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Re-Imagining Prophethood From Within the Belly of the Machine

By Evan Knappenberger

Editor’s Note: Bethany Theological Seminary reinstated its Peace Essay Contest in January 2014 with the hope that people think creatively about peacemaking. Below is snippets of one of the 34 entries, which was submitted for publication by Bethany Seminary.

James Fairfield’s life was changed by a song. “Oh Shenandoah/ I long to see you,” — words that he sang as a child almost 80 years ago, while the cold Canadian arctic winds howled against the windowpanes of his one-room school house. Decades later, disillusioned with his job in the family business, called by God to find something more, Jim packed up wife and kids and headed south to the valley praised in his beloved song.

The human experience is one of movement, but this is amplified in the Euro-American narrative — our ancestors were compelled onwards towards something unknown, pressured from their homes for political or religious or economic reasons. Our people brought their wars and diseases and ambitions with them across the cold oceans; but they also brought their dreams and spiritual missions. This is something I have trouble accepting in my own prophetic narrative.

My people and James’ came and built cities and factories and participated in the projects of modernity. But the rains fell on their unjust endeavors even as they fell on the peaceful aboriginal tribes; the unique problem within the American condition is one of self-justification. What does it mean that our fathers murdered a thousand cultures for a handful of dirt or gold? What does it mean to sleep in our beds in a stolen land? How do we forgive ourselves for the iniquities of the third and the fourth (and even the tenth and eleventh) generations of our forefathers? . . .

On top of the guilty awareness of our historic genocide, European-Americans carry the double existential guilt of ongoing ecocide. We repress the guilt down into our subconscious minds, waiting for a righteous God to come and take back what we stole. And so we avoid looking truthfully backwards to our roots, steeped in trauma, which makes a lie of any forward-looking aim of restoration and peace with the earth, with other people, and with God.

The Dead Flag Blues’ Prophetic Vision

When I returned to Virginia from the war in Iraq, I could sense the slimy film of this double guilt covering the violently conquered territories of the New World. As I drove homeless across the North American landmass, seeing things in a new way, listening to the groans of highways and the wails of highvoltage wires, my identity became consumed in the sounds of civilization. By chance, I had a few CDs of my mother’s in the car with me, including one with the song that changed James Fairfield’s life, “Oh Shenandoah.” I was moving westward, though, and in contrast to the pioneers who wrote the song as they themselves headed westward over the not-yet-subdued land, I was not interested in looking backwards towards a place I could not stay. And so that particular song, so relevant to James Fairfield, remained un-listened to in mine. Instead I queued an eclectic mix of strange sounds and discordance, reflecting the moody awareness of a people disconnected from
the narrative truth of their homeland, the alienation between human and earth, the ontological gap between subject and object which is magnified in the Cosmopolis.

By chance I landed in the Pacific Northwest and decided to stay for a date with a woman — and ended up staying for five years. One day as I walked through the Bellingham, Washington rain in the place that would soon become my home — as I rejoiced in a blooming relationship that would become my marriage — I listened to an album randomly purchased from one of the few music stores surviving in the era of iTunes: the CD was Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s 1997 album, “F# A# ∞”. I walked along scenic Whatcom Creek replete with cascading waterfalls and salmon-ladders. Mist floated through towering cedar trees, rising from the estuarial waters that once teemed thickly with fish a century before my birth. I headed back to the borrowed apartment in which I was sleeping . . . and buried myself in a wave of cold sound. Somehow something encoded on that plastic disk touched my soul, and with the first track of the album I soon developed a close relationship.

The experience I am describing is actually one of the few meaningful memories from that brief but profound period of my life, predating my marriage and the trauma of eastward returning in the wake of divorce five years later. The memory is filled with palpable potentiality — I was a young man with few resources but enough courage and calling to compensate. Soon I would be literally and figuratively on top of the city of Bellingham, my voice on the airwaves across the country, and my heart resonating with the deep mission of peace and justice which, if a person knows how to listen, can still be heard echoing over the mountains and whispering through the deserts of our stolen hemisphere.

Listening to “F# A#∞,” I heard the resonance of a righteous intention percolating upwards through the centuries into that moment in 2007. I heard it that day in a recording of a train whistling into the Quebecois mountains, and I heard it in an eschatologically-charged poem, read by a native man at the pace ofthe slow burn of occupation. As I lay face-down in the afternoon chill of a typical, clouded Bellingham spring day, my awareness filled with the sparse sounds of a Montreal electro-ambient post-rock collective, feeling something like what I expect Jim Fairfield felt as a child singing in class, “away, I’m bound away.”

