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St Patrick, Relevant To Us

7-17-17

Sent from Ireland this week, revived while visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.

Unlike some saints of trinkets and wall-hangings, Ireland’s Saint Patrick was real, and is real.

St Patrick knew persecution. There understandably is some obscurity about a man who lived in the late 400s, but two letters he wrote survive; there are records of his deeds; tremendous influences surely attributable to him are still felt; and he did die on March 17. These things, and more, we do know.

He was born in western England and kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was a teenager. As a slave he worked as a shepherd, during which time his faith in God grew, where others might have turned despondent. He escaped to Britain, became learned in the Christian faith, and felt called to return to Ireland. On that soil he converted thousands, he encouraged men and women to serve in the clergy, he worked against slavery, and quashed paganism and heresies. Among his surviving colorful lessons is using the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, the Triune God, to converts.

He was an on-the-ground evangelist – possibly the church’s first great evangelist/missionary since St Paul, planting churches as far away as Germany – and he preceded much of history: living more than a hundred years prior to Mohammed; 500 years before Christianity split into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; and a thousand years before the Reformation.

I am not Irish; I am American. And my background is not at all Irish; it is German. But propelled, I am eager to admit, by a remarkable book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, I have learned about a gifted people. Not unlike other ethnic groups, the Irish endured persecution through generations, but in many ways in special ways. I have learned about a land that was repository of many tribes, not least the Celts, until its craggy Atlantic coast became the last European stand against pagan barbarism. Those tribes became a people, and their land virtually became, for quite a while, the defiant yet secret refuge of literacy and faith, in lonely monasteries and libraries. You know, the “Dark” Ages. Which were not all that dark. Plumbing was neglected, perhaps; but faith thrived.

As Lori Erickson recently wrote in a series on St Patrick for Patheos, “In the eighth century, Celtic Christians created a masterpiece of religious art called the The Book of Kells, whose vividness, color, and artistic mastery reflected Christian traditions laced with Celtic enchantment. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four Gospels. While scholars don’t know for certain, it was likely created on the remote island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and later brought to the monastery at Kells, Ireland. Made from the finest vellum and painted with inks and pigments from around the world (including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), the book is almost indescribable in its loveliness, with designs that are convoluted, ornate, sinuous, and dreamlike in their complexity. Some scholars have called it the most beautiful book in the world,” she wrote. I can add that it can be seen as an early graphic novel.

It is on display at the magnificent Trinity College Library in Dublin – whose famous, cavernous, multi-balconied library room is akin to heaven for bibliomaniacs like me – surrounded by back-lit photos and displays of enlargements. It sits in an environment-controlled case, one page at a time turned every few months. To behold that book, so magnificent in its reproductions, in its reality, was one of the great experiences of my life.

The Book of Kells is awesome for what it is, surely one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human hand, head, and heart. A majestic monument to faith, all the more remarkable for being anonymously produced, unlikely by one person; possibly by a virtual army of creative souls. The Book of Kells is significant, too, for what it represents:

The tenacity of faith; the triumph of trust; the assumption of lonely devotion in the face of worldly temptations and the world-system’s persecutions; the joy of creativity; and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing Him; making Him known. Not incidentally investing artistic beauty along the way… and having obvious, visceral, evident fun in the process.

Back to Saint Patrick. When the ancient masterpiece we behold as The Book of Kells was created, the man Patrick who bravely and no less tenaciously fought for the Gospel on that beautiful soil was already, himself, 500 years in the past. Our faith has been blessed with famous noted saints like Paul and Augustine; and those who touched souls for Christ but never were designated saints subsequently, like Martin Luther and J S Bach; and many, many saints who mightily served Christ in obscurity, like the monks who made The Book of Kells, and uncountable missionaries and martyrs.

Saint Patrick, born a pagan, made a slave, once a fugitive, was transformed by a knowledge of Christ. He taught us how to overcome challenges, listen to the Holy Spirit, formulate a vision, and change the world. Not just his world; but the world ever after.

+ + +

For more than a millennium a hymn, set to the haunting Irish tune “Slane,” and using St Patrick’s teaching in the words of the 6th-century Irish poet Saint Dallan, has spoken to the hearts of believers and non-believers: God is our All-In-All: Be Thou My Vision. It is performed here – with obvious and profound extra layers of meaning – by the blind gospel singer Ginny Owens.

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Click: Be Thou My Vision

After 1500 Years the Man, Not the Myth, Endures

3-21-16

St Patrick’s Day is over, a mini-holiday in the commercialized America that likes to observe at least one holiday a month. The truth is, the American economy might collapse if it were not for our periodic celebrations, three-day weekends, and “holiday” sales.

Approximately one-fourth of all retail sales are in the Christmas season. When you consider the hoopla and commercials built upon Presidents’ Days and Easter Bunnies and Halloweens, you can believe that without formerly Christian holy days and once-patriotic commemorations, our economy would collapse.

Where, once, Christian observances and patriotic anniversaries inspired us, now their superficial and counterfeit shades prop us up.

