Andy Scott

Andy Scott lives in Durham, NC with his wife and two daughters. He is a believer in the Oxford comma, occasionally writes things with words, and is not very good at Twitter. Follow him @_andy_scott_

Transformation, Kintsugi, and the Atomic Bomb

Seventy-one years ago, the atomic bomb “Little Boy” was dropped from Colonel Paul Tibbets’ payload onto the citizens of Hiroshima.  A blinding light shredded across the landscape on August 6, 1945, instantly incinerating nearly a third of the city’s population. Within a few months, over 120,000 people were dead from radiation poisoning. Those left alive were marked—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and culturally.

Hibakusha. Survivors.

August 6 also happens to be the day the Christian church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. Having ascended the holy mountain with three disciples, the figure of Jesus is physically transformed and he is joined by Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ face changes; his clothes become a blinding light. While Peter, James, and John don’t know what to make of this, they hear a voice from heaven affirming Jesus as the beloved Son of God. The liturgy for the day asks believers to pray, “Lord, transfigure and heal.

As Jesus was on the holy mountain his body was physically altered. He became a vision of humanity remade in its perfect form. Hiroshima’s destruction was the ultimate unmaking—people were literally evaporated, leaving only irradiated shadows where they last stood.

In 1946 an American journalist named John Hersey traveled to Hiroshima and interviewed some of the hibakusha. In an account that was hailed by the New York Times and Time as one of the greatest works of journalism of the twentieth century, Hersey tells of a different sort of hell than ever before imagined. Through his interactions with hibakusha—from a local doctor to a widowed mother of three to a German Jesuit—Hersey wove together facts and imagery to “stir the conscience of humanity.” His mission was to tell a story of Hiroshima’s devastation so that the world might know the true cost of war in the atomic age. 

The story he tells is brutal. “Thousands of people had nobody to help them,” Hersey wrote. The riverbank was piled with bodies of those who died in the blast or were too weak to escape from drowning. As a fire broke out after the blast, the wounded limped as quickly as they could to safety past the screams of those trapped in rubble. “To distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open.”

The sense of helplessness is palpable as he describes a conversation between two doctors about the level of injury necessary for treatment. “In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand,” Hersey wrote, “nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt.” The more seriously a patient was wounded, the more they were ignored.

The story and legacy of  Hiroshima is carried on, physically and emotionally, by the hibakusha. The horror of Hiroshima was not just the bomb, but also long and painful deaths from radiation that took months or even years. Those who did survives became physical reminders of the transformative power of war and hate wrought  by a people they would never meet. They were broken and discarded.

Less than a decade after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my grandparents left rural Michigan to start what would become a three-decades placement in Japan as Christian missionaries. From Osaka to the suburbs of Tokyo, their lives were to be a particular Christian response to the particular devastation that war, and America, had wrought. This was somewhat unintentional. They had applied to be sent to India, but an administrator at the mission agency had rendered the decision to instead send them to Japan. My grandparents arrived in the early 1950s, the wounds of war still open, their mission to help spread the gospel.

My grandma died last year, and my grandpa preceded her by several years. I never asked either of them what they thought about Hiroshima. I don’t know if they would have seen their work as a correction or penance for the horrible devastation wrought by their countrymen. They were just trying to be faithful.

I don’t know a lot about the exact nature of their work. I know they worked with other missionaries, both Japanese and American, in a compound. I know they raised three children in a post-war Japan, teaching all three to speak fluent Japanese. They took the call of the gospel seriously, and even as their mental capacities diminished, they still prayed lucidly. They saw a healing power in the gospel and they dedicated their lives to it.

“Behold, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21

This text from Revelation has deep meaning for those broken by war. It imagines a world in which broken things are remade into precious works. In Japan, there is a word for it: kintsugi. Simply put, kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing pottery with precious metals. Literally meaning “to patch with gold,” kintsugi is a tradition dating to ancient Japan which held that a piece of salvaged, broken ceramic or pottery could become even more valuable than it had originally been. The melted gold infuses a paradoxical combination of strength and fragility, and gives previously useless items new life. Broadly speaking, kintsugi is the art world’s equivalent of reconciliation—making broken things new through the injection of unexpected beauty. Art critic Blake Gopnik has called kintsugia tiny moment of free jazz played during a fugue by Bach.”

