Wednesday 6 June 2018

The Resurrection Business - Michael Martin's 'Jesus the Imagination'

Michael Martin is a remarkable man, and Jesus the Imagination - subtitled 'a journal of spiritual revolution' - is a remarkable publication. Martin is a poet, professor, and musician, who lives on a small organic farm in Michigan with his wife and nine children. It was on this farm, on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene in 2016, that Jesus the Imagination was conceived, 'in temperatures,' as he tells us in his introduction, 'sweltering to ninety-seven degrees. That evening we chanted Divine Liturgy in the barn, broke bread, and swam beneath the stars in the darkness of the pond. Some of the participants of that conference are represented in these pages, some were present in spirit, and some were somehow awakened to the impulse by methods quite beyond my knowing. Our intention was then, and is now, not altogether modest: the regeneration of Christian art and culture.'

Born into a working-class milieu in Detroit, Martin is a Byzantine Rite Catholic who taught at a Waldorf Steiner school for eighteen years. This breadth and depth of spiritual interest and experience comes across clearly in the contributions to Jesus the Imagination (Volume One), published by Angelico Press in July 2017. The journal is a beautifully designed paperback of 103 pages, containing poems, essays and drawings, all pulling together towards Martin's vision of artistic and cultural renewal. As he writes: 

'Sri Aurobindo, the Indian philosopher and poet, was adamant about the prophetic role of the arts. Writing in the second decade of the twentieth-century, he argued that "all art worth the name must go beyond the visible, must show us something that is hidden, and in its total effect not reproduce but create." William Blake, preceding Aurobindo by more than two hundred years, articulated a position even more pointed: "Let every Christian as much is in him lies engage himself openly and publicly before all the World in some Mental pursuit for the Building up of Jerusalem." Is there any other way to be a Christian? I think not.'

'Art has the potential to create a new Gospel every day,' Martin continues. 'Not a different one, but a new one ...' It is the Incarnation, Martin believes, which makes this creativity possible. The centrality of the Incarnation and what this means regarding how we relate to the Earth and to each other is powerfully conveyed in a number of essays. Yurodivy, a meditation on the Russian concept of the Holy Fool by Therese Schroeder-Sheker, stands out in this respect, as does Scott F. Martin's The Benthic and the Celestial, a reflection on the great sea of life surrounding us, which our limited human vision fails to perceive, from the microcosmic to the angelic. Perhaps the most notable contribution here is Little Green Men Against Muddy Red Creatures by Sebastian Montiel and Aaron Riches. The authors compare Pope Francis's encyclical, Laudato Si - an example of a God-centred ecology, with men and women as stewards of God's creation - with Antoine de Saint-Exupery's fable, Le Petit Prince, which offers a superficially attractive, yet ultimately a less grounded and much colder vision of our relationship with the environment.

Jesus the Imagination, as these essays illustrate, is a profoundly anti-gnostic publication. For Martin and his fellow-contributors, the world is intrinsically good and the God who made it is good. It is not designed to torment and imprison us. Neither was it fashioned by a corrupt and spiteful demiurge. Nor were we thrown into it without rhyme or reason, condemned to scrabble around for scraps of subjective meaning in a universe which has no objective meaning. No. The fault lies in ourselves, not the world. We have let our spiritual vision become occluded. We fail to recognise and act upon the signs of God's presence in his creation. Jesus the Imagination is an attempt to cleanse and renew these 'doors of perception', restoring the connection between the human and the Divine, and repairing the links (damaged by ourselves, not God) which keep us, as the Book of Common Prayer says, 'in the knowledge and the love of God, and of his son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.'

The journal, consequently, has a strong emphasis on the natural world, but this comes together with a celebration of our intellectual and creative faculties, and an appreciation of how crucial they are in our 'mental fight' against the 'dark Satanic mills' of our time. Some of the best essays in Jesus the Imagination explore this theme (e.g. Michael Sauter's, Ultimate Reality and the Matter of John Cowper Powys, and A Spring Ending for The Winter's Tale by Father Jonathan Tobias) but none better, in my view, than Word Hunger by Elias Crim, which nails with pinpoint clarity the nature of the spiritual malaise assailing us today:

'... the danger we face turns out not to be Orwellian, that is, a world of book burning and externally imposed repression, perhaps leading to the gulag. It is instead Huxleyan, a soma-imbibing dreamscape in which there is no reason to ban a book because no-one wants to read one. Instead of Orwell's censorship, Huxley saw us drowning in information leading to passivity and mere egoism. Not a captive culture so much as a trvial culture, built upon an almost infinite appetite for distraction.'

