Okay, We’re Ransomed, Now What?

We Christ followers believe we were ransomed, bought out of imprisonment, and granted freedom.

So what does this mean to us writers (and by extension to every believer)?

I suspect the answer depends upon our level of gratitude. The casually grateful can, I suppose without much pang of conscience, proceed to follow the money, the acclaim, or whatever they prize. The moderately grateful are likely to now and then use their work in a way that honors the gift of freedom. And the radically, wholeheartedly grateful may echo the attitude of William Cowper when he wrote, “There is A Fountain Filled with Blood”, “Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.”

I know writers who profess to Christian faith yet whose work gives not a shred of corroborating evidence. No doubt part of the reason is, characters who act in ways Christ advocates are generally not very dramatic.

An early novel of mine features two sisters. One is beautiful in every way, thoughtful, gentle and giving, a lay sister with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. The other is prideful, impulsive, thoughtless, seductive but disloyal. I sent the manuscript to a friend who a successful writer friend. He suggested I get rid of the good sister. He loved the bad one.

Writing in honest accord with our beliefs is a challenge and a half, and it may become a liability if our goal is to prosper or even survive on our writing income.

Often I have felt the need to choose: either write something with which I hope to earn a big check, or work at a day job and write the stories I feel called to write.

“Feel called” is a tricky concept. If we choose to apply it, wisdom dictates we ask ourselves some tough questions, so many in fact I’ll leave the topic for now and pick it up again later.

For now, perhaps this poem by Billy Collins will inspire us with more wholehearted gratitude.

Advertisements

Charity, part 1

I think a lot about charity.

Today I’m not thinking about charity as a synonym for love, as in : “And now abideth faith, hope, charity…” (King James); “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love…” (NIV).

Rather I’m wondering how much of the money that I have (or don’t have but can borrow) should I give away, and to whom.

My church, in both subtle and bolder ways, asks us to tithe. Though I understand the need for funds and appreciate what I see the church doing with the money, still I wonder.

I’m not concerned about whether God expects Christians to tithe or whether we should consider the practice an Old Testament anachronism, because I believe that giving is good and 10% is a reasonable number. Whether the 10% should be of our gross income, our adjusted gross income, our net income, our net income after college tuition or whatever, all that feels secondary, at least for now.

Today, all I can handle is this question: given that we should attempt to give 10% (or at least 10%), should it all go to our local church, or should we have the discretion to parcel it out according to our judgment.

Unless I’m severely mistaken, the position of most churches, including the one I call my church as I have attended for about six years, is that the tithe needs to go to the local church of one’s attendance. Now, I have a hard time believing that this position is strictly based upon Biblical wisdom or prayer. It’s my suspicion that these churches are influenced by their agendas to survive and perhaps prosper enough to support missionary work and benevolence.

I certainly won’t criticize such worthy agendas. But I’ll point out that my friend Steve, who directs a charity that assists the homeless, another worthy agenda, believes that directing tithes elsewhere than the local church is not only fine, it’s smart and admirable. And as the representative of a college whose mission involves promoting honest Christian art, I could easily argue in accord with my agenda. But I won’t. At least not today.

And rather than contend that us writers of modest means should or shouldn’t devote all of our hard earned 10% to the local church, I’ll only offer my opinion that, especially for us writers, the quest for truth should override every other agenda.

 

This post also appears in The Scoop, our monthly e-magazine, in the section called stuff you probably won’t hear in church, the point of which isn’t to criticize or expose but to offer a Christian perspective from outside the System. Please visit us. Subscribe and get The Scoop.

•• Time travel with detective Tom Hickey, at: kenkuhlken.net

 

Question People and Answer People

I have a new novel coming out soon, entitled The Good Know Nothing.

The title came from a quote from novelist Paul Auster: “For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing.”

Soon after I decided upon the title, I mentioned it to my son Cody, which prompted a discussion of the value or danger of “knowing”. He contended that unless we know or believe we know something, we will have no passion to fight for it.

