Goodnight Nobody

Goodnight Nobody

“Goodnight nobody”

So says Margaret Wise Brown’s narrator in the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, a book that was read to me countless times as a child and is a favorite in the current rotation my wife and I are reading to our children. In the midst of the goodnights rendered to kittens, mittens, combs, brushes, and mush throughout the book, this particular sentence is quite startling.

I can’t help thinking of the phrase “Goodnight nobody” as one of the saddest utterances that many today unconsciously whisper as they lie down to sleep. Our American culture, so flooded by the New Atheism, is at war with the thought that there may be a God who built this ship and is sovereignly at the helm. They believe, as C.S. Lewis once did, that there is no God and they are mad at Him for not existing. As a result of this militant atheism, we have seen a noticeable rise in loneliness, meaninglessness, isolation, self-centeredness, and bitterness. Truth is no longer a concrete cornerstone but rather a confetti-gun explosion — everyone gets his own tiny piece of colorful “truth” upon which to build his house. And we all know what happens when the big, bad wolf blows on those houses.

To borrow an analogy from Douglas Wilson, the atheist’s creed is in accordance with John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today”

There is no Heavenly Father for us to say goodnight to. Above us only sky. No eternal, sovereign justice awaiting anyone down here. Above us only sky. Above Dachau? Only sky. Above Ground Zero? Only sky. Above Syria? Only sky. We have certainly imagined, as Lennon desired, all the people living for today, and what we have gotten is a frenzied attempt to freeze time, to stay young forever, to be wealthy forever, to invest more in our online selves than our material selves. Our homes are selfish, our relationships selfish, our conversations selfish. We have exchanged the rod of Moses for the selfie stick of man. We are wound tight around our own axle, constantly getting what we have always wanted, and it’s making us so sad.

So when we lay ourselves down to sleep, we do not pray the Lord our soul to keep. We pray nothing. We say goodnight to nobody. When one of my daughters tumbles down and begins to cry, I swoop her up in my arms and softly say, “Daddy’s got you. It’s okay.” But for the modern atheist, he has no such comfort. For him, there is no cosmic Dad to hold onto, to cry to, to talk to. He has imagined Dad right out of the room and wonders why he feels so alone. He has shut his eyes tight to the notion of a Father God and questions why his world is so dark. In the ultimate analysis, his life is a blank page bearing the tragic inscription: “Goodnight nobody.”

As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, the men and women merely players.” We are all most certainly acting out a grand story (see my discussion of Hamlet). Yet, the atheist must also adopt the bleak words of the Player, the lead actor in a traveling theater troupe in Tom Stoppard’s great play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:

“You don’t understand the humiliation of it, to be tricked out of the single assumption that makes our existence bearable: that somebody is watching. We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people […] We need an audience.”

sisyphus_by_o__v-d66ox90If we are all actors in the cosmic theater of life, then the notion nobody is watching must be the most harrowing of all. Our tragedies and our triumphs would ultimately amount only to the enlargement or diminishment of the boulders that we, like Sisyphus, simply push up the mountainside. Unfortunately, the best the atheist can tell us in response to this horrendous thought is that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.

As Christians, we must constantly affirm the existence and presence of the Almighty God who not only created all things and sustains all things but cares for all things. Our lives have meaning because we are playing to His audience. We are seeking to glorify Him. We have received His divine approval. We have purpose. We are not marbles in a box, moving about aimlessly on this pale blue dot in the universe to no eternal or meaningful end. We are children of God. We say goodnight to Him as He lays us down to sleep. We are forgiven when we sin. We are raised to our feet when we fall. And when we come to die, we may echo the words of Christ and commend our spirit not into a blank oblivion but into our Father’s hands.

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Stumbling into Symphonies

Symphony-piano-4639669-2560-1896In a conversation there are rules, and we all know them. Sometimes these rules are accidentally bent, supposing two people begin talking at the same time or no one knows just how to end it and walk away. Sometimes air lingers between the two people, causing an uncomfortable pause. Or maybe all the words blend into a unified sound of excitement as the two reunite in a frenzy of gushing phrases, tripping and spilling over each other’s hearts as they speak.

Often in these moments, something spiritual happens, like music. One gives and the other takes. One begins where the other ends. The excitement of one melts into the disappointment of another. When we speak, we work together, borrowing pieces of each other and weaving them into ourselves like toddlers rolling Play-Doh into multi-colored globes. In music, artists begin with a riff, a hook that seems compelling, and they play it over and over. Perhaps another will bring in a complementing piano line, and the drummer joins the jazz. Over time a conversation begins, a game of give-and-take that grows into a single song, each piece adding his share. As they work together, they sustain one another, each one holding the other to form a unified voice of music. As they play, they roll their unique colors and hues into a single shape, pulling together to the very center.

