Advent Songs

Advent Songs

December has come again and brought with it the Christmas season. For whatever the Christmas season means to you, it definitely has its own soundtrack. This is the one time of year that the chart-topping stars at the cutting edge of pop culture take a back seat to tradition. Well-worn songs make their annual show and we are more than content, we are eager to be swamped in nostalgia, kitsch, and schmaltz.

About a decade ago, when I started attending the church at which I’m a member now, I was introduced to the season of Advent. Advent is not less than the celebration of Christmas, but it is more. It’s a specific time set aside to appreciate what has already happened in the Christian faith and to draw near to the anticipation and longing for what is still to come. It’s a mixture of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and enduring December with that tension at the fore of my mind has helped make a lot of sense of Christmastime.

This has, in turn, given me a new lens through which to appreciate the music that pervades this time of year. I have found some new songs, I have rediscovered some old ones from a fresh perspective. If you’re looking for something to listen to in place of the millionth rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock”, here’s a list of my 10 favorite songs for Advent:


10. White Christmas

I don’t understand how anyone could dislike like snow. They’ve officially murdered their sense of wonder. A fresh blanket of snow is the very definition of possibility. It stirs anticipation in my heart—of rest and play and of the creaturely comfort of coming in from the cold to a warm home. Snow, especially in enough quantity, has a knack for bringing things into a state of stillness, whether by canceling work and school or just putting the world on mute. Both anticipation and stillness go perfectly with Christmas morning, and they go just as perfectly with every other morning we’re lucky enough to have some snow.



9. Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child

This is an old church song that might not have been so widely known at more straight-laced white churches until Mariah Carey used it to close her ultra-mainstream ‘Merry Christmas’ album. That’s how I found it. It’s kind of unusual that this song appears on such a commercial blockbuster from a massive pop star like Mariah. And the fact that it’s the closer, the final word, the ‘what it was all about in the end’ song is as striking as it is unexpected.

A history teacher at my high school used to assign his students a paper explaining every reference in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. I feel like this song is kind of the Sunday School equivalent. You could make a nice little Advent project explaining all the Jesus references Mariah makes in the middle section.

And then there’s the coda. Just when you think it’s over, the piano picks up with a few chords and then whammo—doubletime madness. It’s a delirious, joyful ending. If your church is fairly presentable, oftentimes reserved if not anxiously brooding over proper reformed theology like I mine (and I can brood with the best of them), sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder that delirious joy is an ok response to the birth of Jesus.



8. Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht

Everyone knows ‘Silent Night’. It’s the song that will have your pre-schooler asking what a virgin is. More than that, though, it’s a beautiful piece of music actually about breaking silence. There’s a 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments. The Christ child broke that silence, reigniting a long story of God’s movement that had seemed to trail off. A host of angels broke the silence in the sky above the shepherds. We are encouraged to break some silence of our own and sing along with those angels. It’s a lovely song. My only question is: have you heard it in German? The crisp, mountainous sonority to the language lends the text an almost crystalline quality.



7. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Culturally, an overwhelming emphasis is put on the birth of Mary’s baby on Christmas. The baby in the manger is an isolated image. Where did that baby come from, though? What’s his story? This song traces the roots of that birth deep into the history of Israel. This baby is the Rod of Jesse. The Key of David. The Ransom of Israel. The answer to a longing that stretched back through 42 generations. Now that’s a Christmas song with some heft. (Brace yourself… this might get loud)



6. What Child Is This?

I had always kind of hated this song, seeing as how the melody conjured images of ye olde Renaissance Faire minstrels moaning about green sleeves. And it seemed to put baby Jesus in a bottle. Then I heard this oft-omitted verse, which offers a sudden flash of what was waiting for this baby:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

If you need an antidote the the sentimentalizing forces of Christmas, Inc., there you go.



5. Someday At Christmas

This song has really grown on me as I’ve traded the Christmas season in for the season of Advent. Its longing—for no hungry children, for the end of death and meanness—is, I think, a universal one even if we all are prone to pursue its fulfillment in self- and community-destructive ways. The Christmas season tries to sentimentalize this longing away, sweeping it under a rug of holly jolly good will. Advent welcomes this longing, which makes this a good time to invite people to consider that maybe there is an answer to their longing that they don’t have to somehow muster from within themselves, that isn’t subject to political bickering, terror, war, or any of the other horrors people resort to when trying to whip the world into their preferred shape. Part of the joy of Advent is the anticipation that yes, someday at Christmas, all of these longings will be fulfilled and then some.



4. AlI Want For Christmas Is You

I could dress this song up in some puffery about how Christmas is all about de-commercialized community and relationships and blah blah blah. But, really this one’s on the list for the bass line. And the grooving bedlam that breaks out in my kitchen every time those first twinkling notes ring out. Who can sit still to this song? Not my two boys. Or me.



3. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Speaking of bass lines, this is my favorite version of this hymn. The rhythm section is killing it. The entire musical setting is vibrant. And this is definitely another one of those hymns with a deep bench. We all know the first verse, but if you keep going, the subsequent verses you may not know draw out some wonderful elaborations of why, exactly, the angels were in such a state over the birth of this child. This here is the perfect confluence of music and text.



2. Christmastime Is Here

I am very, very fond of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I love it for all of the reasons it shouldn’t work for TV. It’s not polished to a high gloss like the ADHD Christmas specials Disney churns out (which one of those has celebrated a 50th birthday—which ever will?). It’s not built on peril and action-packed resolution. It’s built on melancholy, questioning, and eventual comfort, and that’s a poignant mix for the Advent season.

This song captures the chink in the days of merry and bright that we all feel sometimes. Some of it is in the jazz theory of pianist Vince Guaraldi (early on, he plays an F7 chord in the right hand over an Ab in the left—two major chords, but a minor third apart, blending into one unit the ‘happy’ sound of major tonality with the ‘sad’ sound of a minor interval. Advent captured in a single chord!). Some of it is the slow tempo at which the children’s choir sings of happiness and cheer. The song is filled with dichotomies. It comes together like no other Christmas song I can think of and offers the perfect soundscape for a pause to reflect during the Christmas blitz. This is the sound of Advent.



1. Hosanna In the Highest

At last. I love this song. I think everyone should love this song. Lots of people write new Christmas songs, lots of them are sentimental and tacky. This song is rich and singable and if I can introduce it to even just one more person, I’ve done a good deed. It plays on repeat in our house and I never get tired of it.