Crim's remedy is what he calls 'deep reading', a slow, prayerful encounter with the sacred texts of Christianity in their original languages. He gives the example of Simone Weil, whose 'fierce love of Ancient Greek finally brought her to the Our Father in that language, after which she made it her life prayer, becoming for her a vehicle of regular mystical experience ... Sacred language surely has an incarnational dimension which insists we at certain times avoid ersatz bread (translations) in order to dine on 'panis angelicus' ... '

Here we see another characteristic of Jesus the Imagination. It is rooted in tradition, but doesn't lionise the past or try to recapture the glories of a former age. Quite the reverse. It boldly looks  forward, as Martin declares in his introduction: 'The regeneration of Christian art and culture ... is always already happening; it calls us into the future and cautions us against retreating into the past. For backwards is the way of the fearful. St. Peter almost drowned following that approach. The Lord bids us walk with him on the sea.'

This comes over especially clearly in the journal's centrepiece, a previously unpublished interview with Owen Barfield by James R. Whetmore, tellingly titled, On the Edge of the Unthinkable. The great French metaphysician, René Guénon (1886-1951) and the Traditionalist school of writers he inspired are much discussed in this conversation. Barfield's courteous but firm rebuttal of their narrative of cyclical decline and renewal is both energising and inspiring. While acknowledging the spiritual darkness of our epoch, Barfield restores agency to the individual, who, in Guénon's schemata, has no role to play in the drama of our times except sit on his or her hands and wait for the Iron Age to end and the new Golden Age to begin. Charles Upton, in his poem Messiah (also featured in Jesus the Imagination), asks all the relevant questions here. The contribution we can make in the Great Battle between good and evil might not always be clear or obvious, but each of us is a child of God with a unique, probably surprising, never unimportant destiny to fulfill. As Upton enquires:

Who are we
Who were born at the end?
Are we the best, or the worst of men?
Latter-day saints,
Or demons in human form?
What bitter, medicinal juice
Was destined to be twisted out of us
That we came here to breathe, and walk
In this time
And at this place?

We are stewards. Stewards of our souls and stewards of the land with big jobs to do. That's my response to Upton's questions, and I feel that's the answer Jesus the Imagination makes too. Whetmore's interview reminds us that despite current difficulties, there is still everything to play for spiritually. Our age, in fact, might be less about apocalypse and more to do with arrested development, a spiritual and mental stage akin to adolescence which God is asking us to transcend. In pre-modern times men and women felt close to God in an intuitive, often unconscious, and usually highly collective fashion. We have lost that bond today but we are called to regain it, not by 'following an antique drum' as T.S. Eliot says in Little Gidding but by actively choosing the Good - which we now have the capability to do - and becoming fully conscious partners with the Divine in a way that our less individualised ancestors never could. We have to find a way of letting this individualised consciousness lead us closer to God rather than further away.

The great problem today, however, is that an excess of individual liberty - with 'choice' seen as the sole and supreme good - is corroding the political and social foundations of the West. We are ruled by an increasingly illiberal form of liberalism which lacks coherence (politicians and commentators, for instance, championing LGBT rights and an increased Islamic presence) and seems bent on undermining any sense of objective standards and values. It is not surprising, in such a climate, that many Christians are advocating a complete withdrawal from the secular world and the creation of alternative, 'underground' networks of co-religionists as the only way traditional faith-based communities can weather the storm and build for a more sympathetic future.

Rod Dreher's famous book, The Benedict Option (2017), is the best-known example of this. While Michael Martin has sympathy for Dreher's position, Jesus the Imagination chooses a different path, which Martin calls the Sophia Option. 'My contention,' he writes on his blog is that if we begin with joy and love for the Risen One and train ourselves to recognise his Wisdom (Sophia) in Creation we will be carrying the seeds of spiritual and cultural regeneration within us and spreading them throughout the world ... We need to be in the resurrection business.'

'The Sophia Option,' Martin goes on, 'is a response to the most fundamental of questions: what is the best way to live? It is not a flight from the world. Nor is it something so radically new as to be incomprehensible. Rather, the Sophia Option seeks to take the essence of the tradition, the essence of Christendom, and practice it as a lived reality mindful of our vocation to renew the world, a world in constant need of renewal.'

