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  • Who Defines Beauty?

    by Lara d'Entremont I never picked goldenrods for my bouquets. In spring and summer, this was easy; I found beautiful flowers of purple and pink each time we went for a walk. But as fall began to lurk in my backyard, goldenrod became one of my few choices. I stood with my hands on the stroller staring at the rows of goldenrod on the side of the road. Would I rather have an empty pitcher in my bathroom than have those flowers in my home? In elementary school, I took up a hobby of picking bouquets of wildflowers for my mother. While she worked on training the young horse, I ran around outside the fence gathering flowers for her. Irises, ferns, daisies, and, yes, goldenrod. One night as I proudly handed my mom my latest creation, my father scoffed. “What are you doing picking that old ragweed for? Go find something better.” I never forgot those words. As a little girl, I took them to mean that I didn’t have an eye for beauty like my father did, and that I had failed yet again—just like when I struggled with math, picked up my mother’s accent, was too slow to understand his horse-riding instructions, and my anxiety made me “act the fool.” Choosing ragweed for a bouquet was yet another way I didn’t match up, so I decided I’d never pick it again—that was at least one “fault” I had control over. After that walk on the road, I saw a picture someone had shared of a vase full of goldenrod, and its simple beauty captured me. At that moment, my mind tied off a loose thread. I’ve done a lot of work to re-tie and weave what my father tore apart in my mind and, in that moment, I drew together more of those loose ends. One of the questions I had to answer: Who defines beauty? Is beauty simply in the eye of the beholder? Or, is there something definite about beauty so that we can collectively declare this is beautiful but that is not? Is Beauty Subjective? My four-year-old son thinks that everything small and tiny is cute. A puppy, a kitten, an itty-bitty toad, a mosquito, and even a red spider the size of a pen tip are all “so cute.” As someone with a fear of spiders, I disagree—just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s cute. Like my toddler, who reduced the definition of cute to anything small, I fear we have reduced our definition of beauty to what can only be seen with our eyes or causes a feeling within us. I wonder if we’ve compromised—that we settled for something less than true beauty in our desperate pursuit of it. The psalmist declared, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4 ESV). If the pursuit of beauty should lead us to God, is it possible we have forgotten His definition of beauty? In The Picture of Dorian Gray (a novel by Oscar Wilde published in 1890), the word beauty is often mentioned, but not in its true sense. Dorian Gray is a young, rich, and beautiful boy who fears growing old and losing his charming good looks as an older friend convinces him that youth and beauty are all that we should desire in life. In a moment of grief over this realization, he wishes for a painting to absorb all his blemishes—from both aging and from sin—while he remains young and handsome. When this wish comes true, Dorian throws all wisdom, prudence, and virtue away and pursues what he defines as beauty and happiness, while the portrait of himself grows uglier and more grotesque with each passing day. To distract himself from guilt, shame, and fear of being found out, he fills his home with “beautiful” things, spending his immense wealth on whatever fancies him for that year. This pursuit of beauty leads him further and further away from any kind of virtue or goodness. While Dorian remains young and attractive on the outside, his portrait grows viler and uglier each day, reflecting the true state of his soul. Is what Dorian Gray and his friends define as beauty truly beauty? Could the pursuit of beauty lead to corruption? The world will raise up its own definitions of beauty, like it did for Dorian Gray. We can choose the kind of beauty that leads to discontentment, greed, and other vices, forming us into something grotesque and ugly, like the portrait of Dorian. Or we can choose to run after beauty that is also true and good, and let that form us into Christ-likeness. The Inseparability of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Truth, beauty, and goodness have been considered transcendent, objective realities for hundreds of years. The concept can be traced back as far as Plato and Aristotle in some form. Christians have since grasped this saying, considering it to be part of the attributes of God that are reflected in creation, especially man and woman. While truth, beauty, and goodness all rely on one another, truth must always be the foundation, because things can appear beautiful without being true or good Our definitions of truth, beauty, and goodness must always begin in Scripture. I’ve read “beautifully” written heresies and watched the world twist an idea to appear good when it was far from it. Consider the world’s claim that to be beautiful is to look young—dye or pluck every gray hair and smooth out every wrinkle. Another example is how some theologians eloquently deny Jesus’ perfection, distorting the wonder of the gospel. These may have the appearance of beauty and goodness, yet lack truth. If we set truth as our foundation, there we can see beauty and goodness more truly and clearly. This isn’t to lessen beauty and goodness, but to hold them to the highest standard that God intended for them. We dilute beauty and goodness when we don’t hold them to the standard of truth—because to be good and beautiful, they must first be true. And truth is not ours to decide, but to find in God by what he’s revealed in his Word and his natural world. There’s nuance in this. Dorian Gray is a beautiful novel, not only for its message but also for Wilde’s witty and gripping prose. Yet many over the decades have declared this novel one of grotesque sin due to its content of murder, drug use, carousing, selfishness, and sexual immorality. What those critics have missed is that Wilde’s book, despite the fact that his own life much resembled that of Dorian Gray, is an indictment on such darkness (albeit a hypocritical one), and that cannot be missed as Dorian’s portrait takes on the ugliness and horrors of Dorian’s lifestyle and heart. Sometimes beauty looks like entering the darkness to show how vile this world can be on this side of Genesis 3 to show our need for a Savior. In discussing objective beauty, a friend of mine said, “I dislike yellow flowers; I don’t think they are pretty, and I won’t have them in my home. But because they are made by God, I know they are beautiful.” We all have preferences (which is human and good), yet objective beauty always remains the same. In a similar way, some passages of Scripture aren’t as clear as others, and we must do our best to interpret them in light of what is clear, such as the gospel and doctrine of God. Ultimately, beauty must direct our gaze out from ourselves and towards God and the virtues he calls us to. As Vigen Guroian writes in Tending the Heart of Virtue, “St. Augustine speaks of a form of love that he calls frui, a Latin word. The value of this love is not in any use to which its object be put. It is, rather, a love for the sheer pleasure or delight an object brings and the transcendent beauty that reaches one through it.” He says the absence of this kind of beauty likewise creates a longing within us for it, but “in the end, this love and longing set the individual on a ‘road right out of the self’” and straight to God himself. Do we desire beauty because it leads us to God? Is the beauty we are seeking the kind that even could lead us to God, or is it all simply vanity like what Dorian Gray pursued? Beauty must be selfless—it’s not about drawing attention to ourselves, earning praise for our lovely homes or well-styled closets, but bringing glory to the most beautiful Person of all. This isn’t a kind of self-loathing where we never think of or care for ourselves, but rather a turning from pride. At times pride draws us to desire fleeting or external beauty so that we can impress those around us. Yet the pursuit of true beauty should lead to worship of the Most Beautiful. The Pursuit of True Beauty When my husband and I first got married, we lived in his parents’ summer camp. My sister-in-law and her husband had lived in it previously, and we often joked that it was like living in a space shuttle with its tinfoil-like insulation covering the walls. The floors were painted plywood. It was perfect for a camp, but Pinterest left me feeling discontented. I ogled at the beautiful, white kitchens and hardwood floors of others. I knew I should find my contentment in Christ, but I also longed for a prettier home. Throughout that year, I took for granted the beauty of nature just outside my door. We lived on a dirt road in a low-populated part of our community. We were encased in trees on every side, but those trees opened to the river that roared only a few meters from our deck. In the forest behind our home, an old rock wall built years ago stood covered in moss and lichen-like castle remains. A tree with a dizzying amount of rings towered back there as well. Across the road to the part of the river that raced under the bridge, trees stretched over the flowing waters and fields of tall, golden grass swayed in the breeze. I searched for beauty behind a computer screen and wished for what the world at that time had declared beautiful. Meanwhile, God’s timeless, hand-crafted beauty beckoned me from outside the space-ready walls of my home. That was around six years ago. I miss that home sometimes—and wish I could sit out on that deck again. I now live in our third home. I still don’t have the bright white kitchen cabinets. One recent day, when that discontentment gripped me again, I stepped outside and crossed the road to the old railroad tracks. I jogged down the flower-brimmed hill, past the sagging apple trees, across the tracks, and through the winding paths by the seaside to the shoreline. I walked along the paths where the bramble and wild roses waved at me in the wind. I breathed in the salty air. That day, I refused to miss out on the beauty God has put around me this time. I decided that discontentment would no longer keep me from witnessing God’s goodness and creative hand. As we walked these trails as a family again, I stopped my husband on the side of the road and asked him to pick some goldenrod for me. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t question. He plucked the goldenrod and placed it in the bottom of our stroller, and I put them in the pitcher in the bathroom.  I’ve learned that my dad doesn’t know everything, and he definitely doesn’t get to define beauty. Beauty is defined by God, and he created this world and called it good—and that includes the goldenrod that grows on the side of the dusty roads. Photo by Olli Kilpi on Unsplash

  • Our Year Without a Car (With Kids)

    by Gracy Olmstead When we moved to Oxford, we committed to 10 months without a car. We have three children aged six and under, so we knew it wouldn’t always be easy. But we also hoped our carless state would help us to 1) save money, 2) encourage us to enjoy and explore Oxford on foot. That means we’ve had 10 months of no car seats, no road trips, no errand runs via car. We’ve had to teach our children to use public transportation, to walk farther than they want to, and to be smart and savvy while crossing streets. I'm writing this in hopes that it will be helpful to tease out some of the things we’ve learned over this year without a car. Walking As I proceeded to and from school, I found there were excellent walking and biking paths toward town I could use, and multiple bus routes that were easy and safe to access. The time cost was largest with walking (it would take me 30 to 45 minutes to get to my nearest school building), but the benefits of walking were also huge. It gave me opportunities to exercise, to pause mentally and emotionally, and to enjoy the beautiful scenery and architecture around Oxford. Walking my commute, especially when the weather was nice, also provided opportunities for the sorts of serendipitous encounters that build friendship and community: I constantly ran into people I know, and have found this one of the most important factors in cultivating a sense of belonging in a given place. When we haphazardly encounter people we know, we realize that we are part of a communal fabric that is large, complex, and fluid: it helps us to connect specific streets, parks, and buildings with ideas of commitment, accountability, and care. The street grid and the relational networks we depend on become layered, part of each other in an inextricable fashion. And this is the sort of process, I would argue, that builds our deeper love for a place. As long as our networks of community and built environment remain separate, we grow a more detached admiration. We will likely appreciate the place where we live, but we may not feel part of it in the same way we do when we realize, “Around that corner, or the next, I might see someone I know.” For me, at least, the process of serendipitous encounter shapes a strikingly different experience of the city. It changes the way I perceive a place, as well as the way I explore it. For our children, walking has been both their favorite thing and the most annoying chore we asked of them. They love walking to the nearby woods and exploring, strolling along the Thames, or venturing up to the Ashmolean museum or the Natural Science museum. On these trips, we’ve always had either a stroller or a baby carrier, and have given our 4-year-old shoulder rides as needed. Our 6-year-old has had to finish these walks, since she’s too big to carry, and has thus learned to think about how far she wants to go with this knowledge in mind. She’s grown stronger and more resilient, both mentally and physically, as a result. The mental endurance is important to emphasize here, I think, because (as long as you aren’t asking them to go too far) walking is not difficult for a child. It’s the mental hurdle of embracing the tedium of walking, the slow process of getting from point A to point B, that is often harder. Walking teaches a child patience. Let’s be honest—it teaches adults patience! We’ve all grown accustomed to instant gratification when it comes to transportation. Tiny Perfect Things is one of my favorite books for teaching the skills of mental resilience while walking. It beautifully portrays the imaginative vision and habits of attention that walking can cultivate and teaches children and adults to look closely as they journey on walks. Walking becomes a formative habit of delight, one that can be enjoyed for its own sake, and not just for its destination. When we are walking together, my children and I play “I Spy,” or try and find all the colors of the rainbow. We look for tiny rocks, shells, or wildflowers. We use phone apps to identify plants, trees, and birds. And I try to use the time to ask them questions about their favorite things, about their hopes and plans for the weeks, and about the things they’re grateful for. Taking the bus We’ve also found the bus to be an excellent and important means of transportation. It’s way cheaper than the car, and more environmentally friendly. It’s also a space in which we can try to cultivate the sorts of behaviors and habits that support community. On the bus, or at the bus stop, we build up “little debts” and courtesies that encourage us to be neighborly. Some bus drivers wave people on board when they don’t have the right coins, others recognize our routines and know our stops. I’ve met little old ladies who play games with my tired toddlers, helping me avoid a tantrum (or two) as we wait to get home. And then there are the random conversations I’ve had with friendly people at the bus stop: an AI scientist, a clarinetist, an Oxford native who knows all the streets and buildings that have changed over time. Riding the bus can be taxing, exhausting, annoying. Sometimes I—or my children—just wanted to get home. But the bus has also given me opportunities to think through the ideas of membership and courtesy as they play out in our daily lives. As David Sax recently wrote for The New York Times, “Engagement with strangers is at the core of our social contract. … Far from random human inconveniences, strangers are actually one of the richest and most important resources we have. They connect us to the community, teach us empathy, build civility, and are full of surprise and potentially wonder.” I do not know how much my four-year-old will remember from our time in Oxford, but I do know she’ll remember and love the double-decker buses. Other Travel We honestly did not leave Oxford much. We’ve been to London a couple times, and got to see Tewkesbury and Gloucester in March. (Tewkesbury Abbey is beautiful!) We also did one longer trip to Cornwall for a few days, and our girls loved searching for shells and walking along the shore. But as my husband noted in conversation, life without a car has prompted us to simply enjoy where we are to a greater degree. We’ve spent almost the entire last 10 months in the same five-mile radius. And we don’t regret that. We’ve received the opportunity to really enjoy Oxford, and to develop daily habits and haunts in this lovely place. There are other places in the UK and in Europe that we’d love to see someday. But I think we’ll have sweeter memories of Oxford because we savored our time here. I will admit that I have missed having a car with kids. Sometimes it would just be nice to have the option to drive. Sometimes I just don’t want to make my tired kids walk the last half mile back to the house. Some days my shoulders are sore from the previous day of holding a weary baby or toddler while walking back home. And there can be something really sweet about the process of driving somewhere as a family. We’ve done some road trips together, and have really enjoyed them. But walking is also special, and I think if our family did it more often in the future, it would be good for all of us. It’s building habits of love and attentiveness and resilience that will stick with us, I hope, as we all get older. Back in 2018, I wrote a piece titled “The Art of the Stroll,” which sought to unpack some of these ideas a bit. I wrote about my grandfather, who lived in one town for 50 years and walked the same routes daily throughout those years. I’m sharing an excerpt here, because it helps explain how I’ve grown to feel about walking over time: "There’s a vast difference between getting to know a place with your two feet, and knowing it via car. As a runner, I’ve noticed that my speed greatly influences my ability to take in passing geography; even at a jog, I miss details. Experiencing a street at 25 miles per hour cuts out huge chunks of detail and color, desperation and beauty. Our gaze is limited by the necessary act of keeping our eyes on the road, as well as by the detachment the car offers via insulated windows, air conditioning, stereo speakers, children talking or crying, or companions laughing. As Rebecca Solnit notes in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, cars are necessarily insular spaces—and as we travel in them, we disconnect from the world around us. “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors—home, car, gym, office, shops—disconnected from each other,” she writes. “On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” Walking is a slow and porous experience. The words we use to describe it—meandering, sauntering, strolling—have their own leisurely and gentle cadence and suggest a sort of unhurried enjoyment. But to walk is also to be vulnerable: it forces us into physical interaction with surrounding streets, homes, and people. This can delay us, annoy us, even put us in danger. But it connects us to community in a way that cars never can. In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith writes that love is a habit: a daily training of our souls. By immersing ourselves in specific “liturgies”—daily rhythms, habits, and stories—we shape or tune our hearts to specific loves. This training is “more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory,” writes Smith. “The goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play ‘naturally,’ as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.” While Smith’s book is focused on ecclesiastical worship and love for God, his theory of the human heart and the importance of liturgy applies to every area of human life. After all, if we are ruled by our hearts and not just our heads, then every practice we engage in is important in the formation of our desires and our character. Every ritual and rhythm is ingraining something into the fabric of our being. My grandfather’s walks were—or at least, with time, became—a ritual of love, a daily recitation of devotion to Moscow, one block at a time. And as he spent time out loving his city, it comforted and loved him in return. “When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” Solnit writes in Wanderlust. “The more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back.” Gracy Olmstead is a journalist who focuses on farming, localism, and family. She is the author of Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind. Her writing has been published in The American Conservative, The Week, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Christianity Today, among others. Read more of Gracy's writing on her Substack, Granola. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • A Liturgy for Yard Work by Douglas McKelvey