In this shared moment lies a spiritual truth, a beautiful truth of Christ that works like music. Like a conversation, our relationship with Jesus hinges on this back-and-forth, this dance. Yet, by no means is this relationship equal. As Jesus reaches out to us, we are drawn to His righteousness and perfect holiness. And as we understand our sinfulness, we call out to Him who saves. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Silver Chair through the mouth of the lion Aslan, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.” Jesus calls, and we are drawn; his calling gives us the power to call back. We, the prodigal sons and daughters, limp home, burdened, lonely, and beyond hope, simply to be met by our Father racing to meet us and hold us close, tears upon tears of highest joy. Our homecoming becomes a conversation, a living conversation in which the broken is repaired, the sad are filled with joy, and the end of our selfishness is the beginning of His grace. The Father calls to us, and we are welcomed home. We enter into a most gloriously unequal dialogue with the LORD, a vibrant relationship in which “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). A relationship with the Father “who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). A Father “who gives us all things richly to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17).

Like music, our salvation becomes our symphony. We offer our instruments, broken and tattered though they may be, and the LORD makes music. We give Him our fears and worries in prayer, and He provides peace and joy in return. In this conversation we learn to give ourselves wholly to Him, forever grateful that He gave Himself wholly to us.

Five Influential Writers in My Life

As I am working to lift Eden.Babel onto its feet, one of my primary concerns and interests is in the field of wordsmithing. Excellent craftsmanship is a noble goal, no matter what the smithy of your particular ilk is filled with; the mason may use bricks, the painter his brushes, the musician his notes. The writer uses words. Since the usage of words is a staple of most people’s daily living, the writer has a peculiarly interesting challenge before him. Not everyone uses paint or notes or bricks in the course of their 24 hours, but we almost all use words. Some may wish others used fewer, but that’s another post. Writers are tasked to take a seemingly mundane feature of our existence (words and their arrangement) and spin them in such a way that they can knock a hearer off his or her feet. As Mary, Queen of Scots once said of John Knox, “I fear his tongue and pen more than the armies of England.”

As I have immersed myself over the years in the world of literature, poetry, and many other forms of the written word as well as committed myself to the weaving of my own words, I have decided to consider five of the most influential writers in my own life. This list, as with most lists of its kind, is written in the current moment, meaning I am quite available to be moved and impacted by other writers than these five in the future just as I certainly have been in the past. Also, this list does not factor in God and His Word, the most influential book ever written. As a Christian, I heartily affirm the influence of the Word of God to be a given.

5. C.S. Lewis

cs lewis

This choice really stems from how much of Lewis I have read over the past ten or so years. As a child, I was raised on the Narnia stories and have just recently started to go back through them. I was likewise raised on the BBC films of the Narnia books (you know, the Lucy with her wonderful teeth, the giant beavers, the animatronic Aslan. Classics…). As I moved into college, I began to wade through more of Lewis’ work, including The Great Divorce, Till We Have FacesThe Screwtape Letters, and others. During a bleaker period, I picked up A Grief Observed, which was very helpful. Finally, while studying literature in grad school, I took a course on Lewis and Tolkien in London. There, I dove headlong into his space trilogy, The Four LovesThe Weight of Glory, and a great deal of his biography. Since then, I’ve read Surprised by Joy, a number of his poems, and continue to read him more and more. His commitment to both logic and fancy is contagious, and I look to him for an abundance of insight and imagination.

Recommended readingOut of the Silent PlanetThe Voyage of the Dawn TreaderThe Screwtape Letters, “The Future of Forestry”, “Meditation in a Toolshed”

4. Billy Collins

Billy-Collins

In compiling this list, I made an effort to select writers that represent different genres and approaches. With this in mind, Collins is certainly my poetic choice. He served as poet laureate for the U.S. in the early 2000s, and I even had the privilege of meeting him at a poetry reading in Nashville. Collins’ poetry is known for its accessibility, humor, and seeming simplicity. For this, he may certainly be termed a poet of the people. Yet, his writing is elusive, deep, biting, startling, and some of the most moving verse I’ve encountered. Collins has the unique ability to take a simple reality (weighing a dog, weaving a lanyard at camp, studying geography) and transform it into a transcendent experience as he observes the fullness of feeling, sensitivity, and power that can exist in any given human moment. He treats love, loss, friendship, fear, and longing as though they are old pals, conversing freely with them over coffee at midnight. He laughs through awkwardness and shudders at morning light. He can turn any event on its head at the start of a single stanza and leave you breathless upon completing it. I cannot speak highly enough of his work, and I have thoroughly enjoyed making my way through his collections.

