Publicity, Celebrity, and Salvation

Like some other people my age, I have been trying to sift through my thoughts and writings to trace the threads that have become the enduring fabric of my way of thinking about things. One of the themes that keeps reappearing, especially in these disorienting and dangerous times, is the way people’s longing for “publicity” has become a vessel for earlier religious searches for “salvation.” I spent a good deal of time chewing this idea over in my reflections some thirty years ago in God’s Federal Republic, where I laid out how we might re-interpret the traditional Christian symbol of “kingdom of God,” in the light of our actual commitment to federal republics with democratic participation in pursuit of the common good.

Instead of the early Christian prioritization of humility, obedience, and self-denial (with their sins of pride and self-assertion), I proposed that we think about how our language for participation in a wider public of justice and divine creativity might better express the ancient Biblical longing for God’s order of righteousness and shalom. In ancient and medieval times this vision of “the Kingdom of God” supported the legitimacy of the Kingdoms of Europe as if they reflected this divine order. In our own times a vision of democratic, republican government within a constitutional order has become the touchstone of legitimate governance. How, then, might we better think of it from a religious and theological standpoint? The language of “publicity” offered one element in this rethinking.

“By “publicity” I meant the acts of making ourselves visible before others who also are engaged with us in trying to sustain and improve our common life and the world we share. Becoming “public” in this sense presumed a common world with others with whom we were in conversation and argument. This public life of argument was held together by covenants, constitutions, and compacts governing us through law.

The traditional language of humility, obedience and pride had been inextricably tied up with a model of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus to the will of God the Father. This image of hierarchy and obedience became the model for just governance by monarchs throughout the medieval world. It still shapes much of Christian thought and worship. However, I was seeking a language and set of symbols more in line with our commitment to the longing for a more perfect federal republic.

I was aware even then of the distorted forms of narcissistic “publicity” that were emerging in the fevers of media celebrity and fame, but I knew of only some visionaries like Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media) who were trying to describe what electronic global communication might produce. It is now clear that the longing for public recognition, unconnected to actual publics of mutual accountability, threatens to destroy the arduous two-centuries old republic in which I live. Now a “celebrity” detached from the actual publics in which politicians have acted within a constitutional framework has brought this distorted vision to a pinnacle of power. The anti-politics of “celebrity” threatens to undermine the very culture of constitutional civic republicanism that has guided us for two centuries.

When I originally proposed that we rethink salvation in the language of republics and “publicity,” I knew that it was an “eschatological” vision that pushes us beyond the known conditions of life in this world. Since there is no perfect publicity in this world, our longing always includes a thrust toward a radically new order. I also believed, and still do, that this “salvation” of publicity was only a saving power within a particular public of mutual accountability and care for a common creation. The Christian public, originally known as an “ecclesia” (assembly), was a little public that could and should contain, nurture, and manifest this deep anticipation of a life when we could fully entrust ourselves to each other and embrace the very source of our being, namely God.

Like the sin of pride that accompanied the earlier virtue of humility and obedience, the sin of “celebrity fame” accompanies the longing for true publicity. It is this sin, this evil, into which we have been led in a media world that threatens to eclipse the republics and constitutions that have been the vessels of our longing for a saving publicity.

Well, this is all a very short-handed effort to rehearse what I have been thinking for thirty years! Right now, with the very expression of pure celebrity narcissism seeking to displace the publicity of republic and democratic constitutionalism, we need to think about it theologically as well as politically. As Americans (and this goes in various ways for many others) we have never worked out a way to speak theologically in the language of our project of republican and democratic constitutionalism. If we can learn better to express how civic “publicity” is related to our longing for salvation we might begin to reclaim the ways local communities of mutual accountability and care can offer a way out of the unconstrained digital celebrity which threatens to devour our public life.

If you’ve read this far, I want to thank you. I’d appreciate any reflections that might guide us toward a greater light.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Go Forth in Joy

From time to time my interest in prayers and litany for worship has led me into song, at least the words if not some efforts at a melody. Scott Taylor, our Director of Music and Worship Arts at our church, asked me to write some new words for Easter to the familiar tune of HYFYRDOL. With Sylvia’s gold and white “Bright Morning Star” banners shining at the front of the church, we sang it in closing, a brass ensemble joining us to sparkle the air. Now we move on to Earth Day in a resurrection spirit for this magnificent and threatened world that is our home.


Posted in Poetry and Songs, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment

Pay Attention

As I was working over my recent poems I became more aware than ever that they arise from the simple act of paying attention. If I’m asked again about what enables me to write my poetry, I will start and end with saying “pay attention.” No matter how good or bad your hearing, touch or eyesight is, pay attention to whatever they are revealing about the world without and within you.

Paying attention is, in a way, much easier when you are out in the desert, as we were in (New) Mexico, because there are fewer demands, it seems, on your senses. You can open up to the little that there seems to be around you, only to find that there is more than you ever imagined. Moreover, the so-called wilderness gives you sensory space to pay attention to what is inside you. This is surely one reason that people have gone out into the desert to be closer to more ultimate realities—still small voices, burning bushes, beatific visions.

