“That is what our life in community is about. Each of us is like a little stone, but together we reveal the face of God to the world. Nobody can say: ‘I make God visible.’ But others who see us together can say: ‘They make God visible.’ Community is where humility and glory touch.”– Henri Nouwen
We weren’t meant to be alone. In a season marked by so much loneliness and isolation, what would it look like to choose community?
We are an imperfect community of around 40 Cornell students who commit to live together and grow in our knowledge of God through our studies, relationships, stories, retreats, and mundane rhythms of life together.
Aren’t sure where you want to live next year? As you go through the application process you can ask questions and discern if Chesterton House’s living community is a place you’d want to call home.
Have a group of friends you know you want to live with but haven’t found the perfect place yet? Our beautifully furnished main houses overlook the lake. You could live together in the larger community!
We have begun accepting residents for next year and we have limited occupancy so be sure to apply now!
Email [email protected] to request an application!
Vivek with wife Jeanie and children Kalyani, Kavi, and Leena.
Dear Chesterton House Alumni and Friends,
The Board of Directors of Chesterton House is pleased to announce the ministry’s next Executive Director: Vivek Mathew. As many of you know, Vivek has served as Assistant Director since March, and he will assume the helm from Founding Director Karl Johnson effective November 1st.
Each of us on the board believes that Vivek has come to us as a gift from the Lord, at the right time and with the right capabilities to lead the organization into a future laden with both significant challenges and great possibilities.
Originally from Defiance, Ohio, Vivek completed his undergraduate degree in Computer Science at Princeton, after which he worked for almost ten years on Wall Street with a quantitative trading team at Morgan Stanley. He was an active member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Tim Keller’s church), where he met his wife, Jeanie. Vivek completed his M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary, followed by a masters in Philosophy (B.Phil) at Oxford University. In 2013, Vivek and Jeanie moved to Ithaca so he could pursue a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Cornell, focusing on metaphysics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of language. He and Jeanie, who now have three young children, are members of Bread of Life Anglican Church in Ithaca. Vivek will complete his dissertation defense this fall.
Vivek first came to our attention when he co-taught a Chesterton House course with Dr. Ryan O’Dowd last year. We began exploring his interest in the Executive Director role early this year, and in his time as Assistant Director he has absorbed a great deal about ministry operations and established relationships with many students. Vivek and I have spent considerable time together in Ithaca, New York City, at my home in Dallas, and most recently at the Consortium of Christian Study Centers Annual Meeting in Chicago. We have discussed at length everything from the complex issues related to student life, how best to continue serving and partnering with the larger Cornell community, and even some new ideas for programming such as the Logos Forum, a new discussion series Vivek will lead exploring the connection between faith and reason.
While Vivek was a strong candidate from the beginning, the Search Committee explored several options. We evaluated candidates from other study centers, as well as Christian leaders from other Ivy League schools and educational ministries. We solicited input from Chesterton House staff and students. Vivek also provided presentations to the Search Committee and later the full Board of Directors. I want to thank the other members of the Search Committee, Dr. David Williamson, Kelly O’Neal ’85 and Rev. Craig Higgins, for working with me through this process. In searching for a person to take on a role that Karl has so ably filled from the inception of this ministry, the Search Committee had its work cut out for us!
Karl will serve as Executive Director through the ministry’s 20th Anniversary and Dedication Weekend on October 3-5, after which he will transition to the part-time role of Founder. He will remain involved in strategy and alumni relations but already has handed over much of the day-to-day responsibilities to Vivek. Most importantly, Karl is truly excited for the vision that Vivek brings to the organization. He clearly possesses strengths in unique areas that can further develop what Karl and the Chesterton House staff have created.
Change is a healthy and important aspect of the growth and progress of any organization. While Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), the Lord celebrates change when He proclaims, “See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19). I am confident that as we trust in the Lord with all of our heart for the future of this ministry, he will make our paths straight.
Thank you for your continued support of Chesterton House.
Dr. Frederick Barber, DSL (Arts ’87)
Chairman of the Board
PS: Meeting the new director is yet one more great reason to join us for the 20th Anniversary and Dedication Weekend. See the great line-up of events and list of alumni and friends registered to date on the main events page.
I often speak to students about the moral nature of our intellectual lives—there are right and wrong ways to learn and there are limits to what God wants us to know. Listen to the psalmist who did not concern himself with things, “too great and wonderful” for him (Psalm 131:1). Now contrast that to Job who spoke in haste of things “too wonderful” for him (Job 42:3), only to lay his hand on his mouth. Knowing is a venture fraught with ethical and spiritual risks.
Many students have since approached me with questions about how to read well. After all, if there is a limit to what we can and should know, there must be corresponding limits to how and what any of us should read. That has led me to create this list of personal reading rules that I try to live by. Like the Ten Commandments in the Law of Moses, I’ve made my list with two “tables”—the “whats” and the “hows” of reading.
What to read:
- Read little. This was once hyperbole but in the day of the Internet it should probably be taken literally. We only have so much time and capacity for learning and understanding new ideas. So a crucial decision in all reading is to say ‘no’ to a lot of ‘interesting’ things in favor of ‘necessary’ things. If you develop good habits here, you’re way ahead of most people. Don’t fret for one minute the ambitious list of books you intended to read last year. Instead, ask yourself: Did I read one or two good things?
- Be humble and stay focused. Related to the rule above, I try not to worry if I’ve never heard of a book or author. Making this a habit has helped me avoid the pressure to rush out and buy a book, or click on a link to an article I probably won’t finish. Stick to your calling and close those open reading tabs.
- Read with specific goals. My reading includes specific things for depth, for breadth, and for leisure and refreshment. I spend most of my time on the first, then the second, then the third.
- Listen to wise counselors. I get a lot of recommendations, and so I have to use a refined filter to choose what to read. I try to focus my reading on established writers and only those books recommended to me by a very few trusted friends. I also read more old stuff than new stuff. I’ve nearly abandoned Christian bestsellers, hot new books, blogs, the popular news media, anything that took less than a month to write, and most of what comes through connections on social media (of which I read very little).
How to read:
- Read critically and carefully. When I’m reading for breadth and depth, I choose the time of day carefully and limit distractions as far as possible. No music, phones, or computers nearby. Then I pray and read with pencil and colored sticky flags nearby. When I restart these books I often go back over the flagged pages to remind myself of things I want to take away from the reading over the long haul. Most people can only focus like this for about 30 minutes at a time, and maybe 2-3 hours on a good day!
- Read in conversation with the author. This is a human thing after all. I try to read as if I’m in a conversation with the author: Is this true? Show me. What do you mean? Can you give me an example? Well said. And, Do I understand you correctly here? Give the author the benefit of the doubt. The best reading happens when you’re on a search for something with the sense of someone looking over your shoulder. This keeps your mind on the page and out of the many distractions in life. If I find myself drifting too much, I put down the text until the energy returns. You cannot read well when you are tired!
- Remember the right things. I use journals and a couple of software tools to record important thoughts in a retrievable place. The journal is for my own wrestling with an idea before it goes into writing or teaching, and it’s probably more important than saving the information electronically. Be very selective in what you choose to remember; we’re easily prone to have eyes bigger than our stomachs.
- “Re”read. I reread many books and articles. I saw recently that we remember less than 10% of what we read over a lifetime. I remembered that because I reread the study. To help my memory I use flags and notes to maximize what I take away, but I also go back to important pieces, sometimes often. I’m rereading one author now for at least the fourth time in twenty years and finding all new insights I’d simply missed in earlier readings. That’s true for anyone I reread. In the first reading of a difficult book, I look for a few things and questions to follow up on in the future.
- Pace yourself. Try not to read over your head or take it all in now. Learning goes in developmental stages and you have to build up patiently. This is an area of recent personal growth. I worry less about what I know today than where I want to be in 20-25 years. “Genius is long patience,” as the Dominican scholar Antonin Sertillanges once wrote. Or as Eugene Peterson often quotes Nietzsche, “The important thing is a long obedience in the same direction.” Read with patience and endurance rather than fear and urgency.
- Read in community. Scripture everywhere portrays us as socially connected. We depend on one another as a body and, so far as possible, we ought to learn together. Find like-minded people and draw on their wisdom. Read alone and slowly first, of course, but then always discuss.
The “two greatest commandments” that Jesus quotes in the gospels are not among the Ten Commandments written on stone (though they were among the commandments given to Moses). It seems fitting to add a summary commandment that covers these ten. I draw this command from the long tradition of Christian medieval scholars:
Read under the bond of love. That is, read and study with love for God, love of neighbor, and love of wisdom.
 My thanks to Zachary Lee for sparking the idea of “Ten Commandments for reading.”
I first met Michael Cromartie ten years ago at the Emerging Evangelical Intelligentsia Project Conference hosted by Peter Berger at Boston University. It was a remarkable gathering that included historians George Marsden and Mark Noll, philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, sociologists Nancy Ammerman and Michael Lindsay, and legal scholars Bill Stuntz and David Skeel among many others. When Mike spoke, I was reminded of the old Sesame Street refrain “One of these things is not like the others.” Mike was scholarly but not a professor. He had several published volumes to his name, but as an editor rather than an author. As a speaker, he was insightful and funny.
Cromartie passed away on August 28th, and initial assessments of his contribution to religion and public life are rightly rolling in from a wide array of folk:
- Carl Cannon at RealClearPolitics;
- Ross Douthat and Sam Roberts at the New York Times;
- Cherie Harder at The Trinity Forum;
- Michael Lindsay at the Gospel Coalition;
- Kathleen Parker at the Washington Post;
- William Saletan at Slate;
- Grant Wacker at Education and Culture; and
- Peter Wehner at Christianity Today.
This summer, my wife Julie and I had the serendipitous privilege of spending ten days with Mike and his wonderful wife Jenny as members of a tour group visiting biblical sites in Greece, including Athens, Corinth, Phillipi, and Thessolonica. Upon arrival it was clear that Mike was frail, his body already ravaged by years of cancer. If he turned sideways in a crowd you could lose him.
But he was still a ball of fire. On the island of Patmos, after visiting the cave where John is believed to have received his revelation recorded in last book of the Christian Scriptures, we headed up to the Monastery of St. John. It was a steep hike, and arguably Mike had no business being there. But he was not one to argue with. Especially for him, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he was not going to miss it. With the companionship and patient encouragement of Jenny—and the tour group’s doctor—he made it up and eventually back down. Although he retired early that evening, the next day he could be seen banana boating!
Stomach cancer apparently does no favors to one’s appetite, and at meals Mike struggled to eat. He was also almost comically uninterested in matters medical. Thank God for Jenny, who was always at his side, answering questions others had about his cancer that he couldn’t answer for himself, all the while encouraging him to get as much protein as possible. Mike’s mouth was so fully engaged in lively conversation that one wonders how he ever made time to eat. Whether the topic was religion and public life or anything to do with basketball, his table was sure to have the liveliest of exchanges.
Mike was opinionated but humble. When I challenged him on his critical assessment of a mutual colleague, he stopped talking for a while and just listened. Later he thanked me—“I needed to hear that,” he said. If one of the hazards of spending a lot of time with really smart people is that you might become like them in their insistence on being correct, Mike was a rare and refreshing exception.
The Faith Angle Forum, which introduced mainstream journalists to religious ideas and scholars they might otherwise be tempted to dismiss or deride, was the brainchild of Mike’s professional life. “A number of religion reporters have told me that Mike was their ‘go-to’ person for perspective and quotable comments on evangelicalism,” Rich Mouw wrote to me. “He had genuine friendships across the political spectrum, and was gifted at bringing together people who disagreed, simply to have a productive conversation. In these engagements, he clearly was not advancing a particular agenda, but rather doing his part to create spaces for mutually respecting civil discourse.” The forums were always fascinating, and included Cornell graduates and Chesterton House advisors Elaine Howard Ecklund and Ard Louis. The byproducts of Mike’s efforts include many interesting pieces such as David Brooks’ feature on John Stott. In a manner that mirrors the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who by nature calls attention to Another, Mike spent his life humbly pointing people to the good work of others.
In addition to the great personal loss to so many friends and family, Mike’s passing raises a question: What is the future of the project to which he devoted his prodigious energy? I refer here not just to the Faith Angle Forum, but to the forum’s mission—the development and promotion of thoughtful Christian faith, which of course is also the mission of Chesterton House.
The Emerging Evangelical Intelligentsia Project seems to have fizzled without much to show for it, and many of the aforementioned scholars—whom James Turner once called the “evangelical mafia”—are now retired. Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals closed in 2014, and Books & Culture, the flagship publication of the movement, has just folded. Patronage for these sorts of projects also seems to have dried up. Later this month some of the folks associated with the movement will gather for a conference entitled “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections upon the Past, Prospects for the Future.” The not so subtle subtext of the conference is “Is there a future?” Simply put, the trends are not encouraging.
All of which brings me back to Patmos. The trends in John’s time also were not encouraging. He wrote from prison to his fellow believers who were victims of real persecution, including at times death by burning, crucifixion, or worse. And yet the Book of Revelation is a manifesto for hope.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Rev. 21: 1-7)
Even and perhaps especially when there is little reason for optimism, we have plenty of reason for hope. The resurrection of Jesus, as wonderful as it was, anticipated an even greater restoration of all things that is yet to come!
Mike understood all this. He was not discouraged. His laugh endured even when his appetite did not. He knew of the New Jerusalem. In his final days, Jenny reports, he was reading (and highlighting!) an essay by Jonathan Edwards on heaven—a place where there will be no more crying or pain, where Jenny’s tears will be wiped away, and where, at a banquet table, he again will eat and drink with fullness of appetite.
In a memorable Op-Ed piece (“The Moral Bucket List”), David Brooks ruminated on what he calls ‘the eulogy virtues,’ which he contrasts with ‘the resume virtues.’
“About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”
I used this column to address our graduating seniors one year ago (“Embrace Place”), and President David Skorton used it in last month’s Cornell commencement address. I found myself turning back to it this week because of Louie.
Louie Rudin, Chesterton House Property Manager in residence, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, June 7th, not long after his 63rd birthday. He was found in his room by some of the other Chesterton House residents on their way to church.
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Louie was a lively presence, exuding contagious joy and laughter. He served on Young Life staff since graduating from Cornell almost 40 years ago, and though Young Life was the perfect vehicle for his skills and interests, his service to others was never merely a function of his job. He simply loved young people. And he modeled a way of being young at heart that marveled people half his age.
Louie led many young people to faith in Christ, and discipled and encouraged many more. In addition to his impact on youth, Louie was also a fixture on the Cornell and Ithaca College campuses for over a generation. To say he had a positive impact on a lot of people would be a gross understatement. He was always available, always interruptible. He touched many, many, many lives, and he will continue to serve as an inspiration for all who were privileged to know him.
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Louie had a vast repertoire of stories from his many kooky capers. I have a story of my own about Louie—one that speaks volumes about his character.
When Louie applied to be a chaplain at Cornell (which is not a job, but an affiliation granted to many persons from all religions), his application was denied. I served on the committee that made the determination. I didn’t agree with the decision but got outvoted. Although the stated reason for the determination was that Young Life is focused on high school youth rather than college students, it was also abundantly clear that the committee chair did not appreciate Louie’s desire to introduce people to God. You’d think it’s the sort of thing that might be in a chaplain’s job description! But no—this faculty member thought that young people should be “free” to create or discover their own conception of God. (Never mind that, according to recent scholarship, “proselytizing” is the single most important variable in the emergence of liberal democracy and is arguably also “the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.” This scholar apparently couldn’t be bothered with scholarship.)
Here’s the thing: Louie was disappointed but not bitter. He expressed frustration to me in the immediate aftermath, and then he never raised the matter again. Ever. That, I would suggest, is part of the lesson of Louie’s life. It’s not just that we could all be a bit more joyful (though we could), but we would do well to let disappointments roll off of us and not drag us down. Come to think of it, those two things are surely related.
