We watched some of the Academy Awards the other night, but turned it off half way through. Just too much self-congratulary excess for me. We had seen some of the movies – Gravity, Twelve Years a Slave, Nebraska, American Hustle. I did not think much of Gravity – great special effects for sure, but too predictable. Like others I wondered if the alligators or sharks were going to appear when she lands in the lake at the end. I loved Nebraska – talk about the death of middle America and fine and human performances. American Hustle was wonderful – just a great entertainment and the part where Jennifer Lawrence stares and talks down Amy Adams was superb. But just an entertainment.
It is good that Twelve Years a Slave won. I thought it a brave and true film, and we as a nation need to be reminded over and over about that part of our history. With all the rage about American exceptionalism and the talk about how wonderful we are, there are stains in our character, none greater than slavery. Its remnants are alive today and we ignore them at our peril. The movie is no romance, but there are acts of dignity and courage throughout as well as acts of cowardice and evil. The slave owners are my ancestors (not literally or biologically but certainly culturally) and I should be aware of that.
Art matters. A recent editorial in the LA Times argued that we need to pay more attention to the teaching of math in our schools. Obama made that comment about art history. While I loved math and do think it can be beautiful, I think we need less focus on math and science and more on the humanities. Both matter of course, but art above all helps us understand the link between ourselves and the world, more so, I believe than math or the sciences can.
In his poem “Asphodel,” William Carlos Williams writes: “It is difficult to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” I don’t know how true that is, but there is certainly some truth in it. My experience of the world is more qualitative than quantitative; the world has feel and heft and meaning and this is more the language of the arts than of numbers. Again, without science and math, we would be lost, but without the humanities we can’t know the direction of the road we are on.
We know the facts of slavery. All the numbers in the world cannot make its evil as present as that segment in which Patsey is found with a piece of soap. See the movie if you have not. It is tough to watch, but then sometimes life is tough. The arts can break down the barriers between ourselves and the world and that can be the road to compassion and to justice. The humanities are named that for a reason.
The sermon this Sunday focuses on my very favorite poem, “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” and is, I think, about this very process – about how we respond to the world that is given unto us and what we do with what we are given and then how we understand our relationship to the larger whole.
I loved math when I was young and thought seriously about being a mathematician. There is a beauty to math and it can be enormously useful. But the arts matter too, and too often they have been victims of the budget axe. Williams is right. I hope we pay attention.
-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson