Guest Post by Natalie Williams: The Ethics of Aesthetic Self-Presentation

If you know me at all, you probably know that I have an Instagram that goes back into the vast chasms of the Internet­­. I have over four thousand pictures, and I’ve been known to post (gasp) more than once a day. Needless to say, I enjoy doing it. It brings me a great amount of joy to come across something beautiful or interesting to add to my Instagram: a person, a plate of food, a shot of the hills behind my house as the sun sets. There is immense beauty in the world, and it is my privilege to try and capture it, and (perhaps this is the clincher) to present it to the rest of the world in the most aesthetically pleasing way. It is in defense of this aesthetic presentation­­–Instagram curation, if you will­­–that I would like to argue.

First of all, creation is breathtakingly beautiful and complex and worthy of love (as is, of course, its Creator). Part of my duty as a creature placed on this earth is to look at the world around me, at these hills I live between and the people I’ve been gifted with and even the pear I’m enjoying, and love it and give crazy thanks for it as a tremendous gift. If I didn’t­­–or when I don’t­­–I would be taking it for granted and not being properly thankful. I would ultimately be disrespecting where God has placed me and what He’s given me. This ought to be obvious­­–appreciation is part of glorification. Of course, this can be properly carried out in a variety of ways­–you can appreciate the world by enjoying it in the moment and never documenting it once. But you can also appreciate it by doing your best to capture what it looks like, by bringing out its color and its vibrancy, by taking a moment in time and semi­-eternally preserving it­­–smiles, laughs, blurry faces.

And why, if you’re going to take the time to pull out your phone and document something you care about, would you cease caring about it after you snap the picture? This is not an argument against the phenomenon of “hashtagnofilter” because doubtless that, like most things, has its place. But the point is this: the world was created beautiful, and if we are all little sub­creators who take what God has given us and use it to glorify Him, would you not add a pretty filter to a picture, or bump the highlights and shadows, to make your little sub­creation just a little more beautiful? (Sidenote: it’s not as if cameras even accurately capture what we’re looking at, anyway. One could make the argument that adding a filter is helping restore some of the color and vibrancy that your phone camera helpfully lost.) I see no reason to leave a picture dull if you have the choice of making it beautiful. God could have made the world look #nofilter, but thankfully He didn’t. So why should we?

Along the same lines, why wouldn’t I curate and select the posts I add to my Instagram feed? Why wouldn’t I take ten pictures and choose the one with the best composition and lighting, or refrain from posting an ugly picture of a friend or a piece of pizza? There are plenty of ugly and nasty or even just subpar things in this world, but that doesn’t mean that we have to (or should) celebrate them or parade them around for the whole world to see. Naturally, those things exist and have to be dealt with on their own terms. But I would argue that Instagram is not the place for them, or certainly does not have to be the place for them. Not posting a picture of myself crying over a heartbreak or eating a really unappetizing bit of lasagna doesn’t mean that those things aren’t a part of my life at various times, only that I choose not to share them with everyone. Instead, I choose to share what I consider to be worthwhile­­–things that reflect the beauty and glory of the world God has made.

And perhaps this gets into the nature of social media’s purpose­­–what are we supposed to do with something like Instagram? Clearly, it is different than something like Snapchat, where few filters are available and the pictures will be gone as soon as you send them off anyway. Pictures on Instagram are there for keeps, part of a chronological collection of moments that you have chosen to share. No one will think that because you didn’t post a really ugly selfie on Instagram (something most of us have undoubtedly done on Snapchat, anyway) that you have never taken an ugly selfie, or that you #wokeuplikethis. People aren’t that stupid. Instead, they ought to recognize that you take pictures that you care about, of moments that you enjoyed and want to share with others. Of course, some might see Instagram as a more artistic outlet than others, which is perfectly fine. The point is that there is no shame in curating what you share. In fact, we do that every day of our lives, from the clothes we wear to the things we choose to say or not to say to other human beings.

So I guess the takeaway would be this: God made a pretty world, and He gave you pretty moments to enjoy and love. So do it. If that means keeping your phone tucked away in your pocket, do it. If it means taking ten pictures and using one and putting a really great filter on it that perfectly brings out the white balance, do that too. But don’t hold yourself back from making it beautiful because you think you’re being dishonest. You’re not. You’re also not being dishonest by not posting one thing and posting something else instead. If you’re appreciating and loving God’s world, you’re doing exactly what you should be doing. Keep doing it. Do it with filters and good composition and captions that express your joy. And don’t stop.

