My wife Jennie and I celebrated our first anniversary with a camping trip to Clearwater, BC, which is about a five-audio-cd drive Northeast of Vancouver. In preparation for that drive, I made 5 new mixes that I cleverly titled BC Road Trip One, Two, Three, Four, and Places I Like. Landscape and music fuse together on long drives, and I love how that fusion attaches to feelings--if I understood chemistry I’m pretty sure there’d be some molecular analogy that would make a good illustration.
Making my mixes, I had some specific and cherished memories and feelings to draw from. Chief among those memories was my family’s roadtrip to Yellowstone when I was seven. By that age I was already addicted to Attenborough, and a trip to Yellowstone was akin to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Along the way we listened to Rich Mullins, who was completely American and evangelical and nearly talented and earnest enough to escape those monikers unscathed. Mullins remains part of my religious heritage I still treasure. His songs are direct in their biblical allusions, and name drop the landscape of the United States enough to make Woody Guthrie blush. Eventually Mullins left the Christian entertainment industry to teach music on the Navajo reservation; Mullins wasn’t messing around when it came to following Jesus.
One particular song from that Yellowstone road-trip sticks out: "Calling Out Your Name" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ign854UiTk). It fades in with a hammer-dulcimer solo, giving some Appalachian-hill-folk cred to it’s Americana. The lyrics are all wonder at the various and mythic landscapes of the Great Plains. The song attached itself to the new places and creatures that surrounded my family’s Dodge Caravan: the Madison River meandering through a meadow, a bull bison standing disinterested in that same meadow, and herds of elk wandering between charred lodgepole pines. Mullin’s chorus uses the images from the verses to support the thesis that all that neat creation stuff is “Calling Out Your Name” (unspecified second person language in evangelical music means God). Psalm 19 (not exactly a B-Side in the Psalter) has a similar sentiment: “The Heavens declare the Glory of God”. In English lit., the Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “the world is charged with the Grandeur of God.” This sentiment isn’t unique to Christianity either. I’m not comparative religion expert but my understanding is that in Islam Creation is often talked about as a “sign” of the Creator, or a cosmic book that, alongside scripture, helps one learn about God.
On my roadtrip, this song first came on relatively early: the winding highway up to the Coquihalla Summit. By Hope, the conversation had lulled and Jennie was nodding a bit in the passenger seat so there was space for contemplation between the last peaks of the North Cascades. Roadtrips are good for the mystical types of thinking. My contemplation during Rich Mullin’s song had some questions: what good is praise that isn’t specific? Who wants to be told they’re doing a good job, if the specifics of what was good aren’t actually named? Are Psalm 19 and Hopkins and Mullins and all those other creation mystics just saying “Nature is neat”? This is where my theology classes entered into the contemplative self-conversation. Lots of Christians thinkers have railed on about the “scandal of particularity”; mostly the thoughts expressed under that label respond to the tricky but captivating doctrine of the incarnation. But the gravitation towards particular isn’t limited to the incarnation, or if it is, it’s a more robust form of the doctrine than is usually present in our heads. Driving through BC’s varied landscapes, I wanted to push a bit further, to take a stab at how that landscape revealed something particular about who God is. How does that chunk of creation identify something specific and namely about God?
The varied-ness of the BC landscape is pretty hard to ignore: there’s high-desert with sagebrush and golden canyons, rounded and sharp mountain peaks with reticulated patches of snow lingering into deep summer, all of the types of trees with differing shades of green: aspen, fir, pine, maple, cottonwood, birch, cedar and hemlock. Seasoned among that smorgasbord geography, Jennie and I spotted cranes and herons, crows and vultures, and even a couple big-horn sheep. On some of our walks we found multiple types of poo. So many different and beautiful things relating to the other beautiful things! Creatures hanging-out with other creatures. Things needing the uniqueness offered by each other thing, that difference drawing them together. The desert and rainforest connected by rivers that pump the ocean-life of salmon up into the center of the province. There’s a complex and interconnected community on display in BC and that community I think says something namely about who God is.
A distinct and beautifully silly tenet of Christian faith is that God has three persons while still being one. Within God’s one-ness is a community. Theological language names that community the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unity in diversity. Some early contemplaters described the Trinity’s interior life as a dance. Difference in unity cutting-a-triune-rug. All that creation rolling past my Toyota Matrix was saying something about who God is--it reflected God’s loving-community essence.
I’m not the most spiritual of Christian. I’m not going to become a desert mystic with a scraggily beard surrounded by candles in a cave. But there is something in me that wants to get out into that creation. I want to participate in it. Those forests and rivers are sexy to me; they have a real “come-hither” quality about them.
I don’t want to just observe creation through my windshield, or on my big screen TV. I want to be in the river. I want to have my hand on trees (the bigger and older the better!). I want to poke the scat with a stick. I want to interact. I want to relate and know. That sexiness, that drawn-to-participation quality, I think is part of God’s name. I’m a part of creation, a creature like a tree or a crow, and the same testimony entwined in those things is in me as well. My own off-key singing of half-wrong lyrics to All Creatures of Our God and King, my sweaty stomach rolls’ unique trail-walking jiggle, my voice ranting about the radness of cedar trees and salmon (and hopefully typing abstract roadtrip thoughts too)--that’s the particular creature Jake joining with all creation “calling out” the name of God.