Lent I – Repair the Breach

For Ash Wednesday:

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Olana – Matthew 6, Makoto Fujimura

Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

~ Isaiah 58:5-12 (ESV)

Oh God,

Let us be the hands and feet of Jesus. Let us be repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets. Let us risk all to feed, clothe, visit, harbor, save the least of these. Let us not take pride in our humility, nor offer up our good deeds to others for their praise. Let us be servants, workers in your kingdom. Now is the acceptable time! Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.

Amen.

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Renewing the Ruined City

My reading today, Isaiah 61, beautifully describes God’s Servant coming to reconcile God’s people to himself. Jesus explicitly names himself as this Servant in Luke 4:16-21. He is the one who has come proclaiming good news, showing compassion to us – the mourning, brokenhearted, poor, imprisoned. It is He who, in his life, death, and resurrection is redeeming all things. He has set the new temporality of his kingdom in motion now, and even though it is only in the process of being fulfilled and overlaps with the temporality of sin, there will ultimately be a new earth and new heavens in which sorrow and despair and sin have no place.

And in his mercy, he has bestowed on us “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3a). Our grief at the horror we may experience in this world is replaced with the joy that Christ has conquered death and sin and that he is already making us new, for his glory. It is said of us in v. 3b:

Photo credit: Inspirational Storytellers

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

What follows, though, is the most profound part of my reading today:

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.

In the context of Israel’s history, this refers to the return from Babylonian exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. But in the context of the preceding verses, we can also recognize these words as referring to us, our role in the world now, and our ultimate place in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21).

Are we merely passing time as we live here, citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners on earth? Is not our very understanding of our future hope that it breaks into our lives now? Are we rebuilding those things that have been ruined by sin? Are we agents of restoration in broken places, relational, physical, spiritual? Are we renewing the ruined cities in which we live with the reality of redemption, through relationships, through study, through art, through life?

Am I?

Making Culture in a Small Town Storefront (Daniel Bowman, Christianity Today)

If “architecture is frozen music,” as Goethe said, then beautiful architecture left for dead is doubly frozen. What if we can unfreeze it? Maybe, somehow, we can reclaim one of these buildings, rescue the power of its design and history and integrity, reshape it so it can, eventually, re-shape us…

I became well-steeped in the ideas of the book [Culture Making, Andy Crouch] and began to believe them: I wanted not just to critique or consume culture but rather to make culture. I committed to applying those principles to my writing. I focused not on lazy online criticism of others’ published work, or incessant consumption of books and ideas, but rather on carefully building my own poems and narratives, improving my craft in ways that may not be obvious according to standard measures of success.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

But when I came to Indiana, I saw clearly the need to make culture in my town. I’d never stayed anywhere long enough to try it. Seeing those storefronts in Hartford City made me wonder if this was the time. To put theory into practice where I live would take imagination, hope, and hard work. And of course, I couldn’t do it alone…

In making the Arts Center, we [a group of volunteers] would add tangibly to the stock of reality available to the citizens of Hartford City, Indiana, and the surrounding area. We would bring some poetry to town…

In the coming days [after the Newtown, CT tragedy], many would debate gun control, increased security, and mental-health-care awareness. But I couldn’t help thinking that this work was, for me, the most appropriate reaction to the tragedy in Newtown. I saw the Arts Center with a new urgency: not just as a renovated old storefront, but as a place where people of any age could come and create, make culture—and make friends—in a world that needed more than ever these safe spaces. It would be one strategy against isolation and anger, a place made for the appropriate expression of those emotions, a place that might finally have the power to, as Alain de Botton says, “rebalance our misshapen natures.”

Grace in the Raw

Review of Les Misérables (2012)

This review was written for Chesterton House and can be found here on their website.

Before attending Les Misérables, I heard from a friend – a long-time fan of the stage musical – that she found the rawness of the cinematography distracted her from the music. Armed with this observation, I did not expect to be as ravished by the film as I was. Most captivating is the way in which the musical and filmic elements work together to create a deeply engaging experience of the narrative and its characters that spills over into life, especially through the portrayal of grace.

Photo credit: NCR online

Film settings necessarily contrast with the expectations established by stage dramas. Many film interpretations of musicals retain a relatively theatrical setting and the perceptual distance of a stage drama.  To say that Les Misérables abandons any theatrical effect would be to entirely mistake the film, but nevertheless, the film takes advantage of the medium’s capabilities. The city is shown in various states of disarray: the prostitutes appear ill, the poor look starved and cold, the inn is chaotic, the streets are dirty. Aerial shots are juxtaposed with extreme close-ups to create a continuum of varied perspectives on the story. The close-ups are especially raw, introducing us to the vulnerability of the characters in an intimate way that is downright uncomfortable. Les Misérables thus eliminates the lens of ironic distance common to popular postmodern perception, much to the chagrin of critics. Put differently, it dares to “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions with reverence and conviction” (Stanley Fish; NY Times).

Trained musicians tend to disparage the quality of the vocals in this film. Although Anne Hathaway presented a stunning performance as Fantine, other leads have come under some severe criticism. However, with the possible exception of Russell Crowe, I think the vocal issues are balanced and even, perhaps justified, by the circumstances in which the characters find themselves; the raggedness of the physical and emotional states of the characters is much more pronounced in this film than it could be on stage, and the rough edges in the vocals are generally appropriate to the dramatic situation. This trained musician finds that the vocal imperfections contribute to the film’s powerful effect.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

One might think a film offers little advantage over a staged production with respect to large ensemble numbers, usually staged as a colorful choreographic spectacle. Yet this film production of Les Misérables balances the spectacle and the underlying character of the events portrayed. Take, for example, “Lovely Ladies,” in which shots of the whole group of prostitutes dancing are juxtaposed with disorienting footage of Fantine as she winds her way through the chaos and is swallowed up by it. The scene becomes grotesque and disturbing–the crude humor of the lyrics offset by Fantine’s desperation. We are not supposed to laugh and the film makes laughing impossible.

Consider also the intriguing contrast between musical time and the “real” time of the narrative. In Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Jean val Jean’s “Bring Him Home,” all else comes to a halt. No other characters hear these songs; they are reflections, prayers, asides. This feature is not unique to musical dramas but is perhaps most pronounced in them because words take time to sing and are often repeated in a way that would be nonsensical if unaccompanied by music. The realism of the film setting is what makes these pauses in the narrative so emotionally striking. Combined with improbably close-up cinematography and realistic expression, these “slow” moments drag us into the characters’ inner reality.

Many reviewers have remarked on the pervasive theme of grace in Les Misérables. Here again, the film’s interwoven cinematographic and musical elements provide a suitable lens. The grace of Les Misérables is visceral rather than philosophical. We cannot distance ourselves from the ragged horror of the characters’ circumstances and experience, but are rather invited – even compelled – to empathize with and extend grace to Fantine and val Jean, Marius and the young rebels, even Javert. These are sinners all, yet desperately craving mercy. Freed of ironic distance, do we recognize our own desperate need for grace? Are we not also inspired to empathize with, extend grace to, and even act on behalf of our fellow image-bearers who are suffering in the world around us? The epilogue articulates what it might mean for grace to be extended, for all things to be reconciled, at the moment when Jean val Jean steps into death and encounters the prior dead from the story singing a revised version of “Do you hear the people sing”:

Do you hear the people sing? Lost in the valley of the night.
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plough-share, We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward! 

(To start the clip below at the above lyrics, skip to 4:25. However, the whole clip is worth listening to.)

Epilogue (Val Jean’s Death/Do You Hear the People Sing Reprise)

Other reviews of interest:

“Les Misérables and Irony” (Quoted above; Opinionator Blog, NYT)

“Two Cheers for Javert” (Cardus blog)

“Law and Les Misérables Revisited” and “Les Misérables Review” (CT)

An Artist in the Dark | Comment Magazine | Cardus

An article concerning spiritual darkness and its effects on the creativity of artists: some create many of their best works in dark times; others cannot create at all. Author Sørina Higgins ends the article with this glimmer of hope:

Darkness is not the end of the story. Perhaps God is making art of us when we cannot make art: St. John wrote that “It is just as if some painter were painting or dyeing a face; if the sitter were to move because he desired to do something, he would prevent the painter from accomplishing anything.” Darkness and desolation are often only identifiable in retrospect, after they have let go their grip. It is then that the curse becomes a blessing and the negation becomes a gift.

Beauty in an Ugly Time | Books and Culture

Beauty in an Ugly Time | Books and Culture

An article by David Lyle Jeffrey addressing the deeply embedded preoccupation with human suffering prevalent in modernist art. He provides an analysis of Rouault and Chagall, each an example of an artist engaged with the horrifying reality of suffering and the redemptive reality of God’s love for us and his offer of life to us.

Chagall’s prophetic art is thus a splendid complement to the confessional work of Rouault. Rouault invites us to give up our masks, to accept the identification that Christ’s suffering affords as the “true image” of God’s love for us. Chagall’s work encourages us to choose life, and to nourish ourselves deeply, whether by day or by night, in the Word of the One who bade us to live in the joy of his giving. Each series is striking; when seen together we know how joy is an answer to sorrow, and beauty is made all the more urgent a choice when so much ugliness abounds.

art | redemption | hope

Check out this brief post on the Culture Making blog:

Good art in dark times | Culture Making.

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.

This seems to support the thought that art should be redemptive, having “as dark a worldview as it wish[es]” but not forgoing hope in what God is doing and will do with and in humanity.  In spite of this fallen world, the current uncertainty and often apparently prevailing darkness, God is in the process of redeeming his people and the whole of creation.  Perhaps art should lift up not just what is human, but what is godly and therefore the hope of humanity, its potential – but this might just be that which appears “magical” and is certainly that which lives and glows.  After all, Christ is the light of the World, and his light shines through us as vessels.  There is great richness left in us because God has not abandoned us.  So let’s not give up hope.

(cf. Philip Ryken, Calvin Seerveld, and Jeremy Begbie)