Art (General)

Home Calling

04321631-2B2E-4ADB-B030-540785DAD1DC“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” (Heb.‬ ‭11:13-14‬)

Writing about the young adulthood of Georgia-born Leighton Wilson, early 19th century missionary to West Africa, Erskine Clarke draws attention to the impact of place on personality. “At some deep level of affection and self-understanding, he began to identify with this spot of ground, this particular place along the Black River,” says Clarke.

For Wilson it was in large part the natural world--pine forests, cypress swamps, and cotton fields--yet mixed in with the natural environment were more cultivated influences. “Leighton’s memory and therefore his sense of self became intertwined with this specific place as the place insinuated itself into his most elemental senses: the sound of the night wind in the pines outside his window, the fragrance of new-plowed ground in the spring, the feel of matted pine straw under his feet, the taste of food prepared in a plantation kitchen, the sight of winter smoke rising from home fires, and the light of a winter sun on the forest floor.”

That was the Georgia low country in the 1820s, not suburbia in the 1960s, and yet even the homogenized neighborhood of the 1960s and early 1970s that served as my childhood home had its on particular sights and sounds: the low voices of my parents around the kitchen table drinking coffee and reviewing the day, the lights of passing cars on my bedroom walls, the cicadas trill as the day ebbs, the smell of newly cut grass, the wind in my hair as I rode my red bike to the neighborhood pool.

A few months ago, I went back there. Not content to just drive through, I parked in gravel lot near the overgrown site of what was formerly the neighborhood pool and walked. In some ways it felt that a miniature of what I remembered and I too big to fit the diorama. And as I later told my sister, who asked why I went there, it was underwhelming: I couldn’t quite recapture that sense of what it had been like to have grown up there.

Yet I tried.

Leaving the car, I walked down a grassy knoll to the creek. The footbridge remained, as did the sidewalk to the pool removed many years ago, its location now overgrown by a mature wood lot. The concrete steps to the showers remained. I took them. Green tentacles of ivy snaked across them, concrete edges of the steps had crumbled in places, and edges blurred where dirt had washed over them and rooted grasses--and yet, inexplicably, they remained, going nowhere, landing in a forested glen.

I had a red bicycle I rode the five blocks between my house and the pool, sometimes bumping over the swishing grass of the park, sometimes speeding down the road, helmetless, wind whistling in my ears, crying out to my friend to wait, to wait up.

I removed my sunglasses. I wanted to see it as a boy of eight, bare chested, a shine on my face born of the wonder of the moment. I walked up the stairs and, turning, stood for a moment, closed my eyes and heard the sounds of children yelling and water splashing, smelled the chlorine, heard the sound of showers and chatter in the bathhouse, remembered climbing the fence after midnight one night and taking a swim with a friend.

Turning to leave, I walked through a mowed field that used to be tennis courts, crossed the road, and stared down into what had been a cleared area next to a creek full of minnows and tadpoles, and recalled the echoes of our calls in the bridge tunnels we traversed, like spelunkers. Now overgrown, the pale outline of a trail remained, and yet it was inaccessible. I stared down into a wooded area where my friend and I once built a fort from wood salvaged from a nearby construction site, fully intending to stay overnight. We didn’t.

I followed the road a hundred feet or so to a four-lane parkway that ran behind my childhood home. Stopping behind my house, I looked up at the windows. Gray painted siding was peeling. An old car was parked in the driveway, hoisted on blocks. Patchy and weedy grass licked the brick foundation. My eyes moved across the shuttered windows, following my path from bedroom to bedroom as I moved, as my siblings married and moved on and we were promoted to the next (and better) room, finally resting in the ground floor room with easy access to a door and adventure.

There to the left of the house, on that hill, was where I learned to ride my red bike. After some coaxing, my aunt placed me on it and pushed me down the hill, careening toward the four lane. I crossed our driveway, fell off in my neighbor’s backyard.

Turning the corner of the block, I circled around and stood in front of the walk leading up to my front door. There’s the window over the kitchen sink where my mother prepared our breakfast and dinner every day, day in and day out. As a child I pulled out a bottom drawer and climbed onto the counter to watch her peel and cut potatoes and carrots, snap green beans, mix lard and flour and roll out dough to make biscuits and laid their hand-rounded shapes on a greased sheet to bake.

There’s the double window in the dining room, the table where I wrestled with my homework, where my mother, already tired from her day, endeavored to assist me. On the wall was a picture of an old man praying, head bowed, hands clasped, candle burning, a piece of bread and chalice on the table before him.

Those steps were where I sat and tried without success to rethread the chain on my bicycle. Tears fell, inexplicably, as if riding again with my friends was the most important thing in my life. Seeing me there an older kid in the neighborhood, a bully who had never said a kind word to me, stopped. He fixed my bike and told me it was OK.

Clarke said of Leighton Wilson that his “experience of distant places would always be filtered through these early memories, and his voice, however tempered by other places, always carried the sounds and intonations of a Black River home.”

When my mother wanted to call me in for dinner in those years, she’d lean out the side door of the house, the one off the kitchen, and yell my name at the top of her lungs. I’d hear it no matter how many backyards away I happened to be. And I’d come.

Attending to Wonder: The Photography of Robert Adams

Ex_adams"If we come across innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?" 

(Robert Adams, Photographer)

It is always a pleasure to discover an artist --- in this case a photographer --- who enjoys finding what is true, beautiful, and good in the world, who overcomes cynicism to shine light on simply what is there for all to see.  Robert Adams does that without sentimentality, well aware of what is problematic in the world and yet hopeful.  Not many of us can make it to the exhibition of his work at Yale University, and yet we can still peruse the gallery online, each series prefaced by a text profound in its simplicity, each a provocation to wonder.

I found the most arresting of these photos those of mothers and children in a suburban mall parking lot, circa 1980, entitled Our Parents, Our Children.  Childrens' faces have a way of disarming our disinterested gaze, the face we often put on in regard to life.  If you let your eyes settle on a child's face, you begin to melt a little inside, see a soul of wonder.  Against a barren, paved backdrop, next to a pitiful tree in a planter, a mother holds her baby close, communicating love and concern and hope in a sterile landscape. One father (or, perhaps, grandfather) stands his baby girl on the hood of the car and appears to be letting her jump into his arms.  Sometimes Adams takes the shot from the child's perspective, and we see how large the world is from a place only three feet off the ground, how brave children must be to walk about in a world of giants and often insurmountable obstacles.

Adams is best when he asks questions, and in the text accompanying this series he asks:  "Are there affirmable days or places in our deteriorating world? Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?" Of course, we would say.  Christians of all people have reason to say this, as they see the operation of common grace in the world.  And yet it's easy to miss it.

It's true that the photographs, whether landscapes natural or man-altered, often record what Adams recognizes as "a separation form ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love," an unstated testimony to the dissonannce of The Fall.  The late Francis Schaeffer in an article that serendiptitously appeared about the same time many of these photographs were taken, put a theological name on the point made by Adams, that The Fall's ripple effects were separations --- first between man and God, then between man and woman, and then between man and nature and between man and himself.  Adams makes the point and yet points beyond to faith, hope, and love, even if he does not name the source of that trilogy.