    This liturgy is taken from Every Moment Holy Volume 3 from Rabbit Room Press. You can find more liturgies like these at by Douglas McKelvey O God Who Planted a Garden and gave it into the care of our first father and mother, Let me now tend these grounds, this yard, this plot of land ’round my dwelling—not as an endless, thankless annoyance, but as a glad and faithful stewarding. Let me find delight in the shaping of this landscape into a more ordered and beautiful place. Let my labors cultivate a space wherein friends and family might meet, or play, or simply pause and take delight. Indeed, Lord, let me consciously love my neighbors through this act, by laboring to bring order and beauty to their neighborhood, passively affirming their dignity through diligence in my own stewardship of lands their eyes must daily dwell upon. Through my tending of living, growing things, let me offer those who dwell nearby refreshing glimpses of beauty rather than of clutter and decay, of harmony rather than disorder, and of attentive care rather than long neglect. As you commissioned Adam and Eve to cultivate and expand the borders of that first garden, so would I express your deep care of all creation in my own endeavors today. I would invest my sweat to nurture and enhance the graceful lay of these grounds, that they might be better liberated to speak a truer word. And though I must toil now, hindered by the limitations of a broken world, still let my labors lean into that truer vision of this lawn—and of all nature—liberated at last from the great groaning of creation, no longer fraught with drought and thorn and weed, and need of constant moil merely to make it something other than unruly. Indeed, let me glimpse in the fruits of this struggle some hint of what it might mean, O Christ, to cultivate this corner of creation in a time after you have fashioned all things anew. What might it mean to co-labor then with these redeemed and willing lands, shaping them into artful places—lush and beautiful and bursting with unexpected delights, bringing joy to hearts and pleasure to eyes; to craft a complex harmony of fragrance, form, and hue, that those robed in renewed bodies might one day wander through, and be moved to wonder and to worship? What might it mean to meet no more resistance in the nature of things, but instead to enjoy a ready partnership with tree and soil and hedge and budding flower, all responding—with the right delight of leafy things—to my every tender tending, as I shepherd their shapes to a more exquisite beauty and a more sublime expression of grace? As I tease out the quiet depths of each of these living, radiant displays of your glory and your joy? Ah Lord, let me approach my labors even now, this day, in anticipation of that coming day when blight will be no more; when the glory of the Lord will rest gentle upon these lands, ever blessing these works of our hands; when the order and beauty of our gardens will emerge as ceaseless songs of praise. Let me lift that veil in some small way even by my labors today, O Lord. Let me glimpse in growing things, some hint of your unseen kingdom. Let me shape here a living poetry that whispers words of grace to all who pause to listen. Amen. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • Poetry's Mad Instead

    by Abram Van Engen Most people do not read poetry. According to a 2018 survey, only 12 percent of adults in the United States (nearly 28 million people) had read poetry in the past year. That’s not bad, to be sure (and it’s twice what it was in 2012), but it’s nothing like other genres. Non-fiction always has an audience. Memoirs make for bestsellers. Novels find their way to the beach. But only occasionally, as with Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, does poetry spill over its borders in a massively popular way. Looked at inversely, the 2018 survey suggests that in the prior year 88% of American adults had not found a moment—or a reason—to read a poem. I read poetry. I teach poetry. And, in a podcast I co-host called Poetry For All, I talk about poems all the time. I cover religious and non-religious poetry for religious and non-religious audiences, but I believe that poetry has a particular place in the church. I think it responds directly to the call and the invitation of God to “sing a new song.” And in the singing of poetry, the faithful can begin to understand and experience and engage God’s world afresh. Let me illustrate with a poem. Whenever I teach poetry at church, I begin with “Praise in Summer” by Richard Wilbur. Here’s the gist of the poem: the poet, stunned by the beauty of a summer’s day, feels “called to praise” whoever created it. It’s a normal sort of feeling. A grand summer day can do that to anyone. But then, to the poet’s surprise, he does something strange. He flips the world upside down. We can almost see him lying on his back and imagining the sky beneath his feet and the ground above his head. In such a world, branches become roots, and roots become branches. Moles soar through the dirt above while sparrows tunnel through the air below. The world turned upside-down is mysterious and wonderful and strange. And that’s how the poem begins: Obscurely yet most surely called to praise, As sometimes summer calls us all, I said The hills are heavens full of branching ways Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead; I said the trees are mines in air, I said See how the sparrow burrows in the sky! That exclamation mark at the end of line 6 ends this vision of an upside-down world. And in the next line, the poet starts to question himself. What is he doing? If he feels called to praise on a stunning day, why is he turning the world on its head? It is an act of madness—a “mad instead,” he admits. In his imagination, he commits an almost perverse “uncreation” of the created world and revels in wrenching things awry. Look at the questions Wilbur asks himself: And then I wondered why this mad instead Perverts our praise to uncreation, why Such savors in this wrenching things awry. The wondering leads to a question: Does sense so stale that it must needs derange The world to know it? To a praiseful eye Should it not be enough of fresh and strange That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day? What the poet realizes is that our delight is infirm. There is something wrong with us. Our senses stale at the same sights, however glorious they may be. And so he changes what we see. What if the sky were soil and the soil were sky? What if we could see roots like branches? What if we could imagine moles chasing stars beneath the graves? What if the sparrow made burrows in the air? Such strange sights cause us to wonder, and, in wondering, they renew and re-engage creation as it actually is. Imagining the world upside-down allows us to return to the world right-side-up. Isn’t it amazing that “trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, / And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?” What a world. What a wonder. What an extraordinary summer’s day. Whenever I read Wilbur’s poem, I’m reminded of a great passage from G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, where he talks about precisely the same problem of our stale senses. Nature repeats itself, but something there is that doesn’t like a repetition. “Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase,” Chesterton writes: "It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we." Chesterton and Wilbur were both Christians, and both were trying to figure out why our praise so often sours and sticks in our throat. How is it that we lose the capacity to wonder? And conversely, how is it that grief and guilt and sin and injustice in this world no longer touch or move us as they ought? These are questions poets ask often, whether Christian or not, and their answer frequently turns to what Wilbur calls “this mad instead.” Poets “pervert to uncreation” so that they and we and whoever encounters their poem can see with fresh eyes the world as it is made. They renovate the senses by wrenching things awry. Wilbur’s poem is a classic ars poetica—a poem about the writing of poetry itself. In offering his defense and explanation of poetry, Wilbur offers us two solid reasons for writing and reading poems. Most subtly, he suggests that we simply can’t help ourselves. We do it already, whether we recognize it or not. Look at how he winks at the reader in the last line of the poem: sparrows “sweep the ceiling of our day.” The ceiling of our day? He just said that we shouldn’t need to wrench things awry, and then he falls into metaphor. The sky becomes a ceiling. More than that, Wilbur flips the world again. What are the sparrows doing? They are sweeping the ceiling. But wait a second: we don’t sweep ceilings. We sweep floors. Not only has the sky become a ceiling; the ceiling is acting like a floor. What is happening here? What’s happening is what we can’t stop from happening: the simplest speech acts fall again and again into metaphor. Poetry is a regular part of speech. As the classic book Metaphors We Live By demonstrated so forcefully, we rely on metaphors in myriad ways throughout the day. To give just one example, we speak as though time is money. We talk about saving time or how we spend it, and when we talk that way, we don’t think of ourselves as entering into metaphor. We think of ourselves as speaking plainly. Poetry reminds us that even in plain speech, metaphors abound. Living in language, poets help us pay attention to the language that we use. But secondly, and more obviously, Wilbur makes his case for poetry through a particular device called defamiliarization. Defamiliarization is the technical term for wrenching things awry. It means taking what is familiar and making it unfamiliar so that we can see it with fresh eyes—so that we can do as scripture calls us to do and “sing a new song.” The word “defamiliarization” comes from a Russian formalist critic named Viktor Schklovsky, and this is what Schklovsky said: “Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war … And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” To make the stone stony. To see that the tree is green—and to be reminded that a green tree is amazing. To notice the birds flying or the moles burrowing beneath our feet. The simplest things we no longer see are the marvelous deeds of the Lord as much as manna from heaven and miracles of healing. We need the poets to “sing a new song” because our senses so often stale. In Psalm 96, the Hebrew word for “new” can also be translated “fresh.” Poets make things fresh. By taking the all-too-familiar and making it unfamiliar, they help us to see the world anew. The more we know about poetry, the more we can see how many devices and inventions a poet deploys to sing a fresh song. And here, the reader’s task can become a delight. What we know of Wilbur’s poem to this point is plenty enough. We’ve got the sense of the thing, and that’s fine. But if we want to enter more deeply, we can. And what we find when we do is that Wilbur is being winsome throughout. “Praise In Summer” is a sonnet, a kind of poem that dates back seven centuries to Petrarch and the Italian Renaissance. A sonnet is always fourteen lines, and it generally requires a specific rhyme scheme that breaks the poem into different parts. Traditionally, a sonnet has two main parts: an eight-line opening (called the octet) and a six-line closing (called the sestet). Usually, these parts pose a question and then an answer, or a sight and then an insight. Between those parts lies a turn, called a volta (from the Italian), which comes at the start of the ninth line. That is the classic sonnet, inherited from Petrarch, transformed by Shakespeare, and passed on to each new generation through countless reinventions. These days, whenever readers of poetry find a poem of fourteen lines, they immediately think sonnet, and they start to look for the poem’s parts, trying to locate how the writer might be messing with tradition. For that is the real secret of sonnets: precisely because they come laden with history and loaded with rules, every new break in rhyme or structure is weighted with significance. Wilbur does not disappoint. The first six lines sketch the world upside down (giving us the sight) and the last eight lines ask what that means (the insight). In other words, in a poem about flipping the world upside down, Wilbur flips the sonnet on its head, starting with a sestet and ending with an octet, intertwining his rhyme scheme so that the poem could stand on either end—before a final couplet sets it right. As poets often revel in doing, Wilbur performs in his poem the point of the poem itself. He makes the language do what he says. This is part of the fun of poetry. The fun of poetry is not always necessary to the insight and awareness it offers. It’s true that the more we know of poetry, the more we will see in a poem. That is true of any human activity. But poems, like pools, can be entered and enjoyed at any depth. They sit open to all, waiting for any reader to take the plunge. Wilbur’s poem reminds us why the plunge is worth it. Poetry makes language work fresh thoughts and new perspectives. It sings a new song as it seeks and finds “what will suffice.” It makes the stone stony. And if we want to know God and our world and our place in the world, we need poetry to make things fresh. In taking up that task, poets often invite us to practice thinking and noticing at a different pace. It is only at a slower speed of processing that we can begin to observe what we have too often missed or ignored. Think, for example, of all the sounds we hear but never hear. Trains on a nearby track and airplanes overhead. Birds and dogs. The wind in the trees or the breeze in our ears. Children a few houses over. Neighbors in the yard. The rumble of traffic or the passing of a single car. HVAC systems and dishwashers and the hum of the fridge. Our world is never silent. At the same time, most sounds have no good use. And so, quite rightly, we ignore them. Our brains efficiently block out the pointless in order to pay attention to what matters. That is as it should be. But consider the perspective of my two-year-old son. He has not yet learned to distinguish all the important sounds (me, telling him to eat his broccoli) from the unimportant sounds (the MetroLink passing behind our house). I never hear the train anymore, but he notices it every time. “Train!” he shouts. “Plane,” he’ll say and point at the sky. Right now, before being guided into what matters, he sees and hears everything. It is terribly inefficient, but it is also, in a way, inspiring. For a moment, he enables me to notice how much I fail to notice. I don’t think people should go about their lives like two-year-olds, stopping at every sound. And I don’t want to say that poets are like children. Paying attention means focusing, and focusing means blocking our distractions. Poets, too, block out distractions. It’s just that, quite often, what a poet finds worthy of attention—like moles and sparrows and the branches of a green tree and the roots beneath our feet—is something I might have previously blocked out. In this sense, poetry keeps us light on our toes. It is a way of paying attention that means a constant shift of focus, noticing intensely—even if for a moment—what we had previously ignored. God alone can notice all things at once. Our attention is limited and needs to be pointed in different directions. Poets are people who point. In the way that they point, in the devices they use—through defamiliarization and rhythm and rhyme schemes and meter and stanzas and free verse and metaphor and figures of speech—poets time and again sing new songs. We have a Creator who calls on the creation to create. We have a God who calls us to praise God’s marvelous deeds and summons us to sorrow over the sins of this world. Poets draw us into praise and sorrow through the songs they sing. They reconnect us with God’s world by wrenching this world awry. Their “mad instead” nourishes the faith of the faithful by making the familiar fresh. And for this reason, among countless others, I’d say to those followers of Christ (and anyone else) in the 88 percent: it may be time to take a dip. Originally published in Reformed Journal. Abram Van Engen is Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and Executive Director of The Carver Project . He is the author of two books on early American religion and literature, and he also serves as co-host of the podcast Poetry For All. You can read more of Abram's thoughts on poetry in his book Word Made Fresh. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • The Seasons: Sumer is icumen in!—5&1 Classical Playlist #29

