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Joy is One Kind of Courage

Christian Wiman is one of a very small number of writers who I will read pretty much anything they write, regardless of the subject matter or form. His book My Bright Abyss is probably one of my favourite books of the last decade. Consequently, I happily seized upon a recent piece he wrote for the New York Times called “The Poet of Light.” It is ostensibly a reflection upon the life and poetry of Richard Wilbur. But on a broader level, it’s about the relationship between nature of art and writing and joy. Or, more frequently, joy’s absence. We live in times where it often seems like the darker the themes of a given work—writing, film, television, whatever—the more “authentic” it must be. Happy endings are passé. Joy is obsolescent. No serious artist would want to be outed as a cheerful optimist. Dark, brooding, tortured—this is where the action is.

Wiman, who is himself no stranger to pain having experienced the ravages of cancer, knows these ideas well. In his Times piece, he muses about the common assumption that “light writes white”:

The exact source of this phrase is hard to pin down, but its meaning is clear enough: If you’re happy, then your page stays blank. There must be some friction for the words to catch fire. No suffering, no song. No absence, no art.

On one level this certainly has some truth to it. All stories requires a struggle to be interesting. There is no narrative arc in the absence of conflict. This is true even of the story of Scripture. Take away the lament and rage and infidelity and heartache and sorrow and pathos and dramatic twists and turns of the Bible, and there’s not much left to speak of. Darkness makes the light shine all the brighter. Or something like that. The best writing does seem to unflinchingly inhabit the shadowy corners of the human condition and experience. At least so it seems to me.

But there are also dangers in these assumptions about what constitutes “authentic” art, Wiman says:

A poet who feeds on pathologies eventually becomes their food. But the issue is larger than that. A culture, too, is a work of imagination, or a failure of it. We are meant to be in a golden age of the television drama, and perhaps we are. But just consider how thoroughly so many of these shows equate misery with authenticity, and how many rely on violence and degradation (usually toward women) to establish character and intensity. And now consider the broader culture we have found ourselves in for the past year or so. Does it not seem as if reality has begun to take on whims and powers of its own?

Florida-Project-Poster-smLast night, my wife and I watched a film called The Florida Project, which narrates a single summer in the life of a couple of kids who live in a trashy hotel in the shadow of Disneyworld. The contours of the story are familiar enough. Single moms, poverty, addiction, neglect, a descent into the sex-trade, and, ultimately, the apprehension of a child. The incongruence of the poverty and desperation of people living a few blocks from “the happiest place on earth” is mean to be jarring. And it was. We sort of knew what we were getting into when we pushed play—we weren’t expecting rainbows and butterflies—but the story was dark and almost indescribably sad.

There was a time when I would have watched a film like this and sung the praises of its “authenticity.” Many critics have done so. The film is up for numerous awards. Movie reviewers seem to love it. Some have called Willem Dafoe’s role as the embattled hotel manager the performance of his career. And I get all of this. The film is well made, the acting is excellent, and the story is, as I said, achingly sad.

But this was not my reaction this time. I mostly just found it depressing. That children must grow up in contexts of such vulgar coarseness and depravity, that this is seen as normal, that it is perhaps even perversely lionized—part of me just wanted to say, “No!” Part me wanted to say, “To hell with authenticity. I crave joy, tenderness, laughter, peace, even—dare I say it?—unfashionable things like redemption or victory!

Yes, it’s important to tell true stories. Yes, it’s important not to shrink away from reality. Yes, it’s important for storytellers to portray what things look like from the inside of painful human contexts. Yes, to all of this. And I don’t know, maybe I just wasn’t in the mood last night. And goodness knows that I tell enough hard stories in my writing. I’ve certainly never been accused of stubbornly focusing only on the sunny side of life. But are we even allowed to tell happy stories any more? Is joy permissible?

Wiman puts it so well in his article:

Of course we need art to explore the darkest recesses of our lives and minds. But we also need art to tell us why this world is worth loving, and therefore saving.

