Raising Arizona: An Appreciation

raising arizona
We’re taking an intermission during our summer reading of Through a Screen Darkly to give folks who’ve fallen behind (or have recently joined) a week to catch up. In the spirit of celebrating movies, however, I’m pleased to present the following guest post from Jonathan Rogers. Jonathan had mentioned in passing that he is a big fan of the movie Raising Arizona. I was curious. If you knew Jonathan, you’d want to hear more as well. He was kind enough to put some thoughts down on paper for us. Enjoy.


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Raising Arizona is one of my favorite movies ever. I make no claims for its greatness, only that I love it. I love my hometown of Warner Robins, Georgia in much the same way: there was a time when I would have tried to argue that Warner Robins (or Raising Arizona) was the greatest. Now I am content to say that it shaped my sensibilities, for better or worse, at the time of life when my sensibilities were ready to be shaped. I almost can’t help but love it.


I had just graduated from high school when I saw Raising Arizona at the movie theater. It was the first time I had ever thought of a movie as a made thing. I knew, of course, that there were moviemakers, but I had never spent one minute wondering what they did. I enjoyed movies well enough, but I was about as passive a consumer of movies as a moviegoer could be. It was only earlier that same year that I had ever thought enough about a movie to dislike it. It was a Sylvester Stallone movie about arm wrestling, a truly terrible movie. I would have never gone if a movie theater employee hadn’t let me in free.*


But I digress. The first five minutes of Raising Arizona grabbed me with its down-market poetry. The language is highly stylized, polished and rhythmic. (Just the name Tempe, Arizona, with its three trochees, has more poetry in it than Ithaca or Xanadu or Elsinore). And yet the language sounds very much like native speech. It reminds you of the musicality that is possible in everyday American language. There’s a visual equivalent in an early shot in which Hi an Ed are sitting in the treeless, grass-less yard just outside their single-wide trailer watching a magnificent sunset beyond desert mountains. The glories of the Western sky are as available to these two trailer-dwellers as to anybody else. Over that very shot, Hi explains why he and Ed wanted a baby so desperately: “there was too much love and beauty for just the two of us,” he says, as the sunset gives way to darkness. I realize that the joke is probably  supposed to be on the rubes in the lawn chairs. But I believe Hi. There is real beauty in this life that the jail-bird and the policewoman are putting together.


Raising Arizona is a movie with certain literary aspirations (if literary is the right word). There’s quite a bit of symbolism in Raising Arizona as in all the Coen Brothers’ movies. I have mixed feelings about symbolism, which is very easy to get wrong. Indeed, even as a seventeen-year-old, I was bothered by some of the ham-fisted symbolism in Raising Arizona (the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse mostly gets on my nerves). But on the other hand, I was delighted to realize that things like symbolism could exist in movies (as to why it hadn’t occur to me many years earlier, I can’t say). I had never thought of a movie as a vehicle for carrying literary freight of any kind. To put my moviegoing experience in perspective, I should mention that at this point in my life I was already enamored of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Nobody does transcendence like Milton. Angels. Demons. Unfallen Eden. War in Heaven. Councils in Hell. I was caught off guard by this funny little low-rent (and occasionally coarse) movie that looked and sounded like something resembling literature.


I am crazy about Hi McDonough. I love any character who is too smart to be so stupid. Hi is a smart guy and something of a poet, but his life circumstances haven’t given him the opportunity to use his gifts in constructive ways. He keeps making stupid choices, but you love him anyway because his heart apparently is in the right place. There’s a lot of Hi in Grady, the narrator and protagonist of my novel, The Charlatan’s Boy.


Finally, I love the way that legitimate, understandable desires on the part of the main characters leads them to do outrageously stupid things. What could be more natural than for two happily married people to want a baby? But, as Hi says, “biology and the prejudices of others conspired to keep us childless.” Their pursuit of their desire leads them into situations in which they are in way over their heads. It’s like Greek tragedy, except that it’s hilarious.


–Bonus reason to love Raising Arizona: When Ed says to the Lone Biker, “Gimme back that baby, you warthog from hell!” she is quoting Flannery O’Connor almost directly. In “Revelation,” the Wellesley student who assaults Ruby Turpin in the doctor’s waiting room says, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.”


* The same movie theater employee–perhaps to make up for exposing me to such a terrible movie–also gave me a trash bag full of leftover movie popcorn to take on a camping trip to the Okefenokee Swamp. It attracted the attention of a gang of especially nasty raccoons, who scattered the popcorn all over the campgrounds and beyond.


* * *


Jonathan Rogers grew up in Georgia, where he spent many happy hours in the swamps and riverbottoms on which the wild places of The Wilderking Triology and The Charlatan’s Boy (some of our favorite books) are based. He received his undergraduate degree from Furman University in South Carolina and holds a Ph.D. in seventeenth-century English literature from Vanderbilt University. The Rogers clan lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where Jonathan makes a living as a freelance writer. His most recent book is The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.


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Fools and Jokers


“Noah built an ark, the prophet Hosea married a prostitute, poor suffering Job refused to curse God, and John the Baptist ate bugs in the wilderness. They all experienced doubt. They all had things to learn. Yet their unconventional behavior drew attention to their vision, which conveys essential truth.” Jeffrey Overstreet

Welcome to our discussion of Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet. Feel free to join in the discussion, even if you’re not reading along. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Week 3 – Fools and Jokers
Movie of the Week – The Fisher King

Webster defines ‘the fool’ as “One who is destitute in reason, or the common powers of understanding; an idiot.”