    [Editor's Note: This post resumes Mark Meynell's 5&1 series on classical music which ran from 2020-2021. Taking a different theme each time, we offer five short pieces (or extracts) followed by one more substantial work.] During our four years living in Uganda, one of the things I never really got used to was nice weather almost constantly. But then I am English. It was nearly always shirtsleeves' weather, hot but not usually unbearable. Downpours, when they came, tended to come in big bursts with what we called 'fat' rain; but normality quickly resumed. If the temperature did fall, the most one would need was a light sweater (which I would have to retrieve perhaps 2 or 3 times a year). It was perfect. Apart from the fact that it doesn't change much. There were supposedly rainy and dry seasons, but climate change has messed all those up. So while we loved it out there, I did miss the seasons. I missed the variations in light, colour and temperature. I missed the anticipation of the next season as it began to turn. I missed the way each season had its own version of perfect days. There's a reason that Brits always talk about the weather; there's simply so much to discuss! No wonder the seasons have inspired composers. So this is the first of a 5&1 miniseries on the seasons, helping us to get in the mood for what is coming (for those of us in the northern hemisphere that is). Sumer is icumen in Anon (13th Century) Dufay Collective, John Potter (cond.) This song is old; I mean, mind-bogglingly old. The earliest available manuscript dates from around 1260 (which means the song itself could be considerably older). The words were written in Middle English (modern translation attached) and sung as a 'round'. That means the singers stagger when they start, with each new part coming in from the beginning while the others continue with their lines. In this case, it happens 6 times, giving an accumulative effect of musical sophistication. That's astonishing when we remember that it is perhaps 800 years old. But more than that, we can sense the sheer joy, excitement, and perhaps relief, once the summer has arrived. It's infectious. Summertime (Act 1, Porgy and Bess, 1935) George Gershwin (1898–1937, American) Cynthia Haymon (sop.), Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (cond.) There is no way of omitting Gershwin's classic from this list, a song that has become a staple of the Great American Songbook. Porgy and Bess was unlike any opera before it, one that pioneered the depiction of impoverished, African Americans in Charleston without condescension or caricature (mostly). It has always attracted some controversy and divided opinions. But it was based on the novel, and then play, Porgy, by the white Dubose Heyward, who was hailed by the great Langston Hughes for bringing the characters to life. Heyward then worked on it again with help from George Gershwin's brother Ira, to produce the opera's text. The song is a lullaby which comes very early in Act 1. It is sung by Clara, a young mother who is desperately trying to sing her baby to sleep, while other members of the community gradually stroll onto the stage. It is lilting and evocative of the pleasantly soporific effect of summer heat. Summer from The Four Seasons (Violin Concerto in Gmi, Op. 8 No. 2, RV 315) Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741, Italian) Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger (violin) Now for a purely instrumental depiction of the summer's heat, this time from Antonio Vivaldi, the famously red-haired Catholic priest from Venice. In around 1720, he wrote a set of 4 violin concertos which were ground-breaking (each evoking a single season and comprised of 3 movements). It is not hard to imagine the intense Mediterranean heat in Summer. 1st movement: We alternate between indulgent lethargy (you can almost see the heat haze) and frantic activity caused by the sense that a storm might be brewing. 2nd movement: Imagine a shepherd lying in the heat with his flock, vainly swatting at the flies and other insects buzzing around him. Now the storm is clearly on its way as we can hear thunder rumbling in the distance from time to time. 3rd movement: The storm breaking at last, with wind and hail wreaking havoc on farmers' fields. On the Nature of Daylight (Entropy) (2018) Max Richter (1966- , German/British) Max Richter, Louisa Fuller, Natalia Bonner, John Metcalfe, Chris Worsey, Ian Burdge Max Richter originally wrote On the Nature of Daylight for his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, which he described as a 'protest album about Iraq, a meditation on violence – both the violence that I had personally experienced around me as a child and the violence of war'. He made a revised version of the album in 2018, with more or less the same musicians (the version here), which if anything intensified the power of the original. This track is powerful in part because it is so restrained. It is not strictly about summer per se, but to my mind seems to waft us gently into the longer evenings of summer. It is meditative and wistful, even melancholy. No wonder it has been used in countless soundtracks (including Stranger than Fiction, Shutter Island, Arrival, plus episodes of The Handmaid's Tale and The Last of Us). The Seasons: III. Summer (Op. 67, 1900) Alexander Glazunov (1865-1935, Russian) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (cond.) Glazunov was a titan of Russian music who taught and led the St Petersburg Conservatoire for many years. Among many, his most famous student was the teenage Dmitri Shostakovich. While many thought him old-fashioned, with a style that seemed nostalgic for the nineteenth century rather breaking new musical ground, he somehow managed to navigate the hazards of the Russian Revolution and his music remained popular. He continued as director until leaving for France in 1928 (citing ill-health as the primary reason), where he remained until his death. The Seasons is one of his most popular works: an allegorical ballet in a single act, split into four scenes. The third scene has 5 short sections to convey a sense of the exuberance and vitality of the natural world in Summer. It is full of resounding orchestral colours and lush harmonies, topped with gorgeous melodies. What's not to love? And if you spent half the year enduring the harsh winters of ice-bound St Petersburg, it's no wonder you would want to let your hair down when the world warmed up. Summer scene Waltz of the Cornflowers and Poppies Barcarolle: Enter Naiads, Satyrs and Fauns Variation on the Spirit of Maize Coda Les Nuits d'Été 'Summer Nights' (Op. 7, 1841) Hector Berlioz (1803-1869, French) Brigitte Balleys (mezzo-soprano), Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Philippe Herreweghe (cond.) Berlioz was a French maverick, in both life and music. His wore his turbulent heart on his sleeve and defied the customs of the bourgeois world into which he was born. He graduated from medical school in Paris but immediately walked away from it despite his father's protestations. He soon returned to student life, this time at the Paris Conservatoire. He composed the cycle of six songs, Les Nuits d'Été (Summer Nights), in 1841, setting poems by the esteemed poet Théophile Gautier. Initially the mezzo-soprano was accompanied by piano, but Berlioz gradually wrote orchestral versions over the next few years. The result is one of his most popular works. The first and last songs are exuberant and rich, but these bracket the more melancholy, middle 4. Berlioz expresses the agonies of unrequited love or an ache, rather akin to our old friend sehnsucht. These darker feelings seem at odds with the beauties and glories of the season, but in true romantic fashion, they are ever-reliable in inspiring a great artist. Villanelle [a poetic form associated with rustic life and pastoral subjects] Le spectre de la rose (Ghost of the Rose) Sur les lagunes: Lamento (On the Lagoons: Lament) Absence Au cimetière: Clair de lune (In the Cemetery: Moonlight) L'île inconnue (The Unknown Island) Mark Meynell is the Director (Europe and Caribbean) of Langham Preaching. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1997 serving in several places including 9 years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, (during which he also served as a part-time government chaplain). Prior to that, he taught at a small seminary in Kampala, Uganda, for four years. Since 2019, he has helped to bring Hutchmoot to the UK and in 2022 completed a Doctor of Ministry (at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis) researching the place of the arts in cultural apologetics. Mark and his wife, Rachel, have two grown-up children, and they live in Maidenhead, Berkshire. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • 15 Gardening Books for Children

    by Cindy Anderson I have been fortunate enough to have grown up surrounded by people who were always ready to recommend a book to read. I have several aunts and uncles who were always reading and they always shared suggestions with me and each other. My one uncle was a theology professor and he had a personal library with thousands of books. I was in awe as I perused the shelves every time I was in his home. My grandmother was an insatiable reader. My aunt and I would shop at garage sales and purchase boxes of books and bring them home to her. She would sort through them and save different ones for specific people in the family. On my eighth birthday, she gave me a book of poetry illustrated by Tasha Tudor. I read that book every night, memorized the poems, and studied the illustrations. I fell in love with poetry because of that book. Because of these wonderful people, I became the kid who read with a flashlight under my covers because I couldn’t go to sleep until I found out what happened next. Although I appreciate books of all kinds, I have always had an affinity for children’s books. The combination of carefully worded texts and the art of illustration has always captured me. In college, however, I learned to read books through a more reflective lens. One of the best assignments I was ever given was to read 100 picture books and record my thoughts. It was then that I realized that there is a vast variety in children’s books. It was then that I decided to keep a record of all of the books I loved. I still check out children’s books from my local library and have been keeping a record of all of my favorites ever since. I share these lists with young families and teachers, and now with the Rabbit Room community. I believe the best way to foster young readers is to present them with the best of the best in children’s literature. Below you will find just such a list focused on the theme of gardening. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, spring has arrived and the weather is beckoning us outdoors. The books are worthy of your bookshelves. They are beautifully written and they honor and respect their reader. They are written for children and are also enjoyed by adults. They have beautiful art and illustrations throughout, the kind of art that makes readers pause to take in the page. I hope these books inspire you to work in your garden, plant some flower pots, and go for a walk through a park. The Gardener by Sarah Stewart This is one of my favorite stories. It makes me think of my own grandmother who always sent me seeds from her plants. Young Lydia Grace lives during the Great Depression and needs to leave the country and live with her uncle in the city. She packs her suitcase with everything she needs, including seeds. She exchanges letters with her family discussing plants, seeds, and how flowers are brightening up her new home. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney Alice Rumphius, who longed to travel the world and make it more beautiful, scatters lupine seeds everywhere she goes. The countless lupines that bloom along the coast of Maine are the legacy of the Lupine Lady, Miss Rumphius. Celia Planted a Garden by Phyllis Root and Gary Schmidt This beautiful book tells the story of Celia Thaxter; an 18th-century gardener, writer, artist, poet, and designer. When she was 12 years old her family moved to Appledore Island off the coast of Maine where her father built a hotel. While there she planted beautiful gardens and met the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathanial Hawthorne, and other famous writers. The vivid illustrations with hand-drawn samples of her writing make this book a keeper. Harlem Grown by Tony Hillery This is the story of Tony Hillery, founder of Harlem Grown, who leads the way in taking an abandoned, litter-filled lot and turning it into a lush urban farm. Students join in on the project and a big idea transforms their neighborhood. There are now 12 of these urban farms in NYC. The illustrations fit this inspiring, and educational story perfectly. We Are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines This book by Joanna Gaines describes the steps it takes for her family to take care of their garden. She shares the ups and downs of planting a garden, and teaches that hard work brings a great reward. This book has sweet, simple text and charming illustrations. The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver by Gene Barretta This is a beautifully illustrated biography of George Washington Carver. Born a slave, he grew to be a brilliant scientist, botanist, professor, inventor, and agricultural expert. He started his education by creating and observing the plants and animals in his own secret garden. And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano It’s the end of winter, and a boy and his dog decide they no longer want to see brown everywhere, so they decide to plant a garden. This is written with simple text for young readers. It’s a sweet story about the anticipation of spring and seeing growing things. A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston This book (and all the books in this series) have eye-catching, detailed illustrations (Even the endpapers are thoughtfully done.) It’s an excellent introduction to seeds; how they grow, develop, and disperse. Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner Here is a book for pre-schoolers that teaches what is above and below the dirt in a garden. Join a young girl and her grandmother as they work together to grow and harvest their garden. This book has charming illustrations and great information. I wanted to mention a few favorite chapter books that take place in gardens or around gardens. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall And here are some wonderful resources for parents and teachers about plants and gardening with children. Roots Shoots Buckets & Boots by Sharon Lovejoy Grow: A Family Guide to Plants and How to Grow Them by Riz Reyes Easy Peasy: Gardening for Kids by Little Gestalten If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • In Praise of Reading Poetry Aloud to Children

    by Rebecca J. Gomez I often say that my mother is the voice of poetry in my mind. My mother read lots of poems and rhyming texts aloud to me and my siblings. Silverstein, Seuss, and others that I can’t remember now. The one that stands out to me the most is The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. That poem put her voice into all poetry for me. Not just the poem itself, but the way she read it. She delighted in it. In the language, the imagery, the strange spookiness of the story. I did too. There was something about it that little me couldn’t understand or appreciate, but I knew it was there. When I re-read it now, I know what it is. It’s the way the verses flow so smoothly, the internal rhymes and alliteration that delight the ears, the word play, the humor, the atmosphere, the imagery that draws you in and almost makes you feel the cold, like magic: On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail. Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail. If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see; It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee. I remember trying to capture a bit of that magic in my bumbling attempts at rhymes as a first grader and throughout my childhood and teen years. Though my early attempts were far from anything I would now consider “good” poetry, those awkward verses about horses, trees, faith, and heartbreak were helping me to find my voice. I didn’t have access to a large poetry library as a kid, and I was never fortunate enough to study poetry in any significant way in school. So I learned what I could from Shel Silverstein’s silly poems, the rhythm and wordplay in Dr. Seuss’s rhyming stories, and the songs within the pages of The Hobbit. Those were my earliest poetry teachers, so naturally, they influenced my poetic voice significantly. Like my mother before me, I read aloud often to my children. I loved reading old favorites and discovering new ones. We shared the rhythmic, rhyming poetry of Robert Frost, Jack Prelutsky, and Joyce Sidman, to name a few. But my love of poetry kept expanding. What began in childhood as a fondness for rhythmic rhyme that was such a delight to read aloud eventually branched into a love for poetry in all its forms as I discovered poets like Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and Mary Oliver. The poetry of Kooser, Collins, and Oliver isn’t exactly like that of Silverstein or Prelutsky. And yet, it is. Their poetry may not be rhyming, silly, or child-like, but all of these favorite poets of mine do one thing really well: capture a little bit of magic and share it with their readers. The very thing I have been trying to do since I was old enough to write my first rhyming verse. All of these poets, and many others, have helped me develop a voice that is uniquely my own. These days I spend my time writing stories and poems primarily for children, hoping to capture the imaginations of young readers the way Robert Service and all those other poets captured mine. In truth, my attempts often still feel bumbling. It's funny that after all these years, with five rhyming picture books, twenty published poems, and a novel in verse soon to be published with Bandersnatch Books, I still feel like that first-grade girl, eager to emulate my favorite poets, but not really sure how. That is the part of me that I poured into the writing of Mari in the Margins, a story about a girl who’s struggling to figure out what, if anything, she has to offer—as a daughter, a sister, a friend, and especially a poet. As the middle child of nine, Mari feels overlooked by her family, and with a new girl in town threatening Mari’s one stable friendship, she’s left alone with her thoughts—and her poetry journal. Writing her story forced me to tap into that bumbling, uncertain part of myself in order to express Mari’s feelings about writing and sharing her poems, and how to navigate life from what she sees as the margins of her family: Maybe if I win a poetry contest I’ll be noticed no longer in the margins, moved from the side to the CENTER like I’m a small but important part of something BIG. My journey from eager listener to published verse novelist still feels incredible to me. As a child, I never imagined writing as a profession. I simply wanted to share in the magic of poetry any way I could. But even more magical than the words on the page was my mother’s reading of the poetry. I might have discovered my love for poetry on my own eventually, but it was my mother’s voice—forever the voice of poetry in my mind—that made it personal to me as a child and encouraged me to find my own voice as a poet. In a way, writing this novel in verse felt almost autobiographical. Mari and I side by side, growing together as poets and artists and human beings. Sharing this story is vulnerable! But it’s also an encouragement to anyone out there who doesn’t know if their art is worth sharing: go, find your voice, and use it to bring a little magic to someone’s life. Why not start by reading some poetry aloud to a child? You could even try The Cremation of Sam McGee! Rebecca J. Gomez is a poet, artist, and author of children’s books. When she’s not writing or drawing, you can often find her reading aloud to her husband or grandchildren and going for walks in the woods. Her middle grade novel in verse, Mari in the Margins, releases May 14, 2024 through Bandersnatch Books. Learn more about her and her work at

  • Your Community Is Like a Forest

    by L. M. Sacasas “I didn’t realize, I didn’t articulate at the time, that I had this reverence for trees,” Suzanne Simard explained in a interview with Emergent Magazine. Simard, who was recollecting her childhood experience in familiar forests, went on to become a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia. Her pioneering research showed that forest trees are connected by vast underground mycorrhizal networks.“ They were a cathedral that was one, with all of its disciples and pews,” Simard went on to say of the forests she knew as a child, “and to me it was just this integrated place.” But, she added, “when I went to university, the professors had picked apart the forest. There were the trees, there was the soil, there were the plants, so it was a reductionist way of seeing this place that I had already grown up knowing was whole.” Out of college, Simard began working as a silviculturist in the forest industry. “Take the trees and clear-cut them and sell them on the market and then plant trees again”—this was standard operating procedure for the industry as she knew it. “I became part of that machine,” she acknowledges, “that clear-cutting, planting machine.” The main problem as she came to see it was that “the forest that was clear-cut was not at all what was put back.”“We were creating forests that were not connected and entwined,” Simard explained, “that we were creating forests that put the parts back, but didn’t actually meld together as a whole, as I knew it should.” In time, Simard realized that many of the replanted trees were getting sick. This prompted her research, based on intuitions derived from her early experience of forests, which demonstrated that forest trees are connected by elaborate networks of fungi and roots through which they communicate and support one another. You could replant the trees you cut down, but you couldn’t recreate the unseen network that kept them healthy. As I read Simard describe her experience with trees, I came to see the story she was telling as an apt allegory for social life in the digital age. The story of modernity is the story of disintegration. Across a number of fields, the modern world learned to take things apart. Some of this was done in the interest of an ostensibly better understanding of the natural world, some of it was driven by the desire for greater degrees of technical precision or economic efficiency. In other cases, the separations were philosophical in nature, or they reflected changing social realities. Specialization was the order of the day. Nature was dissected. Church and state went their separate ways. Science and philosophy parted. Work was detached from the home and family life. Fact and value, human and non-human, individual and community, body and mind, object and subject—what was once whole was now separate. Of course, such differentiations were never total or complete. The anthropologist Bruno Latour famously argued that we have never been modern precisely because we never really achieved the strict separations (he calls them purifications) we imagined to be the defining features of the modern world. Religion and politics, science and belief, nature and culture have always blended and intermingled. Nonetheless, to be modern was to believe that such separations were necessary and good, and, while never complete, some ruptures were real and consequential. I have the rise of the individual chiefly in mind. Under the guise of freedom and liberation, the individual was unencumbered and disembedded. Ties to family, tradition, and community were gradually loosened, and the self was ostensibly freed to fashion itself at whim. The result, through much of the 20th century, was widespread angst about alienation, anxiety, and loneliness. The faceless person lost in the crowd became a recurring trope. If we live in a postmodern world, it is not because we have become relativists with regards to truth but because the old separations that constituted the modern world are no longer tenable. It is increasingly evident that the philosophical differentiations were never complete, and individuals find themselves increasingly re-connected. In both cases, it is possible to draw a line between the advent of digital communication technologies and inability to sustain the separations that were so critical to modernity’s self-understanding. While modernity isolated the individual, the digital world promised to re-forge communities and reconnect us. But the total effect has been something akin to the replanted forests Simard described. What was torn down into its constituent parts  has been reassembled, but it has not been made whole. Communities, like old forests, cannot simply be re-fabricated. Digital tools have brought us closer together in some respects, and they have connected us to many people we never would have known otherwise. And they have provided genuine solace and consolation to many, who, apart from them, might have found themselves alone and unheard. But it would be a mistake to imagine that these new forms of social life will function in the same manner as older communities, which had disintegrated under the economic, technological, and ideological forces of the modern world. They are, most obviously, indifferent to place, unlike the older forms of communal life, which were almost always locally rooted. They make different, perhaps less stringent demands of us. They tend to be communities of affinity and antagonism. They do not tend to foster the virtues required to live well and peaceably with those who are unlike us. And this is to say nothing of the power these new networks posses to unsettle, confuse, and overwhelm by virtue of their design and architecture. Their scale and temporal rhythms are inhospitable to the often, slow deliberate work that truth and trust require. Just like the engineered forests with which we began, something is amiss with the engineered re-integrations that digital media makes possible. Networks built on metrics and data cannot account for the often intangible forces that bind people together, not unlike the mycorrhizal networks Simard identified. It may be best for us to appreciate our digital forms of connection for what they are, while recognizing that they are ultimately an inadequate substitute for the more robust forms of membership and belonging that we naturally crave. Ultimately, there will be no technological shortcuts for the time and virtue required to build new and life-giving forms of community. Michael Sacasas is the associate director of the Christian Study Center in Gainesville, Florida, and author of The Convivial Society, a newsletter exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and the moral life. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • Why I Quit Social Media for Good

