Monday, May 15, 2006

A Spirituality of Art (plus the DaVinci Circus, my Movie Friends, and an Evangelical Episcopal Priest)


Mediocre art + a pinch of yeasty heresy = multimillion dollar profits

That's the formula as best I can tell. Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ was a beastly novel to read, not nearly as thrilling, philosophically highbrow and therefore off-putting to your average reader, i.e. "40 million worldwide!" You add a textbook, melodramatic acting job by Willem Defoe and who in their right mind would give a hoot. Well in 1988, a lot of panicking, boycotting Christians, that's who.

But this is 2006. And there's little else that can explain the popularity of Dan Brown's killer novel, as in "you're killing me." 60,800,000 links for the Da Vinci Code on Google. Only 10,100,000 for heresy. 24,700,000 for Leonardo Da Vinci. 18,200,000 for Dan Brown. The word "code," thank God, gets the most hits of them all, with 2,920,000,000.

Oh, and Jesus gets a solid 187,000,000. Yay for Jesus. But wait, that's less than "code." Hm. Oh well. It must be a conspiracy.

Anyhoo, I can't imagine what need we have for yet another commentary on the DVC. But I'm going to anyway. I'll add my two pennies from the perspective of an arts pastor. It's my niche market--for a little while at least.

Speaking of being an arts pastor, my life these days can be described as a variation on the theme of huffing and puffing. People often ask me, with wrinkled foreheads, What does an arts pastor do? Well, in the last ten days:

-A week ago Tuesday I taught a hermeneutics session to one of our adult ed classes at Hope.
-This past Sunday I preached the eight-month concluding sermon on our Markan series.
-Tuesday through Thursday I joined my fellow Hope pastoral staffers in Salado, TX, for our annual planning retreat; retreat only in the sense of getting away. In the aftermath, though, I feel very excited about the future of Hope Chapel, the most excited yet. We also played many rounds of horse-shoes, and I tell you what: that's a rockstar awesome game.
-This coming Wednesday I leave for Istanbul, Turkey, where I'll co-lead Hope's arts-mission venture in a sixteen-day extravaganza of art, ancient biblical history treasure-hunting, Christian-Muslim dialogue, and only God knows what else. Truly.
-Between now and then I need to line up my little ducks, including the transfer of CIVA's "Bread Upon the Waters" exhibit down to Hope for its final resting point.

Needless to say I've had little time for extracurriculars.

But back to the DVC.

My first thought.
This is the most ponderous, juvenile, clunky, silly, lame and embarrassing novel I've ever (forced myself to) read. I'd like to say I was exaggerating here, but I'm not. It's really quite bad. Peter Chattaway zestfully agrees, at least in its movie edition. The language, the characterization, the plot, the scene descriptions, the narrative rhythm--it's just plain schlocky.

Ok, for example, let's take a very simple issue in characterization. Rule number 1: the character should be believable relative to the internal laws of the story and, if the attempt is at "realism," believable in some objective way to the reader. That's a mouthful there, I know. But let me illustrate, just a minor anoyance.

I'm on page 446. (I'm not done. I'm savoring every little bit.) On page 7--many, many car chases ago--our sassy, sexy hero, Robert Langdon, was asleep. And I mean aaaah-zzzz-leep.

"Dazed, Langdon looked at the bedside clock. It was 12:32 A.M. he had been asleep only an hour, but he felt like the dead."

Ok, so as a reader, I am now invited to feel his pain: he's tired, he's dead tired. Dead! (Get it?) Between page 7 and page 446 there is not a single mention whatsoever at any point along the way that Langdon is tired or sleepy. Not one. Mind you, all the action of the novel takes place over the course of 12 hours, midnight to noon. So all through the night's thrilling adventures, not once does Brown pause--or for goodness sakes remember--to tell us that perhaps in some remote human universe Langdone rubbed his tired eyes, or yawned, or looked back wistfully to his yummy Parisian bed. You say, but David, the adrenaline of the adventure has made him impervious to sleepiness. He's not like you, perpetually tired. He's Robert Langdon, a symbologist! Sure, fine, but adrenaline, like sexual passion, cannot sustain itself at peak levels indefinitely.

Married people, correct me if I'm wrong on the sex analogy. Eventually your body relaxes and says, wow, I think I'm tired. But nope. Not Dan Brown. Never once.

It's minor, granted, but the whole novel is like that. Little details. He botches them as a writer and it makes him sloppy. Eric Metaxas, in his clever Screwtape Reloaded take on the DVC, calls it a bunch of "gasbag cliches, shopworn half-truths and straightforward howlers . . . [and an] overcaffeinated, goggle-eyed plot." A. O. Scott of the NYT puts it spiffier: it's the "best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence."

