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Filtering by Category: Cultural Trends

Why Leisure Matters - Part 2 of 2

Joy and Matthew Steem

canoeing-1081890_1920Read Part 1

For Josef Pieper, leisure is certainly connected to the older Platonic and Aristotelian concept of leisure as contemplation; however, it’s more than just that. For him, in the classical sense, leisure was something tied to the liberal arts: human activities that are separate from the servile works (those works that have a utilitarian purpose) and which have an end beyond themselves—a practicable, utilitarian result.

But leisure is not merely contemplation. Pieper calls it "a mental and spiritual attitude" and "a condition of the soul” that goes against the "exclusive ideal of work as activity.” Instead, this attitude is one “of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being busy but letting things happen."

It is possible that some may read Pieper’s views and wonder if he considers work ethic alone as a bit … shallow. Is he saying that leisure ameliorates a working life?

No indeed. Yes, Pieper believes leisure can restore a person’s mental, physical, and even psychical state, but its impact is far greater than that. He goes so far as to call leisure “the power of stepping beyond the workaday world, and in so doing touching upon the superhuman life-giving powers which, incidentally almost, renew and quicken us for our everyday tasks.” He sees leisure as a means to opening the “gate to freedom,” where one can escape the world “where work and unemployment are the two inescapable poles of existence.’”

Many times we do not attain leisure precisely because we haven't a clue about the function of work and what humans are actually placed on earth for. It is a confusion related to issues such as materialism and consumerism.

When another excellent author, Sebastian de Grazia, was asked what his book Of Time, Work, and Leisure was about, he said his questioners laughingly had responses such as: “when you find out where to get it, let me know, because I desperately want some.”

To read Pieper is to rediscover “the point and the justification of leisure.” It is ultimately a pursuit of wholeness.

To be human is to be whole; and work alone will never make us whole. Work is but a part of our life: it contributes to our needs. However, it is never an end. Pieper tells us that if we feel that we must always be working, it may

be ultimately due to the inner impoverishment of [that] individual: in this context everyone whose life is completely filled by his work ... has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that [he] can no longer act significantly outside his work, and perhaps can no longer even conceive of such a thing.

This last part “and perhaps can no longer even conceive of such a thing,” seems to speak to many of our culture, no? How tragic. Thomas Merton, who loved silence for its stilling and centering effect, spoke against the seeming need of our society to dull our real human desire to be whole. He saw noise as an opiate.

We want noise because we are not comfortableyet we know something is amiss. You will probably recall that Pascal spoke of this a long while back: “All human unhappiness comes from not knowing how to stay quietly in a room.” Pieper speaks to the silence issue as well. He tells us “leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.”

And so back to the initial assertion about work being divine, and to repudiate it is to commit suicide. This is partly true. We are to take value in work. But this is not the ultimate conclusion of our life. We are to live, and to know why we live requires leisure.

Glorious Potentiality

Aaron Guest

By Oliver Vass - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, On the first day of 7th grade my history teacher asked us to write down a nickname she should use for us in class. Did she mean we could choose a nickname we wanted to be called by? An Aaron by any other name? I had felt so penned in by name at 12. It had already been egregiously mispronounced (“erin”) and misspelled (I possess a litany of incorrect name tags). Back then I didn’t know of any really admirable Aaron’s either — Aaron Sele, a first round pick by the Boston Red Sox, would not make his debut until I was in 8th grade. These days it’s still burdensome: The double A’s mean I get butt-dialed all the time.

If this comedy sketch had been around 24 years ago… my name and nickname would’ve been coveted by all.

Naming is not an endeavor, whether for my writing or my children or my own self, that I approach lightly. Madeline L’Engle, in Walking on Water, believes Naming to be one of the impulses behind all Art, a way to aid in the “creation of… a wholeness”. Naming is incarnational. It portends what the Caedmon’s Call lyric deems “glorious potentiality”.

I think in this way, too, Naming is an Art. And Art, considering G.K. Chesterton’s humorous and brilliant definition, is limitation: “If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature.”

When it comes to naming the characters in a story, whittling away hours searching for the correct name is a foolproof way to not end up writing the story. Ron Carlson tells about the stock names he uses when he starts any story, waiting for the drafts to reveal the name. It works like this for me. Like the focus on a camera lens, the name crystallizes when I can see the potential of the character emerge on the page.

To some extent, my wife and I did this with our three kids. We didn’t tell anyone the names until each child was in our arms. My thought then, as now, is everyone has an idea of what an Isaac or a Lucy or a Vivian should look like based on “accidental laws” surrounding an Isaac, Lucy, or Vivian they have known. Everyone has their own interpretation of “what’s in a name.”

Take a look at the controversy over the actress playing the role of Hermione in the London performance of the new Harry Potter story. This Shakespearean question of “what’s in a name?” still generates robust—and asinine, twittish: ‘but we have a certain picture from the movies!’—discussion. I am ecstatic that Hermione is being extirpated from the cold, dead hands of those who wish to cement the accidental laws of Art onto her. What will make Hermione Hermione in this new chapter of Harry Potter is that she simply “retain that dear perfection [read: potentiality] which [she] is owed.”

I had had a thing for the The Hardy Boys in seventh grade. I wanted to bask in the potentiality of the name Frank. In his “keen-ness” for details, his ability to get out of jams involving criminal syndicates (just flex your muscles and inhale when they tie the ropes around you!), his sense of adventure and justice. And so I was forever Frank to my teacher: my sister had her for class six years later and was asked how Frank was doing.

I have loved, relished, treated as sacramental, the naming of our own kids. And so when they draw homemade wands from inside the pockets they have somehow sewn into old blankets doubling as robes and they are casting spells in English accents while being chased by my father pretending to be Lord Voldemort (yes, I said his name), I notice how gloriously long their necks are.

Christ in a Corset at Comic Con

Brad Fruhauff

DSC_0006 N.B.: Follow links at your own discretion; some content may be unsuitable for work or children.

My boys were enthralled with playing Super Smash Bros. on an old Nintendo 64, so they didn’t notice the black-bearded man in the long, bleach-blond wig, white halter, cape, and white g-string pulled up over his basketball shorts (imagine a dude in this). It was my third Comic Con, so I knew to expect a range of costumes and costume quality, but this was the first where I noticed the cross-dressing cosplay they call “crossplay.”

If you go to Comic Con, you’re going to see some stuff, and it will teach you something about how you see—especially as a male. Imagine if every fifth woman you saw was squeezed into Harley Quinn spandex or Catwoman leather or some suit that projected her bared chest out for the world to admire. One needs to watch one’s thoughts.