    by Heather Cadenhead I shut down my public Instagram account a little over a year ago. Prior to that, I took a break for nearly an entire year—deactivating at the end of October 2020. I couldn’t handle another election cycle on social media: the arguments, unfriendings, and inevitable alliances forming again—the ones I’d worked so hard to forget about. It felt like people had barely started being civil to each other again. I reactivated at the end of summer 2021, having successfully skipped the entire thing like Rip van Winkle. Still, I’d tasted freedom that year and it was hard to go back to that shackled existence: strangers asking if I was “fine” if I went 24 hours without posting a story, the sinking feeling in my chest when a post didn’t “perform” similarly to prior posts, appeasing the comments section like a nine-year-old explaining a broken Venetian vase to her mother. In those first days back, I started to mull a permanent exit. I’d been dissatisfied with social media for many years, but I kept coming back because the conventional wisdom was that, as a writer, I needed social media to grow my readership. As such, I spent an inordinate amount of time, well, not writing. Instead, I “engaged” on social media: I watched stories, liked posts, left comments, and developed my own content. Instagram began to feel uncomfortable and icky—especially when the Instagram algorithm started pushing video reels over still images. I’d reluctantly learned to snap images to accompany my writing. Now, in order to attract a wider audience, I had to produce an entire video to accompany a simple block of text. With time, the goalposts moved again: Instagram creators could no longer simply produce video reels—we also needed to research trending audio clips and pair video content with those clips. Conventional wisdom also stated that I needed to contribute multiple stories to the app each day in order to stay relevant. I also needed to reply to messages and engage with other people’s content—and continue, somehow, to homeschool my kids, keep my house relatively clean, keep food on the table, and what about my writing? Somehow, in the thick of the social media algorithm, I’d forgotten about the thing that mattered most to me. I began to recognize that the key to social media success was a willingness to do, say, and be whatever the algorithm wanted (which was never one static thing). I longed for the halcyon days of publishing: submitting a book proposal, follower count unseen—writers judged solely on the quality of their writing (by, of course, portly men in suspenders who smoked imported cigars). That said, I certainly wasn’t too good to hustle. If this is what social media required of me, I would do it. I’d do it all. What I didn’t anticipate was the soul-curdling effect of such efforts. Every trade has a price. I decided to open up to a few trusted friends about the meat of the issue: social media was negatively impacting my mental and spiritual health. I felt ashamed to confess this truth but, the more I confessed, the more I heard: Me, too. I struggle with all the same things. These friends inspired me to share my struggles a little more publicly. I often experienced envy when I logged onto Instagram. I felt like an out-of-place ragamuffin amidst women who were prettier, thinner, and more successful than I was. The more I tried to compete, the more I fell short. They’re doing it, a sinister voice whispered. Why can’t you? In time, I understood that I would never satiate that voice of condemnation. I had to overpower it, bend its will to mine. I needed to preach to myself, rather than listen to myself: I’m not called to that. I’m called to something else. Often, Instagram produced a depression that haunted me long after I logged off. I explained mood swings to my family by detailing situations that, outside the app, did not matter and often made little sense. With enough real-life stress to fill a book, I could no longer tolerate inscrutable trouble—mysterious usernames that boiled with anger over things I did or didn’t do correctly. It was not unusual for me to feel physically fatigued after an uncomfortable interaction in DMs or comments—but it wasn’t an Instagram follower who witnessed my tears. It was my children. I often logged onto social media in an upbeat mood. I’d finish reading the Bible with my kids, pour a second cup of coffee, stop to admire a cardinal at the bird feeder—and absentmindedly tap Instagram. Soon, I’d find myself stressed. Occasionally, I’d find myself frantic. What am I doing with my life? I’d panic. So-and-So just shared her second reel in two days and I haven’t contributed anything in two weeks. I’m falling behind. I’ll never catch up. Scroll, scroll. Oh, wow. And So-and-So already did her workout for the day. I need to post a new reel and get a workout in. Scroll, scroll. Oh, wow. This mom is already reading Dickens with her kids? We haven’t gotten around to Dickens yet. I need to post a new reel, get a workout in, and start Dickens’ complete bibliography. In time, I recognized that, in fact, I’d felt no urgency about posting content, working out, or reading Dickens until I opened social media. I’d been quite satisfied to watch the birds and enjoy my coffee. I’m obviously not writing any of this to suggest that ambition is a bad thing. I consider myself to be a highly ambitious person. However, my ambitions are very specific—and I don’t need the Internet to remind me of my own goals. Those hopes live within me, rent-free—taking up space in the still places of my soul. We can’t be all things to all people. We are finite beings with limited resources. God’s wisdom is a balm for a harried state of mental health. Scripture points out that the approval of others isn’t enough and never will be enough. If it were, no author would ever write a second book. No musician would ever record a second album. While a completed task may satisfy for a season, the urge to strive and compete will return, and, with it, the emptiness of everything we do. When we seek God, He creates meaning in even the midnight cry of a sleepless child. The writing of Heather Cadenhead has been featured in Wild + Free, Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith, Literary Mama, and other publications. She publishes a monthly newsletter about mothering her non-speaking son through the lens of the Christian gospel. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • The Three Layers of Conflict In Community

    by: Andy Patton Everyone needs some form of community. It is also one of the greatest sources of regular stress and conflict many will experience in life. During some seasons of life together, we can all "go along to get along." But there are other times when old wounds rise to the surface, when a stray remark or careless word sparks a banked fire, or when we learn difficult things about how hard it is to live together. These times of conflict are both a challenge and an opportunity. They can be the doorway into greater intimacy and understanding for a community of any size—if handled well. Similarity and Difference Are Both Important to a Community Birds of a feather flock together and communities tend to form around similarities. When two people are like one another, there is a common language, an ease of both expression and of reception. As C. S. Lewis said, “Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” St. Augustine put it this way: “The greatest source of repair and restoration was the solace of friends… to make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together well-written books, to disagree without animosity, to teach each other something or to learn from one another, to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival. These and other things come through the heart of those who love and are loved…” The recognition and enjoyment of similarities with those we love and live with is responsible for a good part of the joy available to us humans in this life. But, despite its pleasure, enjoying our similarities with others is not the highest form of human community. To pursue that end, we must go far beyond similarity into rougher terrain. If similarity is the wine of life together, difference can be its bread and water. The similarities we enjoy so much are often only the threshold of relationship. No matter how alike a group is, differences will eventually rise to the surface. Any community, if it is to thrive, must find a way to metabolize those differences, to process them and contain them. A community must be able to affirm and uphold the uniqueness of the people who make it up and also to ask one another to bend, to change, and to grow. Differences can become opportunities to deepen the mutual knowledge, respect, and support that communities thrive on. I’ve found it helpful to see both similarities and differences in a community through the lens of the “Three Layers.” The Three Layers It has been said that there are three layers to community: civility, conflict, and accord. The layers come with an accompanying axiom: In order to get to the accord of the third layer, you have to pass through the discord of the second layer. The First Layer The first layer is about similarity, innocence, civility, infatuation, common grace. It is the way you treat the man at the grocery store, your new neighbor, the cute girl in class, your future in-laws. It is holding the door open for someone, waving someone past you at an intersection, making eye contact and shaking hands. It is the grease on the wheels of a civil society. It is easy because it is superficial. It is a beginning. The first layer is about uniformity because everyone looks the same at a distance. It is the threshold to relationships that could become deeper. All of us have to live in the first layer every day, but if we want true community none of us can live there exclusively. In the course of life together, doors to the second layer will begin to open, inviting the community to face the differences and tensions among its members. If a community cannot enter those doors, things begin to go wrong. The path of least (short-term) resistance in a community is always to sweep things under the rug, to stay on the first layer. The (long-term) problem is that you end up with an elephant-sized pile of undiscussable memories, thoughts, and feelings in the middle of the room—which is no way to live. If differences and tensions are not dealt with, they metastasize. The pile of things under the rug shoots tendrils out and causes enmity as the community searches for indirect ways of discussing the undiscussable. It comes out in gossip and bitter memories nursed well beyond their term, locked away from the kind of reconciliation that might put them to rest. It comes out in ungainly community behaviors as everyone tries not to touch their thorniest issues. As the issues grow, the act of dancing around them must become increasingly acrobatic. The journey into the second layer invites us into the very tension we would most like to avoid, which can be frightening. However, the hope of the second layer is that something lies beyond the conflict that can only be accessed through it. The Second Layer Then comes the second layer, the layer of difference. It is the place of unpleasant discoveries, of slowly appearing bruises, of resentments and things regretted, of honest words, of reckoning with how downright nasty the world can be. The second layer isn’t about generalities, but particularities as people reckon with the whole of one another’s personalities. It is about getting things straight. It is about revisiting the difficult issues again and again because you find, to your great surprise, that the thread must pass through the tangle many times before the knot is loosed. When a community has been avoiding the second layer, it is evident to anyone with eyes to see. The things that got swept under the rug in the first layer begin to pile up until they trip everyone who comes into the room. If a community is unable to address, acknowledge, and hold its differences, it will lose its ability to offer hospitality to anyone else. At this point, one of two things happens: either new people are put off by the festering conflicts and steer clear or they are drafted one side or another and the problems in the community only grow deeper. The second layer is the layer all relationships find their way to eventually if they are going to grow. It invites us to dispense with dissembling. It poses a choice to any relationship or community: lean in or step back? Change or fly apart? Deepen or scatter? The Third Layer The third layer is blessed community. It is rugged and weather-beaten and sweet as birdsong. It is innocent again, but has become rich with wisdom. It holds memory but has also learned the regular practice of forgiveness and release. It has learned again how to laugh. It has let go the poison of the second layer’s pains, but retains the gift of truths discovered there. In the third layer, the hurts and anxieties that life in community draws to the surface can become doorways to healing and transformation. The third layer is about acceptance of distinctiveness where one another’s uniqueness is celebrated, smiled at, forgiven. Here you discover again and again the same lesson: that it is through weakness, service, suffering, and graciousness that love is most nearly itself. And that love taken and given in the bonds of gift and debt can knit a community together. However, that is not a lesson that can be learned second-hand; it is an answer that must be experienced. And it must be experienced again and again if the blessed community is to prove to be something more than just a passing brush with the deeper unity beyond conflict. Braving the Second Layer Together We all have tender places we protect and they can go very deep indeed. In the glorious mess of human relationships, we often unwittingly step into one another’s sensitivities and pains and can cause damage there. The truth is that if you live long enough with people (and care for them well enough), you will see that we all wear our wounds on our sleeves. They are there in our body language, in the way we deflect conversations away from certain topics, in the way we make jokes, in the way we fall silent. These are all doorways into the second layer, the opportunities inside our differences. If a community—a marriage, a work team, a family, a church, or any group of people—is to continue to grow, it must take the journey into its differences. You have to find a way to turn the dark jungle of animosity into a well-known and well-worn web of relational pathways through the trees. But the journey is fraught. Many find they can’t make it. They eventually turn around and go back to the first layer. They continue to live together, but decide that there are places they won’t go relationally, topics and wounds that must not be broached, a distance that must be kept. And they aren’t always wrong. Others find they become people they do not want to be as they wander under the sunless trees of the second layer with their community. They become angry and bitter and biting. Things emerge they never thought were there and which they do not want to feel. They find words rise up from within that need to be spoken, but they can’t find a way to speak them without hurting themselves and everyone else. Damage is done and the community finds that its center cannot hold. Each person walks away nursing wounds, shame, and blame. Still others cross and re-cross through the second layer until it is familiar terrain. It is these people who find that they are eventually able to surpass their own learned patterns of conflict. Most of the time those patterns happen automatically, instantaneously, and below the level of our awareness. When we register an interpersonal threat in our community, we simply avoid it, or get angry, or pretend like it isn’t there. Part of the work of metabolizing the differences we encounter in conflict is bringing those instinctive patterns to the surface, slowing them down, and intentionally trying to behave differently together. And that is what a successful passage through the second layer is all about. The Catch The catch to all of this is that you can only access the third layer by crossing through the second layer. There is no pass to the front of the line. The third layer can only be earned over and over again. The discovery of the third layer doesn’t last (though it does accrue). There is always another conflict, other differences. But seasoned travelers of the second layer learn not to fear them, but to welcome them for what they are, the only way to go deeper because the problems in a community are not the differences themselves. The problems are the things that keep you from dealing with the differences well. The journey through the second layer isn’t safe and it isn’t pleasant, but it is real. So, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “Fare forward, traveler.” Andy Patton is on staff with the Rabbit Room and is a former staff member of L'Abri Fellowship in England. He holds an M.A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes at The Darking Psalter (creative rewordings of the Psalms paired with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Pattern Bible (reflections on biblical images in the Bible). If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • Aslan's Breath—The Creation of Narnia and the Ruach Elohim

