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Filtering by Tag: Mary McCampbell

A Part of "The Divine Project"

Mary McCampbell

Photo credit: Daily Mail In a lecture I attended last week called “The Sound of Freedom: the Music of Liberation,” Dr. Jeremy Begbie explained that, “The divine project is to re-humanize, not de-humanize.” As we partake in the transforming work of Christ on this earth, we are to learn, teach, and act out our own humanity and cherish the humanity of others by imitating Christ. This is an embodied work; Christ took on flesh and “dwelt among us,” wearing the very humanity that He had/has given us.

It is a challenge to think through how our human embodiment, a partaking in Christ’s humanity, acting as his healing feet and hands, applies to our strangely disembodied, ever-changeable, presence in virtual communities. We encounter others online, but the encounter is not in the flesh; and when we don’t look directly into the Imago Dei eyes of another human being, it is quite easy—and maybe even tempting—to forget about the “divine project” of “re-humanizing.” In my last post, for instance, I wrote about the painfully cold, judgmental, and sometimes even cruel comments that were so casually strewn around the internet in response to the Brown and Garner verdicts and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

In When I was a Child, I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson explains that, “Community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we know or whom we know very slightly." On the Internet, we are continually and often, concurrently, encountering friends, acquaintances, and strangers; it can be hard to generate “imaginative love” for these people, to truly have community with them, when we are unable to look into their eyes, hear their voices, sit in the direct presence of their stories. Louis C.K. poignantly highlights this often cruel disconnect when explaining why he won’t let his children have cell phones. He claims that “these things are toxic…they don’t look at people when they talk to them…they don’t build empathy.” He then comically explains that when a child hurts someone to their face, it might even be ultimately painful for the offender as his or conscience is pricked; but when these comments are written online, it provides a false, dangerous high, a buzzy self-satisfied feeling.

As we are rapidly transitioning into a largely online culture, we must work to learn how to “re-humanize” ourselves and others even via an isolating screen. This has been on my mind quite a lot lately because of the amazing ongoing story of the ways in which photographer Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York, and his Facebook community of thousands, raised over one million dollars to enable students from Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn to take a yearly visit to Harvard University. This project started from a simple encounter between Stanton and a thirteen-year-old boy named Vidal who told the photographer that his greatest hero is his school principle, Ms. Lopez, because, among other things, “she told each one of us that we matter.” Vidal is a profoundly sensitive and perceptive young teenager; in one interview, he explains that in the projects where he lives “some of the people around here aren’t friendly. I don’t think it’s a sadness or an anger that they feel, but a sort of emptiness.”

Stanton was so touched by Vidal’s story—and the impact that his principal has had on his life—that he went to Mott Hall Bridges Academy to find Ms. Lopez, who explained to him that the students at her school are always referred to as “scholars,” and that everyone at the school wears purple to remind them that they are royalty. Stanton has since photographed and interviewed Vidal’s mother, as well as many students and teachers at the school. All of these stories are both painful and beautiful; all of them are powerful and deeply human. For years, Brandon Stanton has walked around New York taking photos, coupling them with short quotes or stories directly from the mouths of those being photographed. There is something sacred about this connection between photograph, story, and viewer. There is a great deal of kindness, generosity, and a complete lack of judgment in Stanton’s bold, yet gentle, photography. He does not seem to see those he photographs as merely subjects, but as truly human, and because of this, he enables us to hear their voices. Many of these images and stories are breathtaking, quickly leading the viewer to tears or laughter and, in the case of Vidal’s story (and many others), to real empathy. This is not the first time Stanton and his followers (he currently has almost 12 million) have started a fund raiser, creating an almost embodied online community in order to rally around a “real” person whose story is briefly shared via their own words and their sacred eyes, eyes that might be either downcast or full of light. On Brandon Stanton’s Facebook page, there are, as Schaeffer says in the book of the same name, “no little people.”

When interviewed, Ms. Powell, one of the teachers from Mott Hall Bridges Academy, expressed her frequent discouragement as she asks herself: “How do you fill in the gaps created by the years of mis-education?”. She goes on to say: “Sometimes it feels so hopeless you want to give up. But I was up at 2 AM the other night, reading all the comments people were writing on the posts about Ms. Lopez, and I just kept scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, and it reminded me that I have a purpose and I need to keep going.” This brief story is an example of re-humanization, the ability of a community—even an online community of strangers—to work together in “imaginative love,” to bless other human beings by listening to their stories, by having conversations, even by raising funds to create opportunities for children that have often been underserved and ignored.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber claimed that “all real life is meeting…all actual life is encounter.” With Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton has created opportunities for us to have “real” encounters with the humanizing story of another. And, as Buber also notes, any time we allow ourselves to have a real encounter with another human being, it is impossible not to be changed ourselves.

Coleridge, Lecrae, and #BlackLivesMatter

Mary McCampbell

4 Harris photo Imagination Can Lead Us to Hate or to Love

 When reading many of the calloused, angry comments posted on internet articles about the Ferguson verdict, the death of Eric Garner, and the #BlackLivesMatter protests, my mind kept going back to one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poems, “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison.” It must sound odd to couple the reading of cruel internet comments with a 1797 poem from a British Romantic poet—but I am convinced that if more commenters would take time to read, contemplate, and act upon the deeply Christian assertions of this poem, perhaps conversation would be more kind, productive, and most importantly, loving.

This is because Coleridge’s poem is a short narrative that instructs us how to follow what Christ calls the second most important commandment, to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). And the poem also shows us that, in order to truly love our neighbors, we must also learn to effectively use our imaginations.

In a note directly before the poem, Coleridge tells us that his dear friends, Charles and Mary Lamb, had come from London to visit him in the Lake District. Shortly before their arrival, the poet had an accident and injured his leg, preventing his going on preplanned outings with his visiting friends, leaving him alone to ponder his misfortune. The poem has a wonderfully whiny start as Coleridge shows us the power that emotion (in this case, bitterness and anger) has on our perception: “Well, they are gone, and here I must remain,/ This lime-tree bower my prison!”. Although a lime-tree bower (in the Lake District, no less) is traditionally associated with the idyllic rather than the carceral, the pouting poet sees it through the distorted lenses of disappointment and resentment. He becomes even more dramatic as he fumes over the fact that these are friends that he may never more “meet again”—yet they have chosen to leave him to his prison while enjoying the beautiful settings of the countryside “of which I told.”

Coleridge’s self-pity commingles with near hatred of his “friends” as he imagines all of the fun things that they are doing and the “beauties and feelings” that they are experiencing without him.

But once the narrator begins to truly imagine his friend’s faces and to especially remember Charles’ great love of nature (which he has longed for while in the city), his feelings abruptly change. The poet then thinks fondly on the “gentle heart” of his friend “to whom no sound is dissonant which tells of Life.” Coleridge remembers that he loves his friend deeply and begins to empathize with him as soon as he is able to envision himself in his friend’s place, enjoying nature. He goes on to say that, “A delight/ Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad/ As if I myself were there!”. And once his imagination has somehow dispelled his hatred and anger, he can see that the lime-tree bower that he is sitting in is actually beautiful and soothing. His perception has shifted dramatically, and he is now able to both empathize with another—and to see Reality more clearly.

Although Coleridge was not sharing these experiences with his friends, he was able to imagine as if he was—and his love for them became selfless rather than self- serving. But Coleridge, unlike fellow Romantic poet, William Blake, does not deify the imagination. In Coleridge’s writing, there is a deep connection between the spiritual realm and the imagination—and the imagination cannot be used correctly to enable us to see more clearly until somehow connected to that larger spiritual reality. In “This Lime-Tree Bower,” we see that the imagination can be either destructive or edifying; it can lead to hatred or to love.

This brings me back to the venomous comments that were all over the internet in response to the sad events of late November. After reading many of these comments, I am convinced that there is a tragic deficit of the right kind of imagination. We need to learn how to imagine just as we need to learn how to read. Of course, the kind of racial stereotyping/profiling that made its way into some angry comments is a type of imagining, but it is the result of a constricted imagination, limited mostly by fear of the difference.

In reading comments in response to the Ferguson and Garner verdicts, I was discouraged to see so many Christians with constricted imaginations. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the two verdicts, there is still a responsibility to listen to the stories of those who are hurting in order to understand why they are hurting. Coleridge was able to imagine and empathize with his friend, Charles, because his imagination had previously been fed with the truths of Charles’ experiences and feelings through listening to his story and spending time with him (thus understanding his “heart”). White American Christians now have an opportunity to listen to the stories of African American brothers and sisters in order to know how to imagine their experiences more truthfully. Only then can we begin to empathize.

