Unownable Things

It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to write gratitude lists on my birthday, yet each year it feels like I am discovering gratitude anew. While I always remember doing it the previous year, it never comes naturally to me. Instead, I find myself thinking that another strategy might be better this year – something productive like counting how many birthday wishes I get on Facebook each hour. Yet each year my need for gratitude keeps emerging; each year I have to remind myself of how much I have to be thankful for.

But this year I have Jonas Petersen (aka Hymns From Nineveh) to thank for reminding me that the best kind of gratitude doesn’t focus on what we have, because possessions are temporary and so often only make us want to acquire more. Instead, I want to do what Jonas does in this glorious, Ecclesiastes-like song of his: to “make a list of unownable things that make me happy”. Which is what, on this wet wintry Melbourne birthday morning, I will now do.

Unownable Things

Not possessions;
I am sooner
possessed than possessing.

Not ownership, for
I am owned by what
I long for.

Instead
the rain, which is ours,
falls now on this just and unjust day.

The trees
line our street with their dancing,
speckle pavement with green dust.

The warmth
of all bodies, the truth
that the sun animates the clouds,

the wandering
conviction that today we live
for each other:

all common graces
on this day of salvation.
All gift that cannot be owned.

Unexpected Faith: Terrence Malick and the “Love that loves us”

American philosopher-turned-filmmaker Terrence Malick does not make crowd-pleasers. He does not even feel any great compulsion to actually make films, although he has made more films in the last decade than he did for the first 30 years of his career. A little like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Malick’s films emerge from some slow, meditative, beauty-processor that cannot be rushed yet almost always satisfies. Sometimes it produces a few masterpieces in quick succession; sometimes it does nothing for a decade. Yet everything that he produces is touched with transcendence and immanence all at once.

Also like Robinson, Malick’s work is generally transfigured by a deeply Christian sensibility. One journalist, Damon Linker, began his review of Malick’s 2016 film Knight of Cups with the question, “What if Christianity is right after all?” Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life blended scenes of cosmic creation with reflections on “the way of law” and the “way of grace”. Belief and unbelief are everywhere in his work, and sometimes the absence of God is the most tangible sign of His reality.

This is perhaps best expressed in the follow-up to The Tree of Life, 2013’s To the Wonder. Malick’s third-shortest film at just under 2 hours, To the Wonder is a slow, sun-dazzled and often heartbreaking meditation on love, hate, rejection and forgiveness, featuring the often unexceptional Ben Affleck in a role so understated that few others could do it so well, with Affleck using muted facial expression the way Hemingway uses silence. Yet the fact that Affleck is in the film is almost irrelevant; he is a brooding presence that demands no more nor less attention than the wheatfields of Kansas or its many broken residents to whom Javier Bardem’s priest character serves communion and offers grace. Malick famously casts prominent actors in his films then does not use most of if any of their footage. George Clooney had a couple of minutes at the end of The Thin Red Line, while John Travolta’s scene in that film was included but not credited. Rachel Weisz didn’t even make it to the final cut of To the Wonder, and Rachel McAdams has only a small, although significant, portion of the film devoted to her. Yet this all seems fitting. The Christianity Today article on the film commented that Malick’s disregard for the famous actors he casts is part and parcel of his view of humanity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and in To The Wonder this takes on deep spiritual significance when the stars that are cast in the leading roles are given no more dignity – yet also no less – than the drug addicts and prisoners with whom Bardem mixes. Some of the film’s most tender moments come from its unknown and unnamed cameos. Fittingly, in the lead characters’ first wedding, taking place in a courtroom, (they are later married in a church), the witnesses to the marriage are prisoners, still handcuffed. Similar gravitas is granted to the prisoners who receive communion from Bardem through the slots in the doors of their prison cells later in the film.

To the Wonder is no easy Christian allegory, and many Christian audiences will shy away from it. This is first because Malick’s films are hard for anyone to watch without a strong degree of stamina or stubbornness. To the Wonder‘s hour and fifty-two minutes feels substantially longer because of the film’s often speechless slowness (the screenplay must surely only come in at a few pages, and much of what dialogue Malick includes is inaudible, as though the actual words themselves carry little significance). Also, some Christians would struggle no doubt with the way that faith is presented in the film. Most of the characters are torn between love for God and the love that “pulls [them] down to earth”, and love for God is often punctuated by long silences or a thirst for earthly satisfaction expressed in lust and adultery. Yet the film’s portrayal of sex is subtle, and its few moments of nudity are brief and tame. Although the film’s opening scenes might make it look like it is primarily concerned with the line between lust and love, sexual passion seems ultimately to be just one of the many expressions of how humans thirst for meaning and connection, and the film’s most powerful moment is not in any sexual or romantic exchange between characters but is instead the extended sequence towards the end in which we see a nun wash cutlery and Bardem serve communion on desolate streets in his neighbourhood, while in the background Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” plays and Bardem’s voice recites the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me…” Thirst for God is everywhere in this film and trumps every other human thirst.

