23 April, 2014
I finally sat down with some friends last night to watch some award-winning downers. We settled in for a double feature of “12 Years a Slave” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” I had wanted to see both in theaters, but against the field of amazing choices this year, they ended up in the “I’ll catch it on DVD” category. Don’t get me wrong, both films were excellent. I was moved by both stories, and could easily write on the major themes and cultural significance of both; I probably will at some point. But what stuck with me on the ride home, the scene I kept turning over in my mind until I fell asleep, is what I’d like to get into here. Some people might feel the need to warn of exposed plot points, but “12 Years a Slave” has been out for seven months and its source material has been out for 161 years, so, you know…deal with it.
When Solomon Northup returns to his family after having been kidnapped and sold into slavery despite his freed status, what unravels is one of the best and most complicated scenes I’ve ever watched. Standing before his wife, hair graying as his own, and his children, standing tall and grown, his daughter now married and her husband standing with their new child in his arms, Solomon apologizes. He apologizes. “I apologize,” he stammers, “for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.” As his family embraces him, he weeps and whispers to his wife “Forgive me.” Anne comforts him, holds him, tells him “There’s nothing to forgive.” And, from an outsider’s view, she’s right. He was a victim of an evil system, of a great injustice to him personally and to an entire race of people. The law did not serve him, humanity failed him, and he was forced into circumstances and actions which rendered impotent his morals and choices. He did the best he could in an effort to survive in hopes that he might live. He says as much in the film. So there really is nothing to forgive, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not how guilt and forgiveness work. Guilt is messy and irrational. While we may wish to comfort Solomon with those same words, “there’s nothing to forgive,” that’s just not the case. Solomon has a lot of forgiving to do when the scene fades to black and the credits roll. Solomon has to forgive himself. I had an interesting conversation with Logan recently about cycles of guilt, how guilt perpetuates guilt based on nothing even if the original guilt was based on something. Solomon will have a lot of guilt, and while his family and friends may never believe he needs forgiving, he’ll crave an unspeakable amount of grace. He’ll feel guilt for surviving when so many others did not, he’ll feel guilt for missing the growth of his family, for being an absent (however unwilling) husband and father, for the moral callouses he had to develop in order to survive, for not doing more when those moral callouses were not enough. He will feel guilt. He’s human. The film goes to great length to show us that Solomon is a good person, and good people do not take their failings lightly. Solomon will need to be forgiven, but not by anyone else. Solomon will have to learn the painful process of extending grace to himself and accepting it often.
In one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the movie, Solomon is forced by his cruel master, Edwin Epps, to whip Patsey, a fellow slave and, until this scene where she visited a neighbor to borrow a lump of soap, Epps’ chosen mistress. Epps believes Patsey has visited the neighboring plantation to sleep with the master there, yet he is too cowardly to whip Patsey himself. Because Solomon is nearby, and because he has defended Patsey and himself from the master’s rage in the past, Epps delegates the task. Solomon begins by whipping as half-heartedly as he can, trying to save the stripped-and-tied Patsey as much pain and anguish as possible. But Mrs. Epps, driven by her jealousy for her husband’s favor for Patsey, demands the brutality increase. Mr. Epps forces Solomon to whip harder by threatening him with his gun, promising his death and the deaths of any other slave in sight. Solomon whips. He rends flesh and sprays blood. He refuses to continue after a few moments, then curses Epps as Epps continues to whip, harder and harder. As Patsey lies on a table afterward, her ragged back being gingerly cleaned by other slaves, her eyes meet Solomon’s. What lies in his is guilt. Guilt for what he had done, and for what he had not done. We know that his mind is traveling back to the dark and hushed night months before when Patsey came to him and tried to pay him with a stolen ring for the courtesy of her death. Solomon rejected her request that he drown her and bury her to save her from her life. Solomon refused, and this was the result. This is added to the bedrock of guilt and shame, undeserved but festering and growing nonetheless.
We destroy ourselves with guilt. When Solomon is first sold along with a young mother named Eliza, her family is divided and she spends her time weeping and crying out for her lost children. Eventually, Solomon barks at her to "Stop! Stop your wailing!" and she chides him for his own lack of mourning, for his kowtowing to their master who, while benevolent, is still a slaver unwilling to correct the injustice done to Solomon. He rages toward her, grabbing her and spitting “My back is thick with scars for protesting my freedom. Do not accuse me.” She replies through tears, “I accuse you of nothing. I cannot accuse. I have done dishonorable things to survive and for all of them I have ended up here; no better than if I had stood up for myself. God forgive me.” This is the guilt that haunts Eliza, and it seems certain that Solomon will feel its sting, too. Solomon will need to grant himself grace if he truly wants to find the path beyond survival to living. We will not understand that grace, and he might never understand it or experience it fully. But it will have to apply, it will have to be freely given and freely taken from self to self every day. As the epilogue informs us, Solomon went on to fight his personal injustice in the courts, and the systemic injustice of slavery by aiding abolitionist efforts such as the Underground Railroad. These are markers on his path to self-healing. When we push to understand our sorrow, our sources of pain, we are working toward our atonement. The fact that no one of us would ever think of Solomon as needing atonement doesn’t matter. He needed it for himself, and we need it for ourselves. Seeking to resolve our brokenness through self-forgiveness, daily acceptance of grace, and the physical rejection of our despair through acts of love make up the long road, countless years long, to getting it.
9 April, 2014
"My father painted like Cézanne and understood the southern French landscape the way Cézanne did. His vision of the world was sane, full of balance, full of veneration for structure, for the relations of masses and for all the circumstances that impress an individual identity on each created thing. His vision was religious and clean, and therefore his paintings were without decoration or superfluous comment, since a religious man respects the power of God’s creation to bear witness for itself. My father was a very good artist."1 — Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton is a theological ninja, able to slip in undetected and drop an amazing thought before anyone realizes he’s done it. It’s what makes him both profound and fun to read. I mean, just read the quote again. See?
