The VALUE project: Video Games and Archaeology at Leiden University

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The VALUE project: Video Games and Archaeology at Leiden University

ASOR June 2017

“What do video games have to do with archaeology? The worlds of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario Bros., or Tetris seem a far cry from anything archaeologists usually work on. But both involve imagining and visualizing worlds populated by humans, with human behavior and culture (and sometimes with mutated humans, aliens, the undead, and giant gorillas throwing barrels). VALUE (Videogames and Archaeology at Leiden University) began two and a half years ago. One of our many goals is to show the great potential video games have for archaeology in terms of public outreach, heritage preservation, and education, but also for actual research.”

The Dance of Truth: Postmodernism and the Evangelical

The Dance of Truth: Postmodernism and the Evangelical

Melville: Imagine someone who, finally, takes up the sword or the harpoon to begin a combat with God himself.

Hawthorne: One must not believe— Melville: In who?—

Hawthorne: In God.

Melville: On the contrary, for then what would be the merit? Hawthorne: Or the madness.

Melville: Or the madness if you like. No I think on the contrary of someone who saw God as clearly as the nose in the middle of a face, as the saying goes, as clearly as the white whale above the water, and who, precisely, seeing him in all his glory, knowing him in all his mysteries, knowing how far the delirium of his force may go, but not forgetting—ever—the wounds inflicted on him by this God, nevertheless launches himself at him and throws the harpoon. I believe you are writing a fine book, said Hawthorne, after a silence. . .

 

We want God to make sense, to be reasonable, to act according to how we think God should act. This kind of thinking, though, is not far from where we live today. If I give money to the church, then God will bless me financially. If I have my “quiet time” in scripture, then God will bless my day. If I raise my children right, then surely they will turn out right. In themselves these actions are good and right; however, we have to ask ourselves, “Do our motives emerge from the desire to give a place to the mystery of faith, or, rather, to conquer mystery?”

I am troubled by a movement very common in Christian circles today called “Raising Kids God’s Way.” Even the title smacks of modernist arrogance—that the method I use to raise my children would be God’s way. It is tragic enough that the authors of this training method use scripture in egregious ways, encourage dubious medical practices, and promote the deadening of passion and imagination in our children. But more sadly, they are teaching the quintessential promise of modernism: If I do A, then God will do B.

Terrified, bewildered parents want a guarantee. I know this passion for a guarantee by personal experience. I want something in my life that will guarantee me that if I do this, then God is obligated to do such-and-so. Thank God, though, for our five year olds whose unrestrained passions remind us that God is whimsical and untamed. Thank God for our “foolish” teenagers who drive the foolishness out of our hesitant, fearful hearts. If you want a good picture of postmodernism, then think of the five year old who disrupts the best laid plans of the family or the teenager who begins to question a parent’s faith. This is why the postmodern moment is so terrify- ing to us. It is a reminder that we are out of control, and a place where we are invited to trust a God who is beyond our comprehension. We want guarantees, and conveniently for Christians, we can “invent” a God who gives such a guarantee. In other words, Christians can use the methods and the thinking of modernism to project an image of a God who removes questions and doubts. Modernism, then, becomes a way of think- ing which attempts to tame and reduce God to logical categories so that our worlds will be predictable. It is the quest for the absolute presence of God—we can use our minds, our reason, to prove the existence of God. Modernism at its extreme is the belief that the human mind can comprehend reality whether it be something as lofty as God or as mundane as weather patterns. Referring back to Melville’s quote at the beginning of this essay, just as Captain Ahab madly hunted the great, mysterious white whale, modernism has been the furious pursuit of God in order to conquer the ultimate mystery.

If we can say that modernism is the delirious launch and thrust of the harpoon at the God who has been sighted, that frenzied quest to pierce and capture the incomprehensible God, then perhaps we can say that postmodernism is the appalling, haunting moment when the harpoon misses the target, we have launched ourselves into the howling maelstrom, and the sighted God has disappeared into the deep blue sea. Thus, we no longer live in a culture which promotes this naïve assumption of modernism: that we can actually comprehend God. Most likely, modernist arrogance reached its height, the top of Babel, in the thought of Hegel, the German philosopher. Incredibly, Hegel actually believed that his philosophy had finally solved the mystery of the trinity. Listen to the words of Gadamer, a more contemporary German philosopher: “Hegelian philosophy claimed above all to have comprehended the truth of the Christian message in conceptual form. This included even the deepest mystery of Christian doctrine, the mystery of the trinity.” Hegel could actually believe in his idealistic, but naïve, philosophy because he was a child of the nineteenth century. Little could he have known what lay in store for the twentieth century. Little did he know that his positive philosophy would be a major force that would lead to the Holocaust.

As we approach the twenty-first century, our postmodern culture asks a very different question than our modernist ancestors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: We are asking, “Where is God?” You promised that God would be there. Auschwitz. Hiroshima. My Lai. You said we could prove God’s existence. Mao Tse-tung. Pinochet. Pol Pot. You said that God made sense. The Cultural Revolution in China. The Red Terror in Ukraine. Stalin’s bloody purges in Russia. You said that God has spoken in history. Prague 1968. Chiapas 1996. Laramie 1998. You said that we were getting better and better, that “even God could not sink this ship!” The finality of the German gas chamber. The isolation of the American prison cell. The horror of the Chilean torture chamber. “Where is God?” Indeed. “Man of sorrows, disappearing into the crowd.”

But there is another disappearance here at the end of modernism, one just as insidious as these physical manifestations mentioned in the previous paragraph. This other disappearance is the loss of meaning. We are deluged with data. Never in the history of humanity have there been more words, more images, more sensory data than in our time. Everywhere we turn, we are assaulted by images without substance, advertisements without ethics, and words with- out meaning. How does the church speak about the tragedy of the twentieth century? How does the church speak to this postmodern world?

