Sufjan Stevens and a Few Thoughts on Mormon Art

(Cross posted on http://www.aml-online.org)

We should have known that anyone who could write a melodic, lyrical ballad about a serial killer (John Wayne Gacy) still had some secrets and mysteries to explore. In fact, he announced just that in the final lines of the John Wayne Gacy song:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid.

In his Salt Lake City concert, Sufjan Stevens talked about a dream he had had the night before. He had attended a “by invitation only” Prince concert—featuring all of the original band members. Except it wasn’t quite a concert. It was in a trailer, not a theater. And it was somebody dressed up to look like Prince, but not actually Prince. And he was doing karaoke. Badly. Nonetheless, in the dream, Sufjan and his friends were enthralled, raving about how good the performance was, deceived by their own expectations and convincing themselves that they really had seen Prince.

The dream says something about any creative artist’s fears: that we’ll produce ersatz art, imitations of imitations; that we’ll do bad karaoke instead of good, original music; that our audiences, blinded by their easily satisfied needs and wants, will tell us we’re brilliant; that they won’t know the difference between what we’ve done and what we had hoped we’d do—that our audience will be worse than we are, duped by a suggestion rather than the real thing. (Sufjan, or his set designer, played with this idea a bit, having the singers perform the first song behind a nearly transparent curtain—but we in the audience didn’t realize we were seeing through a veil until it was lifted.)

Artists risk. It’s part of the game. We risk offending people as we explore our musical/literary/what-have-you/intimate possibilities; we risk disappointing ourselves as we attempt something new, lifting not just a sheer veil but a few floorboards, and revealing secrets we might not want to show, though we realize we probably must. We gaze into the mirror like Blake before the tiger, asking, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”

Sufjan’s new “Get Real, Get Right” asks straight out: Have you forsaken, have you mistaken me for someone else?

I have been listening to Sufjan for the past couple of years, introduced to him by a friend who thought I needed to expand my musical horizons. I came to love the ballads, the unpretentious, deceptively simple songs, many of them Christian—“Come Thou Font” and “Abraham,” for example. One youtube video shows Sufjan sitting on a stool, wearing a straw hat and holding a banjo. He says, “Is it far enough away yet?” as a sound check, and then strokes his banjo strings and sings “For the Widows in Paradise” like a serenade to angels.

That particular line—“Is it far enough away yet?” could be the offset to what he is doing now, as he performs long, autobiographical songs that are anything but far away from the artist himself. The banjo still comes out—but only once or twice, a sort of assurance that he really is the artist we came to see, not somebody pretending to be Sufjan. But he is a new version of himself, changing, testing his boundaries, daring to try new sounds, thanking his audience for listening to his raw experiments in interiority, approaching his artistry like a bold lover—but indeed a lover, not a rapist. He explores his life and thoughts and draws inspiration from a schizophrenic prophet—Royal Robertson, a sign maker who cavorted with space aliens and had various visions, all recorded in peculiar art—which Sujan uses throughout the show. The music comprises unrestrained, sometimes unearthly expressions of intimate thoughts—with back-up singers and dancers, lights, some heavy metal, and unexpected harmonies. It’s brave and unsettling. Definitely not easy or familiar.

In Mormon art, and even in Mormon culture, I suspect we perpetually and unconsciously do metaphorical sound checks, asking, “Is it far enough away yet?” as we create something our parents wouldn’t be embarrassed to read, see, or hear. We tend to keep our floorboards pretty firmly nailed down—though, as my bishop/husband knows, the boards are lifted in some private settings. Which is part of the point. Though our secrets and pain may be devouring us, we do not tend to make public confession.

Well, some of us don’t. Artists DO reveal personal things through their various media. It’s part of their job. They strip away veneers and masks, they raise veils, so that we aren’t deceived by a pretense. Somewhere in their art, we should recognize something about ourselves and our connection to them or to the drumbeat or the guitar chords. We might hear a character pose a question we’ve been thinking about, too, or—even better—one we haven’t thought about at all yet, but which suddenly becomes hugely important. The art may seem self-indulgent, even narcissistic, but even such exhibitionism can be revelatory. How many self-portraits did Rembrandt leave us, and how many aspects of his personality and character did they suggest? Artists might paint their parents on crosses (My Name is Asher Lev), talk about their affairs (Updike—in just about everything he wrote), or reveal their doubts (A Grief Observed), etc.