Though I can understand why, it’s a shame that more people have not seen To the Wonder, especially men and women who share Malick’s faith. There aren’t many more powerful evocations of divine love and grace going around at the moment than Malick’s films, and To the Wonder is one of the tenderest.

Philosophical Crumbs: Haiku for Kierkegaard

A friend of mine recently said that he had tried to read Kierkegaard but hadn’t made it. “I need the children’s book version,” he said. Probably not an unusual experience. While I’m not sure I’m the one to provide the children’s book, I thought I could do the next best thing: to try to put a few key ideas of Kierkegaard’s into haiku. Because what else are school holidays for?

So here are my first few offerings.

Kierkegaard Haiku I-III

In the moment, pause.
Life’s a reality, but
The crowd will deceive.

Anxiety means
Choice: the potential to do
Wrong, or to find God.

You must stand alone
Before His face and be known.

Clutching at Light: For Leonard Cohen

…everything that is illuminated becomes a light…
(Saint Paul)

Too dark, Leonard.
Just after Solstice, the days still short,
the dark surprised me in its early arrival,
and your first song grabbed me
with its midnight-pitch grip,
and Isaac bound by demons,
crying, Here I am, Lord.

These days are dark enough; I
turned from you to Bach,
where even wintry Leipzig
could sing with counterpoint.
I did not want it darker. The darkness always gapes
and I have fought for life to prise
myself out from its grip.

Hineni, hineni.
A cry of what? Of pain?
I cry, I cry, out to the Light
to banish dark again.

No Ordinary Sundays

Before you lies my strength and my weakness; preserve the one, heal the other. Before you lies my knowledge and my ignorance; where you have opened to me, receive me as I come in; where you have shut to me, open to me as I knock. Let me remember you, let me understand you, let me love you. Increase these things in me until you refashion me entirely.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity

We do not call these Sundays ordinary:
transfigured by revelation, by mystery,
they stand apart.

By these days we set
our calendars, and, in the old days, we said,
In Hilary term, or, Before Trinity.

Order is set by extraordinary.
Order in all things,
and yet, in all ordinary things –

some unexceptional people gathered,
music played, some prayers prayed,
some words spoken, some soon forgotten –

extraordinary creeps in, is always the silent witness.
What Augustine knew, we often forget:
community right at Godhead’s heart,

found, reflected, in our meagre parts,
a knowledge too rich for understanding,
coming, and standing,

where we stand. O hold us now;
for nothing else
makes sense unless You remake us.

Uncovered Gems #5: The Danish Psalmist

In the Danish Golden Age of literature and philosophy, there were three significant names that still stand out today: Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard and N.F.S. Grundtvig. The non-Danish world has very much heard of the first two but the third is as unknown as it is unpronounceable.

And perhaps understandably so. He is of much greater importance at home than overseas. Grundtvig (pronounced Groont-vi) had a significant impact on Danish nationalism and education, and his role in the Danish Lutheran church was profound. But outside Denmark he doesn’t seem so have had much impact. Nor is he particularly the kind of figure to easily win fans a century and a half after his death. With his formidable muttonchops, Lutheran clerical ruff and an almost permanently austere look on his face, Grundtvig does not exactly appear to be one to welcome 21st-century popularity. My first encounter with him was when ultra-right party leader Svend Åge Saltum quoted him in Danish political drama Borgen. Yet there is much more to Nicolaj Frederik Severin than austerity and Danish nationalism. Basically, imagine English church life without John Newton or the Wesleys and that would be the Danish church without Grundtvig. And the comparison’s a fair one, at least when it comes to his hymns, because it turns out that one way in which Grundtvig is kept alive and well is in Danish worship.

My first proper encounter with the 19th-century poet, pastor, philosopher and translator was in the music of Danish band Kloster who set a whole bunch of his hymns to some gorgeous, otherworldly tunes on their album Ni Salmer og en Aftensang (Nine Psalms and an Evening Song). The track that first arrested me was the magically tender “Urolige Hjerte“, with its gently thrumming guitars and the opening words:

Restless heart, what ails you?
Why are you in pain?
Is there anything you need?
Is He not your father who has your everything?
And aren’t all my thoughts and hairs numbered by Him?
And isn’t He the very best friend I could choose?

Urolige hjerte!
Hvad fejler dig dog?
Hvi gør du dig smerte,
du ej har behov?
Er han ej min Fader, som råder for alt?
Er ej mine tanker og hovedhår talt,
og har ej den bedste til ven mig udvalgt?

Sadly, lack of interest in Grundtvig’s poetry means that almost none of it is available easily in English – a little ironic for a man who translated one of the most significant English poems, Beowulf, back into the language that inspired it. There is one substantial collection of his poems in English but it’s expensive and not easily available. So, if I want to listen to his songs – which I do – and want to understand them too, then I have to try translating them myself.

