Friday, February 13, 2015

Proclamation of Amnesty Granted to All Men

Whereas St. Valentinus was executed by Emperor Claudius II in 270 A.D. for secretly marrying Christian couples during a time of severe persecution; and

Whereas Valentine's Day is a ridiculous pseudo-holiday as now practiced in these United States that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the magnificent sacrifice by St. Valentinus; and

Whereas gifts such as the Hunka Love Bear and Hoodie-Footie Pajamas are insulting to both grown women and the martyred Saint; and

Whereas gifts such as the ones listed above and the more generic flowers and candy show that you really have no idea what to do to acknowledge this insipid and fatuous arbitrary day that is only recognized to fuel the inanity-driven Guilt Industry until Mother's Day comes around; and

Whereas men really have enough going on without worrying about Valentine's Day, and women do not need more crap piled up in their homes; and

Whereas the only true way to honor St. Valentinus is to marry the girl already; and

Whereas the most beleaguered among you have already completed the aforesaid action and have no need to acknowledge this half-baked holiday at all; therefore,

I, Justine, by the power vested in me by the possession of double-x chromosomes do hereby and without prejudice absolve all men everywhere of the need to in any way recognize or commemorate the invented holiday currently known as Valentine's Day.

Seriously, guys, try to show her you love her in small ways every day, and just relax on February 14.

With your help, dear Men of America, we can see the death of the Hunka Love Bear and Hoodie-Footie pajamas.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Come, Let Us Reason Together

One of my favorite stories from Genesis has always been the conversation with Abraham and God right before the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah.  After hearing His plans, Abraham boldly stands in the presence of God and says, “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

The Lord replies, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.”

Then Abraham answers, saying, “Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?”

God responds, “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.” And the two go on like this for some while, with Abraham’s becoming ever more obsequious and obeisant in his haggling the Lord down to the barest minimum of righteous souls that will save the cities from their fiery fate, and the Lord’s becoming – now, I have never been able to decide – it is more exasperated or more amused by His friend’s wheedling ways? In any event, once Abraham gets God to spare the cities should ten righteous men be found, the dialogue ends. Quite an extraordinary conversation it was, though, in showing the audacity of Abraham in his desperation to save lives, and God’s willingness to engage his concerns without rebuke.

Compare this exchange, though, with a quite different one farther back in Genesis. Imagine with me the scene right after Adam and Eve have fallen to temptation. It is the cool of the day, and God is walking in the Garden. Our illustrious forebears are lurking in the bushes, overwhelmed by shame.

The Lord calls to Adam, “Where are you?”

Adam mutters, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

God replies, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?”

Adam manages to throw God and his wife under the bus at the same time. “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”

 God then turns to Eve. “What is this you have done?”

Eve complains, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Our ancestors totally blew it – they did not take responsibility for their sin; but, I am sure that if it had been I as well as they in that Garden long ago, He’d have found me right next to them in the bushes, plastered in fig leaves, maligning them both.

To me, these two stories from Genesis are a perfect encapsulation of how reason and rationality play out in difficult situations. In writing about these two often confused terms in his masterwork, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist uses the right and left hemispheres’ varying abilities to illuminate the differences between them. Setting aside his association of reason with the right hemisphere and rationality with the left, what interests me in particular is how humans use both reason and rationality in relationships, both with each other and with God. McGilchrist identifies reason as “flexible, resisting fixed formulation, shaped by experience, and involving the whole living being,” and rationality as “more rigid, rarified, mechanical, [and] governed by explicit laws” So, while the reason of the right hemisphere is used interpersonally to bring clarity, work toward truth, and grows out of experience, the rationality of the left hemisphere tends to obfuscate truth by abstracting situations from relationship, thereby setting up a system of twisting facts to justify motives. Both of these abilities lie within us, but only one edifies us in connection with others.

