Beholding God or How People Change

The air was growing brighter and brighter about us; as if something had set it on fire. Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was pierced through and through with the arrows of it. I was being unmade. I was no one. But that’s little to say; rather, Psyche herself was, in a manner, no one. I loved her as I would once have thought it impossible to love, would have died any death for her. And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and oh, gloriously she did) it was for another’s sake. The earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming. The pillars on the far side of the pool flushed with his approach. I cast down my eyes.” C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Looking back over my posts over the last couple of months, it’s clear to me that I’ve really spent the summer thinking about one question—What does it mean to encounter the divine?  Till We Have Faces is in many ways a book length answer to that question. And in reading the novel, I realized that encountering God can never be an end in itself. Rather, it is about transformation, or as we Christians call it, sanctification. In fact, as Christians, our own ongoing transformation actually depends on our beholding God.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).

In Exodus when Moses asked to gaze on the glory of the Lord, simply seeing the passing glory of the Lord made his face shine with a resplendent glory so radiant that the people of Israel asked him to wear a veil. And in reflecting on that encounter in light of Christ, Paul makes an astonishing claim–our relation to God through Christ is even greater than Moses’ because we come to God with unveiled faces by the power of the Spirit, and in beholding him we become like him. In Christ we are able to gaze on God, a reality that sparkles and cuts like a diamond because to gaze on the divine is to encounter both terror and beauty, both dread and joy.

Terror and dread because who we are and what we desire is finally exposed. Just as Orual is finally able to see how sickly her love for Psyche is in the presence of the divine, we too are exposed, laid bare, disintegrated in God’s presence. One reason I believe people don’t really seek God, don’t really read their Bibles or pray with any real earnestness is because deep down they know to do so is to risk exposure, to have their desires revealed as petty, to have their loves exposed as anemic. The sound of the Lord comes to the garden like a storm, and we hide ourselves because we know that we are naked.

But it is not just terror and dread. It is beauty and joy too. God is not simply beautiful—he is the source of beauty. As Augustine says, God is, “The beauty of all things beautiful.” This means that the rush of joy we experience in the presence of earthly beauty, in faces and sunsets, in symphonies and meals, in laughter and mountains, finds its source and fullness in the face of God. To gaze on him is to experience the fullness of beauty which is itself the fullness of joy. But it is more than that. To gaze on God is to be realigned with and by the source of beauty itself, a beauty that actually changes us into the fullness of beauty itself-the face of Christ.

Jonathan Franzen and the Danger of Seeing Through Everything

Since my last post, I’ve still been reflecting on the nature of epiphany in contemporary literature, particularly in the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Despite my reservations about the real possibility of actual epiphanies in novels like Franzen’s, I haven’t read a recent novel that better captured the world as it is right now. Franzen’s stated purpose as a writer is too write novels that are accessible to as many people as possible but that still grapple with big ideas (see his essay “Mr. Difficult” in How to Be Alone).

One way he accomplishes this is with a liquid and inviting prose style that shows you his literary world without drawing much attention to itself. His prose is transparent. But transparency characterizes more than his prose style—it also describes how he views the world. He wants to see to the heart of things, and as a very good novelist, his gift as a cultural observer is in making things transparent. Much of the novel occurs post 9/11, so thematically the novel grapples with rise and fall of the political topography resulting from that tragedy. But in his quest for  transparency, he has just as much venom for environmentally motivated liberalism as he does for war profiteering neo-cons. No one, it seems, is immune from his critical eye.

For example, Franzen uses the occasion of a Bright Eyes concert, an event he describes as being “almost religious in its collective seriousness,” to explore generational attitudes toward music. And with nothing more than a couple of lines he is able to conclude some fundamental things about my generation:  “They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being. A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming.” In a flash all my earnest allegiance to indie music was exposed for what it often is—a highly selective and somewhat pretentious kind of consumption. And the novel is full of these barbs. But the prose is so crisp and the characters so compelling, that you are willing to risk his unrelenting gaze.

The benefit, of course, of seeing through everything is that not much is lost on you, and Franzen has an amazing ability to skewer hypocrisy and to layer everything in irony. In reading the novel though, I couldn’t help but be reminded of C. S. Lewis’s observation that to see through everything is to ultimately see nothing:

The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles…If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

So after reading a book that saw through everything, and after thinking about epiphanies, I wanted to read a book that was undergirded with a sense of the divine. It is the divine that not only makes real epiphany possible, but that also ensures there is something more than total transparency. With that in mind, I decided to reread Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, which retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche through the eyes if Psyche’s sister. It is a novel about encountering the divine, about epiphanies in the original sense of the word. And in reading it I realized the main character and narrator, Orual, is a lot like Franzen. She can often see through things and describe things as they are, but in the end, her willful blindness to see what is actually there leads to her undoing. Over the next few posts, I want to explore the nature of epiphany in Till We Have Faces.

Imagination’s Risk

“The more I’ve learned in my life, the more acutely I’ve felt my hunger and blindness, and at the same time the closer I’ve felt to the end of hunger, the end of blindness.  At times I’ve felt myself to be clinging onto the rim–of what I hardly say without the risk of sounding ridiculous–only to slip and find myself deeper in the hole than ever.  And there in the dark, I find again in myself a form of praise for all that continues to crush my certainty.”  Nicole Krauss, Great House

It is one thing to enjoy imaginative works, to ride aloft on waves of music, to co-labor with a writer  and spin worlds in our minds, or to absorb a painting’s impact and let it reshape us.  But it is quite another to attempt to make such things because  to make is to risk ourselves.  This is not to say that opening ourselves up to the forces of created works is not without risk.  To open ourselves up to any shaping force is a form of bravery precisely because we can never gauge the impact.   Our assumptions might be undermined.  Our prejudice might be exposed.  Our ignorance might be challenged.  Our certainties might be shaken.  And this is often far from pleasant.  To have our world enlarged is only romantic until it is enlarged, and we find that we have been standing on the edge of a yawning abyss.  But the risks one incurs in consumption are altogether safer than creating because to create, to make something of the world, as Andy Crouch defines culture making, is to find ourselves in the dark.  After all reading might blow one’s hair back, but writing might very well unleash the winds of Zephyr.

When we create we risk uncertainty, failure, exposure, and misunderstanding.  In Annie Dillard’s book long meditation on writing, The Writing Life, she compares the act of writing to the laying out of words.  This line of words could lead anywhere, and in pursuing them there is the risk of losing the way. All creating is both a journey out of the self into unknown territory and a journey into the self into even wilder territory.  To create is to embark on an Arctic expedition, to make out for El Dorado with nothing more than a hunch and a half-remembered legend.  It is to risk shipwreck and unnumbered days adrift at sea, only to wash up on a deserted island with nothing more than our salt-worn wits.

If it is all so risky, why do this at all? When we lay out words, mold clay,  cook, sing, design rooms we are declaring that we refuse to settle for the often sheltered smallness of the world as we know it.  In creating we refuse to settle for the warm malaise of shop worn assumptions and ways of being.  In creating we refuse to permanently contort our bodies into the posture of consumer or critic.  Ultimately, though, Christians ought to create as a form of praise.  The shape of our gratitude for the world God has made often comes in the form of a sculpture, a song, a poem, or a meal.  In creating we reclaim our dignity as image bearers, and we fill and subdue the earth with the work of hands.