 

–Natalie Williams (2016)


You can follow Natalie on Instagram: @natalie_katherine

A Prologue to the Dialog (the Right Beginning for Speaking to my Friends about Fiction) and the Only Holy One to Whom our Explorations Should be Directed

Dear Father, every time that I experience a long season of gray weather inside my mind and sleepwalking throughout the days you have laid before me like an endless line of rooms down a long, dark hallway, I feel the high burden of my own self and my own failure and there is nothing I can do about it, except rage against myself and to find some way to climb back up to you. I don’t engage in this struggle out of a need to prove to myself that I have earned your favor, but rather I struggle up to you because I want you and you are what I feel like I have lost. I have gone many days without reflecting on you and pursuing you like a lover to his loved. And speaking in language this high might seem cheesy to people nowadays, but I don’t care; what I need is you in this moment. And I don’t have you because I fail to see that I do.

How am I supposed to get to you when I don’t have you? How am I supposed to get to you when my prayers are little more than inaudible sighs? Groans of my spirit and of my flesh? For I have gone days of not seeking you, but rather passively going through my labor and the present has sifted through my hands like the passing sand. I have become a bore to myself and I have failed to be grateful for the things in my life. I have failed to explain myself even to myself, or to show myself to you. Instead, I have hidden myself away in some small dark cloister on my own, only I frequently get so scared by my own shadow or the sound of my own breath in that dark silence that I like a damned gyrovague move to another hollow monastery and everywhere I go, I find myself to be alone not with myself but with the uncomfortable silence of your unacknowledged grief for me. You don’t want me to live this way. You want me like any good Christian American to go out and to enjoy the bounty you have put in front of me. But how am I supposed to enjoy so many good things when I know that plenty of people around me are drowning in their own indulgence? For me, it is a difficult thing to tell me to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow I will resurrect, because so many people around me have set a bad example of eating and drinking to push down those nagging questions.

These nagging questions, I will have you know, are not “What is the point?” or even “What is the meaning of all this?” But rather, “Why am I in a position of feeling like I don’t understand and feeling like I cannot see when you have told me the way out and have told me that you have given me sight? Why do I just walk around sleeping, unable to process what you have given me and done? Why do I distract myself and bore myself with cheap entertainment and indulgence, when you have been there the whole time telling me that the purpose of this good material world is not to forget, but to remember their source? And why am I so burdened by the unseen mind? Why does my mind continue to make labyrinths for itself?”

Lord, the answer can be none other than that I have been unfaithful and I have not used my labor and these good things like I should. I have not entered into my labor so thoroughly that I have forgotten the troubles of this world. That is your gift to us, that we can for some moments forget the toils of this world and the frank honesty of our death standing on top of us. And I have forsaken that gift, failed to enter into it and I have therefore since failed to enter into that cycle of forgetting, remembering, forgetting, remembering. All I have is forgetting with the unsaid remembrance of my own lack of success. But compassion burns within your heart for me, your unfaithful wife, and you will relent from the judgment I deserve. For you have set up nature in such a way that I deserve to reap the fruit of darkness when I have sown the seeds of a dim heart. I have been sowing the wind and I deserve to reap the whirlwind. I have been so extremely passive and indulgent—and I have since been unable to rest and to enjoy. This is the dichotomy before me in my heart, but yet even in this moment of clarity I cannot fully understand what I have gotten myself into. I desire to rest and enjoy, but isn’t that the only thing I have pursued? Haven’t I only pursued rest and enjoyment in these gray days?

Father, you know my tendency is not to become depressed and self-obliterating. My tendency rather is to go for a long period of time intentionally not recognizing the signs of my own slow destruction and then waking up one day very angry, because not only am I in a position sliding towards the Assyrians but I am also entirely incapable of making sense of my heart. And if I cannot make sense of how I feel, then how am I supposed to know how to feel rightly? All I can feel in those moments is anger at the world and rage and a desire to set it all on fire.

But Father the only real tool you have given me to set this all to fire is the truth revealed in art. This is the only real labor in which I can forget myself. And I take that as a sign that despite the ability for anyone to enjoy my ramblings, I know that it is here you and I meet. And what else am I supposed to do? I cannot ignore that this is the place I always come back to, to aggressively elucidate some kind of concept or idea that has for a moment allowed me to forsake the problems in which I have been embroiled and then to remember you and you only. In these moments I feel the most clarity, but the most aggressive insanity as if the two went hand in hand. I feel a manic nature that almost overcomes me in its ferocity and its aggression. It takes me and nothing can let me go, not even you Father, until I have come to a place of my own obvious weakness and human condition. And Lord I acknowledge that this is why you have given us art, this is why you have given me dialectic at least (the dialectic of prayer with the almighty who is my intermediary or with that interior shrieking voice which is your holy one in me). I am to use this not to explore my strength and the vast expanses of my understanding, but rather come to the place where I can give no more and I can be nothing else than a finite, dependent creature. This is why we seek, seek, ask of you Lord, to save us, save us from our lack of clarity and the sludge that cascades through our veins and clogs up our hearts with the darkness of self-inflicted wounds of imperception. This is high language and at this moment, I can do no other. Salva me! Or something. We will get through this, straight to the edge of our skin and we will wake up from this blind strength of mind a little more aware of the ways in which we look up to you as a mother weaning a little child. Wean me Lord, and I shall be weaned. Wake us up from our sludgy sleep, that burden heavy on our heads to stay down under the sheets, dead to you and dead to the sunshine blasting through the window.

