Finding the Art in Everything

10 April, 2008

On Neighbors

A sage friend of mine has done a series of posts this week on Thoreau, and before commenting, I want to express my gratitude.

Not raised with a profound appreciation for the Transcendentalists (they're clever phrase-turners but wacky, self-absorbed, impractical men), I am always so delighted when someone reminds me of how good they are. I have a friend, who, for years has championed Emerson, especially his early discussions of prayer, and now I work with someone whose (invisible) daily t-shirt reads "I'd rather be at Walden." It's not only my sage friend's contemplative posts for which I am grateful, but his commitment to pursuing what is Good--and what makes him Good.

He says, " I read one of Dan Brown's books over the Christmas break--Angels and Demons. And I'll say about it what I said after reading The DaVinci Code: Dan Brown is good with suspense and plot, but he's not much of a craftsman when it comes to prose. But now, I want to add this: Did reading either of these books improve my life in any way? Did they inspire me to greatness? Did they show me any truth about my life, or about the human condition? Did they help me to understand anything about myself and my relationship to the world?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions is no.

And of course, the answer to this problem is to choose your friends wisely, and to spend time (and effort) developing the relationships in your life that matter."

I had a conversation with my little sister tonight about why we don't watch / listen to / read junk. She had tried to show me a YouTube video with a parody song for "Snakes on a Plane." It came from my brother who watches an enormous amount of TV, has only ever read 4 books, and listens to everything; sometimes it seems his only criterion is "The coarser the better." I resent his ability to mold my sister into his likeness--a poster-child for Thoreau's "underbred and low-lived and illiterate..."

With my sister, I am free to speak in terms of a common faith that I don't really share with my brother. At fifteen, she possesses a passion for truth, a desire to know God, and a human compassion that belies her age. That she might become mired in YouTube (at best) poses and urgent crisis--one that makes me examine my drive to "find the art in everything." With Megan, I could easily say, "We avoid this stuff because God tells us to," and her concern for living rightly wouldn't need much more of an explanation. But she deserves more than that--we both do--as YouTube and "Will.I.Am" threaten to devour her.

I think about giving her Thoreau, but I remember I have something a little more meaningful. While I am so pleased by the excerpt from Thoreau that reminds me how to live rightly, I forgot I already had excerpts that practically teach us to do this.

We pursue Homer, Michelangelo, Madison (Federalist Papers), and Haydn because we are directed to:

St. Paul urges the Philippians, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things... And the God of peace will be with you."

Also, he urges the Thessalonians, "Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil."

While I put these verses in my brain in something like 5th grade, I only recently saw freedom and direction in them.I am stuck here at how relevant the specific passages of the bible are. (I probably wouldn't have been so startled by this, but I have spent the last 6 months or more wrestling with a paralyzing practical agnosticism worthy of a dozen posts.)

I was raised with a contempt for the Trancendentalists because their humanism and "Oversoul" theology is out of line with my God-centered, spiritually specific one. But I need to read Plato. I need to read Madison. I need to read Donne and Dostoyevsky. I need to read these because they are right and noble and excellent, even if we aren't in perfect agreement. Thoreau's pursuit of meaningful neighbors is meaningful to me.

Here is what startled me: I am meant to be, by tradition and habit, odds with Thoreau, while the Thoreauvians are at even greater odds with traditional Christian teachings. Yet, they match!

I am free to read everything and only keep what is good. And I am not just free, I am required to. Herein lies an even great direction for living rightly.

Shortly before Jesus is crucified, he fervently prays for his disciples in the upper room, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified."

Those who follow Christ are meant to be in the world, but not of it--quite the familiar Christian phrase.

It is in pursuit of this ideal--being in the world but not being a part of it-- that has us pursuing genuine touchstones of culture in order to guard against the toll taken by YouTube and Snakes on a Plane. We stay away from things that anchor us IN the world that are of it. We fill our lives with what is good because only this reflects the true nature of our God.

Those familiar with the directions of the Bible recognize that we follow them not because we fear judgment if we don't, but because they are what brings true life and peace.

Thoreau criticizes society because its complications and materialism do not bring life. This is not new to Christians, it is orthodoxy.

And this leaves the distinct possibility that the path to sanctification is through Walden's woods.

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