As we all know, the protests that followed these two verdicts were not just about the verdicts themselves; they were about lamenting the fact that the two cases were not seen as important enough to go to trial, which perhaps reflects a belief that black lives have less value. The protests are also visible laments that the stories of racial profiling are silenced with the dismissive “race card” label rather than being heard and believed.

Christian hip hop artist, Lecrae, posted many comments on his Facebook and Twitter pages in response to the verdicts; he also wrote an article for Billboard and made his way onto the streets of Atlanta in order to join the protests while helping to keep the peace. But as he did this, he was continually attacked by many fans on his Facebook page for being “divisive” and told he that he needed back off and not speak about injustice because he was a Christian musician. Interestingly, Lecrae’s posts were not overtly about whether he thought Darren Wilson was innocent or guilty--but mainly about the pain and frustration his community felt because of the lack of communication, care, and understanding in response to their voices concerning the frequent possibility of injustice.

Some of the responses on Lecrae’s Facebook page did eventually become more empathetic when he finally posted some of his own story of interactions with the police—and his fans took the time to listen. He explained that, “Part of my testimony is how I was harassing people with a pellet gun as a 13yr old and was apprehended by the police. But I’m still ALIVE! I wasn’t shot down. Those cops did a good job. One officer decide not to arrest me years ago but instead challenged me to get in my bible.” After thanking God for “His grace,” he went on to explain that he has still been pulled over without cause and profiled on numerous occasions.

These specific examples from Lacrae’s story enabled his readers to imagine his experience. And many other young African-American men shared some of their own experiences on Lecrae’s Facebook wall(most, if not all, had shared experiences similar to Lecrae’s). When Lecrae’s story was finally heard, the imaginations of many of his fans began to enlarge rather than constrict. And in these moments, they were able to love their neighbor(s) in a much more substantive, rich way.

As novelist Michael Chabon explains, “To me, imagination is the key to morality.  If you can’t imagine yourself as someone else, to walk in their skin, you’re more likely to hurt them or demean them or legislate against them.  The golden rule depends on the power of imagination.”

(Photo taken by Travis Terrell Harris, pictured in the photo)

Federico Fellini's 8½: Child's Play

Mary McCampbell

4 Fellini3 Federico Fellini's epic semi-autobiographical film, 8 1/2, explores the complex interrelationship between the process of making art and the very human attempt to re-narrate and make sense of our lives. Guido, the film’s protagonist, is a director wrestling with his own limitations and the demands of his fans, critics, and producers as he experiences an artistic stalemate.

Of course, his story was Fellini’s own story before he made 8 1/2; he had recently experienced great success with La Dolce Vita, and the artistic community was anticipating the next masterpiece. Fellini, however, was stuck. And that supposed blip in his creative stream actually became the next great masterpiece, a film about filmmaking, asking poignant questions about how an artist might make art that is both well received and truthful.

The film’s somewhat stream-of-conscious narrative is both non-linear and non-objective as it moves smoothly from present day “reality,” to Guido’s memories, to Guido’s subconscious mind. It is often hard to distinguish one from the other as both Guido’s memories (of boyhood, of his parents, of the rigid Catholic priests that shamed him, etc.) and his present relationships and projects become blurred.

Guido, the artist, seeks a sort of revelation through the making of his art; he hopes his films will both create and uncover meaning. But we become increasingly aware that a splintered, chaotic self — a mess of memories, desires, and circumstances — will struggle to present a coherent truth to his audience. How can the artist disentangle himself from the confused, knotty strands of his internal reality enough to produce something clear and true?

A critic character in the film, perhaps speaking as the voice of Guido’s super-ego, tells him: “This life is so full of confusion already, that there’s no need to add chaos to chaos.” He also argues that this messy, disruptive art — any art that is an honest reflection of Guido’s existential struggle — is not marketable because “In the end we need some hygiene, cleanliness, and disinfection.”

But the film continually reminds us that the artist is perhaps a sloppy child who has one foot in a make-believe world, the other tentatively planted on a more concrete reality. After we slip into the Guido’s childhood memories of awkward sexual awakening, mischief, and curiosity, Fellini shows us Guido as a suave, yet silly, middle-aged artist who often “plays” in order to shirk the responsibility of actually creating. But, of course, art is play. And children’s play is the act of creating.

