Fall Issue 6
The Art of Seeing | Ed Smith
The building slowly retreated into the background as I walked into the woods. I was on a church retreat and the forest is where you are supposed to go to meet God so I went, though with low expectations. Many choose to unreservedly champion the grandeur of nature, but I’ve spent too many hours working outdoors to hold such a position. Natural beauty is manifold and immense, but also harsh and unaccommodating. The beauty of nature is exquisite, but not unconditionally so.
It was not surprising then, that as I looked around me the thought crept into my head, “It’s not so beautiful here right now. It’s almost ugly.” Undoubtedly a few weeks ago the forest would have been alive with colour and majesty. The colours of autumn can alight the landscape in an unmatched visual cornucopia. The leaves now however, lay underfoot, already decomposing and creating a soft, brown carpet. The landscape was almost entirely brown, with only the early morning frost to add a touch of contrast to the monochrome.
The sound of a creek drew me in. I stepped down the sides of the bank, feet almost touching the iced over water. An empty bucket in the centre of the creek, trapped by a rock dam, blighted the scene. I stood there for a moment considering whether it was worth attempting to retrieve it, but my mind wandered and the thought was forgotten rather than rejected.
I looked down and noticed that there was a layer of ice at the bottom of the creek and then water flowing over top. The white of the ice contrasted with the brown creek bottom, perfectly visible in through the silt free water. I watched as some air bubbles flowed with the current, trapped beneath the glassy layer of surface ice. The bubbles would flow together, lazily meet and disperse. It crossed my mind that although stunning natural beauty was absent, there was still a poetry to the area. A small fish lazily flapped his fins in order to maintain his position in the stream. A second later he seemed to disappear. The water was perfectly clear but the camouflage was too clever for my eyes. Only due to his movement as the current pulled him downstream was I able to make him out again.
Turning, I faced the bank. The sides of the bank rose several feet above where I was standing so I was able to view the sparsely treed forest floor at almost eye-level. The light of the morning sun lit up countless shimmering spider webs. The underbrush, now devoid of leaves, were tinselled in these threads of light, constantly moving and changing. The light would climb up and down the web, illuminating it and then leaving, and the strands would disappear. Many strands glowed white, one, a vivid indigo, leapt out from the rest. Then I caught sight of two rose hips still clinging to a bush. These splashes of red against the varied hues of brown offered a consummate counterpoint. A fallen tree blocked the sun, but its light gleamed on the underside of the log, a flash of brilliance captured by a thick cobweb.
I considered the scene. The sound of the creek rippled in the background, the chill air cleansed my pores and awakened me to the miracle of being alive. My breath was a cloud of glistening, tiny diamonds that swirled before dissipating into the frosty air. Deer tracks underfoot and blue sky above; I turned my head half a degree and the scene adjusted anew, revealing another perspective of majesty. In each half a second the details altered, offering up a new treasure, like an artist unable to finish a painting because with each passing second new inspiration would compel the brush to canvas. The forest which had first appeared dead to me, now was alive, brought to life by the light of the sun. I could not escape the resplendent beauty; it stretched out near and far in all directions.
As I left the sanctified setting my eyes involuntarily swept upwards. The sky, empty of clouds, was rich blue. The moon, distant and beautiful, half peeked out from the shadow of the Earth. Doubtless the beauty of the Earth remained even as my eyes now fixed themselves on the moon’s glory. My mind was unable to cope with the splendour and I was obliged to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the artist capable of creating on such a scale, and with perfect harmonization from all the senses. I beheld but a portion of a cosmic masterpiece that changes through time, not dying, but being reborn.
As I walked back to the lodge the world reverted to its mundane normalcy. The divinely wrought sparks of beauty so evident before now retreated. My eyes, minutes earlier alert to every consecrated detail, were blinded once again. I mentally began composing these words to describe the experience, knowing that with time the emotions would fade into a two dimensional memory, like a snapshot of a mountain rather than the mountain itself. My mind, busy crafting sentences, was distracted by a squirrel running through the trees like an invitation; God’s grandeur is sometimes subtle, but there for those with eyes to see.