We are at the end of the modernist experiment, and we have forfeited, we are missing, truth and goodness. Only beauty remains, but beauty appears to be dislocated and homeless, because, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there” anymore. How do we reconcile beauty and Auschwitz; how do we reconcile beauty and vacuous Madison Avenue? We have launched out into the deep and cast our harpoon, but we have missed, we are missing God. We miss God: we have missed in our attempt to grasp the incomprehensible, and thus we are missing, we are yearning and are pining for God. If modernism was the confident demand for the presence of God, the building of Babel, then postmodernism can be the passion to sift through the ruins of the twentieth century, the rubble of Babel, in a search for the absent God. It is no secret that our culture is experiencing a profound sense of alienation. We are alienated from ourselves, from others and from God. This is what I mean by the absence of God—not that God has abandoned us, but that we are estranged from God and others.

Simply put, the question is this. How, then, does one talk about this search for the absence of God? How do we represent the Deus absconditus, the hidden God, who in Flannery O’Connor’s terms is the ragged figure who runs from tree to tree in our minds? How do we represent the God who got away? What place does modernist thought give to the person of God much less the hiddenness of God? We must ask and attempt to answer the question: how does the absence of God play out in our theology and in our culture?

Enter postmodernism. Postmodern thought comes upon the scene to remind us that faith is the dance of presence and absence, grace and tragedy, assurance and doubt. Perhaps the postmodern moment is the most effective way to reveal the hidden God. In this issue we want to argue that postmodern thought critiques the arrogance of modernism, and in so doing, offers the church one of its greatest opportunities to present the gospel. In other words, postmodern thought does have something to offer the church. Unfortunately though, there is a quite a bit of confusion going on in evangelical circles around the word “postmodern.” If the “new age movement” was the heresy that bedeviled the evangelical church in the eighties, then postmodernism is supposedly that new heresy creeping into the church as we move into the twenty-first century. Within the last two years I have heard and read many of the standard evangelical responses to postmodernism, and quite frankly, I have been shocked not only by the strident, reactionary tone but, more so, the obvious superficial misreadings and misunderstandings of what postmodernism is all about. When most evangelicals speak of postmodernism they use all-encompassing words such as “relativistic,” “nihilistic,” or the “death of truth” (as if truth could really die). But we must examine this issue carefully.

More times than not, we do not expend the energy to carefully, thoughtfully understand and explore views with which we disagree, i.e. postmodernism. As a result, whether implicitly or explicitly, we end up rejecting opposing views out of cozy ignorance rather than costly study. More tragically though, the theology of the church can inadvertently reflect worldly thinking rather than solid, scriptural thinking. Evangelical seminaries emphasize rationalist, analytical methodology over relationship; the Religious Right pushes morality rather than holiness; the church is in the business of recruiting more soldiers to defend the truth rather than sending believers out into the world to love and care for those who cannot care for themselves; mission organizations send out missionaries to save the pagans with the implicit message that the ones who are being saved must be delivered not only from their sins but their culture; some parachurch organizations present the gospel to others in a way that seeks to convince unbelievers of the truth of Christ rather than inviting them to a significant relationship with Christ.

Quite frankly I am concerned that certain pockets of evangelical Christianity have uncritically cast their lots with modernist think- ing. I recall the first time I attended a class in what many evangelicals would call a liberal seminary. This particular seminary was reputed to be an “open” institution, but I was astounded by the arrogance and intolerance of both the instructors and a number of the students. What terrified me the most, though, was the shock I felt when I began to realize that I was back in a “fundamentalist” institution. At different times in the class, I thought I had come upon a more dangerous fundamentalism—the tyranny of seeing through the eyes of tolerance. Same hermeneutic as fundamental- ism, just different theology. Years previously I had left a fundamentalist institution for the purpose of finding teaching that would not place God in a box, an institution whose sole purpose was not to build fences around the untamed God.

One of the basic problems with the postmodern debate is this: more times than not, some evangelicals are viewing postmodernism from within a modernist worldview. Postmodernism begins, though, by questioning the entire modernist enterprise while at the same time bringing forth new ways of thinking and inviting new voices to the discussion of faith. It is important to understand that my intent is not to throw out the advances of modernism and turn wholeheartedly toward postmodernism. In the end, both are human philosophies which emphasize certain aspects of truth while at the same time harboring serious errors. I would be the first to agree that postmodernism must be critiqued, but we have much to learn from the postmodern spectacle. As we begin, let me venture forth my very simple definition as long as we understand that my definition is not all-encompassing: postmodernism is a reversal in rationalist thinking which opens the door to mystery.

The Postmodern Spectacle

 It would be impossible to even begin to present a comprehensive view of postmodernism, so allow me to mention a few integral elements to postmodern thinking. I will discuss four categories: the postmodern moment is a turn, a downturn, a re-turn, and a ride in the rumble seat.

In the first place, postmodernism is a turn in language. The Italian author Umberto Eco, claims that postmodernism is “a way of operating” or simply, an entirely different way of thinking about language and reading. Essentially, postmodern thought would argue that God cannot be encircled, surrounded, or encompassed with language. As humans this side of Paradise, we can never know God perfectly; thus we never have an unadulterated, privileged view of God. Luther said a long time ago that there is a problem with the interpreter—we are blind to truth (John 9:41: “If you were blind, you would not have sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”). Yes, the postmodernist would say, but there is also a problem with language. Language communicates, but language also confuses and thus invites interpretation at every reading. Language is mysterious and calls for a profound humility on the part of the reader.

Modernism, and I must add, evangelical seminaries, have taught that the right methodology will correct wrong readings of the Bible. But most postmodern thinkers would argue that the strong arm of methodology merely sets up the reader to exit the text just as he or she entered the text. In other words, methodology does not critique the interpreter—the reader’s prejudices and arrogance. As the German philosopher, Schleiermacher, said a century ago: “You can have all the right tools and right beliefs and still miss the meaning of the text.” Postmodern thinkers would merely say that the process of reading is not as innocent or as unbiased as modernist thinkers have contended.

Let me turn to one place in the Bible that has been consistently misread with modernist prejudices. Judges has been and continues to be a very difficult text in the Bible. There is one place in particular that frustrates the reader. Judges 1:8 states that Jerusalem was destroyed by the tribe of Judah and Judges 1:21 tells us that Jerusalem was not destroyed by the Benjamites but in fact, “the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjamites to this day.” What are we to do with these contradictory statements? Must we agree with the modernist historical critic that what we have here is an editorial discrepancy of the first order? Evangelicals, in defense of the text, have joined the interpretive fray but have done so with a similar modernist, historical methodology in the attempt to explain away the problem. Modernism (evangelical or liberal) states that contradictions like this cannot exist in the Bible or in a “good” story. In doing so, both interpretive schools, under the influence of modernist presuppositions, have missed the meaning that this troubling gap is signifying.

