Hope and Bob Dylan

A couple weeks ago, a mighty powerful thought came to me. I had been talking to a friend about the way we often distort our thinking. Suppose a loved one appears to betray us and we begin to think people in general aren’t worth trusting, or we wave to an acquaintance and she doesn’t wave back and we believe she has for some reason decided not to like us. And so on. Many of us think like this now and then or every day. Long ago, I read a fine book about such “cognitive distortions”, and I still recommend it: Feeling Good, by David Burns.

The powerful thought came when I woke up feeling lousy and didn’t particularly want to roll out of bed because a voice like a dementor from Harry Potter told me that the day promised nothing worth rising for. Then out of nowhere a voice like an angel told me, Hey, something good is going to happen today.

I jumped up (well, maybe not jumped), eager to learn what the good thing would be.

Every day since then, as soon as I awake, I tell myself that something good is going to happen. And when I look back at the end of each day, I realize something good has happened. Today, for instance, Zoe pitched masterfully and her team almost beat a great team from a national championship organization.

That day when the angel first urged me to look for the good that would happen, Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for Literature. Now the only way the Nobel committee could have pleased me more is if they had chosen me, and not only was that not likely to happen, it would’ve have seemed quite right.

I don’t attend a lot of concerts, but I have gone to watch Bob Dylan about a dozen times, in venues small and large. The best ever was in Tucson, Arizona when he performed all Christian songs backed up with a group of six or seven gospel singers. I returned for the second performance the next day.

For at least two reasons, I’m delighted that Mr. Dylan won the Nobel prize. One, he has done wonders for America by adapting several American art forms, our folk tradition, our topical (protest) song tradition, and the blues, and made them his own, which is what artists do best, build on what’s come before. Also, he has given us an honest Christian voice.

During his “Christian” period, surely, (I think of it as his churchgoing period, before he probably got disillusioned by churches as many of us do), but also before and after.

The best way to make sense out of one of his earliest hits, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is to view the wind as the Holy Spirit: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8; “And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Acts: 22

Here’s a deft analysis of “All Along the Watchtower”: “… a riff on the prophecy from Chapter 21 of the Book of Isaiah, where two watchmen on a watchtower see two riders approaching. ‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief. ‘There’s too much confusion/ I can’t get no relief.” The first stanza is about existential angst, about the futility and violence of the modern world. “Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth./ None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” In this consumerist world, we drink, we steal, we work, but nothing seems of real value.

“’No reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke.’ Who is the thief but Jesus Christ who describes himself as returning to Earth “like a thief in the night’? Indeed, ‘the hour is getting late,’ the thief informs us, another Biblical catchphrase about the return of Christ. [He continues]‘There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke./ But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.’ The seeming futility of life is something that we need to rise above… “Which takes us to the third and fourth stanzas: “…Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” This is a prophecy from Isaiah 21. The two messengers are announcing the fall of Babylon…. also a theme in the Book of Revelation, referring to Christ’s Second Coming.”

One of my favorites of Mr. Dylan’s later songs is “Highlands” in which he sings in accord with W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem I consider strikingly Christian in its preference for pursuing the eternal over clinging to the earthly. If you haven’t read it, please do. You might want to augment it with a movie (from a novel) that played off the poem’s opening line: “That is no country for old men.”

As this is about twice as long as most of my messages, I’ll end it here with the hope that you haven’t already, you will now click some of the links. The linked version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is most excellent.

The Necessity of Hope

I can’t seem to make myself stop beginning the day with a dose of world news. This morning I read about the many political assassinations in Russia, and about the thousands of deaths and nearly unfathomable misery the people of Syria and Syrian refugees are suffering.

It’s not like such horrors are unfamiliar. I was born a month after we bombed Hiroshima, and my earliest years were often tainted by stories of the holocaust and of Stalin’s purges.

All my life, the world has been, for many, many, people, a hideously tragic place.

After my morning dose of news, I drove to a restaurant to meet my son for breakfast and on the way listened to an old Andre Crouch song, “Jesus is the Light of the World” and felt as if a boulder had risen off my shoulders. Because belief in Christ and the God he proclaimed gives me hope that all this tragedy will get redeemed; that people who die young, suffer in unimaginable ways, or have very little chance of living in anything like contentment, will at last find peace and joy.

In my favorite of all novels, The Brothers Karamazov, brother Ivan admits that even though God may redeem all the tragedy and suffering, he cannot forgive God for it all. I am neither as bright nor as sensitive as Ivan. Perhaps that’s why I can accept that God has motives far beyond what I can begin to comprehend.

I worry about people who reject God out of hand, who take as gospel the Darwinian world view and essentially contend as did the skinny wrestler in the film Nacho Libre, “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science.” I wonder how these people can live with the world’s tragedy. Maybe they compartmentalize and lock the grim facts away in some dark corner of their minds. If not, how do they accept such a world? Have they become so callous?

I’m a fan of science. My Zoe is a lover of science and I encourage her to follow science as a career, since it offers so many exciting opportunities in so many fields. But to take science as the answer to everything is to ignore the very simple fact Plato portrayed about 2500 years ago in “The Allegory of the Cave”: we only perceive what our senses allow us to know, and our senses are limited.

Though I am glad my belief gives me hope, hope is not the basis of my beliefs. That would be nothing but wishful thinking. Reasons that led me to believe are given in Reading Brother Lawrence.

I suspect only people whose hearts are damaged or turned off can look at the human condition and fail to be driven to actively search for a reason to hope in some destiny more fair and beautiful than what our senses perceive.

Coincidentally, or providentially, take your pick, about an hour after I wrote the above, Pastor Jason in a message at Journey Community Church offered this insight: “One of the central symptoms of our sickness as humans is a rock hard shell of callousness, exhibited in self-absorption, belief in self-sufficiency, and consequent apathy that numbs us to God and people around us.” He attributed it both to the fall (the one in the Garden of Eden) and to defense mechanisms we create out of fear. He also mentioned God’s promise to Ezekiel. “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

My prayer is that God will extend that promise to me and mine and to us all.

Love Your Work

Flannery O’Connor was one of the great originals. She could be honest, profound and outrageous all at once. So I value her opinion more than most people’s.

In Mystery and Manners, a book of her essays, she proposes, “If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

O’Connor explains, “If the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

O’Connor contented that writers ought to push their talents to the outermost limit of the kind of talent they have.

Modern writers, she argues, “…are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself…. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God.”

We need to love our work for its own sake, to take it to the outer limits of our current talent and ability, but not beyond.

And we need to disallow the temptation to use it as a vehicle for preaching or propagandizing except insofar as the stories themselves call us to.

“The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art,” O’Connor maintains. “He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”

She would have us Christians realize that Christian stories are not necessarily about Christians and their concerns but are simply fiction “…in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.”

Love Your Characters

From Writing and the Spirit:

I told my daughter Darcy I’d been convicted to take more seriously the injunction to love our enemies.

“But suppose,” I said, “a neighbor comes roaring home daily at 3 a.m. in his ’55 Chevy with dual glass-pack mufflers. And suppose when I ask him to quit roaring he only says, ‘You think I should walk?’ Then he laughs and slams his door on me.

“Now, my question is, what does it mean to love him? If I act like his friend, he might take that attitude as approval of his behavior.”

Darcy said she believes loving your enemy means doing your best to understand him by considering the things that might’ve caused him to act like a jerk. An ethicist or theologian might call that interpretation of love simplistic. Still, it’s useful. Most often, if we can understand what fears and insecurities might lead somebody to offend us, we’ll let go of a grudge and be healthier for it, and not act rashly against the person.

We can apply this sort of love to our characters. Read any Dickens novel and you’ll notice that, with few exceptions, the author appears to have a deep sympathy for all his characters. He relishes their uniqueness and does his best to present their quirks and motives in ways that make them come alive and that remind us to beware of passing judgment.

white-Christian-evangelical

Nowadays, “white”, “Christian”, and “evangelical”, are loaded words. White can mean oppressor; Christian can mean ignorant; and evangelical often means bigot.

Since I could be called a white evangelical Christian, I frequently take offense at the way they are used. The one I find most offensive is “evangelical”. Last month I wrote about the abuse and misuse of that word. But I feel compelled to keep writing about it. Here’s why: though the category evangelical may comprise as wide a variety as the category animal does, most often “evangelical” is used as if the whole demographic belonged to the variety I consider the worst of us: those who use the label “Christian” as a cover for greed, racial and class prejudice, fear and other attitudes wholly opposite from those Christ preached and practiced.

For about ten years, I have attended a church that grew out of a distinct “evangelical” tradition. I will try to deliver an accurate summary, at least as far back as the tradition’s origins in the Salvation Army.

Out of that movement, through her parents, came Aimee Semple McPherson*, a remarkably passionate and effective evangelist and faith healer of the very early twentieth century. Sister Aimee, in connection with her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles’ Echo Park district, founded a bible college. One of the college’s students was Chuck Smith, who later, as pastor of a small church in Costa Mesa, California, actively welcomed the truth-seeking hippies we used to call Jesus freaks. Pastor Chuck, with the help of some highly charismatic young people, most notably Lonnie Frisbee, gathered a following that grew exponentially until it became a denomination of its own, called Calvary Chapel.

A number of Calvary Chapel preachers founded churches that, while not under the Calvary Chapel umbrella, continued in the same tradition. Three of those are among the most popular churches in San Diego, where I live. The first was Horizon, out of which came Journey and The Rock. The Rock, founded by long-time Horizon preacher Miles McPherson, once a football player for the San Diego Chargers, has become a true mega-church. I suppose in part because Miles is black, The Rock is quite racially integrated. The other two, though primarily white, have never, to my knowledge, promoted or condoned racism in any way. Over ten years at journey, I have never heard anything that could be construed as advocating greed, racial or class prejudice, or fear of anything but exclusion from the love of God.

In my mind, “evangelical” is lovely word that describes a belief that “the essence of the gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s atonement.**”

If I knew how, I would start a movement to take the word back from its abusers.

* For a fascinating look at Sister Aimee, read The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles.

** Quoted from Wikipedia.

Love Better

From Writing and the Spirit:

In church, Olga said she believed that when people prayed for her, the prayers were effective because the people who prayed loved her. A light flashed in my dim brain and I saw that prayers given in love will always be the ones most acceptable to God.

Because God is love, God exists in a dimension of love, and for us to communicate in that dimension, we have to enter that dimension and speak in that dimension’s language.

Similarly, the more able we are to approach our writing with an attitude of love, the closer we will be to the dimension where the spirit that moves us resides, and the better we’ll be able to translate its message.

In the book of Matthew, Christ says to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that spitefully use you and persecute you.” He explains that if we only love our friends and do good to those who treat us well, we are no better than the worst of humanity. So the more and better we love, the closer we’ll get to being like God, to becoming perfect.

If we need to become perfect before we can make perfect art, then the key to perfecting our art is to grow in our capacity to love, and to exercise that capacity.

In light of the above and Saint John’s injunction that “perfect love casts out fear,” let’s suppose the Beatles were right in singing “Love is All You Need.” Then let’s exhort ourselves to love even the antagonists of our lives and our stories. And let’s allow the power of that love to help us create fearlessly, without worrying about the judgment of readers, editors, reviewers, or the folks who sit next to us in church.

With our hearts and minds lightened by love and the absence of fear, the spirit can easily move us.

Trump and Evangelicals

Recently I read that four-fifths of “evangelicals” intend to vote for Donald Trump.

As a writer, I’m all about words. And a common word that concerns me is evangelical.

I’ve been a churchgoer for about twenty-five years and a believer in Christ since long before my churchgoing began. I have attended Quaker, Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Assembly of God, Methodist, Episcopal, and independent churches. These days, my church is Journey in La Mesa, CA, which grew out of the Calvary Chapel movement. Also, I taught five years at a conservative Christian college. Through these experiences, I have come to distinguish between evangelical and fundamentalist.

In my mind, fundamentalists are essentially about conservatism, holding to traditional ways, while evangelicals are essentially dedicated to experiencing a connection to Christ, understanding his message, and proclaiming that message to others.

In this wretchedly political year, I have far too often read the term evangelical as referring to everyone who accepts the Biblical doctrine that we should be born again.

Given my definitions, I am not in the least surprised if four-fifths of fundamentalists mean to vote for Trump, since his message is all about holding onto or returning to the way things were. But if four-fifths of those I call evangelicals plan to vote for a fellow who is all about power, privilege, and isolation, when Christ’s message is about sacrifice, love, and outreach, I am quite disturbed.

Either I or the journalists had better revise our definition of evangelical. I hope it’s them, because to me, at least, evangelicals and fundamentalists are about as much alike as Sunnis and Shiites.