The “Christian” Artist: 10 Reflections from Abraham Kuyper

Maggie Hubbard Pile of Stuff I, 2016

Maggie Hubbard, Pile of Stuff I, 2016

 

The “Christian” Artist: 10 Reflections from Abraham Kuyper

The artistic legacy of American Christianity is mixed, (at best). Christians have scorned the arts as useless, wasteful, sinful, elitist, idolatrous, and self-centered. When these same Christians decide to “take back the arts” and make their own forms of “Christian” music, movies, novels, and paintings, the artistic results, once again, are mixed, at best.

What should be our response to this “mixed” legacy of the arts in American Christianity?

Abraham Kuyper’s 1898 reflections on faith and the arts in his Lectures On Calvinism are impressive in their depth, breadth, and insight on the subject. While I do not find myself agreeing with every aspect of his aesthetics, I find his speech (composed in 1898) to be extremely prescient, prophetic, and relevant for today’s discussions of faith and the arts.

It is no surprise that Christians called to the arts are ambivalent about the American church. Some feel mistrusted and marginalized. Others feel isolated and lonely, and still others feel misunderstood, frustrated, and even angry.

This week, for my reflection on Abraham Kuyper, I offer 10 pieces of advice for the Christian artist inspired by Kuyper’s chapter on “Calvinism and the Arts.” I hope that these are helpful in your reading of his lecture.

 

  1. Your Art is Not a Luxury, It is a Necessity

While some Christians have argued that the arts are a wasteful luxury – that money should only be spent on evangelism or helping the poor – Kuyper disagrees. Art, he argues “is no fringe that is attached to the garment, and no amusement that is added to life, but a most serious power.” The arts are a central part of God’s intention for humanity. Take beauty and creativity away from a person’s life and you have removed a core part of their created humanity.

Kuyper argues that art is not a superfluous “decoration” for life. To the contrary – it can help us understand what life is all about. Art, he insists, teaches us lessons “which neither science, nor politics, nor religious life, nor even revelation can bring to light.”(163) For him, a bare utilitarian vision of life which has no space for creativity, imagination, or beauty is not a life worthy of a creative and imaginative God. The arts remind us, in a world of bare rationalism and materialism, that life is about more than simply the true and the good, it is also about the beautiful. For, in “this cold, irreligious, and practical age the warmth of this devotion to art has kept alive many higher aspirations of our soul.”(143)

Standing firmly in the creativity and imagination of the Creator God himself, Christian artists should never apologize for their calling to the arts. They have a high and holy calling.

The artist creates, not because she feels like it, not because she has some extra time and money, not because a space is lacking decoration. The artist creates because her God has called her to create. This is the only justification she needs.

 

  1. Push Boundaries

Christians have historically feared artists because they push boundaries, challenge assumptions, and question the status quo. Christians in America have wrongly married their faith to a stagnant cultural conservatism that fears cultural exploration, innovation, and change.

In opposition to this, Kuyper argues that God called Adam and Eve to explore, cultivate, and develop the Garden of Eden—not freeze it in place. Therefore, he argues, Christians are not in the business of fearful cultural conservation – they are in the business of hopeful cultural exploration, cultivation, and development.

If our God is a God who loves fearless exploration and development, the arts “cannot afford to tarry at her origin, but must ever develop herself more richly… Only, the law of her growth and life… must remain the fundamental law of art for ever.” (163)

 

  1. Don’t Make “Christian Art”

Abraham Kuyper argues that the church should not have its own distinct style of “Christian art.” The church should not be in the business of controlling its artists or they art they produce. The church does not call artists – God does. The artist is responsible directly to God, and not the church. He is radically free to glorify God through his art-making. Because the artist is freed by God’s call, we should not expect one singular “Christian style” of art, but instead, a broad, messy, and beautiful variety of explorations in a multiplicity of media, addressing ever widening themes.

 

  1. Don’t Make “Secular Art”

Embarrassed by the horrible state of “Christian Art,” some Christians in the arts (in particular those called to make art out in the “secular art world”) attempt to hide their faith or ignore it. Fearful of being found out, they try to make art that is disconnected from their deepest convictions and beliefs.

While Kuyper is against “Christian Art,” he is also against “Secular Art.” He believes that “the call for a secular, all-embracing art-style, independent of any religious principle, is simply absurd.” (151) Why is it absurd? Because every song, painting, and sculpture emerges from some conviction about the meaning and purpose of life. It comes from a belief in something. Every artist must have a worldview—a core identity. The only question is, what will that core identity be?

Kuyper insists that the arts “demand a central motive in the mental and emotional life of a people.” (150) In short, if you believe nothing, you have nothing to create. Even the so-called atheist artist believes in something, if she didn’t, she would have no reason to make anything at all. Every artist has a throne that cannot remain empty. The Christian artist has a choice to make, even as she creates for spaces outside of the church.

 

  1. Don’t Be a Snob

Abraham Kuyper was squarely against the modern practice of isolating “the arts” to metropolitan museums, wealthy homes, posh galleries, graduate schools, and the realm of elite professional artists. If it is true that God is an artist, and if it is true God created all of us to long for beauty, creativity, and imagination, then it follows that the arts should be for everyone. Christians called to the arts must be aware of the cultural temptation to isolate, elevate, and patronize—and they must find ways to subvert and challenge this practice. The arts are for all of God’s people.

 

  1. Appreciate Art By Non-Christians

Because of common grace, Abraham Kuyper argues that the “arts are gifts which God imparts promiscuously to believers and to unbelievers, yea, that, as history shows, these gifts have flourished even in a larger measure outside the holy circle.” (160) Kuyper points to the fact that the ancient Greeks far surpassed the ancient Israelites in their artistic abilities. In God’s sovereign freedom he decided to bless the Greeks more than the Israelites.

If this is true, then Christians should never dismiss art made by non-Christians. If they do, they may very well be dismissing the very gifts of God.

 

  1. Don’t Copy Nature, Wrestle With It

The artist does not merely copy the garden God made. The artist explores the garden, unfolds it, dissects it, develops it, tests it, and reveals new insights about life within it. The “vocation of art,” according to Kuyper, is “not merely to observe everything visible and audible, to apprehend it, and reproduce it artistically.” (154) No, artists are called to “the noble vocation of disclosing to man a higher reality.” (153) The artist does not copy life, she wrestles with life and comes out on the other side with new insights to share, new things to reveal.