In God’s providence, this rejection actually may have released Louie to continue doing what he did best without institutional restraint. He was not an Organization Man. Even at Chesterton House, as long as the plumbing worked, I never required him to attend staff meetings. One of the last emails I received from him began “A special thanks to your sensitivity to my crazy schedule and the lack of necessity for my attendance at multiple meetings.” Yep. Some of us are called to build or work within institutions. Louie wasn’t. (Kudos to Young Life for accommodating his unique genius for so many years.)
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Speaking of the Louie-ness of Louie, one thing that has stood out to me more than ever during the long days since his death is the appropriateness of his name. To me, there’s something about “Louie” that sounds like a grade-school-aged kid you might not want your child to play with (an impression based not so loosely on my own childhood next-door neighbor). And there was that element to him—not just youthful, but utterly unpredictable…not governed by the rules of polite society. But I’m also struck how the single, first name was always sufficient for recognition. He was like a Brazilian soccer star: Nobody ever seemed to say, “Louie Who?”
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At Chesterton House, Louie fixed leaky roofs, built bunk beds, and inspired all around him to lead lives of faithful service to God in Christ—all at the same time. And he made people laugh—did we mention that?
When Louie first arrived at Chesterton House, I steered him toward the caretaker cottage. It’s cozy and cute and a stand-alone structure that affords some privacy. He might want to stay there, I thought, because—well—that’s where I would want to stay. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m kind of an extrovert.” (Ya think?) “I’ll just live in the house.” A single then, Louie? “No, no, I’d actually prefer a double.” And so at the ripe young age of 62, Louie entered fully in, yet again, to the life of undergraduate students.
When Louie told me last month he was ready to move into a single, I told him he could have the largest single in the house. “Actually,” he responded, “I’d like Room 6.” Ah, yes, the famous Room 6—that would be the smallest room in the entire house. It’s basically a closet with a window. So he whipped up a loft and made use of the entire place…all 87 square feet.
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Louie lived simply, with one notable exception. When I generated an employment contract that provided for one parking space, I might as well have been poking my finger in a leaking dam. Pulling into the driveway of Chesterton House this week, the first thing that catches your eye is his Volvo wagon…and his cargo van…and above all his 1966 Ford Ranch wagon. Three times the allotted number—not bad, for Louie. We recently found “Louie’s Lifetime Automobile Registry”: Over 50 cars, mostly from the ‘50s, ‘60s & 70s. Mostly Fords. What abourt Volvos, you ask? Well, the list is over 15 years old!
I expect Louie will be missed not only on campus but also at Hunts’ Auto, AutoZone, and Ithaca Foreign Car Service. Despite being a Cornell alumnus, he was more at home in a car shop than on campus. Ironically, his cars seemed to be in the shop so much you would see him walking all over town, traversing the hill that connects town to gown. He carried nothing with him. No books, no knapsack. Just his tattered baseball cap.
Speaking of which, Louie was the only sixty-something person I knew who could get away with wearing a baseball cap backwards and not look like a complete dork—or, better, not look like he was trying to be someone that he wasn’t.
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I never spoke to Louie about Peter Pan. I don’t know that he ever gave Peter Pan a moment’s thought. And yet it’s hard not to ponder the connection. Despite the fact that he had visibly aged in recent years, there remained something almost preternaturally youthful about Louie—a resistance to aging for which Peter Pan is our common cultural referent.
Although Peter Pan is commonly associated with irresponsibility, Cornell history department chair Barry Strauss tells us we have misunderstood him. Peter Pan is a paradox, he says, and he is at least half Christian (named for St. Peter). Pan author J.M. Barrie “never preached eternal adolescence”—he adored childhood but “came down on the side of adult responsibility.” Peter Pan, Strauss says, is best understood as “untamed but upright.” That’s Louie, no?
David Brooks says that the people he most admires laugh musically while looking out for others. Barry Strauss says that Peter Pan simultaneously makes us long for childlikeness while sending us on our way toward adulthood and responsibility. These are the images that frame my memories of Louie.
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I can’t say I have known anyone else quite like him. And isn’t that the beauty of God’s creation? Seven billion people, and none quite like Louie.
