A strange land

How can we not sing the
Lord’s song in a strange land?
Retexting the community through art, word and music

“Before the message there must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before prose the poem.” | Amos Wilder


wonder to what degree we have really faced the reality that the church in many quarters has not only declined numerically, but has also been thetree.jpgdeprivileged? That, to borrow an image from Walter Brueggemann, the church has been moved from judge’s bench to witness stand, where we’ve found that we are but one in a whole series of others, all waiting to give witness in an increasingly pluralistic society? The truth is that we are no longer a key societal arbiter of what is right or true or good, but one of the many voices asking to be heard. We are in a situation analogous to Israel in exile – though our move into exile has not been marked by that level of violence and upheaval – wherein our language and our practices are not echoed, carried or supported by the broader culture; certainly not in any significant way.

Exile is an image mined deeply and fruitfully by a string of theological voices over the past 40 years. It is used in a ground-breaking way by the Anglican writer William Stringfellow in his 1973 book, An Ethic for Christians and other Aliens in a Strange Land, in which he wrote,

(B)iblical ethics asks how to live humanly in the midst of death’s reign. And biblical politics, therefore, as it manifests resistance to the power of death, is, at once, celebration of human life in society. Or, by parable, biblical politics means the practice of the vocation to live as Jerusalem, the holy nation, amidst Babylon.

“To live as Jerusalem amidst Babylon” – to know with great clarity that we are in exile, but to then live alternately. The image, or parable as Stringfellow has it, lies at the heart of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens, and really runs through all of Hauerwas’s deeply influential work. It is, though, probably nowhere more powerfully employed than by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.

In an article entitled Rethinking Church Models through Scripture, Brueggemann writes of how the stable model of temple and palace as the twin anchors for Israelite faith and society,

…was swept away in a cultural-geopolitical upheaval. Moreover, the reason given for its being swept away is that the model had defaulted in its God-given vocation and was no longer acceptable to God. Obviously I focus on this crisis because I believe we are in a moment of like cultural-geopolitical upheaval that undoes us personally and institutionally.

We have become strangers in an increasingly strange land; exiles in a place we used to know as home, in which, at least in principle, church and state shared a common mother tongue; that is simply not the case any more. When did it end? Well, we can all come up with examples and illustrations of key moments – when Sunday shopping began, when the Lord’s Prayer disappeared from school, when the theatre began showing movies on Sunday; and maybe some of you come from communities where not all such changes have not yet been fully made; they are coming. The church as we knew it has gone into a kind of free-fall; we are just not clear how, and if, our song is to be sung

But – and here the experience of Israel under the iron thumb of Babylon might contain seeds of hope for us – Brueggemann continues, “It is worth noting that the collapse and failure of this model in 587 BCE generated in ancient Israel enormous pluralism and vitality as the community quested about for new and viable models of life and faith.”

Psalm 137 stands as a stark example of what I’m speaking about. You probably know it best in a form shorn of its hardest verses; a prettified song about weeping by the banks of some Babylonian river. Yet its force as an expression of the agony of trying to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land is so much more than those more comfortable versions. Here it is offered from the New Revised Standard Version:

By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.

When we remembered Jerusalem, hundreds of miles away, lying in devastation thanks to the calculated violence of the conquering Babylonian army

On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

The singers hang their guitars up on the tree branches, because the soldiers charged with keeping the peace in that prison ghetto have asked that the songs of Zion, the hymns of the tradition, be sung for entertainment. Maybe the closest we can get to this is the image of white slave owners in the deep south asking the slaves to sing their gospel songs to entertain dinner guests in the plantation mansion, or maybe Jewish musicians in concentration camps being forced to form orchestras to play at German military cocktail parties.

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

How could one possibly sing the Lord’s song in the midst of this hell of Babylonian exile? If I forget you, O Jerusalem; if we turn our backs on the news that has come from the prophet Jeremiah, telling us that the whole city has gone up in smoke, then let my right hand wither and my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth. What does it mean for a singer or a musician to have a withered right hand and a useless tongue? No song.

And then comes the hard stuff, the material we don’t often hear in our hymns:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

The hoped-for, prayer-for violence is shocking, yet who can blame them for daring to tell this truth to God? God’s reply is not noted here, but we do know the message Jeremiah sent to this broken and exiled community:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:4-7, NRSV)

Violence will not be met by violence; the hoped for vengeance is not delivered, and instead the people are invited to partake in a long-haul restoration. Thing is, when these singers ask the question, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” and vow themselves to silence, how is this expressed? They sing it.

“Now in our wonderment, bafflement, and sometimes despair, we wonder if the plot has run out, or if like in our ancient paradigm, a new word can be uttered about God’s stunning newness.” That “word of stunning newness” is God’s to be spoken, and not ours to provoke or create. As Archbishop Rowan Williams said in an address to a meeting of the Primates – an address given while he was still the Bishop of Monmouth, and not yet Archbishop of Canterbury – “the Church, we could say, is what happens when God’s call is heard, (and) the biblical vision… reminds us that we exist as church by God’s gift only.” In other words, if we are to have a future, it will be by grace alone.

Yet there is work to be done in the meantime, and key to that work is the scribal vocation of “re-texting” the community. Get rid of your stereotypes that place scribes as part of the phrase “scribes and Pharisees,” which we almost always hear as “hypocrites.” Line up instead in your imaginations Baruch, Seraiah, Ezra, and the nameless others who, by faithfully writing down and bringing forward the story, awoke in Israel a deep memory of its own selfhood in God. And at the heart of the texts they relay to us is this: Moses and Nathan, Elijah and Daniel do not have the starring roles in this narrative; God is the principle character. Scribal work is meant to awaken what Brueggemann calls “dangerous memories,” and these are critical – indispensable in fact – to cultivating a people who might just hear God’s new word.

For Israel in exile there were two real temptations:

1. To throw in the towel on the past, believing that only present circumstance and present survival mean anything at all; or worse, only imminent collapse is worthy of attention.

2. To work only with respectable and reasonable memories; the stuff of romanticism, sentimentality and nostalgia.

These twin temptations were both killers for Israel in Exile, and they are for us too, in our own exilic state. Each temptation in its own way risks a deep rootlessness, and one that will not serve our communities as a discipline of readiness for God’s inbreaking new word. It is a rootlessness that courts what Marva Dawn would call “dumbed down,” and interestingly, each of the twin temptations can find a home at both ends of the “churchland” spectrum. Both the so-called conservatives and the so-called liberals, believing themselves to be truly and deeply positioned in the real tradition, risk never quite dealing with our deeper, dangerous memories. The present defines all; the past is not taken seriously as more than a source for a kind of shallow proof-texting.  Were either ecclesial camp to go deeper into those odd and dangerous memories, it would discover that the future, like the past, can only be approached and lived “by faith;” not by strategy, not by technique, not by morality, not by some self-defined orthodoxy. Not by political posturing, not by lobbying, not by convincing, coercing, badgering, barnstorming or bitching. By faith. But that would be to remember dangerously.

Robert Farrar Capon suggests that reading the bible is like watching a movie; you have to watch the whole film, and you can’t stop it at any point and say, ‘ah, this is what it all means.’ It is like watching a foreign film, says Capon, a foreign film with no subtitles; you have to watch it, and rewatch it and watch it again in order to have a real sense of what is going on. I think Capon is fundamentally on to something, and it is on this point that I depart fairly significantly from Brueggemann when he writes in Texts Under Negotiation that increasingly we should learn to go “underneath” what he calls thematization:

…urge that our proper subject in each case is the specific text, without any necessary relation to other texts or any coherent pattern read out of or into the text. This approach requires relishing and paying attention to each text, and lingering over it for the sake of its own claim, which may be strange, odd, or even offensive. It is evident that this approach is congenial to postmodern perspective, as it focuses on ‘little’ stories to the disadvantage of the ‘great story.’

I think Brueggemann is right in insisting that we not gloss over or avoid the texts that strike us as odd and problematic – something the current lectionary is quite guilty of – but to try to receive them outside of the whole film is equally problematic. To tell each piece as part of the whole story – particularly if one is prepared to confess its strangeness and lack of easy unity – is not necessarily to domesticate the text ideologically or dogmatically, as Brueggemann apparently fears. But we do have to be prepared to tell the whole story – to watch the whole movie – including those parts that embarrass or unsettle us. Those parts may be exactly what we need, as may be the case with the bloody verses at the end of Psalm 137. Those writers needed to express that rage, and there are times when we need to read them as we explore the faith that transcends any polite or saccharine religion of a “nice” God and a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”

Says the American Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor,

The poet is traditionally a blind man. But the Christian poet, and the storyteller as well, is like the blind man Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees – but walking. Christ touched him again, and he saw clearly. We will not see clearly until Christ touches us in death, but this first touch is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions that we shall have to accept if we want to realize a Catholic literature.

“Deeper and stranger visions;” the stuff of dangerous memories and of a future that will come from God’s grace, not from our making.

“Any community that has a story such at ‘The Black Rabbit of Inle’ in its tradition can never assume that it ‘has control’ of its existence.” That is a quote from a marvelous essay by Stanley Hauerwas called “A Story-Formed Community,” from A Community of Character. In that essay he takes the reader through Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down in a demonstration of how story shapes the community that tells it. In Watership Down, a small group of rabbits flee from their home, a warren called “Sandleford,” which one of this group of escapees has discerned is about to be destroyed by some new force; in fact, a new housing development. In Sandleford, the stories of the great tradition has been told, “but primarily as a means of entertainment, for it was assumed that the warren had weathered the worst,” when it had survived a disease plague through a ruthless policy of quarantine and exclusion. As these rabbits travel in search of a new home, they encounter two other warrens: a nameless one – in which the stories are no longer told at all, and in which individualism has trumped any sense of collectivity – and the highly militaristic Efrafa, in which the stories are simply outlawed.Throughout the book, this exiled group gradually becomes a community, in large because they tell and retell their foundational stories as the basis upon which they dare to continue to seek a new home. It is at a most pivotal point that the story of The Black Rabbit of Inle – a kind of passion story in fact – is told; a story which shakes them from any illusion and en-courages them for what lies ahead. Again, “Any community that has a story such at The Black Rabbit of Inle in its tradition can never assume that it ‘has control’ of its existence.”

As much as (they) desire a warren they can call home, they know also that they can never cease being on a journey. When rabbits yearn for and try to secure complete safety, their nature is perverted. They can only continue to rely on their wit and their courage and each other.

All of which, Adams emphasizes again and again, are gifts of the creator.

Now Hauerwas’s point in offering reflection on this story is the same as the one which I want to make: the church in a very particular way is a community formed by the story it tells. The church has lived in settings not unlike Efrafa; in fact we were birthed in a Roman Empire decidedly hostile to the telling of this story, and Christians have lived under Stalin, under Mao, under current day regimes which seek to end the very telling of our narratives. The church currently tries to live against the grain in any number of settings in the Western world, in which the stories cease to be told, having been judged to be irrelevant; and in fact so often in such contexts we begin to discover to our horror that our own children hardly know our narratives. And in so many ways, parts of the church have treated our own narratives as the stories were treated in Sandleford warren; as polite and interesting entertainments for a Sunday morning, but ones which don’t much impact the other parts of our lives

Were I to rewrite Adams’ book, I would have to add another warren, and maybe two; in these warrens, the stories are told, but ever so selectively. In this way, the heart of the narratives become so distorted as to become almost unrecognizable… and this both on the right and the left of the ecclesial spectrum. At risk of just setting up straw man targets, I think on the one end of the so-called prosperity gospel which insists on reading the texts in a way sufficiently thin so as to support an unsupportable ideology, and on the other the kind of self-defined progressive faith that quite happily unravels the trinity or blithely misses the power of the nativity story because 100 years ago Rudolph Bultmann ranked it as a mythologized attempt to have the birth of Jesus rival that of the various Caesars. Both warrens would, I think, be unable to read the story of the Black Rabbit of Inle, and so each in its own way would finally be unable to sustain a community in exile or on an exodus journey.

Again, we need to be soaked and retexted in this Christian narrative in its entirety and for all of its sometimes unsettling oddness. From beginning to end – Genesis to Revelation – again and again until we begin to see the world through the lenses of the biblical landscape

At the heart of the retexting is the written text; read and spoken. One of the discoveries made by this exiled Israel was its own need to know this stuff, and so in fact much was collected, codified, even written in the exilic and post-exilic period; ironically, perhaps, this is one of the most creative and fertile times in the whole of the history of Israel. Part of what just might face us now is the prospect of such a fertile and creative time in the life of the displaced Christian church. But whereas Israel in exile was retexted through texts – written texts, but also narratives told and retold, often in the context of home-based practice – our own times may well call out for a more varied kind of retexting – one which includes the visual arts, and also music, film, theatre, fiction.

There is a long, long history of a Christian engagement with the arts. The American novelist Reynolds Price writes, “A few of those servants (of Christ) have given to Western Civilization its central masterpieces of literature, painting, sculpture, music and architecture. Remove Christian art from postclassical Western art and very little, prior to 1880, survives.” So what happens at 1880? At least in the world of the arts, it seems to be that the move into exile has begun. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for instance, starts its collection at 1880. I spent a day there last January, and was quite struck by how little, relative to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, themes of faith are explored. How much art of the past 130 years has been created and offered without any reference to the Christian faith? How much which is, if not openly hostile, utterly indifferent? And even more pressing, to what degree have we attempted to create a Christian church without reference to the poetic and artistic imagination? Oh, there are these Christian musicians, Christian artists, Christian novelists; but how often do we push them into very particular boxes, allowing them to speak or paint or write only within very tightly defined parameters? Calvin Seerveld, a scholar in the field of philosophical aesthetics, writes,

.…sentimental, beautified travesties of our Lord Jesus Christ or bowdlerized so-called ‘religious fiction’ or photography of model children with never dirt behind their ears as church magazines sometimes show, all such sincere, innocuous presentations not only devastate understanding art but also misrepresent, take the bite and grit and twentieth-century life out of the Christian commitment. I wonder if our resurrected Lord at the right hand of the Father ever weeps any more at our oh so uncomprehending faith.

Do we call our artists, our singers, our poets, to undo us, break our hearts, help us to see with new eyes? Or do we insist instead that they behave, and give us only that which reinforces all we think we already know? Why has Thomas Kincade, with his paintings of quaint cottages and lighthouses, been deemed the artist of choice in North American evangelical subculture, and even christened the “painter of light?” He may paint a nice little lighthouse, but it has nothing on something like van Gogh’s Starry Night; a painting which seems to actually project its own light. And are you familiar with what is sometimes called the “J-factor” in the Christian music scene? That is the number of times an artist uses the name of Jesus in a song, and it is actually one of the things that the industry looks for when it programs for radio.I know that you can all come up with examples of material that doesn’t fit here: the music of Bruce Cockburn or Sufjan Stevens, the novels of Graham Green or Frederick Buechner, the poetry of T.S. Eliot or Lucy Shaw; and thank goodness there are such examples… but the fact is, this is the cluster of artists and writers who almost always leap to mind. They are a distinct minority.

And again, how could we possibly think it wise to attempt to shape a Christian church without reference to the poetic and artistic imagination? Without telling– and telling it in all of its oddness – the story that in fact shapes us? Not a partial, tidied up, edges-sanded-off polite version of the story; the whole works. Isaiah, for instance, will remember in his poetry the story about the barrenness of Sarah and Abraham; an embarrassing story not often spoken in the corridors of power of the Jerusalem palace…

How comfortably we tell the story of Christmas: “this year, come home for Christmas” ran the advertising campaign in one Canadian diocese some years back. Home? The uprooted Mary and Joseph, being forced to have this baby in a barn? The story of which we follow with the Matthaean narratives about the death squads Herod sends in to Bethlehem? How homey is that? But if we tell the whole narrative, as both Matthew and Luke tell it, what might we actually come to know about the staggering risk of the Incarnation? What might we come to know about the potentially staggering cost of discipleship?

From Cal Seerveld again:

What really has given ‘christian art’ its bad name has been the cheap way that stock motifs such as conversions, happy endings or Bible phrases are popped in like vitamin pills to pep up one-dimensional, outdated material which is then sold as ‘Christian novels,’ Christian plays,’ or Christian songs.’ Using Christ in that way is, in my judgment, taking his Name in vain. You do not get the rare pearl of Christian art by dubbing in a few crosses or chalices, or by draping a good-old-days kind of atmosphere around a trite plot. Christian art in our days, I believe, will take suffering to produce.

It will take suffering to produce? Suffering? Who is going to sign up for that? Yet for the artist who is a Christian, maybe it is not so much a case of signing on as it is being simply prepared to do one’s art authentically. When, for instance, a major record company suggested to Steve Bell that that he would be more marketable if he didn’t sing all of those psalms, he basically had to confront the fact that psalms are what he does; to trim the faith out of his music would be to truncate himself, both as a person and as an artist.

From Walter Brueggemann again:

…an alternative world is possible. The old world is not a given; it is a fraud. Another world is possible – in our imaginations: we listen and imagine differently. In our liberation we entertain different realities not yet given in hardware, so far only very soft ware, carried only by narrative and song and poem and oracle (and I would add, by painting and sculpture and dance and, and, and…) said before being embodied, but said and we listen. As we listen we push out to the possibility and are held by it like a visioning child with a dream.”

And from imagination comes practice; not just personal practice, but communal, public practice which from time to time actually manages to do something real and lasting.

And from imagination comes practice; not just personal practice, but communal, public practice which from time to time actually manages to do something real and lasting.

I’d push Brueggemann, though, on his image of the “visioning child with a dream,” because sometimes it the retexting our poets and painters shake us with is almost more like a nightmare, or maybe a wake-up call. Listen to these lyrics from Bruce Cockburn’s song Maybe the Poet, from 1984’s Stealing Fire album:

Male female slave or free
Peaceful or disorderly
Maybe you and he will not agree
But you need him to show you new ways to see

Don’t let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you
Pay attention to the poet
You need him and you know it

You need the poet to teach you new ways to see; “Pay attention to the poet, you need him and you know it,” sings Cockburn. So why, then, do we keep using the arts for little more than glorified sermon illustrations? Music as the emotional tag that gets us opened up for the preacher?

Is it possible to create the kind of Christian communities wherein the poets are listened to, nurtured, and supported? In real ways? What might it look like to take seriously our deprivileged and exiled status, and began to rise to the challenge of retexting our communities not only with the preached word – which is something I’m pretty committed to – but also the word painted, sculpted, sung, chanted, filmed, danced, performed and offered in every way imaginable… literally imaginable! Most churches, including my own, have a full time preacher and a part-time musician, but why don’t we have a poet or a painter on our staff? A writer in residence? A film-maker? A director? A choreographer?

In this Christian vision, suggests Seerveld, “art and literature as human activity is not simply a harmless pleasurable emotion or a cultured response to unconscious drives which is the artist’s own business: this vision takes art and literature and brings it firmly into the presence of God and an earthshaking drama where angels peer expectantly over the human shoulders to see what is coming out of the palette or typewriter.” And the angels peer expectantly because they know how deeply we need to be re-immersed in our foundational story; how badly we need to be fundamentally and imaginatively retexted; how powerfully we need to relearn how to sing the Lord’s song in this strange land.

In these few days of this conference, this small circle has an opportunity to taste a bit of what such re-immersion, retexting, relearning might be like. But can we take that all back to our churches, our homes, our circles of friendship? Can we afford not to? I opened by quoting from Amos Wilder’s Theopoetic, and it is to Wilder I turn for my closing words: “When imagination fails doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden, doxologies and litanies empty, consolations hollow, and ethics legalistic.” Can we afford to not learn to sing the Lord’s song in new and imaginative ways in this increasingly strange land?

An address given by Jamie Howison at Telling the Truth ’07: a conference on the arts and the worshiping church, October 25, 2007, Victoria, B.C. This is a transcript based on the text as delivered, but is really only a shadow of its original self, in that it is missing the songs of praise and contemplation which Gord Johnson wove in and out through the address.

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