In Praise Of The Beautifully Inessential

It began with a hushed conversation in a library. I was in my first year of theological study, preparing to enter ordained ministry in the Anglican church. I was talking to one of the more conservative students at our conservative college and said something along the lines of this: ‘My problem is that if theologians really believe that God is the most beautiful and significant being in the world, why is so much of what they write so boring?’. ‘Ah’, said the man listening to me. ‘You need to read some Eugene Peterson’. In my mind, up to then, Eugene Peterson was know only for The Message, a translation of the Bible in the language and idiom of the congregation he pastored in America. I hadn’t really considered that he might have written other things. That started a journey of discovery of theological and devotional writing that is characterised by clarity, deep theological thinking and an intoxicating love for words. It’s also true that unlike many theological writers, Peterson could write with a combination of economy and beauty.

It’s not essential for theology to be beautiful, of course. The Nicene Creed is generally accepted as a binding confessional statement for Christians; it’s full of good theological truth – but one could hardly call it beautiful. For its form, beauty is unnecessary. Beauty is unnecessary for objective truth to thrive, it seems.

All of which leads to me to a 10-year-old documentary film about a Canadian rock band. The film is Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Back in the mid 1980s, Anvil was one of a series of rock/metal bands that appeared poised on the brink of massive global success. Whilst most of them went on to achieve that, Anvil got stuck. The majority of the film tells the story of Anvil, 30 years on, still writing, recording and performing with the band members in their 50s; only now they have ‘proper’ jobs on the side to pay (some of) the bills. The film bears many of the hallmarks of the rock documentary – backstage footage, gig footage, the writing/recording process, arguments between band members. What’s different here is that the band is not making money in the process; they’re not even in the ‘critically acclaimed, commercially under-appreciated’ sector.

There are many possible reasons for Anvil not becoming Metallica. Bad management and bad production stand out. To be blunt, they will never write a song as threatening and thrilling as Enter Sandman. That, however, is not really the point here. What matters for Anvil, and for us, is they glory in their process and output; although they dream of recognition and adulation, that’s not what they’re in this for. They want to make music and to play music. To them, that’s success.

There’s something here to think on. I often hear parents (and sometimes their children) talk of the need to get a qualification – and hence a job – that will produce something; that will contribute the economy and provide for all their current future needs. What the child must do is do some necessary, important and tangible; she must produce. Clearly we need lawyers and doctors and engineers and builders and the like. Sciences matter. I’m not denying that; but they are not the sum and total of what we need. The moment we think of ourselves as units of economic production we run in to trouble; we’ve allowed an un-critiqued version of capitalism to overwhelm our identity. I studied for a degree in English Literature, not a degree renowned for its job prospects. I jokingly refer it as ‘a degree in reading’. Stop, though, before laughing too hard: when was the last time you (or someone you know) seemed incapable of seeing the real meaning of Facebook post or an email? Why do so many people swallow fake news uncritically? Now do you want to tell me that a ‘degree in reading’, in truly understanding a text, is unimportant simply because it doesn’t lead to a tangible end-product?

woman playing ukulele

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God has given us some clues here. God didn’t have to create; before creation, He was perfect within Himself. In his relationship with the 3 parts of Himself, he needed nothing. Yet create he did, an expression of love that wanted an outlet, a glorious,  indulgent extravagance. Seas, mountains, rivers, plains, plants, insects, animals, fish, plankton, stars, planets, sun, moon, woman, man, snow, rain. All so unnecessary, all pouring out of an abundant self-expression of light and sound.

Or think on music. Almost all religious expressions involve music and singing; it has often been where new musical expressions have taken root. But why? Do we need to sing? For the Christian the words of Be Thou My Vision or My Jesus, My Saviour remain just as true if they’re spoken aloud. The music isn’t necessary in that sense. But can you imagine a world in which congregations just said those words, to the backdrop of silence?

Music, and art in general, may not be objectively necessary but they do something to us. They speak to us in a form that’s more true than mere facts, deep calling to deep (in itself a Biblical metaphor that achieves a truth that is more than factual). Jesus and the prophets don’t just speak in objective statements of truth; also stories, metaphors, poetry, word pictures, dramatic actions.

Why, then, do we settle for less in our or our children’scareers? Only pursuing that which is productive? A nation consisting solely of tangible product may be economically booming, but it would be colourless.

Why, then, do our churches often seem to only use one form of music (whichever form is the preference of that one subset of the culture)? Is there space for new melodies, rhythms and harmonies alongside the established?  Why is so much Christian ‘art’ of recent years so plainly didactic? Why not take the poet’s eternal advice:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

The truth is that Anvil just aren’t that good a band; having seen this film I won’t be downloading their albums. But I am reminded with fresh energy that meaning matters more than material production; that fruitful labour may look different to that which is deemed apparently successful. I’m concerned that, within the church especially, we are uncritically accepting a fully capitalist worldview where even the pastor’s role must be described with precision and point towards outputs and markers. That church members must serve an ‘end product’ of a church machine geared to keep us busy and numerically growing, forgetting to allow the beauty of relationships and creativity in the image of an endlessly relational and creative God to flourish.

Do we, our life choices and communities, allow meaning and beauty and relationship to define us? Or are we too busy making and producing to simply be in the presence of God and each other, basking in the beauty God showers us with and invites us to co-labour with Him in creating? Do we want to build a society of units of production and end product, or a kingdom in which God-given gifts are allowed to flourish in response to One who delights in the unnecessary and inessential?