Yet, seven decades after Hiroshima there is still innocent bloodshed. In Paris, Syria, and Orlando lives are snatched away while the church still prays for transfiguration and healing. Those left alive after terror attacks and warfare are similarly marked. They are, in their own way, hibakusha. The church is called to inhabit these spaces in order to affect a different sort of transformation, and to counter the world’s modus operandi through acts of service and love.

Two months ago, President Obama made the first visit by a sitting American president to the site of the bombing. He told an audience that included hibakusha, “death fell from the sky and the world was changed.”

Obama did not shy away from the horror of the attack, and rightly described it as a transformative moment in world history:

“A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.  Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima?  We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not so distant past.  We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 in Japanese men, women and children; thousands of Koreans; a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.

While President Obama’s remarks were noteworthy in calling for a moral revolution, he did not apologize for the bombing. The visit should not be misconstrued as an act of reconciliation. Strength has and will continue to be measured by force and the capability to wield destruction, and the United States continues to possess thousands of nuclear weapons. This wasn’t true healing; kintsugi cannot be produced through state visits.

Jesus’ transfiguration is an eschatological vision—that is, a glimpse of the world as it should be, a proclamation of a reality counter to the one of this broken world. The vision of the transfiguration comes with an invitation, an offer to participate in a different sort of power, the power of kintsugi.

That power is displayed in Father Kleinsorge, the German Jesuit chronicled by Hersey who sought to serve the hibakusha and the help rebuild Japan. Fr. Kleinsorge was the true embodiment of kintsugi because through his service he was unmade. At once hibakusha and kintsugi, Kleinsorge dedicated his life so fully to the care of survivors that he became a Japanese citizen and changed his name to Father Takakura. His service sapped his strength, and he died in 1977 from lingering health issues caused by radiation. He was called by his German brothers rücksichtsvoll—overly regardful—and enryo by those he helped—self-sacrificing.

I’d like to think that kintsugi is part of my grandparent’s legacy. Their task was to mend the spiritual wounds of Americans and Japanese through the work of the gospel, making something even more precious than before. While they were white Americans raised in the Midwest and formed by a conversion-centric evangelical theology, I still remember my grandma making Japanese meals for us, teaching us snippets of Japanese phrases, and recounting my grandpa’s sermons in front of a Japanese congregation. They allowed themselves to be shaped and molded by a country and people considered their enemy. They wanted to be a light.

The work of kintsugi bestows new life and meaning to things that were broken, scattered and deemed worthless. That the Day of Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6 challenges the notion that broken things must remain broken, and suggests that no one—not victims of conflict nor those guilty of the horrors of war – are beyond healing.

 

Faith and Doubt in Game of Thrones

Note: This contains spoilery details about the fifth season of Game of Thrones.

Spring is in the air, and that means one thing: Winter is Coming.

April 24th marked the return of HBO’s massively popular Game of Thrones, and with it a whole cadre of rabid fans looking for resolution to unanswered questions. With the fifth season ending last June, fans of both the novels and TV show have waited to see if Jon Snow’s death was less than permanent, and whether or not Khaleesi will finally return to Westeros.

My wife and I are hooked on Game of Thrones. The sweeping narratives, the intricate characters, and Peter Dinklage all make the show one of the highlights of our week. Once the kids are in bed we queue up the show and with the familiar crackle of the HBO title card, eagerly dive into a world of medieval politics, dragons, and ice zombies.

For the uninitiated, Game of Thrones is a sprawling epic set in a mystical version of medieval Europe. Seven families claim lordship over the vast majority of a small continent, and engage in constant political and martial engagements to win the seat of power—the Iron Throne. In this mystical land there are dragons, as well as an army of undead zombie ice warriors. But the dragons and ice zombies are just the bunting on a stellar plot centering on Machiavellian maneuvers executed by, and against, terribly flawed people. Game of Thrones teaches viewers to not become attached to any one character. People are ruthless, and many much-beloved characters have met unfortunate fates.

Toward the end of last season, I was reading bedtime stories to my then three-year-old daughter before the show aired. The usual routine allows her to choose three stories to read together before she is tucked in for the night. One of the books she chose was a compilation of stories about famous children in the Bible. Among them were the stories of Abraham and Isaac, David vs Goliath, and Miriam helping Moses escape the Egyptian guards. At her request, we read the familiar story about Isaac’s near sacrifice at the hands of his father.

Abraham is commanded by God to kill his only son and heir, effectively voiding God’s promise to make him into a great nation. Abraham takes his son to the top of Mount Moriah and prepares to kill him, but at the last second God spares Isaac and allows Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead.

I kissed my daughter goodnight, and she went to bed.

An hour later, I watched as Stannis Baratheon, one claimant to the Iron Throne, burned his daughter Shireen alive. The lesson of Abraham’s story is that God will provide in our hardest moments. I had seen the same violent story in Scripture and on screen—serving as a reminder of how violent and fraught with terror our theological narrative is—the undercurrent of both being that we must be willing to do some crazy shit in the name of faith.

The immediate connection is clear. Both Abraham and Stannis were called upon by their gods to perform a heinous act against their children to prove their faith. In the world of Game of Thrones, the Baratheon family is engaging in an internal power struggle to find an heir who could conceivably rule the entire realm. Stannis has an army, a mysterious priestess, and a devoted wife who encourages his ruthless behavior. The seed is planted that in order to take the throne and gain an immediate military advantage, he must sacrifice his daughter at the stake, and so he does.

It has always troubled me that Abraham was willing to murder his son, but it has bothered me even more since seeing Stannis sacrifice his daughter. What has lingered most of all is that Stannis has a much better reason for betraying his daughter than Abraham does for killing Isaac. There is a twisted logic to Stannis’ choice that helps his decision make sense in a horrific sort of way. If he goes through with the murder of his child, he gets to be king (spoiler: he doesn’t).

While there is no telos, or ultimate, to his actions beyond a desire for power and a sense of destiny, Stannis’ logic is a bit more obvious. Yet the same logic doesn’t apply to Abraham. He gets nothing if he kills his son; the death of Isaac could simply represent the death of what God had promised. And in the Bible’s terse sort of storytelling, while we know that Abraham is ready to slice open his son’s throat, beyond this we don’t know what exactly he is thinking (Hebrews 11:19 might provide a slight window).

Rembrandt_Abraham_en_Isaac,_1634

Abraham and Isaac, Follower of Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Oil on canvas, 183.6 cm Width: 132.8 cm, Museum of Art and Archaeology – University of Missouri Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation Kress Study Collection (K1633)

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard attempted to fill in the Bible’s silence on Abraham’s motivations, describing Abraham’s decision as a “teleological suspension of the ethical”. What this means is that Abraham is willing to engage in actions considered unethical because he believes that God is the source of absolute truth: all meaning rests in God. Abraham’s willingness to take his son’s life expresses a trust in God’s ethical supremacy, but God would not allow for Abraham to break his rules, no matter what was being demanded. Contrary to Stannis, Kierkegaard’s understanding of Abraham requires a complete suspension of everything Abraham knows to be ethical. Abraham cannot be fully assured that his son will be spared. He must have faith that Isaac will not die, even though he believes that he must kill him. Kierkegaard writes:

“He who loves God without faith reflects upon himself; he who loves God in faith reflects upon God. This is the peak on which Abraham stands. The last stage to pass from his view is the stage of infinite resignation. He actually goes further and comes to faith.

Abraham’s faith that God will not allow an unethical telos, allows him to make what seems to be an unethical decision. Abraham puts religious concerns over ethical concerns, proving his faith in God. This is not to say that Abraham does not wrestle with doubt. This doubt is part of Kierkegaard’s ethical approach. Abraham’s triumph is not easy nor assured. His struggle is real, and the prospect of his son’s death is real. Abraham has faith that God would not truly require the murder of an innocent, and in his faith he is vindicated.

Contrary to Abraham, Stannis’ actions are always grounded in an entirely human end. He wants to be king, and believes his god also wants him to be king. This drives him to discard his ethical framework. Abraham does not seek accolades or power through his sacrifice; he complies because he trusts that the ethics of the one he worships is greater than his own scope of understanding. Does this make the story any easier? Definitely not. Kierkegaard is equally at unease:

“The ethical expression of what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac, the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet, without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is.

The paradox of Abraham highlights the distinction between faith and blind belief, and ultimately, what your faith is for. Abraham has faith that God won’t allow him to kill Isaac, but that doesn’t mean Isaac’s death is impossible. To believe something is to be assured of it; to have faith requires the possibility that you will be proven wrong and allows room for doubt. If Abraham genuinely believed—without doubt— that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, the sacrifice would be no kind of test. Abraham has faith, Stannis has a blind belief with no room for doubt. Abraham hopes that his actions are aligned with divine ethics; Stannis knows his aren’t. And Stannis’ rigid adherence to the doctrine of self is ultimately his undoing. What Abraham reminds us is that our human understanding of what we think we are called to do should be limited, shot through with doubt.

