A post from awhile back. I showed this movie in my film and lit class yesterday. So powerful, so beautiful . . .

Last week, as media coverage of the May 21st doomsday prediction was gathering speed, I saw the movie Of Gods and Men. I’m still thinking about it. I can’t stop thinking about it, actually–even as the apocalyptic deadline has, predictably, come and gone. Not that the film has anything to do with bad end-time theology, but it does have everything to do with how we think about time (chronos and kairos) and space (earth and heaven and their continual meeting).

The first thing that comes to mind in pondering this beautiful French film is that in a hundred years of American cinema Christianity has not fared well. (When I teach a course on religion in contemporary film we necessarily read lots of subtitles). Not that there haven’t been lots (and lots) of Christians protrayed in lots (and lots) of American movies, but they have tended toward the cartoonish: hucksters or hypocrites or the insufferably pious and sentimental

So we can thank a deeply secular French culture in which (until last week, perhaps) the extramarital conquests of rich and powerful men are a matter of course for giving us a film of immense moral power, heartbreaking humanity and grace, and stunning theological acumen.

Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men tells the true story of a small community of Cistercian monks caught up in the violence that overtook Algeria in the mid-1990s. Their abbey had been a mainstay in the Atlas mountains for more than a hundred years and the brothers’ daily lives were inextricably (and contentedly) linked to those of their Muslim neighbors.

In the film, Brother Luc, a physician, treats the infirmities of the impoverished villagers who repay him with smiles of relief and gratitude. The prior, Brother Christian, studies the Koran and quotes it in Arabic when a violent rebel group comes calling at the Abbey. Early scenes in the film establish a long-standing relationship of mutual trust and respect between the monks and townspeople.

When the violence becomes an intolerable threat to everyone the brothers must decide what to do: leave immediately? break away gradually? stay unequivocally? They argue about their options and are, by turns, angry and magnanimous, petty and courageous, fearful and trusting. That is, they are fully-rendered human beings, not celluloid stereotypes of the best (or worst) of confessing Christians.

The film’s real power, though, is in revealing how the monastic rhythm of work and prayer informs a way of life that refuses the facile divisions of time and eternity, earth and heaven, and instead engages and inhabits this world in the hope of God’s good future–the shalom embodied in the way of Jesus. Which is not, as some skeptics would have it, religious naivete or pious wishful thinking–“can’t we all just get along?” Rather, the kairos of God’s coming reign is the demanding work of sustaining difficult relationships and praying when you don’t feel like it and refusing the way of violence in world gone mad with war. It is, in short, the way of the cross–which is never the way of “niceness” but of costly discipleship.

After the rebel soldiers visit the monastery for the first time the frightened monks go inside to celebrate the Christ mass, the Christmas vigil. As Brother Christian says,

It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did. And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that Child
who was born for us absolutely helpless and already so threatened.

And it’s what he says next that stands in such stark contrast to the well-meaning but misguided “Rapture” Christians who believe that redemption lies in escape from the material world, who imagine a radical yet thoroughly unbiblical disconnect between earth and heaven, time and eternity:

Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks. The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s … to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.

Finally, Of Gods and Men reminds us that we are called to lives of beauty that will likely be misunderstood by those around us, that might in fact get us into trouble or, as in the monks’ case, even killed: Beauty in our worship (if only American Protestants would give up “relevance” for beauty); beauty in our work and in our relationships. But beauty is intolerable in a world driven by raw power, cruelty, and violence.

Doomsday prophets don’t speak much about beauty. But the end of our existence–the purpose for which we were created–is to participate in the beauty that makes our lives possible, to “give beauty back to God,” as another monk once said, “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

In his role as prophet to the nation, Martin Luther King, Jr. drew on the ancient wisdom of both the Greeks and Hebrews. From Aristotle he learned that the character of an orator is of prime importance, but not in the ways we moderns might imagine. It wasn’t personal morality that was the prized dimension of skillful oratory so much as it was the proper execution of a persona (“mask” in Latin). “Person” in this sense – literally, “that which is sounded through” (per-sonar) – is not an essence or ego or the irreducible human self. Rather, it’s a role one plays.

This strikes us – shaped as we are by our culture’s rhetoric of “always be yourself” – as not only odd but deeply deceptive. We want our public speakers – politicians and preachers, especially – to be transparent, accessible, down-to-earth, one of us. To claim that they are wearing masks is to suggest that they are perpetrating a fraud, pulling one over on us. Facades in public discourse, we think, reasonably, are precisely the problem.

But this misses Aristotle’s point and King’s perceptiveness regarding the role of public speech – namely, that an orator’s powers are not tied primarily to his or her own moral character (though character is not unimportant), but to inhabiting a role that persuades, moves, exposes, inspires, transforms. As Richard Lischer notes, “orators have more in common with actors than the orators – or the preachers – like to admit.”

King also drew on Israel’s prophetic tradition as he “adopted a series of biblical personae, masks, that captured the several roles he understood himself to be playing in American life” (Lischer). These  personae (Jeremiah’s sensitivity, Amos’s eloquence) — much more than King’s own personality — authorized and legitimized his work, locating it in broader, deeper streams of tradition which could speak powerfully and persuasively to the present moment.