Recommended reading: “The Lanyard”, “Weighing the Dog”, “Introduction to Poetry”, “Plight of the Troubadour”

3. Ben Gibbard

gibbard-colbert

Though he is primarily regarded as a musician, Gibbard’s lyric writing ranks right up there with the best of them. He is the frontman for the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie and has become a respected voice for poetic melancholy in our generation. I caught on to Ben Gibbard’s beautiful writing when I was first introduced to DCFC’s album Transatlanticism by my little brother, Chris. I remember being immediately struck by the quality of their music and Gibbard’s soaring melodies, so I decided to go through the whole album several times over on my own. What I discovered as I walked alongside his verses and choruses, acutely attuned to the narratives he was singing, was simply breathtaking. I was speechless. Gibbard could weave a lyrical phrase unlike anyone I had ever heard, and what had ignited a glimmering flame of attraction and sympathy for him in Transatlanticism was fueled to a wildfire in Plans, their 2005 album. By this time, I had begun playing music myself with a friend of mine and had become interested in lyric writing as a form of expression not dissimilar from poetry. As I delved further into writing music and writing lyrics, Gibbard always served as the standard, the pitch in which all of my own writing was set. To this day, I look to Ben Gibbard’s poetic sensibility, astounding mastery of metaphorical language, and sobering emotional melancholy for a bracing dose of creative power to shock me back into my own love and passion for writing.

Recommended reading/listening: “What Sarah Said”, “Brothers on a Hotel Bed”, “Little Wanderer”, “Transatlanticism”, “We Looked Like Giants”, “Title and Registration”, “Summer Skin”, “No Room in Frame”

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald

f-scott-fitzgerald

If you are reading this and you are a former/current student of mine, you saw this coming; I tend to reference Fitzgerald all the time in class. Simply put, there will never be another F. Scott Fitzgerald. I dedicated my master’s thesis to the life and work of this marvelous author, so I am quite biased. I do believe, however, that his prophetic understanding of American narcissism, the nature of sin, the transience of happiness, and the ache of unrequited love have cemented him in literary history as a true icon of the highest caliber. He was painfully romantic, given over at once to both the beauty and the hopelessness of his dreams. He desired a greatness that would always be two steps ahead of him, doubting his ability to reach it yet straining forward all his life. He was exuberantly happy and painfully miserable. He rose meteorically and fell disastrously. He fought with God and embraced God. He could dash off a crowd-pleaser in a matter of hours (often hungover) and labor meticulously over a failing novel for years. And his writing is simply magnificent. Every page of his work is filled with both diamonds and dust, champagne and charlatans. He wrote like Mozart, lyrically effusing phrases and sentences that seemed like they had been written ages ago as he simply pulled them out of the air and blotted them on paper. He wrote like most men breathe, pouring forth what was already in there, effortlessly. Much of my love for the imaginative wonder and hope in life is credited to his work. I will read him until I can no longer read.

Recommended readingThe Great GatsbyThis Side of Paradise, “‘The Sensible Thing'”, “Thank You for the Light”, “The Cut-Glass Bowl”, “The Jelly-Bean”

1. Doug Wilson

Doug-Wilson

Doug Wilson is a theologian, pastor, and highly prolific writer with dozens of books to his name. If there is any writer who has helped shape my thinking, provoke my curiosity, satisfy my imaginative scope, push my pursuit of excellence, hone my understanding of joy, and confirm my desire for the full, abundant, passionate life in Christ, Doug Wilson is that writer. His work ranges greatly, covering such topics as culture, theology, rhetoric, argument, marriage, childrearing, father hunger, eschatology, apologetics, creative writing, Beowulf, wisdom, the Middle Ages, hearty laughter, Calvinism, gratitude, poetry, robust singing, and much more. His writing has led me deeper into the conviction that God is God and God is good. I am so deeply indebted to his writing and his teachings on the Christian life that to remove his influence from my life would be to remove a great deal of who I have become in my faith in Jesus. While the content of his work is overwhelmingly edifying and helpful, his style is simply inimitable. He wields the English language like a battle axe, sharp at the edge and effective in every blow. He is clever, witty, incisive, kind, colorful, lyrical, and quotable. He is memorable, humorous, startling, paradoxical, and charming. He is jolly and forthright. He is happy and rigid. In a word, he is full. My admiration and respect for Wilson’s writing cannot be expressed enough, and I could speak at greater and greater lengths in praise of his command over the written word.