Or else they have gone on a long walk through unfamiliar territory, unshackled from daily routines, voices, sights, and obligations. They take what we often call a pilgrimage. Around here, they decide to walk the Appalachian Trail, all 2,060 miles of it. And then some of them write a book about it. While we were out in desert country Sylvia and I read each day from my friend Newton Smith’s new collection of poems written while he was on the Camino de Santiago de Frances, the famous route to Santiago de Campostelo in northern Spain and Basque country. It’s called Camino Poems (Argura Press, 2016).

Each day, each poem, was simply an exercise in paying attention—to stones, flowers, strangers, birds. And yes, to fatigue, pain, awe, and gratitude. It became a daily reading. We were able to walk with Newt and pay attention, though we had no blisters and sore knees to focus our attention even more.

We live in a society of distractions. Paying attention, like mindfulness, is harder than ever. Maybe that is why our public conversations are so frazzled by the lies and spin of other voices. Images flood our vision in airports, lounges, hotels, and even in our doctors’ offices. We can’t pay attention to the rusted machines that would tell us our failure, the sign held out beside the stoplight asking for a job, the sparrows that return to build their nest again within the downspout’s bend. Or, indeed, to pay attention to our dreams, a mason’s careful stonework on a wall, the wan smile of a waitress as you thank her for her help.

I know there’s more—how we think about this thing we’ve paid attention to, what treasury of images we bring to its side, how we match it up with the music of our words, the accents, cadence and the onomatopoeia of our language. But it’s the act of paying attention that is the spirituality of poetry, its soul, what makes it start and run. Books like Camino Poems help lead us into that life. I tell you, it would be a good place to start. Even without the blisters.


Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Crystal Bridges

A stunning museum of American art in the Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas? Well, get used to it. We tried to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2014 but the great ice storm Titan ditched (so to speak) our plans. This year, under gray skies but no ice, we made it. You must go. The life-long dream of Alice Walton, of Walmart lineage, it is an accomplishment of architecture, art, ecology, and education nestled in a ravine in her family’s home of Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is still headquartered amid an exploding metropolis of subsidiary businesses and industries.

My attention was first caught by the cb-bldgs-web architectural work of Moshe Safdie, the world-renowned architect who had also designed the buildings at Hebrew College that came to share the hill with Andover Newton in my final years there. Drawing on the architectural heritage of Frank Lloyd Wright and his student Fay Jones (Thorncrown Chapel and Cooper Memorial Chapel are nearby), Shafdie conceived of a set of structures that would bridge the little creek in Alice Walton’s ravine. Local woods were laminated into the beams supporting their roofs, with glass walls erasing the barrier between inside and outside spaces.

Great care was given to preserving as many trees as possible, including two tulip trees that were renamed Thelma and Louise, because they teeter at the edge of one of the buildings. Other woods were incorporated into the furnishings. The grounds are still being

"Yield," by Roxy Paine

“Yield,” by Roxy Paine

developed, but they contain an array of sculptures, including a “Dendrite” tree by Roxy Paine, versions of which we had seen at the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth and in Raleigh at the North Caroline Museum of Art. The “Maelstrom,” by Alice Aycock, emerged as Sylvia’s favorite. She definitely did not like the enormous arachnid that hovers over the entrance foyer.

"Maelstrom," by Alice Aycock

“Maelstrom,” by Alice Aycock

Nestled into the woods adjacent to the main buildings is a home built by Frank Lloyd Wright. We would not have seen it in 2014. It was recently moved piece by piece from New Jersey, where it was endangered by recurrent floods, to Crystal Bridges, affirming the American architectural tradition represented locally by the work of Fay Jones. While we could feel some of the “tiny house” ethos wright-house-cb-webof our present time, we could also see elements of light, honesty of materials, and alignment with the land that had inspired us in building our own home, which has room for our “stuff” as well.

The inside spaces display an extensive representation of works from the earliest American painters to contemporary installations. They include many works by women (Mary Cassat) as well racial or ethnic minorities (Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers). Most works have a description that tells you how the work fits into the history as well as contemporary context of its creation. The wooden floors made viewing a pleasure rather than a backache.

Fittingly for us, a special exhibition of “Border Cantos,” based on materials and photographs of the Mexican-US border barriers was installed in the exhibition gallery. It concludes with a wall of post-it notes from immigrants to the US from all over the world.

And there were families, children and young people everywhere. Because it’s FREE! Yes, you have already paid for it. A million people a year are now visiting it, in spite of its (for coastalites) remote location. As they wander its buildings and lands, we can only hope they are imbibing the artistic heritage that its constantly expanding, unfolding, and daring new things. And as, they say in Hamilton, immigrants are always making it happen in new ways.

And now, a word about the food. It is delectable, presentable, down-homey with a flare, and reasonably priced. What more can you ask for? Not to mention the room overlooking the pond, wooden beams arching overhead, and the golden heart warming the space above… Well, we were grateful for the experience. Sometimes great wealth does good things. You all go, now, hear?


Posted in Arts, Ecology, Travel Journal | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments