On Homemade Art and Stories

Beside my desk, on the wall to the right, hangs a work of art. It is four pieces of construction paper taped together with orange tape; each piece of paper is a different color. The art makes a sort of lopsided and sideways T, and it tells a story and invites the viewer into a world. Across the top is a railroad track, a restaurant below, a windmill and horse and — to the right, where the length of the sideways T extends, mountains and cars and a rocket. My daughter gave it to me on my birthday this year, in the way children have of giving you something they made, and I made a frame for this lopsided T of a picture, stained the wood, hung it beside my desk. It hangs as a reminder, as I write, to make worlds and tell stories. It reminds me, too, of something I would have made as a child. As children we are storytellers and story makers, and I wanted something to remind myself of that, and this was the perfect thing.

I know that “story” is a buzzword now, used in marketing and data analysis, politics and current events and, thankfully, even literary circles. I can’t help but wonder where story has grown so popular because of our loss of it as a culture: that is, the loss of a metanarrative and unifying story with unifying ethics, morals, a unifying telos or end of humanity and each person individually. That is, I am convinced the more society talks about anything — be it story, identity, or truth — it’s a good sign that we lack whatever we’re obsessed about, like a group of starving men and how they will, inevitably, fantasize about food. Our society does not have this unifying story, so we talk about stories without knowing what to do about them, but without a common story we don’t even have a common language to speak to one another.

But we cannot escape that we are storytellers, or we once were, as the picture on my wall asserts. And we know we want stories, we watch them many evenings or binge them on weekends. We also want them, I believe, for our own lives. Or rather, we have them for our lives whether we realize this or not, and we want control over them, and to squeeze the meaning out of them, to realize what this world with its commutes and coffee, email and exercise, sleep and lack thereof, is all for. Yet, we cannot pull our stories out of the ground, fresh and new and ready to take home. Instead, we find ourselves with an amalgam of stories already, bringing the stories of consumerism and success to stories of faith and religion, mixing them and wondering where the narrative lies.

Of course, the consumerist story is one of accumulation. I think of buying a pair of running shoes: I could spend a week’s worth of work on this activity, researching reviews and materials, as if this buying decision somehow validates me. Or, if you’re not a researcher but more of a spender, I think of the evidence of accumulation in our garages and closets, and that self-storage is a $38 billion industry in the U.S. That’s about twice that of the entire music industry in our country. 

And if you are not accumulating products, we are desperate to accumulate experiences, or that seems to be the case form the modest amounts of time I spend on Facebook or Instagram, where our status is measured by the meals we eat and the trips we take. I rarely see posts sitting in meetings or answering emails, which are two activities that take up enormous amounts of my day. This is another story, and a distinctly American one, as if our highest end is to enjoy — or the pursuit of happiness.

This colors my faith, and if I have enough savvy to avoid thinking of God as Santa Claus, which I sometimes do, it’s easy to think of him as therapist or life coach, someone who exists so that I can be fully empowered, fully myself. But whatever truth there is to this, my vision of being fully myself generally falls into one of the consumerist and accumulation camps, with a vocation thrown in for good measure: I no longer have to worry about finances, or meetings and emails, and I have time to write, to sit outside on long mornings enjoying coffee, to philosophize. I find it strange that God isn’t more focused on my own empowerment and, the idea that we often confuse with empowerment, comfort.

A story begins, as I remember a professor telling me in grad school, with what a character wants. Specifically, she said, “To find a story, find someone who wants something and can’t have it.” This is partially why the consumerist-accumulation story is so dissatisfying, apart from deeper issues of what makes a human satisfied: it’s too easy. Any story that can be solved by cutting back at Starbucks and saving up isn’t one that will win our hearts. So, it shouldn’t guide our lives, either.

Think of your favorite stories. I reread For Whom the Bell Tolls this year and was reminded how Robert wanted to fight for freedom and win the war, but he really wanted love. I was recently brought to tears by The Color Purple when Celie’s sister Nettie, who we thought was lost, comes home. The scene was a resurrection, a yearning for life. 

