Wait Without Hope: Finding a Way Through Unwellness

As news reports about COVID-19 continue coming at the same torrential pace and shelter-in-place orders become something of a new normal, I’ve found myself returning often to a passage from East Coker, one of T.S. Eliot’s four quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting

I don’t know how to put what Eliot is saying into plain speech, but something about those words rings profoundly true to me right now even though I can’t quite articulate why. I suppose that’s the beauty of poetry. Something here defies our formations of logic, it resists fitting into our clean categories of thought. 

All I know is that I feel these words as a prophetic call, a timely word in a moment of distress not unlike the global moment in 1940 when Eliot originally wrote this poem. The words stop me in my tracks. Everything superfluous falls out of focus. Wait without hope. Wait without love. Something in me wants to scream. What the hell man? How can you say that? How dare you say that? We’re hanging on by a thread here. 

The words settle, however, like a bar of gold dropped into a running stream, and I discern that not all hope is created equal. In the Apostle John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, there’s a fascinating exchange between Jesus and Martha as soon as Jesus arrives on the scene. 

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Look at Martha’s response to Jesus’ claim that her brother would rise again. She holds a form of hope, that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. But something about it feels distant and abstract, much like the way Christians today talk about the heavenly hope they have. It’s a way of disconnecting from the present suffering, pain, and loss in this world in the here and now, perhaps even a way of hiding our own lack of faith. It can become an escape from one’s present reality, a way of dismissing the agony of death or loss of any kind. 

Not so with Jesus, who for his part clearly has something more present, immediate, and concrete in mind: the literal, embodied resurrection of Martha’s brother…today. 

I wonder if this dismissive, sentimental hope is what Eliot is telling his soul to cast aside. It’s an abandoning of hope to surrender to the true unknown of the situation, to the fact that people will suffer and die before this is over, to the knowledge that we have no knowledge about how, exactly, this will be brought to an end. It’s about looking to the horizon and seeing only war—or disease—in sight. 

Eliot continues:

Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

Echoes of life and liveliness linger in the dark recesses of our hearts, no more than a whisper. Our memories have not lost the garden, the ecstatic changing of the seasons, Eliot says, but there is an agony that must be undergone, a death to die in the darkness, a place of stillness from which the dance begins.

This is the place of loss, before we see what comes with a new beginning. “In my beginning is my end,” says the first line of the poem. It concludes with an inversion of its opening: “In my end is my beginning.”

When I read East Coker I mumble these lines under my breath like a chant, turning them back and forth on my tongue until some sort of clarity begins to emerge. “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.” What does it mean? 

What does it mean? It means what my pastor told his daughter after the 9/11 attacks when she asked the same question: The world as you know it is gone. Let’s start there. And for now let’s end there, because right now there is nothing else to say. There is no concrete hope to offer. Scientists are working on a vaccine, yes. Some states are reopening their economies. The rate of new cases is on the decline in many areas. But we do not know if another wave of infection is ahead. We don’t know how long it will take to develop a vaccine. We don’t know why so many people who carry the disease are asymptomatic. We’re living the dark. 

What is the way forward? Again, the poetry says it best:

In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know.

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

“It’s a hard thing to ask of someone, to wait without hope,” I told my therapist through tears last week. “It’s so much to ask.” But as this story continues, and as our weirdly passive and active battle against COVID-19 drags on with no end in sight, I find myself returning to this heavy feeling. We must find a way to wait without hope, to go by a way of unknowing, a way of lack, a dead way of no ecstasy.

It won’t do to give people false hope. Rumors and anecdotal reports of effective treatments that are not actually effective (such as the ones alluded to by our president) only make matters worse and threaten to cast us into depths of anger and despair that are even harder, nigh impossible, to recover from. 

There is a way, Eliot reminds us, that death leads to birth rather than nothingness and despair. But we must be willing to let the world turn upside down, where darkness can become light, and stillness become the dancing. In voicing my sorrow over the difficulty of waiting without hope, I found that what I need right now isn’t happiness or relief so much as a friend to listen to me share my unwellness, to be willing to not look on the bright side for a moment and simply attend to my loss (and trust me enough to do the same for him in his pain).

Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about these feelings, explains how this process works on a relational level:

(W)e must be willing to name our sadnesses, both great and small. And we must name them to another who is able to validate our emotion. It is in this action that our minds realize they are not alone, and our grief is shared. In sensing that someone else also shares the load of our grief, we no longer have to burn the energy we have been consuming in our attempt to contain it. And with the lightening of our load, we are freed that much more to care for others, receiving their grief, and to begin the process of creating goodness and beauty around us.

This journey to redemption takes time. It is exhausting. But it is no less than the way of the Christ. Before Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave, he sees Mary weeping, he goes to the grave and weeps. He knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but first he mourned because he loved Lazarus and those who mourned over him. He felt their sadness with them. 

Near the end of his life Jesus would weep again in Gethsemane, begging the Father for some way—any way—other than the god-awful road of bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, and suffering the crushing blow of our iniquities. But through this road of death, the darkness in the tomb became light, the stillness turned to dancing, and the faint, ecstatic echoes of how life was meant to be found their full voice in humanity once again. 

There was—and is—no other way, “just death into life, over and over until all things are right.”

In Praise of Holy Imagination

Like many children, I grew up with a robust imagination. Our quarter-acre backyard, quite large by suburban standards, offered ample room for my imaginary commando missions and adventures with my Lego sets. Indoors I spent many an afternoon draped over the recliner in the living room, book in hand, losing myself within the walls of Redwall Abbey or escaping to another era through the Magic Treehouse. It was wonderful.

As I grew up in church and began to take my faith seriously, however, this imagination began to choke up as my interest in theology grew. I was presented with a stark picture: the Bible was the inspired Word of God, infallible in all it affirmed, and the only source of ultimate truth in the world. Everything and everyone else was suspect, including my own heart. I was told that my impulses and even most of my longings were expressons of fleshly desires that needed to be tamed and brought into alignment with God’s commands.

