The Taser's Edge


“O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!”: A Eucharistic Prayer of St. Francis
Let the whole of mankind tremble
     the whole world shake
     and the heavens exult
when Christ, the son of the living God,
     is [present] on the altar
     in the hands of a priest.
O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
That the Lord of the universe,
God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself
that for our salvation
He hides Himself under the little form of bread!
Look, brothers, at the humility of God
and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves, as well,
     that you may be exalted by Him.
Therefore,
     hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves
so that
He Who gives Himself totally to you
     may receive you totally.

from “A Letter to the Entire Order” in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (Paulist Press: The Classics of Western Spirituality), trans. by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM and Ignatius C. Brady, OFM



The God from Whom I Repeatedly Flee

All theologizing, if worth its salt, must submit to the test of hospital gowns, droning television sets, and food spilled in a clumsy effort to eat. What can be said of God that may be spoken without shame in the presence of those who are dying?…I met a woman by the elevator each day whose mouth was always open wide, as if uttering a silent scream. In a bed down the hall lay a scarcely recognizable body, twisted by crippling arthritis–a man or woman I’d never met. Another woman cried out every few moments, desperately calling for help in an “emergency” that never ebbed. Who were these people?

They represented the God from whom I repeatedly flee. Hidden in the grave-clothes of death, this God remains unavailable to me in my anxious denial of aging and pain. He is good news only to those who are broken. But to them he’s the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, lurking in the shadows behind the nurses’ desk, promising life in the presence of death. This is the last place I might have sought him. I found myself wanting often to run from that gaping mouth, the twisted body, the cries that echoed through the halls. I resisted going to the nursing home. Yet at the same time, I was drawn there.

I know why Francis had to kiss the leper, why Mother Teresa reached out to those dying on the streets of Calcutta, why Jean Vanier gives himself without restraint to the handicapped. It has nothing to do with charity. It’s a concern to touch–and be touched by–the hidden Christ, the one found nowhere else so clearly. It’s a longing to reach out to the grotesque, stroking the bloodied head of a slain lamb as its image gradually changes into the fierce and kindly face of a Lion whose name is love.

-Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes



The Third Cow

Now the Third Cow is herself the end of the world. In that land there is nothing that is not the Third Cow–horns and hooves and tail and ears. They could have traveled on and on and still have found themselves nowhere but upon the body of the Third Cow, for it fills the world and is the world. For many days they sought the Cow’s head, and at last they found it–a great, staring form of eyes and nostrils and a huge mouth that gaped like a cave. And the Cow spoke to them with the voice of a cave.

(Richard Adams, Tales from Watership Down)



Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris

I was elated when I heard that Errol Morris was coming out with this book, even when all I knew about it was the title and the author. (Fog of War is only one of the must-watch documentaries Morris is responsible for.) And the book exceeded my expectations.

Believing is Seeing is not so much about photography as it is about whether objectivity is possible (or desirable), about what and how and whether we can know, about history and memory, about how our expectations create our observations in things small and enormous. It’s not even that I agree with all his arguments (and, in fact, I found myself dissatisfied at the end of perhaps half of his photo essays), but he is an original thinker who helps others think, and that makes this book worth reading and re-reading.

There are six essays, each based around a photograph or set of photographs which have caused problems of interpretation, often with the help of mass media, but just as often with the help of historians and other scholars. Then Morris gathers interviewees and experts and other data and begins thinking through the puzzle.

The photography is great, the history is great, the interviewees are great, the anecdotes are great, the analysis is great, the prose is great. What more do you want? Excerpts?:

I also remember reading an account of October 28, 1962–the last night of the Cuban missile crisis, when many knowledgeable people thought the world would end. Khrushchev had not yet capitulated and Kennedy was poised for nuclear war. Khrushchev was in Moscow, Kennedy in Washington. We know what Khrushchev was doing from the accounts written by his son, Sergei. Khrushchev was so worried about the possibility of nuclear war that he spent a sleepless night and then announced his decision to remove the missiles from Cuba over Radio Moscow the following morning so that it could be broadcast to the entire world without delay. On the same night, Kennedy was down by the White House pool with his aide, Dave Powers, and two girlfriends watching Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. What a story. Hepburn, heir to some unspecified throne, dreams of being free of the obligations of state, but in the end knows she must return to the requirements of the monarchy. That die, too, was cast. It was a fantasy within a fantasy within the reality of the White House.

and, in a later essay…

A photograph can capture a patch of reality, but it can also leave a strange footprint: an impression of an instantly lost past around which memories collect.

The best way to get a taste of this book also happens to be about JFK. Last week, on the anniversary of the President’s assassination, Errol Morris created a short documentary for The New York Times called “The Umbrella Man.” The way the documentary winds around, altering your mind and surprising you in the process, is the way each essay in this book works.

Here’s the link to the NY Times “Op-doc.” Here’s the link to buy Morris’ book. Here’s the link to his website. Get clickin.’



