Creating Sacred Literature

Goya Crucifixion“We are just at the beginning,” Charles Taylor wrote in his lumpy but essential tome, A Secular Age, “of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.” If we are just at the beginning of a new age, it stands to reason that we are also at the ending of an old age.

The old age was, at least in the West, the mostly European Christian civilization that lasted more or less from Constantine to Darwin. That thing is dead. We live amongst its fragments and tatters, which is hardly news to anyone roaming this earth in the early decades of the twenty-first century.

One of the interesting things about living in a “between age” is that you have two essential choices on any given day. You can spend your time looking forward to what will come. Or, you can spend the day sifting around in the ruins of what was.

To my mind, some of the most interesting and provocative literature produced in the twentieth century was created in the mood of the latter choice. It is a literature you would not call religious. But you’d be hard pressed to call it completely secular, either.

Let me give you an example.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story in 1970. He gave it the title “The Gospel According to Mark.” The story takes place in the countryside of Argentina in the year 1928.

The central character in the story is a young man named Baltasar Espinosa. Borges wrote, “We may describe him, for now, as one of the common run of young men from Buenos Aires, with nothing more noteworthy about him than an almost unlimited kindness and a capacity for public speaking that had earned him several prizes at the English school in Ramos Mejía.”

The young man has something of a split consciousness, endemic to the age. His father instructs him in “freethinking.” His mother teaches him the Lord’s Prayer. [Read more...]

God is Sacrificial Love

Titian_1558_Ancona_CrucifixionIf God is love, as we’re told, then what kind of love is he? In the quest to know that which is beyond all knowing—another one of those oxymorons so characteristic of religion—we find a set of pictures that for any serious adult proves ultimately unsatisfying.

Brotherly love, fatherly love, even passionate love have all been employed to express God’s essence through platitudes and poetry, paintings and precepts. God with his hand on our shoulders; God carrying us in his arms; God pining away below our windows, vexing tarts that we are. Speaking for myself, these images long ago began to cloy. To the limited extent that they can voice the truth about the transcendent, any effect they take is all worn out. The fuzz is off the velvet.

And yet, there is one image that does not lose its appeal—that beckons the beholder further in rather than tires him with what only settles and sates. One image is always fresh, with the power of pulsing blood, of throbbing lesion; and therein seems to lie the answer to what kind of love God is. [Read more...]

Jesus: Here, There, and Everywhere

16764657475_2481ef80df_mGertrude Stein once said of her hometown, Oakland, California, where she was raised after having been born in Pittsburgh, that “there is no there there.” This is often taken as a knock on Oakland—a city that is not really a city, that has no center, that lacks an identifiable sense of place. This is how I felt about Los Angeles when I was teenager growing up there.

Looking out into the smog from a vantage point in the Hollywood Hills, I’d ask no one in particular, “Where is the damn city?” Los Angeles, to me, was an infinite sprawl of one-story structures stretching off into the desert and the scrub brush and the impossibly dry hills.

I moved to New York City as a young man partly to find a place that had a “there.” The density of Manhattan seemed the very antithesis of Californian spatio-temporal malaise. When you walked down the streets of Manhattan, I thought, you’d know you were unmistakably somewhere. [Read more...]

Emerging from the Tomb Intact

There’s a moment in Anna Karenina in which a frustrated Anna turns to her husband. She had been very sick, but she’s better now. During her sickness, over what they thought was her deathbed, her lover and her husband reached out and clasped hands. The urgency of her illness brought about reconciliation. Karenin, the wronged husband, let go of his moral outrage and forgave both Vronsky and Anna.

Tears ensued. Grace shone forth. All felt the bliss.

At the moment I’m thinking of, Anna, back from the brink of death is annoyed over the very thing she so longed for. Her husband has forgiven her. But, as she says, “I didn’t die and now I know I have to live with your forgiveness!”

He is stunned and so are we. For in that moment comes such truth. [Read more...]


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