantly for anyone who might read this. Where I see and think and speak from, especially within the parameters of this essay, is what might be termed an overlapping of Christianity and Americanness. My relation to these two forms of identity is dynamic and plural, just as these forms themselves encompass a plurality of perspectives throughout past and current culture. But for all their flux and manyness, my Christianity and Americanness presuppose a continuity in human experience and thus an interconnectedness with other people who participate within their circles. In fact, both, to my understanding, postulate such broad and indefinite circumferences that much of church and American history, respectively, with ethics either theological or democratic, might be understood as the attempt to comprehend the many forms of humanity in a more ultimate sense, whether in their relation to eternity or to country, to God or to the entire race.

But this is also to say that there are assumptions that these forms of identity take, or rather that I take through them. In saying “Yes,” I must also sometimes say “No.” The intention with both my Christian and American “No”-sayings is not a violent severance of any and all interrelatedness, but rather a clarification of the particular dynamic within it, and thus a proper maintenance of it. To say “No” to you, to disagree, is not the same as saying you are not “you,” or even that we cannot be “we.” It means that in some effective sense you are you and I am not, and vice versa. It means that either one of us, and preferably both, can say, in fuller clarity and confidence, that we do not agree on this—whatever “this” might be. Any language that does not honor such interconnectedness bespeaks a thinking that too often leads to noetic and rhetorical homicide. There is such language today—much, too much of it—and I hope in my “Yes” I can say also say “No” to it.

In my “Yes” today I must say “No” to comfortability, because my theological resources tell me that it is vanity to escape in any static sense the experience of being uncomfortable. My Christianity tells me that in fact the embracing of truth worlds away from my own might prove the greatest blessing. And this negation-affirmation coincides with a democratic claim, proven so many times in American history (even as it has also struggled for validation), that the welcoming of the new, no matter how apparently different and strange-seeming, despite the threats of test and tension, can open up individual and collective experience toward larger, heretofore unthought-of liberties. In other words, of comfortability’s desire to stay permanently in the house, my resources tell me there is no such possibility. As an American, I am always involved in otherness. And whether I like it or not, my little Christian self is always meant to be at home with the stranger.

This is all to say that I feel deeply involved in the immigration situation happening at our borders, and I believe I am given to say something about the issue. Being an early childhood educator, my participation in recent events has greatly increased due to the specific treatment of children under the current “zero tolerance” policy of this administration, but my engagement with the stranger should have occurred no matter their age, nationality, legal status, or any other factor of identification. Being a theologically educated person, my sense of involvement has turned into a full-on call based on the scriptural rationales that certain officials have averred in defense of their aggressive, absolutist policy. Continue reading “Somewhere Between Salem and Gehenna: Christian Complicity in the Immigration Crisis”

The Met Gala 2018: Holy Stuff and Mostly Nonsense

This week I learned something new: there is such a thing as the Met Gala. And something else: there was once a cohesive, classic design movement called “the Catholic Imagination.” And something more: there is now incontrovertible, well-documented proof that there is no such thing a shame. As Tuesday made garishly evident, vanity never goes out of style.

Having lived in Manhattan for five years, I am proud to say that I have been to the Met many times, have in fact had a semi-casual acquaintance with it (and its sister up the hill, the Cloisters), and thus know how wonderful a place it is. I have even been there on a Monday (a thing anyone acquainted with the Met will know is a pretty special occasion).

So I am in no way intending to disparage or indict such an indispensable cultural institution. If my beef is with any branch, it is with the Costume Institute, which it seems claims the most responsibility for the elaborate dress-up session. But how can I fault the center responsible for generally pulling off exhibitions as culturally innocuous as “Man and the Horse: An Illustrated History of Equestrian Apparel”? Jockey’s keep mostly to the track, and “the horse” has it pretty good after its prime (my last trip to Kentucky revealed that there are such things as “horse retirement farms” (no seriously)).

Well, it seems that the Institute has finally broken its harmless streak with “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” This year the highest fashionable powers that be happened to land on a subject or theme that was almost guaranteed to offend at least some unimportant Catholics and definitely did offend at least one self-important non-Catholic. Because the event, in my eyes, was nothing less than a scandal to theological decorum (because there is such a thing, according to me).

Continue reading “The Met Gala 2018: Holy Stuff and Mostly Nonsense”

Words Incarnate

What’s the Good Word?

It is a very special revelation indeed to see that someone, in person, in the flesh, literally suspects you of evil. Something like a switch in the universe goes off, or on, and something like a reversal of the normal laws as you knew them ensues. You were up, but now you’re down. You were big, massive even, an entire cosmos unto yourself, but now you’re a pissant. Or maybe you just always thought you were average, of no particular account in the universe, and have just found out that you might be the moral equivalent of an asteroid to a small community. Call me Wormwood.

This was my experience, at least, in Alaska in the late winter of 2007, when the pilot of my skiff, an Orthodox layman (whom I shall call “Ivan” for respectful anonymity’s sake) from a remote fishing community, who had just ferried me across a little watery notch of the Kodiak archipelago, and was now slowly steering the boat into Monk’s Lagoon of Spruce Island, in a low voice asked me just what I was going to be doing here at St. Michael’s Skete. And then, because that didn’t come close enough to the mark—and, as I read it then, not being one to sin through polite indirectness or vain intimation—he came straight out and said, “You’re from the Baptist mission. You aren’t going over to evangelize the monks, are you?”

In the course of a life, the flesh is heir to a thousand natural shocks. But in the course of a conversation, the mind can be clothed in a whole suit of personal honors, should one be so lucky as to find a partner with a similar sense of civility (i.e., of one’s own personal relevance). But here I was in Alaska, in the middle of the Gulf and mostly off the grid, where religion itself wears a practical oneness in persons, and a useful uniformity with people. Much of this, I have come to think, has to do with the landscape, whose demanding, really unforgiving ruggedness extends beyond the land and indeed exists primally in the sea and sky. Far from any Kierkegaardian leap, faith up here can often seem to take the path of least resistance. (I say “seem” because my own tradition tells me that I lack the eyes, and bear too much imagination, truly to see anyone’s real, inward faith.) For humble vessels at least, the smoothest (and therefore smartest) course is often the slowest and shallowest, because it is the closest to a firm and visible foundation.

And here I was coming to what is arguably one of the most firmly held and clearly visible foundations of Eastern Orthodoxy in Alaska, locally, and indeed in America, historically. For Spruce Island was (and to the Orthodox is) the home of St. Herman, “America’s first saint,”[1] whose life inspired innumerable legends that the faithful continue to tell to this day. Indeed, ask an Alaskan, Orthodox or otherwise, about the character and conduct of St. Herman, and you will likely hear stories marked by the most determined compassion in the midst of zealous persecution, the most unwavering intrepidity in the face of utterly inhospitable weather, and the most unswerving faith in the most hazardous isolation. The Saint’s example continues on in his brotherhood, and his presence persists in his many relics, his chapel,[2] his burial site, his blessed spring, and the devoted attendance of them from pilgrims both Eastern and Western. Even the scenery bears the imprint of the Saint: there is Mt. Herman, Spruce Island’s highest point (which loomed larger as I drifted closer); and there is Monk’s Rock, a large, upward jutting hunk of slate, where the Saint reportedly planted himself amidst a storm in order to stop a raging sea from reaching the village (whose promontory looked to me like the flattened edge of a giant’s gnarled premolar). Yes indeed, Ivan had just ushered me into a religious landscape with a quite concrete cartography.

(An icon of St. Herman with scenes from his life. Photo: St. Tikhon’s Monastery.)

And with what he’d said, I was, in a matter of seconds, stuck in the confines of pejorative terms. I was not an evangelist–like the great gospel writers–but an evangelizer–an intrusive religious subversive. I felt my face become a mask to this man, just as I faced the burden of the past in the present. Protestant-Orthodox relations had had a somewhat checkered history, and here I was in the middle of its continuance. How could I explain that I was there in some complicated sense to honor my missionary grandparents–indeed themselves evangelizers in their own unique way? How could I explain what I saw to be the complex of lies around this word–both proven and superstitious–and the deeper, often unseen truth behind it?

History

What Ivan could not see was that Spruce Island was also a territory of personal and religious import for me—and that more peculiarly than for the average pilgrim. The not quite 18 square miles of the place had come to manifest many decades of my family history; what occupied a miniscule place on the state map contained many of the biggest sites of Smith lore. It was the place where my father enjoyed and endured an utterly unique American childhood, growing up as one of the few white kids in the mostly native (Alutiiq) fishing village of Ouzinkie,[3] witnessing Alaska’s transition from territory to state status,[4] and not knowing that the exotic banana needed to be peeled before it could ever be properly consumed.[5] It was also one of the places most impacted by the “Great Tsunami” of 1964, which hit the gulf as a result of the Good Friday Earthquake on March 27th—a major moment in many of southern Alaska’s coastal communities, to be sure, but also an event that gained a kind of canonical status in my father’s family and with a wake that continued on into my generation.[6]

And yet, just as Spruce Island was the home of my father’s hometown, so too was it the launching place of my grandparents’ lifelong mission. For from the time they moved to the islands in the early fifties, to the ends of their lives by the new millennium, my grandparents did much of their dwelling by boat, sailing across the Gulf as messengers of the “Good News”–the revived name for the Gospel in their time. In strict denominational terms, they were American Baptist missionaries. But to many local Christians under a capital Ecumenical—both to evangelical Protestants and to certain Eastern Orthodox—they were veritable heroes in life and undoubted legends after death.

But this is where I begin to lapse into legend-like thinking. As the youngest cousin in the family who also had the blessing (or curse) of growing up in California, my exposure to my grandparents was limited to stories. My memories for much of my childhood were mostly marked by a mountainous type distance—they loomed large, but as largely flat figures. Even after getting to know a little more of their humanity firsthand as a young adult, and even after meeting even more of it through the increasingly accountable candor of my parents as an adult, I’ve often tended to resort to mythic terms in attempting to comprehend or convey their lives and accomplishments.

They seemed to be persons equally yoked in essentials, sharing a kind of galloping urgency (which stood ever steady in the pews) and an ox-like endurance (which bore through gales in stiff slacks and white stockings). I like to think that, in their own waspy way, they had the grit to get around the islands, but also the gallantry to seek out its people. If you really think about it, they really did take after the famed circuit riders of earlier awakenings; to live that way, they had to have clung to their itinerancy for dear life—for, as far as they believed, what else were their travels meant to retrieve? Only instead of riding, they piloted. Instead of mounting a saddled horse, they boarded a repurposed boat. Or rather, a floatable church.

(An early colorized photo of the “mission boat” the Evangel. All photos, unless otherwise credited, are thanks to my dad’s website.)

Over the course of what for some must have been a heroic, even kairotic fifteen years,[7] my grandparents, with their growing crew of children, sailed their unique revival tent over the waters. They brought their church to some fairly distant communities—by American standards, some of these villages look to be an islet or two from the end of the earth—but the boat’s biggest payload for the Lord, at least according to the consensus of the folks I’ve met and talked to, came from ferrying local children to Camp Woody (started by my grandparents and still running to this day[8]) on nearby Woody Island. From the looks of it, my forbears packed their tub to a near miraculous capacity, averaging “at least” 40 kids plus baggage.[9] I picture it looking like the archetype of an icon full of little apostles with lolling heads.

But my grandparents didn’t stop at some surface-level likeness—sailing their own seas and stepping out into their own storms. To my mind, at least, they not only went well beyond the stagnant “comfort zones” common in American Christendom, but they also ventured out of the usual (and equally comfortable) confines of the common Christology. This is not to say they were heretical or wayward in all things creedal—if the label of “radical” ever fit them, it would only be in the most original form of returning to the root, and if they in any way earned the term “progressive,” it would likely be due to their sense of racing toward a finish already won.[10] From what I have heard, anyway, their Christ was or could be[11] not the whitewashed post-war savior praying stiffly in the pale moonlight, but the Jewish man who broke bread and body whose breath still breathes. I like to think that, in their own way, through their own place and time, my grandparents saw or were able at times to see this breath as that Spirit at once elusive to human capture and vital to human bonds, a breath to be sought like a wind and to be found abiding like a vine between “you” and “I.”[12]

(One of my grandparents’ favorite artistic depictions of Jesus was “Christ Our Pilot,” by Warner Sallman, 1953. On the one hand, their aesthetic sense was very much a product of their time and place; on the other hand, no one’s time and place so closely matched the content of the picture. It was less romantic, and more realistic, to them than it would have been to other “believers” in milder landlocked climes. It also helped that they thought the disciple-pilot in the painting looked like my grandfather.)

(An Eastern Orthodox icon of “Christ the True Vine.”)

All of this purple language is to say that they were, happily for their time, and sadly still for ours, exceptionally ecumenical in their ministry. From all accounts, they seemed to have behaved with an exemplary neighborliness toward the Orthodox clergy and laity—who were, after all, their literal neighbors. This, for instance, is how one Spruce Islander remembers the outsider Smiths’ entry into this outlying community:

“There are two places of worship in Ouzinkie: One is the Russian Orthodox Church and the other is the Baptist chapel in Baker Cottage (commonly called “the Mission” by Ouzinkie residents). . . . In 1958, Reverend Norman Smith, who ran the Baptist mission boat, the ‘Evangel’, was relocated to Ouzinkie. He and his wife, Joyce, and their four children moved from their tiny cabin in the village of Larsen Bay to the spacious Baker Cottage . . . The Baptist Mission and the Russian Orthodox Church served their community side by side, and Ouzinkie villagers interacted with both. After all, Joyce taught Kindergarten at Baker cottage for 42 years, until her retirement, and served as village health aide for most of that time as well. Norman did everything from minding the city generators to delivering mail from plane to post office, besides providing his Sunday services in the chapel.”[13]

Their overall presence came to be taken for granted—they would become just a matter of the island’s facts. But this seemingly settled and easy communal living was in fact only gradually born over many hard years and a tireless variety of labors. Truth be told, at the time of their arrival, and in the long wake that followed, the Smiths’ chances of causing tension were guaranteed, so that my grandparents had to be prepared to deescalate conflict just after making introductions—and often far before. (I picture them landing on the island bent over backwards.) For they had indeed come to Spruce Island and the surrounding areas to evangelize the people—their purpose was painted boldly across the sides of their boat. But, as my father tells it, my grandparents had serious reservations about being sent to a place already home to a “Christian presence,” and conveyed as much to their denominational dispatch; and they seem to have been savvy to an even deeper problem: that of introducing a Christ where a Christ already is. For the differences (as they always do) would ineluctably solidify and separate—split—to form a diminished incarnation of their own. I believe that, at least on the most conscious level, it was far from their intention to colonize the village, to “Americanize” this belated America, and I believe that the last thing they wanted to do was to create a market of competing churches. They had no spirit for taking on a schismatic face. Thus, before they were able to “tell the story,”[14] they had to explain themselves. Before they could really to speak their message, they had to dialogue.

(The neighborhood Orthodox Church of the Holy Nativity in Ouzinkie.)

But this turned out to be one of the biggest points of their message after all. At least, it is to me, a descendant who has been distant enough to see the glow while close enough to witness the dirt. Knowing plenty instances of their humanity, I believe this ecumenism is one of my grandparents’ truest legacies, being the form in which they may have become the best examples of their beliefs.

Exegesis

The word “ecumenism” comes from the Greek oikoumenikos, meaning “of or belonging to the inhabited earth.” The sense of habitation, of human life and meaning invested in a specific physical place, is essential to the term. In Hellenistic culture, oikumene literally meant “inhabited,” but usually referred on the grand scale to the entire known world or on the small scale to the nearby domestic vicinity. In the case of the New Testament, this often meant the total Roman Empire, or some city or town within its expansive rule. In medieval and early modern periods, “ecumenical” referred to Christian churches working in the same creedal spheres—in gross terms, all those who shared a common faith-life under the same Pope, patriarchate, or protest. In the twentieth century, however, the oikumene of the Christian world took on a global importance, as the known world grew through globalization. In fact, the “Christian world” had been gradually growing for some time, in large part due to the travels of missionaries: many Christians were going to the ends of the earth only to find some very other form of Christian already there. But many Christians at home were also becoming more and more involved with the sometime stranger-Christians in their common but ever-changing and -mixing societies. Thus, the ecumenical movement was born out of the concerted intention to find some unity in the warding otherness, and to put the face of the neighbor onto the stranger faith. The common life was already there—the communion, however, was missing.[15]

(Logo for the World Council of Churches, founded in 1948.)

