Tag Archives: beauty

Cultures and Christians: Book Recommendations

Throughout the approximately twenty centuries since Christ, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth have lived in a variety of cultural climates, both apathetic to their cause and enraged by it. Regardless of the century, language, and environment, the levels of freedom and comfort, Christians have always existed. There has never been a time when they have died out. Christianity’s success cannot be predicted by the right moral culture, nor the most conducive political climate. The Christian confession of Christ as Lord spread like wildfire during the Roman occupation and persecution of the first century. Yet, Christianity was also arguably strengthened during the American Restoration movement as it seemed to enjoy a burst of freedom. So, whether or not our cultural environment approves of us does not seem to indicate a tell-tale sign of how well we will flourish in it.

In recent months I have been reading and reflecting a great deal on culture and the proper response to it as a Christian. My natural instinct, honestly, is to shrink back from the excessive amounts of pop culture and trends. However, much of the books, articles, and podcasts I have been reading and listening to have urged me to think more broadly about our responsibilities and opportunities to engage the people around us. I am feeling challenged more than ever to spread truth and beauty and goodness in His name.

I would love to recommend the following books to those of you considering how to live successfully in this post-Christian culture ( in whichever culture you find yourself) as followers of Jesus, while still making genuine connections with people. We do not need to despair, for we know the end of the story. We do not need to be silent, biding our time.

For the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:7 GNB

We need not fight and rage against the machine, for his light of peace is within us. Instead, we have the opportunity to create a culture which best reflects his beautiful face.

Although some of these books have a more specialized focus than others, there is a striking similarity and continuity of thought among them. I encourage you to read these in communion with others and discuss how you can build a culture that is faithful to Christ and open to loving all people.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher is a Roman Catholic turned Eastern Orthodox writer and editor. His book, The Benedict Option, received mixed response as some felt it to be too pessimistic and fear-inducing. I found it both challenging and poignant, and a catalyst to aid me in refocusing my purpose. Dreher makes use of both the symbols of Noah’s ark and Ezekiel’s streams of water “issuing from the altar.” In his mind the Church is both the ark and a wellspring.

“The church, then, is both Ark and Wellspring- and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the water of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace.”

p. 238

Dreher uses the Rule of St. Benedict to make application as to how we should order our lives today. He warns against a consumerist society, promotes a certain amount of asceticism, and believes in prayer as work and worship. He advocates for groups of Christians working together for the stability and flourishing of their local communities. Religious liberty, according to Dreher, is of vital importance if our cultures are to thrive. He reminds us of examples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and China under the era of Communism. As Christians in America today, we have a choice.

“Part of the change we have to make is accepting that in the years to come, faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian.”

p. 89

“Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good…ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires.”

pp. 98-99

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura

In 2009 Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura was commissioned by Crossways to create an illuminated manuscript, The Four Holy Gospels, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. It was published in 2011 as part of the English Standard Version. The artist is the founder of the Fujimura Institute and the International Arts Movement, which “creates a new paradigm by lovingly tending to cultural soil and caring for artists as pollinators of the good, true and beautiful.” In his book Culture Care, Fujimura encourages all artists, regardless of media, to produce high quality fiction, film, paintings, sculpture, poetry, etc. in order to cultivate a Creator-honoring culture.

“The God revealed in the Bible has endowed creation with overflowing beauty. There God is not characterized by utility but by abundant love. God desires his creatures-especially those who in Christ are adopted as his children-also to be creative and generative.”

pp. 96-97

As God is the Creator, we are likewise creators, as we bear his image. Fujimura challenges modern-day Christians to move about their spheres in ways they have perhaps not done before. He asks us to look at the entire story of the Bible and to find our place in it today.

“…churches often present the middle two elements (fall and redemption) but rarely connect the whole story of the Bible-that begins in creation and ends in new creation-with the stories of our present lives and communities. We often issue this great book, reducing it to a book of rules, a checklist for earning our way into heaven, or a guidebook for material prosperity or personal well-being. Many churches replace God as Artist with God as CEO of the universe…

Christian communities are thus often busy with programs, but rarely seen as a creative force to be reckoned with, let alone as a power of good that affects whole cities and gives everyone a song to sing.”

pp. 95-96

Fujimura believes in truth telling, but also believes that the Christian has more to tell than just the darkness and grimness of reality. There is more to the real world than brokenness and despair.