I remember someone telling me she was surprised by a story I had written. (Oh yes, I hit controversy in my fiction, and much of it is painfully autobiographical.) The reason it surprised and actually bothered her was, as she put it, “because I know you.”

Excuse me? You know me? Look beneath the floorboards. You know what I choose to reveal. And all I know of you is what you choose to reveal. None of us will ever completely know another—not in this life, and probably not in eternity. We will have expectations of each other, and be guided by our own sign making—the semiotics of conformity (exactly the opposite of what Sufjan’s sign maker sought). How do we dress? How do we speak? How do we sermonize? How and what do we sing? We yearn for the familiar, but the familiar will merely keep us pleasantly comfortable, not urge us to press on towards new frontiers or to plumb new depths or take on new challenges, even in our most important relationships. And if our art is to be a reflection of who we are and are becoming, individually or communally, we must be primed to get uncomfortable, to allow ourselves and others to “sing a new song.”

I had expected a much different concert than what Sufjan Stevens presented. I believe his artistic evolution is continuing. I suspect that his new album, The Age of Adz, hints at a synthesis just around the corner, when “The Dress Looks Nice on You” will merge with “Vesuvius” and form something both familiar and surprising—a virgin bride walking delicately on the edge of a volcano. Both the volcano, with its unpredictable steam and bursts of magma, and the innocent bride will be creations of the same mind.

But I could be dead wrong in my hopeful suspicion. I have learned not only that my expectations might be unfulfilled, but that they might be dangerous—even lethal. If I try to shackle a dynamic soul within the confines of what I expect or want them to be, my efforts to control will become a threat, not a support. And I will cease to grow if I refuse to adjust to some new bend in the plan, or at least acknowledge it, even if I “grieve it on its way.”* I have learned this as missionaries I got to know in their very structured contexts have come home and started living beyond the frameworks I had held them in; as my children have grown into teenagers and adults with the inevitable angst and rebellion such growth includes; as my marriage has matured and my husband and I have moved beyond the sludge of resentment or resistance and into something more unpredictable and interesting than our earlier dreams might have granted. Even as we settle into routines and companionships, life still gets uncomfortable and messy, and growth can be dissonant, cacophonous. But what a magnificent mess! The cacophony itself suggests possibilities we haven’t considered before.

One of the great doctrines of Mormonism is the dynamic nature of all humans and even of godliness. I believe that the knowledge and power of God are expanding as the Church itself expands globally and into the incomprehensible Heavens. I believe that eventually, we will not only sing but shout as we join with past generations in repeating “Hosanna!” We will do it in every way available to us, clapping hands, ringing bells, flashing lights, dancing, painting, jangling tambourines. In ALL our ways (including ways we have not yet considered or discovered), we will acknowledge Him, the Creator and author of creativity, moving beyond our habits and expectations, and allowing others to do the same.

(Note: There is a whole different discussion on when the violation of expectation also violates personal ethics, but I won’t go there for now.)

* “Grieve it on its way” is from Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”

Comments

  1. Margaret, I hope Steve is tipping you for this post. It’s the best BCC post I’ve read, or certainly up there.

    I’ve privately said some of these things many times, still a little too unsure of my ideas to write about them publicly. But I have written publicly about messy things. I have been messy. And I have had people judge and look down upon me as if they felt they had chanced upon some revelation as if I had not deliberately given them all the material by which to do so. “You know what I choose to reveal.” Exactly.

    And why do so many artist-types do that? I have wondered. For me, it’s that I crave honesty and humanity. I want to really know people, not their almost-identities, and they need someone to go first. I want to be loved for my messiness, not my craftily contrived image.