There was little room for imagination in this framework that felt like it prized theological correctness above everything. And good theology, by these standards, was strictly within the bounds of Scripture. Anything that deviated from that, that struck even a different tone than the particular biblical narrative I was taught, was—again—suspect. For several years I became an ardent critic of much purportedly “Christian” rehtoric, whether it be a lyric from a CCM song or an offhand comment from a friend, that ran counter to or fell outside the bounds of what I understood the Bible to teach.

It was not until an undergrad postmodernism class that my beliefs began to significantly evolve. I was still attending an institution that held and encouraged a more dogmatic reading of Scripture, but this particular professor had a reputation as a bit of a maverick. He argued that the Bible only offers us a narrative, not a metanarrative. It does not and is not intended to provide a comprehensive, systematic theology or a complete worldview, per se, he said. Instead God’s revelation comes to us through specific, particular stories—genres like historical records, poetry, personal letters, and accounts of visions. 

This seemed obvious enough to me, and over time I began to read Scripture more as a narrative than a textbook. This was both frightening and freeing. The Bible’s teachings, to the extent that it had them, did not seem nearly as clear to me as they once did. At times I felt adrift in a sea of doubt and uncertainty. I was afraid that God might judge me or cut me off if I strayed from the supposedly “clear” teachings of Scripture. 

But I also found my imagination begin to revive. I found profound truths in stories told through literature and music and film—even the ones told by so-called “secular” folks. I began encountering the firsthand, lived experience of myself and others and started genuinely grappling with how to reconcil their feelings and lives with my own theological assumptions. I began to open myself to insights and wisdom from other denominations and wisdom traditions. 

Several years ago I found a view that resonated with me in a paper by N.T. Wright exploring the question of how the Bible can be authoritative. He encourages the church to read the Bible more as a play in which we are given the first four acts and a glimpse of the ending of the story, and now face the joyful, creative task of working out the fifth act for ourselves. This is not a matter of simply contorting ourselves back into the shape of a 2,000-year-old text so as to be “biblically faithful.” It’s more about finding ourselves in its story and creatively living out the next act in relationship with a personal, dynamic God. Granted, this God never changes, but the Triune Godhead is nonetheless always in motion, always at work in some way creatively working out redemption in the world and wooing our hearts.

This involves a both/and posture. We look to the traditions and wisdom of the past to know where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. Yet at the same time we also need pastors, prophets, and artists who are capable of holy imagination—who can bear witness to the presence of a God who is real and alive and active right now, all around us, not just in the pages of Scripture. As T.S. Eliot said, every generation needs its own poets. I’ve come to see that we need our own contemporaries in the church to sing their songs in their own way, to reimagine the story of our faith afresh and attune to the ever-new mercies and whispers of the Spirit. 

To that end, here are three examples of holy imagination in music that have profoundly enriched my worship and devotional life over the past year:

Deliverer – Audrey Assad

In the ruins of my heart you preach to the poor

Turning over stones to show me there is more 

More than all I ask more than I’m looking for 

In the ruins of my heart

I don’t know the story behind this song or how Assad went about writing it, but I am convinced that when she composed the bridge she was directly tapped into the Spirit of the living God. In these anthemic lines my heart is imagined as a ruined wasteland in which God has come to speak to all the broken, downcast parts of me and dig through the rubble, unearthing the seeds of redemption and new life. In my mind’s eye I can see Jesus, much like he wandered through all the cities and villages of Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” I see him turning over stones and calling me to come and see that there’s more to the parts of my story that I’ve given up on—that where I see wreckage and despair he sees buried treasure.

There’s also a distinct echo of the Psalms here, of a God who offers refuge in the shadow of his wings and lifts up the broken hearts of the widow and the fatherless. If the Psalms were written today, I bet they would sound a lot like this.

Holy Ghost – Jessie Early

You hover over waters of my heart 

Skipping stones on the bank where the tides rises and depart 

You know I’ve got, I’ve got your sun reflecting off my skin 

I feel you hushing every storm again

The first line here is a reference to the opening of Genesis, which speaks of the Spirit of God hovering over the formless and void waters of the earth. But there’s something “extra-biblical” here in the lyric too: this picture of the Spirit at play, in a state of leisure and familiarity, skipping stones on the shores of our heart like a friend utterly comfortable in our presence. It feels like what I imagine it would be like to be with God, at peace and at home. It catches the divine vibe. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect from someone who has a track record of playing in the mud to heal a blind man or making breakfest for his friends after they were out fishing all night. 

I also love how this image of leisure and friendliness goes hand in hand with an experience of divine glory and power. The holiness of God lights up the singer, like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, and the power of God hushes the storm, like Jesus at sea with his disciples. But these magnificent displays of glory and power come to us with a felt sense of life and peace, like a ray of sunshine on warm spring day, or a friend skipping stones on the banks of our most tender, vulnerable selves. 

Wood and Nails – The Porter’s Gate

The dead will rise and give you praise

Wood and nails will not hold them down

These wooden tombs, we’ll break them soon

And fashion them into flower beds

You won’t find this specific imagery in the accounts of the Hebrew prophets, but it rings profoundly true all the same because it poetically captures the heart of redemption itself. The very tombs that imprison us, the instruments and markers of death, will become the materials for our new homes and vocations in the kingdom. It’s the hope of swords being fashioned into plowshares contextualized for the present day: tombs to flower boxes. Either way the beating heart of redemption is the same: it is the concrete, tacticle things of everyday life in today’s broken world that will hold the beauty of new life in the coming kingdom.

I imagine (I use the term here intentionally) that if Isaiah were prophesying today, he just might receive a vision like this one. This is poetry for today’s generation, nothing less than a prophetic vision of a flourishing kingdom. This is language that moves a Seattle-dwelling millennial to tears. I long for home, to walk through uncursed gardens in a body that’s has become even more substantive and sensual than I already am.

