This ease of access is in itself a blessing, but its misuse can make it a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more poetry and fiction, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly respond to properly, and the consequence of such over-indulgence is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to, is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces than yesterday’s newspaper.

Auden, W.H. “Culture and Leisure.” Lecture delivered in 1966!

This comes from a review of the recently completed collection of Auden’s prose: 

Ryan Culwell’s Flatlands

Ryan Culwell’s album Flatlands comes out March 3, on Lightning Rod Records (Joe Pug, Billy Joe Shaver, Amanda Shires). I’m grateful to have etched the album’s cover art, a linoleum cut print. Also, if you get the physical album, I have a poem in the liner notes. Brian Boebel at Dual Identity Design did the package design.

I include here Gustav Dore’s “The Destruction of Leviathan,” which is an illustration of Isaiah 27. Not only was Dore’s leviathan a touchstone for my rattlesnake, but Isaiah may be a hermeneutic while listening to Flatlands

Not that this is any sort of creditable review, but I keep crying while I listen to it. But then I stop cuz aint no one saying I aint tough (tough just aint enough).

P.S. Rolling Stone premiered the album. For a little while, you can listen to it here:

That night—to some extent, that picture—changed [my friend Rob’s] life. He enrolled in Bible classes at the church, and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The same night sent me in the opposite direction, at least for a time. But would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.

And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. One night, I was reading the last lines of “Little Gidding” to a friend, my voice thick with emotion, and when I looked up he was staring at me with kindly amusement. “So,” he said. “You really like that stuff?”

Amarillo skyline paintings and sketch.

These were part of a larger project celebrating Advent at our church and illustrating passages out of Isaiah. These paintings were meant to illustrate Isaiah 1 and Isaiah 29, but I chose my hometown of Amarillo as the subject instead of Jerusalem. I love our city.

At some point, I’ll write a note about the group of people who contributed to the whole project. They have been an unexpected source of joy these past few months and we are grateful to call them friends; grateful to see His love being perfected in us.

Harold Bloom on the Future of the Novel

What direction do you see the form taking?

I would suppose that in America we are leaning more and more towards terrible millennial visions. I would even expect a religious dimension, a satiric dimension, an even more apocalyptic dimension than we have been accustomed to. I would expect the mode of fantasy to develop new permutations.

(From an interview by Antonio Weiss, published in The Paris Review, Issue #118, Spring 1991.) (I admit, I may just be seeing it because that’s my track of thinking these days, but I think considering “the end” leads to serious imaginative possibilities and questions.

More fearful than a final sleep, to me, is indefinite wakefulness in a world where the body can be kept plodding along, but no doctor can mend the riven heart of man.

Tony Woodlief. Frozen Heads and Riven Hearts. Image Journal Blog. September 6, 2011.

The past few posts have been about the new hopeful eschatology cropping up in different disciplines (although Bob Dylan seems to be seeing though it, like he does). I’ve mentioned that it is showing up in art. However, science, championed by Ray Kurzweil, has been claiming that we will achieve some version of immortality by 2030, when we translate our brains into binary code and onto chips. Tony Woodlief addresses one of the problems with that line of thinking on his blog at Image Journal.

N.T. Wright addresses the “gap” of evil in another way: “The myth [of Englightenment progress] then, cannot deal with evil, for three reasons. 

  1. First it can’t stop it: if evolution gave us Hiroshima and the Gulag, it can’t be all good. There is no observable reason in science, philosophy, art, or anywhere else to suppose that if we simply plow ahead with the enlightenment dream these glitches will be ironed out and we’ll get to utopia eventually…
  2. Second, even if "progress” brought us to utopia after all, that wouldn’t address the moral problem of evil that’s happened to date in the world. Suppose the golden age arrived tomorrow morning; what would that say to those who are being tortured to death today?…
  3. The myth of progress fails because it doesn’t in fact work; because it would never solve evil retrospectively; and because it underestimates the nature and power of evil itself and thus fails to see the vital importance of the cross, God’s no to evil, which then opens the door to his yes to creation. Only in the Christian story itself…do we find any sense that the problems of the world are solved not by a straightforward upward movement into the light but by the creator God going down into the dark to rescue humankind and the world from its plight. (Wright, Surprised by Hope).

I suppose, when the new hopeful eschatologies react against the Christian story, it’s because much popular Christianity has subscribed to the same myth of progress that brought about the terrible fall of modernism. Either that, or much of popular Christianity subscribed to the post-modern despair and said, “The whole world is going to hell in a handbasket, so we must simply escape it by some sort of rapture.” In fact, if a person looks at the history of the rapture myth, it only came into popularity in the middle of the 20th century, probably out of the despair of the times, and a reaction against their father’s modernist hopes in progress.

The orthodox Christian story subscribes to neither, but to one that redeems the fallen creation, bringing justice to all who have suffered, or caused, an injustice throughout history while at the same time stopping evil once and for all. 

This should be my last post on the end of the world for a while. Thanks for bearing with me.

On the second day of a trek into the Sawtooth Wilderness, in Idaho, we were all invited to spend twenty-four hours by ourselves…very soon, although the day was bright and unthreatening, I was cowering in my tent. Apparently, all it took for me to become aware of the emptiness of life and the horror of existence was to be deprived of human company for a few hours…What enabled me to stick it out – and to feel, moreover, that I could have stayed alone for longer than a day – was writing.

Jonathan Franzen. “Farther Away”. The New Yorker: 18 April 2011, p. 83.

Franzen, and his friend David Foster Wallace, shared the belief that the novel (writing) is a response and antidote to loneliness. In this essay, he asserts that he was able to enter community more easily after having responded to his loneliness by writing. Franzen ends by going back to a community of sorts, after his retreat into the wilderness, with a gained understanding of his friend’s despair.

Put that next to Wallace’s most recently (post-humously) published story in the New Yorker, in which a young boy begins a years-long quest to kiss every single inch of his own body – where the boy retreats further and further away from the community into this absolute solitude. 

Question: What does this say about art? Tolstoy, an influence on Franzen, maintains that Art is a primary “means of intercourse between man and man” – that the “capacity of a man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself” is the basis of art. So for Franzen, to write (make art) is to respond to and overcome loneliness, and to experience community with man. Whereas, for Wallace, art became a way to indulge in loneliness; be utterly alone (which may speak to his intentional inaccessibility; impossible vocabulary, etc. although I’m unqualified to make a real claim there).

Andy Crouch makes the observation, in his contribution to “For the Beauty of the Church”, that God created man and culture for each other, and after the Fall, mankind exploits and perverts culture by covering himself/herself with fig leaves. “[Culture] becomes a defensive measure, an instrumental use of the world to ward off the world’s greatest threat – the threat, suddenly a threat, of being known, of trusting one’s fellow creatures and one’s Creator.” Culture can be used as an attempt to reach back to the community of Eden – pointing toward the Gospel; or culture can be exploited in order to keep from being known – a fig leaf smokescreen.

For further reading, David O. Taylor has an interesting article on the development of artists in community here.