Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Myrtle Beach Moment, No. 2

Thee Doll House is a well-known strip joint in Myrtle Beach. It's not "the doll house," it's "theeeee doll house," if you catch their drift.

Off to the right, you see a photo of Thee Doll House's sign.

Other institutions have been trying to ride the coattails of the "theeeee" designation. You can't make this stuff up.

At "Thee Baptist Worship Center" on S.C. 90, I bet church-goers are very exciting people of God.

Digg this

Monday, January 29, 2007

Myrtle Beach Moment

Today's Myrtle Beach Moment comes from a billboard on S.C. 544 near the U.S. 17 overpass, technically in Surfside Beach.

Look closely -- as if his name isn't funny enough, he's wearing a headset, like those guys who do product demonstrations at the state fair.

Or is it an auction? "Lot Number 17, a well-worn Bible. Five gimme five gimme five gimme ten who's got ten gimme ten..."

Maybe he couldn't hold the mic because he's gonna bust some Brittany-style dance moves.

I bet the word really comes alive if the volume is too loud.

Digg this

Friday, January 26, 2007

Cave Wall: A new journal of poetry & art

Rhett Iseman, a graduate of the UNC-Greensboro MFA program in poetry, has launched a new literary journal devoted to poetry and art: Cave Wall.

Iseman has published some first-class poets in the first edition, including Fred Chappell, who was North Carolina Poet Laureate 1997-2002. Chappell is also a novelist whose 1986 book Dagon was named the Best Foreign Book of the Year by the Academie Francaise (which would be in France).

For a sampling of the first edition's poetry and art, and for subscription details, hit .

Digg this

Materials and meaning in art

From Thomas Howard's Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets':

“…Eliot’s material is words, as marble is the sculptor’s and notes the composer’s. It is not as though words are mere instruments or just the lowly handmaidens of meaning. Words are the thing. When we visit Chartres, we do not dismiss the stone and glass as the mere stuff of something infinitely greater than stone and glass. The cathedral is stone and glass. It does not exist at all without stone and glass. We cannot drive any wedge of meaning between the materials and the glory to which the building testifies. The whole thing is glory, under the particular species of stone and glass. The same goes for notes in a concerto or divertimento, or swipes of oil and pigment in a Vermeer. The material constitutes the modality under which we perceive the thing itself.”

Digg this

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Jeanne Murray Walker and the 'heart'

I met LeAnne Benfield Martin this summer at a writing workshop conducted by Jeanne Murray Walker, an English professor at the University of Delaware and the award-winning author of six volumes of poetry and many theater scripts. This week, Martin has posted a two-part interview with Walker on her blog.

In the interview, Walker made a passing reference to the "heart," and I think it's insightful. Lately I've been writing about the common presupposition that the "heart" can be a non-rational center of understanding and knowing, and more particularly, about how hard it is to define "heart" in that context.

Here's what Walker said:

Looking at a bowl of strawberries ripening in the window as I make dinner, I wonder why poetry sometimes seems so trivial. It is a force a thousand times more powerful than cost-efficiency. I’m fixing meatloaf because I can make two meatloaves and freeze one for later. Yes. Okay. Cost effectiveness, the rational mind at work. But why am I cooking at all? I could open a can. I could order out. But I love the pressure in my thumb and fingers as I cut garlic. I love the smell of bread in the oven. I love the astonishing green of fresh asparagus. I am driven to cook for my family by whatever once drove me to change twenty diapers a day without thinking about the clock. Cooking and poetry make sense, not by the mathematically calculated standards of capitalism, but by something we glibly call the heart. As Anna Kamienska wrote, When the intellect really tries, it can, for a time, replace the sun, but it will never ripen strawberries.

Read all of the Walker interview at Martin's blog, .

Digg this

Richard Wilbur postscript

When I posted a link to the new profile of Richard Wilbur, I forgot to add this link to his poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." It's a poem everyone should read, and a poem everyone can read.

Digg this

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Human Genome Project leader defends his Christian faith and the theory of evolution

This past summer, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, speak at the C.S. Lewis Foundation's Summer Institute at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

Collins' lecture was controversial because he explained why he believes in the theory of evolution, as opposed to creationism and intelligent design, while also explaining how he came to faith through the work of C.S. Lewis.

A crew from the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly filmed the lecture and included excerpts of it in a feature on him. You can watch the entire eight-minute feature if you have Real Player or Windows Media Player at: .

Also, the outstanding Richard Ostling, religion writer for the Associated Press, wrote a column about Collins back in July that is still relevant insofar as it can give some context to Collins' difficult relationship with his own community of believers:

Collins' book on the genetic code and his Christian faith, The Language of God, is very good; you can buy it at at this link:

Digg this

Richard Wilbur looks back on the rare life of a happy poet

Poet Richard Wilbur is the winner of two Pulitzers and a National Book Award, and he's a former U.S. Poet Laureate.