A character wants something. This is where I see the story can diverge from wanting new running shoes and into the realm of faith. After all, this is the question Jesus asks again and again of almost everyone he meets: “What do you want me to do for you?” James K.A. Smith writes that this is the fundamental question of discipleship: what do you want? He goes on to write that our wants and longings are at the core of our identities, but I would amend his statement to say that are what launch our stories. To paraphrase Donald Miller, if we want the kingdom, we live a very different story than if we want a Lexus. Good literature does this. I quoted just two books I read recently, both old books, because good literature re-orients our desires to what is real and true or, if a tragedy, warns us away from those desires that will destroy us. Good stories are not about saving up for new cars, or if they are, the author knows the car means much, much more than a conveyance.

And this idea finally makes sense of the C.S. Lewis quote that we love to bandy about without knowing exactly what it means: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…We are far too easily pleased.” We are too easily pleased because if we do not want enough, we do not live a true and beautiful story. 

There is nothing more serious than a story. We need such stories to re-orient ourselves toward what is real in this world, toward our deepest desires, so that we can live true, good stories. There is much to thinking about the stories we are living but it starts with this: What do you want? So it becomes a circle. We drink stories to orient our desires, and our desires shape our stories, our real stories in the here and now. 

The picture hangs to my left so I remember this, and I remember it, and I remember it. I grew up drawing such pictures and telling such stories — stories of love and hope, of sacrifice and, yes, violence. Today, I want to tell such stories because they are true, because they tell us what is most real in this world, but mostly because I see my desires drift from beauty and love to a new pair of running shoes far too easily. I want to desire more, because my desires shape the story I’m living. I want to live a story of beauty and truth and goodness, of hope and sacrifice and even pain in the cause of the kingdom. But I cannot get there, I cannot get my desires high enough, without a story to reorient me — even if it’s the thick and lopsided story that a seven year old drew hanging beside my desk. 

We Demand Windows

What then is the good of — what is even the defence for — occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feeling which we should try to avoid having in our own person?…The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and selectiveness peculiar to himself…We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own…We demand windows.

C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

On art and its importance

If writers work to bring words to what is, and if we cannot know something until we have the words for it, what about all of art? There is communication outside of words that stirs us and moves us. If the dancer could use words, she may, but words are not able to express what she feels.

So she dances.

Other forms of art, the purely visual, musical, dance, sculpture: these do not help us build mental houses the way words can; rather, they help us first to feel. They may not stop here, but they certainly offer a feeling, an experience. Stories are the same, as they don’t give simple answers or solutions to problems, but they help us experience the problem. They are a shared experience.

The same is true with visual art, with performance art. These are shared experiences that help us feel what the composer or artist or performer has felt. They are moments of connection. We crowd around paintings or sit through performances to experience sadness, hope, beauty: the things that make us human.

Those cultures that lose art lose their humanity.

On the importance of words

On Sunday it was cold, and we all huddled in the living room close to the fire. I played the piano, and Brooke read. At one point, our ten year old asked if I had written words to the song I played. I said yes. Macia, who is seven, followed with another question: “Did you write the piano words?”

We laughed at this phrasing, but it rings as truth now. Children have an economy of words because of their lack, and this economy demands creativity. Thus, children are artists because they are creating mental constructs at all times, and they are finding and making new connections.

These mental constructs of how the world is — these are formed and reinforced with the words a person knows. This means that as we face new constructs, we need old, familiar words with which to engage them. It also means that, when we have no mental construct, or no words for something, that something may as well not exist.

The writer works, then, to bring existence to the world, to give words to what is so that we can know it is.

Identity and Instagram

Part I is here.

We live in an age of expression. Think of Instagram or Facebook: the former is supposedly worth $100 billion; the latter worth more. These are platforms existing, primarily, for individuals to express themselves. Yes, companies have found ways to monetize the platforms, thus giving them value, but the monetization is simply a sign of the platform’s power. We are desperate to express ourselves.

