“How Can They Meet Us Face To Face Till We Have Faces?”

A few months ago, I was boring my friend to tears, telling him how I’d read my children Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader on a six-hour car ride. Saving me from my own encomium, he interrupted with a bold claim: “Narnia is great, but Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’s best work, hands down!” Surely, he couldn’t be serious. Admitting I’d never read it, I promised soon to disprove him. Well, whether providence or the gods, or dumb luck were to blame, on the very next day my habitual stroll past the “discarded/free books” table at my University’s library brought me face-to-face with a ratty old codex, the cover worn beyond legibility and entirely torn from the book’s corpus. This book, literally, refused to be judged by its cover. You’ll have already guessed its title—I soon discovered its identity as C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Not one to tempt the Lord, I vowed then and there to read it post haste.

Two pages in, I knew I wasn’t in Narnia anymore. Based on a myth found in the Latin novel Metamorphoses, this retelling gives the story of an irascible King’s three daughters: the eldest is a Frump-asaurus Rex; the middle a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; and the third a beauty so innocent and profound she is taken for a goddess by the townsfolk.C.S. Lewis takes the title of his reworked mythical novel from a question asked by the heroine (or villain?) near the book’s climax. The oldest daughter (Orual), cursed with an irredeemably ugly countenance, having suffered the loss of her sister (Psyche) at the hands of the gods, wishes more than anything to render publicly her charge against the gods. She claims the gods are guilty of stealing the greatest of human loves (namely her own love for Psyche). Still worse, the gods expect belief and obedience while refusing adequate positive evidence for that belief. Orual finally gets her chance in a vision wherein she journeys to a mountain containing the presence of the dead and those who would hear and answer her case against the gods. She blames the gods for not more directly (and sooner) revealing themselves and Psyche’s enchanted castle. Had they done so, Orual would not have lost Psyche to lifelong exilic wanderings. At the moment of her chance before the judgment seat, however, before the dead and the gods, she asks: “how can we meet them face to face till we have faces?” I think it is the central question Lewis’s masterful retelling. In the hopes of sparking some late summer reading and some interesting debate, allow me hazard an answer to Orual’s query.

The question is baffling in part because its terms are opaque. Who are they? What does “faces” mean? On the face of it (I couldn’t resist the pun), “they” are the gods, and “faces” cannot mean simply the anatomical face. It must mean the capacity or means to intentionally project one’s identity. Such a reading makes sense of the various uses of “face” in the text. Being a blog post, this composition excludes my making a complete case. Begging your charity, therefore, I will highlight a couple poignant moments in the effort to inspire your own reading of Lewis’s masterpiece. First, Orual (the eldest, ugly daughter) decides, upon becoming Queen, to wear always her veil. This decision to efface herself amounts to the construction of a new identity. She becomes “the faceless one.” She is the one who sees all faces, all emotions and thoughts born out on them, yet refuses to reveal her own. Her effort to remain faceless behind the veil, however, is betrayed one night when she must attempt to walk through town unrecognized. Her disguise of choice, however, is none other than her own countenance. In leaving the veil behind, she discovers that the blank, expressionless, one-way mirror of her veil had become her true face. Hers was the power to withhold the mystery of her identity; hers was the power to see and not be seen, to behold yet be unbeheld, to know while remaining unknown.

The beauty and irony of this discovery is its corollary—that Orual has been grasping at being everything she so hated about the gods; namely, their unwillingness to reveal freely their “faces.” Their local goddess (Ungit), whom she viscerally hates, is none other than a faceless monolith in a dark temple. Ultimately, she can take on any face her worshippers desire, any angle of her multifaceted surface becomes its own face for the one coming to sprinkle blood on her stoney skin. Furthermore, Orual cannot decide whether her sister Psyche is delusional when claiming she has been wed to “the god of the mountain,” who built her an invisible castle and visits her nightly but commands her never to gaze upon his countenance. Unable to believe this fantasy, Orual compels her sister to steal a glance at her lover by lamplight. As a consequence of this “enlightenment,” Psyche is cast into the darkness of a life of wandering exile. Demanding to see the god’s face, she is cast from the sight of all the living. At the moment of Psyche’s exile, this “god of the mountain” blasts Orual with the full glory of his own “face,” the beauty and brilliance of which burns a blackened imprint on her soul.

With these reflections I’ve barely scratched the surface of Lewis’s grand myth retold. I hope you bring yourself face-to-face with this novel over the next month. Let’s plumb the depths of Lewis’s imagination together!

Why We Should Watch and Vote for The Cosmopolitans

cosmopolitans

American Men are easily pushed around by women. They love sad stories.