Robert Adams is saddend no doubt by the lost of first-growth forest to clear-cutting and loss of lives to war, and no doubt much more, and yet neither his photos nor the associated texts rail against The Man or bitterly prophesy of impending doom, as might a man in his twilight years.  He doesn't dwell on our loss but reminds us of what we are gifted, of that for which we can be thankful.  His photos are a reminder to me that there is beauty all around --- in a patch of suburban lawn, a mall parking lot, an urban allyway, and even the empty buildings of a decaying urban center.  To a great extent it is what you choose to see or how you choose to see.  But not only that:  we also have the promise that Christ is at work reconciling all of creation to himself, with the hope that all of it will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

Adams leaves us with this profound last statement, one that still resonates with me.  He said that

Stanley Elkin suggested that “all books are the Book of Job,” and in general he was right. Certainly many writers and picture makers want to repeat in a fresh way what the voice out of the whirlwind said, that we are not the creator, and that rather than ask an explanation we ought to attend an inventory of wonders—the Pleiades, the morning star, the sun, the rain, the grass, the raven, the whale. Common to each is beauty. And so a promise. 

And so, when I am outwalking, whether in a suburban neighborhood or an alley in New York, I know my task: to attend to what is in front of me, to remember who I am, to see in dust the promise of life. If you want to better see, I commend the photography of Robert Adams to you.

(The photo above is from the gallery of photographs of Robert Adams exhibited at Yale.  This one, from Colorado Springs, 1968, suggests the impersonal tract housing that multiplied in the post-war boom.  A lone figure, no doubt a housewife, seems to be looking out the window, and you want to suggest what she might be thinking: Is it the dispair of "is this all there is" or the the joy of watching children play in the backyard? Or is it both?)



Pornography (The Play, That Is)

When the play was over, there was  a brief moment of applause, and then everyone pretty much filed out of the theater.  There was no chatter, laughter, or excited conversation, no waiting around to meet the actors.  Like most, I just wanted out.  In the end, Pornography, British playwright Simon Stephen's fractured series of vignettes on London life in the wake of the 2007 London Underground bombings, was simply depressing.

In seven unconnected vignettes, Stephen's explores the lives of several individuals in the run up to and aftermath of the bombings.  All smack of the profane, of things repulsive, though not always in a sexual sense.  There's the bomber himself, driven by hate.  There's a lonely old woman, laughed at by a group of kids.  We see an alienated teenager, estranged from parents who hate each other, himself spurned by the girl he idolizes.  There's a teacher who makes sexual advances toward a former student.  There's an incestuous relationship between brother and sister. Few are the moments of laughter. Little if anything endears the characters to us, all of whom seem self-absorbed, narcissistic, and eaten up by their own passions.  The point?  Apparently, that life is obscene, pornographic if you will, that there is no hope and no meaning.

As if to drive home the point, two phrases recur throughout the play.  The first is "images of hell, they are silent," which seems to suggest the meaninglessness of the personal hells we all experience.  The second is one uttered by many of the actors, that is, "are you crying, or are you laughing?," as if to say it really doesn't matter whether you laugh or cry.  At the end, the number of the dead drones on, each character summarizing who they are, what they do, and yet, they are just a number, lost among the masses, again as if to say that it really doesn't matter who they were or what they did, that all is meaningless.  The few props are several black boxes that the characters move about in inexplicable ways, a testimony to meaninglessness, as if all we can do is move the pieces of life around and yet in the end it doesn't matter.  

Pornography is, ultimately, a visible embodiment of nihilism, the philosophy that says life is meaningless. What does it mean?  It means nothing.  We are nothing. Life is nothing, death is nothing, our wants and desires are nothing.

And yet there is hope conveyed, though I suspect Stephens did not have it in mind.  If he believes life is meaningless, why did he feel compelled to communicate something that no doubt he saw as having meaning?  Would it not have been more honest to have simply said nothing?  That he attempts to say something meaningful, that he hopes to have an impact on the viewer, tells me that he longs for meaning.  And that is hopeful, because it reminds me that the longing for meaning did not just spring into existence ex nihilio but is part of the way we are fashioned: we long for meaning because there is meaning to be found.

I don't need to see another play, hear more music, or view more art that expresses nihilism.  There's enough of that in the world.  There's enough entertainment to distract us momentarily, to take our mind off the fact that we don't know what matters.  And yet perhaps a play like Pornography will lead someone to ask why, to wonder where that need for meaning came from, and lead some to embrace the One who makes everything matter.  That gives me hope for playwright and audience, for all who filed out of the theater into the darkness of night.

The New Tribalism?

7531300213 “If you follow marketing trends, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about “tribes” lately. It’s the idea that our culture is a collection of groups with a shared identity, mission or leader. Seems obvious enough. We’ve all seen Braveheart and have a pretty good idea of what a tribe is. But what does it mean for an artist in the 21st century? I think it provides one model for how an artist can have the freedom to create their art and make a living doing it.”  (Joe, at Noisetrade 101)

I don’t intend to pick on Noisetrade, or Joe, or anyone else who is the business of trying to support themselves as artists.  I’m well familiar with niche marketing, or even tribe marketing.  Find your tribe.  Sell to it.  Develop a loyal following.  Most artists will do well to follow this as a model for trying to get gigs and sell music.  But let’s face it --- as a model for the good society, for a culture built around shared values, it’s detrimental.  To the extent it builds a following, it does so around consumption, around music, and around a person.  That model would seem to contribute to the further balkanization of society, because tribes built around something as innocuous as music (in terms of bringing about societal collapse) may also begin to look alike, think alike, and choose to associate with other tribe members.  It’s one step from that to dissing other tribe members and then, at some point, really losing the ability to appreciate and converse with one another.  This is not healthy!

Music should be a bridge across “tribes,” something that brings people of different political and social views, of different lifestyles and looks, and of different racial and social classes together.  Finding something in common, if only in music, can lead to conversation, and conversation can lead to understanding, and understanding might just lead to some consensus about what is true, good, and beautiful, about what a good society ought to look like.  Sometimes I get the sense that no one is much interested in that anymore.  It’s more about who looks like me, thinks like me, and (well) buys like me.

In the end, it’s not my tribe that matters.   The Apostle Paul said that we are not to seek our own good, but the good of our neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24), and the admonition to do good extends to everyone, not just our immediate neighbor, not just our tribe (Gal. 6:10).  Rather than reach our tribe with music, why not reach out to a larger group?  Some artists do this quite effectively.  For example, I went to a Josh Groban concert with my wife.  I saw the requisite swooning women, of course, but I also saw men and women of every age group --- all attracted by his artistry and a music that really transcended the boundaries of language, religion, age, race, and preference.  I don’t prefer him, but I came away with a great appreciation of his music and his artistry, and his ability to reach across tribes.  Frankly, that should be not just the goal of the artist but of us all.

The Other Side of Beauty

glassess "Christian philosophers have been singularly alive to the sadness which beauty may provoke.  'When we admire the beauty of visible objects, we experience joy certainly,' observed the medieval thinker Hugh of St. Victor, 'but at the same time, we experience a feeling of tremendous void' . . . . Beauty, then is a fragment of the divine, and the sight of it saddens us by evoking our sense of loss and our yearning for the life denied us."  (Alain de Botton, in The Architecture of Happiness)

It's 11:38 p.m.  You just finished paying the last bills, put away the dishes from dinner, put in a load of laundry, folded what seemed a hundredfold small articles of clothing, fed the animals, and put the toys back in the toy chest (even the Matchbox cars pushed under the sofa).  You hoist a brimming laundry basket and, dimming the last light, wearily turn and head up the stairs.  At the top of the stairs you set the laundry basket down, thinking you will look in on your son and daughter where they sleep.  You stand at the side of their bed and watch their deep breathing, the sweetness of a face at peace, see the perspiration on their face as the surplus energy of a full day of play oozes out.  A feeling of joy wells up in you, unbidden, the kind that swallows up all your deep weariness.  And then you sense something else underneath the joy, something you recognize as a profound sadness, and you turn to leave, an unspoken prayer caught in your throat.