We see ‘the fool’ everyday. In the neighborhood, at work, on the highway, in our families, and if we’re honest, in the mirror.

When I meet ‘the fool’, I should pay close attention. My reaction to him reveals a great deal about the state of my heart.

Am I quick to judge?
Grateful that I am not him?
Offended by his choices and behavior?

Or am I willing to pause and see that the fool has something to teach me. . .

“Some of the great fools, as Hamlet proves to be, behave in the manic fashion more deliberately and strategically in order to unsettle those around them and lure wrongdoers into exposing their devices.” – p. 210

“If I’m confronted with bizarre behavior on the street or on the bus, I am likely to cross at the nearest crosswalk or get up and move closer to the bus driver. But in the safety of my theater seat, I sometimes find that these characters reveal a great deal not only through their ranting but also by the way they provoke people around them to all manner of revealing behavior.” – p.201

“In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Finding Neverland and Nurse Betty, these characters stir up trouble for the strict, the proud, the upright and the overly rational.” – p.208

1) What character comes to mind when you think of “the fool”?  What truth did he/she reveal?

Take a few minutes to read “Why Honey Boo Boo is Like a Flannery O’Connor Character” by Jonathan Rogers(Rumor has it that Jonathan may have a few things to add to our discussion in the upcoming weeks.)

2. What do you make of the Honey Boo Boo article? How does it relate to Overstreet’s take on ‘the fool’?


“The healthiest laughter is that which recognizes our shared fallibility.” -p.226

“Many of us are laughing because we see and reject the errors on display and because we are admitting our own culpability in such folly, without despairing from the shame of it. The laughter is release: I’ve been there, I recognize that, I acknowledge the folly of human behavior, and I know there’s a better way.” – p.220

We enjoy comedy streaming from the TV or movie screen.
Our laughter is spontaneous, involuntary and without invoking further reflection.
We move on to the next scene, sitcom, or to decide what we’ll have for dinner, grateful for having been given a break from the “real world.

But occasionally. . .
As we’re gulping in prime-time lightheartedness,
We ingest traces of something more substantive.

We discover that the comic elixir wasn’t a mixture of well-timed stunts, clever puns, or sticky situations. It was concocted from the most basic ingredients. Those that represent the truth of who we really are – the good, the bad, the obvious, the unspeakable.

Have a taste.

3. How can comedy convey eternal truths? What does laughter (even at ourselves, or perhaps particularly at ourselves) have to do with Hope?


* * *

For further reading:
Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner

If you’d like to join us or to catch up on the conversation:
Week 1 – How We Watch
Week 2 – Saving the World



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How We Watch

Saving the World


Welcome to our discussion of Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Even if you’re not reading along, feel free to join in the discussion.

Week 2 – Saving the World
Movie of the week: Born into Brothels

“But the stories that satisfied me most were those in which the Great Goblin was slain by a hero with a sword or Peter Pan send Captain Hook to an ugly demise in the jaws of a ticking crocodile. Thus the first definition of ‘hero’ that made sense to me had a great deal to do with desiring a savior.” – p.141

“The whispers of his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who had given his life to save his friends, reminded me of Jesus, who had done the same. It was heartening to encounter heroes who made a difference by making themselves smaller and opening themselves to something greater.” – p. 144

1. Think back to your childhood. What’s the first memory you have of a “hero” – from either a movie or a book? What heroes are examples of “making themselves smaller and opening themselves to something greater”?


“There is something within each of us that wants to see our enemy suffer, and these films pour fuel on that fire without cultivating any conscience or appreciation of mercy alongside it. To love one’s enemy is to consider and care about what happens to him.” – p. 175

“The more I pay attention to the way in which some films play to an audience’s bloodlust, the more I see how this kind of lurid entertainment reflects the strategies of pornographers. In both pursuits, the filmmakers exaggerate certain elements in order to appeal to unhealthy appetites. Both tend to cultivate hungers that increase with each occasion. It’s designed to become addicting.” – p.175

2. What are the hallmarks of a healthy vs. an unhealthy depiction of violence? Give some examples of and your reaction to both.


3. If you’ve seen Man of Steel, what did you think about Superman as “hero”? About the role of violence in the film? Keep in mind the quotations noted above.


In some stories, magic represents something to be sought after and controlled. Supernatural darkness is very real, and stories that make us curious about dabbling in sorcery are certainly dangerous. Most fairy tales highlight the foolishness of bargaining with devils. ‘Good magic’ is usually a whimsical invention of the storyteller that serves as a representation of spirit, talent or faith. Without these imaginative elements, we could never have met Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Cinderella, the King Arthur of Legend, old Scrooge, and Aslan, for starters.” – p.152

4. How would you explain the difference between that which is “good magic” and harmful/dangerous supernatural darkness? Name a few movies which reveal the “foolishness of bargaining with devils.”


“Viewers may assume that the movie (Born into Brothels) will teach them about the need to rescue Calcutta’s poor, trapped, miserable children. But they’re likely to discover by the end of the film that the opposite has also occurred – the children have actually delivered the audience from a false and crippling perspective.” – p.195

“If we open ourselves to art that introduces us to perspectives and experiences of people around the world, we begin to close the distance. We draw closer to understanding our neighbors.” – p. 197

5. Have you ever left a movie (or interaction with any type of art) and felt like you were “drawn closer to understanding your neighbor”?