There were impressive male costumes, too, like Captain America, Mr. Freeze, or Cardinals Iron Man. And there were playful, elaborate costumes like the Charizard with extendable wings or the 8-foot-tall, Ewok-piloted AT-ST with articulating legs, or even the girl in the BB-8 dress on white and orange roller skates—not to mention any number of winged, intubated, or grotesque characters I didn’t know.

I’m ambivalent about taking my young boys—four and seven—into these situations. Most of the time they don’t seem to notice the more unusual or “adult” costumes since they are distracted with the Pokémon and Storm Troopers. When I asked, afterward, if they’d seen anything they didn’t understand or if they had any questions, they shrugged and kept eating their graham crackers.

What would I say, anyway? I don’t quite understand a lot of cosplay, much less crossplay, despite my penchant for choosing female video-game avatars or my fondness for Spider-Woman and Wonder Woman.

Frankly, a lot of cosplay seems garish and in poor taste to me—and I’m not a big fan of camp. It doesn’t ruin my time or offend me; it’s just not what I would choose to look at, certainly not to do myself.

I get that it’s about transformation. It’s like Halloween in HD. For a brief time you get to participate in the existence of another persona, you get to alter your habitual way of being in the world, even if you don’t look great doing it.

But it really started to click for me when we passed a group of four very large women corseted up in gothic leather with plenty of ties and laces. Their hair and makeup was blue and black, their skin pale, their breasts almost obscenely bulging out of their tops, and there they were, sitting in a circle on the floor with their hot dogs and their plastic bags full of toys and comics like it was a normal thing to do.

If you clicked through any of the links above, maybe you felt that mixture of contempt for “the nerds” and envy at their dedication to their passion. It’s easy to feel superior at Comic Con, but if you are at Comic Con, then you’re the nerd in someone else’s eyes.

But I didn’t see nerds in that circle of busty, hot-dogging Goth girls. I saw regular people searching for the story that would make their reality match their inner sense of their universal significance.

That’s not vanity, that’s the imago Dei in them. Aren’t we all destined for something greater than earning a paycheck and consuming entertainment media? Whatever their errors, the “nerds” understood the importance of belonging to something greater than themselves.

Maybe heaven will look a little like Comic Con: a mass of society’s oddballs glorified in unexpected ways by grace. The challenge of being a good artist—or human—I think, means trying to see that shimmer of Heaven through the cleavages in the present.

The Sacred Harp

Rebecca Spears

26 Spears It’s the sacred harp—the voice. It’s also the eponymous title of a choral music book, first published in 1844. What’s odd about this book is that the music within it, from traditional hymns, appears in shape notes: Fa, a triangle; Sol, an oval; La, rectangle; and Mi, diamond. The book reflects a style of choral hymn singing, associated with the American South. Except now, it’s making a comeback, not only in the South, but in New England, the Midwest, and the West, as well as in Europe and Australia.

In July, two friends and I had gone to visit the Pineywoods Herb Farm in Kennard, in East Texas. Driving into Kennard, one friend called attention to a wayside sign in front of a plain, clapboard building with a wide garage: “Sacred Harp Singing, Tuesday. Covered dish supper 6 – 7 pm. Singing 7 – 8 pm.” A second sign attached to the building itself read “Kennard Auto Service.” My two friends had heard of such singing before, but didn’t really know what it was. For me, it was a complete mystery. And why was it at the Kennard Auto Service building?

As I soon discovered, monthly Sacred Harp singings take place regularly in East Texas, where the tradition has thrived for many years, although now the singings occur in all the major Texas cities, including Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. The East Texas Sacred Harp Convention (founded in 1855) is one of two of the oldest organizations in the country; the other is the Chattahoochee Musical Convention (Georgia, 1852). The singings in Kennard occur monthly in the old Kennard Auto Service building, which Jerry and Margaret Wright, bought and renovated inside as a singing venue. They decided to keep building’s original name, because people in the area know the structure by that name.

What has made Sacred Harp singings so enduring and pleasurable? Well, for one thing, the singer doesn’t need to be near-perfect or near-professional. Pitch isn’t absolute; it’s moveable to accommodate the voice of the song leader. The shape notes also help the average singer, who may not be familiar with a tune, to sight read. These singings are democratic; they’re participatory, reflective of the structure of many American Christian sects. Each part—treble, alto, tenor, and bass—is “singable” and “tuneful” by itself. The tune is often carried by the tenors, deemphasizing the melody that in traditional hymnody is carried by the highest notes (the trebles). The detail that has fired my imagination is the arrangement of the singers. Because the singings aren’t for an audience, but for the singers themselves, the four sections are seated in the hollow-square arrangement:


In this arrangement, singers often experience the power of their singing intensely. The singers take turns leading the hymns, and inside the square’s hollow is the greatest experience, participants say. All the voices, usually in harmonies of fourths and fifths, sing toward the song leader, lifting up their voices to God. The power of their singing becomes a felt experience of joyful noise. I have been listening to clips of Sacred Harp singing at,, and YouTube, and I feel drawn to it. You see, I am a failed choir member who loves to sing (I’ll tell that story another time). I believe Sacred Harp singing might just be where I fit in and I have hopes of attending a singing this fall. Stay tuned.

What To Do

Tom Sturch

1 Sturch Photo there is a place in the heart that / will never be filled / a space / and even during the / best moments / and / the greatest times / we will know it … –Charles Bukowski

There is a problem with the present moment. We all feel it, right? Something a little off? Let's look at it objectively. Let's hold it in our hands and gaz... oops. Did it slip away from you? Were you momentarily distracted? Did the weight of yesterday's to do list or the drift of waiting for your ship to come in throw you off balance? Cause you to shift your attention?

Maybe it will help if we hold the moment in some context. Consider Heraclitus' approach (in fragment 12) that the world is being rent apart and held together in the same instant. The implications are that by the time you read this next word your position in the universe will have spun, spiraled, and expanded on space-time in ways that make a sci-fi CG fabrication droll.

Consider in that little bit of time, your body (its own material the stuff of spent stars) has spawned and died, divided and specialized, coursed and throbbed under a force of life so ephemeral you only just intuit it before we're thrust in its power and desires like sudden rockets leaving parts of you stranded in an irretrievable past. And along with that moment that just got away, many more have streamed right behind it like a sea of lemmings into an empty abyss, carrying your short life with them.

Now, where were we? Oh! We're right where we left off!

Perhaps it is the product of logos (Heraclitus' word for the thing that holds it all together) to make pleasantly unfamiliar cloth of the too familiar unraveling thrum of creation. Perhaps he was bringing attention to the remarkable fact that things cast in so fierce a motion as ought to be flying apart, are not. Rather, they are secure. And, that the thin moment that seems abysmal and fleeting is the very moment we might realize that we are the stream aware, at once there and liminal, fresh and flowing, familiar and ever new in a miraculous cleaving of all things.