It's late June, and you just walked the over 300 steps to the top of Bridal Vail Falls in the Yosemite Valley.  You recognize the reality from John Muir's detailed descriptions or Ansel Adam's black and white photos.  You're out of breath from the ascent, but the view from up top is rewarding.  The water in the fall is full, thundering over the edge of the cliff, filling the air with mist, a dramatic evidence of purposeful and not accidental creation. It is enough to provoke a prayer of praise, heartfelt and, yet, woven into the prayer, a longing for more and an inarticulatable sense of loss.

Saturday evening there is a party in your home.  Good friends gather around a fire, laughing, enjoying memories.  You're talking about your children, when they were young, laughing at some funny comment, remembering some shared event.  Laughter almost brings tears.  You sip a cup of your favorite English tea, the mug warming your hands.  Looking at the familiar faces around you, you exhale a great thankfulness, happy for this moment together.  Then, a certain wistfulness begins to impinge, stealing some of the intensity of that sense of wholeness.  You know the time together will end.

tresspass On the other side of whatever beauty we experience --- whether family, nature, or friendship --- lies a sense that it is incomplete, temporal, and sure to be dashed by some event, word, or deed.  When we know beauty, it's as if we stare into Eden, for a moment, our soul flooded by a sense of what it is like, and yet close behind comes the realization, common but displaced by temporary amnesia, that the way back to Eden is barred, "cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life" (Gen. 3:24).  A neon sign flashes "NO RETURN."  An ominous guard, feet squarely planted, arms crossed, bars our path.  Trespass is not allowed.

In his commentary, Matthew Henry says that this image was, for Adam and for us, a reminder of God's displeasure, of his judgment, that the way of deliverance and of wholeness is not back to Eden but on to a new heavens and earth, promised through the seed of the woman.  Viewed this way, what we sense when we peer into a moment of sublime beauty is both the judgment of the Fall --- that temporal and incomplete feeling of joy, thankfulness, and peace we have in an experience of beauty --- as well as the hope and expectation of something more --- a recreated, perfect heavens and earth.  God gives us a vivid visual reminder that the way back to Eden is foreclosed as a prompt to set our hearts on what He promises --- an experience of beauty and wholeness that will never end and which is not undercut by sadness or longing.  The beauty we now experience, whatever its manifestation, is, as C.S. Lewis once said, "not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news of a country we have never yet visited."  This beauty "must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy."

Many people stop at beauty.  Don't.  Look through it both to see the way to Eden foreclosed and, yet, the promise of true Beauty yet to come.  "No longer will there be any curse" (Rev. 22:3). In this Great Reversal, we'll be bidden to take and eat of the tree of life.  And we will.

Monet in Normandy: A Reaction

W1788waterlilies I confess that I am yet unable to appreciate great paintings in the same way I can already appreciate literature or music.  All art requires one to stay with the work for a time, to let it seep in, to better appreciate its subtleties.  I find that more difficult with paintings -- primarily, I think, because works of fiction, certainly poetry, and by definition music all are rooted in sound, and perhaps it is the case that while we all see and hear, some of us are affected more easily by the seeing and others of us by the hearing. I must be the latter.

This morning I went to visit the traveling Monet in Normandy exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  It gathers around 50 of his paintings from public and private collections all over the world, including the famous ones of the water lilies, the haystacks and wheat fields, and the Rouen Cathedral.  It was interesting to note the progression from a realist style (more like photography) to his trademark impressionist style (which was reagrded as "bad" art by his critics).  The colors are rich, and there's little if any dark themes in his work.  No wonder we are drawn to these paintings; so much modern art is rooted in a nihilistic framework, with dark themes of despair and alienation common.  Or the works are mere canvasses for propaganda -- meant to shock us into change of mind on some social or political issue.  Monet appears to have had none of that.  Part of it was no doubt his largely serene and stable lifestyle; another part might be explained by his preoccupation with the beauty of Creation.  Looking at all these paintings, it's not difficult to say "beautiful" about them, and it's unlikely that hanging any of these in a public art space would cause an outcry.

Wisteria_1 I like them all, from the early seascapes to the later gardens -- but those water lilies, and the wisteria, husge canvasses bursting with brights hues?  Like countless others, I could look at them a long, long time, and with enough time and enough silence (none of that today!), I may even find the sound of those paintings.  I might just hear their music.

[Monet in Normandy will be at the North Museum of Art through January 14, 2007.  Admission to the exhibit is ticketed, and reservations are suggested.  You can obtain more information here.]

Art With a Private Address

SingerI think I have written before of my disdain for artists who use their art as a pulpit for political activism -- as a place for propaganda, where a song, for example, becomes merely a vehicle for "making a point," for persuading someone of the moral righteousness of a position.  Good art is not morally indifferent, and good artists are not precluded form being active in social causes, but the art itself is not the place for that, at least not in this sense.  Art is much more subtle than that, and much more concerned with the human condition and the often difficult conditions we find ourselves in.

This is why I was pleased to find a more credible voice than mine saying much the same thing.  In the editorial statement by Gregory Wolfe which accompanied the latest issue of Image (#51), entitled "Keeping a Private Address," Wolfe picks up on Eudora Welty's phrase as an important corrective to the trend toward artist-activists.  What concerns him is "the growing trend that leads writers and artists to feel impelled to make their ideological commitments the defining characteristic  of their creative work."  Wolfe goes so far as to say that "the problem with the world today is not too little morality, but too much."  He calls these artists-activists the "new Puritans."  (I know what he's driving at but may differ with him as to what the Puritans were all about, as their characterization as zealous moralists really does not do justice to who they were.)

Like me, Wolfe laments the politicization of art as a cheapening of the artistic enterprise.  He cites Ann Lamott's recent book, Plan B, as an example of what happens, as Lamott's book is replete with criticism of George Bush (as are so many albums in the pop-rock market, all with their obligatory anti-Bush song).  Ann Lamott is a good writer, and the point is not that she has liberal political views.  The point is her foisting them on us in the artistic context.  I'm not reading her book for her political views.  I'm reading her stories because they are good -- full of depth, human, and not easily categorized.  He holds up Wendell Berry as a writer who has managed to hold views and yet not let them turn his work into propaganda.  I agree.

I commend this short article to you.  There is much more than I can comment on here.  I'm tired of politicized art.  It's fashionable in some quarters, but it's not good.

What Good is Good?

RykenA couple of years ago, one popular online music web site had as its moniker something like "where good music begins," or words to that effect.  I searched for a definition of good and, finding nothing, and being acquainted with the founders of the site, I asked them what they meant by "good."  An email back referred me to writer Annie Dillard, as if that would be sufficient.  Annie Dillard is, in some ways, a "good" writer, but that wasn't very helpful because they didn't tell me what about Annie Dillard was good.  To this day I still don't know what they meant by "good" but, then, the moniker is now gone and the business sold.