6. What did you think of Born into Brothels?


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For further reading:
Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner

If you’d like to join us or to catch up on the conversation:
Week 1 – How We Watch


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Through a Screen Darkly

It’s summer.

Time for a good book.

And for going to the movies.

For the past year, Greener Trees has hosted a reading group. Together, we’ve navigated our way through some thought-provoking books: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers, Refractions by Makoto Fujimura, The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner, and So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (also discussed on the Rabbit Room site). Minds were stimulated and hearts stirred. At first glance, the reading selections may appear to be a bit random. Despite the diversity in genre, however, a common theme runs throughout the books. One of creativity, beauty, and truth. One of grace that’s often discovered in the most unlikely of places. One of hope.

I’d like to invite you to join us on our next adventure – reading and discussing Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies by Jeffrey Overstreet. After a friend had watched an award-winning (and somewhat quirky) movie, she commented that some films require muscles of the mind that she wasn’t quite sure how to use. She needed a personal trainer. Perfect. Here’s our personal trainer for thoughtful movie viewing.

Jeffrey Overstreet was a film reviewer and columnist for Christianity Today from 2001-2009. He’s been a film critic for a variety of other publications, including Paste Magazine and Image Journal. Overstreet is also the author of The Auralia Thread, a four-book fantasy series that begins with Auralia’s Colors. You can visit his blog here.

In Through a Screen Darkly, Overstreet explores a variety of movies – from blockbusters to esoteric foreign films. He invites us to journey with him. As we explore the new terrain, previously underused muscles are discovered. We’re stretched. Overstreet provides challenging questions and a thoughtful framework through which we can engage with the art of cinema.

“Jeffrey Overstreet is a witness. While habituating the dark caves of movie theaters, he gives articulate witness to what I too often miss in those caves — the contours of God’s creation and the language of Christ’s salvation. … I find him a delightful and most percipient companion — a faithful Christian witness.”   Eugene Peterson

Here’s how it works: Each Monday, we’ll start our discussion of the assigned chapters and corresponding movie. Life is full, so some folks may only get to the reading, not the movie, and that’s fine! Think of the weekly movie viewing as “extra credit.” During the final week, we’ll be watching and having an in-depth discussion of Babette’s Feast.

For those who are on Facebook, send a message to Greener Trees Reads and you’ll be approved to join the online discussion group. For those who are following via the blog, I’ll be posting a few questions for discussion each week.


June 17     Part One: How We Watch (Chp 1-4) The Story of the Weeping Camel
June 24     Part Two: Saving the World (Chp 5-7) Born into Brothels
July 1        Break (use this week to catch up or get ahead)
July 8        Part Three: Fools and Jokers (Chp 8-9) The Fisher King
July 15      Part Four: Art of Darkness (Chp 10-12) Apocalypse Now
July 22      Part Five: Summoned by Music and Light (Chp 13-14) The New World
July 29      Looking Closer: Questions for Movie Discussion Groups Babette’s Feast                                                             

Through a Screen Darkly is available for purchase here at the Rabbit Room. If you purchase a Rabbit Room membership, you’ll receive 15% off of this and future orders.

If you’ll be joining us, please leave a note (and any questions) in the comments section. Invite a friend to join you. Happy viewing!


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The Gospel According to Eliot

words words words

In the upcoming weeks, a few folks from the Greener Trees community will be sharing their personal responses to The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner. I’m grateful for the opportunity to peer through the eyes of others. We have so much to learn from one another. Today’s guest post was written by Carolyn Givens.

Carolyn Clare Givens is a freelance writer and editor. She works at Cairn University and edits and publishes the University’s magazine. Carolyn lives outside of Philadelphia. Visit her blog to discover her thoughts on everything from art, music, and writing to pie and international soccer.   

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 3: Poetic Communication

 “Words, words, words.”
          –Hamlet (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)

 “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
          –The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (John 1:14)

As one who works in words as my medium, I’ve always been a little bit offended by the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I want to argue with it, point to writers who say more in a single sentence than I think anyone could get from staring at one of Monet’s Water Lilies for an hour. Words are my lifeblood, my oxygen. They are my method; my way of expressing the ideas, feelings, and experiences I want to share.

When the pieces all come together, words are the strongest and most poetic means I can think of to express ideas. When the pieces all come together. When the sentence is “right,” as T.S. Eliot puts it,

                         (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
-Little Gidding, V.217-223

And yet, time and again throughout my life, I’ve found them to be useless as a means of expression: nothing but words, and words upon words, straining, cracking, and sometimes breaking under the burden, decaying with imprecision (Eliot, Burnt Norton, V.149-152). They cannot do what I wish them to do. There is, within me, something that cannot be contained in letters and sounds. By the time I have found a way to put it into words, it is passed, or finished, or changed:

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of  l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
-East Coker, V.173-178

T.S. Eliot knows what I mean, even if I’m having trouble communicating it to anyone else.

And in spite of all this, Eliot chooses to write. He attempts to use words to communicate. Not only that, but in Four Quartets Eliot attempts to communicate ideas which are spiritual, deep, broad, and resonant. He compounds his own struggles, reaching – as those of us too timid to try it might say – perhaps higher than he should. Helen Gardner puts it this way: “He is not intentionally writing obscurely in order to mystify, or to restrict his audience to a few like-minded persons with a special training, but is treating a subject of extreme complexity, which is constantly eluding formulation in words. Mr. Eliot is, in his own words, ‘occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist’” (p. 57). Later, Gardner continues: “He is writing of religious experience, of how the mind comes to discover religious truth: truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” (p. 61).