It’s a wonderful experience, reverse-engineering a Grundtvig poem into English. Translating poetry is hard in any situation, harder still when your grasp of the source language requires a fair bit of Google Translate to get anywhere beyond, “The polar bear is drinking beer” and all those other useful phases Duolingo teaches. But, slow-going and humbling as it is, I feel closer to Grundtvig’s work for doing it. I have to marvel at the tautness of his metaphors, the subtlety of his rhymes – so hard to replicate in English, when we don’t have one word that could mean both bleed or fade that also rhymes with “regions” or “areas”. And I am struck by the deft way he melds Biblical text with the immediacy of everyday life. Take the hymn that I’m crawling through at the moment, “En Liden Stund” (“A Little While”). The hymn takes its title, and the first line of each stanza, from Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 16:16 – “A little while and you will see me no longer…” But Grundtvig takes Jesus’ words and first looks at something that is beautiful and impermanent, a reminder of how our lives look next to eternity. There’s no translation that can fully capture what he says with the first lines, at least not without losing the rhyme:

A little while
in roses’ grove,
we only blush and fade…

En liden stund
I rosens lund
Vi rødmer kun og blegne…

For a man who looks most likely to either preach brimstone or thump the bar to ask where his Carlsberg is, there’s remarkable tenderness and pastoral heart in Grundtvig’s words, not to mention a sense of pure beauty. Like most nineteenth-century poets there’s some inverted sentences worked to fit in rhymes that sound sometimes cumbersome to our ears today. But his love for God and God’s people is fresh and alive. Not surprisingly; much as Kierkegaard laid into him in his final polemic days (Grundtvig, wisely, had less to say about Kierkegaard), they wanted the same thing: to see the dry bones of the state church animated with living faith. Fittingly, Grundtvig loved to sing about new life in Christ, whether symbolised in Christmas or Easter or the day of the Resurrection. So here is a lovely translation by S.A.J. Bradley of one of his poems on this theme:

1. Ring out, O bells, oh ring out while the world yet lies darkling;
shimmer, O stars, like the light in the angel-eyes sparkling.
Peace comes to earth,
peace from God through his Word’s birth:
Glory to God in the highest!

2. Christmas is come as a solstice to hearts that were fearful!
Christmas and Child, son of God, where the angels sing cheerful,
all is God’s gift,
bidding us our hearts uplift:
Glory to God in the highest!

3. Children of earth clap your hands and come dancing and singing,
raise up your voices till earth’s furthest corners are ringing.
Born is the Child
of the Father’s mercy mild:
Glory to God in the highest!

Uncovered Gems #4: François Mauriac

The list of Nobel laureates for Literature contains more French men than it does of any other demographic. That should not put you off reading Mauriac. But you may have trouble locating his work. His most famous novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux, is possibly the only one you’ll find in a bookshop today, due to the recent film adaptation starring Audrey Tatou. And it’s a good place to start with Mauriac. 

Better than good. Aside from the beauty of the writing and its complex vision of sin and grace, it’s an important novel for understanding him as an author. The character of Thérèse also features in a number of novels and stories, and even has a cameo in That Which Was Lost, so she clearly meant a lot to him.  

But there’s more to Mauriac than one novel, and you’ll need to go further afield to find out. It’s a strange fact that most Nobel laureates are not readily available in bookshops. But the internet was invented for solving issues like these. The majority of Mauriac’s novels are free downloads if you are willing to read facsimiles of old editions. And you should be, because not many Christian writes have tackled human sin and divine grace quite so skillfully as Mauriac. He’s sometimes called the French Graham Greene. There’s some truth to the comparison but I don’t think Mauriac liked the crime thriller quite like Greene did, and I find more living faith and less guilt in Mauriac. The closest thing I’ve found in English to his writing is Brideshead Revisited. Both show people living in complete disregard for God and discovering Him in completely unexpected ways nonetheless.

Some writers of faith get reprinted and sold at Christian bookshops, even when faith is not their main subject. Chesterton and Austen have both had fairly secular novels get the Christian marketing treatment. Not Mauriac, and I can see why. His faith is more overt than Austen’s but will make us more uncomfortable. (Perhaps Austen would too if we read her properly.) He doesn’t shy away from broken and messy realities, and even had to write a book called God and Mammon responding to André Gide (another French man who won the Nobel) who saw more kinship between himself and Mauriac than Mauriac was happy to accept. His work is gritty in a way that can’t sit next to Christian romance novels, but it should. Our shelves, and our faith, would be richer for it.

For me, the best thing he’s written is Viper’s Tangle, the story of a wealthy man dying with the knowledge that his whole family cares only about securing his wealth on his death. The viper’s tangle of the title is the complex rhizome of bitterness and resentment that has grown in his heart and mind all his adult life. I read it at the same time as Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illyich and the two have much in common. Both made me wonder why we don’t have more Christian writers who can dramatise the movements of grace like that. Sadly, in our attempts to keep Christian literature clean, we’ve kept the power of grace out. Christian fiction does not need to be an allegory of the gospel to paint the gospel in all the rich colours of God’s creation. If more of our writes today took the time to uncover Mauriac, we might produce more novels that could help untangle the vipers in our own hearts.