It’s instructive, I think, to consider these qualities in King’s oratory in light of current trends in American preaching and speech-making. We live in the age of authenticity – or we’d like to think we do. We want our leaders to be “real” – what you see is what you get. Politicians campaign on this all the time: “I’m one of you.” “I’m not really a politician” – they often say, all evidence to the contrary. “I’m a father, mother, concerned citizen, you fill in the blank.” “I’m one of you.”

Martin Luther King still has no peers in the skill and art that counteract all of this, and we’ve not really heeded the lesson he taught us: namely, that the moral power of a great sermon or speech is not derived from an “authentic self” (for we have no access to such a thing), but from a role inhabited, a part well-played, a mask worn well, such that people are moved and a nation is changed.

Finally, it is precisely in King’s humanness, including his moral frailty, that his prophetic witness derived much of its moral force. His personal failings shouldn’t be dismissed or ignored, especially as they hurt other people in his life. But neither were they disqualifications, as his detractors would have it. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a long line of saints and martyrs have been instruments of healing and transformation in and through their fallibility as human beings.

And they have borne witness to peaceableness in the midst of violence; to subversive love in the face of all-consuming hatred. And in death — in bodies brutalized by systems propped up by fear — they summon us to our own subversive witness against the powers.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 27,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

A post I wrote as a guest contributor to the blog at On Being with Krista Tippett.

Luke 2:1-14
John 1:1-14

“The Ancient of Days has become an infant.”

John Chrysostom, 4th century

On Christmas  Eve we read Luke’s dramatic account of the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Day we read the prologue  from John’s gospel. At first glance these texts seem to offer two very different  perspectives on the coming of Christ All Creation Bowsinto the world: Luke’s is earthy and  political, conveying the historical contingencies (and palpable dangers) that attended the first Advent; John’s is meditative and philosophical, written in  academic Greek, locating the “Word made flesh” not in the provincial politics of  first-century Palestine but boldly and unapologetically in the sweeping history  of the cosmos.

But despite  the differences there is, I suggest, an affinity, a necessary and even urgent correspondence  between these two traditional Christmas narratives. In Luke, we  glimpse what the tyranny of the imperium  romanum meant for its subjects, especially those on the margins of empire geographically,  ethnically, and religiously. In verses 1 through 5 it is clear that the events  leading up to Jesus’ birth were no picnic – nothing like the familiar, beatific  stuff of greeting-card sentimentality. Rather, despots and oligarchs populate  the scene and the treacherous journey to the stable – labor pains upon labor  pains – includes refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, and risky  border crossings.

To read the rest click here.

In 1595, the English Jesuit Robert Southwell wrote “The Burning Babe,” a startling, unsettling poem about the incarnation–which means, given Southwell’s rich theological imagination and deep Catholic piety, that it is also a poem about suffering and salvation. And about the human predilection to resist divine love.

371 years later, Denise Levertov penned “Advent 1966″ in which her vision of the “Burning Babe” is not Southwell’s blessed Infant “scorched with excessive heat” (though her poem is replete with references to Southwell) but dying babies in Vietnam–“infant after infant” . . . “flesh on fire” . . . “moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed.” (Full text of poem below).vietnam-war-photos-10

47 years after Levertov’s startling, unsettling poem, its indictment of the human predilection for violence is as timely as ever. Napalm has long been superceded in modern warfare, most recently by the surgical precision of drone strikes, but the incinerated dead are just as dead.

Some say poetry as raw political commentary is a bad idea. Indeed, Levertov’s friend and long-time correspondent, poet Robert Duncan, excoriated her political turn, insisting that the poet’s job is “not to oppose evil but to imagine it.” Yet Levertov’s work in the Vietnam era was as much personal as political. In “Advent 1966,” the subtext is the speaker’s vision–the increasing lack and loss of it: “There is a cataract filming over my inner eyes.”

This is the poetry of conviction, of wrestling with human failure and frailty in ways large and small. It is the poetry of despair–a refusal to make a leap toward hope that would put a tidy finish on the senseless and catastrophic.

It is fitting that Levertov locates her outrage, personally and politically, in Advent–whether or not something particular in December of 1966 occasioned the poem. In Advent, we are mindful of despair–in parts of the story that shape our Christian convictions and also in our own lives on these long, dark days when the senseless and catastrophic sometimes overtake us.

Writer and Anglican priest Fleming Rutledge points out that “a famous painting of the annunciation in the Cloisters in New York shows the embryonic Jesus slipping down a shaft of sunlight toward Mary–and he is already carrying his cross.” The incarnation–the feast of Nicene dogma, as Rutledge notes–is of a piece with a suffering Christ, a suffering world, a suffering you and me.

In Advent we live with that startling, unsettling truth, refusing to rush toward a tidy finish.

 

Advent 1966

Because in Vietnam the vision of a Burning Babe
is multiplied, multiplied,
                                               the flesh on fire
not Christ’s, as Southwell saw it, prefiguring
the Passion upon the Eve of Christmas,

but wholly human and repeated, repeated,
infant after infant, their names forgotten,
their sex unknown in the ashes,
set alight, flaming but not vanishing,
not vanishing as his vision but lingering,

cinders upon the earth or living on
moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed;

because of this my strong sight,
my clear caressive sight, my poet’s sight I was given
that it might stir me to song,
is blurred.
                    There is a cataract filming over
my inner eyes. Or else a monstrous insect
has entered my head, and looks out
from my sockets with multiple vision,

seeing not the unique Holy Infant
burning sublimely, an imagination of redemption,
furnace in which souls are wrought into new life,
but, as off a beltline, more, more senseless figures aflame.

And this insect (who is not there—
it is my own eyes do my seeing, the insect
is not there, what I see is there)
will not permit me to look elsewhere,

or if I look, to see except dulled and unfocused
the delicate, firm, whole flesh of the still unburned.

First Sunday of Advent  

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122 
Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

The story of the end, of the last word of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.

From Mark Strand’s  “The Seven Last Words”

 

Christianity makes the brazen claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the end of history, and the double-entendre is deliberate.

On the one hand, the consummation that Christ’s resurrection makes possible cannot be an event in history, enclosed by history, any more than creation can be an event enfolded in time. On the other hand, the life, death, Hickory Treeand resurrection of this first-century crucified Jew is the telos, the goal, the realized hope of all human (and non-human) existence. Jesus of Nazareth is history’s end.

In other words, the crucified and risen Christ not only completes history but ruptures it. Precisely in and through the historical contingencies of first-century Palestine—this specific set of laws and customs, that particular Roman procurator—the future, God’s good future, begins. In a backwater province of Empire, the truth of the triune God breaks history open not through political coercion or insurrection but with a revolution of forgiving, reconciling love. As John Howard Yoder put it:

The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think—true as that is . . . It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.

To read the rest click here.

When we have learned how to do something well, in the world generally, we say it has become “second nature” to us. Many are the second natures that have taken up residence inside us, from the way Aunt Sally threads a needle to the way Uncle Elmer votes. It Hauerwas celebrationdemands, finally, a thrust of our own imagination–a force, a new idea–to make sure that we do not merely copy, but inherit, and proceed from what we have learned.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook:  A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry

Last Friday I attended a celebration of the life, work, and friendship of Stanley Hauerwas on the occasion of his retirement from Duke Divinity School. It was an extraordinary day of honoring a man whose extraordinary generosity has shaped the lives and vocations of so many. There were funny stories and moving tributes. There was beautiful worship and scholarly discourse. There were smiles and sighs and laughter and tears. There was much tenderness.

Stanley’s Texas twang has always invited mimicry (and there was plenty of that, too). But the real concern with imitating Stanley Hauerwas has long been that his larger-than-life persona and his staggering intellectual output would create clones rather than independent thinkers, copycat theologians instead of original scholars. (In my experience, this has worried Stanley’s critics more than it has concerned Stanley or his friends).

Stanley himself has never gone in much for originality. He has often said that the theologian’s task is not to be original but to be a faithful custodian of the tradition entrusted to the Church. Yet he’s also famous for lines like this one: “I don’t want you to think for yourselves, I want you to think like me.”

Who has not seen a young painter in a museum intently copying a Vermeer, or a Van Gogh, and believing himself on the way to learning something valuable? (Oliver).

As I took in the rich celebration of this charismatic, controversial man, I noticed that his students, colleagues, and friends revealed, again and again, that they had taken in the best of Stanley’s life and work–trying it all on, seeing what fit, what didn’t, what needed tailoring or tweaking or fine-tuning. They had studied him intently–attending to the contours of his art, the broad strokes and finer nuances of his craft.

And in the thrust of their own imaginations they did what the best imitators do: they bore witness. With honesty and straightforwardness they engaged their teacher. They described Stanley’s work better than Stanley often does. They praised him. They pushed back. They took risks.

But there is also this:

What most of us long to imitate in Stanley Hauerwas is, I think, his attentiveness to the people around him. It is Stanley the teacher who makes me want to be a teacher like him: passionate about texts and deeply interested in the well-being of students. I believe that Stanley loves his students.

Such talk, of course, in this age of assessment and learning outcomes, sounds ridiculous. But the art of teaching is an act of giving oneself away in love for the sake of what (and whom) one loves, without reservation or embarrassment. I have experienced this as Stanley’s student; I hope my students experience this in me.

And here, I think, is the difference Christ makes (the theme of the celebration last Friday): Stanley taught us, in his writing, in his teaching, in his being, that in the body of Christ we have time enough and all that we need to cultivate friendships, to practice patience and generosity, to pay attention to beauty, to teach students and to love them as Christ loves them. In this, it isn’t the imitation of Stanley that we aspire to, but imitatio Christi.

Still, Stanley has been our companion on the way, our teacher and our friend. Thanks be to God for such gifts.

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