Life during the pandemic: limitations, trauma, and dignity

We are now several weeks into a strange and bizarre new way of living as the novel coronavirus approaches what will hopefully be its apex. During this time my thoughts and prayers have returned often to the question of how I, Andrew Collins, can flourish during a time like this. As I’ve leaned into this question, I’ve noticed three streams of response emerge in my heart as I journey through this strange new world that has happened to us. 

LIMITATIONS

The first, and most obvious to me, is that of mortality, death, limitation. I think of the weighty, prescient timing of the outbreak in light of the church calendar observed by many Christian in liturgical traditions. On February 26 the season of Lent began. Those who attended Ash Wednesday services had ash marked on their foreheads and the following words spoken over their bodies: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” 

I have no doubt that our society, and in fact the entire world, is collectively more in touch with this reality right now than we have been in a long time—perhaps not since World War II. We are facing a threat that is both seen and unseen. We know it exists and the harm that it causes, but it is invisible to the naked eye. Disease could catch us anywhere. It could lie within us, symptom free, and spread through us into the body of another. The world is suddenly a dangerous place.

But the world has always been a dangerous place. Our bodies have always been fragile and finite, vulnerable to the whims of a distracted bus driver, a cancer diagnosis, a stray bullet, a heart attack striking out of thin air. 

Beyond the short span of years we have on this earth, we are limited in other ways. Shelter in place orders have brought this truth to the forefront of our awareness. We cannot do many of the things that we love, that we once had the freedom to do. We cannot gather to pray together at the church down the street. We cannot get on an airplane, fly across an ocean, and feel the thrill of exploring strange new lands and cultures. We cannot step into our therapist’s office to weep. We cannot meet strangers in the park over a friendly pickup game of basketball. 

Yes, we are not so free and autonomous, the possibilities not so endless, as they once seemed. 

I do not think it is such a bad thing to see this and feel the check in our gut from this—the stifling lonliness as we sit alone in our apartment, the sense of being trapped in a handful of bedrooms with our family with no relief in the near future. In fact it can be, if we are willing to face it, the place where we begin to live life with greater fullness and sincerity.

I like how Annie Dillard puts it in An American Childhood:

Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang on to the ring. It is riding the planet like a log downstream, whooping. Or, conversely, you step aside from the dreaming fast loud routine and feel time as a stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.

We have been forced out of the “dreaming fast loud routine” that is the modern world. That much is true enough. Why not, then, pay attention to the stillness, and find ways to enter more deeply into this country weekend before the hours tick away?

TRAUMA

In the past I might have concluded this essay here and let the existential message of death and finiteness be the last word. But I think there’s room in this space for more movement, for a dance of feelings and experiences. I think there’s room for us to let the highs and lows show up and speak their piece. 

Have recognized that life is short, many of us feel that we now, thanks to shelter-in-place orders, have time to pursue things that we have long put off. Now, we tell ourselves, is the time to learn to play the piano, to get out our canvas and paints again, to become penpals with that friend from high school we lost touch with, to write the novel that’s been percolating for the last decade, to fan the fading embers of a once-vibrant marriage. 

But the harsh, awful fact is that this epidemic is a traumatic event. The planet has bucked under us. We’re not living on the same earth that we were on two months ago. We’ve lost our footing. The rythms and liturgies of life have cut out. I am not a psychologist or the son of a psychologist, but I know that trauma does not bring out the best in us. It tends to have a regressive effect, resurfacing old wounds and old survival tactics.

An acquaintance of mine expressed this well in a Facebook post last month:

Go easy on yourself today. You’re not supposed to know how to do this. You’re not supposed to have all the answers or be totally peaceful and calm. This is new and uncertain and scary…

Your old patterns are gonna flare up. The ones you don’t like. The ones you wish would just go away already. The ways you avoid and escape and abandon yourself.

It’s enough right now just to notice them.

I see my old patterns flare up these days. I feel my existence sucked back into the orbit of glowing smartphone screens and self-aware Facebook posts and I hate it. As I scroll aimlessly, frictionlessly through social media, I feel the same restless impulses that I used to feel in my early twenties, always itching for another red notification, another blue dot, another buzz heralding the arrival of a new text message. I stay up past midnight playing a computer version of Axis and Allies against crappy AIs until I can hardly keep my eyes open, and then go to bed with that dull feeling of nothingness inside that lingers after wasted time. All the while a vertiable treasure trove of unread books sits within arms reach. I berate myself for wasting precious quarantine time, yet still the cycle goes on.

I have worked hard the past four years to pull away from this digital orbit but now it feels like I don’t have a choice. Better to Facetime a good friend than not speak to him at all, right? Better to ramp up my freelance work a bit and remain in decent financial shape so I’ll be okay as the economy slumps into a recession for who-knows-how-long, right? 

Yes, I think so, but I still don’t like it.

I’ve often sung the refrain with Switchfoot: “I want to thrive, not just survive.” I sing it still, trying to stave off the old feelings of shame and self-loathing creeping up in my heart. In these moments I try to remember that sometimes our journey to thriving begins with naming that it’s okay to just survive, that our feelings and bodies are serving us and in some cases quite literally keeping us alive.

I recently rewatched Dunkirk, the World War II film about the miraculous evaculation of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops who would otherwise have been captured or killed by advancing Nazi armies. At the end of the film, as the soldiers return to the safe shores of England, an old blind man affirms them as he hands out blankets.

“Well done lads, well done,” he says as the soldiers pass by. “Well done lads.”

“All we did is survive,” one soldier replies, still reeling, no doubt, from memories of torpedoed navy vessels sinking into the sea, screaming dive bombers overhead, and body bags lining the beaches of Dunkirk. Surely he feels pathetic, impotent, cowardly. But the blind man’s response is as profound as it is simple.