Yield

Yield

Kentucky must bear two contentious election cycles in a row right now. State and local politics in 2015 (mercifully over) and the presidential race in 2016, already odious and not even fully conceived. In the midst of all this throat-cutting clamor for power, er, uh, democratic pursuit of your trust and confidence, let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about an album that ought to be one of your favorites from the 90s (that decade now apparent as the last reel of warm, pulsing film before the atomizing storm of the digital revolution). Let’s talk about Yield, if not Pearl Jam’s greatest record, then one that captured a unique and wonderful moment in the evolution of the last great American band, one born in the dying light of an era we didn’t realize was over.

Yield is a proclamation of freedom, incongruously named for the act of giving way. Limitless potential hemmed in by the boundary of wisdom. To understand what makes Yield special, you need to know a bit about Pearl Jam’s history. Now, there is a full-length documentary about this story, but if you trust me to be your guide, here it is.

A brief history of Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam is a world-conquering band made up of five guys who never went on a conquest. In the capricious business of pop culture, the music these five guys cobbled together from the raw materials each brought with them was released into a public hungry hungry for a big emotional punch. Ten was a blockbuster. In the span of a single year, these young, earnest musicians were remade in the image of honest to God titans, expected to define a generation of American youth. But remade by whom? To what end? The music hadn’t changed. How could it? Pearl Jam had still only made their first record. No, the market changed around them, closing in like big teeth.

Imagine going from playing for a hundred people in a club to pouring your heart out in front of a literal sea of people just months later. Propose that scenario to any striving musician and they’re liable to say it sounds like a dream come true. They haven’t lived it, though. More than only the musicians dream this dream and some of the dreamers would just as soon roast your ambition on a spit and eat you alive. We call such dreamers ‘executives’, always serving up a banquet to the consumer. For a fee.

Building the brand

Executives make their living in the formless world of brands, empty notions ready to be inflated by what hot air the PR machine can generate, in this case from five guys making music in a room together. Executives are practiced in the art of appetite. Feed the creature what it wants and it will want more. A new band makes a popular record and the PR machine grinds into action. Radio play and music videos generate demand for a tour (hey, you get to play your music every night and isn’t that what all musicians are after?), which leads to the demand for more music to recapture the feeling of the live experience. Soon, the appetite for Pearl Jam was everywhere.

The thing about appetite, though, is that to be fed, it must consume, and we cannot consume anything without destroying it. This is true of everything I can think of: food, resources, God. So, in a very real sense, the appetite of the consumer is the appetite of the destroyer.

Executives measure themselves by how much they can feed this appetite and the brand is the tool by which they scale up production. A brand makes the band into an abstraction, a disintegration that separates their image from their actions. From bodily creature to ubiquitous entity. The brand is more than five guys making music together. It is what the band says and what is said about the band. It is what the band wears and who wears the band. It is the thrumming impression of the band that can be everywhere that Ed, Mike, Stone, Jeff, and [insert drummer’s name] cannot. A brand in full fledge can stoke the appetite—and the ensuing consumption (nicely monetized)—to amazing heights, which in turn gives rise to the music industrial complex[1].

For Pearl Jam to submit to such branding would mean their end. On a human level, it’s the end of being a neighbor and the advent of being a celebrity, an isolated object of curiosity and gossip. Anyone who performs for a living will be known without human connection, so some degree of celebrity is inevitable, but this can be inflamed to an unhealthy degree. The inevitable result of branding is such inflammation. Eventually, branding also ends the music, one way or another. To meet demand, the band would be expected to stop creating and start reacting, riding the market like a wave. Either the members grow increasingly bored until one leaves (they did start off as artists, after all), or the market begins to leave them behind and, in trying to keep up they find their creative muscles have atrophied and their ‘new sound’ falls in the chasm between imitation and retread. Either way, a band actively caught up in branding has begun the end of their vitality. Of course, the executives draw their vitality from a deep roster of exploitable talent cued up to slot right in when one band fails in endless succession. The machine churns on. Staring down this road, maybe not seeing it all clearly, but having the instinctive unease of an animal sensing a predator, Pearl Jam began to react.

Killing the brand

To the executives’ squealing delight, the golden goose did lay one more batch of solid gold hits: Vs. Their second album displayed ‘the Pearl Jam sound’ perfected. Distilled into a kinetic rush of guitar riffs and youthful solidarity. Vs. sold 1 million copies in its first week and was used to establish Pearl Jam as the hot commodity of 1992. Then their third album, Vitalogy, topped the Billboard charts on the strength of early-release vinyl sales alone (and this was in the barren age between the time CDs killed LPs and the late renaissance of the wax medium). But, on Vitalogy, we find a Pearl Jam already about the study of how to stay alive while being fed into the jaws of a ravenous market. It is a caustic, angry record layering obnoxious, thorny bits with heavy doses of blistering critique aimed at those trying to eat them alive. It’s also brilliant and the executives surely cried all the way to the bank.

In 1973, Wendell Berry wrote the greatest poem ever. It closes like this:

“As soon as the generals and politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection”
Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

 In 1996, Pearl Jam released No Code and supported it with the most hard-headedly alienating tour they could. Boycotting any venue affiliated with Ticketmaster, contrary to the eventual non-monopoly findings of congress, left only a frustrating string of out of the way places hardly equipped to handle the logistics of hosting the most in-demand concert ticket in the country at the time. Now, No Code is not a bad record. Time has been very good to it, actually, but in 1996, it was the most un-Pearl Jam record imaginable. As for the tour, only the most hale and hardy fans had the fortitude to find and attend the shows. They may have been richly rewarded, but the tour was not a success in any business sense. Critics and executives alike thought Pearl Jam had lost their minds, committed career suicide on the day of their coronation. Pearl Jam™ was dead. The music industrial complex moved on (to boy bands. While Pearl Jam was confounding its predators like a fox, Lou Pearlman was manufacturing N*SYNC to put a stake in the heart of rock and roll). Pearl Jam blew up the brand. The dust settled and there was a band, freed of expectations.

What’s to love about Yield?

Despite the titular instruction of No Code (do not resuscitate), Yield was Pearl Jam’s resurrection. The loosest, most confident and enjoyable record in their now 10-album catalog. This is my love letter to my favorite album, not just by my favorite band, but by any band.

What makes Yield such a delight? It’s all in the timing. For one thing, there’s the matter of the band’s internal dynamics. They had actually become friends. (Given their brush with blinding stardom, it’s forgivable that it took them seven years.) This combined with their musical familiarity lends the record a tightness that comes across totally effortless.

Mike McCready and Stone Gossard truly find a great blend as a four-armed guitar monster. Gone is the standard division of labor (Stone’s arena-sized riffs driving Mike’s blues-drenched soloing). Instead, you have a record stacked with great guitar parts woven into a perfect tapestry. They spent Vitalogy and No Code dismantling the Pearl Jam™ guitar logic and Yield is the fruit of good labor.

Eddie Vedder’s voice is also at its on-record peak. He had matured past the soaring baritone that made early Pearl Jam so iconic (and then so imitated, and then so parodied), and he hadn’t yet reached the point where years of screaming his lungs out on tour took their toll. He’s singing at the peak of his dynamic and tonal range and it’s like a vintage tube amp—ranging from warm and rich to a broken-up growl depending on how hard he hits it. If the last time you heard Eddie Vedder sing was “Daughter”, you owe it to yourself to listen to “Brain of J”.

Then there’s the rhythm section. Admittedly, this is the area in which I am least articulate, but I will say that Jack Irons is my favorite of Pearl Jam’s many drummers. Instead of Dave Abbruzzese’s always huge all the time playing or Matt Cameron’s overly-intellectual approach, Jack Irons is expressive, a little off kilter, and always locked into exactly what the song needs. Alongside, Jeff Ament isn’t putting on a bass technique clinic. He’s just laying down a bottom end that’s so consistently spot on that it’s almost subliminal.

As an aside, the political timing of Yield is also just right. Midway through Bill Clinton’s lame duck presidency, the political anxiety of the W. years wasn’t even foreshadowed yet and the H.W. years were far enough past that Eddie Vedder was able to look away from his clear political enemies and explore. He’d also shaken the industrial demons from his back, and so he writes from a place of freedom he hadn’t experienced since he wrote the lyrics to Ten as a complete unknown. All of that earnestness is back, but matured and more contemplative. Lyrically as well as musically, the energy is consistently high and the gloom is consistently absent.

It’s all in the timing. Pearl Jam finally found some breathing room and all of that extra oxygen has the engine firing on all cylinders. There wouldn’t be Yield without the four records of frustration that came before it. The limitless potential purposefully surrendered makes this record what it is. That theme of retreat surfaces again and again. In “Given To Fly”, maybe the best Pearl Jam song of all, on “In Hiding”, and most poignantly in the album closer, “All Those Yesterdays”. “Don’t you think you ought to rest?” The song opens with the question that set the tone for all of Yield. After years and miles of fighting each other and an army of demands with hard-headed tours and albums, Pearl Jam finally got to a place where they could do what they do best, what they had always set out to do: make a rock record. The relief and joy is palpable. Yield is the sound of a dead band washing away their yesterdays. I love it so.

yield back

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[1] All that money attracts a multitude of feeders. Besides the record label with its army of lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments, there’s media. Radio stations. TV networks. Magazines and other print outlets. These all use the band to attract eyeballs, eyeballs that will also look at ads, ads that pay the bills. Then there’s concert venues and promoters who make a killing selling seats and beer. And, of course, all of these have their own lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments.

What is the influence of the music industrial complex? The easier it is to define and sell to a market, the more smoothly the music industrial complex runs and with less waste (I.e. money spent failing to attract the wrong audience). So there’s a lot of pressure to easily and effortlessly match music to audience. This pressures the musicians to make easy-to-package songs and it pressures the audience to conform to easily charted zones of taste. This is why you get so many disparate bands lumped under a term like ‘grunge’—a term they did not choose for themselves— and why you have so many bands that sound suspiciously like established artists. This is also why you are so aggressively sold a particular image to aspire to: the image carves a market segment out of the population. The ease of making money leads to all kinds of subtle attempts to turn people into either markets or products, which is a reduction.

All Must Be Lost or How to Live When Lost at Sea

All Must Be Lost or How to Live When Lost at Sea

In 2013, Robert Redford starred in a quiet little parable about surviving at sea. I say quiet quite literally; there is barely more than a word of dialogue (the most well-earned expletive in American cinema). I say parable because of how the film illustrates invisible spiritual reality through a lens of bodily action. This essay will address the whole film, so spoilers ahoy! All Is Lost is available to stream if you’d like to catch up before reading on.

Our illusions of control form the core of All Is Lost. This is a tale of the ultimate futility of human effort. Far from fatalistic, though, the film manages to mine utter failure for seams of coal-black beauty. Critics often compared Redford’s character—billed only as Our Man—to the biblical Job. More interesting parallels, though, arise from two of Jesus’ more well-known parables: those of the rich young ruler who couldn’t give up his money and of the beaten man needing help from a good Samaritan. All Is Lost is about more than suffering.

We open as Our Man wakes to the sound of his boat taking on water. Impaled on the edge of a shipping container lost overboard and adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Of course, we know even now that this is only the beginning because we have already heard the voice over of Our Man’s message in a bottle. Writing days later, he confesses that all is lost for him. The note itself is the primary key to understanding this parable. With a few deft strokes, it sketches out a self-possessed man. One who says he tried to be good to his loved ones yet knew he hadn’t entirely succeeded. Ostensibly, this is because he had simultaneously been pursuing the kind of success that affords a high-tech sailboat and the financial independence to sail, alone, across an ocean. We have the impression of a man once very confident in himself and the success of his endeavors, though at the cost of a selfishness that has him distanced if not completely estranged from the people who come to mind when all is lost.

The shipping container has struck at the exact spot where Our Man’s communication and navigation equipment sits, and it is all ruined. If the radio is an analog to the instrument of prayer, it is to that prayer which flows from the conceit that we know exactly what we need and so only raise God with our demands, presuming he will dispatch the kind of rescue we expect. A favorable change of circumstance, a mere shift in the wind. This is the prayer of the self-reliant, ceding no will or wisdom to God. A good disaster makes nonsense of such presumption and so Our Man is stripped of prayer-as-control. He is at mercy.