“In The face of the undeniable and often unbearable human suffering all around us, we must still affirm beauty and work to make our culture reflect it. This is why a culture care approach will encourage truth telling about alienation, suffering and oppression alongside truth telling about justice, hope, and restoration.”

p. 56

Fujimura invites all artists- and here his definition of an artist or creator is wide and encompassing- to participate in culture care, in creating and restoring.

The third book recommendation, A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping our Kids Navigate Today’s World by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle, was just published this year. The authors make a point early in the book of defining culture as morally neutral. There is nothing inherently negative about living within a local culture. On the contrary, some cultures may be extremely moral and beneficial. As creatures, we were created to make something of the world. That is, our culture, not the created elements, the trees, the lakes, the birds, but the art, the cuisines, the sports, the entertainment and myriad of expressions that converge to comprise any one culture. Stonestreet and Kunkle writes particularly to parents, church leaders, youth leaders, and anyone who has spiritual contact with teens. They articulate words of warning and encouragement to both teens and their adults to aid in teaching and training young people to build their faith. They frequently describe us as “image-bearers” in this broken world. Like Fujimura, the authors of A Practical Guide to Culture do not see culture as something to be shunned, but something to take advantage of – a beautiful opportunity on which to construct something beautiful and healing.

“Cultivating is exactly the sort of behavior the Scriptures would have us expect from God’s image bearers… God made humans with the capacity to do something with His world, and that’s exactly what we do. Culture was an integral part of God’s plan for us and His world from the very beginning.”

Celebrating contemporary artists and leaders, the authors give nods to several people involved in various fields who are creating beautiful culture. Educator and Founder and President of Celebrate Kids, Inc., Dr. Kathy Koch, the aforementioned artist Makoto Fujimura, and S.D. Smith, author of the middle grade novel series The Green Ember, and others are all lauded as having accepted the call to be faithful in their sphere, “celebrating, creating, confronting, co-opting, and correcting” in the world.

Addressing contemporary topics like LGBTQ issues, screens and technology, and the media, Stonestreet and Kunkle discuss how Christians should biblically view them. By far the strongest sections of this book are their treatment of racism and Part Four: Christian Worldview Essentials, a final section on teaching our children a Christian worldview. Stonestreet and Kunkle remind us that tolerating racial or ethnic barriers is a sin.

“Do we find our identity in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Have we cultivated a posture of forgiveness and reconciliation or of hostility and bitterness? Do we simply dismiss all concerns about racism without listening carefully to others?

Followers of Jesus don’t have the option of tolerating racial or ethnic barriers. It’s sin. We take our cues from Scripture,not from culture.”

The heart of the book lies in the final section. It could easily be read by an adult to help a teen, or by the teen herself. Stonestreet and Kunkle present the Christian worldview in describing why we believe the Bible to be historically true and accurate, but also why we consider it to be the very words of God. They also help teens navigate other world views, and show them how honest people might disagree with them.

“Classical tolerance actually entails disagreement about important matters, but we ‘tolerate’ those who hold differing opinions, treating one another with respect even while disagreeing.”

In a world that purports tolerance, we see pitifully few discussions which seem to epitomize a tolerant or understanding spirit. How much richer and more beautiful would our cultural soil be if we were able to engage our neighbors with truth, beauty and goodness, all while listening?

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Dappled Beauty

Recently, I mentioned a book club which I was so graciously invited into a couple of years back.  Many of the women have a long-standing history with one another, and yet graft newcomers in seamlessly.  If you read my last blog post I describe our latest read – Tolkien’s delightful Letters from Father Christmas in which he fantasizes to his children on the happenings at the North Pole each year.  Each December the book club members bring a wrapped book to exchange.  It is always interesting to see what is contributed to the pile and what each person ends up with – from fiction to memoirs, cookbooks to devotionals.  This  year I came home with Booked by Karen Swallow Prior in which she confesses early on that she “thought [her] love of books was taking [her] away from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwoods path back to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth and wonder.”