A postmodern reading would ask instead, “Why is the text presenting two contradictory views within the same chapter?” “What message does this gap signify and how does this same thing happen somewhere else within the Bible?” Modernism, whether liberal or evangelical, asks the question, “How can I resolve this discrepancy?” In other words, the text is illogical or seemingly inaccurate so I must somehow make the text work. If I’m evangelical, I assume that God would only use that which is logical to reveal truth. Thus I would turn to history or archeology in my attempt to resolve this discrepancy. Furthermore, as an evangelical, I assume that God writes stories that are linear and logical. Postmodernist thought, however, asks this question to the evangelical: “What if the way I read the Bible is more modernist than biblical?” Postmodernism would say that there’s a fox in the hen house and that fox could be the evangelical’s uncritical modern way of thinking. Perhaps God reveals himself in mysterious ways that I could never imagine. When I read the Bible, I need to think how God would write the story more than how I think God should write the story.

Furthermore, postmodernism asks the question: “Are there other places in art and literature where the same thing is happening?” In other words, maybe the same thing appears in other stories and art forms outside of the Bible. These other places can inform my understanding of the scriptures. It may be that the narrator of Judges desired to present two disparate views simultaneously much the same way that Picasso painted. Picasso, in order to present a new view of reality, used Braque’s concept of simultaneity to reveal multiple meanings within the one text. Thus, his painting, Woman Seated, displays the profile of a woman and a frontal view of a woman. The two overlapping images of the women in reality represent one and the same woman. Picasso wanted to portray multiple perspectives of this woman so that we as the readers/viewers may see a fuller picture of this woman. Thus, in the book of Judges, the success of Judah in 1:8 and the defeat of Benjamin in 1:21 reflects a profound tension in the rest of the book: Judah will be successful; Benjamin will be passed over. In 1 Samuel there is this same ten- sion: David from the tribe of Judah will rule Israel; Saul from the tribe of Benjamin will not. Here in the same chapter are two perspectives of Jerusalem that provide a fuller picture of God’s work in Israel.

Reading, then, should be the radical expansion of the interpreter’s horizon, not the modernist limiting of the horizon. What postmodernism calls for is a new way of thinking about biblical theology, a postmodern biblical theology that emerges from the shift in language that this new turn in language brings. Modernism encourages us to come to the text as a blank slate. Postmodern biblical theology encourages the interpreter to bring his or her life (world) to the text because the interpreter brings a wealth of culture that will aid our understanding of the Bible. Every voice is important as the church reads the Bible. Postmodernism invites us to listen to the voice of the other, the ones we have historically exiled because of our selfish prejudices—women, African-Americans, Asians, the poor. . . . Are we not truly the relativists and the nihilists when we refuse someone else’s readings, when we refuse to listen to the voice of the other? Postmodern reading occurs in the community of others not just in the confines of my safe, narrow world. Wittgenstein has warned us that the limits of our language will be the limits of our own worlds.

Secondly, postmodern thinking is a downturn, an overturning of the way we see, a radical disruption of the way we think. This is the mission statement of a postmodern biblical theology: “Thus says the LORD, ‘My ways are not your ways’.” As humans, we are finite in our thinking, and there is no possible way that we can have a “total” view of reality. I will never forget a lecture by one of my favorite professors, Dick Averbeck. He was teaching a class of semi- nary students and began to list his rules for reading the Bible. “Number one,” he began. With pen in hand I was eagerly waiting to hear the first principle of interpretation. “I am wrong,” he said. We all sat there in class staring blankly at him. I was thinking to myself, “OK, get on with it, let us hear the first principle.” He repeated his statement, “I am wrong.” Then he proceeded to remind us of our human limitations and our propensity to sin so, of course, when I come to the Bible, “I am wrong.” Dick went on to explain that we are also right because we are redeemed and have the Spirit working within, but I have never quite recovered from Rule #1. He was inviting us to live in the tension of being right and wrong in the same moment. What, though, places us on this path of humility? I would argue partly that tragedy, disruption, and the discovery that I have been blind are the first steps to relation- ship with God. The postmodern moment can usher in a critique or crisis to the modernist promise that correct doctrine alone will lead to salvation. I would be the first to say that correct doctrine is essential to the Christian life, but I would also remind us that cor- rect doctrine (thinking) begins not with the assurance that I am right, but with the humility that I am wrong, or perhaps better put, there are many things in life and faith that remain a mystery to me. The German poet Rilke told the young poet to “love the questions.” Time and again, I have seen Christians use logic, or the rule of noncontradiction, or “evidences” in the attempt to prove the truth of Christianity. The postmodernist would say that all these “proofs” are merely subjective projections of the way I believe the world should work. Further, the postmodernist would point out that my supposed “objective” interpretation is, in the end, just another example of circular reasoning. I see what I want to see. I create God in my own image.

Most importantly though, the postmodernist would say that this modernist way of thinking puts an end to mystery by bringing closure to the questions—ending the story. In the end, the extreme of modernism teaches me to hate and take flight from my questions. Once again, our Lord said it best. “If we think we see, then we are blind. If we know that we are blind, then we see.” There is an infinite paradox here in these words. True sight does not begin in sight. True sight, the sighting of truth, begins with the acknowledgment that I am blind.

Therefore, this crisis of vision should not end in nihilism, but instead, lead to the yearning for more, a revelation of the presence of God. Out of the absence of God emerges the yearning for the appearance of God. Disruption should lead to change. Tragedy is a doorway to redemption, and judgment is a prelude to salvation. My questions, rather than resulting in idleness and despair, should lead me to an intense relationship with God and passionate care for others. These words recall Jeremiah’s central purpose of his prophetic calling, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10). The day-to-day work of postmodernism is to overthrow the arrogance and narcissism of the self. This newfound humility will compel me to not only search for truth but also to seek the face of God. Our postmodern generation easily recognizes the tragedy and emptiness of the twentieth century. But if the American evangelical church remains squarely within a modernist theology, essentially turning a blind eye to tragedy because we offer glib answers to deep and disturbing questions, then for the first time in the history of the church we might find ourselves entirely irrelevant.