And here is the crux of it – for Christians are people of the Word. Our “religious experience” is shaped by the Word. The “truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” is text: words.

Gardner points to a dilemma facing the religious poet: “This predicament is glanced at in the Greek quotation from Heraclitus, which stands as one of the epigraphs to Four Quartets, and which I have put at the head of this chapter: ‘Although the Word is common to all, most men live as if each had a private wisdom of his own.’ If the poet speaks from his private wisdom, how can his readers each with their own private wisdoms find in him ‘the Word which is common to all’?” (p. 61). She points out that this problem is not just that of the religious poet, but it is a problem of communication in the modern era: mankind no longer speaks the same language. “The reading public is far larger, the output of printed matter incomparably greater, and the content of education has expanded so enormously that there is now no general cultural tradition to which the poet can refer or be referred. The divisions do not only run between those who are trained in the scientific disciplines and those trained in the humanities; but between science and science and between one branch of the humanities and another” (p. 69).

(In 2013, we chuckle reading those lines. Helen Gardner, writing in 1949, could not have imagined the public would carry scores of libraries in their pockets; that historic events would be live-blogged; that 140 characters would be considered great thought, but not a quarter of the population would read Virgil.)

Gardner examines, in the third chapter of her book, the ways in which T.S. Eliot overcomes his predicament with cautious use of religious words and his choice of simple and common symbols. The wordsmith finds a way to express the “truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” without using words and symbols that would only confuse his audience. “It is not the poet’s business to make us believe what he believes, but to make us believe that he believes” (p. 68).

Gardner points out how, in The Dry Salvages, Eliot even takes words that typically have Christian significance and steps them back, using them in common speech before bringing out their religious use. It seems to be a sound method, based upon all we have learned so far about his audience. Oughtn’t we to contextualize the Gospel, after all? Shouldn’t we learn to speak the languages of science and mathematics and agriculture and art and business? Are we not encouraged to “become all things to all men, so that by any means we might save some?” (1 Cor. 9:22). Is this not the heart of evangelism?

But there is one theological word which Eliot does not reappropriate. Gardner writes that he uses it “without preparation, but with extraordinary force” in the fifth movement of The Dry Salvages: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (V.215).

Incarnation. The Word become flesh.

Flesh. Even in English it has a slightly disgusting sound, as if we’re trying to spit it out of our mouths. In Greek it is σαρκος (sarkos), with its hissing ends and harsh center. Flesh. It rots. It decays. Flesh.

Strange as it may seem, for the people of the Word there’s no getting away from the Incarnation. It is the center point of history; it is the moment when the Speaking Creator chooses a medium beyond words. But without it all the words in the world are “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5).

There is Someone that cannot be contained in letters and sounds. Yet in Him, all words find meaning.

We are a people of the Word limited by language. We are the children of a Speaking God. So we continue to wrestle: How do we proceed? How do we communicate the God of the Universe? How do we join Eliot in his “perpetual effort towards communication, a desire to speak plainly”? (p. 73). Is it even worth the effort?

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
East Coker, V.189



Questions for you to consider:

1. How do the questions and ideas raised above play out for the Christian artist whose medium is not words? In what ways do these artists face the same struggle to communicate as the poet? What solutions are there to this dilemma?

2. What other “languages” do the people you interact with on a daily basis “speak”? How can you present the message of the Gospel in ways that they will hear and understand?


Overview of plan (and link to Eliot reading Four Quartets): From Telescope to Microscope
Thoughts from Week 1: On Shoulders of Giants
Thoughts from Week 2: You are the Music


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You are the Music

music swirling notes

In the upcoming weeks, a few folks from the Greener Trees community will be sharing their personal responses to The Art of T.S. Eliot. I’m grateful for the opportunity to peer through the eyes of others. We have so much to learn from one another.

The following post was written by Chris Yokel, who is a poet, musician, and writer on art, creativity, and music. Chris lives in Massachusetts.  Drop by and visit his blog to explore his writings and music.

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 2: The Music of the Four Quartets

You are a creature bound by time. This is probably the most important element governing your life, and yet it is one of the most mysterious. Do any of us understand it? We attempt to measure it out, with our seconds, minutes, hours, and years. We try to manage it with our day-planners and calendar apps and alarms. But in the end (which is an indicator of time), it is as mysterious as the One who created it.

Once upon time, there was a time when there was no time. And then Spirit moved, rapah in the Hebrew, vibrated, like the string of a violin struck by a bow. And time began playing the symphony of its Author, moving, flowing in melody. And in the image of its Maker, seeds sprouted, pushed through earth, climbed to the sun, brought forth fruit, faded, and sprouted again. Children were born, opened their eyes and arms to the world, grew into maturity, fell in love, and begat their own children. Spring gathered its strength into the virility of summer, which matured into fall and then settled into the sleep of winter, until awakened again. Rhythm, recurrence, pattern, without exactness, because no child is a copy of their parent, and no autumn like the one before it.

And yet within these notes of time there seems to be something that is not of time. We are constantly trying to freeze time, especially in our art. The photographer, the painter, the sculptor are all combatants of time. But all of us, “artistic” or not, at certain points want to just suspend the moment, when the end of the day sets the trees on fire, or when the golden hour of summer casts our dancing children in angelic haze. There is something eternal in the heart of time, for its Mover is timeless.

