An Integrated Approach

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on Canto II

“So did that new-formed flock of souls give up
their feast of song, and seek the mountainside,
rushing to find a place they hoped was there” 

Canto II, 129-132.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future and how the way I conceive of the future affects my understanding of the present; how much of my life I have lived rushing to find a place I hoped was there, instead of acknowledging what is here now.

I do think there are times when it’s ok to rush forward into life rightly hopeful and there are times when we rush into life falsely so. Until recently, false hope has always meant a hope that in hindsight we see had no chance by earthly standards. Now, though, false hope is the belief that holy deliverance will come from a source unrelated to the pain I am fleeing; a hope built on probabilities and events that do not address the root cause of my flight.

The text above is the last full tercet in the second Canto of Dante’s Purgatorio, the second cantica of the Divina Commedia. Most of us are familiar with Inferno, the first cantica, having been assigned it in college English classes or at least heard of it being assigned in college English classes. Purgatorio is less-read, but to me feels more sincerely connected to my experience of this world. I’ve often wondered if this world is actually Purgatory, since it  is the place where we come to terms with how our sins have caused us and others pain, and it incorporates moments of both heaven and hell. In the poem, a group of souls have been delivered to the shores of Mount Purgatory. Upon meeting Dante and his guide, one shade is recognized as a earthly friend with the gift of song. He is entreated by Dante and acquiesces, singing a song that all the crowd beholds. Cato interrupts the reverie and chastens them to get about the business of climbing toward Paradise, they disperse and the poet describes their flight which will directly correspond to and cure their sins.

We all know what it feels like to hope against the facts, to hope in events, situations, people. Hope against facts is not false hope. Only when we hope in the things of this world to distract us, to fill a need that hasn’t been met, can we call it false hope. The only thing that satisfies is the balm of grace, the discovery that God has a father’s lap for us to climb into after our long journey rather than a some newspaper in the shack out back.

That God has saved the world and awaits us with open arms, is a hope with reverence, because it is a hope founded in the holy revelation of Christ. I still can’t quite believe that God is at the top of the mountain waiting to welcome me, but I dearly hope He is. There’s a bravery to that kind of hope, because it’s the hope of a finite being on a cosmic scale. Just like the pardoned souls in Purgatorio, whose race up the mountain is charged with the grandeur of God as Hopkins said, so too are our lives constant practices in cosmic hope. They are electrified and intensified by their desire for the infinite. The climbers have such a lofty hope of the warm welcome of God. The rough and steep climb doesn’t give them any indication that He will be there, but they hope He is. They have been told He will be there. Just so with Lent, there are days when I can’t imagine that Easter will ever come, but then, I see a glimpse of the resurrection, of all that I hope to be true, and I keep climbing.


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on Steve Turner and Philippians 4:8

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9

I’m currently reading Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner. Many of the ideas are not new to me, mainly because I know some of the people who influenced Steve Turner. While I have had minimal contact with L’Abri, Nigel Goodwin—a voice of permission for Turner—was instrumental in my development as an artist as well (even though I only sat with him twice) and was instrumental in the development of my mentors. Steve and I share a lineage and I love hearing the family stories. It’s always good to re-hear truth in new ways, to be reminded of the things we know; it usually helps us learn something we don’t.

In the third chapter, Turner discusses Philippians 4:8 and how it has often been used to keep Christians away from the arts. Its often regurgitated logic—that many things on stage or in film or in song are not good/true/lovely/noble and therefore should never be experienced by good Christians—pops up in every generation. It’s been part of my own self-censorship as a creator and, for all of my egalitarian ideas, I have often found myself arguing against video games armed with it. Writing out of his experience in 1970s rock-and-roll culture, Turner tries to make it ok to be a Christian surrounded by non-Christians who are talking about their truthful experience of the world. This desire is based on a belief I share with Turner, Christians don’t have exclusive rights to truth. We may claim that right when it comes to the Truth of Christ, but all persons have the authority to explore the truth of their experiences.

Turner attempts to free us from an exclusive list of possible Christian activities and experiences by saying that Paul’s statement to the Philippians has two real implications, neither of them that Christians should stay away from art/culture. The first implication of Phil. 4:8, is that we now have a list of standards by which we should judge all that we think, say and do. Turner uses the example of Macbeth. We hold the characters to our standards and in doing so, the sinfulness of man without God is revealed. And in the end, we see the virtues of God win out. The second implication it that have a list for useful mediation topics. Turner here cites David and Bathsheba, explaining that while David does something ‘wrong’ we come away from the story focused on what he should have done right. We see goodness and truth revealed precisely because David is unable to be good and true. Turner makes excellent points, especially about the necessity of the juxtaposition of sin and virtue, and disarmsPhil. 4:8 in the culture war. However, I think there’s more nuance to Paul’s position if we look at the whole passage, a nuance that allows art redemption even if we don’t come away with a lesson.

If we go back a few verses, starting with Philippians 4:4, Paul tells us to rejoice and not be anxious for the peace of God guards our hearts. If we try to “guard out hearts” like our good youth group leaders told us to, we are destined to fail. It’s not by our own power. Looking back, how much teen suffering could have been avoided if we were told that God was guarding us and we could participate with Him through pryer and our thoughts? Being eternal watchdogs is stressful, it produces anxiety, and when we choose not to engage with someone’s art out of fear we are not trusting the Peace of the Lord to protect us. Through “prayer and supplication”(v6) we quiet fear, and boldly walk through the world in the peace of God, as if nothing can stick to us. I also think the verb in verse 8 is important. We were told to “think on these things”(v8). We weren’t told, “Don’t experience the world”. We have to, we live in it; trying to live a life where we never encounter darker things will create anxiety in the best of us. How little is our faith that the darkness of one movie is stronger than the peace of the Lord? When we are in the dark we need to think about the light. If our experience of the darkness does not carry with it the truth of the light, then of course, listening to a song about lust is going to be really scary because you are unmoored from the peace of God. So how do we make sure that the peace of God is with us, that we aren’t pulled into habitual sin? Verse 9 tells us, by practicing the truth that we have seen and heard. It’s not a big complex mystery. Meditate and live with the truths God has shown and we should have no fear of listening to a hard piece of music or going to a rough piece of theater. Art is relational. If we are scared of how an artist is trying to relate we miss the chance of getting to know their soul. The encouragement and promises of Philippians is much more than a set of standards. When the whole passage is taken together, we see that it is not our experiences that have the final say, but the truths that we practice and what we allow to dwell in us afterwards that truly challenge or sustain the Peace of God.