Here's an outstanding article on the outstanding man:

Digg this

Monday, January 22, 2007

Questioning the Bible

Christianity is conceptually difficult because it presupposes that a person can think the right things and know the right things to do, but he will still either fail to act perfectly or fail to act consistently, due to a fallen nature. Nobody gets to perfection in this life, even if some believers claim to have outlined the perfect system of belief, worship, doctrine and practice.

Most of Christian practice and worship, to some extent, is based on revelation. Revelation is tricky, because it assumes that God has spoken to humankind and humans wrote down what He said, and that the recorded revelation is to be valued more highly than the human faculty of reasoning. The clincher, however, is that believers use their reasoning to interpret and apply revelation, which seems to give credence to the point of view that humankind’s reason was not totally warped and completely marred by the Fall. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is supposed to enhance the Christians’ faculties of reasoning regarding interpretation of Scripture, yet many of those who claim to have that indwelling just happen to disagree with one another on their interpretations of doctrinal and theological issues that intersect with the Bible.

However, none of that challenges the Bible’s value. I once heard someone say (I cannot remember who) that plenty of intellectually inclined people spend their time questioning everything, but don't allow anything to question them. The Bible, at very least, is one of those books that questions its readers. The questioning is not always in the form of a question; sometimes the questioning occurs in the context of assumptions made in the texts. Jacques Ellul, the French Protestant thinker, said in the book In Season, Out of Season: “[T]he Bible is not a recipe book or an answer book, but the opposite: it is a book of questions God asks us.”

Digg this

Friday, January 19, 2007


Greg Garrett, winner of the WILLIAM FAULKNER PRIZE FOR FICTION, writes the following in his nonfiction book Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth:

“Not everybody needs the same story to be healed. The Christian story that I received when I was a child was toxic to me, a story I couldn’t inhabit without tremendous damage to myself. And yet, clearly, it’s a story that brings comfort to many people, and in its outlines, at least, it was a story that I wanted to believe.

“Since I thought that was the only Christian story, I went looking for other stories. I rummaged through the bookshelves of the world, so to speak. Along the way I found many things that were appealing to me. I was tremendously attracted to the teachings of Buddhism, which often reinforced what I had appreciated about some versions of the Christian story I’d heard – compassion, justice, and mindfulness. I read Jewish history and theology very seriously, as though I might be converting next Thursday. But I never found the story with my name on it, because, at heart, there was only one story meant for me, and I’d already gotten a glimpse of it. Although the Dalai Lama is one of the world’s leading teachers of Buddhism, he typically tries to dissuade people from leaving their home traditions to follow another, including his, even if they find valuable teachings in other faith stories. I think there is wisdom in this. He suggests that we can learn from other faiths, as he did about Christianity from Thomas Merton, and yet ‘remain firmly committed to our own faith. This way is best.’

“It certainly has been for me. I learned things about compassion, mysticism, and awareness from Buddhism, and about justice and holiness from Judaism, and when the Christian story I needed to hear finally caught me, I was able to bring these things along.”

Ditto, right-on, and amen. Thank you, Greg.

Digg this

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Another thought on 'knowing'

Related to yesterday's post is a quote by G.K. Chesterton, who seemed to think merely abstract thinking couldn't provide an adequate account of life, human experience, and the ultimate nature of things.

Chesterton wrote that "scrappy" evidence can convince the mind of atheism just as well as Christianity (addressing how we know things, not so much what our position on some point of view might be). Chesterton continued to write, "I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books than from one book, one battle, one landscape and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion."

It's sort of like this: all aspects of our experience lead us to the convictions of our hearts, and from our hearts we choose our perspectives. C.S. Peirce knew this to be true when he wrote, "Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts." I hope to find Peirce's definition of "heart."

Digg this

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The knowing heart?

The other day I had a brief conversation with a doctor who specializes in neuro-feedback. He said Western folks live out their heads, while Eastern folks live out of their hearts. When we try too hard to do something, he said, we usually don’t do it so well. In a zen-like fashion, corresponding with neuro-feedback therapy (or at least theory), when we’re not straining to do something, we usually have more success doing it.

It occurred to me later that, even in the West, we have a thread of understanding that places the heart at the center of our essential nature. Historically, the West has not been completely wedded to the left hemisphere of the brain.

Several years ago, I found a passage from Thomas de Quincey that tried to describe the heart’s role. In The Poetry of Pope, de Quincey wrote, “The scriptures themselves never condescended to deal by suggestion or co-operation with the mere discursive understanding; when speaking of man in his intellectual capacity, the Scriptures speak not of the understanding, but of ‘the understanding heart’ – making the heart, i.e., the great intuitive (or non-discursive) organ, to be the interchangeable formula for man in his highest state of capacity for the infinite.”

Can we know with our hearts? I’ve been trying to define “heart” in the sense that de Quincey uses it, and so far I haven’t been able to construct an adequate definition from my research of theological and philosophical ideas. In the meantime, it’s interesting to see how some thinkers didn’t believe the left-hemisphere empiricism could say everything important to being human.

Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher living in the 1600s, looked out into the darkness beyond the outposts of his rational faculties and said, “It is reason’s last step to realize that there are millions of things beyond reason.”

Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian chemist-turned-philosopher, wrote in his book The Tacit Dimension, “We know more than we can tell and we can know nothing without relying upon those things which we may not be able to tell.”

Something is going on in us that is valuable yet not centered in the left hemisphere of our brains. This opens a whole can of worms regarding intuition, mind-brain issues, spirituality, and the nature of the “heart” as de Quincey uses it.

Digg this

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The anguished question bears witness that you know

I’ve spent some time reading reputable authors who have made space for religious experience to be valid, and space for our hearts to be organs of understanding as much as our minds.

This is important because I use my mind, not my experiences or feelings, to understand these writers – and yet, the point of my understanding has been to make intellectual space for religion. I grew up mostly in ecstatic faith, where powerful feelings, speaking in tongues and all varieties of allegedly supernatural experience happened.

Why use the mind to make space for the non-rational? Most people have probably heard Blaise Pascal’s saying: “The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know. We feel it in a thousand ways.” Pascal, a French philosopher, said that in the 1600s, yet some people still see that perspective as valid. In the early 1900s, Hungarian chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote, “We know more than we can tell and we can know nothing without relying upon those things which we may not be able to tell.”

Polanyi’s present-day advocates point out that our ability to pedal a bicycle down the street is not dependent on our ability to academically describe the physics, mechanics and physiology of what’s happening. Some theologians have speculated that Polanyi’s defense of “personal knowledge” and “tacit knowing” could explain something of how the heart perceives God.

The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, once chosen for to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures, put an existentialist spin on our ability to know something about God. Brunner said if you sincerely, desperately seek to know if God is there, “the anguished question bears witness that you know.”

So maybe there is something intellectually solid about considering the experiences others have, or one’s own experience, with God. Yet any confidence I have of this today comes from reading the intellectual cases for it all in books. I have books, and what they teach me, to focus on – not ecstatic experience. Books and sound thoughts protect me from wild, unreliable perceptions and intuitions.

I like Rudolf Otto’s explanation of the human sense of mysterium tremendum – of the ineffable, unapproachable, awe-inspiring, sometimes terrifying Other – as long as I’m just reading about it. Otto’s book The Idea of the Holy was one of ten favorite books of C.S. Lewis, who also wrote about mysterium tremendum. I might have a flicker of that sense once in a while, when I’m looking up at a million unexplainable, glimmering stars. Pascal wrote, “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things beyond it.” Well said, but I don’t want to go to a church where everyone is trying to conjure up mysterium tremendum with dancing, shouting, speaking in tongues, and feelings that God is leading them to speak. Books and rituals for me.

Digg this

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Mysterium Tremendum

Have you read The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto? I like Otto’s explication of the human sense of mysterium tremendum – of the ineffable, unapproachable, awe-inspiring, sometimes terrifying Other. Some would describe it as the sense that God is near.

The Idea of the Holy was one of C.S. Lewis' ten favorite books; he also wrote about mysterium tremendum.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, in recent books, are doing serious work to reduce religious phenomena to natural causes. They are brilliant men. Still, for me, the reductiveness still leaves something to be desired: our imagination, both intellectual and fantastical, moves not from the great things to the small things, but from the small things to the great things, as if we know there's something meaningful beyond us. Isn't imagination itself meaningful, just the fact that imagination is possible?

It was way back in the 1600s when the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, but still, something about his take on reason makes intuitive sense. Pascal argued, “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things beyond it.”

When we sense something of the infinite number of things beyond reason, we call it mystery.

Digg this

Monday, January 1, 2007

Apocalypto now

Mel Gibson directed social and anthropological layers into his presentation of the Mayan city in Apocalypto, a film unlike anything I have seen before.

I won't give away much here; let me just tell you what Gibson has accomplished from the standpoint of his craft. Socio-economic classes and religious perspectives vary among the people in the scenes set in a Mayan city. The equivalents of present-day Pentecostals and Episcopalians, as well as the lower and middle and upper classes, and the public manipulators and the true believers, are all readily discernable, even with the subtitles on the screen and the busyness and grotesqueness of the city scenes. Volumes are communicated with subtle gestures between socially important characters during a scene in which a solar eclipse frightens many within the city. Some were thinking about angry gods; others clearly knew something of the solar system's calendar. A complicated society is made easy to grasp, while never simplistic.

With all this depth of vision throughout the film, it almost seems too normal to see action sequences that fall back on common conventions, even if those sequences are flawlessly portrayed. I mean, how many times have we seen some variation of the good guy sliding across the ground to snatch a much-needed weapon in perfect choreography with the bad guy? Yet the scenes tighten with primal fear.

It's too bad Gibson brought the spotlight onto his alcohol problems and his feelings about Jews just months before this film was released. Of course, he said he was sorry, and I believe he's sincere (how could he have worked among the diversity of Hollywood and made it so far if he was a full-blown bigot?). Still, many will hold those incidents against him and choose to skip Apocalypto, which is an undeniable work of cinematic art, a display of profound artistic vision.

I'm in awe of the guy.

Digg this
Links Add to Technorati Favorites