In the film’s ending sequence, Guido embraces this spirit of messy play —and realizes that being honest about his own existential confusion is what will make true art: “Everything’s confused again, but that confusion is me; how I am, not how I’d like to be. And I’m not afraid to tell the truth now, what I don’t know, what I’m seeking.”

Guido and his team of writers, producers, actors and critics drive up to the stark, imposing outline of his half constructed failed movie set. But this realistic scene quickly morphs into something far more surreal as Fellini’s typical circus music begins to play faintly in the background and we see many figures from Guido’s life — his parents, his teachers, the women he has loved — all dressed in white, walking calmly to the beach and the scaffolding for the cancelled film. The camera pans across the bright faces of these individuals as we hear the critic’s questions in a voiceover: “And how do you benefit from stringing together the tattered pieces of your life? Your vague memories, the faces of people that you were never able to love?”

But Guido begins to ignore this criticism (the superego) and give in fully to play (the id) as he grabs a bullhorn and commands the bustling group of people from his conscious and subconscious life to make their way down the stairs. As they parade downward, the circus music wells up, and we recognize that these characters walking down the scaffolding of Guido’s now defunct film set are, in actuality, the scaffolding of Guido’s own fractured but full psyche. After this beautiful revelation, perhaps the moment of clarity that he was longing for, Guido proclaims that life is a celebration. He has the crowds of his past and present life join hands in a joyful circle as he jumps in and joins their dance.

The final moments of the film are delicate and rich as the tiny child Guido, wearing a long white cape and playing a flute, marches in the middle of the circle, followed by a few clowns playing instruments. The circle of Guido’s consciousness then disappears — and the child and his band are alone in a wandering spotlight. As the film ends, the child is completely alone, playing the flute in the spotlight, darkness fallen all around him.

Monday Silent Lunch: Learning How to Taste and See the Real

Mary McCampbell

4 CakeLabri L’Abri Fellowship has the unpredictability, fragility, and sacredness of conversation —real conversation— at the heart of its day-to-day life. But every Monday, the L’Abri community pushes a pause button on its traditional daily “discussion lunch,” and we all eat in silence. Together, but in silence. Monday also happens to be the international L’Abri day of prayer. So from 1-2 p.m. in a Manor House in Greatham, England we try to still our racing minds and anxious movements in order to just “be.”

The L’Abri worker who heads the table always plays a CD of music — usually sacred, often choral — that lasts the entire lunch hour. Some of us read a book, some of us pray, some of us just sit, wondering, thinking. Although we are free to sit elsewhere on the property, as long as we are silent for an hour, I enjoy it most when the majority of students stay in the large dining room; a community of 30-40 people sitting together in silence is something so intimate and fragile and beautiful. And as I sit in the beautiful dining room, sunlight spilling onto the faces of those sitting near the windows, the entire scene becomes somehow more Real.

Immersed in crowded solitude, I am forced to be present, forced to notice. This forcefulness is gentle, not violent, and it comes from simply making a space to be still, to look, to listen. As the scene is filtered through the rich compositions of Tavener, or Part, or Preisner, I see things that I have not seen before, such as the simple, stunningly beautiful red skin of strawberries sitting in a bowl before me. It’s almost like I momentarily gain the attentive eyes of the artist, and I see, as Wordsworth says, “into the life of things.”Looking around at the dining room’s four crowded tables, I am amazed by the diverse beauty, the life, the animating “Image-of-God” soul of each individual. The only response to the overwhelming fullness this gift of seeing brings is a simple “cup runneth over”prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The director of English L’Abri, Andrew Fellows, often speaks about how contemporary Western culture has become “utterly banal” because the capacity for experiencing “things that are rich and profound” has become dulled. We are dulled down daily by repetitive excess consumption, by an endless desire for frenzied entertainment, by the lack of any ability to slow down, contemplate, and savor the present moment like a steaming plate of lovingly made food from a friend’s garden.

Fellows’ comments and my own frequent inability to “see” reminded me of a conversation that I recently had with my doctor after I had started a diet devoid of any sort of processed food or sugar. He told me that once the artificial has been cut out, one can actually begin to really taste again. Fruit will become much more sweet and delicious and we will lose our cravings for the false surrogates.

We all know that the “banal” world of artificial stimulation can dull our taste buds. And it can take away our sight. I am amazed that just by stopping to pause for one hour during a Monday lunchtime, I could taste — and see — again.

