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David Dark and Sarah Masen being awesome

August 13, 2014

Grateful to have received an invitation last night to the A Rocha singer-songwriter retreat dinner, and saw friends the likes of Sandra McCracken, Julie Lee, Britt Norvell, Andy Gullahorn, Jill Phillips, Buddy and Vicki Greene. Then after dinner, Sarah Masen interviewed her husband David Dark. Was a treat. I once heard David say that one of his ways of writing is to be a curator of quotations, and then after getting sufficient material, he edits and writes. So, here are quote-worthy quotations from David and Sarah. Or at least they are my interpretations, and likely not exact wording.

“‘It is what it is’ is the new ‘shut-up’,” says David. “That is, it is to say, ‘I’ve gone as far as I want to go with this conversation.’” To which Sarah added, “and it indicates that there is a deep hurt there.”

“Wendell Berry calls us to ‘pre-emptive sympathy.’”

“Try to go a week without using any labels, such as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’–because we tend to love our labels as we love ourselves. Jesus teaches us not to call our brother a ‘fool,’ lest we be in danger of hell-fire, and our use of labels [of whatever opposing party] often functions in the same way that ‘fool’ functions in Jesus’ admonition.”

“You can’t get to the bottom of someone, sum up who someone is, by the use of any adjective.”

“I see ‘Christian’ as a public verdict instead of a self-descriptor.” [As indicated in the book of Acts: it was a term used by outsiders to describe this odd group of people. So perhaps we should not use it of ourselves, but see if anybody else would call us that.]

Playing off the great activist and poet and Catholic Daniel Berrigan: let us use language that “re-members” instead of “dis-members,” lest we fall into a spiral of self-justification.

Playing off Wendell Berry: “Economy” is derived from the Greek oikos, the word for “household.” So, says David Dark: “When someone says ‘it is good for the economy,’ it’s a fair question to ask, ‘whose household are you referring to?’”

“Art is a feat of attentiveness,” says Sarah, quoting someone whose name I forget.

“Hurry up and matter” is a psychological/cultural powers that is opposed to the imposing of a sort of stillness of Sabbath rest; and that Sabbath rest, according to some economies, is perverse.

“We are all trying to live meaningful lives,” closed Sarah: “that’s something to celebrate in each other.”

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Down in Dayton

July 25, 2014

We had a Most Outstanding time in the delightful town of Dayton, Tennessee last week.  The judge decided to be in no hurry letting us get into his courtroom to tape a show, so we had a bit of a scurrying about starting at 2:30 that afternoon to get all things set, which led to a bit of tardiness in our desired start time.  Nonetheless, all proceeded beautifully.

Two notions, intellectually, stood out to me:  Prof. Ed Larson’s contention that without the 1925 Scopes trial, it is likely that the American cultural landscape–having to choose between “faith and science”–would have not been so nearly divided.  The issue was on the cultural landscape, but it did not carry the sort of divisive weight it would carry thenceforward.

Similarly, Rachel Held Evans, in remarking upon her being raised in Dayton, indicated–without coaching from me, I’ll have you know–that she believed being raised in Dayton, under the shadow of the trial, had created in her a “false dichotomy,” being told she had to choose being the atheists with their evolutionary theory and the young earth creationists with their Bibles.  She narrated briefly how that sort of false choice had been eliminated, slowly, from her convictional toolset.

Other great fun: Ruth from Palmyra called in; the Tokens Radio Players depicted what the Scopes Trial might have been like had Nancy Grace been on the scene; and Wm Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow, and Brother Preacher held the Great Quote-Off.  We were delighted to have for the first time Hoot Hester on fiddle, and Sam Levine on clarinet and horns and whistles of varying stripes.

Our thanks to all of you who made the beautiful drive down from Nashville.

We currently anticipate airing of the show in mid 2015 on public television.

Pictures below, as well as on our Facebook page at Facebook.com/TokensShow.