What good is calling something good when you can't define good?  Not much.  In his helpful essay, Art for God's Sake, Philip Ryken very helpfully points out that goodness is both an ethical and aesthetic standard.  Christian artists are not allowed to make anything immoral or that is designed to serve as an object of religious worship.  I understand this to mean that the art points beyond itself to something good, even if it does that by showing the consequences of sin.  Thus, for example, a novel may have a lot of immorality in it without being immoral, yet if immorality is glorified, that is, the particulars of the story point to a universal theme that says this lifestyle is acceptable or preferred, it is an immoral work.  Christians so often single out works that have immorality in them as off limits when we should look to see what the novel, film, or other work of art is saying about what is good (or true, or beautiful).  On the other hand, other Christians are uncritical consumers of music, books, and film without even asking questions about what they are saying about what is good.  What is called for is discernment, informed by Scripture and discerned in community with other Christians.

Ryken also says that good has an aesthetic component, and we also forget this.  Just because something is Christian in theme doesn't mean it is aesthetically good.  Good artists learn their craft.  They master the particular area in which they work.  Writers, for example, master words.  I was reading one of the articles my son was reading today about theater stage lighting, and I realized that it is an art that requires careful attention to many factors that derive from the nature of the play itself as well as the technical capabilities of the lights in use.  Lighting designers are not called "designers" for nothing; it is an art.

Next time you see a movie with someone and comment that it was "good," consider what you're saying.  Consider what's good about good.  It's not the only question to ask, but it is an important one.

Four Steps for Producing Christian Art

LaughingThe late Hans Rookmaker, friend and mentor to Francis Schaeffer and many others, said a lot of insightful things.  Among them are his four steps to producing Christian art, which I just rediscovered.  Perhaps they have been said elsewhere, but I like his summary, simple and yet profound.  And yet, as I say below, perhaps they need some amendment:

  • Weep.  Look around you; see your world.  Look within you; know yourself.  Look up to God; learn his expectations.  Them let him break your heart.
  • Pray.  Never rush into publication.  Take time to pray each project into being.
  • Think.  Do not depend entirely on the tuggings at your heartstrings brought on by weeping.  Think your subject through.  Research it thoroughly.  Produce mature, intellectually sound and honest work.
  • Work.  Be prepared to do plenty of this, but never without the other three steps.

(Hans Rookmaker, in Art Needs No Justification)

I like the emphasis here on empathetic knowing, and yet not only looking and listening deeply to the world but on looking to God for insight.  In fact, I look at the weeping part (which need not, of course, be actual weeping) as part of prayer, listening to God in circumstances and events and people that surround us, seeing the world with his eyes and heart. "Jesus wept."  Shortest verse in the a New Testament, and yet so profound.  And so we weep too.

And yet left out here is that our weeping can also be tears of joy and laughter, because the world is just as profoundly comedic as it is tragic.   Occasionally it's the laugh out loud kind of comedy, but mostly the inward smile when we see grace at work -- like Sara laughing at the thought that she the wrinkled up old woman might have a son, or the very idea that Moses would be called to go to Pharaoh when speaking was the last thing he felt good at.  God shames the wise with the foolish, and so there's hope for me too.  After all, He speaks through asses.

One day, when there's no more weeping, there will still be laughing.  We'll laugh all day about grace, about the comedy that we, of all people, should find ourselves in a new heaven and new earth.  I can't believe we'll forget our past lives on the old earth, as they'll be stories to tell about who we were and who we have become, all day saying to one another "did you hear the one about so and so?  He's here.  Imagine that."  From that vantage point, it'll be funny, not sad.

Weep.  Laugh.  Pray.  Think.  Write.  And don't forget to laugh.

An Art of Hope

StrangersandaliensWith so much in the art world that is either decadent, political, or full of despair, it's refreshing to know of two abstract visual artists who actually offer a message of hope and healing in their work.  Both I have known of for some time, but both are artists for whom I continue to develop renewed appreciation.  I'm speaking of Carol Bomer and Makoto Fujimura.  Both are Christians painting out of their faith and Christian worldview.

Outsidethecamp1Born in Alberta, Canada, Carol Bomer resides in Asheville, North Carolina where she has a studio in her home.  When I've visited Carol, I'm always encouraged by the appreciation and joy she takes in her work.  She'll excitedly pull out work in progress, most of which are multi-medium, that is, they have texture in more ways than one  -- perhaps a Bible verse or other text running through the painting, a thread giving t a 3-D effect, or even pressed down pieces of newspaper or architectural drawings.  Generally there is a human element, a figure or figures, albeit often only suggested.  I love the colors, and the multi-layered effect that allows you with patience to see more and more as you sit with the painting.

Janhour71dpi_000In contrast, while Makoto Fujimura is also a Christian who is an abstract painter, that's where the similarity ends.  Fujimura, who resides in New York City, has merged the ancient Japanese art of nihonga (where mineral pigments are applied to paper) with abstract expressionism, creating beautiful paintings of shimmering color.  These are not disturbing, dark works, like so much of modern or post-modern art, but works of beauty that Julyhourcommunicate hope, healing, and grace.  In the wake of 9/11, Fujimura is attempting to demonstrate that an art that flows from grace, from a belief in a good, sovereign, transcendent God, can be used to heal downcast souls charred by circumstance.

TrinityMy wife and I bought one of Bomer's paintings, and I'd like to but one of Fujimura's painting as well.  Why?  Because they are works of beauty, and because I want to give these artists the ability to feed their families as they follow God's call.  Consider doing the same.  Celebrate the good, true, and beautiful.  And support Christians who are being artists in the world, but not of it.

Stuart Sutcliffe: The "Lost" Beatle

Dc100089Admittedly, there is some fascination with the lives of those musicians that played with The Beatles before there were THE BEATLES.  Two come to mind, of course: Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe.  Best was the pre-Ringo drummer, fired by new manager Brian Epstein when the boys Dc1000811 returned from Hamburg in 1962 -- still prior to making it big.  These days Best is touring as The Pete Best Band, playing Beatles songs and otherwise profiting from his early association with the boys.  From what I have heard, Best was a mediocre drummer, out-bested by Ringo Starr.  Dc1000836 Can you imagine what he has dealt with all these years?

On the other hand, Stuart Sutcliffe was the best friend of John Lennon, having net him in the Liverpool Art School.  Stu was primarily a visual Dc1000835 artist, of the abstract expressionist variety.  He learned to play bass, though, because the band needed a bass player.  Some say he played well; others, McCartney chief among them, said otherwise.  While in Hamburg, Stuart met and fell in love with (and ultimately married) Astrid Dc1000847 Kirchherr, an attractive blond who apparently had quite an influence on all the Beatles.  It is to Astrid we owe the many photos of the Beatles taken in those early days in Hamburg, as well as the mop-top hair, first on Sutcliffe, and then adopted by all the Beatles.

Dc1000842Stu Sutcliffe left the Beatles of his on accord, wanting to devote himself to painting and to Astrid.  Sadly, he suffered a brain aneurysm or other disorder (it was unclear) in April 1962 and died in Astrid's arms.  Prior to that time he had suffered a great deal from severe headaches, Dc1000832 insomnia, nausea -- all making it difficult to work and live.

