For Sunday August 9, 2015

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)


2 Samuel 18:5–9, 15, 31–33 or 1 Kings 19:4–8
Psalm 130 or Psalm 34:1–8
Ephesians 4:25–5:2
John 6:35, 41–51

"Live a life of love," Paul tells the Ephesians in this week's epistle.

As I thought about these words of Paul, words that can sound so trivial and trite, I saw a movie that reminded me of how our lonely world really is looking for love.  It's a bio-pic about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys called "Love and Mercy."

Wilson was the innovative genius behind the Beach Boys, but despite his professional success, for much of his personal life he has battled the dark demons of mental illness.

Brian Wilson.
Brian Wilson.

His father was abusive. Substance abuse, auditory hallucinations, erratic behavior, financial insolvency, attempted suicide, and nervous breakdowns precipitated multiple hospitalizations.  At one point Wilson weighed over 300 pounds and spent months in bed.  An abusive therapist and legal guardian named Eugene Landy, who was eventually disbarred from practice, might have saved his life.

As I watched the movie I kept wondering where the marvelous title came from.  Sorry for the spoiler alert, but in a clever effect by the director Bill Pohlad, as the film ends and the credits roll, we watch Wilson perform his 1988 song named "Love and Mercy."

Here are the lyrics:

"I was sittin' in a crummy movie
With my hands on my chin
all the violence that occurs
Seems like we never win

Love and mercy that's what you need tonight
Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

I was lying in my room
And the news came on TV
A lotta people out there hurtin'
And it really scares me

Love and mercy that's what you need tonight
Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

I was standing in a bar
And watching all the people there
Oh the loneliness in this world
Well it's just not fair

Love and mercy that's what we need tonight
Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight."

Elsewhere, Wilson explained how he wrote the song:

Amy Winehouse.
Amy Winehouse.

"I was in my piano room, playing "What the World Needs Now," and I just went into my own song…worked very hard to get out what was in my heart on that one…it’s a personal message from me to people…We wanted people to be covered with love, because there’s no guarantee of somebody waking up in the morning with any love. It goes away, like a bad dream. It disappears. Mercy would be a deeper word than love. I would think love is a gentle thing and mercy would be a more desperate, ultimately more desperately needed, thing in life. Mercy — a little break here and there for somebody who’s having trouble…'Love and Mercy' is probably the most spiritual song I’ve ever written."

In a poignant coincidence, the Wilson film was preceded by trailers of forthcoming movies about two other troubled artists whose lives ended way too early — "Amy," about the musician Amy Winehouse, and which debuted at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival; and "The End of the Tour," which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and which is about the writer David Foster Wallace.

The lyrics to Wilson's song could serve as the theme for all that Wallace tried to express in his writing — that is, an analysis of our culture of loneliness and the search for the personal experience of love.

When Wallace's editor received the first 400 pages of Infinite Jest (1996) — by some accounts the most important novel of its decade, he compared it to a piece of glass dropped from a great height. The crazy complexity of the 1100-page story makes it hard to describe.

Some passages make you laugh out loud, others stymie you, single paragraphs run on for pages, and the infamous 388 footnotes can have footnotes. The novel explores numerous aspects of American culture — national character, information overload (which the book mimics), suicide, and addiction to drugs, entertainment, and pleasure.

In numerous interviews Wallace said that he intended to write a book about sadness. The themes of addiction and entertainment for which the book is justly famous are really only vectors of sadness and loneliness.

And so, Wallace's biographer D.T. Max says that Infinite Jest is "a story of people in pain."

It has a "very quiet but very sturdy and constant tragic undercurrent," writes novelist Dave Eggers, "that concerns a people who are completely lost, who are lost within their families and lost within their nation, and lost within their time, and who only want some sort of direction or purpose or sense of community or love."

Wallace often said that he intended his fiction to explore what it means to live a life of human wholeness in a culture obsessed with individual choice, putative freedom, and rabid individualism, all of which result in a loss of purpose and the ability to give yourself to something Bigger.

David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace.

In the end, Wallace became what Max calls a "full-fledged apostle of sincerity." The cliches of AA recovery supplant the technical jargon of literary theory. Sincerity replaced irony as a virtue, and "saying what you meant became a calling."

At the end of his biography, Max makes a provocative comparison between Dostoevsky and Wallace (who was never religious): "Like 'the good old Brothers K,' as Wallace called Dostoevsky's novel, Infinite Jest counter poses sincerity and faith against moral lassitude. Both eschew stylish irony to make a simple point: faith matters."

More specifically, faith expressing itself in love is what matters.  Paul said it was "the only thing that matters." (Galatians 5:6).

In his book of poetry called Leavings (2012), Wendell Berry's poem-prayer gives us a way to start:

"I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind."

When we live in love, says Paul in Ephesians, we imitate the character of God.  We fulfill our human destiny.  We're all "created to be like God," he says, and when we live in love we become nothing less than "imitators of God."

So, "live a life of love."

For further reflection:

Saint Maximos the Confessor (580–662): "Blessed is the person who can love all people equally . . . always thinking good of everyone."

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3)