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The Prophetic Imagination
of Bruce Springsteen

June 23, 2014

Grateful today for a contribution from Stephen Lamb. Stephen is regularly in the ranks of the good folks at our Tokens gatherings and, as a professional in the music world, has done some strings arrangements for Tokens that were Most Outstanding. Enjoy. — LCC

The first time I heard Wrecking Ball, the new record from Bruce Springsteen, I was driving through the middle of Kentucky on winding country roads, windows down, stereo cranked all the way up, wind whistling through my hair. I was on my way to the Abbey of Gethsemani—where Thomas Merton lived for most of his life—two days after my 30th birthday, looking forward to the time away to read, write, and reflect. With books by Merton (a first-edition copy of his memoir, Seven Storey Mountain, loaned to me by my friend Ian), Walter Brueggemann, and Wendell Berry in my bag as companions for the weekend, I found myself listening to Springsteen’s lyrics through the lens of Brueggemann’s and Berry’s words.

I wondered about the tension that I sometimes feel between the prophetic message of Walter Brueggemann and occasional romanticism of Wendell Berry. “God is always on the side of the poor and oppressed,” Brueggemann is fond of saying: the way he reads scripture and applies it to today’s world flows from that conviction, born from a lifetime of study and writing on the Hebrew prophets. Meanwhile, Wendell Berry’s work yearns for a simpler time and advocates a return to valuing neighborliness over consumption, and this can tend to romanticize the past. It seems willfully ignorant, or perhaps naive, about what it means to be a good neighbor in a global community, a world where your choices affect not only your neighbor across the street or the next town over, but also the individual made in the image of God who resides halfway around the world. One friend tells me that when he reads Wendell Berry, it all sounds like an old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn.

In a review of Wendell Berry’s What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth for Books and Culture, Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra argue against the way that Berry’s writing seems to disregard the ways people seek justice outside of the model of a small community, how it can ignore the ways that the world has changed over the last hundred years, in ways good as well as bad. “This is why his poetry (and to some degree, his fiction, in its less didactic moments),” Wilkinson writes, “can ultimately teach us more than his prose. Poetry alludes where prose can merely preach.”

Still, maybe we need Berry’s prose, for in those moments where he uses the prophetic voice—a way of speaking that says nuances be damned, there’s a problem that needs to be addressed—he provides a wake-up call that cannot be ignored.

In his essay “Words Addressed to Our Condition Exactly,” essayist and novelist Scott Russell Sanders remembers reading Wendell Berry for the first time, when he was 26 years old. “Even back in my twenties,” he writes, “eager for a clear diagnosis of the world’s ailment, I realized there were more than two ways of relating to nature; yet I relished such decisive proclamations. . . . In an age of cynicism, here was an Ohio Valley neighbor who spoke with utmost seriousness about principles, virtues, and spiritual ambition. In an age of irony, here was a man who spoke with the solemn indignation of the Hebrew prophets.”

Tyler Wigg Stevenson, in his book Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age, argues that starting in the 60s, “The American story—which says you can shake off the bondage of your heritage—changed from a statement of possibility to a mandate: your parents’ generation cannot define you.” Indeed, Wendell Berry’s writings offer a prophetic challenge to the temptation to define oneself in this way, while Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics interrogate the struggle implicit in this statement, particularly in the context of the American Dream. They doubt whether it’s true, how you were told things would work if you followed a certain path. “My work has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American dream—how far is that at any given moment,” Springsteen said in one interview before the record released.

While delivering the keynote address at the South by Southwest music festival earlier this year, Springsteen played the chorus to The Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place” before declaring, “That’s every song I’ve ever written.” The search for a better life, built around the possibility of packing up and hitting the road, of casting off all restraints and starting a new life elsewhere is, in Springsteen’s catalogue, necessary because of the hopelessness permeating every crevice and back alley in your hometown. The future has been ravaged by the “fat cats” and those “up on Banker’s Hill”—the outside forces that destroy a community—which he writes of so often in his new album.

