Monday, March 16, 2015

My top 10 Science Fiction Novels for 2014: Part 1

Two years ago I told myself that once I had read 200 science fiction novels, I would teach a seminar on the relation between science fiction and theology. I figured that once I had read 200 novels, I'd have a fair idea of what was going on. At the moment I have read approximately 180: not as many as most SF fans, but plenty enough under the circumstances of a PhD student. Now that I've been hired by Fuller Theological Seminary, I am happy to announce that I've been given a green light to go forward with this course proposal. The target date is fall 2016.

My principle theological interests in SF include 1) the nature of mediation in human relationships, 2) time travel and the meaning of history, 3) post-apocalyptic novels as insight into both protology and eschatology, 4) the strange, alien creatures in the cosmos as images of the biblical "leviathan," 5) an instinct for resurrection in the (misguided) transhumanist instinct for bodiless humanity, 6) the rise of the humanoids or Artificial Intelligence as alternate humanities, 7) ecclesiology in the encounter of like and unlike species, and 8) the ways in which new technology provides a frame of reference that humans immediately and unquestionably take for granted as meaningful.

In 2014 my reading habits took me to a variety of SF corners: from Thomas Disch' The Genocides to James Tiptree Jr.'s  Her Smoke Rose Up Forever to Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World to Chang-rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea. I also read a few awful ones. This included books like Zolan Istvan's The Transhumanist, which after twenty pages, I couldn't bear to read another word. I watched "The Machine" one night (low budget but compelling). I watched a double-header on another night: “Under the Skin” (horrifically good) and “Her” (sweet and sad). I thought "Snowpiercer" was stunning. And I watched halfway through television shows like “Almost Human” and “Extant.”

It was a good year for me and I am happy to share my top ten, which, like previous years, actually involves a pair of novels in each slot. Dave Eggers, The Circle, is my top sci-fi novel of 2014. I I heartily recommend to anybody who uses the internet.

1. Dave Eggers, The Circle + Will McIntosh, Love Minus Eighty 

Like “Hamlet,” you know how The Circle will turn out: badly. You dread the end and you keep
hoping the author will surprise you by saving your protagonist. He won’t, of course, and that’s why you relish the story. Even when you get the creeps halfway through, you know that the plot is meet and right so to do: to take the character to the logical end of their dramatic purpose. With Eggers the chief character chooses to inhabit a world that is all-too familiar. This is a world where we feel the desperate need not only to be seen—and heard and heeded, but mainly just to be seen—but where the means are readily available to satisfy that need. This is a world where total transparency is just as welcome as it is reinforced by crafty slogans: SECRETS ARE LIES. ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. PRIVACY IS THEFT. This kind of total transparency—of texts, emails, social media, banking, purchasing habits, personal conversations with friends—is also required by law. The Circle raises questions about about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge. This is a world that makes Facebook look like a nineteenth-century calling card: quaint by comparison.

Love Minus Eighty is a story where cryonics and dating services meet in a post-collapse society. Like The Circle, there is an eerie anticipation of a terrifying future. Google Glass-like body systems enable you to be online everywhere, all the time. You feel “less human,” in fact, without your full-body Haptic suit. If you’re rich, you can take advantage of the latest cryonics technology and have your body frozen and revived on a date of your choosing—five, ten, a hundred years later. If you’re a poor but beautiful enough woman, you are eligible for a free period of cryonic preservation. Adds a reviewer at “The required account balance will be maintained by the fees of rich men who can set up expensive “dates”: you’ll briefly be thawed to be interviewed and inspected, and if you pass muster, you’re revived and returned to life. Colloquially, the (often involuntary) participants in this program are referred to as “bridesicles.” Like I said: creepy good, totally wrong, and absolutely believable.

2. Andy Weir, The Martian + John Scalzi, Redshirts 

These two novels belong to the genre called riotously funny science fiction.

With Redshirts, Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital ShipIntrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456, which suspiciously sounds a lot like the Starship Enterprise. It’s a prestige posting, with the chance to serve on "Away Missions" alongside the starship’s famous senior officers. Think nameless, helpless, background characters in Star Trek, following Captain Kirk on his drops to alien planets. Then this: “Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to realize that 1) every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces, 2) the ship’s senior officers always survive these confrontations, and 3) predictably at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Unsurprisingly, the savvier crew members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs. Then Andrew stumbles on information that transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is.” Then they play with time.

Then they bend history. Then they meet their non-fictional counterparts who play the fictional versions on a television show in a parallel universe. As a Forbes magazine review puts it, if you want to “read it as a surreal meditation on character and genre like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this is your book." Redshirts was the winner of the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and rightfully so.

