Noise, Colour, Tang

Noise, Colour, Tang (by Aidan Volkofsky)

I was reflecting this morning on how—as Brueggemann points out—our language of ‘interpreting, explaining & understanding’ events in history betrays the assumption that ‘inexplicable and incoherent’ equals ‘ridiculous or ‘non-existent,’ which brought to mind a picture of a trained prose writer who has had no training or experience with poetry, attempting to read and commentate upon poetry. The cheek of it is immediately obvious but what would be more galling would be the publication of a book in which they dismissed the writings of a particular poet as quaint nonsense. But what if this particular poet was ‘the voice’ of a marginalised sector in society who were being brutalised by the dominant power and the prose writer was employed by that power? The custodians of reason have a lot to answer for when they uncritically ally themselves with the dominant power in a society.21

This is particularly tragic when for centuries they have fuddled masses of people into an oblivion of cold-hearted faith that’s nothing more than an attempt at control. All appetite for life is then lost and the so-called ‘body of the faithful’ is lost, proclaiming itself as ‘the saved’, when in fact it has merely ‘saved’ itself from life and even perhaps from hearing the disturbing voice of the brutalised. Someone has said, “Thou must be true thyself, if thou the truth would teach, Thy soul must overflow if thou another’s soul would reach.”

This type of reasonable insanity is the result of a long term effort to not ‘let be’ the light inside you that’s held in a prison of pride, fear and misguided devotion to a god of the status quo and of meek and mild self-abasement, so loved by imams, bishops, gurus and lamas the world over. When the violation can no longer be endured, their followers discover that what they had once revered as piety, turns out to be nothing more than a mean-spirited sulk against the noise, colour and tang of life.

21Brueggemann W. Abiding Astonishment p. 56 1991 John Knox

Jilted Lover Nation

Beware that one particular story buried deep, which has been brooded over, grumbled over, dare I say ‘cherished’ as the Great Exhibit in the museum of your soul to which you return like a parroting priest with one word. For you this exhibit may well become the final burial place of all your hopes and dreams and the final proof that all this world has to offer is despair. Of course there will be the consolation that at least these sad and beautiful stories can have the usefulness of justifying your sulk, and enabling you to romanticise despair in your songs and your art, thereby sharing the balm of your sweet despair with all and sundry so that they too can enjoy—in an adult way—the logic of the spoilt child, the eternally jilted lover.

Interestingly, when we follow the root of the term ‘despair,’ to it’s origins in Old French, we find ‘desperare,’ from de- ‘down from’ + sperare ‘to hope,’ conveying the idea of falling down from hope. Like any disappointed hope, rather than keep mentioning it many of us leave it out of open conversation. This ‘leaving out’ habit, like any habit, is infectious and before long your family, friends and even an entire culture can be a ‘culture that leaves out hope’ from its vocabulary, manner of speaking, and metaphors. And so it is that our culture has mostly closed the subject of miracle and wonder and lives like a ‘jilted lover’ nation drinking and enjoying the despairing wine of romanticised despair.

Walter Brueggemann speaks to this when he says, ‘It is worth considering a “sociology of wonder,” and asking who is open to abiding astonishment,” and who might be compelled to overcome, banish, or deny such astonishment? I submit that “abiding astonishment,” the celebration of enduring miracle, tends not to occur among those who manage writing, who control the state, who create and transmit proper “facts,” who monopolise control, and who explain by cause and effect. The experience and articulation of wonder tends to occur in the midst of oral expression, in simpler social units, among those who yearn for and receive miracle, who live by gift since they have little else by which to live, and who are sustained only by slippage (mystery) and gaps in the dominant system of power. The elimination of wonder from historical reconstruction is (therefore) a drastic decision to read historical memory in the presence and service of one sociological interest, at the great expense of a contrasting social interest.’1

The author suggests that our society has a vested interest in this elimination of wonder and “abiding astonishment,” because ‘In our modern experience but probably also in every affluent culture it is believed that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and eliminate the darkness … The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise. It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life. Indeed, Israel seems to know that new life is rooted nowhere else.’2

Brueggemann also points out that Christendom is implicated in this denial when he says, ‘It is my judgement that this action of the church is less a defiance guided by faith and founded on the good news, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate bible users, given the large number of psalms that are psalms of lament, protest and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the bible itself does.’3

1. Brueggemann W. Abiding Astonishment p. 42 1991 John Knox

2. Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002

3. Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.26 Augsburg Fortress 2002

 

Becoming A Well-informed Gambler

I – Is it Comprehensive1? This refers to the breadth and depth and how it rates when exposed to a wide range of situations and experiences. This is asking whether or not your belief system has overlooked anything. For example, Creation Science might look straightforward when presented to a sympathetic audience but one of its greatest flaws is a refusal to allow for genre in the ancient documents of the bible.

II- Is it Congruent2? Here we’re taking about the hand fitting the glove.  Do the routine and unexpected findings of life give you the sense that it fits comfortably with this worldview? The benevolent ‘Santa Claus God’ for example, is quickly embarrassed and found inadequate when catastrophe happens. Instead of questioning the congruency of their faith, the believer sulks and walks away from ‘their God’ in the same way that a lover might abandon their love based on the assumption that their refusal to agree to marry them means that they don’t love them. Rather than sulk, it’s always good to ask the question: ‘Might there be another explanation?’ ‘Might the absence of evidence mean something other than “evidence of absence”?’

III – Is it Corroborated3? The mounting evidence of experience is its own judge. In other words, what people say about a new model of car or a new Prime Minister: ‘Time will tell’. The documentary evidence may be tested re: factual data via the findings of archeologists and researchers using the tests of External Evidence, Internal Evidence and Bibliographical Evidence but that’s only one dimension—there’s also the corroboration that comes or does not come via the probings of sociology, anthropology and psychology for example—where questions are asked about the way this belief system processes things like learning, personal relationships, family life, society, conflict and politics.

IV – Is it Cohesive4? This is about the jigsaw puzzle locking together well and withstanding the shocks, vibrations and temperature extremes of life. What this exposes is the overall integrity of what is really a three dimensional or global kind of meshing of your worldview’s picture of reality. One part may prove to be solid for example, but what about the larger picture? Could there be a slow white-anting happening from some thousand year old false assumptions.

V – Is it Consistent5?  This is about compatibilities and the absence of contradictions within the system itself. But things can get messy here because of changes in language over time and the idiosyncrasies of communication skills. If you find a tone of cleverness and fast talking in your explanation, it could be because your faith is unsound and you are trying to make it look good or because it is sound but you have not understood it or you simply have poor communication skills. Either way you are in trouble.

The comment, ‘How clever’, from your grandmother for example, is not usually a compliment when you are attempting to explain the complexities of an illustration used by the Apostle Paul, even though she may have intended it that way. On that, an old scholar CH Dodd makes an illuminating observation about the Apostle Paul’s writing (a man whom he loves, respects and trusts deeply by the way) when he says, ‘We cannot help contrasting his laboured and blundering allegories with the masterly parables of Jesus, unerring in their immediate translation of ideas into pictures, or rather their recognition of the idea in the picture which life itself presents. Paul flounders among the images he has tried to evoke … We are relieved when he tires of his unmanageable puppets and talks about real things.5a‘ Fortunately (in my opinion) the apostle’s worldview is sound but like all of us he had to learn to stick to his strengths as a writer and communicator.

Language, communication skills and fuddled understanding aside, when it comes to responses to a presentation of your worldview, the word clever may well be a ‘damning with faint praise’ indicator, because your audience is making an observation about the stunning mental gymnastics you are performing in order to sell this thing. They might just as well have said: ‘You have amazing mental agility, you are so good you can even make this incongruent, incoherent and inconsistent worldview look good. Incredible!’ In other words, just because you have won the argument, it does not mean you are right.

a bringer of appreciation & gratitude

VI – Is it Elegant6? This is a kind of gathering together of the other five tests in an ‘up-in-the-helicopter’ intuitive assessment of the big picture. It’s the kind of experience CS Lewis was alluding to when he said, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.7‘ Having weighed this worldview using the previous tests, you come away with a deep sense of appreciation for the honesty of it, and of gratitude for the love and grace in it because it is enabling you to see and to make sense of people and of everything around you, to be able to anticipate and to not keep having to stumble and bump along like a blind man. You no longer feel that you are trial-ing a worldview that’s ‘trying too hard’ or possibly ‘tampered with’.

In my own case, having settled on the Christian worldview, these are all there for the core DNA of it but they are certainly not there for many other aspects of it, which makes sense given Christianity’s own affirmation of the untidy incarnate-ness of learning and growing up into this mystery called ‘God in us’. It is such a faith that inspires movies like Bruce Almighty where Bruce says to ‘God’, ‘Can I ask a question?’ and ‘God’ says, ‘Of course you can! That’s the beauty of it!’ And it is such a faith that invites the questing of doubt, invites wrestles with God, invites passionate prayers like the psalms of disorientation (13, 35, 86, 74, 79, 137, 95, 88) and condemns the barking voices of inquisitors. In his book on the psalms, Walter Brueggemann makes the following comment, ‘In our modern experience but probably also in every affluent culture it is believed that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and eliminate the darkness … The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise. It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life. Indeed, Israel seems to know that new life is rooted nowhere else.’8

1complete; including all or nearly all elements or aspects of something

2ORIGIN late Middle English: from Latin congruent- ‘agreeing, meeting together,’ from the verb congruere, from con- ‘together’ + ruere ‘fall or rush.’

3confirm or give support to (a statement, theory, or finding): the witness had corroborated the boy’s account ...

4the action or fact of forming a united whole

5compatible or in agreement with something: ‘what we are seeing’ is consistent with ‘the explanation’

not containing any logical contradictions:a consistent explanation.

5aDodd CH. The Epistle to The Romans Hodder & Stoughton 1947 edn. p. 103

6(of a scientific theory or solution to a problem) pleasingly ingenious and simple

7 Lewis CS. Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?”

8Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002

* This article owes much to teaching sessions and conversations with Cornerstone students and staff members over the years and also to a series of books on worldview and epistemology (the study of the justification of belief) edited by C. Steven Evans, which use categories 1 – 5. Category 6 (Elegance) was the outcome of a conversation with a student who suggested that this word, which is used in the scientific community, might be the one I was looking for.

Forgiving the Dead Man Walking

I found an old and cherished book by Debbie Morris1 today that was recently returned to me. In it she tells how she was the actual girl from real life who was abducted and sexually assaulted in the Dead Man Walking movie. In the relating of her journey she makes some telling observations about processing trauma. Here are a few of them …

  • ‘It was easier to forgive him than to forgive God.’2
  • ‘If we say monsters are beyond forgiving we give them a power they should never have.’3
  • ‘Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me, forgiveness did.’4

1 Debbie Morris. Forgiving The Dead Man Walking. p.251 – Zondervan 1998

2Ibid p.188

3Ibid p.248

4Ibid p.251

The Seventeen Stages (not necessarily in order) to Becoming A Gambler

1. The air-head

2. The curious air-head: ‘Is this stuff fun and interesting?’

3. The pub philosopher: ‘Is there meaning in life?’

4. The cynical pub philosopher: ‘How can you know if anything’s true anyway?’ (see q.5)

5. The genuine philosopher (who argues not for a win but for truth): ‘What are the criteria that must be fulfilled before a worldview has been shown to be justified and true?’

6. The honest philosopher: ‘Before we go any further in examining the evidence, are we agreed that our jury is out on the question as to whether this universe is a story of miracle or not?’

7. The pragmatic pub philosopher: ‘Will it work for me?’ (see q.12-14)

8. The brave pub philosopher: ‘Is there a God?’ (see q.5)

9. The angry soul: ‘I refuse go any further until I get an answer to my ‘please explain?’ from God about all the s—! in this world.’ (see q.12-14)

10. The honest soul: ‘What do you do if you trust God but find yourself telling him that you don’t feel any love for him?’ (see q. 12 -14)

11. The post-modern pub philosopher: ‘I’m not sure, but am I allowed to belong to this crowd of God-lovers?’ (see q.12-14)

——————–the spooky line———————————————–

12-14. The theologian: ‘What is God like? Have I constructed an easily-dismissed ‘straw-god’ in my imagination? What do all these stories about wrestling with God and God changing his mind mean?’

15. The hungry soul: ‘Can I know God?’

16. The vulnerable soul: ‘How do I let myself be found by God?’

17. The gambler: ‘What does God want me to do?’ (the only stage where we are not in control)

Try Giving Thanks

Standing In The Light

I once heard a story about a missionary who was exhausted and had arranged to take a holiday in a quiet and lonely cottage in the country. When they arrived at the house there was a card on the table that said, ‘Try giving thanks.’ The suggestion went straight into their heart like a healing arrow—they admitted their failure to give thanks, walked straight back out of the cottage and went back to work: energised and content.

There’s no question that this is an important habit, but there are dangers here. Using it as a positivist, ‘won’t be told, push on regardless’ mantra for example, which in the end actually serves as a blocker to listening to your team, listening to God, and making you into an almost Buddhist, individualist stoic who has abandoned the whole idea of valuing the honest (and sometimes quite negative) insights of brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. We only have to look at the psalms of disorientation for example to realise that God himself invites us into what could be called the ‘tradition of brazenly challenging and wrestling with God’. Without that, and without those messy long conversations with our brothers and sisters we will find ourselves turning into an unteachable lone ranger who loses all interest in the joy of learning and raves on like a cracked record about ‘praising the Lord!’

This habit of thanksgiving is not intended as a self-protective device, it is intended to take you to a place of honest affirmation where you first of all lay out how bad things really are—in sometimes brutal honesty, and even challenging God via a psalm like #88. Having done that, you then choose to deliberately co-operate with God in a spiritual event that unleashes his power.

So, try giving thanks, but not so much for the thing itself—you don’t want to kind of back-handedly blame God for what might have been your fault, the devil’s or the world’s. And focus your thanksgiving on the good—which you won’t yet be able to see—that God (with the help of your trust) will already be bringing through the pain.

As you go to the prayer, forget about waiting until you feel thankful. The whole point here is that you are unable to feel thankful. So get on with it and lift up to him even the faintest of worries or disappointments, stuff that maybe you feel embarrassed to even be worried about. And instead of flooding him with a requests, simply thank him that he is the great carer of souls and is deeply loving and serving those who are on your heart—even your enemies. Yes, this may seem naive, but there are greater ones than you and me who have found this to be a true and tested secret principle, which—when activated—unhinges the power of darkness and causes death to begin to work backwards into life.

Once, after having to face an awful tragedy, I went for a walk late at night, found a bar and – with the permission of the Holy Spirit – had a couple of long slow scotch and cokes and cried for two hours. Then a few weeks later, took a long slow drive at night to pray and while I was driving a faint and dark voice began speaking into my soul: ‘Keep going and don’t come back,’ it was saying. I laughed at what I took to be a devil, but the retort came back, ‘You just don’t get it do you! What we have is so much better!’ Again I was astounded at the thought that the devils actually think they have a better deal going, like a man whose entire life is a wreckage calling out to his neighbour to come and join him.

Sometime later I remembered words that were written written three thousand years ago in a world where babies were ritually offered to the flames as an act of solemn worship and teenage girls would ‘faithfully’ go up to temples to live for a time with filthy priests because it was the thing to do. The words were written by the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed some of the worst atrocities in history and this is what he wrote: ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness O Lord unto me.’

‘That’s what I love about this mysterious gospel,’ I found myself thinking. ‘It doesn’t care. Doesn’t apologise. Won’t hang it’s head in shame and say I am right!’ As in, it does care about me, but it doesn’t have much time at all for this knocking on my door sulk that wants to get in so that together we can punish God for all the #%*! in this world.

This gospel has stared long and hard into the faces of lying priests, blood thirsty demons, and – before this newcomer called evil was even thought of – the everlasting face of eternal love. It refuses to accept the argument, which claims that Exhibit B: The Existence of a Broken Innocence, means that somehow, Exhibit A: The Existence of Innocence, no longer counts in this debate. It thinks that the once innocent heart of a man– rather than being an embarrassing interlude that he is hoping nobody will mention – is the most telling and significant thing that ever happened to him and a no-brainer clue about why he exists.

It asks me with all the authority and wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, to ‘bet my life on one side’, to assert that God is good and is in charge and to obey that God by giving thanks—through gritted teeth if necessary. It even challenges me to apologise for not giving thanks, which seems to be tantamount to refusing to sing the anthem of this kingdom. There are of course caveats in the modus operandi of this Grace-King, when faced with a challenger such as me. He likes to wrestle for example (as Jacob found out). So, in the process I may find myself taken on a ‘melancholy tour of a blood-stained killing tree, dark hilly calvary’ in the hope that I will see that if this was good enough for the greatest of soul-carers, then why is it not good enough for me?

But beware, this is not a positive thinking, visualisation game, this is a spiritual battle. We do it because we have chosen to trust that he is here, he is good, he is in charge and that this present crucible of pain can be transformed into a work of redemptive grace, which— together with him—unleashes the power of holiness, which will change the core of my being. My part is to trust, and to persistently give thanks, even to the extent of writing a thanksgiving list of people and things (big or small) that I am worried, outraged or bitter about. And then giving thanks about them every day.

Romans says, ‘God works for good in all things with those who love and trust him.’ (Rom 8:28) In other words there is a condition to this promise of working for good: one sulky human will could be stopping a miracle from happening. Nothing is exempt. One experience that I hold out on has the power to enslave me for the whole of my life because it is so bound up with my determination to sulk. And not just me, my family, work mates, even a whole town or nation can fall under the spell, if I become a person of great influence. On the other hand, if I give thanks, the secret sulk will be broken and I will have something to be thankful about. If I don’t I won’t, and the sulk will prevent the coming to life of that secret principle, which—when activated—is able to unhinge the power of darkness and cause death to begin to work backwards into life.

‘They say life’s rough

And I hear you’re doing it tough

But if you grumble and complain

You only add another chain.’

Home

‘Home’: 200 metres up on the edge of the Devil’s Gullet, Tasmania

About the deep dark fear

Night I was afraid

Might never, never feel

 

About the thousand miles away

thunder of your waves

beneath my skin.

 

About the cracked in two

Black and blue

Of your thunder storm

 

Bringin me back to home

 

Never told you about the night I was afraid

I might never, never feel,

Never, never feel, at home

 

About the red and golden flowers

Sprouting from your head, at home

 

About wrapping you in the sweet dusty breeze

Of the rain that breaks the drought.

Bringin’ me back to home.

 

About the cracked in two

Black and blue of your thunder storm

Bringin’ me back to home.

 

About the deep, dark fear

Night I was afraid

Thunder of your waves beneath my skin

 

About the red and golden flowers

About the cracked in two, black and blue

About wrapping you in the sweet dusty breeze.

 

Never told you about you

About the no one’s-looking-kiss

To a photo on a wall

 

About wrapping me

In the sweet dusty breeze

About the thunder of your waves

 

Red and golden flowers

Sweet dusty breeze

Thousand miles away

 

Bringin me back to home.

 

Peter Volkofsky (2002)

 

Two Caveats on the Worldview ‘Punching Above It’s Weight’.

* We might also add: ‘How could a merely material universe, which is impersonal, come up with something that is at times so emphatically and unambiguously cruel—even vicious and plainly evil—about which pantheism’s stoic platitudes (‘… circle of life etc.’) begin to sound and feel suspiciously convenient: a cop-out in fact. For this kind of wound has a poignantly personal quality about it that shouts to us, ‘Whether you like it or not, you live in a personal universe, and right now something deeply personal is happening and to talk any other way about it is to sell out on every myth, every fairy story and every baby who was ever born—to sell out on any shred of integrity in the message of Christmas and Easter.’

* In light of the previous observation about the dark side of this deeply personal universe, the introductory statement about ‘moving into a new neighbourhood and looking for the right shops’ would have to be told very differently if we were living in the developing world for example. We might just be thinking about, ‘a good place to hide’ or ‘a place to get a bowl of rice.’ You might be doing literal ‘spying’ activities to see if they ‘kidnap or don’t kidnap children’, ‘rape or don’t rape the women’ and ‘shoot or don’t shoot the men’. Interestingly, ‘the problem of pain’—although it is taken very seriously and a source of great anguish—is not so much of a faith-issue for those who live under these conditions. As an African preacher once famously said to a group of Australians, ‘Unlike you, we know we need God in Africa.’ And even the use of the plural ‘we’, comes more naturally from the mouth of a speaker in the developing world (actually should probably say, ‘the majority of the world’), although of course in this context the African was just talking of ‘we’ in the same way that any overseas visitor would speak to their new friends about their country. The fact is that they think and talk about faith in an ancient, deeper and truer context, which always implies love (of the self-giving kind) that happens most emphatically in a family and a community, whereas our artificial western ‘purely individual’ construct cannot really experience and express that kind of love. When it talks of love, what it really means is choosing those I like to be around and then ‘loving’ them: the ‘kidding yourself’ version of love. Returning to our friends in the developing world, their ‘nose and ear’ for truth is therefore both communal and intensely practical. It wants to know: ‘Does this god do miracles for us? Does this god give us food? Will this god bring love and justice to our family and our community? By the way, if you are wondering about all these miracle stories that keep coming from these places, bear in mind the fact that ‘experiences of great miracles and of great suffering are mostly crowded together throughout history,’# so if we long for one (of the miracles) we must also understand that the other comes with it.

# CS Lewis