Wrecking Ball kicks off with “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single from the record and the song that opened the 2012 Grammy Awards, lyrics sung with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Wherever this flag’s flown / we take care of our own,” Bruce sings over and over in the chorus, articulating the promise of the American Dream, while the verses lament “good hearts turned to stone / the road of good intentions . . . gone dry as a bone,” and wonders “where’re the hearts that run over with mercy,” the “love that has not forsaken me.”

In the story Springsteen tells on Wrecking Ball, one finds a progression from anger—as told in “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball” to, in its most explicit form, “Death to My Hometown,” anger over injustice, over the circumstances that lead to the loss of hope in the small towns of America—to hope for a better future, as in “Land of Hope and Dreams.” A song that, along with several other cuts from the album, is brimming with eschatological language. In this case, the song is built around lines from Curtis Mayfield’s song “People Get Ready”: “People get ready / there’s a train a-comin’ / you don’t need no ticket / just get on board.”

The metaphor of a train is one Springsteen has returned to frequently during his career. On the opening track of Magic, “Radio Nowhere,” a song that finds the narrator desperate for some kind of connection, he sings of “driving through the misty rain / yeah searchin’ for a mystery train,” hoping to “make a connection with you.” Important to understanding that track, I think, is the lyric change in the outro that is almost indistinguishable. “I just want to feel some rhythm,” he sings over and over before changing the line to “I just want to feel your rhythm,” with the sss sounds from the hi-hat obscuring the lyrics change from “some” to “your,” a change that has everything to do with everything Springsteen is trying to say, a line that embodies that desperate hope for some kind of personal connection, something that will make the future matter and help one make it through the night.

Last month, Wendell Berry delivered the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. He introduced his lecture by making it clear that, “In what I will say here I speak for myself, insofar as I must take full responsibility for what I say. But I know, as the diversity of helps in the making of this lecture has informed me again, that I speak also for predecessors and allies, without whom I could not speak at all.” In “We Are Alive,” the last track on Wrecking Ball—a song built around the riff from “Ring of Fire,” one of the many musical quotations on the record—Springsteen acknowledges a similar debt to those who have gone before, to those who have fought for and served as reminders of our need to pursue justice. He reminds us of touchstones in three centuries of our history—the first major rail strike (and general strike) in our country, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of the experience of some immigrants today searching for a better home: “A voice cried I was killed in Maryland in 1877 / when the railroad workers made their stand / I was killed in 1963 / one Sunday morning in Birmingham / I died last year crossing the southern desert / my children left behind in San Pablo.” All of these voices, and many more, join in the chorus Springsteen is leading, becoming part of what the scriptures call the great cloud of witnesses. “Our souls and spirits rise / to carry the fire and light the spark / to stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.” Wendell Berry ended his Jefferson Lecture similarly, after enumerating the ways that we, as a country, have privileged profit and consumption over love for our neighbor: “We do not have to live as if we are alone.”

After the thunderous applause had died down, after Berry had left the stage, the night ended with the master of ceremonies thanking Berry for “presenting a thought-provoking perspective on the importance of love and affection and the social life of our country,” but he went on to say, to amused laughter from the audience, “But as an official of the United States government, I’m obligated to note that the views are those of the speaker and do not reflect that of the United States government or any agency thereof.”

“We do not have to live as if we are alone.” One would not be hard pressed to interpret a large percentage of Bruce Springsteen’s extensive catalogue of songs over the last thirty-something years as attempts to communicate the same message. The role of an artist in our world today surely includes, among other things, the task of expanding our moral imagination, a phrase first brought to my attention by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. “The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home,” Marilynne Robinson writes in “Imagination and Community,” an essay collected in her newest work When I Was a Child I Read Books.

When we become too self-focused, too intent on looking out only for ourselves, the artist can help us remember who we are and what our place is in the world. “There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives,” Robinson writes in another essay, “Austerity as Ideology.” “In consequence, the nimbus of art and learning and reflection that has dignified our troubled presence on this planet seems now like a thinning atmosphere.” It is into this climate that Springsteen’s new album has arrived, as the best-selling album in 16 different countries the week it was released. Into this “dearth of humane imagination,” he sings lyrics like these: “The hurricane blows, brings the hard rain / when the blue sky breaks / it feels like the world’s gonna change / And we’ll start caring for each other / like Jesus said that we might.”

