WE NEED, WE MEN AND WOMEN, WANTING MUCH
We need, we men and women, wanting much;
A breakfast bun, a hand nearby, a breath,
And quicker answers to the mad questions
Buzzing our quiet times, distracting us.
From nothing we came, but what does that tell us?
What nothing is nothing, what kind of nothing
Do we claim as true origin and home?
Chance tossing up sunsets by emergence,
Waltzing with time to spin out symphonies?
Do higher emergent realities
Need strong actors to set them first spinning,
Or did water leap into being alone,
Hydrogen and oxygen attracted
To each other through near sexual moves,
And one day, voila! Water born, cold, wet,
Full of all life, language, and brain would need?
What imagination and faith is required
To believe in nothing nothing. But still,
Its mystery all around. It’s an ocean
We sit in, our planet and lives islands
In vast seas, small libraries of knowledge
Floating in oceans of long horizon.
What we know is real enough, I suppose,
But what interests me is the water out there.
Perhaps this life is a rehearsal after all,
A long preparation for sailing seas
That we can’t go to until we finish here.
If you long to sail, learn to tie knots in ropes.
Get strong, get open, get wisdom, and soon.
Though it cost all you have, run up your sails.
Sacred texts are gifts, blueprints of sailing,
But will their ship designs stand the tempest?
Is the water out there what we think it is?
God only knows, but He’ll judge us anyway.
Or will He? Perhaps forever judges
Souls as oceans judge a ship’s worthiness.
“Will it sail?” being the only question.
© 2012 Jeff Berryman
Category Archives: Ideas
What is at the heart of the conversation between art (in all its form and expression) and the faith of the Christian (in its multiple and varied flavors)?
Here we go again…for more than a decade I’ve been leading an annual discussion with undergraduates at Abilene Christian University concerning the intersection between the real world making of art and the living reality of Christian faith. When I started this class, I knew what the answers were. Well, that’s an overstatement, but I was pretty sure I was on the right track. Now? Oh, it’s a topsy-turvy world we’ve got going here, and I often wonder…what in the world was the Creator thinking as He got to work in that “let-there-be-light”, big bang impulse of a moment?
So without much fanfare, I want to ask you, my friends from far and wide, some of whom I know, and some of whom I don’t…if you were to try to launch a group of passionate young artists on this life long conversation of making form from varied and disparate material, somehow letting that making being informed by a faith in Christ in one of its multiple and various forms (my emerging biases are showing now), how would you articulate the question at the heart of the matter?
How would you articulate the question at the heart of the matter?
I’d like to say it’s simple, but at least for me, I’m still plowing through mounds of complexity. But before I tell you what I think the deal is, as seriously as I know how to ask, please pitch in here. I’d love to have a no-kidding, gather-around-the-question-without-any-great-desire-to-win kind of discussion here. Many of you are far more grounded than I am, and just now I’m sitting in my chair in class, hoping the instructor shows up.
…and thanks in advance.
What if we treated each other like poems? Things of beauty to be broken apart and experienced instead of commodities to be judged?
Here’s a piece that I’ve performed a couple of times, down at the open mic of the Seattle Poetry Slam and then in a worship gathering at the Northwest Church. (edited slightly for the church performance.) There’s a series of these poems based on the notion of “Don’t Reduce Me.” Reductionism is at the heart of stereotyping, and the fact that we often deal with each other as if a single fact (skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever) tells us everything we need to know. Truth is, identity is mysterious and emergent, and we should all pause at the holy mystery that is the other person in front of us. Needless to say, life goes too fast to allow such a thing.
To read each other like poems, we’d have to slow down. Way down…
MAKE ME A TOWER
Don’t reduce me.
Make me a tower.
Shower my mind with reasons
Why days all of grime
Can turn into fine
Seasons of nothing but better.
Better yet, can you cut through the clutter
And just sputter me out some hope here?
I’m trying to cope here, and I don’t want to shutter down,
So please—just utter me some good.
Give me some kind of beauty
I’m looking for my heart; I lost it, in part, to duty
And fear of hell, and fell notions of holy.
Now only oceans of you can open the fist.
I missed this,
Missed the gist of this.
Don’t dismiss the potential for bliss here, people.
What I need are open faces,
Designs of production making praises that function
Like light on the leaves of opening trees.
I need to receive the sun’s gift, that spark
That runs down the dark, runs down the miles
Arriving to open the sad into smiles, through all of life.
A kingdom of good I would make if I could.
Now, that attention you pay,
The fine notice you take,
It starts turning the pages,
It rattles the cages inside this man, and
This dead heart starts to shake, starts to quake, and maybe it has to break,
But it can, in time, start to wake up, and by God,
It’s sublime to find in the fine detail what really might be a human face.
I’m more than a race, some type and some chatter,
Be in my now, right here has to matter
We all got some color, some black, white, and brown,
We’re deeper than that once the bias breaks down
Let’s get past it, let’s ask it, whether all that typing and crap
Is what’s wrapping our spirits up so damn tight,
That we fear it, we won’t come near it, our own spirit, we steer it into hiding,
Riding straight into the abyss,
Missing what “could have been” in our time.
Put your mind to better use, and try to deduce the me,
The whole me—I been standing here the whole frickin’ time,
Man—the mission is the recognition
Of the emergent, towering woman and man,
That powerful I am that stands in every common
Image carrier of God.
I’m not a body, I’m not a soul-
I’m a human, I’m whole
An entire being, tired of being abused.
Of being used so poorly.
I sorely hope in the future, we can just refuse to do that,
And choose to see each other—
Don’t reduce me.
Here’s what actors do, in one way or another. Imaginatively, they work to enter the experience of a person, a character, imagining circumstances, beliefs, thought-life, sensory preferences, histories of relationships, and perhaps most importantly, what their particular characters are hungry for, long for, and have been living without. They then shift their physical and emotional lives to somehow begin to interact with other players to present a story of what it means to be human in a very particular place with very particular cultural, historical, and personal factors in play. (Note: Imaginative, sensory detail is important. Where does the character’s particular hunger land in their body?)
One of the cardinal rules of acting is that you cannot judge your character and hope to enter into their hearts and minds. Be it a murderer, a savior, a lover, or a hated foe, to judge the other as an actor is to kill the process of entering in. People judge from the outside. When you’re inside the head of the character, none of that judgment can be going on, because it’s not going in their heads. Get it? Whenever you watch an actor that somehow isn’t quite succeeding in disappearing into the character, one of the culprits to watch for is a position of judgment in the approach.
This is a process of play and of work. It is imaginative, muscular work that takes time, energy, thought, research, conversation, experimentation, and failure. We watch, we offer the work to others, we try to learn what we can about what it means to be human through these interactions. Our work is to humanize the 2-D characters that lie on the writer’s page, enflesh them, give them voice, and hopefully, serve that character without judgment.
Will I play characters that are not like me? Characters who hold opinions in politics and religion and sexuality and economics that differ from mine? I hope so, or there won’t be much to do.
All of this is simply to suggest an exercise for all of us. Especially if you’re not an actor, give this a shot. Pick a person, a real human being (call them a character if you’d like) that sits on the opposite side of the fence from you on some piece of human living that you think is really important. Perhaps it’s a person (in actor terms, a character) that you don’t like very much, that you’d shout down if you could, or maybe it’s someone you fear. Pretend you got cast as that person, and now it’s your job to get inside their head, without judgment, to grasp what their hearts are like. Where they came from, what they’re up to, what they see as important and necessary. Where do their disappointments lie? What are their heartbreaks? What is the shape of their human brokenness? What makes them laugh? And what do they long for? What do they want?
If you’re really gutsy, you’ll realize the only way to actually find any of this out is to move beyond your imagination and actually go ask them. Befriend them, get to know them, differences and all. Of course, the actor’s work is not try to change their characters. The characters are what they are. We will only understand them or not, enter in fully or not, offer our bodies as places for their stories to live or not, and finally, love them or not.
Let’s say you get all this good information about the character. What’s the next step? What’s the next piece of the work? (You’re going to like this.) Now your job is to figure out where all the deep, soulful things you found out about the other lie in you. Because the work of the actor is not to find how the character differs from them, but to find where the places of intersection are. How are we alike? The assumption is this; all the soulful things that make one person unique are somehow also located in me, and all possibilities lie within us all.
