Revelation 21:2 is the last thing a careful reader of Genesis 1–11 would expect: in the remade world, the center of God’s creative delight is not a Garden, but a City. And a city is, by definition, a place where culture reaches critical mass—a place where culture eclipses the natural world as the most important feature we must make something of. Somehow the city, the embodiment of concentrated human culture, has been transformed from the site of sin and judgment to the ultimate expression of grace, a gift coming “down out of heaven from God.”
—Culture Making, p.122
Just three blocks from Lincoln Center, they arrived at the concert on Thursday night by shelter bus, not taxi or limousine. They took their seats around scarred, round folding tables. The menu was chicken curry and rice served on paper plates.
These concertgoers were eight tired, homeless men who had been taken to the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church shelter for the night. They listened to the latest performance by Kelly Hall-Tompkins, a professional violinist who has been playing in shelters for five years under the banner of Music Kitchen.
Ms. Hall-Tompkins is not the only do-gooder in the classical music world. Orchestras nationwide took part in a food drive this fall, and Classical Action raises money for AIDS programs through concerts and other activities. Hospital Audiences brings musicians and other performers into wards. But most classical music institutions — orchestras, opera houses and conservatories — pour their philanthropic efforts into large-scale music education for children, supported by hefty fund-raising and marketing machines. They organize youth orchestras; play concerts in poor, urban schools; and provide lessons.
Music Kitchen has a catchy motto (“Food for the Soul”), T-shirts with a logo and a pool of donors. But the operation is essentially Ms. Hall-Tompkins, 38, an ambitious New York freelancer who plays in the New Jersey Symphony and has a midlevel solo and chamber music career.
“I like sharing music with people, and they have zero access to it,” Ms. Hall-Tompkins said of her homeless audiences. “It’s very moving to me that I can find people in a place perhaps when they have a greater need for, and a heightened sensitivity to, beauty.”
At any rate, the best analogy for the experience of hearing these childhood “voices” of mine is that it was like going around with your own private masseur, who spent all his time giving you back—and shoulder—rubs (which my biological mother also used to do whenever I was sick in bed, using rubbing alcohol and baby powder and also changing the pillowcases, so that they were clean and cool; the experience of the voices was analogous to the feeling of turning a pillow over to the cool side). Sometimes the experience of the voices was ecstatic, sometimes so much so that it was almost too intense for me—as when you first bite into an apple or a confection that tastes so delicious and causes such a flood of oral juices that there is a moment of intense pain in your mouth and glands—particularly in the late afternoons of spring and summer, when the sunlight on sunny days achieved moments of immanence and became the color of beaten gold and was itself (the light, as if it were taste) so delicious that it was almost too much to stand, and I would lie on the pile of large pillows in our living room and roll back and forth in an agony of delight and tell my mother, who always read on the couch, that I felt so good and full and ecstatic that I could hardly bear it, and I remember her pursing her lips, trying not to laugh, and saying in the driest possible voice that she found it hard to feel too much sympathy or concern for this problem and was confident that I could survive this level of ecstasy, and that I probably didn’t need to be rushed to the emergency room, and at such moments my love and affection for my mother’s dry humor and love became, stacked atop the original ecstasy, so intense that I almost had to stifle a scream of pleasure as I rolled ecstatically between the pillows and the books on the floor. I do not have any real idea what my mother—an exceptional, truly lovable woman—made of having a child who sometimes suffered actual fits of ecstasy; and I do not know whether she herself had them. Nevertheless, the experience of the real but unobservable and unexplainable “voices” and the ecstatic feelings they often aroused doubtless contributed to my reverence for magic and my faith that magic not only permeated the everyday world but did so in a way that was thoroughly benign and altruistic and wished me well. I was never the sort of child who believed in “monsters under the bed” or vampires, or who needed a night-light in his bedroom; on the contrary, my father (who clearly “enjoyed” me and my eccentricities) once laughingly told my mother that he thought I might suffer from a type of benign psychosis called “antiparanoia,” in which I seemed to believe that I was the object of an intricate universal conspiracy to make me so happy I could hardly stand it.
Thomas Chisholm, who sometimes described himself as “just an old shoe,” was born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1866. He was converted when he was 27, became a pastor at 36, but had to retire one year later due to poor health. He spent the majority of the rest of his life as a life insurance agent in New Jersey. He died in 1960 at the age of 93. During his life he wrote over 1200 poems, most of which no one will ever hear.
But back in 1923, at the “beyond his prime” age of 57, Thomas Chisholm sent a few of his poems to William Runyan at the Hope Publishing Company. One of them was "Great is Thy Faithfulness," based on Lamentations 3:22-23.
Similarly, these passion pieces are punctuated with grace notes, and this mysterious working of grace is something I've likewise often considered in my political reporting: grace in its original sense as gratis, for free. One works and works at something, which then happens of its own accord: it would not have happened without all the prior work, true, but its happening cannot be said to have resulted from all that work, the way effects are said to result from a series of causes. There is all the work, which is preparation, preparation for receptivity, but then there is something beyond that which is gratis, for free. August 1980 in Gdansk, Poland, would never have happened without the years and years of tenuous labor by a small band of seemingly marginal activists—on one denies this—but when that strike suddenly happened, it seemed to come out of nowhere, to happen all by itself. Everyone still talks about this (particularly the activists), talks about and wonders at the sudden overwhelming sense of rightness that descended on the place at that moment.