It is the musician alone who embraces time, for without it, music could not exist. Music is the art of time. As Roger Scruton says in The Aesthetics of Music:

“In musical experience, we are confronted with time: not just events in time, but time itself, as it were, spread out for our contemplation as space is spread out before us in the visual field. . . . Music is not bound by time’s arrow, but lingers by the way, takes backward steps, skips ahead, and sets the pace that it requires.”

Music plays with time, and yet in it, too, is something of the eternal. What stills us in the sound of a Bach cello suite, or makes us weep at Ralph Vaughan William’s “A Lark Ascending”? It is something more than the mere combination of wood, metal, hair, and the principles of physics. The Spirit vibrates once again, echoing down through time to us. An intersection of time and the timeless.

It is in this vein, with the ear of the musician and the poet, that T.S. Eliot meditates upon this mysterious intersection in his Four Quartets. He begins in Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.

Or in East Coker: “In my beginning is my end.”

Or in Little Gidding: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment/Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

Variations on a theme, rhythm and recurrence. But more than just addressing time directly, Eliot develops his ideas through symbols, as Helen Gardner points out: “The ‘thematic material’ of the poem is not an idea or a myth, but partly certain common symbols. The basic symbols are the four elements, taken as the material of mortal life” (44).

As Gardner identifies them, Burt Norton is about air, East Coker is about earth, The Dry Salvages is about water, and Little Gidding is about fire. She concludes: “We could then say that the whole poem is about the four elements whose mysterious union makes life, pointing out that in each of the separate poems all four are present; and perhaps adding that some have thought that there is a fifth element, unnamed but latent in all things: the quintessence, the true principle of life, and that this unnamed principle is the subject of the whole poem” (45)

I would argue that the quintessence is the Spirit, for the Spirit is seen in all these elements. The Spirit is air, wind, the ruah who breathes life into us, and blows where He will. The Spirit’s medium is earth, bringing us from dust and back to dust again. The Spirit is water, purifying, cleansing, raining down and refreshing us, making the wasteland bloom, the river within us. And finally the Spirit is fire, empowering us, purifying us, cleansing us, redeeming us from fire by fire.

It is also in the Spirit that time and the timeless intersect. Douglas Jones says in “Music as Spirit” “Rhythm and tempo lie at the heart of musical expression, and history lies at the heart of the Spirit’s work.” The Spirit’s work is time, and in time, yet the Spirit is eternal. And because the Spirit is in us, creatures of time, we who are in time have eternity set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and thus we feel the sense of the divine and the timeless at moments in our lives, as Eliot himself explores in the Quartets.

But finally, the Spirit, taking the elements and taking time, makes a melody of it all. Eliot constantly talks about “pattern”, “movement”, and “dance” in the Four Quartets. In doing so he evokes an idea that we are not that familiar with in our modern scientific age, but that the medievals and ancients believed. C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image refers to it as the harmony of the spheres. They believed that “space is not dark, so neither is it silent. If our ears were opened we should perceive, as Henryson puts it, ‘every planet in his proper sphere/In moving makand (sic) harmony and sound’”. The Spirit is the conductor, the elements are the obedient music. The Spirit is the still point, the creation is the dance. And as Eliot says in Burt Norton:

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Now, this is all very interesting and a bit academic, but what does it mean for us, creatures of time? Is Eliot telling us anything useful? It is at this point that I am struck by Gardner’s last lines in the chapter:

“The whole poem in its unity declares more eloquently than any single line or passage that truth is not the final answer to a calculation, nor the last stage of an argument, nor something told us once and for all, which we spend the rest of our life proving by example. The subject of Four Quartets is the truth which is inseparable from the way and the life in which we find it” (56).

That is, the Four Quartets accomplishes what any piece of good art should accomplish, which should be to make us live more clearly, more deeply, and more truly. Eliot ends both the Quartets and Little Gidding with these lines: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” That which began with God will return back to Him again. What began in the garden will end in the garden-city. In our beginning is our end.

And so I think the questions Eliot would leave us with are these: “How shall we live in time in light of the timeless? How shall we keep in step with the dance of the Spirit?”

In the power of the Music-Maker, “You are the music, while the music lasts.”  Make it sing. Make it dance.



Thoughts from Week 1: On Shoulders of Giants
Overview of plan (and link to Eliot reading Four Quartets): From Telescope to Microscope

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Time Flies
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Return of the Feechies

On Shoulders of Giants

T. S. Eliot

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 1

What can I possibly learn from T.S. Eliot, and why does it matter?

To some, the asking of the question itself is offensive. The answers are obvious.

To others, considering such a question is a waste of time. There are more important questions to be asked, after all. “Given the economy, will our finances stretch far enough?” “What if the medical test results bring bad news?” “Is there any chance for healing of that painfully damaged relationship?” Or perhaps most commonly, “How can I rearrange the upcoming week to grant some relief from the frantic pace of life?”

With such “real world” problems, could it possibly be worth the time invested to consider the poetic works of one man who spent most of his life in academia ?

