Monday, August 3, 2015

The Genetics of Compassion

Genetics can be tough. One look at both my parents’ dental history reveals I had zero chances of inheriting strong teeth. A winning smile, sure, but quality, cavity-resistant chompers were out of the question. This is why, by the time I graduated college, I’d lost count of the number of fillings I had endured (over twenty).   I can tell you I had precisely two root canals because they involve the most intensive drilling, complete removal of the pulp of the tooth, and two additional appointments to reconstruct and crown your sad shell of a tooth.  And while you might imagine that the aggregated hours, ney weeks, I’ve spent underneath fluorescent lights with latex fingers and a suction in my mouth have made me into a steely veteran, the opposite has been true.  I’m sorry to say that experience has left me more traumatized than heroic.
So it was with sudden panic that I woke one morning to a throbbing toothache.  For two days I traded terror for denial, hoping I was hallucinating or misreading a deferred headache, until the persistent reality of pain won over and I started asking around for a good dental referral.  Our receptionist swore by a dentist she had been seeing for over twenty years down in lower Manhattan, whose name….wait for it… was Dr. Thor.  The idea of a hammer-wielding dentist was utterly terrifying, but , I reasoned further, should he be played by Chris Hemsworth I would comply.  When I arrived to my appointment I learned that Dr. Thor is actually a woman, which is also just fine when you consider the repulsive gargling and spitting these scenarios require.
They x-rayed the troubled area and almost immediately declared, in no uncertain terms, this is the mother of all cavities, the harrowing run if you still can, root canal.  “But I’m a really avid brusher,” I protested. Dr. Thor gave me a sympathetic smile. “Yes, but this cavity formed beneath a filling you had years ago. It’s not a surface level decay, but probably just the result of time passing and space growing between your old filling and the rest of the tooth.” It takes a moment to process. My fillings need fillings. Dear God.  Cheated does not begin to cover how I feel about this diagnosis.  I‘ve been cheated yet again by my biology, which is the absolute worst, because nature is the most impartial arbiter of fate; No amount of rage or reason or door-slamming will alter its course.
I stifle my sniffles as the dental receptionist processes my bill, hoping she doesn’t see what a big baby I am.  After a bit of clicking around she discreetly slides the itemized bill across the desk. Apparently these are not figures one speaks aloud. And as I quickly tally the expenses of each part of this procedure I feel, for perhaps the first time in my dental history, the horror that I will be held personally responsibly for financing this nightmare. Hitherto, I have been young enough to be included under my parents’ dental coverage.  But those golden years have passed and now my employer doesn’t offer anything but a joke of a reimbursement package, in which they pay a pittance of a percent of the thing six months, three phone calls, and two “lost” fax attempts later. If you’re lucky. And persistent.
The mental algebra continues as I scan the bill and I see my entire savings—that puny but proud pile I’ve been dutifully stacking against the economic trappings of Manhattan living for the past two years—vanish before me. Gone with it is the promise of future travel or ballroom dance lessons or one of the five wedding invitations adorning my refrigerator. The circumference of my life is rapidly contracting before my eyes. Big alligator tears begin splattering across the paperwork and noticing my distress, the receptionist moves in with the minimal patient counseling training she must have received the first day on the job. 
“Yeah, I know it can feel like a lot,” she concedes, “but New York has so many free events in the summer.  Try NYC.Go.  They have lots of outdoor options. And you should take in some sun—it makes everyone happier!”
Yes, of course, why didn’t I think of that fool-proof solution earlier: sunshine. Sunshine and $3000 would make all my problems go away. I cry harder and the receptionist realizes she has drifted with me far past the safe harbor of mere financial planning into the uncertain waters of total existential despair.  While I am mostly just a blubbering mess, I am dimly aware that we have entered the Bermuda triangle of dental encounters.  On one side of this perfect storm is the childhood dread of shrill, grinding oral trauma, a punishment Dante neglected to chart in his description of the 9th layer of hell.  The second dimension of the storm, as mentioned, is the depletion of my savings and then some.  It is actually clear now that all the moneys in my bank account will not suffice and that I will likely be charging groceries for the next six months. But the real rip tide is far deeper than my deckhand, the receptionist, can fathom. It is the sudden realization that despite the fact that I have moved across the country, graduated from Harvard, secured full time work in an honorable, however unprofitable profession, and have generally been holding it down like a grown ass woman, I am, at the end of this appointment, reduced to a poorly-covered, cavity-ridden, hot mess.  Here marks the remains of my brilliant self-image and the illusion of adult autonomy. Sail no further.