Taking stock of his situation, Our Man sets to patching the gaping hole in his boat with resin and canvas. He succeeds, but veers far from his chosen course as a necessary consequence. All Is Lost is now staged to show us the incalculable wildness of blessing and curse, the wildness of God moving across the face of the deep. This is the wildness that spoke to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes of futility. In contact with this wildness, Our Man’s work—his supplies, equipment, preparation—prove arbitrary. As it turns out, he was never actually in the world he presumed to mitigate. His effort, success, and failure had always played out as a fraction of reality and the remainder was about to descend upon him with a terrible fury. A storm at sea.

All Is Lost insists that we navigate a world entirely in excess of even our best effort. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, just when we think our plans are foolproof, nature will send along just such a disaster to make fools of us. If the storm hadn’t come, Our Man might still have made safe harbor. But, the storm did come. His boat ruined, we see Our Man adrift in an inflatable raft, his volition now fully yielded. With pre-GPS navigation, he can chart where he is going, but he is at the mercy of currents and winds. Blessedly, he finds himself drifting towards a major trans-oceanic shipping lane.

While Our Man is stripped of the kind of hope he’d always known, the director, JC Chandor, never lets us escape beauty. His shots of the stillness, and expanse of the ocean, his gift of the silence of Our Man’s solitude—unspoiled by dramatic music or inner monologue—give even this disaster a resonant grandeur. The most affecting reminders of goodness come when Chandor shoots the raft from below, finding tiny fish and other sea creatures gathered in the sanctuary of Our Man’s raft. The images are electric, jolts of life in stark contrast to the endless austerity Our Man sees to the horizon. Even this ocean, harsh to a man, nurtures any life willing to depend on its provenance, built to receive it (which Our Man is not. His free will has lead him beyond the grace he was built to bear).

At this point, two critical moments remain to us, the first coming as Our Man drifts through the shipping lane hoping for rescue. The parable of the Good Samaritan will unfold for us, but instead of priests and et ceteras, we have container ships.

Could we really expect a mammoth ship, laden to its brink with merchandise, to spot a speck of a raft in that vast sea? Could Our Man? Pummeled and robbed by the sea, he watches each ship pass by blind to his distress.

How often are we in the position of those container ships? The tragedy is we have no idea. We are so driven by our own agenda that we lumber along, freighted with whatever we feel sure is so precious and urgent, across what we see as an empty ocean, a mere passageway to our goals. We are blind to what flotsam or jetsam might drift across our path. We blind our selves with silence, namely the absence of good questions. What spiritual shipwrecks have we left stranded, too busy about our busy-ness? (And this is all not even considering that carelessly-handled cargo sunk Our Man in the first place. Now there’s a metaphor to chew on.)

After the second ship misses his pitiful distress signals, Our Man writes out his confession. The letter of regret and resignation we heard at the beginning. His life and choices have, but for some unreasonable grace no longer expected, killed him.

Suspended in the black of night—the tomb of the past, but the womb of the dawn—he sees lights on the horizon. Expended of flares, Our Man gives up his last wealth—the plastic jug used to gather what little potable condensation he could collect from evaporated sea water—to house a signal fire. The fire spreads to his boat. He has now burned everything he had and enters the deep, malnourished and fatigued. Despite his every effort to find another way, Our Man has found himself forced to do what the rich young ruler in Jesus’ story could not do: to seek out life, he despaired of everything on which he thought he utterly depended. The fire prepares the final critical point in the narrative. All Is Lost ends with the difference between confession and repentance. They must come in that order.

Our Man made his confession, that he ‘tried to be right’, but ‘all is lost’ for him. This did not save him, though. His life had lead him to death, but he still had no alternative until a searchlight reached him as he sank into a nameless void. By a hand reaching down, Our Man was saved.

If that’s how you take the ending, then All Is Lost is a crisp allegory for our life. The film challenges us to see the futility and even folly of our best efforts in such a wide world, so immensely wild. It demands that we be on the lookout for our shipwrecked neighbors. And, it refuses to let us off the hook with mere confession. No, to find life, we must see the end of ourselves through a ring of fire and we must turn from death to grab the life reaching a hand beneath the waves. All must be lost if we are to get out of this world alive. We’re all that rich, young ruler; we’re all Our Man. What craft do we sail, what contrivance of free will and self reliance? Is our vessel equal to the carelessness of others and the fury of the storms passing to and fro on the water, so inventive in their havoc? When will we be asked to burn what we think is our very life and will we understand this world clearly enough to do so? What will we give and what must be taken when all is lost?

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What Ought We Conserve, Where Ought We Progress?

What Ought We Conserve, Where Ought We Progress?

Should a Christian be a political conservative or progressive? Let’s set aside the fact that this question itself cedes far too much ground to the power hoarding of the ruling class—economic, cultural, and governmental alike, all hard at work to impose from the top down an agenda that has no quarter for human diversity and which demands monomaniacal allegiance—and let’s just answer the question. Should a Christian be a conservative or a progressive?

Neither. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah pointed out that even our good deeds are filthy and stained. Rags. Who, taking that to be true (and there is some evidence), can look at history and find a moment truly worth conserving? Who can look at the imagined future extending logically from the trends of an era and see progress worth making? Goodness has always proven to be limited in breadth and depth, only good for a few and only done by people equally capable of doing bad. Even good intentions, aphoristically, pave the way to hell. This is cause for mourning, not bootstrap optimism. Blessed we’d be to mourn.

As an aside, I’m told that when Isaiah called our good deeds filthy rags, he was actually using the word for menstrual rags. Quite the bracing image, and one that makes you sort of wish modern translations were less skittish because it paints such a rich picture of our efforts. The stained rags being a sign of present infertility, of no new life where there could have been life. A painful sign for one trying to make life—and what are our good deeds but an attempt to create some kind of life?

There was no golden age and there is no steady, upward march. The human landscape is flat, never having peaked or gullied, but only having swirled and churned, perhaps seeming more rosy at times, if you stand in the right spot and squint just so, while all the time being lifeless and impotent. If a Christian takes seriously the notion of a fallen world, there is nothing to conserve under the sun and no progress to be made.

But this is no way to live, in despair. A Christian can’t be a conservative or a progressive so one has to be both. First, we must conserve what has been given. Namely the natural world and its creatures, but also our human relationships because, like it or not, God gave us each other. What decision will care for the created world without robbing Peter to pay Paul? What decision will foster more relating between people, better relationships not in warring monocultures but in the plurality we will never escape? These are two good questions to ask. Second, we must progress away from the wreckage of our attempts and repeated failures to build replacement Edens. Turn back from every ‘means to an end’ we’ve ever attempted. Of course, progress far enough along that retreating path and we will find ourselves required to stop building replacement Edens altogether, to admit that’s and end to which we just don’t have the means.