As we mentioned before, art teaches us lessons about life “which neither science, nor politics, nor religious life, nor even revelation can bring to light.”(163) Furthermore, the artist does not simply tell us what is (in the present). The artist also reminds us what we have we lost (from the past) and what could be (in the future). The artist embraces both memory and imagination.

The true artist does not copy life, she wrestles with it, she reveals it. That is her sacred calling.

 

  1. Pay Attention to the Common, the Ordinary

As a Calvinist, Abraham Kuyper believes that God cares about and saves ordinary people. God loves them, not because they have done something extraordinary, but because he intends to do something extraordinary with their ordinary lives. These so-called “ordinary” people have done nothing to earn God’s love. God freely chooses the ordinary to make the extraordinary.

So, if God loves the ordinary, the common, the mundane; Kuyper concludes that the artist should too. They should not be bored with the commoner’s life, because God isn’t. Kuyper writes,

If a common man, to whom the world pays no special attention, is valued and even chosen by God as one of His elect, this must lead the artist also to find a motive for his artistic studies in what is common and of every-day occurrence, to pay attention to the emotions and the issues of the human heart in it…to interpret for the world at large the precious discovery he has made. (166)

There is something beautiful in the so-called boring, there is something sacred in the so-called secular, and there is something extraordinary in the so-called ordinary. It is the vocation of the artist to investigate, explore, and finally reveal that hidden reality.

 

  1. There is No Such Thing As Evil Art

While many Christians have spurned the arts as evil and idolatrous at their core, Kuyper vehemently disagrees. God created the arts. God is the author of our creativity, imagination, skill, and craftsmanship. These are gifts of God. To label them the gifts of the devil is to disgrace the true giver of the gifts. “Satan,” Kuyper argues, “is destitute of every creative power. All he can do is to abuse the good gifts of God.” Any brokenness or sin that we witness in the arts is simply the perversion of something good. Evil cannot make, it can only destroy. Evil cannot craft, it can only twist.

Furthermore, the complaint that “the art world is evil” is actually a case for engaging the arts—not running away from them. Sin has not only infected the arts, it has infected politics, business, education, medicine, the media, the church, and the family. People who are called to be salt, light, and leaven in a world on fire do not run away from the blaze—they run into it.

 

  1. Approach Your Skills As Gifts (Not Possessions)

The final word of advice Kuyper would give to the artist is that they must, above all, receive their artistic gifts as gifts. Our artistic gifts are something we steward. They are not something that we own. They were given, not for our glory, but for God’s. They were bestowed, not for our personal good, but for the common good.

Strictly speaking, they are not our skills, brilliance, creativity, or craftsmanship that are on display, but God’s. Art, Kuyper argues, cannot “originate with man, for, being a creature himself, man cannot but employ the powers and gifts put by God at his disposal.” (155) Quoting Calvin, his favorite theologian, Kuyper argues that “all the arts come from God and are to be respected as Divine inventions.”

If we are stewards and not possessors of artist gifts, there are at least three practical consequences. First, we may never believe that we earned our success on our own. Second, we are in a constant state of self-learning, exploring and sharpening the gifts that God has given. Third, we do our artistic work, not out of duty, obligation, or raw ambition, but instead we create out of gratitude. Our art-making is fundamentally a responsive act of worship to the One who gave us these gifts. As the artist Makoto Fujimura remarks, “my approach to art resembles the paradigm set by a woman in the gospel who broke her jar of nard upon Christ’s feet.” May we all offer our gifts back to the one who gave them to us.

 

 

Faith, Frailty, and Loss: Reflections from Christian Medical Professionals

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Recently, we were asked to help lead a discussion with a group of Christian healthcare professionals using the book Reclaiming the Body by Brian Volck MD and Joel Shuman. Among the wisdom we gleaned from this inspiring read was the concept of frailty, grief, and loss through the lens of healthcare and faith.

As the discussion progressed, each healthcare professional recounted moments when they experienced loss in their respective fields. Discussing the idea of mortality amongst healthcare professionals can be uncomfortable and often avoided. But, as Christians we are not only called to consider our mortality, but also to live out the hope of Christ in the face of such reality.

“For the truth of Christianity is not ultimately an idea or a set of propositions to be assented to, but a life to be lived…it is a life that must be lived in constancy in the face of unanswered questions and in spite of sometimes significant uncertainty, and it is a life about which the full truth cannot be known until it is ended” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.123).

Medicine and the interventions of medicine are often unquestioned by patients, especially in the United States. Accepting our mortality should not be a difficult philosophical step for Christians, “for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

Yet the language of our faith belies a quiet allegiance to a culture of curative medicine. We sing hymns ascribing the sovereignty of God on Sunday, and anxiously await a doctors’ prognosis in hopes of a cure on Monday.

It’s not that cures cannot or should not be sought, but the base anxiety that underlies so many of those conversations often pose unnecessary problems. This anxiety is born out of the ultimate failure of medicine to conquer death.

Despite the fact that many are living longer lives because of medical interventions, our science and research has yet to discover immorality. In conversations around medicine we procrastinate death. “We fear dying, to be sure, but we also prefer not to be present to death, to be reminded of the inevitability of death, or even to talk about death, for such reminders are offenses to our unspoken hope that, with the help of an increasingly able medicine, we might be able to avoid death—at least for a long, long time” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.124).

One of the commandments in the bible that is repeated more than any other is “do not fear.” As Christians, we know that we are not spared from death on this earth, but we are told that the sting of death is gone and resurrection is guaranteed through the redemption given to us by Jesus.

If the promise of Christ is true, which it is, then how we treat the dying process should be a direct reflection of this promise. Even though grief and frailty may be ever present, God has overcome true demise through the gift of hope. “Hope suggests that our grief is temporary and this offers us the possibility of being free to live and to die and to care for each other as we face dying, even though we are not in control” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.133).

We work in hospice care and we have had the privilege of being present with others at the last moments of their lives. The most beautiful moments have been when a patient has come to a moment of acceptance and hope in the process of dying. Individuals who once resisted care from others, embrace love and nurturing from their community.

As Christ draws His people together and encourages us to live life in community, how then should we help incorporate community into the death and dying process? “It requires faithful participation in the practices of the gathered body of Christ, and the help of the entire Christian community, both to help us discern what to do in particular situations and, just as important, to make possible by our life together, appropriate and possibly atypical ways of caring for one another as we approach life’s end” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.126).

The Church at large would be served well to engage in an honest conversation about the inevitability of death and the limitations of medicine; engaging people who work in healthcare industries, and those who care for people at different life stages in other industries.

As we engage this conversation with the community of faith we believe that Christ will transform latent anxieties deeply felt in our culture through the power of His Spirit and the love of His people. The peace that passes all understanding offers our world something that no medical intervention can, and that is a hope worth pointing people towards.

 

Four Rules for Faith and Politics: According to Abraham Kuyper

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I studied political science at a Christian college. Predictably, my classes were filled with passionate debates over the relationship between Christianity and politics.

Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? What should Christians think about welfare, abortion, gay marriage, etc? Can Christians fight in war? My liberal and conservative peers spent hours zealously debating these questions. And while we all badly wanted to put our faith first and our politics second, more often than not, the opposite appeared to be true.

I quickly realized that we came to these debates with ready-made political positions and that we wanted the Bible to back us up. We were trying to cram God into our political boxes. Christianity did not come first—it came second. Jesus was not the Lord of our politics—we were. In the end, Christianity was little more than the “spiritual frosting” that we were spreading (rather thinly) over our own political opinions.

This practice became tiring.

Near the end of my college years I came upon the work of Abraham Kuyper. And, while I didn’t always agree with every word, I downed Kuyper like a cup of cool water in a dry desert. Reading Kuyper I could step finally outside the tired right-left binary and look at American politics from a different perspective. In Kuyper I had found a third way out of the noisy and rather boring echo chamber of right versus left.

I can’t hope to fully summarize Kuyper’s political perspective here, but below I have briefly explored four critical “rules” in Kuyper’s thinking about faith and politics that are particularly poignant for our political environment today. I do my best to demonstrate what Kuyper’s critique of both Republicans and Democrats might be if he were alive today.

 

Rule #1 Recognize That All Politics Are Faith-Based

Abraham Kuyper’s first rule for thinking about politics was that there is no such thing as “secular” politics. Every political platform, party, and politician s faith-based. Every political platform rests upon on system of beliefs and convictions about the good life. Whether your politics are defined as Muslim or Christian, Marxist or Capitalist, Conservative or Liberal, Kuyper insisted that all political opinions are founded upon faith-based assumptions that cannot be proven.

The implication of Rule #1 is this: no politician can claim to have absolute access to “the truth.” No worldview, religion, or political philosophy can claim a special authority over another. Politics, therefore, is a debate. It is a contest between a variety of faiths on equal footing.

This is a humbling message for both Republicans and Democrats today, who seem to yell at one another with a God-like authority they have no claim to. Both sides forget the faith-based nature of their politics.

Republicans sometimes speak as if they have direct access to God and God’s opinions—they even dare to speak on God’s behalf sometimes! Democrats, on the other hand, can sometimes claim to be purely enlightened and rational, capable of being uniquely fair and open-minded. From their high-minded secular position they look down on “religious” voters as uneducated, irrational, and biased. Democrats forget that they too speak from a faith-based perspective.

 

Rule #2 Don’t Be Cynical or Romantic About Politics

Today’s politics suffer from two opposite maladies—political cynicism and political romanticism. Cynics argue that government is completely broken, corrupt, and oppressive. Romantics, on the other hand, argue that government is a tool for good—even political salvation. Embodying these dichotomies, Ronald Reagan famously declared, “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem!” While Barak Obama famously announced, “We can change Washington!” and “We are the people we’ve been waiting for!”

In opposition to both political cynics and romantics, Kuyper argues that both sin and grace are always at work in our political life. This did not make Kuyper some sort of middle-of-the-road moderate taking the good with the bad. No, Kuyper was both pessimistic and optimistic about political life.

Kuyper was pessimistic as he argued that sin had infected every aspect of political life. Every politician, platform, and party was influenced by sin. Placing ultimate hope and confidence in a political system was folly. Because of this, Kuyper argued that the government should be carefully limited in its authority, power, and size. He argued that it should never be allowed to become an “octopus” spreading its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. The government is not our salvation it is an unfortunate mechanism built to maintain justice and life in a violent and broken world.

That said, Kuyper did not allow his political pessimism to turn into all out cynicism. Sin, he argued, is not the only thing active in politics—grace is there too. Christians must also recognize that government is a beautiful and undeserved gift from God given to his people to restrain their evil and violence. More than that government is a gracious gift given to promote humanity’s justice and flourishing. Christians, therefore, are not permitted to complain and be cynical about political life. They must be grateful.

If both sin and grace are active in politics, we as Christians are not allowed to give ourselves over to complete cynicism or romanticism. They must approach it with both realistic suspicion and hopeful gratitude.

 

Rule #3 Choose Your Authority Wisely

Who is in charge here? This might be the first and most important political question there is. Kuyper argues that a country’s beliefs about political authority and sovereignty matter a great deal. Getting the question of authority wrong can have dire consequences.

Historically speaking, countries have bestowed divine-like political authority to all sorts of people, systems, and things. Some have given ultimate authority to kings and dictators, others to the interests of money or power. Some have given power to the workers and others to CEOs, some listen to Mohammad others to the Pope. Still other countries have given it final authority to the strongest race or to the largest and most powerful group of voters. One thing is certain, wherever a country bestows ultimate authority, that choice will have far reaching consequences.

What exactly are the consequences of our choices about authority? Abraham Kuyper provides a number of practical examples, here are two. First, Kuyper looked at the concept of “authority” in 19th century Germany and France. In post-revolutionary France ultimate authority was bestowed upon the “will of the French majority” while in Germany ultimate authority was given to the “will of the German state.”

The political consequences of these decisions were clear. In modern Germany it was very difficult for citizens to question, challenge, or limit the holy power of the German state. This ultimately came true when the Nazi state arose, no one could stop it. Newspapers, schools, churches, and whole communities were bulldozed by the German state’s unquestioned authority.

Likewise in modern France it was very difficult to question, challenge, or limit the holy power of “the French majority.” Smaller communities and leaders who stood against the French revolutionary majority were eliminated by the guillotine. In both France and Germany there was no higher authority to appeal to, nowhere else to go.

Secondly, Kuyper also compared Catholic and Calvinist understandings of authority. Catholics, he argued, tended to place greater confidence in centralized authority while Calvinists tended to be more skeptical of centralized authority. Because of this, power tended to be centralized in historically Catholic countries (Italy, Spain, and France) while in historically Calvinist countries, power tended to be decentralized (England, United States, Switzerland, and the Netherlands).

