Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

An image for Lenten preaching and meditation

The "Wales Window" at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, should be much better known. I brought home a postcard from my visit there a few years ago, and I am happy that it just turned up as I was cleaning out some of my files. This stained-glass window was given to
the congregation by the people of Wales as a memorial to the four little girls who died in the bombing of the church during the height of the civil rights movement in "Bombingham."

You can Google "Wales Window Alabama" for various angles on the image, and go also to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church website and click on History for a five-part capsule. How wonderful it is that the congregation at Ebenezer seems still to be brimming with Christ-centered life.

This image is very unusual and worthy of pondering. It is strangely placed in the church--at the back--and one wonders if the designer might have been disappointed about that, but perhaps it was the only option. At any rate, the window strikes me as a true work of art, and a significant addition to the iconography of the crucifixion. I wish I had included it among the illustrations in my book The Undoing of Death. It depicts Christ with very dark skin and a facial expression of profound sorrow and suffering. Somehow it manages to suggest not only the agony of a victim of torture but also the Messiah's identification with his suffering people.

Why is he wearing a white suit and heavy shoes instead of the usual loincloth? I am not sure about this. It could suggest anything from a baptismal garment to a prison jumpsuit or chain-gang outfit. Another unusual feature of the design is that Christ is not actually attached to the cross, but seems to be emerging out of it. I am not certain what this was intended to mean, but to me it suggests that even on the cross he is actively engaged with the domain of Death and cannot be fastened down by his executioners. His arms and hands, tortured though they are, appear strong and all-welcoming; the window designer says that one hand repels evil as the other hand embraces. The idea of victory even in the most supreme anguish is also conveyed by the fact that whereas the Lord's feet and lower legs are blackened as though deep in ashes, his upper body is suffused with light.

One of the most striking aspects of the window is the biblical text "you do it to me," from the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:40. Obviously this allows multiple interpretations -- I had the privilege of discussing this with students at the Duke Divinity School last week -- all of them legitimate within a biblical range. Surely a most important one is the reminder that our actions toward one another mirror our relationship to the Lord, for good or ill.

This image strikes me as uncommonly powerful in its message. It must be comforting and strengthening to the congregation even now, many years after the terrible event that inspired it.

Friday, March 07, 2014

In favor of the body

Today I went to another funeral (this seems to be one of my favorite subjects). It was extremely moving. I want to say a bit about it without intruding on the memory of a faithful Christian.

There were only a handful of people present, because the deceased woman had been homebound for a long time and many people who had known her had moved away. However, the service was conducted with as much dignity and attention to detail as if the service had been for a young person with hundreds of mourners. The organist played Bach with great feeling as if there had been a large congregation. The only speaker was the clergyman, and (like the funeral I wrote about in a previous post) he managed to combine the gospel message with a vivid and loving evocation of the person herself. He told us some things that perhaps we did not all know; she kept in close touch with events in the congregation and continued to follow the liturgical year. He told us that the four-foot baptismal candle, burning nearby, had been given by her some years before, in memory of her parents. I thought about that, and how these memorials come to mean more and more to us as we grow older and begin to think about what is really important.

Even though the congregation was tiny, we sang "Ye holy angels bright" at the conclusion of the service. What wonderful words! I was particularly moved by this because the first time I ever sang that hymn was at the funeral of my great-aunt, when I was in my late 20s. I had never heard it before that occasion. As we sang today, I was really quite taken aback by the depth of my feelings about this link to my great-aunt. She was an amusing, lively little old lady and I was very fond of her, but she was an incorrigible snob (typical Virginian!) and utterly indifferent to the plight of the black people back in the 60s. The thing about her that remains with me is her strong Christian faith and her determination that faith should be the significant defining trait of our family. To this end she gave a wall plaque to Christ Church, Charlottesville, listing our ancestors, and at the bottom the words, "These kept the faith." I think that's why I found myself so moved to be singing  "her" hymn in another funeral setting many decades later. All of us must come, in the end, as sinners to dust and ashes, yet justified by grace, through faith.