I don’t know how this translates into policy and, to be honest, I don’t think that matters. It is in the interest of that powerful ruling class to maintain the illusion that all negotiation and citizenship must flow through them and their monomaniacal platforms. If policy is our only hope for reform, then the government is our god. We can certainly see—in this era of impossible discourse and trigger warnings—the outcome of us giving politicians so much rein, surrendering too much of our neighborly duties and pleasures to institutions. I think it’s time Christians stepped back from policy, or rather stopped hiding behind it, and lived among their neighbors conserving the given things and progressing away from the damned-fool expectation that Eden can be rebuilt. If we do it right, they’ll have to outlaw neighborliness to keep their platforms propped up, but if it gets so far along that they’re that scared, well, let them just try.

You Deserve to Be Unlimited

unlimited

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One of the most prudent things we can do is pay attention to the promises advertisements make us—particularly from the most ecstatic salesmen of the day (in our day, they sell technology)—and ask whether the promise ever was fulfilled. Or even could have been. Over time, one can hope that the cumulative effect of such asking would be an inoculation against silver-tongued ads romancing our money and therefore our values.

We are awash in marketing. Every scrap of our attention is frantically sought after as a moment in which we might be enticed to consume. Every day we are sifted like wheat. Our urban environments especially are an audiovisual assault of sales pitches, a bullet-quick barrage of images and sounds drilling into our thoughts. In the haze, we seem to grow immune to the effects of advertising, but we are just as apt to grow dull in our ability to step back from the hawkers and shills to consider their honesty. We must come back to attention repeatedly.

One wireless company recently told me that I deserve to be unlimited. As this proclamation of my jubilee was delivered by a commercial, I presume that Sprint meant it as an offer. They would fulfill this essential of my human dignity with cellular data—the ability to broadcast and receive digital information anywhere. Well, anywhere Sprint offered wireless coverage. Well, anywhere they provided reliable coverage. Well, anywhere that coverage was uninterrupted (say by a storm, by nature, that inventive disrupter of the human agenda). Sprint, though, didn’t limit their language and disorienting imagery to the ‘unlimited’ data plan actually on offer, of which we have already found several limitations. This is because they were simultaneously selling cellular data and an ideal for human life, in particular how human life ought to interact with digital technology, the deliverer from analog limitations. Not just my available data, but I myself deserve to be unlimited.

I am, however, generally acutely aware of my limits. For one, there is my skin, that frontier between my body and all the rest of the entire world. I look at my hands and it’s plain where I end. Technology (even technology I enjoy and freely use—like books or the pen I used to draft these words) promises to extend this bodily limit, often by offering an intellectual escape. As though the mind were somehow not of the body and not subject to its own bodily limits. Via technology, my mind can seem to jump the banks of my body. Tech companies love to appeal to this illusion (not to say conceit) with their stunning galaxy of digital communication and its myriad worlds at my fingertips. By offering unlimited access to the ether, Sprint was trying to seduce my thoughts to come wander throughout eternity. Who would lose such an intellectual being?

I am limited even in my mind, though. I can only take in so much information before, overwhelmed, I begin to forget. Who can remember everything they have read, seen, heard, or even themselves said? Yet this unlimited access to information is ever on hand and offered as a sacrament. Some digi-evangelion, the gateway to a better life. Information has become so saturate as to flow like water from our screens. The preachers at the riverbank, that’s the marketing department. They call to us, ‘Wade in and be born into this new life.’ Baptized, full submersion. We have indeed been born away by the flood.

We fill our commutes to the brim with music, audiobooks, online courses, podcasts (though, to be fair, the amount of that last one may actually be unlimited). Our idle time is spent at table, feasting on all delicacies which data can deliver. Taken in and discarded with little digestion because we scarcely reflect. Reflection, after all, imposes a limit on our growth because it is the choice to stop taking in that which ‘expands our minds’ in order to take its measure. Without such a limit, our minds are so filled that information itself has become disposable.

This hypnotic flow, however, is not merely enticing as a trough for consumption. It is also a place to broadcast, so Sprint tells me, ‘every moment’. The people inviting me to their unlimited feast compel me to document and churn every moment into the stew in epileptic blips of text or, better yet, in pictures and video—the richness of the digital world, its fat. Both are data hogs, after all. We project our curated selves out and take in this museum of human activity, outrage, and dinner plates, behold it filtered, distorted, and over-bright as though our screens were warped glass.

Enough! We have just seen how the world in the screen cannot but pass us by unheralded and die largely unremembered. Why, then, do we throw ourselves into it, expecting to be remembered? Do we really desire to make our lives so disposable?

If this stream of information which data bears to us breaks over our limited minds and washes away lasting impressions, what does Sprint really mean when they compel me to be unlimited? Here it comes to a fine point: Sprint doesn’t really care if I am actually unlimited (I am not). They simply want me to feel unlimited as I consume their product because then I would ostensibly consume it limitlessly, which is a handy trait to have in a customer when you’re selling something and you’d like it to be expensive. What we are really being sold is our own demand, by which we will be sold more.

The promise of un-limits is ultimately a myth, but one with a real, practical cost that we bear in our emotions, intellect, and bodies. Poring through the shrine of the boastable slices of everyone’s lives leaves us envious, depressed, and awfully narcissistic. Notifications offer validation and so we cram the pleasure of life into single images or 140 barely-coherent characters where it vies with the avalanche of everyone else’s snowflake moments. We feed on info-calories until glutted on distraction and it would seem our minds are growing obese, sluggish, unable to function just as our bodies fail when grown fat on too much food. We live for the screen and fill our eyes with its light yet constant exposure to that glare keeps our minds and bodies from cycling into sleep and rest. So drained, might it come clear that limitlessness is not only a promise no one can keep, but something we should not even seek?

