Dead Dreamers and Greek Words

“Emotional instability… Basically, what we have here is a dreamer. Somebody out of touch with reality. When she jumped, she probably thought she’d fly.” This is what a boy said after inspecting the stolen diaries of Cecilia Lisbon. For those of you unfamiliar with Jeffery Eugenides’s novel, The Virgin Suicides, (or Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation) thirteen-year-old Cecilia jumped from her bedroom window to be impaled on the spike of a fence: the first of the five Lisbon sisters to end themselves.

There are points in our lives, however long those points last, that we’ve endured emotional hells. We’ve all had our turn(s) at finding ourselves separate from the better lives we want to lead. In this hell, it is too easy to give up hope on remedying the situation – perhaps even despairing of life itself.

It is true that we must die to escape hell on earth. But Cecilia was tragically wrong in the way to go about it. When I say we must die, I mean the death Jesus was referring when he said, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12.25, NIV)

In this particular passage, the original Greek word for “love” is φιλέω (phileó). This of course is not to be confused with agape (there are several Greek words for “love” in the New Testament). “Phileó” is widely understood to mean a brotherly love. Vine’s Expository Dictionary for Old and New Testament Words expounds further that phileó “conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else.”

To cherish something above all else gives that object a lot of power. It would influence our decision-making, how we spend our money and manage our time. Such an object could be a relationship that needs to end because you want different things, or there’s abuse or something else, but you can’t bring yourself to end it because you love the person so much. I’m going to take this business of cherishing a step further and say that in the context of John 12.25, it could be something you hate that exerts the same power and influence over your life. It may consume you to the point where you perceive the object to be as much a part of you as your hands or your feet. In the case of our friend Cecilia, it would be what Daniel Goleman calls “intrusive thoughts” that life is not worth living.

In which case, we must consider Matthew 18.9, in which Jesus tells us that, “if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” And how we manage to do this is a matter of repentance.

In the New Testament, the original Greek word for “repentance” is μετάνοια (metanoia). Metanoia means a change of mind, of perception: giving us new eyes to see and new ears to hear. If you prefer psych-speak to this Bible jargon, you can refer to Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, where he touches on challenging our thoughts, “cognitive reframing” and the required self-awareness for the task.

But let’s go back to speculating Cecilia. What if Cecilia likes drawing, and would prefer not to stop drawing? What if there is a possibility that, in her personal μετάνοια process, she finds that drawing and misery are mutually exclusive. If what she draws could be used to identify her as “emotionally unstable,” it must be connected somehow! This side of the mind change, if it will cost her something she likes doing, then how is Cecilia supposed to believe the mind change is worth it?

I’ll say this: if, for Cecilia, this purpose to draw is not a parasite parading as a body part, but the authentic stuff of eternity; if, for Cecilia, when she puts pencil to paper, it infuses and enthralls her with the real joy and beauty and love that comes from The Legit Source – then drawing will still be written on her heart after the appropriate death. But, if drawing is the cherished object that needs to be sacrificed in order to enter life, the sacrifice will be worth it. In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell describes this life as “an extraordinarily complex, interconnected, and diverse reality, a reality in which individual identities aren’t lost or repressed, but embraced and celebrated. An expansive unity that goes beyond and yet fully embraces staggering levels of diversity.”

Cecilia was a dreamer. Imagine what might have happened if she stuck around. Her individual identity could have blessed the world in ways we can’t even imagine. The contributions of dreamers are invaluable, regardless of what medium they manifest in. And imagine how fulfilling it must be for the dreamer to see their dreams take flight!

And who isn’t a dreamer?

How is that which you phileó holding you back?


Chicken Noodle Dark Night of the Soul

One of Warhol's famous soup cans,
as shown on gallerywarhol.com

“The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise.” – Mother Teresa

Call me unimaginative, but I didn’t think I could find any similarities between Andy Warhol’s work and Psalm 23 …although I may have implied otherwise during one of my church’s fabulous sermon discussion groups. In retrospect, it may have been because the two are so dissimilar that our associate pastor, Paul, who was sitting across the table from me, said he’d love to read something on that very subject.

Paul has led many conversations at our church about living into God’s story as opposed to living into culture’s story. Living into God’s story requires trusting in God and finding our meaning and comfort in Him. Psalm 23 uses organic imagery – still waters, green pastures – to illustrate how God comforts His beloved.

Warhol’s imagery is synthetic. The images Warhol is known for are not rendered to be realistic, but simplistic, making them easier to reproduce en masse. Warhol and his team would churn out this kind of work at his studio, “The Factory,” like how Campbell’s churns out cans of soup. This is the consumer culture’s story. The NIV translation of Psalm 23 says that The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. But in consumer culture, you have to lack something, otherwise you wouldn’t need to buy soup or art or cars or Brillo pads or any of those other thingamabobs out there for purchase.

However, God is not altogether absent from Warhol’s work, and I don’t just mean his series of silk-screened Last Suppers. For holiness, I would look to the movie star portraits (not to make them Golden Calves). What Warhol does with chicken soup, he does with movie stars. The problem therein being that movie stars are people, and when it is attempted for them to be mass produced and treated like soup, a few things fall through the cracks. Dimension is lost. Flat representations of faces are colored with unrealistic, garish hues. In half of Marilyn Diptych, for example, Marilyn Monroe’s skin is Pepto Bismol pink.

Diptych is a solid block of Marilyns: the same picture repeated over and over and over again, with minor imperfections. She is set up to be the supply for any public demand of her, something to be used then thrown away…then used again. On the second half of the canvas, the Marilyns are in black and white. They’re dark, blotched, blackened, their quality even less consistent than those of the left half. After the faces get the blackest, the Marilyns then start fading, until she is depleted to whispers of facial features at the right end of the canvas.

Marilyn Diptych demonstrates a consequence of living into culture’s story. It’s true that when we seek comfort in things that are not eternal, ultimately they will not nourish or satisfy. Tragic still is when people themselves are treated and/or treat themselves as mere commodities to be sold and used. However you invest yourself in culture’s story, faith in the temporal has a way of culminating into a serious why have you forsaken me? moment, because here, in the black, synthetic darkness, it’s terribly difficult to find those green pastures and quiet waters.

When looking for God in Warhol, go to the blackest faces in Marilyn Diptych. When the garish colors’ promise turns out to be false, it doesn’t feel like the aforementioned waters and pastures are a reality. But God is also in the suffering, as Mother Teresa would say, Jesus in a distressing disguise. Even if they’ve been putting their trust into something else until then, God is with those whose stories have failed them.