All of this was brought home to me in a 60-minute documentary on Sutcliffe I watched recently, entitled The Lost Beatle.  I had never seen Dc1000821 his art, but it was displayed on the video quite efectively.  I found it arresting, and yet definitely an expression of a man in torment.  Stu himself also had quite a look -- a sort of Liverpool James Dean.  There were extensive conversations with Paula Sutcliffe, Stu's sister, and Dc1000845_1 Astrid, now of course in her 60s!  Along with excerpts of letters from Stu, it was an effective chronicle of a tragic life.  Oddest of all was Paula Sutcliffe's belief that Stu's death was caused by an injury she said was received when Lennon hit Stu upside the head.  Unproven, of course.  It's a sad commentary on a life -- cut short, with no hope of salvation -- and yet it's not an uncommon one.

"Stealing" the Soul

Lady_1Many of the Masai tribal people in East Africa believe that to take their picture "steals" their soul.  In a sense, taking a photograph of someone does take some part of them -- a moment of time, a privacy they once had, some essence of who they are or who they were.  Perhaps that is why you should ask permission to take someone's picture -- it's theirs to give not ours to take.

I thought of this yesterday as I read the article on the photography of Margaret Morley in the News and Observer ("Genuine Mountain Made").  Morley traversed the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee around the turn of the century documenting mountain folk and their way of life.  The photos were acquired by the State of North Carolina and are now featured in an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History.  I plan to see it.

Just the few photos I looked at online were compelling.  These were real people who allowed Margaret Morley, an outsider, to come into their lives.  Why did they do it?  I don't know without knowing more about Morley, but she must have gained their trust and friendship.  The one I include here, particularly in a larger size, can almost make you feel that you could be there, smelling the fire, the old wood, hearing the creak of the rocker, passing time by reflecting on the day.  That's a good photo, one that comes alive through study.

In an image-laden culture, where we are besieged by digital photos (both our own and others), we really cannot imagine the wonder of a photo.  Until the 1840s, there were no photos of people.  Can we really imagine what it would have been like to have a photograph made of a family member, perhaps a distant relative, and know that that was exactly what they looked like and be able to look at them any time we liked?  I doubt it.  Imagine if we had a photograph of Jesus?  What would that be like?  Consider the Jewish people:  They had a long tradition of oral history and could hear of the patriarchs and prophets, the Exodus, the Babylonian Captivity, the rebuilding of the temple -- but they had no photos.  Even before the phographic process was discovered, there was a fascination with the camera obscura, with dark rooms built just so people could witness the magic of the inverted "picture made when light was passed through a small hole.

That we have such images is certainly both provocative and evocative, and I suppose it is good, but I also imagine it has a down side as does any technology.  Does it heighten our experience of what is being photographed or diminish it?  I don't know.  I do know that with a photo I have one image; with a vivid description in words, I have my own image or images, the product of my imagination.  Is either better?

I do plan to see this exhibit -- reverently.  It's people's souls, after all.

Much Ado About Something

Key3_thumbOn my recent excursion to Europe, after three mostly inane movies (the worst of which was RV), and after I had read all of the book I was reading that I could take, I read a short article in ByFaith, an excellent publication of the Presbyterian Church in America, called "Much Ado About Nothing: Bringing the Theater Back to Life."  In it, Nat Belz interviews Atlanta-based playwright and actor Tom Key, who is  renowned for his performance of C.S. Lewis On Stage -- a show performed in churches as well as at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Oxford University.  You can read an analysis of what he does here, but I'm more interested in some of the things he said in the interview.

"I understand using Christian as an adjective.  But when it's used in terms of the arts as an adjective, it usually is really referring to plays or movies or paintings that are about subjects in Scripture. . . . Even though it might be [Christian], it doesn't necessarily mean it's art. . . . It's like getting on an airplane and the pilot tells me he's a Christian, I'm glad to know that, but I really want to make sure he can fly the plane."

Key is right.  Labeling an artist or her art as Christian or non-Christian is not helpful.  The body of work of an artist should be examined as a whole to discern if it is true and, then, if it is true enough, that is faithful to our understanding of reality with its major theme (grace) and minor theme (sin).  Consider another quote by Key:

"My only limit [in what elements I include in a play] is telling the truth.  I have turned things down in my career because I thought they didn't tell the truth.  They were either sentimental. . . or I thought that they were presenting reality as we would wish it to be, but like it's not.  Or, it was nihilistic, the world without grace.

His thoughts remind me of a small book by the late Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, which is still, I believe, the best and more succinct expression of how Christians should view art.  Schaeffer said that "a Christian artist does not need to concentrate on religious subjects," any more than God's Creation focuses on religious subjects.  He said that "Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person who is a Christian."

Read the article in ByFaith.  It's the key (no pun intended) to a real Christian view of art.  I'm feeling better all the time about watching Stargate SG-1.

A Beautiful Mess: Cornerstone 93 (Part 2)

Austin[I continue here from yesterday with the second "letter" I wrote home detailing my experiences of my first Cornerstone Music Festival.  I learned something there, some things that I was to explore more fully in the coming years.]

Dear ___,

If my first letter seemed to leave off on a disillusioned note about Cornerstone, you're right.  Attribute it to a bit of culture shock.  But I've discovered that the problem is not these unusual Christian folk.  It's me.

You see, when I came to Cornerstone I thought I basically knew the parameters for what Christians could look like, what kind of music they listen to, what they could paint, how they should worship, and even what kind of fun they could have.  I even congratulated myself for being broad minded about it.  What I discovered is that I harbor my own prejudices, that I judge others by their outward appearance, and that I don't offer them sufficient time or extend enough grace toward them to allow them to show me what they're like on the inside before I make a hasty judgment.

Roe2Here I've discovered that there are people who, while they don't look like those in our church or neighborhood, love Jesus and are committed to the defense of the Gospel.  These are theological conservatives encased in the bodies of hippies, rapper, motorcycle enthusiasts, skateboarders, head-bangers (heavy metal listeners) and punk rockers.  And I can't criticize them for the way they look or the fact that they all seem to have the same basic look.  Have you looked around our church lately?  In outward appearance we are a microcosm of our yuppie community.  They look like the people they hang with.  Don't we?  You simply can't judge people by their appearance.

TomAnd what have I learned?  To begin with, here there are Christians who are committed to art, who are writing and teaching, publishing newsletters, and having Bible studies about art and the Bible.  They're keeping alive such little-read and often out-of-print classics on art such as Art and the Bible, by Francis Schaeffer, and Modern Art and the Death of Culture, by Hans Rookmaker.  Believe it or not, I read extensive quotes from these classic works in a Christian punk-rock newsletter called Thieves and Prostitutes (taken from Matthew 21:31 and not a candidate for our church newsletter's name).  These books are barely read at all in evangelical circles today and can't be found in many Christian bookstores whose shelves sag under the weight of self-help, recovery literature, and poorly written fiction.  And trinkets.  Trash.  It appears that for some of my inspiration to continue thinking about art I'll have to continue my new relationship with the C-Stone folks.  You see, I've grown to love and appreciate these budding artists, these brothers and sisters in Christ.

Leave the light on.  I'll be home soon. . . with some of my new friends in tow (at least in memory anyway).  I'm glad that they've helped me learn to practice what I've always given intellectual assent to: that God is no respecter of the outward appearance of persons or of any particular style of music or art.  He wants us to go on -- to know the person, to know the artist, to know the art for what it is, and to know the Artist Himself behind all this great diversity.