The Martian is the novel where two things happened repeatedly while lying in bed late at night with Phaedra: 1) I laugh out loud every five minutes and 2) I say things like, “Phaedra, I’ve got to read you this part.” The Martian is Robinson Crusoe meets credible astrophysics meets suspenseful drama. Written by the son of a particle physicist, with a background in computer science and the skill to write an original software program in order to determine a particular astrophysical and dramatic plot feature, Weir’s novel evokes the happy sense of adventure that you experienced when you read Bradbury’s short stories, along with the sense of awe that you felt about deep space in the work of Carl Sagan and that feeling of eerie solitude that characterizes many of Arthur C. Clarke’s principal figures. Andy Weir not only studied orbital mechanics, astronomy and the history of manned spaceflight, he also figured out how to make a single character survive 1,412 days till the next Mars expedition could come to rescue one NASA astronaut Mark Watney in a way that was both hilarious and riveting.

(Part 2 coming soon.)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Phaedra: the Gardener, Whole Foods Cook, Kimchi Maven

My good wife just had an interview posted with Mary Lee Kitchen about her gardening, making, cooking, eating and healthy food-sharing habits. While I am happily married to her and the immediate recipient of her natural and organic meal-making powers, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the interview and discovering new things about my wife. So proud of her. Check out the whole interview here. I've copied two excerpts below to whet your appetite to read the rest.

(Also, because of my wife's healthy food habits, I am confident that I will now live till I am 153 years old and that I will share the joy of being great-great-great-great-great grandparents with Phaedra in the 22nd century.)

ML:Where did you grow up? How do you feel like your background has shaped your outlook of food? 
PT: I was fortunate to grow up in a semi-rural agricultural community on the North East coast of Scotland. My “normal” was tractors in the fields and the smell of manure, farms all around our village, and small fishing boats on the beach at the end of every day. We had time off from school for the potato harvest, and the school offered hot lunches that I remember being served on real dishes.  I think this kind of environment made it impossible for me to separate the cultivation and harvesting work from what we were eating.

I grew up very aware that people worked hard to produce our food and that it came from farms and boats rather than supermarkets. I think that this is what I’m always trying to get back to in my adult life. I feel really good if I can somehow be connected to the people that are raising, growing and foraging the food that we are eating, and I’m pretty distrustful of large food corporations because I want to be able to trace my beef back to the land it ate from, so to speak, and I want to see the fields where my cabbages grew....

ML:The land is seen as sacred throughout the Old Testament, do you believe that there is hope of get back this? If so, how? 
PT:I have a big hope for this. Sometimes it seems as if large and wealthy food companies are going to take over, but I’m encouraged by all the farmers and small food producers that keep going. It’s not as obvious because usually we don’t hear a lot from the media about these people, and they are all too busy working to go around shouting about what they are doing. But books keep getting written, urban gardens keep being planted, local nurseries keep teaching, farmers markets keep popping up, milk groups keep forming, and backyard chickens keep being brought home. It’s like a small, steady push back against the industrialized way of relating to food.

I feel like we have to believe that every tiny act adds up to something bigger. That’s why I get excited about buying food directly from a farm. It’s my small dollars, but those dollars mean that it’s a little bit more likely that the farm stays open. And my small garden? It’s three 3 x 6 foot raised beds, but it shouts out to my neighbors that the earth is good for something besides a lawn. I think if we lose our belief that the land is sacred, that is, beloved by God and therefore worth “tending” with a holy care, then we lose something about being human.

So we have to keep talking about and sharing what we are doing in our small way, and it will encourage others to join in.I’d also add that supporting organizations that are fighting this fight is another stellar way to add your weight, to the push back. Arocha is a fantastic non-profit organization that is doing its part. You can volunteer with them if there is an Arocha project near you; or you can support them financially as well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Key ideas on the arts from Andy Crouch, Eugene Peterson, John Witvliet, Barbara Nicolosi, David Taylor and Jeremy Begbie

That long-winded title is a way of saying this: the video for the talks which took place at the 2008 Transforming Culture conference are available to view.

It is hard to believe that it has been almost seven years since that extraordinary and extraordinarily satisfying gathering in Austin, Texas, took place. So many good people helped make it happen. And so much has happened since. A book was published. Deep friendships were forged. Ministries and networks have been launched. One of us finally earned a Ph.D.

My hope is that the work that I'll be doing with Brehm Texas will have a chance to continue these efforts, to trace out particular ideas and to track down certain possibilities for the church's engagement with the arts, at local, institutional and associational levels (possibly also extend the conversations which occurred during the conference seminars).

If you want to see the printed and in many cases revised version of these talks, which often went in different directions from their original assignments, along with two additional essays by Lauren Winner and Joshua Banner, please go here, to find a copy of For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books: 2010).

