Power Struggles with the Untamed: What Nature Can Teach You About Yourself

When you learn to ride a horse, you become painfully aware of two things. The first is that the reins in front of you are just an illusion of control. The second is that, no matter how strong your thighs are, if that horse decides you belong on the ground, there’s a good likelihood you’ll end up there pretty soon. A relationship with a horse is risky. There’s no way you can completely control an animal that weighs half a ton. Yet, as you might know from experience, a relationship with a horse is a privilege. It’s an honor to move with a beautiful creature that is so much more powerful than you.

When Christians talk about nature, we usually talk about creation stewardship. We care for the earth because in the beginning God called the earth good, and in the New Testament we see that God desires to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. Yet even creation care can sometimes focus too much on controlling or ruling nature rather than learning from it. Are we to interact with nature simply because we were told to take care of it, or does it exist to teach us something? Rightly regarding nature helps us understand human power correctly, and it can give us insight into our relationship with the earth and God.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, we see that when man practices bad stewardship, he develops an unrealistic understanding of his power that leads to man’s destruction. Captain Ahab is driven to fight nature because his perspective of the world is anthropocentric—he assumes that he has the inherent right to conquer the whale and misunderstands who he is in relation to the natural world. Ahab’s missing leg and his “gashed soul” are, Melville tells us, the direct result of the attack of the great white whale. Despite this, Ahab is unable to accept his powerlessness in the face of nature, embodied by the whale, and he becomes obsessed with regaining power: “All…demonisms…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were…made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” For Ahab, nature is the sole source of all human pain and destruction. Ahab completely relinquishes his roles as a husband and father and leads his entire crew into a dangerous oblivion, which ultimately claims the life of almost every crewmember.

The fate of Captain Ahab and his crew could have been changed if Ahab saw fault not in the whale but in himself. In his pride, Ahab fails to see nature for what it truly is, and he fails to see himself for what he truly is. In Ahab’s world, there is only domination. Either Ahab will dominate the whale, or the whale will dominate him. He will be either a slayer of the earth or a slave to it. But there is a middle way that Ahab has forgotten: man’s primary role as caretaker and lover of the earth.

Melville contrasts Captain Ahab with Ishmael. The only crewmember to survive the wreck of the Pequod, Ishmael does not claim control over the leviathan, and he includes many facts about the whale throughout his account of his journey, proving he is more interested in trying to know this unknowable thing than conquering it. He contemplates the foolishness of man in thinking that we can control nature at all: “However baby man may brag of his science and skill…yet for ever and for every, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest frigate he can make…man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.”

Oughtn’t we come to terms with the fact that nature could, at any moment, “insult and murder” us, as Ishmael so bluntly tells us it could? It is a harsh truth that the earth is more powerful than we are, but this truth does not have to destroy us like it does Captain Ahab, who is wrong in assuming that the harshness of nature means nature is against us. Nature can be frighteningly untamable, but that which is untamable is not necessarily evil. Instead of losing his sanity because he cannot control the earth, Ishmael humbly accepts who he is in relation to the earth. He hungers for knowledge of it but is not obsessed with overpowering any part of it, including Moby Dick. He recognizes that he cannot hate the untamable parts of the earth because they reflect something human. Contained within the earth there is an image of something with which he identifies. Ishmael ponders, “Consider both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”

The mysteries of the earth and endless depths of the sea remind us of all we do not know about this world and even about ourselves. Our souls are mysterious. Our bodies are mysterious. We gather facts like Ishmael, but the same questions God spoke to Job still hover over every created thing: where were we when all of this was created? How were the vast mountains and our tiny nerves fashioned? By reminding us of all we do not know and all we cannot know or control, nature humbles us. We, like Ishmael, should approach the earth not with the desire for control but instead with respect and a willingness to experience wonder. We are the creatures whom God made in His image, yet we have been given a world we cannot (and should not) fully tame, and that reminds us both of how finite human power is and how glorious our God is.