At the service today, it was particularly striking that the body was present at the church. This is so rare now, unfortunately. The coffin was covered with the brocade church pall, and rested at the head of the aisle where we all passed it going and coming from communion. The clergyman said the beautiful prayer of commendation over it, as is intended by the liturgy. The woman who had died was not particularly old (younger than me, anyway), but over the years she had lost much of her bodily functioning and was somewhat misshapen. It was deeply significant that her body should have been present as we confessed "the resurrection of the body." Bodily life matters. It is the only life that we know in this world. The promise of the gospel is that "we shall be raised incorruptible" in a body still recognizable as ours. How this can be, St. Paul could not say--though he made a stab at it in I Corinthians 15--but that we will be raised as our bodily selves he was certain, as the Holy Spirit gave him utterance. "The trumpet shall sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."  We shall be changed "into His likeness."

May the God who raised Jesus from the dead raise us also with Jesus and bring us all together into his presence. (II Corinthians 4:14) The saying is sure.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Empathy and literary fiction

All of a sudden there are numerous articles concerning recent studies about the relationship between the cultivation of empathy and the reading of literary fiction. Sociological/psychological "studies" always carry with them a faint whiff of spuriousness, since their findings simply can't be measured in the same manner as studies in the hard sciences. Nevertheless, some of them are suggestive, and this one particularly so, for lovers of literature first of all, but also for anyone concerned about what has been widely identified as a diminution of empathy among the privileged classes today. The findings suggest that readers of literary fiction perform better on tests of empathy than people who read only non-fiction.

Literary fiction, as opposed to nonfiction and "popular" mass-market fiction, offers extra dimensions of penetration into the human interior. Gifted writers are able to portray complex characters from the inside out, with all their inner conflicts that never surface for the world to see and, indeed, are little understood even by their closest family members. I am finally getting around to reading (very slowly) the canonical, multi-volume In Search of Lost Time by Proust, arguably the most psychologically acute novel ever written, almost certainly the most thoroughgoing -- while at the same time mysterious and poetic -- portrait of the inner life to be found anywhere. But these thoughts have been prompted by a small novel, a short easy read. Along with Proust I am reading less demanding books, and the one that elicited this posting is a recently published novel called The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal. I read an interesting review of it in The New York Times and immediately bought it at my local, beloved indie bookstore. I found myself swept up into the character of a middle-aged Jewish professor who returns to Vienna after the war (WW2) and finds himself bewildered by the changes. Entering into the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind of a person such as that, utterly unlike myself, placed into circumstances unknown to me, was such a privilege. Non-fiction simply can't do that.

The often-noted fact that great movies cannot be made from great books can be accounted for along these lines. The book can tell you precisely what a character is feeling and thinking, whereas even the greatest actors can only suggest. I think The Exiles Return might make a pretty good movie, actually, but it can't do what the book does. A movie can show the character Kanakis, a member of Vienna's small but significant prewar Greek community, returning after the war. It can suggest his dismay at the damage to his city. It can show him going into a confectioner's shop and buying a whole tray of pastries, but it can't tell you why this rejuvenates him. It might try, by inventing a few sentences of dialogue, but it couldn't possibly tell you what the purchase meant to his psyche, nor could it summon up prewar Vienna in the way that the novel does in one paragraph.

I don't know what is to be done about the fact that people read less and less. A few parents that I know have accomplished wonders with their children by filling their houses with books and strictly limiting the use of electronic devices until the preteen years. I have met a few home-schooled children who are voracious readers. But on the whole, the overwhelming presence of social media has overwhelmed the importance of reflection and the development of the mind and spirit. If it is true that reading literary fiction helps to develop empathy, might it not be a Christian imperative to rethink the whole matter of reading habits?

The Exiles Return is a very worthwhile novel, though by no means as revelatory as another book with a somewhat similar backstory, Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. Both were discovered long after the author's deaths, though Némirovsky's was written in far more harrowing circumstances. Both women were highly educated, upper-class, assimilated Jews, though de Waal escaped the fate of Némirovsky. Readers will be interested to know that her grandson, Edmund de Waal, wrote the well-regarded The Hare with Amber Eyes.