Here below, then, are the video recordings, hosted by the Hill Country Institute. Each presentation was thoughtful, winsome, witty, in some cases provocative, in other cases rather funny, and in all cases wonderfully idiosyncratic, while everyone shared a common love for the church.

1. THE GOSPEL: In What Way is Art a Gift, a Calling and an Obedience? -- Andy Crouch

2. THE PASTOR: How is the Pastor an Artist and the Artist, a Pastor? -- Eugene Peterson

3. THE WORSHIP: How Can Our Actions and Spaces be Artfully Shaped? -- John Witvliet

4. THE ARTIST: What is an Artist and How do we Shepherd These Strange Creatures? -- Barbara Nicolosi

5. THE DANGERS: What Are the Dangers of Artistic Activity? -- David Taylor

6. THE FUTURE: What is the [Artistic] Vision of the Church in 2058?  -- Jeremy Begbie

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The church and the contemporary visual art world

Damien Hirst - Cock and Bull, 2012

A few months ago I emailed some of the smartest visual artists I know and asked them the question: How do you define contemporary art? Their answers and the exchanges which ensued were extraordinarily spirited, wide-ranging and far from unanimous. They were very insightful, though, as well as practically helpful to me as I have taken on the role of program director for CIVA's 2015 biennial conference. Of course, if a similar question were addressed to pastors, theologians, ministry and organizational leaders, namely "How do you define the church?", I imagine I would receive equally spirited and disparate answers.

Therein, I suppose, lies both the challenge and the opportunity of this unique conference: "Between Two Worlds: Contemporary Art and the Church," which takes place on June 11-14 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at Calvin College. To register, please go here. Here are a few things I'm particularly excited about.

The three plenary talks:

1. Wayne Roosa: Friday morning, June 12: "A Conversation Between Contemporary Art and the Church"

2. Ben Quash: Friday evening, June 12: "A Conversation Between Contemporary Art and Trinitarian Theology"

3. Katie Kresser: Saturday morning, June 13: "Conversation Between Contemporary Art and Corporate Worship"

Marina Abramović - The Artist is Present, 2010

The three panels:

1. A "First Generation" panel: including Calvin Seerveld, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Sandra Bowden, Ted Prescott, and Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker.

2. A "Contemporary Artists in the Public Square" panel: TBA.

3. A "Contemporary Artists in the Church" panel: TBA.

TAKASHI MURAKAMI - Self-Portrait of the Manifold Worries of a Manifoldly Distressed Artist, 2012

A "Theology and Visual Arts" track (for details click here):

1. Critical Responses: Reviews and critiques of conference plenary speaker Ben Quash’s recent volume Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit (Bloomsbury, 2013).

2. Theology for the Visual Arts: Constructive proposals from the various theological disciplines aimed at opening up new vistas of creativity and exploration in the visual arts.

3. Theology from the Visual Arts: Generative reflections on the theological meaning or value of particular bodies of art, art movements, and/or art experiences.

Jeff Koons - Acrobat, 2003

The day-ahead events and the various exhibits which will take place during the time of the course of conference.

The devotionals and worship service which will be led by Luci Shaw.

All the amazingly interesting folks who will come to this gathering and, well, so much more. Please do join us if you can.

Below is a basic write-up for the conference.