Lord, what visions have you given to me recently. What have you allowed me to see! What has given me the most joy recently, what idea or concept which I can apply and mold into some experience for someone? What can I give that will replicate the experience of discovery, which is not just revelation or knowledge but awareness of the nature of seen things? What can I give that will allow someone to once again go on their way and enjoy what you have placed before us? Father it can be nothing else but the notions of fiction for which I am so fond. Teach me your ways that I might walk in them and no longer be satisfied with my own road of boredom. Delight us with the ways you play and I like a child who have been weaned will learn to play with you and I can play the same silly metaphysical games that drive the kids mad who try to CONQUER THE GAME, to OPEN EVERY CONTAINER, complete EVERY QUEST, and maybe push the limits of the coding, to fall underneath the map and find themselves in the vast ocean of blue that is nothing but their own inability to suspend their own disbelief, not so that they can give into a lie but so that they can rest within the confines of where they have been rightly placed. You have taught me that I have been placed here not to fall through the map (although it is certainly possible) but that I am supposed to be immersed here. If I fall under the map of your own creation Lord and I was not looking to discover an obvious revelation of structure, Lord let me be grateful to get some vision of the nature of things so that I can also learn how to best test you playfully. Let me for a moment test you and make some claims concerning creation and how I am to do it.

Episode 01: Emily and David Hoos

 

Intro

After meeting the Hoos for lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, getting the sleeps there, and David Hoos and Caleb reasoning to themselves that coffee and comfort were the best idea, the adventurers Mike and Caleb were carried on their journey to the Hoos Home by the Hoos Mobile and there they sat on their couch, for six hours, enjoying the warm fellowship of friends. What follows is a pleasingly edited transcript of those legendary six hours, broken into four sections each dedicated to one of the many conversations we had that afternoon.

Thank you.

I. 

Emily Hoos: These days I don’t think I have a circle, I just have all these pockets that probably wouldn’t all just get together for a party. They’re all in different places. Something that I’ve noticed is that for the most part people just want to stay with whoever is in their circle of life at that time. I get that, I do, but there is something really refreshing about being with people who aren’t in the same stage of life as you. The perspective lightens or gets heavier, but in a good way because you are forced to walk in someone else’s shoes.

David Hoos: You’re also looking forward or backward to things that you have faced or will face and there’s wisdom you can gain from looking in both directions.

Caleb Warner: I’ve experienced that turn. The first two years of college was totally tribal, but now it’s either dispersed or gone romantic. I’m left with the various pockets, which is refreshing.

CW: Before you were married how did you rationalize your singleness? Were you like, ‘I’m going to be single and this is my thing,’ or was it a struggle?

EH: I got married when I was 26, he was 29, both of us were about to have birthdays.

[David is getting coffee in the kitchen.]

EH: He’s listening. Trust me, he’s listening.

I had a really hard time with comparing myself to other people and wanting to be in the next phase of life. By the time I was 24 I had a master’s and a full time job. In the eyes of the world—and that’s the first problem—I was pretty successful. I owned a home, I owned a car, I was in a respected profession. Marriage would be the next step. I was lonely. I was out in this little house in the woods in Arkansas, and it was very serene and I tried to hold onto that… but there’s also moments of like: ‘If I walk outside and I get struck by lightning, it might take someone a long time to find my body. Scout might eat my face.’ And that’s a terrifying thought.

[Scout is their dog.]

EH: I left teaching for New York to pursue theatre, but then my folks moved to Washington State. That was the point in my life that I stopped writhing over being single and just said, ‘Screw it, I’ll go to a place in the country where I don’t know anyone, and I’ll just lean into the difference and whatever happens will happen!’

And I was online, and this guy popped up from Moscow, Idaho. And here I am. March 4th will be my four year anniversary in Moscow.

DH: [walking back into the room] My whole struggle was trying to be principled, but also being lonely at the same time. I’m kind of stubborn in some respects and for me at a certain stage everyone is trying to set you up with someone and all these people who haven’t invested much time in you are suddenly trying to set you up with people.