St Patrick’s Day is in that category. Bins of discounted green plastic hats, and the few remaining posters for green milk shakes, confirm this. Sic Transit gloria mundi. Until next year. Until the next holiday – bunnies and peeps hot on the trail this season. Some Americans even assume that “Saint Paddy” was one of the fictional or dubious Catholic saints, like St Christopher and St George.

But Saint Patrick was real, and is real.

St Patrick knew persecution. There understandably is some obscurity about a man who lived in the late 400s, but two letters he wrote survive; there are records of his deeds; tremendous influences surely attributable to him are still felt; and he did die on March 17. These things, and more, we do know.

He was born in western England and kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was a teenager. As a slave he worked as a shepherd, during which time his faith in God grew, where others might have turned despondent. He escaped to Britain, became learned in the Christian faith, and felt called to return to Ireland. On that soil he converted thousands, he encouraged men and women to serve in the clergy, he worked against slavery, and quashed paganism and heresies. Among his surviving colorful lessons is using the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, the Triune God, to converts.

He was an on-the-ground evangelist – possibly the church’s first great evangelist/missionary since St Paul, planting churches as far away as Germany – and he preceded much of history: living more than a hundred years prior to Mohammed; 500 years before Christianity split into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; and a thousand years before the Reformation.

I am not Irish; I am American. And my background is not at all Irish; it is German. But propelled, I am eager to admit, by a remarkable book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, I have learned about a gifted people who, not unlike other ethnic groups, endured persecution through generations; and learned about a land that was repository of many tribes, not least the Celts, until its craggy Atlantic coast became the last European stand against pagan barbarism. Those tribes became a people, and their land virtually became, for quite a while, the defiant yet secret refuge of literacy and faith, in lonely monasteries and libraries.

As Lori Erickson recently wrote in a series on St Patrick for Patheos, “In the eighth century, Celtic Christians created a masterpiece of religious art called the The Book of Kells, a book whose vividness, color, and artistic mastery reflect Christian traditions laced with Celtic enchantment. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four Gospels. While scholars don’t know for certain, it was likely created on the remote island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and later brought to the monastery at Kells, Ireland.

“Made from the finest vellum and painted with inks and pigments from around the world (including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), the book is almost indescribable in its loveliness, with designs that are convoluted, ornate, sinuous, and dreamlike in their complexity. Some scholars have called it the most beautiful book in the world,” she wrote. I can add that it can be seen as an early graphic novel.

It is on display at the magnificent Trinity College Library in Dublin – whose famous, cavernous, multi-balconied library room is akin to heaven for bibliomaniacs like me – and surrounded by back-lit photos and displays of enlargements, it sits in an environment-controlled case, one page at a time turned every few months. To behold that book, so magnificent in its reproductions, in its reality, was one of the great experiences of my life.

The Book of Kells is awesome for what it is, surely one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human hand, head, and heart. A majestic monument to faith, all the more remarkable for being anonymously produced, unlikely by one person; possibly by a virtual army of creative souls. The Book of Kells is significant, too, for what it represents:

The tenacity of faith; the triumph of trust; the assumption of lonely devotion in the face of worldly temptations and the world-system’s persecutions; the joy of creativity; and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing Him; making Him known. Not incidentally investing artistic beauty along the way… and having obvious, visceral, evident fun in the process.

Back to Saint Patrick. When the ancient masterpiece we behold as The Book of Kells was created, the man Patrick who bravely and no less tenaciously fought for the gospel on that beautiful soil was already, himself, 500 years in the past. The church has been blessed with famous saints like Paul and Augustine; and those who touched souls for Christ but never were designated saints subsequently, like Martin Luther and J S Bach; and many, many saints who mightily served Christ in obscurity, like the monks who made The Book of Kells, and uncountable missionaries and martyrs.

Saint Patrick, born a pagan, made a slave, once a fugitive, was transformed by a knowledge of Christ. He taught us how to overcome challenges, listen to the Holy Spirit, formulate a vision, and change the world. Not just his world; but the world ever after.

+ + +

For more than a millennium a hymn, set to the haunting Irish tune “Slane,” and using St Patrick’s teaching in the words of the 6th-century Irish poet Saint Dallan, has spoken to the hearts of believers and non-believers: God is our All-In-All: Be Thou My Vision. It is performed here – with obvious and profound extra layers of meaning – by the blind gospel singer Ginny Owens.

Click: Be Thou My Vision

Imitating God

5-11-15

And Moses said to the children of Israel, “See, the Lord… has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship. And He has put in his heart the ability to teach… He has filled them with skill to do all manner of work of the engraver and the designer and the tapestry maker, in blue, purple, and scarlet thread and fine linen, and of the weaver – those who do every work and those who design artistic works” (Exodus 35:31-35).

There are some Christians who write to correct me when I refer to creativity, creative accomplishments, creators of prose and poetry and painting, of drawings, sculpture, and dance. Of course we know that God created all things, that nothing was created that was not created by Him. Or, technically, can be created. They say, “Only God can create.” Of course this is true for physical elements, for resources – a reminder that is either sobering or revelatory to extremists who think we might run out of water or oxygen or soil or minerals. We might indeed squander resources, spoil or misuse the earth’s treasures, and pollute the environment. But under this inverted bowl we call the sky we cannot add to God’s resources or make any disappear: the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof… all of it.