Thirdly, postmodernism is a re-turn to the past. Postmodernist thinking does not throw off the past but returns to the past for the purpose of finding meaning for today. This is what Umberto Eco says in the postscript to his brilliant postmodern novel, The Name of the Rose: “But the moment comes when the avant-garde (the modern) can go no further. . . .The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently.”

This is one of the great ironies of modernism, that at its most extreme, it ushers us down the exhausting path of subjectivism and nihilism because its critique of the past throws out the past. Simply put, we must abandon the past (tradition) to live well in the pre- sent. As we have seen, postmodernism welcomes other viewpoints to approach the interpretive table even when those views and texts hail from the past. The past is not to be thrown off as something which has no meaning for today, but rather, something that is evoked and reinterpreted for the purpose of discovering meaning in the present. This means, then, that tradition is not to be thrown off, nor is it to be accepted slavishly without careful thought and criticism.

Finally, a ride in the rumble seat. Postmodernism is play and the postmodern moment invites us to play with the text and to dance with God. Postmodernism is “irony, metalinguistic play, enunciation squared. Thus, with the modern, anyone who does not under- stand the game can only reject it, but with the postmodern, it is possible not to understand the game and yet take it seriously.” Umberto Eco’s words here are full of insight. In the end, the modernist enterprise is a failure to laugh—the refusal to play. Has the modernist agenda taken away our ability to play with the text and to take great pleasure in our readings? Have we as evangelicals surreptitiously rejected the game because we cannot admit that at the end of the day we, like the moderns, really don’t understand the game? In our obsession for truth we have lost the delightful quest for meaning. Postmodernism recognizes that mystery is not the death of truth but the playground where truth can swing. Again, lis- ten to Eco’s words, “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.” It was our Lord who said it best: “Truth shall set you free.” Free to read with questions and imagination. Free to reach out to others in love and compassion rather than attempting to prove that we are right. Evangelicals are defending truth more than they are dancing with truth. We already believe in truth. Then let truth compel us to God and then propel us into the world. We cannot comprehend God. Then let us dance with God. We do not under- stand the other. Then let us dance with the other because our truth has set us free. I think Norman Maclean’s father said it best: “You can love completely without complete understanding. That I have known and preached.”

Truth in Motion

 In conclusion, allow me to call us back to the Old Testament. The people of the ancient Near East (including Israel) wanted a king who would banish all the chaos of the world. They wanted a modernist king. But, in the Old Testament, God had a different idea. The godly king will not be one who rules by worldly wisdom or sheer strength, but the king who cares for the widows, orphans, and aliens by the pouring out of his broken, crushed body (a foreshadowing of Christ). In Judges 9 the good king is the vine, the olive, and the fig. The bad king is the thorn bush. The good king will give life by being crushed (grape, olive) or broken open (the fig). The bad king will refuse to be broken and thus rule by terror and bloody violence. In the Old Testament, the “power” of the king or the queen was not to be used to expand the boundaries of his or her own kingdom, but instead, as a force to guard the boundaries of others.

What if the evangelical church reflected this postmodern king of the Old Testament? It is encouraging to see that a few churches are seek- ing racial reconciliation and therefore recognizing the value of hear- ing “other” voices from other cultures such as African-American, Asian, Hispanic, etc. Some in the church are beginning to take women seriously, to let them speak, and the results are quite refresh- ing. For the first time in the history of the church, because women are gaining a voice, we have a chance to see the full image of God (male and female) work out salvation. Postmodernist thinking critiques the modernist tendency of limiting the voice of God to one voice and instead calls us to listen to the ensemble of many voices. Modernist thinking attempts to remove difference; it uses the thorn to oppress others into obedience. Postmodernist thought emphasizes difference by recognizing that many perspectives give us a better view of God even though this cacophony of voices decreases my power and infuses my community with unruly chaos.

Many of our evangelical churches and seminaries today are experiencing the crisis of irrelevance and at the same time our postmodern culture is forcing us to rethink the educational model of the last century. In the past, seminary has focused on training the mind to think well, and in so doing learn to read the Bible well. The overarching goal in seminaries has been one of intellectual assent and comprehension. In other words, if you can demonstrate the right knowledge (proper doctrine), then you are ready to enter the field of ministry. But there is an alternative. Seminaries that embrace some aspects of postmodern thought encourage both knowledge and relationship, for they understand that truth without relationship is irrelevance, and irrelevance is the most insidious error of all. We are beginning to see a few new seminaries that understand the importance of training the mind and the soul.

If modernism at its extreme can result in the triumph of reason over ignorance at best, but at worst the triumph of reason over mystery and faith, then postmodernism can be the invitation to mystery alongside reason and thus the fresh opportunity for faith. Absence compels presence. Sometimes what we think is death, the end, therein lies life–deeper and more meaningful, In that appalling, haunting moment of God’s absence comes the long- ing for the presence of God without the illusion that we will ever comprehend the glory of the Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gobekli Tepe, Turkey

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Hagia Sophia: March 2015

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South Holston Flyfishing May 2015

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The Blue Mosque: March 2015

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The Glory of His Discontent: The Inconsolable Suffering of God

The Glory of His Discontent: The Inconsolable Suffering of God

By Don Michael Hudson, PhD

 He who is satisfied has never truly craved. And he who craves for the light of God neglects his ease for ardor.

— Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel

“What have you done with the Holocaust?” I asked.

The man sitting across from me resided squarely within the traditional evangelical attitude toward pain and suffering. Forty-five

minutes earlier, I had invited him to tell me his life story. And he did—he told me of a very painful, tragic story. But there was something unsettling about the way he spoke of his life. Simply put, this man’s mood and manner did not match the suffering in his life. His eyes glazed over as he methodically recounted some very tragic scenes. His words were as vacant as his eyes, and he laced his stories with occasional hollow clichés and platitudes. “But as you well know, ‘all things work together for good.’” “God is good, but he’s not safe,” he would say. With every incident I heard from his life, I felt a connection to this man and was drawn to him with a deeply felt empathy. Yet each “Christian” cliché brought the conversation to a grinding halt and pushed me away from any connection with this fellow human being.

Every time he came to great tension in his story, he would relieve the moment by using some phrase to dismiss the tension. It was as if his soul were a balloon: as the tragedy would well within him, just at the right moment he would take the pin of Christian cliché and let the air out. “But what was meant for evil, God meant for good.” “The Lord has healed me from those memories now.”

I have seen those same eyes many times before and listened to the same soul-deadening words. It’s not that I differ with the words that this man used to make sense of his life; but I strongly disagree with the way this man used his words. His demeanor—and thus his words—disturbed me for this reason: there was something inhuman in his response. I use the word “inhuman” because there was nothing that engaged me or gripped me about what he told me. He wasn’t even a good reporter. At least a reporter has the instincts to make you feel something in the story reported. As I listened to this man, it was obvious that he was asking me to feel nothing. He was speaking in a way that asked me to join him in his distance.

 In so many ways, this man cannot tell a true story because he has never truly engaged the conflicts and questions of his life. Christianity has become for him a system of dismissing doubt rather than embracing paradox. Like many modern Christians, he uses “truth” to deaden his emotions, dispel his questions, and distance himself from anything vaguely human. A good and true life story, however, never dismisses conflict but invites it, even welcomes it. Any story worth its salt does not begin until tragedy steals in.

A Terrible Beauty Is Born

Compare the story of the Bible. If we as Christians are to model our lives on the very fabric of the Bible story, then let’s see how God tells a story. Would God tell a story the way the man sitting before me did?

First, the story that God tells begins in an innocent world, i.e., the Garden of Eden. In the beginning, the Almighty God confronts the chaos of nothingness and fiercely imagines a paradise. Adam and Eve live within this paradise totally unconscious of guilt or suffering. They do not know good from evil, and they stand before one another and God unaware of themselves. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2: 25, NRSV). In the garden, man and woman are present with God, but I would argue that their presence is unaware of God’s world, just as infants would be of their parents’ world. For centuries the church has taught that the Garden of Eden was perfection, with no sin, no tragedy, no disillusionment. True enough. Yet existence in Eden was much more than perfection; life was also innocent. In other words, perfection had its glory—communion with God’s person—and perfection had its price—ignorance of God’s world.

So far so good. Up to this point in scriptures, the story that God tells is very similar to the story that the man sitting across from me recounts. Both begin in the innocence of Eden. But then we see a subtle difference. God’s story moves out of innocence; the Christian man’s story returns to innocence again and again. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (3: 4-5, NRSV).

Now think of the rest of the Bible story. Do we see innocence or tragedy? For years I have thought it quite strange that only two chapters in the Bible are devoted to Eden, that innocent land. It is extremely important to note that the Bible story, from Genesis to Revelation, is framed by Eden and heaven. The first two chapters are devoted to life in Eden, and the last two chapters to life in heaven. What then is the rest of the Bible—everything else in between? The rest of the Bible is tragedy. Tragedy and redemption. Redemption of tragedy, but tragedy nonetheless. If the Christian life is a sojourn, which I believe it is, then the pilgrim on the way (Homo Viatoris) is moving from the innocence of Eden to the joy of heaven while trying to make sense of a tragic, suffering world.

It should be obvious to even the most casual or disinterested reader of the Bible that one tragedy follows closely on the heels of another. Indeed, beginning with Genesis 3, tragedy seems to waylay every traveler in the journey of faith, hope, and love. Tragedy intrudes into the lives of the Bible characters as easily as it does in our own lives today. Adam and Eve lose their first son at the hands of their other son. Noah trusts God wildly, and God delivers him, but soon thereafter gets drunk and indirectly curses his own grandson, Canaan. Moses, the great prophet, is not allowed to enter the promised land because he petulantly strikes the rock in rage. The kings of Israel lead the Israelites into great success one season and into utter failure the next.

In the New Testament, Paul and Barnabas are at each other’s throats so badly that they can not work together. Most enlightening, though, is the story of Christ, the journey of the gospel. Christ, in his first coming, does not intrude into our history to be triumphant but to be humiliated at the hands of his own creation. This is the scandal that his disciples just could not, would not grasp. In the eternal scope of the gospel, the crux of the cross is tragedy. For the love of the world, the omnipotent God takes on tragedy in the torture and death of the cross. God does not see tragedy as some cosmic Freudian slip but as essential to the story of the ages; he does not step into the history of this world to be victorious only, but to be crucified.

This truth is quite overwhelming to admit. The church—that is, Christianity—is suspended in tragedy. We live between Eden and heaven, the God who was and the God who will be. In the story that God is telling in our lives, he asks us to live in the stark reality of the cross while we sight the glimmer of the resurrection. Suffering calls attention to God’s silence and his absence. We do not know for certain that this life is more than tragic; we believe, we hope, we yearn, but we do not know without a doubt. Certainty destroys faith by distorting hope into presumption. And presumption subtly but obsessively seeks to eradicate suffering from our lives because it is suffering that ushers in the deepest questions of our existence. Suffering, like no other reality, demands that we live in the not yet. Indeed, we will not know until the end of the world whether or not tragedy or beauty wins in the end. We wait and yearn for the day that is not yet. “God is the beginning and the end. The middle of the day is ours.”

Christianity, then, in its very essence is a religion of the discontented. How can we be content with a century that includes the Jewish Holocaust? How can we be content with the modern century that has slaughtered more than 100 million people in the name of ideology? How can we be content when children in the world’s wealthiest nation are starving? How can we be content when AIDS is ravaging the gay community? How can we be content when nearly seven out of ten women in our culture are sexually abused as children? How can we be content when God is not content? Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “We Christians need not be ashamed of showing a little impatience, longing and discontent with an unnatural fate, nor with a considerable amount of longing for freedom, earthly happiness and opportunity for work.”1

 Closing our eyes to the suffering of this world is choosing to live in an innocence that God does not live in. The serpent in the Garden knew all too well what he was inviting Adam and Eve to— tragedy and the suffering that ensues. Tragedy did as tragedy still does today: it wakes us up from our innocent stupor. The serpent promised Adam and Eve that if they ate of the fruit, they would know as God knows—that they would know sin and suffering. One of the most intriguing ironies of the fall is that we now know as God knows because we know sin and suffering. The serpent understood all too well that the fall would bring tragedy and death. But inherent within evil is one fatal blind spot: evil does not see that tragedy compels beauty and evokes repair (tikkun).