The receptionist, now completely vexed by my emotional deluge, hands me a tissue and says: “I’ll pray for you.” 
I’m not sure what is more uncomfortable- how earnestly she bestowed the blessing or how sadly I needed it.
I burst through the doors of the dentist’s office, into the light of day and past a jostling tide of suits as my phone begins to ring.
“Hi, mom,” I answer verbosely.  (My mom only needs one syllable to recognize my precise level of pain.)
“Oh no, that bad, huh?” she replies.
And so, still blubbering, I narrate all the coordinates of my Bermuda Triangle of existential despair.
“Maggi, Maggi, Maggi,” she soothes, “Do you know that I made this exact same phone call to my Dad when I was your age?  I had a catastrophic dental problem that I couldn’t figure out how to pay for and do you know what he said to me?”
I picture my grandpa: father and provider to ten children, cunning NYPD detective turned hustling California realtor, and the likely benefactor of my family’s long legs and soft Irish teeth. The kind of teeth whose cavities have cavities.
“He said, “Ahh Mary, don’t you worry. I’ve got a deal closing soon and we’ll make it happen. You don’t have to do this by yourself.”  And do you know what Maggi,” my mom continued, “I also have a deal closing this month. So you don’t need to worry. We’ll make it happen.”
I wasn’t looking for a handout. In fact, the depth of my despair was based on the firmly entrenched assumption that I needed to resolve this financial hurdle as an independent adult person. Turning to my mom for help felt so age inappropriate, so desperate, so unlike the image of self-sovereignty I carefully guarded.
How often is it that the arbitrarily constructed image of how we ought to be robs us of the adaptability to find peace with the way things are?  That preoccupation with who I ought to be also occluded the fact that my story is far from exceptional. So many working adults have lousy, if any, dental coverage and are forced to pay out of pocket for treatment. Friends tell me that they have stayed on antibiotics for months to treat the infection and reduce the painful swelling of root canals while they save up to adequately fix the problem.  University dental clinics, while offering reduced rates of service, have waitlists so long and appointments so limited that what begins as a three-week ordeal turns to a six-month operation. Although my trip to the dentist was subjectively traumatic on multiple levels, it is clear that exorbitant dental costs and poor coverage is not a problem particular to my life, but symptomatic of a larger national issue.
But what I have also gleaned from this dental trauma is that while genetics are tough, the people they fashion together are stronger.  In other words, I didn’t just inherit bad teeth, but was born into multiple generations of understanding, people who intimately know the brute pain, and complex existential panic that surfaces in the face of a dental emergency. Compassion, borne of identical suffering, is an inheritable trait. And if we choose to accept it, in place of say self-sufficient egoism, it can quell most any storm.   
Afterward: When I first started writing this piece, I was thinking about the genetics of compassion in a non-literal sense, as a character trait that could be passed on, not through DNA, but by example.  There was a little bit of poetry in the idea, of course, that a family line (grandpa, mother, daughter) could experience heightened compassion precisely because of similar experiences with a medical condition that is literally genetic.  Then I read David Shenk’s, The Genius In All of Us, which tracks fascinating studies that suggest how, through our habits and practices, we are actively re-wiring our epigenetic material for our progeny. Knowing only a small bit about these scientific theories, I won’t attempt to unpack the details myself. I will, however, say I told you so when the world comes to recognize the important of habit in shaping us, down to a molecular level, and how things like compassion may indeed be inherited through exposure and blood.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

For days of Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
The New York I flew into Friday night was chilled with snow and ice. The Empire State building, perhaps out of consideration for those of us traveling during Christmas, still beamed festive red and green lights. My breathe puffed white on the cab ride home, while the city lay still and breathless from New Year’s revelry. I had made peace with the fact that this New Year’s was, in almost every way, unremarkable. I watched the ball drop from my grandparents’ California home and made silent wishes that my friends in Time Square were safe and smooching.  I made no great New Year’s resolutions, donned no sparkly attire, and reflected very little upon the triumphs and losses of 2013. In short, the holiday seemed oddly vacant this year.
As I unpacked my bags and began making space in the closet, a heavy sweater tumbled from its shelf. It was the sweater that Mark, my first love, gave to me nine Christmases ago.  Thickly woven wool, and beautiful blend of earthy brown and beige, the sweater was timelessly elegant. Mark was so proud to have selected an article of women’s clothing correctly and smiled every time I wore it. Once, when we were in a relationship stalemate, somewhere between breaking and making up (this was college, after all) Mark spotted me in the library. It had been six silent months of standoff when he forged a powerfully simple truce: “That’s a really nice sweater. Whoever gave it to you must have great taste. And I like your hair…its longer, like it was two years ago.” The third time Mark and I broke up was for good.  We had exhausted all attempts and yet, both of us ached with the finality of it. I grieved not only the loss of a boyfriend, but of his family, with whom I had intricately woven myself.  And so it was his family, Mark’s mother in particular, who imparted upon some riddle of a blessing: “Maggi, I know you can’t bear to leave this relationship, but you must. You don’t have to part with it forever. Just imagine placing it in a drawer, a drawer you cannot open for a while. It is safe there and when the right amount of time has passed you can look at it again. But put it away for now, dear.”  It was the most foul-tasting dose of medicine anyone has ever given me. Put him away? Was he an article of clothing that could be so easily stored on a shelf?
Taking down the woolen sweater always brought memories of Mark back, but after so many years and so many loves, the memories no longer stung, but kept me snuggly swaddled in the present. It was, objectively, the perfect sweater. However, now as I gazed upon the fallen garment, it looked unusually small, maybe even… shrunken.  Frantically I threw it over my head, wishing to dispel the fear that I might have actually committed the worst laundry faux pas in history!  But there is no arguing a choked neck and bare midriff.  It was time to say goodbye, not to Mark anymore, but to the hefty sweater that had since preserved me in four East Coast winters with a thick and burley comfort that felt like hugging Sean Connery, or so I imagine.  Throwing it away without some parting words felt wrong and so I texted Mark: “I shrunk the beautiful beige sweater and I’m very upset because it would have lasted forever on its own. I just wanted you to know I got many years of good use out of it. Thank you.”  It wasn’t the first time we spoke in six years. Mark and I speak periodically and I know that he is happily married and successfully developing educational programs from the Bay area.  When we catch up it is always with distinct fondness, a friendly affection that is a miracle onto itself.
It was 1:30 in the morning EST and because I was still in PAC time, I could not sleep, but tossed and turned for hours.  I was awake when Mark replied: He was terribly sorry to hear of the loss, but gladdened that I had so many happy years with the sweater. It was so sweet of me to tell him. And how was teaching? What was my brother (Billy) up to? Did I remember the Christmas present he had given to Billy that same year… the running shorts with the underwear built in?  The way Billy literally scratched off the wrapping paper, with one hand, as if he didn’t care at all?  “The slow unwrap,” we had termed it. The image made me cry with laughter.
I am generally not a huge fan of texting for the all the ways in which it fails to capture tone, intention, and depth in a conversation. But with Mark, in a rapid-fire exchange that lasted hours into the night, I heard everything with instantaneous clarity. Everything had changed between us and yet the familiarity remained, untarnished.  In three words he could recall entire comedic episodes with unfailing nuance. My belly ached and my pillow was wet with laughing tears.  I could have, quite possibly, purged myself of a years-worth of disappointment or sadness or muck during that conversation. It did not feel like an ordinary night in the slow plod of metered time, but one of sudden revival.  And though “seas between us broad have roared” all that remained now was love for auld lang syne.
And so the blessings of New Year’s came upon me unexpected, not in a sparkling daze of confetti, but in an old acquaintance, who bid me midnight laughter and words of kindness. In the silence that followed I hummed the old Scottish lullaby, understanding New Year’s Eve perhaps for the first time.  You cannot fabricate healing or forgiveness on your own terms. And the turning of the calendar year does not automatically mean that everything will be different or cleared of last year’s debris.  Every holiday represents an ideal that we aspire to, but can never completely engineer ourselves. But every now and then, a sweater will tumble out of place, the drawer magically opens, and there is cause for celebration. For what was once an unthinkable prophecy has come to pass: the people and things that bring our life meaning are never finally lost, just kept safe for another time, a time when all things are made new.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Religion, Conflict and Kitchen Diplomacy: Where My Divinity Education is Taking Me