In music, the space where no sound is played is a called a rest. Rests fill space in the measure and are actually played. John Cage argues this point in absurdum in his composition 4'33” in which he plays four and a half minutes of rest. Another point he makes here is how hard it is for us to be quiet for even five minutes. How silence makes us uncomfortable and anxious, and how woefully unfamiliar we are with peace.

Bukowski makes no value judgments about the place in the heart. We think at first that the emptiness must be a bad thing, that the silence must be filled. But perhaps it's the place all things hold together.


Howard Schaap

16 Schaap Photo We stood at dusk among the new construction of what will be a $4 million addition to the local school. The work site was quiet, the powerful equipment left temptingly idle to men and women—the women among us seemed significantly less tempted—of our caliber, decision-makers of the school board. We felt self-satisfied, there’s no doubt, definitely influential, maybe powerful.

To make room for the project, the school had torn down the simplest of buildings, a Quonset that served as a kindergarten classroom for 45 years. The removal of that old building, itself an anachronism, had revealed the backside of the line of houses directly to the east, houses of a different ilk than the 2-, 3- and 4-car garage structures that go up around town in varying shades of olive drab.

Our eyes were drawn to one house in particular, the outbuildings of which included a garage with an impressively sagging roof, a small shed patched with various pieces of various-shaded tin, and a lean-to chicken-wire pigeon coop. The predominant white of the buildings had grayed with time, was now bluing in the twilight. Down to the color, it reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ “Pastoral”:

When I was younger it was plain to me I must make something of myself. Older now I walk back streets admiring the houses of the very poor: roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong; the fences and outhouses built of barrel staves and parts of boxes, all, if I am fortunate, smeared a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors. No one will believe this of vast import to the nation.

Someone among us brought up the word “eyesore;” I was immediately offended.

Then again, I’m offended by Williams’ title itself. “Pastoral” is a bell that startles me from my reverie. What about “the houses of the very poor” is “pastoral”? They are perhaps only pastoral as they “[please] me best of all” in my romanticized voyeurism.

So “pastoral” grates on me, makes me blush. I live in a small town that strives for—is even a sucker for—the pastoral: the corn, watered this spring by rains as regular as those of God’s own garden, stands at freakish heights for miles around, the leaves gently rustling in the evening wind as fireflies rise to intermittently light the night; then just this week, a state newspaper reveals that our lakes and rivers are among the most contaminated in the region thanks to the chemicals that push the corn to freakish heights.

Pastoral indeed.

I must confess I don’t know who lives in the house we were contemplating, whether Boo Radley or a darker figure, or what kind of life the person leads. Still, there’s no doubt the house-all-out-of-line has a kind of beauty to it, especially compared to the new construction that takes its cues from the rather narrow range of a suburban ideal. Williams’ poem, though uttering “pastoral,” is about taking beauty where we can find it, in the odds and ends and corners, in stasis rather than progress, in sustainability rather than freakish corn. Yet with one word, “pastoral,” it pushes us perhaps most of all to self-reflection on our own idylls.

We’ll soon have a new school building and that will be good, but we lost a homely little hutch where for generations six-year-olds held hands, sang songs, painted with their fingers, and sat in the lap of their teacher while she told stories. That may be a net loss. Or this, too, may be a “pastoral.”

No one will think this of vast import to the nation.


Paul Luikart

Highlights of entries to the Hubble Pop Culture competition. When I was a kid, I loved the movie Krull. My buddy Phil and I used to watch it at his house because he taped it off HBO. If you don’t know Krull, it’s an early 80’s sci-fantasy movie. The planet Krull is invaded by these evil aliens. There’s a big quest involving the main guy who has a weapon called the Glaive, which is this magical spinning blade that basically has a mind of its own. But it’s loyal to the main guy. Like, he can recall it to his hand after he throws it. It looks like a beautiful, golden ninja star but functions like a deadly, sentient boomerang. Anyway, the aliens kidnap the main guy's girl and he has to go save her and save the planet too. There is a cyclops and some wizards and quicksand and needless to say, as soon as we got Netflix, I made my wife watch Krull with me. But when it was over I thought, “What a piece of s***."

Krull didn't age well. I'm thankful that Hollywood hasn't rebooted it. God knows when that will happen, but it probably will. It'll be hipper, sleeker, sexier, and louder, but it will still suck. Some other absolutely unnecessary contributions to American pop culture that have been said and done (we assumed) in decades past but—flash forward to now—here they are again for some reason: A Jem movie (yep, that's comin'.) The reformation of New Kids on the Block (They hadn't been mercilessly ridiculed enough the first go-round?) Dancing with the Stars (an orgy, after-all, of has-beens whom we started tuning in to see because, "Oh, THAT'S what Urkel looks like now!")

We Americans must like to eat ourselves. We must like the taste of our own blood on our tongues. We must like the feel of our own skin wedged between our teeth. We must like the smell of our own muscle roasting in the oven. But we're plastic. Parts of us are indigestible. So we regurgitate them and cook them again, hoping for a more nuanced flavor (at least a palatability that wasn't there the first time) but not finding it once again, we choke them up, this time more desperately. We eat ourselves again and we gag on the rotten taste. But we eat ourselves like there is no other food. We're starving for ourselves.

Nostalgia is okay. It's okay for me to go into my parent's basement every now and then and look at my Star Wars toys. It's okay (mostly) that sometimes I watch clips of He-Man on YouTube. Once I even Wikipedia-ed the Go-Bots. But American pop culture is way beyond nostalgia and, truthfully, has been for a long time. I have no empirical evidence for what I'm about to say (call it a hunch), but I'm certain we cannibalize our pop culture past because we can't face our present reality. American collective sins, the indigestible parts of us—and I mean as far back as slavery all the way up to the way we worship billionaires now—are profoundly wicked. We know it. But we're still too proud to say, as one nation under God, "Forgive us."

Look, if a friend of mine called me up and said, "Come over and let's watch Krull," I'd say, "Cool, I'll bring the beer." Because, honestly, you'd need a lot of beer to make it through. We'd laugh and shout, "Oh yeah, THIS PART!" from time to time and maybe make up a drinking game where we drink every time there are terrible special effects (and we'd be passed out in fifteen minutes.) But also because I myself am an American. I'd rather chew my own bones than honestly face the ways I've done wrong.

They Deserted Us Here

Abby Jarvis

42 This one’s a little long. But it’s important.

Christian academics are supposed to engage the culture around us. We’re supposed to interact with music, art, literature, film, and philosophy. We’re supposed to pick things up, examine them, take them apart and reassemble them, and understand how and why they work.

But we often neglect an art form that’s incredibly significant in today’s society. It’s a music form, actually, and it is the music form that I think has been the most important musical movement in the last 50 years or so.

I’m talking about hip-hop.