“One of the most impressive features of being a student is how aware you are of a twenty-four-hour work cycle. When you conceive of what you have to do for school, it’s not in terms of nine to five but in terms of what you can physically do in a week while still achieving a variety of goals in a variety of realms—social, romantic, sexual, extracurricular, résumé-building, academic commitments.” Alex was eager to dispel the notion that students who took Adderall were “academic automatons who are using it in order to be first in their class, or in order to be an obvious admit to law school or the first accepted at a consulting firm.” In fact, he said, “it’s often people”—mainly guys—“who are looking in some way to compensate for activities that are detrimental to their performance.” He explained, “At Harvard, at least, most people are to some degree realistic about it. . . . I don’t think people who take Adderall are aiming to be the top person in the class. I think they’re aiming to be among the best. Or maybe not even among the best. At the most basic level, they aim to do better than they would have otherwise.”
We are not building the kingdom by our own efforts, no. The Kingdom remains God’s gift, new creation, sheer grace. But, as part of that grace already poured out in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, we are building for the kingdom. I use the image of the eleventh-century stonemason, probably illiterate, working away on one or two blocks of stone according to the orders given to him. He isn’t building the Cathedral; he is building for the Cathedral. When the master mason/architect gathers up all the small pieces of stone at which people have been working away, he will put them into the great edifice which he’s had in mind all along and which he alone can build—but for which we can and must build in the present time. Note 1 Corinthians 3, the Temple-building picture, and the way it relates directly to 1 Cor 15.58: what you do in the Lord is not in vain, because of the resurrection.
I have absolutely no idea how it might be that a great symphony or painting, or the small act of love and gentleness shown to an elderly patient dying in hospital, or Wilberforce campaigning to end the slave trade, or the sudden generosity which makes a street beggar happy all day—how any or all of those find a place in God’s eventual kingdom. He’s the architect, not me. He has given us instructions on the little bits of stone we are meant to be carving. How he puts them together is his business.
The Negro has already come outside. His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure he has received ashes. When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importune bonus?
It is impossible to say.
The descent of grace, like the upwelling of passion, occurs in the lives of individuals as well as in the lives of polities, and though such occurrences are often fraught with significance, they can also be quite comical as well. There is something both marvelous and hilarious at watching the humdrum suddenly take flight.
—Lawrence Weschler, A Wanderer in the Perfect City
Especially in evangelical circles, many will argue that earth is to be burnt up in the Judgment fire of God, and everything will be destroyed anyhow, so why worry about culture at all. Wright walks through this issue carefully in his book [Surprised by Hope], noting and clarifying many theological nuances deftly, correcting the knee-jerk anti-culture stance of the “Left Behind” theology. Even if you do not fully agree with all of his theological conclusions, his arguments are worth exploring.
I’ve always wondered why, for instance, in 2 Peter 3:10, it is not the earth that is burned up, but heaven. (“The heavens will disappear with a roar.”) And why 1 Corinthians 3 gives a resounding nod to the remarkable idea that even our works, and not only our souls, will remain after the Judgment. Further, as another theologian, Richard Mouw, points out in his wonderful book, When the Kings Come Marching in: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem, Isaiah 60 and Revelation seem to point to the final celebration of the coming of this new Reality, would have pagan Kings and secular ships sailing into the edges of New Jerusalem. In other words, cultural influencers of all types, whether classified as Christians or not, seem to end up joining the parade in some way. . . .
Culture shaping is not an escapist activity from our current woes: instead it is breathing life into the very ashes from our present and our past, and finding, with T.S. Eliot, “the still point of the turning world.” Generative creativity flows out of not just Eden, but out of this reality of “Life after Life after Death.” We can begin to deposit our efforts into the future, rather than hope to escape into our Edenic past. Our earth, no matter how bleak, is full of promise on this side of Easter. Heaven can invade into our art of life, right in the midst of our ground zeros.
And if the earth acts as a conduit of heaven, then this yeast-like hope can be worked into the dough of culture. Naturally, as I pondered Wright’s comments, I began to ask what if art is infused with heaven, what would that art look like? If true understanding of heaven is not mere escapism, but the physical manifestation of the “substance of things hoped for,” (Hebrews 11:1) then art needs to echo this promise into tangible reality. If Wright is correct, then even ephemeral expressions done in faith will remain etched in eternal reality, and somehow earth, all of earth, is fair game for heaven’s invasion. And every act, done in faith, will count.
The biggest barrier between Catholics and the confessional, however, may be the real effort it requires. Unloading your transgressions on the Internet takes a few computer clicks—you can do it on your coffee break. But done right, Catholic confession demands a rigorous examination of conscience and real contrition, to say nothing of the prayers you may be assigned for penance and the thinking a priest may ask you to do about the ways you’ve let yourself and God down. No wonder we are more comfortable with the Eucharist service, which demands only that we line up like consumers and accept something for free. Dorothy Day wrote of having to “rack your brain for even the beginnings of sin.” That’s work.