The Very Pretty American Girl believes that she is the girlfriend of a French writer, only to be kicked out as soon as he leaves to travel and sublets his apartment to someone else. But at least the upstairs closet he moves her into to wait for his return has a sink. This is Aubrey. Or is it Audrey? No, it is Aubrey. “Isn’t that a boy’s name?” she is asked. “Sometimes.” She is from the South, where people “have roots.”

Jimmy The Hopeless Romantic spends a lot of time watching and listening. He considers any and all suggestions.

The Gold Coat Girl is a pretty blond. She considers our protagonists to be losers, from “Albuquerque” or somewhere like that. These are not the sort of men one travels to Paris to meet. So, does she date only Parisian men? Never.

The Cliché Ex-Pat has dated and been dumped by a French girl well over 15 times but he is easily identified the moment he sets foot in a café. One need only ask to speak to the American.

Fritz is “kind of scary” but turns out actually to be flighty and quite pleasant.

The Heartbreaker is at every party surrounded by beautiful girls. The Heartbreaker looks back and whispers to his companion as our protagonists murmur amongst themselves about his glamour, “See those guys? They are everywhere. Always with very pretty girls.” Aubrey doesn’t know it, but he considers her superb.

The Italiano has a bad reputation and invites drug dealers to Fritz’s party. He is not well regarded in Paris.

The Angel is taken to be a beautiful blonde Frenchwoman who, when asked in French where she is from, replies “Vancouver.” The naïve reply, “Ah, Vancouver, France?”

Who are the people underneath all the clever labels? What does it mean to be an urbane citizen of the world? These are the questions that director Whit Stillman would have us ponder in his new television show, The Cosmopolitans. The pilot is now streaming exclusively at Amazon for our consideration. If we like it well enough and make our preference known, the show will be picked up for more episodes.

The Cosmopolitans at first glance appears to be merely a show about upper class glitterati going to fancy parties and making witty conversation. Indeed, there is a veneer of whimsicality to the show, as with all of Stillman’s work to date. However, this is the whimsicality of The Great Gatsby, a frantic attempt to find the meaning of life, friendship, and happiness. It is amusing, but it is no lark.

Questions of identity pervade the story from start to finish. “I have visions of many things…” hums the opening song from the mostly-Motown soundtrack. The song appears later and reminds Hans The Cliché Ex-Pat of his lost love. To the same tune, Aubrey wanders the streets alone until randomly finding herself at a café as Hans and Jimmy encounter the Gold Coat Girl, Vicky:

“You haven’t gone back to…”

“no no no we live here, we’re Parisians!”

“You’re…Parisians?”

Living in Paris is difficult because when everyone leaves in the summer, a loneliness sets in that is akin to teenage angst, a loneliness that leaves a person with no distractions to avoid confronting the meaning and purpose of their lives. Hans explains that it is “The feeling of being hallowed out, a void inside that will never be filled.” How do you get out of a lonely patch? “They say all you need is one friend.” Are any of these people true friends? Or is it merely a fling? On a late Saturday night, a coy smile spreads across Aubrey’s face on the cab ride home from a party. Perhaps this is the beginning of something grand…

But only if we watch and vote!

Watch and take the survey here

 

Random lines of dialogue I found amusing:

“When you have a serious breakup it helps to put the Atlantic Ocean between you.” “What about the Pacific?” “I don’t know. I haven’t tried it.”

“Have you ever thought about getting a rabbit?” “No, but I will.”

“In Hal’s defense, the first 15 breakups or so were because he wasn’t as close as she wanted him to be.”

“I’ve been here 6 months.” “Oh, so you’re not Parisian. That takes time.”

“He breaks hearts? That’s terrible.” “It really just means Playboy.” “That’s not good either.”

”I couldn’t just plunge into some decadent affair.” “It doesn’t have to be decadent. You could go hiking.”

Bonus Whit Stillman from his movie Last Days of Disco!!!

Prizes, Prizes Everywhere!

Last year, Dappled Things debuted the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. It was a tremendous success, drawing about 400 entries from which a winner and nine honorable mentions were selected by a panel of independent judges. (If you have not yet read the winning story, Where Moth and Rust by Kristin Luehr, you should.)

maritain4

Jacques Maritain

Building on last year’s success, we are holding the fiction prize again and introducing a nonfiction equivalent, the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction. Maritain was an influential 20th century Thomist philosopher and Catholic convert whose work covered a wide range of topics, including metaphysics and epistemology, ethics and politics, and—significantly for us—literature and art. His book Art and Scholasticism has been a major influence in Dappled Things‘ own approach to aesthetics. This year the prize will be judged by James Matthew Wilson, who is author of The Violent and the Fallen, Some Permanent Things, and The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry, among other books, as well as a literature professor at Villanova University. Here’s what you need to know if you are interested in making a submission to either prize:

What are the prize amounts?

For the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, the prizes are as follows:

1st place: $500

2nd place: $250

8 honorable mentions: publication in the journal and a one-year subscription.

 

For the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction, the prizes are:

1st place: $500

2nd place: $300

3rd place: $200

What is the deadline for the fiction prize?

You can submit your story until November 28, 2014.

What is the deadline for the nonfiction prize?

Since all nonfiction submissions will be eligible for the prize (the winner will be selected from among all the essays published in Dappled Things during a given year), then submissions for the prize are accepted year-round. To participate in the current prize, your piece should appear at the latest in the Mary, Queen of Angels 2015 edition, which means you would have to make a submission by June 2015. The issues could all be filled before then, however, so don’t delay. We publish about two to three essays per issue, and all published essays will be finalists for the prize. The earlier you submit, the likelier the chances your essay will appear among a given year’s finalists.

What kind of submissions are you looking for?

For the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, please review the submission guidelines by clicking here. If you have a story to submit that doesn’t fit those guidelines, please consider making a submission under the general fiction category.

With regards to the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction, we are not limiting submissions to a particular theme (this being in keeping with Maritain’s own broad interests), other than what would fit within the context of a Catholic cultural and literary journal. In other words, please follow our nonfiction submission guidelines and look at the nonfiction pieces that appear in our previous issues. Book reviews and interviews are not eligible for the prize, but all other forms of nonfiction are.

When will winners be announced?

Winners of the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction will be announced in February 2015. Winners of the Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction will be announced in December 2015 (with the finalists being announced as each issue is published, starting with the Christmas 2014 edition).

Is there a reading fee?

No. However, given the costs imposed on us by the huge number of entries last year, we are instituting a nominal $2 processing fee for the fiction prize to help us run it as efficiently as possible. Think of it as the equivalent of paying for postage if submissions were being accepted through the mail . There will be no processing fee for the nonfiction prize this year.

*

Make your submissions soon! Further information will be posted on the Contests page as well as Submittable. We look forward to reading your entries during the coming year.

4 Things I Learned about Life Without a Computer

I am told that putting articles in list form is click-bait in the internet news age. What is it about computers that has changed the way we think? They have their quite obvious advantages, but a recent experience taught me a few lessons about how mine has affected the way I process information and spend my time.

About four months ago my computer broke. I don’t know exactly how it happened, only that one minute everything was great and the next there was a sudden spark accompanied by the smell of smoke as some vital piece of circuitry consumed itself. It was bound to happen, I suppose. The computer was ancient by any reasonable standard.

My computer. Before it broke.

My computer. Before it broke.

It was so old that it was running a version of Windows four generations out of date, no longer capable of being upgraded. It served me just fine, though, and allowed me to read the news, compulsively curate my Amazon.com wishlist, watch movies, and type odd little blog posts. So, even though it had lived a long and happy life, I was quite sad when it gave up the ghost.

After a proper grieving period, the obvious next step would have been to purchase a new computer. I would have been happy to do so, the only problem being that my wife and I currently have five children and they spend all of our money on food and clothing. My wife, ever so intelligent, assures me that food and clothing for our beloved offspring is at least slightly more important than my ability to think up and post clever hashtags online. So for a while, at least, there will be no replacement. Don’t cry for me. It has been difficult but I have learned a few valuable lessons during my time away from my precious electronics.

  1. That important thing can wait until later. The first emotion I felt when I realized that the hard drive was fried was the terror of the Abyss. I was sinking fast. My hands became clammy, my heart rate fluttered, and Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety suddenly became very real. Essentially, I went into full blown withdrawal. In retrospect, it is obvious that I was (and probably am) addicted. Mind you, this whole time, I still had a smart phone safely tucked in my jacket pocket that was capable of achieving what people even 20 years ago would consider well nigh miraculous. I even still knew I had a computer at the office. It wasn’t enough. I needed that computer humming away in its familiar spot.

I am lost without my precious ability to download mp3s of dj mashups to a desktop computing device

 

The pain slowly eased and, after a few weeks I realized that maybe it is possible to survive without unfettered access to a computer after all! The work email, the comments on social media, reading the new, online version of Dappled Things (!), those can all wait until I get to the office in the morning. Or better yet, I can actually personally interact with people at work instead of emailing, I can have coffee with a friend instead of maintaining a superficial, online relationship, and I can read Dappled Things in the print version while lounging in the backyard under the shade of an oak tree. It isn’t that I don’t need a computer or am somehow transcendent over a system in which everybody else is hopelessly mired. It is simply the realization that there are other options. When life slows down, a more human pace is achieved.