EH: I lived in a retirement community, so no one was doing that for me. [laughs]

DH: I don’t know if I was being stubborn but…come on, guys, if you’re trying to match me up with someone, show that you know me better than this.

EH: I used to joke when I first moved here, ‘why hasn’t someone snatched you up sooner?’ Why was he getting set up with girls who aren’t compatible with him?

CW: Why?

EH: I don’t know. I think David looks different than people around here, and I look different.  But I don’t think David was desperate…  


DH: Part of it too is that here there is a set-up social group in the form of college and you have automatic gatherings which are natural for you to interact with someone of the opposite sex. After you graduate it basically completely vaporizes…There’s a lot of competing pressures. On the one hand, it’s: ‘Get married, but also make sure you’re a marriageable bachelor.’ But you have no money and have student loan debt. And it’s going to take two or three years after graduation to pay off. So what’s more important? Finding someone at school or being financially stable? I wanted the right person, you know? And I didn’t want someone else to tell me who the right person was.

EH: College is an incubator. There was such a horde of people in my school that were getting married by graduation—and it naturally happens that way. You’re with these people all the time, so you end up being coupled up. There’s mating rituals that happen within schools, even if they don’t intend for it to happen. Spring just makes couples happen.

CW: And you can’t hate that things like this happen.


DH: Especially when you’re in a community that’s trying to look at relationships differently. If you don’t have older, wiser influences speaking into what that looks like practically, it can be tricky. I can only look back at my parents and they dated in college and that was my frame of reference for how relationships work out.

EH: We didn’t follow the courtship model whatsoever. It does work, but it works for certain people and for others it does not. It’s a mindset and it has a lot to do with the culture around you.

DH: And there’s so many definitions. One father figure might be, ‘Why are you talking to me? You haven’t talked to her once.’ And another dad’s going to be like, ‘You went to coffee with her? How dare you!’ We were aiming more for the spirit of courtship rather than the actual method. Honoring her father and mother was important; they’re going to be my in-laws, after all.

EH: And if he honors them with his actions, it’s going to make me want to do the same thing.

DH: I just think that people can focus too much on the method rather than the principles.

EH: Yeah, they major on the minors. In a bigger community, that’s different. I have felt more accepted in my life when I lived in New York City, because there was this balance of: ‘We don’t agree with you, but we like you and will have lunch with you and not make this a thing!’ You want your closest friends to hold you up and support you, but I feel like I was made so much sharper as a person after I left New York because there were so many people who weren’t like me but were kind to me. I can’t change God’s plan for me. This is my story. I was 26 when I got married. I can’t change that I’m 30 and he’s 33 and we don’t have children. This is our story. So many people want to know when we are going to be like them and I don’t know what to tell them.

CW: It’s like the dating thing, the marriage thing, the baby thing. It’s the most annoying things to pressure someone about.

EH: They’re huge!

DH: But it’s not any of your business.

EH: A month after we got married, I was congratulated on my pregnancy. And when David said, ‘She isn’t pregnant,’ the woman didn’t apologize…People like Paul [the apostle], their ministry is different because they’re single, but it’s just as important. What if I’m not supposed to be a mother? What then?

DH: We know single women who are older than both of us and have to deal with that constant pressure. There’s almost this unspoken, ‘Well, once you’re past a certain point…’

EH: ‘We just need to pray for them.’

Michael Jones: Do you feel like people feel like you owe them an accounting for why you aren’t conforming to their standard?

EH: Absolutely. ‘Why don’t you look like us?’ But there have been people who have been sympathetic.

CW: Because there’s other people who don’t fit the paradigm.

DH: The body of Christ in my opinion ought to look a little less homogenous than it does. There’s the whole milk and meat thing. I think a lot of churches focus on one or the other. ‘We’re growing, we’re baptizing, we’re a milk church.’ And then there’s meat churches: ‘We focus on the truths of the Gospel and we’re maturing people.’ But I think both of those types of churches should be doing both. You need to be able to serve the body from birth to adulthood. Feeding and teaching the five thousand. Showing the Gospel is as important as telling the Gospel.

EH: I think we [the Moscow community] have a long way to go, but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a long way to go. But I think as long as growth is happening, as long as people are asking questions, it’s good.

DH: Credenda Agenda back in the day had a statement that read something like: ‘This magazine represents our theological convictions, but does not represent our boundaries of fellowship.’ ‘Here’s what we believe, but it’s not going to divide us from other Christians. We’re going to stand by what we believe to be true, but it’s not going to stop us from sharing a meal with people.’ I feel like that mindset has gotten dusty in some areas and needs to be reintroduced again.

EH: I’m completely okay with being told I’m wrong and someone explaining why and giving me that chance to learn. But I would hope that I would have the same opportunity. If it doesn’t point directly back to the Bible, why do people dig their heels in so much?

DH: There are some things you hold close-handed, like actually doing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and other things you hold open-handed, like whether or not it’s grape juice or wine, immersion or not.

II. 


EH: Since the middle of 2015 it has just been a terrible year for us. But I feel like someone finally threw a pair of glasses on me. Even though in five years or five minutes I’ll get a new pair of glasses and it will make my old glasses look fuzzy. That’s how life works and that’s how God works. Right now, I see a lot clearer than I did when I first got here. And it’s because of all the pain and it’s because of all the fire. I am completely thankful for the excruciating amount of pain in the last seven or eight months.

DH: If this is in the interview, people are going to ask you about it.

EH: I don’t care.

CW: I don’t know if I should ask, if it crosses a boundary…

EH: I’ll just pull the Band-Aid off: it happened July 14th at noon. Because I’m a heart patient and have to have another surgery in the next three years, we wondered what having kids in the next few years would look like. We got bounced around to a ton of different doctors…we had been told that having a kid with genetic abnormality was a mathematical impossibility. But they told me I couldn’t have a kid after my second surgery. And at first they told us that we were good, but they went through the data again…and they actually want to study my family because they haven’t seen anything like my family in the history of science…There’s a 50-60% chance of a child with disabilities or a miscarriage and a 40% chance of a normal person. Because these chances were so high, we decided to just say, ‘Let’s not have kids.’ I asked my mom whether if she knew what we know now, ‘Would I exist?’ she said no.

DH: And all of this is happening along with the Planned Parenthood hubbub. The Christian community in this context has to be aggressively pro-adoption.

EH: Lots of women want to be pregnant and I did have to go through that loss. Meeting David I thought, ‘We are going to have the most beautiful strawberry blonde kids…’ My imagination runs away with me pretty often.

CW: Are you future-oriented?

EH: Oh yeah, we’re both future-oriented. We’re future freaks.

DH: Sometimes it’s like, ‘Ah! The things that could be possible!’ But sometimes it’s like, ‘The things that could be possible…’

EH: I had this kid in my head who kind of died. And it was really sad. It was hard, letting him go… But I got to the point of ‘Emily, you’re being really selfish if you need a little version of you.’ They should be a little version of them. You might not be genetically similar to them at all, but if you nurture them, they’ll have this great story of ‘I’m adopted, and my biological parents couldn’t hang on to me, but these people loved me.’

CW: Adoption is a beautiful thing.

EH: That’s the road we’re going to take. We were going to start the adoption process this year, but then the second awful thing happened: my mom got cancer. She has stage IV Lymphoma. We’d rather focus on the family that’s right in front of us right now. We think that God wants us to be parents, but the timing is all him. And that’s okay with me.

CW: Jumping back to the idea of making future imaginative spaces, I frequently experience my hopes getting dashed because the future is not just far off–it doesn’t exist. How do you deal with that as a person? That just seems to be a life cycle, that if someone is future-minded they’re going to be disappointed all the time.

DH: I think the more times it happens, you either become a cynical person or you can have more of a sober-minded optimism. My vision is for growth. My vision is for reaching that peak over there in the distance. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a straight shot. It could mean a couple short hills and a few valleys and then jumping over a crevasse, but it’s all that stuff in between that makes you the person you need to be when you get there.

EH: If you get there.

DH: Part of that is what your vision is. If it’s ‘I want to be a mature and less bitter person, who’s more stable and so on’ that’s good. If you’re saying ‘I want to be a millionaire in the next ten years’ you’re chasing after the wrong thing.

CW: The model that I’ve been working with since I was fifteen is that I want to be very clear about a certain point and then aim for it and knowing that I’m moving, I can be turned and end up at a completely different thing. But I end up with something that’s better, and something I wouldn’t have pieced together in my fantasy.

EH: I wish I could go back in time and sit on fifteen year old Emily’s bed and tell her, ‘Girl, hang onto your socks, it’s going to get weird.’ It’s consistently weird and it’s painful. But good. My mom always says, life can make you bitter or make you better.

DH: A lot of the time you make your life busy on purpose to drown out what God is saying.

EH: I’m bad at that. I’ll surround myself with things just to stick my head in the sand. But I know that it’s a process, and if I’m willing to go along for the ride, he’s not going to dump me in a ditch. That’s not the God I serve.

DH: Want to tell them the third act?

EH: Right. So after all the bad news, I kind of became a recluse.

DH: Children are a blessing, but there can be an idolatry of family. And if you’re single, you can idolize marriage.