So, who is really in charge? Whether you give ultimate authority to the will of the majority or the will of the state, whether you have a high Catholic trust of authority or a Calvinist skepticism, the implications of Rule #3 are clear; the question of authority matters.

Kuyper insists that God alone deserves the title of ultimate authority. No leader, party, philosophy, race, or group of voters can claim God’s throne. Once again, this cuts against both Republicans and Democrats in different ways. It is often subtle, but both parties bestow unwarranted and unquestioned authority in our political discourse.

Democrats often speak as if progressive values and policies are “on the right side of history.” If you do not get on board you are, by implication, on the wrong side of history. “History” here is the ultimate and unquestioned authority. Republicans, on the other hand, often give unquestioned authority to things like the free market, the military, corporations, and their conception of conservative Christian culture. Both parties are guilty of putting created things on the Creator’s throne.

Once again, who is really in charge?

 

Rule #4 Life is Bigger than Politics and Money 

Kuyper argued that God created human beings to flourish and make culture in a wide variety of ways. God made human life to be rich, complex, and beautiful. Humans are called to work and rest, to make art and make babies, to worship and play, to build communities and cities of beauty and justice, and to explore the world through innovation in science and technology. In all, human beings are called to flourish and engage the world in a wide variety of complex ways. Thus, the world of politics is only one aspect of human life.

Whenever social problems arise in America today, our binary political system normally proposes one of two solutions. Democrats commonly suggest a new government program, law, or tax while Republicans commonly suggest a free market solution. However complex the social issue, both sides suggest a simple solution (either the government or the market will fix it).

Kuyper argues for a more complex understanding of human life and flourishing. In order to flourish, human beings need more than simply a strong state or marketplace. Humans need families, schools, newspapers, art galleries, neighborhoods, laboratories, hospitals, and more. Kuyper argues that this wide variety of “life spheres” are absolutely critical to our flourishing. Without these communities in our lives, something important is lost.

To put it bluntly, Democrats want to promote human flourishing by increasing the power and reach of government. Republicans want to promote human flourishing by increasing the power and reach of the marketplace. Democrats place their hope in government while Republicans place their hope in business.

Kuyper argues that while both government and business are both good and important parts of life, they are not the whole of life. More than that, both government and business become dangerous when they are given too much power.

Both government and business are spheres of life that must be limited so that the rest of life can be allowed to flourish. Families, churches, art galleries, laboratories, universities, and neighborhoods are beautiful and important parts of human life. Both big business and big government can endanger and ultimately crush these smaller spheres of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Religion at Work: Four Warnings from Abraham Kuyper

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It seems that “Faith at Work” is a hot topic these days. It is difficult to miss the widespread proliferation of marketplace chaplains, break-time yoga sessions, multi-faith prayer rooms, self-actualization retreats, life-coaching specialists, mindfulness exercises, and celebrity leadership gurus.

Here in Seattle, forms of New Age spirituality are part of the fabric of the local marketplace.

If this is the culture we live in, what then, is a Christian response to these new forms of spirituality at work?

I suggest that we turn to a rather unlikely source for guidance—a 19th century Dutch theologian named Abraham Kuyper.

In his lecture on “Calvinism and Religion,” Abraham Kuyper was particularly critical when it came to modern ideas about religion and spirituality. He argued that while these new perspectives on promised personal “enlightenment,” “liberation,” and “empowerment,” they actually led to something quite the opposite.

In the end, Kuyper outlined four modern aspects of what we might call “Bad Religion”

  1. Self-Religion
  2. Expert-Religion
  3. Partial-Religion
  4. Normal-Religion

I want to explore Kuyper’s perspective on these matters in light of new forms of spirituality in the Seattle workplace.

 

  1. Self-Religion at Work

Engaging in spiritual practices at work for the sole purpose of improving self-focus, self-empowerment, and self-actualization is a perfect example of what Kuyper might call “self-religion.” According to self-religion, spiritual practices are “useful” for making your work easier, more efficient, healthy, and productive.

Religion, in short, becomes a tool to make your life better.

While these examples might sound foreign and “New Agey” to Christians, we must admit that Christians are often guilty of using their faith and their God as well.

As Christians we often ignore God when things are going well. Then, when something goes wrong, we turn to God to fix it. Or we resolve to do more “Christian stuff” in order to fix the issue. We resolve to pray more and read the Bible more in hopes that we can use our faith to make the problem go away. The idea, basically, is that God, prayer, church, and the Bible are merely useful tools whose only purpose is to serve and help us.

This, Kuyper argues, is the essence of “self-religion.” Treating God like a divine servant whose sole purpose is to serve and glorify us. Treating the church as a group of people who exist purely to serve, empower, and inspire us.

But the gospel is not about us, it’s about God.

The gospel is not about our power, freedom, or glory—it’s about God’s. Our lives and work are a response to His work. We are an echo of His song—a reflection of His glory. The purpose of our story is to tell His.

The counter-cultural and paradoxical truth of the gospel is this. If we want to live, we must die. If we want to be free, we must submit. If we want to be filled, we must become empty.

“Self-Religion” promises liberation through self-focus, the gospel promises liberation through self-forgetfulness. The good news of the gospel is that it is not about us and it is not up to us to make the world work.

Our daily work is a small part of the much larger, much more complex, and much more beautiful work of God. It is not about us.

The gospel offers a different path to self-empowerment at work; service to others, submission to others, and glory to God.

 

  1. Expert-Religion

Seattle is a culture that loves spiritual “experts” like Yoga teachers, psychics, life coaches, celebrity authors, gurus, and holistic wellness speakers. There are many who look to experts for direction, meaning, and purpose. Looking to them for answers and affirmation, asking them how to live, work, eat, and prosper.

Abraham Kuyper argues that while these spiritual experts promise liberation, empowerment, and self-actualization, they ultimately make us dependent on them. They set themselves up as permanent mediators between people and the “truth.”

Once again Christians can fall into this trap as well. Rather than cultivating a direct relationship with the living God, we look to celebrity Christian preachers and speakers to connect us to God in new and inspiring ways. We look to worship leaders to connect us to God through the use of musical skill and emotion. We feel alienated from God and we look to Christian experts to reconnect us.

But depending on experts and mediators does not liberate or empower us—it weakens and constrains us. Rather than being empowered to live out the gospel freely in our daily work we continually run back to experts to tell us what to do, to give us the answers.

Kuyper argues that we live every day coram deo (directly before the face of God). We live and work everyday in the presence of our creator. We don’t need a priest, guru, pastor, or worship leader to connect us to God, we can meet God everyday and everywhere.