When we set our eye on the brilliance of the digital world, we have set our eye on a dark thing. Dazzling at first, but decaying. The deeper we stare, the deeper the darkness. Sprint advertises only the beautiful show to keep us staring, consuming that data bought under contract. The black at the fringe of the circus, what we find should we actually approach unlimited consumption, Sprint sidesteps deftly. ‘Just meeting demand.’ Never mind their effort to drum it up. ‘We just offer a tool. It’s not on us how you use it. Besides, it’s not like it’s killing anyone.’ It’s a convenient disintegration of the whole person to sell to the pleasure centers with no moral accounting beyond. Maybe we acquiesce to the disintegration, if we even notice it, because Sprint is a business and they function to make money, not coddle people. Nobody ever heard of the Nanny Marketplace, right? And maybe selling this unlimited notion is not such a big deal. The world in our devices is, after all, un-coerced and filled with exits. This does not preclude us, however, from seeing the schemes of the marketeers as bald-faced attempts to exploit the mind’s vulnerabilities, its hungers for connection, distraction, novelty, without care for the effects, and so we ought to be on guard.

It’s a cynic’s view, I know, but it’s hard not to be skeptical of the wonderment and delight on offer in ad spots like this one. Precision-honed by customer behaviorists with the devil at their elbow, boosting demand for that which will always and only make more demand. That’s the final disintegration, the severance of demand and satisfaction. Maybe we accept this state of affairs because to do otherwise would be to attempt bedrock change in the economic system in which we all have a stake. We have built a world of glittering towers and networks, set it spinning on the axis of supply and demand, and now its life is our own. What’s good for business is good for us because we need that rising tide to float our own ships. Fear of drowning in the economy can give us remarkable endurance. What we will bear for the lords of the market who come to us offering autonomy, which we buy with money and then leverage to gain more money and thus more autonomy. If that seems like an endless cycle, it’s because it’s an endless appetite and one which we share with the titans of business. We are all half-breeds of a hungry god.

In an economy where we are sold even our own hunger, what will disenchant us? Well, holding the ads we breathe to account, interrogating their promises should help us see the inevitable cycle of dissatisfaction that salesmen both offer to fulfill yet must continually aggravate. This will eventually require us to get honest about the desperate size of our appetite. But if we can learn our demand, we might finally find satisfaction.

Paradise Lost: an American tale

<em>Paradise Lost</em>: an American tale

A work of art must endure a while to become a classic. It must survive its own novelty and still speak. Paradise Lost has earned its prestige as a classic of classics. Milton set a poetic standard when he composed the 12-book epic (while blind in the 17th century, no less. 150 years before braille). Pure craft, though, only carries one so far. Paradise Lost endures because Milton used his craft to bore into the strata of reality until he struck bedrock truths. His characters and themes contain an evergreen sap, especially as they enact and interpret political endeavor. John Milton was a regicide-endorsing revolutionary and a fiercely literate Puritan of sorts, so he certainly had some rather passionate ideas about authority and cultural conflict. What might he have to say to the American culture war of the 21st century? In particular, what might he have to say to the American church?

The generation now coming into its own in the American church was born about the same time as the famed Moral Majority and other organizations in the broader Christian Right movement in American politics, and so this generation of local churches has been steeped in the waters of a church embroiled in overt political activism. This generation has also outlived the Moral Majority, and may yet outlast any notion at all of a “Christian” political right, whose legislative and cultural legacy is presently being swallowed up in defeat. The American church now must find a way forward in the long shadow of that divisive if well-intentioned movement.

In many ways, the Moral Majority was a movement of force that, while waged against the throne of the god of this world, tragically, turned all too readily to all too familiar tactics. A politically-engaged and contentedly public face of the church interpreted her great commission as a call to arms in the public square and by the calculus of political might and, often, social shaming. There’s no way around it, the most aggressive parts of the church fought the ruler of this world on his own terms, with his own weapons, and, it would now seem, has wrought a stinging defeat on the church as a whole.

In a lot of ways, Paradise Lost is about misguided ambition. If you can see such in recent church history, then you can read Paradise Lost in a post-Christian America with and uncanny sense of recognition. Milton gives us an unconventional hero: Satan. Not that Satan’s actions are admirable or good, but his conquest drives the narrative; we’re asked to relate to him who, having himself waged an ill-advised revolution against the throne of his world, is similarly stung and defeated. Now, lest we think it beneath us to relate to such a notorious villain, let’s remember that even as we read the Bible itself, we ought to feel most comfortable relating to cheating-hearted Israel and tax collectors if the Scriptures are to make any sense, so this bad example shouldn’t seem so scandalous.

Paradise Lost gives us the story of imprudent war and its consequences. Satan and his angels fought the throne of heaven, lost, and were exiled. The political dealings of the so-called Christian Right followed a strikingly Satanic arc, that is the same arc as Milton’s Satan. In the wake of its rebuffed gambit, the American church’s exile from the spheres of political and cultural influence now mirrors the defeat fall from heaven of Milton’s Satan. Take line 824 of book six in Paradise Lost. Answering his Father’s call to arms after two days of war, the Son of God stands his army down:

“So spoke the Son and into terror changed
His countenance, too severe to behold
And full of wrath bent on his enemies.
At once the four [cherubim] spread out their starry wings
With dreadful shade contiguous…
He on his impious foes right onward drove
Gloomy as night.” (6.824-832)

To survey the conservative blogosphere’s account of the cultural backlash against the Christianity is to feel the sinking dread of the church experiencing such a fate. Perhaps she may even do so.

Like Milton’s Satan, the American church may well have earned her lumps. Attempting by force of law that which can only be won by grace, the church entered an arena in which she was explicitly not equipped to do battle—an arena of force and fear over winsome meekness, of efficiency over faithfulness—and now faces hard lessons in the true application of earthly power. A political kingdom has never been in the books for the church, though she is often tempted to forget and reach once more for power (which is the real kind of Satanic). No, the church’s mission is that of salt and light and hidden effort. Power and recognition in this world are their own reward, and a paltry, fleeting one at that. Still, as she enters exile from ideological influence, the church, like Milton’s Satan, may be permitted her second thoughts.

In book four, Satan has some alone time upon arriving at the newly-minted earth. He rages at the sun for recalling to him the state from whence his “pride and worse ambition threw [him] down.” (4.40) He even comes to the precipice of repentance (4.80), but, of course, if his pride had permitted him that path, the book wouldn’t be called Paradise Lost. What kinds of second thoughts, though, might the church have about her politics?