In the Genesis 18 recounting, Abraham reasons with God. He knows that the Lord is loving and long-suffering and not given to rash acts of destruction. He uses his intimate knowledge of the Lord’s character to exhort mercy. Of course, the Lord did not need Abraham to coax Him into mercy. It is His nature. The fact that He lets Abraham reason with Him, though, shows us something very special and peculiar about the true Deity. As Roger Scruton writes in The Soul of the World about the unique nature of the Judeo-Christian God, “The relation between God and His people [is] founded on a covenant – in other words, a binding agreement in which God commands obedience only by putting Himself under obligation toward those whom He commands.” It is from this contextual stance that Abraham knows he can reason with God. The Lord has placed Himself under submission to His own laws to be the God who reasons with His creation.

In the Genesis 3 story, Adam and Eve resort immediately to rationalization. That is the “Yes, but . . .” deflection. They do not lie, exactly, but they cannot bring themselves to ‘fess up, either. Knowing that they broke God’s explicit law, they cannot conceive of any way to put things right with their Creator, so they hide first and then shift blame. The relationship between God and man was in trouble not because we were reasoned out of Eden by the craftiness of the serpent, but rather because humankind lost sight of its own experiences of the goodness of God and so could not reason against the wiles of Satan. All that Adam and Eve were left with was the compulsion to rationalize; and we are still creatures of rationalization today.

But, “Come, let us reason together,” proclaims the Lord. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” In Isaiah, God was speaking to the faithful remnant a message not only of hope, but of assurance. To reason with God is to start from the point of knowing Him, believing in His promises, remembering His wonderful works. He calls us now as He called His frightened children so long ago not to stand at a distance, fearing His wrath; rather He is, as noted in Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, “pleased to encourage [us] to draw near to Him, and come and reason with Him: not at the bar of His justice; there is no reasoning with Him there . . . but at the bar of mercy, at the throne of grace.” It is there that our rationalizations, our self-justifications, must fall away like the rags they are. There, we sinners may reason with Him in boldness “from the virtue and efficacy of His blood and sacrifice.” There, “God reasons with sensible souls from His own covenant promises and proclamations to forgive sins.”  For the Judge of all the earth does right, indeed.


Pippa always likes to mew
And tell me everything that's new

But her sister Katiesocks
Looks everything, but never talks.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"This Town is Like a Frozen Junkyard . . ."

". . . and even if it looks like this forever, it will look forever temporary."

I just found that delicious quote in Roger Scruton's The Soul of the World. Made me think of this architectural abortion I'll see today at Seattle Center:

I hate modern architecture.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Christmas: The Story of Stories *The Review*

Album: Christmas: The Story of Stories
Artist: Carolyn Arends
Label: 2B Records (Oct. 2014)

O little town of Bethlehem, I think it is a lie/That you were still and dreamless on that first Christmas night . . .

With those words, Carolyn Arends takes on the first of several Christmas song classics whose iconic imagery needs to be challenged in "It Was a Holy Night," the opening song on her new album, Christmas: The Story of Stories. The quiet, empty streets so long imagined give way in the mind's eye to a real place teeming with soldiers and politicians; a place far from reverent and peaceful, but rather overcrowded, cruel, and hungry. She sets the stage vividly so that she can remind us that "And then the Baby came . . . and when the Baby came . . ." Well, there probably was some crying going on away in that manger, and those herald angels we harken unto may well have gasped and trembled to see God make His home as a babe in "such poor and broken place." They truly must have wondered how we could deserve a gift like Him. "Ah, but just the same, the Baby came . . ."

Silent night? Probably not. Holy night? Most definitely!

That's just Carolyn being Carolyn. When you spend your creative life wrestling with the Holy Spirit, and your theological joints have been knocked out of place more times than you can count, you're not afraid to take on even the most sacrosanct of holiday hymns. I get what the writers of these classic songs were trying to do: create an atmosphere of holiness by bathing this crazy, radical juncture of history -- the Incarnation -- in serene, majestic splendor. I cannot help but think, though, that Carolyn's vision is much closer to the truth. God came then and comes now in the midst of the mess and the chaos and the dirt and the rebellion, and He makes it holy despite all of that, despite all of us. "Ah, but just the same, the Baby came . . ."

Christmas: The Story of Stories is, in some ways, not a very Christmasy album. That is, it eschews all the gimmicks that you usually find on even the most artistic of Christmas albums released by the most talented songwriters and sincere musicians. "Well, it sounds like a Carolyn Arends album," one of my friends told me, a quizzical look upon her face. Um, yeah. She wrote nine of the thirteen songs. The sound is quintessentially Carolyn, too: folk-pop with a laid-back vibe; heavy on the myriad strings, light on back beat; lyrically-driven, deep-rooted, authentic; with unexpected touches of funk and fun. The most Christmasy arrangements are probably on "Everything Changes at Christmas," which manages somehow to evoke church bells ringing in the middle of snowfall, and two of the classics, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" which are very traditional. So, this may not be the album you put on for background music at your office Christmas party. As such, it is not an album merely to be listened to; it is an album that needs to be heard.

And what will those who have ears to hear find? Nothing less than a bold -- audacious really -- attempt to get at the core of exactly what the mystery means of a God who puts on humanity in its most vulnerable state and comes to dwell with us and eventually die for us, all because He cannot stand to let us go. Carolyn respects her listeners by assuming that we are as interested in grappling with this glorious riddle as she is; that assumption has led to a really fine collection of songs that transcends seasonal affiliation. It is the Story of stories.

"Vacancy" is one of my favorites. It is that rarest of things: a new Advent song. When I spoke with Carolyn about it this past summer, she commented on the paradox that she was immensely happy playing a song with the melancholy themes of longing and emptiness. She attributed that to the bouncy presence of the ukulele -- that interminably Pollyanna-ish instrument. Indeed. I think, too, that while the song might have been written in a "blue space," the lyrics are ultimately so hope-filled (as every Advent song should be), that it is perhaps a happier lyric than she had intended. Sometimes when you're quite hungry, but you know that soon you are going to eat something very good, you really appreciate the hunger, even if it hurts a little. Just the knowing that the fulfillment is on its way makes the hunger at once both more intense and less awful. That's Advent for you.

"Everything Changes at Christmas" was released in a different arrangement as a single a few years ago.  I was a bit disappointed when I heard the new version on the album, because I had so long loved the old. This new version has grown on me, though, as I think it matches the flavor of the album as a whole better in its latest rendition. I really like the way that it builds at the end with the sound of bells ringing out "Ode to Joy" and "Joy to the World" -- was that the glockenspiel??? -- and now my only wish is that they had run with that theme for a wee bit longer; it is over far too soon.

"Christmas Magic" could have used  a line about After Eight dinner mints, but I'm not going to go around telling Carolyn how to write her nostalgic Christmas song. I joke. It is lovely, especially the line about not being ashamed to hang dollar-store tinsel, because "there is great worth in reflecting the light."

"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is my favorite traditional Christmas song. What a treat and a surprise to find it on this album! This arrangement has a funky klezmer sort of sound that is a lot of fun. Comforting and joyful, indeed.

The song that most surprised me was "The Sound." I was not quite ready for the rush of emotion that overcame me when I heard, "Hush now, listen, that's the sound of the Kingdom coming, the Kingdom coming, the Kingdom coming to your town." Goose bumps and tears. I thought that the seamless transition into "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" was well-done and apropos. That could have been pulled off as an instrumental interlude, but it is always nice to hear Carolyn sing, too.

My daughter loves "You Gotta Get Up," a Rich Mullins song which is basically a kid's take on Christmas morning -- all mixed up with reindeer and presents and peace on earth and "that Baby born in Bethlehem" -- with the recurring plea to Mom and Dad to "get up!" already. It has a nice, bright, cheerful sound and is altogether charming. What I find funny is that not once in the eleven Christmases we've now had with Sadie has she ever awoken before us on December 25. Ha!

I get a particular kick out of "Long Way to Go," because I like the lyrical device of Carolyn's using mild expressions of amazement that I usually associate with the American South to pack a punch into the chorus: Goodness gracious, have mercy! Goodness gracious, man alive! Goodness gracious, glory be! I feel in the need of a mint julep after hearing that song, bless her heart.

