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Spring 2008 | Volume 31, Number 1 | Features

Hope and American Culture


The Great Divorce (as interpreted in Phil Woodward’s “Ghosts and Spirits” CD)

For another window into our culture, we turn from consumer fantasies to artistic fantasy — to C.S. Lewis’ masterful satire on modern pretensions, The Great Divorce. Phil Woodward’s musical take, like Lewis’ story, begins in Hell — a vast gray town of sprawling empty dwellings and self-consumed, contentious Ghosts. The album’s first song, “The Grey Town,” with a tune that’s numbingly repetitive, evokes this:

It’s good to see newcomers
Enjoy our endless summers,
Albeit damp and dark and gray;
Here nothing ever changes,
It’s been the same for ages:
We hope you all enjoy your stay . . . .
It’s not that wounds are healing,
It’s more that we’ve stopped feeling
’Cause pain and pleasure we’ve outgrown;
No need to fear disasters
In a town where nothing matters,
So come and make yourself at home.

(Is this a picture of future judgment or present culture?)
But denizens of the Grey Town are invited to join a bus tour to a mighty high land of Brightness and Substance. The tourists seem like dull transparent shadows against the solidity and weight of Heaven. Every blade of grass seems like a knife-edge, every splash of a babbling brook like a barrage of shrapnel.

Yet the invitation is to stay in the Bright Land — to repent, and embrace Love and Joy. But few will give up their shriveled identities of Hip and Hype.

For he who would be Hip must be autonomous. He must insistently claim his due. Demand rights — and refuse any help. None of your “Bleeding Charity.”

If I get your tone you want me to disown
The life I’ve lived, and trade it for something free;
But I’m not ashamed of the choices I’ve made And I’m not about to take your bleeding charity . . .
Can’t you see that I’m only human? But of my little world, I’m always in command;
Can’t you see that I’m only human?
I can work for my pay; I don’t take nothing for free.

If one response to Hip is to refuse Grace, one consequence of Hype is cynicism that misreads Grace. Another of Lewis’ tourist-ghosts, proudly resisting the invitation to Joy, chooses the safety of darkness over the Real, the True, and the Good. Phil titles his version “Safety”:

It’s not hard to see that, here, I don’t belong;
It’s no fun to feel like a wraith;
Back home in the shadows, I always felt strong.
I know it’s not real, but it’s safe . . .
I’ve always created my own happiness;
I’ve never been one to have faith
That life can be fuller and deeper than this.
I know it’s not true but it’s safe . . .
Forgive my disinterest in “coming alive”:
I’ll opt for my comforting grave;
Clutching the darkness, I’ve always survived.
I know it’s not good, but it’s safe.

In contrast to the two Ghosts — who choose to return to The Grey Town — is one of the Spirits in Heaven, Sarah Smith, once a beleaguered nobody on earth now celebrated by angels for her selfless care for others. Woodward’s lyric profiles Lewis’ “Saint Sarah”:

I watched as the neighborhood children
Found in her the warmth that money never buys;
When they cried, she rocked and gently stilled them;
When they laughed, the twinkle came into her eyes . . .
Then all exploded into rapture
And I saw the splendor of this mighty queen;
The darkness cowered at her laughter
And her tears could shake all of the world unseen . . .
O how her quiet voice
As angels sang along
Summoned every silent stone to song;
O how she beckons us
To discover all we’re worth,
And she calls to life the dead things of the earth.

And then, at the end of Lewis’ vision, breaks the Dawn. It is a picture of the triumphant conclusion of Saint John’s Revelation of the proclamation of the glorified Christ: “I am making everything new. It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Behold I am coming soon!” Yes, it is “Sunrise”:

It’s come, it’s come,
It’s come, it’s come
Sleepers, awake!
If you open your eyes, you’ll see it’s heaven.

Hip or Hype? Which is your god?
Or might you choose True Hope?
The American Promise fosters a hope that all too often goes unfulfilled, leading to frustration and anger. The Christian gospel, on the other hand, offers Eternal Hope; that is, it inverts the American sequence of hopes sprung up and dashed. The dark afternoon of the cross precedes the bright dawn of resurrection day.

What then is the means to transform dreams of promise into bedrock hope? God’s people must engage their culture first as people of the cross, people of weakness, people of humility, chastened by the realities of human frailty and failure. But then God’s people, having mourned since Friday, can shout on Sunday, can be people of the empty tomb, people of power, people of brawny hope.

And thereby they may be people of transformation — engaging the culture and changing the world.

Or to go back to Lewis in The Great Divorce: be people of Light, people of Substance, people of Joy. Open your eyes, says the Gospel, and you’ll see it’s Heaven.

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