Yes. There it is. We need to be reminded that the world, for all of its pain and sin and sorrow, is worth loving. And to do this, we need to periodically lift our gaze from the trough of human misery, whether it’s the daily news or the entertainment we consume, or the art we produce, and see that while the world is achingly sad, at times, it is also heartrendingly beautiful. A story is not “authentic” because it breaks our heart, at least not necessarily. And equally so, a story is not inadmissible because it lifts us up and fires our hope. We are allowed to be happy, to want to be happy, and to say so in our writing.

To do this, I am increasingly becoming convinced, is an act of faith. Our world and the stories it contains will never run low on depravity and violence and vulgarity and conflict and betrayal and injustice. And these stories must be told. But not just these stories. We need more than this. Yes, there is a kind of wilful head-in-the-sand naïveté that pretends all is well and ignores the truth of existence and only focuses on the saccharine and the cheaply uplifting. This is true.

But there is a kind of joy that is more like a “defiant, nevertheless.” A happiness that persists, even though all the facts have been considered, to borrow from Wendell Berry. Or, as Christian Wiman summarizes:

Praise, too, is part of any whole artistic and existential vision. Joy is one kind of courage.

35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    ….”Our world and the stories it contains will never run low on depravity and violence and vulgarity and conflict and betrayal and injustice. And these stories must be told.”…..

    Yes indeed but perhaps one of the keys to remedy is not found in the stories themselves but in who is doing the telling.

    Does Hollywood and it’s billions of dollars of corporate and self interest really make the difference? Really lead to justice? To peace? To love?

    Are publishing companies and author’s different in type or just by degree?

    Who speaks to injustice from the perspective of the Holy Spirit? Who is giving voice to the word of God?

    And what of us? In our telling and listening are we moved to pray, listen, contemplate and then serve?

    What good are any of these stories in God’s eyes, if we are not moved to love a neighbour as ourselves, as a consequence of them.

    February 16, 2018
    • Agreed, Paul. Well said.

      February 17, 2018
  2. Kevin K #

    Thanks for these observations Ryan. Yes indeed, genuine joy, I think is much harder than cynicism. The phrase of an old saint I visited once still rings a bit in my ears “The hard times make it easier to appreciate the good ones.” Perhaps it’s easier to find meaning in cynicism when we’re comfortable, and even the simplest of joys can soothe a little deeper when we suffer.

    February 16, 2018
    • The connection you make between cynicism and comfort is very interesting, Kevin. I think there’s a lot of truth there.

      February 17, 2018
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks Ryan.

        Perhaps cynicism is like cranberry sauce. A tart addition that rounds out a thanksgiving meal… but a bit much served all on its own.

        Appreciate the food for thought 😉

        February 17, 2018
      • Ha! That’s an image I won’t soon forget. Cynicism as cranberry sauce!

        February 17, 2018
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Comfort gives rise to cynicism. (Hope I’m understanding you correctly)

    Thank you for this, Kevin. It is an idea that gives me pause. Makes me rethink my ideas and better qualify my understandings.

    Perhaps it is unearned comfort that is the culprit or better yet our responses to unearned comfort that make us cynical.

    If I don’t acknowledge the efforts of those who came before me and those who travel with me and how those efforts have gratuitously made life better for me. I am the cynic.

    February 19, 2018
    • Kevin K #

      Thanks Paul… I would say comfort can give rise to cynicism. To be fair, pain certainly can as well, especially if a person (or institution) routinely fails us.

      I would also add that a lack of thankfulness can give rise to cynicism. It’s always amazed me that some people who have experienced immense suffering remain more hopeful and peace filled than others who have encountered a lot less. It’s almost like it’s not the pain itself that causes a certain disposition of spirt, but rather our individual response to it (which is, of course, influenced by a myriad of factors).