    I’m embarrassed to say that I had a poem published in a literary journal this summer under a pen name. I was so afraid that certain people would find it. I was afraid to share it amongst Mormon friends and community. It’s a good poem with a number of things happening in it and I couldn’t share it at first because it (very delicately– so much so that some friends didn’t catch it at first) described a moment of female masturbation in a bathtub. That part was a metaphor for giving oneself over to the violence of a relationship.

    I tend to think of art as the medium by which we can explore and dump our thoughts and fantasies we can’t explore any other way. Some say that art should only ever uplift. I find the honesty and bravery of the artist uplifting.

  2. P.S. Sufjan’s “Holy Holy Holy” is my favourite Christmas song. :-)

  3. Loved his show at the Wiltern in Los Angeles.

    The story he shared with you about his Prince dream reminds me all too often about how I feel when fellow members tell me about how great each general conference was.

  4. Margaret Young says:

    Natasha, I fully agree with your nuanced reading of “uplifting.” I’m afraid too many want “uplifting” to mean “more goop than a five-cheese Pizza.”

    I was so nervous about how my first short story collection would be received that I had it published WITHOUT my maiden name, thinking my friends and family would assume that Margaret Young and Margaret BLAIR Young were two different people, and THEIR Margaret wouldn’t write such controversial stories. I am still largely perceived (and accurately, I hope) as a faithful Latter-day Saint who genuinely loves the gospel. But I find the gospel full of fascinating paradoxes and quandaries. And I love the messiness which undergirds (or steadily slogs beneath) our pretense of order. I love the idea that “were it not for our transgression[s]” we would not progress; that passing through sorrow (much of it chosen without a full awareness of what consequences await) is a GOOD thing. I love the dichotomies in the scriptures and in LDS doctrine in particular. And, most recently, I love Brady Udall’s _The Lonely Polygamist_, though I know I could actually lose friends if I recommended it for a Relief Society book group.
    Thanks for your compliment! I rarely blog these days, and, though I am an emeritus blogger at BCC, Steve let me in for a visit. That was his tip. It’s a nice place to visit, and I would like to live here again, if I didn’t have so much else going on.

  5. Margaret Young says:

    Narrator–Sufjan wore white wings in SLC. He wore an American Eagle t-shirt at the Wiltern. What do you make of that?

  6. Yes, that is the greatest paradox I find and think about and bring up in Sunday School: Were it not for our transgressions, we would not progress, would not learn. (By the way, people don’t really like it when I bring that up in Sunday School.) The point is not to make it back unscathed and as perfect as possible. It’s to make it back as wise as possible and able to self-govern. Part of it, anyway.

  7. “The point is not to make it back unscathed and as perfect as possible. It’s to make it back as wise as possible and able to self-govern.”

    Well said. I would add that we are charged to forgive one another and to be concerned for the welfare of our neighbors along the way. This, ideally, would seem to leave little room for the kind of narcissism that is so prevalent in the arts today.

    That said, as some of the follies of great men and women in the scriptures are laid bare for our profit and learning, LDS artists should certainly be able to find expression in their own folly — an expression given as an offering to edify their audience rather than exalt themselves.

  8. Margaret,
    I agree that many RS sisters would be scandalized if you recommended The Lonely Polygamist for their book group.

    I would rate TLP as a PG-13 read, and I know most RS sisters have no problem with PG-13 movies with far less redeeming social value than TLP. I wonder why books are held to a different standard than movies?

  9. Margaret Young says:

    Course Correction–good question! And some of the issues as to why the RS would be scandalized by TLP play right in to the “you don’t really know me” scenario. As Udall portrays the fundamentalist Mormons, they sound like US–the REAL Mormons. That’s scary and hits hard. We want distance from that past, not a recognition that present-day polygamists might have the same pictures in their homes as we mainstream Mormons do, and talk in the same ways. And honestly, when a Mormon writes anything, other Mormons will have the “Is it uplifting?” question swirling all around them, and sweepingly define some things as inappropriate, especially if written by someone they think they know. I think it’s very hard for a Mormon to write realistic fiction, because if it’s good, it’ll show some warts and conflict. We do well at science fiction/fantasy and YA/children’s books, but Mormons writing about Mormons in realistic settings will almost certainly meet resistance if they strive not only to be uplifting but honest. (I found TLP uplifting, btw.)