Over the next few weeks, a group of us will be reading through Helen Gardner’s The Art of T.S. Eliot. Please consider joining us. The schedule is as follows:

Jan 7 – I. Auditory Imagination
Jan 14 – II. The Music of the Four Quartets
Jan 21 – III. Poetic Communication
Jan 28 – IV. The Dry Season
Feb 4 – V. The Time of Tension
Feb 11 – VI. The Language of Drama
Feb 18 – VII. The Approach to Meaning

My hope is that in reading along, or in following written responses to each chapter, we may all discover that exploring Eliot’s Four Quartets is worthy of the time and energy invested. Here are a few thoughts to consider from the first chapter:

“The dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” Gardner, p.9

All good art tells the truth about life. It gives us fresh eyes through which we can view ourselves, others, our world, and our Maker. We leave our experience of that art with a greater awareness of what it means to be human. I’d suggest that’s time well invested.

~ Our own tendency toward law over grace is exposed when we watch Les Miserables unfold on stage.

~ We’re given a rich portrait of the One who came to save us, as we read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

~ The battle between darkness and light within the world (as well as within each of us) is illuminated in the paintings of Rembrandt.

Eliot was an astute student of the classics. He drew from and built upon the works of those who had come before him including Dante, Milton, and French Symbolists. The Four Quartets, often considered his most significant work, marks a shift in Eliot’s development as a poet.

“From now on, he will try to speak in his own voice, which will express himself with all his limitations, and not try to escape those limitations by imitating other poets.” Gardner, p.20

Eliot found freedom, not in disregarding the past, but in learning from it. He took the knowledge and experienced gained from those who came before him and built upon it. In doing so, he found his own limitations. Those limitations became the turning point from which his most prolific works were created. In Isaac Newton’s words, Eliot was “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”

So are we.

In considering the past, most of us err on one side of the spectrum or the other.

Some tend to disregard the past.  We don’t see value in doing the work of exploring the classics, understanding prior civilizations, or even considering the impact that our individual family’s history has upon the present. Our focus is on securing a better future. We miss the lessons learned and the truths revealed through the ages.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can get stuck in the past. We spend our days living vicariously through the lives of others.  We may appreciate literature, history, and art, yet are content to be solely consumers. We take without giving back. We live a life of imitation rather than creativity.

A creative life is a messy life. It learns from the past, then moves forward to give to others in unique, specific ways.

If you’re joining us in reading The Art of T.S. Eliot, here are a few questions to consider:

“The Dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” p. 9

1. What are some practical applications of that statement? Can you think of other laws in the arts (music, dance, painting) to which this principle applies?


“Any attempt to analyze the diction of a passage must murder to dissect, for the life of a passage is in its rhythm.” p. 15

2. In what other areas of life would this statement apply? Where do we murder when we dissect (rather than appreciating in context and as a whole work)? Why do you think our tendency is often to dissect rather than know fully?


“Avoidance of the obvious is not the mark of the highest originality or of the genuinely bold artist.” p. 16

3. What does that mean to you? What examples come to mind?


For further reading:

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers (in particular, the chapter Pentecost)
Walking Backwards Into the Future
by Makoto Fujimura
Q Ideas: Learning for the Common Good by Byron Borger




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Of Maps and Shadows
Books for Lent

The Year in Review: Top Ten Books of 2012


This is so fun – I feel like I’m introducing you to dear friends.

Here are my favorite books of 2012 (in no particular order):

Refractions by Makoto Fujimura
Through a series of essays, Fujimura makes a compelling case for the crucial role of creativity in the midst of a dehumanizing culture. The thread running throughout Refractions is one of hope. Life is full of challenge, disappointment, and at times, great tragedy. Yet we can choose to bring light into darkness, create beauty from ashes, and bring order to chaos. This is an important book with a timely message. I can’t remember reading the same book twice in one year. Until Refractions.

You can find more of Mako’s writing (including additional Refractions essays) at his site here. If you missed reading Refractions with our reading group, I hope to have a reading guide posted on this site in the next few months.

Surprised by Joy/The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
Surprised by Joy tells the compelling story of Lewis’s early years. I was struck by the pivotal role that disappointment and hardship played in his spiritual formation. Already an admirer of Lewis’s intellect and faith, this book gave me a glimpse of his humanity. The Friendship essay in The Four Loves explores the nature of friendship in a way that was challenging and insightful. It made me think. About why we choose the friends that we do. About the role that friendship plays in society. About what binds us together.

Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing by Sally Lloyd-Jones
This a devotional packed with deep truths about our Maker and way in which he sees his children.  I continue to be amazed at Sally Lloyd-Jones’s ability to take the most significant, poignant truths and distill them down to a limited number of words. Her writing is the case-in-point for Lewis’s quote, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” This book is the perfect present for everyone – from the newborn to the grandparent.

Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson
N.D. Wilson’s writing has taken permanent residence in our home this year. My son, who is quite a discriminating reader, raved about Wilson’s 100 Cupboard series. After having read Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl, I wasn’t surprised. I can honestly say that Tilt-A-Whirl has had a significant impact on the choices made and life lived out in our home. Here’s a taste:

“This world is beautiful but badly broken . . . I love it as it is, because it is a story, and it isn’t stuck in one place. It is full of conflict and darkness like every good story, a world of surprises and questions to explore. And there’s someone behind it; there are uncomfortable answers to the hows and whys and whats. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through Him were all things made… Welcome to His poem. His play. His novel. Let the pages flick your thumbs.”

I’ve never read anything quite like it.

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
Often cited as J.K. Rowling’s favorite book from childhood, The Little White Horse is a children’s fantasy novel full of rich characters, longing, delight, self-sacrifice and redemption. Goudge is a master at weaving beauty and truth throughout her stories.