      I like how you put it… “If I don’t acknowledge the efforts of those who came before me and those who travel with me and how those efforts have gratuitously made life better for me. I am the cynic.”

      I’m becoming more and more convinced that thankfulness is perhaps one of the most important spiritual disciplines… a simple yet important starting point for us as we endeavour to follow Christ faithfully.

      And I should add, I haven’t yet met a thankful cynic I don’t like (though they are a very rare breed).

      February 19, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ha ha, the thankful cynic. If I’m not in that tribe I know the guy who know the guy…

        Yes, thankfulness!!

        I have often wondered how to describe my disposition, back to myself, when I sit or kneel before the cross.

        I’m just a guy with an irrepressible smile saying thanks.

        And you are so right, this simple discipline is life changing.

        May God continue to bless you in the work you do.😊

        February 19, 2018
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks Paul 🙂

        February 19, 2018
  4. Paul Johnston #

    In the Leonard Cohen song, “Heart with no companion” he writes, “Now I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair, with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere”….

    Maybe this is joy. The true sum of all human experience. The last word to and from those who perservere in Christ.

    God refines us for loves sake. For the sake of our eternity together. It only takes on the appearance of suffering and punishment to those who deny Him.

    February 24, 2018
    • That’s a great quote from Cohen.

      February 24, 2018
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan I’m still interested in your opinions about the idea of creating purposefully Christian communities.

    I look to Matthew 6:24 and I am convicted by the, “can’t serve two masters” argument. If it is true that we exist in two realms simultaneously, the material and the immaterial both these realms then can only be reconciled through one authority.

    If material authority prevails for an individual then the immaterial reality of Christ dies to the senses of that individual…”light cannot be found in darkness”. If on the other hand the immaterial reality of Christ is said to have prevailed then surely the material realities of existence are profoundly different for that person and those individuals who claim this to be so.

    In short if we do not choose to live in purposefully Christian communities how can we honestly claim to be of Christ?

    February 24, 2018
    • Well, my first (probably uninteresting) comment would be to say that the name we give “purposefully Christian communities” is “church.” And, yes, “the church,” however construed, often falls far short of this. But I’m thinking you have something more specific in mind?

      February 24, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ha ha ok, “church” it is.😊 And yes we both know I had something else in mind in the asking.😊

        Peace be with you.

        February 25, 2018
      • Are you talking like Acts 2 communities? Are you part of such a community?

        February 25, 2018
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Acts 2 mediated through time by the Holy Spirit is the only way of life for us that is pleasing to God. And no, I do not live in this type of community.

    I want to say more but I am dumbfounded by the fact that I am not honest enough to know more truth than that.

    I want to believe that you are honest enough and if you are you will have the ability to help create the template; the new, “Acts 2”.

    Go big or go home lol.

    February 25, 2018
    • I’m not sure what to say, Paul. Whenever I hear phrases like “only way of life,” I get nervous simply because this would imply that the overwhelming majority of Christians—now and throughout time—are living lives that are displeasing to God. I do not believe that this is the case, even if I freely acknowledge that Acts 2 describes a beautiful vision of community.

      Could I live in such a community? I don’t know. I am not particularly attracted to communal living. I like my privacy too much :). This no doubt says more about me and my deficiencies than it does about the ideal. Perhaps I am not as honest as you might think or hope.

      February 26, 2018
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for this, Ryan.

    I understand your concern and the implications for the, “overwhelming majority of Christians”. At this time I am only (comfortable/called to?) share a few simple thoughts.

    I think we will get closer to the truth of the matter by focusing our concerns on what we believe to be pleasing or displeasing to God and allowing that understanding to inform our choices. If we simply focus on what we believe the outcomes of our choices mean for us, then I think it is fair to say that we are motivated by self interest and not moved by love.

    If I love God, if I really love God I am moved to do what pleases Him.

    Love, in the form of doubt and remorse, won’t leave me alone if I don’t.

    Many Christians live a life of doubt and remorse.

    God abounds in mercy, many will be forgiven but the Kingdom on earth suffers as do all the individuals in it. Isn’t sin avoided better then sin forgiven? Is God’s glory not greater, when it is?

    St. Paul claims, to the glory of God and to God’s great pleasure that he (Paul) has, “Run the race, fought the good fight” and claims his reward.

    The more of us who can make a similar claim the greater is God’s glory and the greater the presence of the Kingdom here on earth.

    February 27, 2018
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Something else I’ve been pondering.

    God defeats Satan at the point in time when Satan, who no longer worships God, looks to
    actively overthrow God and become God himself. In a very real way then, the timing of the battle was controlled by Satan.

    In our world there are now technologies (artificial intelligence and the successful cloning of primates in China) that will enable those who control such technologies (who no longer worship God) to actively overthrow God and become Gods themselves.

    Is this then the beginning of the end; Armageddon?

    Was the timing always to be determined by the forces of evil? Why would God ever have had a plan to destroy so much of His creation?

    If this is the beginning of the end, however long the end may be, don’t you think it wise that Christians look to fortify themselves within a truer expression of Christian community?

    Matthew 7: 24-29

    February 27, 2018
    • Well, I suppose the short answer is, “I don’t know and nobody else does either and Scripture seems to indicate that we shouldn’t bother with trying to parse world events for a chronology of the eschaton” (Mat. 24, etc). New technologies are alarming, for sure, but I’m sure they have always been experienced thus. The world has never been short of people who think that this or that new development (political, technological, whatever) means that the end is nigh.

      I think that Christians should always be seeking to live more faithfully in community, no matter what the time or the place.

      February 27, 2018
  9. Paul Johnston #

    I am confused. How does an admonition by Jesus on how we should read the “signs” of the times, with particular reference to the end of times lead you to conclude that such efforts are inappropriate.

    Far from indicating, “we shouldn’t bother trying to parse world events” here and elsewhere in scripture, we are challenged to do that very thing.

    What Jesus tells us here, unequivocally is that we are accountable. The signs will be self evident for the elect and we are to respond accordingly.

    What He does warn against is the notion that anyone can read the signs in such a way as to predict the moment of His coming, or say that he is already here…

    The battle, for a man of intelligence, is always between the rational self and the supernatural reality of God. The more material knowledge a man gains, the less comfortable he is with the immaterial reality of God. If his love for God does not trump his pride in what he knows, he is separated from the very God he may even believe himself to be worshiping.

    Knowledge is a weapon. Wisdom is a tool. The difference between the two, is the presence or not, of the Holy Spirit of God. The presence of true love and our acceptance of His love such that my human knowledge is reborn within me as God’s wisdom.

    Wisdom always edifies the other and in so doing edifies God. Faith is the courage to edify the other and God even at the risk of self. Knowledge alone, always seeks to benefit the self, indifferent (at best) to God and others.

    Seek the supernatural gifts. To deny them is to deny God. To remain blind to the signs of the times. To limit our love.

    However well intended, my love is meagre. God’s love is infinite.

    The case is clear,( for those with eyes to see and ears to hear) too many of us love under our own authority, not God’s and the consequence will be that fewer and fewer are saved as a result.

    God may forgive all my sins committed against myself and the sins of passion and ignorance that I committed against others, should I repent but He wont forgive me my sins against the Holy Spirit.

    If as a believer I do not then surrender my will to the Spirit, if I refuse to yield my finite love to the infinite love of God I claim allegiance to, how can I be saved?

    February 28, 2018
    • I understand Jesus to be saying that we shouldn’t be agonizing over times and dates and whether or this or that political or technological moment will usher in Armageddon, but should at all times be seeking to live lives of wisdom, obedience, and faithfulness.

      February 28, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Well I would say Jesus admonishes us to read the signs and live as if the end was at hand irrespective of the day, month or year.

        Forgive me if the tone of my speculation offends. I don’t intend it to. I do believe a time of suffering is at hand and that the church needs to fortify itself.

        Living a life that is more intentionally Christian in community with one another, seems like a good place to start.

        March 1, 2018
      • I think we’re arriving at the same conclusion, even if we’re emphasizing the role “the end” ought to play. We should at all times be seeking to live lives of wisdom, obedience, and faithfulness, whether we are convinced that the end is nigh or whether we are convinced that this is our Christian duty regardless of where we sit on the time line.

        Re: “Living a life that is more intentionally Christian in community with one another, seems like a good place to start.” Yes, by all means.

        March 1, 2018
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Respectfully, I think we are talking past one another, more than we agree. Or maybe more accurately you avoid the substance of my concern and sheppard the conversation towards it’s more marginal aspects.

    We likely agree on the abstractions of faithfullness, wisdom and obedience. We probably would find some consesus that love (reflected in our choices and actions) is the ultimate objective of values like faithfullness, wisdom and obedience. Where I think we strongly disagree ( I say think because to date we have avoided the discussion) is with regard to how we strengthen faithfullness, wisdom and obedience so as to live a deeper, truer form of love.

    I am hearing you tout, more or less, the status quo with the caveat that as individuals we should just make better efforts. I see a Christian status quo that already has and persistently continues to, horribly compromise the true message of the Gospels.

    I am saying that the status quo speaks to the heart of the problem and ought to be abandoned. Further I am saying that individual faith claims that do not galvanize believers into recreating community along the lines of Acts 2, adjusted for differences in culture is displeasing to God and we will be judged accordingly.

    Yes within our failed construct there will be pockets of success and a salvation for the few. But if salvation for the many is our mandate then a I say a, “do over” of culture is essential.

    March 2, 2018
    • Paul Johnston #

      Last sentence should read… A do over of our culture.

      March 2, 2018
    • Ok, and I ask you again, Paul, are you part of such a counter-cultural community? Are you actively involved in creating one where you live? Are you presently shaping this kind of a cultural “do-over” in your local context? What can the rest of us who are mired in the status quo learn from your experience and example?

      March 2, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I offer you this and other insights as discernments. I believe God is cultivating thoughts within me both for my personal salvation and for the salvation of others. I use this forum, among others, because you have always graciously made it available to me. Further and I am quite certain I have made this clear, I have a great deal of respect for your understandings and think it wise to offer my discernments to you for your consideration and analysis.

        The irony, at least as I see it is that you seem to me to be uncomfortable with the discernement process itself.

        I get that you can have misgivings about your participation and you should certainly have reservations about mine but that to me, seems beside the point.

        What about God? Isn’t His revelation ongoing? Isn’t prophecy an important means by which God reveals His plan?
        Aren’t prayer and discernment (testing of Spirits) the means by which we determine if our understangings are our own or from God?

        If all that matters is our understanding the truth as God would have us know it, over self or other determined truth claims, why can’t a schmuck like me be one of His voices? Why can’t you?

        Yet you seem to me, to be loathe to consider that option.

        As for me and perhaps the biggest difference I see between us, is the fact that if I speak about God without first asking for wisdom from Him and believing (some of the time) that my prayer has been answered, it is better for me to be quiet and keep my thoughts to myself. My words about God are a hindrence to God for myself and others. If I am to be helpful it must be because I believe and test my belief that the ideas I am advancing are His and not mine…

        As I told you earlier I do not live in such a community nor do I have any idea how such a community should be made manifest for the scope of the community, as I understand God to be saying is the total tranaformation of all of Christianity.

        What does God, “speak” to you?

        In the end I suspect I am no pioneer. I certainly don’t want to be. I will do my best within the framework of a godless community to remain godly or maybe the Lord Jesus Christ will pester me in a more convincing way that my efforts must extend beyond mere encouragement. Time will tell.