Cornerstone 93: A Beautiful Mess (Part 1)

Beki[This being the 4th of July, I am reminded of the six to seven Fourths that I spent at the Cornerstone Christian Music Festival, first as a mere observer, then as a record label person, and then as the sponsor and organizer of the Acoustic Stage (all of which you can read about and see pictures of here).  It's cool, it's hip. . . and it's one big sweaty, dirty stinking mess too!  When I first went with a friend back in 1993,we camped, and it rained, and rained, and rained.  Never again did I camp.  As a way of summarizing the experience, I wrote a couple of fictional "letters" home to my wife -- true in what they say, not true in that I did not really write them but used it as a rhetorical device.  Funny for me to read them now, but they do give you a sense of what it was like.  It hasn't changed much! By the way, experience a bit of Cornerstone yourself by buying a 274l copy of Silent Planet's 2001 release Live From Acoustic Stage here.]

July 2, 1993

Dear ___,

Well, we're here. . . the 10th Annual Cornerstone Christian Arts Festival.  Craig and I arrived yesterday at this cornfield near the metropolis of Bushnell, Illinois (population 700), looking forward to developing an appreciation for art from a Christian perspective.  Our neighbors at our campsite are long-haired Concordia Seminary students as well as a busload of assorted Chicago inner-city urbanites from the Jesus People, USA community, the sponsor of this "alternative" Christian arts gala.  We were "pleased" to discover that our immediate neighbors (one tent over) were devotees of Christian heavy metal.  It plays all day, so there is a continuous soundtrack for Craig has dubbed "Craig and Steve's Grand Adventure" or what I call our "Cultural Odyssey."  Either way, this isn't like home.

We arrived on a beautiful sunny day and set up tent in a large grassy area near two of the large concert tents.  However, it rained all night and with morning, it was mud.  We've been sloshing around ever since.  Some people take delight in tackling newcomers and rolling them in the mud.  We keep a wide berth of such folk.  In our khaki shorts, polo shirts, and topsiders, we stand out a bit as aliens to this culture.

A bit about the attire and habits of these folk.  The basic outfit I've heard described as grunge -- basically, old and dirty.  Hey, tie dye is still big though!  The hair: mohawks, long hair, no hair, purple hair, green hair, spikes.  Communication occurs on t-shirts.  Everyone has something on a shirt to testify that they belong to Jesus, just like we have a fish symbol on the car.  They listen to music by bands called Veil, Circle of Dust, Ragman, Prayer Chain, Farewell to Juliet, Vector, Deitophobia, and Grace and Glory (like that one).  Oops, I forgot to mention Fear Not, and how could I forget them?  This metal band took the mainstage at 1:00 a.m. last night and played a great set that wrapped up about 2:30 a.m.  I know, because I heard it clearly, a half mile away, in my tent, on my back, wide awake. . . while Craig slept through it.

They have a refreshing new vocabulary here: words like theoagressive, hypospasmatic, deitofrenetic, clangorous, bellicostic -- all used to describe the music (don't bother to reach for the dictionary).  And there's widespread use of word I do  know like "hip" and "cool."  I've mastered these two words and found that the language barrier can be scaled if you simply make liberal use of them, like "Hey man, that's a really hip band, really cool guitar licks, really hip testimony too."  Yep, Cornerstone has got to be the coolest, hippest Christian festival of the Summer.  Yet I can't quite get used to how these folks dress and appreciate all the music they listen to.  How can this be good "art?"

Broken[How can this be good art?  Cornerstone 93 led to a lot of good thinking about that question.  Tomorrow: more on Cornerstone 93 and what they have right about art.  Stay tuned.]

Going Home to Wonder

     Clip_image002_8 “I like the way the ocean waves at the sun/ all glittering in its glory.”   It was my six-year old son’s first spontaneous poetic outburst, said with utter sincerity and marked by absolute wonder.  Doubtless no one will find it quite so captivating as me --- and yet, it made me ask some questions: when do we lose our wonder?, and how do we get it back?

     At six, my son was fascinated by the salmon.  We knew that it was born in a freshwater stream, in adolescence follows the stream hundreds, maybe thousands of miles into the saltwater ocean where it spends most of its adult life, and then, for some reason no one knows, travels back upstream, to the place it was born, to spawn and then die.  I knew more then about the salmon than I’ll probably ever know.  Yet the real wonder of it is that I had never wondered about the salmon before my son enthusiastically introduced me to it.  Why is that?  Why do I lack such basic curiosity?

     Niko Kazantzakias had this to say: “Everything in this world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics.  When you see them you do not understand them.  You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars.  It is only years later that you understand.”  Years later?  Perhaps it is the case that it’s actually years earlier that we really understand.  Maybe when we were children we were closer to the hidden meaning of it all. 

     I once followed my then three-year old son around for part of a day.  I listened to his conversation, trying to discern how he perceived the things around him.  In many ways, his capacity for wonder and imagination were beyond me. I literally found it difficult to think like him. Nothing was ordinary.  Nothing.  His bed became, in the course of only a two-hour rest time, an airplane, a bulldozer, a spaceship, a (magic) school bus, and a train.  When I came to wake him (ha!), I found him stuffed into his pillow, pretending to be a mermaid (well, mer-man I assume).  He spoke with people who appeared not be there, assumed a reality that I could not see, and asked reams of unanswerable questions.  I know, I know.  I’m saying nothing parents don’t already know, am I?

     Oh, to be six again!  Six, when Summer lasts all year, really.  Childhood now is not like the countless afternoons and Summers I experienced kicking around my backyard at six --- exploring the woods, turning over logs, catching tadpoles and minnows in the creek, mapping sewer drainage pipes which in our imaginations would take us everywhere surreptitiously (if only we had the courage).  A day was a long, long adventure, from the time the screen door slammed behind me as I raced to my friend’s house after breakfast to the announcement of dinner by my mother’s supper-yell of my name from the same door. No, this is not the Summer of life, where commerce continues unabated, around the clock, schools go year-round, and the every day and season seems about as busy as any other time of the year.  I’ve lost something, and I’m wistful for it.   

       At six, I knew so little and yet had so much.  So much love of life, of questions, of whatever came my way.  At six we are like the middle-aged Leo Bebb in Frederick Buechner’s Book of Bebb, “believing in everything, everything.”  At now, in middle age, I know a lot more (at least relatively speaking), and yet I have lost so much.  So much time to look, to listen, to wonder at it all.

     How do we recover our wonder?  Sometimes poetry reminds me of what it is to wonder, sometimes fiction, always good writing --- because when I read it I know that someone has stopped long enough to wonder.

     We simply need to slow down and stay longer in one place.  We need to stare hard at the ordinary until it gives up its hidden meaning.  We need to ask questions we cannot answer and answer questions we do not know.  We need to hang tenaciously to the belief that everything means something if we are only patient enough to await its revealing.  As Martin Luther said so long ago: “If you could understand a single grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.”  I can hear the birds outside my window, feel the wind in the pines, smell the rain coming. At least that's a start at wonder.

     I'm remembering my son, at six, who loved salmon.  He's long left the salmon behind, but he'll return, I hope.  I’m with the salmon. I’m heading upstream.  I’m going home to wonder.  I don’t know why.  It just seems like the right thing to do.  Maybe it’s what we’re wired for.