***

After the seas are all cross’d (as they seem already
cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d
their work
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist,
the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

These are the words with which Walter Brueggemann opened (and titled) his now classic work Finally Comes the Poet. In the introduction, under the heading “A subversive fiction,” Brueggemann wrote that “to address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak out against a prose world. . . . Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism.” He addressed pastors there, primarily regarding the text of scripture, but I don’t think it stretches his point too far to extend this to artists, and to the work that Springsteen accomplishes with Wrecking Ball.

When Springsteen tries to tie together the stories he tells in these eleven songs, looking forward to what follows, he turns to religious imagery, his Catholic education having shaped his imagination in ways he cannot escape. The “land of hope and dreams” he sings of on the penultimate track, the arrangement built around “People Get Ready,” is reached by a train that carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers, lost souls. It carries the broken-hearted, thieves and sweet souls departed, fools and kings. It’s a place where “dreams will not be thwarted,” where, finally, “faith will be rewarded.” That sounds remarkably like the New Jerusalem promised in scripture, where everything will be made new.

After quoting a number of passages from the prophet Jeremiah, passages that promise something in the same vein as what Springsteen sings about, Brueggemann, further on in Finally Comes the Poet, wrote about what this anticipation for the day when human life is restored looks like: “When the text comes to speak about this alternative life wrought by God, the text must use poetry. There is no other way to speak. We know about that future—we know surely—but we do not know concretely enough to issue memos and blueprints. We know only enough to sing songs and speak poems. That, however, is enough. We stake our lives on such poems.”

The songs, poems, and prayers I hear from Springsteen, Berry, and Brueggemann—these lines and melodies that allude to and speak of this alternative life—are part of what keeps me returning to their work. I welcome these reminders to pursue justice, because in this way we love God, by loving “even the least of these.” The stories they tell are surely enough to stake our lives on.

Stephen Lamb lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he works as an arranger, composer, and copyist. When he’s not writing a string arrangement or printing out another thousand pages of music for a studio session or a symphony orchestra somewhere, you can usually find him hanging out at a local coffee shop or beer garden, book or journal in hand, or enjoying conversation with friends. Sometimes he dreams about being a writer. He blogs at Rebelling Against Indifference.

This post originally appeared on the Art House America Blog.

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Breaking Down False Dichotomies in Dayton

June 20, 2014

Our next Tokens episode is July 17. Concerned with the topic of Christian theology and the theory of evolution, it will be held on the site of the famed Scopes Trial of 1925, in the Rhea County Courthouse.

As evidenced by the recent developments at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, and as evidenced by my email inbox, we are not, in fact, beating a dead horse. So why stick our foot into this mess?

It’s a fair question. Here are a few of the reasons:

First, truth matters. Unless one is the greatest cynic, or a convinced nihilist, then ignoring hard questions about what we believe to be true is moral cowardice. Everyone must make pragmatic decisions about when and where to have given conversations, and the pragmatic, or strategic, decision to hold off on a conversation until a more helpful time is prudent and virtuous; but to refuse to engage a question because one is fearful of the backlash is cowardice and a great vice. This is so simply because truth matters.

Second, questions matter. I recall raising a question one day in my Critical Introduction to the Old Testament course in seminary, and the gray-headed professor replied with an observation: “Sometimes our questions assume things that should not be assumed.” That is, the particular questions we ask demonstrates what we think we already know.

Precisely because questions often assume things that should not be assumed, we have, both playfully and seriously, insisted that Tokens is about “breaking down false dichotomies.”

A dichotomy—presenting an either/or set of options—can be true or false. In some cases we must in fact choose either (a) or (b). However, oftentimes the dichotomies that are presented to us in popular culture are false dichotomies. “Do you believe (a) or (b)?” one asks, as if one has to choose. If the given question assumes things that should not be assumed, then it is a “false dichotomy.”