“That’s enough,” he says. “Well done.”

Last week UN Secretary General António Guterres said the coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge facing the world since World War II. To use biblical language, the world is entering a time of trials and tribulations. There will be many moments, more for some of us than others, where it feels like we’re just getting by, just surviving.

I’m with the old man handing out blankets: that’s enough.

DIGNITY

The third stream involves claiming and living into my own dignity, worth, and power as a human being. In the face of encroaching limitations and disruptive trauma, this takes me into a paradoxical space because I see myself and those around me being humbled and exalted at the same time. Yes, we are finite and limited, but that does not mean we need to throw up our hands in surrender and give up the power and volition that we do possess. Quite the opposite. Even though we’re isolated and separated from each other, our humanity is still on full display in profound, unique ways.

A remarkable thing happens when we name our own mortality. I like how Marilynne Robinson articulates this in her essay Proofs, where she considers a passage from 1 Peter:

All flesh is grass, and the beauty of it is like the flower of the field. In feeling the truth of such words we are seeing the world from a perspective like God’s. In feeling our unlikeness to the eternal we are experienceing the very height of our humanity—experiencing, that is, our ability to know far beyond our needs, our immediate circumstance, and to ponder existence itself. As we humble ourselves we are exalted.

Sit with that a moment. Read it again.

In the midst of much tragedy and death, this is a remarkable thing to consider. It underscores the reality that I can find new ways to seek out and experience life during this season, that I can choose to be in the world in a way that is both more human and somehow more divine even as the knawing anxiety betrays my vulnerability and the stay-at-home orders shock body and soul with the cold brevity of my finitness. 

In this hour of loss and disconnection I see my own indomitable human spirit rise up and surface despite the tumultuous sea of overwhelmed hospitals, global upheaval, and economic recession that surrounds me. It rises as I dance alone in the kitchen to the beat of an indie pop song while making scrambled eggs for lunch. It rises when I leave an 80% tip on a to-go order at my local coffee shop—something I would rarely, if ever, do under “normal” circumstances. It rises when I bring home firewood, chopped up from damaged framing lumber at the lumber yard where I work, so that my roommates can have fires in the living room on cold, cloudy days as they work from home. It rises when I pray aloud a liturgy for medical providers, weeping in the car as I beg Jesus to reach out hands of healing and comfort to those suffering in isolation from COVID-19, cut off from friends and family. 

In all of these moments I step into my own human dignity. Rather than shrink back in the face of a crisis that is outside of my control, I continue to make my own choices. I find new ways to live and move and have my being in the world. I exercise the power that I do have—power bestowed on me as an image bearer of God—to actually impact and change the universe, to play a part in someone else’s story, to catch the eye of God himself. 

The coronavirus may be bringing about the end of life as we know it in many ways, but it is far from the end of life. Like a seed that falls to the earth and dies before it sprouts, perhaps there is a time to die before we live. Wouldn’t that be something?

To despair and numb ourselves to the weight of the world’s brokenness is a very human response. To hope defiantly that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” is also human. We do both all the time. I for one intend to ride these waves as they come, trusting that I am, in fact, living out a story, for to be alive is to be in motion, a tender shoot unfurling and reaching recklessly up towards the sky.

Early reflections on life under COVID-19

With everyone retreating and self-quarantining to stem the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, it seems the time has come for me to live more like a writer again. Here are some of my early reflections on life under COVID-19:

 

—Over the past several weeks I’ve seen well-meaing Christians post things like “God’s plan is going exactly according to plan.” 

To that I say, with all due respect, shut up. I do believe that providence is at work in the world is some mysterious, awful (in the traditional sense of the word—awe-filled) way. But people are hurting right now. They’re suffering. They’re afraid. And for good reason. People are going to die, perhaps on the scale of wartime numbers (God-forbid!). We don’t have to keep a stiff upper lip and project nice, theologically-correct statements. On the contrary, my prayers at their most desperate and sincere these days sound more like: God, where the hell are you right now? Why must we endure this?

Right now, I think that’s okay. And I’m going to keep shouting that lament for as long as I feel that way. God can take it. He won’t cast me away for it.

As I’ve sat in my room and sought the presence and voice of God over the past week, I’ve found myself returning to a great vision of the Lord holding our suffering. When my heart broke and my world fell apart last year, I learned firsthand, at an emotional, heart level, that God tends to show up in the most powerful and intimate ways amid two kinds of experiences: those of great love and of great suffering. Today the world is entering into a collective, once-in-a-generation suffering. So many things are upended. The elderly and immuno-compromised are at great risk. Graduations thrown into flux. Weddings celebrations canceled or delayed. Career changes and advancements halted in their tracks. Travel plans derailed. I do not fear for my own well-being, but I am afraid for the elderly in my local church. I’m afraid for my friend with asthma. I’m afraid for my friend’s sister battling cancer. I’m afraid for the child stuck in a broken home who no longer has access to the structure of a school day and lunch in the cafeteria. 

This is suffering. I do not know why the novel Coronavirus is happening. I’m not comfortable saying God has a plan for this or meant for this to happen because in so many ways I don’t see the goodness of this present moment. To do so would dishonor and be dishonest about the experiences of those who are currently suffering.

That said, I do believe God is real and actually gives a damn about us. In my heart I see the Spirit of God hovering over the world right now just as they hovered over the waters during creation. I imagine Jesus in my bedroom, sitting in the chair across from me, and find that he is not just a savior who will deliver us from this body of death but, more importantly in times like this, he is a wounded savior. He is a man who even now carries scars on his hands and feet and side because in some mysterious, profoundly human way he subjected himself to the violence, injustice, brokenness, and disease of this world and therefore has the embodied capacity to feel it with us. I believe that right now God is actively hurting with each and every one of us and longing to draw near to us, and that if we go to him we will find a friend. I believe we’ll find a friend ready to be with us wherever we’re at: to hold us when we’re shaking uncontrollably with fear and anxiety, to weep with us when a loved one is hospitalized or when our dreams have been shattered, to laugh with us in the funny and absurd moments of being quaratined, to rejoice with us in the beauty of music or the savory goodness of a home-cooked meal, to long for connection and reunifcation with the lover, parent, child, friend, or sibling from which we are now separated. 