Fiddler’s Gun by A.S. Peterson
What’s not to love about an orphan’s adventure with pirates during the American Revolution? Fiddler’s Gun is a delight to read. The story is fast-paced, yet lyrical. The characters are well-developed and highly relatable. It’s a story about choices, consequences, and ultimately grace, yet doesn’t moralize.  Beware – this is one of those books that will keep you up late at night as you have to read “one more chapter.” The sequel, Fiddler’s Green, is on my list to read in 2013.

Culture Making by Andy Crouch
A provocative book to say the least. Culture Making successfully defines  and discusses an ambiguous, but incredibly important, concept. Culture. What is it? How is it made? What is our role and why does it matter? In particular, I was intrigued by Crouch’s observations of the ways in which we examine and interact with our culture (his section on “postures and gestures”). Culture Making is an artful blend of sociology, theology, and philosophy. It inspires and challenges us all to breathe life and goodness into the world in which we live.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I’m not sure how I missed this one in high school. No wonder Lee won the Pulitzer Prize. If you missed it as well, now’s the time.

Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner
This short book by Buechner offers a unique perspective of the gospel – as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale. It challenges and encourages us to take an honest look at life. “What is the kingdom of God?… He suggests rather than spells out. He evokes rather than explains. He catches by surprise. He doesn’t let the homiletic seams show. he is sometimes cryptic, sometimes obscure, sometimes irreverent, always provocative. He tells stories.” I’m a Buechner fan, and this may be my favorite of his books.

Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers
This was the first book on the list for our reading group, and I’m not sure that I would have made it through (very effectively) without the insights and camaraderie of the other folks. That being said, it has become one of the most influential books that I’ve read. Sayers redefines the call and boundaries of creativity, walks through an amazing explanation of the nature of evil, and builds a framework through which the creative process can be understood. For our group’s written responses to specific chapters, you can visit here (this is the first week, with links to the following weeks found at the bottom of the page). The Mind of the Maker is well worth the time and energy invested. Highly recommended.

A Tree for Peter by Kate Seredy
A beautiful, thoughtful book illustrating that even the smallest light can push back the darkness. A Tree for Peter has at its core the principles found in Refractions, Mind of the Maker, and Culture Making, yet all wrapped in a beautiful story that was written for children. It is outstanding. You can read more here.

 Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring by Andi Ashworth
In a society where efficiency and technology are held in highest esteem, we find ourselves busy and productive. Yet we are also more lonely and dehumanized as a result. Real Love for Real Life reminds us that at our core, we have all been created to care well for one another. A balanced blend of the philosophical and practical, this book is food for the soul of a people hungry for connection.

For you detail-oriented folks, yes, that was twelve. It’s been a good year.

If you’d like to join the Greener Trees Reading Group, we’ll be starting with The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner the week of January 7th.  Consider joining us!

What were your favorite books of the year? 

Happy New Year and happy reading to you!

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From Telescope to Microscope – The Reading Group

“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as it had nothing else in the universe to do.” –  Galileo Galilei


We can learn much about the world in which we live by studying the solar system. We gain perspective of our relationship to the rest of the universe, an understanding of natural patterns (tides, seasons, and daylight), and an introduction to foundational scientific truths (pull of gravity, speed of light, laws of motion). Yet if we spent years obtaining an in-depth knowledge of the solar system, our education would be far from complete.

In order to gain a more comprehensive view of the world, we’d need to utilize not only the telescope, but also the microscope. To explore the composition of atoms, cells, dna. The work of photosynthesis in the smallest leaf of a tree. The combs and brushes found on the bumblebees legs, perfectly designed to gather pollen from a flower and collect it into a mass to be stored. We can learn about weather patterns, condensation, and crystallization, but our understanding of snow will be limited if we don’t also study the delicate, unique structure of an individual snowflake.

The smallest corners of creation and the vast unmeasurable universe are equally important puzzle pieces. We need both in order to get a more accurate picture of our world.

The same is true of the intangible world.

This summer, a group of us read through the Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. I was challenged, pushed, and helped along as I was given the gift of seeing the (sometimes dense and difficult) text through the eyes of others. My experience of the book was deeper and richer as a result of our reading as a group. As an unexpected bonus, I was able to share written responses from some of the members with you (listed at the bottom of the page here).

The original intent of the group was to work through the one book. Within days of finishing the last chapter, it became clear that the experience had been valuable for all. We wanted more. Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions was to be the next book. It was a perfect complement to the Mind of the Maker, and Refractions gave dynamic color and texture to many of Sayers’s concepts.

Mind of the Maker takes an over-arching look at the nature of creativity. You might say we gazed through a literary and philosophical telescope. Refractions reveals both universal truths as well as concrete examples of creativity as a generative force. A force that rehumanizes in the midst of a dehumanizing world. Now we’re going to look under the microscope.

The Plan:

In January, our group will be reading The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner. Please consider joining us. “Why?” you may ask. Well, here are a few thoughts:

~ T.S. Eliot is often cited as one of the most significant poets of the 20th century. His works have influenced our culture extensively. To be a student of Eliot is to be a student of the world in which we live. Bankers, teachers, homemakers, scientists, and artists  all have something to learn from Eliot.

~ Gardner’s The Art of T.S. Eliot is considered to be a classic, focusing on his poetic style and the Four Quartets. Gardner’s book acts as microscope through which we can get a sharper view of Eliot’s work.  As with all true art, the truths discovered in poetry are reflective of the truths found in life.

~ Makoto Fujimura has recently completed a commissioned series in response to the Four Quartets. He will be part of a touring exhibition  over the next several months which will include a collaboration of art, music, and spoken presentation. The catalogue of the  Four Quartets is available for purchase here. If you’re able to attend one of these events, having read Gardner’s book would enrich the experience.

~ Growth occurs as a result of stretching beyond our comfort zone. As adults, we acknowledge the need for physical challenge to ensure health and spiritual challenge as a necessary part of the refinement and maturation process. Yet all too often, as “grown ups” we find our intellectual comfort zones and set up camp. We let fear, disguised as competency, curtail the joy of discovery. If this is new territory for you, you’re in good company. I’ve read through the first chapter and was both inspired and challenged. I’m a business major and banker, for goodness sake. If I can muddle through this, so can you. We’ll explore and discover together. If this feels like familiar territory, then please join us as well. We’ll need your help and insight. We’ll learn from each other.

What next?

If you’d like to read along, I’ll be posting a reading schedule and guiding questions to be used in discussion/journaling. We’ll start with Chapter 1 the first week of January. Consider asking a friend, small group, or book club to read along with you.

The reading schedule is as follows:

Week of Jan 7 – I. Auditory Imagination
January 14 – II. The Music of Four Quartets
January 21 – III. Poetic Communication
January 28 – IV. The Dry Season
Feb 4 – V. The Time of Tension
Feb 11 – VI. The Language of Drama
Feb 18 – VII. The Approach to Meaning

If you’re on Facebook and would like to join the online discussion, just send a request to join “Greener Trees Reads.” You’ll be approved, and in January, we’ll start our conversation.

In the interim, become familiar with Eliot’s Four Quartets. If this is your first time, don’t be discouraged – just listen and let the words sink in. Then listen again. And again. Each reading grants a gift – a new thought, the enjoyment of the words flowing together, a glimpse of imagery to be experienced uniquely by you.

“The Four Quartets may be one of the few modern works that journeys from despair to hope.”   Makoto Fujimura


If you’d like to join us, please comment below or send me a message. We’d love to have you along for the journey.

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A Better Thing – Reflections from Hutchmoot 2012

The first face-to-face meeting of our reading group.

There are events in life that are worthy of memorialization. Every detail is recorded for posterity. Hallmark birthdays. First steps. Weddings. We submerge ourselves fully and bathe in the richness of the moment. It is a sacred place. I won’t attempt to memorialize the events of last weekend at Hutchmoot. Pictures and scrawled notes fail miserably. Rather than recounting the specifics, I want to share a bit of the sacred fragrance that has lingered with me as a result.

Last year, my attendance at Hutchmoot was unexpected after learning of an open spot only days prior. I had little time to develop expectations, and sojourned through the weekend like a wide-eyed tourist taking in the sights. I went with no particular agenda, no preparation, and having had met only a few who would be attending. I arrived with open hands, and I left with a full heart.

During those few days in Nashville, I met folks who were writers, musicians, artists, and book lovers. We had much in common, and conversations flowed easily. Through the following year, some of those initial meetings grew into deeper friendships. Black and white took on tints of color. Initial sketches of those writers, musicians, artists and book lovers developed into more complex portraits. As months passed, I began to see them as parents, friends, spouses, and children, all finding their way through this thing called life. We read through books together and learned from one another. We shared life’s burdens and triumphs. We prayed for each other. As diversity and imperfections surfaced, the degree of affection and loyalty deepened.

In speaking about a writing group which had been meeting together for several years, Anne Lamott describes the following:

“They all look a lot less slick and cool than they did when they were in my class, because helping each other has made their hearts get bigger. A big heart is both a clunky and a delicate thing. It stands out, like a baby’s fontanel, where you can see the soul pulse through. You can see this pulse in them now.”


According to the lineup of speakers and musicians, a gathering like Hutchmoot could be perceived as a gathering of the “slick and cool.” Yet the actual experience was anything but. Nearly every conversation, whether in a crowded hallway or during a structured seminar, was peppered with the themes of gratefulness, brokenness, struggle and redemption. Folks were honest about life and cared for one another well. Hearts got bigger.

During one of the sessions, Andrew Peterson and Ben Shive read, sang, and played through the life of Rich Mullins. Mullins, like so many of us, led a life of seeming contradictions. He was steeped in scripture. He wrote unabashedly of the power, tenderness, grandeur and compassion of Christ. Yet his life was marked by significant struggle and addiction. Mullins had the courage to be honest about his life, and as a result, ushered in a new era of Christian musicians who would do the same. It’s an unexpected irony – his brokenness may have been the most beautiful thing about him. His struggle only amplified the grace of God. The same is true for all of us.

Yes, Hutchmoot was indeed what Jonathan Rogers termed “an embarrassment of riches.” The food, the music, the conversations, were far more lavish than mere words can convey. Yet the senses of taste, sight and sound only served to heighten an awareness of the eternal fragrance present in each one of us. Not of perfection, competence, or achievement, but the unmistakable incense of a broken, forgiven people. A people who are deeply and eternally loved by their Father. It’s the broken vessel that is most potent.


Maybe it’s a better thing
To be more than merely innocent
But to be broken, then redeemed by love

Andrew Peterson, Don’t You Want to Thank Someone


I’m grateful to have been given a few days with these beautiful, broken, and redeemed people.








The servants of the secret fire… until we meet again.




* Photographs not printed with permission. If you’d rather have yours removed, don’t hesitate to let me know. 

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