Is social media “the madness of art”?

Recently I came across that irresistibly quotable quote from Henry James’ 1893 short story, The Middle Years:

We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

The setting for my being held, once again, by these words was a 2008 speech by Cynthia Ozick about “ghost writers.” For her, the “madness of art” is not, actually, in the art, but in all the things we do to escape it. “Art turns mad in pursuit of the false face of wishful distraction,” Ozick says. Boy, howdy.

Perhaps as a defense of my recent rash decision to deactivate my facebook account, “the false face of wishful distraction” resonates. I got off facebook for three reasons:

  1.  I became personally aware of the passive-aggressive nature of indirect communication through updating one’s status, and decided that if someone wanted me to know what they were feeling or doing, they needed to pick up the phone or send me a note.
  2. The general time-sink that is facebook. What would that last hour before bedtime be like if I wasn’t zoning out in front of the screen checking up on everybody else’s day? (Answer: Great!)
  3. All the ego stuff….was I getting enough friends, enough likes, enough positive attention to earn my place in the social media world?

Around the time that I was admitting all this to myself, I came across a generous column on The Attic’s Ask Miss Lit page, responding to a writer’s complaint that social media was taking over her life. (I don’t know why I think the writer is a her, but I just do.) Wise Miss Lit pointed out that there are many great writers out there who have no facebook friends, no personal website, no blog, no nothing. They just write. (Cynthia Ozick doesn’t even have her own website. Imagine!) And neither do most clergy, painters, poets, doctors, or teachers.

What if work – be it making art or teaching or gardening or mothering or writing – is what is sane in the world, and all those things we say will help us work, but are actually things we do to avoid work…what if that way madness lies?

“Look, here is water!” What would you do?

Have you ever baptized anyone?

Ten years ago I spent a summer working with a priest in East London. Like a good Anglo-Catholic, he wore his collar most of the time. One Saturday afternoon, he ran into a sex worker on Roman Road, where the streets were full with the weekly outdoor market. She grabbed his arm, gripped his eyes with hers, and said “I want to be baptized. Would you do it?”

He was about to tell her to come to the church the next morning to talk about it when he realized that the chances of that were slim to nil, and that she wanted to be baptized at that moment, where they stood. They went into the nearest mini-mart for a bottle of water, and then into a side alley away from the traffic. She knelt down on the sidewalk. He asked her name and then, splashing bottled water on her head, repeated the name alongside the universal words of Christian initiation: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The original Greek of the ancient formula translates “into the name,” so she was baptized into that crazy extended family that starts with the Trinity and includes everyone, even street workers who make up so many names for themselves, that only their mother and God know the real one.

He never saw her again, although there was something about the way he told the story that said he thought of her every time we walked down that part of Roman Road. Waiting for the next person to grab his arm and ask for the same thing.

I preach and lead worship in a tradition that sends mixed messages about baptismal preparation. On one hand, we baptize infants early and often. On the other, we take baptismal formation for unbaptized adults very seriously, and most adults wanting to be baptized undergo some fairly in-depth preparation. Or we like to think they do. I recently led a worship service that included the renewal of baptismal vows. No one was actually being baptized that day although there were half a dozen infants in the congregation and as many unbaptized adults. I stopped just short of a “font call” and later wished I’d gone ahead and said “y’all come.”

If someone asked you to baptize them on the spot, would you do it?