  1. My social life did not implode without social media. It is still possible to speak with people in person. Some might even say that this is better. Not that I object to social media, not at all, its advent has actually helped me stay in much better contact with long distance friends, but we ought to be honest and admit that it does not of its own suffice to maintain an authentic friendship. Commenting online takes place in an unrealistic environment because we can take our sweet time with what we choose to communicate and how we present ourselves. We can literally wait days at a time for a witty rejoinder to percolate for a comment thread. In real life, there is an actual human being who will stare at you with grave concern if you fail to respond in a timely manner, say, within five seconds or so. Face to face, there is authentic interaction, a conversation, if you will. These interactions with all of their pauses, wanderings, interruptions, and body language constitute honest to goodness communication. Social media can augment this but never replace it. I suspect that in our society we are greatly tempted towards contentment with only the latter.
  1. My life became more leisurely. I’ve always been a steady reader and have always done my best to make time to play with the children. Even if the presence of the computer never overwhelmed those habits, it definitely nibbled around the edges. It is temptingly easy to lose an hour working on cataloguing the itunes music library (Yes, I need help) or get caught in a tangle of fascinating wikipedia links. It’s no problem at all to waste more time than you wanted emailing and playing online games. Comedian Louis CK once made the observation that people seem to be unable to even wait for a few minutes in a grocery store checkout line without pulling out their phones. What ever happened to staring around randomly for a few minutes? This is part of the shopping experience! Same with the computer at home. When it was there, I knew I could always retreat to it for some light diversion to while away the time. Perhaps it became too attractive, more so than lying on the floor and driving cars around the rug with my son. Sometimes these small moments of fatherhood are touching and lovely, sometimes, let’s all admit, they are boring. These are the moments, though, that our children will remember for the rest of their lives. I hope that I do not miss too many of them. Without the computer I find myself, even if only slightly more frequently, reading books after the kids go to bed, playing at the piano, or sitting on the front porch with a drink and watching the rain. Before, I would have retreated to the comfort of mindless internet browsing.
  1. I probably will still buy another computer. Perhaps modern life is such that we simply require these devices. At their best, they are time-saving, helpful, and irreplaceable tools. Now that I have word processors, I shudder at the thought of handwriting even a single sentence. Think about it, you can go online and accomplish pretty much anything! Research information, find the nearest, best restaurant, check the weather, follow the score of the baseball game as it is in progress, watch almost any movie or television show ever made, and get quick and accurate directions to anywhere your heart desires.
What does this do, again?

What does this do, again?

 

My hope is that in the future I will be able to discipline myself to use the computer as a tool and not allow it to define the way I live my life. Perhaps I really am addicted to the thing. I am told that smartphone and internet addiction is quite real. I don’t mean to mock it. I suspect that the potential to some degree or another to give ourselves up to a virtual world affects all of us. I am thankful for the perspective I have been given by the death of my old computer. Perhaps we would all benefit from at least the occasional, voluntary fast from computers. Take a breath, look around, and experience human life in all its complexity, its joys and sorrows.

A Little Bit of Portugal in New Jersey

In my last blog post  for Dappled Things, I told the story of Fatima, and how the Blessed Mother met three young shepherds and gave them messages to share with the world about the war, future wars, her Immaculate Heart, and prayer. Today, I’d like to share with you a very special place I encountered on my travels with our show, The Faithful Traveler. In fact, we featured it in our first season, The Faithful Traveler in the US: East Coast Shrines, which you can watch online here (and buy the DVD here). I’ve also embedded the episode below.

Since it’s still August, dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as is this Shrine, I thought it would be appropriate to tell you a little bit about this wonderful place.

One of our goals with The Faithful Traveler is to introduce viewers to some of the amazing Catholic shrines and places of pilgrimage our country and the world has to offer. By introducing you all to these places, I hope to help you learn more about the saints and devotions behind them. But I also hope to encourage you all to visit them, if ever you are able. Of course, for those of you who cannot visit, for whatever reason, I hope that our show will help you get there virtually.

If you are in the New Jersey area and feel like visiting a beautiful shrine where you can spend the day, the National Blue Army Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is the place to be!

Located just across the Delaware River and the Pennsylvania border, in Washington, New Jersey,  the  Blue Army Shrine spans over 150 acres of green, lush countryside. In fact, it’s surrounded by country. Every time we go, we always pass one house that has goats! We love it! It’s nice to get out and away from the things of man, almost like climbing a tall mountain in the Holy Land, like Elijah, to be closer to God.