My own love of books dates back to the farthest reaches of my memory when, as a toddler, I would pile the books from shelves around me in bed as I drifted off to sleep.  Instead of a favorite stuffed bear, I slept with all the characters and words collected from my day.  As I make my way through Prior’s tribute to the written word, I feel an immediate affinity with her as I have struggled to express what various works have meant to me over the years.

Here she quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins in her effort to explain the place language and text and story, especially poetry, held in her life as she used it to guard against feelings of awkwardness.  The written word is not merely an escape, but a means of explaining that incomprehensible truth from Scripture, “my power is made complete in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Beauty may be hiding in those places the world may see as ugly.  Don’t forget the travel-weary, Jewish carpenter huddled with a young girl and a shriveled newborn in a back stable.  Today, do you feel your soul to be stained seemingly beyond worth?  Or rather, is your soul crying to escape the prison of an ugly, unwanted body?  With regret and confusion I recall the hours spent in tears and frustration because I was not as I should be….that my child felt the pain and confusion of not being “right” in this world.  Oh, dappled beauty!  May we always see things as they truly are and praise Him.  Whatever is fulfilling its purpose, or better still His purpose, is imbued with beauty beyond description, even if it be beyond our vision.  Here is how Gerard Manley Hopkins describes it:

Glory be to God for dappled things-

For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour;  adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Isaiah Berlin and Muriel Barbery on Tolstoy and Truth: a juxtaposition

“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  This is the opening of the essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by philosopher-critic Isaiah Berlin.  Remembering these words was what prompted me to pick up Muriel Barbery’s second novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog in a local bookstore about five years ago.

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I was instantly reminded of Tolstoy.  Yet when I read the synopisis on the back cover, I was disappointed.  No mention of Tolstoy, nor Berlin.  The premise still intrigued me, yet it was not until last month that I actually read the novel.  Indeed, there are references to the great Russian writer.  The story takes places in Paris, concentrating on characters who reside in a high-end apartment building.  The main character, Renee Michel, owns a cat, not coincidentally, named Leo.  Later, she is stunned to discover her new neighbor’s two felines are called Kitty and Levin (p. 150).  These are, of course, specific references to Tolstoy’s characters in Anna Karenina.  Renee, though a humble, formally uneducated concierge, loves philosophy, Japanese art films, and War and Peace.

The novel makes no mention of Isaiah Berlin, nor his essay.  The true Tolstoy connection, however, is the one that is unspoken, assumed in everything.    Renee describes herself as “short, ugly and plump” (p. 19).   It is this unassuming elegance, however, which eventually attracts the attention of Kakuro Ozu, the mysterious, new Japanese resident in her building.

“She’s not what we think.” Ozu confides in twelve-year-old Paloma, a fellow resident and philosopher.  “She radiates intelligence…Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the simple refinement of the hedgehog; a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary-  and terribly elegant.”

Indeed.  Awkward externally.  Internally a searcher of beauty and one single truth.  Recalling a camellia growing  against moss, she defines her focus for us as the “contemplation of beauty within the very moment of life.” (p. 101).

Defining Renee as a hedgehog has further implications.  Not only is she a peculiar mix of beautiful and awkward, but she is single-minded, focused.  In short, she is Berlin’s interpretation of how the Greek poet Archilochus depicts the hedgehog.

“one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.  For there exists a great chasm between those on one side who relate everything to a single central vision…and on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory” (Berlin).  Berlin continues to name Dante as a hedgehog (having one central vision), but Shakespeare as a fox (pursuing many ends “with no moral or aesthetic principle”).  According to Berlin, foxes would be Aristotle, Erasmus, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac and Joyce.  Hedgehogs are Plato, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Ibsen and Proust.  DSC_0044_2465The remainder of Berlin’s essay proves to his readers how Tolstoy, an intuitive fox, strives to transform himself, and thoroughly believes in being a hedgehog.

This single-minded focus is even mirrored in the precocious Paloma, the neighbor who at twelve years old has despaired of a purpose to life and has determined to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.  Paloma still retains a sense of sweetness even while arrogantly demeaning her family and neighbors in the journals she faithfully maintains.

As she is pulled in by her father to watch a rugby match, she describes the Maori player during his haka, or “warrior chant.”  She writes, “What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy…it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself by staying centered.  That Maori player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance – everyone could feel it…giving his strength to the group.” (p. 40-41)

A single central vision.  A hedgehog.

