May 16 Tokens
Streamed Live Online
May 14, 2013
One final bit of news: our next show will be on June 7 and is nearing a sell out. We have a special guest coming, one we cannot yet name; however, we can say it is NOT Garth Brooks, but it IS a 14 time Grammy-winner, and a CMA Entertainer of the Year. Click here for information about tickets. Presented by the Christian Scholars’ Conference.
with Terrence Malick
May 13, 2013
by Drew Denton
April may be the cruelest month for rain-soaked expat poets and sluggers still a bit long in the swing and procrastinating students of any stripe, but May is the month of deepest ambivalence for those attuned to the mysteries of liturgical time. The exuberance of Easter gives way this week to the sudden bewilderment of Ascension, and what on earth are we to make of it? Christ is risen, it seems, only to vanish into thin air. For nearly two millennia now we Christians have found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of proclaiming a resurrected Lord who lives in our midst yet to all appearances has taken an indefinite leave of absence. Forgive the outsiders, this Ascension Day, who take our Christ for an imaginary friend or a rather feckless messiah.
Forgive those within our own ranks who give in to the perennial temptation of publishing timetables for his return. Perhaps it is only un-requited love that compels such fantastic, ardent escapism. Forgive those among us—the majority of us living in the fatal ennui of that post-industrial province once known as “Christendom”—who have simply given up, resigned to make ourselves the heroes of our own fragmentary narratives, one diversion at a time. Perhaps it is only un-requited love that leads to such unimaginative, despondent escapism.
Jesus knew this was going to be a problem. He spent the night before his passion preparing his friends not only for the imminent trauma but also for his final departure, as if to give fair warning about how hard it would be for them to accept— “I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe” (John 14:29). Despite these parting reassurances, we’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the ascension. The antiquated three-tiered cosmology of its scriptural depiction may have sent Bultmann scrambling but is in fact the least of our worries. Scientific objections to this event—this doctrine—may still present a stumbling block to some already inclined to disbelieve, but on the whole they seem rather passé and immaterial to me. The larger problems that it poses, are—as Douglas Farrow, the lonely virtuoso of ascension theology, has recently argued—Christological and therefore ecclesiological in nature. Christ’s disappearance from our sight engenders temptations to deny his humanity, “spiritualize” his fleshly mission, and abandon ourselves to an escapism that would too easily relieve the tension of living in this time between the times.
How do we avoid such theological shortcuts (that is to say, heresies)? How do we live at once in the presence of Christ and in the absence of Christ? How can we allow grace to lift us upward, in imitation of his ascension, while also remaining content to keep our feet on the ground?
These and similar conundrums inspire the prayers that Terrence Malick weaves together in his latest cinematic doxology, To the Wonder, released last month for an Easter showing much briefer than Christ’s forty days. More modest than his previous efforts, the film does not turn tabloid-worthy crimes into allegories for the Fall—as did his pre-exilic works, Badlands and Days of Heaven—or exploit historical vehicles set in exotic locations to carry us from Paradise Lost to Paradise Redeemed-if-not-quite-Regained—as did his first two post-exilic films, The Thin Red Line and The New World—much less offer the Creation-to-Eschaton scope of The Tree of Life, with its interplanetary camerawork and surrealistic styling of the afterlife. Here Malick chooses to dwell strictly “between the times,” depicting the drama of salvation as it plays out on a humbler scale and in more mundane venues: supermarkets and Sonic franchises, tract-house bedrooms and well-worn churches, marriages strained and vocations questioned, acedia the constant sandbag weighing down souls that long to ascend. His characters struggle to live within the tension between absence and presence, gravity and grace. We follow two lovers—eventually to become legal spouses and finally, ambivalently, sacramental spouses—as they try and fail to maintain in suburban Oklahoma the passion that first bonded them in France, where together they had climbed “to the wonder” at the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. “Why do we come back down?” the woman finds herself asking from the unbroken plains, the question directed both to her husband and to the larger “Love that loves us.” Paralleling her prayers are the lament psalms a local priest who keenly feels God’s seeming absence and longs to rekindle the divine love that once animated his ministry.
Malick offers no easy answers to the dilemma of “coming back down” and living out faithfully a transcendent love that sometimes seems detached, absent, unrequited. The movie ends with the woman returning to France, an act of escapist infidelity having estranged her from her increasingly detached husband, and the priest transferring to a different diocese (or perhaps a rehabilitation center), with hints that a comparable sin, undertaken in response to a comparable feeling of detachment, has prompted the move. Gravity seems to have exerted the stronger force.