“The Unforgettable Fire:” Human Destruction, God’s Judgment, and Our Refuge

Mary McCampbell

u2 Seeing U2’s "Gloria" video for the first time changed my life; I was amazed that these four seductively scrappy Irish lads were singing so overtly about Jesus, and that the music was not formulaic, cheesy, or sentimental. It had an honest, raw, edge—and this seemed to match its message. When watching and listening, I let out a junior high sigh of relief without even understanding why. Perhaps I first understood my desire to see the jagged edges of our reality reflected in art by those who endeavor to have a relationship with the author of a Reality beyond those jagged edges.

The title of U2’s fourth studio album, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, is grounded in the painful history of our collective ability to destroy ourselves and others; the album title was taken from a 1982 exhibit at the Chicago Peace Museum of artwork painted and drawn by the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb dropped in 1945 was an unforgettable ball of fire to those that were physically and emotionally damaged by its power of fragmenting destruction.

The U2 album that takes its name from the exhibit refers both directly and indirectly to the human capacity for inward and outward violence, including such harrowing topics as heroin addiction (“Bad”), racism and murder (“Pride”), and the sad decline of a cultural idol (“Elvis Presley and America”). But the title track itself, a deeply evocative song full of longing, sadness, and hope, does not initially seem to specifically allude to the exhibit or tragic event that gave it its name.

But on revisiting both the song and video through a lens of Psalm 46 (a line is quoted in the song itself), I would have to disagree with the many music critics and fans that share this view. Although the lyrics are admittedly cryptic in many parts, they make sense on an emotional level—and this emotional richness is intensified by the video’s images. Both the song and the video open with a vivid image of “these city lights”that “shine as silver and gold.”The song also speaks of the seductive lights of a carnival where the “wheels fly and the colors spin”. Yet as the music builds dramatically, we see video images of a fairground ride transforming into an exploding atom bomb and a cityscape that is struck by lightening before experiencing a violent rainstorm.

Yet directly after these images of violence and destruction, Bono alludes to Psalm 46: 2 as he sings “And if the mountains should crumble or disappear into the sea, not a tear, no not I.”But how does any of this of this relate to the bombing of Hiroshima? Psalm 46 speaks about the “trouble”that we must endure on this blood stained, war loving earth—but that God Himself will bring “desolation”to the earth as “He breaks the bow and shatters the spear.”In a sense, the Psalm speaks of God’s judgment and his ushering in of justice and peace, putting an end to human cruelty and injustice.

At the very beginning of “The Unforgettable Fire”video, just as we see Bono’s grief-stricken face against a dazzling cityscape, we also see the rising of a blood-red moon. In one of the accounts from the exhibit titled The Unforgettable Fire, a survivor drew and described a moment when “the sun appeared blood-red in the dark sky.”We also read in Acts 2:20 and Joel 2:31 that “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood”before the “Day of the Lord”comes. In these allusions, the video opens by alluding to both human destruction and God’s judgment.

The same city that we see throughout the video is emblematic of modernity’s narrative promise of an efficient, comfortable, and exciting heaven on earth. Later, the members of U2 descend into the bowels of the city itself as they walk into a large blue-tinted factory space; here we see the promise of technology. Soon after, we see the carnival ride explode in a mushroom cloud and realize that the same seemingly messianic technology that produces our amusements, also enables us to annihilate other human beings as we appoint ourselves false gods of this earthly “paradise,”the city. As the lightning strikes and the rain waters come down, the video alludes to even more biblical narratives of God’s judgment against those who have taken this heretical role.

The video’s images are not, however, only of the doomed city; as Bono sings that one should “walk on by, walk on through,”we see a transition to a shot of The Edge walking a lonely, snowy path in an open space. We see the same beautiful scene as Bono sings“I am only asking but I think he knows. Come on take me away, take me home again….”. Although the mysterious lyrics do not name God, there is no other reference point that would possibly explain the mention of a knowing “he.”

Towards the end of the video, there is a striking image of Bono’s face, illuminated by a flame, superimposed over another image of the band warming their hands over a fire in a snowy field. As Larry Mullen, Jr. smiles, we see the familiarity and connectedness between the band members, the only moment of warmth and joy in the video. As the video and song both end, Bono tells us to “save your love,” and we see the same serene face dimly light by a constant fire. Perhaps the title “The Unforgettable Fire”has a two-fold meaning: it alludes to both the horror of the A-bomb, its image forever burned into the psyche of its survivors—but it also alludes to the eternal fire, giver of life, warmth, and illumination. Just as Psalm 46 tells us that God is a refuge and fortress, a constant source of strength that we will know profoundly if we can “be still,”“The Unforgettable Fire”video reminds us that justice will be done, that even if “the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea”there is a constant source of strength and calm.