We begin to see the struggle of hedgehog and fox surface in an early comment which Renee delivers to fellow-resident Bernard Grelier.  “War and Peace is the staging of a determinist vision of  history.” (p. 49).  Again, this drives us back to Berlin’s interpretation of Tolstoy as a conflicted hedgehog.  According to Berlin, Tolstoy fought to believe in “great men” determining their own destiny, but succumbed to the mere illusion of free will.  Tolstoy’s preoccupation with history led him to wrestle with the appearance of a free will and “first causes” of events.  He tried to create a “unifying pattern of the world for a monistic vision of life on the part of a fox bitterly intent upon seeing in the manner of a hedgehog.”   It was a search for meaning, a single over-arching purpose in life.  For a sharp contrast, for example, one might juxtapose Tolstoy’s War and Peace with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in order to examine their differing views on free will and fate.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog revolves largely around the blossoming friendship of Renee Michel and Kakuro Ozu.  Renee learns to discuss the qualities of Dutch and Italian painting, her favorite Japanese films, as well as her troubled, neglected past with Kakuro in an easy fashion.  Even so, the emphasis is on the “contemplation of beauty.”

Renee discovers from her one friend Manuela that Kakuro has decorated his apartment with elegant, assymetrical designs.  One lamp of a kind.  One singular table.  Nothing is the same.  Nothing matches.  Renee’s reaction is noteworthy: “I’ve never thought about it.  But it’s true that we tend to decorate our interiors with superfluous things.” (p. 161)  Manuela does not seem to comprehend.  Indeed, I am not sure I do either.  It is as if she were speaking of her soul, and not merely her living quarters.

Muriel Barbery has written a book in which the reader can appreciate the delicate flavors of zaru ramen and Jasmine tea, alongside the quiet beauty of a camellia.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a beautiful book on the possibilities of unlikely friendship and on finding the one truth and beauty in life.

 

 

Unequal Beauty

Arid, desolate, withered, brown and devoid of life.

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Scorching, dangerous, treacherous, exposed, intense and cursed.

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Are these apt descriptions to you of the desert?  Barren and dry?  God-forsaken?

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Recently my family and I returned from two weeks in the Sonoran Desert.  I enjoyed the distinctive beauty all around me.  The sun was still relatively mellow at this time for central Arizona, but a blinding beauty as we came from the harsh realities of this year’s Midwestern winter.  Yet there are many who view the desert as ugly, harsh, without natural beauty.  Who would prefer a thorny barrel cactus, or ocotillo to a lush, full oak?

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DSC_0177_2255The desert is rugged and the sunsets are gorgeous, but how can you compare it to a winding path in a maple wood, celebrated by a bubbling brook?  Must there be comparisons?  This may be where all the troubles begin.

 

 

Comparison is the death of joy.

~Mark Twain

Haven’t we seen this already as parents, moms in particular, as educators, as Christians, well, let’s face it, as human beings?  Must one thing be more beautiful than another?  Which one of your children is more beautiful?  Cannot two completely incompatible scenes of the LORD’s creation bring us a wondrous sense of awe and bafflement?

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Then I peer deeply into the differing eyes of my three boys, my family, my brothers and sisters in Christ about me, into my own soul, and marvel.  Which one of us is the thorny ocotillo, initially so unappealing and rough?  Which one possesses the unsung beauty of the Sonoran sunsets?  Even the prickly pear shows its springtime blooms.DSC_0129_2216

 

 

 

 

Have I experienced a beauty others might name as scorching, arid, intense, devoid of life?

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God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.  Genesis 1:31

One of my sons may be socially awkward at times.  Seemingly self-centered.  Aloof.  Gawky.  Obsessive.  Intense.  Piercing.  Heartfelt.  Tender.  Perceptive.  Observant. Is he the arid desert, the dry rocky hills, or the lush oak, the verdant field of blooming wildflowers?

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.

I Corinthians 12:17-18

Comparing beautiful scenery may be like comparing inner beauties.  Incomparable.  The introvert’s unseen acts of love and service may not be arranged the same way as the gregarious person’s warm smile and full embrace.  And yet they are both beautiful.  Unequally, incomparably beautiful.DSC_0132_2218

 

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom…they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.

Isaiah 35:1, 2b