The reality is the God of the universe has established a direct and unmediated relationship with us through Jesus Christ. We were not saved by any expert. The experts can’t tell us “God’s plan for our lives.” We don’t need a sacred place, song, or leader to hear from God. We don’t need to wait until Sunday to connect to God. We can meet Him on Monday. He is Emmanuel—God with us. He’s with us in our offices as we go about our work, he’s in the board rooms and conference rooms and cafeterias and coffee shops where we go about our daily lives. God is already there. God is already speaking.

 

  1. Partial-Religion

The culture around us shouts: “Faith is something personal and private.” In this statement is the temptation to believe that religion and spirituality is something that helps us in those quiet, dark, and secluded corners of our lives. Religion is there to help us with our marriage issues or our depression. It is there to fix our alcoholism or our stress. It is there to provide us with some community when we are lonely. While that is true, the gospel does speak into these places. This is only a portion of what the gospel does.

This practice of religion is private, personal, or, what Kuyper calls, “partial religion.” The belief that religion is here to serve or fix some small dysfunctional part of our “personal” life.

Once again Christians do this as well. We speak of Jesus as our “personal” Lord and Savior someone who helps us when parts of our lives don’t work right. Jesus ends up being our personal God of the gaps. Whenever a gap appears in our lives, God is invited to fill or fix that part.

Kuyper’s critique of partial religion is that when we see him as just personal we never give God the whole of our lives, the whole of our careers, we give him the parts that are safe, that are limited, private, or personal.

The problem is this.

Jesus is not simply our “personal” Lord and Savior. He is Lord and Savior—full stop. Jesus did not come to earth to simply live in our hearts and be our personal “pocket-sized” Savior. Jesus is the lord of the cosmos who came to renew and restore all of life and all of creation.

The cosmic work of Christ means that our faith can no longer be limited to the personal, private, or partial. It has to spill out into every aspect, artery, and avenue of our public and working lives. The implications, Kuyper argues, are clear, “every labora (work) shall be permeated by ora (prayer)…Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or in his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of God…” (53).

God’s calling on our lives is not partial, it is holistic; touching, changing, empowering, and using every aspect of our collective beings to bring about his Kingdom in the world.

 

  1. Normal-Religion

It is common today for people to resort to spiritual platitudes like “people are basically good,” “do your best,” or “believe in yourself.”

In such a culture religion and spirituality are not concerned with radical human rebellion, repentance, and transformation. Instead modern spirituality focuses on self-empowerment and the gradual improvement of one’s life and world. When this is the focus of religion, spirituality becomes a tool for elevating one’s personal awareness and mindfulness. Life is basically OK, everything is basically “normal.” The purpose of religion is simply helping normal people become just a little better.

Christians do this as well. We all too often think faith is about “being good.” Being a Christian is about trying and trying hard. Praying harder, working harder, being good even when its hard. Ultimately, we convince ourselves that the gospel is about our effort. That if we work hard we will get a promotion, we will succeed, and God will be on our side.

In the classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a knight has had his legs and arms cut off in battle. Rather than admit defeat, he stubbornly demands that the fight continue insisting that he is “OK.” It is, after all, “just a flesh wound!”

Abraham Kuyper argues that this is the message of “normal religion.” Such spirituality looks at the broken, selfish, and rebellious state of our human hearts and world and says “it’s ok” it’s “just a flesh wound.”

But everything is not ok. Everything is not normal, It is not just a flesh wound.

According to the gospel, we are mortally wounded. We are dead in our sins. We don’t need reassurance—we need a resurrection. We don’t need a band aid—we need a surgeon.

Our culture’s message that you are basically good and just need to believe in yourself and try harder, is actually a terrifically cruel thing to say to a person. First of all, it isolates them and tells them that they can believe in nothing but themselves. Second, it tells a person that their improvement depends entirely upon them. Third, that there is no excuse if they can’t succeed. Fourth, every time they fail the only response is to keep working and self-actualizing.

This is what makes Christianity abnormal in our culture. Its message fundamentally does not make sense to a world that believes everything is “ok.”

For those who finally recognize that they suffer from more than a flesh wound, the message that you need resurrection is good news.

This does not mean that Christians have no confidence or power. It simply means that our confidence rests, not in ourselves, but in our God, who is capable of doing what only He can do: resurrect and redeem.

Conclusion

In opposition to “bad religion” Kuyper upholds that:

  • We exist to serve and glorify God. (We do not “use” God at work.)
  • We work directly with God. (We do not need experts to meet God at work.)
  • We give our whole lives and our whole work to God. (We should not limit God to our private lives.)
  • We are in need of God’s redemption. (We do not need just a little improvement, but a whole overhaul.)

Three Dimensional Discipleship

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We are three dimensional beings. When we flatten that dimensionality – say, for example, in a photograph – something important is lost. We’ve all seen cardboard cut-out pictures of people. No matter how realistic the picture, it’s easy to distinguish the real person from the façade. So it is with our discipleship.

Human beings are made to love God and neighbor in the full dimensionality of their being. We are to do so with a keen mind, a passionate heart and a courageous will. These three dimensions – mind, heart and will – are hard to engage in an integrated way. It is easy to focus on one or even two of the dimensions and neglect the other(s).

Any one or two dimensions alone results in a distortion – a caricature – of our discipleship. A passionate heart and a courageous will without a keen mind becomes religious fanaticism.   A keen mind and a courageous will without a passionate heart becomes manipulative orthodoxy. A keen mind and a passionate heart without a courageous will becomes impotent idealism.

Reading Augustine’s Confessions, I’m reminded it is possible to engage all three dimensions simultaneously in our discipleship. Augustine modeled, however imperfectly, someone who wrestled with loving God and neighbor with all his heart, mind and will in the context of his work. His example encourages me to do the same.

Marked By Ashes: An Ash Wednesday Prayer for Work

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Photo Credit: creationswap.com

Marked by Ashes  By Walter Brueggemann

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), pp. 27-28.

In Augustine’s Confessions, Book #2, Augustine finds that ‘recalling (his) wicked ways’ to God actually brings freedom and hope. As we lament as Christian workers the ways in which we have failed, the things we have left undone, the ways we wronged our co-workers, and the sin we are implicated into as people of the fall, we too may find the God of great grace who took on our sin, so as to embrace us. We need to ‘taste the ashes in our mouth,’ as Brueggemann states above, in order to be ‘Easter-ed into joy and energy and freedom and courage.’