'We need to be in the resurrection business.' That, for me, is the key sentence. It's no good hunkering down, going 'off grid' and hoping that the illiberal liberal state will somehow ignore us. It's pointless planting seeds for better times ahead if all we can offer in tough times is a defensive posture and a surrender of the public square to the enemy. It's always better, surely to goodness, to go to the place of attack and live out our faith with such verve and panache that our faces shine and people cry out in astonishment, 'I never knew that that's what being a Christian was all about.' The 'living water' Christ offers the Samaritan woman in the Fourth Gospel is offered to ourselves too. It contains everything we need and want - from the wildest ecstasy to the profoundest peace, and more besides - the healing of harms and the fulfilment of our deepest, most secret desire - that all-consuming passion for Reality and Truth, which is hard to articulate, leads us down blind alleys at times, expresses itself oddly at others, and which the mind forgets but the heart remembers and stores up in itself, waiting for One to come to speak the Word of power, break the dam and bring the whole lot flooding out. Only then do we become Real. Only then does the living water flow; in ourselves and in our communities. The Waste Land is healed and life begins anew. This is the resurrection business, and this is what Jesus the Imagination brings to the table.

'Come,' says the woman of Samaria. 'See a man, which told me all things that ever I did.' She might have added, 'and all the joys, sorrows, hopes, fears, thoughts and dreams that ever I had.' If people could come to understand - not just intellectually, but in their bones - that this is the heart of Christianity - this level of intimacy, empathy and encounter - then the false paths to fulfilment offered by the world would lose their allure and we could begin to talk seriously at last about the possibility of a Christian renaissance.

Getting from here to there isn't easy though. It calls for daring, audacity, and a radical shake up in how we convey the Christian story, finding the balance between remaining rooted in tradition and taking to heart Christ's statement of intent in Revelation - 'Behold, I make all things new.'

This is the tightrope that Jesus the Imagination walks, and it does it with panache, style, and no little success. It's publication is a massive step in the right direction. It is not without its faults, of course. Some of the poetry lacks a bit of edge, while one or two of the essays read like they have been translated from a foreign language, and not very well either. But these are trifling caveats when set against the largeness of vision and the passion, flair, and sheer spiritual vitality that bristles between its covers.

The only questions that remain are for the readers of this blog. Jesus the Imagination is universal in its themes but naturally tends to speak with a North American voice. What then would a British-based equivalent look and feel like? What would be its raison d'être? How might it get its point across? What could we expect to find on its contents page? Does anyone see value in such a venture and feel ready to risk taking it on? Our thanks are very much due to Michael Martin then, for showing us what can and indeed must be done at this hour.


Jesus the Imagination Volume One can be purchased at the Angelico Press site here.
Volume Two has recently been published and can be purchased at the same site here. Its theme is 'the being of marriage', and features an interview with legendary Liverpool music collective, The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. As a sample of their work, check out what they do with R.S. Thomas's poem, The Bright Field, in this beautiful clip.
Jesus the Imagination also has a Facebook group which can be found here.


Wurmbrand said...

John, "many Christians are advocating a complete withdrawal from the secular world and the creation of alternative, 'underground' networks of co-religionists as the only way traditional faith-based communities can weather the storm and build for a more sympathetic future" isn't an accurate statement of what Dreher's Benedict Option advocates. I've read it a couple of times and made a presentation loosely connected with it to a pastors' group, and would say that, rather, Dreher urges is a deeper seriousness for Christians as regards the sacramental and liturgical life together, catechesis, etc., so that our roots go deeper in the truth. An aspect of this movement is a withdrawal not from the secular world, but from organizations attempting to bring Christian renewal about through a right-wing version of the Social Gospel and so on. Dreher believes that state-supported removal of vestiges of Christianity will continue in schools, law, government, entertainment, etc., but that Christians have excellent resources in our heritage to help us to be able to pass on the Faith to our children. (As you may remember from an earlier message from me here, I think that the question "What about our children?" needs to be up front in our thinking. It is easy to amuse ourselves with endless diagnosing of the ills of modern society, with saying predictable things about trends, etc., but this might not be very good stewardship of the time and opportunity that remain to us for ensuring the transmission of the Faith -- for the sake of others. The New Testament suggests that God is more interested in us doing things like that, than in our exchanging variations on things we have said before with a handful of like-minded people. I do think that some of that goes on here; at any rate, I know that it does in my life. But am I supporting orthodox ministries that will actually help to pass on the Faith and equip people who are alive when I am an old man or dead?)

Dreher is to be commended for writing his call for Christians to "strengthen the things that remain." Yes, we need occasionally to take note of further advances by the enemy, since there is a war on, but we should remember that Christians are to be prepared to give an account of what they have done with the time and resources entrusted to them. I hope that a lot of people who visit this blog and may have heard of Dreher's book, and who think they already know what it says, will take time to read it for themselves.

Dale Nelson

John Fitzgerald said...

Good point Dale, thanks very much.