The Rear View and the Forward Gaze

“Society is built, instead, upon the countless habits and rituals of its members, both living and dead. Since collective identity emerges imperceptibly from these everyday experiences, our understanding of ourselves is always rather nebulous and imprecise — like one of those optical illusions that, when one focuses too hard, dissolves back into the page. As each generation passes, we forget something essential — if intangible—about ourselves. With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.”

Kit Wilson, “Sentimental Nihilism and Popular Culture”

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Perhaps it’s because I’m reading A Canticle for Leibowitz or because my grandfather is slowly dying from Alzheimer’s or because the world is changing so quickly that I feel powerless and totally other in my own skin, but whatever the reason, this article by Kit Wilson struck somewhere deep within me and sent everything to rattling and swaying. But that was a good thing because—in some strange roundabout way—it helped me to replait a few loose thoughts.

The Value of History
I highly recommend reading the piece in its entirety, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll give you the précis. Focusing on the arts, Wilson argues that a shared history is essential to culture, that tradition has a greater purpose than we know. When we hurl those things out the window in favor of the new, when we embrace only what is deemed relevant and “burn the great oaks of Western culture to the ground,” it is we who end of sitting on and sifting through the ashes. And without a robust understanding of tradition and shared history, “Every last inherited standard — every last comfort — must be torn from us once and for all.”

Image courtesy of http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries
Image courtesy of http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries

The nihilism that plagues us will be our undoing, according to Wilson. To combat it, we must embrace history and “engage with one another as members of a common group.” And the best way to do so is through pop culture, which has “stayed the course of the 20th century much more successfully than [its] ‘higher’ cousins.”

“Popular culture crystallised archetypically Western tropes that, if nurtured, may still blossom again,” Wilson says. “So ingrained in the public’s mind are the perfect cadence and the love story that not even the Enlightenment’s cynical ticks can burrow deep enough to suck them out. Today, like the lounge suit, their ubiquity conceals a quintessentially Western inheritance. But it cannot look after us alone. It is but one part of an urgently needed review of who we are and where we’re going. And to face the future with any confidence, we must begin with the memory of where we once came from.” (Emphasis mine)

The artistic past we tried so hard to erase is still there, hidden in plain sight. The familiar strain in the mundane. And I heartily agree with his call to redeem the past. There is absolutely no shame in remembering where you came from, in asserting that your culture’s past (tangled and flawed as it might be) is valuable and worth preserving.

I think about literature, my own beloved discipline, and I am grateful for the professors who taught me Shakespeare as well as those who exposed me to Lorraine Hansberry. Incorporating Mariama Ba into my life doesn’t mean George Orwell needs to go the way of the Dodo. Making room for Ishmael Reed doesn’t make it impossible for me to keep on loving T.S. Eliot. (And if you want another interesting read from an unexpected place, check out what Monica Lewinksky—yes that Monica Lewinsky—has to say about him.)

Image courtesy of http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/classical-street-art/beethoven-wall/
Image courtesy of http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/classical-street-art/beethoven-wall/

In Life As Well As Art
The brutal murder of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina last week has had us all doing a lot of soul searching, and a great dialogue has opened up regarding race and the many meanings of the Confederate flag. It is most definitely not all things to all people.

Days after the shooting, many called for the flag to be taken down, calling it an unseemly relic from a painful era in our nation’s history that has no place before a government building. I have lived in three states during my 37 years on this planet, and all three of them seceded from the union. So yes, I am a Southerner. However, I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with the flag. I always thought there were better symbols for the beautiful place I call home—sweet tea, bar-b-que, graceful front porches, fried okra, fireflies, green fields full of grazing horses, and magnolia trees for starters. It is those things and dozens more like them that come to my mind when I think of the South, and I know I’m not the only one.

Image courtesy of https://www.etsy.com/listing/109743290/nature-photography-savannahs-wormsloe
Image courtesy of https://www.etsy.com/listing/109743290/nature-photography-savannahs-wormsloe

That’s why, as a white southerner born and raised, I am all for retiring the stars and bars. For too long, it’s been an obstruction to race relations, an unnecessary distraction that somehow keeps us from the business of getting to know and love one another as human beings. It’s proper place is not flying before any state capital, but resting in a museum where it can be displayed in a way that allows it retain whatever respect it is due.

