“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.” — Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The ever-reliable Urban Dictionary website defines a flaky person as one who is “unreliable.” Unreliability infers that a social contract was agreed upon between two parties with one of the parties failing to adhere to all it’s requirements. This doesn’t happen just once for an unreliable party, but multiple times.
Now, when we think of an unreliable individual, we usually think of their external unreliability — their blatant disregard for an understood or physical social contract. But in the case of Stephen Dedalus, he breaks the internal contract between his heart and his mind. Throughout his life, from childhood to young adulthood (the end of the book), his mind drafts passionate contracts between itself and the heart . Over and over, they bind with an ideal, only for the eventual rupture of the contract.
We see him consumed with his father’s nationalistic pride, yet we see him overtly rejecting nationalism. We see his religious fervor, yet we see his denial of God in his trouncing of the priestly order. Both his adherence to nationalism and religion, and his subsequent rejections of both, show his renunciation of his familial ideals. As the quote above says, he will no longer serve that which he does not believe — home, country, church. The expression of himself will no longer rely upon those three contracts. His new contract is toward “unfettered freedom,” which he believes to be obtainable through “silence, exile, and cunning.”
From this point on, we do not know if Stephen finds satisfaction in this new contract. The book pretty much ends with the quote above. But what we do know is this: each contract was made with the assumption that its contents were true. Stephen believed that as the mind and heart were in harmony with its current perception of truth, then the eternal soul would be at peace.
Not too long ago, a person I love (cough mom cough) called me a flake. Her assertion might cause vitriol for some, especially in light of Stephen’s flakiness, but I knew she was right. She has called me that before, along with other people, but after this most recent comment, I decided to spend some time reflecting upon it.
During this reflective season, I began reading the Songs of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) in a book/bible study with Wonder Voyage. We are examining each Psalm through the lens of Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Psalm 121 is a Psalm we hear referenced in many worship songs: “I look up to the mountains / does my strength come from mountains? / No, my strength comes for God, / who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.” Peterson’s The Message makes an interesting distinction that is not found in the translation I usually read (NASB). The NASB reads as follows: “I will <sup class="xref" style="background-color: white; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(A)”>lift up my eyes to <sup class="xref" style="background-color: white; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(B)”>the mountains; / From where shall my help come? / My <sup class="xref" style="background-color: white; font-family: inherit; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(C)”>help comes from the LORD / Who <sup class="xref" style="background-color: white; font-family: inherit; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(D)”>made heaven and earth.”
When I initially heard or read Psalm 121, I never viewed the Psalmist’s response to his own question as a negative, like Peterson does with his use of “no” in is answer. The first two lines did not seem to be exclusive to me. They seemed inclusive. When the Psalmist finds his help and strength in God, the creator, I assumed he recognized God’s help through the Romans 1 model of knowing God through his created nature.
But Peterson brings to light an important historical note about pagan worship during the author’s time to bring clarity to the Psalm:
“Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided; persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil.”
His insertion of the word “no” causes us to orient ourselves back to God. The word “no” tears the gaze of our eyes from the instantaneous strength and help promised by the pagans onto the actual Creator, as the Psalmist later sings, who actually “guards your very life / he guards you when you leave and when you return, / he guards you now, he guards you always.”
I find myself, in my flaky nature, always looking up to the mountains for help. I hope that through some new theological discovery, my soul will find the peace it is always looking for. My intellectual and spiritual curiosity has led me from the likes of Miller and Driscoll, to Lewis and Bonhoeffer, to Merton and Manning, to Peterson and etc….
But where is the Lord, the one who gives strength and help to those who ask?
I, in no way, recommend myself or anyone to remove themselves from theological thinkers and writers. But what I am saying is that I think I need to assimilate Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional reading theory into my study of scripture. Rosenblatt states there are two different types of texts — efferent and aesthetic. Efferent texts are ones you read for the sake of knowledge and understanding. Efferent texts would be history text books and computer manuals. Aesthetic texts move or transform the individual who encounters it, such as poetry and novels.
I tend to look at scripture and read it efferently. What can I learn from it? What can I figure out about the mechanisms of God? I am always asking questions and examining definitions and sentence structures so I can have a fuller understanding of the author’s meaning and purpose. And what a beautiful thing to do!
But am I reading the living and breathing word of God aesthetically? Do I engage its characters? suffer with them? love with them? serve with them? Do I activate my imagination in order to participate in its transforming ways? Not often…
Because I forsake the aesthetic pursuit of scripture, my house’s foundation cracks. Where does my help come from? How can I fix the crack on the ceiling or the shifting tile in the kitchen? I hear the Maker of heaven and earth is pretty good at foundation repairs.
I will always search for the Truth like Stephen Dedalus did. My mind and heart will always make contracts with the hope of some sort of intellectual and spiritual satisfaction. But my ultimate joy and satisfaction does not rest in the knowledge I obtain about God, but it comes with the knowledge that he is my help; he is my strength; he is the one that guides me through life, even when I stray far from him.
Praise God for his consistency in the midst of my flakiness!