Having parsed those terms, I believe it is not unscriptural to say that God’s children can create. Not in terms of alchemy, but to create stories from the mysterious depths of our imaginations. To create ethereal music where silence once reigned. To create images – paintings, drawings, sculpted figures, movies, graphic novels – by that magical process that exists between blank pages or canvasses and finished works of art, attended by simple speculation or profound genius as midwives.

We hear the clichés about what separates us from animals – laughter, compassion, intelligence – but I think the principal distinction, beyond having souls, is that we humans are creative beings. Not only created, but creative.

And I believe God endowed us with this spark of creativity. It is neither a theological “stretch” nor blasphemy to see ourselves this way. If we are to be “imitators of Christ,” in matters of relationships, forgiveness, discipleship, then surely we may be imitators of God, the Creator. In fact it is true, not suggestive but affirming, that most generations of humankind’s history, including in other faith traditions than our own, the majority of artistic expression has been exegetical of religious beliefs, expressing praise in unique ways, simply glorifying God. (That much artwork of the 20th and 21st centuries has been secular or anti-God, inimical to tradition and rejecting inherited values, is evidence, I think, of the cultural nihilism that infests our age. Do artists reflect their culture? Then yes, we have a proven case of societies tragically adrift. The contemporary arts tell us that we do not merely hate traditional standards; we of this age hate the very concept of there being standards.)

I have noted recently in this space that because of family matters I am in Ireland for month, and missing the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, an annual event where I endeavor to counsel aspiring writers and where (dirty-little-secret alert) I am replenished by fellowship with other creative types. I hasten to add that in God’s providence I am finding time, and making new friends, with writers and artists in Dublin, Ireland. And this is today’s context of the message I compose about once a year on creativity.

Dublin has a great literary tradition. I have already been to a few of the sites where Leopold Bloom “visited,” still marked as real locations and attractive to literary tourists. I will visit the Dublin Writers Museum, Trinity College Library, and the Chester Beatty Collection to see rare manuscripts and literary relics. The International Writers Festival will be held next week. Just to look upon the Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript whose display turns one page each day – to realize that I look upon an astounding work of art, and a manuscript representative of monastic traditions that kept Christianity alive during the bleakest years of the barbarians’ dominance of Europe – floods the soul.

I have met, by chance or because of my daughter Emily’s affinity for the arts, writers and artists who are particularly gifted. Stacey Covell deconstructs and reconstructs poems, collaborating with visual artists who contribute to the new morphological creations, published in a revolutionary format of loose pages in an envelope, to be read, rearranged, spread out, and itself reconstructed. Another new friend is Martin McCormack, an artist whose invented medium is turf – mixing iconic Irish peat with glue and acrylics, applying the substance to boards and then scraping away negative portions of Irish cultural figures’ faces to produce portraits that are arresting.

There is in Dublin a fledgling group called the Creative Collective. Founded by James and Laura Pettit (he a musician, she a painter), it is a gathering-place where “we explore what creativity is and encourage every person to understand why imagination, beauty and truth matter in life. Everyone has imagination and ability to create, and everyone is welcome. We are involved in visual arts, music, theatre and performing arts, design, new media, literary arts and film.” Those who attend the meetups are from many different countries, all ages. The motivators and hosts of the Creative Collective are Christians, but wide-ranging, free discussion of the arts and creativity is the only “liturgy.”

Recently James formed a spin-off community, Art & Faith Together, to encourage those who wanted to explore the nexus of the disciplines. His own manifesto described the community: “Passion for creativity. My encouragement for everyone to understand how they are particularly made to create. Helping people understand what that means in their lives.” He said, “I love how any discussion about any art can have applications to another.”

I attended a meeting of Art & Faith Together in Dublin’s unique coffee shop Third Space last week. I was very impressed with James’ views of the arts and creativity (himself, among things, a classically trained trombonist who espied jazz and blues) but especially his views as a Christian artist. The American church community, with pockets of exceptions, I think tends not to encourage artistic expression and creativity. I hope I am mistaken. Too often, people of faith equate the arts with iconoclasm (in itself, not necessarily a bad thing), scatology and worse.

To the extent that Christian nay-sayers have any point, our response should not be to withdraw from creative communities and artistic expression, but to embrace them… reclaim them… redeem them.

James Pettit was firm in this view the night I met him at Art & Faith in Dublin. It was a commitment to something I had not fully considered: that Christians in the arts were not merely expressing their creativity; not only praising God in unique ways; but can fulfill themselves and in so doing, attract the world to the Word by the beauty, singularity, complexities, simplicity, fragrance, and elemental attractiveness of God-inspired, God-honoring art. I would add, as above, perhaps even be reverently God-imitative.

A few nights after that session in the Third Space Café in Dublin’s Smithfield district, James Pettit died of a massive heart attack. I, who knew him but a few hours, was as shocked and saddened as those who knew the transplanted American for years. This essay is a tribute to him, and the values this gentle giant of a man gently but firmly embraced.

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Click: Sweet Is the Melody

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More