Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lexically Discombobulated

I heard a word today that I haven’t heard in a long time: Catawampus. Or is it catty-wampus? It was used in a documentary to describe the motion of side-wheel steamboats on the ocean—how they’d waddle and lurch sideways like a drunken sailor. It’s got a certain Twain-esque quality, witty and playful, and it made me grin.

Then I started to think about how many funny words there are in English—words like akimbo and lollygag, fillibuster and rigamarole, boondoggle and nincompoop. Some words are comical because of their rhyming sounds. Mamby-pamby and fuddy-duddy come to mind. Others tickle one’s fancy because of their onomatopoetic quality, like kerplunk or cock-a-doodle-doo.

Word combinations can be funny too. William Safire, who died this week, came up with a doozey when he coined the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.” He was a presidential speechwriter for Richard Nixon, who should have gone to the hoosegow. Safire also wrote for Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had a funny name. Speaking of funny names, when I lived in Santa Barbara I used to rent movies from Video Schmideo.

Language is a cockamamie thing that can occasionally make even a cantankerous curmudgeon like me smile.

(If you liked this post, I’d recommend you peruse Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount, Jr.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Learning to See

I remember when I first started reading the Bible, really reading it. When I was young the Bible was read to me at church and revered in the home, but I didn't begin perusing its rich library of literature until high school. I recall the mixed joy and frustration as I worked my way through the Pentateuch, marveled at the wonder and mystery of the Bible’s apocalyptic literature, and learned from the profound yet practical theology of the epistles. It’s a journey of discovery I’m still on today.

I’ve been on another journey of discovery lately—a journey into the world of fine art. I used to think of art as mere decoration, something pleasing to look at. When I was a child I thought Norman Rockwell was the greatest artist in the world and spent hours leafing through the coffee table book we had of his illustrations in our family’s home. Later I graduated to Monet’s Water Lilies and other images I found “pretty.”

I’ve been learning that art is more than aesthetics, a lot more than mere decoration. Art is as varied as life itself. And, like the Bible, art can be mesmerizing, thought provoking, frightening, inspiring, funny, confusing, convicting, offensive, and so much more. I’m awed by the variety of art and its ability to speak to me, if I let it.

When I first began studying the Bible, I needed a lot of help to understand, like the Ethiopian eunuch sitting in his chariot (Acts 8:26-40). Commentaries, study Bibles, and other helps served as my guides and still do. Whenever I came across a passage I found troubling or difficult, I was quick to find a way to lessen the tension, often explaining away the problem for my own comfort’s sake. (Jesus didn’t really mean sell all you have, did he? Of course not!) Now when I read the Bible I look for those things that confuse, trouble, or even offend me. Usually there’s a teachable moment, and if I listen, I’ll hear God speak.

Just as I've found a new way of reading the Bible, I've develop a new approach to art. I used to shun all modern art. When I saw an abstract painting or sculpture, I’d think to myself, “That’s not real art” and turn away. I’m learning to look a little longer and ask a few questions: Who was the artist and what was she trying to say? Was she reacting against something? What genre or school of art is it from and how does it fit into that tradition? Is there anything new or unexpected here, if so what?

As part of my effort to learn how to appreciate art more, I recently read a book by Michael Kimmelman called The Accidental Masterpiece. It’s a good book, but one small passage had a bigger impact on me than any other: “Art is about a heightened state of awareness. Try to treat everyday life, or at least parts of it, as you would a work of art.” Art is about learning to see.

It’s also about learning to listen. A few days ago I read this passage from Thomas Merton:

Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling in the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth. If we have not silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have not rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will seem silently to withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.

Immediately my mind turned to the avant-garde composer John Cage, whose 1952 work 4’33” is made up of three movements without a single note. When he performed this piece he just sat at the piano and played nothing. I used to think that was a stupid gimmick—musical chicanery meant to impress gullible pseudo-intellectuals. Now I’m wondering whether he was trying to say something similar to what Merton said: silence is as important to music as sound, and if you listen to silence you actually hear something. But you have to be a lot more attentive when listening to silence.