My grandparents had thoroughly inhabited their contemporary understanding of evangelism, which harkened back to the Greek evangelizomenoi, literally meaning “gospeling” or “good newsing.”[16] Their logic for the spread of the Gospel, for all of its fifties flesh, endeavored to follow the model of the incarnation. As Paul writes,

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-5)

And then, after echoing Isaiah, the Apostle refigures Psalm 19:4: “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”[17] This “world” is that very same oikumene, that vicinity of common life.

How are they to hear without a voice to listen to? How are they to call without an ear to hear them? Blessed is the foot, literally. This or something like it was the thinking behind my grandparents’ going. They wanted to be Christ’s hands and feet at their own little end of the world. But in their staying my grandparents also found the deeper root of “ecumenical” that comes from the word oikos, meaning “house” or “home.”

The word occurs many times in the New Testament, but nowhere so prominently as in Luke-Acts, that two volume work of early missiology. The gospel of Luke is densely populated with one oikos or another, with a verse count of 31 times—statistically speaking, presenting more than one per chapter. At first, Luke focuses almost primarily on the oikos in the sense of a family line: Christ belongs to the “house of Jacob” and the “house of David,” an authentic Jew and a verified fulfillment of prophecy (1:23, 27, 33, 69; 2:4). But very quickly the ministry of Christ serves to expand the meaning of oikos from the “house” of distinct and set apart (and socio-politically segregated) ethnic and religious identity to the “home” of private, personal life. Very often, Christ enters the oikos of persons very different from him in social standing—the poor itinerant with the synagogue official Jairus (8:41) and the tax collector Zaccheus (19:5)—and he associates with those who belong to belief systems ostensibly opposed to his own—the radical reformer who eats and even relaxes in the company of Pharisees (7:36), and on the Sabbath of all days (14:1). Indeed, Christ seems to show a specific “pattern of behavior,” a driving urge not just to associate but to share a common life with all uncommon folk. It is a besetting insistency to those whose job it is to maintain the norms of cultural and moral differences between the current groups: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” (15:2).

Of course, the purpose of all this socializing is not just the flouting of maxims or the breaking of constructs, but the holistic salvation—whose root after all means “healing,” as in a “salve”—of the lives around him. Nevertheless, the opening up of sphere of whose lives can and must be salved and saved, from the “house of Israel” to every home in the world—this very domestic kind of ecumenism is essential to Luke’s good news. “Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you,” Jesus tells the man previously filled with “Legion” (8:39), for it is the goal of the Gospel to inhabit the whole life of the world.

(Christ in his oikos healing.)

The Acts of the Apostles is in a deep sense the continuation of this pattern of behavior. Containing 23 mentions of oikos, the book spends much of its time going “from house to house” (2:46; 5:42; 8:3; 20:20), whether in “breaking bread” (2:36) or in believing (16:15), and sometimes in doing both (16:34). Like its gospel counterpart, the Acts make sure to fulfill their original historical and religious home: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus” (2:36).[18] But the disciples, like their teacher, are quick to leave their homes to make the world at home with God. The accomplishment of this is in fact its own ecumenical process, as the notion of what is or is not God’s oikos becomes contested amongst Jews and eventually converted to include gentiles—particularly in the progress of the Holy Spirit in and with and through the figures of Peter (10:9-44), Paul (9:1-15), and the “Ethiopian eunuch” (8:27-39). The Acts of the Apostles collectively form the story of divine homebuilding, being the further embodying of the incarnation as the “divinely intended potential to become a universally inclusive community.”[19]

Besides giving birth to a church, both Lukan accounts were largely responsible for shaping our understanding “in the Christian world” of how one should behave in the world at large. Many of the words we have for “preaching” the Gospel—and indeed the very notion of “missions” itself—come out of this model of the Christ who is always on the move in order to proclaim his message and make disciples, and of this secondary model of his disciples who in turn do likewise. Much of what we understand “discipleship” to mean comes from this very verbal focus on the first evangelisms. And indeed the Lukan accounts present a soteriology of rippling effects; the Gospel cannot but move its witness, and that moved and moving witness will in turn move others, and so on, and so on . . . And indeed the composite story of Luke-Acts does serve to tell of the spread of the Gospel from its original home to its home within the entire world—from the oikos of Judaism to the oikumene of Hellenism; from the road to Jerusalem to the city of Rome. After all, this is a story that ends with the continuation of a message: “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28).

But the substance of this message, as any good missionary has soon enough learned, and as the first missionaries surely knew, is not purely or primarily verbal at all. The form it takes will often and eventually must be in the word, but the Word itself becomes flesh. The words we have for “preaching the gospel” are after all translations; and any single word, even in its original context, is subject to change. As one of my theology professors puts the problem, “There are no exact English equivalents for the Greek verbal forms, ‘I traditioned’ [preached, handed down] or ‘I gospeled,’ used, for instance, by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:1: ‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, how I gospeled the gospel to you.’”[20] But being verbal forms, these original words bespeak original action. And action is decisive life.

But we do not even need to know our Greek to find this out. We need only look at the greatest example. This is Jesus’ first sermon, according to Luke:

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recover of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (4:16-21)

These words are important only insofar as his life will accomplish them. To refigure the words of that first missionary and martyr, St. Stephen, who himself was also echoing the prophet Isaiah, the Most High is not confined to houses made with human hands or mouths, or even minds for that matter.[21] It wills to breathe into and with and through them, and belief is the human acceptance of this breath, being a return to the source of human life itself. This is the good news of God-with-us. This is the meaning of evangelism.

In other words, Christianity is by nature ecumenical. Any Gospel is unbelievable if it doesn’t dwell in houses and break bread.

(“Supper at Emmaus,” Rembrandt, 1628.)

I believe that in some fashion, at certain times, my grandparents had gathered into themselves the fuller life of Christ that is synonymous with the Gospel. I believe that in leaving the oikumene of the lower fourty-eight and entering the oikos of Ouizinkie, they were seeking as best they could to embody that most incarnate Good News. I believe that they did this not just in their preaching, but also in their very communal lifestyle on the island.

They went from house to house, visiting and sharing meals. They fed those who couldn’t afford to share, and shared company instead. They healed the body and the soul as best they knew how for their time and place. My grandmother in fact helped establish the health aide program on the island, where much of her work, besides assisting doctors in diagnosis and administration of medicines, was going from home to home to interpret for villagers the doctors’ esoteric instructions—all of which she did for the first ten years without any pay whatsoever; and I remember her telling me of how my grandfather, among other acts of chaplaincy, used to frequent the bar after work hours, and order a soda, just so he could be available to anyone afflicted, usually with anger or despair (of which there was not a little in those parts).

(Skyline of Ouzinkie taken by my father.)

They cared for the orphan, and indeed for all the little children. Because they preached, certainly, but they also educated and even entertained. When Baker Cottage ceased being an orphanage, they turned it into a kind of community center, which provided childcare, various clubs, film showings, holiday celebration, and a kindergarten; and a little later they created Camp Woody for all the local youth in the Kodiak area.

(Village children after finishing a craft project in Baker Cottage.)

(My grandfather leading kids in morning devotions at Low Inspiration Point at Camp Woody.)

(Campers coming up from the Evangel onto the Woody dock.)

My grandfather in particular had a Heschel-like sense of proclaiming without words. He had a life-long zeal for gentleness: he had a famous maxim that no matter how far gone a drinker might be, they would always remember in the light of day that you’d treated them kindly; and he had a personal theology of non-violence, and impressed upon his children the power of their peaceful presence as an example of Christ’s love—a principle that, truth be told, sometimes proved burdensome in the face of bullying and boisterousness. My grandmother, by the end of her life, had earned such a high place of respect in the community that the village made her an honorary member of the tribe.