  10. “Mormons writing about Mormons in realistic settings will almost certainly meet resistance if they strive not only to be uplifting but honest.”

    Yeah, I wonder how much of this has to do with an over-developed sense of decorum — a vestige of Victorianism — rather than a fear of throwing a wrench in the work of building the Kingdom. All though, both may be a result of zeal with out a mature aesthetic.

  11. Margaret Young says:

    Interesting observation, Jack. I especially like your final sentence.
    A lot of it comes down to that New Era poster of the ice cream with a cockroach on it, suggesting that the insect taints the treat and makes the whole thing vomitable. In truth, we sometimes confuse chocolate chips with cockroaches (trust me on that), and there are times when eating something from insects/bugs/other is actually good for us–honey, for example; some algae; well-blended frog brains (in moderation). We can invent a contagion of allergic reactions, and Natasha points out one of the more dangerous and difficult to negotiate: sexuality. We know that we don’t want our kids to experiment with pre-marital sex, and we know that we want married people to be “fiercely loyal” to their spouses. But there are so many nuances and uncomfortable truths to deal with. Do we want our children to enter marriage with no idea of what’s supposed to happen on the wedding night? No sense of how to give and receive sexual pleasure?
    Some of the greatest books in all writing deal with adultery. You could probably name five just off the bat. My husband and I have a favorite film with adultery as its main plot point. But it is about the redemption of a marriage. (_The Painted Veil_) Absolutely beautiful. And when it was shown at BYU’s International Cinema (with a little editing), there were some strong objections. No surprise, really.

  12. I especially liked Jack’s last sentence, too.

    See, I probably would just scoop out a big chunk of ice cream from under and around the cockroach and just keep on eating.

  13. Margaret Young says:

    But frog brains provide so much besides flavor, so I would hope you’d simply enjoy the frog-ripple dessert. (And watch, the next time you order a fudge-ripple ice cream cone, you will find yourself saying “frog-ripple” instead.)

  14. The Painted Veil was a great movie, and a good example of lifting the floorboards, as it were. We so much want to not disappoint others, that we resist serving chocolate chips for fear that someone might mistake it for that cockroach on the ice cream. Often (I do this myself on occasion), our utterances from the pulpit at Testimony Meeting are designed to reassure others (and ourselves) that we really are just like everyone else out there, that we forget reality.

    When I was called as bishop some ten years ago, the previous bishop told me that when you sit on the stand and look out over your congregation, you see the best people on earth. And that every conceivable problem and sin known to mankind is either out there, or been considered by someone out there. And they are the same people.

    We shouldn’t celebrate weakness, but we should recognize its reality in all of our lives. Art seems to be the safest way to do this. Along with comforting those in need of comfort, we occasionally also need to discomfit the comfortable, which is usually ourselves.

  15. Margaret Young says:

    Kevinf, I love what you say.
    My husband is napping so I have a minute to respond.
    I can’t resist talking about _The Painted Veil_ and its use of veils and curtains throughout. Though the title predicts the imagery, it can be missed if the viewer isn’t alert. In the most moving scene of the film–the scene where the married couple, redeemed in their marriage and finally making love in a new, impassioned way–takes place mostly behind a veil (or veil-like mosquito nets). During several moments of the scene, the man and woman simply look at one another’s faces–contrasting the cold observation a friend has made to the wife earlier in the film: “Your husband never looks at you.”
    There are so many levels of brilliance in the film. She asks him early on why he didn’t challenge her lover to a fight, and he says he’s not one for fighting–something she challenges wryly, since he has been wounding her with looks and words and even the threat of death by cholera from the time he discovered her betrayal. But in this redemptive love scene, they begin to really see and love each other, fully aware that each is capable of betrayal and cruelty, but also of forgiveness and self-sacrifice.

  16. Margaret, I’ve been noodling this post for a couple of days now and my greatest anxiety relates to the dream described in your post. I fear that it is applicable to me…not just the art I make or the words I write, but the husband, father and saint I profess to be.