I cannot describe the sound of the voice of God — it wasn’t exactly a “still, small voice within” — but I can say that it resonated in me in an expression of utter sublimity, reflecting entirely what I have often called a “will-to-transcendence.” And the dark overtones within the recording, the ambient discord of what philosopher Gilles Deleuze might describe as a “deterritorialized flow” — these sounds stood starkly, like a witness to the crime of our collective presence on this continent. I heard in this music by anarchistic Montrealers a reflection of the American landscape that I had just been experiencing as a raw, unmediated tragedy — for the first time in my life — as I wandered homeless with war-opened eyes.

Then, for a moment, silence. A train whistles sharply, and in the echo of the whistle can be heard the landscape of the Quebec wilderness all around.

The Street Prophet

James Fairfield’s family emigrated from Scotland and founded a textile business in Manitoba in the industrial era. Jim says in his memoir that he did not feel entirely comfortable taking his inherited part in the business when it was time. I hear in his words that melancholic train — outdated relic of the industrial era trapped beyond itself in a post-industrial context — whistling in the chill darkness behind him. But unlike the whistle of the train, “Oh Shenandoah” was surely God’s promise to Jim of what in ancient Hebrew is termed berit, the promise of a Holy Land.

Like Jim, who built a new life of the spirit within the context of his calling, I heard this promise in a song too. It was “F# A#” as much as anything else which launched my public life and guided me through the turbulence of the times. One phrase in particular comes to me, continues to come to me like the echo of the train-whistle in the wilds of Quebec, revealing a horizon of exploration: the skyline was beautiful on fire.

The skyline was beautiful on fire. You grabbed my hand and we fell into it, like a daydream, or a fever. To me, this is the eschatological promise of the Holy Spirit. Car bombs were slaughtering and continue to slaughter) hundreds of Iraqis every day: the twisted metal stretches ever upwards. All my enemies — whom I loved in typical consumer fashion (they exist as the means of my completion, as commodities of consumption) — were at that time being hunted down and murdered by the troops who had just replaced me in Iraq. To all outward appearances, the circuit of destruction was being completed. But on flimsy scaffolding above Bellingham, in the orange hazy light of burning pipelines, the Spirit still sanctifies love relationships like the one that I initiated that spring with Marie, who would become my wife. Even now that our marriage has ended badly, the eschatological promise of unity remains. Oh my lost love, who has made you my enemy? The infinite loop — F# separation and A#reconciliation? — of our atonement, the coming of the New Jerusalem — will it return us to our fever? I say to Marie: my dearest, truly these are the last days — and I say to the Holy Spirit — let us put away our enmity and fall into fever! . . .

Away You Rolling River

I recognize in James Fairfield something of my own love for well-conceived prose. Appreciation like this is only gotten one way: by reading-from-without. Often the academic inclination is to read-from-within; I must know, we tell ourselves, I must connect with the subjective truth of the text. God, however, may perhaps exist as the Subjective itself — as something in which we all participate equally, as children of God. Therefore, reading-from-within is a redundancy, and plural truth is subjective truth and comes-from-without. Jim, I like to think, would agree with me in this speculation.

Jim’s book, Frog Hollow Journal, is a theological reflection, almost a confession. Jim knows God’s presence experientially, in the expression of the birds on his porch, in the fields full of thorns, in the daily routine of an old farm wife, and especially in a single, simple song. I firmly believe that Jim was engaged in a prophetic calling when he uprooted his family and started
southward. I feel as if he and I share the willingness to follow the prophetic path.

This claim regarding the nature of the prophetic tradition is problematic though. Everything with significance is significant in retrospect, right? Nothing is memorable in itself, right? A song, a verse, an apple falling from a tree: totally ordinary things being ascribed meaning retroactively. That song was sung at a formative time in a young life, that apple happened to fall of all possible places, on Newton’s bewigged head. Meaning, we read in Derrida and others, is a human construct applied post hoc, not a telos propelling us like trade winds across landmasses and oceans!

But isn’t retroactive meaning-inscription part of the prophetic tradition? What is the prophetic calling, if not (first) simultaneously relational and oppositional, and (also) both retrospective and prognostic? My unwillingness to look backwards — my shortcomings in the business of prophetic response — severely limited my forward-looking capabilities as activist and as husband. I couldn’t focus on important things, but got stuck in the truly meaningless details of building a typical American fantasy life. Trapped once again in the American Dream, I was unable to engage in questions of the past — too painful — and thus lost sight of the trajectories of meaning which it is the prophet’s job to trace out to an ultimate conclusion of grace.
I was not engaged in biblical discipleship, because I saw it as a past disconnected from the present and irrelevant to the future. On my journey in 2007, I couldn’t listen to James Fairfield’s song. But had I been willing to read-from-without, had I listened to the words as he had —

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, I’m bound away,
‘cross the wide Missouri.

— I might have understood their prophetic potential. To his credit, James Fairfield was present-with, open to what I was not; even as a young boy, Jim was able to hear the prophetic voice over the howling Manitoban winds rushing against the windowpanes of a single-room schoolhouse. Coincidentally, both Jim and I eventually found ourselves in the beloved Shenandoah, following our callings, though he died before I could meet him in person.

To Jim, I am convinced that the words of “Shenandoah” conveyed a personal promise. It was a promise on which he made good throughout the rest of his life. It was, I want to assert, an eschatological promise as well. I believe that Jim heard the same voice of the Holy Spirit in “away you rolling river” that I did in my “skyline beautiful on fire.”

Imagine a child hearing God’s voice inside his own as he sings, God saying unmistakably: away you rolling river, I long to hear you, with all the eschatological implications of God’s saying such a thing. I imagine a flash of recognition: there will come a day, little brother James, when your heart will sing these very same words to you, and you will know that moment as the fulfillment of the promise of your creation. When you cross the wide Missouri, take comfort, for even rivers and valleys are impermanent; but your simple longing for God’s promise is where the Holy Spirit resides. When your heart sings these words, you will know that the Holy Spirit is in you now and forever.

Would that we could all have such moments, such flashes of recognition.

Conclusion

Reading Frog Hollow Journal, I am struck by Jim’s presence of mind, his insight into the land itself. There is one episode where he describes the healing of the hillside above his farmhouse from previous negligent caretakers who clear-cut it and shamefully allowed it to erode. The grasses and roots and the hill itself, under James’ watchful eye, initiated a slow process of recovery, an almost glacially-slow coming-to-terms between the inclination of natural ecosystems on the one hand, and the destructive impulse of greedy humans on the other. The lessons of restoration are not lost to Jim, and the way of miraculous healing can be often gleaned in the details of such things.

Jim’s love of nature wasn’t always rosy and exciting however; he and his family and neighbors also struggled with the problems of life on the land. This struggle to survive-with is clearly something central to Frog Hollow Journal. Similarly, I struggle to find the prophetic purpose of my surviving-with the destructive and purposeless vanity of life in present-day America. Must I re-imagine the fact of my ancestors’ violent intrusion? Must I retrospectively re-purpose their short-lived but all-too-human pathos into something worthy of divine grace and even sublime? How can we begin the glacial process of restoration, of making whole that which was broken by our fathers? How can we heal relations with other peoples, with the way we relate to the earth and most importantly, to ourselves? If we are to take James Fairfield’s cue, the answers are all around us, spoken to us through the healing of an eroded hillside, howled at us in train whistles, demonstrated to us in the love of a neighbor, and sung in one-room schoolhouses.

We must open ourselves to both creative re-imagination of the past — making sense of ancestral wrongs — and also to being called into the future . . . This often involves a traumatic experience, an existential crisis. We must wake up one morning and fall a little further down. We must open our wallets and see that they are full of blood, before we can move forward.

The same prophetic calling is open to all humans with any room in their hearts. After all, we all exist together in the belly of this horrible machine, dying the slow death of a thousand lonely suicides. The prophetic is a deep effervescence within the vibrant heart of all creation, calling out from inside all things. It is always-already our purpose and right in front of us. If we seek the Lord: in our neighbors, in the fields and the sparrows, in the songs we sing every day — we will hear it like James did eighty years ago, and we can communicate it as Godspeed You! Black Emperor communicated it to me in a life-altering kind of encounter. If we do this, then ultimately, all humans will be given new hearts to know the prophetic truth of things. This is when we will hold hands and fall into a daydream-fever. This is when we remember the beloved river — always flowing down like peace — a sound we long to hear as we cross the wide Missouri.

Here is the promise: thirst for justice, yearn for the voice of God in all things, hunger for right relation with God, with neighbors, with sparrows, and even with the text read-from-without. Hunger for rightness, we are told, and you will be filled. Amen.

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