The Seventh Day

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money…is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” – Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

 

This past summer, I found myself in a lot of cathedrals. I traveled to Switzerland, France, Spain, and England, and in each place I saw tall turrets and brilliant glass windows. I quickly learned that experiencing the outside of a cathedral is not the same as experiencing the inside of a cathedral. The outside is colossal and glorious and allows you to see where the cathedral exists in space compared to all that exists around it. The inside is colossal and glorious in a different way. It is darker, holier. In it, your senses adjust to the sacredness of the space. The scents and sounds are different, the air is cooler, and there is no direct sunlight. Rather, all sunlight is filtered through stained glass windows wherein you see your Savior and His story. He is brighter than you, and you are aware of it. When you are in a cathedral, you are in a sacred space: a space built by man but dwelt in by God. This is the Christian tradition.

 

While the beauty of sacred spaces can be appreciated in itself, sacred spaces only fully affect us if the time within them is sacred as well. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish rabbi and activist of thetwentieth century, speaks about the sacred thing that God built before man ever built the cathedral. In The Sabbath, Heschel points out that there was a designated sacred time before there were sacred spaces. This sacred time was the seventh day, the only thing God created in the beginning that He called “holy.” Sabbath—or Shabbat, as it’s called in the Jewish tradition—is like an incorporeal cathedral. It is a sacred architecture assembled not in space but in time.

 

During Shabbat, it is the participant who decides to make Shabbat holy. This is very different from sacred space. The sacred spaces we gather in (like cathedrals) are, in part, designed to help us adopt the right posture towards God during sacred times of worship. Yet in holy spaces, I fidget and my mind wanders if I have not learned to regard time correctly. Although sacred spaces invite you into sacred thoughts, if you have not learned to value time as sacred as well, you likely will not feel the need to actively give up your internal quarrels or evil thoughts. We can enter into sacred spaces while hiding these profanities so that they are invisible to everyone else. However, it is much more difficult to enter into sacred time while harboring profane thoughts. For Shabbat to occur, the participant must actively give up enemies, quarrels, and work. Worry is laid aside; war ceases. Shabbat is an internal commitment to keep the seventh day sacred, and it is this internal commitment to sacredness that enables us to fully experience the affect of external sacred spaces.

 

Shabbat celebrates time, not space, teaching us how to have a proper relationship with time. The result of the fall is a broken relationship between man and himself, God, and all of creation. We must learn how to correct our relationship to all aspects of existence again, including time, which is an aspect of existence that we often misuse. Driven by our desire for success, Americans often consider rest as merely a means to increase productivity throughout the week, failing to see rest as an end in itself. To Heschel, however, Shabbat “is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When we enter Shabbat, we enter into a glimpse of eternity, or as Heschel calls it, “eternity in disguise.” During Shabbat, we cannot pick up our worries and quarrels as we would on a normal day. We are commanded to enter into rest, and that rest reminds us that our earthly cares are just that—earthly. They cannot follow us into eternity, and if we enter Shabbat correctly, they cannot follow us into Shabbat, either. Shabbat is peace in action among man and everything else. For one day, we do not fight the earth, fellow man, or God. The only thing we fight during Shabbat is our own desire to do, a desire that often stems from the idea that doing is what makes us worthy or whole. Once we fight ourselves out of doing, we can realize that just by being—being God’s child, an heir to the kingdom, a new creation—we are worthy. Work is important to the Christian life, yes. But we must remember that it is God who makes us worthy and whole, not our work.

 

The cathedrals I found in Europe are merely one testament to how much we’ve done to preserve historically sacred spaces. We have done much less to preserve the ancient practice of sacred time. Imagine if the number of sacred places on earth were converted into sacred days during which we could experience the peace of the kingdom of God. Rest and peace can happen outside of a cathedral. We can fill the entire world with the sacred peace of Shabbat.

 

Capitalism is Not God’s Dream for Humanity

Capitalism is often deeply intertwined with the American’s idea of patriotism and Christianity, and for good reason. Capitalism, like the Christian life, encourages discipline. As seen through America’s rise as an economic super power over the past century, capitalism can give a man with a good work ethic the opportunity to move from rags to riches, achieving the American dream of full life, liberty, and happiness. In recent years, however, more Christians have questioned the negative affects of capitalism on humanity and whether American Christians should accept all capitalistic ideas as part of their worldview.