Looking Back on ProCreation

Procreation_edit2 One of the pleasures I had over the last several years was to launch a poetry and short story journal with two friends .  We were quite presumptuous, thinking we could do so, but we learned a lot in the process about what is good and what is not so good in poetry and story.  Though no longer published, it was a great experience, one I remember fondly.

The idea behind ProCreation: A Journal of Truthtelling in Poetry and Prose, was to select and publish poems and stories that contained truth -- not just experiential truth (which is subjective), but universal truth (which is objective).  We approached it from a Christian worldview but recognized that through the operation of common grace, truth, wherever it was found and whoever expounded it, was God's truth.  We also believed, as did Francis Schaeffer, that art had both minor (because of the Fall) and major (because of Redemption) themes, so we endeavored to reflect both themes in each issue.  Looking back, we may have majored on the minor too much at times, but I think we largely got it about right.

Two groups of submitters were the most difficult to deal with: the gay community and the Christian community.  Both tended to preach too much.  As a result, their work was less artful and effective.  For gays, everything was about being gay; for Christians, all was religious.  I think I understand this, but, as Picasso once said, "Art is the lie that tells the truth," meaning indirection is a powerful tool in the hands of the artist.

Not every poem embodies both major and minor themes, and they need not.  However, the best seem to connect with us as human beings, in our difficulties and longings, and point outside of our circumstances to hope, to something or Someone transcendent, like a signpost pointing Home.

I've scanned one volume of ProCreation in, and you can access it here.  I also plan to add each issue so they can be accessed on this site (from the sidebar).  So, stay tuned!

Iron in the Blood

Rook_1 One of the truly providential experiences in my life was my discovery of the rich heritage of Dutch Calvinism, the world and life view which led to deep and rich Christian thinking in politics, art, music, journalism, economics, and education -- in fact, in all of cultural life.  Names like Abraham Kuyper, Groen van Prinsterer, and Herman Dooyeweerd were introduced to me by first and second generation Dutch-Americans involved with a Christian political organization I served on the board of in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Association for Public Justice (now, the Center for Public Justice).  The blessing of that experience was the development of a mindset that rejects a secular/sacred distinction in life and seeks a unitary vision for life, and a desire to live a principled life of faith in the world, not removed from it in a subculture of our own making.  As I said, it was providential, and unexpected, as I grew up in a rather unreformed Presbyterian Church in the South, knew no Dutch Christians (or any Dutch for that matter), and was not a particularly good choice for a board member.  God works in mysterious ways.

This all came to mind today as I read an article by Westminster Seminary Professor William Edgar in Books and Culture, entitled "'Why All This?': Rediscovering the Witness of Hans Rookmaaker."  It's a remembrance of, in Edgar's words, the "idiosyncratic Dutch art historian," a friend of Francis Schaeffer, and one also involved in the ministry of L'Abri -- that Swiss alpine Christian shelter for wandering, spiritually seeking youth in the late Sixties and which lives on even today.  I knew Rookmaaker through his 1970 book, Modern Art and the Death of Culture in which he examined the latent (and absurdist) spiritual roots of modern, mostly abstract art.  From Rookmaaker I worked my way back to his mentors -- first Kuyper, then Dooyeweerd -- finally giving up, overwhelmed by the vocabulary.  Too much for my less-rigorous mind!

But back to Rookmaaker.  Edgar summarizes his focus like this:

Arguably, the central question which characterized all of Rookmaaker's investigations was the problem of meaning.  There were meaning structures in the world, which he simply called "reality."  He believed that history has been unfolding since the creation of humanity and its purpose in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-31.  When artists try to rebel against the laws of creation, they violate its inner structure, and therefore end up in absurdity.

But Rookmaaker had hope, noting that the "ultimate direction of history is positive," and while "forces of secularization have taken over. . . . nothing rules out further progress and a new Reformation."

He was no stuffy intellectual, but had a warmth and pastoral spirit like Francis Schaeffer.  He could "navigate easily from the study to the living room, from the Bible to the art museum, from learned books to real people with spiritual gifts and needs."  How I wish I had known Rookmaaker or Schaeffer!

But, actually, in a way I did.  In their books they mentored me, in my Dutch Calvinist friends I knew them, and in the many books published by Intervarsity Press (many tied to Rookmaaker and Schaeffer and others of a Christian world and life view), I met them.  And even now in pastors who have been deeply influenced by their ideas or those of their "followers."  Yes, I know them, and I am thankful.

Asked why he loved jazz music, Rookmaaker once said "because it put iron in the blood!"  It sustained him, gave him joy, and challenged him as well.  I recommend him.  He'll put iron in your blood too.

Sacred Spaces?

Clip_image002_3 In Neil Postman's indictment of the Age of Television, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he makes some interesting comments about the church -- particularly television preachers.  He says that church is not transferable to television.  First, of course, there is the fact that church is much more than watching or listening to a preacher.  As Postman says, "Christianity is a demanding and serious religion.  When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether."  This alone is a provocative enough statement, but the more interesting one to me is his argument that we cannot invest the television screen with a sacred use, given that the screen is so saturated with our memories of profane (non-sacred) events and the reality that with one click we can change the channel and be watching MTV or football.

I thought of this statement because of a recent conversation among some in our church over whether to have a movie night in the sanctuary of our church.  To be sure, we would be doing a bit more than entertaining.  We would select the movies carefully and use them as tools to fuel a discussion of the worldview evidenced by the film as well as how to be discerning partakers of popular culture.  All well and good.  But I wonder if we risk desacralizing a sacred space?

I admit that this whole notion of sacred space has, until recently, been foreign to me.  I generally have viewed church buildings as nothing nothing more than brick and mortar multi-use space usable for congregational worship, concerts, conferences, and, but for the fact that we have immovable pews, for fellowship dinners or any other church use.  However, if I view PG-13 or R rated movies in the sanctuary, I wonder if that profane (non-sacred) use will impinge on my worship, that is, if during worship I will think of what I have seen there, a movie that may have sexuality, violence, or profanity?  If so, how will that impact my worship?  I don't know.

There is great power in images and the associations we make.  Here's an unfortunate example for you:  When I was about 14, I was attending worship in my family's church.  An older college kid I knew brought his girlfriend to church that day.  Thirty-three years later, I remember the provocative and suggestive way in which she was dressed.  Now, when I think of that church, that image inevitably flashes briefly into my mind.  Sure, some of that's inevitable, some of it my problem, but it does effect my worship there in that place.  Association is powerful.  Images are pervasive and long-enduring.

I am not sure this is a biblical concern as much as a prudential concern.  It may not be a problem for everyone.  Something tells me, however, that I don't want my place of worship to be like every other place.  I want it to be invested with a scared use, to be set apart, to be something other than a mult-use building.

Whatever is Maudlin and Sentimental -- Think About Such Things?

One of the primary uses of Philippians 4:8 is is as a justification for Christians watching or reading only what is nice, heartwarming, safe, and comfortable.  It's all a matter of what parts of the verse you emphasize, though.  The verse says this:  "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever us noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things."

Lilhous2 It's a wonderful verse, really, because it's an injunction to think about the true, the good (or right), and the beautiful (lovely) -- objective truth (the really real), moral truth (the good and the bad), and aesthetic truth (the beautiful and the ugly), saying it another way.  Now, to those who think this means we all need to confine our viewing of TV to Touched by an Angel or Little House on the Prairie reruns, or reading sanitized Christian fiction, consider what happens when you apply this interpretation to the Book God wrote.