Pastor James and Imam Ashafa, Nigerian peacemakers

“You know you are everything that’s wrong with this nation. It’s people just like you, with your liberal thinking and compassion and nothing bad to say about anyone that is going to get the rest of us killed,” he said hovering a foot and three decades above me. I ran my fingertips along the grout between countertop tiles, trying to trace the way back to calm. The conversation had escalated far too quickly after I had poised what seemed an innocent question: “What are you passionate about right now?”

Roy had popped into my aunt and uncle’s home during my weekend stay, an aunt and uncle with whom I was joyfully reconnecting after the 15 years that followed my parent’s divorce, and consequent familial separation. More than anything I wanted to keep peace in their kitchen. I had had plenty of battles in my own kitchen, resulting in a deep aversion to conflict. The question itself, about Roy’s passions, was inspired by a friend who insisted it was a much more generous conversational entrĂ©e than, “So, what you do for a living?” Instead my question became the launch pad for an unforeseen political diatribe, in which Roy lambasted Jews for claiming excessive victimhood and for their desire to take over the world. Red flag, anyone? He then went on to explain how Islam was an inherently violent religion because of the Qur’an’s injunction to kill infidels and wage jihad against the unbelievers. “Have you actually read the Qur’an?” he exclaimed, “There are no passages in the Bible that even come close to that kind of violence.”

“Well, I’m afraid there are,” I replied. “Before ‘turn the other cheek’ we had ‘an eye for an eye,’ and a psalm that promoted the smashing of one’s enemy’s babies against a rock. Even Jesus has some frightening things to say about ‘coming not to bring peace, but the sword.’ Christian scripture is uncomfortably riddled with violence, but that doesn’t mean that every Christian has resorted to these passages or a fundamentalist reading of them to justify bloodshed.”

“No, I don’t think you’ve read the Qur’an and you don’t know how much they hate us,” he presses, speaking now in generalizations that would make any religion scholar squirm. However, his generalizations are well-rehearsed and interspersed with Qur’anic extractions I have not studied in their full context. He has clearly read much on the subject (though I would dispute his sources) and if I do not respond within a half a second of his remarks, he calls me uninformed.

Acutely aware of how volatile the conversation has become, I reach desperately in my bag of mediation tricks to recover some kitchen diplomacy. “I think I hear you saying…that there are Muslim extremists who abhor everything the West stands for, and will detonate their own bodies to destroy it. I can only imagine how strong your memory of 9-11 is here in New York.”

“Yah, you’re from California, you have no idea what I’m talking about,” he interjects.

“Yes, that may be partially true, ” I inch forward, “But I do know too many peace-loving Muslims who are motivated by the scripture and teachings of Islam to create a more just and humane world. To call every Muslim a terrorist is to simply reverse the narrative that Al Qaeda used to attack the United States.  It means that we are allowing ourselves to be defined by the worst thing that has ever happened to us, and to be perpetually governed by trauma and the impulse to retaliate.”

