Perhaps it is fitting that it was in a London hotel room on July 11 that I first received the news of Chris's passing. I couldn't believe the e-mail I was reading. I couldn't believe that I would never see Chris again. Just a few weeks earlier I had passed Chris on the campus of Biola and we'd made plans to get dinner this summer with our wives, as we'd done once before since he and Julie moved out to California last year. I couldn't believe that, just like that, he was gone.
A few weeks ago I read Zadie Smith’s essay, “Joy,” in the New York Review of Books. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend doing so. It’s a beautifully written, decidedly contemporary reflection on joy with a tone I suspect Millennial and Gen-X readers will particularly resonate with.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we could remember as far back as the moment of our birth—that slimy, turbulent transition from the comfort of a warm, dark womb into the unkind cold, harsh bright light of life outside. What emotions, thoughts, hopes, and fears would accompany such a memory? As it is, I can only remember about 27 of my 30 years... my memories begin around age three. When Jesus turned 30, could he recall the moment of his own birth? That epic, heavenly-hosts-rejoicing mystery in which God incarnate dwelled within a teenage girl's womb one minute, and cried and breathed in Bethlehem air the next? Was his memory God-like and infinite, or was it as limited as mine, recalling only shadows and bursts of nascent consciousness from his earliest years?
It’s a strange and wonderful feeling, to see one's idea come to fruition. I never really thought during the summer of 2005 that I'd write a book about hipster Christianity, but I'm glad I did. Looking back I marvel at how it all came together, how so many of my experiences and interactions and relationships all fed into this idea, and how the people in my life during this season were so absolutely instrumental in the whole endeavor.
In response to my last post about Balloon Boy and our human obsession with being recognized and affirmed, Christianne—a faithful and wise reader of my blog—offered a comment that was a helpful corrective to my admittedly harsh rhetoric about how things like Facebook and Twitter are “silly” attempts to “get the attention of other people who are just as weak and attention-seeking as we are.” Here is part of what Christianne wrote.
Last night I attended a screening of Dan Merchant’s new Michael Moore-esque documentary, Lord Save Us From Your Followers. It's a film about how Christians have a huge PR problem and how “the culture wars” are exactly the opposite of what Christians should be battling in this world. The real war concerns things like poverty, injustice, and loving the unlovable, suggests Merchant. If Christians just loved better, befriended drag queens, and washed homeless people’s feet, our image crisis would go away.
The start of every summer is always so full of excitement—the promise of endless free time, lazy mornings, late nights, swimming in pools and oceans, climbing trees and mountains, reading books. Every year around late May, the summer looms so large. It seems so immense. Those endless days! Those boozy low-pressure thunderstorm nights! And so little that must be done!
In the year 2000, I wrote a list of goals for myself. Life goals. They included such things as traveling across the world, writing music, working at Disney World for a time, and opening a “small, elegant eatery.” Number 6 on the list was “write a book.”
In what will no doubt be weeks of upcoming news coverage, tributes, memorials and TV specials chronicling the life and death of Michael Jackson, the point will likely be made that Michael Jackson died the same day as Farrah Fawcett and just two days after Ed McMahon. “We can’t forget Farrah and Ed,” people will say. But invariably, the immense, wall-to-wall coverage of Jackson will overshadow the other two, and history will forget that these three important twentieth century icons died in the same city in the same few days in June.
It’s amazing what a week of focus, peace, quiet and no distractions can do for a writer. Being at the Kilns this past week has been that for me, and it’s paid off. I wrote two whole chapters in my book (I am now two chapters away from the end!), plus the preface. Being in C.S. Lewis’ house has been quite an inspiration, and I’m so blessed to have had the chance to come here.
I always loved C.S. Lewis’ idea of “mere Christianity”—that there are fundamental beliefs about God and Christ that bind the church together, even while so many of the particulars might be different or contradictory. It’s an idea that makes sense. And it’s comforting. It helps explains why Christianity as a belief system has managed to survive so many centuries and penetrate so many disparate cultures. There are certain core beliefs (amazing, world changing beliefs) that can’t help but endure. And as I’ve spent the last few days in Lewis’ house here in Oxford, his idea—“mere Christianity” is one I’ve thought about again and again.
I’m writing this on the bed of C.S. Lewis, in his second floor room in his beautiful home—The Kilns—just outside of Oxford. There’s a little brick fireplace in the room, a creaky wood floor, and an adjacent study where he did a lot of writing after his wife Joy died.
I’m leaving on Saturday on a “research”/“writing” trip to New York City, London, Oxford and Paris. The reason I’m going is threefold
The stakes are high. We cannot look flippantly on a human life—even strangers or enemies or the annoying people who sing too loudly and demonstratively in church. Whether we like it or not, all of these people are holy beings. As Lewis reminds us, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses."
I was thinking just now about how I’d like to return to this little seaside town in Northern Ireland called Newcastle, which I had occasion to walk around for about 5 hours one summer a few years ago, with my best friend. We didn’t really know where we were, but we spent the afternoon walking around, playing little storefront casino games and drinking some sort of ale in the lobby of a fancy hotel. The air smelled salty and vaguely Nordic. There were green mountains all around, and low-lying gray clouds, and a famous golf course that someone said Tiger Woods really enjoyed. It was a lovely afternoon.
We need restraint. We need to be more disciplined. We need to rediscover the beauty of not getting things we want. We need to re-introduce ourselves to the ascetic life. We need to deny ourselves daily.
So the Cambridge week of the Oxbridge 2008 conference is underway (since Saturday), and it has been a marvelous experience thus far. The weather is cool and rainy (in a British sort of way) but the energy is high and all of our heads are spinning from the various lectures and stimuli being thrown at us.
A few highlights of Cambridge thus far include a stunning Evensong service at Ely Cathedral on Sunday, a dinner/dance at Chilford Hall (basically a barn-like structure in Kansas-like wheat fields), and some great lectures from the likes of Colleen Carroll Campbell, Bill Romanowski, and Nigel Cameron, the latter of which I found particularly provocative.
Cameron, Director of the Center on Nanotechnology and Society and Research Professor of Bioethics and Associate Dean at Chicago-Kent College of Law in the Illinois Institute of Technology, gave a talk entitled "Stewarding the Self: A Human Future for Humans?" Essentially the talk asked the question, "what does it mean to be human?" in an age (the 21st century) when all efforts seem to be moving toward a reinvention of the human project itself. He talked about three ways in which the human as we know it is being redefined: 1) taking life (abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, etc), 2) making life (test tube babies, cloning, etc), and 3) faking life (cyborgs, chips in human brains, robots, etc).
It's interesting because just about a month ago I wrote a blog post about many of the things Cameron talked about. Actually, my review of Bigger, Stronger, Faster also fits into the discussion, as does my post about Iron Man. In each of these pieces I point out the increasing sense in our culture that the human being is becoming more machine-like... We conceive of our bodies not as carriers of a transcendent soul but as a material objects which can be manipulated, botoxed, pumped up, and enhanced in whatever way that pleases us. Cameron pointed out various technologies being developed that will make this sort of "faking life" all the more prevalent... such as BMI (Brain Machine Interface) which will allow our brains to work with embedded computer chips in them... so we can just think a webpage or some digital computation rather than go to the trouble of using a computer hardware external to our body.
He mentioned that the computing power in the world will likely increase by a factor of a million within a generation, which means we have no concept now of just what the future will look like. He pointed to a government study released in 2007 entitled "Nanotechnology: The Future is Coming Sooner Than You Think," which featured some pretty remarkable assessments from noted futurists and nanotech scholars about what the future might hold. For a government study, it's pretty sci-fi. Take this section which poses the potential of "The Singularity" happening within a generation or two (and for those unfamiliar with "The Singularity," read about it here)...
Every exponential curve eventually reaches a point where the growth rate becomes almost infinite. This point is often called the Singularity. If technology continues to advance at exponential rates, what happens after 2020? Technology is likely to continue, but at this stage some observers forecast a period at which scientific advances aggressively assume their own momentum and accelerate at unprecedented levels, enabling products that today seem like science fiction. Beyond the Singularity, human society is incomparably different from what it is today. Several assumptions seem to drive predictions of a Singularity. The first is that continued material demands and competitive pressures will continue to drive technology forward. Second, at some point artificial intelligence advances to a point where computers enhance and accelerate scientific discovery and technological change. In other words, intelligent machines start to produce discoveries that are too complex for humans. Finally, there is an assumption that solutions to most of today’s problems including material scarcity, human health, and environmental degradation can be solved by technology, if not by us, then by the computers we eventually develop.
Pretty crazy stuff, eh? Who knew the government actually thought that The Terminator was going to come true? As Cameron pointed out, it's as if the forecasts of Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis (in The Abolition of Man) were all coming true. It means that Christians will need to address science and technology along with theology and postmodernism in the coming decades, raising questions that perhaps no one else will, such as: how do we reconcile a theology of suffering with a world that is trying its hardest, through technology, to rid us of all suffering?
Things are going extremely well here at Oxbridge, as the Oxford portion of the conference comes to an end tomorrow (Cambridge starts on Sunday). A few highlights and thoughts from the last few days:
- Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God, spoke in a plenary address on Wednesday. If you haven't heard of him or read his book, you should check him out. He presents a convincing case for why evolution and Christian faith are NOT incompatible, and how an appreciation for science does not mean we have to check religion (or theism) at the door. Collins is also a great musician and led the whole group in singing hymns and Christian folk songs. How great it was to sing such songs as "Hallelujah, the Great Storm is Over" with one of the world's most preeminent geneticists. Oh, and during his address he showed a clip from when he was on the Colbert Report. Totally awesome.
- Thursday night, at Great St. Mary the Virgin church in Oxford (the ancient church where Thomas Cranmer was tried as a martyr), there was a fantastic "evening of poetry and song" which featured poetry recited by Dana Gioia (the current Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts), piano played by Paul Barnes (including amazing Liszt and Philip Glass pieces), and poems sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Butler. One of the highlights, however, was an emotional reading of the poem "As the Ruin Falls" by C.S. Lewis. Lewis, of course, was never hailed as a great poet, but this poem--which he wrote after the death of his beloved wife Joy Davidman--is achingly beautiful:
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you. I never had a selfless thought since I was born. I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through: I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek, I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin: I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek-- But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack. I see the chasm. And everything you are was making My heart into a bridge by which I might get back From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains You give me are more precious than all other gains.
- Today's plenary address from Dana Gioia was absolutely wonderful. It was provocative and beautiful and challening, posing the rather large question: What is the human purpose of beauty? Of art? What are the existential purposes of art? Gioia proposed that art is crucial to existence because it shows us what is truly human; beauty synthesizes the unknowable truths and transcendent complexities of the world. It's not just about pretty decor but rather about seeing into the nature of reality and seeing the order of things, the terrifying and dizzying sublime of which art is uniquely capable of distilling. Gioia made statements like this, which doubtless ruffled some feathers: "Michelangelo, Mozart, and Dante have brought more souls to Christ than any minister." Of course he IS the head of an arts endowment, so of course he should say things like this. But I actually might agree with him. "Art," says Gioia, "awakes us to the full potential of humanity. It leads us to truth, the secrets of being." In this way you might see it as the ultimate evangelism--though I think Gioia would point out that we don't use art and beauty as much as it uses us. Beauty is not something we make, it's something we participate in. For Gioia (a very Catholic aesthetician), beauty is bound up in the world already in its materials and forms and presences. We only need to thoughtfully re-connect with it and frame it to become artists. As Psalm 19 reminds us, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Beauty is out there--we just have to find it and make it more manageable (whether on a canvas, in a sonnet or a story, etc).
More updates to come from Cambridge next week!