The intimate knowledge of suffering, which is a loss of innocence, constrains us to fiercely imagine truth, beauty, and goodness just as God did when he confronted the chaos in Genesis 1. God’s imagi- nation in the face of chaos resulted in the creation of heaven and earth. Acknowledging the suffering of this world places us every day in the image of our Creator—we can create beauty out of nothing or we can repeat suffering in an endless cycle of destruction. Confronting suffering in our world becomes the fulcrum between ultimate tragedy or redemption. So every Christian every day stands on the razor’s edge of destruction or redemption. The truth is quite simple: the one who is content does not love. The one who is discontent loves, and the one who loves attempts to eradicate suffering by entering it rather than denying it. To suffer as God suffers is to refuse to accept life as it is. But we must be careful here. There is a world of difference between being discontent and being malcontent. One who is malcontent refuses to hope in a world beyond this world and so lives out hatred, despair, and cynicism. A person who is malcontent heaps suffering upon suffering. The discontent hopes in this world because there is a world beyond and so he or she lives out faith, hope, and love in the lives of other people. The discontented person is not a whiner who fails to imagine, but one who sorrows unto joy.

A few years back when my son was just a few months old, he became increasingly sick. He was not eating well, and as a consequence he was losing weight rapidly. For one week my wife and I were sent back and forth from doctor to specialist in an attempt to find the cause of his sickness. Each time we visited these physicians, we heard more discouraging news. At the time I was commuting between Denver and Philadelphia, where I was studying at Westminster Seminary. At one point, I needed to fly to Philadelphia for one day to take an important mid-term. My wife and I debated whether or not I should go, but in the end we decided I needed to take the exam; I could do very little back in Denver until we found out what was wrong.

I planned to fly into Philadelphia in the morning, take my exam, and catch the 5:35 p.m. flight back in time to join my family for dinner. With ten minutes left on my exam, I saw someone enter the front of the classroom and give a note to my professor. My heart sank and then began to pound as he made his way back to me. The note stated matter-of-factly that I needed to call home because the doctors had to rush my son to surgery to repair an intestinal blockage. I left immediately and tried to call home, but I could not reach anyone, even at the hospital. To make matters worse, I missed the direct flight back to Denver, so I had to be routed through Chicago on a later flight. I have never had a longer flight in my life. Finally, when I reached Chicago, I was paged and told where to call my wife. The good news was that they did not have to operate. The bad news was that they thought they had found the problem: the doctors thought that my son had a rare disease that might require removing his colon. We were to report to Children’s Hospital the next morning for tests.

I was not prepared for what happened the next day in the hospital. After a battery of tests, we were told our son did not have the disease and probably had some kind of block that had worked itself out. Great news. But I will never forget the day for a very different reason: while waiting for his tests, we saw some very sick children—children who would not get well. The children had a deep sadness in their eyes, and their parents wore exhaustion and terror on their faces. Maybe out of weakness or maybe out of fear, I could no longer endure staying in that waiting room with those children. I left the room, found a hidden place, and burst into tears. For a few seconds I felt an inconsolable, desperate sadness. But within a very short time, my sadness turned to rage and rage toward God. How can you look down on those children and not do something? 

Could you look down on the Holocaust of your chosen and their children? Why won’t you do something? I walked away from that day joyful that my son was well but deeply troubled over those children in the waiting room. Strangely, I also walked away thanking the God I doubted for the medical staff who had the courage to be discontented, to be present day after day in a starkly tragic world.

The Tragedy of Christianity

Northrop Frye says that tragedy in the Bible is “ironic,” which means that tragedy is never an end in itself but always leads to a subtler, unforeseen truth. Thus when I speak of tragedy, I do not speak of tragedy that is final, ultimate, or the only stage in life. Ultimate tragedy is the evil one’s story; redeemed tragedy is God’s. Our lives then, if they reflect the big picture of the Bible, journey though a tragic, suffering world while yearning for a perfect world. But then, this is the theological rub, isn’t it? We sit around waiting for a perfect world or we miss the city built without hands because we are so busy building it here on earth. Much of the way we think as Christians attempts to bring heaven to this earth right now and in every situation because we deny the very real tragedy of suffering.

How should we live in tragedy then? If you agree with my foundational premise that God invites us to live as he does-in the full reality that tragedy is everywhere and a necessary part of the story-then we must answer the question, “How do I live well in this life?” Most importantly, we are discontent because our world is not as it should be. As we have seen, this means that we do not accept life as it is. Living back in Eden or ahead in heaven is ultimately an unreal life that saps the passion from our lives. This theology makes us content and calls us to nothingness. A Christian who is discontent, on the other hand, desperately seeks to join God in redeeming a tragic world, not dismissing a tragic world. When we are content we are satisfied, and this satisfaction ultimately slips into despair and arrogance. We lose moments of passionate connection and creativity. God invites us to live the questions and to yearn for resolution without dismissing the questions. Someone once said, “You can easily recognize false teachers by the fact that they know the answers to all the questions.”

Let me offer a very simple statement: suffering is the gateway to heaven. And I mean by heaven more than we normally think of suffering heaven. If we cannot accept suffering and the grief that accompanies it, then we are saying that grief is greater than the gospel. Yes, I am taking up an age-old topic that seems to be quite manageable by any moderately well-read Christian. But I want to approach the issue of human suffering from a very different vantage point-one that we rarely think from. When we speak of suffering, most of the time we mean human suffering. I want to think of suffering in this essay from God’s view—quite a presumptuous, prodigious task, yet I believe our view of God’s suffering will ultimately determine and dictate our view of human suffering. Our view of tragedy in God’s purview will guide our own view of personal tragedy. The most pressing need here is to say that in the discussion of human suffering and tragedy we have invented a comfortable God who thinks of tragedy the way we do.