I maintained that we can believe with a mighty passion while holding onto a portion of doubt that our belief is valid. This portion of doubt (however small), I argued, can keep us from murderous fanaticism and help us obey the admonition to love even our enemies. For all we know, they may possibly be right. A portion of doubt can also leave us free to grow, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and to live unburdened by the defensive posture that troubles and often ruins so many friendships.

I’ve noticed a distinction between types of people, whom I’ll call “question people” and “answer people”.

Let’s apply the distinction between question people and answer people to their attitudes toward belief in God. Either sort might assert “I know God exists”.  But a question person would probably define the word “know” as a deep feeling or an existential choice based upon both intuition and experience. I’ll call this faith, and point out that faith is not an appropriate synonym for knowledge. Knowledge more properly refers to understanding based strictly upon evidence. And where there is sufficient evidence, there is no need for faith. Faith is a kind of knowing apart from, or only partially based upon, evidence.

Now let’s tackle a more nuanced question, and imagine ourselves in a small group of believers. Someone asks, “How can I resolve the fact that the Bible says our prayers will always be answered with my experience that makes that claim look false?”

The “question person” may have an answer, but it’s liable to be tentative, and she is likely not to express it right away. Rather, she will wait to see if someone else’s answer might offer new thoughts or angles on the question, or a new insight or awareness.

The answer person generally seeks closure by delivering a formula, such as: “God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is no. ” Or, “The answer may not come right away, but it will come eventually.” Or he may come to the dangerous conclusion that the person who prayed lacked faith or didn’t pray according to God’s will.

The question person is comfortable with mystery. The answer person is not. Essayists, I suppose, can be answer people. Poets or writers of fiction had better be question people, or else they’re not making art, they’re making product, which those of us who consider life on earth far too short don’t have time to bother reading.

 

 

The System

I read a masterful analysis of how corruption worked in Los Angeles during a certain period: business interests needed organized crime because crime bosses rented their buildings, used their construction companies, and provided goods and services they prized. Politicians needed business people whose support won them terms in office. The legal community, district attorneys, police commissioners, and judges  needed the politicians, who could hire and fire them at will. Cooperation benefitted them all.

I’ll describe the contemporary Christian community with a similar analysis.

Churches need book publishers and journalistic media to promote their ministry and to validate their messages. Christian publishers need churches as a platform through which authors can promote books. And Christian media supports itself by promoting the publishers and appealing to the generosity of believers nurtured in the faith by churches. Cooperation benefits them all.

The similarity of these systems doesn’t mean the Christian community is corrupt. My reason for pointing it out is to reveal that, though intentions may be pure and noble, the alliance of churches, publishers, and media effectively suppresses the freedom and vigor of Christian art and culture. Currently, the only voices or views that get widely proliferated are those in accord with and beneficial to churches. The System acts as a censor.

Though I love my home church and wish all churches well, I know that among their motives are some more practical than spiritual. A church needs to pay the bills, keep the doors open, and provide the parishioners with what they came looking for.

Churches do wonderful service. What they don’t do is shed light on many critical issues or make room for strikingly original, provocative, or simply alternative voices.

Perelandra College exists to do what churches don’t, to invigorate Christian culture and to free artists and thinkers restrained or discouraged by the system. This by no means limits us to serving only Christ followers. Rather we welcome everyone and are vigilant to ensure that beliefs of all sorts are honored and valued.

Still, the college was founded as a non-profit religious corporation, essentially a church whose target congregation is artists, whose primary mission is to empower believers with skills and courage, to help them become free and able to write and publish the truth as they see it.

Sylvia Curtis, a wise friend, sometime mentor, sometime antagonist and the basis for a character in several of my novels viewed humans as either people of good will or the others. Lately I also find myself dividing humanity and especially believers into two categories: answer people and question people. Though hardly anyone is all one or the other,  in most of us one of those categories dominates. Perelandra College is a church for question people, which artists must be.

Olga Savitsky is the college’s eternal poet laureate. She and I used to imagine the sort of church we wanted to create. Lots of poems and stories would be read or performed, and crazy drama like Christina Roseti’s “Goblin Market” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.  Over the front door would hang a big sign: “No B.S. allowed.”