Recommended readingHeaven MisplacedAngels in the ArchitectureRules for ReformersJoy at the End of the TetherWordsmithy, God Is

The Scarlet Letter and Moral Relativity

Alienated and embittered in the woods of Puritan Boston, Hester Prynne, the adulteress of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, stands alongside her pastor and lover Arthur Dimmesdale, begging him to take her away to the Old World. As readers of the classic know, such a quest would pose a possible relief to the social humiliation and turmoil that has plagued Hester in the city since her opening scene on the scaffold for public shaming.

Yet, as Hester and Dimmesdale find solace in each other’s arms from the raging frenzy of the Puritan mob (a raging frenzy that is actually, according to C.S. Lewis, atypical of the broader Puritan community), Hester lets slip the verbal equivalent of a sledgehammer assault on the Christian framework of morality.

And Hawthorne even has her whisper it:

“‘Never! Never!’ whispered she. ‘What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other!'”

This murmur from Hester follows their discussion of the encounter that brought them to this point, namely the affair which resulted in her condemnation, his guilt, and the lovely “airy sprite” Pearl.

We must pause, however, at this statement to reflect on the depth and severity of Hester’s excuse. Her attempt to assuage Dimmesdale’s suffering and affirm her own sin-stained impudence relies firmly on her insistence that their sin “had a consecration of its own.” She claims their affair was its own sort of holy. In other words, it was, in its own way, right. For her evidence, she claims its “holiness” or “rightness” rises from both their feelings and their verbal declarations of “love” (“We felt it so” … “We said so”).

This line of thinking has become quite popular as the increase of social tolerance and religious pluralism sweeps our secular culture. Everybody is entitled to their own truth and their own moral code, right? We must be tolerant of everyone’s understanding of truth (except those darn Christians. We don’t have to tolerate their views, so if you happen to spot one of them, fire at will). If I could modernize Hester’s statement, it may sound something like, “It felt right, we love each other, and we aren’t hurting anybody. Those old geezers with the buckle shoes need to relax.”

Ok, maybe not that last bit.

However, a quick look to the Scripture sheds light precisely into the dark thickness of those woods. In Isaiah 5:20, the prophet declares, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” This encompasses any perversion or corruption of God’s good design and calling it right or pure. In a society becoming increasingly talented at this type of renaming and redefining (“marriage equality,” “pro-choice,” “misgendering”), God’s Word is clear on the distinction between good and evil. Hobbits and orcs will always be separate and distinguishable.

How many legs would a dog have if we called the tail a leg?

Four. A tail is a tail no matter what you call it.

In Romans 1:32, Paul reminds his readers of man’s tendency to call evil good: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things [sin] deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Hester’s attempt to justify her sin by claiming it had its own rightness falls directly in this category. Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). Even Jesus knew of the insufficiency of the heart to justify behavior: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Jesus hears the whispers of the Hester Prynnes of the world, trying to pardon their own sinful actions not through repentance but through redefinition. In her mind, she doesn’t have to feel bad if she can convince herself she isn’t bad.

Yet, the gospel is powerful enough to withstand such attempts to dissemble, to misconstrue, to disfigure. Drawing a mustache and spectacles on the Lincoln memorial does not tarnish or redefine the great president; in fact, it only illuminates the folly of the offender. Neither does “calling it in the air” determine which side of the coin will appear on the field. God saves sinners from their hearts, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they may think it is.

So, it would seem the framework of Christian belief is not so easily penetrable by the brazen rephrasing of sinners, particularly when they swing with hammers made of foam.

On Sia’s “Chandelier” with the Rest of the World

6585460jpgIf it’s possible for our culture to sift through the bin of radio flash hits and other current pop-pourri to find the glorious anthem for the millennial generation, we should not be surprised to find Sia’s “Chandelier” in everyone’s hands. With its club-appropriate rhythm and soaring melody line, the song seals itself into the current trend like a wax impress. Yet, it is not for its depiction of the carefree, YOLO-drunk culture that endures the via dolorosa of the work week for the olympic burn of the weekend that makes “Chandelier” such a manifesto. I contend that it is Sia’s painfully bleak and somber delivery of the song’s keynote theme – that, to quote Millay, when the candle burns at both ends, it tends not to last the night – which makes the song such a puncturing truth in the already scabbing wounds of a fallen world.

