That image began two days of fascinating conversations. A lunch with artists and artful people in a beautifully-imagined home, full of paintings and furniture that were glories each one. They represented a community of folk who care deeply about the city of Birmingham, Alabama, longing for their work as painters, sculptors, and musicians to bring renewal to their hometown.
Not far from the boyhood home of Walker Percy, I decided to reflect on his vision of the best and truest art as a way into our time together. And so it seemed right to draw on his collection of essays, “Signposts in a Strange Land.” Yes, one more day in my life I mused over the thesis that “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” But this time I connected Birmingham to Beijing, remembering a lecture I gave at the Beijing Film Academy to the cinematic storytellers of China’s 21st-century, arguing that it is also true that “Bad films lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” That is as true for filmmakers in Beijing as it is for artists in Birmingham.
That evening I was with a houseful of good people from all over the city: men and women whose vocations are in business, education, medicine, the arts and the church. To a person they love their town, and long for it to be more what it might be, more what it could be and should be. I was asked to draw on Percy again, but this time took him to another place. In the scope of his literary vision there is one theme that runs through from beginning to end, from “The Moviegoer” to “The Thanatos Syndrome,” and his insight is worth remembering. In the complexity of the modern-becoming-postmodern world, full as it is of personal and familial wounds as well as systemic and societal wrongs, what is our responsibility? What in fact does it mean to be responsible? Can we do anything? Should we?
Everyone there was passionate about this question. Several hours later we walked out, both more burdened and more hopeful, realizing that there are others who care too, there are others who understand that those with resources of many kinds are responsible to enter into the lives of others who simply, sadly do not. It was a poignant time, as in that city it is impossible not to remember Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church. What does it mean to care? Now, a generation later? What is our responsibility?
And then today began with a lingering breakfast at the Broken Egg with a tableful of people who want to move their great hopes to feet-on-the-street granularity, asking hard questions about what this will mean for their lives in their city. I offered more Percy, this time the image of “signposts in a strange land,” seeing as I do that that language allows us to live amidst the ruins that are ours. Could we live towards being signposts, towards creating signposts? To work for something, even if it is not everything?
For two more hours a few of us pressed even more deeply in at the local Starbucks, and then we moved downtown to a wonderfully-remade warehouse that has become a very popular co-working space for companies of various sizes and purposes. Over lunch we talked even more specifically about what it will mean to “seek the flourishing of the city” of Birmingham, with assignments and promises about who will do what when. My last word brought Percy in again, this time from his rejoinder to the New York literary critics who were sure that in him they had discovered “an American Camus, “ someone who looked the heartache of the human condition squarely in the eye, and did not blink. Percy politely protested, saying, “No, that’s not me. In all I write, I want there to be some hint of hope.”
A hint of hope. I can live with that. In fact I cannot live without that. If more is required of me than being a “hint of hope, “ then it is too much. How is anything else possible, given the sorrows and pains of life that are not only so personal, but so public? It is enough to have to live with ourselves and our disappointments and hurts; but to have to live with the rest of the world too? We groan, and we should.
Being a hint of hope sounds almost possible though. And so I gave Walker Percy back to Birmingham, honoring as I could his own wrestling with what might be done in this very wounded world, trying as he did to find a way to “love in the ruins.” At our best, that is the vocation of everyone everywhere.