But the film does leave us with some purchase against the downward tug—or rather, points us toward what Christ left us before vanishing from our sight. Malick has ever eschewed the temptation to “spiritualize” his prayerful cinematic style, anchoring it in both a sacramental sensibility and in an actual depiction of the sacraments: the morning mass in the wheat fields in Days of Heaven, the baptism in The New World, the confirmation scene in The Tree of Life. In To the Wonder he shows us, quietly and prosaically (if he can be said to show anything prosaically), nearly the full spectrum of sacramental life, flowing from an early shot of the baptismal font in Mont Saint-Michel—water, and the buoyancy attained therein, will reappear as signifiers of grace throughout the film—into scenes of confession and eucharist and ongoing attempts to manifest the divine love promised in marriage and ordained ministry. Though many Christians do not understand all of these actions to be “sacraments” per se—and there is no telling whether Malick himself takes them as such—most would agree that they are among the avenues through which Christ often works to keep his people both grounded and elevated during our indefinite meantime. And despite the separations that take place near the film’s end, the sacraments do prove effective. The final shots show the priest reaffirming Christ’s presence in the sick and simple folk around him—and in his wounded self as an alter christus in their midst. The estranged wife, meanwhile, vows to keep her husband’s name, and the last we see of her, she is thanking the Love That Loves Us while moving lightly through wetted landscapes that may or may not be in Oklahoma and may or may not be in France.
We come back down because we must—we cannot yet follow where that Love has led. But for those with eyes to see, the world about will ever bear the imprint of his presence. The defining image of Terrence Malick’s Eastertide offering occurs on the bay of Mont Saint-Michel, where receding tides have left enough plasticity in the sand that the lovers can bounce upon the shore as if it were a trampoline, suspended in a perfect equilibrium between gravity and grace. The reverberations of Christ’s steps have imparted a similar buoyancy to the soil trod by those who, sustained by the sacraments, continue to walk in his path. Wonder not that he has taken flight, but that heavenly feet have left such lasting footprints.
 See Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology (T&T Clark, 2011), a concise follow-up to his earlier Ascension and Ecclesia (Eerdmans, 1999).
 Malick’s religious commitments, like almost everything else about his life, are a matter of conjecture. Apparently of Syriac Christian ancestry, he was raised Episcopalian, and has featured the Catholic Church prominently in his last two, seemingly most autobiographical, films. Martin Sheen has credited Malick with inspiring his own re-commitment to Catholicism.
Drew Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in church history at Emory University and a catechist at his local parish.
[This post was updated on May 14, 2013.]
Tokens: May 16 Show Info
May 11, 2013
This coming Thursday, May 16, 2013: Tokens is pleased to present “The Buckle: Nashville, Jesus, and the Good Ol’ Boys,” featuring a Tokens-esque spin on a slice of Nashville history including some tribute-nods to some of the Nashville music greats. Little did I (Lee C.) know that our Most Outstanding Music director Jeff Taylor played piano for legendary Nashville saxophonist Boots Randolph years ago until Boots’ name came up in brainstorming. As a teetotaling college student in a teetotaling Christian college, I had to sneak into Boots’ place on Printers Alley to hear him play years ago, and little did I know until today that our man Jeff Taylor was old buddies with Boots.
We are pleased to announce a guest list including Andrew Peterson, Peter Mayer, Odessa Settles, Buddy Greene, the Boulevard String Quartet, Brother Preacher, Janet Wolfe, and more. The show is sold out, and featured in conjunction with our Presenting Sponsor The Festival of Homiletics.
Our next show, presented by the Christian Scholars’ Conference, is soon—Friday June 7 featuring another of Nashville’s greats, whom we cannot name, etc., etc., but we are glad he is coming to be with us. Tickets now available at www.TokensShow.com/tickets. Come join.
Tokens’ Kickstarter Supporters
May 7, 2013
We here at Tokens would like to thank our most outstanding backers from our recent Kickstarter campaign for our upcoming album, “The Best So Far: Odessa Settles.”
Charles Anthony DeMatteo Jr
Connie F. Valentine
Douglas G Hynd
Gabriel Lynn Tincher
Hillbilly Haiku House Concerts
Ira Wayne Settles
James F. Camp
Jim and Linda Arnett
John Mark Hicks
Kenneth L. Harvey
Linda G. Jones
Linwood Scott Beoadway
Louis C. Huesmann
Mark C Stewart
Nancy A. Hutchinson
Sarah McCorkle Moody
S Douglas Smith
Foreword: “Letters from ‘Apartheid Street’”
April 22, 2013
We’re delighted this week to feature the foreword to Michael McRay’s new book, Letters from “Apartheid Street,” written by our own Lee C. Camp.
When I began my teaching vocation here in the buckle of the Bible Belt thirteen years ago, I realized quickly that teaching theology and “Christian ethics” is a daunting task, a task freighted with possibilities for despair. So I spoke to my new colleague Richard Goode about my already developing sense of frustration.
He pointed me to two sources of encouragement: one, the agricultural metaphors scattered throughout the New Testament, in which the Apostle Paul clearly specifies our task, a simple and humble one. We are called to plow the ground, sow seed, water seed in our ministry of reconciliation. Sometimes we are but preparing ground upon which others, we trust, will sow seed. Sometimes we are privileged to water seed, seed that others have previously sown, upon ground that was previously plowed by yet others.