 

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A State Of Unrest: Neither Triumph Nor Tragedy

When I first met the woman who would become my wife, she didn’t look ill. This was 1996, and I had just moved into staff accommodation for the job I had taken in London. I was in the lounge, a day or two after moving in. Bev was coming back from a weekend visiting her parents, and as she made her way to her room, past the lounge, she carried with her a computer. Like I said, this was 1996, so carrying a computer was no mean feat. My memory tells me that a friend was helping her. She may not have looked ill, but she was. At that stage she didn’t know what the problem was; she was increasingly tired, increasingly drained by the shifts she was working, and subject to a variety of tests to discern what the problem was. She moved job, within the same project, to an office-hours role; but the health problems didn’t go away. Some days she wasn’t able to get out of bed; not in the sense of simply feeling tired. In the sense of being unable to move. As a series of diagnoses were ruled out, eventually one was ruled in: M.E. – also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or (more cruelly) Yuppie Flu. No one really knew what that meant; allergies were tested for, but none found. Anti-depressants were prescribed for someone who wasn’t depressed. Some people live with M.E. for life; fortunately for Bev, she recovered.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is still, in some places, a controversial disease. The film Unrest (which I watched on Netflix South Africa) is a striking and moving self-produced documentary about one young woman’s experience of the disease and her attempts along with other sufferers to build awareness and get better treatment for it. Along the way there’s much that’s disturbing and light-shedding to learn: 85% of sufferers are female. Many medical ‘experts’ refer to it as caused by childhood trauma (known as conversion disorder – what was in times past called hysteria) despite a dearth of hard medical evidence to support this. In Denmark, a young woman suffering from the disease was forcibly removed from the care of her parents and treated for mental illness against her will for three years; at the time the film was released, she was still ill. We meet one young man who has been so afflicted by the disease that he has been unable to speak for a year. We watch the woman at the centre of the film lie motionless on the floor; we watch her and her husband both laugh and suffer through various attempts to change life-style in order to find a cure. We learn that with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – as with many other chronic diseases – there is strong correlation with depression and suicide.

woman with crossed hands

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One moment in particular bought me up short and caused me to recognise myself. After a period of elevated activity and stress, we watch a sufferer ‘crash’ – shake uncontrollably as she lies on her bed; a response that we’re told happens after periods of emotional or physical exertion. This felt familiar; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, a chronic, incurable arthritic disease affecting the spine and many other joints, along with a variety of other symptoms. I have been in various levels of pain every day for around 20 years; I can’t remember what being pain-free, and not taking medication, feels like. That also coincides with the length of my engagement and marriage. Occasionally, in the relatively early days before medication was found to manage my pain, I would shake uncontrollably from the pain as I tried to get in to bed or put on socks. One day I found myself shaking uncontrollably in a more or less empty school chapel, a few minutes after presiding at the funeral of a friend murdered by terrorists, a funeral filmed by television cameras, attended by over 1000 people including Desmond Tutu. It was, by any definition, a period of intense physical and emotional stress. I shook for about 30 minutes, and when I got home afterwards I barely moved for 3 days. The shaking was variously ascribed to needing something to eat, the heat in the chapel and plain old tiredness – all of which probably played a role. But from Unrest I see now it was also the crash of the body responding to the stress of keeping my diseased spine and joints functional under immense pressure. With pressure released, a valve was opened and the stress could be let out.

A.S. is not Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but like many chronic diseases it is misunderstood and under-researched; both are more common than, say, M.S., but much less well-known or understood by medical professionals, let alone the general public. They are both invisible, and that is often the hardest part for the sufferer and the ones supporting them. Time and again I, for instance, will have to say ‘no’ to helping push a car or move a stack of chairs because of invisible pain. No one will give a sign of compliant; but you can’t help thinking … do they believe me? Am I really that sore? People will talk of being able to do … whatever it is … with a sore back, so you should do; doing another thing after a short night’s sleep, so the CFS sufferer should. This rarely happens to me these days; though many years ago, in a job reference, my then employer referred to me as ‘lazy’ for sometimes not helping with physical chores when I was in pain. I didn’t get the job.

As Unrest moves to its conclusion another resonant point is made. The narrator reflects that many diseases (I might name, for example, cancer) end with either ‘triumph or tragedy’. In my example, you become either a cancer survivor, or – like my mother – you die after a ‘brave fight’. We’ve all heard those phrases used. For CFS, AS, and diseases like them, neither happens. You just keep on. Just keep going. Some join you on the road for a while; but you learn to spot the moment when they realise that there will be neither triumph or tragedy, and they stop asking you, stop checking in. And God forbid you, the one suffering, say how hard it is. Struggling, finding it hard to bear the pain and the fatigue and the brain fog and everything else for 20 years past and 20 or more to come; none of that fits the convenient matrix of triumph or tragedy. There’s no prize for just getting out of bed; no awareness month for diseases that just keep on going. Carers lose support and friends; people grow weary of hearing how your finances are affected; how your sex life is affected; why you’re looking sad today; why you’ve put on weight. I’m still here, goes the song at the movie ends, in neither triumph nor tragedy. That’s the goal of the chronic sufferer and supporters – just to keep on keeping on; to many observers it’s an awfully boring goal.

Meanwhile, as Unrest highlights, some researchers do keep working to learn more. As money is raised and spent in its billions on the diseases which end in triumph or tragedy, research on chronic conditions like CFS and AS continues relatively unnoticed and massively underfunded and significantly misunderstood. Films like Unrest will make a difference; as will Becoming Incurable (which will focus on AS amongst other conditions), currently in post-production. For now, people like those in the film, like my wife, like me and many others will keep on, keeping on.