An Unholy Deception: Thoughts on “Holy Hell” | Matthew Nelson
A few nights ago, attempting to relax after a long day’s work, I chose to watch the recently-released documentary Holy Hell. Not my best decision. You’d think I could have guessed this wouldn’t be relaxing entertainment both from the title and its subject matter, an account of a man’s journey with a religious cult named Buddhafield. This man, filmmaker Will Allen, was the group’s official documentarian, and Holy Hell is edited from footage of his 22 years inside the cult. The story he tells sadly conforms to several of the dark hallmarks of religious cults (e.g., psychological manipulation, sexual abuse, etc.), and as such is quite disturbing. However, I found it well worth watching and discussing, as an insightful and moving insider’s account of religious deception.
Will’s experience with Buddhafield began in 1985 in West Hollywood at weekly meetings called Satsang, led by a guru named Michel, whose teachings drew heavily from Hinduism and Buddhism. Will himself explains his motivations in joining the group as his quest for answers to essential religious questions like: “Why am I here? How do I live a meaningful life?” On another level, he and other former members remark that they were fundamentally seeking a family. And what a family they found.
Initially, the experience was uniformly positive. The notion that this was a “cult” was laughable, as both the members and Michel joked about this. People felt they were making “spiritual progress.” They exercised physical discipline, lived in intimate community, served one another, and all of it entailed a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment. What could go wrong?
A crucial turning point occurred at a shakti retreat, in which Michel promised to give select individuals “the knowing”—a direct experience of God, he claimed. Apparently many of them were indeed given some kind of extraordinary, blissful experience, a “high without drugs.” At this point, Will begins to wonder if he’s getting in too deep.
As with most cults, inevitably its members became increasingly dependent upon their guru, whom they fawned over and served. Everything builds until the last 30 minutes of the doc, in which Will reveals that about 7 years in, Michel began sexually abusing him—along with other men in the cult, both homosexuals and heterosexuals—continuously, at scheduled therapy sessions. Unfortunately, everyone kept the secret. As one woman explains, “the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing.”
Eventually, in 2006, revelations of sexual abuse came out when a former member sent an email, and the group began dissolving. Incredibly, some members stayed, even as over a dozen men come out as having been abused by Michel. And Michel (now Reyji) is still in business in Hawaii. How could this happen?
One answer to that question would consider Michel’s use of regression hypnotherapy, often used in conjunction with the abuse, and regardless it effectively meant that he “had his fingers in everyone’s psyche.” The dominant impression conveyed is that people stuck around because they experienced “benefits that outweighed the craziness,” “accepted the questionable things,” and “a lot of us compartmentalized and rationalized.”
In using such psychological techniques to manipulate people into serving, needing, and worshipping him, it seems that Michel managed to deceive skillfully, working in conjunction with his flock’s natural susceptibility, as Jeremiah 17:9 describes, that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?”
This is obviously a brutal story, about the exploitation of people’s longing for God, for something better than the unhappiness and materialism of their surrounding culture. Assuming Holy Hell’s depiction is accurate, it’s difficult not to agree with the blunt assessment of Michel by one of the Buddhafield members’ mothers: “I’m not supposed to hate, but I feel he is evil, really evil.”
Indeed, this is the evil of a man considering himself a “Christ-figure,” yet who is most definitely neither Christ nor Christlike. In fact, the film is like one extended illustration of the opposite of Jesus, anti-Christ-likeness incarnate. This guru makes his sheep serve him; Jesus came “not to be served, but to serve.” Jesus suffers and dies for his people; Michel has his sheep suffer to fulfill his needs. And of course it all comes with great deception, offering a false God who strips people of their individual humanity rather than making them more fully themselves as Jesus does.
One final observation: most Buddhafield members were from Christian homes. I wonder what lessons might be gleaned from this fact? And lest we think we are not susceptible to the charms of deceivers like Michel, we should remember that our only defense is the Spirit of Christ in us and His Scriptures. Apart from Him all are indeed like those in Holy Hell, sheep without a shepherd.
Bon Iver: “22 a Million” Crunches and Gurgles Toward Transcendence
BY DEREK WITTEN
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has returned after a five year hiatus to produce a third full-length album. Musically speaking, it’s as fantastic as you’d expect from Vernon. But the album merits a deep investigation of not just the musical content, but it’s exploration of transcendence.
Taken in sum, the album plays out as a long pagan prayer for some kind of a-theistic transcendence. But regardless of one’s faith stance, the honesty and poignancy which with the prayer is expressed should cause one to stop and pay attention.
