Friday, November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy and the Arts: An Appreciation

At the interment of President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery, 25 November 1963

Those of us of a certain age, say, those of us over the age of 55 or so, know exactly where we were when we heard the awful news that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, had been assassinated, fifty years ago today, in Dallas, Texas. I was a six year old second grader that fateful Friday, and was playing in our family's living room on Balwynne Park Road in the Wynnefield Heights section of Philadelphia. At the time, I was of course too young to grasp the horribleness of death or the significance of the event for my country, but I vividly recall it for one reason: it remains one of the only times—indeed, perhaps the only time—I ever witnessed my mom crying uncontrollably. To this day, the details of the next few days—the shooting of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the somber-yet-impressive state funeral—remain images indelibly impressed on my memory.

From a historian's perspective, Jack Kennedy was an ambiguous figure. Indeed, in the intervening years both conservatives and liberals have wanted to claim him as one of their own (or, for the more responsible ones, to claim that he held positions amenable to their own, properly nuanced, of course). He was a hawkish Cold Warrior and advocated lowering taxes. Yet only the most inveterate purveyor of anachronisms would dare to claim he would have advocated the later sweeping reforms of Ronald Reagan, let alone the simplistic rhetoric of the current Tea Party. On the other hand, he never advocated for the developed liberal policies associated with his younger brothers Bobby and (especially) Teddy. For my part, I find it difficult to believe he would have disagreed in principle from his successor Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms. Nevertheless, the nasty fact remains that he presided for too short a time to establish a definitive legacy on domestic issues.

What I want to focus on today is something different, a matter hardly ever discussed in our increasingly Philistine culture. I am speaking about the arts, specifically the necessary role the arts play in a functioning, civilized society. Less than a month before he was killed, Kennedy gave a brief speech at Amherst College in honor of the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost, who had died on 29 January that year (to listen to the speech, go the NEA website here). The transcript of the speech is as follows:
Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. "I have been" he wrote, "one acquainted with the night." And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover's quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist's fidelity has strengthened the fibre of our national life.
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society--in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having "nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope."
I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement, yet I do not think he would disdain this hope. As he wrote during the uncertain days of the Second War:
Take human nature altogether since time began . . .
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least . . .
Our hold on this planet wouldn't have so increased.
Because of Mr. Frost's life and work, because of the life and work of this college, our hold on this planet has increased.

I too share President Kennedy's view of the necessary role of the arts in a civilized society. Indeed, the banal, stultifying oppressiveness of the individualistic and exclusively economic worldview of the present Zeitgeist have, in my view, robbed this country of much of what, at one time, made it great. Would that another leader arise to awaken this sleeping giant from its soul-destroying artistic slumber. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

On the Death of a Pet

Earlier this week our family's red tabby cat, Brynn, died. To be more precise, she was killed while running in haste across the street in order, as was her wont, to greet my son and me when we arrived home in our car. As a mere feline, she naturally failed to look both ways before crossing the street directly in front of an approaching vehicle, and so her love and loyalty, her two most salient characteristics, proved to be her ultimate undoing.

If one is an animal lover and lives long enough, one is bound to experience the pain caused by the loss of a beloved pet. In the case of our family, the losses have been frequent: innumerable guinea pigs, four rabbits, and—worst of all—three cats and three dogs. The joy such animal companions both radiate and produce is short-lived indeed, and quickly turns to heavy-hearted grief when they are taken from us in an untimely way.

Brynn Kitty was a uniquely klutzy cat with a ponderous gait and an unmusical meow. But such attributes simply contributed to her charm, adding a humorous dimension to a personality dominated by the aforementioned traits of love and loyalty. From the day my daughter bought her at the Humane League of Lancaster in 2005—the deciding point in her favor was their shared name of Brynn—Brynn Kitty leavened her innate feline independence with copious amounts of affection for her new family. Whenever I arrive home from work or play, my Westie Louisa always gallops to the door, howling and tail a-wagging at the joy of seeing me. Until this past Tuesday, however, following closely behind was faithful Brynn Kitty, the leaden thump of her paws clearly audible as she hurried down the stairs to say hello. Such affection as she regularly showed could be irritating at times, such as her penchant for plopping down on the keyboard as one tried to use the computer. Nor could one often simply sit down to watch the telly without Brynn jumping on one's lap or on the back of the chair, her tail flicking the back of one's head as she lay there in contented bliss. Such momentary irritations are now but a thing of the past, kept alive thankfully by memory. Oh to experience such irritations today.

