Books Unfit To Read (part 3)

Standard

Like plants we cannot flourish without light. And though Christ has already brought the revelation of His superabundant light, our arts and sciences are not the harvest of a righteous world, but an exceedingly wicked one. If the light offered by unbelievers is darkness, for we are all darkness before we have Christ, then should Christians reject all non-Christian culture? Or going further, if the public culture made available by the world is even a deception meant to ensnare us, then how should we be separate or on guard?

For some like me, to reject certain authors is like abandoning family. True that sometimes we outgrow authors, or they lose their spell, while others stay relevant. The vital testimony of a whole generation, of a soul, or of our humanity, can make reading such witness holy even when the author puts forth bad fruit. At least that is what I argue as part of my conclusion in Part 1 of this series.

In this effort to see in darkness, (and we must maintain the effort even in church, and with Christian media), we should expect to detect both good and bad, beneficial and potentially harmful things. Some work is too unwholesome or dangerous and should be avoided, at least that is what I conclude with alarm when I confront the material of Part 2 of this series.

Ultimately we will create a new Christian culture based on higher Truth, and filled with Life, and greater loveliness. And this must come into full flowering in the Peaceable Kingdom of Christ. God willing we can begin laying the groundwork by His blessing now.

And I want to just offer this video as a kind of demonstration of these issues, because it shows the matter in several poignant dimensions. Here James Baldwin, the celebrated novelist, debates William F. Buckley, the conservative intellectual and wit, on the issue of race in America. The actual motion of the debate proves somewhat hard to tack down, but the evening essentially becomes a referendum on the significance of racism in America, what toll it takes, and/or whether whites can be held accountable, or even for Buckley, whether they should be thanked.

Baldwin’s father was a Pentecostal preacher, and he was a preacher himself as a youth, though he grew up to reject Christianity. He seems invested with a gifted preacher’s eloquence; even referring to himself as a Jeremiah figure. He asks us, ‘isn’t your position in life what determines your morality, and your motives, and your convictions?’ This is true a great extent, both economically, and in terms of election. Were we raised slaveholders we would see the world one way; but if we were black in Harlem in 1950, we would see the world another way. Then in contemplating the human heart and seeking to love our neighbor as ourselves, what position is our neighbor in? What abyss is stretched a shadow out beneath our neighbor? If we cannot truly know our neighbor then we cannot effectively love our neighbor. Perfect love does not smile at a burning man.

And this fact was played out so dramatically in the debate. Buckley took strong positions all the time on his show, matching himself against very brainy people with his arguments and humor. But here he cannot help arguing the position that white people have not achieved the American Dream at the expense of the black people whose labor they exploited for hundreds of years, and while you could say, no, they achieved a nightmare at the expense of black people, we (whites) have had the privilege of inequality at every step. Buckley is caught in his position and it is terrible and amazing to see him squirm so much.But this is the thing about Buckley that night: it is okay to love him too. He is human too, and he is lovable too.

This series is called, “books unfit to read”, and here in this debate we see what this really means, though it is oral and ex tempore. Engagement often makes it possible for Christian ministry to take place, and this does not only mean evangelism. However, for culture to be dominated by anti-Christian products does no good. That is, thinking of the debate, reason and language can get us touched with goodness, with repentance. Reason and language can also enable us to contemplate difficulties we endure like prejudice.

When we use our human gifts to the full regnant Christ engages, enters our kitchen, our little fright, our holy sacrifice. Then we can be reconciled to the Absolute Light, whether as a friend of the King for a minute, or forever. Were not Ahab, and Balaam, friends with God, when they repented, when they said, “my heart is with God, and I will bless?” Possible as this is by engaging a relatively godless work, friendship with God flourishes in a godly society.

Finally I just want to say that this debate shows the inner workings of reason, more specifically, logos; they way the Word works in human beings, both in conversation and when we consider rhetoric privately. How moved and transported these young men and women were! This was because they revered a man who used his hard won power to set others free, as if his tongue were a hard forged instrument of liberation. And God’s own reflections on the Word are mixed with the logos we bear. Listen for the moment (around the 21:50 mark) when Baldwin raises his voice to make a point, as he turned poetic in the second block of text here. Did the outdoor speakers echo with that word?

Baldwin said,

“Now, we are speaking about expense. I suppose there are several ways to address oneself to, some attempt to find what that word means here. Let me put it this way. That from a very literal point of view, the harbors, and the ports, and the railroads of the country; the economy, especially of the Southern states, could not conceivably be what it has become, if they had not had, and do not still have, indeed and for so long, for so many generations, cheap labor.”

“I am stating very seriously.
And this is not an overstatement.
That I picked the cotton,
and I carried it to market,
and I built the railroads.
Under someone else’s whip,
for nothing!
for nothing!”

“The Southern oligarchy which has today so much power
in Washington, and therefore some power in the world,
was created by my labor and my sweat,
and the violation of my women,
and the murder of my children.
This, in the land of the free
and the home of the brave.
And no one can challenge that statement.
It is a matter of historical record.”

God’s mind is a Supreme Glory. Because man can have a mind such as found in Baldwin’s oratory, it is like the prophets, and in that sense God-like, echoing, resonating with the Living God. We should have reverence for human culture, and our intellectual output, laboring to handle God’s scriptures rightly, but also handle the logos rightly in the world around us; rejecting some things, and embracing others.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Books Unfit To Read (part 2)

Standard

This post began as a book review of a poetics manifesto written in the 1970s by counter-culture leader Ed Sanders. This short manifesto, Investigative Poetics, instructs poets to keep research files on the historical conspiracies of their time, on friends and enemies. This moral material he suggests is the stuff of poetry with a political vector. In certain ways this can work. Gulag Archipelago was a prose work of similar motivation and is a tremendous accomplishment. However Investigative Poetics struggles at just making sense and is more than a bit cracked. I was going to give it two stars out of ten.

Ed Sanders has had a complex career though and getting a file on him for the post was a bit involved. Of particular relevance here is his history of the Charles Manson murders. Sanders, who was a hippie who lived in New York, spent time camping with “the Family” (Manson’s followers) in Death Valley after some of the murderers were apprehended for their crimes.

In part 1 of this post I weighed the claims for reading poets who are sacrilegious or anti-Christian, concluding that to know, and truly love the lost, means to witness with them their pain, even the way they curse, without being moved to poor judgment. And I believe that view has validity. What else is hearing our children’s painful rejection of our own Lord? What else is it to understand our times, its dangers and darkness? A prayer ministry for the lost implies an understanding of their plight.

Nonetheless, we are also called to be separate. We are prohibited from fellowship with unbelievers, and we cannot walk with those with whom we do not agree.

“Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3)

“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ Therefore ‘come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.”
(2 Corinthians 6:14-17)

God instructs us to  be separate and not seek communion or fellowship with those outside of Christ. So a writer who is darkness ought not be our fellowship or communing friend, even if they seem innocent, like perhaps Rumi or Ginsberg or Bly. We may say “is this really necessary? I have known such nice people outside of Christ.” I am not advocating a view that makes all unbelievers devils. But most are; most never believe; most are devils just like Judas, and on the broad way. And they deserve love, and humane treatment and have tremendous value, and are the parents, spouses, children, of Christians. And they despise Christians from the deepest parts of their being, and are advancing an attack against our Lord, before they go to the place they are expecting to go.

The truth is not always what it seems. In the following interview with Kerouac and Ed Sanders on William Buckley’s show, all the men lined up, with their legs crossed, and such a big point being made about Kerouac’s drunkenness, the shot of the audience lapping it up, leads with such careful design to the Nazi greeting shouted by Kerouac, and echoed quietly by Sanders. These are “poets, beatniks, hippies”. So what country do we live in? And this puts everything in the right light because God warns us for a reason and there is a fourth beast coming.

The second video is Ginsberg’s subtle glamorization of this outburst, and that despite Kerouac’s rejection of Ginsberg on the show. Why does Ginsberg or anyone else need to be reminded that Hitler was one of the most evil men to ever live, an extremely worthless leader, and is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people better than himself? Comments welcome.

 

 

 

Books Unfit to Read (part 1)

Standard

To be honest, I tend to kill my heroes in poetry. Works of brilliance, powerful imagination, deft music, and genuine revelation strike the first blow – lay me flat, or throw me. In fact, some works are so powerful to me that I can only take a thimblefull. Why then is it that I fight against these giants, and cut them down to my size, or smaller?

Examples of assaulted dolls include, Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, William Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Walt Whitman, Rimbaud, Marianne Moore, Jean Toomer, Eliot, Pound, Roethke, Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Ginsberg, the majority of revered poets I’ve read.

And yet it seems a sin once having truly heard a touch of the real music or musician, to toss out their works, their body, and their testimony. Does it matter if the poet is a beautiful rhapsodist, like Ezra Pound? Or should every hack be treated like a treasure? Should we read an evil or injurious testimony, as Chinua Achebe argued that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is? (Click here for Chinua Achebe’s essay on racist literature.) When does a wretched private sin weaken the case for reading an artist? For example, should John Berryman’s adultery and drunken violence against a woman on one occasion, mean that we should be less eager to read his work? Finally, cases could be imagined where someone explicitly writes out of wicked convictions.

An example for clemency, King David wrote some of his greatest poetry after his betrayal of Uriah and adultery with Bathsheba, a sin which caused his son’s death, and was the root of civil war. His wracked penance is in fact an important part of the biblical canon. It was in response to Nathan’s confrontation of his sin that David wrote Psalm 51, which includes the famous principle: “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart – these, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

We rarely find penance in poetry anymore, but on the other hand, is this really something the poet owes the reader? I may repent in my life, but have only one poem that really names my sins. Still, if a poet is filthy why should someone seeking godliness read them? Whitman for instance calls himself a god, carried away by those long lines.

But John Berryman is the case in point with me. If human life has value, how could he personally have given more? From his own horrific pain, which was maudlin, terrifying, and continually dragging him into private abysses, he was able to sketch the most ingenious forms; turning himself into a beloved spectacle, redeeming ruin with his magnetism, humor, insight, and stunning verbal performances. Becoming a poet of the highest rank was his own great cross; it made him hateful, jealous, incredibly industrious, and made him his own great tormentor. It also elevated all that was loving and glorious in him.

Now I know I have a tendency to unduly write off these heavyweights on aesthetic grounds, but when you love people you love them regardless of their mistakes, and shouldn’t that be called holy? Even the Bible quotes a pagan poet.

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;  for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said,`For we are also His offspring.'”
(Acts 17:26-28)

Now considering Berryman’s first two wives divorced him what is the breaking point? This came to a head when I was reading Berryman’s Sonnets. The book went from holding me in the palm of its hand to getting thrown in the trash almost in one page. That was because of a vile sonnet that equated what is holy to God with mere flesh in a lewd way I won’t detail.

Now some will say Berryman did try to repent, while others read these late religious interests more cynically. I suppose I believe that a great artist making great work has given the testimony of his life and testimony to larger issues relating to the human experience. If the work is not harmful, (and some works doubtless are and should be considered separately), we should feel free to explore this vital expression of human life.

But doesn’t it matter that the world’s known cultural output is completely dominated by the godless, by people opposed to Christ, whether openly or secretly? It does matter of course. Christian poetry has the Bible and Gerard Manley Hopkins and what else? Don’t tell me Milton. There must be other major Christian poets, but I don’t know who they are. The world is under the sway of the evil one, and its institutions are also. The books made available represent a kind of warfare on our souls. How much moral edification comes from the academic disciplines all told since the Renaissance? It seems almost held to a minimum.

Therefore, Christian artists and intellectuals should seek to advance a renaissance in the pursuit of the knowledge of the glory of God; the expression of our charismatic giftings in works of art which restore the proper relationship of man to God. We should learn for God; to worship Him; to serve Him; walking in the Cross becoming ever more Christlike by the righteous embodying of our full humanity. This points far beyond ideology. But what renaissance can Christians expect when we so often do not even lead our own churches?

While God tells us directly in Luke 16:8 that the children of this world are more shrewd or “wise” than the children of light in their own way, it is a tragedy that our own (potential) cultural contribution is suppressed. However great the literary contribution of a poet who rejects Christ, it will always be the work of someone who was not “light”; who did not know agape love; did not cross the bridge to remain in the secret places; does not have the mind of Christ; whose mind was not renewed by the Holy Spirit. Thus the true joy of a poetry which exalts not only the Lordship of God, and His beauty, (as the Psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament do), but the Life and work of the Messiah, can only be celebrated in full by the redeemed. The love songs of God have been a spiritual wind that blew in the main without recording or being read by subsequent generations. But it is time to stand in the reverence, awe, dread, and loving worship of the One who fulfills His promises and is returning soon.

The poetry of this world will never be as great as poetry that fills the lips of the one who gazes upon the form of the Holy God, because He is higher than all things, and it is only fitting that a pure heart made to sing by this Lord of Song will be given instrumental power to raise the skill above this grave and wanton world.

—————

Is there an innate justifiable value to the work of great writers? We often say this or that person is a genius. Certainly the work of a genius has inherent value and they should pursue that work despite poverty or hardship. Then there can be no evil genius. But no intelligence has such a nature. The product of intelligence will reflect the character of the man or woman and will be either good or bad. Because it is impossible to be so intelligent that one can be assured they will have good or valuable ideas, there is no such thing as genius.

A holy fool has more “genius” than the most shrewd crook. Life, praise God, manifests through us, telling us its own story, and accomplishing its good by its own power, to the glory of God. But in this context, the wicked too, are holy fools. Their personalities are consecrated; they have inherited the image of God; they will be judged with a perfect eternal judgment, because they are worthy of that weight. They are worthy too of intervention. Their personalities are both consecrated, and sacred.

And in that spirit, art is our own special universe. And John Berryman is like some pagan, suffering god; and I don’t at all mean that in a polytheistic way, but figuratively. I broke down and decided I have got to read him, and I will think much harder before tossing out books, especially by those loaded brows, those honey-tongued witnesses of life.

Click on these links to read companion articles, Books Unfit To Read Part 2 and Part 3.