"The Tree of Life" and Our Collective Cultural Discomfort with Recognizing "The Glory"

Mary McCampbell

4 TreeofLife3 A few years ago, when preparing notes for a class discussion on Terence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life, I began to feel very uncomfortable about typing notes and viewing the film simultaneously. I realized that Malick’s film, which pushes the viewer into a disorienting space where he or she must explore what the film’s opening voiceover calls the “two ways to live”—the way of nature and the way of grace—, demanded my complete attention. Watching the film felt like participation in a sacred act, and my rather clinical academic analysis seemed like a violation of sorts. The film is both abstract and concrete as it invites us to consider the relationship between its macro-narrative — God, the creation of the world, and the moral structure of the universe — and its micro-narrative of the O’Brien family as they grapple with questions of suffering, justice, and the knowledge of God. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) follows the self-serving, purely pragmatic “way of nature,”until he finally realizes that “I dishonored it all and did not notice the glory.”O’Brien learns that, in order to love his family, God, and the creation, he must notice its complexity and allow himself to be ushered into a space of awe and wonder.

The Tree of Life, a highly conceptual, impressionistic coming of age film focusing particularly on the internal landscape and spiritual journey of son, Jack O’Brien, is also a film that causes its viewers to think about their own relationship with beauty and its ultimate source. Our attentiveness, or lack thereof, to the “glory”of the film tell us something about our own sojourning, about the particular kind of attentiveness, amidst both pain and beauty, that is formative in the development of our own spiritual autobiographies. By forcing his viewers into a sometimes uncomfortable state of confusion, Malick often leads us into a state of wonder.

The film demands patience, contemplation, attentiveness; and these are things that many moviegoers, nurtured on quick and easy Hollywood feel-good formulas, are not ready to give to it. Sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno claimed that popular art has been “standardized;”by this, he means that what he called “the culture industry”provides simple, formulaic “art”forms that are created in order to tell us what we want and then sell it back to us. In this sense, we are formed in the image of our culture as we find comfort and false sustenance in these things that we have been trained to think we need and love. Perhaps this is one reason we (the American public) find ourselves so uncomfortable in front of abstraction that cannot be understood immediately.

In a sense, we are culturally trained to become Mr. O’Brien; we learn that the most important things are instant and formulaic, giving us a false sense of fulfillment because they meet one of two goals: increasing our power (through wealth, efficiency, etc.) or entertaining us. These are the standardized norms of mass American culture, and anything that challenges these norms is often simplistically labeled “boring”or “weird.”How fascinating it is that Mr. O’Brien is played by Brad Pitt, the twinkling star of so many mass produced Hollywood flicks. Interestingly, many moviegoers felt led astray, cheated, and angry when seeing this film; they wanted their money back.

But Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien teaches us to be humble in front of the mystery of both beauty and suffering; he teaches us to become like children and re-enter a state of wonder: “I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn't notice the glory. I'm a foolish man.”

L'Abri Fellowship: A Vulnerable but Secure Shelter

Mary McCampbell


Perhaps more than anything, L’Abri Fellowship provides a space that invites, encourages, even fosters vulnerability. It is almost impossible to explain what L’Abri is in one word—or even one succinct phrase. Its name means “shelter” in French—and the word has a rich, multilayered meaning. Francis and Edith Schaeffer began the work of L’Abri in 1955 in Huémoz, Switzerland as their home became an open space for dialogue and honest questions for the locals and friends of their children. Word spread quickly, and L’Abri was born as a communal study center, a home open to any who want to come and seek answers to life’s big questions.

There are now eight residential L’Abri Fellowship communities around the world, and I am here as “Writer in Residence” at English L’Abri for a summer term. I have walked through the heavy wooden front door of this manor house many times before, each time both exciting and frightening; although the days at L’Abri are very structured, almost everything else, except for the warm welcome, is unpredictable, fragile, vulnerable.