"Story of Stories" is the anchor here, the title song. Of course, I love the reference to Philip Yancey's summation of human history from The Jesus I Never Knew: "In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back." He could have just started over/Left us alone in the dark/But our God is not like that/He wants His family back/He's had a plan from the start . . . "What Kind of King?" complements "Story of Stories" in such a way that it makes sense that it follows right afterward. OK, so we know that our God wants His family back, and so He sends us -- well, what kind of king exactly? Only Himself incarnate to dwell among us in the lowliest state. What kind of plan ever goes this far?/What kind of mercy puts itself at ours?/What kind of Maker walks the earth He made/From the cradle to the cross and leaves an empty grave?/What kind of love? . . .

"Dawn on Us" was another surprise; it is a gloriously happy, radiant song featuring my favorite unsung hero of the Christmas story: Joseph. Let it dawn on us/Like the morning sun/Let it chase our night away/Let it dawn on us:/This is God with us/In the light of Christmas day. And in the light of every day. This is then followed by "O Come All Ye Faithful" which is simply done, beautifully rendered, and ends with Carolyn, a cappella, singing "Christ the Lord" into the stillness.

OK, that was another of my way-too-long reviews.  Please forgive me.  It's been five long years since I have had the immense pleasure of listening to and then writing about a new Carolyn Arends album. That's what blogs are for; I will self-edit and put a more succinct version on Amazon. I almost wish I did not love it so much -- that I could find some flaw at which to pick in a picayune way simply to bolster my reviewer creds -- but, nope; to my ears, there is not a false note.

Ah, here is one slightly disappointing thing: On the past few albums that Carolyn has done as an independent artist, she has included something funny in the midst of the typical legal warnings on CDs about unauthorized reproduction. She had five years to plan something amusing to put on the disc for this release, and I was giddy to think about what sort of secret, sly thing she would work into the fine print; and, she did not put anything. Nothing. I am sorely crestfallen.

If that's the worst I can say, though, then verily I am blessed.  You will be, too, if you make Christmas: The Story of Stories a part of your music library not only for this and every Christmas, but for random year-round listening when you just need a reminder about how glorious and seismic and extravagant this holy tide of Christmas truly is.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Christmas: The Story of Stories *The Interview*

I was enjoying a beautiful August day at Barnabas Family Ministries on Keats Island, a bucolic fragment of Eden that has surfaced off the coastline near Vancouver, British Columbia, when I got that familiar knot in the pit of my stomach: only 153 shopping left until Christmas.  More dire, though, was the fact that I hoped to write something festive and true about Christmas by October 15. How was I ever  to find anything new to say about my favorite holiday when I had less than eight weeks to do so? ‘Tis the season to try to get someone else to do your work for you.  Luckily for me, Carolyn Arends was also at Barnabas. Earlier this past summer, the Canadian singer/songwriter had been knee-deep in Yuletide joy as she completed work on her second full-length Christmas album. When I waylaid her for a little chat about her project – which she graciously supplied – I was able to glean fresh insights from her that would have otherwise eluded me. You see, of the thirteen songs on her new album, Christmas: The Story of Stories (October 2014, 2B Records), Carolyn wrote nine. You would have to walk many a mile (or kilometer) to find someone who has meditated more fully and fruitfully on the Incarnation and all its wonder than she. We found a place to sit, cracked open a box of After Eight Dinner Mints, and toasted the album with Diet Cokes. Carolyn brought the stories and perspective; I brought a questionable work ethic and a digital voice recorder; the following, interspersed with some lyrics and edited for clarity, is what came about:

O little town of Bethlehem, I think it is a lie/That you were still or dreamless on that first Christmas night . . .
Justine: When I listen to your songs, you seem to revisit a lot of themes, but with increasing depth, or complexity, or a slightly different viewpoint. I know that you have written a Christmas song for your church each year for many years. The narrative of Christmas in the Bible is basically two chapters in the Gospel According to Luke. How do you write a song from that every year? How do you face that?
Carolyn: I’ve been doing it for 20 years – which is a lot of Christmas songs – and I think that is what I like about the tradition. It’s an annual spiritual discipline of looking at the Story and saying, “What is the Story saying to me or to the people that are around me this year?” I hope in circling around and revisiting the same themes, it is going deeper. I think the last few years there has been more the vision that the story of the universe is happening in four giant acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. And, I kind of see that little passage in Luke as a fulcrum or pivot point that everything  hinges on, and that radiates out with a million implications that run backwards and forwards; and actually, that’s a lot to write about.
This is the Story of stories/This is the mystery of old/This is the Glory of glories/All that exists comes down to this: Newborn Baby Boy
Justine:  That idea seems to fit in with the title song of the album, The Story of Stories.
Carolyn: Yes, it is very much about how that story fits into the Big Story. In fact, there is a quote in the song from Philip Yancey about God’s wanting His family back. [“In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back" (The Jesus I Never Knew)] Also, I am in a different place every year. Some years, I can’t wait for Christmas to come; and other years . . . I can. And so, I need to sing different exhortations to myself.
There is a vacancy right here inside of me/It’s been that way for quite a while/But there’s a blessedness in this great emptiness/If it makes room here for the Child
Justine: One thing that I found very interesting in your song list was the inclusion of an Advent song. What can you tell me about the song, Vacancy?
Carolyn: I grew up in a church tradition that did not follow the liturgical calendar, so it is only in recent years that I have begun to learn about the four Sundays of Advent. I love the idea of reminding ourselves that the world was waiting – and in some ways, we’re still waiting, and in some ways, He’s come – But, yeah, in the year that I wrote that, for whatever reason, whatever was going on in my life, I was not feeling very Christmasy, and I had this little bit of an empty feeling leading up to Christmas and I was working through that, praying through that, and I was reminded that emptiness is necessary to make room for the Truth that is coming. That is why that song talks about the blessedness in the emptiness and the longing that reminds us how all of Creation waited for Him to come, and now we are waiting for Him to come again.
Let it dawn on us like the morning sun/Let it chase our night away/Let it dawn on us: This is God with us/In the light of Christmas day
Justine: I know that the song Dawn on Us came out of a series of silly puns you were torturing amusing your friends and followers with on Facebook and Twitter. I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me. Tell me about writing songs that surprise you.
Carolyn:  Yes, it really delights me that what ended up coming out of that silly joke was a serious take on the Christmas story; and, it reminds me of what Frederick Buechner said about hearing the gospel as a “wild, marvelous joke” – it really is great news, and it should involve laughter. Also the song Vacancy: I was in a fairly blue space when I wrote it, but because I ended up writing it for ukulele, now it makes me really happy to play it. You cannot be unhappy on ukulele, right? So now when I play it, I am so happy – and it’s supposed to be my melancholy song.
Friends that’s the reason we need this season/To help us remember, joy can still come/To a world often troubled and tragic . . ./So bring on the old Christmas Magic

Justine: Have you found inspiration in other unusual places? Quotes? Experiences? Readings?

Carolyn: You know, I’ve been a part of Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre’s Christmas Presence for several years. Well, there is one story that gets read almost every year – a nostalgia piece – by a local journalist who writes about his mother’s going over-the-top for Christmas; it’s very warm and sentimental. He talks about how his mom would go to the bargain basement of The Bay and find broken crystal ornaments and buy them for nothing and repair them, because she understood that things did not have to be perfect to be beautiful. At the end of the story, the writer reveals that he has cerebral palsy. Anyway, probably my current favorite song on the album is one called Christmas Magic that came out of that piece. We have a reaction to all the commercialism at Christmas and all the hype – and we do need to be careful about that stuff – but there is actually something beautiful about tradition, about having one time a year when we make the effort –imperfect as we all are – and try to come together and make something beautiful together.

May your Christmas season be merry and bright, and may your heart resound with comfort and joy as you live again the Story of stories, that pivot point of the universe when Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus turned into O Holy Night.
If you would like more information about Carolyn Arends and Christmas: The Story of Stories, please visit her website ( Merry Christmas!         

Monday, October 06, 2014

Getting a Kick out of Kickstarter

I have been privileged to support the projects of some extremely talented musicians via the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. I love their music so very much that it gives me quite a thrill to be involved, no matter how tangentially, in their creative process. Because I am shameless in promoting artists that I love, I also have been known to send out harassing e-mails to friends, trying to convince them also to kick in on Kickstarter. The fruit of my overbearing personality was in evidence the other day when one friend told me, "Thanks for getting me addicted to Kickstarter." Addicted? Oh yes. Apparently, there are nigh innumerable projects on Kickstarter, not just the ones by artists I know.  My friend's new obsession made me decide to look around a bit on the site and see what there was to be seen.