Awe

Michael König via Kottke via Gizmodo



Whale Fall (after life of a whale)

It should not surprise you to know that WNYC’s Radiolab has once again shown that art and science are not at odds. Coming to you via me via The Atlantic‘s Maria Popova (aka @brainpicker), and reminding you how awesome you once knew decomposition was (before you got yelled at for picking up that deer antler you found):

and please make sure to visit Sweet Fern Productions, the makers of the video



Smart Humor and Good Preaching

Last Friday night, thinking at first that it actually was Second City TV, I started streaming the The Second City: The First Family of Comedy, a three-part documentary on that comedy empire. It’s not a great documentary in terms of its production and it’s glaringly clear that they couldn’t get Bill Murray to have anything to do with it, but it has me enthralled. I’ve been studying comedy writing (meaning, watching a lot of TV) lately, and to see this doc and to learn where so much of the contemporary comedy landscape came from is captivating.

At about 22 minutes into the first segment, one bit really caught my attention. Harold Ramis is talking about how the second generation of Second City (many of whom became the first season casts of SNL and SCTV and then went on to define 1980s-and-beyond comedy) came into its own.

Ramis explains the difference between this second class and that original class (which, wow, included Alan freakin’ Arkin, who I am now convinced needs to be asked to host SNL, in a thoroughly non-ironic way). Here’s my own transcript from the documentary:

Harold Ramis: “Bernie Sahlins had a motto which was, ‘Always work from the top of your intelligence.’”

Joe Flaherty: “You have to assume that the audience is at least as smart as you are. When you play down to an audience, you know, when you start doing comedy that you think, ‘Well I wouldn’t like it, I don’t think it’s funny, it’s, you know, stupid, but they’ll like it,’ it doesn’t work. It just falls flat on its face.”

And now comes the 4G turn…this is how I think about the church and specifically about the state of preaching in American churches. One central temptation to the pastor or preacher or teacher or Christian writer (popular or academic) is to not work from the top of our intelligence.

In comedy, the reasons for working from the top of your intelligence are that if you don’t, (a) your comedy won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your audience by treating them as if they are stupid.

Likewise, in preaching and pastoral work, if you don’t work from the top of your intelligence, (a) your work won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your hearers, readers, or congregation. (If you’re wondering, insulting your congregation is worse than insulting your audience at a comedy club. Lowest common denominator preaching is a devaluing of people who we supposedly believe are created in the image of God.)

Worst of all, if you’re not preaching from the top of your intelligence, (c.) you are failing to help your fellow disciples to grow and mature. Life experience, the Christian tradition, and Scripture are clear: we don’t grow unless we are stretched and asked to push further. Ask any athlete, any good comic, any saint.

So far so good, perhaps, but the question which this all begs is what “smart” preaching is. I happen to have an intellectual bent, but intellectual or academic preaching is not what I’m talking about. At all.

To explain, I go back to good comedy. There are comics out there today and in history who have been inarguably smart and who love the dumb joke. The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the writers of the best Cary Grant films, Woody Allen, and on down to Futurama, 30 Rock, and Louis CK, have all recognized that being smart in their humor includes being dumb in their humor. Somehow the best comics have not just been about being smart, but they choose to be smart in service of being good.

That’s all I’m asking of preachers. Be smart, because that’s part of pursuing the Good in what you do.



A Prayer for Healing

Jesus, let me not be so concerned to have clean suturing and to be infection-free and to have no visible scars and to grieve all of this in the “right” way that I miss something that your body is saying to mine. I don’t understand how or why you still have the wounds we gave you, but I know that the way you teach me is to bend your broken body over mine, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, stripe-to-stripe, bruise-to-bruise. Your healing is mystery, woundedness touching woundedness and sanctifying it into wholeness. What I’m asking is, help my wounds to be like yours. Let me know that these cuts and gashes and holes do not say that I am not whole. In your name, Amen.



E is for Elmofication

The reason that Sesame Street will always be great, I think, is that it defined educational television even when the show’s creators didn’t really know what education television was; they decided what educational TV was, and then they created it.

Sesame Street continues to be good because it keeps changing and because it keeps up with the times. Of the recent pop-culture-based sketches (including versions of Glee, The Closer, and even True Blood), my favorite is definitely their spoof of Mad Men, maybe because the Street is always at its best when it’s being classy:

But all that’s not even what this post is about. It’s about art. I love art forms that are clearly art when you stop and think, but that don’t really receive the recognition of other art forms. For instance, muppeteering. I hated the Elmofication of Sesame Street as much as anyone who grew up before it, but this movie, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, looks great, because it will help more people see that this is an art form:



In Which I Present Lots of Random Quotes from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in a Ploy to Get You to Read It

This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day. Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes–old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable. What of me will I still have? Well, this old body has been a pretty good companion. Like Balaam’s ass, it’s seen the angel I haven’t seen yet, and it’s lying down in the path. (p. 67)

The article is called “God and the American People,” and it says 95 percent of us say we believe in God. But our religion doesn’t meet the writer’s standards, not at all. To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do. (p. 142)

Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day. He said, “Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is more than sufficient for my purposes.” So he’s just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by two, multiplying the smell of the grass by two. (p. 147)

No sleep this night. My heart is greatly disquieted. It is a strange thing to feel illness and grief in the same organ. There is not telling one from the other. My custom has always been to ponder grief; that is, to follow it through ventricle and aorta to find out its lurking places. That old weight in the chest, telling me there is something I must dwell on, because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself–that same good weight worries me these days.

But the fact is, I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright. I do hope to die with a quiet heart. I know that may not be realistic. (p. 179)

Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. (p. 209)

And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having. If Boughton could be himself, he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present, and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon. He would be that extravagant. That is a thing I would love to see. (p. 238)

There are a thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)