Indeed, so much of their presence was undeniable good news to the world as they knew it.[22]

Perhaps the differences they wore on the outside more clearly pronounced their deeper ecumenism with the Orthodox. Their doors were always open for both Christmases and both Easters, and in fact the differences between church calendars helped to provide time and space for taking turns. Traditions were shared like food—and indeed so much of it was food. My grandfather in his visits adopted Eastern and native customs in his own Western way. He famously took his “Russian tea” like the English—with milk. For my grandmother, there were two family recipes for bread to break on Easter: kulich and hot-cross buns. It was the latter that became the particular tradition for her yearly Eastertide visits with the monks and nuns.

For however different their ideas of salvation might have been, my grandparents’ practical theology (largely unspoken) found a kind of common spirit with their Orthodox neighbors. It helped that they were stuck in the same singular oikumene—that they were all Americans and Alaskans on this small island in this tiny village. And nominally they could all be considered “Christians.” But the demarcating edge of denominations too often cut the name “Christian” apart as “mine” or “ours” and “only true faith,” leaving the rest of the believing and practicing world—sometimes both East and West—to float away as helpless as a severed hand. (This, I would come to see, was especially true in Kodiak, where indeed the denominations are more populous and the competition over genuine Christian product is much stronger.) It was really due, I think, to a deeper understanding of their world as being both infinite and intimate, as too important for petty names and too compassionate for isolationism, that helped them to build this kind of oikos. Really, it was their understanding of the source of this world that helped to make this home. They were citizens of the same far country come close on earth.[23]

After the death of my grandfather in 1996, my grandmother in particular continued to engender an affectionate sisterhood with the monks and nuns from the sketes on the other side of the island. Of course, this is only half of the truth, as it was these friendly fathers and mothers who hazarded waves and weather to come visit this aging, widowed Baptist in her three-story WWII-era “cottage.”

It was because of this fellowship that the passing of my grandmother in 2006 brought the monks and the nuns back to Ouzinkie. At her celebration of life service, amidst numerous native Orthodox laity and in front of a few white Protestants, these Christians of a very different color celebrated the heroic life of a Baptist missionary whom they all knew best as “friend,” “teacher,” “nurse,” and “pastor.” “In town” (which is to say the city of Kodiak proper), the evangelicals would recount her learning Hebrew and Greek to help my grandfather through seminary, or to her finally receiving honorary ordination from the American Baptists for her years’ long service. But on Spruce Island, men in beards and black cassocks told stories of the day-by-day communion of this stooped, stalwart woman. To hear them speak of her, my dad later told me, it was “as if she were a saint.”

(A diminutive photo of a larger than life woman. The modest mural at the front of the chapel presents Jesus proclaiming, “I AM THE LIVING ONE”–a rather apt summary of my grandparents’ Christology and practical theology.)

But this speaking of her was also a service to her, a sign of belief in my grandmother’s goodness because of her belief in theirs. To hear of this—so unheard of in “our” factional society as I knew it—was like good news from a far country. There was something more to evangelism than mere preaching, something truer to life. Fuller with life. “Discipleship” was more than the simple recitation of a three-step prayer, more even than the plenary inculcation of the scriptures.

Late in his life, Jaroslav Pelikan, that greatest of experts on creeds, often reflected that in order to fulfill its incarnational logic—really its incarnational promise—the Christian faith had to take on something of the human form of the time and place in which it came to live and give life. A necessary aspect of the work of missionaries, he said, had to be inculturation—just as Jesus bore the marks of first century Judaism; just as the apostle Paul identifies with both Jews and Greeks; just as every gospel shows signs of its relative author’s various religious and intellectual priorities. This was a difficult dialectic to maintain, Pelikan granted, and the follower of Christ had to be very careful indeed in just how much the Gospel transformed within new situations without becoming essentially transformed itself. Marvelous works had been done when missionaries helped to “Africanize” Christianity. Horrible works had been done when the Nazis “Germanized” it. The dynamic relationship between the Word and the person, the Spirit and the people, had to be in constant conversation.[24]

The testament of my grandparents points to the kind of reciprocal conversion that can happen through this conversation. For them, it was a life-long conversation, and the kind of conversion they saw over the years may have more closely resembled that Will to be “on earth as it is in heaven.” My grandmother led many people through prayer throughout her life, but by the end of it she had also be led into the tribe. And my grandparents had indeed evangelized the monks. But the monks had also evangelized them.

(Detail from an icon of St. Herman. The words of his message read: “FROM THIS DAY FROM THIS HOUR FROM THIS MINUTE LET US LOVE GOD ABOVE ALL AND FULFILL HIS HOLY WILL.”)

Almost Idling

(Ouzinkie (center) and Kodiak Island proper (upper left) as seen by plane.)

And so I, at the age of twenty-one, had gone up there to see and to hear for myself some of these things. I was a sixth-grader in southern California when my grandfather died, and I not been able to make it to my grandmother’s Ouzinkie service the previous fall; thus I had only ever experienced the ecumenism of my grandparents’ life at secondhand. I had a powerful draw toward seeing these things for myself, of really living with them for a while, but I did not yet have the words for explaining why doing so was so important to me. Nothing like hearsay would suffice. I needed the real places, the actual, physical faces.

My most common explanation of myself to others was that I was “retracing my roots,” or, when I really felt the need to overcompensate, “doing research.” Both were attempts to convince myself before others that I was devoted and studious, a good grandson and a great student. To many Protestants in town, I had become known as “Norman and Joyce Smith’s grandson.” To a few of the Orthodox I had met along the way, I had earned the designation of “pilgrim.” The first had fed me with an undue sense of celebrity, and the second had made me a myth to myself.

But now, in the settling skiff, sliding into the tall and crowding quiescence of the tree-line, I heard myself become an object of suspicion. Every aspect and article on me seemed pernicious—I appeared evil simply sitting in my pants. As he continued to look away from me—no doubt under the guise of guiding us into Monk’s Lagoon—and as recollection slowly swam up through my churning brain, I realized I had all this time been wearing a partial stigma in his eyes. I remembered how among some of the Orthodox in town, there was sometimes a stereotype that all Protestants were habitually mobilized preachers, from the mild to the militant, ever ready to convert—just as there had been among some of the Protestants I’d met a suspicion that all those down-to-earth Orthodox were really just idol-worshippers the moment they came before the face(s) of their icons. I felt the instant iron chains of years-long associations. Ivan had feared I was a preacher, and now my fear put the proselyte in me. I very nearly crusaded on my own behalf. As for myself, both parties had considered me with a quizzical question or gaze—an idler or an idoler. Thank God for the words we had in common, or else I never would have become a pilgrim or an academician, and thus escaped casual condemnation.

But Ivan was still waiting . . .

I don’t remember any exact words I used—the term “ecumenical” was purely academic, and I had just quit college—but I know that I came, as if by grace, upon the word “friend.” It was a miracle to me to have thought of so universal and potentially disarming a word, and a word that was truly in the family line. I told Ivan the story of my grandparents’ relationship with the monks. My grandparents were friends. I am a friend. Please let me have my face, my voice, my thoughts back.

Ivan had long shut off the motor, and we were far enough away from the shore to glide almost motionlessly in the silence. After a forever somehow elapsed, we came close enough that the layers of trunks began flashing past.

Before we landed I saw him climbing slowly down the hill. A spare, spry figure in black hobbling quickly over the mounds of moss. A face with a long red beard, a pointed nose, and pink cheeks raised with what was probably smiling. It was Father Andrew. This outlandish looking man, with every kick of his skirt accenting his coming from a world that was far older than America—this form of person was my grandparents’ friend and, by the very human covenant of civility, one of my own. This celibate man was a family friend. This selfless self was presumably my friend.

We met on the beach—he in his black monk’s cassock, his skirt stained with salt lines, and me in my Protestant pants, shifting like the shifty type—and he asked if I was who I was, and I said, with the relief of recognition, “I am.” He looked me in the face only long enough for the brain behind it to feel vainly clean-shaven. He came up and embraced me—but with an actual hug like any non-churchgoer would—and enveloped me in that scent which, I would soon learn, would prove as strong as incense, and which, in its concentrated essence, might be called human myrrh: the body odor of monks, which should never be profaned as “B.O.” for all its Levitical volatility. I had asked for the real place and the physical face, and I had already received so much more.

