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”

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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”

Do You See What I See? or, Hallmark’s Curious “Heart of Christmas”

“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.” -G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered

“Monday is a day on the calendar. Christmas is . . . Christmas.” -Holly Jensen, “One Starry Christmas” (a part of Hallmark Channel’s approximately two-month-long “Countdown to Christmas”)

* * *

There’s a special kind of optimism to people who love bad movies. There’s another kind of optimism to people who hate them. When it comes to Hallmark Christmas movies, I believe I enjoy both. Continue reading “Do You See What I See? or, Hallmark’s Curious “Heart of Christmas””

The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone

America has never been an Eden—unless you’ve found an alternative history or Bible. At least as far as I understand the past 200+ years, this nation has never been too long without some form of conflict. We’ve waged a revolution to gain our independence. We’ve suffered a Civil War to save our union, as well as our claim to anything approaching actual equality. We’ve entered—and in some cases initiated—many contests overseas, and we’ve sustained many disputes at home. In every case we’ve never fully agreed on the right and proper course of action, or even why we should act in the first place. Indeed, at times our concerns are so disparate, and so diametrically opposed, and so asymmetrically proportioned, that in some very real sense it is absurd for me even to use the word “we.”

Still, by many countries’ standards, I think that the United States does excel at having a high volume of public opinion, and that volume may be said to represent a kind of consistency. “We” have tended to speak as if we were all directly involved in our country’s many doings. And this is good, and this is true, if we take our democratic ideals seriously. In some generic sense, at least, we have often communicated to each other with urgency and utmost concern, as if something deeper than our lives depended on it. This is also good and true. It is absolutely necessary: the moment we stop speaking to each other will inaugurate a kind of death not even the Civil War could accomplish.

And yet, lately I am finding, inside of myself and around me, a new sense of urgency and a new form of involvement—which is to say, a new form of communication. (By “lately” I actually mean the past decade or so, which is relatively “new” even in the American scheme of things.) As I’ve already mentioned, this past election season threw our new forms of democratic participation into stark relief for me, and I’ve spent many an idle moment and post mulling over what it means to be an American on 21st century social media. One commonality has stood out significantly to me. Now, I am aware of the dangers of neutralizing through generalization; and I don’t think equivocation is a productive way to solve a plurality of detailed problems. But by my lights, to be an American at this moment means (among multitudinous other things) to have a sense of urgency, and this urgency, as I see it, is to react—as quickly and clearly and absolutely as possible. It seems to me that we have a virtual sense of duty to a socially mediated nation. Continue reading “The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone”