Selective Naturalism

Jacob van Ruisdael, A View of Haarlem and Bleaching Fields, ca. 1665-70, oil on canvas, 59.7 x 77.8 (23-1/2 x 30-5/8 in.), Putnam Foundation, Timken Museum of Art

…it is widely recognized today that a painted landscape, however realistic in appearance, is never a pure copy of nature and therefor can never be rendered value free. Implied in the artist’s choice of motifs and his pictorial representation is a certain view of reality. This is conditioned by the many factors of that make up his working context, including the artist’s personal temperament, prevailing artistic conventions, and other cultural values. Together these provide a conceptual framework that shapes the artist’s perception and representation of nature. Earlier criticism of Dutch landscape painting has taken insufficient account of such matters, both overlooking factors that influenced the artist’s perceptions of nature, and ignoring the attitudes and assumptions of the seventeenth-century beholder.

The tendency in current criticism is to accentuate one of two extremes: while some writers still see Dutch landscape painting in terms of pure description and aesthetic delight, others have confronted this with an iconological approach, in an attempt to retrieve whatever meaning or associations may be embedded within Dutch landscapes. However, it may be that a concern with aesthetic delight and the presence of meaning, or of a particular attitude towards nature, may well prove not so much mutually exclusive as intimately related. It is certainly fitting to ask how deliberately and by what means such attitudes were embodied in paintings, and the problem also remains of how to identify them.

– Walford, E. John. Jacob van Ruisdael and the perception of landscape. Yale University Press, 1991. Pgs 16-17.

I’m interested in the parallels between realistic landscape painting and how a writer renders “reality” hoping to show whatever meaning may be found there. John Walford calls this selective naturalism. I think it would be valuable to study these Ruisdael paintings and his tradition (Dutch landscape painting in a Dutch Reformed culture) alongside Marilynne Robinson or Nathan Poole (I’m working on a review of his fantastic Father Brother Keeper, so his methods are on my mind).

Maybe put Amy Greene in this slot as well. I’m finishing her book Bloodroot and I haven’t gathered my thoughts on it yet. But it is beautiful and utterly engaging.

Invisible Man

And I remember too, how we confronted those others, those who had set me here in this Eden, whom we knew though we didn’t know, who were unfamiliar in their familiarity, who trailed their words to us through blood and violence and ridicule and condescension with drawling smiles, and who exhorted and threatened, intimidated with innocent words as they described to us the limitations of our lives and the vast boldness of our aspirations, the staggering folly of our impatience to rise even higher; who, as they talked, aroused furtive visions within me of blood-froth sparkling their chins like their familiar tobacco juice, and upon their lips the curdled milk of a million black slave mammies’ withered dugs, a treacherous and fluid knowledge of our being, imbibed at our source and now regurgitated foul upon us.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Second Vintage International Edition, March 1995. pg. 112.

That’s a hell of a sentence.

Before she fell silent our mama… told stories about our great-granny and other ancestors…, who called birds down from the sky and healed wounds and made love potions and sent their spirits soaring out of their bodies. When I asked if it was all true, she said, “It’s not for me to tell you what’s true. It’s your choice to believe or not.” I know now it was more than just stories she was talking about. It was a whole world of things I could choose to believe or not.”

– Amy Greene. Bloodroot. First Vintage Contemporaries edition, 2011. Pgs 122-23.

New Essay

The kind folks at Reel World Theology are publishing an interesting series called “If These Films Could Talk” which take two films with similar themes but from different decades to see what they might have to say to each other. The series editor Blake Collier asked me to contribute, so I chose Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Minority Report (2002).

You read it by following the link below:

Keeping Watch on the Evil and the Good: Worshipping the State in Cool Hand Luke and Minority Report.  : For 13 years, my father was a corrections officer in a high security prison in Texas. Among his wards was the infamous Eyeball Killer, a man who murdered prostitutes and surgically removed their eyes.


Apologia Crucis

Any apologetics worth its salt has to recognize the barriers to faith—to sympathetically recognize what Alvin Plantinga calls “defeaters” for faith. What does Marilynne Robinson’s apologia for Christianity have to say in response to a protest like [Ta-Nehisi] Coates’s? It can’t simply be an alternative history, correcting Coates’s blind spots, enumerating all the good things he’s missed. That is a game you can’t win. Christianity isn’t true because of the quantification of the good.

No, what’s needed is an apologia crucis. The only “answer” here, the only hope, is the sad, brutal madness of the God who dies on a cross—something that is starkly absent from the picture Robinson paints. The only “answer” here is the garish, scandalous proclamation of the God who takes on these injustices of our making, not in order to outweigh them in some balance of good versus evil but in order to descend to hell and rise from the dead. – James K.A. Smith, Marilynne Robinson’s Apologia Gloria.  

New Poems Published

Again, Fathom Magazine published a set of my poems. I’m glad they’ve allowed me to be a part of their project.

I hope these poems are helpful for you.

Names of Crops

The man had a hawk’s vision:
So far away, the feral form floated in the fenceline

I mimicked his naming of nearly nothing. 

Catch All

Mom folds the newspaper

and says, “Stay for dinner after you fix Daddy’s chair.”
I say, “In town, they call dinner lunch.” To
which she says, “Cows chew and call it moo.”
“I know, Mom. Butchered rabbits don’t split hairs.”

On Killing Prairie Rattlers

Mercy is violent but is not violence,
I would have tried to tell you.



Christmas Poems

The kind folks at Fathom Magazine have published a series of Christmas poems I’ve written over the years. Click through the links to read them, but please stick around and browse their magazine.

Anno Domini
In the year of our Lord was a great hush;
400 years since He’d spoken a word.
No man or woman had felt the great rush
of His wind, fire, quake, nor still-small voice heard…

Word Become Flesh: A Nativity
Herald the child: meek,
mild. Herald him on trumpets
ambatured for war…

Mary sang Magnificat passing protests in the street
Mary sang Magnificat
while Herod made sacrifices at the temple…


I always wanted to be an animator. Then I tried and gave up after 10 seconds. I did this for Ryan Culwell’s song “Piss Down in My Bones”. It took me several weeks to get this far. I felt like that scene in Parks and Rec when Ben Wyatt realizes that he spent six weeks trying to create 2 seconds of stop motion footage. Hand drawn animation is still a miracle in my eyes.background