 

—If I may venture to suggest one theory about what providence is up to, however, I do suspect that it is no coincidence the pandemic has swept across the world during the season of Lent, which is inaugurated with this exhortation: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’re much more in touch with that reality now. We can feel it in our bones, our heartbeat, our breath.

 

—I’m excited about the great output of human creativity that will result from this. Already the world has seen a staggeringly vast and beautiful release of creative energy. Musicians are livestreaming concerts and writing songs. People are painting and writing poetry. They’re creating mini-golf courses in their homes and making epic Lego creations. Teachers are finding new ways to impart knowledge amid upended norms. Parents are finding ways to engage and educate their children. Neighbors are finding new ways to meet each other’s needs.

Spring is here, but we are only now just entering a strange, ill-timed social winter. I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s reflections about winter in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: 

It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.

As is so often the case in life, we are in a paradoxical space of both/and. This is a time to sow, to rest, to prepare for life on the other side of this pandemic. But it is also a time to reap the harvest of our creative passions, ingenuity, and inventiveness that we have otherwise neglected.

I recently got the lyrics “live it like a song” tattooed on my arm. If we think of life as a song, then certainly the melody right now has taken a sudden and unexpected modulation into a minor key. But that doesn’t mean it still can’t have the aching, awful beauty that is relentless creativity in the face of pain and tragedy. 

 

—It’s time to appreciate the essential workers in our neighborhoods and in the world at large who keep us alive and safe every day. Truckers and delivery drivers are the new calvary in our war against the virus, transporting all manner of life-sustaining goods ranging from hospital supplies to fresh produce to toilet paper. Mail carriers, powerplant workers, garbage collectors, farmers, all of these oft-neglected individuals are soldiering on to preserve life and keep the world from descending into anarchy. Let’s bless these workers. Let’s honor them. Let’s love them (from afar). My heart aches with joy and love to see that for once we are not only declaring that everyone matters, but knowing it and feeling it deep in our hearts. The elderly and immunocompromised matter. Children in school matter. Therapists matter. Priests and artists, computer programmers and medical researchers, politicians and janitors—they all matter so much right now! This reality, I am increasingly convinced, pulses at the very heartbeat of God, and it is echoing loudly throughout the world because we all bear the imago dei. 

 

—I’m hopeful that we’ll come out of this with a healthier relationship to technology. I do not like that my average time spent on Facebook and on my smartphone has spiked dramatically in recent weeks. I loathe it, in fact, all this screen time. But right now I’m thankful that these technologies exist. I’m thankful for the communication and connection to other human beings that they provide at a time like this. I’m glad that I can still hear the voices and see images of my friends and family at a moment’s notice. At the end of this, however, I hope we see that these mediated methods of communicating and connecting with each other are no substitute for embodied face-to-face encounters. I hope we realize that we cannot live in a cocoon of tech-mediated reality and expect to flourish as humans. I think we will feel a gap, a longing for embodied connection that social media or Zoom cannot fill. Already, at this early stage in the quarantine, I long for the day when I can hug someone—anyone. How sweet, how real, how precious will that moment be, the simple act of hugging someone? And how much more will we appreciate how essential touch is to life itself?

 

—If I could offer one exhortation amid the digital noise of the pandemic, I’d encourage everyone to take some time to practice silence and solitude. Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning in “Life Together”:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.

I’m an introvert, yet I am struggling to live well and make good life choices in conditions where I can’t meet friends for coffee, play pickup ultimate Frisbee, go to the gym, attend a concert, or go out on a date. It may come more easily to some of us than to others, but I propose that the time to get alone with ourselves is now.

Several years ago, over a nine-month span, I had the privilege of experiencing six separate days of silence and solitude. They were the best days of my year. They ushered me into new depths of being. They freed me to find the glory of an entire world in a single flower. They helped me start to taste and see the joy in literally, physically walking with God. They gave my mind space to wander, to compose poetry, to rest and process my life. 

At a time when videoconferencing, phone calls, and social media are the only ways to safely connect with most people, I suspect that the practice of silence and solitude will be the key to avoid being flooded by digital noise. I’m not sure if there’s any other way, in fact, to walk through this into a healthy emotional state on the other side. 

It doesn’t have to be for a full day. Block out a chunk of time from nine to five. Or just a morning. An hour even. Close the laptop. Put away your phone. Turn off Alexa. Go into a still, quiet place, and see what the silence has to say. Brew a cup of coffee and savor its flavor. Light a candle and breathe in its aroma. Tend to a houseplant. Feel the sun shine on your skin. Write a letter, in longhand, to a friend. See what voices begin to speak, where your mind wanders, what feelings rise up. Write about it. Talk to God about it.

We have so much to teach ourselves, if only we will take the time to notice.

Marriage and the dark side of “Jesus is enough” theology

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Photo by Megapixelstock on Pexels.com

It was a refrain I heard from just about everyone as I came of age as a Christian.

I first remember listening to sermons by John Piper proclaiming that God is most glorified when I am most satisfied in him. Later, Timothy Keller would speak of how putting our ultimate hope and identity in a romantic relationship will ultimate fail us and lead us to despair, showing that it’s only through finding complete love and acceptance in God through Jesus that we gain the spiritual buoyancy to weather the inevitable disappointments of our spouse.

