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The Economy of Useless Things

October 23, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Botanic Series, No. 14

Mississippi River Botanic Series, No. 14


"We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us."

-Anthony De Mello [1]


Among the things I like to photograph are those that have no apparent human value. I like things that have nothing to do with us, that offer us no advantage and that have not been swept up in the tidal pull of commodification. I like worthless things precisely because they ignore us.

The weeds, vines, and brush along the shoreline of the Mississippi River are among such things. They are a thorny nest of useless things that grow up among the mud, rocks, and driftwood left behind by the receding river.  

It takes time and patience to see the beauty of this overgrown tangle. At first, it seems that there is no order, no beauty, only out-of-control weeds, many of which have hostile thorns eager to stab the flesh of trespassers. And then there is the tangle of vines growing over concealed, loose rocks that plot our downfall on the steeply sloped river bank. But even imputing such motives to useless things is one last gesture of the self-centeredness from which we are about to be delivered.

As we slow down and cease grasping for large gestures of beauty, the small ones emerge. Here and there in the relentless chaos, is a little bit of order — a small cluster of seed pods caught poetically in the vines, performing in rhyme. But we will miss it if we are anxious "to see something." Only when we give up the search will it find us.

The beauty of useless things is often this way. It is given from beyond ourselves. To experience such beauty is to sense some plasticity of self. The rigid borders of the self, guarded by anxiety, cognitive control, and egoism, become fluid and permeable in the presence of such little surprises. When this happens, we glimpse a fleeting but deep truth, the fact that in the end our lives are not our own, and they are framed by purposes and mysteries much larger than us. The beauty of useless things dethrones us, reminds us that we are not the measure of all things. We are among the measured. And it is freeing.

Here in the economy of useless things lies a new self.



[1] Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom. Quoted in Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 57.

After the Miracles are Gone

August 05, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

After the Miracles are Gone, 2017


"Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth…. Furthermore, graces does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults…. [Grace] strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed...."

-Paul Tillich[1]


"The blues…is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”

-Ralph Ellison[2]



In the Gospels, we find many stories in which Jesus healed people. A woman follows quietly behind him and touches the hem of his garment and is healed instantly. Four good, strong friends lower a man through the roof of a building to interrupt Jesus so he will heal their friend, and Jesus does it. In Jericho, a blind panhandler named Bartimaeus, despite being sternly ordered by the authorities to be quiet, yells out to Jesus as he passes by, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus heals him. The healing stories are surely dramatic. Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned miracle story?

But when I am honest, I must admit that these stories leave me with as many questions as answers. What about all those other people in the crowd just as much in need of healing as the woman but who couldn’t get close enough quickly enough to touch Jesus’ garment because he was moving too quickly or the crowds were too thick? What about all those other broken people who don’t have four good, strong friends willing to dismantle a roof to get them healed? What about all those other quiet panhandlers in Jericho in need of healing whose voices were drowned out by the one loud mouth who stole the show? For every individual fortunate enough to be healed miraculously by Jesus, there are throngs of people just as much in need of healing that he never heals, at least not miraculously and dramatically.

Where do these folks go to get healed? Some go to church, I suppose. Others go to Blues festivals, at least that’s now what I believe after photographing the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi for several years. Clarksdale and the Blues are for broken and flawed people, suffering people who, for whatever reason, can’t seem to get healed instantly, dramatically, and miraculously by Jesus in the usual places.

Whatever the seat of our particular suffering, when the Blues are performed, we run our fingers over the jagged edges of our brokenness, our inadequacies, our suffering. We feel the sharp-edged pain of our failure to get skinnier, smarter, wealthier, healthier, younger, prettier, or holier. We confront the loss of failed relationships and the host of other moral inadequacies and untamed compulsions that still reign in us. And we touch the hopelessness and despair awakened by a world hellbent on violence and injustice. The Blues give voice to this tragic reality, this tangle of finitude and brokenness that is inescapable in all human life. In this regard, the Blues are more honest than what often happens in church. The Blues are a much messier form of healing than miracles, and perhaps that’s why they persist long after the miracles are gone.

But the Blues do more than give voice to the brokenness in our lives. They enable us to transcend it, to squeeze from it some inexplicable, ineffable triumph. Let's call it grace. No, let's be bold. Let's call it Gospel, "good news" that blesses Luke's "poor" and Matthew's "poor in spirit." By singing about suffering, the Blues ultimately beat it, well, kind of. They beat it, albeit in an oblique way, with humor, pathos, and permission to embrace our bodies and spirits as they are. They beat it by unshackling bodily and spiritual desires, emotional longing, and the satisfaction of all of these from the shame and violence of false moralism and the politics of domination.

The Blues knit wounded selves back together again. They do so not by extricating us from the cruelties of life. That would be too easy; that would be cheap grace and bad music. The Blues are cruciform grace; they make power present through weakness. In them, we find divine grace incarnate in human suffering well after the miracles are gone.

It is foolish, of course, to say that everything sung in the Blues is Gospel; surely the Blues too are fragile and susceptible to the very tragic misdirections and distortions that they themselves identify. To say this is simply to recognize that old truth that not every word the preacher utters is Gospel; and yet sometimes the preacher's clumsy or even self-serving words become Gospel through the power of Another. So it is with the Blues.



[1] Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948); pp. 161-2.

[2] Ralph Ellison, "Richard Wright's Blues," in Shadow and Act (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994 (1964)); p. 78.  Quoted in James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (New York: Orbis Books, 2013); p. 16.

The Jewish Boy

June 13, 2017  •  1 Comment

The Jewish Boy, 2017


"The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation."


"The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me."


"The face resists possession, resists my powers....  The face speaks

to me and thereby invites me to a relation..."


"The face is what forbids us to kill."


-Emmanuel Levinas [1]


In the fourth chapter of Night, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel recounts a scene from his time in a Nazi concentration camp that few readers can ever forget. Wiesel describes the public hanging of a young Jewish boy accused by the Nazis of sabotage. Public hangings by the Nazis were not uncommon in the camps as part of the comprehensive strategy of terror. But never had the Nazi guards publicly hung a young boy. When describing the boy, Wiesel notes that he "had a delicate and beautiful face -- an incredible sight in this camp." As the boy dropped from the gallows, it became clear that his little body did not have sufficient weight to snap his neck, ensuring a quick death. Instead, his body twisted and writhed as he slowly suffocated to death.  As his delicate body dangled in sky, Wiesel notes that a change came over the otherwise hardened prisoners. For the first time, they came face to face with the profound sense of the absence of God. What kind of a God allows delicate-faced little boys to be tortured to death as public spectacle? For Wiesel there was no easy theological answer, just an overwhelming sense of divine abandonment in the presence of irredeemable evil. Like the prophet Jeremiah, all Wiesel could do was shake his fist at God, crying out in anger and protest, demanding that God be God. [2]

As I was walking in the Jewish neighborhood of Antwerp, Belgium recently I decided to sit and rest near a busy intersection. It was morning, and the Hasidic parents were escorting their children to school on their way to work. As Jewish men gathered to cross the street, a little Jewish boy with "a delicate and beautiful face" turned around to watch me as I began to photograph him. His gaze met mine.

I do not know the boy's name. I do not know his age. I know nothing about him, save one thing. I know his face, framed as it is by his strange shylocks. His posture and position next to the grown men, themselves strangely attired, accentuate the smallness, fragility, and awkwardness already carried in his gaze. His might just as easily have been the face of that other Jewish boy twisting on the end of a Nazi rope.

In the end, it was the gaze of his "delicate and beautiful face" that stopped me in my tracks. This was no mere photo op. Here was a disruption, a call to something deeper than a snapshot stolen on the run. Here was a brief but powerful call to connection, empathy, and even moral and spiritual transformation.

Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas helps us make sense out of our encounters with the gazing faces of such strange and foreign others by seeing in them both a disruption and a summons.

Here was a disruption of my common ways of seeing the world that assume that it and others must conform to my expectations and norms if they are to be worthy of my moral regard. Here in the face of this particular Other was resistance to my desire for sameness that anonymizes and invisibilizes individuals, thus blunting my sense of empathy with and moral obligation toward them.  Here too was a summons out of  inauthenticate selfhood, rooted in anxiety and control. Here was a summons into an intersubjective world rich with empathy, moral obligation, and affective regard for the wellbeing of a strange and foreign Other. In his face, I found an invitation out of the habits of my false and hegemonic self that tempt me to look away to avoid his gaze, thereby short-circuiting the emergence of empathy, connectedness, and spiritual transformation that meeting his gaze might occasion.

It is difficult for us to grasp the depth of evil that produces genocides. We are sometimes tempted to explain such evil by appealing to supernatural origins and the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities. Only demons and devils could twist a person into a Hitler, we say; thus tacitly reassuring ourselves that he is a monster thoroughly unlike the rest of us. Other times, we chalk Hitler up to mental illness, his evil the product of an atypical psychopathic personality; again tacitly reassuring ourselves that he is an exception, an anomaly.  Such explanations are false because they eclipse the social forces and broader cultural dynamics that produce such so-called "madmen." 

The danger of such "explanations" is that they prevent us from engaging in more self-critical analysis. When Hitler and Holocausts are presented as suddenly storming unannounced onto the stage of history, it discourages us from asking the deeper questions of who built the stage on which they appeared. The truth is that that the grounds for such evil must be first be cultivated over time in society, a complex process that ultimately enlists all of us as accomplices eager to look away from the face and gaze of those strange and foreign others in our midst who seem to threaten us. Evil leaders are to a significant extent the byproduct of the societies that produce them.

When I view The Jewish Boy, I see the "delicate and beautiful face" of not one but two Jewish boys, the first on an Antwerp street corner, the second twisting on the end of a Nazi rope. My hope is that this photograph prompts viewers to place themselves purposefully among the outsiders, to look into their eyes, to be drawn out of themselves into communion with those who are foreign and strange.  Only when we meet the gaze of such particular faces can we encounter their, and ultimately our own, fullest humanity.

As I linger still awhile longer over this photograph, I catch a glimpse of yet another Jewish boy, but one whose name I know. He wandered in the temple, lost, vulnerable, and probably afraid while his parents searched frantically for him as they backtracked toward Jerusalem. His parents found him, of course, but only after the teachers met his gaze, greeted him, and discovered in his face the possibility of the healing of the nations. [3]



1. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Duquesne Press, 1969), 201, 207, 197, 198; Ethics and Infinity (Trans Richard A Cohen, Dusquesne Press, 1964), 86. I am indebted to Bruce Young who identified these and other quotations that synopsize key elements of Levinas's philosophy. See http://english.byu.edu/faculty/youngb/levinas/face.pdf.

2. Elie Wiesel, Night. (Trans. Marion Wiesel. Hill and Wang, 2006)

3. For the account of Jesus in the Temple, see Luke 2:42-52.

With the Ancient Desert Monks behind the Happy Mexican

March 22, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Razor Wire and Broken Fence

Razor Wire and Broken Fence behind the Happy Mexican Restaurant, 2017


Two fish were swimming side by side in the ocean. The first said to the second, "the water is warm and clear today." The second responded, "what water?" [1]

Attentiveness does not just happen. It must be cultivated. We can only be awakened to deeper seeing, and ultimately to deeper living, if we teach ourselves to pay attention.