I do believe that there are many false dichotomies purported to be gospel truth in the arena of human origins. Well then, that just makes it a ready-made Tokens show, you know. Allow me to explain.

It is undoubtedly the case that American culture remains deeply divided over the issue of origins, creation, and evolution. It is also true that, in many ways, the division in American culture can be traced back to the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, where a young high school teacher was criminally charged with teaching evolution in the public school—and found guilty and fined.

So, why take a Tokens show on the road to Dayton, Tennessee? Why stick our foot into these swamp waters, teeming with all sorts of as-yet-unseen critics vicious as any Tyrannosaurus Rex, ready to consume any who threaten their orthodoxy?

Here’s a major (set of) reason(s). (It may be of interest to some of you that this is, in brief, an outline of a closing lecture I gave to a class of undergraduate students this past semester, as we spent the semester studying Christian theology and the theory of evolution in Chile, where Darwin spent a great deal of time on his famed travels.)

(a) Many Christian scientists say that the evidence is indisputable that evolution is the means by which we have the variety of species we have today, including the human species.
(b) On the other hand, there are some Christians who say you cannot uphold the authority of the Bible, or any sort of traditional Christianity, and believe in the theory of evolution. Some of these further assert that the earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old.
(c) I am not a scientist, and my job is not to convince people of the rightness or wrongness of scientific theories. There are many people much better equipped than I to have public conversations about the various interpretations of the data garnered from geneticists, geologists, biologists, and so forth.
(d) As a theologian, my job is this: to listen carefully and fairly to the Christian scientists who are evolutionists, and to see that it is in fact possible to uphold traditional Christian beliefs (such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed) and believe in evolution. And in doing so, it is fascinating, as I recently experienced with my undergraduate students in Chile, to watch the ways in which coming at the Bible with a different set of assumptions opens up new possibilities for understanding not only what, say, the Book of Genesis is about, but what the very meaning of being human might be—and not in a way that threatens Christian faith, but deepens and broadens it.

But still, why stir the waters on this topic? Why is it important to listen to the Christian evolutionists, when one can be fat and happy in the Bible Belt without ever having to do so?

Because there is increasing evidence—anecdotal so far as I know to this point—that those represented by (b) above are in fact doing a great disservice to Christianity, all while claiming to be the only true defenders of it.

The great irony lies here: these partisans are actually leading good-hearted people to reject their faith, precisely because these partisans have convinced these good-hearted people that they must accept a false dichotomy. We have too many students going to college and taking Intro to Biology, where they encounter all the evidence amassed for evolution, decide they cannot with any intellectual integrity reject the theory of evolution, and then remember that their preacher told them that they had to choose between Christianity and evolution. So, they decide for evolution, and reject Christianity. This is an unnecessary tragedy, and it is a tragedy for which I think the preachers and teachers who teach (b) are responsible.

Of course the partisans represented by (b) are not solely responsible for the false dichotomy here under review. The H. L. Menckens and the New Atheists, who treat people of faith as if they were backwoods yokels who don’t own shoes and can’t read or write, they have done their grave part to develop an unnecessary animosity. We might even suggest that they have done as much as anyone to develop the sort of entrenched hostility to the scientific community: in one breath they deride it, and in the next breath they enliven it. So we shall have a few comedic, dare we even say critical, things to say about them as well.

So we are headed down to Dayton to see if we might break down some false dichotomies. And, I must say, there are some, so I take it, even more fascinating false dichotomies in the tale of the Scopes trial and the unfolding of the theorizing about evolution in American culture that we shall be investigating.

Come join us. A few tickets remain for the upcoming show in Dayton. For more information, click here.

Peace be unto thee, LCC

The upcoming episode in Dayton, Tennessee is being filmed for public television and is made possible through the support of a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of BioLogos.

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The Return
of the Dispatches

June 13, 2014

After a long hiatus, our podcast returns with a very special episode recorded live at our recent “A Prophetic Ethic” show, which was held in conjunction with the Christian Scholars’ Conference.