Indeed, just about every article about singleness and marriage that I read on Christian blogs, websites, and magazines, it seemed, warned against putting too much stock in the hope of fulfillment from a potential spouse that gets stirred up with the exhilarating experience of falling in love. Whether married or single, these voices said, you already have all of that in Jesus. Just delight in him and stay rooted in the perfect love and complete acceptance that he has given you through the cross.

At the same time, I also read both secular and Christian books that critiqued our modern image- and material-obsessed culture. They exposed how, absent a robust faith in God and given the prevalence of pop culture’s Hollywood endings, the modern person is taught to long for ideals of physical beauty and happily-ever-after in a romantic partner that will never satisfy us. Literature is replete with examples of men and women torn apart and ultimately crushed by the failure of their lover. Even my favorite music artist, Jon Foreman, sang of trying to drown his existential pain with a friend who’s “got a pretty face with her wedding lace.”

But in the end, he laments, “I’m still waking up with myself.”

The great danger, it seemed clear to me, was idolizing a romantic partner. Don’t make your spouse (or a prospective spouse) your savior: first, because they can’t be, and second, because you already have one.

To be clear, I take no issue with the greater truth of these exhortations, only with how I followed them. With my guard firmly up against romantic idolatry, I embarked on a relationship with the woman who is now my wife. I fell for her hard. She was beautiful, exuberant, friendly, free-spirited, and full of God’s life and love in a way that I’d seen in few other people. She was the kind of woman that a lot of guys would find instantly attractive, and I didn’t want to be the latest addition to a list of desperate suitors. I quickly grew to love her and desired to be with her, but I didn’t want to become so attached that I wouldn’t have the emotional and spiritual capacity to walk away from the relationship if that’s what was best for both of us.

The result of my wariness was a painful cycle driven by my projected sense of cool detachment covered with a spiritual veneer. She would become fearful and threaten to break off the relationship, and I would calmly reply that while I really liked her and wanted to stay together, she was free to end things if she really wanted to.

And if she did, I added, I would be okay. Privately I rationalized that I had my relationship with God to fall back on, and while it would obviously hurt to break off our relationship, she wasn’t the ultimate thing in my life and eventually I would recover and move on. I could marry her and it would be great, I told her, but if that wasn’t what she wanted, then ultimately I didn’t want it either.

To her, this came across as a take-it-or-leave it attitude, and it stoked a deep-seated feeling in her that I didn’t really care about her or our relationship all that much. “I could leave,” she would tell me at various times, “and you’d be totally fine.” Worse, my fear of falling into idolatry led me unknowingly to maintain a certain emotional distance from her. I don’t want to idolize her, I thought, so I’d best work out my deepest hurts and fears between myself and God. Better that than letting her into the pain I would feel if our relationship ended.

The problem was that I didn’t let my care for her show in a way that was vulnerable—that was woundable—because I had subtly conflated the sin of idolatry with the experience of being deeply hurt by losing someone I desired. I failed to grasp that a relationship with God, truly experienced and understood, leads not to detachment from the world but into a deeper love for the world and for the people made in God’s image. More than that, I failed to understand that satisfying one’s deepest needs for love, purpose, and belonging in Jesus does not inoculate us against the wounds and sorrows of world—least of all those caused by one’s significant other. In fact it does just the opposite.

It took several more cycles of my projected detachment during the early months of our marriage for me to start opening my heart and showing my wife through confession and tears that the prospect of losing her would cause me more pain and grief than anything I’d ever experienced. I had to learn to show her that she affected me not only in positive ways like being fun and encouraging me to follow Jesus, but that she also had the capacity to deeply hurt me. She needed to see me make myself vulnerable to know that I cared for her.

Is this not, after all, how God shares his heart for us? Is this not the song of the prophets, whose words ache with the grief God feels when his people leave him to chase after other gods? Is this not the experience of Jesus, who not only wept over the death of Lazarus but ultimately suffered the death of a perfect relationship with his Father for our sake?

God does not have a desperate or needy love for us, I understood that well enough, but his love for us is reckless and deep and woundable. Our romantic relationships, while no substitute for God himself, should look the same.

The five best books I read in 2015

In 2015 I set what I thought was a modest – but not insignificant – personal goal for reading: one book every two weeks – or 26 over the entire year (by comparison, Mark Zuckerberg set a similar goal for himself, and Bill Gates reads about a book a week; so I figured if those guys can carve out time then surely I can too). By the end of December I had finished 31 books, which I was pretty satisfied with. From those books, here are the five that made the biggest impression on me and were most worth my while.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed there is something elemental about this masterful work. It aims for the moon and soars to the stars. Through the multi-generational story of several families who all cross paths in California’s Salinas Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century, it captures both a thousand stories of an era and that singular, timeless, origin story of human nature. At a time when many people still felt bound by fate, especially their own heritage, East of Eden proclaims the great freedom of human choice in a fallen world to break the moral trajectory of one’s lineage. The book finds its mythic roots for this in the Old Testament: Genesis 4. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, to which Cain responded with jealousy and anger. God asked Cain why he was angry and challenged him to overcome his temptation to sin. Per the King James Version: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The key word here, one character insists, is timshel – the Hebrew verb that means “thou mayest.” The “thou shalt” from the passage, he says, should be rendered “thou mayest.” The message for young Cal Trask, who poetically revives the part of Cain in the book’s retelling of the story, is that evil is crouching at his door, but he is not destined to repeat Cain’s sin (or the sins of his parents).