That night, after having met the two other monks at St. Michael’s Skete, and having settled my bag and guitar in the cell of the “tower”—a solitary room, little more than a cupola, on the top of the main structure—we strange four of us sat down for the evening meal before compline, the last office of the day. After we finished our food, however, I became acutely aware that it was now them and me. We were not together at table. For all of their surprisingly stentorian eating—I guessed because they were free from the vanity of manners—I was the one who was loudly out of place, and once again I felt as if I were committing just by sitting. They stared off at nothing, out the window maybe, but mostly inwardly—a monastic form of nonverbal silence I would come to learn over my stay.[25] And I sat alone in my clamorous watching.

Finally, still looking out the window—no doubt to shun me for the impertinence of my actually being present for my visit, let alone expecting any conversation with it—Father Andrew swallowed audibly, gave a low hum, and said, “Well, Nathan, if you wouldn’t mind, tell us a little about why you’re here.”

I still had all my explaining to do. And I still do.

Notes

[1] Ryassaphore-monk Adrian, in his preface to F.A. Golder’s Father Herman: Alaska’s Saint, p. 7. See also: “Address of the Great Council of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America: Concerning the Canonization of the Spiritual Father Herman of Alaska.”

[2] The chapel sharing patronage with St. Sergius.

[3] As my dad is fond of saying, if you have any idea of just how to pronounce this name, you’ve probably grown up here.

[4] January 3rd, 1959.

[5] This came from the false but understandable associative theory he had devised that, as oranges are bumpy and need to be peeled, and as apples are smooth and do not, bananas, being smooth, therefore also do not.

[6] It’s striking for me to reflect on just how different the sea- and landscapes really were for me. For the Orthodox, Monk’s Rock is like a memorial, a marker of former miracles. For my family, the shoreline and any current structure near it—or any structure near any shoreline, for that matter—are like warning signs of past hazard and future folly. Where someone like a Saint makes you want to say, “Intercede for me!” and “Always!” something like a tidal wave makes you want to say, “Stay away!” or “Never again!” Amazing that such things can happen in a lonesome six-mile radius.

[7] To read my dad’s own expert coverage of the Evangel, you can go to his website here.

[8] For the latest (on lost and found, I think): https://www.facebook.com/Camp-Woody-Christian-Retreat-Center-401941479843089/

[9] Again, see my dad on the subject, under “Evangel Vital Statistics.”

[10] But perhaps every “radical” and “progressive” would consider this true of themselves.

[11] And perhaps “could be” is about the best anyone could say of someone’s Christ.

[12] John 3:8; 15:4.

[13] Fran Kelso, Plant Lore of an Alaskan Island: Foraging in the Kodiak Archipelago, p. 12.

[14]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Love_to_Tell_the_Story

[15] And for some very complex reasons too. The project of ecumenism always bears much discussion, even as it has birthed much good, and it continues to create conflict and conversation today. (I for instance in seminary took a course on “Inter-Christian Dialogue,” which specifically focused on the nigh hopeless but much needed task of conservative-liberal relations.) For starters, see Jaroslav Pelikan, “Ecumenism” and “Sobernost’” in The Melody of Theology, p. 63-6, 237-8, and “Ecumenism” by Michael Kinnamon in New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, eds. Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price, pp. 150-2.

[16] See Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief, pp. 148-52, 356n.3.

[17] Emphasis mine. This is of course Paul’s Greek translation of the Hebrew tebel for “world.” His use of this glorification Psalm creatively assimilates the transcendent language of creation into the human communication of the creator. Whereas the preceding verse literally states that the heavens speak through nature “without voice and without words,” in Paul’s hands the proclamation becomes the good news of God’s continued incarnation in Christ’s followers.

[18] I have left out the specification of “whom you crucified,” not because it is dismissible, but rather because it is so important a question as to require its own space for discussion.

[19] Howard Clark Yee, “The Formation of Christian Communities” in The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, p. 609.

[20] Morse, Not Every Spirit, p. 356n3.

[21] Acts 7:48-9: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you guild for me, says the Lord, and what is the place of my rest?’

[22] Much of this testament remains readily available, and not just in my dad’s personal and compendious website, and not just according to the American Baptists, but also as a part of the permanent history of the area, as attested by the Alutiiq Museum and the Alaska Health Aide Program.

[23] “For Luke [the traditional author of Luke-Acts], one is not a disciple alone, but one finds profound personal significance in becoming one of the people of God who live as citizens of God’s kingdom in a manner consistent with God’s intentions for the life of all humanity as brought and taught, shown and known in Jesus Christ.” From Marion Lloyd Soards’s introduction to Luke in The Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 95.

[24] See his popular interview, “The Need for Creeds,” with Krista Tippet in On Being. For the “conversionist” approach to Christ in culture, see H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture, Ch. 6: “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”

[25] In Western monasticism, this is called “custody of the eyes”: the practice of keeping your physical eyes downward to focus your spiritual eyes inward. In Eastern monasticism, there is an emphasis on custody of all the senses, keeping entire soul pure through every aspect of the body.

Iconocrisis: Prologue and Preface

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” –Jesus, John 20:29

“I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” –Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

Eleven years ago I left society. That, at least, was what many people thought I was doing, myself included. After over a year of failing to maintain a satisfying relationship with college and California, I decided to go up to Alaska, to Spruce Island, to live in a monastery. In many ways my decision was indeed a kind of social clearing for myself—in clichéd (but true) secular terms, a chance to lose the world and find myself; in hackneyed (but true) religious terms, an opportunity to retreat and discern. And indeed, there would be times when I would find the always possible but increasingly remote reality of sacramental living, where the spirit breathes steadily through earth, and the still small voice thrums loudly in the solitary ear.

(Icon Bay, Spruce Island. Photo: John Adams/Wikipedia.)

But in another sense, my retreat away from society was just as much a sojourn into new ones. Continue reading “Iconocrisis: Prologue and Preface”

Taking up the Cross in the Twenty-First Century

“Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” -Mark 8:34

We have now lived through another Easter—technically two. This Sunday marks the arrival of the pascha of the Eastern Orthodox Church. We who inhabit the Christian world (really worlds) have lived in some approximate way through the life and death and life-again of Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever we may think of him or his life or his death (or his life-again), the tradition and our calendars tell us it is all in some sense over. Complete. As the man himself said, it is finished.

In the East this means that everyone has said, and will be saying for some time, to their church and household and neighbor those great ancient words “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ is risen!”) and has heard, and will be hearing for some time, the great response, “Alithos Anesti!” (“In truth he is risen!”). In the West we do this as well. But nowadays to have celebrated Easter is also to have borne witness to a steady parade of Easter-related posts from friends and family. I myself a Friday ago saw my fair share of flowery tombs (empty, indeed) and crepuscular crosses (of the bloody sunset or rosy sunrise varieties). In fact, it is the crosses that show the most variety, and it’s this variety that shows the most interesting spectrum of interpretations. Where do we find the cross in our current place and time? Well, with the Russians—on Facebook.

But we’re long done with crosses now, aren’t we? Easter itself is over, but only because it has opened us up to spring in the largest sense, to the hope of renewed life even after death. Why should we go back to death, back to the cross?

Continue reading “Taking up the Cross in the Twenty-First Century”

Roger Deakins: Cinematic Iconographer

“The eye comes first.” – St. Theodore of Studios

“Does the story tell without sound?” – Conrad Hall

*

This Sunday saw the long overdue Oscar win for one of modern cinema’s greatest cinematographers, Roger Deakins. His almost unending snubbing seemed emblematic of the director of photography’s usual plight as the unsung hero of a movie’s success. After all, without cinematography there would be no visual story, which is to say there would be no movie. We the viewing public too often take cinematographers for granted as we take cameras for granted, and yet it is thanks to their keen sight and careful positioning that we forget the latter completely and so immediately believe the story coming to live before us. But even if after Sunday night he had still not received his much-deserved recognition—that is, even if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had still not come to its senses after fourteen opportunities—Deakins’s legacy would have remained already firmly established. In Deakins, the role of cinematographer, usually “one of the most obscure members of the production team, responsible for all the visual elements of the film,”[1] has risen to an auteur status. He is the unseen author of the silent stories we see and believe and carry with us long after we have left the theater or screen. His images leave a certain special imprint in the viewer, develop memories of a vicarious experience they otherwise would not have had. Continue reading “Roger Deakins: Cinematic Iconographer”

“Say what I sign”: The Languages of Love in “The Shape of Water”

(There be spoilers below.)