    By Matthew Dickerson A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. Thus begins the creation of Narnia, told in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. I was thinking about this creation passage recently as I was finishing up my own book, Aslan’s Breath, about Lewis’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, in his Narnia stories. There are, I believe already trinitarian hints in the opening of this creation narrative. Aslan will soon appear in his incarnate form as a lion—a particular physical creature existing within his created world—but at this moment the creative presence is omnipresent, seeming “to come from all directions at once.” And when I read the imagery of a deep voice speaking without words, I think also of Paul’s description in Romans 8:26 of the Spirit interceding for God’s people with “groanings too deep for words” as the NAS translates the passage. Note that ruach, the Hebrew word used for “spirit”, can also mean “wind” or “breath”. The Biblical creation account in Genesis 1:2 speaks of the ruach elohim, usually translated as the Spirt of God, as with the NIV translation which tells us that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the deep.” But that phrase can also be translated as the wind of God, and thus the CEB renders the passage: “God’s wind swept over the waters.”  Similarly, the New Testament word pneuma can also be translated as spirit, breath, or wind. Thus it isn’t surprising that Jesus uses wind as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit in his famous dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:8), and when he imparts the Holy Spirit to his disciples (John 20:21-22) he breathes upon them. As the account of the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew continues, we find the imagery of both wind and breath, which also seems to point us to the Holy Spirit. Indeed, throughout the scene, the narrator twice describes the wind moving over the newly created world as Aslan continues to sing that world and its creatures into existence. Far away, and down near the horizon, the sky began to turn grey. A light wind, very fresh, began to stir. The sky, in that one place, grew slowly and steadily paler. You could see shapes of hills standing up dark against it. All the time the Voice went on singing. . . . And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer. The light wind could now be heard ruffling the grass. If we keep Genesis 1:2 in mind, the imagery here seems to point both to God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity (in the imagery of the Lion), and also to the Holy Spirit present both in the fresh wind of God, and perhaps even earlier in the voice speaking in utterances too deep for words. And then, when we come to Aslan giving to creatures the gift of speech and—I believe—of spirituality and the ability to love, in addition to the imagery of wind we get also the breath of Aslan himself and the imagery of fire, which is yet another symbol associated with the Holy Spirit in the New Testament (Matthew 3:11, Acts 2:3). At last [Aslan] stood still and all the creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him . . . . The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. . . . Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” Moving past the imagery to the implications, I think we could make at least three important points about Lewis’s narrative—which, indeed, reflects the Biblical creation narrative of the first two chapters of Genesis and the first chapter of John’s gospel. First, the universe is not a purposeless result of random causes; it is the result of a creative act; it is intentional, meaningful, teleological. Second, it is an act of love. Indeed, the first command Aslan gives his creatures after awaking them is the command to love; they are to love in imitation of their creator who made them and the world in which they live as an act of love. And a third thing we see is that the Spirit is here, present throughout creation, and throughout history. Perhaps the most simple way to phrase this is that the created physical world has spiritual significance: the significance of the Holy Spirit. The way Lewis suggests we ought to respond to this knowledge may be most clearly seen in the contrast between Frank, who becomes the first king of Narnia, and the characters of Uncle Andrew and Jadis. When Digory first meets Jadis, Jadis recounts her story of destroying her own world of Charn rather than let her sister rule it. Digory replies by asking, “But the people? All the ordinary people who’d never done you any harm. And the women, and the children, and animals.” Jadis replies, “Don’t you understand? I was the Queen. They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will?”  Jadis doesn’t see the world as having any spiritual significance. To her the world—including even its creatures—is just a collection of resources to be used, consumed, exploited as she wishes, in order to bring her pleasure and power. Of course, earlier in the story we’d already seen the same attitude in Andrew who thinks nothing of being cruel to his guinea pigs since he bought them himself. The attitude really comes out later when coins fall out of Andrew’s pocket and grow into a coin tree, and the broken bar from the English lamppost thrown by Jadis grows into a lamppost after landing in the living soil of Narnia. “I have discovered a world where everything is bursting with life and growth,” he proclaims. “The commercial possibilities of this country are unbounded. . . .  I shall be a millionaire . . . the first thing is to get that brute shot.” He has no recognition of the world as having been created, or of having spiritual meaning. He perceives himself as having discovered it, and thinks of it only in terms of exploitation. These examples make the character of Frank, the cabby who will become king, even more exceptional. When the cast of characters first arrive in the empty world, and they are wondering whether they have died, the narrator describes Frank’s response. “And if we’re dead—which I don’t deny it might be—well, you got to remember that worse things ‘appen at sea and a chap’s got to die sometime. And there ain’t nothing to be afraid of if a chap’s led a decent life. And if you ask me, I think the best thing we could do to pass the time would be to sing a ‘hymn.” And he did. He struck up at once a harvest thanksgiving hymn, all about crops being “safely gathered in.” I could easily fill a whole other blog with the significance of how Jadis fears death, but Frank does not; Frank accepts his own creatureliness and finitude. But a more immediate observation is simply that Frank’s first thought is to sing a hymn of thanksgiving. It is true that he does this before Aslan actually begins to sing the world into existence, and thus it isn’t (yet) a response to creation in Narnia. Yet it does reveal Frank’s character. His practice from his own world (which is to say, our world) is to see the goodness of creation and of God’s provision, and to give thanks for that, even in a situation that could easily be seen as dire. This, indeed, should be our own response to this doctrine of creation. A little later, when the voice begins to sing Narnia into being, Frank says, “Gawd! Ain’t it lovely? . . . Glory be! I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.”  He moves from thanksgiving to joyous praise and awe. As “Gawd” is cockney slang for God, we see that this praise is addressed to the creator!  We might even use the word wonder to describe Frank’s response. I suspect that much of the common human response of exploiting God’s creation (and one another) comes from a lack of wonder. I think a great gift of Lewis’s stories (if we allow it) is that they open our own eyes to the wonder of creation, seeing it’s glory, as Frank does. What if we were all able to recognize the Holy Spirit moving over the land? Frank’s wisdom—and his contrast with Uncle Andrew—continues when Andrew goes into a long angry diatribe, and Frank tells him to “Stow it” (meaning “be quiet”) and then makes the very wise proclamation: “Watchin’ and listenin’s the thing at present; not talk.” The importance of this observation could also fill several blogs. One of the best and most important responses to seeing the world as creation is just to pay attention to it; to be still, and listen, and look, and watch; to marvel and wonder at what God has made. Consider the lilies. Consider the birds. Note how the heavens declare God’s glory. Cease striving, and now that the Creator is God. Watching and listening is, indeed, the thing to do. Matthew Dickerson has published several books about the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, most recently Aslan’s Breath: Seeing the Holy Spirit in Narnia and (with his friend David O’Hara) Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: the Environmental Vision of C.S.Lewis. He has also published two novels of medieval historical fiction (The Finnsburg Encounter and The Rood and the Torc: the Song of Kristinge, Son of Finn), a three-volume fantasy novel, several works of narrative non-fiction nature and environmental writing, some philosophy and spiritual theology (Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort and Fear). He lives in Vermont with his wife on a wooded hillside, within a short drive of three adult sons, three daughters-in-law, and a quiver of grandchildren, and is a member of the Chrysostom Society. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. 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  • Those Who Feel Distant from God

    By Heidi Johnston This liturgy is taken from Every Moment Holy Volume 3 from Rabbit Room Press. You can find more liturgies like these at Jehovah Shalom, God of our peace, You promised that your burden would be light. Yet here I am, shoulders bent under the weight of a silence that is long and heavy. I call to you, and wait, and hear no answer. I cry to you, but do not hear your voice. I am as one overtaken on a mountain path by thick mist and fog. I cannot see my way. Untethered, I feel the loss, not of you alone, but also of myself and who I am in you. I recall with longing days when the waters parted at your command and you carried me, fatherlike, into your presence; when your lovingkindness was the whisper that revived my weary soul; when your presence was the pillar that marked my path by day, and your voice the flame that banished darkness and kindled my song in the night. Oh God, my God, where is your comfort now? Why has your voice stilled? A MOMENT OF PRAYERFUL SILENCE IS KEPT. Have I wavered or wandered from your path? Has my heart been drawn away? Search me, O God, and find within me any pride that causes me to stand at a distance even as I mourn your absence, any sin that brings dishonor to your name, grieving your Spirit and robbing me of the intimacy I so crave, or so long to crave. If my gaze has drifted, help me trust your grace, and look you in the eye once more. Or, if this distance is instead a hidden blessing—then let me be found faithful. If in this season of loneliness your silence simply offers me a chance to do what will never be asked of me again in all of eternity to come; to trust without sight, believing that time will vindicate my hope and prove you ever constant, then give me the courage to stand, trusting that these lines I throw out are not cast into emptiness but, passing through the veil, have taken hold of things eternal. Give me boldness now, even as doubt crouches at my door, that I may choose to anchor my heart not in the ebb and flow of feelings but in what I know to be true. That your word can be trusted. That your promises, unbroken in all of history, remain constant for me. That you are still who you have shown yourself to be: unchanging in holiness, extravagant in grace, relentless in love. If you are both the beginning and the end, the first and the last, then what was true when light first illuminated the horizon remains true even in my disenchantment. If you are outside of time, seeing all of history in a single glance, then this moment of doubt is simply that: one point in an eternal story which at its consummation will prove you were always steadfast. Could it be that even now, within this darkness, you are shaping and preparing me, deepening my trust and forming within me a richness of love or a truer humility which will one day be used in your kingdom or for your glory, in ways I cannot yet understand? If so, then fix my eyes on what for now is hidden from my view. Hold my soul fast, O God of my salvation, that I may praise you even here within the silence. For you are my Rock and my Redeemer, my Stronghold, and the Sustainer of my Faith. Amen. Heidi Johnston is the author of Choosing Love in a Broken World and Life in the Big Story. She lives in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, with her husband, Glenn, and their two teenage daughters, Ellie and Lara. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • Communion and Redemption in Fargo Season 5

    We love seeing ourselves on TV. Particularly when glimpses of our Christian lives appear on the big screen in ways that connect our spirituality to everyday existence. It helps us bridge the sacred to the secular. The fifth and latest season of the TV show, Fargo, is a ten-episode series that bridges this chasm in an altogether unexpected way. The show is not made with an explicitly Christian framework in mind but I believe it is among the best representations of “sacred” television we have today. For readers who are unfamiliar with the show, Fargo is a television anthology series on the FX Network that is loosely adapted from the 1996 Coen Brothers’ movie of the same name. Each season is a self-contained narrative that needs no prior knowledge of the previous seasons to be enjoyed. The common thread between each iteration is that all the storylines are set in and around the North Dakota-Minnesota border. For Season 5, two questions must be answered to prime your viewing experience. Do the storylines revolve around murders, kidnappings, bigotry, and domestic violence—the utter depravities of the human heart on full display? Yes. Do these same storylines highlight the redemptive nature of the gospel message in ways that are artful, inspirational, and entertaining? Oh, you betcha. When I was just beginning to learn how to craft a sermon in seminary, my preaching professor seared this mantra into our minds: Show, don’t tell. The Bible is full of both “show” moments and “tell” moments, but it’s the showing that often makes for a more lasting impact. Instead of God merely rebuking the Israelites for their repeated infidelities in the wilderness (telling), the Exodus author vividly writes that God will force-feed them quail until it comes out of their nostrils (showing). Instead of telling us to reconcile with our fellow brothers and sisters, Jesus paints a word picture of turning the other cheek. Instead of telling us that his grace will always abound to us, he breaks a loaf of bread and raises a cup of wine. Showing, not just telling, is the basis of my claim that Fargo season five is among the most modern gospel presentations on television. With an ensemble cast filled with Emmy-worthy performances, the undoubted star of the show is Juno Temple, who plays Dorothy “Dot” Lyon. Dot is a traditional Midwestern homemaker. She is married to Wayne Lyon (David Rhysdahl), and together they raise their tweenie daughter, Scotty (Sienna King). Wayne owns and operates a successful Kia dealership. Dot’s day is filled with cooking, cleaning, and attending Scotty’s PTA meetings. In many ways, the Lyons are a stereotypical Midwestern family. But we also discover Dot is concealing an atypical past. Dot has gone to great lengths to create a new persona and hide the trauma of her previous life. She is a survivor of domestic abuse, formerly married to Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm). Tillman is the elected sheriff of Minnesota and is the worst kind of authority figure; one whose ruthlessness and bigotry are scaffolded by a deluded brand of religion. The only thing more rigid than his cowboy hat is his view of male authority. The caricature is a bit heavy-handed but Hamm is brilliantly evil in his portrayal. He reaches Joffrey-esque levels of evil in his hatred-inducing scenes. We learn that Dot’s previous name was Nadine Bump, and that she assumed the Dorothy/Dot alias after she escaped from Tillman’s violent subjugation. Tillman learns of her whereabouts and enlists a brooding juggernaut named Ole Munch, pronounced Oola Moonk (Sam Spruell), to kidnap Dot and bring her back to the Tillman Ranch, where retributive death certainly awaits. Dot fights back and takes off Munch’s ear in the process. She is more than a survivor; she’s “tiger,” as Ole calls her. Ole Munch is a man fueled by a code: all debts must be paid. Because of this, Dot must also pay her debt. A pound of flesh for a pound of flesh, Munch reasons. It’s a personal code that persists due to a seemingly unquenchable need for penance in the form of perpetual self-reproach. The nature of his character is a bit of a mystery. He is shrouded in ageless ambiguity and supernatural underpinnings. In a former life, he had literally eaten the sins of the wealthy and is both an embodiment of debt and a stand-in representative of moral licentiousness and wanton chaos. Though his exact mortality is always in question, the thrust of his narrative arc is anything but ambiguous. He is a placeholder for humanity’s need for forgiveness and redemption. (WARNING: Spoilers from this point on) Munch’s mission in this show is to complete his given task and exact a reckoning on Dot. But in the season finale, Munch’s vendetta is all but forgotten as the main conflict between Dot and Tillman takes center stage. Dot and Tillman square off at his compound, ending in a bloody climactic firefight and with Tillman in handcuffs. With the apparent conflict of the season resolved, and the episode winding down, we settle in with the Lyons at their home. It’s dinnertime. Wayne’s making chili. Dot and Scotty are in charge of the biscuits. With Tillman in prison and the Lyon family reunited, we expect to see a happily-ever-after endscene. We are jolted, however, when we see Munch in the Lyon residence, ready to fulfill his sworn duty to collect on Dot’s debt. “Every debt must be paid.” Munch declares in his enunciated tone. His words are slow, measured, and methodical. “Why?” questions Dot. “Why must debt be paid?... Isn’t the better thing, the more humane thing, to say that debt should be forgiven? Isn't that who we should be?” Dot then presents Munch with a flippant ultimatum. “Whatever it is you think you came here for, we’re halfway to supper…and it’s a school night. So either you wash your hands and help, or we do this another time.” Because, of course, it’s chili night. Caught off guard and swept away by the Lyons’ Minnesotan dinner routine, Munch acquiesces and begins to wash his hands. Amid the hustle and bustle of dinner prep, he attempts to explain his code. “A man…” Wayne interrupts mid-sentence, “You know I was thinking, I might have a beer. What do you think?” Munch furrows his eyebrows and lumbers ahead, “...has a code. He has a code, and the code…” This time Scotty interrupts him with a tap on the shoulder. “You’re in the way.” Munch, interrupted once again, moves out of Scotty’s way and continues, “...the code is ev-”But before he could say “everything,” Wayne hands him a beer. “Here you go.” Dot continues to interrupt. “I’m gonna tell you a secret,” pointing to the box of Bisquick. “It says to use water, but I use milk. Even better, buttermilk.” She pulls out a measuring cup and hands it to Munch, while Scotty shows him the “1-cup” marking on the measuring cup. “So go ahead and measure out a cup.” This is a magical scene. For those who have spent any amount of time in Minnesota, this is the quintessential Minnesota-nice at its hospitable finest. Munch is profoundly confused as he kneads the Bisquick dough. Each time he attempts to explain his process of reckoning, he is interrupted by the Lyon family, and with each little interruption a transformation takes place. Hate and stoic coldness begin to give way under the warmth of the Lyon family who have kneaded him into their dinner liturgy. When the preparations are completed, they all sit together and Dot presents Munch with a drop biscuit that he made, “You wanna know the cure [to your sin]? You gotta eat something made with love, and joy, and be forgiven.” Munch eats. Bread is broken. An overwhelming smile appears on Munch’s face as the final scene cuts to credits and, for the viewers, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. Fargo season 5 tells a violent story but violence is not the end. Rather, it ends with the Eucharist. Where many of us have been programmed to expect the worst, portraying this very familiar means of grace leaves us surprised and humbled because it’s the way grace usually meets us in real life. Unexpectedly. And often around a table. As the credits roll, the conscientious viewer recognizes the embedded gospel message that Season 5 of Fargo has shown us: rebellion, abandonment, penance, redemption, and forgiveness are all there for us if we can stomach the graphic nature of the show—and of our own lives too. In the end, this show makes us scream “Hallelujah!” In part because its artistic quality is top-notch, partly because they didn't tell us the gospel, they showed us, and partly because, well, we love seeing ourselves on TV. Daniel Jung is a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary and a teaching elder in the Korean Northwest Presbytery. He lives in Northern California, where he serves as an associate pastor at Home of Christ in Cupertino. In his spare time, Daniel loves the 49ers, good coffee, and writing media reviews for Think Christian. You can find more of his work here. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. 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  • Paul Used Art to Talk about the Gospel

