As some of you may or may not know – in addition to enjoying taking photos and film, I also write music. One particular album that’s coming up touches on a topic that is very near and dear to my heart:
It’s called The Silent God.
As the title somewhat suggests, it’s a fairly pessimistic and harsh record… But it’s a very honest record. It’s an honest attempt to express a lot of the doubt and the pain that I feel like I’ve been unable to confide and put down coherently in the form of words. I’d like to think of this album and these thoughts like this portrait:
I think this portrait taken of Marilyn Monroe by Richard Avedon speaks volumes about our own selves. Avedon himself reminisces, “There was no such person as Marilyn Monroe … [She was] invented, like an author creates a character.” When we think of Monroe, we think of the flashiness and the glamour and her influence as a pop culture icon. The statue, “Forever Marilyn,” where she is, in contrast, pushing down her skirt with a breezy smile and a laugh might suggest that everything in her world is right and carefree. But it’s all a facade.
The portrait captures a moment in which Monroe has let down her guard: her shoulders are slumped, almost as if she carries the weight of all her pains and the weight of her world. Her face carries no trace of the carefree laughter and optimism, but her face is one that recognizes the chaos and the turmoil of life. It is a moment of vulnerability, albeit unintentional, which we see a glimpse behind the mask that she and society built up to cover up all the flaws and ugly hurt.
Let this be a moment of vulnerability… Perhaps not just for me, but for both of us.
There is a famous speech by Carl Sagan titled, Pale Blue Dot, surrounded around this image which is, “one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size.”
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves…”
We wage war over wealth for the greed of corrupt men, over poisonous nationalistic pride, for misplaced zeal. We spill innocent blood and show no regard for human lives, only regarding them as petty numbers in advancement of political agenda.
Billions of lives wasted, billions of lives lived, billions of lives buried.
We are born to die.
We eat. We sleep. We work. We fall in love. We break up. We hurt.
And for what?
Imagined self-importance in this vast vacuum of space, cycling through billions and billions of faces.
To be forgotten forever by generations to come, just as generations before us were.
Above the Earth, Mark Tobey, 1953
This is an piece that I saw in the Art Institute of Chicago and I was taken aback – the airiness of the light grays and the pale blues make you feel like you’re suspended, as the title suggests, above the Earth.
Floating. Drifting. Endlessly.
Everything looks so strange and different up here, so amorphous and indistinct. And to think that this pale blue dot we call home is so vast to us, but so little in comparison to what surrounds it is incredibly surreal…
We’re confronted with the finitude of our existence, and perhaps our futility as well.
Which is why perhaps, the question of a benevolent God arises.
Where is he? If he is, why isn’t he doing anything about what’s going on?
Anyone who naively says that everything is okay in the world is a fool:
You look at the nations raging against one another, the genocides, the racism and the sexism, the systemic oppression set by governments, at bigotry and injustice done.
Can you honestly tell me that you can look at all this and there isn’t a twinge of doubt in your heart? That your faith is strong enough for your heart not to break or to be disturbed that things like this are happening?
Can you NOT doubt God after seeing all this?
And maybe your faith is strong, and that is a blessing, a gift.
But my faith is weak.
It’s not strong enough to withstand the thought of mothers having to drown their babies as reprieve, nor is it strong enough to stand the thought of gentrification of already oppressed and discriminated people groups.
It’s not strong enough to withstand the news of school shootings and terrorizing.
…How could I believe in a loving and good God when all this goes on?
Inventions of the Monsters1937
This painting has somewhat of an ominous character, which is evident from the color palette and forms chosen to be the subjects of the piece. This painting was created in 1937, as Dali’s Catolina was aflame and caught in the crossfire of the Spanish Civil War, and you can tell. There is incredible tension in how the subjects interact, like how the two figures interact in the bottom left, and the anthropomorphic figures in the pit behind seemingly writhing. Even the background is fraught with terror and anxiety, as the mountains there are aflame and a giraffe walks toward us blazing, caught on fire.