Like Victoria Van Vlear, who recently posted an article on Evangelical Outpost called Why You Should Listen to Communists, I believe we can learn more about capitalism and its limitations by studying the economic system that juxtaposes it: communism. Unlike Victoria, however, I am not surprised that communism’s founder, Karl Marx, was able to revolutionize entire countries with his theory. Marx was eccentric, yes. And there is no denying that communism has been used to oppress people in horrific ways. Yet Marx’s ideas point out some serious flaws in capitalism, flaws that we American Christians cannot ignore if we are to be responsible stewards of our possessions and love others well.

Therefore, I’d like to take a Marxist perspective on some of the harmful effects of capitalism. The problems capitalism creates, though different than those of socialism, can still be severe and debilitating. Capitalism creates vast wealth but also immense poverty. It provides jobs and products for consumption, but it also promotes alienation, overconsumption, and exploitation. Capitalism has brought us wealth, but this wealth might come at too great a price.

– Let’s begin with alienation. Marx tells us that capitalism alienates us from the purpose of our labor, because in a capitalistic society the worker ceases to labor out of his or her own will and volition and begins to labor to meet another person’s goal. In other words, most of us are working for The Man. According to Marx’s essay Alienated Labor, man differs from the animal inasmuch as he “makes his vital activity itself into an object of his will and consciousness.” Man creates through conscious, vital activity. As beings created in the image of the Creator, an essential part of our being must be to create and labor to bring our ideas into reality. In a capitalist society, however, we waive our right to labor for our own purposes, trading our labor for wages in order to fulfill the desires of another human being. In Alienated Labor, Marx goes on to argue that the result of this is “man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions…and feels himself an animal in his human functions.” In other words, when we sell our labor instead of experiencing the fruits of it ourselves, we can feel enslaved. Work can become the thing we do just to make money rather than a sacred opportunity to exercise our image-bearing quality of creativity. As a result of this shift in our understanding of labor, work becomes the place where we feel least human and least fulfilled, which entirely contradicts the intrinsic nature of labor as an expression of our purpose and humanness. In a capitalist society, our labor is only as valuable as the wage we are receiving. In a perfect society, however, our labor would do more to enhance human dignity: we would see the whole fruits of our labor rather than paper money equivalent to our labor.

– Next comes overconsumption, which is partially a result of alienation from labor. Because his work makes him feel like an animal, man looks to physical pleasure to help him feel more human. It is for this reason that Americans live for the weekend: we have sold our entire week to someone else, working in someone else’s office for someone else’s purpose, so that on the weekend (the only time that wholly belongs to us) we can live in excess for the final and exclusive end of experiencing pleasure and fulfillment. As man grasps at appetitive pleasures in search of purpose, capitalist society continuously uses advertising and stereotypes about economic status to suggest that consuming makes him more human. Capitalism encourages consumption to a fault: industry purposely engineers dispensable things, and the things industry creates still don’t fulfill the majority of humanity’s basic needs. A trip to a majority world country like Swaziland brings the realization that a number of people have cell phones that will break in three years but come from a village that still has no access to clean water. While many go without food, there are thousands of cars in dealerships all over our own country with no one to buy them. Instead of focusing on improving the health of humanity, capitalism has led to an excess of material things falsely deemed necessary and ignored true necessities.

– Finally, capitalism allows for the fulfillment of the purposes of some at the expense and exploitation of the majority. As we grow alienated from our labor and our humanness, we become alienated from one another. As demonstrated in the documentary The Corporation, virtually every corporation in the United States outsources labor from parts of the world where protection for workers simply does not exist. CEOs like Phil Knight of Nike Inc., have, in the past, completely ignored the conditions in their factories because their factories exist halfway around the world.* Few have ever actually visited their factories to see the working conditions, allowing the CEO’s primary focus to be monetary gain rather than concern for the human condition. Capitalist society is structured in such a way that exploitation becomes a necessary evil in order to create competition, and the capitalist can even exploit without coming face to face with the consequences of his actions. In this way, capitalism damages the morality of the capitalist.