The words did not come smoothly. Mostly in fits and starts from a jaw I kept locked so that it would not tremble. I watched waves of tears rise and fall within me, inwardly begging them to subside. Because the last thing I wanted was to confirm this man’s image of me as a hopelessly fragile idealist who could not stand the heat of a debate, much less stomach the brutality of which he spoke.

I wished that after six years of studying religion and this summer’s internship in conflict resolution, I could render a stronger, wittier, mind-blowing argument in defense of religious tolerance. But in truth I do not study religion to acquire talking points that will ultimately win me kitchen debates.  For one, I would rather spend my energy practicing the most basic, but no less challenging, commandment to love my neighbor. That principle alone keeps me quite occupied. And from most of the debates I have witnessed, talking points usually only equip people to talk past one another in futile rounds of vitriol.  And then of course, there’s the queasy sensation all conflict produces in my gut.

But in this moment standing across from Roy, hearing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia mistaken for patriotism, I felt, as a student of religion and personal friend to many Muslims and Jews, an ethical obligation to respond. To be silent would have implied consent, and how many horrors have been committed against humanity because of our collective silence?

After my conversation with Roy abated, I made my way straight to the shower, to the private release of long-held tears. Why are you crying? You are fine, you can handle this, I negotiated with my injured self. This only occasioned more sobbing. 

Finally it occurred to me that self-flagellation was itself a form of violence and that perhaps the most peaceful way of proceeding would be to accept both my proclivity towards tears and the courage to speak through them. Because to enter authentically into dialogue I cannot carry an artillery of talking points, and to mediate conflict, I risk my own vulnerability, and with that the occasional emotional hemorrhaging. So what if I cry? The important thing, I am learning, is that I dared to speak. And with that I washed my hair. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Listening to the Radio: A New Year's Resolution

If I were to make any resolution for the New Year, and these are seldom, I would listen for the year as I listen to a newly discovered song.

Just the other day I was driving along the 5 freeway; on my left, the sun guiding the Pacific, and on my right, Oceanside’s famous stretch of mustard fields. These are just the kinds of drives that lull me into a meditative trance, that dispel the doggedly anxious thoughts from my mind and allow me the simple pleasure of being in the world. There is nothing else to do in the car but drive, and while this made me crazy with boredom as a child, it has since become a favored form of contemplation.

Even my radio listening habits must adapt to these long drives. Because I am crossing multiple county lines, my go-to stations become static, and I am forced to explore the uncharted musical airwaves. And because I hold no expectations for what I will discover there, my reception of the unknown changes. I wait with curiosity for a song to unfold. I wonder about when the song was first popular, what era its stylistic motifs recall, what mood, season and scent the song holds for people I will never meet? Who picked up the guitar because of it? Is it a wedding ballad or a break-up bandage? And so, like the Border Patrol check point I am sure to pass along the highway, I wave through most of the unknown indiscriminately. Everything about the drive conducts flow. And along it, the radio becomes a teacher of interior openness and agility.

Beyond the contemplation of the historical or musical lineage of the song, I encounter an even more basic appetite for what might be termed auditory surprise. I do not know where the first few chords will lead, what instruments will join by the chorus, or what story the lyrics will tell. And so I remain suspended upon every moment sliding into the next. If I hear a song that really thrills me, I will download it into my itunes collection and without fail, replay the song until I am practically sick of it. Something is lost when the song is possessed in this way. It becomes familiar, known, beloved even. It’s now “our song,” a karaoke favorite that can be belted nostalgically, again and again. But will we ever hear it in the same exquisitely open and vulnerable way we did that first time?