In light of this, how could Ash Wednesday’s lament and confession change the ways you work? What might you confess and lament about your work to God? How might God want to meet you in this?

Walking, Art-Making, and Seeing God

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In the text Art and Soul, the authors devote a chapter to ways of seeing. They conclude by encouraging readers to develop a “Christian” way of seeing, as it pertains to understanding and participating in culture. This pursuit of seeing requires disciplines through which we achieve a deep and meaningful engagement with life. In engaging life this way, we find ourselves “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”[1] This seems like a worthy pursuit, but I find myself asking: How does one use cultivated seeing as a means be “filled to the measure” of God? What are the units of measurement? And further, how do I know if I’m full or being filled?

If “seeing” is to be linked to “fullness”, then this kind of seeing must involve more than just use of the eyes. To “taste and see that the Lord is good” requires multiple senses engaged in a practice of curiosity and gratefulness for the everyday, in which the risen Christ is incarnated. So how do I reorient myself to the mundane, ordinary circumstances of my life, so that I approach them fully awake, fully present, and ready to receive God in it and not in spite of it?

The best way I have found to do this is to go for walks. As the Apostle Paul writes, “If we live in the Spirit, then let us also walk by the Spirit.”[2] I have found Paul’s metaphor not to just be a metaphor, but also a practical encouragement. Walking gets me moving – getting from point A to point B. Movement is also occurring in between point A and point B – inside the path of a line. I do a lot of thinking while walking – about conversations I’ve had with others, things I’ve read, errands that need running, problems that needs solving. So walking is not just physically moving from place to place, but moving mentally and soulfully from place to place as well. In the walk, I am drawing lines between physical spaces, everyday spaces, and spiritual spaces, one step at a time.

A walk is, at its essence, movement. You place one foot in front of your body, shift your weight onto that foot, then bring the rear foot forward until it is placed in the front position. Thus your legs have moved, but by a single step your body has moved from one physical space to another. You find your body occupying a new space. Repeat this process a few thousand times in rapid succession, and your body is now in a very different space, perhaps another neighborhood or on the other side of a mountain.

You have moved. You can tell because everything looks different. The houses are different, the street numbers have changed, there is an Ethiopian restaurant in front of you instead of a Greek one. The other side of the mountain looks very different. Anyone who has hiked the Wonderland trail around Mt Rainier has witnessed this phenomenon – though “The Mountain” may be ever-present, from your rapidly changing viewpoint the position of glaciers move, or Little Tahoma is now on the right side instead of the left. You have moved, and your perspective has changed.

Our experience walking is a lot like how much of life is experienced. My relationship to my wife, or to my son, or to a friend, does not remain static over time. Rather it changes as we experience life together, learn about one another, and grow into shared wisdom. I think relationship with God must work similarly; that is if it is truly to be a relationship and not a set of rules. What is a relationship, but to consider oneself in relation to someone else or some other object, with the in-between being a physical position, a feeling, an understanding, a form of communication, or an action. These, for example, can be attraction or avoidance, love or loathing, excitement or indifference. Relationships are processes of movement.

So walking draws me out of the crusted shell of sedentary distraction and back into freer movement with the day. It reunites me with the relationships all around me, and I sense again a position within of the cosmos, a tiny particle in orchestra with the rising and setting of the sun, the comings and goings of others, the flittering of birds, the cacophony of automobiles. God, in the form of the Spirit, becomes present in the in-betweens. Becoming mindful of these in-betweens generates a form of seeing for me, which might be understood as fully existing; as my legs slide in sync across pavement, my lungs fill to that rhythm, and the chatterbox that is my inner monologue quiets. I enter a process of movement in which my own body, and the spaces it occupies, somehow makes sense.

John Berger wondered where heaven may lie in relation to us. Is God far away in the clouds, or across the galaxy? His conclusion was that no, heaven is not far away, but heaven is actually “infinitely close.” He says, “There is nothing baroque about it, no swirling infinite space or stunning foreshortening. To find it – if one had the grace – it would only be necessary to lift up something as small and at hand as a pebble or a salt-shaker on the table.”[3] The small and mundane point us to the way things are supposed to be, as God created them. Though heaven is certainly not found in and of these things, these things are arrows pointing us to Jesus’ rule and reign, as they are to be, here and now.

God reveals himself to Elijah not in the noisy earthquake, nor in the devouring fire, but in the gentle whisper[4]. I believe gentle whispers can be discerned from pebbles and salt-shakers, from the leaf on the ground and the crack in the sidewalk. To taste and see God means to taste the beauty in the everyday, noticing and appreciating what’s under my own feet, what my eyes take in, what I hear, what I feel and what I think. Walking connects and reconnects me to these truths so central to our faith, and central to experiencing God as he is heaven, in the here and now.

My recent artworks consider these relationships, between the steps I take, the process of movement, and the listening to whispers, within the urban grid of the city. Walking becomes like writing or drawing. The actual ink or graphite drawings I make are documentations, or illuminations, of these walks. If the walk is the line being drawn or written, then instead of making a line, I illustrate the things around the line, those buildings, trees, and street intersections that appear in my visual halo. Making these drawings is a way of seeing these walks in a different way. I take every split second of what is seen on a walk, and present them all at once. They become like cartography of my own phenomenology, a roadmap of a practice of prayer.

The processes of walking, drawing, writing, and noticing equip me with some of the discipline, alertness, and play that Brand and Chaplin outline as necessary to “Christian” seeing. Not that art-making has any kind of exclusive domain over these, nor do I think walking universally acts as a magic key to unlocking spiritual transcendence.

Perhaps seeing means bringing my own self out of hiding (or sensory distraction), into the everyday presence of the invisible and seemingly silent, but ever-present God. For Paul’s journey on the road to Damascus, that meant the removal of sight,. Without his sight, Paul then knew that God had called him. Maybe I don’t walk to see God, so much as I walk that God would see me, that I might then know the meaning of the word blessed, and to see glimpses of God’s heavenly presence here. I’m coming to see that to know oneself blessed, then, may be the measurement of fullness all along.

_____________________________________________________________________________

[1] Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin, Art and Soul, pg. 109.

[2] Galatians 5:25

[3] John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, pg. 11.

[4] 1 Kings 19

About a Boy: Island Life vs. Life Together

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“In my opinion, all men are islands. And what’s more, now’s the time to be one. This is an island age… You can make yourself a little island paradise. With the right supplies – and more importantly, the right attitude – you can be sun-drenched, tropical, a magnet for young Swedish tourists. And I like to think, perhaps, I’m that kind of island.” – Will, About A Boy

 

About a Boy is a rich dialogue partner for Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Let’s look at three key points of connection between them.