The shrine is owned and operated by the World Apostolate of Fatima, previously known as the Blue Army, which is dedicated to responding to Mary’s requests at Fatima: to help save souls and bring peace to the world through prayer and penance. Not a bad goal, right?

Throughout the year, but especially during the months of the apparitions–March through October–the shrine has events that attract more than 50,000 people a year. But even on the days when nothing is going on there, there is much to see.

The Holy House

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Holy House is a replica of the  Holy House of Loreto, in Italy. According to tradition, the Holy House of Loreto is the house in which Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived during their time in Nazareth, after returning from their exile in Egypt. According to this tradition, during the Crusades, the home of the Holy Family was threatened with destruction. So one day, angels miraculously took the house apart and transported it to Croatia, where it stayed for about three years before the angels moved it again, to its final resting place in Loreto, Italy.

Those of you who have been to the Holy Land or who have seen our series, The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, know that back in Jesus’ time, people in Nazareth didn’t live in homes made of stone and mortar; they lived in CAVES. So, the idea that the Holy House of Loreto could actually be the home in which the Holy Family lived is hard to believe. While I do find it odd that angels would be bothered to move a house, I accept that nothing is impossible with God. Still, the historical facts make this tradition difficult to support. Look at the Basilica of the Annunciation, for instance, built atop the home of the Virgin Mary in Nazareth. That home was a cave. That said, who knows what is the real story behind the Holy House of Loreto.

The Holy House at the Blue Army Shrine was built in 1973, and its mortar includes crushed stones from the actual Holy House in Loreto. At the front of the chapel, we see Sister Lucia’s Last vision replicated on the wall and a statue of St Joseph as he appeared to the three children at Fatima during the Miracle of the Sun.

The Capelinha

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Capelinha (pronounced cap-el-ing-yah), which means little chapel in Portuguese, is a replica of the small chapel built at Fatima on the site of Mary’s apparitions. (You can see live streaming of what’s going on at the Capelinha at Fatima here!) The Pilgrim Virgin Statue is a replica of the miraculous Pilgrim Virgin Statue carried in procession at Fatima.

The Rosary Garden and Stations of the Cross

img_0265

The Rosary Garden and Stations of the Cross are a great place to pray, naturally. Each mystery of the Rosary and each Station is represented with a beautiful work of art.

The Chapel and Amphitheater

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The chapel and amphitheater are where most of the events going on at the shrine take place. Masses are celebrated in the chapel, with the beautiful tabernacle built in the shape of the Angel of Portugal. Over to the right, a small diorama shows statues of the three pastorinhos meeting Our Lady. The unique shape of the amphitheater is meant to resemble Mary’s mantle, with her spiritual children gathering underneath it, praying for the conversion of souls.

Statues, Statues, Everywhere!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Everywhere you go on these grounds, you’ll see some amazing statues, from the works of art on the front lawn to the mini shrines peppered all across the 150 acres.

Some of the most striking statues are the bronze statues on the front lawn,  created by Polish artist, Maksymilian Biskupski. 

On the 13th of every month, from March until October, there are special events at the Shrine, commemorating Our Lady’s visits with the three children on Fatima, and I would encourage anyone who can to go and visit the shrine on one of these days. It’s almost like a little slice of Portugal, right here in the US.

For more information about the Blue Army Shrine, visit the official website.

Diana von Glahn is the co-producer (along with husband, David), writer, editor, and host of The Faithful Traveler, a travel series on EWTN, that explores the art, architecture, history and doctrine behind Catholic churches, shrines and places of pilgrimage throughout the world. She is the author of The Mini Book of Saints. She blogs here twice a month, at SpiritualDirection.com, and on her own website, and can be found on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest, and Google+. Her first series, The Faithful Traveler in the US: East Coast Shrines, and her second series, The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, can both be seen on EWTN (check listings) and on her website, where she also sells DVDs of both programs. She has begun offering pilgrimage tours to sites where The Faithful Traveler has travelled.

 

Weekend link: pilgrimage to Andalusia.

This beauty deserves a wider audience: a view of Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia homestead through contemporary eyes. The essayist notes some hilarious details along his road that O’Connor herself would have made a field day with, yet the central note of the piece is hushed, even holy:

I drove up the humble lane to the farm and caught sight of the house. “There it is!” I said aloud to no one. I parked in the grass behind the place and wandered around. I had my phone out like an idiot, taking pictures right and left as if amnesia was imminent. I didn’t want to risk it. A woman emerged from the porch and greeted me. “You must be a pilgrim,” she said. I am, how can you tell? “Pilgrims always approach the house differently, with reverence. Take your time. Stay as long as you want. The peafowl are over there.”

