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The Holy City, by definition, is already a cultural artifact, the work of a master Architect and Artist. The citizens themselves are the redeemed people of the Lamb, drawn from “every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9). But God’s handiwork, artifacts and people alike, are not all that is found in the city. Also in the city are “the glory and the honor of the nations”—brought into the city by none other than “the kings of the earth.”

Culture Making, p.166

Revelation 21:2 is the last thing a careful reader of Genesis 1–11 would expect: in the remade world, the center of God’s creative delight is not a Garden, but a City. And a city is, by definition, a place where culture reaches critical mass—a place where culture eclipses the natural world as the most important feature we must make something of. Somehow the city, the embodiment of concentrated human culture, has been transformed from the site of sin and judgment to the ultimate expression of grace, a gift coming “down out of heaven from God.”

Culture Making, p.122

excerpt Perfect boredom
from "La Vie D’Ennui," by Colin Bisst, Philosophy Now, February/March 2010 :: via Arts & Letters Daily

There’s something exquisite about boredom. Like melancholy and its darker cousin sadness, boredom is related to emptiness and meaninglessness, but in a perfectly enjoyable way. It’s like wandering though the National Gallery, being surrounded by all those great works of art, and deciding not to look at them because it’s a pleasure just walking from room to room enjoying the squeak of your soles on the polished floor. Boredom is the no-signal sound on a blank television, the closed-down monotone of a radio in the middle of the night. It’s an uninterrupted straight line.

Actually, my idea of boredom has little to do with wealthy surroundings. It’s about a certain mindset. Perfect boredom is the enjoyment of the moment of stasis that comes between slowing down and speeding up – like sitting at a traffic light for a particularly long time. It’s at the cusp of action, because however enjoyable it may be, boredom is really not a long-term aspiration. It’s for an afternoon before a sociable evening. It marks that point in a holiday when you’ve shrugged off all the concerns of work and home, explored the hotel and got used to the swimming pool, and everything has become totally familiar. ‘I’m bored’ just pops into your mind one morning as you’re laying your towel over the sunlounger before breakfast, and then you think ‘How lovely.’ It’s about the stillness and familiarity of that precise moment before the inevitable anxiety about packing up and heading back to God-knows-what.

from "The Music of Eternity," by David B. Hart, First Things, 5 October 2009

The symphony’s first movement—Feierlich, misterioso—announces in its opening bars, with their dark string oscillations and mournful horn melody, that this is sad music, twilight music, coming at the end of things; even the first great crescendo to which the opening builds is oddly elegiac, and yields to a lighter, more canorous, but still wistful middle section, which then in turn dissolves into a movingly melancholy D major theme.  The second movement is the scherzo, though whether music as drivingly propulsive as this initially is should still be called a scherzo is open to debate (is there such a thing as a “sublime scherzo”?).  Whatever the case, it is powerful music, moved along on driving string figures, which bracket an interlude of extraordinary sweetness, and it leads beautifully—almost by exhausting itself—into the adagio.  That final movement, with its opening, ascendingly chromatic theme—the Abschied theme—and its meltingly lyrical secondary themes, and its hugely dissonant climax, and then its final, artfully fragmentary descent into silence, is full of sorrow and rebellion and resignation and, finally, perfect peace.

There are some pieces of music that, by their nature, should remain unfinished.  No fourth movement that Bruckner could have composed this side of death would have fulfilled the deeper design that unfolded throughout all his work.  That last adagio is already so otherworldly, and so overflowing with a sweet hunger for God, and so deep a longing for the timeless within time, that only eternity could bring it to its proper completion.  And there are some artists who, by all rights, should write themselves into eternity.  Bach is obviously the most perfect example, leaving that final great fugue on B-A-C-H in Die Kunst der Fuge abruptly unfinished; one senses that it had to be taken beyond time in order to be made perfect.  But Bruckner too was an artist who required more of his art than time could supply.

excerpt Adoration

Praise God, men and women dressed in brown, carrying your lives on your backs. Praise God, street-side café with your goggle-eyed Chihuahua sign. Praise God, scrap metal horse. Praise God, basement shop full of silky foreign scarves.

Praise God, shoe store so proud of being in Collegetown since before you were born.

Praise God, little tattoo parlor with the brass sign on your inner door, Confessions, 3-5 pm.

More than once I’ve heard a worship leader say, “Worship is the only eternal thing we will do.” (A flattering thought if you’re a worship leader!) Without a doubt, our original purpose, and our eventual destination, is to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. But it is a great misreading of both Genesis and Revelation to suppose that the only way we will ultimately love God wholeheartedly will be through something like what happens in church on Sunday morning.

Culture Making, p.173

Culture, then, is the furniture of heaven ... It is simply not true, according to Isaiah and John—and according to the whole sweep of the biblical story from beginning to end—that “souls” are the only eternal things, or that human beings are all that last into eternity. To be sure, cultural goods without creators and cultivators would be inert and useless. But human beings, in God’s original intention and in their redemptive destination, cannot be separated from the cultural goods they create and cultivate at their best.

Culture Making, p. 170

from "How the city hurts your brain," by Jonah Lerner, The Boston Globe, 2 January 2009 :: via Crooked Timber

And yet, city life isn’t easy. The same London cafes that stimulated Ben Franklin also helped spread cholera; Picasso eventually bought an estate in quiet Provence. While the modern city might be a haven for playwrights, poets, and physicists, it’s also a deeply unnatural and overwhelming place.

Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting—that’s why Picasso left Paris—this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

“The mind is a limited machine,“says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. “And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”

One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil.

When the kings come marching in, then, they bring the best of their nations—even the cultural goods that had been deployed against God and his people. The final vision of the City is one filled, not just with God’s glory and presence, not just with his own stunningly beautiful architectural designs, not just with redeemed persons from every cultural background—but with redeemed human culture too.

—Richard Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem, p.24

from "The Island of the Misfit Toys Part II," by Makoto Fujimura, Refractions, 18 October 2008

Especially in evangelical circles, many will argue that earth is to be burnt up in the Judgment fire of God, and everything will be destroyed anyhow, so why worry about culture at all. Wright walks through this issue carefully in his book [Surprised by Hope], noting and clarifying many theological nuances deftly, correcting the knee-jerk anti-culture stance of the “Left Behind” theology. Even if you do not fully agree with all of his theological conclusions, his arguments are worth exploring.

I’ve always wondered why, for instance, in 2 Peter 3:10, it is not the earth that is burned up, but heaven. (“The heavens will disappear with a roar.”) And why 1 Corinthians 3 gives a resounding nod to the remarkable idea that even our works, and not only our souls, will remain after the Judgment. Further, as another theologian, Richard Mouw, points out in his wonderful book, When the Kings Come Marching in: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem, Isaiah 60 and Revelation seem to point to the final celebration of the coming of this new Reality, would have pagan Kings and secular ships sailing into the edges of New Jerusalem. In other words, cultural influencers of all types, whether classified as Christians or not, seem to end up joining the parade in some way. . . .

Culture shaping is not an escapist activity from our current woes: instead it is breathing life into the very ashes from our present and our past, and finding, with T.S. Eliot, “the still point of the turning world.” Generative creativity flows out of not just Eden, but out of this reality of “Life after Life after Death.” We can begin to deposit our efforts into the future, rather than hope to escape into our Edenic past. Our earth, no matter how bleak, is full of promise on this side of Easter. Heaven can invade into our art of life, right in the midst of our ground zeros.

And if the earth acts as a conduit of heaven, then this yeast-like hope can be worked into the dough of culture. Naturally, as I pondered Wright’s comments, I began to ask what if art is infused with heaven, what would that art look like? If true understanding of heaven is not mere escapism, but the physical manifestation of the “substance of things hoped for,” (Hebrews 11:1) then art needs to echo this promise into tangible reality. If Wright is correct, then even ephemeral expressions done in faith will remain etched in eternal reality, and somehow earth, all of earth, is fair game for heaven’s invasion. And every act, done in faith, will count.

from Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, 2004

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty to it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

The contents of the City will be more akin to our present cultural patterns than is usually acknowledged in discussions of the afterlife. Isaiah pictures the Holy City as a center of commerce, a place that receives the vessels, goods, and currency of commercial activity. . . . Isaiah is, in contemporary jargon, interested in the future of “corporate structures” and “cultural patterns.” And his vision leads him to what are for many of us very surprising observations about the future destiny of many items of “pagan culture.” He sees these items as being gathered into the Holy City to be put to good use there.

—Richard Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, p.20

Are we creating and cultivating things that have a chance of furnishing the New Jerusalem? Will the cultural goods we devote our lives to—the food we cook and consume, the music we purchase and practice, the movies we watch and make, the enterprises we earn our paychecks from and invest our wealth in—be identified as the glory and honor of our cultural tradition? Or will they be remembered as mediocrities at best, dead ends at worst? This is not the same as asking whether we are making “Christian” culture. “Christian” cultural artifacts will surely go through the same winnowing and judgment as “non-Christian” artifacts.

Culture Making, p.171

"Red Clay Halo," by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, from the abum Time (The Revelator), preformed here in a BBC broadcast from St. Luke's in London, 2 August 2004
Making the Best of It

It is interesting . . . to ask what Lewis thought about cities, those symbols of human social life. Wesley Kort avers, “While Lewis affirms the importance of social spaces that accommodate and stimulate the potentials of persons and grant to persons a sense of being a home, he offers no realistic models of social space equivalent to those he gives for personal spaces and open landscapes.” Compare also the testimonial of Helen Gardner, as Meilander introduces it: “Despite the fact that much of his [academic] work concerned the debt of English literature to the literature of the Renaissance, no vision of ‘cities, large and small, with splendid public monuments’ ever played a large role in his imagination. For Lewis, she suggests, the simple loyalties of the comitatus were never replaced by the more complex loyalties of the ‘city.’” . . .

London itself appears in the Narnia chronicles, but always as negative (particularly in The Magician’s Nephew, but it is also war-torn London from which the children must be sent away in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as well). All of the other cities in the Narnia chronicles are evil—from Charn to Calormen. Hell itself is a city in The Great Divorce, but Heaven is a countryside. I shall leave as homework for Lewis aficionados this question: does anything good happen in a city in any of Lewis’s writings? One wonders if C. S. Lewis himself stood in need of some imaginative conversion by the Bible’s own images of the New Jerusalem.

"Vista de la Biblioteca Vasconcelos," by Eneas (flickr), 25 June 2006
from Apology, chapter xxxix, by Tertullian (Rev. S. Thelwall, trans.), 197 A.D.

I shall at once go on, then, to exhibit the peculiarities of the Christian society, that, as I have refuted the evil charged against it, I may point out its positive good.  We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This violence God delights in. We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.