We live in a world where the risk of success and failure is more measured and calculated than the rightness of the action itself. What Game of Thrones offers, besides the visual wonders of an HBO budget, is a fantasy epic where those who act on blind belief see their actions played out to their logical conclusion. Without room for doubt, belief becomes simply another instrument of power. The failure of Stannis and the faithfulness of Abraham serve as dual reminders that in order to be truly human, we must relinquish the idea of total control. In those moments of tension where anxiety, doubt and faith reside, our identity is forged. To embrace moments of doubt is part of what makes faith just that. 

Noteworthy: Live Long and Prosper

“We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted, in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…. human.

Leonard Nimoy was many things in life: Actor, poet, writer, director, musician, photographer, Vulcan, and icon. He was Spock, and he was not Spock. Ultimately though, Leonard Nimoy was a demonstration of what it looked like to live long and prosper.

A struggling actor who broke through playing second banana to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, Nimoy brought a level of acting legitimacy to Star Trek that helped propel it well beyond it’s three year television run. There was never truly a post-Trek existence for Nimoy, but he expanded his artistic vision in a way that allowed him to express himself, push boundaries, and momentarily escape the shadow of the pointed ears.

But perhaps above all, he will be remembered for giving us this: the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.  Live long and prosper.

Noteworthy: Songs from the Grammys

A few weeks ago the music industry celebrated the Grammys, that sacrosanct annual self-congratulatory ceremony second only to the Oscars, for which I could not be paid to give to licks about. I know that Kanye made an ass of himself again, but I couldn’t tell you much more than that. A cursory Google search tells me that Beck won for best album, and Pharrell won best music video.

I am not very good at keeping my finger on the pulse of what’s trending in the music world, but there are two artists worth checking out by way of music videos. I should say also that I don’t pay particularly close attention to music videos. These were just stumbled upon and managed to latch themselves to my consciousness. I think they will do the same for you.

The first video is for Take Me to Church, by Hozier, a self-taught Irish singer/songwriter who infuses a flavor of blues into his guitar heavy melodies. The video features Ukranian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin.  There is not much more I can say about it, other than it is mesmerizing.

The second video is for Listen to the Man, by George Ezra. He is a 21-year-old singer from England who sings in a register reserved for Johnny Cash. The video features the 75-year-old Sir Ian McKellen, and if it doesn’t make you smile then you have no soul.

Noteworthy: The Protean David Bowie

Perhaps no figure in modern pop culture has been as protean as David Bowie. It is precisely his shape shifting, however, that has made him a constant presence. From Space Oddity to Under Pressure, from Ziggy Stardust to Jareth the Goblin King, Bowie has found a way into our collective consciousness. How appropriate then, to celebrate 68 years of Bowie’s life with this marvelous gif. Even in his late sixties Bowie is producing and recording, forever a master of reinvention.

As someone whose introduction to David Bowie was by way of Derek Zoolander, I have slowly discovered his past incarnations as my own understanding of pop culture gradually expanded. What this gif does for me is give a glimpse of the time-warp that is Bowie, and makes me want to listen to Space Oddity on repeat all day.

Stephen Colbert: A Requiem

On December 18th, the world lost a great performer. Stephen Colbert, the notorious pundit turned pistachio salesman, threw off the surly bonds of earth and etched his name among the stars. As the nation mourns the loss of this comedic titan, let us pause to reflect on the nature of his work and legacy.

On Colbert’s final Report, before he signed off for the last time, and before joining the Three Wise Men and sailing into eternity, he revealed the true heart of his character.

“The truthiness is, all of those things people say I did¬–running for president, saving the Olympics, Colbert Super PAC, treadmill in space, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear and/or Cat Steven’s career–none of that was really me. You the nation did all of that. I just got paid for it.

This is the still-beating heart of what Stephen Colbert was able to achieve while pretending to be a conservative gasbag for nearly a decade. Colbert blurred the lines between comedy and political discourse, creating a character whose humor went beyond the limits of what late night comedy is normally capable of. “Stephen Colbert” became more important than The Colbert Report ever was.

