We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.
— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock” (‘60’s folk song)
My City of justice, my City of relief My City of tomorrow’s joy and peace.
–“Twelve Gates to the City” (traditional spiritual)
If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws.
–Thomas Fletcher, 1704
I’ve been writing about art and enchantment as a path to God unfortunately neglected in our church’s recent history, and one that’s needed today as the paths of Truth and Goodness seem largely exhausted. But what vision of Beauty is a genuine one? Our culture insists that “art is in the eye of the beholder,” and that there are no standards that apply universally. A glance at children’s development should be enough to dispel this notion. Most children enjoy fast food, but (may) graduate, with help, to exotic cuisines; few start with exotics and then in their mature years come to prefer McDonald’s. Similarly, children may start with the music of Britney Spears and progress (note the word) to Bach; few Bach-lovers abandon him for Britney. Some art is more compelling than other art; some visions of Beauty are better paths to God… And today’s text from Revelation shows us by contrast a false vision that has plagued our culture for some centuries. Joni Mitchell captured it well in Woodstock: too-often in our culture, our longed-for paradise is “back (in) the Garden (of Eden).”
The Romantic movement in art and literature fostered this vision, and its influence is still felt not just in pop music but in the exaltation of the “natural” (just look at advertising), the “childlike,” the “simple,” the “innocent”; and in countless other rejections of complexity, maturity, and subtlety. We may find it in ourselves: a wish to experience a “paradise like the Garden of Eden.” But that’s not the vision of the Scriptures, as the old spiritual quoted above captures so well. The Garden is not what our hearts truly and most deeply desire.
The Bible begins in a garden, but (in today’s second reading) it doesn’t end there. We don’t “return to innocence” in the Christian story. Our destiny is more complex. The desire for the “certainties and simplicities” of the past is, this Biblical vision tells us, an illusion. That’s not what we’re made for. And we don’t get to our destination by going backwards.
The Bible ends in a City, the Heavenly Jerusalem. It’s the City not of the innocent, but of the redeemed — of people who have experienced sin and forgiveness, who have been tempered by the struggles and complexities of living in a dangerous world, and who have embraced the grace that gave them courage and wisdom to endure and even flourish. To return to the image I wrote about last week, the “gate to the City” is a pearl — the beauty that’s created by working over an irritant until it’s ready to be shown, humbly but forthrightly, to others who need to see it. (The recovering addict helping others still in the grip of their addiction is the most common, but certainly not the only, example.)
A few weeks ago — before Easter — we prayed over the “holy and glorious wounds” of Christ. The City is a communion of similarly wounded people; people who — just like Christ in glory — display their wounds, not for egocentric purposes but as testimonies to God’s transforming grace and their embrace of it.
The garden, or the City? We need to appreciate the lure of each — a return to the carefree life of infancy (which is what gives the garden myth its power), and the complex joys of mature love exchanged in the City. Today’s text from Revelation shows us what we most deeply long for. Don’t be misled by fantasies of a cheaper victory. Until next week, Peace.