But there are some who aren’t satisfied with the quiet and peaceful removal of the flag and objects like it. Instead, they want it abolished, destroyed, and otherwise scrubbed from the pages of history. Some are also calling for the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers, and one writer has even gone so far to say that Gone With the Wind and shows like The Dukes of Hazzard should be removed from store shelves and cast aside. Even Apple joined the fracas when it stopped selling all gaming apps that had anything to do with the Civil War.

As one who believes kindness is paramount, I agree that there is value in sensitivity and in caring for the needs of others. However, doing so shouldn’t mean we rip the past up by the roots and toss it on the compost heap. That is a Pyrrhic victory in every sense of the word.

The Holistic View
To dispose of every reminder of an unpleasant era is to remove a piece of a culture’s bedrock, to mar its matrix so to speak. It also casts aside those things in the past that were good and worthy of praise. And most dangerous of all, eradicating the past robs us of the ability to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future.

Image courtesy of NBC.com
Image courtesy of NBC.com

As Wilson said, “With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.” The generation who marched for Civil Rights won’t be with us forever, and when they are gone, how will children grasp the greatness of that movement as well as why it was necessary? Without preserving the past, what came of it, and what caused it, our understanding of ourselves is incomplete. Our history will become a book with chapters ripped out.

Preserving things like the Confederate flag and safekeeping them for future generations is the only way our culture can live beyond us, and that’s why we must not do away with unpleasantness in the name of political correctness. To do so is only to deny ourselves permanence.

Tow Mater, an unrecognized sage of the modern era, got it half right when he said, “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m going. Just need to know where I’ve been.” I mention him partially in jest, but the statement—like many of the things that Pixar creates—points to a greater truth. We need to know where we came from, but we must also be sure to keep our eyes on the road ahead if our culture is to get to its final destination in one piece.

No nation is perfect, but the United State of America is ours. It is up to us to both preserve and better it by maintaining a holistic view of history. That’s why we must doggedly maintain both a rear view and a forward gaze, and may God help us if we relinquish either.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

My Good Book

Several weeks ago, Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black delivered the message at First Baptist Atlanta, and while he made several salient points that were uplifting and edifying regarding how to be “Free Indeed” while on this earth, I was most fascinated by the point he made regarding a person’s devotional Bible. It was a side note, a five-minute tangent in a forty-minute sermon, one designed to add to his overall purpose, but it set me to thinking.

As a chaplain, he’s officiated at many a funeral, many for people he did not know personally. Therefore, in order to better understand the deceased and prepare more personal remarks, he often asks a family member for that person’s Bible.

Sometimes, he finds a Bible that still creaks when he opens it, the pages stiff and the spine unbent in order to lay the book open for study alongside a prayer journal or study guide. Some have neither name nor gift date written on the opening page, and no marriages, deaths, or births are recorded for his family’s posterity. Other might have still been in the box that protected the precious word of God when it sat on the bookstore shelf, the smell of fresh leather still clinging to it and its pages as pure as the wind-driven snow.

Those that have been opened have been studied still vary in degree. Some have a few key passages marked or a sticky note here or there, and there are a few he’s seen that are filled with underlined passages and highlighted footnotes; these usually have notes scribbled in the margins and study outlines on many pages spanning from Genesis to Revelation.

This is what I found fascinating. Chaplain Black stated, “I can gauge a person’s level of spiritual fitness by perusing his Bible.” I had never thought of it that way! He can see what passages shaped the course of a person’s walk with God and what difficulties that person overcame by immersing himself in the Word. With those Bibles, Chaplain Black says he can deliver a eulogy that is more than just platitudes or generic phrases because, as he put it, “I have a copy of [that person’s] autobiography” and can tell anyone the story of his life.

Chaplain Black then asked his listeners, “If someone who didn’t know you had to deliver your eulogy, what would your Bible tell them? That’s a pretty revealing question, one that might make quite a few Christians uncomfortable. I know it would have made me squirm uncontrollably several years ago because my Bible was often placed high on a bookshelf, taken down only to go to church or to read a passage when a moment of whimsy struck me. Thank God that is not the case now!

So what does my Bible say about my spiritual fitness?