Steinbeck’s prose – his ability to portray characters, to delve into the great perversities and nobilities of human motives, and to craft scenes that deeply engage the reader – is some of the best I’ve ever read. East of Eden is a tome, weighing in at more than 600 pages, but it is well-worth the toil of reading it.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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Before reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’m not sure I had much of a propensity to connect road trips and motorcycle mechanics with philosophy, but I do now. Robert Pirsig’s account of a former college professor’s motorcycle road trip to the American northwest with his son alternates between the physical, concrete, and calculable to the realm of values and meaning. It moves to and fro from the task of keeping a motorcycle in top shape to abstract musings that probe all the way back to The Phaedrus, the ancient dialogue penned by Plato between Socrates and Phaedrus. These musings, conducted over long hours spent traversing America’s backroads, revolve around a deceptively simple question: what is quality? It eludes simple definition, but put two papers of decidedly differing quality in front of an undergraduate English composition class and nine out of ten of them will pick the same one as being of better quality. So quality is real, it shapes how we live and perceive and engage with the world, but is there any way to put a finger of what, exactly, it is – to capture its essence in words?

The book grows more and more philosophical as the narrator delves deeper into the troubled intellectual toils of his past, but as it grows in abstraction it also grows in tension and suspense as it is revealed that the narrator’s inquiry into values ultimately drove him mad. Will he return to the madness of the pursuit? Is there any other conscionable thing to do – any other way to stay committed to the truth? The book was published in 1974, but its subject remains timeless and profound.

3. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

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In The Denial of Death, the late Berkeley anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker works his way through the inherent tension of man’s nature, delving farther into the Nietzschean abyss than most modern, secular people have gone. As the title indicates, this book is about man’s struggle to reach the eternal and find meaning as a mortal creature – the result of this impulse being that we obsessively deny the impending reality of our own death. Sure, we have the head knowledge and pay lip service to the idea that we will die eventually (YOLO!), but most people go about their days without a deep existential realization of the dagger hanging over their heads by a thread. We long for greatness and transcendence and try to find it by investing all of our purpose in the nation state or existential act or romance or faith. We are gods, so to speak, yet we all end up as worm food. As Becker memorably put it, men are “gods who s***.”

The Denial of Death’s diagnostic of the human condition is spot on and much more honest about the secular worldview, I think, than most intellectuals are willing to be. It is bleak and concludes without any hope beyond some abstract notion of throwing oneself into the life-force of the universe. Reading it shook me up pretty bad and deeply disturbed me at times, but in a good way. It’s not beach reading, but for those courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) souls who can’t get past the most basic questions of what it means to be alive and who value delving into the ideas of guys like Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, I commend this book to you.

4. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads…” This conclusion to the despairing rant of Amory Blaine, the young protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s freshman novel, captures the angst of the young, talented writer. It’s a conundrum I often run up against myself. How does one justify his own participation in a world constantly in flux, in which public opinion shifts with the winds of the media’s ideology, true love feels eternally elusive, and matters of life and death seem to be dictated by cold, impersonal happenstances of car accidents and stray bullets?

Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23, delivering a quintessential coming of age tale as America entered the Roaring Twenties. It is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, drawing heavily from his own crash-and-burn experiences with women, attending Princeton University, serving in World War One, and moving to New York City as a young man. I don’t have an answer for all of his frustrations, but it’s nice to encounter a youthful, zealous personality whose ambition and optimism crashes on the rocks of vanity. It’s also refreshing to encounter someone who is aware of his own self-absorption enough to refer to himself repeatedly as “the egotist.” Millennials may be the self-absorbed generation, with our Instagram and smartphones, but This Side of Paradise shows that adolescence hasn’t really changed much since it first came into being a century ago.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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I don’t read many autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), but maybe I should. Back when I was in college a writing professor once referenced the Autobiography of Malcolm X, so when I saw it sitting in a box of free stuff on the sidewalk I picked it up. My professor had recommended the book because of its account of the turning point that steered Malcolm X’s life away from a vicious cycle of crime and prison to standing as a ideological and political leader among African Americans in the tumultuous lead up to the civil rights era. Everything changed in prison, as Malcolm himself recollects. When he first went to jail he estimated he had a vocabulary of just a few hundred words. He got religion through a Black Muslim, and then he decided to teach himself English – proper English. His method was simple. He opened a dictionary and started meticulously memorizing it one word at a time, starting with “aardvark.” By the time he was out of prison, he had read a vast swath of literature, history, and philosophy, and his education rivaled that of any college graduate. He became an eloquent speaker and powerful societal voice. As my professor would have said, he “mastered the civilization in which he lived.”

The literary and intellectual prowess of Malcolm X is evident in this book. It thoroughly transported me into his shoes. Given the great disparity between our life experiences – me, a college-educated middle-class white Christian from California, and Malcolm, a black hoodlum who cut his teeth on all manner of unlawful dealings in Boston and then Harlem – that’s really saying something. Even though much of his career was marked by decidedly extreme, violent rhetoric, reading his autobiography gave me a fresh empathy for the African American experience that has expanded how I think about racial issues today.

My Top Five Music Albums from 2015

Like last year, here is my annual, obviously subjective, list of the best music albums of 2015. If I could only listen to five records from 2015 for the rest of my life, it would be these. Give them a spin.

1. The Wonderlands – Jon Foreman

Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman released his second quartet of solo EP last year. Like his Seasons Eps, in which each album was named for one of the four seasons, respectively, The Wonderlands revolve around a cycle. Each track represents an hour in the 24-hour cycle of a day, and each album draws its name from the appropriate part of the day: Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn. Together, the Wonderlands capture much of the remarkable breadth of the human experience, including Foreman’s signature reflections on mortality (“Terminal”), his compassion for the broken and downcast (“You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are”), his personal vices (“Ghost Machine”) and doubts (“Inner Peace”), and above all his desperate faith in the saving work and person of Jesus (“Mercy’s War”).

These aren’t the wonderlands of the fantastic imaginings of a Lewis Carroll type, but the wonderlands of life in this world – a place of tension between the beautiful and the oppressive, between eternal truths and damnable lies, between paradoxes and facts and leaps of faith. They’re part of that rare breed of music that I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in, though more often than not I’ve found myself seeking solace in the Wonderlands in the hard times of despair, doubt, and fear. Indeed, Foreman may be the most empathic music artist in the business these days.

