Hope For The Biblical Picture

noah

Having settled in my not-entirely-un-pew-ish seat, stolen various unhealthy morsels from my friend’s platter of popcorny goodness, tried to force the 3D-glasses to stick to my face, slouched myself to optimum comfort and mutually agonized over whether the film would be in Romanian with English subtitles or English with Romanian subtitles (don’t ask), the lights went down and verses from Genesis came up, buffed by dramatic percussion and violins.

Noah is a bizarre movie” reads the opening line of almost every review* you can find on the damn thing and you can’t really blame them. Genuine spiritual angst lies underneath the big-budget special effects: you have unresolved monologues on the nature of justice and mercy, armies of angry neighbours, golem-ish stone angels (sorry, can’t help the reference), a porous border between the sacrificers and sacrificed, wise old men, messages from God that confuse even His own prophet – oh, and sin. That awkward, uncomfortable, dirty-dirty word. In short, this is Darren Aronofsky being given the reins of a Hollywood blockbuster and the multi-million dollar budget that goes right along with it. Spoiler: almost everyone on the planet dies. Take that, Michael Bay.**

Some background could be pertinent.

Aronofsky, like most hefty products of our gradually post-Christian culture, is God-haunted.*** His repertoire wouldn’t necessarily go over well when discussed over a church fundraiser but that’s part of what makes the whole thing so compelling. Take Pi, his first film, which is completely obsessed with the connection between God, mathematics and deterministic patterns (expressed via a paranoid man’s journey of escape from both wall-street toughs and a Kabbalah-lusty orthodox Jewish community (shot in glorious black and white)). Then there was the nightmare that is Requiem for a Dream with its dark, incessantly bleak fall into the intensely personal circles of hell belonging to a cadre of addicts.

2007’s The Fountain returned to the search for God and starred Hugh Jackman as a man whose search for a cure to his wife’s cancer just barely conceals an obsessive quest to cure death once and for all. In the film, Jackman also happens to be a 15th-Century conquistador. And maybe a spaceman hurtling towards a dying star in a bubble with the Tree of Life (which may or may not also be his wife).

Yup. I love it to pieces.

Yup. I love it to pieces.

His later, more popular works focused on the sacrifices of art – 2008’s The Wrestler and 2010’s Black Swan both circled around two performers (one on the rise, the other at the end of his rope) and their mutual self-destruction as they try to get at whatever truth, goodness or beauty lies on the other side of uncompromising commitment to art. These are deranged explorations of obsession, repressed sexuality, drug escapism and creative neurosis. And this is the man who returns, in the end, to the Bible for inspiration. Needless to say, there will be no hint of “Precious Moments” in this incarnation of the patriarch.

But this, I argue, is precisely what we need – we’ve become so used to expressing the stories of scripture in ways that pare them down and make them about as compelling/fierce as a colourful circus of tame lions. What keeps me out of most Christian bookstores are the shelves upon shelves selling ceramic statuettes of cute angels, cute apostles, cute parishioners and even cute trinities. We’ve allowed the Bible to pass into pop-kitch.

I don't want to know where this water came from.

I don’t even want to know where this water came from.

It’s easy to think of the rainbows and returning ravens and pairs of animals, but Aronofsky reminds us of the screams of the drowning, the uncertainty in the face of painful mission, the drunkenness (and resulting butt cheeks) of Noah, the range of innocence among the condemned. And again, the sin – the film was originally written as a French graphic novel titled “Noah: For the Cruelty of Man.” Violence and madness and sex and betrayal and divine wrath. These inescapable parts of our spiritual heritage.

Given some of the intense subject matter in the film I was pretty surprised at the positive response from most religious groups, both Jewish and Christian – it’s a sign that we’re moving into a place as a culture (and Christian subculture) that’s getting over the need for and constant falling-back-on black-and-white artistic metaphors of the spiritual battle.

Here's looking at you, Frodo.

Here’s looking at you, Frodo.

But it’s also a huge opportunity for connection – I mean, how are we supposed to relate to the non-orthodoxly God-haunted? What kinds of conversation can we expect ourselves to start wading through?

This is a big deal. While there’s never been a dearth of spiritually-inclined, challenging film out there (The Seventh Seal being a fantastic example), once Charleton Heston put down his tablets there weren’t a whole lot of mainstream movies that’ve had the guts to start asking big questions of the Christian tradition.

Except this one.

Except that one.

It’s pretty interesting, though, to contrast these two films – actually, what happens when Noah goes up against The Passion in the ring? If we start asking the question, “which film is better?” or “which one is more culturally important?” we can start getting into some pretty deep, murky waters. Just how different are these two works of art?

In a word: very.

In thirteen more words: it’s basically the same difference between “How Great Thou Art” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” One is a piece of worship and/or devotion while the other seeks to address, chronicle and ultimately validate humanity’s mess of a search for God in the midst of a batshit, shattered world. We can shout until the cows come home about which one is “better” and completely miss out on the fact that each film has an entirely different, and essential, mission.****

The Passion is an earnest, straightforward exploration of the salvific mission of Christ, told with a barely-held-back fire that occasionally breaks through the elegant cinematography (Satan writhing in hell, anyone?). It’s purpose: to praise God and convict us all of both His mercy and the price thereof.

But what about Noah? What’s this flick trying to do?

I remember us walking out of that Romanian picture house, wondering what exactly we’d just seen or what kind of ironic remark would put everything back into place but we didn’t have anything. The fierce earnestness took everybody aback and no one quite knew how to react. What does this story have to do with us, now? What does it mean when a God says He loves but destroys? When He saves one family but leaves a girl stuck in a bear trap to be trampled to pulp by marauders? When His messenger begins to think the completion of God’s will requires doing something gut-wrenchingly, proto-Abrahamically horrible? When he is prepared to do such a horrible thing? When his weak, agonizing inability to do it was God’s plan all along? When by saving even just one portion of the human race, the cycle of sin sets right back on it’s track? The same pain, the same cruelty, over and over again. Until Christ. And even afterwards.

The Passion strives to be a artistic approximation of the God-Man’s last hours. Noah broaches the human paradoxes of faith more boldly, more courageously and, Entish-angels notwithstanding, more realistically than perhaps any biblical film we’ve yet come across. Even The Passion never touched the pain of our many confusions in the face of God’s wider plan, our lack of immediate consolation.

I feel sorry for the poor marketing agent at Paramount who had to deal with this conundrum – I mean, how do you sell something like this? As a Heston-grade biblical epic? A blockbuster disaster movie? An antihero-wielding bit of revisionist spiritual fuzz? A 2+ hour long commercial for Green Peace and/or WWOOF? Oprah’s next Big Thing?

Among these, it also turned out to be a quiet blockbuster – easily earning back the hundreds of millions of budget cash (here in Mother Russia it was the 10th highest grossing film of all time) while not really making much of a buzz on the blogosphere or with the Greater Cultural Arbitors.***** Why, if it made that much money, is nobody talking about it?

Because, as mentioned above, it’s a bit of an oddball – a pop-yet-morally-earnest slice of spiritual turmoil without the constant, safe reassurance of the Almighty’s presence. Or, if not His presence, then at least confusion over the exact nature of what His goodness and/or mercy requires. It’s a film that somehow tries to span both the providence and punishment of the Am that Is with the casts of Gladiator, Harry Potter and Requiem for a Dream. The average moviegoing mind is certainly forgiven if things just don’t seem to add up.

But, all the flaws of the film aside (and there are many, gosh), maybe there’s part of us that responds to someone crazy enough to engage with some of the questions we might not feel like airing either in the church or in the office. How does one reconcile genuine faith to genuine doubt? Why is God there and then seemingly not? Why are His words so hard to interpret? Are we getting this wrong somehow? It straddles our deep, powerful religious tradition while being fully able to keep close the scandalously legitimate questions of the postmodern age.

