…meaning and truth in Dante’s world reside in the afterlife, where figurae are fulfilled and totalities formed. Mortal existence is, by contrast, incomplete, illusory, secondary. But I think the opposite can be said, with equal accuracy: it’s the afterlife that is a tissue of illusions. Dante’s afterworld may be highly structured, but he invented that structure himself, synthesizing classical mythology, Christian theology, and medieval demonology. Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes, is not a universal afterworld – it’s Dante’s afterworld, based in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life – all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?
Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t…But if this world is all there is, then it’s in history itself that the riddle finds its solution. The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus IN THIS WORLD. Then Dante’s head is a figura for Mallegni’s plaster cast, and his poetry a figura for wine, and Ugolino eating Ruggieri’s skull is a figura of forensic scientists extracting Ugolino’s bone marrow.

– from “A Divine Comedy: Among the Danteans of Florence” by Elif Batuman. pg. 55-65. Harper’s, Sept 2011. – Special thanks to Tragos for pointing me to the article.

Batuman’s argument that the comedy (things ending well and whole) of the Divine Comedy is to be found in the continuous present moment of history is something I see popping up all over the place these days. I think it is an attempt at hope newly emerging from the postmodern despair, the “breeding of lilacs out of the dead land.” Science and philosophy are expressing a new(ish) hopeful eschatology; folk-level art is expressing it (I think Josh Ritter’s present moment eschatology is similar to Batuman’s). In my mind, it is simultaneously exciting and terrible: the hope sounds eerily similar to the modernist hope that culminated in the first World War; hope is better than despair, but what sort of havoc could we wreak with our new technologies that WW1 and WW2 could not?

My solution isn’t to instead revert back to the postmodern despair, but rather to have an honest reading of the eschatology that all of these things are singularly reacting against; the Christian eschatology. The orthodox eschatology of Christianity, despite the zeitgeist in America today, was not one where “meaning and truth reside in the afterlife” but rather that the hope of a redeemed life makes meaning now. The continuous present moment is informed with hope because of a promise where THIS WORLD is redeemed – not trashed or sucked up into a golden city in the sky – but remade, here; albeit, a whole here. Jesus Christ died on the cross, and when He stepped out of the tomb, He still bore the scars of his execution, but the scars were in a new and whole flesh. 

So, I agree very much, and disagree very much at the same time with Batuman’s thesis. The end of the article though, is gorgeous prose.

Nature’s Grace: Encountering The Tree of Life

“Nature is shot through with grace, such that it is impossible to separate one from the other. Grace is not some alien force that occasionally intrudes into a closed system (“nature”). As G. M. Hopkins declared, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It is grace all the way down.” – Stewart Clem

Click the title to read a great review of Malick’s “The Tree of Life” by Stewart Clem. The movie won’t come to Amarillo until it comes out on DVD, so I haven’t seen it. However, Clem discusses a theme I haven’t seen in other reviews. Plus, I love a review that includes footnotes.

Nature’s Grace: Encountering The Tree of Life

The Baker and the Cupbearer

(Rudiments of reading)

Simply as a piece of literature, the Holy Bible is a remarkable feat. Many different authors writing many different genres across many different geographical locations and thousands of years anthologized into an unbelievably consistent and unified work of literature. Contained in each smaller narrative are layers that point to a much larger narrative – what the New Testament writers called the Gospel –

God creates and then enjoys the good creation. Man, one part of the creation made in the likeness of God, for a time cultivates and enjoys the creation in a paradise called Eden, but chooses to love something other than God and falls out of relationship with Him and is sent out of the paradise to toil. Man makes many attempts to fabricate an Eden of his own out of the creation that he now worships, but is frustrated over and over. God, however, sets in motion a history that will eventually redeem, rather than remake, all of the fallen creation by sending His Son, fully God, to become fully a Man, to begin a new lineage of mankind that will rejoin the relationship of man and God. 

The story suffers an injustice when reduced to a few italicized sentences of exposition. It’s worth approaching the stories the same way one approaches a novel; generously  entering the rules of the story and experiencing what the author set out to do. Not so much to reduce it to its logical parts, but more to be altered, at a love level, by the story.

However, I’d like to see how intricately each of the stories are twined together, so I’ll take a few sample narratives and see how they might be intended to tell one story – across genres, history, authors, socioeconomics, geography, politics, etc. – how God can be seen as an author wielding a pen of history and mens’ lives, breathing life into the stories so they become devastating (and redemptive) portraits of ourselves, the readers.

The Story

In Genesis 39-41, Joseph, sold into slavery, is wrongfully accused by his master’s wife. Joseph is innocent, but is thrown into jail, or the pit as the language asserts. While there, two servants of Pharaoh, a cupbearer and a baker, offend the king and are thrown into the pit with Joseph. The cupbearer serves the king wine. The baker serves the king bread. (There is an obvious connection to the communion, which won’t even be established in the narrative for another 400 years.

Both servants have bizarre dreams that upset them, and Joseph (a dreamer himself) offers to interpret the dreams for them, a mystical service in those times. 

The Cupbearer’s Dream

“In my dream there was a vine before me, and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the up in Pharaoh’s hand.” Joseph’s interpretation: The three branches are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer.“ 

So there is wine. The cupbearer is a guilty man who is restored to his former office.

The Baker’s Dream

"There were three cake baskets on my head, and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” Joseph’s interpretation: “The three baskets are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head – from you! – and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.”

So there is bread. The baker is a guilty man whose body is broken and hanged on a tree.

Sorrow and Celebration

This narrative pretty clearly foreshadows the Cross; wine, bread, blood, body, restoration, three days, the threads are all there. The story of the Cross bears in it both Sorrow and Celebration. First, the devastating truth of our reality: we are hopeless, putting to death God Himself in His great act of mercy on us. But we also have cause to celebrate, in that in our hopelessness we have the hope of Christ, who in His mercy saved us from death. The Baker and the Cupbearer, or Christ on the Cross, are pictures of repentance and salvation at the same time. The condition of humanity is to bear both sorrow at our state, and celebration of a future hope.

Twining the Stories

 Joseph’s story is found in Genesis, which as a genre straddles between myth and history book. I’ll pull the wine thread from Joseph’s story and jump ahead to the book of Proverbs, which is a book of wisdom literature written by several different authors intended to be used for instruction. In Chapter 31, there is a brief exhortation from a mother to her son, King Lemuel. It’s interesting that Lemuel doesn’t figure into Israel’s history anywhere. This is the only mention of him in the entire Bible. So, I suppose, the authors don’t have a problem lifting from other cultures – truth is truth, as it were. 

Lemuel’s mother seems to shotgun her son with advice, from whorish women to alcohol to governing to virtuous women. In one sentence she says, “It’s not for kings to drink wine, lest they pervert the rights of the afflicted.” The next sentence she says, “Give wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more." 

Aside from the fact that it seems like odd advice, she goes on to exhort Lemuel to defend the rights of the needy and be equitable. So the heart of the verse isn’t a moral statement about alcohol abuse, but rather to be charitable and a defender of the destitute. It’s just interesting that wine is the prescription for poverty.

Let’s keep pulling the wine thread from Joseph and Lemuel, and now the poverty thread and see how they entwine in the person of Jesus Christ. When we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus, whom John calls the "Word become flesh”; all of the narratives become a man. This man is found teaching a sermon on the Mount of Olives famously called the Beatitudes, a series of proverbs. 

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus pulls on the poverty thread here, except it’s not a physical poverty He speaks of, but rather a spiritual one. I think Jesus is emphasizing the spiritual state that people find themselves in – the true condition of mankind – is down in the pit. Some people refuse to see it. But those who do must be in utter despair because just like those in physical poverty, they don’t have the means to overcome their destitution.

What is their prescription? Lemuel’s mother said, “Give them wine so they forget their misery.” But she was speaking of physical misery.

At the end of Jesus’ life, He sits down with his friends and has a meal with them. They break bread, which He says is His body that is going to die. And then He takes a cup of wine and says,

Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.“

He prescribes wine for spiritual poverty. Then He died, a broken body hanging on a tree, the dissolution of flesh. And His blood was spilled for the forgiveness of sins so that men might drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.

The baker and the cupbearer. The sorrow and the celebration. The bread and the wine. The poverty of the fall and the riches of the kingdom of heaven. One story being told across thousands of years, genres, authors, and maps, drawing from disparate cultures, having heroes with terrible moral failures, and even including the reader into the narrative as both a hero and a villain. If it is simply a piece of literature, it is a marvelous one.

Ash Wednesday

by T.S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again 
Because I do not hope 
Because I do not hope to turn 
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope 
I no longer strive to strive towards such things 
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?) 
Why should I mourn 
The vanished power of the usual reign? 

Because I do not hope to know again 
The infirm glory of the positive hour 
Because I do not think 
Because I know I shall not know 
The one veritable transitory power 
Because I cannot drink 
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again 

Because I know that time is always time 
And place is always and only place 
And what is actual is actual only for one time 
And only for one place 
I rejoice that things are as they are and 
I renounce the blessèd face 
And renounce the voice 
Because I cannot hope to turn again 
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something 
Upon which to rejoice 

And pray to God to have mercy upon us 
And I pray that I may forget 
These matters that with myself I too much discuss 
Too much explain 
Because I do not hope to turn again 
Let these words answer 
For what is done, not to be done again 
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us 

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly 
But merely vans to beat the air 
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry 
Smaller and dryer than the will 
Teach us to care and not to care 
Teach us to sit still. 

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death 
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death. 

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree 
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety 
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained 
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said 
Shall these bones live? shall these 
Bones live? And that which had been contained 
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping: 
Because of the goodness of this Lady 
And because of her loveliness, and because 
She honours the Virgin in meditation, 
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled 
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love 
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd. 
It is this which recovers 
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions 
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn 
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown. 
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness. 
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten 
And would be forgotten, so I would forget 
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said 
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only 
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping 
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying 

Lady of silences 
Calm and distressed 
Torn and most whole 
Rose of memory 
Rose of forgetfulness 
Exhausted and life-giving 
Worried reposeful 
The single Rose 
Is now the Garden 
Where all loves end 
Terminate torment 
Of love unsatisfied 
The greater torment 
Of love satisfied 
End of the endless 
Journey to no end 
Conclusion of all that 
Is inconclusible 
Speech without word and 
Word of no speech 
Grace to the Mother 
For the Garden 
Where all love ends. 

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining 
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other, 
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand, 
Forgetting themselves and each other, united 
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye 
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity 
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance. 

At the first turning of the second stair 
I turned and saw below 
The same shape twisted on the banister 
Under the vapour in the fetid air 
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears 
The deceitul face of hope and of despair. 

At the second turning of the second stair 
I left them twisting, turning below; 
There were no more faces and the stair was dark, 
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair, 
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark. 

At the first turning of the third stair 
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit 
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene 
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green 
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute. 
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown, 
Lilac and brown hair; 
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind 
over the third stair, 
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair 
Climbing the third stair. 

Lord, I am not worthy 
Lord, I am not worthy 

               but speak the word only. 

Who walked between the violet and the violet 
Who walked between 
The various ranks of varied green 
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour, 
Talking of trivial things 
In ignorance and in knowledge of eternal dolour 
Who moved among the others as they walked, 
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs 

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand 
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour, 
Sovegna vos 

Here are the years that walk between, bearing 
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring 
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing 

White light folded, sheathed about her, folded. 
The new years walk, restoring 
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring 
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem 
The time. Redeem 
The unread vision in the higher dream 
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse. 

The silent sister veiled in white and blue 
Between the yews, behind the garden god, 
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word 

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down 
Redeem the time, redeem the dream 
The token of the word unheard, unspoken 

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew 

And after this our exile 

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent 
If the unheard, unspoken 
Word is unspoken, unheard; 
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard, 
The Word without a word, the Word within 
The world and for the world; 
And the light shone in darkness and 
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled 
About the centre of the silent Word. 

O my people, what have I done unto thee. 

