The church choir that I am section leader for has been invited to Carnegie Hall to sing a concert featuring a new choral work by Dan Forrest, LUX: The Dawn From On High (Lux being Latin for Light). While I won’t be going to Carnegie, for many reasons, having sung there before among them, I have loved learning the music with my choir. The crux of the piece talks about the importance of light, light as a blessing and a spiritual end result from a life- an abundance of light as a heavenly reward. The text of the piece from religious texts and comments on the end of one’s life being surrounded by light. It makes me think of a pre-electric age the importance of light and the power of the darkness. Restoration theaters had candle wick trimmers whose job it was to keep the candles burning throughout the performance. In New England, on the 19th of May 1780, is known as New England’s Dark Day where candles were needed from noon to midnight, so heavy was the cloud cover. Perhaps we still harbor that childhood fear of the dark and bathe ourselves in light to protect ourselves from the unknown. Is that the reason for the preponderance of light in the religious texts describing heavenly bliss? What would be better in the afterlife than the things that we lack in this life? With that thought in mind, it makes me wonder what would be the valued thing would be that would greet us in a contemporary afterlife. What would be our final blissful reward in heaven? In short, what would be the final reward to a culture that has reveled in abundance and immediacy in everything?
I woke up with a start, thinking of the corner on the NW corner of LaSalle & Monroe in Chicago, which is the Datum point for the city, the point in which of known or assumed coordinates from which calculation or measurements may be taken. In this point the intersection is the point from which all heights in the city are measured a point of common departure. I thought of this early that morning after an evening of talking and arguing with people of different ages and experiences than me.
We struggled at times to find a common ground or more frequently a common frame of reference in our experience. While people my own age could laugh at a reference to Gilligan’s Island the Love Boat anyone a few years younger had no idea what we were talking about. With people say 5 or 10 years older they had references that we could not begin to understand. It occurred to me that with media increasing our appetite for content we seem to digest information so fast that each generation may have its own vocabulary and may end up living in a constant state of now. As the current situation of immigrant child detention at the US border brought up references to the Nazi Holocaust, there may be a time when a reference to the Obama administration will have as much resonance as the Norman Invasion.
It was an odd conversation though maybe not considering that as a part of a choir from a Midwest Lutheran college staying with a born-again Christian host family on a choir tour in the mid-80’s. It was a discussion of faith and the line went something like this, There is a tightrope across two buildings and Jesus pushes a wheel barrel on the tightrope from one building, across the tightrope to building that you are standing atop. He says to you, “ See how I have walked from one building to another across the tightrope pushing this wheel barrel? Now, why don’t you get in the wheel barrel and I will take you back to the first building by walking the tightrope.”
Now while I enjoyed the idea of Jesus on the tightrope, the thrust of the argument was that if you just saw Jesus walk the tightrope with a wheel barrel, shouldn’t you have faith to trust that he could make the return trip with you in the wheel barrel. While we trust the other person to do something alone, when we are involved it seems to be another matter. This also seems to be the issue with the current discussion on self-driving cars – in a recent Washington Post article, Seventy-eight percent of respondents to an AAA survey said they would not want to ride in a self-driving car. While we can trust our credit cards, our social security numbers our addresses and other personal information such as emails and texts to the internet even trusting planes to autopilot, we dare not get into the car with an electronic stranger. Equifax has the falsely earned idea of our trust, but we can not entertain a computer piloting us through city streets. Strange how so much of our society can claim unswerving faith in a deity that will save our soul but have no faith in something that affects every aspect of our lives on a day-to-day basis.
I have been following the Facebook controversy where a photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in pain and terror after a napalm attack in an iconic Vietnam War photo. The controversy began after the editor of the Norwegian newspaper said he had received a demand from Facebook to remove the photo, which was in an article posted to his page. Within 24 hours, he said, Facebook removed the photo and the article itself. While there is a question of nudity, there is also a question of our tailoring our view of the past and possibly the future to suit our wants. I am reminded of Mrs. Jellyby, a character from Dickens, Bleak House, rich socialite obsessed with helping the neglected children in Africa while neglectful of her own children. Dickens describes her as having wonderful eyes that could see the starving children in Africa while unable to see the condition of her children at her feet. If we can remove a picture as it is, inappropriate due to nudity, what other reasons are there for us to remove content. Perhaps we would find pictures from the Holocaust too disturbing to be seen or video of Christine Chubbuck, a newscaster who committed suicide on camera too much to be online. While the latter has been removed due to the family’s wishes, there are many sites that will tell you the details of the incident while withholding the images. We still have a visceral appreciation of the event even if we don’t see it. But what about those images that contribute immeasurable value to our understanding like the photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese girl. Is this what do we do with things that are too difficult to see, will we also remove those images and posts or websites, in a way denying their existence? Could we become an electronic Mrs. Jellyby, seeing only the things that we want to see while ignoring others?
The other day, while reading Ian McNeelys book, Reinventing Knowledge, I came across an interesting passage. In discussing the history of knowledge he mentions how the medieval monasteries by writing and copying manuscripts not only saved much of intellectual thought from the ancient Greeks but also set a new president for discourse that issues could not only be explored through dialogue as the Greeks had done but that they could be written down and recorded, transported and discussed for ages. This change in media paradigm is one of the things that made the Renaissance possible and basically most of western civilization possible. So as we reconceive media we create enormous energy for change and transformation. I wonder where this explosion in communication will take us in the future? Will we have the presence to see it as an epic moment of change in the world or merely as a parlor trick to share videos of cats playing piano?
There is a Hebrew Legend that Yahweh created the humans because he loved stories. That reminded me of a college class on the Bible where we agreed on the definition of the Bible as the history of Gods interaction with mankind and the stories that came from that interaction. What will our social media stories be?- how will we define this history of our interaction with each other, the larger world and to some extent a God who is interested in our stories?