    To those who have read the book of Acts, it will come as no surprise that the apostle Paul was a master evangelist and contextualizer, but it is less immediately obvious that he was also a student of poetry and art. A cursory reading of the narratives of his missionary journeys in the book of Acts shows that Paul used every means at his rhetorical disposal to communicate the gospel. This is exactly what he meant in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he said, "I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some." In Athens in Acts 17, that meant displaying his mastery of Greco-Roman art, poetry, and history in order to communicate with the Athenians using the symbols, language, and stories that were precious to them. Paul’s Day in Athens In Acts 17, we find Paul arriving in Athens in the middle of his second missionary journey after being run out of several Greek cities along the coast of the Aegean Sea. What did Paul do upon arriving in Athens? The same thing he did everywhere else. He split his time between the synagogue and the marketplace, telling anyone who would listen about Jesus. It is perhaps no surprise that in Athens, the home of ancient philosophy, Paul got into a conversation with a few philosophers as he was walking around. The philosophers who began to argue with Paul were from two well-known philosophical camps: Stoicism and Epicureanism. As they listened to Paul, they were a bit put off (“What is this babbler talking about?” “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”). But they were also intrigued enough to invite him to the Areopagus, which was something like a blend of a high court, city council, faculty, and general nexus of ideas for the city. Paul suddenly found himself on the center stage in front of philosophers, judges, and intellectual Greeks. Paul Talks Art and Faith with the Philosophers During his visit to Athens, Paul encountered an altar to an “Unknown God.” Local legend told of a devastating plague that had once swept through Athens. The people sacrificed to every god in the pantheon, but the gods did not stop the plague. The plague raged on until the poet Epimenedes, a Greek literary hero, suggested they raise an altar to an Unknown God. When they did, the city was saved. In his speech at the Areopagus, Paul used his knowledge of Greek poetry and folklore to show that the philosophers were wrong when they named him a “preacher of foreign divinities.” In fact, he was simply reintroducing them to one of their own gods, the one true God they had built an altar to in ignorance until Paul arrived. Through his sermon, Paul took pains to phrase things in ways that would be familiar to the Greeks. Unlike his other messages in Acts, Paul never quoted the Old Testament. Paul did not mention the name “Jesus” or the word “Christ,” which was the Greek translation of the Old Testament word “messiah.” When he referred to Jesus, Paul simply called him “the man God appointed.” Paul described God in ways that both the Stoics and the Epicureans of the time would relate to. He called God “the divine being” because that phrase is a Greek expression for God. The Stoics in the audience (who thought of God as “the divine essence”) would have been especially familiar with this way of speaking of God. The Epicurean view of the gods emphasized their remoteness and the fact that they had no needs that could be supplied by humans. Paul echoed these ideas when he said that God is “not served by human hands.” The Stoics, on the other hand, had a more immanent conception of the gods, which Paul picked up on when he says that God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” You can imagine heads nodding in the audience. And all this came through the door of art, poetry, sculpture, and story. We can picture Paul staying up late into the night reading the Greek poets by candlelight, meditating on their words and sifting the truth from them. We can imagine the sermon coming together in his mind as he walked through the marketplace and found the altar to the Unknown God. We can wonder if part of what made his "spirit provoked" was the knowledge that the God who was unknown to the Athenians had already introduced himself to Paul. But Paul did not only use his mastery of Greek poetry to reframe the altar to the Unknown God, he used it to push the Greeks toward belief in the one true God. His sermon is peppered with more quotations from Greek poets to exactly this effect. When Paul said “We are his offspring,” he pulled a line directly from a poem by the Greek writer Aratus, which was part of a hymn to the father of the Greek gods, Zeus. The other quotation (“in [God] we live and move and have our being”) is from another poem about Zeus, whose author was the very same Epimenides who told the Athenians to erect an altar to the “Unknown God.” (This is also the same Epimenides whom Paul later calls a “prophet” in the book of Titus.) Again, Paul showed the Athenians that the God he was presenting to them was one toward whom—in their brightest moments—they were already reaching. Paul Uses Art to Challenge Their Thinking Paul’s reference to their poets also drew attention to a few of the inconsistencies that lay at the heart of Greek philosophy and religion. He invited them to consider why, if we are God’s offspring, did they think the divine being is like an image of silver or gold? If God made us, how can we imagine that we can also make God? Also, if we “live and move and have our being” in God, how can we imagine that a temple made by human hands could contain him? Paul gently guided them directly into the fault lines at play within Greek philosophy itself. Paul moved to his conclusion when he told them that the God who saved Athens from the plague had been patient with them, however, now the “times of ignorance” were over. This God was calling them to repent and believe in him. Paul’s divisive climax was his bold claim that the truth of his message is proven because “a man God has appointed” had been killed and God raised him from the dead. The Areopagus exploded at the mention of the resurrection. Some mocked him. Some walked away. Yet for some, Paul touched something that had perhaps been niggling away at the back of their minds, and they came to him to hear more. Others were convinced and joined him, becoming believers. All of this was only possible because Paul was a student of both art and culture. His gospel message was not too spiritual to mix with "worldly things" like poetry and philosophy. In fact, Paul's behavior shows us that God has flung his truth into all sorts of unexpected places—even an ancient pagan marketplace. Paul, the savvy and artistic communicator, gathered together all the threads of God's truth that he could find and wove them into a tapestry that depicted the risen Jesus, the God of every time, tribe, and nation. Andy Patton is on staff with the Rabbit Room and is a former staff member of L'Abri Fellowship in England. He holds an M.A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes at The Darking Psalter (creative rewordings of the Psalms paired with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Pattern Bible (reflections on biblical images in the Bible). If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. 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  • The Architecture of Sound—5&1 Classical Playlist #28

    [Editor's Note: This post resumes Mark Meynell's 5&1 series on classical music which ran from 2020-2021. Taking a different theme each time, we offer five short pieces (or extracts) followed by one more substantial work.] Architecture and music don’t always feel like natural bedfellows. In fact, you might think they were mutually exclusive. One is characterized by solidity, permanence, and physicality; great buildings make us gaze in wonder in 360 degrees. The other is, by definition, fleeting and impermanent, supremely abstract (especially if without words) and invisible. So this playlist probably seems rather futile. As someone once said of all music criticism, ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ But here’s the thing: not only is it entirely possible to say some intelligible and helpful things about music, but dancing actually is often about a sense of space and, yes, architecture. The German poet Goethe once said, ‘I call architecture frozen music.’ That is fascinating and revealing about both art forms. Music, especially if complex, often needs architectural metaphors to explain it; big themes or chord sequences might only begin to make sense if understood as the invisible infrastructure holding up a cathedral or great hall. But we’re also going one step further here. We’re considering music written about particular buildings or places, designed to evoke in fleeting sounds the solid grandeur of some great edifice (s). Think of this as a bit of a magical mystery tour. Má Vlast ‘My Fatherland’: I. Vyšehrad ‘The High Castle’ (JB1:112, 1872-4) Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884 , Czech) Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek (cond.) Smetana was born around 100 miles east of Prague, today’s Czech capital, but then in a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He grew up speaking German but would become identified with the growing sense of Czech national identity and in time would be named the father of Czech music. His major work My Fatherland, is made up of six movements, each depicting something core to Czech culture (whether a place, legend, or event). This, the opening movement, describes Vyšehrad (literally ‘the High Castle’), a medieval fortress not far from Prague’s center, but not to be confused with Prague Castle itself. Vyšehrad now also contains a large cemetery for Czechia’s great and good, including Smetana himself. Two harps begin the proceedings, creating a sense of anticipation as well as evoking the castle’s origins deep in the mists of legend. They introduce a simple 4-note phrase (right) which is the castle’s signature in this and the later movements as well. Things speed up to give a sense of its history with military marches and assaults, culminating in its destruction. But it still has a life after that, a glorious ruin standing proudly on a bluff over the Vltava river (you can hear that in the music too), and still retains its grandeur and beauty. La Cathédrale Engloutie (No X. Préludes - Book 1, 1910) Claude Debussy (1862-1918, French) Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) From the Czech lands, we are now whisked away to an island off the Brittany coast in northwest France. Or rather, we would be if L’Isle d’Ys existed today. It is the stuff of myth, an island town now lost forever to the ravages of the ocean, all because of the actions of a king’s wayward daughter. Debussy seems to hint at its great cathedral now fully submerged (engloutie), depicting the sea and mist through which we must peel back our eyes and ears to grasp what he can see. Debussy uses haunting, half-filled chords (for the musical nerds, often in parallel fifths) which seem unmoved by the movement of the water. The cathedral then seems to rise above the waves, giving us a glimpse of its majesty, only to fall back into the deep. But it is all so fragile and fleeting - these are just musical hints, after all. We are left wondering if perhaps we could also hear the ghost of a chanting choir accompanied by an organ and the tolling of the bell despite being far out to sea. And before we know it, the vision is lost in the fog. Quiet City (1940) Aaron Copland (1900-1990, American) New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (cond.) We have now crossed the Atlantic and transported to the Big Apple, perhaps in the early hours or soon after dawn. Aaron Copland’s initial version was written as incidental music for a Broadway production of Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name. Unfortunately, that flopped so Copland rearranged it as an orchestral piece. The play’s protagonist is a young Jewish boy in New York who finds his trumpet to be his only solace and antidote to a profound loneliness. So the whole piece is constructed around the meanderings of a trumpet. It then seems to enter a melancholy conversation with a cor anglais, as if the young man hears his own echoes while wandering the deserted streets of Manhattan. Even if the piece is unfamiliar, you are bound to recognize all kinds of elements that subsequently became clichés of film music. Copland captures the peculiar isolation of modern urban life so powerfully, one in which we can be lonely despite being surrounded by millions of others. I can’t help but see some of the New York paintings of Edward Hopper when I hear this piece. His masterpiece Nighthawks (which is truly breathtaking if seen ‘in the flesh’) was only finished two years after this piece. Nor do I fail to imagine the glistening sunrise reflecting off soulless skyscrapers as the city yawningly begins yet another day. X. The Great Gate of Kiev, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874 Ravel orch. 1922) Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881, Russian) Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth (cond.) This track is one of several in a larger work portraying a visit to an exhibition of works by the Russian painter and architect Victor Hartmann. The last in the sequence is of a design Hartmann had drafted for a new gate for Kiev (today’s Kyiv, in Ukraine) which he hoped to be furnished with great Russian domes and a peal of bells. So we are listening to Mussorgsky aurally depicting the experience of seeing a painting which is itself a depiction of a great building yet to be imagined. It was originally written as a suite of piano pieces, but the music is so vivid that it is just asking to be arranged for the full spectrum of orchestral colour. In this case, it is the brilliant orchestration by Maurice Ravel (he of Bolero fame). It has it all: the grandeur, a sense of triumphant arrival, the pealing bells, the feeling that you are entering a great destination in its own right. As the music builds, I can just imagine a camera-drone slowly ascending into the air as it takes in more and more of the building and then the whole city. Carillon de Westminster (from Pièces de fantaisie (Suite No. 3; Op. 54) Louis Vierne (1870–1937, French) Olivier Latry (organ of Notre Dame, Paris) Occasionally, a building already has its own jingle. The Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London, certainly does. The chimes of the bells of Big Ben (or as it is now called, The Elizabeth Tower; and in fact, to be seriously pedantic, Big Ben is technically only the big hour bell that goes BONG) have been as universally recognizable as the Nokia ringtone or the old MS Windows startup would become. But its musical simplicity has made it very easy to evoke musically. It is comprised of four tones in two bars, played with developing permutations at each quarter of the hour. Then on the hour, we hear four variations followed by the deep bongs that tell the time. (If interested, you can find out more here!) Louis Vierne was one of organ music’s greats, as performer and composer (he was organist of Notre Dame in Paris for nearly 40 years). In this piece (carillon is French for a peal of bells), Vierne has great fun with the Westminster jingle. He lets the rest of the organ flutter and flurry, in and out of the main theme with increasing volume and complexity, reaching a glorious climax that demands its performer make the most of the organ’s vast range. One can’t fail to be blown away by the majesty and sheer power of both instrument and place. Symphony No. 8 in C minor (WAB 108) Anton Bruckner (1824-1896, Austrian) Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelík (cond.) This symphony is a mammoth, full of huge outbursts, glorious melodies, as well as the sense of vast open spaces. It is not a depiction of a building or place but is music on a vast scale (the whole piece lasts roughly 80 minutes, split into four movements). This is one of the compositions that has prompted many critics to herald Bruckner for creating ‘cathedrals in sound.' Bruckner was a deeply devout catholic from Upper Austria, the schoolteacher son of a schoolteacher whose home was filled with parental love but also tragedy. Aged only 13, he sat beside his father’s bed as he died of TB. He witnessed the deaths of 7 of his 11 siblings in infancy. But like his father, he helped out in the parish church on the organ and his musical ability enabled him in time to leave teaching. He never married, though would often have inappropriate and unrequited crushes on young girls; there is always the sense of a deep melancholy and social awkwardness around Bruckner. But he was a genius whose time would primarily come posthumously. This symphony is complex but it works best if you allow yourself to be fully immersed in it, to let the composer transport you into spectacular halls, over Alpine peaks and into unexplored corners of human experience. The four movements are: Allegro moderato (C mi)     14:40  mins Scherzo: Allegro moderato — Trio: Slow (C mi → C ma, A♭ma)    14:25 mins Adagio: Solemnly slow, but not sluggish (D♭ ma)     22:37 mins Finale: Solemnly, not quickly (C mi → C ma)     22:14 mins Mark Meynell is the Director (Europe and Caribbean) of Langham Preaching. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1997 serving in several places including 9 years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, (during which he also served as a part-time government chaplain). Prior to that, he taught at a small seminary in Kampala, Uganda, for four years. Since 2019, he has helped to bring Hutchmoot to the UK and in 2022 completed a Doctor of Ministry (at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis) researching the place of the arts in cultural apologetics. Mark and his wife, Rachel, have two grown-up children, and they live in Maidenhead, Berkshire. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • Those Watchful Dragons: Saving Beauty from Cynicism

    I am a recovering cynic. I have been fiercely analytical, suspicious, and strong on speculative judgments. I could stare down a false motive at one thousand yards and fire off a critical word as soon as the target was in range. I am also a recovering romantic; in those rare moments when I found trust, I would go all in, and my imagination knew no limits in its restless search for perfection. This is not the place to bore you with the reasons, but my need for a deep defense against unruly emotions caused a split in me that had unintended consequences in my perception and experience of reality. In modernity, the analytical is highly valued, so I received little pushback. However, while essential for controlling unwanted emotions, my approach suffocated my experience of beauty, meaning, and God. This I discovered while traveling across Europe with friends. They were genuinely and spontaneously breathless as we looked at the Swiss Alps. They were experiencing beauty in a way I could not. Intellectually, I knew the sight was breath-taking, but I was still breathing. Cynical suppression made me suspicious of their joy. Though a slave to my own unresolved pain, I dimly understood there was something wrong with me and not with my friends. Fifteen years later, while walking through the Vienna Woods, I was stunned by the breathtaking beauty of a deep blue sky, emerald-green grass, and two trees bright with yellow and red leaves. As I caught my breath, I knew I had just encountered and experienced beauty. It was a sign of healing. Unbeknown to me, my capacity to feel and be vulnerable had grown in the intervening years. I further discovered the depth of my captivity to the hyper-rationalistic separation of experience and reason through a visit to a large Picasso exhibition in Vienna. I went with a Slovak friend who is an accomplished artist and photographer. We first wandered around, getting the layout of the collection, and then went our separate ways. I saw a vast and confusing picture. Not only did I not understand it, I did not have the first clue how to approach it. After some time, my friend came up behind me and said, ‘You are asking all the wrong questions,’ and then he walked away. How did he know what I was thinking? I caught up with him and asked what he meant. What he said opened a door into a new world of experience and understanding. ‘Some things you must experience before you can understand them,’ he said, then walked away again. I did not understand him but returned to the painting. Rather than asking questions, I stood before the painting and allowed it to touch me. My eye caught a single continuous brushstroke, about six inches wide, that went in an arc from the bottom of the painting to the top. I felt the energy needed to bend and stretch to paint it and the violence of the brushstroke. In that moment, the picture made sense, though I could not immediately articulate why. An excess of rationality had been keeping me from a deeper cognition. Academic distance had kept me from participation, which kept me from understanding. It would have been legitimate to analyze the picture through many lenses – the history of the period, the genre, the artist’s biographical details and his technical skills would have added much to an understanding of the painting. But putting aside the questions for a moment, being present to the picture itself, and allowing it to have its effect, gave knowledge that could not be found in any other way. Gradually, more profound thoughts and new relationships emerged. With practice, the inner eye of the imagination learns to respond. Reason can then explore this new perspective. But if the rational is prioritized at the expense of the experiential, such perception is blocked. As I later saw, my hyper-rationalism was a claim to omniscience. I knew, and everyone else did not, what was real and what was not. I came to see my romanticism as a claim to omnipotence. I would create the real—regardless of what reality said. I suppose beauty—or at least the hunger for it—saved me, along with a desire to know God experientially. Buried, as they were, in the hunt for first causes, principles, and dreams to live by. I was mirroring, in a somewhat extreme way, the schism that runs through Western thought between the humanities and sciences. On one side, the schism subtly prioritizes rationality and ignores or even suppresses the imagination, abstracting truth from the revealed text and thinking only in propositions. The subtle message is that we can trust in reason, but emotion (often conflated with feeling) is unreliable. This severs truth from lived experience and the energy required for change. The congregation listens to sermons on serious and majestic issues, sits and nods, stands, exchanges pleasantries, and departs with little discernible response and without the sustained emotional energy necessary for action. Propositions and abstract thought are helpful, even necessary, as a step towards understanding; they describe reality but are not reality itself. It is as if we go to the restaurant and examine the menu, discuss it with the waiter and fellow diners, and ponder the labels and pictures, but are then satisfied by dissecting and eating the menu rather than the meal. We become observers rather than participants when thinking about an object or event. Being time-bound, we necessarily think systematically in sequence and divide life into categories. But we experience life as a whole. Integration is essential for sound reasoning and healthy imagining. An integrated mind receives energy from emotion, direction and meaning from reasonable thought. The key to integration is humility, recognizing the limits of the human mind while remaining free to probe possibility. In my meditations on the Decalogue, it was first interesting, then helpful, to observe that the commandment governing the imagination—do not make false images—precedes the one governing language—do not take the name in vain (empty words of their meaning). Perhaps this is because we learn to see and feel before we learn to reason and articulate. The imagination creates space for new perspectives that are not immediately easy to express. The poet understands these intuitive expressions of truth. Through them, we comprehend at first by direct access what may be accessed later by reason. A healthy imagination describes the glories of life in ways reason can only grasp and articulate with time. I am less clever now; age does that to you. The mind ponders where once it raced ahead. Marsh Moyle works alongside L’Abri Fellowship in the UK but spent most of his life working with ideas and books in Central and Eastern Europe. Extracts from this article were taken from his book, “Rumours of a Better Country.”

  • Are You a Tree or a Potted Plant?

