A Review of
Be Still!: Departure from Collective Madness
Reviewed by Madeline Cramer
“For a split second, I imagine the world
as a waiting room.”
“Strange as it may seem, I often feel the way John Lennon did. I dream of a different kind of world…” the Presbyterian minister and social commentator Gordon Stewart says in “Creating Hell in the Name of Heaven”—one of a collection of brief essays in his book Be Still: Departure from Collective Madness. And, considering the timeless popularity of John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” don’t we all long for something more than what we see in front of us? Don’t we all envision a better world? If not, what would motivate us? Who would want to raise children in a world doomed to fail? Who would go to church believing that God’s kingdom would never come? But, of course, as his essay notes, that’s the Catch-22. As humans, we continue to imagine because we want a better world, but our desire for “better” also breeds anxiety. Why aren’t things already better? Who stands against us? Against our children? Is it ISIS? Is it the Republicans? Is it you?
As Stewart notes of the inevitability of religion (and other human constructs meant to combat this very paradox of anxiety and hope), the crazier things become, the more people of all walks of life and all beliefs tend to cling to ideologies of hope and change. And, while you probably didn’t need convincing, TV shows like “Black Mirror” in their depictions of near dystopian futures and books such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows warning of the unforeseen consequences of technological progress, indicate that our world is presumably “mad.” As Stewart notes, “Progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” And, as religious extremists embody, this has caused us to hold these ideologies even closer—often at the expense of the hope and beauty already present in the here and now. And, it is at this very crux of anxiety and hope, dark and light—present in the world around us as a reflection of our inner selves—that Stewart attempts to meet us with still-life portraits of complex political and social issues of contemporary prevalence written in the form of short, poetic, and almost meditative essays—each organically grouped into broader, general themes- such as stillness, religion and politics, and systemized racism- building on one another in complexity as they go along (like the fire of Moses’s burning bush in the OT- one of the many Biblical and scriptural references held within this text- slowly kindling along until it ends on a note of righteous passion that, while blazing, is not at all destructive but jarringly, uncomfortably prophetic.
While each essay could stand alone, as a compilation, they build upon the themes and topics of the other—beginning with the abstract and layering towards a more concrete application of each abstraction. One of the over-arching abstractions uniting the essays is fear (as madness, is in large part, comprised of it). He first comments upon the fear that comes in the form of the unknown in “Mysterium Tremendum”—translated as “the fearful and fascinating mystery”— which can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Yet the powerful vulnerability induced by the experience of mysterium, while conducive to beauty, can also induce a frenzied anxiety of the unknown (an enemy to the sense of spiritual peace embodied by the mystics). He defines anxiety as separate from fear by its lack of a concrete source in “Our Anxious Time.” Stewart quotes theologian Paul Tillich, “Fear has an object…anxiety is ontological; fear psychological…Anxiety is the self-awareness of the finite self as finite,” (18). Anxiety is all-encompassing and existential whereas fear is grounded and concrete. Fear leads one to identify a real threat, and it then motivates one to respond rationally in order to solve it. Anxiety is the capital of fear-mongers—a collective paranoia not leading one to, say, buy a gun in order to protect their family from a reasonable, grounded threat but the voice assuring so many ordinary people that they are in danger from some self-constructed “other” that gun-control seems like more of a threat than the Sandy-Hook massacre, and our current political climate of polarization proves that each side of the gun control debate has a great sense of anxiety about the other (as Stewart notes in “The Common Ground Beneath the Gun Debate”). And it is in this vein of fear and the all-consuming nature of anxiety that the over-arching concept of awareness comes to play.
In a time of madness, be still. Don’t be swept into the tide of fear but, wake up. Recognize it for what it is, and reclaim your agency by not offering yourself up as capital for those seeking to profit off of the next collective wave of anxiety—something that the Vincent Van Gogh painting “Prisoners Exercising” featured on the book’s front cover fluidly reinforces. Coming out of the same dark season of his artistic career as “The Potato Eaters,” it features a gloomy, blue-scale portrait of faceless prisoners trudging in a circle in a cylindrical, windowless prison chamber (a faint hint of outside light emanating onto the brick at the very top of the painting) under the surveillance of guards—with one exception: the gaunt but clear gaze of a nameless prisoner aimed directly at the viewer. One prisoner in a faceless sea is awake, aware, and searching with his eyes for another like him (a testament to the clear sunlight hinted at above him) just like the former Goldman Sachs employee who spent twelve years trudging in the procession of Wall Street’s most powerful upper crust only to find himself shaken awake by their obvious disregard for the humanity and well-being of their own clients in a revealing chain of emails which he then exposed to the public, as described by Stewart in the essay “The Wall Street Tattler.”
As the singularity of the prisoner’s awareness indicates in the painting, this state of waking can feel excruciatingly lonely. As another artist, Beck Hansen, phrases it in his song “Lost Cause,” it leads one to feel as if “this town is crazy, and nobody cares”…but me, Van Gogh’s painting echoes. As both artists would know, this loneliness is a close kin to hopelessness. If nobody cares but me, what can I do? Does this mean that the world’s cause is lost to the dark madness seemingly smothering it? However, as Stewart’s essays repeatedly embody and proclaim, the cry of the human heart’s “cry for help in the face of chaos and its leap toward what is greater than the self or our social constructs” (15) and (especially) the art by which that cry is mediated is its own answer. In asking on whether or not he was a lost cause, Beck created a beautiful song that gave his life meaning and spoke to others who potentially felt lost in the same crowd. Van Gogh painted “Prisoners Exercising” in 1890, the same year in which he would shoot a bullet through his own heart as a culmination of his gradual descent into a personal madness. However, even in the midst of his darkness, his painting showed his light—the prisoner peering out through a window in collective madness. If nothing else, Stewart has proven himself through his book of essays Be Still to be another weary yet tenaciously hopeful awakened face gazing back in clarity. And his essays themselves are those very works of art resounding (in a way that is fully self-aware and intentional) against paralyzed hopelessness. Even if the truth that his essays insightfully proclaim may not be able to drown out the noise careening from the chorus of madness in which he is speaking (indicated in “Mary of Occupy”), it seems it was never their point of to join the violent game of glorified “little boys with toys” and other fear mongers seeking to clobber one another in an ascent to power. In fact, it is a sheer denial of the type of the Van Gogh-esque prison that these little boys have trapped themselves in.
Be Still attempts to be a beacon of light gathering the attention of those seeking unity, reconciliation, and beauty with forty-seven poetic, meditative candles at a vigil for a broken, bleeding yet transcendently human world. This is a vigil to which, no matter who you are or where you are, he has invited you to attend, and I recommend that you join.
Madeline Cramer interned with us at The Englewood Review this summer. Originally from the small town of Upland, Indiana, she is a senior at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she is studying Philosophy and Literature.