Celebrating Incarnation

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Yesterday Englewood Review of Books published my review of   Somethin’ Special:  A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection  (Neworld Media, 2018).   I’ve also created a video of one of the tracks on the album  “There’s Still My Joy.”

Very few pop Christmas albums help us to celebrate incarnation, the central affirmation of Christianity, but I find in Somethin’ Special:  A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection many songs that point in that direction and offer a most moving encouragement to reclaim that connection.  This new full-length holiday CD released in early November presents the new, the traditional, and the disquietingly ordinary and says “Look in these stories and in these places. God is right before your eyes.”

Stookey, one third of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, took on a solo career as singer/guitarist /songwriter in the early 70s after the group began a seven-year leave of absence from each other.  Since reuniting and performing with Peter and Mary until her death in 2009, he has written songs for 21 solo albums and continues to perform solo and with Peter Yarrow in concerts around the country.  His songs are not just folk, but eclectic in content and style, and many of them speak of the Divine in metaphorical terms, central of which is Love with a capital L.

“A recollection can be a distant memory – suddenly recalled – or in this instance, a gathering of childhood stories, unique to the holidays,” Stookey states in his liner notes.  “Some are highly personal, some are musical remembrances of Christmases in concert with Peter, Paul and Mary, but most of the songs reflect an evolving appreciation of the expression and the reason for the holiday: the birth of Christ.”  Truly, he seems to be re-collecting carols, his own compositions (old and new), and others into a new appreciation of meaning of Christmas and the larger holiday season.

Many people want to divide life into the secular and the sacred.  It’s a convenient tactic of church folk who protest any mention of social justice in their congregations.  “You’re getting too political, pastor. Stick to spiritual things.” This notion gets press every December when some Christians step up on soap boxes about putting Christ back in to Christmas.  Similarly the secular notion of Santa Claus usually ignores its lineage to Saint Nicholas, who was born to wealthy parents in the third century in what is now Turkey.  His Christian devotion led him to spend his whole inheritance on attention to the poor and defenseless, particularly as a protector of children. His generosity and compassion led to the custom of gift-giving during the holidays.

With this recording Stookey is suggesting compatibility.  Why not have both Santa Claus and nativity scenes?   There’s a theological reason for having both Santa and Jesus in our year-end celebrations.  After all, some scholars say the root of the word religion means to bind together or to connect–a meaning that is ironically obscured in our current cultural, political, and religious divide–and Christmas, more than any other part of the liturgical year, affirms the connection of heaven and earth, divine and human, spirit and matter.

The incarnation is the ultimate reason for rejoining that which has been broken asunder by misguided religiosity.  This baby Jesus grew up to be a carpenter and a friend of the marginalized–including prostitutes, tax collectors, women, and those hated Samaritans. He healed the sick, played with children, and hung out with fisher folk. He concerned himself with practical parts of living–meals, friends, health, community, respect for others, shelter, cooperation, love, and bread and wine.  Are these things not sacred?

Somethin’ Special celebrates the binding together of what our culture wants to divide into the secular and the sacred. Three of the songs about childhood are Stookey’s own compositions. In “For Christmas” a department store Santa Claus gains a new life after talking with the last child on Christmas Eve.  In “Christmas Dinner” an orphan boy of the streets and a woman old enough to be his grandmother share “the happiest Christmas” in town. “Somethin’ Special,” the title song, is a recollection from Stookey’s own childhood when his creative parents gave him “the gift of patience, the gift of faith.”  To this listener these reveal the sacred value of love and connection without mention of the baby Jesus.

In Stookey’s treatment of traditional carols, there is new appreciation of the sensory and the material as well as a bit of reframing.  The sound of uilleann pipes that open “In the Bleak Midwinter” take us to the cold desolation of Scottish moors and make us wonder about the song’s metaphorical message for times such as these.  Stookey adds lines to “Away in a Manger”:  “Across a great desert three wise men they came / Seeking a king though they knew not his name / A heavenly light, bright shining and blest / Had led to the stable where Jesus did rest.”  How often have I been too literal minded to see these visitors from the East as representative of those who know not Jesus’ name but are drawn to this sacred baby born in the most earthy of places, an animal stall? Another new verse shows forth the sacredness of the most ordinary acts in a household–comforting children, praying, and keeping watch over a cradle.  Who can know the results of these faithful actions?