Read the whole thing here.

The Actor

The ActorDaniel McInerny has published an intriguing play on the young Karol Wojtyła, now St. John Paul II, focusing on his life as an actor during the Nazi occupation and investigating the question of what it was that led him to forsake his thespian dreams in favor of a priestly vocation.

In a magnificent interview for Relevant Radio with Sheila Liaugminas, McInerny not only discusses his new play but shares some profound insights about culture, faith, and the arts. McInerny and his host delve deep into these topics in a one-hour interview that is well worth the time. Among other questions, McInerny makes a strong case for the importance of the arts in a world where politics seems all-important. In a related article for The Catholic Thing, he puts it thus:

To paraphrase a remark of G.K. Chesterton’s, in building up a culture, one has to build as Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The sword is the weapon of defense. It represents logical argument and public disputation. The trowel is the tool of construction. With the trowel we put up walls and prepare the earth for planting. While the sword keeps invaders out, the trowel creates the new city. And what does the trowel represent? Works of the artistic imagination. Why are such works so important? Because they enable us to contemplate how life should be lived.

Life, as McInerny points out, is made up of choices and acts. As the title of his new play suggests, John Paul II may have left the theater, but he remained the best kind of actor until the day he died.

“Ya Hey” Part II (or, you don’t even say your name)

Onward!

So, to briefly recap from last time (this is a continuation of “Ya Hey” Part I, found here [so read it {things'll, you know, make a hecka lotta more sense if you do}]), we’re talking about the poorly-named Vampire Weekend’s poorly named album Modern Vampires of the City which, in addition to being the worst-named record of 2013 (I mean, seriously), was hailed by media kings Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, PopMatters, Slant Magazine and some guy named Robert Christgau as the year’s best. More specifically, we’re getting round to track ten of twelve: a glorious little ballad called “Ya Hey.”

The fact that it appears near the end is no accident, as there’s been a buildup to it through the entire first 80% of the album. As mentioned before, songs like “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms” and “Worship You” have songwriter-vocalist Ezra Koening with his back up against the wall, hackles raised in a white-collared, impeccably-arranged bout of rage/confusion/longing/ultimate defiance against the Triune God. He is, needless to say, a tad anxious of trusting Him.

funny-pictures-cat-bubble-bath-trust

But why? What doesn’t he trust God to do? To take care, maybe – to be more than ‘good.’ Merciful, perhaps. To hold everything together. “We worshipped you” he deadpans on the thusly titled song, “only in the way you want it / only on the day you want it…energetic praise you wanted / any kind of praise you wanted” – followed closely by a plaintive afterthought: “won’t we see you once again?” The flippant is always paired with longing for the God he perceives to be absent or indifferent. “Who will guide us in the end?” he asks, closing out the song with the twin senses of disappointment and desire.

Koening’s lyrics always stand with a double edge – but, compellingly enough, where most indie protests appear pastoral (with a barely concealed hostility lurking in the background), Koening’s bitter words can’t ultimately throw off the sense of tenderness he carries towards his Accused. And, having finished the first nine songs (some among which bristling with a few Adonai-directed barbs) he finally drops the mask.

And the gloves. The wisdom teeth are out. Track ten begins with the intimacy reserved for lovers:

“Oh, sweet thing
Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything”

There’s no criticism here, no laying into the seemingly neglected responsibilities God owes to His people. All of a sudden the roles are reversed: whereas the tension before was always on what He is or isn’t doing for humanity, here we have the eternal, undeserved Love of God contrasted with the petty inconsistency of human commitment.

But he goes for the throat here: anyone could have remarked on the staggeringly minute levels of love lost on the part of Babylon towards the Creator…but Zion? He’s not just talking about the historic Hebrew people here, he’s talking about us, with our liturgies and hymnals and mission statements and seven highly effective habits and love languages – we’re the ones, in Koening’s estimation, without love. Which is something I deeply, deeply identify with.

Full disclaimer: I made a conscious decision years ago to stop using the word “love” when I talk to people, something that still holds at least for now. Around the time I was eighteen I was going through a shift where I was moving from seeing love-as-feeling to love-as-choice to, finally, Love-as-Person (AKA: God, yo), meaning that, every time I used that four-letter word in ways that fell short of God’s way of Loving (which was, like, all the time), I felt like I was lying somehow. Or at least using the word in a way that sounded like a hollow joke. It’s something I still need to work through but haven’t found a way around yet – it annoys my family to no end and I hope they haven’t felt hurt, which probably can’t be avoided. And I can’t imagine being a dad who doesn’t feel comfortable telling his kids that he loves them (but, fortunately, being a dude who likes dudes while practicing Catholicism kinda puts the kapow to that).

kapow

I digress.