The problem is that most of us have a very skewed idea of how God looks at tragedy. We think of God very much the way the ancient Greeks did. He is the unmoved mover, the apathetic God. It is not that he does not care, but that he does not really care in his care. “Christian theology acquired Greek philosophy’s ways of thinking in the Hellenistic world; and since that time most theologians have simultaneously maintained the passion of Christ, God’s son, and the deity’s essential incapacity for suffering—even though it was at the price of having to talk paradoxically about ‘the sufferings of the God who cannot suffer.’”2 We think of God as supremely rational, but rarely do we think of him as emotional. Even more so, we believe in a God who is quite content. In our obsession to create God in our own likeness, we have fashioned him to be a God who looks down on us with glib contentment. Our theology of suffering is really a theology of nonsuffering.

Have we American Christians very subtly replaced the God of the Bible with the Aristotelian god, the unmoved mover, the dispassionate god, the god who does not suffer? If this is true, is it because we are scandalized by the God of the Bible, the God who suffers, the God who is moved by our passions? Is this not the truly ironic tragedy of the Bible—that we have a God who not only allows or brings suffering into the world but also brings suffering into his heaven? God as the passionate God, then, is very discontent and his suffering is inconsolable. He is the God who lowered himself to the depths of suffering.

So how is it that our God can look down on us with contentment? I do not believe in a God who merely observes our tragedies with a cold reserve. I believe instead that he is a God who participates in our sufferings while we participate in his suffering of the cross. Does heaven really cancel out the suffering of the moment? Should we use the future to remove us from the present, or should the future increase the yearning for the day of the Lord?

Far too often our “faith” has neutered us, stripped us of passion, turned us into white-fleshed, pallid Christians who blithely accept the future as determined beyond us. The secular world understands a neglected truth that we do not: the world is potential, not just obstacle. Is this not the great sin of the contented modern church? It is the reason why I do not enjoy most Christian fiction. Such fiction is unsatisfying because most Christian writers weave the story with a heavy hand. It’s the same feeling I get when I go to the movie theater and guess the plot in the first ten minutes. I know the ending, and immediately I am bored. Therefore conflict (which drives any good story) is hollow and fails to grip me. In the end, there is very little tragedy in American Christian fiction. Or perhaps there is tragedy, but the tragedy is resolved superficially.

This is one reason why I return to Dostoyevsky’s writings. He does not bring tragedy to a closed, naïve resolution which in the end shuts down the questions of and yearning for God. He knows that the more a Christian grows, the more he or she feels the suffering of the world, and the more he or she searches for God and anticipates the day that is to come. Until that day, we are discontent over suffering and our sorrow is inconsolable. It is at this very juncture in our faith that we participate with God and he participates with us. It is here that we incarnate Paul’s longing, “That I may know him and the fellowship of his sufferings.”

A Harmony Too Expensive

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan is the modern, rational atheist who rejects God because he rejects God’s world. Ivan’s atheism rises out of his constant struggle with God. He refuses to accept God but he cannot escape God. The spectacles of suffering and a God who would allow the suffering of children haunt him. He will not accept a harmony of life that justifies a child’s tear.

In the final analysis, I do not accept this God-made world and, although I know it exists, I absolutely refuse to admit its existence. I want you to understand that it is not God that I refuse to accept, but the world that He has created—what I do not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world. However, let me make it clear that like a babe, I trust that the wounds will heal, the scars will vanish, that the sorry and ridiculous spectacle of man’s disagreements and clashes will disappear like a pitiful mirage . . . at the moment universal harmony is achieved, something so magnificent will take place that it will satisfy every human heart . . . and enable everyone not only to forgive everything but also to justify everything that has happened to men. Well, that day may come; all this may come to pass—but I personally still do not accept this world. I refuse to accept it!

And while there is still time, I want to dissociate myself from it all; I have no wish to a be a part of [the] eternal harmony. It’s not worth one single tear of the martyred little girl who beat her breast with her tiny fist, shedding her innocent tears and praying to ‘sweet Jesus’ to rescue her in the stinking outhouse. . . . And those tears must be atoned for; otherwise there can be no harmony. But what could atone for those tears? How is it possible to atone for them?3

Worthy Is the Lamb

In the video interview, Facing Hate, Bill Moyers interacts with Elie Weisel about the age-old problems of evil and hate. Weisel, as you may know, is a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. He was forced to the Nazi death camps in 1943 and was the only member of his family who survived. Probably his best-known work on the Holocaust is the small, harrowing volume called Night. Though I mention the Holocaust in this essay, I do not want to dwell on it for the simple reason that it has been seen as more of a media event than the horrifying tragedy that questions the very essence of humanity in the twentieth century. I encourage all Christians to grapple with the reality of the Holocaust in their own lives—and reading Night would be a great but distressing beginning.

At one point in the video, Weisel tells the story of his release from the concentration camps. When certain Russians were released from the camp, they went into the nearest German town and waged a personal vengeance on the people there. Weisel states that he could not judge the Russians but retribution against the Germans was not his way. He instead gathered with fellow Jews and prayed the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. (Incidentally, they could not find the requisite ten people to pray the kaddish.) During their prayer, Weisel confesses that he had a question of God: “Is God worthy?” After the death and dismemberment of six million of God’s own children, is he worthy to hear the prayers of these survivors? To this day, I remember my thoughts of Weisel’s question. At first I winced and immediately said to myself, “You can’t say that! Of course he is worthy.” A few seconds later, though, a more troubling thought hovered around the edges of my mind. Deep down in my heart, I have asked this question many times. Weisel had the courage to ask it aloud and struggle with its implications. Is this not the question we all really ask: Is God worthy of our suffering?

My theology tells me, yes he is worthy—but what part of my theology tells me this? Is my answer to this question an effort to defend a God who does not defend himself from this question? My answer comes from a theology of suffering. The Father is worthy because he delivered his own son over to a world unworthy of his love. The Father did what in time past he had stopped Abraham from doing: he sacrificed his son for an undeserving people. But this is the story of the trinity. The Father gave himself by divesting himself of his son. He became destitute on our behalf. I have seen enough of the world and the people who inhabit it that I can answer quite candidly and forthrightly that the world is not worthy of my son. I have argued with a number of good people that had I been a father during the Vietnam War I would have begged my son to go to Canada—in fact, I would have sent him there. But this vigilant protection of the son was not the view of the Father. He gave over his own son to unjust war, a reprehensible cause, a civilization not worthy.