Louie is now in the unveiled presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has fought the good fight and finished the race. Today we join with others in the community and around the world giving thanks to God for Louie. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Ps 116:15)
We also ask for your prayers. The men of Chesterton House draw close to one another, and Louie drew close to many. His absence hangs heavily. The house is very quiet—quieter than it ever would be when he was there. The silence is loud. His absence will be felt to the same degree that his presence was felt. Which is to say, a lot.
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Obituary: Ithaca Journal
Memorial Service: Vineyard Church of Ithaca, 23 Cinema Drive, Saturday, June 13 at 2pm
Reception following the service will be at Chesterton House
Memorial Donations: At the request of alumni, and with permission of the family, a Louie Rudin Memorial Gift Fund has been set up at Chesterton House. You may donate online via Cornell and designate your gift in memory of Louie. Memorial Donations may also be made to Young Life.
This piece is contributed by Gary Villa, Spiritual Director of the Chesterton House.
On a shelf in my bedroom sits a broken pastel blue-and-yellow-colored egg shell , the remnants of the first gift I ever gave my wife, Kira. Shortly after she came to faith, we colored Easter eggs together at her kitchen table. I made a small gift to her of my “art”, an egg with crudely drawn sun, moon and stars. It was kept whole for years, through 3 apartment changes and into our current home. Finally broken by the curious hands of our first son, we keep what remains as a tangible reminder of that early date and the beginning of our love.
As I sometimes lead post-dinner conversations in the Chesterton House residential communities, I often look for ways to provoke the students to tell each other more of their own stories, who they are and what brought them here to this place. One of my favorite ways of doing this is inviting them to bring an object of their own to the table as a kind of show-and-tell. Somehow it is easier to talk about yourself when you’re holding a purple plush eggplant or a camera or a favorite pen. The items are as varied and different as our residents.
In the lovely first chapter of John’s gospel, the apostle describes Jesus as the creator of all things. But he uses an unusual term: the “Word” or put another way, the self-expression of God. John says that all things (!) were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:3, ESV). How beautiful! There is nothing you can find that is not in some way tinged with the marks of God’s self-expression to us. His nature, his character, his power are somehow woven into the stuff of our lives, even in this sin-broken world.
Because of this we can have not just permission, but freedom and joy as we work in whatever field we find ourselves in. If “all that is” is somehow the product of God’s self-expression, we can be confident that something of Him can be known in any field of study or work. All our work – mathematics, art, science, engineering – becomes a theological endeavor. We learn of God as we learn of his world. And, what’s more, all of our work also then becomes doxological for us as well – an act of worship. We can with joy respond to God in worship as our knowledge of him grows and deepens through our vocation. The cosmos is God’s show-and-tell to us.
Of course, like the egg shell I gave my wife, the cosmos is broken. The earth that was given to us to rule and care for was just as broken by Adam’s sin as we are. It, too, is tainted everywhere by sin’s rule and effects. But Paul tells us that the gospel is good news not just for humanity, but for all of creation. The same Jesus who created all things for himself (Colossians 1:16) reconciled all things to himself by the blood of his cross (1:20). The redemptive sweep of the gospel is cosmic, not just personal.
The vision is compelling: the earth, the universe – all that God has made exists not merely as a backdrop for humanity but as a good thing in itself. God declared it to be good at creation and reconciled it to Himself at the cross. For this reason, we are free to declare vocations of every kind not only good, but Christian. Science, education, agriculture, engineering, health – these are all Christian vocations. These are things that God cares about. It is our privilege to work – wherever God has called us – to His glory and as a demonstration of His intentions for the world.
Gary Villa, a staff member of New Life Presbyterian Church, serves part time as the Spiritual Director of Chesterton House. Gary earned his BA in International Ministries from the Moody Bible Institute in 1996, and later obtained his MA in Interdisciplinary Studies (church history/spiritual formation) from Wheaton College in 2006. His interests include baseball, poetry, jazz, and gluten-free baked goods. Gary and his wife Kira, a doctoral student in Applied Economics at Cornell, have one son, Aidan.