  17. J., yes, a disturbing dream, especially if Prince is reinterpreted to be The Prince of Peace…

  18. I’m in love with Sufjan’s new album. Thanks for the post. I really like the turn that some groups are making by incorporating a more noisy chaotic sound into their songs. ‘Too Much’, from Adz is a great example of this. Your post makes me think of it as a way to explore the dark messy side of life. it makes the more traditional parts of the songs sound all the more beautiful and inspiring.

  19. Margaret,

    This hit me at so many levels. I love Sufjan Stevens and he also speaks to me. One of my greatest fears as people will lift up the floorboards and find nothing of merit or worth. Not just no interesting corpses, but just a bunch of mud and camel crickets. I expose my secrets and no one cares–It’s just a crawl space in need of an exterminator.

    Or worse, no one wants to lift the floorboards.

    I love your perspective of a wildly creative risk. But as I attempt my own creative exposures and jeopardy, I find this fear of annihilation, not by dismissal, but by being ignored, like a street performer who people nod at, but who passby, with perhaps a coin tossed to assuage their conscious, but no one stops to listen. He shouldn’t be on this corner anyway.

    Thanks for this. I love everything you do. You are one of my heroes.

  20. It is a difficult thing, being a religious, conservative artist. Because being an Artist means giving yourself complete freedom of expression so that you subconscious can come through fully, or at least, you can write as a “whole being” (without setting intellectual boundaries, without letting fear that we are crossing those boundaries make characters or dialogue or the events in a novel, for instance, stilted and embarrassed).

    Let’s face it. As human beings we are sexual, we are angry, we are jealous and unrighteous by nature, and those themes are often very important to bring across in art, because art (for me at least) is all about Becoming. About examining why things happen and why people do the things that they do, or just examining a character completely.

    I feel like, as we stumble around in the dark for our own voice and mode of expression as artists, we sometimes cross some lines of propriety. and we need to expect that we will on occasion, and not be afraid of doing so, but just be aware, afterward (either through self-reflection or the critique of others) when those boundaries are crossed. And continually be striving for that balance.

  21. I tried to comment before, but I’m not sure it got through.

    Anyway. My thoughts on being an artist and being LDS. It’s the same problem anybody with conservative principles (or really, ANY principles) encounters when composing. Do you have limits? And if you do, are they stilting your art, making it trite and hokey, insincere, basically any evil that can occur when you’re “forcing your own value system” on another person, or when you’re trying to “send a message” in a piece of art rather than just expressing.

    I feel like, in the beginning, any artist will have to explore boundaries simply because art exists free of boundaries, or should. I suppose the most frightening possibility is that each of us has, within ourselves, something that another person might object to, and as artists we know there is no real hiding, if we want to produce something really meaningful, something that is really from our whole selves.

    When I began writing seriously, I think I sometimes purposefully crossed boundaries because I felt them there and felt a need to shake them off. But as I have continued to write, I have felt more and more comfortable with what seems to be inside me, and what I feel and need to express. And I think that, so far, it has come across the way I have wanted it to. None of my friends and family have told me that they were offended yet, though they might have been.

    I think that, selecting an audience for your work is also important. If your friend was offended by what you wrote, she might not be the best person to present the first drafts of your work to.

    This is a very important conversation, I think. I don’t know if I’m the only one who feels this way, but I do feel like a lot of LDS art comes across as trite and preachy, or skirting obvious areas of conflict. If we ever want to be recognized seriously as artists or an artistic community, we really need to be having these discussion and considering our own creative processes.

  22. Beautiful post. Beautiful comments. I haven’t felt this renewed by something I’ve read online in awhile. Thank you.

  23. SteveP, I am touched by your comment. Thank you for being so open.

    Sarah, I agree that conversations about art and boundaries within the LDS community are meaningful and important.

  24. Too few LDS artists are willing to put their lives on the line, and it is clear in their art.

    Art is birth. So what kinds of things are “born” from the body? Only waste products and babies. The former has no life and require little risk. The latter requires that the “mother” suffer, bleed, put life at risk, and the result is something that has infinite possibilities and takes on a life of its own.