EH: Marriage does not solve problems. Children do not solve problems. This is my family. It’s called David and Scout. There is no starting my family, I already have one. Anyway, a month after my mom got cancer…David got laid off. Oh, what new fresh hell. But the timing in a way was perfect. Why not just move out west? Mom’s treatments are getting progressively harder and she’s getting progressively weaker. My sister is handicapped and she needs someone to help her and my mom needs rest.

DH: I had six or seven interviews that just didn’t turn out. And at a certain point you get interview fatigue and start questioning yourself.

EH: He must have applied to forty or fifty places.

DH: I was stressed to begin with. It’s the future of me being able to provide for my family and eat and have a roof over my head.

EH: And I won’t apply to places until I know where we’re settled. To be honest, I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up. I’ve been a teacher, a radio DJ, office manager, retail work, food service in three different capacities, I’ve done production and professional theatre and amateur theatre.

DH: We’ve been praying for the right job to come along. When you have all of this pressure from the future weighing you down, everything you do in the present will be weighed down.

III.


EH: That leads back to the imaginary playground and what David said about majoring on the minors…I feel like God has no problem with us trying to plan things, but we can’t hold it with a closed hand. One of us could die. Bad things could happen…My mom has cancer. I can’t control that. The doctors are telling us that she’s getting better, but she could die from this cancer…

I want to build a house in the woods somewhere…

CW: A micro-house?

EH: I wouldn’t necessarily want it to be that big. I just want what we need. And I want some big windows. Floor to ceiling windows that let in the light all the time. One of things that David and I have in common is a love of the night sky.

CW: That’s a very romantic interest.

EH: When he flew to Arkansas to meet me face to face for the first time, we went to my parents house and they lived on twenty acres in the country in a house they built themselves. We took a sleeping bag outside, laid down on it, And we looked up at the sky for hours. I remember laying there and being so unsure of this man! But he was so sure that we should be a couple. And there was something about the two of us laying there watching the stars, not being sure what was still out there or what had burned out… but the light was still traveling. Time passed and then we got engaged, got married. There’s a place in this town that I will miss—and I won’t tell you, because it’s our spot!

CW: Describe the spot.

EH: Well, there’s a lot of dead people there. We’d throw out a blanket and we’d look at the stars and talk about how finite we are and how infinite God is and how scary that is.

CW: So you guys were reflecting on your existential condition together?

EH: Totes.

CW: That’s romantic!

EH: I’ve always had issues with death. I have these strong atheistic moments. And David doesn’t have that. He’s like, ‘Hang on.’ And we’ll talk about it. Luckily, I married a man who is very understanding.


CW: And God doesn’t exist in the same way as a flying teapot. He’s not a couch.

EH: [fists raisedI want God to be a couch! But he’s not.

CW: That’s why we have Jesus. God revealing that he does exist.

EH: We can’t wrap around God.

MJ: But God can wrap around us.

CW: With life, I feel like I’m holding a really small, precious glass ball. I’m not scared of death at this moment, but at this moment I could die. 

EH: My Dad used to say, ‘Every young person thinks that they’re ten foot tall and bulletproof.’ I don’t know if I’ve ever really felt that. Everything was so fragile for me at a young age…There are times where I’m more aware of it at other times, but I think I’ve always been more aware than the average person.

DH: That can be an overbearing weight that’s impossible to deal with—having a sense of mortality, but that God gives us problems one day at a time, and to be focusing on today’s problems, and not all of these potential problems. If you’re borrowing problems from tomorrow…

EH: What is that verse? ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will take care of itself.’ [Matthew 6:34] That became a mantra for me when I was twelve, before I had open-heart surgery.

IV.

MJ: David, how did you come to Moscow?

DH: My parents were familiar with classical christian education and I tried the community college thing and ended up with a super obnoxious English teacher who taught 90% her personal agenda and 10% actual English, and a math teacher who was convinced that the aliens built the pyramids. One semester of community college and I was like, ‘I don’t think I can do two years of this.’ I came up here with my parents for a conference, and hung out with some people from NSA and realized I could relate to them more than I expected. They were listening to the same music that I was and they weren’t just a bunch of people where, their idea of a fun afternoon is sitting in the library.

[It is worth noting that MJ’s idea of a fun afternoon is, indeed, to spend it sitting in the library. In fact, as he types this, he is sitting in the library, having a great time.]

EH: Or speaking Latin at Bucer’s.

DH: So I came to New Saint Andrews for school as part of the class that is probably the most diverse class that has come through both in age and academic background.

EH: It was an incredible group of people.

DH: I feel like most of us had been exposed to stuff before school. Our class was kind of viewed as the stupid class.

EH: But they’ve been successful.