Musically speaking you could think along the lines of “Age of Adz” or James Blake mixed with Bruce Hornsby. It’s 80’s fuzz, saxophone, and syrupy, uncomplicated piano triads melded with a deeply unsettling maelstrom of vocal and instrumental manipulation, electronic texture, and lets not to forget the song with 150 saxophones.
Sufjan Steven’s “Age of Adz” might be the best comparison piece for “22 a Million.” Both albums start with the devastating one-two punches, duping the listener in with a quiet and meditative first track, and then dramatically destroying it. Track 1, “22 (OVER S**N)” is whispered falsetto, accompanied by soft saxophone and quiet electronic vocal echoes, building exactly the kind of delicate sound-scape you’d expect from Bon Iver. Track 2, 10dEAThbREasT then promptly tosses a brick through the window with a kind of head-chomping military beat that seems to be constructed out of a mixture of TV static and record glitches. It’s savage, but tremendously enjoyable, and demands high volume. And you can expect a mixture of the two approaches from that point on—rending melody, with frequent distortion. It’s surprisingly listenable, while also being exceptionally weird.
But Vernon’s lyrics deserve their share of the spotlight. There’s a lot going on here, and much of it is communicated by numbers and symbol. It often seems like gorgeous nonsense at first, but some of it emerges with surprising clarity and nuance (I think more so than his pretty, but frustratingly inaccessible second album). The basic progression of the album is a movement from the number “22” to a “million.” According to an accompanying essay written by his friend Trevor Hagen, 22, here represents Vernon himself. It’s a significant number in his life, “A mile marker, a jersey number, a bill total.” It also represents duality between himself and all that lies outside of himself. That which is outside himself is represented by a “million,” the place at which he arrives by his last track.
The entire album then, moves back and forth between 22 and a million, between self-examination, and encounter with the other. He rises from himself, only to crash back down. In 33 “God,” for example, he rhapsodizes about love, “I woulda walked across any thousand lands,” and “I would go forward in the light,” only to conclude the verse with “I better fold my clothes.” His ascent is tied back down to the banality of everyday existence.
And in a sense this is deeply Christian. Our transcendence is inextricable from our materiality, as it was in Christ, fully God, and fully man. In the final track, Bon Iver (somewhat hilariously) cautions: “A word about Gnosis: it ain’t gonna buy the groceries.” Exclusive knowledge of the spiritual without proper acknowledgement of the physical is empty, for it fails to acknowledge the truth of our identity as human beings.
But Vernon is by no means touting Christian orthodoxy here. In fact, he recently told the NY Times explicitly that for him, music is religion. “For me from a very early age, music has been my religion. It’s been my way of understanding, it’s been my way of celebration, it’s been my way of contemplation.”
Thus, Vernon’s fairly frequent references to the Bible do not imply a belief that the Christian God is the source of our transcendence, but more of a mourning that for him, the transcendence promised by religion is found only in music and in relationship. Justin sees himself, religiously speaking as a “child in the reeds,” referencing the Moses story, and a “child ignored.” In “33 God,” he sings “With no word from the former / (I know so well that this is all there is).” As in, with no word from the creator, I am sure that this world is it.
What do we do with this as people of faith? Personally, as I listened to this album repeatedly over the last week, I found his juxtaposition of firmly atheistic sentiment with ardent, almost rabid, spiritual longing as a heartbreaking thing to encounter. I had to stop listening for a period, because I felt so strongly the sense of incongruity between the beliefs of the artist and the mad transcendence of the content.
But despite the fact that this album will undoubtedly make you feel sad, the person of faith will also feel a deep commonality with Vernon’s intensely felt spiritual desire: We, like him, look for place beyond place where “the days have no numbers.” One can even, I think see a kind of progression in 22 a Million, toward a sense of true hope. In the CD booklet (I know I know) the lyrics to most of the songs are printed erratically, with a word here and a word there, scattered across the page. The lyrics to the final song, “00000 Million” are printed in perfectly aligned margins. The words themselves, also, are more cohesive than those in the rest of the songs, circulating around the idea of settling into something solid after being taken on “them wild courses” by “forces” beyond his control. Near the end of the song, he sings, “What a river don’t know is: to climb out and heed a line / To slow among roses, or stay behind.” It’s followed by a haunting little piano cadence that sounds with the kind of finality you’d more expect in your Mom’s Christian Reformed hymnbook.