  25. SteveP–You have lifted your floorboards once or twice on BCC, and I have always been fascinated and often moved by what you’ve revealed. Yeah, sometimes there are ants under your particular floorboards, but you start explaining what the ants are doing, why they matter in the whole scheme of things, and my world opens to new wonder at what God hath wrought. If there are mud and camel crickets under your floor boards, I will hunt you down to find out what I can learn from them, and I KNOW I’ll leave the conversation inspired and fascinated, and that I’ll also feel the depth of your love and compassion–which seems a strange component in a conversation about bugs, but which manages to radiate around everything you say. The only way someone wouldn’t be interested in what’s going on under your Moabite bones is if they haven’t got a clue; they’re too busy shopping for pearl earrings to bother with thoughts of how irritants metamorphose into something splendid within an oyster’s sealed shell. And creative evolution–well, you and evolution are in the same pocket of my brain–which is perpetually growing. I’m pretty sure you’re bound for glory. And many of us are watching to see hot it’ll look on you.

    Sarah and Obolus, I hope you’ll check out what we’re doing at the Association for Mormon Letters. (As mentioned, this blog post is also there, with a bit of discussion on boundaries.) Besides _The Lonely Polygamist_, I highly recommend the new collection edited by Angela Hallstrom called _Dispensation_. You can get it at Zarahemla Books. It includes some of the best writing I’ve seen anywhere. It’ll give you reason to hope in the future of Mormon art.

  26. Margaret, you just made my day!

  27. Jon Ogden says:

    Great post! I admire the fact that Sufjan hasn’t just replicated the same formula that led to his breakthrough. The fact that he’s one of the few to risk so much (on many levels—his recent SLC concert was the most unconventional concert I’ve been to), leads me to admire him as an artist. I agree: Mormons should follow his lead. I think more risk, more unconventionality would serve our artistic community well.

  28. I think we sometimes confuse brazenness with brilliance. Lifting the floor boards really only requires brazenness. But lifting them and then relating the madness that’s found there in a way that speaks to the empathetic sensibilities of the audience may require brilliance. It’s like tracking Mcbeth’s tragic downward spiral. Most of us who read that account will not be murderers — and yet we will comprehend his demise. It’s terrifying and wonderful.

  29. Margaret Young says:

    Oooh, Jack, I like that comment a lot. My husband and I saw a wonderful performance of _Macbeth_ this summer at London’s Globe just as I was becoming aware of some tragedies in a friend’s life, of some awful choices she was making which I knew would lead to heartbreak. The lines came to life for me in a way they never had before. I remember this one in particular:

    And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
    The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
    Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
    In deepest consequence.

    It’s not just that we watch Macbeth fall; we wonder if we would be stronger than he. Would we recognize the lies and half-truths? Would we be capable of being deceived if we were promised something we yearned for and thought we ought to have (kingship, a better lover, a little fame, money)? Could our ambition persuade us that we were climbing to some great height when were were actually on the precipice of a cliff?
    The whole idea that “under the floorboards” of our private attics might lurk someone terrifyingly like Macbeth, Raskolnikov, Faust, Goneril, Regan, or Melville’s Ahab is at the core of much great literature. (_The Brothers Karamazov_ comes to mind.)
    And Jon is certainly right that we need to be willing to face our shadows, especially in our art.

  30. I like this post and conversation.

    My post is somewhat of a tangent to the conversation about honesty in art – somewhat related. I wanted to comment from a therapist/wanna-be artist’s point of view about “knowing” another person.

    You wrote,
    “None of us will ever completely know another—not in this life, and probably not in eternity.”

    I liked this part of your post – but disagree somewhat (maybe that’s why I like it). I think truly knowing the other, though somewhat impossible (in this life), IS life eternal.

    During the intercessory prayer Christ prayed, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

    Carl Rogers wrote beautifully about empathy (a type of knowing/understanding). He proposed an approach in relationships that started with “not knowing.” Borrowed somewhat from Buddhist traditions, “not-knowing” applied to relationships puts us in the mindset of acknowledging and accepting the reality of our lack of knowing/understanding the other. Human biases, limitations, weaknesses, judgments then hold less sway in our relational approach because we take the power away from these manifestations of the natural man by acknowledging our ignorance in approaching the other. Ironically we come to know and understand the other better after approaching from such a position.