DH: We’re the most persistent class…Christians need to be in a bunch of different areas in culture. I appreciate that New Saint Andrews has grounding. You know, here’s a way to get you grounded and rooted, but once you have a lot of that I think you should try to branch out as much as you can into different specialties. Studying theatre or learning to be a mechanical engineer, you can’t just pick that stuff up. People talk about culture wars and stuff like that. You can’t talk about culture wars unless you have culture. You need people in all levels and all types and corners of society and you need them to be thinking in a rooted sort of way.

CW: How have you seen your well-established friendships change over the years?


EH: We tried very hard when we became a couple to not let that change our relationship to single friends, and not be, ‘Oh, we’re a couple, we only hang out with couples.’ I was hanging out with couples when I was single, too.

DH: A lot of that depends on intentionality.

CW: I like the idea of distinctions between boundaries of relationships becoming blurred or inconsequential in Christ. For example, you’re both married, but we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s a melting pot of existing beings [arm waving added later for emphasis].

EH: I feel like our life is so much fuller when we hang out with people in different areas of life than us.

DH: Also, your full identity is not your singleness, motherhood, fatherhood. You should be able to have a conversation with anyone in those camps that doesn’t revolve around that. Talk about stuff that everyone can relate to.

CW: Like the existential condition!

EH: I like that.

DH: You can talk about the northwest, recipes…

EH: Where culture is going…

CW: You can’t lock yourself into, like, having three spheres where you say that they are the only things you can talk about or be interested in.

EH: It’s so oppressive.

CW: And it shows a lack of creativity.

EH: [to David] You’re doing your finger thing again. It’s like he’s trying to rest his hand on my back, but only gets one finger trailing up my spine. Ah, sorry for interrupting. I love that man, but the finger thing makes me want to cap him.

DH: I’m used to it. [laughter] Anyway, both of us are interested in the arts…Christians who are interested in the intellect and propositions are going to be out of touch with earthy things and that leads into how we deal with the mercy ministry and things like that. We don’t have to be gritty in the edgy movie sense, but gritty in a farmer sort of way with the world around you. Working at a food bank, working at a shelter. Working with non-Christians at your job. And if you don’t interact with non-Christians, that’s going to make your writing worse and your stories worse. You have to have some tensions and some dirt for Christians to write.

CW: I think it was Tolstoy who said you need the poor in order to write. 

MJ: If you’re poor you’re living in the extreme and if you’re wealthy you have enough money to do whatever you want and you’re around people who can do whatever they want, so that’s extreme too. But in the middle class, the goal is ultimate security. You don’t have enough money to go crazy, but you do have enough money to be totally safe.

DH: I think we run away from hardships which maybe isn’t why Protestants can’t write, but why comfortable, middle-class Christians can’t write. Flannery O’Connor had lupus and was dying. She was very in touch with her mortality. And she had this craft that she was very good at. And Catholics…

MJ: They’re more sacramental?

CW: They’re more into suffering?

DH: I don’t know, Protestants are tied to prosperity gospel. A lot of the sappy Christian fiction stuff does peacefully resolve well, like everything’s just going to be okay.

EH: Sometimes everything’s not going to be okay.

CW: I think there has to be a real live question that the author is trying to understand and needs to write in order to understand. When you’re writing prosperity, you’re directly avoiding all the questions you could ask. But when you’re dying, you have to write out the question, ‘What am I supposed to make of all this?’

DH: I agree that you shouldn’t be morbidly introspective because that can be unhealthy and self-destructive. But you should be reflective on the brokenness around you and be willing to wrestle with it. And that connects back to art. Not just writing, but art in general.

EH: Pain is when the best art comes about. I’ve written plays before and the best stuff that I’ve written came out of a place of pain. Somebody asks me, why did you write this? [referring to her play in the recent 24 hour theatre festival]. “Because my mom might die. And this is a healthy way to express it.” I’ll see two humans ten feet away act out something that might happen to me and has happened to other people. I love van Gogh so much and his crazy impressionistic paintings. They say his early works look like regular still lives, but the more depressed and manic he became, the more swirly and impressionistic his paintings got.

croaking voids and ancient pearls

What is creative inspiration? I need to know, because sometimes I lose it. If I know what it is, maybe I can find it after I’ve lost it. I used to be a farmer, had a farm, my crop was inspiration—and my labor was artistic might. I knew what I had, knew what I needed to grow. Pure, simple control—and it never rained.

The drought came and there was a spark in the barn and I lost all the infrastructure for my barren farm. These days, I fancy myself a hunter/gatherer type and I deal and trade in the art of discovery (and I love the kind of playfulness with nature when I creep up behind a deer or play Hide-and-Seek® with a bundle o’ truffles), the danger of relying on nature to give me something to eat. Give me my daily bread, dress me up in flower garb, and look! I’m as rosy as Solomon and just as amazed that the mist of mist is the one simple pleasure in life, of remembering our childlikeness. We are tired after a day of straining after schemes to capture the true nature of reality. Nature gently breaths its vanity on our hot faces and we say, “Thank you.”