And so it is with friendships and work and neighborhoods cherished for their worn-in comfort. The risk of assuming deep familiarity about any of these things is that we forget to make room for the inexhaustible mystery dwelling within them. To neglect the profound otherness in a person—those parts which we can neither predict nor explain—is to overlook the locus of divine creativity. If I am deadly serious and certain of what it means to be a student, a manager, an activist, or an economist, what room have I to grow into a different understanding of those things?

If I can extend the musical analogy just a bit further into the New Year, I would add that our lives expand according to our willingness to be surprised by them. That doesn’t just mean waiting for something new to happen, but allowing even the familiar to be rendered unexpected. To anticipate the course for this year, based upon the last, is to short-circuited its potential. That is one boring drive. One small life. And I would much prefer to stay with the waking of this year as if it were a new song, breaking through the static of old certainties.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

“Storyteller”: Yet Another Tribute to My Aunts & an Account For My Hope

Rod Stewart is one sexy man. This is, at least, what my aunts have conveyed to me over years of concert going, stage crashing, and radio blasting rides. Apparently, the only thing that compares to that dirty blonde rock and roll mane and those skin tight leopard pants, is a voice so raspy and soulful it “will steal your heart away.”

And while I wanted nothing more than to tag along with my mom and aunts, each of them icons of that oh-so-distantly-enchanted womanhood, the concerts were always waaay past my bedtime. So I perched on the edge of the bed as late as I could, watching them gussy up in a cloud of Hairnet and polka dot ensembles, as they convinced me that a dab of confidence was all one needed to storm the stage like a rock star. And dance with Rod, of course. Were You Tube around in the 80s, they would have video footage testifying to their stage-robbing fame and you would have no trouble imagining how enormously cool they really were. Whether boosting one another up from speakers to stage or demonstrating the art of applying liner before lipstick, they were, for me, always the main attraction.

And because Rod occupied a demi-god status in their musical world, he quickly became prophet in my own. Like the Book of Ecclesiastes, Rod Stewart’s Storyteller Collection supplied all the classic human drama and lyrical pith to choreograph a life around. From Rod, I learned to cast dangerously smooth lines like: “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy, come on sugar, let me know,” a pick up fourth grade boys were entirely too young to handle, and I, far too innocent to actually mean.

But when I wasn’t on the playground, spreading lyrics I didn’t understand, I was meditating upon them in the secret of my upstairs dance studio (also known as the hallway.) Waves of afternoon sun refracted through our old fish tank, casting pools of emerald and gold across the carpet, where I waited, barefoot. Maggie Mae, an obvious choice for my opening number, had five full bars, twenty-six seconds, of mandolin solo—a perfect prelude for the delicate array of plies, pas de bourrees, and releves, I was then practicing. I wanted my toes to grace the floor as lightly as each note plucked, not yet knowing what this mirroring of form and content would be called. It was simply pre-verbal, and in that sense, the purest art I have ever performed.

I cannot tell you what happened during those afternoon improvisations, when I felt alive and nimble and utterly free. But even as I recollect them now, a warm presence washes over me, and I am left wondering what or who exactly I was dancing for. Did I lyrically inhabit the wide world of “downtown trains” and “motown records” as a child clunking around in her mom’s heels? Or was I claiming my own voice in a space of free interpretation? Could it have been all of these things, all kinds of imitation and originality, sliding back and forth, down the hall?

Such was the grip of the Storyteller record on my impressionable, young mind. And yet, it is a possession I have never cared to shake, because beyond girlish revelry, those songs also occasioned a brush with transcendence. In that light-soaked room, with the trill of the mandolin all around, I encountered what Kahlil Gibran calls “Life longing for itself,” an old presence quickening within me. And into this effortless communion I sunk, for unaccounted hours on end. It was the kind of purposeless engagement with the Other that mystics revel in. It was Rod Stewart hinting, or winking rather, at the elusive hem of a life I could barely touch. It was a self-forgetting prayer I would dance any day.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Just Crazed

There’s nothing about this lemon-colored umbrella in my drink that is necessary.

It is frivolity and glamour under the faint Seattle sun.

And while I know all too well the limits of its luster,

it charms me still.

