Artless Faith and the Dread of Death
It should’ve been February. The clouds canopied the North Carolina Museum of Art, jailing me in an internal promise land. I could easily see snow clumping in uneven patches on the campus grass and feel a cold breeze pushing further and further south. Minuscule icicles leached off of tree branches and crystalized long-leafed grasses. The soft razz of heavy snowflakes or misty, frozen rain listed off earth’s surface like a wire brush running over a drumhead.
Except it wasn’t snowing. It wasn’t even cold. I was wearing shorts, wishing away the humidity. The museum’s campus flavored a sort of disembodied Kubrick montage, a mind’s cosmos spiraling inward, forever inward, smaller and smaller, like a photon stealing passed the iridescent throat of a singularity. The long, nondescript white building, transitioning near flawlessly from concrete and metal to white, ethereal sky; the gravel track unnecessarily curling to a stainless-steel tree. The wind machines, the fenced faces, the three concrete ellipses rolling out of ground like rubber tires kicked downhill by playing children – the surreality unchained my guarded imagination. I could project entirely different word-worlds in my mind and they would be as real to me as orbiting spheres or platonic forms hampered at material’s edge.
I wanted to pour out these words and words, faucet and spigot, a spouting river snaking their way back to the offing sea where they hibernate as unjointed panacea, massaged by tides and swells into their constituent syllables and sounds and letters, until summoned by a scurvy sated marauder, ravishing through emotion and dictionary, reassembling word to word, creating never-before-heard lissome rime.
Serendipity and determination hold hands, chasing words, inexhaustible words, going to and fro on the earth, near enough to a denouement, like precipice’s line; but these words are not just buoyant but flamboyant, kite tails slapping air currents, rearranged palindrome-like for the same, different meaning until their lofted ambitions land them contrary to “The End.” And another child, imbued with the spell of letters, levitates again dictionary’s carousel to the sky’s trumpet blast, “These are my words,” she will insist. “These are my words.”
All that is created by words is good, moored into the gritty textured existence, forever generated out of what they create, sustaining the god who is by the faith of those who believe. The quantum fluctuation, the random, spontaneous and causeless event that flashed the created order through big bang’s door are only as the sound of words whispered from our Artificer, “Let there be.” Looking now at the paint brush strokes, the various shades and accents, the artist re-assembled words birthed by emotion onto a different medium.
In my senior year in high school, I took bible class. It was, as best I know, the last year that bible was taught in a public school in Hamilton County, Tennessee. The teacher taught a fundamentalist curriculum and had no fear of freely mingling biblical facts with a proselytizer’s gumption. Adam and Eve, the flood, the tower of Babel were good reasons to repent and accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; otherwise we were going to burn in hell forever and ever. And that hell business was something of a delight to a school teacher who never won the respect of her students. I have little doubt she relished the idea of Dave, Danny, and me waking up from death to find ourselves in a classroom of hellfire and brimstone and an eternity’s worth of busy work.
And then there was the Sunday school teacher at the first church I served as pastor. She’d been teaching the children for decades, despite the fact that the children were scared of her and the parents were afraid to confront her. Even now I feel disgusted and dirty when I remember her asking my six-year-old son who was being treated for leukemia if he were prepared to die. “All you have to do,” she had said to my son, “is whisper Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.”
A definition of evil is the privation of the good. Words are good. They organize thought, produce meaningful conversation, separate us from the inarticulate yapping of dogs and jackals. God creates with words. God speaks and reveals God’s self through God’s word. To give someone your word is to enter into covenant. But the bible teacher and the Sunday school teacher believed in empty words, taught a humorless parody, and had a palpable design on us. Sadly, they are emblematic for much of what passes off as church life.
Perhaps I will never understand how the urgency of faith gathers in such abundance with some yet produces no depth. But this phenomenon doesn’t limit itself to the most visible and easily targeted in the community of faith. I have never wrapped my mind around how individuals over the course of a lifetime attend church, listen to the scriptures read and proclaimed, kneel at the communion rail, go to Sunday school, put thousands and thousands of dollars in the offering plate and have such a pitiful understanding, or no understanding, of what they’re doing.
I will reveal my cynical proclivities now. It seems to me the vast majority of church goers are either fundamentalist or listless. The power of God’s Word is God’s Word. There is no reality beyond the actual printed word, the confession of faith, the body of Christ. The words and symbols of the Christian tradition are reality itself whose outward and visible power points to nothing more than a dim mirror. The substance of faith is informational coinage, verbiage, a collective assortment of bible passages and easily dispensed clichés whose scientific rigor embodies an impotent temperament perfect for chastising the curious child for asking why. Everything is of ultimate concern because the only ultimate concern is going to heaven: heaven, the palliative bed anesthetizing Christians away from the created world.
Clergy are conflict avoiding, career oriented parrots protecting their flock by quarantining the Christian faith to the ethereal and abstract and the inconsequential. In large measure, they have yielded their authority to Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert and NFL football players because we dare not speak about poverty, racism, guns, drug addiction, or Donald Trump. The risen Christ cannot be bothered by the flesh. And why not interpret God’s Word in such a way that increases attendance, stacks the offering plate a little higher, and satisfies itching ears? Jesus doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, after all, and like our mommies taught us, “If you can’t say anything nice just don’t say anything at all.”
Artless Christianity vacillates between misanthropic doldrums and atavistic tribalism. We are habituated hand shakers, smilers, and sympathetic listeners. The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts idle well in playground sanctuaries, amounting to anything save the work of the people, and far less the work of a prophet. Let us preach on love and tolerance and forgiveness so long as that love is for people like us and tolerance is abiding the intolerable and forgiveness is our expected justification. We scale the altar with these words and there is no voice on the mount, no answer. Maybe our God is sleeping, bored by self-deception.
The paintings on the wall impossibly dangle. The words of their genesis are fading into a past that will have no history. It is finished; it is finished; it is finished. Our expected miracle, the one we’ve been promised, that heaven, that escape, that blissful place exonerating acedia’s dictionary resides with Pegasus, Medusa, and Artemis.
The sermons, the Sunday school lessons, the vacation bible school shows, the Christian industry, this blogosphere incubates a petri dish of church listeria whose ebullience dances disembodied-like from the hard world of words and art. Look no further than Sarah Huckabee Sanders who explains that Jesus Christ is the one, true role model, so it doesn’t really matter that her boss gropes women, lies more than speaks, and hates Hispanics. She’s a choir member of the Christian magicians crying into the void, abracadabra, abracadabra, abracadabra.
Pity those who croon to that night air, that darkness without morning because they’ve never learned that faith is an art, an articulation of life and meaning, an expressive medium. Just as imagination without art produces mere illusion, faith without art longs for that comprehensive answer that unravels all mystery, doubt, and excitement. The tactile word-world becomes transitory, a hollowed-out tube to pass from less than real to the greater-still, where certainty of opinion besieges imagination and poisons the lovely melody, “These are my words.”