Hip-hop sprang up New York City, mostly in the Bronx, in the 70s and 80s. It began as a social movement as much as a music style (and lifestyle), and it was, until recently, unique to the African-American community. It quickly became a social movement, a powerful way to comment on American culture and the black community’s place within it.

Much rap music, now commercialized and manufactured to appeal to mass audiences, retains only a shade of the social commentary prevalent in the rap of the 70s and 80s. But the spirit prevails in many artists, and they’re producing very important albums. For decades, prominent and underground rappers alike have presented scathing commentaries on current events and culture, describing the black community, and building a culture that sprang entirely from their communal experiences.

The music form is relatively young, but it’s increasingly relevant. It’s especially important in 2015 after incidents like the Mike Brown shooting, Eric Garner’s murder in NYC, and the prominence of important conversations about race in contemporary America.

Hip-hop is unique in that offers the brutally honest, open, and frank insights into a huge part of American society. No other music style is doing that right now (or at least not as prominently). Countless tracks offer a blistering take on everything from the American prison system and the disproportionate number of black men who are incarcerated and have at least one count against them because of their race and culture, like this verse from rap duo Run The Jewels:

Conditions create a villain, the villain is given vision The vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious… I’m a fellow with melanin, suspect of a felony, Ripped like Rakim Allah, feds is checkin’ my melody (from “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” by Run The Jewels)

To poverty, violence, and being abandoned by the rest of society:

They merking kids, they murder kids here Why you think they don't talk about it? They deserted us here... Down here it's easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot No love for the opposition, specifically a cop position, Cause they've never been in our position Getting violations for the nation correlating you dry snitching (from “Pusha Man” by Chance The Rapper)

To government corruption and institutionalized racism:

Poor reparations, the Bush administration Unequality, martial law, segregation False hood, false teaching, false education Now's the time for us to come amongst this nation They deceiving us, they don't believe in us… For all my people that's out there persevering through the storm Black fist, Staten Island, stand up, stand strong Penetrate through the gate and bring the Clan along (from “A Better Tomorrow” by Wu-Tang Clan)

I can’t speak to the experiences in these songs. I’m not from their world. But I can tell you that there is a raw anger, a despair, and a defiance in these songs that is very, very culturally important. These songs present deep, wide, urgent problems in an important part of our society. And people are writing off the messages in these songs because they don’t take the art form seriously.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t like hip-hop. I don’t care if you don’t like the artists’ tones, or agree with their sentiments, or disapprove of their ideas. I do care about people starting to listen to this music and understand the people who make it.

It’s important. It is important. It is important.

Are you listening?

What Good Stories Compel Us Toward

Ross Gale

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom It’s true that America’s favorite podcast is over—of course I mean Serial and its twelve episodes exploring the nature of truth and reasonable doubt—but the story is still happening. It’s actually just begun, thanks to Sarah Koenig’s investigative reporting and scrupulous storytelling. The case for Adnan Syed’s innocence is … well, pending. If nothing else the State of Maryland’s case against Mr. Syed was shown as fragile at best and ludicrous at worst. DNA evidence was never tested, other witness testimony ignored, and, while never explicitly mentioned, the whole justice system stinks of corruption. (Why is it the only people who adamantly stand by the case are all white men involved in the prosecution? We’re looking at you, Kevin Urick.)

This is what Serial has done. One friend of mine posted on Facebook after episode ten asking if anyone would meet him at a coffee ship to talk about the episode. I even begged my friends and family to catch up so we could swap theories and tell each other, honestly, what we thought about Adnan’s innocence. One Reddit user even uncovered a possible lead for Adnan’s case, another possible suspect not on anyone’s radar. This is in addition to the other serial rapist and murderer whom the Innocence Project is testing the DNA evidence against.

Twelve episodes have done this, galvanized listeners and lawyers alike. Just by laying out the story, presenting facts, poking holes in weak arguments, getting up close and personal with a convicted murderer, wading through murky waters of truth and lies and opposing narratives and timelines, and judging human character.

It’s rare when a story is so compelling that friends need someone, anyone, to discuss it with them in person, over coffee. Yet here we are, fascinated and flummoxed, crying out for what good stories compel us toward: justice.

Good and Evil and Video Games

Abby Jarvis

Binding of IsaacI’ve never been a video game person. My parents—whether by design or by chance, I can’t say—never had gaming consoles in the house. Being able to play a video game is not something one easily picks up past a certain age. I’ve always been content to watch other people play. That all changed a few weeks ago when my boyfriend set up his PlayStation 4 in my living room and downloaded a free game. It’s called “The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth,” and it’s got all the components that would appeal to an uninitiated video game player—color graphics, basic gameplay, and hundreds of power-ups and bosses to keep you interested. I started playing one day on a whim and was immediately hooked. Not until a few weeks later did I really start to think about the premise of the game I’d been playing. In the story, a mother hears God tell her to sacrifice her son to save him from his impurity. The son, Isaac, overhears her consenting to kill him, and escapes down a trapdoor in his bedroom just in the nick of time. He finds himself in a labyrinth of basements, cellars, caves, and dungeons, fighting monsters and big bosses before moving to another level.

What’s really interesting about the game is the religious symbolism that permeates every aspect of the game. Aside from the fact that Isaac finds himself the object of his mother’s religious delusion, he uses tools like the Necronomicon, a goat’s head, rosary beads, the Bible, and other religiously-charged objects to gain power. As you approach the end of the game, your character is become virtually unrecognizable—different power-ups change your appearance. My most recent game found me transformed into a horned demon, weeping tears of blood followed by an entourage of familiars—mummified babies, floating heads made of tar, a swarm of spiders. Eventually, players fight their mothers and their mothers’ hearts, ascending either to a cathedral or descending to Sheol. In Sheol, players fight the devil; in the cathedral, they fight themselves. It’s a striking image—you start in the dungeons as a scared, weeping child, become transformed into a grotesque character disfigured by deals with the devil and the gruesome powers you need to survive. Your grim, newfound self fights your angelic past self in a cathedral, complete with monks chanting in the background. Or, instead, you fight Satan himself before going on to meet other bosses like The Lamb, a hellish creature with horns and fangs.

What I can’t decide about the game is what it says about the culture that produced it. Steven E. Jones, a professor of English at Loyola University in Chicago, says, “Video games are the most quintessential social texts of our present cultural moment,” and I tend to agree with him. But what does that mean? If one assumes that art reflects the culture that prompted it (which it does), and one accepts video games as an art form (which they are), The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth must have something to say about the perception of religion at least in one predominant part of society. But what?

There are myriad possibilities, but I’ve fixated on two thoughts. I’m struck by the fact that both Christ-figures and demonic figures are both antagonists—there is no concept of good and evil, only the concept of survival, despite interference from spiritual influences. One is just as easily killed by angels or the (admittedly demonic-looking) Lamb as they are to be killed by Satan or his legions of monsters. Tools like The Bible, Bible Tracts, and rosary beads are just as useful as Necronomicons, severed paws of animals, and pentagrams. What does it mean that the game designer conflates traditional symbols of good and evil in such a way that they’re both equally antagonistic? I don’t know.

Even more striking to me is the juxtaposition of muddled, ambiguous religious references with the style of the game. The game’s graphics recall the same bright, basic shapes and simple graphics today’s gaming community associates with nostalgic favorites like the early Zelda games. It’s decidedly unnerving, sometimes, to see such heavy-handed symbolism combined with decidedly nostalgic graphics. What does it mean?

Today’s art community struggles with the significance of video games as an art form. Peoples’ opinions seem to be split on a generational basis; most of my friends (and most academics!) don’t think twice about saying that games are an art form. Asking three ladies not of my generation the same question sparked almost-instantaneous exclamations of “Oh! No, of course not.” But, try as you might to deny it, video games—whether they be games with simple graphics like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth or beautifully-rendered social commentaries like Bioshock and its sequels—make intriguing and often uncomfortable commentary on today’s cultural and social climates.

I will never be good at video games. I am 27 years old, and it’s too late for me. But I am excited and intrigued by the video game world and the ever-blurring lines between video games and the arts community. I look forward to other games like The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and what they’ll make me wonder about the world and the leading zeitgeists of our society. And I look forward, too, to the day we all agree that video games are a significant part of our culture, even if they make us uncomfortable.

A (Wo)Man of Infinite Jest

Chrysta Brown

phone flash_john-stanmeyer My friend and I are in one of those ironic restaurants where everyone wears dark-rimmed, nonprescription eyeglasses and the sommelier fills wine goblets to the rim. On our table is a steak served on thin, waxy cardboard accompanied by a fork and casually tossed chef’s knife; two sweet potatoes snuggled in a brown paper bag; a china bowl filled with an unidentified cream sauce; and a pile of rock salt that the waiter threw onto the table before strutting away to the beat of the techno remix that accompanies our meal.

“I don’t have any silverware,” I whisper to my friend. “I don’t know what to do here.”

He laughs, tears the bag open, and breaks off a corner chunk of the sweet potato. He dips it in salt, then the sauce, and hands it to me. “Eat it.” I replay lessons on dinner table etiquette as I comply.

“Good?” he asks. Warm, smokey-sweet sensations soothe my social anxieties. I’m in Israel with one of my favorite people eating one of my favorite foods. I am happy. I nod and enjoy another bite.

“I should Facebook this,” I think, but that timely process will take me away from what I really want to do, which in this case is eat. On the other hand, a part of me wants to let everyone know that while they were waiting for delivery, I was eating something that was probably a descendant of a sweet potato Jesus ate.

Sometimes my Facebook is this self-controlled paparazzi that transforms every detail, every opinion, every meal of my life into the news the people need, and I wanted those people to feel the twinge of self-loathing that comes with reading statuses like “I am doing amazing things with my life, have just been named ‘Most Amazing Person in the World,’ and had kale for breakfast. #humbledbyhowamazingiam” I realize how that sounds, but before you judge me, consider that the Ten Commandments condemn jealousy, and not gloating.

In Infinite Jest—which I might be mentioning so you’ll be impressed that I’ve read it—David Foster Wallace’s character confesses a similar obsession with fame to his teacher. “You burn for a hunger that does not exist,” his teacher warns. “To be envied and admired is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are more enjoyable than the feelings associated with the envy of fame…Do not believe the photographs.” Photographs convince us that if something happens in a forest and no one liked it online, it didn’t happen, that the value of our experiences can be judged by likes and retweets, and that food never gets cold. However, no evidence proves that internet recognition changes the taste of a sweet potato, the way the sunset dances with the surface of the water, or the comforting company of a friend. The world was created without any thought to and without ever receiving a hashtag, and it was called good.

Just outside the restaurant, my friend and I prepare to wander the streets of Tel Aviv. “So did you like it?” He reaches out and takes the hand that would have held my phone if I could have found it in the black hole that is my purse.

“Yeah,” I answer.

“Me too.”

I smile with the feeling of this single, physical like far exceeding all the virtual likes in the world.

What is a festival?

Joy and Matthew Steem

picCookXmasLites131212wAdamsDorchester_0083w Cold is cold: the undersized parsnip-like fingers and toes of children offer no more resistance to Jack Frost’s ravages than anybody else’s. But still, there is something to the burning cold ears of winter days that makes Christmas special. Indeed, it was usually during those particularly nasty December nights that my folks would decide to go for a family stroll through the highly celebrated, candy-cane decorated, light bejeweled, oversized Charlie Brown blow-ups neighborhood of the city. The dazzling lights, sights and sounds distracted me from the sting of ice’s tongued lashes at my triple-sock layered toes. Singing Santas, dancing reindeer, plump penguins and jolly gingerbread people cookies abounded from yard to yard, all proclaiming “‘tis the season to be merry.”

Except one.

Near the end of the block was an acetic yard that boasted one solitary green flood light, casting a Spartan hue on a drab and droll snowman cut-out: “Keep Christ in Christmas,” it read in faded and boring black block print.

It was in front of that house in particular where I would be reminded of the gelid condition of my nose and toes. Fingers clinched inside my stinky little second-hand gloves, toes futilely furled inside too-big boots, and frozen bits of snot clinging around my chaffed nostrils, I never understood that snowman or his sign; it seemed he was trying to keep more out of Christmas than in it. He reminded me of the physical cold that all the other yards temporarily charmed me out of thinking about. Rather than seeing a protest to consumerism, I saw that snowman as a stolid, legalistic killjoy. I saw no invitation to a deeper, fuller and longer lasting refuge from the cold, whatever form it would take throughout my life. I never knocked on those peoples’ door and I most likely mistook their intentions, but I wonder how many other folks may have mistaken their intentions, too? What exactly were their intentions; I suspect maybe even they didn’t fully know.

Josef Pieper, the highly celebrated German Catholic philosopher of the 20th century, has much to say about our approach to festivals like Christmas. If I understand Pieper correctly, there is little room for a life of pure asceticism if Christ is our centre. For the believer, a festival is time taken off in celebration of something compellingly extraordinary and transcendent. Festival then, is not merely a time of vacating or ceasing from the daily tasks of utility; it is not just relief from labour meant to restore and reinvigorate us back to our employment; it is not a time to preoccupy ourselves out of true contemplation by giving ourselves to the consumptive force of consumerism; it is none of these things. Instead, we celebrate the festival of Christmas because the incarnation is the ultimate contrast to the cold of the world. On the metaphorical block of Christmas bedecked yards, ours is the most inviting one. Not because it is the most charming, but because it is the most lasting and real. It is the gloriously warm reminder that our meaning does not come from our ability to acquire things; it comes from the acknowledgement there is something intrinsically good about our God-breathed life. We have festivals because we have something to celebrate. So my prayer this season? That amidst the cold, our hearts will find the warmth of true festival that Pieper invites us to celebrate.