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be inhuman? These are two questions that Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, “The Shape of Water,” explores like, well, like the great sea itself. And as with the sea, there are many forms, both frightening and beautiful, that the film has found in its plummet-sounding of the monstrous and less common deeps.

If there were one all-encompassing theme that could sum up (but never label) “The Shape’s” answer to what makes a human human, I think it would be language. To borrow a scientific definition, human beings are language-making animals. As Dr. Hoffstetler points out at the beginning of the film, it is the creature’s capability for language that renders him “intelligent,” and therefore worthy of careful study and consideration. But film’s focus goes even deeper and wider than these terms. It presents a wide array of vessels designed to hold and convey the human shape. But just how truly these vessels hold, and to what end they actually convey, the fuller figure of the human being—this, I think, is what the film most wants to fathom. Continue reading ““Say what I sign”: The Languages of Love in “The Shape of Water””

“Lady Bird”: Sign of Contradiction

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.’” – Luke 2:34 (NRSV)

“‘Lady Bird’ wouldn’t work if the teenager at its center weren’t utterly lovable” – David Sims, The Atlantic

*

When Moses meets God, he asks the Divine for a name.[1] For us modern readers, it’s a fatuously causal thing to say to the holy of holy huddled up in a shrub. But for most ancient peoples, a name was a kind of ontic summary of a person or a god, a circumscription of their past origins and their present and future purpose. Hence the name Moses in Hebrew comes from the word “to draw out” (mosheh), referring both to his being drawn out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter and to his eventual withdrawing of the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt.[2] But the Deity’s, “I am” or “I will be,” name effectively contradicts the knowability of conditioned verbs: there is no completable action, past, present or future; there is only an open, ongoing being. God doesn’t say, “I am so-and-so.” God says, “I am.” According to scholars, this is God’s ultimate self-approval, God’s supremely self-assertive being.[3] It’s the kind of manners only God could get away with.

Or a teenager.

The self-assertiveness of teenagers has gotten a bad rap. Dealing with whirlwinds of questions, ideas, and all the proverbial feels, attempting to navigate the tempestuous climes of appearance and relationships, family and frenemies, they tend to come off to the seasoned majority of us as self-entitled novices of life. But we forget that they are heirs to a crowning humanity and, as far as they are concerned, have been charged with earning their title. Everyone else is mere audience to it.

Arguably no form of teenagedness has been so ill-used as teenage womanhood. It has inherited the thoroughly reductive, scandalously pejorative misnomer “emotional.” It has been given—but has not earned—the equally scurrilous term “hormonal.” I think we all have heard it, that belittling dismissal of impassioned problems, that lack of trust in potent personal conviction, that easy contradiction of avid contradicting.

It seems that over the years many of the audience have forgotten how noble it was, at least privately, to be at the center of life-shaping choices invested with super-charged feelings (those flighty, troublesome hormones). It’s hard for many of us to look back without laughing at the now-exaggerated seeming self-importance and see the very real sense of risk. What was it like to learn for the first time that to say “Yes” is also to say “No,” and vice versa? What was it like to feel the past-present-future hiss at our ventured self-expression? What was it like to know the self-affirmation in our contradictions?

Greta Gerwig seems to me to know. In her very first film as a director—a kind of coming of age for herself—she has answered these questions in the figure of one Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, whose character receives a peculiar grace from the irreplaceable Saoirse Ronan. Gerwig and Ronan have also through “Lady Bird” answered the above misunderstandings of teenage femininity and the “teenage years” in general. They seem to know the personal nobility—that is, the self-affirmed dignity and knowingness—of being contradicting.

Amazingly, Gerwig and Ronan have managed to portray the God-like gall of teenage self-assertiveness—which is the adolescence of the image of God, if you’re of the believing sort.

*

Call me Lady Bird.

From the outset, we know that our young hero has chosen a new name for herself and has demanded those around her—her family, her friends, her school (i.e., her whole community)—to call her by this self-elected name. As many critics have noted more generally of Lady Bird’s character, there are so many ways in which this common act of adolescent meaning-making could have come off as rude or bothersome. But, contrary to the customary responses of her mother, Lady Bird’s many forays into identity and relationship never strike us as insufferable. Far from it.

Her motivation to change her name is understandable, but her performance of it—or, perhaps at times, her pure lack of performance—comes off as quite unique. There is some obvious rebellion to it: when we first meet her, we soon see her in her Catholic school surroundings, stuck in the slow, lifeless file of students dressed in dull sameness to repeat the same prayers and responses in roughly the same dull voice. But through the camera we focus in on this young woman who calls herself by a different name, and see her head tilt in near melodramatic suffering, and watch her eyes roll back almost with a kind of saintliness. She is clearly one who refuses to live in uniform. She will not be another repeated figure. She will “stand out,” as the saying goes.

And yet her deployment of this name serves only to define her relationships, not write them off (although, to be fair, she does try her hand at social exclusion—such are the capricious manners of youth). Unlike the stereotype of the “troubled teen”—misanthropic but alienated, hostile but misunderstood, strong-willed but oh-so-vulnerable—Lady Bird seeks to determine her surroundings, not vandalize them, to better connect with them, not avoid them (even if she hopes someday to “escape” them). A surprising amount of the school scenes involve Lady Bird becoming an active participant in her community. She runs for school president under her fuller name—Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson—and creates an outlandish ad campaign—both possible physiological combinations of a half-lady half-bird individual—that seems specially designed to provoke a response (which it does). In fact, one of the great uses of her self-given name is just this positive provocative element: it reaches beyond attention-getting and strikes up conversation.

See, for instance, the scene in which she tries out for the fall semester musical. The priest-director of the production, reading off her name, asks with a wry smile if this is her “given name,” to which she says, in upright seriousness, “Yeah . . . I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.” On the one hand, this smacks of an unearned confidence—it’s the kind of thing only a burning bush could pull off, or else it’s a clumsy emulation of Dickinson in one of her archer moods. But on the other hand, the statement is of a just-being-honest simplicity, a matter-of-fact logic, and ultimately accommodating to the interlocutor’s outside understanding of herself. It is also clear that Lady Bird is most interested in pressing onward to the real business of proving her prowess—in this case, as an actor. Straight through the obvious mimetic thespianism—the hands austerely held behind her back, the flat, almost grave stare—and the naked thrift store sweater—a modern, minimalist approach to your aunt’s Thanksgiving attire—shoots Lady Bird’s direct sincerity.

But the question still remains: why specifically Lady Bird? The choice, admittedly, is curious. A fair number of critics have speculated about the possible “sources” of the name. The most likely references, as I see them, are such:

1)Coccinellidae, AKA “ladybirds,” “ladybugs,” “lady beetles”: a highly proliferated family of beetles, well-known to all post-preschool humans, typically of a reddish hue with black spots on their wing covers.

2) “Lady Bird” (composition): a 1939 jazz standard composed by Tadd Dameron (no relation to Poe). One of the most commonly performed pieces in jazz history. Served as a basis for the lesser known piece, “Lazy Susan”—a name Lady Bird McPherson understandably declined, perhaps for the obvious field-day it would have provided her mother.

3) Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson: wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and thus First Lady of the United States. Famous for her enterprising activities in the office, being the first First Lady to work directly with congress, undertaking an impressive number of civic projects.

So which of these could have provided Christine McPherson with the inspiration to rewrite her title? 1) bears some likelihood, through its sheer universality in the natural world (American or English) and in childhood experience. Plus the more foreign version of this common, under-noticed creature could have proved an ample vehicle for that strong adolescent impulse to be both known and distant. (And isn’t that, in a sense, one of the main modes or stages of adolescence—that esoteric juvenilia, that new version you just don’t get, that personal it you’re not with?)