    It’s amazing to see the similarities between Rogers’ formation of what he called the “core conditions of psychotherapy” and what we believe Christ’s atonement to be. Rogers’ core conditions: unconditional positive regard, congruence, and genuine empathy (experiencing from the others’ frame of reference w/o losing self). Rogers’ version of person-hood held some sense of knowing (similar to our LDS belief) – that each person (each organism) is to be valued and is capable of unique potential, growth and actualization.

    This belief or value was critical to his view of people and so it is with us Mormons. We can believe that even John Wayne Gacy was created by and will be judged by one who knows/understands/experiences him intimately and fully.

    That kind of understanding does not come easy. See D&C 88:6. Christ not only peaks under the floor boards but he camps out there, descends below all things, and maintains his Godliness as one who is mighty to save.

  31. Margaret Young says:

    Great final paragraph, Kent, and some intriguing ideas. I am influenced by Levinas, and genuinely believe that we never fully comprehend or grasp the “other.” Certainly, as you say in your lovely post, empathy is the path to BETTER understanding, but it is still not a full knowledge. I even wonder if God knows us completely or if, because of our eternal nature and our eternal freedom and capacity to grow, we can reveal nuances which God might smile upon, simply acknowledging that some new aspect we’re growing into, or some characteristic we’re developing was always a possibility.

  32. Yeah – the idea of “truly knowing” is hard to argue as something that can be completed – especially if eternal progression is part of the equation.

    I like the idea that knowing God and others is a part of “becoming” and that as you put it we “better” understand and know each other as we progress.

  33. Part of what an artist does is convey that the viewer or listener or reader is gaining an insight and coming to knowing.

    It is, of course, jarring for both the fan and the artist to realize that is a fraud. That the revelations of self are contrived and inherently unreliable.

    But I would not blame the fan for that.

  34. Kent & Margaret, I like what you are on to here. Perhaps the infinite and immeasurable aspect of the human being is part of what Isaiah alludes to in Ch. 33 when he asks, “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us will dwell with everlasting burnings?” Resurrection will certainly change us and our relationships. As will glimpsing the vastness of God’s works, which he himself has claimed “have no end”. Not to mention having our small family branches sealed by covenant to the vast, incomprehensible tree of individuals that the Father is sealed to.

    This reminds me of Kubrick’s 2001, where Dave, on the verge of making contact with the alien other (and the infinite which that suggests), stumbles upon artificial intelligence within the HAL super computer on board his ship. Here he encounters the infinite that remains between the human and techne… a god-inferring relationship… and he is forced to euthanize AI in order to survive and complete his mission to contact ET. His mind responds to these two infinities by being blown in the last sequence of the film. The inference might be that such decisions should be reserved for gods and not people.

    Christ did indeed go under the floorboards, and he answered the twisted blades and frothy black he encountered there with an infinite response. This is where I think Jack’s comment (28) leads us in the right direction concerning art, because on top of everything else that the Atonement accomplished with regards to justice and mercy, it was also an incomparable work of art. There is no need to recklessly offend to open people.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that one must risk much, even your life, to respond infinitely as Christ does. Indeed, the choice to bend to the light of Christ rather than the natural man is a far reaching risk in any of our lives. But just as much an artistic statement as any Kubrick or David Lynch film.

  35. Margaret Young says:

    Lovely responses! Thanks!

  36. Margaret Young says:

    Obolus, I am fascinated by your discussion of Kubrick’s _2001_. You should write a big post on it. Really intriguing thoughts. But can you euthanize a computer? And is it euthanasia if the computer doesn’t want to cease its almost living–if it keeps saying, “Dave, what are you doing? What are you doing, Dave?”

  37. Thomas Parkin says:

    “unconditional positive regard”

    This sets me to recall some things that Ray has recently written on his blog about how ‘charity beareth all things.’