Maybe, in the end, the reason why Noah is so important is that it’s messy. Here is a Noah who’s confronted with the fact that he thinks he must do something terrible in order to fulfill God’s plan but can’t go through with it. In his mind that’s a weakness – a lapse of faith, strength and drive. But in the end it proves to be the right thing and you can see in his eyes that he can’t make any of it fit together. His family is broken just as it begins its mission to bring life back to the world. He somehow feels abused and grateful. No one can answer for the girl left in the bear trap.

The film’s not afraid to leave the pieces where they lie, to acknowledge that, sometimes, we can’t just make things add up. In the midst of a religious sub-culture that sometimes places too much of a value on having an answer to everything, we’re all left with a moment to quake in the mystery of I Am. We’re not pressured to have the easy-bake response or expected to breeze over terribly complicated questions. We’re left with mystery. The mystery is left with us. My friends and I walked into the Romanian night not knowing what to say. And a rainbow stretches to cover every possible angle of sky.

*

*This one was Matt Zoller on behalf of rogerebert.com – a bit of a minor tragedy as I’m convinced that the recently-deceased Ebert was one of the few giants of modern criticism that could have really appreciated what Aronofsky was going for here.

**And George R.R. Martin

***I stole that term from somewhere but I can’t for the life of me recall where. It’s, like, my pick for word of the month.

****I don’t know if it’s the fact that North Americans in particular (sorry to my European compatriots) have just gotten comfortable with searching for the better/best thing (noble in its own right, awful when everything becomes a competition with space for only the one winner), but sometimes it leaves our particular set of cultural lenses less likely to admit the fact that sometimes two things can be act as compliments rather than UFC partners.

***** New Yorker, I’m looking at you.

 

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.

Book Review: Reflections

Jonathan Potter

Reflections
Poems by Ruth Asch, with art work by James Tyldesley
Saint Austin Press, 2009
136 pp.; $10.00
ISBN: 978-1901157468

When I first opened Reflections, Ruth Asch’s extraordinary first collection of poetry, I did that bad thing readers are not supposed to do: I turned to the last page. The little poem, poised there on page 129, stared me in the eye, smiled, and then kicked me in my reviewer’s shin just hard enough to smart a little and make me grin at the task ahead of me. [Read more…]

Book Review: In the Custody of Words: Poems

Billy Middleton

In the Custody of Words: Poems
by Philip C. Kolin
Franciscan University Press, 2013.

Philip C. Kolin’s new chapbook In the Custody of Words begins with a Latin epigraph of the opening lines from the Last Gospel: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The importance of words and language as a fundamental element of creation informs this collection. God, as creator, is the divine wielder of words. [Read more…]

Book Review: Ignatius Critical Editions

Ignatius Critical Editions
Edited by Joseph Pearce

Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
312 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17261-9

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
596 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17263-3

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
365 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17262-6

Reviewed by Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Is Hamlet so rampant with bawdy jokes that it is simply a very long, very dirty “shaggy dog story”? [Read more…]

The Painted Veil

It took me a long time to warm up to this book, about 90 pages, in fact. As it’s not even 250 pages long, that’s a sizable warm-up period. I suspect that the original editors didn’t do such a good job, but, since it is at this point a book with a history, their original mistakes were left (lots of run-on sentences, a word missing from a sentence here and there, you get the idea). Also, it struck me as a trashy romance novel with no admirable characters. I was dismayed, as I generally trust recommendations from Heath Misley, a compatriot from my Wasting Time in the Western Tradition days in Manchester. So, I gritted my teeth, and pushed on. And I’m glad I did.

I know a movie was made based on this book. I think I even saw it a long time ago, but I don’t remember much of it. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the book, even if you have already seen the movie. I don’t want to say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything away (there were a lot of things that surprised me as I was reading, and I want you to be surprised, too). But, why should you read it? It admirably handles the problems of human weakness, pettiness, silliness and selfishness. All of the characters are real, and uncomfortably so. It’s never pleasant to realize that a writer so clearly understands human failings. It’s like when you go to mass and come away with the sure knowledge that the sermon was written with your unholy soul as a target. But, it’s also comforting to know you’re not the only one who’s ever been an idiot, to whatever degree that might have been. Maybe we’re not all so tortured as the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, but a failing is a failing. So, with that vague summary in mind, read it and prepare yourself to become attached to some less-than-worthy fictional characters.