Maybe call this the deep drilling into the old phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
We are all the other.
Humanizing, isn’t it?
To restate the exercise: Be an actor. Lay down your opinions for a minute and try to imaginatively enter the experience of those you oppose. Your convictions may not change (changing anyone’s convictions is not the point), but I’m guessing the tone of voice, rhetoric, and conversation might.
And then, who knows what the possibilities might be.
All the world’s a stage…
I haven’t been blogging because I haven’t known what to say.
I still don’t.
There are multiple conversations in culture that demand attention (just cruise your Flipboard for awhile), and to most of them, I simply say this: I don’t know the answers to the questions we’re facing.
But not long ago, I read a post over at Stephen Pressfield’s blog that accused folks like me of simple cowardice. Ouch. To be an artist is to choose a point of view and go after it. To sit on the fence on anything is to have a yellow streak. Choose what you think and get on with it. The writer went on to say that if you don’t choose where you stand on issues, you won’t have anything to say. There’s also the famous enjoinder that reminds us that all it takes for evil to triumph in the world is for good people to do nothing.
And this blog has been silent.
I can’t tell if I’m experiencing a storm, a carnival, or some variation of the two. A storm-like carnival, a carnival in a storm, or a carnival-like storm…who knows? All I know is that there’s a lot of stuff—dark and beautiful—whirling around. And we’re all pointing and saying, “Look at that!” Not only “Look at that” but also, “Let me tell you the truth about that.” I watch smart, articulate people I know hold court among friends conversing on a particular topic, and as they speak with conviction and clarity, I wonder, “Why aren’t you as overwhelmed as I am?”
Here’s what’s whirling in our carnival storm: theology, philosophy, biblical studies, world religion, archeology, symbology, psychology, biology, physics, economics, sociology, neurology and brain studies, sexuality, politics, issues of justice, entertainment, creativity, art, ecology, fiction and literature, poetry, theatre, music, popular mass media, media criticism, history, aesthetics, phenomenology, and…the list goes on.
To say it more simply, what’s whirling are our ideas about what it means to be human, and just what it is that constitutes “the good.”
A conversation with a very smart friend of mine recently reminded me that I have traveled further down the postmodern path than I ever thought I would. He mused that perhaps the kind of Christian you became might depend on whether you read the book of Hebrews before you read the book of Romans, or the other way around. We were talking about atonement theories (exactly how Christ’s crucifixion paves the way for reconciliation with God), and his simple statement reflected my current thinking that so much of what (and how) we think and feel is determined by more factors than we can get our heads around. It can be as simple as the order in which you encounter bits of information that you eventually come to hold as your most sacred thoughts.
Genetics, the nurture of our family of origin, the specific time of history into which we are born, our economics, our social circles, our exposure to ideas in all domains of human learning and enterprise, our various degrees of intelligence and giftedness, our educational opportunities, our emotional structures and the various ways in which all these lenses are put together to create dynamically changing ways in which we see the world. And finally, add to it the notion that we are story-telling creatures by nature, and that the brain may not care whether the stories are true or not, and suddenly, deciding where to put your feet down becomes a bit dicey.
All this is to say that the latest version of what one colleague once termed my “ongoing tortured self” (“If Jeff isn’t tortured about something, he isn’t Jeff”) feels more serious than most. If all those categories of human activity and study listed above are thought of tectonic plates…well, you know what happens when tectonic plates start shifting.
At the end of the day, the starting place is simply this: we are limited, and what we know will always be dwarfed by what we don’t know. There isn’t much to do about that. It’s in the design of things. That is not to say we can’t know anything—there are in fact, amazing things to know and be sure of, but that list of “knowable” things is, in itself, mysterious, and up for much debate. Will I ever know anything with enough certainty that I will shout down those who disagree with veins popping in my neck?
I doubt it.
I begin each day with a meditation on the nature of God, and as Peter Rollins reflects on in How (Not) to Speak of God, I’ve ended up not wanting to say anything. He quotes philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his introduction: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Sometimes the not speaking is about knowing your own ignorance, and sometimes its about awe, but either way, no words will come.
That being said, it’s time to start speaking again, though as always with me, it’s going to be mostly questions asked, not declarations made.
Wondering what inspiration means…