This is a human need, of course, to voice our thoughts. We’ve listened to songs and read poetry for thousands of years, and social media simply opens the playing field to all. You don’t need to afford parchment, not to mention the huge expense of education, to gain an audience. Even a lute, I’ve heard, can be tough to come by (you have to know people).

I realize our inner expression, the navel gazing, we may pin to Petrarch, who climbed up Mount Ventoux simply for the joy of it, but came down focused on his own soul: “Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again.” He had been reading Augustine’s Confessions, quite famously, and concluded that this inward gazing was more important than the joys of the view.

But where was I before Petrarch got in the way? The age of expression, where our thoughts and reactions are paramount. Yet, if society most longs for that which it most lacks, we don’t lack avenues for expression, or even what to say. Again, we lack knowledge of who we are. We must express our identity; otherwise it does not exist.

Expression, however, is not enough. We cannot yell into a void. We must be heard, acknowledged by those near us that we are who we say. This is no different from ancient networks of identity, which have always been reliant on others and our place in a community, although the degradation of our modern networks (see Part I) means that we need self-forming communities to tell us who we are. As we lack these, we search for anyone to listen and acknowledge what we say about ourselves. If we’re refused such acknowledgement, we claim those who don’t hear or don’t support and praise our identities do us violence. But, those faraway from our lived experience have never given us identity: humans gain their identities from close relationships.

We have replaced tight-knit human communities with online interactions, and in doing so we have moved from the relational to the transactional. Yet, a transaction — whether someone liking or post or even acknowledging our right to claim a certain identity, cannot tell us who we really are. 

Yet we each, post by post, are shouting who we are and desperate for someone to agree.


We went skiing yesterday. Our youngest, who is seven, fell on her first run and her confidence evaporated. She has been skiing before, and she has done well before — for a seven year old who has been skiing a few times. After her fall, I held my pole out to brake her and guide her, but she broke into tears as our gentle beginning run gained a modicum of steepness. I felt sad for her, for her fear.

Fear, I have heard, is our most primal emotion. It may be our first emotion, fear and shock, as we are pulled from out mother’s wombs and feel the coldness and startling light of a hospital room.


If Psalm 1 seems naive and moralistic, Psalm 2 reads as false to our modern minds. A brief summary: the rulers and peoples set themselves against God, and yet these people are shackled by the God they are set against. God shrugs them off, declaring the king he has set in Zion. This king will possess the earth, break the nations like a potter’s vessel. So, kings and rulers ought to serve the Lord with fear and trembling. His wrath is quickly kindled, but blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is far from the easy spirituality of our western world, whether Christian or “spiritual but not religious” or the reserved Judaism you see portrayed in films, or even eastern religions, a dash here or there thrown into the soup of individualistic American religion for — good measure? To cover all the bases? Just in case?

The psalm asserts God’s rule and reign, and anticipates a messiah, as no king of Israel ever ruled the entire earth. But if God watches over the righteous and will not let the wicked stand, as we saw in psalm 1, why is our experience so different? Why does it often feel like the king has abdicated, and the world is left spinning with no one at the wheel? Apart from the judgmental language of psalm 2, it at least promises someone in control.

In fact, in the circles I inhabit, these promises of God’s control land on someone’s lips at precisely the time it doesn’t seem like God is in control at all, like some vapid incantation. I think of friends who struggled for years to get pregnant and the pain they felt from the church. But, of course, God is in control. That’s the problem then, isn’t it?


On that first run, we didn’t let our daughter loose. She was skiing with her grandpa, and what greater gift is there for a grandpa, or a granddaughter, than sharing an interest? I don’t know what happened, but they fell. They, of course, lost control. And for a seven year old, that fall broke her confidence so fear could come rushing in and overwhelm her.

She could not ski without tears on the next run down, because she was afraid. I promised her she would not fall.


