by Daniel Harrell
French mystic Simone Weil once acknowledged how there are but “two things that pierce the human soul: beauty and affliction.” In regard to beauty, Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs remarked how, “When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” In regard to affliction, Apple’s sales and profits suffered a double digit decline last quarter, despite nice wood on the back, a fate the dominant technology company had not experienced since 2001 way before the iPhone. These days over two-thirds of Apple’s revenue is iPhone sales and the last quarter was miserable for the company’s signature gadget.
I think iPhone sales are down because everybody already has one. What other single possession better represents contemporary human identity? I am my iPhone: my face and photos, my map and my money, my preferences and purchases, my translator and calendar, my personality and image, my status and best friend, my access to happiness and status. Marie Wonders frightened our fifth grade parents on Wednesday talking about the temptations kids face from iPhones in their pockets, from sexting to snapchat. Social critics have long bemoaned the solipsism, obsessiveness and self-indulgence iPhones feed, a temptation to which we humans have caved since biting that first apple in a quest for control on par with God’s. Though the Lord bequeathed to Adam and Eve everything they could have ever needed or wanted, as soon as he said don’t touch the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they had to have that too. Knowledge is power.
And we all want a little power, right? I mean his baby packs more amps than my refrigerator, and infinitely more speed than the computer I got as a graduate school graduation gift. It knows my location and my likes and dislikes, what I need and where I need to be to get it and how. It allows me to read and do research, listen to and make music and movies, all the while avoiding eye contact and awkward face-to-face conversation with actual people. I can text and tweet and take pictures of myself and paste myself anywhere on the planet. This being Mother’s Day (Happy Mother’s Day), I can send my mother pictures of me to carry on her phone. She’s so proud I’m a preacher. Not that I should stop with my mother. I can share myself with the whole world if I want—check this out: the Selfie is the only modern day Trinity: me, me and me. That snake was right, with a bite of this apple I can be like God!
Ah, but such is the lure of the devil’s lie. Adam and Eve had everything they could have needed or wanted but it wasn’t enough. God said don’t touch so they wanted that too. Having it all turned out to be too much. Paradise lost, we selfies now suffer not only quarterly decline but continual loss, a disturbing saga Psalm 27 laments, as “evildoers assail me to devour my flesh,” “an army encamps against me,” “false witnesses rise against me and breathe out violence.”
“The Lord is my light and salvation,” but beauty gets measured in proportion to our affliction. Simone Weil understood that longing for beauty is a longing for God; we finally want what we need, no more, much more, but it feels too late to save us. The Psalmist cries, “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!”
Many of you are fans of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, one pastor’s translation of the entire Bible. He rendered this last line of Psalm 27: “Don’t throw me out, don’t abandon me God; you’ve always kept the door open.” This is true. The Lord let us have it by letting us go, but ever since he’s left the light on to woo us back. The gospel is the story of relentless grace, the love of God piercing even his own soul to get to ours. Our ultimate longing is eternity, for beauty and salvation. “I’m asking GOD for one thing, only one thing: To live with him in his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet. That’s the only quiet, secure place in a noisy world, the perfect getaway, far from the buzz of traffic.”
Eugene Peterson was a pastor for thirty years and an author of thirty books, including The Message. A gifted translator of Hebrew and Greek, Peterson said that “for a number of years I translated from Hebrew several psalms for my congregation into what I thought of as speaking ‘American.’ It was a pastoral act, a way of teaching them to pray. A common difficulty in developing a life of prayer is trying to be ‘nice’ before God, using polite language, telling God what we think he wants to hear. But the psalms, the prayer book of the Bible, are not at all nice or polite. The Hebrew in which they were first prayed and written is a rough language, down-to-earth, very little of which we would designate ‘spiritual,’ and certainly nothing pious. The Hebrews used the same language when they prayed that they used to scold their children, buy and sell in the market, praise the beauties of mountain and stream, eagles and doves, and complain bitterly of injustice and betrayal.”