According to English L’Abri director Andrew Fellows, the founders of L’Abri, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, created an organization that was “intentionally flimsy.” After asking themselves whether their lives would be different if every reference to prayer and the Holy Spirit evaporated, they honestly answered “no,” and decided that the work of L’Abri must be based not on strategic planning, recruiting, and well planned financial security, but on a visible, vulnerable dependence on God. Because of this, L’Abri was founded on four “intentionally flimsy” principles: 1) not advertising for students 2) not advertising for workers 3) not fund raising, and 4) not having a plan. Although the Schaeffers (and current L’Abri workers) do not speak against advertising, fund raising, etc.—and even verbally support some Christian ministries that do this—they feel/felt a specific calling to demonstrate the reality of God’s provision and presence through intentional vulnerability.

The L’Abri philosophy and practice is very much evident in the lunch discussions that occur five days out of the week in workers’ homes or the manor dining room or kitchen. A L’Abri worker heads the table, and ten or so students assemble at each lunch table. After we have all been served (lush, homemade) food, the table is open for any of the students to ask a question that will be discussed for the next hour and a half. Any question is a good question as long as, as the workers put it, it is an “honest question.” In a sense, the lunch discussion is a representation of the heart of L’Abri, a belief that, in the context of a life of faith, everything should be open to questions. It is also a testament to a deep acknowledgement of the importance of listening to one another, to truly believing that there are, as Schaeffer says, “no little people,” but a collection of glorious, broken individuals all made in God’s image, all longing for wholeness and community.

Fellows claims that “the heart of community is interpersonal dialogue,” a space where each individual can both hear and be heard in an ongoing reflexive relationship. He also emphasizes that L’Abri has, since the beginning, “championed the question;” this act of gathering to ask a question and grapple together towards an answer—or sometimes just a larger set of questions—is perhaps even countercultural in an age where many have, according to Fellows, “lost their questions.” Asking questions takes both humility and faith as we acknowledge our lack of understanding and hope for an actual answer. It also reminds us to be curious, to regain a sense of “childlike wonder” that, as Wordsworth reminds us, is so often lost in the ongoing distractions of adult life.

When Christ says in Matthew 18:13 "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” perhaps he is calling us to be vulnerable. And in doing this, to become more and more curious, to learn to ask questions, to turn away from apathy (not caring enough to ask questions) or arrogance (thinking that we know all the answers or can find them fully ourselves). To ask an honest question and seek an answer is a bold, brave, vulnerable move—and it implies a deep trust in the idea that an answer can be found, as well as a trust in those being asked (both God and those discussing the question).

L’Abri’s focus on prayer is clearly a demonstration of vulnerability before God, of curiosity and wonder in front of the mystery of our lives in His image. Because of the safety of God’s provision in the midst of this particular community that acknowledges both human frailty and beauty, L’Abri has created a shelter where students can ask questions of the workers, of one another, of themselves, of God. With this honest, and sometimes painful, vulnerability, we become like little children seeking a home where arms are open and answers can be found.

(Photo by Mägi May)

Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus!: A Challenge to Christian Supermen

Mary McCampbell


Hey Nostradamus! is Douglas Coupland’s most theologically complex novel, an exploration of questions about the problem of evil in the context of a Columbine-like school shooting. The first part of the story is recounted by Cheryl, a young victim of the absurd massacre, as she speaks from an unnamed, mysterious purgatorial space. In one particularly poignant section, Cheryl, a sincere and devout convert to the Christian faith, speaks frankly (and perhaps even prophetically) about many of the Christians that she has encountered:

“It always seems to me that people who’d discovered religion had both lost and gained something. Outwardly, they’d gained calmness, confidence and a look of purpose, but what they’d lost was a certain willingness to connect with unconverted souls…”.

Cheryl’s involvement with an oppressive, judgmental youth group named “Youth Alive!,” as well as her relationship with her legalistic father-in-law, leads her to these conclusions. Yet she remains faithful, convinced that there is something beyond religious posturing, something in the Christian narrative that actually points to wholeness, depth, and meaning rather than pompous superficiality. Cheryl’s clarity of vision as she critiques the “religious” is rich and biblically informed:

“There can be an archness, a meanness in the lives of the saved, an intolerance that can color their view of the weak and the lost. It can make them hard when they ought to be listening, judgmental when they ought to be contrite.”