That line, specifically, is like a sigh of relief after an endless day at work. It’s an expression of hope that perhaps with all this patchy hope and desire for something beyond, perhaps, someday, fragments will “climb out and heed a line”—something with a beginning and an end, and a middle point to follow.
Poet of the Week: Sue Wilkins
After the Tempest
Today, the wind does not come from far off lands, bringing foreign soil and seed,
only to go again,
toward that everreceding horizon
of these flat miles on the plains, a guileless taunt,
a titillating, blandfaced tease.
Today, the wind is only here,
filling the sky,
churning like an ocean without shores, a tempest in the trees.
It strains one way and then,
with an equal herculean strength, turns to pull at the opposite sky
like a giant
in a fit of rage
tearing down his own house,
tortured by his own hands
that, in the end,
can hold nothing at all.
After the tempest,
the sky will drain itself of its ocean, and the seed will come to rest
it will begin to love.
Sue Wilkins is an off-campus student currently living in Nebraska, working on her IPIAT. During her time on campus, her occasional stories and poems were just a couple of the many gifts she contributed to the community.
Third Year Student Kind of Asks Fellow Student for Coffee
Last Tuesday after his Kierkegaard seminar, Chad Vanderhoof kind of asked fellow third year Cynthia Vanson out for coffee.
It happened while they were discussing that week’s material while descending the stairs toward the elevator, where they would have parted ways, sources say.
Cynthia said, “I’m off to the Well,” and was about to depart when Chad said, “That was a great point you made that Kierkegaard might have been a Hegelian if Hegel hadn’t gone and applied his dialectic to the mysteries of Christianity.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking about it. And want to understand it better. But it’s hard.”
Chad paused and then said, “I want to talk about it more, so how about some coffee to fuel our brains sometime.”
Cynthia, who was mildly attracted to Chad, and had been wondering for a year and a half if that interest was requited, was reportedly confused by Chad’s syntax and potentially veiled meaning.
To avoid misinterpreting, she responded vaguely, “That sounds like a good idea.” Chad said “great!” and Cynthia went to the Well.
When interviewed later, Cynthia said, “I’m still not sure what he was saying to me. Maybe he just meant we should make sure to fuel up on caffeine before we go to that class at 8am.”
When asked by The Bunyan to clarify his intentions, Chad said, “I’ve been deeply drawn to Cynthia ever since first year. I feel this cosmic alignment between our two paths. We are both planning on doing PhD’s in the States, and both feel it’s our life calling to bring intellectual substance into American evangelicalism. So I thought it was time to take some firm action.”
Chad also credited his move to his recent shift in academic pursuits.
“I thought last year I might ask her, but at that time I was studying a lot of mystical theology with Dr. Hindmarsh and had thought it would be important to spend a couple weeks at Rivendell to devote it to prayer, which I never ended up having time to do.”
“But in this Kierkegaard seminar I’ve been awoken to myself as an individual before God, with the capacity to exert my will as a Knight of Faith. I thought to myself, ‘Is there a man left at Regent willing to commit an outrageous folly?’ And then I thought, ‘alright, I’m divin’ in.”
Top 5 Theological Halloween Costume Ideas
Being at Regent, the chances are spookily high that you’ve been invited to the strangest of events—a Christian Halloween party.
If you’re still stuck for an appropriate costume, fear ye not, the Etc. and the eclectic history of our Church are here for you. Here they are in no particular order.
1. John Avery Whittaker: No one will convince me that Whit has not safely cemented a firm place in Church history.
How-to: Red sweater with white hair beneath mustard blazer. Add white moustache and avuncular wisdom.
1. St. Kevin: According to the legend, this 6th century hermit sticks his arm out of his cell and a blackbird lands on it and lays eggs. He keeps his arm perfectly still until the eggs have hatched.
How-to: Medieval garb. Bird.
3. Aimee McPherson, early 20th century mother of Church-as-entertainment (or any other American revivalist):
How-to: Enter on motorbike. Dress as a police officer, and urge people to Stop! If they’re speeding to hell. Or come up with your own terrifyingly cheesy catchphrases.
4. High-school Senior Evangelical:
How-to: Delirious! or Jars of Clay tour tee. Burgeoning moustache. A Brio/Breakaway magazine.
5. A Nephilim:
How-to: Creative license welcome. See recent Noah film. .