The Art of Holy Mischief: A Pentecost Reflection of the Trickster Who Makes The World
My copy of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art has almost as many Post-It notes sticking out from its pages as it has pages.
And almost anyone who has heard me present over the last decade or come to the Spent Dandelion for a stay or even sat with me over an otherwise innocuous cup of coffee or a cocktail knows that time with me will rarely end before I bust out the book or a cascade of quotes from it.
It’s not a theological book, per se, but it’s entirely possible that Hyde’s written one of the best descriptions of the indescribable Holy Spirit ever.
Thanks to him, it’s now clear to me that the Holy Spirit is a trickster.
A full-on, all-out mischief maker.
So Lewis Hyde is one of those sorts of people whom, it seems, when God was doling out gifts, received more than the usual allotment, as if God tipped the bottle out a little more quickly than intended, like one might with a salt shaker over a pot of soup, and there you go, nothing you can do about it, what’s in there is in there, everything is flavored just that much more.
There’s little, that is, that the guy can’t or hasn’t done, and it seems like he’s a super nice guy to boot.
In this book, Hyde taps into his interest in literature, and takes on the almost universal motif of a trickster. It’s a stock character in myth, poetry, and prose, and comes in the form of a creature (a raven, a coyote, a fox, Loki) which enters into the world or a context and creates mischief.
Now, Hyde is careful to note that while the trickster can cause harm, that’s not the trickster’s primary intent.
Instead, the trickster is drawn to the status quo, drawn to predictability, drawn to complacency, drawn to how it’s always been, drawn to contented power, and then, with no small amount of flair and even glee, proceeds to mess it right on up.
OK. With that in mind, read the Pentecost text for tomorrow:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Acts 2:1-21
I mean, come on people.
Crazy loud bluster from heaven.
Fire on folks who were not burned by it.
Cacophony of languages that were heard and understood.
Behavior that for all the world smacked of drunkenness.
And a reminder that God’s promises and Spirit encompass all, even (especially?) the outcasts and outliers of the community, like enslaved people and women and the very young and the very old.
That is the stuff of a quintessential, expert, pro-level trickster.
The point isn’t lost on Hyde that while readers love the trickster, the trick-ees, so to speak, those who are tricked, tend not to be huge fans.
In fact, often when the trickster is discovered, the communities threatened by the trickster’s mischief “often tire of trickster’s disruptions and set out to bind or suppress him.” (96-97)
(I mean really. Let those with eyes and ears do their thing here. Seriously.)
The trouble, of course, is that there is nothing to do to suppress change.
You can try to cap it, try to pretend it isn’t going to happen, eliminate all the contingencies, and guess what: change will still happen, and the more you resist it, the more the trickster cackles and sets to work.
The point, again, of the trickster’s mischief isn’t mischief for mischief’s sake.
Instead, as Hyde puts it: “When [the Trickster] lies and steals, it isn’t so much to get away with something or get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds. When Pablo Picasso says that ‘art is a lie that tells the truth,’ we are closer to the old trickster spirit. Picasso was out to reshape and revive the world he had been born into. He took this world seriously; then he disrupted it; then he gave it a new form.”
That so preaches, and even on days that aren’t Easter: “He took this world seriously; then he disrupted it; then he gave it new form.”
Those who are inclined to pentecostal ways of being in the world (not least of all Christians who recognize that radicality wraps through the Judeo-Christian tradition), folk who perceive that the fringes, like footnotes in a book, are where the real action is, those who fear nothing but oppressive status quo, these are people who are alert to and who even welcome the trickster.
Rather than be threatened, angered, or dismayed by the trickster’s presence—announced or otherwise—people open to the antics of the trickster, not to mention the need of it, anticipate that mischief might bring a new and welcome spirit.
They are ready to be surprised.
If that is one’s present posture, a habitual engagement with the world, Hyde says, “with smart luck, the mind is prepared for what it isn’t prepared for. It has a kind of openness, holding its ideas lightly, and willing to have them exposed to impurity and the unintended” (140).
I love that “prepared for what isn’t prepared for.”
There’s something baptismal about it: we are baptized into the news that no matter what, we are God’s.
We don’t know what the “no matter what” will be: just that it will be, and we are prepared for that and God’s fidelity in and through it.
Open to the ‘no matter what,’ grand new things can come to be, things that could never have entered into one’s imagination, let alone the world, if one is closed to newness and risk.
Hyde points to great art created by the likes of Picasso, great music composed by the likes of Mozart, great medical advances discovered by Pasteur, simply because their minds, their spirits, their imaginations were open to a new opportunity breaking in.
It is thanks to Hyde that I learned, within one paragraph, two etymologies that I should have otherwise known.
