Discerning signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings, with perceiving the saga of salvation within the era of the Fall. It has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events in both apocalyptic and eschatological connotations, to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair. — William Stringfellow William Stringfellow’s words serve as the inspiration for the name Tokens and reveal valuable insights into its nature and purpose as a theological and artistic exercise. Lee Camp and others who create the show hold a vision of “the saga of salvation within the era of the Fall.” In a time where many look to music and the arts as escape from everyday life, Tokens seeks to extract truths from them, truths that have a real effect on our way of living. In other words, Tokens has an alternative way of seeing the arts. Tokens creators “interpret ordinary events” in terms of the Kingdom of God, but they do so through things of this earth, finding “tokens of the reality of the Resurrection.” Their pursuit is not only a valuable exercise, but a necessary one. It’s high time we look to art as a way to unveil the tokens of the Kingdom of God in this life, rather than as an escape from reality.
I believe that Tokens creators have a kindred spirit in the contemporary writer Marilynne Robinson. A literary theologian and prophet of the mundane, Robinson looks intently at the everyday experiences of human life and not only discovers beauty, but also God. Like Tokens, she portrays an unconventional way of seeing, one that looks to this earth for the mystery of the Holy One. And she uses her work to show us the possibilities of seeing in a new, sacred way.
Although all of her novels reveal these possibilities, Robinson’s Gilead epitomizes a way of seeing the world that looks for the tokens of the resurrection. In the novel, Robinson writes through the narrator John Ames. An elderly minister, Ames has married late in life and is now father to a young son. Ames realizes that he is too old and his son too young for Ames to be a part of his whole life. To compensate for this, Ames decides to write his son his “begats.” What ensues is a beautiful letter revealing important moments in Ames’ life, theological elucidations on the Eucharist and forgiveness, and so much more. Beautiful is too weak a word. The book is magnificent, holy, glorious, illuminating – I could go on. Read it and find out.
One of the major strains of thought that hits Ames towards the end of this life is his love for this life and this earth. After all, he has a young son and wife who he will be leaving soon. But, Ames also can’t keep his eyes off the earth, the things of this world. He is one who is searching and seeing the “tokens” of God’s presence. In a graceful and exquisite passage towards the end of the novel, Robinson (through Ames) discusses his spiritual vision:
It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it expect a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? (Gilead, p. 245)
How can I write anything after that? I’ll try.
Robinson’s passage has important implications for our lives as Christians and people of faith. First, we must search for beauty. As the passage says, the “Lord breathes” on this earth and creates “radiance” from the ordinary, everyday things of this world. I have to believe that this radiance is the beauty of the things of this earth – sunsets, mountains, the ocean. Or the more unexpected beauties – a flowered weed growing in cement, speckles of sunlight on a brick wall through branches of trees, a person’s smile. Seeing radiance on earth does not mean looking for beauty only in the things that have been named beautiful by humans, but looking to the unexpected and unanticipated. The surprises of the Lord’s radiance shock and surprise, but also move and inspire. Thus, if we look at both the expected and unexpected with willing eyes, we can see tokens of light that urge us to live in an intentional way.
This passage also urges us to be courageous in our seeing, which means viewing the world in a different way. The alternative way of seeing can start with how we look at art, like Tokens asks us to do. If we look at art with courageous eyes, the art can lead us to the Lord, can show us His light, His joy, His sorrow. Let’s stop looking at art as only an escape, a way to allow us to leave the everyday realities of our world. Rather, let’s look at art as what it can be – a way to reveal the divine. How would our art look different then? Beyond art, to truly see in a courageous way, we must, as Christians, see in this world the presence of God. In Romans 1:20, Paul writes, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” While this world does not hold God, his presence is clearly felt and seen here. Living in a way that neglects art and other earthly things as a pathway to the divine rejects the Lord’s “eternal power and divine nature” that is present on earth. This has dire implications. We are put on this earth for a reason, God created it and it was good – why should we neglect its beauty, its radiance? Let us see with courageous eyes the world transfigured and radiant. Let us see God’s presence on this earth.
It all comes down to seeing. And, no, I’m not just talking about vision. The kind of seeing that Tokens and Robinson urge is a way of orienting oneself in the world. It means being open, willing, and courageous. It means being watchful, attentive, and focused. It means understanding that God lives and breathes in us and in our world. Let us look to art for tokens of the Lord, to reveal to us the beauty of the divine, to point us towards God’s eternal power and divine nature. Let us see God in everything.
Ben Rawlins is a Tokens Blog contributor and an MTS student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Origianally from Kansas, Ben never thought he would go to divinity school because he studied literature as an undergraduate and graduate student. But, recently his work has focused on the intersection between art and Christian theology, specifically how God is revealed through contemporary literature. Ben also works as an adjunct instructor of English and hopes to use his interests to help students think more deeply about faith through the arts.