No romantic tension. The "Bishop" and the "Teacher" disappear for scads of pages. (Brown: "Shoot, what do I do with these guys? Crap. John Grisham, where are you when I need you? They're evil. Yes, that's right, eeeeeeevil. I'll make them silently, evasively, ghostly, every-seventy-pages evil. Yes! That's good!") Lame humor (exhibit A: pg. 374). A hulking, killing machine, cardboard albino. Pedantic monologues (see pg. 273ff). And as the king of Siam puts it: etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Pages . . . 420, 437, 438, 439, 440, 441 . . . .

Is it any wonder that it's received 18% positive reviews?

My point? How does such a poorly written novel become this widely read?

Sin makes people stupid.
People are gullible. They want to believe what they want to believe, and the more they give themselves to a God-less lifestyle, the more sin makes their minds goopy. The novel titillates us with conspiracies about the Church, sexual orgasms as divine union (for men only, sorry ladies), goddess worship (here we go, ladies, one just for you), religiously sanctioned murders, great men as great free thinkers (Kant: "Dare to think for yourself!"), great artists as flamboyant, wink-and-nod homosexuals.

Sin makes people think stupid things--like this:

Langdon speaking, "Sophie, every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith--acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove."

The italics are his, as if he needed to make sure the reader really got it. But the sentence is gobbledegoop. Just like his notion that the recovery of Mary Magdalene's bones would prove the non-divinity of Jesus and the evil cover-up of the church? What? Frederica Matthewes-Green deals with this illogical nonsense with a deft and clear-headed swipe of the pen.

It's like, doesn't anybody care about Jesus' bones?

Karl Barth, in his 1934 sermon, "Jesus is Victor," takes Paul's idea of the unregenerate mind in Romans 1:21 and gives it an incisive, spirited thrust.

"We do not like to see that we are deeply imprisoned, and that it is true, so irrefutably true, that we cannot, absolutely cannot, in any way help ourselves; that it is true, we are a people who live in the shadow and darkness of death; that this is true, and is proclaimed to us in, with, and under the word 'resurrection'--oh, that is for us the bitter, unacceptable, and unendurable truth which stirs us to rebellion."

Metaxas, again, nicely captures this tendency in humans to lose their powers of thought under the thrall of sin, when his Screwtape cheers his beloved nephew Wormwood with the following good news:

"If actual thinking can be prevented, the humans are under our control."

Christians are ignorant of their own ecclesial history
I lay blame for this one at the feet of pastors. It is our responsibility, more than the academic or the lay person, to instill in the brethren a desire to learn church history--to learn in fact where we came from, how and why. If everyone of us knew the basics we would not be worrying this much about Brown's fanciful twisting of history. Or rather, we'd recognize that it's perfectly old-fashioned dullness. It's old drama, not "news."

The best reaction from Christians should have been a big yawn and a brief but gracious explanation. No, my friend, this is not history. Dan Brown has played around with the data and hopes that a fictionalization of the material will convince you to believe a sci-fi, alternate reality of the first few centuries of the church. And believe you me, do we need any more justifications for the power of fiction--for the need for Christians to write good fiction? No, says Leland Ryken.

Amy Welborn does a fine job in the historical facts-verification department. Or see Stephen Greydanus for a sharp Catholic review of the film. Or a Catholic answer-all here. Or the always crackling debate over at GetReligion. Or the massive, mini-library at Christianity Today. Or this bit on early Christian views on Jesus' divinity.

Needless to say, folks, let's go out and buy ourselves a nice copy of The History of Christianity and worry no more about bad magician's tricks.

Boycott, Othercott, or Take the Mickey Out of Them
According to an ABC news piece, top officials at the Vatican are calling for a boycott of the film. Some have gone even further than this.

"Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Nigerian who heads the Vatican's office on liturgy, went even further in a church-backed documentary released Tuesday titled "A Masterful Deception." Christians should not just "forgive and forget" insults to the founder of their religion, he said, but should react, possibly by taking legal action against the film."

The quick-witted Nicolosi wants us to Othercott. But I rather like the suggestion of the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth.

"We decided to be tongue-in-cheek rather than hysterical or anxious," says the bishop, who heads a media group that has set up challengingdavinci.com, a Web site answering the questions that the film raises about early Christian history. The church is advertising the site with a 15-second video clip airing in cinemas that plays on Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper," a painting crucial to The Da Vinci Code's plot. In the animated — and updated — painting, Jesus is reading the novel at the center of the storm, and rolls his eyes incredulously.

Love it.

Should we ask for a banning of "anti-Christian" art?
No. Pretty much never. Not the piss Christ. Not the dung Christ. We're not Muslims. And certainly not the DVC. Is it "just" art? No. There is nothing just about this kind of art. It's laden with restless and dangerous power: restless feelings, restless fears. But as Christians we have nothing to fear from this kind of art. Our faith does not rise and fall on the effects of "provocative art." Never has, never will. C'mon people, remember the gates of hell thing? The DVC is throwing peanuts at the pearly, steely gates. Pleeeease.

While we may feel it to be blasphemous, while our hearts may break at this kind of defacing of our Lord Jesus, while we may feel righteous indignation at the slander against the Beloved of Heaven--all healthy responses, mind you--the right response is not to ask for the art to be banned or removed.