First, the word ‘opportunity’ is related to words ‘port’ and ‘pore’ and ‘porous,’ namely a hole through which something new can pass through.
I love that.
Likewise, the word kairos, a word one can’t be in seminary for more than a week without hearing, a word that has come to mean “the perfect moment,” or “the fulfilled moment.” It, though, is a word that comes from the ancient Greek art of weaving, and, as Hyde says, “refers to the brief instant when the weaver may shoot her shuttle through the rising and falling warp threads. A kairós is a penetrable opening in the weaving of cloth, the weaving of time, the weaving of fate” (133).
I love that too.
A trickster, that is, is alert for porous surfaces, a space for a fresh thing, emptiness that could be filled.
It seeks to weave together things that before were not connected.
But Hyde also notes that tricksters go for the joints, the spaces where there is (or should be) movement between where two disparate things are fastened.
He is fascinated by the fact that two words in ancient Greek can be rendered ‘joint.’
One is árthron, a word referring to the part of the body where two different segments are connected: a knee or a wrist or an elbow, say. Its root is ar-, and from it we get arthritis, and ‘article,’ as in words which connect other sentence parts.
The other is harmós, which, rather than referring to the joining together of body parts, speaks of the connection between structural elements, like a wall or a metal seam.
These materials are fastened together thanks to the work of craftspeople, also known as artisans.
You’ll notice that the word ‘artisan’ beings with, wait for it, ‘ar,’ as in the root for ‘joint.’
An artisan, that is, joins two worlds together. (254-55).
So does one who ‘articulates,’ as, say, I dunno, preachers.
“From this etymology, and from the Loki and Syrdon stories, I would like to suggest that we think of trickster artists as artus-workers joint-workers. Not that they are much involved with making the firm and well-set joints that lead to classical harmony, of course. What tricksters like is the flexible or movable joint. If a joint comes apart, or if it moves from one place to another, or if it simply loosens up where it had begun to stick and stiffen, some trickster has probably been involved. In several different ways, tricksters are joint-disturbers. (255-56).”
Called and baptized in the Holy Spirit, preachers and people of the faith are called to be holy joint-disturbers.
I’ve often repeated what my friend and former professor Donald Luck said about women’s ordination: Lutheran women were not ordained in the early 70’s because a bunch of stuffy old white male theologians swilled some brandy and reconsidered centuries of female subjugation and theological disenfranchisement in the name of God.
The Church ordained women because it could no longer ignore the clamor of women burning bras in the streets, fists in the air chanting ERA YES (and about that…), and leaving oppressive situations to find respect and affirmation of their worth.
The Church didn’t begin to reconsider homosexuality because there was nothing better for this same cohort to do on any given day.
The Church reconsidered homosexuality because of the AIDS crisis and the rising solidarity with those outside and inside the Church who decried the spiritual abuse of theology’s long-standing stance condemning those who were not straight, and again doing so in the name of God.
The Church didn’t begin to pay regular and bold attention to the climate crisis, despite a scriptural impulse to do so, because of an internal re-awakening about the stewardship of creation.
The Church began to preach and teach about loving God by loving God’s creatures, by living more simply, by advocating against policies and politics which care more about capitalism than creation, because of the likes of a small girl named Greta Thunberg.
The point is, the Trickster Spirit got fed up with the Church, and blew outside instead, the holy wind eventually whipping right back on into the Church.
Now, in these days, we are seeing the Church stumbling and crumbling.
Many are afraid.
And many respond by wanting to go back to the way we’ve always done things, or lamenting the loss of the familiar patterns and rhythms of the Church, and doing their best to bind the trickster (we see this in the world too, by the way: just take a gander at gerrymandering efforts).
These actions, by the way, only attract the attention of the Trickster all the more, ensuring that only more chaos and destruction will ensue.
So what would happen if we instead began to see these signs as indications that the Holy Trickster is afoot, and thanks be to God for that?
What would happen if we perceived that a kairos moment were upon us?
What would happen if we saw not malevolence but holy mischief?
What would happen if we who are called to be the ar-ticulators of the faith—which, in many and various ways, we are all—began to articulate the good news opportunities that can not happen without some pot-stirring, some loosening of frozen joints, some new warps and woofs to our fabric?
What would happen if we, beginning even tomorrow on Pentecost, the High Feast Day of the Holy Trickster, began a pattern of not binding the Trickster, but setting Her free, and finding freedom in Her?
Perhaps we would be entrusting ourselves not just to the wiles and the ways of the mischievous Holy Spirit, but therefore and thereby to the resurrection truth that out of death comes life, no matter what.
And there is no greater trick in the book than that.