There are three characters in this psalm. God, his anointed, and the rulers or peoples: the nations rebelling against God. The problem with this is that old sleight of hand to access a story, and to identify yourself with one of the characters. The first is out, and the second — I haven’t yet been able to assert my dominion over the earth, despite my best efforts. What if I am the one kicking and trying to throw off the shackles? What if I am not the tree in psalm 1 but part of the chaff, and my anger and ego need to be shackled?

I know before we went skiing, as we tried to pack the car and leave the house, my anger and impatience ticks upward. This happens on every trip, as if my unspoken timeline and agenda for leaving the house is the only thing that matters, and my wife’s desire to return to a clean house is in the way.

I always try to kick against that shackle.


I think of the psalms, arranged during the exile and after, and how psalm 2 would have been discordant. Yet, much of the Bible is discordant with our modern sensibilities, and even much of ancient storytelling, with its happy endings and reunifications. Only in modern times have we grasped that stories, if they are to reflect life, need to end ambiguously and in a sort of twilight, because we get little more than this in our own lives.

What have we lost with this? Faith, for one. Even more, our stories and poems have lost a telos, a purpose for our lives because of the way things our, and we are all now to create our own purpose. The psalms do not let us off so easily. God is in control, and history is moving toward a certain end. And we know, as the arrangers of this book knew, that there are scores of psalms left to complain and wonder about God’s distance, absence, and lack of control. But here, the second psalm and often seen as one of the two opening psalms that set the tone for the entire book: we do not simply see God’s control. We see who we are to be and become, just as in psalm 1.

Serve and celebrate. Be part of this royal order. As we serve with fear, this isn’t our classic fear on a ski run, but fear in a sense of respect and awe. Profound reverence. We end the psalm with what we ought to do, as the psalm often will, not mucking about in metaphysical meanderings. Rather than wondering how God can have control when it does not seem like it, we’re called to be part of this kingdom.

Find the confidence that this telos, this way of life brings: only when you lean into the pole and trust can you begin to see what, or who, might be in control after all. This way of life will not translate to no falls on the ski hill or miraculous pregnancies, but a way forward with purpose and hope and grounding. These are rare in our world.

Also, don’t kick against the shackles.

Purpose of Stories

Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots:

Each [plot] begins by showing us a hero or heroine who is in some way incomplete, who then encounters the dark power…the essence of the action is that it shows us the light and dark forces gradually constellating to produce a final decisive confrontation. As a result, in any story which reaches complete resolution…the ending shows us how the dark power can be overthrown, with the light ending triumphant. The only question is whether the central figure is identified with the light, in which case he or she ends up liberated and whole; or whether they have fallen irrevocably into the grip of darkness, in which case they are destroyed.

Booker explains how this urge toward light and wholeness is why we tell stories in the first place: not as entertainment, or escape, or even to simply make sense of the world. They are devices to lead us toward wholeness and light.

His analysis is fascinating, despite my personal reservations with identifying one reason for an occurrence. I know of few phenomenons caused by one factor, and many caused by a multitude. Yet, a Jungian analysis of stories and how they entice and urge us toward wholeness shows their psychological power — why we feast on them, whether through movies or television or books, or the story of a sports team or player, or simply the story a friend is telling — and how conservative they ultimately are. The bad guy loses, the good guy wins, and the morals of compassion or learning disciplined strength are endemic. That is, they are not morals in a Three Little Pigs sense, but we simply don’t experience many stories at all where the bad guy wins, or where the hero or heroine doesn’t show compassion. Stories are moral devices even in the 21st century.


Each night, after we have gone through the routines of bedtime, and after Brooke and I have gone downstairs to talk, or read, or watch television, one of our girls comes down. She explains how she is ready to turn off her light, because we let them read past the initial bedtime, and wants a back scratch and a song.

I feel slightly annoyed to be interrupted like this. Yet, either I or my wife goes upstairs and offers a song and back scratch to one, and then the other girl. They are seven and ten, and whenever I go, and especially when I rub the back and sing to our ten year old, I wonder how much longer I will be gifted this.