At the least, a strong argument could be made that a Christian politician does not exist to pass “Christian” laws, but to make disciples—like any other Christian—of those around him or her with whom they personally relate (albeit in the halls of power, an intricately fraught arena for the gospel of a contrite heart). And, this is not with the further end in view of a Christian voting bloc to ram through legislation or otherwise enforce a “Christian” society upon a pluralistic people. The salvation of men and women is the end, never the means. Anything to the contrary flows from a confusion in the church about her place and role in this world, and just as likely from jealousy of those who aren’t the subject of Matthew 5:11 if one were frank. It’s not fun to stand out, open to rebuke. Of course, it’s tempting to try to build some kind of society into which one blends seamlessly. Biting at this lure has never served the church well. May the church cross the threshold of repentance.

In making a way forward after the catastrophe of her most recent power play, which she bears on the credibility of her presence in the cultural landscape, the generation of her people in a secular age can yet turn to Milton, to his depiction of a debate within Satan’s high command, and see her potential paths. A proper paradise is at stake.

In book two, the fallen angels gather in Pandaemonium to lick their wounds and argue their future. Three of the fallen step forward.

First, Moloch advocates redoubled war; for his cohabitants of hell to “armed with hell flames and fury all at once…[to turn] our tortures to horrid arms against the torturer” (2.61)—namely God—and “disturb his Heaven, which, if not victory would at least be revenge.” (2.102, 105) The church could take this course—indeed some have—by seizing what power remains in reach, redoubling its efforts to wed the church to some kind of political or social power structure and, by cold force of law, legislate some earthly paradise under the banner of heaven. This might look like economic boycotts or thoughtlessly taking the side of anything peddled under the adjective “Christian” with no prudence as to its quality or character, and it certainly looks like puffery and vitriol on the Internet. Antagonizing ones enemies in the culture war, “torturing the torturers”, must be anathema to the church. Her battle is not against flesh and blood and so the tactics and reflexes of the flesh have only a hellish place in her.

Belial offers a less hawkish alternative, though riddled with fear of further suffering and, should God completely destroy them in response to further violence, losing his cherished intellect, his “thoughts that wander through eternity.” (2.148) Preening even in Hell. He counsels staying put and suffering silently, but his words finally belie his true ambition: that, after some time, God would

“remit His anger and perhaps, thus far removed
not mind us not offending, satisfied
with what is punished, whence these raging fires will slacken.” (2.210-212)

Prizing comfort more than his mission, he hopes to slink back into Heaven by disappearing into a neutered inoffense. Again, the church could follow such a path, to blend silently back into the kingdom against which it warred, coming to heel at the foot of that dark prince. This could look like excising, bit by bit, everything which might offend a neighbor—real or imagined—until the church is utterly eviscerated, that is gutless. Mammon chides Belial’s wile as “splendid vassalage”, and well put. What, then, would this last devil advise?

First, he sees no integrity in singing “forced hallelujahs” to a throne vehemently opposed, yet sees further war as bull-headed vanity. His thesis, then is to “seek our own good for ourselves…though in [exile] free and to none accountable. [To prefer] hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile pomp.” (2.252) His entire soliloquy is a brilliant rejoinder to the folly surrounding him on the left and the right, and he is met with a storm of applause. Of particular interest for the church, though, is his notion of liberty.

The church might see herself as Mammon sees his position save for one critical difference: he rebelled against heaven and the church is in rebellion against hell. Their two exiles are of perfectly contrasting character. Mammon’s pride and sense of liberty, however, applied in the right direction, is beautiful. Though the path be hard, actual liberty is unassailable, especially by a cosmically illegitimate power. The church must rescue her notion of liberty from her notion of success and even of fairness. She is always free to bear witness whether in comfort or in chains and even (perhaps especially) in death. Jesus’ liberty, after all, took him to the cross.

Now, political liberty is good and worth advocating. The church, however, ought to discern the kind of liberty felt in comfort from her higher liberty of conscience. This may look like the church singing hymns in chains like Paul and Silas, or even blessing her captors—literal or philosophical—but it will always look like faithful courage at any cost.

Consider her true position. Any king can only punish his own subjects; his sovereignty is limited. Setting aside Milton, the real Satan is no different. All of his power withers up and dies at the border of the eternal Kingdom of the Son of God. So long as the church prizes faithfulness over success and popularity, dividing fleeting from eternal, she will be preserved through any Satanic furnace even if that furnace is stoked so hot that its flame consumes the guards tasked with throwing her in. True liberty is immortal.

Mammon is also right about one other thing: “[thriving] under evil and [working peace] out of pain through labor and endurance.” (2.261) The church, aided by the Spirit, can indeed make prosperity from adversity. Mammon, though, restricts the scope of good to his fellow fallen. His exile is closed; there are only the fallen in Hell. The church, however, remains in place in this pluralistic world, living out her deportation before the watching citizenry. She can, therefore, make good for herself, but also for others who observe her exile. And in so doing, the church’s faithfulness to the character of her founder can be made to produce fruit. In a final irony, the church can actually see achieved what Milton’s Satan lit out from Hell to do by corrupting Adam and Eve: to drag others “down” with her and spite the god of this world on his throne. The church does this, however, knowing full well that in this inverted world, down is up and her defiance of its god abets an act of rescue from his crumbling stronghold. What a final coup if the church, in faithfulness, holds her courage.

Paradise Lost gives us a highly unexpected blueprint for the church in this world, especially in those seasons following an overt grab for power that ends in failure and backlash. We read the classics because, at their best, they clarify those parts of our mutual passage through history that endure deeper than generational novelties. And with clarity comes courage.

In Praise of Beautiful Things

dore forest dark*     *     *

I spent early 2000s on a liberal arts campus, a campus trying to cope with the cultural arrogance that would lead to terrorism, racism, and other acts of tyranny. I was ardently pressed to agree that no universal standard of beauty exists. The mind that can enshrine its own preferences as universal is the same mind that blows up buildings and kills people, so the peaceful mind must hold its preferences in an open hand. On the face of it, this position brooks no argument. A standard of beauty develops within a particular set of social circumstances into which a person did not even choose to be born. It certainly is true that you cannot privilege one cultural happenstance over another. Circumstances are dispersed and received according to an inscrutable logic and, since culture is the business of people, the byproducts of circumstances emanate from the same essential dignity. So each standard of beauty must stand on a level playing field. We ought to take more care with our words, though, and to do so, we must think a little less of ourselves.