“Still My Joy”–written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Matthew Charles Rollings– is the sparking gem of the album, holding in tension joy and grief.  I think of the treble range of a piano as silver and the sound of a cello as gold.  It is keyboardist Michael McInnis’ genius to bring the two together. The piano is bright and hopeful and underlines the “still my JOY” and the cello is the gravitas, the honest facing of the inevitable losses that come the longer we live.  It is the gold of wisdom standing in creative tension with the joy that makes the joy credible. Stookey sings the song with such emotional range, grace, and vulnerability that it becomes an invitation for listeners to enter its safe space to feel and hold together both grief and joy. What a gift!

Richard Rohr writes, “I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives.”   Stookey’s album encourages us to recognize God in what is right in front of us.   Without saying so, it is about incarnation, the scandalous notion that in God came in a baby born in a stable and continues to dwell among us mere mortals.

God with us indeed!

Merton and Dylan: A Review of The Monk’s Record Player

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“You may think, as I did at first, that pairing a Utopian hermit monk and a demon-haunted rock star is just plain perverse or at the very least willfully paradoxical,” said David Dalton in his foreword to Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player:  Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966.  That drew me in.  Then Dalton said Merton and Dylan were “Siamese Twins joined at the hippocampus”(ix-x) and asked, “why wouldn’t two people as inventive, desperate, supernaturally talented, and aghast at the temper of the times have a lot in common?”(x)   Ok, so I was highly curious, but the clincher was this:  “Both were willful sinners, antiheroes of mysterious virtue and reluctant saints involved in issues of street-legal theology, Symbolist poetry, radical politics, morbid psychology, women (why leave them out?), the imminent spiritual crisis, and Doom—eschatology, to use theological terminology”(xii).

For serious seekers of increased understanding of either Merton or Dylan, Hudson’s book may not satisfy, but for readers who want an engaging look at possible parallels between two seemingly very different influencers of American culture and politics, it could be a good fit.   One was Trappist monk living as a hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky who nonetheless wrote books that attracted the attention of both official Roman Catholic censors and the spiritual seekers the world over. The other is a Jewish singer/songwriter who “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, a performance that’s been the subject of much debate in American music history, and who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hudson begins his introduction with a quote from Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” (“Come writers and critics / Who prophesize with your pen . . . .”) and notes, “In the 1960s, these two were among the most outspoken writers and critics to prophesy with their pens, and they did indeed change the times they lived in” (1).

Although Hudson calls his book a “selective biography” and a “parallel biography” (7), its focus is much more on how Merton understood his own crisis in the summer of 1966 through the soundtrack of Dylan’s music. The monk, having fallen in love with Margie Smith, a nurse half his age, had to choose between her and his monastic vows, which included not only celibacy but the solitude of a cloistered life, a solitude that was always in tension with his public life as a writer and activist in the peace movement.

Claiming that “their souls were next door neighbors,” Hudson shows the “surprising parallels” between the two.  Both were

  • “cultural icons of the 1960s” and had to deal with interruptions from fans and interviewers”;
  • “prolific to the point of compulsion”;
  • “amateur visual artists” with “a love of photography, both behind and in front of the camera”;
  • “as inscrutable as they were brilliant”;
  • fiercely in “need for autonomy” and freedom, Dylan from the expectations of his fans and manager and Merton from the constraints of the Catholic Church and his monastic vows;
  • “unflagging spiritual pilgrims, perpetually restless, intense, and curious” (3-5).
  • poets, one a poet-singer and the other a poet-monk.