If in eternity one day is a thousand years, then God is still suffering the crucifixion of his son. Because we as humans live temporal lives now, we can forget and move on and not necessarily live in the moment if we choose not to. Not so for God, who lives in eternity. He must suffer every pain of humanity every moment of his existence, and yet he enjoys every moment of joy. We have believed that for centuries the crucifixion is over in God’s mind, and that the resurrection has canceled the cross. But this would mean that God lives very differently from the way he asks us to live. He asks us to live our lives taking up the cross while we rush toward the resurrection. He asks us to live as he does—with the suffering of the cross and the ecstasy of the resurrection in our hearts, not allowing the joy to resolve the sorrow or the sorrow to drown out the joy.

You needed his incarnation as much as I need it, though for an altogether different reason. You have always known man as he looks from the perspective of Godhead. But this does not give you the whole truth. It is suffering that teaches us to be human and from here we lead on to be godly. To be Christian means our godliness helps us come to a fuller expression of humanity—not to limit the image, the desiring, our inherent, inevitable humanity. From the cell on the other side of me a former judge tapped through the wall how he regrets all the prison sentences he has ever given. He passed sentence without knowing what it was to spend years in prison. You judged men without having lived and suffered and been tempted. You needed the experience of manhood. You were enriched by the experience of your Son becoming man.4

 There will be remembrances in heaven. More importantly, there will be sorrow in heaven. The book of Revelation tells us that God will wipe away all tears in heaven, which means there must be tears there in the first place. All too often we project childish, naïve fantasies on heaven. We see heaven through the lens of Eden. Many of us want to return to Eden, when in truth God is calling us to heaven. With Eden there is no tragedy, no sorrow, no suffering. As a result, many Christians handle tragedy nobly but not with dignity, and we ask the same thing of our grieving brothers and sisters. With heaven there will be suffering, but it will be a suffering remembered and redeemed, never forgotten or denied.

This may be one of the most important distinctions between paganism and Christianity. A pagan mindset cannot handle a world full of guilt and suffering. The pagan must either deny it or revel in it. These philosophies are as old as Epicureanism and Stoicism, Isis and Osiris, Baal and Ashteroth. Thus every religion attempts in one form or another to return to the innocence of Eden again and again. Yes, Christianity began in Eden, but it ends in heaven. And heaven will not be innocence and naïveté. Heaven will be the fullest expression of truth up to this point in the journey of humanity—which now includes the knowledge of good and evil.

In conclusion, I return to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan throughout the novel battles wits and soul with his brother, Alyosha, the mystical man of faith. As we have seen, Ivan very honestly reaches a terrifying conclusion in his discussions with Alyosha. He wants to believe in God, but how can he believe in a God who allows or creates such suffering in the world, especially the suffering of innocent children? Ivan, the nonbeliever, leads us into the right question: It is not “Where is God?” but “Who is this God?”

My own personal answer is multifaceted, and some days my questions overwhelm my answers. But in the midst of my questions, I do believe God s a suffering God and that his suffering is infinite as much as his joy is infinite. Therefore, he is a God who is discontent, and his suffering—at least for now—is inconsolable. Just like us, he too waits impatiently for the day that is coming. Perhaps as God participates in our lives, he refuses to be consoled until we are consoled. My image of God is as one who impatiently and dramatically paces back and forth as he longs for that day even more than we do. He is the Father who rises before daybreak and looks for the final return of his children. He will not sit still, he will look over the horizon again and again for the faint shadow of the returning one. In the meantime, even though he knows the scope of the human drama, he weeps with the Mary’s and the Martha’s of this world who weep over death. He does not let his knowledge of the big picture wipe his tears away.

But what do we do with our suffering in the meantime? Once more I return to Dostoyevsky’s Ivan. In the beginning of the novel, he does not accept a suffering world, nor merely waits for a future that would make sense of a hideous past. He wants to make sense of suffering in his lifetime; he wants to see the end now. “No, I want to see with my own eyes [italics mine] the lamb lie down with the lion and resurrected victim rise and embrace his murderer. I want to be here when everyone understands why the world has been arranged the way it is. It is on that craving for understanding that all human religions are founded. . . .”5 Tragically, this is where American Christianity and atheism join ideological hands. The problem, though, is that demanding to see with our eyes now breeds cynicism in the atheist and contentment in the Christian. The atheist uses nonbelief to build a naïve world and the Christian uses faith to inhabit a naïve world. In both cases we do not care for our fellow human beings; we are not intimately responsible for the other. Ivan, the “humanitarian,” would not step out of his way to help another human being. Ironically, Ivan had taken on the image of his own God—one who is apathetic and uncaring.

In the end of the novel, however, Ivan comes to some kind of terms with his rationalization of a strange God. After seeing his rationalism run its brutal, irrational course, on his way back to his house he stumbles over a beggar freezing to death in the snow. He does something very unlike his nature: he stops and picks up the beggar, and he takes him to the nearest house where pays a man to help him carry the beggar to an inn. Ivan goes so far as to pay any expenses the beggar would incur. This subtle but moving scene evokes the memory of the good Samaritan.

The agony of suffering is a razor’s edge. On the one hand, the profound mystery of suffering can lead to passivity arising out of cynicism or contentment. Or, it can make us mean-spirited in our attempt to force a more just world. In either case, we bring more destruction to a ruined world. We become the religious leader or the rationalist who passes by on the other side of the beggar. On the other hand, the mystery of suffering can lead to an active pouring out of ourselves. Is not this the madness of the gospel—that the destitute victim would be generous with other victims and even with enemies? Is this not God’s approach to suffering? Out of the crucible of suffering emerges beauty, truth, and goodness. “No one can answer the theodicy question in this world, and no one can get rid of it. Life in this world means living with this open question, and seeking the future in which the desire for God will be fulfilled, suffering will be overcome, and what has been lost will be restored.”6 But for now we fiercely imagine great art in the lives of others by binding the wounds of our neighbors and repairing the world around us.

And then one day . . . one day we will surge toward the Father with the loss of Eden, the ache of the all the ages, and the desperate yearning for home in our hearts. And he too will surge toward us with the loss of Eden, the ache of all the ages, and the desperate yearning for home in his heart. Blessed be his name.

 

 

This Essay is my memorial to one man who did not accept life as it is.

I miss you—

Y viveré esperándote, Esperanza.

And I shall live in hopes of you, Hope.