Well, in the front pocket of my Bible cover, there is a white handkerchief, one that is folded over on itself four times and spotted with oil. When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis seven years ago, my great uncle, James Qualls, had some members of his church in Illinois pray over this object, anointing it with oil. He then mailed it to me and told me to keep it as a reminder that I was loved and was in the prayers of many. He also promised me that God would use my illness to do a great work in my life, and that is exactly what has happened. I keep it with me always to remember God’s goodness and often hold it during times of prayer.

Resting atop my Bible are prayer sheets—from Bible study classes or from work—that remind me that I must pray specifically as Jesus instructed in John 14:12-14:

 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.

I haven’t always done this, but I’m finding having these lists ready for my daily prayer and devotional time helps me to stay focused and to speak more directly to my heavenly Father.  I cannot recommend it enough because it keeps me from “letting things slide” or telling God, “You know the rest of those prayers I forgot to mention.” It’s keeping me from being spiritually lazy, which is what I’ve been for far too long.

Books I’ve tried to study in depth, such as Romans, are fairly well marked in pen and highlighter, and I have notes tucked inside that can help me define words like “propitiation,” “justification,” and “reconciliation,” which I will need if I ever use this epistle to witness to an unbeliever. Sometimes, the differences among these words are slight, but even a small variation in meaning might hold the key that unlocks a person’s heart and allows the Holy Spirit to do His great work in his life. I want to be prepared!

I have memories associated with certain passages. For example, Matthew 23:25-28 is underlined. I remember doing so when I prepared a lesson on spiritual hypocrisy for my students several years ago when we were discussing The Picture of Dorian Gray in an Advanced Placement Literature course. It was a blessing to be able to learn the difference between outward righteousness, such as that of the Pharisees, and genuine and inward cleanliness before the Lord!

As I’m sure is the case with many Christians, not all books are marked equally. For instance, of the four Gospels, the one most marked in my Bible is that of Luke, which makes me think I’m like the Gentile doctor who wrote it—obsessed with detail and focused on the humanity of Christ. Some of my favorite Biblical narratives—the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan—are only found in the book of Luke. Also, of the four, Luke devotes the greatest amount of scripture to the role of women in the early church, and I’ve searched them all in my quest for godly role models.

I see a lot of myself in Paul, and I spend as much time with him as I can, leaving marks scattered throughout his epistles to remind me of the perfection of God’s grace, the need to refrain from legalism, and the fact that trials and sufferings bring about spiritual growth. James, too, is a friend (one with whom I share a name!) who has taught me the practical way to live as a Christian, and from his letter, I learned that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).

I’ve marked the hard lessons, the ones that hurt me to read but that are essential if I am to walk the path that leads to the narrow gate:

 But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21-23).

However, I’ve also read of God’s miracles and Christ’s healing of the blind, the leprous, and the lame. I’ve been promised that I am a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17), that I will have life more abundantly (John 10:10), and that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

I marvel at those scriptures that tell me how the same God who created the heavens and the earth knows my name; He knew me even before I was formed in my mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5). It was He who loved me enough to reconcile me to His holiness, He who brought me up “out of the the mire clay and set my feet upon a rock” (Ps. 40:2). This is why I’ve poured over the words of Jesus’ intercessory prayer for believers, the prayer sent up from the Garden of Gethsemane recorded in John 17, leaving marks like bread crumbs to lead me through further readings later in my life. The Bible is God’s love letter to me, the guidebook He’s blessed me with so that I might be more Christ-like each day, and like David, I ask:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor (Ps. 8:3-5).

There are gaps in my studies, oh yes. Many books in the Old Testament are without one line or circle to show my time spent there, and the many that pepper the book of Revelation reveal my frustration when attempting to discern what awaits us before Christ’s return. However, instead of looking at those gaps as failures, I see them as unexplored territory on a map. I have a guide to lead me through them when the time is right and I am spiritually ready, and I am ready to follow the Holy Spirit through each page.

When I die, I want the pastor who delivers my eulogy to know me, to be able to say with blessed assurance that I am home with my loved ones and walking the streets of gold. I want them all to know that I have heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” and that there is no need to grieve because they will see me again in glory (Matt. 25:21). I want my “spiritual autobiography” to be one worth reading, one that my family can keep as its spiritual heritage. Lord, help me make it so!