Soon, she will not want these.


Psalm 1 lays out a simplistic moral ethic: blessed is the man who is not wicked, but meditates on the law of the Lord. It seems little more than an arithmetic problem, or debits and credits, and has the crude simplicity we would teach a kindergartner. The righteous man is a tree; the wicked are like chaff, blown by the wind.

The righteous: “On [God’s] law he meditates day and night.”

First, the law. I think of it as rules and requirements, the ancient Jewish code of living. Yet Samuel Terrien writes:

“The Torah is really gospel, for it proceeds from pure grace when it invites man and woman to fulfill the divine design on earth…its diurnal and nocturnal meditation did not represent submission to a rigid discipline or an obligation of abstract obedience, but it blossomed forth as a willing manifestation of gratitude to the extended hand of God” (Terrien, 73).

God’s hand extended, and the law is both invitation and gratitude. Perhaps an invitation to experience the wonder of divine life, and the gratitude therein.

Meditating on this did not simply mean memorizing, or reading, or listening to the text. Rather, it came from the gut. I meditate sometimes in the early morning, before my wife is awake, when I am stunned at how I got her, and how she carries the beauty and compassion and peace that I want to carry. The feeling starts in my chest and catches in my throat. This is meditation. A hushed sigh. Or, on the other side, a groan. This may come at a realization of my own brokenness and selfishness, or at the absurd selfishness of our world.

Sometimes, my wife says, she simply has to cry. This is the meditation the psalmist refers to, the feeling that rumbles through our bodies and erupts inarticulately.

I long for the divine life, whatever it is. I am alternatively blind or frustrated at the unblemished promises of such a life and my own scratching existence.

The closest I can come is this. I must watch. Watch for this divine invitation in the tedium of some days, in the messiness of this life, which seems to slip out of my control every moment. I must watch in the early morning when I wake before my wife, when I have a cup of coffee and the sun colors the sky pink in the east, when I cannot escape work on a Tuesday and miss my book group, when I feel irrationally angry or happy or melancholy. I must watch with ancient texts drumming in my head, or modern novels, or whatever can root me in this moment and this longing, whatever can make me awake to the extended hand of god.

Rooted in the moment: the psalm tells of how the righteous is like a tree. Trees in the Bible, of course, take us back to Eden. We see this most clearly how the curse came through a tree, as Adam and Eve ate the fruit they were not meant to, and its reversal through a tree, though one fashioned by the Romans for Christ to climb. The tree acts as a symbol of the world made right. Whether the Bible has colored the Western mind, which it has to be sure, or whether this is an evolutionary, archetypal symbol, I don’t know. I know gardens and trees are in almost every great story, and often represent a place of wholeness and connectedness, from the olive tree that makes Odysseus’s bed to Jane Eyre encountering Rochester in a garden.

Gardening takes attention and time. My youngest daughter planted a few seeds in cups, and they sit on her bathroom window. She forgets to water them, but I remember. Three of the four have sprouted, and even then my watering seems to have gone on for the last six months, though it can’t be more than a few weeks. The lifespan of a single summer is tortuously slow for a vegetable or flower garden, let alone the lifespan of a tree. Yet, cultivating such a tree or such a life requires nothing more than attention and time.

Watch, and do it again.

Every night when one of the girls come down, I don’t want to go upstairs. I can’t recall a night I wanted to stop what I was doing. Yet, I go. I sing and scratch their backs, and I hope that I am creating in them a posture of receptivity and loved-ness; I hope I am creating connection between me and them. I know, however, that I need to go because it is an invitation to something that I cannot explain, a divine invitation, to watch and wonder at fatherhood or parenthood or love. I don’t have the word for it.

Each night is a divine invitation to cultivate a life I both experience and hope to have.


“Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different.’ The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well…The great thing about language is that you can just as easily do the opposite: convince people that they are the same.”