2. Blurryface – Twenty One Pilots

If last year was the year my eyes were finally opened to the wonders of Needtobreathe, this was the year of discovering Twenty One Pilots. This duo out of Columbus refuses to be pinned down by genre conventions. They serve up elements of hip-hop, pop, rock, electronica and more, not so much blended together as implemented at different stages of their songs. Frontman Tyler Joseph has said he didn’t realize there were rules to songwriting when he first started creating music, and it shows. Their songs don’t follow an expected progression, but somehow they work.

What truly makes them the cream of the crop of today’s music scene, however, is their lyrics. Twenty One Pilots songs are full of angst, but the not the sort of angst we laugh about when we think about listening to Paramore and Linkin Park in high school. It’s the post-youth angst found in coming to grips with one’s eternal responsibility. The stakes are higher. As we realize we cannot retreat to the petty problems of childhood (“Stressed Out”), we see more and more clearly the struggles and insufficiencies embedded deep in our “heavydirtysouls.” So put away all the gods your fathers served today. Put away your traditions. Believe me when I say we don’t know how to put back the power in our souls. We don’t know how to find what once was in our bones (“Hometown”).

3. Dear Wormwood – The Oh Hellos

My music tastes heavily evolved in another way this past autumn: I fell in love with folk music. I’ve know of The Oh Hellos for years, but they didn’t show up strong on my radar until I saw them open for Needtobreathe last year. It was an opening act that I’ve rarely seen matched, so when they went on a headlining tour for their new album, Dear Wormwood, I made sure to catch a show. These guys are one of those bands whose live show markedly changes how you hear their music, infusing it with vivacity. How many times has a banjo player snuck up behind you during a concert? Probably never, but thanks to the Oh Hellos, it happened to me. That’s not a show you forget in a hurry.

Their second full-length album, Dear Wormwood, draws its name from C.S. Lewis’ classic work, The Screwtape Letters. The book follows an imaginative situation in which a senior demon named Screwtape writes letters to his nephew, Wormwood, instructing him in the art of tempting human souls. The title track of the album speaks to that scenario from the human perspective, perceiving with clear eyes the purposes of the tempter and declaring opposition: “I know who I am now, and all that you’ve made of me. I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy.

4. Home – Josh Garrels

I had the privilege of interviewing Josh Garrels this year shortly after this album dropped. Garrels is one of those artists who (it seems to me) has succeeded through the sheer force of raw talent rather than stage presence or marketing. He first caught my attention with his breakout album, Love and War and Sea In Between. As the title suggests, it is an album full of conflict, spiritual warfare, taking a stand, and persevering on the journey home. On his latest album, Home, Garrels makes a shift in style and tone toward the soulful and contemplative, seeking that deep, intractable, divine rest and comfort available to the believer in the here and now.

Like Jon Foreman, I go to Garrels’ music for therapy and for encouragement. He captures the difficulties and joys of the Christian experience without sounding cliché or effusive. Here’s what he had to say about the new album: “In Home, there is the sense that I needed to know that things could be ok. I can tend towards being melancholy, wearing the weight of things on my shoulders. That can be a good thing, but I think on this album I really was searching. Where is the place where it’s going to be all right? Where is the place that we can find rest and joy and peace?”

5. Strange Trails – Lord Huron

This last slot was a tough choice, but ultimately I have to give the nod to Lord Huron, if for no other reason than that it is autumn incarnate. In the months after I saw them at DC’s Landmark Music Festival at the end of September, Lord Huron was the only band I wanted to listen to. Their music evokes recollections of long, formative journeys and stirs fond memories of foolish romances. I would describe it as ethereal and detached if it didn’t conjure such concrete images of the Virginia countryside descending into winter – cloudy days, damp paths, cool air, old forests and falling leaves.

If I were to sit down to write poetry or literary fiction, this is the album I’d put on in the background.

 

Honorable Mentions

Kids in Love – The Mowglis: This band takes the millennial ideal of love to its most extreme. Sometimes it’s fun to let my worries go and feel like I’m not alone, and even if I show up late, my friends will love me anyway.

Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES: The track “Clearest Blue” might have the sickest build and drop of any song I’ve ever heard, and the album as a whole represents a solid sophomore effort from the Scottish electronic trio. Also, I might be in love with lead singer Lauren Mayberry.

LOVETAP! – Smallpools: If I were to rank this list by songs I listened to the most, this album would have cracked the top five. These guys are like Walk the Moon’s cool little brother.

Mobile Orchestra – Owl City: While I think this is Adam Young’s weakest album as Owl City to date, I still has a lot to enjoy. He takes his faith to new levels of explicit spiritual expression in My Everything and You’re Not Alone, yet also collaborates with mainstream artists across a variety of genres – namely Jake Owen, Aloe Blacc, and Hanson (yeah, apparently Hanson’s still around). The juxtaposition doesn’t always work, and it lacks the innocence and charm – but not the sentimentality – of his earlier albums. Even so, I still count myself a dedicated fan.

California Nights – Best Coast: I’ve lived in DC for three years now, but I had a friend tell me recently that I still exude a decidedly Californian aura. I’d like to think this album by Best Coast (meaning the west coast, of course!) helps keep the Californian alive in me – sunny, beach-bum, alt-rock. The opening track makes me want to roll down the windows and drive through Los Angeles in the summer. And if you want a way to sonically capture the experience of going up to the Hollywood Bowl overlook at night, fire up the title track and drift into the psychedelic night.

Thaumatrope – Marah in the Mainsail: Rather than feeding off of petty breakups and navel-gazing emotion, this self-described “cinematic indie” outfit out of Minneapolis strives to tell stories fit for the movies, and I think they succeed. Their aggressive, boot-stomping folk is the perfect soundtrack for any post-Christmas winter adventure, yet Thaumatrope also has enough deep tracks to undergird those long, cold nights spent around the hearth, gazing into the fire.