I have nothing profound or novel to say about this all-too-common human experience. Just allow me three short reflections. First, living with a beloved cat or dog reinforces the point that animals are intended by God to be companions of his human image bearers. Indeed, this is partly the point of the charming story in Genesis 2:18-25, where God parades the various animals in front of the man, who names them but fails to find in any the desired "helper" corresponding to him, which deficiency God rectifies when he creates woman out of the man's side. Animals, like humans, are given the "breath of life" (Gen 7:22) and are the beneficiaries, along with human beings, of the covenant God made with Noah in Genesis 9. As God's image bearers (Gen 1:26-27), human beings are given the unique vocation to mediate God's rule over what he has made and to sum up the inarticulate praise of creation to its maker. Such "dominion" is emphatically not the dominion of the pillager who rapes the land and uses the created order as a means to achieve his or her own designs. Rather, it is the "dominion" of the steward, who acts so as to cause the ultimate flourishing of creation. As C. S. Lewis argued in his The Problem of Pain, such an understanding suggests that "[t]he tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal—the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy…” "Survival of the fittest" may be an empirical description of the modus operandi of how the animal world has developed, but it certainly is not consistent with the Bible's consistent eschatological vision towards which the divinely-designed human vocation vis-a-vis animals is directed.

Second, the tragically short lives of animals is a salutary reminder to us, who are all too prone to delusions of immortality, of the nasty, unwelcome fact of our own inevitable demise. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it this way: "Just as it is appointed for human beings to die once, and after that comes judgment ..." (Heb 9:27 [ESV, alt. JRM]). The note of judgment is unappealing to many people in the postmodern West, but it is a consistent refrain in the Bible. Thankfully, the context of Hebrews 9:27 provides the way in which all of us can approach that inevitability with confidence based entirely on what Christ has done externally on our behalf: "For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb 9:24-28, ESV).

Finally, a musing on the possibility of an afterlife for animals. One thing I was confidently taught in my early biblical studies was that humans are distinct from animals in that they alone have "souls." The corollary of this was quite clear. Humans, in that they are endowed with an "immortal" soul, have an afterlife; animals, not so endowed, do not. Well, as in so many areas of my theological development, things are not as clear to me as they once appeared. For one, developments in neuroscience and increasing intellectual distance from an assumed Greek philosophy have, at minimum, cast doubt on the long regnant "substance dualism" (i.e., mortal body, immortal soul) I had been confidently taught (see esp. Fuller Seminary Professor Joel Green's Body, Soul, and Human Life). For another, it is quite clear from St. Paul that God alone is inherently immortal (1 Tim 6:16), and that any immortality attaching to human beings must be granted when they receive their resurrection body (1 Cor 15:53). So the presence of a soul, or lack thereof, is no necessary index to a definitive answer to the question.

Increasingly Christians are coming to the biblical realization that the climax of salvation history, and the final state of the redeemed, will be on a renovated/reconstituted earth rather than in an ethereal, disembodied state in "heaven." This means an earth on which human beings will at last live and function as they were intended from the beginning by God. And that means as well a creation that, as Paul says, "will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). One need not be a naive literalist to see in such prophecies as Isaiah 11:6 ("The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat ...") an indication that the final state of the kingdom of God will be a state of affairs in which all of creation, including animals, will be redeemed and live as God always intended them ultimately to live.

Indeed, even John Calvin in his Commentary on Romans argued that all creatures will ultimately share in the blessed state consequent upon the restoration of the present fallen world (at Rom 8:21). Yet he deemed it "neither expedient nor right," and indeed "unbalanced," to speculate further about the perfection and possible "immortality" of all sorts of animals in the coming eschaton. Nonetheless, others have dared to go where the venerable Genevan feared to tread. Oxford theologian Keith Ward, in his 1982 work Rational Theology and the Creativity of God, argued that God, who has revealed himself to be a God of both love and justice, must and therefore will ultimately recompense animals who have suffered unjustly in the present world. The aforementioned C. S. Lewis, while not a theologian per se, argued in The Problem of Pain that some animals, by virtue of their inextricable connection with redeemed people, will be resurrected along with their masters to experience eternity.

Such suggestions are mere guesses, of course. We must distinguish the matters of animal presence on the new earth and the resurrection of individual animals to provide that coming population. There certainly is no explicit scriptural support for the latter notion. Nevertheless the arguments of such men as Ward and Lewis are at least suggestive. The God who raised his Son Jesus from the dead and has promised to do the same for his people certainly can raise animals to immortal bodies as well. And it is not inconsistent with a God of love to do so for his beloved children whose lives were so improved by their animal companions in this life. Thus, I cannot say whether or not it will be so. But I have my suspicions ... and my hopes, one of which is to once again hear and see my Brynn Kitty running down the stairs to greet me as I walk through the front door.