The right response is first to listen. It is to pray. It is to ask God for wisdom and humility, as well as a good deal of courage. We ought never be afraid of speaking to our neighbor. But we must first ask questions. Why was this art made? What forces led this person or persons to create the work? What are they upset about? What parts of their reactions are legitimate? How much should we ask Christians admit our own faults and failures, and sins of omission and comission? Why are so many people responding to this art?

No one is angry for no reason.

Dan Brown et al feel something to be lacking. People are stupid, yes (ourselves not excepted). People are gullible. They want to have their cake and eat it to. They want the Garden without the Gardner telling them how to live their lives. A good bit of Brown's feelings are probably irrational rebellion against a just and loving God who makes demands upon his life--to repent, to believe, to submit to the gracious Lordship of Christ. But all of his feelings are not irrational reactionism.

I continue to ask us believer artists: How many genuine, thoughtful, humble Christians have the Dan Browns of this world met? If the answer is none, then we must bear some of the responsibility for his rejection of Christianity.

After we've listened and asked questions, then we play the chess game. We speak and act strategically. We write articles. We send letters. We march? Depends. But we definitely do the water-cooler thing. We calmly, cooly respond to people's criticisms. And if they're not interested in hearing a counter-response (the truth?), then we go out and make better art.

We play the game better.

We make the kind of art that will really disturb them, disturb them with the weight of glory, disturb them at the ways that they have capitulated to a dull and deforming evil. We make better art--excellent, beautiful, redolent with the maddening wonder of goodness--that, unlike the DVC, will burrow itself deeply into their souls and not let them go.

That's how we "win." And after we have done everything our consciences demand of us, we lay down our lives. We love sacrificially. We keep worshiping Jesus.

Is there good news for us in the film world? Heck yeah.

Christians in the film industry: Take 1
My good friend Mike Akel, a fine fellow here at Hope, is cruising the film festival circuit with his movie Chalk. Thus far it's received, among other awards, Best Feature Comedy at Cinequest (a top ten film fest in the US), Best Ensemble Acting at the Florida Film Festival and the Grand Jury Award at the Boston Film Festival. They also got accepted to the LA film festival, which is again a priviledged opportunity. Best of all, though, he got invited to a two-day retreat at the Skywalker Ranch. Jealous? Heck yeah! But it's great fun and great encouragement to see Mike's perseverance over all these years. Lotta love Michael Akel.

Christians in the film industry: Take 2
Jeffrey Travis, a one-time film partner, but still a dear friend and fellow Hope Chapelite, just returned from LA where he worked with Martin Sheen and Kristin Bell. Jeffrey's latest project is an animated feature called Flatland. Sheen and Bell provided voice talent for two of the characters. He also should be getting Sissy Spacek on board. We'll see. But again, I admire greatly his persistence in the face of many obstacles. As a husband and father of three, it's not easy pursuing this career. But he's in there, he's doing it, he's writing, he's taking risks, and, perhaps best of all, he's staying community. God bless you, gringo carnal.

Christians in the film industry: Take 3
Finally, we have the now old-hat Scott Derickson, plugging away in the industry. Here's a great interview I stumbled across at Infuze magazine. My favorite quote:

"I think it will surprise a lot of people to hear this, but directing is easier. Writing is just excruciating. And I don't know any writer who doesn't say the same thing."

Amen brother man.

And finally, A Spirituality of Art
Here's would-be chapter four of the book, asking the question, What does it mean for a Christian to be an artist and for an artist to be a Christian?

Oh, and one more thing
My brother-in-law, Cliff Warner, has just taken up the post of priest at Holy Trinity Episcopal here in Austin. Practically, that means my sister and their four kids are moving to town, to which I say Hooray and Hoorah! It also means we have one honest-to-God evangelical priest in the city of Austin, to which I say, Yay for Austin!

A SPIRITUALITY OF ART: THE ARTIST AS DISCIPLINED & VIRTUOUS

A. The vocation of the artist

1. General thoughts on vocation

2. Specific thoughts on the vocation of artists

a. Dorothy Sayers
b. Calvin Seerveld
c. Nicholas Wolterstorff
d. Matthew Fox
e. Jeremy Begbie

3. Further thoughts on the vocation of artists

a. Our calling, as responsible servants of God, is to help people make sense of their sensory and aesthetic experience of the world.
b. We do this by converting their eyes to see and to understand the world—all of it—from God’s perspective. We do this through the instruments of the imagination, feeling, sensory data, and the arts. We do this by providing people with aesthetically heightened experiences.

B. The artist as disciplined

1. The artist as human being

2. The artist as Christian

3. The artist as disciple

4. The artist as disciplined

C. The artist in community

1. Identity formation: Born into community, found in community

2. Vocation formation: Made from community, made for community

3. Solitude and community

D. The artist as vicious and virtuous

1. Ten vices of the artist

2. Ten virtues of the artist

E. Conclusion

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