Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Blinded By The Light

   Blinded By The Light:
   Bruce Springsteen

Note to visitors:  This post's title recalls a Bruce Springsteen song of the same name from his 1973 album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N. J.  The post is not, however, about that estimable song.  Rather, it describes the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, before in turn offering that description as a template for the nature of any significant character change.

There is art and there are four music players: two single-track, two multi-track.  The largest multi-track player, in lurid crimson, contains songs that describe those not blinded by transformative light, those in the grip of urges.  A smaller player, in tranquil blue, contains songs that describe those who have found faith and resolve.

Biblical quotations are from the King James Version.  I acknowledge the possibility of scriptural misreadings, and I also acknowledge the opacity of certain verses cited in Romans 7:14 - 23.  Forty-seven scholars translated the 1611 Version, with a seven-man committee specifically assigned the New Testament Epistles, and I'm sure they did their best –– plus, King James probably understood it.  For the rest of us, some of it is heavy sledding.

Around 33 - 35 AD Saul of Tarsus was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus, some 135 miles to the northeast.  A Jewish Pharisee, he hated the early Christian church, its message and missionaries, and he zealously persecuted Christians –– this being the purpose of his trip.  (I am not suggesting that persecutory practices routinely informed Pharisaic doctrine in the 1st century, a period of diverse religious sects and amalgams.)

Saul's journey was interrupted traumatically by a flash of light that caused him to fall to the ground.  He then heard a voice (Acts 9:4), asking:  "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"  The voice was that of Jesus and Saul was blinded by the experience for three days, during which time he neither ate nor drank.  Afterwards, with the intercession of Ananias, Saul's sight was restored, he was baptized and transformed –– into a Jewish believer in Christ, the promised Messiah. The conversion proper occurred not on the road to, but in Damascus, at Judas's house (no, not that Judas) on Straight Street.

Michelangelo: The Conversion of Saul (c. 1542 - 1545)
Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain

I am skipping the various explanations, theological, neurocortical, psychological, that attend Saul's conversion from hateful Pharisee to the Apostle Paul, to focus on the poetry of the event.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul (1600/1601)
Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain
Here you have Saul, blinded by the light, knocked off his perch, evacuated of that which previously had sustained him –– food, drink, ideology, hate –– after which he sees again, only differently, having been straightened out on Straight Street.

His three days' blindness is a kind of death, followed by rebirth as the Apostle Paul.  That this process took three days evokes Jesus's crucifixion and transformation in the tomb from bodily self to abiding spirit.  And as with Jesus there was no pleasure in the process: Saul's conversion was an affliction, a painful gestation into a new identity.

Paul never forgot the before-and-after of this, who he was, what he became, how hard it was, the imitation of Christ that inaugurated it. Meaning: the replacement of bodily imperatives by a spiritual faith in what he calls the "law of God," a faith always at odds with corporality (Romans 7:14 - 23):

   14  For we know that the law is spiritual: but I
   am carnal, sold under sin.
   15  For that which I do I allow not: for what I
   would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.
   16  If then I do that which I would not, I
   consent unto the law that it is good.
   17  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin
   that dwelleth in me.
   18  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,)
   dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present
   with me; but how to perform that which is
   good I find not.
   19  For the good that I would I do not: but the
   evil which I would not, that I do.
   20  Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I
   that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
   21  I find then a law, that, when I would do
   good, evil is present with me.
   22  For I delight in the law of God after the
   inward man:
   23  But I see another law in my members,
   warring against the law of my mind, and
   bringing me into captivity to the law of sin
   which is in my members.

It's hard to be good, hard to stay the course.  Willpower wars with an implacable internal enemy and proves insufficient to the task: Paul doesn't do what he should but instead does what he shouldn’t.  In the grip of continuously competing "laws," he easily falls short of the mark, as do we all in Pauline theology.

What helps?  For the most part, we are saved by faith, or in Paul's phrasing a resolute hope in the unseen:

   24  For we are saved by hope: but hope that is
   seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why
   doth he yet hope for?
   25  But if we hope for that we see not, then do
   with patience wait for it.

This is interesting.  Transformational hope is of a special kind, one that exists in the absence of evidence, one that exists because of absence of evidence.  There is no roadmap to salvation that demonstrably and visibly works: no self-help program, no steps or levels, no laws of the Torah which if scrupulously observed will succeed in expunging indwelling "evil."  Paul's Epistle to the Romans is not Dr. Paul's Guide To A Cleaner, Holier You.

Rather it is a call to faith, with emphasis on faith more than correct religious practice.  It is as if you've hit a reef, are shipwrecked, find yourself swimming against the tide toward a faraway shore.  You can focus on your strokes and their tempo, your breathing and the resistance of the water; or if you're Paul, you can focus on the certainty of your eventual arrival on land.  This is not just a shift of attention or, cynically, a distraction from immediate peril.  It is a shift of attention that alters the experience of passing time; that is, it becomes possible to patiently wait because you are confident in the outcome.

Forget shipwrecks.  Say you're tackling some bodily craving, and growing frustrated by the day with your modest progress toward a seemingly unreachable goal.  It's sensible to keep up the good work, follow this or that program –– but wiser still to relegate methodology and rate of progress to the background, while sustaining and making foreground an image of an improved you.  It won't hurt, it will bolster willpower, and time will pass more easily.

I am at best nominally Christian but I like elements of Paul's story: that conversion begins with being knocked silly, shocked out of the habitual; that death of one state precedes rebirth to another; that that rebirth is arduous and painful, such that willpower alone may not be enough; that awakening from blindness rouses resistance from an inertial "law" of familiar, instinctive, and peremptory behavioral tendencies; that faith –– a steadfast vision of a new you –– is heartening, in that it undergirds patience and dedication, thereby lightening waiting-time; that bonds of fellowship can sustain one through this process (Paul was fostering nascent Christian communities after the death of Jesus).

   Kill the Demon: Kieran Kane

Finally, should faith waver, spirits droop, and dedication flag, we have this spur:


MCKY said...

Kit, that was superb. That is what Faith is. And faith is always difficult. This is the first of your posts where I read the text before listening to the track list.

Ever think of doing a music podcast? Not that difficult, and I think you'd strike a chord.


Anonymous said...

Hope is my talisman. Andrea

Unknown said...

Kit, this is my new favorite, replacing seaweeds, which was early on.
This is really good stuff.

Comments are appreciated: