The Reach of Hermeneutic

I’ve lately pondered why too many Christians seem to settle for sappy, simplistic, shallow arts. Works of literature, music, and film labeled “Christian” and mass-marketed in such circles have tended away from any objective qualifications of good art. They’ve turned toward something more akin to self-help positivism promoting Christian faith as a quick solution to struggle or listlessness in life. While discussing the recent film Silence with a group of colleagues and friends, I wondered if the true culprit of this disconnect (between the church and objectively good contemporary art) was a watered-down hermeneutic.

If Christians have sat in church and been fed three-point topical sermons in which multiple chapters of scripture are reduced to a single grand take-away; if they’ve been taught that the life of Abraham is there in the Bible that they might learn to be a leader like him, then they have been taught in their most frequent and formative interactions with great literature a poor, simple, shallow, and often sappy hermeneutic. From such a hermeneutic, many in the church have been conditioned to expect from art that the main character ought to be who I, the reader, ought to be like, that any helpful art can be reduced to a one-liner that makes me sleep better at night, and that it is better, and even more “Christian” for something to be nice than challenging. So, even when approaching a film with an explicitly Christian subject matter, such as Silence, many Christians get uncomfortable. Because they’ve not learned to deal with scripture in any complex or nuanced manner, but have acquired a flat hermeneutic, they’ve gained eyes that are blinded when confronted with other arts.

This shallow hermeneutic demands little from the art it discerns. It, thus, works best on little art. Complex art must be contorted or stripped to fit in such small places, to flow through small holes in a strainer where there ought to be a window. Those who have learned from poor preaching or self-help books masquerading as theology struggle to read scripture on their own in any meaningful way. They are limited to a single reading of the Psalms as a flat set of prayers intended for the church to one day pray about Jesus (many of which become very confused in this light). They are limited to reading the historical books as a novel, truly about how to be a friend like Jonathan is to David, or lessons on why you shouldn’t sleep with your wife’s friends even if she tells you to. This manner of reading scripture changes these Christians’ manner of approaching all other art.

These Christians are not able to appreciate good art in literature or in film or in music, because any sensitivity to nuance, any strength to confront the darkness and depravity of the world in an honest way (one of art’s best and most necessary qualities), and any patience for complexity have been purged from their minds by preachers who have flattened the Bible, and so their congregants’ worlds. This skill they ought to have learned well through a robust hermeneutic of scripture that is able to wade through the nuance and complexities of the inspired, multi-genre, intricately-woven spiritual relaying of redemptive history that it is. But a person who believes they ought to receive from the book of Isaiah one solid application point will have little patience for Silence.

Do not hear me say we should approach any and all art with the same hermeneutic we approach scripture. Rather, hear me acknowledge that it is right and good that a Christian’s hermeneutic of scripture would affect their readings of any and all other art, not in a 1:1 manner, but in a real way. No matter how much I like the film Paterson or Goethe’s Faust, they are not inspired. Yet I see goodness, beauty, and truth; struggle, evil, and redemption in both works. And because scripture has taught me what those realities are, what they mean, and what their effects are on the world, I can appreciate art that deals with these in a meaningful manner.

Poem 7/15

I noticed the light sound of that tree in the wind.

I noticed the wrens and the bluebirds fighting robins.

I noticed the so many colors of weeds.

I noticed the man mowing grass, and his pleasure in the work.

I noticed that each of the seven ducklings following two ducks across the path waddled more dramatically every third step.

Then I noticed you looking at me for an answer.

Poem 6/21

Upon seeing sage-colored leaf fields

Your softer sort of warmth in comfort
kissed-looked, lighting, glowing, dewy,
calms the look of cliffs so near you,
captivates my eyes from fear.
If your leaves stay, my mind rushes;
as the breeze blows, my heart sweet slows.

Prayer, Sharon Cumberland

Ignore, O Mystery, this thing You made.
It trembles me to think on You,
genderless, less than fluttering tissue,
not like me or any thing I know.
I fear to conjure You with prayer,
lest your mighty zero zero in on me—
What might You do?
Extract a whirlwind from my mind?
Impregnate my old age?
Burden me with prophecy
then strike me blind?
Hold me, O Mystery,
in your sidelong view.
Insofar as You are good,
be good to me too; or leave me
with the pebbles of consolation:
other people, things to do.
Ignore, O Mystery, this thing
You made. It trembles me
to ponder You.

-Sharon Cumberland

The Weight of Loss

1 Samuel 4-7

The people of God have forgotten him. The Israelites look more like the Philistines surrounding them than they do the people Yahweh has instructed them to be. Their faith in Yahweh has been reduced to a pluralism in which they worship many gods, none wholeheartedly; and their national memory of the faithfulness of Yahweh is clouded by their distance from his law.

When the Israelites bring the ark into battle, they treat it as a relic or an idol that might be wielded with their whims for force in war. They presume the power of Yahweh might be demanded by silly formulas of turns and shouts, forgetting Joshua’s steps were those of obedience.

They thus presume the role of Yahweh. It is Yahweh who commands Israel. It is he who sends his people to battle to enact his justice, his mercy, his will on earth. It is Yahweh who wields his people as a tool for his glory, for his kingdom upon the earth. But here we see a people wandered far from their God. They devise their own plots and draw their own battle lines, dragging behind them their token for sure victory. They have forgotten. They have lost the right to bear the ark. They are a people commanded to be marked out– by their worship of Yahweh, by their manner of life– yet have neglected these distinctions. Temple practices are corrupt; the people worship many gods; so Yahweh goes into exile.

Tradition, II: Why Robots Can’t Be Artists

Art is personal expression with environmental, social, and historical sensitivity. It is by nature reactionary, and therein lies great strength. Be it commentary, critique, challenge, ode, memorial, or else; art is unseverably tied to its world. Thus what is demanded of the artist is a certain depth of cultural involvement and a fruitful sort of sensitivity. These demand a historical understanding achievable only through both contemporary awareness and a grappling with tradition. A grappling with tradition can only be honest, and so fruitful and impactful, if practiced with empathy.

The creations of a machine necessarily devolve into that type of tradition which Eliot warned against: a tradition that follows past successes blindly or crassly in thoughtless imitation, or a type of innovation which is distant (do not read transcendent) from the world. This, then, is not the work of an artist.

Tradition, I: How to be Timely

“Yet, if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it  by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”

T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent. I.

Poem 5/19

I.

I believe in one God;

I confess toward the sea.

in the Son;

As their waves teem, I echo their beat.

in the Spirit;

I realize the water is deep,

and I hope.

missing you who once stood next to me.

 

II.

I remember your words and I long for my place.

Do I fit on these shores? Is my house in the caves?

Do I wander with tides and find comfort twixt grasses,

or swim or run off from these slopes and wind passes?

 

III.

Edges, rimmings; tided in,

hedges, trims; confided sin.

What is loosed and what’s more stable?

Shifting stones hold wire cable.

Weights keep taut and waves relent,

sunset clouds burn pink, “repent.”