For more information on Pieper’s idea of festivity, a good place to start is In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity.

Founding Mythologies

Howard Schaap

Uniquely Minnesota A place isn’t a place until you tell stories about it, says Wallace Stegner in “The Sense of Place.” In fact, Stegner says, “[N]o place is a place until it has had a poet.” He has Yeats in mind, who claimed about Ireland that “there is no river or mountain that is not associated in the memory with some event or legend.” Stegner goes on to worry about the American “mythless man” who “lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth.”

As an undergrad, I had the pleasure of visiting Yeats’ County Sligo. I can hardly imagine a more Romantic place for an aspiring writer to visit. Even the names of the places—Glencar, Thoor Ballylee, Coole Park—were bewitching. Reading “Under Ben Bulben” while looking up at Ben Bulben, I knew what kind of writing I wanted to do, and I knew what my Ben Bulben was: Blue Mounds.

The first piece of writing I ever published was about a regional landmark called Blue Mounds, a place where the rolling prairie swelled into a bluff and caught my imagination. Once caught, I followed the imaginative trail to local species, specifically big bluestem, the prairie grass that gave Blue Mounds its hue. From there, the path led to the novelist Fredrick Manfred, who lived and wrote on the mound, and then to history: I mistook the cliffs at Blue Mounds for a buffalo jump, which they were not, but that imaginative mistake landed me squarely in Native America and in myth.

Arguably, the founding myth of the place originates not from Blue Mounds but from just up the road at Pipestone, Minnesota, and the National Parks site that protects the red stone used to make the pipe sacred to tribal people. Among the founding legends of that place are these: White Buffalo Calf Woman gave the sacred pipe to the Lakota, an act of special revelation; the stone found at Pipestone is the blood of Lakota ancestors who perished in a great flood caused by the water monster, Unktehi.

If Yeats and Stegner are right—and I think they are—and literary art should be tethered to specific places and myths, then we writers in an American context have some work to do. Not only do we have to learn and understand the myths of the places where we live, but we also must handle them with care: the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman is not my story and I cannot appropriate it without doing continued violence to a people group who continues to be underrepresented.

But the call for writers to know our places remains, despite the dangers. Writers going back to at least Washington Irving, who imported European myths, have most often looked past the mythology of the American continent. Even Stegner notes how Americans have been “[p]lunging into a future through a landscape that had no history.” It does have a history—and a mythology—and it’s one we must get to know to do justice to the places we live.

Darkness Rather than Light

Jean Hoefling

2043093 It has always seemed strange to me . . . the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egoism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.John Steinbeck

What epitomizes the essence of Steinbeck’s ruminations better than the highly successful Netflix TV show House of Cards, a statement on the ruthless spirit of Washington politics (real or somewhat imagined) that even a sophisticated reviewer for the New York Times admits “may be the most joyless show on television.” Nevertheless, I hear it everywhere: emotional downer shows that cash in on human evil are “actually quite literary,” and this type of “finally, something intelligent on television” programming spells the Salvation of Western Civilization.

While admitting the show is joyless, the Times reviewer still considers this drama series “exhilarating and binge-worthy.” She’s right; looking voyeuristically into other people’s soul sickness is a rush, and addictive because we unconsciously recognize it in ourselves. The spirit behind the Machiavellian Frank Underwood and his grim, shifty-eyed ilk appeals to the Black Plague germs lurking in us all, our love of darkness rather than light (John 3:19). Steinbeck needn’t have been surprised by this human tendency.

What’s actually surprising is that we don’t work harder to fill our eyes and ears with kind and wholesome images, stuff that even science has proven beneficial psychologically and physiologically. In an article in Psychology Today, “Elation: The Amazing Effect of Witnessing Acts of Kindness,” “witnessing altruistic acts can be a source of what Abraham Maslow called ‘peak experiences,’ “a warm feeling in the chest, a sensation of expansion in [the] heart . . . increased sense of connection with others . . . a manifestation of humanity’s ‘higher’ or ‘better’ nature.” And to think goodness isn’t cool in our world.

Question for self: Without being overly didactic about it, wouldn’t it be better for my soul, if I must view monsters, just to dial into old episodes of The Munsters instead of keeping company with the monsters in House of Cards?

Ponderings. . . on Verbicide

Joy and Matthew Steem

shadow-art-silhouette-art-kumi-yamashita-4 Can you do me this favor right now and imagine in your mind’s eye an altar. OK. Now put the following title “Progress” on that handsome altar. (No doubt you are chuckling right now, but work with me.) OK, we probably would agree that such a thing is not just connected with a strict religious connotation, right? Altars are used for sacrifice, and that is not always bad. Parents sacrifice time for their children. Couple’s sacrifice their earlier freedoms for—hopefully—the bliss of togetherness. Respectable citizens sacrifice their money for good charity. Forward thinking students sacrifice some frivolities for future degrees, etc., etc. We generally sacrifice something for a reason, and that's good.

Of course, while some sacrifice can also be offered out of good intentions, it can also have lamentable consequences. We make a sacrifice for a perceived good and then it turns out later to make things worse. We have sacrificed our environment for the sake of convenience, our health for the sake of a quick meal, and our leisure for the sake of cheap utilitarianism.

What about words though? And what of that altar of sacrifice? Let’s take another thought test: think of the following words “pure,” “chaste,” “modest,” and “virginal,” (I cringe whilst typing!) and then imagine employing them in an everyday conversation. Better yet, try to remember any modern day movie or play or novel you have heard them in.

Maybe it’s just me—though I don't think so!—but doesn't “purity” have a rather flaccid, weak and wimpish connotation to it? And a “chaste” individual in our time and age is a what? A nun? Probably a modest nun. As far as “virginal”? ... no one even wants to go there. Yet despite the fanciful claim that our age is still sexually repressed, why then have we sacrificed the non-sexual meanings of these words in even our spiritual settings for the most part? Part of it is that we are paranoid of gendering words, I think. (I can't help myself, but when was the last time you heard the word “maiden” used? It’s sexist right? I mean a maidenly CEO is literally an anathema. And understandably so: maidenly is not productive or efficient.) Even words like “innocent” or “wholesome” are little used. What would “innocent” look like? A reaction I have gotten when asking is “oh, probably someone really naive, or young or frigid.” When I asked if “wholesome” could be included with vibrant sexuality, I got a truly odd look; sure, organic food is wholesome, Jersey cow cream is wholesome, but, like, an actual person who partakes in “wholesome” sexuality ... and isn't Amish (AKA boring)? I can't ever see Victoria Secret coming out with a “wholesome” line of undies. I rest my case.