A Primer on Human Love

The “island life” manifesto is our introduction to the shallow, but firm philosophy of Will Freeman, the 38-year-old bachelor who literally, does nothing. His “nothing,” of course, consists of anything that fits his criteria of being self-serving, fun, commitment-free and satisfying to him. From fast cars, to trendy flats and sexual conquests, Marcus interacts with the world on his terms, to his advantage.

Watching him, it seems plausible that Nick Hornby, the British author who first created Will, looked to Bonhoeffer’s description of human love for inspiration. In his chapter, “Community,” Bonhoeffer writes:

“Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake…has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires the other person…but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it desires even when it appears to be serving,” (p. 34).

Will’s world is soon interrupted by the boy, Marcus Brewer. Marcus is equally a victim of human love, though it’s more emotional and outside his control. He’s the son of Fiona – a depressed, suicidal hippie who leans on Marcus for emotional support, which he of course strives to provide. This causes Marcus a fair amount of anxiety, insecurity and social ostracization from his peers.

Bonhoeffer writes of “human absorption” where, “the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul,” (p. 33). Though well intentioned, the relational fusion of Fiona is crushing Marcus and distorting who he should be as a young person. We cringe as Fiona calls to Marcus across the crowded schoolyard, “Marcus, I love you!” Which of course is met by the snickers and jeers of his schoolmates.

We may not be living the vapid lifestyle of Will, or reliving the trauma of adolescence like Marcus, but we can see ourselves in them. In your work have you experienced or witnessed relationships that appear to serve others, but in fact are the opposite? Have you used your influence to “draw into your spell” others for your own benefit, or had that done to you only to have it backfire? How has that affected your work community?

 

The Power of Proclaiming

The influence, abuse and eventual redemptive use of words play a major role in About a Boy. Early on, lies, assumptions, accusations, insults and misrepresentations from the characters break down community. However, as Will and Marcus’ unlikely friendship begins, moments of empathy and truth occur. Will makes the effort to ask Marcus how it’s going at home with his mom following her suicide attempt:

Will: It still bothers you then?

Marcus: “Does it bother me…” [Voice over: Every single day. That’s why I come here instead of going home.] “Yeah, when I think about.”

Will: …F#!%ing hell.

Marcus: [Voice over: I didn’t know why he swore like that, but it made me feel better. It made me feel like it wasn’t being pathetic to get so scared.]

Bonhoeffer describes “The Ministry of Proclaiming” as, “that unique situation in which one person bears witness in human words to another.” He warns though that, “The speaking of that Word is beset with infinite perils. If it is not accompanied by worthy listening, how can it really be the right word for the other person? …If it issues, not from a spirit of bearing and forbearing, but from impatience and the desire to force acceptance, how can it be the liberating and healing word?” (p. 104)

For Marcus and Will, this marks the beginning of many liberating and healing conversations. At times it’s contentious – similar to what Bonhoeffer calls “admonition” and “ “the severity of God,” (p. 104). Eventually though, they both experience the ministry of proclamation that leads to healing and liberation from their mutual isolation.

Have you been a part of conversations of “infinite peril” that have brought liberation or healing? What were they like? Conversely, have you experienced a feeling of “forced acceptance” that lacked a “spirit of bearing and forbearing” in how someone spoke to you?

 

A Vision for the Other

Bonhoeffer writes that we must meet people only as they already are in Christ’s eyes; that we “must release them from every attempt…to regulate, coerce and dominate,” them with our love (p. 36). “Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; that image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.” (p. 36). This kind of love breeds freedom in the life of a community.

Marcus and Will help one another discover the “true image” of who they can be in relationship with others. Even as Will works to change and use Marcus for his own benefit, he suddenly realizes that Marcus was the one changing him. He reflects at one point, “For a moment, I loved him, really loved him.”

Will finally crosses over to the realization that what matters is a vision of another free from his own needs. He experiences a sacrificial love based on a vision for what is best for Marcus, not what Marcus can do for him. This culminates in the talent show scene where Marcus, again, in an attempt to make his mother feel better, is about to drive off the social cliff. Incredibly, Will does the last thing he ever imagined: he puts on his guitar and joins Marcus onstage to sing in public. Not only does Will save Marcus from making a complete fool of himself, he deflects and absorbs the ridicule headed towards the boy.

The movie ends at Christmas at Will’s place – this time- full of his new community, and a new vision of his island philosophy: “Every man is an island. But clearly, some men are part of island chains. Below the surface of the ocean they’re actually connected.”

How would your relationships change (in your personal life, and at work) if they were freed from any degree of coercion? What would it look like to attempt to meet people as they are in Christ’s eyes? How would your relationships change if your priority became to help co-workers discover the vision Christ has for them vs. a vision for how they can serve you or the employer’s needs alone? Do you think this is possible?

 

Up in the Air: Five Questions on the Meaning and Purpose of Work

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Up in the Air: Five questions on the meaning and purpose of work

 The 2009 film Up in Air raises plenty of robust questions on the meaning and purpose of work. Below I have listed five that I noticed upon viewing.

 

  • Dehumanization at Work

The dehumanizing effects of work are often discussed in connection with lower class, factory-oriented, and sweatshop-type work. However, Up in the Air appears to record how Ryan Bingham’s humanity is slowly being drained away through a relatively well-paid and white-collar job. One reviewer notes that through his job, Bingham is “a player so expert at the rules of the game… that he doesn’t notice, until too late, that the game has hollowed him out.” Over years of constant travel and meaningless connections Bingham loses his ability to connect, sympathize, commit, or remain placed.

  1. Bingham certainly bared some responsibility for this process, but how did his working environment contribute to his dehumanized state?
  2. Dehumanization is present in every single line of work. What does it look like in your field? How might people become “undone” or be made sub-human through work in your field?

 

  • Technology and Human Connection

The characters Natalie and Ryan engage in a film-long debate on whether or not workers can be fired over a video chat connection. Valuing speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, the young and ambitious Natalie advocates that the company save millions by firing people remotely over the Internet. Ryan counters by arguing that the act of firing is sensitive, complicated, and requires human presence and grace. Their film-long debate captures a question many of us experience in our own workplaces.