Sia begins her lyric with a declaration of attempted anhedonia (“Party girls don’t get hurt / Can’t feel anything”), a brandishing of makeshift shields to combat the fierce intensity of loneliness, vulnerability, and pain that tend to accompany the frenetic worldly life. No, Sia says, party girls don’t get hurt; they are too tough for that. Yet, the underlying caution that sits beneath the “tough-girl” image is the temptation to become so tough you become scaly. Like the boy Eustace who has been dragoned in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a toughness that is fearfully impenetrable; the bars of a prison door are tough and the bricks of Helm’s Deep are tough, but they are tough in such a way as to cage and to enclose. The human frame was not built for such safeguarding. Sia’s party girl tries to claim a toughness that is unfit for human living. Typically, when nothing can get in, nothing can get out. When a party girl “can’t feel anything,” she may be saving herself from false hope, rejection, or emotional distress, but the odds are that she is equally hiding herself from the sacrificial nature of true love, trust, joy, and other pleasures that require a deal of risk. As C.S. Lewis remarked concerning the nature of love:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

And yet, when faced with trial, fear, rejection, abuse, we “push it down.”

This tale of the “good time” girl is further poured over in irony as Sia claims to “feel the love” of all those committed Christian knights of chivalry who noticed her cries of need and distress inked on the tile of a restroom wall. What a sadness when the damsel appropriately located at a great height (a dual image meant to highlight the lady’s dignity, worthiness, and elevated status of respect and courtship on the one hand along with the gentleman’s need to prove his worth in bridging the distance through strength, perseverance, and courage) has taken the elevator to the basement to scrape out any breathing male with the right jeans and beard to go home with.

The countdown (“1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, drink”) intensifies the frantic blur of our culture’s worldview, namely that our lives are ceaseless shot clocks, and the only way to beat the buzzer is to get buzzed. We all drink, on three. Then, press repeat. Drink, sleep, repeat. I am reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s warning: “First, you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

As a lead into the chorus, we are collectively baptized into the river of wine, begging for it to be changed into Lethean waters (“Throw ’em back ’til I lose count”). Perhaps forgetfulness and oblivion are the answers to our struggles, we believe. It would seem our culture wishes to counteract the crystal clear Word of the Lord with an indiscriminate blare of a trumpet in which no one is called to arms (I Cor. 14:8). Be gone with the precision of orbiting planets, the order of the stars, we raise high the banner of Haze and Ambiguity (kind of…I think…I don’t really remember, you know?)!

In the crescendo, we are called to swing on the chandeliers, to adventure ourselves to death. While there is certainly an allure to wildness and celebrations of life (carpe diem), this Gatsby-ing is halted by the second line: “I want to live like tomorrow doesn’t exist.” While the sentiment of living-this-day-like-it’s-your-last is not new by any means, this statement hearkens back to the drink-til-I-fade-out of the pre-chorus. If tomorrow doesn’t exist, neither will I. Yet, such a reality does not lend a heavy emphasis to making today count (without a tomorrow, whatever is done today doesn’t really count. I’ve seen Groundhog Day, too.). If tomorrow doesn’t exist, we cease to exist, which may be the point. If this is life – the numb, lonely party girl – maybe cessation is a blessing…

However, Sia clings to the promise of glory and hope, picturing the inebriated chandelier-swinger releasing her grip and becoming a bird in flight (“I’m gonna fly like a bird in the night, feel my tears as they dry”). Here we have the mythic phoenix, rising from ashes. Perhaps if I burn out, I can be reborn. Yet, the chorus concludes with our bird-in-flight re-caged and re-perched on her glowing pendulum, clipped wings and all. “Here comes the shame, here comes the shame…”

The mantra of the song is Sia’s devastatingly desperate “holding on for dear life,” a powerful phrase to describe the plight of our current generation. We are not living for dear life; we are just trying to hold on as it soars along.

Holding on to a glass of vodka like your frail fingers are pinched around the rubber grip of a handlebar as the motorcycle of your weekends rockets at a hundred down the freeway.

Holding on to your high school years like sleeping in pajamas and a letter jacket.

Holding on to an unrequited love like a businessman jabbering away on a call that was dropped three tunnels ago.

This is the sad reality and potency of “Chandelier.” Our culture is longing for meaning, purpose, wild beauty, and eternally-secure and satisfying truth, only to howl in one accord of dismay when the places they look seem only to offer cigarette butts, drops of gin, and phone numbers in Sharpie.