But we’re taught that no one is good but God alone – that no one truly Loves but God alone.

“Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything”

And here’s where Koening’s deeply complex relationship with God really starts to set off some sparks. There’s no doubt about where he says he stands – whether he’s an atheist, agnostic or something in between (¿athnostic?) he’s certainly not a card-carrying congregant of your typical Christian church. He claims unbelief but then, like a man in the confessional, admits that his inability to love somehow stands “in spite of everything.” In spite of what? From the position of a confused postmodern, he admits of reasons to love God back: God’s own love, to start. And His presence in the muck of our indifference. And the sentiments only deepen:

“In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face
There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine.”

Koening recognizes that even though he can’t muster the case to ultimately believe (especially in light of all the things that don’t make sense to him), he still can’t shake the sense of the hidden God behind it all. A benevolence behind the curtain. Nothing solid enough to tell what (or where) it is, but suggestive enough to keep him up at night wondering what holds it all together. The words make me think about the engine in an aging television, the core of a tiny planet, fossilized fingerprints from way, way too long ago.

All of it builds to his most personal confession yet: “And I can’t help but feel / That I’ve made some mistake…” he sings, and the bitterness of the earlier songs falls away and Koening is left standing with nothing but his vulnerability. He reaches across the divide towards territory he’s not at all comfortable with, to a paradigm that’d change everything in his life, one that’d justify the suspicions he can’t dismiss about the world. He sees it. But those looking for a happy ending will be disappointed as he continues: “…but I let it go.”

Out of the whole song, this is the line that haunts me most. Here we have this guy, a smart, articulate dude who not only has the desire and the empathy to feel for a God he can’t trust to exist, but writes to Him with such tenderness. A guy who admits the possibility that he’s wrong and that maybe in the end there’s a God whose loneliness is worth mourning, whose Love is worth trying to return. He feels it. It confuses him. He lets it shake him. But he let it go, saying “Ya hey.”

Which, as Michael mentioned, is pronounced Yahweh.

Koening is bought to the brink but still can’t step over the edge into the actual Everlasting Arms. And we, who believe, watch on as he continues: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am / But who could ever live that way?”

We can!” we might say, but we’re not Ezra Koening – and we don’t know his conditions for belief. It’s a kinda strange passivity we’re left with – we’re the audience to an angst we believe we have answers to, but he’s a world away. So then maybe we think of our own little worlds and the people close to us who, for their own reasons, can’t come to believe – reasons that, to them, are all too legitimate. Maybe we want to plead with them to open their eyes and just see the God we see. Maybe we want to cry out with Koening at the God who stays hidden – at the God who, at times, allows things that make it so hard to find Him. And maybe, even as we open our mouths to complain about one thing or the other, we let ourselves feel small in the face of everything. Mysteries upon mysteries. And the chorus circles round as it continues, repeats. Repeats.

 

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ut deo

 

 

                                                                      Ya hey

 

 

burning-bush

 

 

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Weekend links, craftsmanship edition.

Three quick, related links: watch and marvel at the work of this master penman, Jake Weidmann, in “Forging the Future with the Tip of a Pen,” and of this furniture maker, Harrison Higgins, in “Furniture Fit for the Kingdom.” Both videos are gorgeously shot and contain some powerful stuff on the value of craft and the nature of human creativity. You’ll pick up echoes of Dorothy Sayers (we create because we are made in the image of a Creator) and Wendell Berry (human creative power should be used to make things that are worthy of human dignity). Finally, here is a more ephemeral yet still splendid project by two students at Columbus College of Art and Design. Under the tag of “Dangerdust,” the duo have been creating guerrilla masterpieces out of inspirational quotes on campus chalkboards. (Scroll way down for the Flannery O’Connor installment, complete with peacock feathers.) This last link recently went viral, but even if you’ve already seen it, it rewards a second look. Cheers, and happy weekend!

“Ya Hey” Part I (or, beat to the punch)

I woke up last Monday morning and found, to my dismay, that fellow DT blogger Michael Renner had written a few words about Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City. Which would normally be excellent, but the problem for me is that I’ve spent the week cooking up my own response to the album but was beat to the punch – even though, as Michael said, both of us are about a year late in listening to the thing. Shame on us. Luckily for me though he mainly wrote about the album’s relationship to Brideshead Revisited and only touched briefly on the song that took me so aback: “Ya Hey.”

wpid-final-poster-for-breaking-dawn-part-2-116435-470-753

NOTE: as the words “Vampire Weekend” and “Modern Vampires of the City” conjure up terrible connotations of angsty-though-well-intentioned teeny-bop chastity metaphors, they shall for the rest of the article be called “the band” and “the album” respectively.