Perhaps their most interesting parallel was their gift of “the ability to hold within themselves beliefs entirely at odds with each other, dissonances usually more upsetting to their fans than to themselves.”  Merton explained, “We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them.”  Dylan simply said, “Chaos is a friend of mine”(5)   Hudson expresses his understanding of this ability in Merton in this statement:  “Just as he believed that he could only achieve unity with humanity by being alone, so too he realized that he could only be true to Margie by remaining true to his vows of celibacy.” (150)

Dylan fans may be disappointed that there is not more about Dylan in the book—three “interludes” that focus singularly on him—but Hudson makes up for sparse attention by doing justice to his crisis of the summer of 1966—no, not the motorcycle accident itself but the larger problem that it symbolized.  Hudson says that “if Dylan had done no more than stub his toe, a serious accident took place, one that involved the high-speed collision of his fame, his drug and alcohol abuse, and an impossible number of commitments that had been foisted upon him”(113).  His manager, Albert Grossman, was pushing him to promote his newest album, Blond on Blond, to go another tour, to write new songs, and to write a book (for which Grossman had signed a deal with Macmillan without consulting Dylan).  In addition, he simply needed to disappear from public view—from fans both adoring and hostile—“to find out what it felt like to be a family man, a patrician farmer, a father who was there for his kids.”  Hudson sees the “accident” as the beginning of “Dylan’s own search for solitude” (117), a search that in some ways mirrored Merton’s.

Merton had planned to write an article about Dylan.  Hudson says, “The core of the article would no doubt have been Dylan’s ‘prophetic’ voice . . . . For Merton, prophetic implied both a high level of truth-telling and the state of being ahead of one’s time,” and he believed poets possessed a prophetic vocation (159).  He never got around to writing it.  Merton died by electrocution in December 1968 when he touched a defective floor fan at a conference center in Bangkok, Thailand.

On July 25, 1966, at the Newport Folk Festival Dylan sang, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more . . . .”  (51)  Hudson calls that line “a chilling declaration of defiance that has resonated through the decades for anyone who has ever wrestled with authority, who has ever kicked against the oppression of society’s leveling influence.”  In The Monk’s Record Player he subtly shows how those words came to expression in Merton’s life and writing as he lived out his vocation as prophet and poet.

The Monk’s Record Player pays close attention to the influence Dylan had on Merton, documented in the monk’s journals and letters and evidenced in changes in his writing style, particularly in Cables to the Ace, in which Hudson says Merton “went electric, every bit as much as Dylan did at Newport the previous year”(139). Hudson gives reasons Dylan may have known of Merton, though the songwriter never mentions the monk in his own writings.  Nevertheless, Hudson makes a convincing case for affinities between the two men and succeeds in what he sets out to do—to write a book  “about solitude and love, originality and autonomy, and the extent to which music—functioning therapeutically—touched the life of one particularly gifted and troubled thinker in a time of crisis” (8).

Silence, Poetry & the Salvation of Seamus Heaney

In the spirit of “telling it slant,” I offer my friend Alex Joyner’s review of poet Christian Wiman’s new book. I especially like this quote from Wiman: ” What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)”

Heartlands

taylor-ann-wright-1136612-unsplash Photo by Taylor Ann Wright on Unsplash

 A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light

The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)

Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities…

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That Attracting & Sustaining Divine Love: A Review of Evolving Humanity & Biblical Wisdom

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Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley

My review of Marie Noonan Sabin’s Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom: Reading Scripture Through the Lens of Teilhard de Chardin [Liturgical Press Academic: 2018] is up on the Englewood Review of Books:

Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Jesuit priest (1881-1955), wrote about evolutionary science, spirituality, and the expansion of human consciousness.  Although the Vatican suppressed his writings during his lifetime, today his vision continues to be appreciated by scientists, religious scholars, and spiritual seekers.  In Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom Marie Noonan Sabin brings Teilhard’s vision into conversation with scripture texts related to wisdom. With an interdisciplinary background in literature and theology, Sabin uses her interpretative skills in intellectually challenging ways that will fascinate some readers with knowledge of academic biblical studies but may mystify those without such a background. Though prior knowledge of Teilhard’s complicated thought would increase appreciation of Sabin’s work, her clarity and conversational style could well inspire Teilhard beginners to delve deeper into his thought. Continue reading