    I had moved house at least once a year for seven years straight. It is simply the way of life during higher education, the path I chose in my early twenties. When the short years of an undergraduate degree expire, one is sent into a seemingly endless game of musical chairs; if you’re not moving for a new degree or a new short-term job, you’re moving to find a cheaper place to live or a better roommate, or simply bending yourself to the will of campus housing. It became wearying, but as the years wore on, I began to strategize. In preparation for my move to each new domicile, I kept a few prized possessions, pictures, sentimental things, and valuable household items to be loaded into a single cardboard box. I’d collected these objects in hopes that one day I’d have my own home, where they could be of use or gather dust on a decorative shelf. “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” wrote William Morris, and I tried to follow his maxim. But each year as another June rolled around, a less idealistic proverb formed itself in my mind: have nothing in your apartment which you do not know to be disposable, or believe to be easily transported. For me, the necessity of portability did not begin in college. If you were out to dinner with my mother and asked her where our family was from, she would grin and with a twinkle in her eye recite the (to me) familiar formula: “We’ve moved sixteen times, six times internationally” to the consternation of the listening party. Each of my siblings was born in a different state or country, and until my parents moved into our family home in Colorado, they had never stayed in one house for more than three years. The possibility that next year, next month even, I might need to move again has always been more than that to me; it is a probability, no, an inevitability. And so, when, during my studies, I settled into a flat for more than a year – twenty-seven months to be exact – it felt almost miraculous. But eventually my studies came to a close, and it was time to move again. I sat on the stoop of my flat that breezy September morning, a shambolic mess of half-packed cardboard boxes within, and sighed. I was sad in a tired way. I had grown to like the overgrown garden our flat shared with the letting agency below: the pear trees that were supposedly grafted from medieval trees, the overburdened trellis of roses with limbs arched in blossomed exhaustion, the tree that produced six perfect red apples each fall (no more, sometimes less), even the tropical tree with large, waxy leaves that seemed not quite at home in this gusty Scottish climate. I looked on them with a mixed pleasure. I envied the impassive stability of these trees; they would go on sprouting, blossoming, changing colors with the seasons, not caring whether I stayed or left, lived or died. Oh, to be so stubborn in one’s being and one’s needs, so sure of one’s literal place in the world. I am a potted plant, I said to myself. Always ready to be moved, never mingling my roots with those of my neighbors, a stranger to solid ground. This thought fell into my mind like a blunt object. Inside my house was a small potted plant that I had taken pains to keep alive during the final throes of completing my thesis, like a talisman of my own survival. I had been contemplating what to do with it when I left and considering throwing it away. It had taken on a wild, stringy appearance no matter how I groomed and clipped it, as though in protest against its modest pot, signaling to me that it wanted to get out and spread itself into welcoming soil. The metaphor continued to unravel itself within my knotted stomach. Perhaps I am a plant that has grown too large for its pot, a plant that if it does not find real soil to set its roots in soon will become awkward and sad, limbs reaching pleadingly toward the sun at the window, wanting to feel the worms and wetness of early morning, but always kept outside of such experiences. Lately, the sight of the plant had begun to inspire a plaintive despair in me; I had tried to plant indoor plants outside before, but they soon died, their roots shocked by the experience. Darkly, I thought to myself that perhaps I was the same. Perhaps after all these years of life with portable roots, I was no longer capable of natural rootedness. Perhaps if you tried to plant me in a particular place, I would shrivel up and die, not ready for the exposure of pure obligation to a place. I longed for a place to belong, to be entangled with, but felt in my bones incapable of such a thing. I am not the only potted plant. In centuries past, the odds were good that you would grow up, marry, and work within a short distance of the same place where you were born. Now it is less likely to be the case. Writing in response to the moral and economic desolations of World War II, Simone Weil drew on this metaphor in her book The Need for Roots, describing the modern condition as one of rootlessness, a lack of meaningful community, work, and belonging, a loss many of us feel in our souls. Some have tried to react to this sense of itinerancy constructively, by choosing a place to put down their roots for good. The notion is noble but comes with its own angst. It is very difficult to belong to a place, to not be able to escape it, to be bound to petty church politics, racist neighbors, the limitations of this place. And how does one choose a place? There is a loneliness of knowing that your rootedness is a chosen rootedness, not the inheritance of love and history. This was a pain I first put my finger on in the golden idealism that first comes with reading a Wendell Berry novel. After a period of wistful desire to take up farming and only use a typewriter, I began to feel a sassier question rising to my pen: it’s all fine and good, Mr. Berry, but what if I have no ancestral farm? And, after all, how far back do I have to look to discover the farm isn’t so ancestral after all? The feeling of rootlessness stretches much farther back past our present predicament. One credible description of history is a long legacy of displacement; of winning and losing land, of conquering and being driven out, of building homes and having them destroyed, by war or time, greed or boredom. Rootlessness is not merely a feature of the modern condition but also of the human condition. I felt this keenly when I first read Saint Augustine’s Confessions, where he touches this ancient wound in a surprisingly vivid way. The North African saint whose words and ideas have echoed down through the centuries described human nature as being characterized by a kind of restlessness. He famously writes in his Confessions, “We are restless until we find our rest in thee.” Augustine was what we might call a third-culture kid – the son of a Christian North African mother and a pagan Roman father – never quite fitting anywhere. Reading the story of his early life in Confessions is strikingly relatable to us sufferers of (post)modern malaise. As a young man he reinvented himself again and again. First, he fashioned himself as a hedonist and a social climber, intoxicated by romance and every pleasure that came his way. Made a bit sick by his own overindulgence, Augustine turned to a restrictive lifestyle, joining a gnostic cult with strict rules for living and high-minded ideas about the spiritual world. Finally, and perhaps most tragically, he fell in love, taking a lover with whom he had a child, and whom, by all accounts, he never gave up loving. In each act of his recounted life, there is a tragic sense of longing, unsatiated desire. When I read his fraught words, I can’t help but feel that Augustine, too, was a potted plant, withering with desire. But Augustine took a different metaphor as the interpretive key for his life: a journey, or, rather, an exile. Sarah Stewart-Kroeker writes “Augustine’s dominant image for the human life is peregrinatio, which signifies at once a journey to the homeland (a ‘pilgrimage’) and the condition of exile from the homeland.” All of life for Augustine was shaped both by this search for the homeland and the feeling of exile; he was a potted plant searching for welcoming soil. This feeling characterizes not only the ethos of his theology, but also the arc of his own personal narrative. In Augustine’s story, I found resonances of my own: the desire for rest and rootedness mixed with the sense of exile and strain toward a place of belonging. Here, I began to find myself mixing metaphors. I am a potted plant; I am a pilgrim. The image it presented to me was awkward and funny, like Tolkien’s glacially slow and meandering tree-people, the ents. What could flourishing look like for this mixed metaphorical life? How can one succeed as both a pilgrim and a tree? Of a promising person we say they are going places. We do not say that of a successful tree. A successful tree stays put. It has roots. It bears fruit. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that this mixed metaphor is at the heart of one of the Bible’s most famous passages: Psalm 1. This is what it says: Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams    of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand    in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. The blessed person walks, like a pilgrim (v. 1), but the blessed person is also like a tree (v. 3). At first the psalm begins as a simile, but it unfolds the likeness in metaphor; the righteous are not only like the tree, they are planted, yielding, prospering. At the heart of these two images is not only the (not) nature of metaphor but also some of the central tensions of what it is to be a human. We flourish in rootedness and fruitfulness, but that rootedness is always temporary, interrupted by death. And even in life we are driven by longings this world never seems capable of satisfying. By reflecting on the properties of trees and journeys, and carrying them over to the human condition, we might discover new ways of understanding ourselves. And even in the ruptures of the metaphors, those places where there is not correspondence, we might discover and articulate those ruptures and noncorrespondences in the human experience that cause us most discomfort and pain. In speaking about them, in giving them the form of images in our mind, we might find ourselves consoled, or drawn onward. The seemingly contradictory images of trees and journeys invite us to consider what it is like to be human, to flourish, to live well in the contradictions of human nature, with the desire for eternity in the confines of mortality, roots in the ground and branches arching their weary arms toward their heavenly home. From You Are a Tree: And Other Metaphors to Nourish Life, Thought, and Prayer by Joy Marie Clarkson (Bethany House Publishers, 2024), 13–16, 30–34. Used with permission. Joy Clarkson is a research associate in theology and literature at King’s College London. She is the Books and Culture Editor for Plough Quarterly and hosts a podcast called Speaking with Joy. You can read her regular writing on her Substack newsletter. She is the author of several books including You Are a Tree: And Other Metaphors to Nourish Life, Thought, and Prayer. Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash

  • The Sacred Beauty of Everyday Architecture

    Where is the intersection of architecture and faith? Is it in lofty barrel vaults or in stained glass depicting the saints? Is it in the transept, the steeple or the altar? Of course, the pairing of Architecture + Faith conjures up a sacred typology; one rooted in portraying scripture to those who could not read it for themselves. Throughout the ages, cathedrals, temples, synagogues, and mosques embodied a deliberate pictorial language to illuminate, educate and appeal to the senses conjuring an emotional response. Style, detail, and ornament were intimately attached to the particular culture and faith traditions of an era. With the Reformation and the proliferation of the printed bible, the language of sacred Architecture became more subtle and re-presented a humble, approachable, and restrained language. Without the compulsory pictures, houses of worship became increasingly centered on gathering to hear and participate in the spoken and sung word. Regardless of the nuances, complexity, or the current style of sacred Architecture, light prevails as a primary and timeless medium to stir the curious toward belief. Architecture holds the sublime capacity to pulse, encircle, lift, and inspire. In the composition of patterns, volumes, textures and frames the occupant is engaged in a participatory movement. Examples like Sagrada Familia, the Sistine Chapel, and Ronchamp are exceptional illustrations of the sacred typology that provokes a response, but are places of worship the only instances where an authentic faith might swell within the built environment? Everyday architecture, and the imagery surrounding it, are woven throughout scripture. We see references to the cornerstone, the foundation, the door, the lintel, the gate, the tower, the stable, and of course the house. Jesus conducted much of his ministry in people’s homes. His everyday, every moment ministry used a common agrarian and household language. His Gospel was not confined to the sabbath or the temple mount. It was on the road, at the well, at the table, at the bedside, in the breaking of bread and washing of feet, and even descending through a broken roof on a palette. And ultimately when Jesus left this earth, the veil in the tabernacle was torn from top to bottom and faith flooded beyond the temple courts into the everyday. God is not, and was never in fact, confined to things made of human hands, nor was He sequestered to sacred places. His gospel permeates and overflows, dwelling within and around those he has gifted with faith. In His humanity and with the Spirit, the sacred entered the everyday. Much has been written about the intersection of art and faith, and the subsequent creative disciplines of literature, poetry, music and songwriting, visual arts, and the traditions of functional pottery and fiber arts.  As an architect, I delight in these writings, and I can easily append the creative discipline of architecture.  However, I recognize that other creative people may not instinctively consider the critical role of the built environment as art or as an expression of faith. It is from this prompt to speak to fellow creators, and to find kinship in the gratitude we share for our artistic inklings, that I offer these thoughts on architecture and faith. I believe architecture is a living art, one in which we dwell and abide. It is an authentic and tangible touchpoint to who we are and the one who made us. It is a deep and beautiful truth that the one who builds the walls does so for another. It is a generative act of service. Both the creator and the user are affected, guided, held, and even changed as they engage and commune within the products of the builder’s craft. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus was asked by the Pharisees which is the greatest commandment of the law. His answer points toward a deep calling to not only commune with God with all our capacity but also to give these talents and skills as gifts to others: "And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with  all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:37-39 ) The work of an architect is the stewardship of place, people, and resources. Through a disciplined and iterative practice of listening, reclaiming, sketching, modeling, editing, collaborating, and finally re-presenting and binding, the architect creates a structure that frames and supports what is possible. In the words of Tim Keller, a faithful architect can “rearrange raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish.” The architect participates in the divine act of creation, answering a deep calling while gifting the vessel to another. The built environment apart has a spiritual life all its own. Architecture is a living art. In place-making an architect may try her best to anticipate and speak to a function or occupant, but the walls and emptiness exist in time and space apart from the architect. They wait for light, for gathering, for souls to abide. The doorframes may prompt, the steps may lift, the windows may frame, but the built environment finds beauty in both its intention and its possibility. Christians believe the imprint of our maker is in our hearts, and because we are each unique this imprint primes us for distinctive ways to abide and see. My pastor, Michael Flake, describes this mark as Christ’s blood on the doorframe of our lives. As we peer through these frames— whether it be at the pub, the workshop, the kitchen sink, or from our porch at the end of a day's labors—the built environment faithfully frames our every day and our every moment just so. Where is the intersection of architecture and faith? It is in the arc of a garden gate and the boot shelf in a mudroom. It is in the window seat of a nursery, the bend of a stair, and in the morning light across a breakfast table. In the realm of this present garden, faith meets us at the door, in the threshold, in washing and cooking, place-making, and in our labor and rest. The places authentically crafted for these actions house our everyday lives. As we enter a place we become part of it, we are changed by it and in fact, participate in the making of and purpose of it. Nicole Perri is originally from the foothills and lake region of New Jersey and grew up in the woods and creeks exploring and creating worlds. After considering careers in Art and Music, Nicole felt called to architecture and attended Clemson University where she received a BS and a MA in Architecture. Nicole currently focuses her practice on Residential Architecture and Community and Arts Projects in Davidson and the fabric of the Lake Norman region. She crafts designs to enrich the spirit and health, and strives to build identity, connection, memory and light into each unique proposal. Her writings and thoughts about Architecture + Faith can be found at Rooted and Flying. Photo by Inside Weather on Unsplash

  • Comprehensive Spirituality with Ellis Potter

    [Editor's note: This lecture was given at L'Abri Fellowship. You can also read Ellis' new book on the topic, Comprehensive Spirituality.] What is more spiritual, peeling a potato or praying? If we were to grow spiritually, what would that look like? Do we become more transcendent and less visible as we become more spiritual? This lecture explores the spiritual nature of people as originally created by God and the spirituality of the resurrected Christ. In it, Ellis Potter unpacks what it means that Christ is lord over all of life, not just some small "spiritual" segment of it. Ellis Potter is a Christian minister, counselor, and teacher. He worked for many years with Francis Schaeffer at L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and was the pastor of the Basel Christian Fellowship for ten years. He has published several books and teaches all over the world. If you’ve enjoyed this post or other work coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support us by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • Surviving the Creative Doldrums