For example, try Judges 19 and 20.  It recounts a sordid tale of a Levite and his concubine staying overnight in Gibeah, where a group of men demand that the Levite be brought out to them so they can have sex with him.  He gives them his mistress, and after they gang rape and beat her through the night, she dies.  The Levite takes her home, cuts her body into twelve pieces, and sends them to the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel as a visible and gruesome demonstration of the depth of depravity in the land.  In the horrific violence that ensues, thousands die and Gibeah is destroyed by fire.  Hey, I didn't write it! Think about such things? This might get an X rating even nowadays.  It's not for the kids, folks.

This is not an isolated passage.  The Bible is brutally honest and graphic in recounting the wickedness and evil of a people who had forgotten God.  It is also very honest in dealing with sexual matters.  For example, until I was in college, no one would talk to me about the Song of Solomon.  (Me: "Hey Mom, what's this right here mean when he says 'Your two breasts are like two fawns'?"  Mom: "WHAT are you reading?"  Me: "The Bible." Mom: "Well, read something else, why don't you?")  Think about such things.

Trioang Rather than read Philippians 4:8 as a limitation on cultural and artistic engagement, it should be read as a positive encouragement to engage the culture in a discerning way.  Part of this is confronting the reality of our fallenness.  And that's not a pretty sight, but it is a true fact that we need to think on and feel deeply in order to understand the world we live in.  Of course, we also want to explore the good and the beautiful, and it's difficult to set absolutes here, to draw lines.  For example, there is much good and beautiful in Touched By An Angel and Little House on the Prairie but (lest I commit sacrilege) there is also falsehood.  For example, growing up on the frontier was, by all accounts, much more difficult than portrayed on Little House, and the God we get in Touched is a bit too safe for the one we know from Scripture.  The point:  Paul commends discernment, not abandonment, of culture.  And there's the big issue: How are we to be discerning?  How do we exercise good judgment?

Now, be careful out there.  But get out there.

Confessions of a Neil Postman-Holic

Clip_image001 Alright, I confess.  Like others before me, I am a Neil Postman-Holic.

After reading Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (admittedly, a few years late), I gave up on and no longer watch television news.  In fact, I watch nothing that purports to be of real substance on television.  Postman said that "television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous, when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations."   He goes on to say that "no matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overriding presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure."  Thus, to the extent I watch television, I decided that I would watch it purely to be entertained.  Give me Stargate, not the CBS Evening news; Seinfeld, not 60 minutes.  But even these shows often purport to say something of importance!  What's a couch potato to do?

Postman's argument is that "a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense."  He laments the passing of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.  In the Age of Typography, most everyone read.  Reading encourages rationality, analytical thinking, reflection, and following an argument.  He gives the example of the Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates of the 19th century -- debates that were well attended and went on for six hours!  Six hours?  People can't even seem to sleep for six hours anymore much less listen to a debate for six hours. 

In his next book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman takes the argument one step further by arguing that Americans love technology so much that they are unable to refuse it.  In other words, technology is sovereign.  As Christians, we would say that it is idolatry to worship anything other than God, and yet, in our society, technology is worshiped.

Postman's words have proven prophetic.  Television and, for that matter, any new technology, is supreme.   Now, what do we do about it?  What ought we do about it?  Do we surrender?

For one, we can encourage thoughtfulness, as in reading deeply on a subject and discussing it with others.  Rather than being beholden to new technology, schools should encourage reading of great books.  Some already do.  Students surfing the web or weblogs can amass a lot of details, but the medium does not lend itself to thoughtfulness, or the sustained argument, or patience.  For example, the little bit I'm offering here is but a teaser, if that; you need to read Postman -- all of him, and then discuss his arguments with others who have read him.  Is he right?  How so?  Does his argument stand up? Rather than skimming blogs, I hope folks will actually be prompted to read.

Second, we can encourage the reading of great fiction.  The best fiction is the compelling sort of read about which, when someone asks me what's the point of the book, I have to say I'm not sure.  Why?  Because it is so true, so like life, that it requires thoughtfulness to sort out its profound and deeply embedded themes.  It's a story, with real characters -- not a polemic, not a prop for a point someone wishes to make.  Turn off the TV for three weeks and devote the time to great books, and when you return to the TV you'll see it for the shallow medium it is.  It's like junk food -- you crave it, but it cannot sustain you, and it's effects are damaging.

Even Postman had little hope that the tide could be reversed.  I don't either.  We do not have an overarching moral framework as a society that will pass judgment on technology.  Perhaps its the Dark Ages again.  Perhaps like the monks who kept the written word alive, like the little community of outcasts in Fahrenheit 451, we will have to keep the books alive -- not because they are banned, but because they are unloved and neglected.

Darn it, Postman, TV's just no fun anymore.

And now, this. . .

592 Words, Oh My! (Art and Propaganda)

Honestly, folks, I'm a bit tired of this.  It seems I can't crack open a jewel case, read an interview with an artist, or listen to a concert nowadays without being told what I should think or do or who or what I should vote for.  Frankly, if I wanted an education on social issues or on moral conduct, I prefer to hear it from someone knowledgeable about the issue or, in the case of conduct, from, say, my pastor.  Instead, I have to hear it from artists! it's the difference between art and propaganda, even if the propaganda is true.

This came to mind recently as I discovered and listened to the superb new CD by songwriter Adrienne Young and her band, Little Sadie.  Gorgeous music, creative and award-winning packaging, and (here we go) a wholesome message -- The Art of Virtue.  I was absolutely blown away by the music (a bluegrass-folk-country mix) and the lyrical content (great stories, and songs affirming virtue!).   Who, after all, has a problem with songs that commend virtues like chastity, sincerity, justice, humility, and tranquility, among others?  What a novel idea!

Virtue But here's the rub: As I begin reading the extensive liner notes, a sinking feeling came over me.  I counted: There are approximately 592 words extolling virtue, a couple of prayers, a booklet with all the virtues listed and a chart where I'm supposed to write down how I did today on one of the virtues, and, then there's more admonitions about why and how I should support locally grown food, and so on.  592 words.

To make this argument, I could have taken a cheap shot at those artists or CDs that contain anti-Bush songs, anti-war songs, or some issue I may disagree on (there are plenty of those) but the argument here is not over content but form.  In doing so, it's helpful to use an artist whose content I largely have sympathy for rather than one whose content I largely disagree with.  The problem is this: art is not propaganda.  Art teaches through metaphor, symbol, and story, not didactic prose.  This is what Flannery O'Connor was getting at when she said that "the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.  A work of art (and the album is that) is weakened when the artist merely uses the art as a foil for a message.  In other words, art is prostituted and made to serve the message, ascribed value only to the extent it serves the message rather than being recognized as having value simply because it is good art.

There's much to be said about this topic, and some fair disagreement, but I'll leave it here:  In his excellent book called The Liberated Imagination, author Leland Ryken tells of an exchange with the composer Schumann that seems to say it all.  After playing a new composition, Shumann was asked what it meant.  He replied, "It means this," and simply played the piece again.

So, Adrienne, just give me the music -- thoughtful, rich. and deep music that makes me think about the profundities of life and the value of virtue over vice -- not 592 words.  That's really the more difficult task -- to be blunt, to know when to speak and when not to speak.  Just sing it to me.