I think this is a workable definition for creative inspiration: creative inspiration is that state of gratitude and relaxation that is given when a human has a sensitivity of heart and body toward the language of nature. If that is a lot of words to you, let me explain in as more as a few paragraphs.

I have in the past few months gone through what can only be described as acedia. It was a creative depression. And it was elicited by my strong ambition and desire to be somewhere else—to propel myself to some place other than where I am. I know now that I was ultimately acting out my fear of death and not out of an appreciation for life. I thought I was doing the right thing, but this kind of future-lust bore a nebula where I expected a constellation of fruit.

This nebula was a total fog about what I was really going through (my condition was unclear even to me), but the tense and nervous desire to explain myself to the void-maw croaking like an opening door in my chest. I tried explaining as if my entire existence depended on it, but every mental journey I pursued ended in sleep or sloth. I went through this for many months, trying to build up some kind of paradigm that would give a certain set of justifications or a set of solutions. My levels of creative inspiration went down, down, down. I got to the point where I had to humble myself and realize I had nothing to say, could give nothing, could grow nothing. I got to the point where I didn’t just feel like I had nothing to say (as if it were an illusion of humility to cover a real set of knowledge), but had the experience of trying to say something and finding there was nothing in me. I was emptied.

And I would like to think that I responded well to this forced kenosis, but in fact I didn’t. For many weeks, I despaired about the emptiness, but refused to fill myself up with something. Instead of filling up with repentance, I filled myself up with everything under the sun—and so the cycle of spiritual sighing repeated itself.

This is my tendency. Instead of cleaning the slate daily, I just kind of let the slate get dirty for a few days, a few weeks, a few months—and then I pull out some theatrical and dramatic revolution and try to change everything in my life so that “I am not unproductive anymore.” This is not just about isolated sins, but about everything in my life. Sin builds up in my life in the form of small decays and scars of death (small depressions, indents) in the image of God I am designed to carry. But we are designed to carry the image exactly because we only function if we are constantly tied to him in dialog. God is the body of the octopus and we are his arms and we are lifeless without the nervous system of prayer. But instead of asking for forgiveness daily and moving on, I will try by force of my own weak might to make things new again. But if I failed in the first place to lift myself up, how can I expect to not fail again? I will fail every time if I try to change things on my own. This is of course the mystery of being in Christ. I am a Christian and I am learning how to live amidst hope. But the hope lies deeper than the Mariana Trench and it takes us years to fathom it. How can we expect to understand fully when someone tells us how deep it goes? If we have faith, all we can do is be amazed and believe that it really goes that deep. Death wants us to stay in our rowboat on the surface of the ocean (wait for the storm! it says. It’s safer! it says). But I am already set free from the tyranny of death even though I have for so long been living with death as my father that it is difficult for me to see the contours of hope’s supernal paradigm. I am learning to see the storehouses of hope which are my inheritance—and I must dive and collect the ancient pearls sitting shiny inside rocky, camouflaged mouths.

So if this is going to work as a corporate exhortation, let it simply be this: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again. We who testify to this truth in our lives live by joy. If we let death still this joy, we are in sin. That is as plain as the matter can be. There is no thing, no single thing, that you can use as leverage for your sin in the face of God. You cannot say that you will just be one of those down, dark Christians. That is not how this works. Christ came to set you free from being down and dark in all matters, from being depressive and self-abusive. He set you free from trying by force of your own strength to become your own kind of hero. And he did set you free to enjoy your work whenever you ought to, resting afterwards in ephemera. He also set you free to feel the pain with those in pain, but to do so that you might both be saved out of that pit and into the joys of hope.

The joys of hope are not just the pleasures he has given us in the world. If that were the case, then we would call it the joys of life—and we would find ourselves in the awkward position of relying exclusively on ephemera for our existential satisfaction. If living in realized hope was only about having someone to thank for gifts that are common to all men, then we would in fact be no better off than those who can thank themselves for doing such a fine job of being alive. Hope is not that gift that sets us free to enjoy fleeting pleasures, hope is that paradigm which sets us free to be human. And to be human is to be like a child, grateful for gifts, and trusting as mad when things go bad. Creative inspiration is that vision of reality that sets us back in the place of children. We can be playful again, make a mess of the house, and not feel the impossible burdens of cubicled adulthood. We no longer have to feel the premature burden of keeping our own houses clean and swept–all we must do is ask God for forgiveness whenever our “helping” contributed to his burdens. And to accept that forgiveness is his joy and our relief.