I am not positing that communism represents an adequate solution for or response to the problems created by capitalism. I am positing, however, that Marx predicted the negative effects of capitalism that we are experiencing today, and that makes him worth listening to. I never would have been able to identify these problems if I hadn’t read Marx. We ought to listen to communists, and not just to compose better arguments against their ideology. We ought to listen to communists because they can help us see the problems with our system and work with us to respond to these problems in ways that improve the quality of life for the worker.

Realizing some of the flaws of capitalism helps us remember that the American Christian is not inherently a capitalist. To be a rich Christian (and that includes us—most American Christians are rich compared to the majority of the world) amidst poverty and hunger is to contradict the main focus of the Christian faith: human reconciliation and flourishing and the advancement of God’s kingdom. You might believe that the pros of capitalism outweigh the cons, but Christians, at least, should think hard about what it means to subscribe to any system that does not promote human flourishing for all.

 

*Nike has, as of late, improved their social responsibility. For details, click here.

If You Listen Carefully, at the End You’ll Be Somebody Else

My grandmother is a storyteller. She has long, curly, red hair and flowers on her jeans. She looks at you like she knows a secret, and she does. If you think you’re too old to sit down and listen to a story from a woman with curly red hair and paint on her shoes, you are taking yourself too seriously. If you believe fairytales are a silly notion that you must abandon in order to become a well-adjusted adult, you are going to make a terrible adult, stunted in imagination and courage.

This is the secret my grandmother knows: there is much more to life than fact. Fairytales can teach us how to be brave in a way that no checklist can. Fictional stories are not a distraction from reality; they are a guide for how to function in our reality. Both the fairytale and our reality are full of pain, fear, and mystery. In The Red Angel, G.K. Chesterton reminds us of the merit of the fairytale, saying, “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy-tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon…it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

When was the last time you heard about anyone defeating a dragon?  They still exist as they did in your imagination when you were young, but they look different now. They look like racism, exploitation, poverty, human trafficking, mental illness, sexism. The fact that there is, for example, no guaranteed solace for individuals living with severe schizophrenia or no final solution in sight to abolish child sex slavery proves to me that this world is much more insane than anything I’ve read in a book. And if you think these aren’t the dragons you personally are faced with, you are wrong.  Fairytales teach us that dragons that plague a land are the responsibility of all who inhabit the land. These dragons are to be defeated, not ignored or tolerated. The heroes we read about in stories aren’t just fighting personal dragons; they’re fighting dragons that are terrorizing their kingdom. Our favorite heroes—Bilbo, Frodo, Harry, Hermione, The Pevensies—all come to a point where they have to decide whether to stay in their safe part of the world or to pick up a sword or a wand and respond to the evil they see. Regardless of how these heroes feel, the realization comes that their “safe part of the world” won’t remain safe much longer if they stay. The real heroes know a person can never truly ignore evil. If he or she does, it will only grow.

Fairytales don’t just teach us that we cannot ignore evil, they also show us what slaying a dragon looks like. Slaying dragons is hard. The hero must make a decision that she or he will continue to fight evil each day, even in the mundane or hopeless times. Maybe in our lifetime we will not slay the dragons of poverty or human trafficking, because slaying those dragons might take longer than a lifetime. Maybe defeating evil systems looks like the tiny task of waking up in the morning and deciding to respond to the existence of evil on this earth with something other than despair, bitterness, or complacency. We can wake up in the morning and love the world all over again by partaking in a quiet, consistent faithfulness and hope. Maybe heroism can simply be to love as best we can and hope as best we can, following the Spirit as He makes us aware of the dragons that are in our world and how to respond to them.