The men and women who began moving to the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the third and fourth centuries to practice a contemplative desert spirituality knew this. Theirs was a world in which faithful living had become difficult. It was made difficult by the emergence of an empire which often cloaked its quest for military conquest, economic domination, and exploitation of the vulnerable in Christian symbols and rhetoric.  Beginning with Constantine in the early fourth century and extending down through the history of "Christendom" to our own time, the Prince of Peace has often been gradually transformed into a triumphalist, flag-waving Jesus who sanctifies the imperial bid for domination, exploitation, and the suppression of difference in the name of security and patriotism. In a fateful dream on the night before his greatest battle at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine saw the Chi-Rho and heard the words, "in this sign, conquer." His dream seems to be a common one.

The driving question for these desert contemplatives was simple but profound, how do we live faithfully in a world where the faith we profess has been co-opted by empire? It was a subversive, unpatriotic, unwelcome question, and it remains so in this, our own season of empire.

The desert contemplatives answered this question by withdrawing from the world to live in the desert. While they withdrew from empire, they did not abandon the struggle against it. They knew that the line between our inner and outer landscapes is porous. They withdrew from the outward world of empire so that they could focus on the ways that empire comes to occupy the inner world of the soul. These desert monks knew that the political, military, and economic engine of empire was fueled by that other, more pernicious and elusive form of empire that colonizes the heart, enslaves the imagination, and infects all the small and ordinary activities of daily life in ways that often remain invisible to us.

At the heart of their strategy of resistance, lay spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, worship, fasting, extending hospitality to vulnerable guests, engaging in mutual correction, gardening, basket weaving, and caring for the sick, exploited, and outcasts of empire. They knew that we cannot merely profess a counter-cultural spirituality; we must train for it daily by reimagining even the most mundane of daily practices, freeing them from the dynamics of violence, domination, and exclusion pursued in Jesus' name. Such practices exorcized the demons of empire that dwelt in the heart and that keep empire alive in the outer world of politics, economics, and culture. The conflict with empire was indeed a cosmic conflict with "the powers and principalities of this present age," but victory would come only by prevailing in the small skirmishes of ordinary daily life. Victory would come by changing one's diet, clothing, sleeping practices, labor, and social circles. [2]

The spiritual disciplines aimed at many things, but among the most important of them was the cultivation of prosoche, attentiveness. Attentiveness is mindful seeing, purposefully lingering before things so that they may reveal themselves on their own terms and in their fullest depth and complexity. Pursuing prosoche meant learning to see the world as it really is rather than through the distorting lens of anxiety and acquisitiveness brought to it by the false, fallen self. Practicing prosoche meant observing carefully, deliberately, and dispassionately the subtleties of things as they really are. Such attentiveness awakened a heightened sense of nuance, a new-found comfort with complexity and ambiguity, and joyful delight in the variegated beauty of ordinary, mundane things. To practice prosoche was to retrain our eyes to see the world as God would have us see it, undistorted by the possessiveness and drive for domination rooted in the false self of empire. Pursuing prosoche was an antidote to illusion, a celebration of the realness of things as they are in their naked givenness and stark facticity. To engage in prosoche was to shatter the delusion of "alternative facts" and the spin of internalized imperial narratives of fear, threat, and conquest. Cultivating prosoche meant deepening one's capacity for complexity, making room for the foreignness of things and other people. [3]

Prosoche was closely related to diakrisis, that form of wise, patient discernment that makes nuanced, measured judgments informed by carefully seen, subtle, relevant distinctions. [4] Together Prosoche and diakrisis undermined the reductionistic, binary oppositional thinking demanded by imperial propaganda and the politics of fear and exclusion. Prosoche and diakrisis were an inoculation against the self-serving oversimplifications produced and required by our anxious, imperious drive for domination and control. To recast things in more contemporary terms, attentiveness and discernment destabilize "either-or," "yes-no,"  "us-them,"  "black-white," "insider- outsider," "liberal-conservative,"  and "deserving-undeserving," for example. By so doing, they school the imagination in resistance to the reductionistic thinking demanded by empire.