Gerhard Richter - Abstraktes Bild, 2001

Wayne Roosa - Ideas of Order: I

Conference Theme
It is an understatement to say that the church and the contemporary art world find themselves in an uneasy relationship. On one hand, the leaders of local congregations, seminaries, and other Christian networks don’t know what to make of works by artists like Banksy and Chris Ofili, or Marina Abramovich and Barbara Kruger. Not only are these kinds of artist mostly unknown to church leaders, they and their work cause them to regard the world of contemporary art with quizzical indifference, frustration, and even disdain. On the other, many artists lack any meaningful experience with the contemporary church and are mostly ignorant of her mission. Not infrequently, these artists regard religion as irrelevant to their art practice, are disinclined to trust the church and its leaders, and have experienced personal rejection from these communities. Clearly, misunderstanding and mistrust abound.
CIVA’s 2015 Biennial Conference at Calvin College will host a conversation between these two worlds. During our four days together, we will explore the misperceptions that we have about each other, create hospitable space to talk and listen, and imagine the possibility of a renewed and mutually fruitful relationship. With these lofty goals before us, this conference will provide a range of case studies that exemplify the kinds of programs, partnership, and patronage that might serve the greater good. Meanwhile, where the difference between these two worlds is too great to overcome, this conference seeks to build a bridge that facilitates understanding and mutual respect. In other words, we seek to find common ground for the common good since we — Christians at work in the visual arts — believe this is what God, in Christ, would have us to do.
Contemporary Art
The world of contemporary art is alternately drawn in by and resistant to the considerable influence of the artworld. Works of art that are regarded as “contemporary” often find as their focus narratives that feature marginal voices, transgressive activities, and under-represented communities. In some instances, these creative acts seek to alert viewers or participants to certain perceived injustices. On other occasions the focus of these efforts is to reveal contradictory, banal, and even exotic-seeming conditions. Suffice it to say, in the contemporary art scene, what counts as serious artistic practice and the subsequent purpose of this practice remains highly fluid. In this regard, there is considerable interest in exploring social practice. Nonetheless, a strong interest in making material objects remains though, like its modernist precursor, the resulting practices and processes that these makers call on generally exist in reaction to the Western art canon.
The Church
In its broadest sense, we understand the Church to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, that church which stretches across time and space, and with whom we share communion in Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit. More concretely, we mean local congregations who regularly engage in acts of worship, discipleship, community, mission and service. The church in this sense occupies a specific place in neighborhoods, cities and rural areas, endowed with specific capacities and opportunities to manifest the kingdom of God to a particular people, that is, our actual neighbors. In an equally significant sense, by “church” we mean the community of Christians who are engaged in all sectors of the marketplace: professional societies and arts centers; educational institutions and business ventures; para-church organizations and denominational headquarters; museums and galleries; the home and the government, and so on. Wherever a Christian may find him or herself, there we discover a member of Christ’s church. With these three senses, our hope is to capture both the specificity and breadth of the Body of Christ, taking advantage hereby of the kind of language we discover in Scripture. In all senses, moreover, the visual arts play an important role. This is true whether individual churches or Christians are fully aware of that role and of the good work which the visual arts play in the world which God so loves.

Richard Serra - Inside Out, 2013

Friday, January 16, 2015

Prayers of artists, prayers for artists

Phaedra Taylor's studio: preparing the table

I've been collecting prayers for artists and from artists for years. I thought I'd go ahead and put a number of them in the same place. There are plenty more, of course (such as here or here or here). But perhaps one of these may be of use to you or to artists in your community, perhaps even become a prayer that settles into the heart and turns into a source of daily rumination. As Richard Foster has said, to pray is to become a different kind of person. "All who have walked with God," he writes, "have viewed prayer as the main business of their lives." It is a beautiful and powerful thing when prayer becomes the deliberate, ongoing, chewing and chawing, mumbling here and there, even unconscious business of an artist's life.

Phaedra Taylor, "Bound and Waiting" (detail)

A Prayer for Artists
(Bryan Brown, worship pastor at Christ Church in Austin and the worship leader of the Transforming Culture symposium in 2008, adapted from Herbert Whittaker's "Prayer for the Artists" (1987).)

Lord, remember your artists. Have mercy upon them and remember with compassion all those that reflect the good, the ill, the strengths and the weaknesses of the human spirit.

Remember those who raise their voices in unending song, those who pour their souls into music loud and soft.

Remember those who put pigment to surface, carve wood and stone and marble, who work base metals into beauty, those building upwards from the earth toward heaven.

Remember those who put thought to paper by computer and by pen; the poets who delve, the playwrights who analyze and proclaim, the dreamers-up of narrative, all those who work with the light and shadows of film.

Remember the actors moved by Spirit and dancers moving through space.

Remember all these artists whom you have placed among us, for are they not, O Lord, the fellows of your inspiration? Do they not, Lord God, bring to your people great proof of your divinity and our part in it?

Remember your artists and show them mercy and compassion that they may do the same and so uplift all your people. That they may cry forth your praises, as we do here.

Amen! Amen! Amen!

From The Book of Common Prayer 
(17. For Church Musicians and Artists)

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer for Artists 
(From "Prayers of Our Heart" by Vienna Cobb Andersen)

Bless the creators, O God of creation, who by their gifts make the world a more joyful and beautiful realm. Through their labors they teach us to see more clearly the truth around us. In their inspiration they call forth wonder and awe in our own living. In their hope and vision they remind us that life is holy. Bless all who create in your image, O God of creation. Pour your Spirit upon them that their hearts may sing and their works be fulfilling. Amen.

Prayer for Vocation in Daily Work (in the arts or any vocation)
(From Venite by Robert Benson)

Deliver us from the service of self alone, that we may do the work You have given us to do, in truth and beauty and for the common good, for the sake of the One who comes among us as One who serves. Amen.

Two Prayers by Flannery O'Connor
(A journal kept by the twenty-one-year-old Flannery O'Connor, whilst studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1946, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, titled A Prayer JournalThe New Yorker published a few excerpts of her prayers, one of which I include here. It is so very much her, yet we can hear our own voices in it too.)

"Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it.... All boils down to grace, I suppose"

"Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and myself is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, 'oh God, please', and 'I must', and 'please, please'. I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation--that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind, realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not with to presume. I want to love.