I also thought of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, famous for his collages and sculptures made with junk he found. Yes, literal trash. In 1953 he erased a painting by the famous abstract artist Willem de Kooning, probably the most famous artist at the time. The work is called Erased de Kooning. It’s simply a blank canvas that had once been full of color. Maybe one of the many things the mischievous artist was saying has to do with the importance of the empty space on a canvas. At least that’s one effect of this unique un-painting.

Don’t get me wrong; I still like Norman Rockwell. Some refined intellectuals look down their noses at him and consider his art mawkish, overly sentimental. The problem is those snobs haven’t looked closely enough at his oeuvre. I’d challenge them to take a look at Rockwell’s 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With, done at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s one of the most striking social critiques by an artist.

So, I’m learning to look at art, if not life, a little more carefully. What have you noticed lately?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Wisdom and Joy for Fifty Cents

I think the greatest invention of humankind is the public library—a place where you can learn so much for free. Next comes used bookshops and thrift stores, where you can buy books for next to nothing. One nice thing about moving to a new area is getting to explore new secondhand stores for treasures. It’s a cheap thrill I learned from my wife. After a day of poking through dusty piles of cast-off goods, I came back home yesterday with a small stack of books for fifty cents each. In my collection were a couple of full-color art books (one on The Prado collection, another on the Musee D’Orsay), a biography of Paul Klee (ok, I’m on an art kick right now), Halftime (a self-help book about midlife crisis—don’t ask), a military history for work, and a devotional by Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner, I’m told). Lacking any profound thoughts of my own on this Labor Day weekend, I’ll share with you the passage for today from Buechner’s book:

To Suffer in Love (September 7)

What man and woman, if they gave serious thought to what having children inevitably involves, would ever have them? Yet what man and woman, once having had them and loved them, would ever want it otherwise? Because side by side with the Buddha’s truth is the Gospel truth that “he who does not love remains in death.” If by some magic you could eliminate the pain you are caused by the pain of someone you love, I for one cannot imagine working such magic because the pain is so much a part of the love that the love would be vastly diminished, unrecognizable, without it. To suffer in love for another’s suffering is to live life not only at its fullest but at its holiest. “One mustn’t have human affections—or rather one must love every soul as if it were one’s own child,” The whiskey priest thinks to himself as he says good-bye for the last time to his own daughter in Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. (Listening to Your Life, 239).

Friday, September 4, 2009

When God Tells You to Sin

What do you do when God tells you to sin? Sounds contradictory, even heretical, doesn’t it? It’s a difficult if not impossible question for those of us who believe the Bible to be a product of divine inspiration, not merely a record of human experiences with God. Acts 10 records a vision in which God tells the Apostle Peter to do something he’s never done and always believed was wrong:

On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. (Acts 10:9-16)

What God asked Peter to do clearly violated biblical dietary laws. It’s too easy to say the vision was a metaphor or a parable about racism, while that is certainly true too. The symbolism wouldn’t work well if the literal meaning were false. That is, if God intended Peter to keep kosher after the vision, never eating any unclean animals, it would have been much harder for him to “get” the importance of accepting unclean people like the gentile Cornelius. (The vision prepared Peter to go and preach the gospel to Cornelius and his house.)

Reformed theologians sort Old Testament laws into three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Only the moral laws are still valid in New Testament times they say. This solution is as elegant as it is contrived. Nowhere do we find this classification system in the Bible, and Jews have always believed that keeping ritualistic laws was their moral and spiritual duty.

It also doesn’t help to plead for a special case. Peter was an apostle, who lived when the Bible was still being written. True. But even if we don’t claim any kind of special revelation for ourselves, we’re still left wondering whether God changes or contradicts himself. No one wants a fickle, schizophrenic god, but I think we sometimes put God in a biblical box that’s too small to contain him.

The passage above illustrates a difficult religious conundrum. What do we do when there is a conflict between religious authorities? How do we prioritize them? Does a vision from God trump the Bible or vice versa? I was taught to go with scripture over any kind of subjective experience. That was Peter’s approach: “Not so, Lord!” But the Bible seems to undermine its own authority in this passage, putting a mystical experience over holy writ.

I’ve been thinking about this passage for two weeks now, and I’m still wrestling with it. Once I think I’ve got it figured out, I’m moving on to the story about when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac!