In his book, Albion, Peter Ackroyd delivers a section called, A Note On English Melancholy, a malady common, in his opinion, to the English imagination. I am well acquainted with melancholy and live with the darkness of it never too far from the surface of my life. Lately I have found myself quite deep under the dark waves of melancholy--some of it is circumstantial, situations in life that have ripped at me a bit and the rest of it is just the regular dose that shades my day to day existence.
I've been thinking a lot about darkness and the role it plays in my life over the past few years, particualry as I have been wrestling with it in therapy, trying to get my head around it and at least gain some sense of the contours of it. I also began to explore it in the interests of my life, realizing that many of the things I am drawn to in life have the ache of melancholy in them, or rather, I found it there, whether it be in music I am drawn to or art or even religion.
There is a lot of darkness in the Bible, it is often glossed over, we tend to like our religions to be full of light and promise, but it is important to remember that the darkness came first. I began to think about this quite seriously a while ago when I noticed that in the story of the 'conversion' of St. Paul, he was struck blind for three days upon his encounter, the light came later, first he had to face darkness, the darkness of his own shadow life I imagine, and I am convinced that the same is true for most of us--facing darkness is what starts the process I think.
So tonight I spoke at the Great Vigil service. The service itself begins in darkness and celebrates the absence of god, the loss of hopes and dreams and the uncertainty of future. I invoked a couple of poets-Isaiah, who in the old testament wrote these words, "I will give the the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, who calls you by your name," that verse hasnt been used much in my experience and that is sad, because it offers us a clue to how important darkness can be--it holds particular and specific treasures, things not found in the light. The second poet is more contemporary, Paul Simon, "Hallo darkness my old friend, I've come to talk with you again."
Darkness is always both familiar (I mean we experience it everyday quite literally, and then the dark threads of emotional darkness, and dark events of life remind us of its presence in existence in other ways), and it also threatening and scary, full of uncertainty, emptiness. There are times in my life when I feel so incredibly empty in side it defies explanation really, and though familiar, it holds this threat, and the tendency, my tendency, is to find ways to make it go away, by any means necessary.
Lately I am learning to let it be and not try and rush to discover a way through it but rather to spend time in that space and let it give me it's treasures, whatever they may be.
Holy Saturday, which is what today is termed in the church, is a no-mans land between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, a place of absence and emptiness, a place void of God-and replete with all the uncertainty and emptiness of uprooted dreams, but it is also the place where Easter faith is born, faith is born in the darkness I think, not in the light.
One of the topics that I brought up early on in my latest theology and culture class was the issue of the self and the shifting terrain of the soul. The 'erasure of the self,' a term I used from Mark I. Wallace, is an issue of real importance to the realm of the religious in my opinion. Our understanding of what it means to be human, how we think or perceive of the condition of human nature, and particularly, the body and soul dualism that has generally been regarded as given. For most of our history in Western civilization we have operated with a classic view of the self, gifted to us by the Greeks etc., the idea that the 'soul' is subjective and exists outside of matter. There has been a lot of re-thinking of these concepts, and above is yet another from Iain McGilchrist, asking whether or not the use of the term soul has any value or currency in the world today--spoiler--he thinks it does, but redefines it nicely I think.
(There is a blank spot in the video because of music copyright issues but you can listen to the piece yourself via another source)
This lecture is part of an ongoing series created by the RSA to consider spirituality anew in the 21st century.
As many may know, one of my ongoing jobs is at an art school in the advertising department where I teach on words and concepts and ideas in the world of ad and design. I'm fortunate to be able to explore any number of topics in most of the classes I teach and it allows me to indulge my own fascination in things like the origins of swearing, how language works, where ideas come from, design and culture--so many things really.
Some where along the way I came across the work of Steven Heller , a man with a storied career in the world of visual and graphic design. He has written something like 120 books on issues related to graphic design and visual culture, covering a mind-boggling range of topics.
My latest read has been his book on the swastika. Swastika: Symbol beyond redemption? is an exploration of the origins of the symbol and its transition to symbol of evil. It's a provocative work that has been called polemical. It's a fascinating into controversial territory taken from a very personal angle. You can read an interview with the author here, which might deepen your curiosity, beyond the provocative icon he explores the book is also a great tool for thinking about how symbols work in society.
And here is a talk he gave on totalitarian regimes and their use of propaganda which is really worth a look and listen.
Adolf Hitler was a logo.
I'm back teaching--the never-ending cycle of the school year:). This time it's the required and general theology and culture class, exploring the intersections between various elements of culture and theology. Yesterday we broached the topic of theology and where we all 'speak from.' All of the 21 students in the class declared that they came from some kind of conservative church background whether it was pentecostal holiness or fundamentalist or something else. I realized as we were talking that there was a huge chasm between where they are even now and where I am. Even though some of them are definitely in process and re-thinking their theological perspectives, they are not even close to thinking about things in the way I have been the past few years--back to the drawing board I think, I'm going to need to fill in some gaps, not to get them to think like me, but so that they can understand more clearly the trajectory I am sketching out with regard to the dynamic between theology and culture.
I assigned a Mark C Taylor book for a theology read, About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, it's a tough book, as much of his work is, but I have a feeling that this will leave them little more than confused--'this Derrida guy is interesting...' was about the most positive comment I got yesterday. That's not to say that the class feels contentious or even resistant, just that there is so much material that I have digested that I doubt has even been on their horizons, reference points and conceptual ideas that don't even register, and this makes it necessary to re-think how I am going to teach this one. I don't want to dumb things down, but I need to figure out an accessible way of speaking about all this stuff.