The novel is set in the British Empire during the 1920’s. It’s primarily about the development of one Kitty Fane. Out of boredom and some curiosity, she acquaints herself with the Mother Superior of a Catholic convent (she herself is not Catholic.) As she leaves the convent for the last time, the Mother bids her goodbye. I’ve truncated the scene:

Kitty had a wild impulse to shake her, crying: “Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone? Can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion?” To Kitty’s surprise the Mother Superior took her in her arms and kissed her. She held her for a moment. “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” (Vintage, 204-06)

Kitty is deeply flawed in many ways, but her biggest problem is that she is incredibly selfish. I suppose one might say that the book is really about her learning what it means to love. She goes through the paces of a few things, even marriage, because they are what she is expected to do. But, never having received real love from her parents, and being encouraged in a solipsistic existentialism, she’s a brat. The mother superior has told her exactly what she needs to hear, and, really, exactly what all of us need to hear.

If we gracelessly go through the paces of life, grumbling as we take out the trash, swearing at other drivers during the morning commute, blandly reciting our prayers, impatient at having to change yet another diaper, angry at disruptions of our dutiful routine, we’ll be utterly miserable, and so will everyone with whom we come in contact. It is far better to be 5 seconds later to work than to cut off someone trying to merge onto the highway. No one will be thankful that you took out the trash if you guilt-trip them about how much work you do around the house. A grumpy recitation of a 20-decade rosary has less merit in it than a 2-second shout-out to God of sincere gratitude for a piece of chocolate. And if you resent every diaper you have to change, or even every other diaper, don’t think your child will grow up unaware of that resentment. Kitty isn’t perfect at the end of the book; she does progress, but boy, she sure slips up pretty horrifically. Sadly, so will you and I (as we’re both already aware, I’m sure). I know it sounds trite and corny, but at least try to love people, really love them and be kind to them, as you go along making mistakes and inadequately performing your duties for them. Love covers a multitude of sins, and leads you to that happiness which surpasses all understanding. So go have some chocolate, or, better yet, buy chocolate for someone else, and thank God you can.

Book Review: Redeemed

Katy Carl

Redeemed: A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding
by Heather King
Viking Press, 2008
238 pages, $24.95

After my recent conversation with Heather King, I am again left thinking about what self-gift means for the writer: “You willingly allow yourself to be consumed.” Of course, when King said this, she meant that writing consumes the writer, not that reading does. But “consuming” also connotes nourishment, refreshment. [Read more…]

Hemingway Fan Fiction

Over the last few years, there’s been a surge of interest in Lost Generation writers and artists. I, of course, am a little annoyed by this, as my previously held and possibly unhealthy fascination with that lot now seems to be merely a part of the cultural shift in attention back to the days of flappers, gin fizzes, and desperation. But, I’ll have you know, I owned the book Gatsby Cocktails long before the Baz Luhrmann movie came out, and I was positively stuck on Hemingway’s stark prose—and dark machismo—eons before Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. (“Your blood coagulates beautifully.”) But really, I can’t actually be as snobbishly annoyed as I might wish, because this widespread interest means I get company in nerding out, and I get to read and watch the fan fiction and movies that have sprung up around those stories and their authors.

A few months back I was in an airport bookstore. They are, as you well know, horrible places. As I scanned the shelves of trade paperbacks, tried not to be sick all over the harlequin romances and the popular selections for today’s teenagers, I prepared myself to leave with the aloof sense of intellectual and moral superiority that customarily and scantly comforts me in lieu of a good book in such scenarios. But, my preparations were all for naught. Somehow, my eyes got around a slightly corny cover (yes, I do judge by them), complete with “artistic” scroll work, and saw “A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s.” ‘Nuff said.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is a novel about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. It begins with their meeting and subsequent courtship, and follows their story through their years in Paris until their separation. From Hadley’s perspective, we see Hemingway’s emergence as a young novelist, insecure and raging and eager as he rubs shoulders with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and, of course, the Fitzgeralds. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Hadley is awake, pregnant and hungry in the early morning:

I wanted muskmelons and a really nice piece of cheese, coffee and good jam and waffles. I was so hungry thinking about this I couldn’t sleep.

“Waffles,” I said to Ernest’s curled back near dawn. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

When he didn’t rouse, I said it again, louder, and put my hand on his back, giving him a friendly little shove.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” he said, rolling out of bed. “It’s gone now.”

“What’s gone?”

He sat on the edge of the thick mattress, scratching one knee. “The right words for the sketch.”

“Oh, sorry then,” I said.

I watched him dress and move toward the kitchen. Within minutes I could hear the coffee boiling and smell it and it made me hungrier. I heard him get his coffee and then heard the chair squeak back as he sat at the table. Silence.

“Tiny?” I said, still in bed. “What do you think about the waffles?”

He groaned and pushed his chair back. “There it all goes again.” (161)

Somehow, Paula McLain manages to write about famous writers without sounding like she’s writing about writers. She’s a good writer on her own merit, and doesn’t skate by merely with writing about people whose lives are already popular. Also, even though Hemingway was an indisputably flawed, oftentimes selfish and arguably morally depraved man, and even though the story is told from the point of a view of the wife whom he cheats on and ultimately leaves, McLain somehow manages to keep him a sympathetic character. Though his faults are blatant, they are nonetheless understandable on some level. And while she paints the characters admirably throughout, makes them real and believable and even lovable, she has also done the research to make her story historically accurate.

Be warned, however, that since most of these characters are artist-y sorts of “liberated” people, there’s a fair bit of promiscuity, some of it less licit than desirable. (See what I did there?!) That being said, none of it seemed gratuitous or written lasciviously or salaciously. So far I’ve lent my copy out to three people. All of them, readers and writers themselves, have loved it. I imagine you will, too.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life

Reviewed by Meredith Wise

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
By Paul Mariani
Viking, 2008
496 pages, $34.95

“To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”: in this line, Hopkins could have been speaking of the treatment he has received from his biographers. Two full-length lives have already been published, and both, while impeccably researched, fail to credit the reality of Hopkins’ spiritual life. [Read more…]

Following the Bellman:

Glenn Arbery

The Oracles Fell Silent
by Lee Oser
Wiseblood Books, Feb. 2014
262 pages, paperback, $13.00

In Lee Oser’s boisterously funny and quietly moving new comic novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, the center of attention (though not necessarily the main character) is a blustering, insecure British rock icon from the 1960s named Ted Pop. World-famous since his youth, Pop—his real name is Theo Pappas, Jr—has been knighted by the queen, which puts him in the near-mythological company of such figures as Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Like them, Sir Ted has the means to acquire almost anything he wants. As the novel opens, for example, he covets a beach house in the Hamptons with a deck on the Atlantic and an observation tower “whose glass walls appeared to be cut out of bright blue air.” A blank check for the realtor gets him the house (despite allegedly stiff competition). But the main thing Sir Ted craves—vindication for his contribution to The Planets, the ’60s band he formed with the legendary Gabriel “Johnny” Donovan—can’t be so easily managed.

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The Oracles Fell Silent is available from Wiseblood Books.

In framing Sir Ted’s anxieties, Oser imagines a version of the endless controversies among fans about the genius of bands. Who was more important to The Beatles, Lennon or McCartney? Did the Allman Brothers ever match their early brilliance after Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash? Sir Ted’s immediate problem is that a recent biography by a man named Ginger Drake, The Life and Fall of Johnny Donovan, not only belittles Pop’s musical importance to The Planets but even suggests that he was responsible for Donovan’s fatal fall from a London rooftop in 1969. To even the score, Pop hires his daughter’s lover, the naive, intermittently religious young narrator of the novel, Richard Bellman, who will ghost-write Sir Ted’s memoirs.

Thrown unprepared onto this glitzy Olympus, Bellman plays a role in the novel a little like Nick Carraway’s in The Great GatsbyCompetent but unsure of himself in this world of wealth and fame, he’s the observer of the “great” who is steadily drawn into the maelstrom of Pop’s career. Because he’s Sir Ted’s assistant and supposed confidant, he’s the one who might have access to the lucrative secret of what actually happened on that rooftop. He attracts the attention of people willing to pay him a great deal for it.

But in more important ways, too, he turns out to be the real center of the action. After the comic uproar of the novel dies away, it becomes clear in retrospect that young Richard has been a major force. He is a witness but also a crucial participant in the drama of Ted Pop’s coming to terms with the truth about Johnny Donovan, who was not so much a rival as a saintly character with a genuine genius and perhaps even a celibate in the sex-mad world around him. Richard is not an innocent. But despite being subject to most temptations, Richard is a believer—Sir Ted says early on “You won’t be when I’m finished with  you”—and it turns out that there are things he can’t do, lines he can’t cross.

“Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” asks Flannery O’ Connor in a comment that very much applies to this novel. “I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”

O’Connor’s Georgia of God-haunted atheists and backwoods nihilists is a far cry from Oser’s Hamptons, where the only burning religious question is whether Daisy the Pig, a bronze statue that had “occupied a place of honor in front of Hill’s Butcher Shop and had done so, though seasons of plenty and seasons of famine, for one hundred and twenty-nine years,” should be removed. It seems that it’s offensive to Muslims, at least according to the self-promoting, bestselling, and hypocritical imam Omar D.

Oser is a superb satirist of pretensions. He skewers rock stars like Sir Ted or Tom Bram, who like to display his phosphorescent vampire teeth; academics like the magisterially condescending Prof. Candy Swash, “Chair of Thing Theory” at Harvard; predatory journalists like the perennially sexy and unscrupulous Veronica Lamb. He’s also wonderful at details, as in his description of Sir Ted’s cook, who buys “lottery tickets by the roll” because work “was an untimely imposition, a lingering streak of bad luck, an incidental hardship until something much better came along.” Richard’s priest in the novel is Fr. Stan Nitzsche, who won infamy in the early days of the pill with a book called Pandora’s Pillbox.

What’s bracing about Oser’s work is its absolute lack of puritanism. Like Walker Percy, he suspects that Catholics might already be acquainted with sin. He fearlessly depicts sex, he reports the bad language, and he doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable humor. For example, Sir Ted goes to mass for reasons of publicity, but then puts the host in his pocket and later brags to Richard (who has been told by Fr. Stan Nitzsche to retrieve the pocked host and consume it), “I ate it with my blueberry-cheesecake ice cream.” The joke, of course, is on Sir Ted himself, as his real name suggests: Theo from theos, God, and Pappas meaning “priest” in Greek. Despite his cavalier blasphemies, he’s unable to escape the inner question of responsibility for Johnny Donovan’s death that he’s outwardly trying to put to rest.

But even in Richard’s most ridiculous experiences, there is no brooding condemnation, either of himself or of others. Oser knows the America he depicts—this culture of decadent excess and arrogance—as fully as Richard Ford knows the Jersey shore. It’s by no means a realist novel, however, but something like a tongue-in-cheek allegory, as one begins to suspect when Sir Ted meets his match in Hurricane Gabriel and the mystery of Johnny Donovan’s death finally comes to light. Oser’s novel makes its readers ask which oracles they’ve been attending and what might happen in their silence. Young Richard Bellman—it’s worth thinking about what a “bellman” is—emerges largely unscathed, and with an essential quiet dignity. There’s no triumphalism here, no relegation of souls to heaven or hell. Oser’s gift is making it deeply attractive to come back to the sanity of worshiping what deserves it.