    If you plan to be a writer for any significant amount of time, you will inevitably hit a stage that I call the “creative doldrums.” Perhaps you’ve already been there. A day, then a week, then a month goes by, and you haven’t written anything. Not a word. There is nary a gust of wind in your artistic sails. You might start to worry, then panic, then go into an existential tailspin over whether you were ever a creative person to begin with and whether you will ever have anything to say again. This kind of emotional crisis isn’t helped by the kind of world we live in, especially if you are an artist with an online presence. The same social media technologies that allow us to share our work with more people than ever before are also insatiably hungry monsters that will punish us if we don’t constantly feed the beast. The mantra of the algorithm gods is update or be made irrelevant. You have to stay current, keep your fans reminded of who you are and what you’re doing, lest you fall down to the bottom of the feed, or even show up on it at all. As you can guess or might already know through personal experience, this can be a pretty nasty headtrip, especially if you rely on your artistic work in some part for your vocational income. So what are some things we can do as artists and creators to ride out our own creative lulls? As someone who’s been writing for over twenty years and has faced my own share of dry spells, I’ve learned a few things that will hopefully be helpful. Clarify your expectations There’s nothing like a crisis to help you confront and clarify what it is you actually want out of a situation. I think it’s important for us as artists through the various stages of our career to revisit what our expectations are. Do you want to be a traditionally published author? Are you writing and sharing just for the joy of it? Do you want a social media following? Are you okay with churning out lots of less-than-your-best work, or are you the kind of person that really needs to perfect something before releasing it to the world? Asking these questions of yourself can be tremendously helpful. Remember that you are not just your art If you’ve wrapped up your identity and worth in your creative output, hitting a creative lull is really going to mess you up. I think this can be a particular temptation for young, ambitious artists (I’ve been there). If you want to be a healthy artist long term, you are going to have to find a way to recognize the value and importance of your artistic endeavors while also detaching your ultimate identity from how much art you are able to produce and how people receive it. That probably means having a good therapist and good friend and family relationships around you that remind you of your inherent worth, apart from what you create. Remember that sometimes life just happens As author and speaker Jon Acuff has said: “Give yourself grace.” His point is that when we are working on a creative dream, we can often be incredibly hard on ourselves and not recognize the realities of life. Sometimes things just happen that take up our time and energy, and we can’t help it. If you are married and also have kids, or you are bi-vocational, sometimes art is going to have to take a back seat to your other obligations. We won’t do ourselves any favor by further beating ourselves up over our lack of creative output. Recognize that creativity has seasons Related to the previous point is the fact that we must recognize the waves of the creative life. No one can constantly create and create well. Life is a balance of work and play, rest and labor. Creative projects, both large and small, have a cycle of inception to realization. There’s a time to receive and a time to give. Sometimes you need to be refilled before you can share with the world once again. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote beautifully in her book Walking on Water, “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of the love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.” Eat a good creative diet Creativity is just as much about input as it is about output. I find that other art and beauty helps inspire my art. This might look like reading other poets, good fiction, visiting art museums, seeing great films, listening to good music, taking walks in nature and cities, and visiting inspiring places. Creativity often works like a mental compost pile or a good soup, you’ve got to dump good stuff in there and then let it simmer for a while. Keep a long-term perspective One of the best pieces of creative advice I’ve ever heard was something author Jonathan Merritt said at a writing conference I attended years ago. During a panel discussion, he described the writing life as a “long obedience in the same direction” (quoting Eugene Peterson quoting Nietzsche). We are often more influenced by the culture of “now” than we realize, and we are tempted by delusions that our artistic efforts will attain swift success. The reality is usually more of a long, patient grind of quiet labor. Some may take this as a discouragement, but I believe this can actually be tremendously freeing, because it releases us from the tyranny of the urgent and the nigh-impossible weight of instant success. Besides that, keeping a long-term perspective helps us see those dry spells for what they are, seasons in a long vocational life of creative work. Continue to “show up” Now, some of these suggestions could easily be transformed into subtle excuses to justify laziness. Maybe your life is just busy right now—or maybe you’ve poorly managed your schedule. Maybe the well has run dry—or maybe you haven’t done anything to refresh it. Even when ideas aren’t flowing smoothly, or hardly flowing at all, it’s still important to develop a habit of “showing up.” That might mean setting aside some time each day to work or brainstorm, or heading off to a place where it's easier to quiet your mind. Or, it might just involve being ready for when the ideas return. I share all these bits of advice with you because I’ve found them helpful in my own life. For me, thankfully, the creativity always shows up again when I practice patience, take some pressure off myself, fill up with good things, and continue to “show up”. May these ideas be helpful for you in your own creative dry spell. Remember in the end that it is not about how many poems we wrote or books we published, but whether we offered some small measure of truth and beauty to the world. Chris is a community college English professor in Massachusetts, and is an arts and culture writer whose works have appeared in publications such as, Tweetspeak Poetry, The Curator, The Molehill, and currently on The Rabbit Room. Chris is also the author of several books of poetry, including his latest collection Winter Poems. In 2018 he helped co-found The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, visiting coffee shops, and poking through used bookstores with his wife Jen. If you’ve enjoyed this post or other work coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support us by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here. Photo by Math on Unsplash

  • A Liturgy for the Resurrection of Faith by Dorothy Sayers

    This liturgy is taken from Every Moment Holy Volume 3 from Rabbit Room Press. You can find more liturgies like these at By Dorothy Sayers Victorious Christ, whom we these many years have crucified and with sweet spices laid in the strong bands of the grave: Appear, thou risen from the dead, and come, and go before us. Thou of our fragrant memorials  hast no need; thou art alive, thy wounded feet are swift upon the ways of the world, thy smitten hands outstretched for the healing of the nations. Startle us awake, immortal Splendour; open our eyes to see that already the stone is rolled away from the sepulcher. Quicken our ears to hear the proclamation of thine angel. Fill us with thy Holy Ghost, that is the breath of life, for our false gods are sick and dying, and for them is no resurrection. Thee only the tomb cannot hold; in all the earth none liveth but only thou, that with the Father and the Holy Ghost livest and reignest, world without end. Amen. If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • The Rabbit Room Proudly Presents: Open Hours—Pyjämaslëëpövr

    We want North Wind Manor to be a hospitable place for everyone. We had such a great response from Open Hours: Fika (Swedish coffee break) each Wednesday from 1:00 - 4:00 that we later added Quiet Hours: Stilla (Swedish for quiet and peaceful) each Friday morning from 9:00 - 12:00. Fika, with its community, coziness, and intentional pause brings to the space a vibrant hum of conversation, laughter, and music, whereas Stilla quiet hours is to provide a calmer space for deeper focus. These times have been so wonderful and each week offers a different group and energy based on those who choose to join in. That said, we’ve had a sad ache in our heart of hearts knowing that something is still missing. So it is with great joy that the Rabbit Room proudly presents…. Open Hours: Pyjämaslëëpövr (Swedish for slumber party). Although American culture has no exact cultural equivalent, the Nordic countries have a long and deep tradition of Pyjämaslëëpövr. It fills the mysterious liminal space between a junior high girls' slumber party and a networking cocktail party for local professionals. Starting at midnight each Tuesday night and wrapping up with a collective primal scream as the sun rises in the east. We’ll be eating Köttbullar, round hand-formed meatballs made from pork, slathered in lingonberry jam, Pannkakor, pancakes slathered in lingonberry jam, and Surströmming, fermented herring slathered in lingonberry jam, while we dance the Dansa runt stolen, and play round after round of our favorites, Kalle Anka-leken and Spelet med äpplet, till we pass out from a mixture of exhaustion and glee. And hey, if a pillow fight breaks in the midst of all that, that would be seen as a success as well! So pull out your pajamas, don your Svenska mössan, grab your favorite stuffed animal and come on out ya’ll! [Editor's note: now that April 1 has passed, I am at liberty to add the disclaimer that this was an April Fool's joke. While we celebrate whatever Scandinavian-inspired traditions you get up to between midnight and dawn... please don't do them at North Wind Manor.]

  • Ten Lenten Sonnets from Andrew Peterson

    Throughout Lent, Andrew has been sharing his Lenten Sonnets on the Rabbit Room Poetry Newsletter. We're publishing the final sonnet here and you can read the rest (and get every other poem we publish delivered to your inbox) on the poetry newsletter. Happy Easter! Lenten Sonnet | March 26, 2018 by Andrew Peterson The neighbor’s sheep went missing days ago. She had posted a message on the board For the community: “Please help. I know They’re nearby. Four sheep.” Offered a reward. Then I looked out my back window and saw All four on the hill. I called the neighbor With the news. She squealed till her voice was raw, And kept thanking me over and over. A minute later I saw her sprinting Out of the brush and up the hill, weeping, Clapping, calling, chasing, unrelenting In her love for what was in her keeping. We live our lives and never really know How loved we are, or how far love will go. In addition to being the founder of the Rabbit Room, Andrew Peterson is a singer, songwriter, poet, and the author of the popular children’s series, The Wingfeather Saga. This poem is part of a series of sonnets for Lent and Easter. If you’ve enjoyed this post or other work coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support us by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

  • The Blessing of Babel

    My senior year of high school, I started taking Japanese language classes. It was partially on a whim, and partially because I had recently discovered the artwork and writing of Makoto Fujimura, and bit by bit, it was turning my world upside down. But that is a story for another time. The important point for now is that I fell in love with the language. I loved the writing systems, one of which is a thousand years older than the Great Wall of China. I loved the way the words lilted and folded together and rearranged themselves. I loved the rich, unique tradition of storytelling and deep metaphor, and I also think I loved the difference from my own language. Nothing felt familiar, everything was new, and something about that beckoned to me. Suffice it to say, I kept studying after high school, and all the way through college. As soon as I graduated, I took a five-part Japanese proficiency test, and was preparing to go to Japan for at least a year to keep learning. But fate (or rather Covid-19) had other plans. So, I put down my textbooks, dusted off another dream, and moved to Nashville. Just as the many millions of people who have gone to school to learn a language, only to put it away and return to normal life, I watched as a once proud skill slipped away, one word or turn of phrase at a time. I lost myself in other pursuits and truly have loved my life here, but I missed my other world. I felt as though I was losing a little of my sense of wonder as my ability to speak Japanese drifted away. This part of my story would appear to be ended, but I think one of God’s favorite pastimes is surprising us. About a month ago, without warning, something familiar and strange stirred inside of me, and without knowing why, I started to study Japanese again. It came back slowly, painfully. Words and writing systems that I had once thought were mine forever looked like strangers again. They had to be dug up, dusted off, and breathed into once more. But something happened as I  re-learned words I had forgotten—they began to replace old, tired, overused English words in my heart. The last few years have not been easy ones and words like trust, protection, faith, patience, grace, and many other “religious” words had gained blood-letting edges. Without knowing it, I was desperate for new ways to speak to God or about God, desperate for ways to approach Him that didn’t hurt so much. One word at a time, I started to pray in Japanese, think in Japanese, process pain, frustration, and despair in Japanese, and it seemed to me that God was using those same words in return when he spoke to me. English words that had been used against me, had been used too many times and now meant nothing to me, or that hurt to hear because I had trouble believing they were true anymore, were replaced, made new. Perhaps by all rights, nothing should have changed. The Japanese words signified the same things as the English, but something was different. All I know is that 神様はあなたを守るmeans more to me than “God will protect you” even if the translation is the same. But in truth, the translation is never exactly the same, and perhaps that is part of the magic. I needed ways of expressing love, pain, sorrow, or overwhelming joy that English does not possess. I needed more ways to speak to God. I needed more ways that He could speak to me. There are thousands of ways to find deeper faith or renewed meaning, but I believe that one way is literally to use new words. It does not take long to exhaust the acceptable language of religion, at least in my experience. I’m not telling you to go learn Japanese (necessarily), but I think there is a reason so many people turn to Ancient Greek or Hebrew to find new meaning, new impact from texts that have been read to many times or misused in ways that are irreparable. A new language, a new way of seeing things, sneaks past our “watchful dragons,” or at least it sneaks by mine. Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting in the back of a local international church watching a Chinese New Year celebration. In between the dumpling contests and traditional dances and Kung Fu demonstrations, the church choir stood up to sing “This is My Father’s World” in Mandarin and it nearly brought tears to my eyes. The only word I know in Mandarin is “thank you” and I’m pretty sure I say it wrong, but all of a sudden, I wanted to know more. I wanted to sing about the gospel with these wonderful, welcoming people, in words I had never heard but that pointed in a new way to something as familiar and mysterious as breathing. No one language can contain the entirety of a truth, the perfect essence of beauty, the full unveiling of light and shadow, but each holds a piece, a sliver that over the millennia, has become something unique and necessary to the Christian faith. Perhaps a truth is more beautiful for being shattered among the nations, for every language, every culture refracts a facet of it back into the heart of the one who hears and understands. The blessing of Babel is that there is always more. There are always new ways to rediscover the glory of God, for the wonder of his Word to be revealed once again. There are always more words. Every idea, every parable, every instruction, every word of comfort has perhaps become more by being broken apart and remade. I cannot learn every language. I can’t understand every subtlety and metaphor that makes a familiar truth unique to each subset of the created world, but I do know that God is using the varied words of his many people to draw me back to himself, to reawaken the mystery of a thing that I could no longer look in the eye. If Christ plays in 10,000 places, I am just grateful that I have found a new way in which he sings. Carly Marlys (Anderson) is a poet and aspiring author out of Nashville, Tennessee. She recently published her first poetry collection entitled Dust and Dew. Her work has also appeared on the Rabbit Room blog and in The Echo literary journal. You can find more of her poetry at or on Instagram @carlymarlys. If you’ve enjoyed this post or other work coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support us by clicking here. Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here. Photo by Conor Luddy on Unsplash

  • Ora et Labora: On Language and Living

    Before being voted “most likely to join the military” at my pacifist, Mennonite high school (read into that what you will), I had the opportunity to visit the truly peaceful grounds of a Benedictine monastery. Field trip. I wish I could tell you about the deep, spiritual experience it was to be in such a solemn environment, and how the stillness of the place struck a chord in me that’s resonated since. In actuality, great student that I was, I remember only two things about our time there: the communion-flavored grape juice we had at lunch, and the following conversation. A few of the monks had graciously lent their time to showing us the place and teaching us about the monastic life. “Ora et labora,” we were told, was the sum of it all: prayer and work, balanced. They went on to describe their practices for deepening the faith and interceding for their surrounding community, but I was already stuck, left in the dust with a curiosity. I raised my hand. “The roots are the same,” I pointed out. “What?” said the good friar. “The word ‘ora’ meaning ‘prayer’ is the suffix of ‘labora’ meaning ‘work,’” I said. “Why is that?” Silence. Then a stutter. “It’s just—” he began. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just ‘ora et labora’: prayer and work.” I didn’t buy it. Still don’t as a matter of fact. I’ll go so far as to say I wouldn’t believe the holy man even if these Latin sound-a-likes were only so by sheer chance. What I mean is this: I don’t agree with the statement, “it doesn’t mean anything.” Words have depth to them, entire worlds holed up in their cores, and I’d rather break the shell to see what’s inside than take them for granted. Words matter. In Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, the Inkling chronicles through the lens of said tongue the tendency toward “internalization” in Western language and thought. It’s fascinating to see, in words alone, shifts in consciousness over time toward the individual and away from the community, away from integration and into the arms of reductionism; praising comprehension, foregoing apprehension. All this is to say again that words matter. They shape the way we think. Remember. Live. And it doesn’t take a long look around to see the ways that “internalization” has shaped our perception of the meaning of our comings and goings. I don’t mean to level any blame at the good monks we visited that day. I simply had to look elsewhere to find the answers I sought. And while ora et labora may not have any special significance for my life today (I never did join the Benedictines, Mennonites, or the military, for that matter), what does is whether I go about slinging worlds of meaning left and right without a second thought. Someone might just get hurt; or maybe worse, kept from seeing what’s shining beneath the surface of things: distracted by the rote of our busy lives and language. “Utter words,” says Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, “as though heaven were opened in them and as though you did not put the word into your mouth, but as though you had entered the word.”1 If there are worlds in our words, their each and every utterance is an unfolding meaning which we step into, co-creating as we go. If we are to realize—in the fullest sense of the word—that “all matter is radiant of spiritual meaning,” we’ll often need new language for the task, which is to say new and renewing perspective. This is a driving reason I’ve come to appreciate poetry more over the last few years (thanks for the kickstart, Malcolm Guite) and find even dead languages fascinating. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot of good) in having the ground under my feet shaken a bit from time to time, and having my assumptions challenged. The more the better, I say. Come to think of it, these Latinates—courtesy of our kind, Benedictine hosts—may have plenty of significance for my life today after all. Breaking the Shell Interestingly enough, though I haven’t found any indication these words are truly connected (please message if you can!), following an etymology of labora back to Proto-Indo-European ultimately accounts only for the “lab” in the word: something taken or gained.This might just leave room for a potential combination of roots — perhaps with one such as, oh, I don’t know…ora: of the mouth. Please note: there may not be a true relation here. I’m not trained for this arena by any stretch of the imagination. I’m an amateur through and through, but am happy to toy with a little mystery. It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Ora refers to the mouth (or in the case of our Benedictine slogan, what comes from it), and lab-ora refers to what is taken for the mouth, or the means to take for the mouth: exempli gratia, to labor. Food for thought. For those bearing with this etymology, then, one could interpret the roots of ora et labora as “what the mouth produces, and what it consumes.” And that has plenty to bear on my life. While “prayer and work” can be watered down to dry practice (been there), I think there’s something deeper going on here with these words. First, what is taken for the mouth; consumed. What narratives do I give credence to? Are they centered on my own navel-gazing realities, meanings, desires, and perspective? Or are they stories of mystery and connectedness with others, the world, and the Reality that surrounds me and of which I am only a part and player? And then there’s ora: what is produced. Are my language and living subtle and deep, rich and dangerous, pregnant and healing to those in my life? And what about to myself, who must step into the meanings that come from my mouth? Or on the contrary will I be known as trite, precise, and busy, my words as reduced and empty? Meaningless? Shallow? I land on different sides of these questions every day, but I hope and strive to know the worlds I create with my words leave a little room for wondering and the wondrous, for re-humanization and community and being known, and for more grace in my language and living, which is to say in my ora et labora. Perhaps this is the heart of its Benedictine sister-phrase, laborare est orare: work become prayer. Our rote become poetry. Life become living. Here’s to more of it for all of us. Tyler Rogness is learning to live on purpose, and to sink into the small moments that fill a life. He loves deep words, old books, good stories, and his wonderful family who put up with his nonsense. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ekstasis Magazine, the Amethyst Review, The Habit Portfolio, and the Agape Review. More of his work can be found at Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

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