Where shall the word be found, where will the word 
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence 
Not on the sea or on the islands, not 
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land, 
For those who walk in darkness 
Both in the day time and in the night time 
The right time and the right place are not here 
No place of grace for those who avoid the face 
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice 

Will the veiled sister pray for 
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee, 
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between 
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait 
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray 
For children at the gate 
Who will not go away and cannot pray: 
Pray for those who chose and oppose 

O my people, what have I done unto thee. 

Will the veiled sister between the slender 
Yew trees pray for those who offend her 
And are terrified and cannot surrender 
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks 
In the last desert between the last blue rocks 
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert 
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed. 

O my people. 

Although I do not hope to turn again 
Although I do not hope 
Although I do not hope to turn 

Wavering between the profit and the loss 
In this brief transit where the dreams cross 
The dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying 
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things 
From the wide window toward the granite shore 
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying 
Unbroken wings 

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices 
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices 
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel 
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell 
Quickens to recover 
The cry of quail and the whirling plover 
And the blind eye creates 
The empty forms between the ivory gates 
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth 

This is the time of tension between dying and birth 
The place of solitude where three dreams cross 
Between blue rocks 
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away 
Let the other yew be shaken and reply. 

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden, 
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood 
Teach us to care and not to care 
Teach us to sit still 
Even among these rocks, 
Our peace in His will 
And even among these rocks 
Sister, mother 
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea, 
Suffer me not to be separated 

And let my cry come unto Thee.

…the epistle endures. This should come as no surprise to Christians. While we are often described as a people of the book, an important chunk of that book is a collection of letters. Indeed, Christianity is unique in ascribing divine authority to human correspondence. While the form may vary, there is genius and power unique to the epistle. – James K.A. Smith.

James K.A. Smith. “Apprenticeship by Correspondence”. Comment. Spring 2011.

There is divine authority in the correspondence between the children of God. Little children, fathers, and young men, as John says, have the word of life in their midst when their words are written in love; when they keep His word, then the love of God is perfected in them. It is humbling to be in the midst of people who love their brothers and abide in the light.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete." 

(1 John 1:1-4 ESV)

Journey of the Magi

By T.S. Eliot (Follow the link and listen to him read it).

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no imformation, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Remind yourselves of this: We who were slaves to sin; the sin that when fully grown becomes death; that awful separation from God; We who were bound to decay and marked for the grave; we have been buried with Christ.

But to this end: that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. By His resurrection we live a life where death shall have no dominion, but grace shall. For the life that Christ lives, He lives to God, and so shall we all. That is cause to celebrate.

In the spirit of “revealing His steadfast love and faithfulness.”  – From Romans 6.

I Have Not Hidden Your Deliverance

Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do Your will, O my God;
Your law is within my heart.”

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden Your deliverance within my heart;
I have spoken of Your faithfulness and Your salvation;
I have not concealed Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness from the congregation. – Psalm 40

Directly before this passage, the psalmist says that God does not delight in sin offerings; He does not require offerings for our sins.  But instead of requiring sin offerings, He offers us an open ear to hear our cries.  So far, nothing has been required of us.

Because of God’s inclination to hear the psalmist’s plea for deliverance, the psalmist turns and says, “O my God, I delight to do Your will.”  And then he proceeds to tell us what God’s will looks like:

Telling the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation.

Remembering God’s faithfulness, His salvation, His deliverance, His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds and thoughts toward us, and then telling the great congregation of people about it.

Friends, God has not restrained his mercy from me!

Psalm 37:25-26

I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.

He is ever lending generously,
and his children become a blessing.

 I usually read this as an encouragement to pursue righteousness because then I won’t be forsaken or have to beg for bread.  I don’t want to be forsaken by anybody, especially God.

But Jesus, the most righteous person who ever lived, was explicitly forsaken by God. That is straight up contradictory. Why?

God lends generously.  In fact, He is so generous that He gave His only Son, a son who became a blessing to those beggars who faced an insurmountable debt (namely us).  We were begging for sustenance, and He gave us everlasting bread, the broken body of His Son, that satisfies all hunger.  We are also invited to become the children of the Righteous One.

Is the same expected of us? Sure the righteous are not forsaken (our righteousness is because of Christ), but we are to lend generously – perhaps even our lives – so that other children may come to know the Righteous One; we are to become a blessing.