A mini-report from the Trinity Arts Conference
I've not blogged in nearly four weeks. I'm not sure whether I should be impressed or miffed or happily indifferent about the fact. Stick it to the god of identity-by-way-of-productivity? But my Turkey travels and the preparations for the Trinity Arts Conference have left me mentally poohed out. I've been the Bear of a Very Little Brain lately.
Thankfully, my soul's been thoroughly nourished over the past weeks. I'll need to organize my Turkey reflections before I commit them to writing, so I'll wait till later in the week to post. For now, I'll drop a few observations on the TAC and copy part one of my talk.
There were six of us guest artist-speakers on the bill: Dr. James Patrick, philosopher extraordinaire and jolly old fellow at the College of St. Thomas More in Fort Worth; Bob Cording, poet and professor of creative writing at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts (also Vizzini soundalike); Mary Kenagy, the managing editor for Image Journal, and could-be-would-be radiant Jane Austen heroine; Pamela Nelson, who has a four year appointment to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to review public art and architecture projects, and was the kind of arts grandma everybody needs in their life; Claire Holley, a native Mississippian singer-songwriter, living now in LA, is friends with an old high school friend of mine, Sarah Hendren. Claire's music is gorgeous. She struck me as a kind of hybrid between Holly Hunter and Patty Griffin. I honestly don't know why more people don't know who she is. But here's my two pieces of rah-rah to say: Buy her music! Rah rah rah, Claire!
We Ate and Drank our fill
We ate and drank art for three good days at the University of Dallas' Haggerty Arts Complex. We sat on panels and could have talked about the theme "All Things" all day long. It was rich. It jump-started our minds and souls. I hung out with Anita Horton, our guest artist at the HopeArts fest back in 2002. We drank wine and funny cheese late nights in the dormitory lounge. We argued about rock n roll ("all sentimentality, passion and disorganization"), the church as "temple" space, and the strange ability of atheists to both see and deny the existence of God in their lives (cf. 100 Artists See God). Phaedra got loads of compliments on her art work, and the two of us had a great time together. Kim Alexander and Mike Capps, the two organizers, modeled the perfect hospitality for "conferencing reality." I led discussions on the movies "Ulee's Gold" and "Maria Full of Grace." I talked arts ministry with Methodist and Bible Church guys. I met Arthur Morton, the former arts pastor at Irving Bible Church. We asked the question: What is our responsibility to the youth?
All in all it was a blessed thing to have been a part of this gathering of artists, my crack-loopy, weary brain notwithstanding. It does remind me, though, that the "thoughty" Christian art culture is pretty small. You have CIVA, Image/Glen, IAM, the FFW, the B&C, the ICW, a handful of colleges/seminaries, the TAC, and that's about it. It's a small village and there aren't many young people hanging about. What to do . . . what to do. . . .
Here are A Few Quotables
"If what the artists in our museums and halls disturbs you, don't blame the artists. They are simply seeing the truth around them." Dr. Patrick. "They're telling the secrets of our own hearts."
"When everyone's rich, fat and sassy, it's hard to say technology is bad." Dr. Patrick
It's only when you enter a culture of comfort that a revolution such as happened in the 1960s could take place. (paraphrase of Dr. Patrick)
"The object of architecture is the ethical domain." (I can't remember who was being quoted here.)
The tension? "The generosity of all things and the greed of all things." Pamela Nelson
I wish I had more from the other speakers, but I just couldn't keep up with it all. Audio recordings are available for each.
Permissible but not Profitable?
One of the interesting questions which was asked to the panel, which I sat on, was: When are all things permissible but not beneficial? That is, how do we go about making good decisions about what to make or what to do with our art? Phaedra wrote down a summary of each person's answer and I may get her to jot it down electronically.
My first thought was to recall an epiphany I'd had two years ago. It was a lit-up billboard in my head that said: "Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should." Dr. Patrick picked up on this and mentioned that this was a peculiarly contemporary problem. With so many choices, so many possibilities for Americans, we no longer want to be human, we want to be super-human; we want to transcend human limitations (so genetic engineering, so the never-ending capacity to generate artificial light and thereby create artificial bio-rhythms). And the only result of such a venture is to do damage to ourselves.
I shared about my experience from the Spring of 2002 when I had allowed the first three scenes of "Sarah's Children" to be performed on Sunday morning. In lieu of the sermon, I had suggested we let the congregation view the lives of the patriarchs in dramatic form, not oratorical (i.e. the sermon). The problem was, not only did it leave folks hanging (with an abruptly stopped story), it left them disturbed (with themes of sexual dysfunctionality). Long story there, but the lesson learned was that context is everything. Not all art is good for all settings, nor for all people. The intent of the work and the desired audience matter as much as the actual piece itself. In my case, I had not served the purposes for which the people had gathered: to encounter the living God. I'd made a mistake and I had to live through it twice, once in the first service and again, in dreadful, miserable anticipation, in the second.
How should I have made a better decision? I now understand that I needed to have listened better. But how? And to whom? I suggested a fourfold listening exercise:
1. We listen to the voice of the Spirit.
2. We listen to the voice of God through the written Word.
3. We listen to our consciences/our intuition.
4. We listen, carefully and slowly, to the voice of our community.
To practice the discipline of listening means that you end up going slower. You can't rush a good decision. But the result will inevitably be a better, wiser decision--one that is beneficial to your audience. Lots of things we can do as artists are permissible; very little of our work is ever an act of outright evil. But the question--the difficult, complicated question--is whether our work, our song or film, our poem or painting, is beneficial. Of course we recognize that beneficial is not to be confused with easy or non-disruptive. Jesus spoke beneficial words, but they weren't pretty. They were beautiful--but not always comfortable. So what is good for your soul, artistically speaking, might not taste good; but like your vitamins and vegetables, you should eat it anyway.
Our prayer, then, is that God would give us all a humble heart and a good community to walk out our major decisions as artists. Sometimes our community will speak as one: "Go for it!" or "Don't do it!" Sometimes it will speak as many, and we will have an equal number of wise, godly men and women telling us opposite things. At that moment we must simply ask God to help us love him and our neighbor with all our heart, do what is truthful, and then trust that whatever we do, will turn out ok.
Those Young People!?
On the question of what we should be doing about the young people, many of whom could care less about authority or tradition, my encouragement was for us to figure out how to harness their passions, how to re-direct these wild, God-given passions toward something life-giving. I also feel strongly that one of the most important uses of our time and energies as adults is to mentor. How does any kid turn out alright? It's because he's had an older person, mother or father or surrogate of both, invest in his life, 24/7. Kids these days, like kids at any other time in history, need hero-mentors, men and women they can look up to and emulate. None of us is perfect, but everyone of us has something invaluable to offer kids who are hungry for any kind of mentoring, any kind of spirited direction.
No doubt, it's a lot of energy and stress to do it right, but the good that could come out of it, for the church and the world, is incalculable.
The conference is now over and with it the official passing of Spring. My Spring has been inordinately long and full. I'm exhausted. I traveled probably too much for my health. I'm desperately ready for a quiet season. All I want to do this summer is putter around. I'll preach and write and keep up my basic pastoral duties. But what would make me really happy is to work in my yard, or to cook, or to read the Illiad, or to take my nephews and nieces to a Wet n Wild water park. I need fun and loads of silence in order to be ready for the Fall.
Right now I'm going to the grocery store. My cupboards are empty. And then it's World Cup time.
(PHOTO: Notice for a public toilet at the exit to the ruins at Ephesus. I've no idea what they had in mind, but I know I was tempted to visit the bathroom just to experience whatever magic awaited me in there.)