Grace in the Raw
Before attending Les Misérables, I heard from a friend–a long-time fan of the stage musical–that she found the rawness of the cinematography distracted her from the music. Armed with this observation, I did not expect to be as ravished by the film as I was. Most captivating is the way in which the musical and filmic elements work together to create a deeply engaging experience of the narrative and its characters that spills over into life, especially through the portrayal of grace.
Film settings necessarily contrast with the expectations established by stage dramas. Many film interpretations of musicals retain a relatively theatrical setting and the perceptual distance of a stage drama. To say that Les Misérables abandons any theatrical effect would be to entirely mistake the film, but nevertheless, the film takes advantage of the medium’s capabilities. The city is shown in various states of disarray: the prostitutes appear ill, the poor look starved and cold, the inn is chaotic, the streets are dirty. Aerial shots are juxtaposed with extreme close-ups to create a continuum of varied perspectives on the story. The close-ups are especially raw, introducing us to the vulnerability of the characters in an intimate way that is downright uncomfortable. Les Misérables thus eliminates the lens of ironic distance common to popular postmodern perception, much to the chagrin of critics. Put differently, it dares to “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions with reverence and conviction” (Stanley Fish; NY Times).
Trained musicians tend to disparage the quality of the vocals in this film. Although Anne Hathaway presented a stunning performance as Fantine, other leads have come under some severe criticism. However, with the possible exception of Russell Crowe, I think the vocal issues are balanced and even, perhaps justified, by the circumstances in which the characters find themselves; the raggedness of the physical and emotional states of the characters is much more pronounced in this film than it could be on stage, and the rough edges in the vocals are generally appropriate to the dramatic situation. This trained musician finds that the vocal imperfections contribute to the film’s powerful effect.
One might think a film offers little advantage over a staged production with respect to large ensemble numbers, usually staged as a colorful choreographic spectacle. Yet this film production of Les Misérables balances the spectacle and the underlying character of the events portrayed. Take, for example, “Lovely Ladies,” in which shots of the whole group of prostitutes dancing are juxtaposed with disorienting footage of Fantine as she winds her way through the chaos and is swallowed up by it. The scene becomes grotesque and disturbing–the crude humor of the lyrics offset by Fantine’s desperation. We are not supposed to laugh and the film makes laughing impossible.
Consider also the intriguing contrast between musical time and the “real” time of the narrative. In Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Jean val Jean’s “Bring Him Home,” all else comes to a halt. No other characters hear these songs; they are reflections, prayers, asides. This feature is not unique to musical dramas but is perhaps most pronounced in them because words take time to sing and are often repeated in a way that would be nonsensical if unaccompanied by music. The realism of the film setting is what makes these pauses in the narrative so emotionally striking. Combined with improbably close-up cinematography and realistic expression, these “slow” moments drag us into the characters’ inner reality.
Many reviewers have remarked on the pervasive theme of grace in Les Misérables. Here again, the film’s interwoven cinematographic and musical elements provide a suitable lens. The grace of Les Misérables is visceral rather than philosophical. We cannot distance ourselves from the ragged horror of the characters’ circumstances and experience, but are rather invited – even compelled – to empathize with and extend grace to Fantine and val Jean, Marius and the young rebels, even Javert. These are sinners all, yet desperately craving mercy. Freed of ironic distance, do we recognize our own desperate need for grace? Are we not also inspired to empathize with, extend grace to, and even act on behalf of our fellow image-bearers who are suffering in the world around us? The epilogue articulates what it might mean for grace to be extended, for all things to be reconciled, at the moment when Jean val Jean steps into death and encounters the prior dead from the story singing a revised version of “Do you hear the people sing”:
Do you hear the people sing? Lost in the valley of the night.
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord;
They will walk behind the plough-share, they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Other reviews of interest:
“Les Misérables and Irony” (Quoted above; Opinionator Blog, NYT)
“Two Cheers for Javert” (Cardus blog)
Emma is a Ph.D. student in Music Theory at the Eastman School of Music. Her research primarily emphasizes narrative analyses of music, and she writes about the challenges of living an integrated life of Christian faith, learning, and musicianship at her blog Pictures on Silence.