Oh God, please make my mind clear.

Please make it clean.

I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You.

Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.

I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You. Please do not let the explanations of the psychologists about this make it turn suddenly cold. My intellect is so limited, Lord, that I can only trust in You to preserve me as I should be."

A Prayer of an Artist 
(Over the course of my years as a pastor in Austin, I put to paper the sorts of things I prayed for the artists under my care and for myself as well. This is the result of that effort.)

Father God, Creator of all things, seen and unseen, we praise you for the works of your hand.  We declare that you are sovereign over our lives, and that you are the originator of all good things.  We humbly ask that you would grant us new ideas, even now.  Bless our labours.  Fulfill your creative purposes in us today.

Jesus Christ, Word of God, Icon of God, we praise you for sanctifying the earth in your incarnation, confirming the goodness of the physical world of stone, wood, metal, wind and fire and flesh.  We ask that you would rule our imaginations with wisdom and love.  Deliver us from fear and pride.  Great Carpenter: teach us, guide us, aid us in our work today.

Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of life, Power and Fire, we praise you for sustaining all things in being, energizing them with vitality, and ushering them to their future and final state of glory.  Purify our souls; scour our hearts; re-order our minds; strengthen our bodies.  Free us to be playful today.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Three in One, we worship you, we acclaim you, we love you.  We praise you for the extravagant love that you demonstrate in the creation of this world.  We bless you, and we ask that you would form in us a community of artists that reflect the Divine Community, marked by self-giving love, infectious joy and the desire to honor and glorify the name of God; for Christ’s sake and for the sake of this world.  Amen.

An Iconographer's Prayer

Teach me, Lord, to use wisely the time which You have given me and to work well without wasting a second. Teach me to profit from my past mistakes without falling into a gnawing doubt. Teach me to anticipate the project without worry, to imagine the work without despair if it should turn out differently. Teach me to unite haste and slowness, serenity and ardor, zeal and peace.

Help me at the beginning of the work when I am the weakest. Help me in the middle of the work when my attention must be sustained. And especially fill all the emptiness of my work with Your Presence. Lord, in all the work of my hands, bestow Your Grace so that it can speak to others and my mistake can speak to me alone. Keep me in the hope of perfection, without which I would lose heart, yet keep me from achieving perfection, for surely I would be lost in arrogance.

Purify my sight when I am doing poorly, for one is never sure that the work will turn out badly; Yet when I am doing well, one is never sure that the work will turn out well. Lord, let me never forget that all knowledge is in vain unless there is work. And all work is empty unless there is love. And all love is hollow unless it binds me both to others and to You.

Lord, teach me to pray with my hands, my arms, and all my strength. Remind me that the work of my hands belongs to You and that it is fitting to return this gift to You. Yet, if I work for the pleasure of others, like a flowering plant in the evening I will wither. But if I work for the love of goodness, I will remain in goodness. And the time to work for goodness and for Your Glory is now.

Phaedra Taylor, "Bound and Waiting"

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Emotional Life of Art & Artists: part 3

I mention two things here. One is that the retreat is two-thirds filled. If you'd like to join Jeremy Begbie, Latifah Phillips, myself and a host of great folks, please do register now. The second thing is that I've included below an excerpt from Jeremy's essay, "Faithful Feelings: Music and Emotion in Worship," which you could find in the collection, Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology. I imagine he will reference some of this work along with other work he's done on the relation between emotion and the arts. For my part, I'll be addressing the qualities of emotional health which we'd like to cultivate in our lives as artists. Trust me: the whole thing will be anything but boring.

To read further about this retreat, and how it is linked to the two previous retreats, which focused on the physical world and the nature of the imagination, please see here (part 1) and here (part 2). I've also included a few extra bits after the excerpt from Jeremy's essay. Again, to register please go here.

Faithful Feelings : Music and Emotion in Worship
The power of music to engage our emotional life is proverbial. David’s lyre soothes Saul; “The Star-Spangled Banner” brings a tear to the eye of the patriotic marine; the fifteen-year-old finds solace from a broken heart in a moody ballad. A psychologist observes: “Some sort of emotional experience is probably the main reason behind most people’s engagement with music.” Although this cannot be said of all music worldwide (the functions of music are multiple and highly diverse), it does seem true of a good deal of music in globalized Western society.

And yet music’s emotional power is probably its single most controversial feature. Philosophers, psychologists and music theorists vigorously debate just how it affects our emotions. Many in the Christian church have feared its ability to “get inside” us, not least in worship. Many are anxious that music all too easily turns into a device of manipulation, a tool of moral harm, all the more dangerous because it can work its charms without our being aware of it. Others insist such worries are overplayed, betraying an exaggerated suspicion of anything not amenable to rational control.

In this essay, I want to ask: what is it about musical sounds and the way they operate such that they become emotionally significant and valuable to us? And what can we learn from this theologically, with regard to music in worship? We will first offer some general comments about emotion, and set these in the light of a trinitarian theology of worship. Then we explore the emotional power of musical sounds, and go on to situate our findings in the context of this same theology. We will see that certain capacities of music are singularly appropriate for carrying and advancing certain key dimensions of worship. We will also discover that our theology of worship is itself enriched in the process: theology throws light on music, and music throws light on theology....

See here for details.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Pharmaceutical-grade beauty: the cocaine of good looks

I've typed-up here an excerpt from Ted Chiang's short story "Liking What You See: A Documentary," found in his collection of stories, Stories of Your Life and Others. Like much of science fiction literature, it both represents and anticipates the formative power of technology on human relationships. More acutely, it offers the reader a chance to step back and to observe the way in which our uses of technology generate physical and emotional appetites, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, usually in the most subtle but tenacious ways.

Liking What You See: A Documentary
"Think of cocaine. In its natural form, as coca leaves, it's appealing, but not to an extent that it usually becomes a problem. But refine it, purity it, and you get a compound that hits your pleasure receptors with an unnatural intensity. That's when it becomes addictive.

Beauty has undergone a similar process, thanks to advertisers. Evolution gave us a circuit that responds to good looks--call it the pleasure receptor for our visual cortex--and in our natural environment, it was useful to have. But take a person with one-in-a-million skin and bone structure, add professional makeup and retouching, and you're not longer looking at beauty in its natural form. You've got pharmaceutical-grade beauty, the cocaine of good looks.

Biologists call this "supernormal stimulus'; show a mother bird a giant plastic egg, and she'll incubate it instead of her own real eggs. Madison Avenue has saturated our environment with this kind stimuli, this visual drug. Our beauty receptors receive more stimulation than they were evolved to handle; we're seeing more beauty in one day than our ancestors did in a lifetime. And the result is that beauty is slowly ruining our lives.

How? The way any drug becomes a problem: by interfering with our relationships with other people. We become dissatisfied with the way ordinary people look because they can't compare to supermodels. Two-dimensional images are bad enough, but now with spex, advertisers can put a supermodel right in front of you, making eye contact. Software companies offer goddesses who'll remind you of your appointments. We've all heard about men who prefer virtual girlfriends over actual ones, but they're not the only ones who've been affected. The more time any of us spend with gorgeous digital apparitions around, the more our relationships with real human beings are going to suffer.

We can't avoid these images and still lives in the modern world. And that means we can't kick this habit, because beauty is a drug you can't abstain from unless you literally keep your eyes closed all the time.

Until now. Now you can get another set of eyelids, one that blocks out this drug, but still lets you see. And that's calliagnosia. Some people call it excessive, but I call it just enough. Technology is being used to manipulate us through our emotional reactions, so it's only fair that we use it to protect ourselves too...."

Alter Venus by Anna Utopia Giordano

Monday, December 22, 2014

Pete Seeger + Sholem Asch's "Nativity" = historical fiction at its delightfulest

(This blog post is an addendum to a series that Jeffrey Overstreet kindly invited us to contribute to on his website, Looking Closer, where Phaedra and I offered a top 6 Christmas Songs list. We feel luck to have joined such an impressive group of folks.)

My wife and I were sitting at the breakfast table last Saturday. We each had our cups of tea. Blythe and I were eating the pancakes we had just made, while listening to music through our Spotify account. Phaedra suggested we listen to an album by Pete Seeger, one of her favorite folk singers. We pushed play and waited for the music to play, presumably from his "Traditional Christmas Carols" album. Instead we heard his voice. At first we thought this was simply an introductory reflection to the album.

As it turned out, Seeger kept speaking and the story he told quickly captured our attention, so much so that we stayed at the table for another forty minutes, listening, drinking down the pot of tea, giving each other looks that said, “This is amazing.” We eventually learned that the story he recounted had been written by Sholem Asch. A prominent Yiddish author, in 1939 Asch wrote a long novel in Yiddish, The Nazarene, about the life of Jesus. As the Smithsonian Folkways web page puts it:

"A few years later, at Moe’s urging [Sholem's son and Folkways founder], Asch wrote a shorter work on the Nativity in English that would be of appropriate length for a phonograph record. The story remained unpublished and unrecorded until this Folkways release in 1963. Moe Asch was of the belief that the story should be recorded by 'someone with an affinity for art and the folk idiom, and with a deep sense of social understanding as well.' He decided on Pete Seeger (1919–2014), the legendary folksinger and activist. The recording also includes Seeger singing six Christmas songs. The liner notes provide background about the recording and Sholem Asch, and the text of the story."