This show features Walter Brueggemann on doxology as political subversion, leading into a marvelous moment with an accapella singing of one “Doxology,” and yet more conversation on the poetic as telling prophetic truth in a way that is elusive of the royal consciousness.

We next share Over the Rhine’s “All Over Ohio,” which punches one in the gut with a sneaky verse from Linford…  And then conversation between Walter, the theologian, and Linford and Karin, the singer-songwriters, in such fashion, as Linford put it, of getting under the hood of the song and pouring a bit of gasoline on the carburetor.  A podcast episode not to be missed.

Free to download on our website.

And if you’re glad to see the return of Dispatches, we’d appreciate you sharing this post with your friends.

Many thanks,

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Christian Scholars’ Conference Sponsorship

June 5, 2014

Hello friends,

We’re most excited to share that we are partnering once again with the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, who are Presenting Sponsors for our upcoming show. This year’s conference runs from 5–6 June 2014 and the plenary sessions are free and open to the public; you can find out all about the plenary session, which feature Phyllis Tickle, Lamin Sanneh, and Carl Holladay, over at their website. The mission of the Christian Scholars’ Conference is to create and nurture an intellectual and Christian community that joins individuals and institutions to stimulate networks of scholarly dialogue and collaboration. We’re most delighted to have their sponsorship, and we thank our very own Tokens Radio Player, David Fleer, who also happens to be the Director of CSC, for his ongoing support.

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Climb Nashville Sponsors the 2014 Season

June 4, 2014

Hello friends,

We’re most delighted to have the good folks over at Climb Nashville joining us as a Presenting Sponsor of the show this year. Climb Nashville, in addition to being the finest indoor rock climbing facility in town, is one of the largest in the whole of the south-east. Climb Nashville’s a safe, family-friendly environment. And, good news for those of you living in East and West Nashville, they’ve got two brand new locations – one at 1900 Eastland Ave. and one at 3600 Charlotte Ave. Indoor rock climbing’s fun for the whole family, so grab your sons and daughters, your grandmas and grandpas and head on over to Climb Nashville for a fun-filled outing.

 —

The 2014 Tokens season opens Friday June 6, 7:30 p.m. at the Collins Alumni Auditorium, Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee, with special guests Professor Walter Brueggemann, Over the Rhine, Jenny Littleton the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys (featuring Jeff Taylor, Buddy Greene, Byron House, Aubrey Haynie, Chris Joslin, Russ Barenberg, and Chris Brown), Odessa Settles, and host Lee C. Camp.

Buy tickets for the season opener by clicking here now, or by calling 615.966.7075.

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New Photo Gallery

May 18, 2014

Though I graduated with an undergraduate degree in computer science, this does not mean I am necessarily quick to adopt new technologies. I do have certain Luddite tendencies. In any case, we are experimenting with the NextGEN photo gallery, which is reputed to be a Most Outstanding WordPress plugin.  We shall see.  Here’s the first try:  pictures from the Ryman, November 2013, taken by our friends Darrell and Kristin Vanzant. Check out the cool lightbox function, by clicking on the little arrow icon underneath the picture. We’ve also added social media sharing features in the lightbox.  So, share away.  peace unto thee, LCC

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The Opportunity to Tell a Story

March 3, 2014

by Michael McRay

In September 2012, I moved to Northern Ireland to pursue my Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin’s Belfast campus. When I walked out of the Belfast International Airport, a curly-haired, lightly bearded Irishman named Pádraig Ó Tuama stood in the rain, waiting to give me a lift into town. Having reached out to Pádraig via the recommendation of mutual friend David Dark, I was most grateful to have a friendly face there to meet me upon arrival to that strange and beautiful island. Before dropping me off at my new residence in North Belfast, Pádraig invited me to attend Ten×9, a monthly storytelling event he and his partner Paul Doran had started some time before. After the first night, I was hooked. When I left Belfast, I asked them if I could bring Tenx9 to Nashville, and in September of last year, the first night of storytelling sounded in Cafe Coco.