Two, he pointed me again to Oscar Romero, that faithful witness to the Gospel who was murdered because he insistently spoke truth to oppressors. Romero, too, said on various occasions that liberation comes in knowing that we cannot do everything ourselves. Romero reminds us that we are only workers in God’s great plans.
As one of Michael’s teachers, I am grateful to say I got to water some of the seed that had already been sown by others, and I am grateful to our friends at Cascade and Wipf & Stock for bringing Michael’s recounting of his experiences in Israel and Palestine to publication.
But more than that, I am grateful to see herein his own struggle to embody a life of sowing the seed of God’s Kingdom. I am grateful that this journal—one which I encouraged him to seek to have published—allows us to see his own struggles. It is worth noting that even though Michael often speaks and acts boldly, he is as riddled with questions as the rest of us. So I am grateful he refuses to come to too easy conclusions. And I am grateful for his willingness to acknowledge forthrightly that even his own peace-making work carries with it an inescapable air of white, male privilege, especially significant when carrying a U.S. passport through Palestinian checkpoints.
Embodying the Gospel is not, of course, an exercise in self-righteousness. Thus these pages, perhaps because of the ambiguity and questions herein, bear witness to a faithful attempt to practice the Good News of a Kingdom described on the Galilean hills also described herein.
I have seen many of the streets, shops, and walls Michael describes here. I have also seen the tension between oppressor and oppressed. Those of us at ease in the American Zion must needs hear the stories: a family whose home was destroyed by heavy machinery while the family was still inside, killing children and a pregnant mother and a grandparent; olive groves, cultivated for generations, uprooted to build a wall of separation; domesticity and labor and child-rearing constantly threatened by arbitrary-but-all-too-well-imposed systems of check-points and confiscation and arrest, maddening to even the casual observer; heartless mechanisms of colonialism and occupation. I walked, some years ago, only a half-day the streets of Hebron, and only a half-day the markets of Ramallah, and only brief stints in other locales in the West Bank, and I found my anger to be boiling and accompanied with cursing. You will see the same frustration herein, and for good reason.
But it is that temptation to self-righteousness which is so dangerous: we begin to tell, as Michael so well puts it, a “single narrative,” in which all the wickedness is on one side, and all the righteousness on the other. And—this is something I learned herein—we have a felt-need for a “perfect victim,” the victim in whom there is no guile, before we will commit ourselves in empathy for oppressed.
Michael’s own questions and inner arguments about narrative and victim show the seed of the Gospel at work in his life. In his epilogue, you will hear Michael call to mind the word of Will D. Campbell, himself angry over the death of a good young man, murdered in the height of the Civil Rights movement, in which we Americans struggled with our own systems of apartheid. Campbell realized that he was demonizing the white-man, the murderer. A friend, an agnostic Jew, sensing the inconsistency in Campbell’s demonization of the white racist, pushed Campbell to summarize the gospel in ten words or less. Campbell insisted that that was a useless exercise. The agnostic insisted. Campbell blurted out, “we’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”
Surely Campbell’s eight word aphorism is an insufficient summary of the Gospel, but it points, nonetheless, at an indispensable truth which we must carry with us in our work of sowing and watering the seed of the Gospel: we are all broken, sharing together in the woundedness of the world and the fundamental alienation that marks human history. And so you will hear herein not only tales you must be sure to hear, of the oppression of Palestinians, but the humanity of Israeli Defense Forces, nineteen and twenty year olds many of whom hate, too, the drama of hostility into which they have been caught up, wanting to go home and return to their own visions of domesticity and olive trees and child-rearing. So I am very glad Michael sought to carry on conversations about tennis and celebrities and life-goals with young men carrying M16’s who were doing the work of the occupying forces.
As he reflects—both upon one moving account of a particular protest, complete with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets and tanks and jeeps, and also in his own epilogue—it’s not always clear why we do such things: why we protest injustice; why we seek to make peace; why we bear witness to a Galilean who was also murdered in Palestine. That is, it’s not clear why we do such things when we can see no clear fruit.
I suspect that there are at least two good reasons, and probably many more: one, our continuing to sow seed, which we cannot ensure will yield a harvest, is one way of keeping our own souls tender enough to receive in our own lives the ongoing work of God’s Spirit of reconciliation and peace-making. “The life you save may be your own.” And two, what else is there to do? We have heard the call of Jesus, to follow in the way of truth-telling and suffering-love and doing-justice, and to listen not to the siren song of power and might and imposition. If we are not to fall prey to the various manifestations of oppression ourselves, then all there is to do is to continue such good work, together, one day at a time, trusting that the Lord of all creation will do what is right.
Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of WWW.TOKENSSHOW.COM and the Dispatches from the Buckle Podcast, and the author of WHO IS MY ENEMY?