The problem with the preceding argument against a universal standard of beauty is in its presumption, that presumption being that beauty means the same thing as taste. Taste is the human experience of partaking in beauty. We would therefore be mistaken to elevate our experience of it to the definition of beauty itself. Preference varies, but beauty does not change alongside. To presume otherwise, even with the aim of equality for all cultural expression, may aim at humility, but it opens the door for its own kind of arrogance: the arrogance of relativism, that sneakiest form of totalitarianism. Taste must be kept distinct from and secondary to beauty in order for beauty to remain intact, otherwise beauty would have to contain ugliness and this simply cannot be. All beauty satisfies taste, but not all taste is satisfied by beauty.

This may seem to lean towards the very divisiveness that would lead to blowing things up; who, then, decides what is beautiful and ugly? But, that question continues to conflate taste and beauty. Things get blown up in the name of taste, when its whims demand that beauty refuse too much. But a relativistic approach still diminishes beauty, asking that it submit to too much. We must start over from scratch. Is there a universal standard of beauty? Yes, and it is this: that there is beauty.

I can think of no culture that does not agree on this. Whenever two or more people get together, it seems they always get down to the business of finding some things praiseworthy and calling those things beautiful. That in itself—that opportunity to praise—makes a pretty persuasive case against too much much of being by yourself, I’d say. Yes, on the subject of beauty, there is near universal agreement: it’s there and it’s true.

What, then, is beauty? I’m satisfied to think of it like this. Beauty is when we find the materials of our world ordered in a way that least resembles the broken state of their origin, even if in the midst of brokenness. This is a thing we can recreate. A song, a story, an image that pushes against its surroundings and says something different, calls us toward some border. In darkness, and we are all immersed in darkness of one kind or another, beauty carves out space in which we can delight. While our glimpses of quickened order are hemmed in by chaos on all sides, and our curse is to see the order unmade before our eyes, still we continue on, seeking and wielding beauty against gloom with a universal tirelessness that I take as proof that we are creatures of the former and not the latter.

We make music. We quarry sounds around us and we shape them and stack them in sonic palaces, converting noise to song. Our instruments may vary from region to region, as may our preferred timing and distances between the tones, but in praise of ordered sound we remain unanimous.

We make images and in so doing, do nothing less than make a music of light. With highlight and shadow, we order where light appears, and with pigment we reap the unending white light we receive and draw from its spectrum shade and hue. We arrange this harvest on canvas or paper, preparing a feast for the eye.

We make words and this is the greatest music, the music of our selves. This time, it was the sounds in our own thoughts and on our own lips that we put into an order that would summon from deep waters our thoughts and release them into the light. The word formed a community from disparate lives. Others’ words entered us like a torch, illuminating our hidden spaces, and our own words did the same in them and so the light between us grew. In time we shaped light and shadow in a particular way to reflect the sounds we made. We made an alphabet, written language to make tangible the human interior. Manifestation of spirit, this is the ultimate blessing of the word. This blessing enabled us to perfect our relationship with beauty.

With music as with image, the beauty is a blessing we take into ourselves. While this is good and can be so resonant on its own, when we give voice to what stirred in us, our experience seems heightened. What was visceral is refined and we feel cultivated, deepened. To keep it inside, to always keep it inside, is to be cut off from something vital, and ultimately, to step into something destructive. Beauty trapped in a cage is mere pleasure, which has been known to turn on us. The word is the means by which we work beauty into our interior dark and the irreplaceable vessel by which we share beauty with each other, even if so few words as, ‘Look here,’ or, ‘Listen there.’ When image and sound come into communion with the word, the symphony is complete and chaos is most broadly dispersed.

We are makers of songs, images, and words, makers of order in disorder, seekers of beauty in chaos without exception. The universal standard of beauty is that there is beauty. Yes, and how did we ever come to this consensus, perhaps the only human consensus? Well, no matter where or when we were born, we were all born into this world, and nowhere is beauty more effortless than in nature. Wherever we turn, sights and sounds can strike the human spirit like a hammer on a bell. Valleys seen from high places, rivers and seas in eternal motion: these graces, or others like them, are common to all. These were our templates, the visions and sounds that called us out of our interior dark, summoning us to the threshold of stillness and wonder. All our work with light and shadow, consonance and dissonance, and even consonants and vowels has been our attempt to reflect back into the world that which it so abundantly and promiscuously pours out in our presence simply by hewing to its natural state. This very good world is the muse to all of our musics; we answer its call and all the more urgently when faced with the darkness which also swirls around us.

At this point, we must seriously grapple with the origin of this world because that place is the origin of whatever calls out to us. What call are we almost irresistibly compelled to answer? Or whose? Why do we answer back with acts of beauty, especially when the world itself seems so dark? Why do we reject the darkness?

Admittedly, not everyone has tried to answer back with beauty. There are some who say all this talk of beauty and chaos, light and darkness, is an over-wrought load of sentimentality to be dismantled with all urgency. With hard-headed zeal, some set out to make unredemptive even irredeemable work, to reflect chaos into chaos. You know what, I’m going to go ahead and co-opt that just like I’ve co-opted basically all the rest of art. The final act of beauty is its inevitability. What may seem unredemptive and unbeautiful fails by its own design. Its every act to frustrate our embedded appetite for beauty must push against something, it must push against the frontier of beauty; by trying to subvert beauty, which demarcates the border with chaos, ugliness merely charts the chaos from within. Anything that can be mapped can be left, and these dark expressions drive us to beauty by training us what to reject. Every time a person makes an unbeautiful choice, they must choose against something else. We instinctively feel what was chosen against and so we experience beauty except as an absence, and ultimately as a longing.

Our final question, with a universal standard and workable definition of beauty in hand, is this: how do we discern good taste and how can we do so while promoting human flourishing? Some choices, in art, yes, and beyond, aren’t beautiful. As matters of taste, they exist outside of beauty by their own design. By subverting taste to beauty, though, we can make distinctions without being tyrannical. First, an elevated sense of beauty is not threatened by bad taste, in fact, it brings more clarity and gentleness. You see, by positioning beauty above taste, we must subject even our own taste to it, including how we respond to the taste of others. We honor beauty when our taste is tuned to human, not tribal, nourishment. Second, we can see if taste is diseased by the light of the beauty hanging overhead, but we can also see clearly to contrast disease and mere difference. What makes us flourish, what tears us apart? Guided by beauty, we can approach our differences knowing that all darkness is of a piece and so darkness can not drive out darkness but only join with it. Then we can cling to beauty, that it is diversely reflected, and wield our own acts of beauty, carving out space in darkness and making space in which to delight.