Ten×9 Nashville, then, is a monthly community storytelling night where nine people have up to ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives. Ten minute stories by nine people—thus, “ten by nine.” This storytelling event is all about us, our stories, our lived moments. Each month has a theme, particular enough to structure a night of storytelling but broad enough that anyone should be able to find a life story that relates.  For more on the “what” of Tenx9, visit our website. Here, I will focus on the “why.”

Pádraig introduced me to this beautiful Irish proverb: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” For me, this captures Ten×9’s purpose: it is an attempt for us to live in each other’s shelter—through food and drink, presence and narrative. As we often say, we are strange people telling our strange stories to strangers. In an age where we live so dependent on and addicted to our screens and social cyber networks, Tenx9, for many, has been a way to live liberated from those prisons and experience communion and true human connectedness, even if only for a few hours. Standing on stage with a microphone, storytellers invite listeners to enter into pieces of their lives and feel—to penetrate into the undiscovered continents of each other.

In some ways, Tenx9 is like a flash mob. For brief moments each month, the human communion of storytelling appears and captivates. And then, just as quickly, it vanishes, as if it never was. But you leave knowing that it did exist, and that such connection is possible, even in this age of such tragic impersonality amidst such extreme connectivity. Rachel Naomi Remen has said that stories are the flesh we put on the bones of the facts of our lives. At Tenx9, our lives’ dry bones spring to life, enfleshed by the art of narrative.

Make no mistake, Tenx9 is not designed to provide a night of professional storytelling. It will always be a place for the nervous and unsure, a place for new storytellers to “give it a go.” We welcome a range of humans onto the stage—some polished tellers, others most certainly not—but all embodying the messiness of human stories. In just six sessions, we have heard tales of childhood imagination as well as childhood abuse; longing for the love of a father as well as the long love of a 57 year marriage; first kisses leading to awkwardness as well as first drinks leading to addiction; breaking out of the prison of shame as well as the breaking of hearts at losing a loved child. Indeed, to paraphrase my brother’s line, the stories told at Tenx9 illuminate the holy damned mess of the world’s suffering and beauty.

I have also brought Tenx9 to a more isolated area in Nashville: Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. Behind the walls of the men’s prison, incarcerated storytellers bring a fascinating diversity of life experiences into spoken narration each month, as the audience sits on the wooden pews of the prison chapel communing through coffee, cookies, and attentiveness. After the first night of storytelling, one of my incarcerated friends came up and hugged me tight, saying, “That’s the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to tell a story about myself in public.” I told him, “And that’s why Tenx9 exists.”

Our next event is March 24 at 7:30pm at Café Coco. Our theme is “Things My Parents Never Told Me.”

Michael McRay, in addition to organizing and hosting Tenx9 Nashville, teaches at Lipscomb University as an adjunct in reconciliation, restorative justice, and international conflict. He also volunteers as a prison chaplain and mediator, and is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street”: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine.

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Merton’s Life and Holiness,
a review essay

February 17, 2014

Merton’s little book was an excellent read. He takes the reader through the journey to becoming a saint, saying, “The saint…seeks not his own glory but the glory of God. And in order that God may glorified in all things, the saint wishes himself to be nothing but a pure instrument of the divine will. He wants himself to be simply a window through which God’s mercy shines on the world” (26).

Obviously, this is much more attainable than official “sainthood.” Still Merton notes that we act against our desire to become a saint, acting selfishly and obscuring God’s goodness. What are we to do? Participate in the sacraments of the church, says Merton.

Our perfection is therefore not just an individual affair, it is also a question of growth in Christ, deepening of our contact with him in and through the Church, consequently a deepening of our participation in the life of the Church, the mystical Christ. This means…a closer union with our brethren in Christ, a closer and more fruitful integration with them in the living, growing spiritual organism of the Mystical Body (55).

If one can excuse the talk of “brethren”—personally, I think of this word fondly, as a reminder of the warmth of the church in which I grew up—I think Merton’s focus on participation in the life of the church is important. Through baptism and Eucharist, Christ is at work, drawing us to himself so that we can go forth to be Christ to others. Merton, however, cautions:

[W]e must be careful not to give the impression that sacramental mysticism is a kind of magic. …The sacraments produce no fruit where there is no love. …[A sacrament] is not fruitful unless one means thereby to receive new life in Christ and to give himself forever to Christ. And this means renunciation of sin and dedication to a life of charity. It means living up to the dignity of our new being in Christ. It means living as sons of God (63).

And this sort of living can be challenging for us humans.

Indeed, the charity that Merton speaks of requires all of our selves to be given away to others and to God. Merton writes,

Of what use is it to hold seminars on the doctrine of the Mystical Body and on sacred liturgy, if one is completely unconcerned with the suffering, destitution, sickness, and untimely death of millions of potential members of Christ? …It is not enough to reach into our pocket and hand over a few dollars. We must give not only our possessions but ourselves to our brother. Until we regain this deep sense of charity, we cannot understand the full depths of Christian perfection (90).

We must be aware of what is going on around us. And it is not enough to watch our News Feeds. Indeed, Merton notes that “responding automatically to words that are fed” to us creates a state in us that “is not really capable of divine faith without a process of radical healing and restoration” (82-83).* We must get our hands dirty. A tough call for us moderns with our 9–5 jobs.

(This makes one think of Pope Francis’s exhortation, in which he says, “No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice” [The Joy of the Gospel, 201].)

For Merton, church attendance cannot suffice as the entirety of the “Christian Life” (93). Thus, Merton points us to Pope John XXIII’s Mater et magistra, which speaks about the Christian life in terms of work and claims that work should not be primarily a transaction between employee and employer but “an expression of the human person” (94). On the other hand, work must not be primarily about making money (95). Merton therefore claims, “The task of restoring work to its proper place in the Christian life is then more than a personal, interior project for the individual. It is a cooperative and objective obligation of the Church and of human society” (96). So Merton returns to Mater et magistra, which “gives one fundamental theological principle on which rests the Church’s teaching of the spiritual value of work. Since the Word of God became Incarnate, the common task of the human race to build a just and truly productive society can be endowed with a more than human character” (97). Through our work, as through our charity, we can be at work redeeming the world and making ourselves into the likeness of a saint.

Again the path to Merton’s simple sainthood is difficult. It requires love; it requires work. But it also requires abandoning ourselves to the divine will of God. Merton concludes his book, saying,

The final step on the way to holiness in Christ is…to completely abandon ourselves with confident joy to the apparent madness of the cross. …The madness, the folly of abandoning all concern for ourselves both in the material and in the spiritual order, that we may entrust ourselves to Christ, means a kind of death to our temporal selves. It is a twisting, a letting go, an act of total abandonment. But it is also a final break-through into joy. The ability to make this act, to let go, to plunge into our own emptiness and there find the freedom of Christ in all fullness—this is inaccessible to all our merely human efforts and plans. We cannot do it by relaxing or by striving, by thinking or not thinking, by acting or not acting. The only answer is perfect faith, exultant hope, transformed by a completely spiritual love of Christ. This is a pure gift of his: but we can dispose ourselves to receive it by fortitude, humility, patience, and, above all, by simple fidelity to his will in every circumstance of our ordinary life (119).

May we all have such fidelity!

___________

* Clearly, Merton had no concept of what a “News Feed” was, having died in 1968. But I think his words speak to our condition. Here’s the full quote: “It is true that man’s spirit has been degraded and debauched by the cynical abuse of means of communication. He has been reduced to the condition of a machine responding automatically to words that are fed to him. Such a machine is not really capable of divine faith without a process of radical healing and restoration. The task of Christian renewal in society is therefore vital if men are going to recover their capacity to believe.”

Craig D. Katzenmiller is Tokens’ social media editor. A version of this review appeared on his website.

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