The idea that creation bears its own witness is critical for the religious-minded artist. At least, it should be. It would be easy for me to tear apart “Christian” art with this one idea/weapon. I won’t speak for other religions here (you shouldn’t do that anyway, generally), but I have enough life lived in the Christian experience to say that it’s fraught with the desire to dress up what need not be, to create art that explains, rationalizes, and demystifies the divine life. Unfortunately, that’s unnecessary at best and spiritually harmful at worst.
People want to make things which reflect their experiences in the world; that’s what art is. In the process of shaping, molding, and recreating our encounter with the created, it’s easy to get lost in the desire to pile on too much. We want to show others what we see, to drive them deep into the heart of what is or was meaningful to us. Merton is asking us to step back, to pause and let what is powerfully and beautifully created speak for itself. This doesn’t mean we can’t try to represent it in our own way. Rather, seeking to be a good artist, especially one with an eye towards the divine, means letting what is true hover as close to the surface of our work as possible. Quit covering up beautiful stuff, dammit.
When we equate being a good artist with “respecting the power of God’s creation to bear witness for itself” as Merton does, we’re giving ourselves a wonderful cosmology in which God infuses all that is, in which God is Being itself2, calling the created world in such a way as to drive our participation in it. This is why trying to separate Christian art from the rest gets murky; it can all be Christian if it allows the Word an opportunity to speak clearly. It can all be religious. It can all be an expression of our being in the world, our belonging to Being (though just because it can doesn’t mean it will). If it’s good art, it’ll tell us something true, something about what it means to be alive and engaged with a created world in which all things are becoming. And if it’s really good art, it’ll bear witness.
2 April, 2014
Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, philosopher, and poet. Sagan spearheaded a project to affix a golden phonograph record to the Voyager I and II spacecraft.
The craft were launched in 1977 to study the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn. This primary mission was complete three years after launch, but to this day they continue to transmit and receive instructions from scientists on Earth.
Sagan and a committee of his associates selected the contents of the records carried into interstellar space by Voyager I and II. The disks record, to the best of our ability, the breadth and depth of human experience, art, culture, environment, and emotion. The records contain 115 images, sounds of surf, wind, birds, thunder, and waves, music across time and cultures, and the audio recordings of fifty-five spoken languages. In the event the Voyager spacecraft encounter extraterrestrial beings – or perhaps far-future humans – the disks stand as a record of those who launched the craft into space.
This may be a foolish project. That the craft would cross the heliopause out of the solar system and into the interstellar medium was not a foregone conclusion. Until recently, there was debate as to whether an object could cross the turbulence created by solar winds and interstellar winds colliding.
Thanks to Voyager I, we know it is possible. But that we know the position and course of the craft at all is thanks to a mixture of luck or providence, and a major helping of engineering skill. Voyager I remains functional long after its intended use. Its primary mission ended thirty-four years ago. Though its extended mission has expanded greatly the limits of human knowledge of the solar system and beyond, in time Voyager I and II will be lost to us.
However, thankfully, Carl Sagan’s gold records will remain as a testament to our hope that we may speak collectively to the stars or, perhaps, to ourselves.
I had a dream last night in which all of my favorite people from Vanderbilt, including professors, met in Barcelona. We were in Barcelona for one night for a long dinner. This dream was not in color but the table was lit by the warm glow of candlelight. Somehow everyone fit around one table and even though it was very large everyone could participate in a single conversation. My friend’s faces were radiant, happy, loving. We ate and drank and laughed. We talked about theology and art and life and I woke up crying.
Mark and I put up our posts, tweet about them, retweet each other, and paste links on Facebook. Then we check Google Analytics and: 13 unique views. Oh, great.
We look at our work and say to each other, “this is pretty decent stuff, wish more people would read it.” Now and then we get a few more readers, and that’s generally when someone with a big network posts a link. That’s great. Feels good. But then it isn’t the work itself that’s getting attention; what’s operating is the intimacy people feel for some guy on Facebook.
A question I should probably ask: is the work good? I think so. Mark thinks so. People I respect tell me they enjoy reading the Beard. But these people are often also a close friend. They bring to their reading a fondness the writing may or may not deserve. Or they’re my mom. So I don’t trust it.
I’m pretty confident our subject matter is the problem. I often think, blogging screeds about phones or politics or how to hack your toothbrush to record calories burned while watching Netflix or whatever would be a lot easier. Instead our focus is often ourselves, and the self as a lens through which to view the world. I can’t speak for Mark but if you knew how often the genesis of a post was me thinking, “that’s bullshit,” I would be pretty embarrassed.1 Other times a post is focused on a very particular facet of a little known theological tradition and a broad audience is out of the question.2 Of course this is to be expected given the education Mark and I share. But then a bit ago I was writing about poor people and the bible, which I thought might get some clicks. But how many people care about poor people? Hardly any, in my experience.
I’m not apologizing. I tell myself the work itself is worth doing, even without an audience. And I can almost believe that. I do think our subjects are worth thinking and writing and reading about. I think more people should think and write and read about them. I think fewer pixels should be lit on the subjects of new phones and hacking your stupid life as if the blessed miracle of human being and becoming is some gadget.
If I’m so convinced the posts we write should have more eyeballs on them, maybe I should become an absolutely shameless huckster. Who cares if the Facebook guy’s followers never take a look at the byline? Just get some eyeballs on it! But I am unwilling or unable to dance that jig. The work ought to stand on its own merits, oughtn’t it? Unless there’s no one to judge its merits. Then it just stands there.