Simplistic binary oppositional thinking and living have again become a mark of our age. They are fed by political memes on social media, pithy bumper stickers, "news" networks that pluck only partisan soundbytes from complex stories, political propaganda, and extremist blogs masquerading as reliable sources of news. They are also fed by the fundamentalist religion of the right, and, if we are honest, of the left as well.  Such thinking thrives on fear and anxiety, promising us a seemingly irresistible form of clarity and certitude about the dangerous world before us. Such thinking seems to bring a reassuring order to the swirling chaos of our troubled world.

But if the ancient desert contemplatives can teach us anything, it is that such simplistic thinking is driven by that old, false self within us, that self that would be its own god. And perhaps we can learn from them to cultivate prosoche and diakrisis again. We cannot, of course, simply mimic their ancient spiritual disciplines in some desperate flight of nostalgia. We will need to adapt them in ways suitable for our own time. Part of such adaptation will mean that we consider again the power of art and artistic creativity in our daily lives.

I have walked behind the Happy Mexican Restaurant in a struggling section of downtown Memphis many times. Its façade is painted in bright colors and bears kitschy images of stereotyped mariachi singers whose dark, gap-toothed faces grin without pause. But behind the Happy Mexican, smiling faces give way to a tall fence, a tangled weave of metal, broken wood, and razor wire designed to keep thieves and vandals out. Behind the fence are dumpsters filled with the rotting food scraped from last night's plates. Next to these is a large grease trap that holds the discarded, acrid oils from the kitchen fryer. It stinks behind the Happy Mexican, and it is surely an ugly place.

And yet, as I stood next to the fence for a twenty minutes studying the shapes and patterns, I was struck by the graceful curves of the razor wire designed to tear flesh. The pattern of the fractured wood lattice behind it only multiplied the strange beauty of geometry set against the sunless grey sky. Here in ugliness was beauty. But this beauty did not erase ugliness. The fence was ugly and beautiful at the same time, a soiled, secular sacrament suspended in the sky. My eye said both "yes" and "no," and the longer I looked the more richly commingled they became. Here was a moment of prosoche, that deep attentiveness to the complexity of the world that awakens diakrisis, discerning judgment at home with ambiguity, complexity, and even paradox.  The givenness of this little, smelly scene disrupted the simplistic impulse to add it quickly to the column of ugly things and rush on in search of something pretty to balance the imperial ledger.

I do not think a single encounter such as the one behind the Happy Mexican will expunge empire from the mind. But perhaps as the desert contemplatives thought, cultivating such encounters in the small, daily skirmishes of ordinary life will eventually help us do so. At any rate, that evening as I watched the news, lying presidents, spying microwave ovens, make-believe wiretaps, chest-thumping patriotism, inept propaganda, and the political memes of social media seemed just a bit farther away.

Maybe a fish was becoming aware of the water.



  1. Borrowed and paraphrased from David Foster Wallace, "This is Water." Commencement Address at Kenyon College, May 21, 2005. Transcript available at  https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf 
  2. For a general introduction to the rise of ascetic, contemplative desert spirituality in late antiquity, see Derwas James Chitty's, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire (St. Vladimirs Press, 1977). For a more focused treatment of the emergence and role that the desert contemplatives played in the context of empire and its complex patronage system, see Peter Brown's classic essay, "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity" (The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 61 (1971), pp. 80-101). Brown's essay is available online at https://faculty.washington.edu/brownj9/LifeoftheProphet/The%20Rise%20of%20the%20Holy%20Man%20-%20Brown.pdf
  3. Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. See especially chapter 5, "Prosoche: The Art of Attention," pp. 141-78.
  4. Christie, 148


Let the Little Children Come to Me

March 03, 2017  •  1 Comment

Boulders in the Surf, No. 2


Every summer when I was a boy, my parents would take us on vacation to Santa Cruz, California. For a household of boys, there was no place better on earth than Santa Cruz. We divided our time between three great attractions, the pier from which we fished, the beach where we swam and built sand castles, and the boardwalk where we indulged the world of carnival and theme park. The boardwalk was for evenings, and we filled them with rides on the Big Dipper, the Mighty Mouse, and the Log Jam. When we weren't riding the rides, we played games, and most importantly for me, created "spin art."