My oh my.

So, it turns out that there are a lot of creative, artistic dreamers out there looking for a good kickstart. And, some of them are outrageously untalented, no matter how creative and dreamy they may be. I won't name names or give links, because who am I to rain on anyone's project parade -- or, really, to disparage anyone's dream?  If they can find backers, then more power to them and God bless.  But, still . . . it can be quite an amusing adventure to wade the congested waters of project proposals, whether they're sublime or absurd.

The best part -- the ABSOLUTE best part -- is to look over the tiered rewards.  I cannot decide whether my favorite one is the artist who promises that for $200 he would give you two front row tickets to one of his concerts that were certain to come should his album project be fully funded and he became as famous as he was surely about to be OR the musician who promised she would become an ordained minister and officiate your wedding, should you scrounge up $5000. 

So, I am toying with my own kickstarter project. Not through Kickstarter, of course. They have rules and stuff. Nope, I'll just do it on my own, through my very popular blog. You see,  I've written a few songs, and I think the showcase among them is one called "Tabby Dreams" -- at least, that is the one my husband brings up most often to mock me. He should not mock me; the song is not just about my tabbies, but also about Boudicca; mock Boudicca at your peril!   In homage to the erstwhile comic strip Bloom County, I shall call my first album project Tabby Dreams and Stranger Things. The six or seven songs will be mostly about animals*, and all will be played (very poorly, indeed) on guitar by yours truly.  The singing may or may not be on key. The rewards, though, will be amazing! 

For $5, I will plant a pea vine in my garden and name it after you.

For $10, I will cut the letters of your name out of various printed sources and mail you a collage of my creation.

For $25, I will send you one page of my daughter's Latin workbook.

For $50, I will mail you a live tadpole. And a tank ambience rock. (tank not included)

For $100, I will glue together a pasta portrait of your visage or Vincent Van Gogh's -- your choice!

For $250, I will eat the large helmet sundae at Safeco Field and send you a video of it.

For $500, I will rename one of my cats after you. (Limit 2)

For $1000, I will write you a poem in Latin that totally kind of rhymes and might be grammatically correct and make some sort of sense.

For $2000, I will tell you a secret that I have never told anyone.

For $3000, I will knit you a sweater out of my cats' hair.

For $5000, I will root for your favorite NFL team for an entire season and wear the team jersey while I watch every game. This will be done at great personal sacrifice (I hate football), but that is the kind of intense musical artist I am.

You will notice that not one of these rewards actually includes sending you my music or playing it for you in any way.  That is because they are rewards, not punishments.

My goal is $100, 000. I estimate that this project will be completed NEVER. And I shall cancel it if not fully funded by October 6, 2014 at 3 PM, PST.  So, get on it, people!

*So far the song list, in addition to the eponymous "Tabby Dreams," will include "The Duck Song," "The Dog Song," and a few that I haven't written yet about bunnies and squirrels and such. Also, there is a blues song about Latin grammar that I am sure will thrill and might be included as a bonus track.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Soft Eyes and Fractured Vision

When I was a girl, I trained for equestrian eventing. This is comprised of a dressage test, a cross-country jumping course, and a stadium jumping course. The training hours were long and intense, as my horse and I learned to move and act as one entity. More important, though, than contact with my legs or my seat or my hands was the contact that I made with my eyes. My horse, of course (of course!), had his eyes on either side of his head, which limited his field of vision so that there was a blind spot in the three to four feet directly in front of him – which is something you don’t want to contemplate too closely when you’re cantering toward a three-foot jump! I had no problem seeing what was directly in my path, but it was not enough simply to focus on what was in front of me. “Soft eyes! Soft eyes!” my trainer would yell from the arena railing, meaning that I was concentrating too hard on what was straight ahead. “Soft eyes” was a reminder that I needed to pull back the focus and see in the panorama. If you are too narrowed in on what is immediately before you when riding, you do not see what your horse sees, and he knows it. His knowing it makes him nervous and less likely to trust you. And trust is the key to a successful horse-rider relationship. His sight is fractured, and he needs yours to be whole.

I remembered this when I recently read a book that changed my life. It is called The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I had never thought of my brain before in terms of the right-left hemisphere divide, but the author of the book, Iain McGilchrist, makes a compelling case for what this divide means, why it matters, and how a tilt culturally and intellectually toward what he sees as the usurpation of the left hemisphere into the realm of responsibilities that ought to be given to the right has diminished and impoverished us. It is not a religious book; but, I wholeheartedly agree with G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that “if Christianity should happen to be true – then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” The book is a masterpiece of scientific and philosophic scholarship, and its scope is too wide for my purpose here; however,  I want to share the central idea that Mr. McGilchrist posits, and how it has made for me a bit more translucent that glass through which we now see so darkly.

The primary idea is found in the relationship of the hemispheres. Both halves can receive information. The right brain, though, receives information in a holistic, contextual way rife with empathy, implicit meaning, and a sense of seeing things “as they are.” The left brain receives information in a more abstract or impersonal way, being analytic and reading explicit meanings. The left brain wants to classify and categorize and tends to take an outside, invariant view of information. Mr. McGilchrist contends that the human brain was originally designed to be right-hemisphere dominant. Ideally, our right brains would receive information, send it over to the left brain to organize, which would send it back to the right brain to internalize and act upon it. The title of his book, though, refers to a story Nietzsche told about a wise and loving master whose extensive realm was run to ruin and collapse when an ambitious and clever emissary, entrusted to rule on the master’s behalf with the same fairness, honesty, and kindness, wrested the power unto himself and brought tyranny instead. In such a way, McGilchrist sees the left hemisphere, made to serve the right, now in ascension over it.

All the left brain can offer without the right is a fragmented, impersonal vision of the world. And does that not ring true in our world today? Where people have 400 Facebook friends, but no one with whom to share a cup of coffee? Where families are ripped apart because the individuals rebelled against the whole? Where we run in circles, splintering our time between projects that never seem to reach completion? The right brain, with its emphasis on looking outward, seeing the Other, is our key to comprehending something very important about God and our relationship with Him. Without its point of view, we see in the shards of a mirror, reflecting only ourselves; with our right brains, God gives us a window.

We fall into a trap whenever we try to “explain God” on the left hemisphere’s terms. Isn’t that Satan’s original ploy? He fractures and makes incomplete our perceptions of the Most High. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Then, he narrows our focus, encouraging us to “judge” God in human terms. And even today: How can you believe in a God that would let a child die? How can you believe in a God that would let an earthquake swallow up a town? How can you believe in a God that would . . .?  The Bible may not make sense when taken in pieces. But, the Story was never meant to be told in fragments. It is a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts. It is gestalt. Just as you cannot begin to understand the sacrifice of Jesus without an understanding of the  helplessness of your own sinful state, you cannot really get a grasp on the utter depravity of the human will until you hold it up to the light of the holiness of Christ.   

Things that stand as roadblocks to our relationship with God usually have to do with traits that are typical of left-brain dominance. One thing our left brains cannot stand is any sort of paradox – the apparent co-existence of two irreconcilable ideas or entities. Fully God and fully man? A kingdom that always was and is to come? The wisdom of fools? Losing life to find it? If we ponder these truths too closely, we start to lose the beauty of them; we begin to believe that we must justify them in human terms.  If, though, we just let them wash over us, they make perfect sense. Mr. McGilchrist writes that, perhaps, the things that our left brains tell us are paradoxes, our right brains intrinsically understand.

As I walk into my nineteenth year of faith this autumn, I think of those days long ago, training with my beloved Thoroughbred. Today, I am not preparing for a blue ribbon in an event, but for a far more glorious prize.  I am trying to retrain my eyes again to be soft, to see more than I think I can see, to behold the whole picture and not just a narrow focus. I want to see the Story – from Genesis 1:1 all the way through Revelation 22:21 – as the narrative, not only of ancient peoples, but of my life. Now, though, it is my vision that is fractured; I need to trust Jesus, day by day, to make my sight whole.