And isn’t that the point of every sweet and senseless surprise?

Isn’t that behind every wink,

every kiss mistaken,

every nickname ever given?

Each gestures beyond mere utility.

And yet, if a bee can land upon it,

believing my little umbrella a font of nectar-

a bee so evolutionarily intelligent, so mathematically inclined-

then I too can resist bitterness

for the ways in which I have been undone

by seduction.

I can admit my weakness for pyrite, and

still smile for the way it makes me stumble

and shimmer,

often interchangeably.

And I give thanks for being as crazed as a bumble bee.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Confessing Art v. Religious Propaganda

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the purposes of art lately, considering what it can and cannot do. For years I have gravitated towards creative writing, theatre, film, dance, and a variety of artistic enterprises in much the same way that ivy crawls across a wall. The connection to art comes so natural, that I respond almost unthinkingly, presupposing its intrinsic richness and worth. Reflection upon the subject has taught me that we are inevitably a story-telling people, who seek meaning in the creative and perpetual re-telling of our lives. And for those who have suffered inexplicable tragedy or the hidden burdens of mental illness, art is the most obvious consoler. It may not resolve the riddle of suffering, but it does speak to the heart of it; art names the complexities of human experience with the exquisite stroke of a brush, the rhyme of a verse, or the arc of a body in full expression. It does not answer every question, and therefore avoids the false trapping of providing fixed solutions where there may be none. Its technically disciplined, emotionally unrestrained rendering of our lives may be just the companion, not the explanation, we most desire.

And yet, beyond its abilities to assuage and console, art has been employed as a goad to prod social action and reform. In his article, “What Art Can and Can’t Do,” writer Philip Yancey laments how slow society can be to hear the prophetic witness that art offers. He cites Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who while recognized for his own work, reminds us of “his colleagues who died unknown in the gulag, their works taken to the grave with them” (The Best Spiritual Writing, ed. Philip Zaleski). Governments and churches may endorse artists, but they also have a track record of censoring, limiting and dictating the subject and message expressed.

Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, claimed that in order for a work of art to be considered religious, it need not be explicitly themed so. In other words, a biblical scene or gilded halo was not the litmus test for religious art. Rather, Tillich argued that what made a work “religious” was the degree to which it touched upon deep existential concerns within the human condition.

And yet, my hunch is that despite Tillich’s influence, unless the performance or composition is overtly religious we are not accustomed to granting it that cachet. We may call a movie inspiring or meaningful, but do we acknowledge its substantive religious qualities? Or do we insist on keeping separate boxes for religion and culture?

In a recent blog entry for IMAGE journal, Tony Woodlief, comments upon this disconnect in reverse. He explains how contrived, inauthentic and overly sentimental Christian movies can be, particularly when their singular focus is to tell a “wholesome” story. That word,” Woodlief says, “applied to art is a lie on its face, because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.” We are spoon-fed a kitschy faith that glosses over our painful, messy lives in order that an account of the faith may read more like a marketable Christian formula than a stripped confession. When religion is reduced to these utilitarian means (conversion, unflinching devotion, cure-alls and solutions) it becomes magic. And when art is subjected to a similar contortionist act, prohibited from speaking of the profanities that dot and streak our world, it is no longer art, but propaganda. It is no longer at the service of truth, but enslaved to a political agenda paranoid of dissent and the lose of control.

When asked by a group of Jesuits how to inspire vocations, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach (former superior general), responded, “Live your own joyfully!” It would seem the real challenge is not conversion, apologetics, or staging a missionary-style intervention, but actually living and openly beholding the mysteries of the spiritual life as they unfurl. Our lives should speak for themselves and for the divine drama conspiring within them. That might mean that some questions go unanswered. Some critical tensions may not immediately resolve. Assumptions may shatter and the seemingly unmovable bulwarks of faith may tremble. But in beholding these cosmic shifts of understanding and bearing them freely before one another, a new song emerges, which is what we call art (and really good theology).