And indeed, these monstrous apparitions terrify us. Yet, we somehow know that the world that Dali paints in this piece is not a foreign world, but it is our world. A world full of humans.
No monsters live under our beds, nor do they hide in our closets, waiting to prey upon an unsuspecting child, nor are monsters conjured up through ancient magic rites.
Our monsters are ourselves – and no night-light or spell can ever dispel our dark.
The monsters we see on the news very much look like us, and they are us. Our own inventions are killing and destroying us.
This is not the way the world should be… we intuitively know this. Wars and rumors of wars, death, suffering, pain, these things all cripple us.
So what are we to do on this pale blue dot?
Zeng Ve Svetle, Frantisek Drtikol
I think it’s appropriate that this album comes out in the Advent season – especially as we meditate on the persons of Mary and Jesus.
Let’s dwell upon Mary first…
And let’s set the scene: the time of Mary is a time of political strife, as Israel slowly lost the autonomy they once so had and regained through the Maccabean Revolts. And the Jews are hoping for the political liberator and king that will rise up from the lineage of David to come and shatter the hand of the Roman Empire.
But that’s not what happens:
God himself comes down from the lofty heavens to be incarnated, not in a marble palace in the Roman Empire nor in a prosperous and cozy family of the Jewish High Priest, but in a poor, peasant refugee girl.
To not be borne in riches and poverty and glory, but in meekness and in humility.
Not to be powerful and strong, but to be weak and small.
And Mary… the Protestant circles do her little justice.
Imagine her fear and trembling as she’s told that she will bear a child, God himself, as a virgin especially in an extremely patriarchal society, just imagine the thoughts that must run through her head,
“What will people think of me?”
“What will Joseph think of me?”
“What’s going to happen to me?”
But she accepts in faith, despite everything, “Let everything that you said happen to me.”
A twelve-year old refugee girl – the Mother of God.
The Mother of God who will have to run away from her home so that her baby son won’t be slaughtered.
The Mother of God who will undoubtedly face furtive and judgmental glances because of her growing belly.
The Mother of God who, knowing she will face hardship and pain, accepts the will of God with Grace and truth.
She, by faith, defying reason and circumstance, chooses to have hope.
Christ and the Lamb, Jeff Koons, 1988
This is a particularly interesting piece… Its medium is gilded wood and mirror – the gilded wood makes up the shadows of the child Christ and the Lamb, but what’s fascinating is what makes up the flesh.
As we gaze into the piece, we also gaze into ourselves – we see ourselves reflected in Christ and his work done as the Lamb:
He suffers with us, he was tempted as us, he was beaten, and bruised, and tried like us…
And for me, that’s an oddly comforting reminder.
That we’re not alone, floating in space on this pale blue dot.
That the God of the Universe and of sprays of stars and chocolate and love came down to this tiny pale blue dot to be with us and to redeem our brokenness.
I don’t think we’ll ever know reasons to why we suffer or why there’s so much brokenness in the world: but Christ promises to suffer with us.
And sometimes, that is enough.
“I believe, help me in my unbelief,” is more so like, “I don’t believe, help me in my unbelief.” But I trust that he’ll be enough to get us by.
And it’s not enough forever, but it’s enough knowing that everything will be redeemed in the end. That former things like death and suffering will pass away, and there’ll be no tears, no crying, no more pain.
No more death.
No more mental illness.
No more crippling anxiety.
No more depression.
No more trauma.
No more rape.
No more assault.
No more injustice.
So we look eagerly to that day, just as the Jews eagerly awaited their Messiah to come and liberate them.
And the Son liberates us in suffering with us.
And we grow in his silence, leaning into each other more, leaning into him more, on this cold, cruel pale blue dot.
In silence, we will push forward with quiet grace, enough for today.
And we shall love.
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