2) seems to be fairly unlikely, unless the movie isn’t telling us something (or unless I forgot)[4]. Throughout the movie we see Lady Bird engage in a wide variety of music use—there’s splashy Stephen Sondheim; there’s a still Justified (post-Brittney, pre-FutureSex, -LoveSounds, -Trolls-related movies) JT; there’s amateur early ’00s indie rock and the dreaded “Dave” of Matthews—but in no scene do we see her imbibe anything that jives or bebops. In fact, the music that has the greatest influence over Lady Bird—or at least the music that she chooses to have the greatest significance for her situation—is, ironically for most of us, that most infamous single of the now largely disavowed Dave Matthews Band, “Crash into Me,” and this bears as much of a likeness to traditional jazz as Tiny Tim resembles hula music.[5]

In a general thematic sense, 3) may be the most likely, as the figure of Lady Bird Johnson would fulfill the “strong woman” paragon for the self-heroine Lady Bird McPherson. The biggest problem with this, as I see it, is that McPherson never appears to be terribly interested in politics or history—even when she meets the argot mumbling, key terms touting, People’s History twisting Kyle—nor does she aspire to anything approaching studious—quite the opposite, as her mother informs us, and re-reminds her, at the outset. When proclaiming her desire to go to college in the east, Lady Bird refers to Thoreauvian writers as a current reality. When her friend Julie jokes disparagingly about terrorism, Lady Bird’s responds with, “Don’t be a Republican”—hardly a discursive incision. Indeed, Lady Bird seems to inhabit that typical liminal space between lazy and committed, picking what is convenient while she continues her search for what truly concerns her. More than this, Lady Bird is a buff of nothing but the present as it pertains to the future—her future.

The answer, I think, is to be found in that very curiosity of her youthful choice, and not in the specificity of adult questioning. Being still on the verge of adulthood, Lady Bird still dwells in that amorphous boundedness of childhood. She is still learning to select her own society, but nothing yet is hard and fast. (As she would say, she does not have any proclivity for history or politics—“that we know of yet.”) Her attraction to the name “Lady Bird” may have a vague, perhaps subliminal, grasp of some historic or cultural significance, but it likely still lives in the fresh sound of the thing. It sounds meaningful. It sounds elegant, but also folksy. It sounds liberated, wild, free. Free and knowing. The fleetest linguistic vehicle to get her to “live through something.”

There is, to be sure, some of the greenest idealism in Lady Bird’s name—she introduces herself (“My name’s Lady Bird”) to Kyle with not a tinge of protective irony. There is also a bit of evasive arrogance in it: that teenager’s whim toward untouchability that parents hope and pray is merely budding self-ownership; that autocratic setting of oneself apart from those servile peers and all their coteries of associations. And certainly by requiring other people to call her by this new name she is usurping the role of parent of herself in relation to others as well—a move that could easily stray into pride or pretentiousness. And finally there is that most common indictment she gets from her family and closest friend, that she is self-centered, and it is hard to deny at least some neutral truth to this claim for anyone with a self-given name.

But as we follow her through what is no doubt her most pivotal year thus far, witnessing her in her most public and private vicissitudes, Lady Bird’s behavior is marked not so much by pride as confidence, not so much by enormity as eagerness. Of all the pretensions she operates under, arguably the biggest one is that she is entitled to radical agency in her life, which implies an eager, if callow, yearning for responsibility. And if she is sometimes self-centered in the negative sense—carelessly taking the hard work of her mother, the forbearance of her father, and the true love of her best friend for granted—she is also thus in the most positive sense. Lady Bird is centered in herself. Her intent is never secondhand: she wants to do the things she does because she, and no one else, wants to do them. And what she wants to do most is to be known—but properly, by herself and others. And that qualitative distinction is the real crux of her progress.

It is from the center of her self that we see Lady Bird choose to know and be known. If she evades, it is to avoid being misunderstood—being reduced to insignificance (hence she resorts to being from “the wrong side of the tracks”) or to risibility (as of a miniscule lower class to her wealthy schoolmates). But there is nothing the least aloof about Lady Bird. She is often the opposite of dismissive toward the other characters around her, no matter their age.[6] Through her name she commands not just address, but also interaction—a determination of relationship that in a way goes beyond mere coolness, or gets too close for it. One need only see her face-forward approach to any situation to tell this. Though she may, when compelled to be passive, slide lazily into that more stereotypical “teenage” eye-rolling, she addresses her interlocutors—from the cool kids to her guidance counselor—with wide, steady eyes, ready for the moment to meet her. And this is her problem.

Or, in a sense, this is the moment’s problem—the stumbling block of the people around her at this stage in life’s way. How can this “girl”—still becoming a woman, just recently a child—have the gall to rename herself? The name “Lady Bird” is a sign of offence, a sign at times for people to reject. Because in requiring everyone to address her by her self-given name, Lady Bird insists that everyone have an inordinate faith in herself. The name is a symbol of an extravagant trust in her choices, a belief that goes beyond the usual support. (It is this same self-trust that we see driving her to apply to schools far outside her grade range—a drive that is rejected with doubt and laughter.) In this name, Christine McPherson has created a new beginning—and while this is something that, in essence, every adolescent does and must do in order to become a fully independent adult, Christine’s leap to “Lady Bird” overshoots the common steps. It’s a leap that looks like a lunge, and loses its balance when it lands.

But it’s to the film’s peculiar credit that Lady Bird never falls. It’s Lady Bird’s particular strength that she maintains her own sense of balance—a kind of clumsy nimbleness that knows how to stumble elegantly. (Perhaps this is one of Greta Gerwig’s most original assets as an artist—whether actor, writer, or director—for in “France Ha” she wielded the same off-beat talent, “like a jazz drummer who pretends to flub yet knows exactly what’s up.”[7])

There are many times in the movie when Lady Bird slips or misses, or is taken down a peg. The first boy she says “I love you” to turns out to love boys. The first boy she gives her “flower” to turns out to be pretty petal-less—and gives her an unwelcome dismal lesson about the frequency of “unspecial sex.” She strays into the usually tiresome teenage seduction toward the cool kids club, and all too easily forsakes her time-tested—and clearly more lovable—companion, Julie. In an effort to impress these soulless peers, she outdoes them in cruelty, vandalizing Sister Sarah Joan’s car—and, in a tangible way, her religious belief and moral authority—with the words, “Just married to Jesus” (and all the appropriately garish, slapdash habiliments). And finally, she consummates her hoped for college freedom with perhaps the most clichéd pratfall of all: having too much to drink at a party, and waking up in the hospital.

But Lady Bird is always quick to recover. Though her first romantic relationship (at least in the movie) ends in a confused sense of betrayal, this is not the end of the relationship per se: Lady Bird has enough composure to see beyond her hurt to how fragile Danny is; and she evinces a sudden, profound openness not only to forgiveness (acceptance in spite of) but to compassion (acceptance because of). Though her ideas of love and love making lose their primrose innocence, she is able to share the experience openly and with equanimity to Julie, thus avoiding the flinching privacy of woundedness; she even finds redemptive humor in her disappointment—voicing a positive preference (“I think I preferred dry-humping”) to Kyle’s neutral-at-best declaration of resignation (“You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life”). And if this lively, red-haired Lady Bird does try to clothe herself in other people’s coolness, she soon undresses their meretricious habits to discover the pale truth. She gets out of the car, and goes the way of Dave (Matthews) and finds her way back to Julie—choosing for her prom date the person most mature adults would vote “least likely to regret,” her best friend. And if in a moment of proto-vainglory Lady Bird seeks to deface Sister Sarah Joan’s clerical aegis, she shows that deeper spirit to seek the truth when she’s willing to see the older woman eye-to-eye; she admits not only her wrongdoing, but also the fact that the nun’s faith is more than a compulsory taxonomy—in other words, that Sister Sarah Joan, like Lady Bird, has her own self-committed terms to live by. Indeed, the sister delivers through example an important lesson about all self-confessed symbols (and a memorable one about “love and attention”), and Lady Bird receives it: laughing at the obvious limitations, the unwitting silliness, of applying American matrimonial language to the man Jesus of Nazareth, Sarah Joan states in all seriousness that she has been married to Christ for many, happy years; Lady Bird, with a serene and unsarcastic smile, responds that he must be a lucky guy.

And finally, if Lady Bird does seem to crash the first time she really flies, she makes of the fall such a recovery that it doesn’t turn out as a fall at all. Waking up to a glaring, hovering light, and slowly coming out of boozy purblindness, Lady Bird sits up to see, a few beds across from hers, a boy and his mother. The boy has been injured in the eye somehow, and he holds his hand to his patch; the mother sits closely by, bent over with her arm around him. The image is a mirror of her previous years: child and mother, the past half now whole-seen. Now that she is entirely on her own, she sees her mother’s fuller presence.

I believe this sight is the seed of recognition that, after a second sight, leads to Lady Bird’s acknowledgment of her greatest foreground, her mother. After her awakening, Lady Bird leaves the hospital to wander the nearby streets. She eventually comes across a church, and, approaching the doors like a potential acquaintance, she goes in. She sees indeed a familiar sight—a choir of children singing together—and something spreads across her face. The next we see her she is in the church courtyard, her phone to her ear, leaving a voicemail specifically for her mother. The message is her only speech alone in the movie, but it is also her most communal statement in her life as we know it. It is a daughter giving thanks for her mother, a child’s gratitude for givenness: for love and care and life itself. It is Lady Bird becoming Christine.

In this closing scene, we see Lady Bird resolve the problem of her identity. It is to her credit that she has never placed herself too absolutely on her self-given name—she understands that quotes surround her. But of all the offences she has given (founded or not), the greatest and most unfounded are those she has given to her parents. She has been ashamed of them—asking her dad to drop her off some distance before getting to school, and later lying about her address, in order to avoid revealing her humbler origins—and she has been recalcitrant with their express wishes and concerns—applying schools well outside of their budget, even to the point of subterfuge with her mother. Indeed, the greatest conflict Lady Bird has in the movie is with her mother—their story is of the perpetual giving and taking of offense. Because in her mother Lady Bird finds her most circumscribing relationship. If Christine McPherson is the Tempest, Marion McPherson is the primordial whirlwind. Behind her every act of scrutiny—her quizzical looks and critical glosses—behind all of her anger and exasperation in every heated argument, Marion McPherson is asking her daughter, “And where were you when I made you?”

By seeing her mother’s part in her story—and reading her mother’s story of the both of them in her salvaged letters (the epistles of Marion)—Christine realizes that a certain faith has preceded her own. Before she believed in what she could be, her mother believed that she could be. This is the faith that has borne so much sacrifice—so much money, sure, but so much more that so-called “time and energy,” which is so much life spent caring, worrying, trying, hoping—and it is this faith that bears so much offence at the sign of that name. For the name of “Lady Bird” too often points to the daughter’s careless flight from the nest that took so much of the mother to make.

As many have noticed, it is significant that both daughter and mother have very “Christian” Christian names: Christine and Marion, variations on Christ and Mary. But it is also significant that the film, like Lady Bird, diverges from its sources even as it carries them with it. Like Sister Sarah Joan, it prefers Kierkegaard, the poet of dialectic and becoming, of fraught risk and passionate faith, to the guilty history of Augustine and the vast, cramping system of Aquinas. Like Kierkegaard’s Christ, Christine is a “sign of contradiction,” through her name indirectly declaring herself more than she immediately is.[8] Her name contradicts her contemporaries, who know where she comes from and know (or believe they know) what she is capable of. Like this existential (i.e. fully human and fully God) Christ, she yearns to find her believers: “‘Blessed is he who is not offended at me!’ . . . [Christ’s] joy over the believer is like a human being’s joy over becoming understood, completely understood, by another.”[9]

(LB and SK)

But the film even chooses to contradict—to lovingly part ways with—this formative source. Because unlike Kierkegaard—at least the early and rebellious and fertile (i.e. adolescent) Kierkegaard—“Lady Bird” believes in the potential for direct communication. It believes that people, without irony, without signs—without despair, without “the incognito,” without at last, pseudonyms[10]—that flawed, in-flux people can speak forth from their conditionality and in so doing be more than they are, or were. They can become, be created anew, not only through their ultimate privacy—in which the Wholly Other (God) knows them—but also through their healing relationships—in which another (family, friends) knows them—and crucially through recognition—in which they know themselves. “Lady Bird” puts its faith in the eyes and the mouth.[11]

This is the humanistic, the very positive theological anthropological core of “Lady Bird.” If there is a God in the movie, it is a God of given Grace (or the Grace of givenness): the gift is already planted and nurtured there; we only need to pluck it. The fullest manifestation of that gift is one’s total identity—i.e., one’s particular humanity. All may be in need of healing,[12] but everyone deserves becoming. Through Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, we see the worth of what we no doubt so often ignore. At least in my first viewing, and in my subsequent reflections on the film, so sanguine was this “teenager’s” essential humanity that I found myself trusting in her even as I disagreed with her choices (though I often approved of them too). I believed that deep down she was capable of becoming better, and that, given time, that deeper being would win out. I believed in a person—a very Christian thing, if said person is properly known.

During her first falling flight, Lady Bird drunkenly states, “People go by the names their parents give them, but they don’t believe in God.” The statement seems to be half-remonstrance, half-reflection. It seems, perhaps, to be a passing bit of bleary theology. But I believe it is also a confession of sorts. It is a prevenient profession of gratitude, a closer identification with that most Original Name, who speaks new life into being with a couple of words.[13]

(All photos: A24 Films)

Notes

[1] What’s in a name? Well, power, for one thing, but mostly other people’s. We do not choose the names we were given at birth, and not one of us gets to decide the meanings of the dictionary’s worth of names we’ve inherited. Our parents or guardians, if they were thoughtful, may have selected a name for us that circumscribed at least something of our meaning to them at the time, or what they thought or hoped we’d mean to the world in time—the monicker thus wrapping us up in vague or certain moral cerements. If they were considerate, they would at least have chosen names (first or middle) in no way resembling, even through the most garbled reproduction, anything in the verbal families of the crude or fatuous. For nothing besides a nose is more subject to humiliation than a name. In ancient times a name was the way to invoke a presence greater than attention; in modern times it is a social contract we never officially agreed to. If we like it, we are blessed with Abraham. If we don’t, we will enter the wilderness of words to earn a nickname. For the most part, we take them for granted. When someone calls our name, we immediately agree to its power. To refuse in any way would be to contradict more than mere words. To the person calling, such an act would seem nothing short of rebellion.

[2] See Robert Alter’s notes to Exodus 2:10 in his translation of The Five Books of Moses, pp. 313-4.

[3] See The Brown-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 218, and also Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, pp. 321-2n.

[4] Likely.

[5] Plus, as the AV Club has noted, besides being period sound-dressing, the (for most) now-detestable song primarily seems to serve the movie’s remarkably forgiving presentation of juvenilia, making the claim that the passing fads will one day lament nevertheless had a profoundly formative, even morally fortifying purpose to our younger selves.

[6] Indeed, even when she petulantly dismisses herself from the car—a locomotive self-jettisoning for the ages—I imagine Lady Bird getting up directly from the ground, slapping the clouds off, and staggering straight toward the now halted, now reversing car—puling louder to an approaching growl—to see just what her mother thought of this terrific stunt and gesture.

[7] Stephanie Zacharek, “Greta Gerwig Stars in Noah Baumbach’s Dating Manual, ‘Frances Ha.’” Village Voice (May 15, 2013).

[8] Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton UP, pp. 124-5.

[9] Ibid., p. 78.

[10]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard#Note_on_pseudonyms

[11] In this sense, “Lady Bird’s” anthropology may be more of Kierkegaardian Socratic (or vice versa) than Kierkegaardian “Christian” (maybe), as it prizes the act of recollection (Philosophical Fragments, pp. 9-14) over courageous faith (all of Fear and Trembling) out of existential despair (all of The Sickness unto Death)—at least, it seems to do so at this stage in life’s way.

[12] According to a recent Pastearticle, Marion is the film’s most broken vessel.

[13]yehi ’or = “let there be light.”

To Show God’s Love Aright: “A Christmas Carol” As Spiritual Physic

There is one line in literature that has haunted me the most. It’s no great surprise that it comes from Shakespeare—there are numerous words and phrases, lines and near stanzas, through which his voice (that voice of many voices) continues to echo in our culture. But unlike many of the most prominent Shakespeare-isms, mine lacks that anachronistic eloquence that so often enchants. It doesn’t seem to speak from some other world, a poetic past that never was beyond stage or print (or screen). It calls, rather, with the plain speech reserved for urgency and exclamation—a mode that we have kept with us—and from the all too common concerns of this world—the plights that continue to stay with us.

“O! I have ta’en too little care of this.” Continue reading “To Show God’s Love Aright: “A Christmas Carol” As Spiritual Physic”