Glenn Arbery has taught literature at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, and the University of Dallas. He has served as Director of the Teachers Academy at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; senior editor for City Newspapers in Dallas, where he was an award-winning film and theater critic; and contributing editor of D Magazine. He is the author of Why Literature Matters (2001) and the editor of two volumes, The Tragic Abyss (2004) and, most recently, The Southern Critics: An Anthology (2010). He has published and lectured on a range of authors, including Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. He has recently finished a novel, and at present he is working on a book about Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate with his wife Virginia.

“But you’re not referring to spirituality there?”

Backtrack to 2011: poets and literature fans orbiting Montréal’s Véhicule Press brainstormed the “Montréal International Poetry Prize” which, with a $50,000 pop for the winner, made headlines as the world’s most lucrative prize for one poem. Though the cash-pot this year dropped to a measly $20,000, the announcement of a second run sent poets across the Anglosphere scurrying for their word processors. The prize being blind, Scottish judge Don Patterson had no idea who the writers were and ultimately awarded it a stone’s throw away to a woman living two hundred kilometres northeast in the small, shoreline community of Pontneuf – to Mia Anderson: poet, wife, former actress, occasional shepherd and Anglican minister.

Mia-Anderson-01-244x300

Her entry, “The Antenna,” stunned me at first read – it’s a delicate poem with a compassion that’s unwilling to ignore the complicated, painful nuances facing [un]believers when trying to encounter God. The title refers to the central metaphor, a spiritual “antenna” we have that helps us perceive the presence of God in the world, and the poem explores the moments of relative ease/difficulty in getting our antennae to work the way we want them to. Though while the joys of the poem are many (its language, irony, sincerity, surprising precision of image) there’s another unexpected treat in the form of an interview with Anderson hosted by CBC’s Jeanette Kelly where they discuss the poem and its context.

From the get-go it’s clear Anderson’s a poet writing in today’s artistic milieu: the brash collision of “high” and “low” topics (the mixing of jig-a-loo and the music of the spheres, for example), the reliance on free-verse form and the never-entirely-avoidable undercurrents of ambiguity/doubt (especially when addressing things closest to her heart) all point to her inhabiting-and-being-informed-by the postmodern world. Her voice can’t avoid seeming like a tailored aural image. She stumbles into awkward moments of self-promotion or melodrama, occasionally tripping as she strikes the artiste’s pose. She’s an ironic, self-promoting, twenty-first century poet. To the nines. But when it comes to faith she totally, totally gets it.

Beneath her hip/confessional trappings is an authentic woman of God, a woman who’s thought and continues to think deeply about the implications of mere Christianity in the modern public sphere (particularly relevant in light of recent proposals in Québec suggesting a limit to wearing certain religious symbols in civil workplaces). In the interview she and Kelly jump topics from philosophy to sheep midwifery to poetry to WD-40 to said music of the spheres to Anderson’s self-identified role as a priest in the Anglican community; through it all they end up orbiting a number of profoundly important issues facing anyone invested in the relationship between spirituality, art and their effects on public life – and it’s almost painfully hilarious to hear the ever-tactful Kelly navigate Anderson’s unavoidably theological tangents. Hilarious and completely, consolingly, human.

One of those many tangents, Kelly and Anderson’s discussion of what Don Patterson called “receivership” includes some pretty crucial claims about art and spirituality – particularly with how the creation of art can be seen as a kind of spiritual receivership, one utilizing the same aforementioned antenna. This’s a pretty big deal, because if it’s true then it means making art, no matter the intentions of the artist, their political beliefs, social leanings or attitude towards God, is in some way an act of grace that can’t avoid being suffused with the creative, life-affirming spirit of God.

Now get this – this’s on the CBC. Read: the Canadian BBC-wannabe; publicly-funded/politically-correct to the point of mediocrity. Here, a declaration of belief in anything outside the narrowly-defined (though certainly important) set of acceptable convictions doesn’t prompt outroar so much as an awkward silence where the embarrassed twiddling of thumbs is all-but palpable.

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Anderson, as a postmodern poet, knows this and walks a thread-thin tightrope. She isn’t afraid of drawing links between her work as an artist and her history of unapologetic ministry in an established religion, but she frames everything in a language as universal as possible. Not a cake-walk by a long shot – but somehow she pulls it off, fascinatingly. Evangelization becomes an invitation, sermons become drama, prayer becomes an expression of our deep desire to come to terms with “what is so.” And, after a small aside about her history on the stage, she gets to the good stuff:

Anderson: What I would be doing in the pulpit would feel to me more like what I did in a poem than what I did in the theatre… I am preaching from the same source as [when] I’m writing poetry. Really, I’m not so much performing in the pulpit, say, as I am tapping into […] where the receivership touches and trying to share it. Does that make any sense?

Anderson, through mine-ridden cultural territory, is trying to share (in a secular context) both that authentic ministry/preaching/sermonship should always be in touch with the One on the other side of the spiritual antenna and that the creation of art comes from that spiritual source – the same source as liturgy, ritual, dogma, mysticism and (excuse my Québécois) organized religion. In a single stroke, whether she realizes or not (and I’m sure she does), she’s saying, to all the self-professed post-Christian members of the literary/cultural elite, that by doing what they do – by doing what they feel in their bones they’re meant to do – they’re drawing close to something resembling prayer.

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The trick here, same as in the poem, is dressing the language in a way that doesn’t come off as “too religious” for the regular Joe to swallow – and the way Anderson navigates that task alone makes the interview worth a listen. Though Kelly, in response to the quote above, can’t avoid an astute: “Yes, but you’re not referring to spirituality there?” Because of course Anderson is. But while she follows a well-worn train by avoiding using words like “spirituality” (the given reason: it’s hackneyed), for her it isn’t a license for flakiness so much as a search for language that does real justice to “what is so.” And maybe her tendency not to use traditionally religious terms is the fruit of a knowledge that her mission is to be outward-focused – rather than being a person who pats believers on the head, she strives to have at least one eye (and both hands) reaching out to the world.

And one of the most beautiful things about “The Antenna” is its effortless accessibility – it speaks into a deep, lived reality of people who identify as believers as well as those who don’t. Kelly observes, along with prize judge Don Patterson, that the poem isn’t about faith/doubt, conviction/flakiness or un/belief so much as this “receivership.” Our ability (or lack thereof) to perceive God is obviously a huge part of the Christian walk and it’s easy to forget that our secular or spiritually uncommitted brothers/sisters sometimes struggle with receptivity all the same. And, while she certainly weaves touchier ideas like evangelization, liturgical responsibility and the viability of objective truth into the conversation, what keeps the interview (and the poem) from shutting itself inside a theological ivory tower is the adamant concern for people, for questions like:

“Is He there?”

“Then why can’t I hear Him?”

“Am I even doing this right?”

The poem gives a voice and image (or, as Anderson says, “recognition”) to those who want to hear what God has to say but feel, no matter how hard they try, like they can’t get their antennae unstuck from that “old winged / fin socket.” They can’t tell if God’s ignoring them or if they’re just, well, incapable of tuning in. As the heartbreaking final lines say:

[…] they have heard of how it works
sometimes, how when the nights are clear

and the stars just so and the moon has all but set,
the distant music of the spheres is transformative

and they believe in the transformation.
It is the antenna they have difficulty believing in.

Here, ultimately, Anderson speaks powerfully into the experience of spiritual helplessness, of doubting not so much God’s goodness or His presence but our own ability to receive/make sense of any of it. The poet taps into a universal experience and places it within an explicitly spiritual context before planting said context into a poem utterly divested of Christianese. And so we’re all around the table: believer and unbeliever, cynic and romantic, Anglican and Catholic, secular humanist and religious minister, whatever and whoever, trying to contemplate what it means to be helpless in the face of such Goodness.

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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.