I think what kept me from listening to the album for so long, even in spite of the BEST-OF-2013 hype, was the fact that the vibe of their earlier two albums kinda turned me off. Yes, musically they were a lot of fun but they ultimately came off as a bit show-offy, especially with the constant throwaway references to various trappings often enjoyed by upper-class, cultured New Englanders – which, to be honest, doesn’t quite do it for this Canuck. The fans of the band don’t really help either – the ones I meet are often those guys at the party all trying to make the most ironic comment around the (cheap) wine table (Note: Dappled Things isn’t the first mag I’ve worked for – I’ve been to a number of these parties).

That being said, when I finally gave it a spin I was impressed. It’s pretty short and easy to listen to – the album clocks in just under the forty-five minute mark and has enough variety in each song to make it seem much shorter (in the good way). But what makes it so surprising is how much territory the band covers over such a small period of time – adulthood, the nostalgia for/boredom of youth, loneliness, wisdom, unemployment, compromise, connection and religion. If it all sounds too heavy, no worries: the music and delivery make the album a pretty constant (if melancholy) delight. There’s no space for defeatism here.

Out of the twelve tracks there are four or five that directly address religion, or, at least, religion in America.

Because America is The World

Because America is The World

Given that vocalist-cum-songwriter Ezra Koening and the rest of the band are caught up in the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the songs on the album are all in the inevitable context of what some people refer to as the “culture war.” AKA, the rabidish opposition between two sides vaguely identifying as conservative and liberal, the apparent leaders of which mostly appearing to snap at “wishy-washy” attempts to communicate usefully or explore the common ground spontaneously emerging in the airwaves, government or blogosphere. With these songs, Koening and the band can’t help but pitch a tent in that middle space, complicating both urges to accept and reject God.

Take “Unbelievers,” for example – it’s the jauntiest song I’ve ever heard about prepping oneself for the possibility of hell. And no, I don’t mean the Rolling Stones/Lady Gaga “hell’ll be a big par-TAY!” kinda afterlife – “we know the fire that waits unbelievers / all of the sinners the same” sings Koening, “girl, you and I will die unbelievers / bound to the tracks of the train.” This isn’t a defiant “whatever” to God (though it will endlessly be misinterpreted as such), mostly because through the whole thing there’s a sense that he’s constantly processing the stakes behind his worldview. And he’s definitely leaving room for doubt, especially as a few minutes later he’s asking if there’s enough holy water around, if there’ll be anyone who’ll “save a little grace” for him. The unbeliever. There’s already a powerful divide in his heart between the unbelief he can’t help occupying and a desire for faith – a desire just strong enough for him to dream of tasting the reality he can’t fully bring himself to believe in. And that’s only track two.

I’ve a feeling that most people who don’t trust God do it mostly because they don’t trust His servants – and, even though that’s a pretty blatant ad hominem argument, it’s a fairly understandable position given our track record. But I get the sense that Koening doesn’t trust God because he feels he just can’t trust Him. He hums “the ‘Dies Irae‘ as you played the Hallelujah” in “Everlasting Arms” (the title of which, along with “Worship You,” sounds like a highlight from a praise & worship session), wondering how God can expect us to rejoice not only in the face of suffering and death, but also the shocking, sickening, potentially unredeemable horror that is hell. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, more than forgivable. And the beefs don’t end there: “I took your counsel and came to ruin” he sings, mentioning how being in His arms sometimes feels like “being locked up, full of fear, trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down.”

That being said, throughout his whole tirade of resistance one gets the impression that he can’t escape the sense of God’s presence – but, in the end, he “thought it over and drew the curtain.” He hums “hold me in your everlasting arms” both ironically and pleadingly, “leave me to myself” but “don’t leave me in myself.” This doesn’t sound like someone in denial so much as someone who’s agonized over the choice without being able to come up with a compelling enough case to make the leap of faith. And he’s pissed.

If his anger was the bulk of his response to God, though, it would be pretty run-of-the-mill for modern rock. But the yelps of unbelief, the desire to be left alone, the constant “calling for the misery to be explained” fall away when he finds himself face to face with YHWH in “Ya Hey.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / And Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything”

 

(Hey! Check out Part II!)

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.