Nourished on the ambrosia of cotton candy and caramel apples, we made our way to the south end of the boardwalk, to the spin art booth. And here, like the Creator hovering over the primordial darkness and void, we hovered over a chaotic, paint-stained counter eager to create. At each station was a machine to which the operator attached a piece of blank rectangular art paper than spun around so fast it became a blurred circle. Here was our canvas, and there was no need for paintbrushes. Instead, for ten frenzied minutes we squirted streams of paint from plastic bottles onto the spinning paper. We learned to squeeze softer and harder. We learned how to press an awl gently against the spinning paper to inscribe texture and blend the paints.

And when we finished, and only when we finished, the operator would stop the motor that spun the paper. And then for the first time, we would behold the finished artwork sitting still before us. It was our moment of revelation. Then the orange-aproned operator, like a priest reverently raising the Host, would delicately lift your masterpiece from the machine and set it aside to dry before you returned to collect it. Nourished and tired, we proud Picasos toted our artwork back to the Salt Air Court where we transformed our little white motel room into a gallery.

I got hooked on spin art. Perhaps it was largely because I was not yet old enough or tall enough for many of the gut-jumbling rides enjoyed by my older brothers. But there was another reason, the thrill of waiting and not knowing, the thrill of the big surprise at the end. For those ten minutes of squeezing paint on spinning paper, my creative intentions and gestures were taken up by wild centrifugal forces beyond my control to produce something that was at once mine and not mine. All my technique and craft, in the end, were gathered up by the machine and spun wildly into something over which I ultimately had no control. Spin art happened in the unpredictable space between artistic intention and technique, on the one hand, and chance and cosmic forces, on the other. Here was theme park eschatology -- a boy living by artistic faith, confident that beauty would emerge from the tension-filled space between paint applied and paint drying.

It has been over thirty five years since I have made a piece of spin art on the breezy boardwalk by the sea. But just a few weeks ago, I stumbled into it again. Well, sort of. This time it involved no paper, paint, or spinning machine. With camera in tow, I descended the dunes to an isolated stretch of untamed beach along the Pacific coast in California. The beach was scattered with boulders large and small. As the waves of high tide crashed mightily, they tossed the boulders into one another, creating an eerie thunder on a foggy morning.

I chose to make long photographic exposures, slowly recording the water as it rolled unpredictably over and around the boulders.  Once opened, the shutter remained open for many seconds, and what happened during that time was beyond my control. I could anticipate when waves might crash and where water might flow and trip the shutter accordingly, but in the end what happened in those seconds was always unpredictable, surprising, and beyond my control. Sometimes the water foamed unexpectedly as it took its uncharted path around the rocks before beginning its streaky return to the sea. Sometimes incoming waves collided with returning waves and produced watery volcanoes of churning sand.  For those seconds when the shutter was open, the water went where it wanted, when it wanted, in the ways in wanted, and how the camera would record this was equally a mystery. All I could do was trip the shutter, wait, hope, anticipate.

Here was spin art of a higher order.

Here was  a middle-aged man reborn a boy by the briny baptism of the sea.

Here again was the eschatology of creativity, suspending my awareness between present intention and future outcome, between purposeful technique and cosmic surprise.

Here again was the undiluted wonder, potent mystery, and unfettered delight that too often only mystics and children know. And maybe messiahs.

"Let the little children come to me," he said. [1]



1. Matthew 19.14. New Revised Standard translation.

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