  1. How can technology act as both a gift and a curse to the flourishing of your working environment?

 

  • Work and Human Identity

The director of Up in the Air opted to splice into the film an array of short clips of people reflecting on the experience of being fired. Rather than hire actors, the director used real footage from real people in St. Louis and Detroit who had been fired during the most recent recession. Their reflections revealed how intimately the experience had affected their sense of identity and hope.

  1. If you were to lose your job tomorrow, what sort of impact would that have on your identity?
  2. Why does our work touch our sense of identity so deeply?

 

  • The Good Life

The three main characters (Ryan, Alex, and Natalie) all spend some time in the film discussing their vision of “the good life.”

  1. How would each character answer that question?
  2. Work seems to be a place where questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are not always welcome, yet, paradoxically, these questions seem to come up frequently in the workplace. Why is this?

 

  • Speed and Efficiency

Speed and efficiency are critical to Ryan Bingham. He moves smooth and fast throughout the film. When he is forced to wait or is slowed down in any way he is immediately and visibly annoyed. Efficiency and productivity have become cardinal virtues in many working places- trumping all other values.

1. How do the values of speed and efficiency both positively and negatively affect your workplace and your own quality of life?

George Clooney and The Velveteen Rabbit: Reflections on Being Real

 

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“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” – Augustine, Confessions, 1.1

The 2009 film, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, is a sleek modern tragedy following the life of Ryan Bingham. Ryan, played by Clooney, lives in a constant state of restless motion. While he longs for it, the movie’s viewers never see him arrive at a state of rest.

I’m a fan of George Clooney. That guy knows how to wear a suit. I’m also a fan of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. That lady knows how to write. So, when the magical prose of Williams made a quick five-second cameo in Clooney’s film, I took notice. While most viewers undoubtedly miss the connection, I am convinced the humble children’s book unlocks the key, not only to the entire film, but also to an important truth about life.

Ryan Bingham’s job consists of flying around the United States firing people on behalf of corporations, which are on the decline. Bingham travels often. Bingham travels light. “To know me,” he explains, “is to fly with me.”

Bingham lives by a streamlined philosophy and holds to it fiercely—constant and uninhibited mobility. Always traveling and never at home, Bingham considers airports and hotels his true “home.” This, of course, makes sense. Airports and hotels are constructed spaces where a sense of permanence, place, and relationship is almost completely absent. Everything is designed for speed, impersonality, and impermanence.

As the film proceeds we discover that constant and uninterrupted mobility is not only enjoyable for Mr. Bingham, it is the most important thing in his life. For, according to Bingham, “the slower we move, the faster we die.” Surplus belongings and complicated relationships only slow Bingham down—no excess baggage allowed. If you cannot easily fit in his overhead bin, you are discarded.

Ryan Bingham has little to no relationship with his family. He fires people every day and never sees them again. His liaisons with women last as long as his single serving liquor bottles. His most meaningful daily encounters are with his flight attendant and his hotel concierge. He appreciates that they thank him and even reward him for his “loyalty.”

Bingham moonlights as a motivational speaker in hotel ballrooms. In his stump speech he asks participants to put all of their belongings and relationships into an imaginary backpack. He then asks his audience to feel the weight of these things and these relationships on their shoulders. He asks them, “How much does your life weigh?” Travel light, Bingham warns. Relationships, connections, and commitment, these are the things that weigh you down and wear you out. “Why don’t you set that bag down?” he challenges. He continues on…

 “Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises… Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.”

The New York Times labeled Up in the Air “a laugh-infused stealth tragedy.” This seems an apt description. Witnessing the deep and gnawing emptiness of Ryan Bingham’s life and work, I was often unsure whether or not I was supposed to laugh or cry. Both reactions felt appropriate. Bingham’s ultimate commitment to personal mobility, efficiency, and uninhibited freedom systematically destroyed his potential for real relationship with any one, any thing, or any place.

As the film goes on, viewers follow Bingham as relationships steadily threaten his treasured life of mobility and freedom. His family will not stop hounding him about his sister’s upcoming wedding. He is beginning to desire a lasting relationship with a woman (gasp). He is thrust into a mentoring relationship with a coworker who he abhors. As these relationships come to the forefront, he begins to reflect on the lives of the people he is firing on a daily basis.

This reflection coincides with his boss thinking about ending his travel schedule and ground his work in Omaha. People, place, and permanence are threatening to unravel Ryan Bingham’s life in the skies.

As the film draws to a close the viewer begins to hope that these pressure points will finally come together to force Bingham to realize the error of his ways. The viewer sits in hope that he will ultimately learn to commit and connect.

We find Bingham finally cornered by everything that is antithetical to his philosophy. Returning to his hometown in rural Wisconsin, Bingham is forced to stay in an old hotel – where he holds no membership cards or claims to loyalty programs. He must attend a wedding and is encircled by a family that is blue-collared, provincial, loving, slow, inefficient, and poorly dressed.

Confronted on all sides, Bingham is asked by a minor character what appears to be a throw away question. Holding a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit the character asks, “Have you ever read this?” Bingham blows off the question with a sarcastic comment about “powerful stuff” and moves on. Neither the director nor Bingham linger on the book for more than a couple of seconds, but make no mistake, the moment is critical.

The Velveteen Rabbit, as most of us know, follows the life of a toy rabbit in the process of “becoming real.” How does one become “real?” What is the process like? Margery William’s dialogue between two toys captures the answer.

 

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

 “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

 “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

 “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

 “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

 “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“Free” to Love

I kept my heart from [believing]; frightened of falling headfirst, I was hanging myself instead.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.6

 Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain but was afraid to be free of it.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.21

 

At the end of the film Ryan Bingham is presented with a choice. Will he allow love to make him “real” despite the inconvenience, messiness, wear, and tear? Or, will he redouble his efforts to fortify his jet-setting lifestyle of mobility, efficiency, and disconnected freedom? Being a tragedy Ryan’s restless soul finally chooses the later.

Even so, “choice” does not feel like the right word. While Bingham appears to be a man of limitless freedom, he ultimately appears to be its prisoner. Bingham longs to be loved, most especially by the woman he is currently sleeping with. She, however, assures him in a moment of wrenching honesty that she already has a “real” life and he is not a part of it. He is merely a sexual “escape,” a “parenthesis.”

 

“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

 

The film ends with the empty sound of the cold wind rushing over the wings of Bingham’s plane.

 

What tortuous paths! 

How fearful a fate for ‘the rash soul’…

 Turned this way and that. On its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable.

 You alone are repose.

 Augustine, The Confessions, 6.26