Once we find our dragons and begin our fight, fairytales give us a correct view of what victory is. It is difficult to imagine what the final victory for us as Christians will be like. We see small victories all the time: a sick man healed, a broken family restored, a human trafficking victim rehabiliated.  While we wait for the final victory wherein Christ restores all things, it is easy to forget the importance of the small tasks on this earth. As readers, we know Voldemort has to be defeated, and we can see which of Harry’s actions lead to the defeat of Voldemort. For us, it’s more difficult to know the impact of our actions. Living each day in faithfulness to God and with love for our neighbor might not seem like doing anything important at all, but it is this little, daily faithfulness that leads to the true death of the dragon. The historical St. George did not slay a literal dragon: he was martyred in Rome because he refused to renounce Christ. There must have been a thousand opportunities between his conversion and death to choose a different path, but in the face of adversity he continued to choose faithfulness. I wonder if he realized that he was truly slaying the dragon of evil in holding fast to truth until the very end.

This is why fairytales help us in a way that other stories cannot. It is easier to choose love and faithfulness when we see that doing so is a step in the process of defeating dragons. When we can’t see the entire picture of reconciliation and restoration that we as God’s children get to participate in, the fairytale lets us in on someone else’s completed story of reconciliation, and reminds us that our individual lives are part of the story that Christ will complete one day.

At the beginning of Mahabharata, one of the great (initially spoken) Sanskrit epics of ancient India, Vyasa says, “If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.” So I encourage you: if you want to be brave, listen. The stories will change you. The heroes will teach you, and you will be empowered with courage and a hope “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

 

What Overpasses and Oil Paintings have in Common

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder. -G.K. Chesterton

I remember the very first time I saw Van Gogh’s “Irises” – I mean the first time I really saw it. “Irises” is the type of piece you grow up being aware of: you see it projected on a slightly too dark screen in your fourth grade art assembly, you see it on computer screen savers, and you see it at the doctor’s office encased in a pale pink frame from the nineties. But being aware that something exists is not the same as really seeing it. The very first time I saw Van Gogh’s “Irises,” I was standing in the Getty museum in Los Angeles, and I stared at it for only a moment before my eyes wanted to wander. Suddenly, I felt self aware, disgusted at how quickly I disregarded something created by an artist that I loved. I looked at the piece again, looked at it so long that it almost made me uncomfortable. I slowly began to see.

It is funny how much of our lives we spend staring at the world without seeing it. We are so busy ignoring where we are, and most of us don’t even know why. The drive through, the airport, the bus station, the freeway – we pass through some of these places daily, all the while preoccupied with how much we would like to be someplace else. There must have been a time, probably when we were very young, when we stared at colossal freeway overpasses with our mouths hanging slightly open, and rightfully so.

Van Gogh’s “Irises” and concrete freeway overpasses might seem to have little in common, but the truth is, we’ve done to the colossal freeway overpasses the same thing we’ve done to Van Gogh. We have learned to ignore, and forgotten how to wonder. And its not entirely our fault, either: we live in a society that commodifies beautiful things in order to make a profit, a society that advertises, produces, and consumes aggressively. This leads to the overstimulation of our senses, making us blind and numb to truly beautiful moments. As the wonders we encounter increase, our wonder decreases. We’ve learned to ignore the beautiful because we’ve seen it a thousand times, or otherwise because we’ve grown suspicious that every beautiful thing might be selling us something.

The challenge for us, then, is to reclaim our sense of wonder, to think about how we see the world, to look at the giant overpasses that form negative space in the sky and the oil paintings that hang on quiet white walls with awe. Yes, I actually want you to be able to look at each freeway overpass you drive under with awe, and this is why: consumerism and commodification haven’t proven to make us more whole, but wonder might. The practice of commodification teaches us to reduce the worth of an item, or even a person, to its economic value. The practice of consumerism teaches us that we need the objects advertised to us in order to be happy. The practice of wonder, however, teaches us to become sensitive to the sacred, to be humbled by beauty. To wonder is to see as God sees. If we continue in the mindset of commodification, we are going to lose some really beautiful moments. If we don’t cultivate wonder, we will be overstimulated, yet bored, feeling as if we are missing something. If we don’t repair the way we see while we can, we could lose our ability to see at all.

So how do we recultivate wonder?

  1. You could start by looking at something you’ve stared at a million times. Sit in front of it for long enough that your eyes start to wander – that’s when you have a chance of actually seeing it.
  2. Intentionally go to the bus station, or airport, or to the slowest check out line during the 5 pm grocery rush hour. Don’t try to distract yourself from it. As you stand in line waiting to purchase your eggs and cheerios, pay attention to how wonderful it is to partake in the ritual of grocery shopping, and how unbelievable it is that there is a conveyor belt that moves your food from one place to another.
  3. Stop asking for success, for traffic to disappear, for things to run smoothly, and start asking for wonder. Ask for eyes to see. Jesus knew how to see, he was always causing wonder. He rose people from the dead and turned over tables and stuff. Prayer has been the best tool for me in realizing the miracle of overpasses and oil paintings again.

It is easy to overlook that which our society does not value, but through this recultivation of wonder, we find a greater realization of God’s presence in the world. In other words, the more we cultivate wonder, the easier experiencing wonder becomes- and the easier it is to see what is sacred, even in an overproduced old painting, or a freeway overpass.

You Are Not a Creative Genius

I am an artist. It took years for those words to stop getting caught in my throat, and years more for them to tumble out of my mouth in anything other than a reluctant mumble. This is because for years I have been inundated with the societal myth of the “creative genius.” I used to believe that, to be an artist, I had to contain something extraordinary within me, something I could never truly attain. I heard the term “creative genius” applied to artists, writers, and musicians, and would immediately become overwhelmed by the heavy ache of self-loathing. The projects floating in my head that I could not truly grasp at were a source of constant anxiety, so much so that it sometimes seemed my head might burst. I lacked control that I supposed I somehow ought to have gained, had I been talented and dedicated enough.

This anxiety of the Artist is not much different from the anxiety of the Anybody. We are part of a society that can seem to believe in almost nothing other than The Self (and even then, barely). We all desire control over our projects, our art, and our lives, yet we look to the finite self to gain this control. It is somehow unnatural for us, the postmodern, individualistic Artists and Anybodies, to believe that we can at any moment draw upon something outside of ourselves, outside of our own inborn abilities or hard work. We trap ourselves in anxiety about our limitations. The result is crippling dissatisfaction with ourselves and the constant nagging feeling that nothing is enough.

There are those who have embraced human limitation. The ancient Greeks knew that they were not creative geniuses. Rather, they had a creative genius. Their inspiration, their muses, came to them and left them, and could not remain in their possession. Socrates himself seemed the wisest man simply because he knew that he knew so little. G.K. Chesterton points out how men try to get infinite heaven into their finite heads, and it is their heads that break, not heaven. The poets, however, are the ones trying to get their heads into heaven, and they succeed. When writing a poem, Cambridge poet Malcolm Guite talks to his words. He asks the words on his page if they have any friends they’d like to have join in on the conversation. And he listens.

These men did not try to trap something great inside of them. They communed with something outside of them in order to bring ideas into physical existence. When we give up control and deification of The Self as the source of all things, the anxiety all but ceases. We are able to tap into something much, much greater than ourselves.

This is where Christians have an advantage over the postmodern, individualistic Artists and the Anybodies. We are more like the Greeks and the poets than we realize, except we have something much more infinite than muses. The Holy Spirit that dwells within us is certainly greater than our mortal bodies. We do not control Him: rather, if we allow it, He controls us. He is the source from which inspiration flows and stops when it will. What freedom there is, in knowing that we control so little, that we have such an infinite source to guide and inspire us, that nothing we create or do is of our own merit!

I am not a creative genius. I am limited, often a mere vessel, and I’m glad. I don’t want control anymore. I have learned to admire the “not enough” I find in my art-making, in my words. It reminds me that my art is an image, apicture, of a greater, perfect, elusive something. I hope my Christian walk and my artmaking become a testament to the existence of something infinite and holy rather than an affirmation of human glory. I hope I never have such a large ego and small conception of infinite heaven that I believe I can fit it all inside my own mind. I hope we all, Artists and Anybodies alike, learn to listen and respond to the greater, perfect, elusive something; realizing with joy that we are not, and never need be, creative geniuses.