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

The beauty of art, and the way that it connects with people, is that it often transcends language. Or, even better, it seems like it was written in my language: the song that describes just how I feel; the painting that helps me see something familiar in a new way.

Even with a novel: in a good one, I find myself thinking like the narrator. I use the same language. The novelist has so successfully cleared the language barrier that I have identified with the story by using the same words as the narrator.

Art, then, attempts to transcend language. The artist is attempting to reverse that mythological Tower of Babel, when differing languages spread people all over the earth, and we have sought for an answer since.

On Identity and Hiking

I like to think myself cultured, and this means I check the news and have opinions on it, and I read books, both old and new.

One of the books I’m reading is The Seven Basic Plots, a tome attempting to not only condense stories into their seven archetypal plots, but to answer why we tell stories in the first place. Coupling this book with the daily news, which disseminates content by telling stories, drives me to an exercise less about identifying plots and more about identifying wants and needs.

Stories, of course, begin with these wants and these needs. A man needs to get home from war: we have The Odyssey. A woman wants a loving, exciting relationship. Anna Karenina. A man wants to catch the white whale. Moby Dick.

What do the news stories say about us? What is our collective story based on the headlines?

Many of the headlines are about power, and who has it and who doesn’t. Underneath this, however, and coinciding with the stratification of politics and society, is a constant need to say who aligns with who.

For thousands of years, two primary factors have helped us understand who aligns with who: religion and proximity. The former rooted a person in a specific story, with a specific understanding of what’s gone wrong and how to overcome it. Christianity points to original sin and the need for redemption. Buddhism points to our ceaseless wanting and the need to overcome it by detachment. Religion gives its adherents practices to embody, and these practices both reinforce the story and bind the adherents together.

Proximity, or better, community – whether via religion, the state, the family, or all three – gives people a chance to see themselves in the whole. Again, in the frame of story, my gifts complement the character next to me, whether brother or wife or neighbor, as we work together for the common good. This common good often meant taking up arms against the city nearby coming to attack, or sharing our bounty because we’ll need someone to share with us next year. Communities had a common destiny: what I did affected what would happen to you.

Over the second half of the 20th century, these longstanding edifices finally crumbled. They had been tottering for some time. Religion dutifully exited the public square, both pushed out and willingly setting up its own bookstores and culture apart from the mainstream, and ended reduced to the realm of personal piety.

With rising incomes and insurance, we no longer have a common destiny with our neighbors. Accompany this with advances in technology and travel, and Americans are more transient than ever – and even less bound to their neighbors and a common destiny. We are half a continent away from our families, and even the glue of water-cooler gossip has weakened as teammates work from homes thousands of miles away.

Not that I am a Luddite, or too much of one. I like the ability to occasionally work from home. Water cooler communities  were only ever the few small bricks holding this idea of a shared destiny together, anyway. They were signs of its imminent collapse.

Yet, these changes lead us to where we are today: self-formed communities based on overlap of our own personalized, individual “good.” We identify with those who identify with us and form communities as a result. This leads to the rise of identify politics – self formed communities based on identity. Identity politics have and are serving a purpose when they give voice to the voiceless. Nonetheless, self-forming communities lack the diversity and resilience of those old-time communities that religion and proximity could create, especially with the shared destinies they provided.

Today, if my neighbor goes hungry, what is that to me? This is a new phenomenon in the world.

The deeper spiritual malady behind such self-formed communities is that they lack resilience and are ever-changing. We don’t have shared stories, and when we lose our shared stories we actually lose our foundation, our roots. We don’t understand where to go or what to do: how to live out our stories.

We don’t know who we are.

This is why our news stories are hyper-focused today on who aligns with who. We lack identity. We need to know with whom we align so we can know who we are. What is our shared outcome. To put it another way, society most longs for that which it most lacks. Like a group of hikers on trail too long who cannot stop talking about cheeseburgers and pie, we cannot stop talking about who we are because we have no idea.