Cheryl’s comments are poignant and instructive, a call to self reflection; and they bring to mind the moments when Christ himself expressed the most visible righteous anger. In both Matthew 21: 12-17 and Matthew 23, we see Him rebuking religious hypocrites because of their exploitation of the weak, their self righteousness, their shortsightedness.

In The AntiChrist, Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1888 polemic tracing the roots of our supposed misuse of the concepts of “good” and “evil,” he spends a large amount of time denouncing the sacrifice of Christ, an action that is repulsive to him because it supposedly “thwarts the law of evolution,” a law that propels us to follow our desires for power. But some of Nietzsche’s unrestrained insults are strangely beautiful and truthful descriptions of Christ:

“But this god of the “great majority,” this democrat among gods, has not become a proud heathen god: on the contrary, he remains a Jew…a god of all the dark nooks and crevices, of all the noisesome quarters of the world!... His earthly kingdom, now as always, is a kingdom of the underworld, a souterrain kingdom, a ghetto kingdom.”

Cheryl’s concern that religious self-righteousness can harden us to the concerns of “the weak and the lost” remind us that Christians can so easily posture as sad Nietzschean supermen, using the motions of “faith” as a means to power and pride rather than a call to serve. Nietzsche’s description of this “god of all the dark nooks and crevices”... whose “earthly kingdom” is a “ghetto kingdom” reminds us that Christ’s act of great strength (which Nietzsche reads as weakness) was to empty himself of the very power that was rightfully His as a way to both save and identify with the “weak and the lost.”

Neither Douglas Coupland nor Friedrich Nietzsche are Christians. One carefully and respectfully critiques Christian culture; the other hatefully and blasphemously bludgeons both Christ and Christians. But the writing of both can, on careful reflection, cause us to think about what a life of faith actually means. Coupland’s Cheryl laments the notion that “the religious” lack “a willingness to connect with unconverted souls.” Is this a call for us to begin looking more closely for the God-given truths that can be revealed even in “the dark nooks and crevices”?

Isolation in a Virtual Waste Land

Mary McCampbell


When I teach T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, I often start out playing this video that dismantles a track from Girl Talk, highlighting all of the secondary texts that the artist combines to create something “new.” My point is that Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece, just as postmodern as it is modern, is a mashup itself. Both Eliot and Gregg Michael Gillis (Girl Talk) are, as Roland Barthes would tell us, forming something supposedly “original” from “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In The Waste Land, an anti-epic poem if there ever was one, the heaps of fragments indicate that in a world where “God is dead”, a world devastated by the nonsensical cruelty of war, there is no meaning or even ability to communicate. Eliot continually emphasizes human isolation, that the inhabitants of The Waste Land are “each in his own prison.”

A large part of the disorientation one experiences when reading The Waste Land comes from Eliot’s intentional failure to translate foreign languages or cite his sources. The definitive sacred and secular texts of powerful Western and Eastern civilizations are decontextualized and remixed, pointing to the meaninglessness of life without any defining narrative, a life in which the Author God is dead.

But anyone who takes the tedious trouble to really spend thoughtful time in The Waste Land will track down Eliot’s sources, read them in context, and finally see that Eliot’s poem has complex meaning via the connectedness of the themes in these carefully selected fragments; in a sense, the poem betrays itself. In tracking down sources, we begin to get a sense of the whole, we long more and more for connectivity.

But in the age of google, my students and I have all of these secondary sources at our fingertips; there is not much hard work required as we can even find hyperlink versions of the poem that instantly translate the texts for us and briefly summarize the entire plot of the multiple narratives alluded to in the poem. The internet allows us to move from the poem’s decontextualized fragments to disembodied, virtual explanations of fragments. Rather than going to the library (a communal experience), we can sit in our pajamas and google it all. What would Eliot think of this isolating, perhaps “unreal” (in his eyes) research? He has removed “original” ideas from their contexts, yet we depend on an invisible network of replicated images to give us knowledge, almost always out of context.

At the beginning of the poem, Eliot envisions one of Dante’s circles of hell as a picture of living but dead (“unreal”) Londoners walking home from work over London bridge: “Each man fixed his eyes before his feet…”. I often ask my students what they think Eliot would say today if he went to London bridge, rode on the tube, or sat in a restaurant and saw our eyes not “on our own feet” but on our iPhones. Would he say we have we created a rich new access to knowledge and community, or would he conclude we have simply mastered the art of distraction and isolation? Or would he say we have somehow accomplished both?