It is a remarkable re-telling of the Nativity story. Historical fiction in the spirit of Frederick Buechner, Walter Wangerin, Jr, Anne Rice and David Maine, Asch's narrative finds its perfect match in Seeger's voice. If you have a moment, or an hour and six minutes to be more exact, take a moment this week and hear the story of Jesus, Joseph and Mary for the first time again. You can buy it here on ITunes or here or here or on your own Spotify account. The recording is very much worth a stocking stuffer and a late night listening session with family or friends.

Concert poster just for the fun of it.

A bonus Advent hymn: "Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers!"

Words: Ermuntert euch, ihr Frommen, Laurentius Laurenti (1660-1722), 1700.
Based on the Translation: by Sarah B. Findlater (1823-1907), Hymns from the Land of Luther, 1854.

I love the interplay of light and darkness, morning and night, peace and war, salvation and tragedy, hope and hope deferred seemingly indefinitely--faithful, in point of fact, to the actual nativity stories recorded in Luke and Matthew.

Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear.
The evening is advancing, and darker night is near.
The Bridegroom is arising, and soon He draweth nigh.
Up, pray, and watch, and wrestle: At midnight comes the cry.

See that your lamps are burning; replenish them with oil.
And wait for your salvation, the end of earthly toil.
The watchers on the mountain proclaim the Bridegroom near.
Go meet Him as He cometh, with alleluias clear.

O wise and holy virgins, now raise your voices higher,
Until in songs of triumph ye meet the angel choir.
The marriage feast is waiting, the gates wide open stand;
Rise up, ye heirs of glory, the Bridegroom is at hand.

Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear!
Arise, Thou sun so longed for, over this benighted sphere!
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption that brings us unto Thee.
Ye saints, who here in patience your cross and sufferings bore,
Shall live and reign forever, when sorrow is no more.
Around the throne of glory the Lamb ye shall behold;
In triumph cast before Him your diadems of gold!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

"Ecclesiastes" by Khaled Mattawa

St. Jerome's preface to Ecclesiastes (388 AD)

I heard this poem today on NPR's "Here and Now." Khaled Mattawa was born in Benghazi, Libya in 1964 and immigrated to the U.S. in his teens. He is the author of three previous books of poetry, Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow, 1995), Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable, 2003), and Amorisco (Ausable, 2008). Mattawa has translated eight volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry and co-edited two anthologies of Arab American literature. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, an NEA translation grant, the Alfred Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize, and three Pushcart Prizes. He teaches in the MFA (Creative Writing) Program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


The trick is that you’re willing to help them.
The rule is to sound like you’re doing them a favor.
The rule is to create a commission system.
The trick is to get their number.
The trick is to make it personal:
No one in the world suffers like you.
The trick is that you’re providing a service.
The rule is to keep the conversation going.
The rule is their parents were foolish,
their children are greedy or insane.
The rule is to make them feel they’ve come too late.
The trick is that you’re willing to make exceptions.
The rule is to assume their parents abused them.
The trick is to sound like the one teacher they loved.
And when they say “too much,”
give them a plan.
And when they say “anger” or “rage” or “love,”
say “give me an example.”
The rule is everyone is a gypsy now.
Everyone is searching for his tribe.
The rule is you don’t care if they ever find it.
The trick is that they feel they can.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

12 Features of a Scriptural Imagination: An Addendum

I had the privilege recently of publishing a piece with Comment magazine, which you can find here. As is often the case, plenty of material gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I thought it might be nice to include here some of that material, in addition to the twelve features of a Scriptural imagination. The original assignment was to explore the relationship between "conservatism" and the arts. As you will discover from my essay, I took an alternate route to my answer.

I am grateful to Jamie Smith for the invitation to publish this essay and for all the good people at Cardus for their editorial services. Please do read the whole article at the Comment website and consider subscribing to the magazine itself. They're always publishing great stuff. For what it's worth, the following paragraphs are not logically related to each other. All the paragraphs in my essay are, however, related. Thank God.

... Rod Dreher, in “Jon Haidt on Conservatives and Art,” which follows up on a thematically linked post, “A Case For Why Conservatives Make Better Art,” both written for The American Conservative, ends his post with four crucial questions:

1. If it’s true that conservatives should in principle make better art, why is it that they so rarely do, at least in our culture?

2. If it’s hard to come up with examples of conservative-friendly art, does that tell us that Americans simply aren’t as conservative, in the Haidtan sense, as they think they are?

3. Or is it telling us that the kind of people who do draw on the full range of moral foundations generally do not commit themselves to the creative arts?

4. And if this is so, is it a) because they are acculturated by their particular cultures to disdain the arts, or b) because they are ostracized by the artistic culture in the US?