It made me a little unsettled inside I must admit, having nothing to do with any of the students or their positions, but a reminder that I am just not living in this particular world and I wonder if I have the energy to keep on engaging, I don't particularly want to argue about stuff--I don't mean that therefore everyone should just think what I think, it's more about the environment itself--whether it is the best fit for me at this stage in my life. Of course the tyranny of the paycheck is a factor and I freely admit that, but it's not worth it if, in the long run, I am engaging in conversations that frustrate me.
What am I saying? Essentially I am saying that I feel that I don't fit in any of the religious situations I find myself in at present and am wondering what to do about that because in the long run it is not healthy for me--you'd think I would have this shit worked out by now...apparently not.
My dad died on this day a few years back. My relationship with him was very different to this Gabriel video, but something about the brass band in the background connects me with something of my working-class father and captures the lifelong attempt to find ways to meet my father on ground that we never seemed able to find.
The National Portrait Gallery in Washington has launched an exhibition called American Cool, which features 100 Americans who fit the criteria. The curators took five years to pull the exhibition together and defined cool by four chief characteristics--originality of artistic vision, and especially of a signature style; cultural rebellion, or transgression in given historical moment; iconicity, or a certain level of high-profile recognition; recognized cultural legacy (lasting more than a decade). each of those included had to fit at least three of those categorizations. Walt Whitman, described as a guiding light of American Bohemia, kicks it off. Australian Kim Sajet, who is the Director of the Gallery said that "Cool is America's greatest cultural export," a bold statement. Like many of America's cultural exports, cool, as we understand it today, was born in African-American culture specifically jazz culture in the early 1940s. As usual, a debt is owed to an often marginalized community whose contribution to American cultural life cannot be over-estimated.
I teach a class on creative concepting most terms. It covers a wide range of things, the class allows for a lot of room in terms of what we do, but essentially we explore things like where ideas come from, how to make connections, finding ones voice. There are a couple of principle versions, one related to ideas and imagery, the other much more closely tied to words. This term we are principally dealing with words--how they function, ways they function, putting words together based on rhythm and sound, how they work with images, poetry, word games, lots of different directions essentially.
One of the components is simply about discovery of interesting words-the english language is continually on the move, expanding even as I write, and yet we are reducing the number of words we employ on a regular basis-partly because of utility, laziness, lack of education perhaps. So this term, as part of an exploration of vocabulary, we are exploring two aspects of words: swearing, because it is an interesting intersection of cultural dynamics-the collapsing and combining of the holy and the profane; and words we use but maybe don't really grasp the full meaning of. Case in point, serendipity. A word attributed to Horace Walpole, man of letters, politician and reviver of the gothic style (The Castle of Otranto). The word is usually translated as describing a sort of 'happy accident.' It's a difficult word to define actually, and unfortunately, that means that it is often under utilized. The word itself provides a way of thinking about things that can be really helpful in a number of areas in life, but particularly when it comes to strategy, creativity and the process of working things out.
Walpole apparently took the word from an ancient Persian tale that had been turned into an Italian story and then translated into English in the mid-16th century!! The story involves the search for a camel, it is found by the three princes (something reminiscent of the 3 wisemen here?) who constantly made discoveries by 'accidents and sagacity.'
The 'silly fairy tale' as Walpole called it, produced a word that quickly slipped into use, and perhaps if not mis-use, missed-use. Serendipity means more than a happy accident , which tends to denote simple randomness, and actually points us toward a deeper understanding of how discoveries can be made. All the way back to Seneca, thinkers have pointed out that luck seldom stands alone. "preparation meeting opportunity,' is how he put it (now I do agree with Nasser Nicholas Taleb that far too often luck is mistaken for skill, but that is a slightly different matter more linked to accomplishment than discover, and one I'll deal with elsewhere), the point being that discovery seldom happens by luck or happenstance alone. Walpole's creation of this new word/idea from the fairy tale reminds us that serendipitous discoveries are not just 'luck' but involve sagacious, or skillful interpretations of chance events.
To me this means a couple of things: one a need for open-mindedness (a skill way too undervalued in almost every world I participate in) and second, a commitment to harnessing every possible tool for the given quest. Easily said, but very difficult to live out because most of us tend to build walls and fences around our ideas once we are comfortable with them and move toward conservationist tendencies which often preclude openness to the new and unexpected answer. In the religious world Richar Rohr has noted that the 'last experience of god is often the greatest obstacle to the next experience of god,' the same could be said of any field really. The combination of openness to the unexpected and the commitment to 'sagacity' is rare, but by it camels are found.
On another note, it is said that Serendip was the Persian word for Sri Lanka, and translates into 'golden island,' which may hold yet more clues to the rich meaning of what openness may bring to all who seek that path.
I have long enjoyed the various projects that Jonathan Harris has brought to the table. His openness and vulnerability has appealed and provided a 'soft' entry into this various story-telling programs and ideas. This article chronicles much of that work, but the larger story is his self-awareness and honesty about what he has really been up to these past years, which is essentially trying, like many of us, to come to terms with himself and find that elsusive something. The article is about being stuck, something I am very familiar with, and how to navigate it. i like it that he didn't term the essay 'how to get unstuck' that would have been too easy. Worth a read is all I have to say.