        March 2, 2018
      • I appreciate hearing your thoughts, Paul. I just don’t always know what to do with them. Saying that we need a cultural do-over and to create Acts 2 communities sounds great—I think the status quo probably is broken in important ways, and in ways that “tweaking the system” probably isn’t going to meaningfully address. We’re hardly the first people to muse along such lines, as I’m sure you know. Indeed, the Anabaptist movement as a whole (and countless others) were birthed out of a desire to “get back” to Acts 2. Things rarely turn out to be quite that simple, but I certainly can’t fault the desire or the motivation!

        At the same time, I’m a solo pastor of a church. I have no end to things that I could be doing/should be doing/am failing to do. I’m just trying to get the next sermon written, the next email sent, then next event coordinated, trying to get my kids through high school, trying to keep on top of all the things going on… So, when I hear things like “we need to tear everything down and build something new,” my first thought is, “Oh God, who has the time?!” Not particularly inspiring, I know.

        Maybe all this is to say that I’m no pioneer either. I, too, try to do my best within a broken system, realizing that it’s not enough and will never be enough.

        March 2, 2018
  11. Paul Johnston #

    You are wise to interject your/our humanity here, Ryan. “Oh God who has the time?!” Thanks for that, man. 🙂 I have read you long enough to believe that you love your family and that they know it. It is enough, it is all we can do.God will do the rest. 🙂

    I was speaking to you earlier about honesty, more specifically I should have said, self deception. I am really having a trans formative experience with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. It is as if, when layers of self deception are peeled away, the Jungian idea of persona’s, you encounter something that as a Roman Catholic I can only describe as the Holy Spirit. It is as if the Spirit has always been there but in an absurdly tragic turn of events, I was the one who was absent.

    If there is any truth to that claim it would seem to me that for those who believe and yet aren’t feeling the Lord to be present, perhaps like me, the problem is their absence from the relationship, not God’s. We bring a persona to the Lord, not our real selves. Jesus is truth and does not speak to what is false.

    We wear so many masks for so little in return. And the cost is to deny an always available relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, mediated by the Holy Spirit….

    So the transformation starts within the individual and enough transformed individuals make a community. Makes me think of a Tragically Hip song…can’t remember the title but the line goes,”an inch an hour, two feet a day”.

    Hardly epic story telling but maybe the truth of the matter.

    March 3, 2018
    • Thanks for this, Paul. I admire your spiritual sensitivity and openness to the Spirit. And I very much resonate with what you write here:

      We wear so many masks for so little in return. And the cost is to deny an always available relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, mediated by the Holy Spirit….
      So the transformation starts within the individual and enough transformed individuals make a community.

      March 4, 2018
  12. Paul Johnston #

    🙂 So there is more to the story. In a pursuit, I believe directed by the Lord, I turned to you and to other more political sources I am engaged with, thinking, “ok Lord Jesus, this is where I am, so to speak, I’ll start my search here.”

    Well as political sources are likely to do, I got slapped down in a hurry and my conversations with you, though always fruitful for me, 🙂 proved that God wasn’t speaking to you in the same manner. You are not my collaborator.

    Then it happened that Cardinal Thomas Collins initiated a diocesan wide program whereby he and the Bishops will engage the community in direct relationship via e-mail. In no small part because the church feels the need to strengthen community as we enter a a period of potential conflict with our various levels of government.

    Eureka! A door opens.

    Light a candle and say a prayer for the Cardinal and the Bishops, I don’t think they realize who they’ve just invited to the party. Lol

    And most importantly my friend, I am always in your debt and you in my affections, for the space you have given me here to grow in faith. 🙂

    I’m sure I will keep you posted. 😉

    March 5, 2018
    • Fantastic to hear this, Paul. Yes, please do keep me posted. I pray that this open door will yield good fruit.

      Thanks for your kind words.

      March 5, 2018
  13. Thank you for confirming the value of the eucatastic side of art!

    March 11, 2018

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