The Scoop, our monthly e-magazine, now features a section called stuff you probably won’t hear in church, the point of which isn’t to criticize or expose but to offer a Christian perspective from outside the System. Please visit us. Subscribe and get the Scoop.

•• Time travel with detective Tom Hickey, at: kenkuhlken.net

Beauty

A problem with language is, words can be defined in so many ways. A table can be a tiny and fragile thing upon which we can barely fit a tea setting, or a massive wooden slab surrounded by a dozen of Arthur’s knights.

Abstract words–such as honor, love, courage, truth, dignity, or beauty–each of us may understand differently. And those of us intrigued or perplexed by a certain word might spend a lifetime considering the options and still not feel quite convinced by our definition.

Perhaps more than any other English word, we wrestle with the meaning of “love,” as did poet William Blake when he expressed two perfectly opposite views in “The Clod and the Pebble”.

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

“Beauty” is another word to which we give a host of different meanings. Some dresses are beautiful, as are some of the people who wear them. My daughter often pitches a beautiful slider. A day can be beautiful just because the sun is shining, even if we wish it would rain.

So when we read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and find John Keats contending that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’– that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” we might applaud in agreement, recoil with skepticism, or choose to shelve the premise for later contemplation.

I find those lines not only valid and profound. I believe they are words to live by, largely because they require us to reconsider our definition or definitions of “truth” and “beauty.” They demand that if we hope to understand, we need to act, to go deeper than surface impressions and consider what moves us to a resonant and heartfelt appreciation, to feel we have somehow transcended our common condition. They demand that I see my daughter’s slider as an expression of who she is, the time and effort she has devoted and all she has learned in order to master the pitch, what that says about her and–going deeper still–about the miracle of life. If I choose and am able to go even deeper, I might glimpse a clue about eternity or the meaning of our existence. On the way I will discover that true beauty includes a downbeat, an element of sorrow or pain as well as a joyful upbeat. Because evil is true and weakness is true, because truth contains pain and sorrow, beauty must contain them also.

Not every experience of something truly beautiful will send us on a deep inward and transcendent journey. But everything beautiful in the sense Keats uses the word holds the  potential to lead us all the way, were we brave, dedicated and wise enough to take the journey.

Now I’ll quit trying to explain in prose a truth better expressed in poetry. Here’s a link to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

This reflection is part of a longer essay.

Love

Some time ago, during one of those periods when I have been obsessed with the goal of learning more about love, I came across M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, in which he gave a definition I found plenty enlightening. He argued that love is not a feeling but is rather a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another’s spiritual growth. More simply: love is willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another.

From Peck’s angle, love is an act of will that may or may not connect to a particular emotion.

C.S. Lewis wrote about “the four loves”: eros or romantic love; storge or affection such as family members may exhibit for each other; philia or a strong friendship bond; and agape or unconditional love, as God exemplifies and would have us apply toward others.

As Lewis points out, all the loves except agape can readily be abused, poisoned by the desire for self-aggrandizement. What appears to be one of those loves may actually be no more than pure self-love in disguise. We pick our friends for how they can serve us, our lovers for the lust they may satisfy. Love for our parents or kids might depend upon what their accomplishments and status do for our image.

William Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” exposes the authentic and the counterfeit (for those who read this poem in my earlier post, it’s well worth rereading):

“Love seeketh not itself to please,

Nor for itself hath any care,

But for another gives its ease,

And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,

Trodden with the cattle’s feet,

But a Pebble of the brook

Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,

To bind another to its delight,

Joys in another’s loss of ease,

And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

Though I deeply respect and admire the insights of Mr. Peck and Mr. Lewis, I can’t accept as a complete answer either “love” as willingness to sacrifice regardless of feeling or “love” as a catch phrase for a number of different emotions.

What Soren Kierkegaard refers to as “the subjective” tells me that love is a unity though it may express itself in different variations, and that the willingness to sacrifice based upon motive not partnered with emotion can’t be counted as love.