We all know that chaste doesn't just mean abstaining from you-know-what. It also means to be circumspect, restrained from excess, and to be free from indecency or offensiveness. As consumers, that sounds like something we need more of! (Even if nothing else than to rid ourselves of kitsch.) How about being chaste of desire? And not sexual desire either. Yet, since that word has lately been castigated to only its sexual connotation, what has modern culture lost? In his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis talked of verbicide. He mentioned that morality and immorality have been linked nearly exclusively to chastity and lechery. Yet morality includes more than just the sexual. So do words like “modest” or “chaste” or “pure.” They do, in fact, include large tracts of our life, and we will be better off if we don't sacrifice their use in our diction simply because current culture isn't comfortable with words that carry the whiff of—heavens!—temperance. And there is yet another word we could study!

These Are the Implements of Our Lives

Howard Schaap

[embed][/embed] You know the sound if you’ve heard it once. In spring, in my small-town housing development, the tree-trimmers come around to tidy up the neighborhood, to make sure it keeps that suburban feel, and the tree-chipper gets tuned to its high pitch, then grinds instantaneously down to a lower key as tree branches turn poof to mulch. It is by definition Leo Marx’s “machine in the garden”: that technological dynamo which disrupts the pastoral of our lives and forces us to a deeper complexity. But does it? Wood chipper, chain saw, lawn mower — these are what the suburban landscapes of our lives are built on. Where’s the rub?

When you hear the wood chipper in Fargo, you know it, and you know it’s not good, even though you laugh.

* * *

The community up the road from where I live — where my wife works and one of the most diverse communities per capita in the state of Minnesota — is built to a great degree on the meat-industry. I live in the heart of the conventional agriculture country, where the daily deaths of thousands of cattle and hogs are the backbone of our communities. We’re not exactly naïve about the death that gives us life in these communities, yet the meat-packing industry happens behind closed doors.

It took Javier Bardem toting a cattle gun through the Texas countryside in No Country for Old Men for me to consider the efficiency of mass-slaughter.

* * *

One might argue that the microphone is the most significant cultural icon of the twentieth-century. Late century musicians and entertainers from U2 to David Letterman fell in love with the old-timey mikes when they came across them. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it’s the old-timey mike that saves Everett, Pete and Delmar, as their golden notes get transformed into their popular salvation.

Likewise Inside Llewyn Davis opens with a romantic shot of an old-timey mike, as Llewyn steps up to croon into it. Llewyn’s odyssey, however, leads him near the film’s end to sing for a famous producer — without a mike. When the producer gives Davis the thumbs down, it’s clear that the Soggy Bottom Boys are the exception that proves the rule. The cultural gatekeepers weed out many more Llewyns than they let through. The only instrument of mass production that will preserve the song for us is the Coens’ movie camera.

* * *

We live in a world with weapons of mass destruction; we live in a world with drones, and they’re coming to better our lives. We live in a world with so many ingenious devices, and these devices insulate us, keep blood off our hands, flatten and filter our experience. What helps us to see them anew but art? What else reminds us of our humanity, of the place we inhabit between beauty and utility and complexity? What have you seen or read recently that’s given you new eyes for the implements of our lives?

The Ethics of Elfland

Justin Ryals

Teun-Hocks-Utitled-1995. In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote a chapter evocatively titled "The Ethics of Elfland," in which he relates how his philosophy of the real world is best mirrored in the world of classical fairy tales (think Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, George MacDonald, or the like). For example, the nature of the world in a fairy tale is magic; for Chesterton, likewise, the real world itself is magic. As he stated, "stories of magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege." The world of the fairy tale and our own world are equally inexplicable in terms of why they are there or are the way they are. Both are equally startling and unnecessary, equally wonderful. Reality is a pure gift. The sun and planets and stars all "hang about" in the sky. Does "gravity" make that fact any more inherently explicable since gravity itself just adds one more thing equally inexplicable in its being and nature as the rest? Is the explanation of gravity any less peculiar, or indeed logically any different — on an ontological level — from saying that a magic spell holds them there?

The being of the world, and of ourselves, cannot be "solved" by pointing to a natural causal chain. Each link is as inexplicable and "magical" in its being as any other. A place where eggs turn into birds and caterpillars transform into butterflies, for Chesterton, is best captured in the language of the fairy tale: "We must answer that it is magic. ... A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. ... The sun shines because it is bewitched." The "magic" of a world that enchants us is not merely an impression but an insight.

The only reason the "real" world is not a realm of "magic" but one that is "disenchanted" (as Max Weber said) or dead is because it has been narrated that way, and it has shaped our consciousness and imagination. It perhaps gives us a sense of complacent calm or control to think of the world as not "magical" in this way, for it calls forth no response from us and we may shape it according to our will. But when we think of a fairy tale as magical and lived life as "just the real world," these are mere abstractions of our minds. The question is, are we going to interpret reality according the "dead" and "humdrum" metaphor of "the real world" or according to the profound depths so well captured in the metaphor of the fairy tale? The modern world sees the universe as dead because it is looking in a mirror at itself — its own abstraction projected onto the world. Yes, the natural world is full of interrelated patterns, but its patterns are that of the artist or the storyteller rather than of the fatalist or determinist.

Chesterton was not disparaging the legitimate place of scientific inquiry and discovery, though he thought that science pointed to a world as magical in its wonders and mysteries as any fairy tale. Rather, he was speaking of the nature of ontology, and the all-too-common fact that we take the being of the world and all its particularities for granted, when they are anything but "granted;” or rather, properly speaking, they are granted, and that's what's so astonishing — we are, they are. As I've quoted Chesterton before, there is within us "a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence" that we search for (Autobiography, 97). He concludes with this:

"Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the unutterable things. These are my ultimate attitudes towards life; the soils for the seeds of doctrine. These in some dark way I thought before I could write, and felt before I could think ... I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself. ... The thing is magic ... Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently."

(Painting by Teun Hocks)

We need rituals

Abby Jarvis

22894262-cosmetics-seamless-background Every morning, I array my tools — lotions, liquids, powders, brushes. I darken my eyes, shadow and line. Some days I sing softly, some days I work in steely silence. I call it my war paint. The ordeal is part of my ritual, the morning routine that separates my time at home to my time in the real world. The shower, the clothes, the meditative time standing over the stove — all a liminal time between those two worlds.