 

So what was The Colbert Report? Was it comedic political discourse, entertainment, social critique, a social movement, or something else entirely?

Perhaps Colbert was all of those things. He was both the satirist as well as the target, he was the jester as well as the king. Colbert was about laughter–his character was constructed to amuse a very particular segment of the population who were aware of his ploy–but was also about instructing the audience through a sort of zealot-as-cautionary-tale. As the Economist points out, Colbert’s jokes were “aimed at people who would never watch Bill O’Reilly’s conservative rant of a cable news show on Fox, but who (recognized) Mr. Colbert’s obnoxious on-screen persona as a parody of Mr. O’Reilly because they have read about Mr. O’Reilly in the New Yorker.”

Over the course of the show’s run, Colbert’s character grew to a sizable influence—he was asked to entertain the president at the 2006 White House Correspondence Dinner. This was perhaps the zenith of Colbert the character, and he took the opportunity to offer scathing remarks about the Bush administration and the press corps’ coverage–all cleverly disguised in a veneer of praise.

The Colbert Report and its sister show The Daily Show put a finger on the ideological pulse of the millennial generation. Colloquial evidence suggests that many young adults tune in to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in order to receive the news. And the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear offer a concrete example of Stewart and Colbert’s power as a rallying point for a young generation to express concerns and opinions about social and political discourse. One of the most impactful moments came when Colbert created his own Super PAC, “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” highlighting the absurdities of campaign finance while informing the electorate.

Even so, the impact of both Stewart and Colbert is difficult to pin down. Their satire often attempted to embody an ethic of change, but because it is rooted in irony, they seemed to sometimes simply add to culture’s supply of institutional suspicion. Irony cannot replace political and ideological structures with anything more than itself. The purpose of irony is to dismantle and destroy; it can’t provide any meaningful replacement to that which it criticizes.

And Colbert never meant for his show to replace Fox News, CNN, or cable news in general. Instead it was a deliberate undermining meant to display the cracks in a broken system, subverting existing power structures to expose the flaws in its logic and methodology. His comedy was structured so that we would see the ridiculous in the ordinary, and question how we receive and make opinions. And this wasn’t done out of some altruistic motivation, but because it made money, and it was entertaining. But he did it in such a way as to throw into question how satire should be performed.

Is comedy always entertainment? We’ve been trained to think that humor is synonymous with entertainment, so a better question may be: Did we miss the point entirely of what Stephen Colbert was all about?

David Foster Wallace put his finger on the historical institutionalization of irony by arguing that irony fails to articulate a meaningful replacement of corrupt and broken power structures. When irony is the primary language of discourse, the inevitable result is a conversation that says nothing, goes nowhere, and can achieve no result. And yet Colbert produced results. Did Colbert go beyond irony into some yet-uncharted realm of comedic discourse? Colbert’s commitment to the character—his almost decade long performance—allowed him to influence other media outlets. By appearing on MSNBC, Fox News, and even in front of Congress as “Stephen Colbert,” he took the character far beyond the normative scope of a late night host’s influence

The fact that Colbert was a character allowed him to go beyond simple negation and suggest an alternative reality¬–albeit a one his character would abhor to inhabit. The real work of Colbert was to educate as well as undermine. Colbert’s appearances before Congress and on shows like Joe Scarborough’s Morning Joe suggest that sticking to his studio were not the point. He was in his element while on the offensive, and was able to explain the political system better than the reporters and hosts he sat in front of. His message landed with such accuracy precisely because it was rooted in humor.

From his first segment until the bitter end, Stephen Colbert was about revolution. His methodology and message remained consistent, and his effect so indelible that the word from his very first “The Word” segment was included as the Merriam-Webster word of the year. Rooted forever in truthiness, Colbert soldiered on until the day was his.

— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) December 19, 2014

Ultimately the legacy of Stephen Colbert’s show and character will be identified not only through the way he is received as host of The Late Show, but whether or not those who identify as fans pursue political engagement outside of his sphere of influence. If Stephen Colbert really taught us anything, then viewers and fans of his show will start to view demagogues as entertainers, lessening the impact that gasbagging pundits have in the future. Colbert is gone, but his legacy will remain strewn on our consciousness like the pistachio shells he endlessly peddled.

Thankfully, Stephen Colbert is survived by his best-known relative, Stephen Colbert.