In First Corintians, St. Paul asserts that: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Simply, whatever I do without love is meaningless. I could sacrifice in order to bring about the salvation of the whole world, but the action wouldn’t be worth doing.

I won’t speculate whether St. Paul meant that actions taken without love will backfire or that, even though they might help others, they won’t draw us any closer to God or heaven. His meaning may be far beyond my comprehension.

But I will speculate about the application of love, whatever it is, wherever it comes from, to our work as artists.

Suppose we get blessed with the opportunity to see an exhibit of Van Gogh originals, or to hear fine musicians play “Ode to Joy”. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will notice that the creator of the painting or symphony has applied something more than great skill, that the artist’s love has entered into the creation and remains there as long as the work exists.

When I read Dostoyevski or Dickens I often glimpse through the words the love that inspired the author to write those particular words. And we encounter love not only in the greatest masters. I recently finished the Harry Potter books and found in them an abundance of love.

So, my advice is, if we intend to create anything beautiful, by which I also mean anything true, we had best apply ourselves to the acquisition and practice of love.

Otherwise, if I attend the best writing programs and learn all the poetic skills, I will offer only noise. If I devote myself to craft and produce dozens of novels that entertain millions of readers, I have given nothing of value in exchange for the fortune I may have acquired.

I had a remarkable friend, Sylvia Curtis, the mother of Eric Curtis, whom you could meet in Reading Brother Lawrence. One day I as I entered Sylvia’s apartment she met me with a scowl and demanded, “What’s the purpose of life?”

I said, “Uh . . .”

She said, “To know love and to serve God.”

Later she admitted that definition came from a Catholic priest in an orphanage where she had done time.

Please note that “to know love” comes first.

Truth, part 2

Objective Truth vs. Subjective Truth

Soren Kierkegaard, a brilliant nineteenth century philosopher, distinguishes between objective truth and subjective truth.

Objective truth, such as the statement “cats often meow”, merely requires correspondence with an independent reality such as a sensory observation. I watch a cat and hear a meow.

Subjective truth arises from a meeting of our personal experience and our reason with what is often called intuition, the sense of knowing that comes from inside us or from outside of our “objective” reality.

For Kierkegaard, subjective truth is truer, because it doesn’t restrict what can influence our choice of belief to the constraints of sensory perception or the limited spheres of logic and reason. What’s more, subjective truth engenders a passion that can deliver us from anxiety and dread.

Dread, a primary subject of Kierkegaard’s spiritual and psychological writing, results from recognizing our condition of abject solitude in an unfathomably enormous and complex cosmos. But dread is not so much a hazard as a potential guide. If we respond to dread correctly, it can lead us toward enlightenment. So, we should consider dread as akin to holy fear, the proper response to something far greater than we can possibly overcome or even comprehend. From this perspective, the well-ordered mind will recognize that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10

Noting that subjective truth engenders passion rather than detached conviction, which is the most objective truth can arouse, helps us understand the admonition given by Christ in John’s Revelation: “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:14-16

The Good

Another of Kierkegaard’s themes can also apply to the question: what is truth? He appears to consider the truth and the good as synonyms. Often he refers to God simply as “the good”. Rather than approaching God as a super-person, as preachers and other believers typically do, he gives God a name or title that best describes his character. By implication, we see God as the source from which all we can rightfully consider good arises.

Quality

Robert Pirsig takes a similar approach in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He argues that all creation is held together by something he can only define as Quality, which comes to light through our subjective appraisals of what is true and what is beautiful.

Love?

Now, the point of all this speculation about beauty and truth, at least as it relates to those of us who attempt to create, is to arrive at a method by which we can make our work beautiful and therefore true; true and therefore beautiful.

Since beauty and truth are measures of quality; and since quality can be a synonym for the good, and the good is an expression of God; and since we believers are convinced that God is love, then love should be the path to the creation of truth and beauty.

Next time, I’ll tackle the question “What is Love?”

Meanwhile, find me and my books at www.kenkuhlken.net