    Sometimes artifice is only artifice: pastiche. Sometimes it is a flaming sword set to guard the way, protecting our pearls. We only let past those willing to pass through the flame. I’m cautious when others _bare_ their souls, because reflection on myself has shown me that it can be a most ingenious way of throwing people off the scent. And I don’t mind having to work to get to know you; I don’t mind difficult art. I’ve certainly had to work to get to know myself. ~

  38. Margaret Young says:

    Thomas, any time I see one of your comments on BCC, I want to come back. I love what you say. Always.

  39. Mark Brown says:

    But what a magnificent mess!

    Margaret, that is the best description I have ever heard of our second estate. We need to somehow work it into the missionary discussions about the plan of salvation.

  40. Margaret Young says:

    Happy to supply photos of Bruce’s office if you’d like a visual aid, Mark.

  41. Thomas Parkin says:

    Thank ye, Margaret. You always lift my morale.

    To celebrate being appreciated by someone this caliber, I’m going to stop on the way home and get a Mexican Coca-Cola and two of those corn dog thingies at 7-11.

  42. “But can you euthanize a computer? And is it euthanasia if the computer doesn’t want to cease its almost living–if it keeps saying, “Dave, what are you doing? What are you doing, Dave?”

    Those are pertinent questions, Margaret. The following is from a book I am writing on Sci-Fi & the body as a temple:

    I don’t think the problem with HAL 9000 was that he malfunctioned. The problem was that he gained consciousness. I guess you could say that the “conflicting orders” HAL had to follow messed with his functions, but I really don’t think it changes the fact that he became self-aware and committed acts of deception & self-preservation. When Dave awoke from hibernation on Discovery One, he didn’t exactly know that his mission was to “make contact” with E.T., but by the time he found out that it was, Dave had already unwittingly made contact with A.I.

    So the dream/trip sequence that occurs after Dave shuts HAL down and descends upon the monolith is just as much a reaction to the former as it is to the latter. When faced with the notion of moving on after choosing between extra terrestrials and artificial intelligence, any of us would space out and see visions much like he did. Why? Because the choice he was faced with is one generally reserved for gods, not people.

    So just when he’s about to engage the infinite realm of possible life outside of humanity, Dave stumbles upon the infinite possibilities that remain locked away inside of it. It was simply too much for a man that was utterly alone, and he engaged these two expanding universes, these two infinities, almost simultaneously.

    In this way, Dave was a little like Deckard from Blade Runner. You know, the guy who didn’t know that he wasn’t a real person. The deeper Deckard got into this notion of “retiring” his (unbeknownst to him) fellow replicant androids, the more theoretical he got about having a relationship with Rachel. At first he essentially thought, “Well, we made her. So if I fall for her, that’s like a god forgetting his own identity and loving his creation in a god/slave scenario”. But eventually he arrived at, “What’s the real difference between us anyway?”, and this ends up being just as important a question for Dave as it was for Deckard.

    HAL, you see, didn’t just blow a server or a memory card and stop functioning properly. He lied to the crew, he attacked Frank from behind, and he refused to let Dave back into the ship… all of these, really, just the typical actions of a common adolescent or child throwing a tantrum. So when Dave shut HAL down, which he had to do to survive, what _he_ understood this action to be on an implicit level was maybe part euthanasia and/or part survival killing. It was certainly more than a mere powering down of a CPU. So HAL’s demise got to him. And just like Deckard, Dave started dreaming.

    This space between infinite spheres where Dave resides at the end of the film is a lot like the mandorla we see in the opening pages of each issue of Dialogue; two circles of equal size, each overlapping the other to the point of intersecting the center. Of course a “dialogue” creates some common ground between participants. But when the person is the living personification of that middle ground (btwn AI/ET, heaven/earth, male/female, God/human, Etc.) it is a moment of immense revelation and insight. Hence, the mandorla is a great symbol for the temple, the terrestrial world, and also for the need you address in the OP for artists to evolve and change expectations in order to grow.

    It is difficult ground to achieve and maintain. I think Dave’s mind-blown response is par for the course.

  43. Bitherwack says:

    When I was growing up, artist meant painter, now it means musician. Now even painter means house painter. Give us back our words!

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