In a vintage song Carly Simon thanks her new lover for showing her how to “turn down the noise” in her mind. I don’t know what her lover did that encouraged her to change her life, but she was grateful.
No new lover here. The powerful and moving witness of the 21 Martyrs, the Coptic Christians murdered in Libya, and their families, has compelled me to turn down the noise in my mind. A brother of two of the martyrs was quoted by Kathryn Jean Lopez in “Heaven In the Face of Hell” (National Review Online): “We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs,” he explained. Lopez asks: “Who would have an ounce of gratitude at such a moment? The answer: one who has hope — hope of something real and eternal.”
Is my hope that real?
Lopez again: “It sounds crazy to a modern secular society, one that tends to view religious faith as sentiment, comfort, and milestone ritual.” I hate to say it, but many Christians, myself included, view faith as a source of comfort. It’s a cozy way to think about life.
I hunger for a robust faith that speaks as the brother of two martyrs. That’s why I’m so passionate about the arts, imagination and creativity in the Christian faith. The arts give us a way to wrestle with these profound questions of hope and a faith even unto death. A robust art will help me turn down the noise and focus on what’s eternal. It will help me develop a robust faith that can speak with confidence in a God of hope.
In his book What It Is Like To Go To War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011) Karl Marlantes describes fighting in the Vietnam War and the actions of men he served with. Marlantes steps back to reflect after watching a comrade charge into the heat of battle, seemingly oblivious to the danger.
Why? Who was he doing this for? What is this thing in young men? We were beyond ourselves, beyond politics, beyond good and evil. This was transcendence.
War is transcendent? Marlantes describes how war calls out of warriors qualities that feel mystical: awareness of your inevitable death, concern for others above yourself, feeling part of a community, and focus on the moment.
I’ve had many family members in military service. My dad served in the Army during the Korean War. Aunts, uncles, cousins served; some were “lifers” or married “lifers.” I do not pretend to adequately discuss the sacrifice of our warriors. But can we look at a bigger idea: our desire to touch transcendence. I don’t know if any military recruit enlists for that reason. But once they find themselves in the heat of battle, in the middle of a moral or ethical dilemma, or completing a successful mission, do they experience a moment, a feeling they will never forget? That changes them forever? Is that why loyalty to comrades is so strong and something civilians envy?
But we haven’t paid the price for that moment of transcendence. We haven’t undergone the rigors of training, serving, separation from loved ones, or war. It’s a price often paid with a life.
We want that transcendence too, but look for it in ways that aren’t so costly or fraught with peril. That search seems to be built into every human being.
How many artists strive for excellence and transcendence?
Recently I heard Bruce Hornsby, one of the best, if not the best rock/jazz/pop/blues pianists in the country, in concert at the Kent Stage. I knew him from his days with his band “The Range” from the 1980’s and love his mega hits “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain.”
At this stage in his career he is exploring different musical languages and creating new sounds and effects. For his latest cd “Solo Concerts” and during the live concert he mixed the modern classical music of Schoenberg and Elliott Carter with New Orleans blues, modal folk, hymnal, and boogie. A few times he began a familiar piano riff from one of his radio hits, but then segued into atonal bars and never returned (as far as I could tell) to the familiar.
The liner notes from “Solo Concerts” says that he is searching for “inspiration, challenges, and new vistas…a search for inspiration and transcendent moments; moments that give you chills, make you cry, laugh, or make your head move.”
Emily Dickinson talked about the power of art (in her case, writing) to take the top of your head off. I admire Bruce’s quest for excellence, for inspiration and big moments. I think sometimes we are so focused on producing clean copy for an editor or an “aha!” for our audience that we don’t recognize the “aha’s” that are there for us as well.
If the artist doesn’t touch transcendence, how will the audience?
In future posts I’ll be discussing what “touching transcendence” means.
For its size, Conneaut Lake can be quite deep, up to about 80 feet in some areas. The depth supports lots of activity. It stays frozen longer than other lakes and attracts many ice fishermen. Summertime boaters enjoy the unlimited horsepower, and many areas on the lakeshore must be marked by buoys: “Slow, No Wake.” (As a kayaker, I make sure I stay tucked inside those areas for protection.)
I’d like to think that depth Brooks is talking about supports lots of activity in life, too. Too often we equate “depth” with slow pace and quietness. But “depth” could also demand much activity, because a “deep person” has commitments to transcendent projects, work that is “bigger” than they are. Those tasks probably also require down time for thought, but we can’t measure the depth of a person by how introspective they are. The task is worthy of their devotion and attention, and may keep them very active. Their connection to transcendence keeps them focused, no matter what the work demands.
Being creative connects me with transcendence. But let’s call it–Him, what it–He, is. Creativity connects me with God. Not only creativity through artistic expression, but a creative approach to life. I need to broaden my imagination to encompass the breadth–and depth–of that kind of life.