In a recent In Touch article (“Viewer Discussion Advised”), film critic Jeffrey Overstreet said, “The best art does not explain things. It reveals them imaginatively. It takes ideas and embodies them. That’s an imitation of the incarnation—‘word’ becoming ‘flesh.’” Underlying this notion that human creative acts imitate the incarnation is a theological perspective I discussed in the first “In the Image” column, that we make things because we ourselves have been made—shaped by a Creator who made us in His image. Because God is a maker, so are we, His image-bearers.
By the same token, the products of our creativity (allow the full force of that word, in this theological context, to settle in) share characteristics of God’s creative work. When “the Word became flesh,” the ultimate expression of God’s nature, God did not simply write commandments on stone tablets, as He had done previously. Rather He delved into the heart of the human condition in all its physicality and messiness in order to speak not only to the human condition, but within it. Our lives and art should seek to imitate God in this way.
As Gregory Wolfe writes in his book Beauty Will Save the World, “Faith asks art to be about something more than formal virtuosity and to consider that meaning itself is already inherently metaphysical, even religious. Art asks faith to become incarnate in the human condition without compromise—or evasion—and remain compelling.” A poem like Robert Cording’s “The Gravity of Anonymity” does just that:
The Gravity of Anonymity
by Robert Cording
Once, in an empty subway station,
the wrong trains flashing past, a blur of graffiti
and chrome mirror, I saw someone’s
self-sovereignty painted in cobalt blue letters
on a steel girder: I AM BAD.
I imagined a half-boy, half-man affixing
his signature with the same flourish as Hancock,
that bold hand a declaration
of faith in a better future. I saw the boy at home,
flexing his new muscles
before his mirror, beautifully lost,
floating beyond the gravity of anonymity—
those of us who wait, as we must,
on subway platforms, the tunneled air breathed
and breathed again. Or those of us
already in trains, faces blurred by speed,
bodies collapsed behind headlines.
I wanted to feel again that power
to project the self out of the tunnels of tile,
to escape the twin tracks converging
in their lesson of perspective: that a lifetime
is only a vanishing act.
I didn’t want to consider
the other possibility: that the boy had already lost
track of what he had in mind
when he walked out of the station.
That his declaration was just a way of getting ready
to live in anonymity again.
That the world the boy didn’t want was still there,
looming like the damaged lives
of almost everyone he knew and that the light,
vague and failing,
which the pigeons flew into, glimmered in,
effaced every trace of them.
Cording skillfully embodies the tension between the inherent value of each person, as an image of God, and the human propensity to inflate one’s own value, skewing a proper respect for oneself and others into self-idolatry. “I AM BAD” the teenage boy paints in a public place in the story this poem tells—a distortion of God’s revelation of His name to Moses. Does this indicate the boy’s intuition of his own fallen nature, in need of redemption? Or is it an egotistic pronouncement, indicating that he’s proud of his badness?
The speaker of the poem imagines the boy flexing his muscles in front of a mirror. Again, this could be an indication of inordinate pride, or it could simply be an act of wonder and admiration for the human body God designed.
The poem doesn’t tell us what to think about the boy’s actions, but allows us to ponder the possibilities. Cording shows us a tangible, real-world situation that illustrates the precarious edge we humans walk between a proper understanding of ourselves as being “fearfully and wonderfully made,” “a little lower than the angels,” and our tendency as fallen beings to make gods out of ourselves, and place ourselves above others and even above our Creator.
The most powerful art doesn’t present us with simple lessons or approach us with certainty and final conclusions. Rather, it dwells in the uncertainty of the fallen world we inhabit, and it explores the complexity of the human condition in order to draw us into deeper contemplation. This process itself can be redemptive, leading us away from our own easy and premature certainties, causing us to re-examine what we thought we knew about ourselves and our world.
Robert Cording’s poem brings us into a tangible world in which the tensions of our fallen yet image-bearing natures are manifested. Cording doesn’t come to conclusions, but rather speaks from within the human condition and allows the reader to inhabit the tension, the uncertainty—the place where transformation is possible.
“The Gravity of Anonymity” is reprinted from What Binds Us To This World (Brown: Copper Beech Press), copyright © 1991 by Robert Cording. Reprinted by permission of the author.