There are other, less mundane rituals. We all have them, we humans — the ones that mark us moving from one stage to another. Hovering over birthday candles, illuminated between one age and another; weddings, a transitory period between single life and a life of matrimony; bar mitzvahs, suspended between boyhood and manhood; silence in the pews, when the church prepares to move from the secular world into the sacred. Rituals are important; they make us aware of our stages of life, of our positions in the world, of our roles and relationships to the rest of humankind.

Joseph Campbell, an American mythicist and author, notes that rituals are ubiquitous, a universal part of the human experience. We need rituals to separate the phases of our life, to give us closure as one period of life ends and another begins. Some rituals were ordained long ago; communion, for example, and the liminality of being “outside” our world and present in the sacred. Other rituals are manmade — birthday parties, weddings, Halloween. Some are our own. If we do not have rituals imposed upon us, we often make our own. Campbell even suggests that many instances of teenage rebellion or adult neuroses stem from the absence of rituals and the subsequent insecurity in our current stages of life.

Whether man made or sacred, communal or individual, we move through our own rituals. The ordeal of brewing coffee smooths the transition from sleep to work; a child’s first day of school marks their advancement from babyhood to student; elaborate preparations and ceremonies denote major life changes. Ritual has proved important for millennia, used for everything from minor daily routines to major spiritual practices.

And so, every morning, I join the rest of mankind and perform my rituals. I shower, I dress, I cook my breakfast. I apply my war paint. At night, I perform the same ritual in reverse — I retreat again to the kitchen, I wash my face, I change my clothes. I am, again, my home-self. At least until tomorrow.

"Can We Guess Who You Are in 20 Questions?"

Brenda Bliven Porter

Untitled “Here is our best guess at who you are: 1. You are male. [I’m female.] 2. You are still a teenager, but won't be one for very much longer. [I wish!] 3. Your future worries you more than you'd like to admit. [Nope.] 4. You have beautiful, silky brown hair and big eyes. [I don’t even want silky brown hair!] So, how did we do? How many of these did we get right? Tell us in the comments!”


None of it is right. Not one thing.

This was the latest of the popular Buzzfeed quizzes I’ve taken. I still remember the first one: Which Middle Earth race to do you most resemble? This was the question I had waited for all my life. I may be trapped in a hobbit-like body, but inside I knew there was elvishness---mystery, poetry, and, of course, immortality. Come to find out, I am actually an Ent. Though I wasn’t excited about these results, I pressed on with the quizzes. The color that best represents me is white, on Downton Abbey, I am the Dowager Countess, and if I lived in Riverdale, I would be Betty Cooper. My accent is Pennsylvanian, I should visit France, and I am only a fraction “Midwestern.” It’s all been enlightening, particularly the last question on the Middle Earth quiz:

“So why did you take this test?

(a) You had better give me good results. Grr.

(b) I was hoping for some insight about my personality.

(c) It sounded like fun.

(d) I wanted to know what race in Middle Earth I am. Wasn't that the whole point?”

I definitely wanted to know that race in Middle Earth I am. I would live in Middle Earth if I could. But why all those other quizzes? They’re fun, I guess. They don’t take much of my time, and they promise a quick answer. Everyone else is taking them. But I already know where I live, where I’ve come from, what I like, and what I don’t. According to Newsweek, quiz pages track all of the answers we provide, creating customized profiles of our preferences. Why isn’t the suspicious part of me stepping up to put her foot down? (I can see that quiz now: “What percentage conspiracy theorist are you?”) The Washington Post reports that “millions of people have answered the inane and occasionally probing questions with the hopes of learning just a little bit more about themselves.”

Why don’t we already know who we are? Perhaps all the messages sent to us by our culture have left us with an identity crisis. “Just be yourself” and “express yourself” are in opposition to the not-so-subtle messages to drive the right car, wear the right clothes, laugh at the right jokes, and use the right phone. With all of those messages, it’s hard to know who we are, so maybe we hope that something on those quizzes will reveal solid truth about us.

George MacDonald points us in a direction that gives us some real ground on which to stand when he notes that “I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God's thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.” I can’t help but wish he had considered making me an elf, but at least I know who I am.

(Photo by Mattie Porter)

At the Table

Daniel Bowman, Jr.

17031-the-artist-s-family-jan-steen“Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. 'It's good to eat something,’ he said, watching them. 'There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here.’"

     —from “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver

When asked, I told the editors of this blog that my next post would be about “technology and human flourishing.”But I’m afraid I have nothing so grandiose to say. In fact, I had just one single image in my mind when I named that topic: people setting mobile devices on the dinner table. I know, what a super uptight and grumpy thing to discuss. Still…

When I consider my family and friends and eating together, I want to aim not for some idealized foreign film culinary-religious experience, but for a space where we can genuinely devote ourselves to one another. After all, it was nothing more or less than a supper where the bread and wine of the New Covenant were given for us.

In my experience, the presence of devices on the table, and the ubiquitous expectation that they will be employed at the first sign of wandering attention, can preclude the kind of intimacy that sustains me.

You know how you visit a business in person, then the business’s phone rings while you’re being helped? Often the salesperson makes you wait while he completes an entire transaction with the caller, and you think, “Glad I bothered to show up.”Watching people use devices when I’m at the table with them feels like that. Except worse, because ours is not a business relationship. We can do so much better than profit-driven corporate standards.

I’m not interested in building and defending traditional rhetorical arguments here. But I would like to present one more image to consider. (If you are looking for a compelling argument that touches on some similar themes, read Wendell Berry’s “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,”along with the follow-up letters that Harpers readers wrote to him, and finally his response to those letters. These can be found in What Are People For?.

Back to my image: I’m picturing Ann and Howard Weiss, the parents of Scotty in Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” You’ll recall that Ann had ordered a birthday cake for her son, who then died after being hit by a car. The disgruntled baker, having no idea what had happened to the boy and only anxious not to lose money on the cake, calls the Weisses with irritation multiple times to tell them that they forgot to pick up their order. Finally, Ann and Howard go to the bakery to confront the man, whose calls seemed inexplicably cruel.

When the baker learns what has happened, he expresses deep remorse to the Howards. Then he senses, in an unspoken and profound moment, the rightness of eating and giving attention, which ultimately lead to the beginning of healing—not only for the Weisses but for the lonely baker, too. From that moment, nothing precludes them from entering an unusual, even frightening, depth of communion. (Ironically, it was a phone that led to misunderstanding and isolation. In person, they can break through.) The covenant has to do with presence—embodied love.

The final paragraphs of the story, for me, comprise one of the most spiritually poignant passages in 20th century American fiction:

"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.

He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."

They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.

"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.

I would suggest that each one of us is perpetually Ann and Howard. Each of us is the baker. When we break bread together, we bring our hurts and fears, loneliness, the very stories of our lives, to the table. Let us partake while giving one another the attention our communion needs in order for each of us to flourish.

(Painting by Jan Steen)