Peterson’s translations of Psalms eventually led to his translating the New Testament and then the Old Testament too, completed after many years in his own perfect getaway, far from the buzz of traffic—a family cabin on Flathead Lake in Montana near Glacier National Park. As with his writing, Peterson has been generous with his house in Montana, welcoming guests for contemplation and retreat, a place to gaze at the beauty of the Lord. Most famously of late, Eugene Peterson welcomed Bono, the lead singer of the epic Irish rock band U2. Bono reached out after being moved by Peterson’s rendition of the Psalms and invited the Reverend to roll with the band on tour, to come and talk about Scripture and honesty and music and beauty. Shockingly, Peterson declined, saying he had a publishing deadline to meet as he was still working on the Message Old Testament. Are you kidding? Who declines an invitation to be with Bono for a publishing deadline? Peterson replied, “I had an appointment with Isaiah.”
I’m taking these Easter Sundays to share things I learned on the generous sabbatical you granted me at Fuller Seminary with my family this past winter (thank you again). While at Fuller, I attended a seminar of culture, beauty and the arts which featured work from the Seminary’s film studio. Theology and Culture professor, David Taylor, part of Fuller’s Center for Worship and Art, was wrapping up a short piece that rendezvoused Bono with Eugene Peterson in Montana to talk about the Psalms. Here’s the conversation.
Of course the best things about iPhones happen when you turn the camera around, when self-absorption gets absorbed by something greater. Beauty does this. Bono describes beauty as “not decorative, but essential.” It pierces our soul and opens us up. Beauty is grace: it delights our senses, refreshes our spirits, captures our attention and invites us to linger and wonder and be overwhelmed. Beauty aims beyond productivity to pleasure, beyond survival to satisfaction, beyond nourishment to flavor, beyond efficiency to extravagance, beyond sufficiency to lavishness, goodness with gladness, beyond time to eternity. Simone Weil said, “everything beautiful has a mark of eternity.” We chose to drive out to California and back so we could stop and behold all the beauty between here and Pasadena. We didn’t make it to Glacier National Park, but did travel to Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Yosemite, the Grand Tetons and the Badlands. The natural grandeur was all that and more. While in Pasadena too, whether on the beaches or in the mountains, under the sun or in museums, admiring great artists and their painting and sculpture, or gardens, not to mention music and dance, all of it piercing deeply and drawing out joy, without demand or expectation of any outcome, no justification or reason. I found myself thinking of my own life, my efforts and striving and expenditure and activity, and wondered, what am I doing that’s simply beautiful?
I was proud of my daughter for preferring to hike National Parks over riding roller coasters at Disneyland or Universal Studios. We took in real tigers and giraffes in San Diego rather than Mickey Mouse or Minions. In a way, we were more travelers than tourists. Historically, to travel derives from the same word as travail, the trial and hard work of climbing up a waterfall or making our way along a an icy ravine or a river, pushing and sweating at times for the reward of reaching a vista. Conversely, the word tour comes from the Latin word tornus—a tool for making circles. A tourist is literally one who passively goes round and round and round, like on a tour bus or a theme park ride, a spectator experience contrived and fabricated. Writer Peter Marty thinks of churches as comprised of both spiritual travelers and tourists. Tourists show up for a passive experience, happy to drop by when occasion and mood permit, to spectate and consume, glad that the bagels are fresh. Travelers come to God’s house to immerse their lives in the Lord and satisfy their souls, to let themselves to be swallowed by light and enormity and transformed by worship, breathing the spirit and traversing the Jesus way, a long obedience in the same direction, as Eugene Peterson names it, travail being part of the travel package, both beauty and affliction. “The Lord will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble… he will set me high on a rock.”
The Psalmists employ beautiful and troubling verse with imagery and metaphor as a travelogue. Psalms are not meant to be preached, but sung, prayed and experienced. To explain them only ruins them. Like their Creator, Psalmists are poets and performance artists. A Christian understanding of beauty begins by realizing that God does not need us or creation, that he crafts and creates solely for love’s sake. Beauty paints the why of life, ultimate meaning and grants that taste of eternity. Beauty pulls me out outward toward that which is greater than me, my source, my sustainer and salvation. Beauty defies explanation so to redeem us at our heart.
For a look at a few photos from our travels shown in church and my inner Ken Burns, click here.