... Mark Steyn, writing for the Jewish World Review, expresses what will be obvious by now to many conservatives: “Liberals expend tremendous effort changing the culture. Conservatives expend tremendous effort changing elected officials every other November—and then are surprised that it doesn’t make much difference.” Adam Bellow, in a piece for The National Review, titled “Let Your Right Brain Run Free,” offers the kind of confession which conservatives will instinctively bow their heads together in abject misery:

“Many liberals believe (and many on the right privately agree) that conservatives can’t ‘do’ culture. They can’t produce great music, they can’t be funny, and they can’t keep their political ideas out of the way of their stories and novels.” 

Such sentiments add to what other self-described conservatives have lamented for years, whether it is Jon Vella ruing how conservatives have “foolishly ceded” art and architecture to the Left or it is James Cooper, in a Modern Age article, as summarized by Matthew Milliner, chiding conservatives for wasting their time protesting bad NEA choices, when “what they should have been doing is helping create an alternative.”

... While the definition of a conservative approach to the arts may be futile, patterns of argument do emerge. One pattern of argument revolves around political philosophical concerns. Here the thought of Edmund Burke figures largely, with Russell Kirk serving as its modern prophet par excellence. Here politics and the arts are intimately related. Publications like Imprimis, The National Review and The Imaginative Conservative may be seen as key representatives of this approach.

A second approach follows an expressly philosophical line of thought. In this case the ideas of Thomas Aquinas stand paramount, though the fount of wisdom will just as often be sought upstream in the writings of the early church fathers. Here beauty is deemed the standard against which all works of art shall be properly measured, and even as First Things and Touchstone, possibly The New Criterion, serve as chief patrons of this approach, so folks like Matthew Milliner, Gregory Wolfe and David Bentley Hart perform the function of principal heralds.

A final approach might be termed theological. To be a conservative magazine, for instance, like Christianity Today or World or Relevant, is to be a publication that appeals explicitly to theological ideas derived in primary conversation with Holy Scripture. Here Marvin Olasky and Richard Mouw could be seen to lead the charge....

[... And then many other things are said between that lost paragraph and the following twelve features.]

Twelve far-from-comprehensive features of a Scriptural imagination:

1. The human creature is broken to its very core and it is incapable of rescuing itself from its foolish, stiff-necked, irrational, and demented lot in life. The creature is not afraid to be honest about this fact.

2. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has revealed himself supremely in the life and work of Jesus Christ and chooses to rescue this creature in the most I’ll-be-damned surprising ways. This God is a mystery—to be enjoy not to be mastered. Though this God is often silent, he is never absent.

3. Because Christ stands at the center of the cosmic order, the created realm can be properly regarded as the beloved world of God and a sphere for creative exploration, requiring no extra justification than sheer wonder in the peculiarities of this world.

4. If the Spirit is responsible for creation’s order, it is important not to think of this order like that of a factory assembly line. It is instead an irrepressibly dynamic order, yielding new configurations of life and prompting praise to a God whose goodness is revealed through all the intensely particular things in creation.

5. The biblical “household” which includes both actual and adopted relatives, both biological and “spiritual,” matters more than the nuclear family.

6. Individual human meaning is realized to the extent that it is deeply embedded within the concrete Body of Christ, rather than by means of self-realization.

7. Allegiance is given to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, the global and historic body of Christ, not to America or Argentina or Armenia. Whatever pleasure we may derive from being American or Argentinian or Armenian rightly ordered by one’s prior allegiance to the civitas Dei.

8. Marriage is a holy vow that remains an incoherent vow outside of the life of the church. The bonds of marriage are sustainable only in allegiance to the people of God who together vow to sustain husband and wife—from friendship to engagement to wedding and on through to the latter years of married life.

9. The wisdom of the elders is privileged over the innovations of the youth, but the elders are never threatened by the novelties of the young. The new and old are wrestled out in conversation, which is another way of saying that a healthy tradition is an internal argument carried on by all members of the community, each in their own way, joined at a common table.

10. Heroes are people of questionable character who often remain unnamed and unknown to us, whose doubt is not contrary but integral to a living faith, and whose ambiguous lot in life is not at odds with the God whose promises often await their fulfillment beyond death. Joy, not happiness, marks the virtue of the hero because joy can account for suffering, while happiness cannot.

11. Though the “wicked” flourish over against the sovereign rule of God, they will never be given the last word. The wicked never get away with their acts of injustice. Evil is real and it is named.

12. The need to laugh, chiefly at ourselves, is paramount. A good sense of humor is required, not just because of the weird and fantastic nature of human life, but also because comedy, not tragedy, will have the final word in the economy of God.

And to read the whole piece in context, please go here.