Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Dropping in on NYC: Parte Dos (also the Final Part)


A TOP TEN OF MY BLUSTERY VISIT TO NYC

10. The Theme of our Lives

The theme of IAM's conference was: Artists as Reconcilers. Here's how they (i.e. the International Arts Movement) describe it:

"IAM believes artists to be articulators of hope and integration in our broken culture. And yet we know today artists are known mostly for their rebellion, alienation, addiction and apathy. We aim to catalyze a movement of artists to be agents of cultural “Shalom” . . . . [thereby fostering a] Reconciliation of artists to themselves, Reconciliation of artists with the Church, Reconciliation of artists with God.

With our vision, we desire to present artists as catalysts for creative peacemaking, responsible stewardship of nature, and inspiration for collaboration. . . ."

Mako Fujimura's pre-conference essay can be found here. You will not regret having read it.

9. A Quotable Qonference

This was definitely the gathering of quotable people. Here are a few I managed to capture in real time. Some of these are like the New Living Bible: mostly word for word.

W. H. Auden via Dana Gioia, NEA kahuna: "You must love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart."

Nietzsche: "The poets lie too much."

Ian Cron on St. Francis: "The only animal St. Francis didn't like were the ants. He loved them, but he endured them mainly. Why? Because they worked too hard."

Ian Cron, author of Chasing Francis: "When the front door of the intellect is closed, often the back door of the imagination is open."

Betty Spackman, author of the definitive work on kitsch, A Profound Weakness: "If someone clings to a kitschy nightlight of Jesus, I'm not going to criticize them. I haven't given them an alternative to look at." This is a comment made about our too quick tendency to ridicule or criticize the consumption of kitsch, when we, the so-called sophisticated artists, haven't extended ourselves to them--humbly, not proudly--by offering them richer experiences of art.

8. The Twenty-Minute Evangelization of my Muslim Taxi Driver

There' s one thing you cannot deny about my new pal the Great Gatsby: he's bold. We jumped into a taxi in Upper West Manhattan and drove the length of the city south to Greenwhich Village. Our driver's name was Adel, Adel the Muslim taxi guy (cf. "25th Hour").

"Good morning, Adel, how are you doing?" the Gatsby says brightly. "Oh, good, yes, thank you." And statement #2 goes like this: "Well, Adel, it's a good morning because God has made it and we rejoice in it because we are followers of Jesus. Do you know Jesus, Adel?"

I confess I am dumbfounded. I haven't done cold turkey evangelism since my Moody Bible Institute days back in 1990. But the Great Gatsby treats it not like an exercise in Evangelism Explosion but as the most natural thing in the world, as if he'd said, "Have you had a good bagel lately!"

My friend isn't naive. He's got more books stacked in his apartment than most small-town libraries. His memory is colossal. He quotes me a philosopher one moment, a marketing analyst the next and an obscure 19th-century writer the next. He's genius.

And yet here he is talking to Adel the-cartoon-disgruntled-Muslim about Jesus. We talked about other things along the way, but the last thing out of my friends mouth as we are stepping out of the taxi--literally, one foot in, one foot out--was, "So Adel, I just want to encourage you to consider Jesus. If you are in a bad way, pray to him. He will listen to you."

And with that we whooshed out of the taxi and dove into the nearest Starbucks.

7. Ripping Pants, Stankin' Armpits

Sitting in an Indian restaurant with Ian Cron, I went to adjust my pants and the next thing I know they rip right across my right knee. I have only one pair of pants and they're my absolute favorite. I now look thoroughly UN-NewYorkCity-hip. My mother would not be pleased.

Instead of traveling back to the Upper West, I decide to stay two nights with a friend in Greenwhich. It is a traveling convenience but a hygenic inconvenience. I walk, I run, I sit, I stand indoors and out and I sleep in the same clothing three days in a row and boy I stank. It was a good thing the weather was 22F. It's what I call "saved by the European deodorant."

6. A Quote That Deserves Its Own Number

Paul Claudel: "If salt has lost its flavour, wherewith shall it be salted? With sugar!"

5. Exponential Growth

I've been paying attention to this churchy arts ministry stuff since the mid-nineties and I can say this: things are speeding up. There is more stuff happening in more places at faster rates. I met so many people who are doing things with the arts in their churches or perhaps just about to. Even in the two years since I last visited NYC--for the express purpose of finding artsy churches--things have accelerated. It's all rather dizzyingly interesting.

4. Rob Mathes and SNL and David Letterman and Other Famous People

Rob is a Charlie Peacock: more known for the people he helps than for his own music. But dude, the man is talented. He gave us a 45 min. concert Friday night that featured two trumpets, two sax, two trombones, an electric guitar, a bass guitar (played by a guy who plays on the Letterman show), a pianist, and a drummer (who plays with the SNL band). Rob has orchestrated music for a number of stars including recent records by Rod Stewart, Lou Reed, George Michael, Celine Dion, Vanessa Carlton, Tim McGraw, Michael Bolton, Elton John, R Kelly, Natalie Cole, and Marc Anthony. His songs have been recorded by folks from Bonnie Raitt to Aaron Neville, Wynonna Judd to Alabama.

He's blah blah blah famous. And he leads worship for Ian's church in Greenwich, CT. Not a bad life. You can check him out here.

3. It's not about money!

Dana Gioia, Chairman for the National Endowment of the Arts, and a man who sees lots of poor artists, rich artists, famous artists, nobody artists, said this:

"It's not about money. Do it even if they try to stop it. If it's a good idea, it will find money. All great things started with passion and imagination."

Hearing that was a shot of encouragement.

2. Two thoughts

One: an insight into my work as a pastor. A good pastor is not that different from a good parent: we seek to provide freedom within structure, a vast permission to experiment as far as the imagination allows yet also inviting into obedience, and a playfulness that never dies but always reaches for a growing maturity.

Two: a Croation teaching theology at Yale, Miroslav Volf: Postmodernity, or Modernity Phase 2, is a reaction against all boundaries. It is a freedom to be whoever I want to be, to shape myself however I wish without constraints. It is thus an essentialist transgressiveness. To be, the regnant art world tells us, is to transgress. To be an "important" artist, that is, is one who is always transgressing the boundaries. Such a person knows how to tear down but he doesn't know how to build up, he does not know how to create a positive vision of life.

But you have to have boundaries--good boundaries, healthy boundaries--to have a world, and to be a full person. Many artists do not have a holistic vision of the good that can hold together all the parts of their lives, and if there is one thing that human soul hates is fragmentation.

1. What is kitsch?

According to Betty Spackman: "Faith in drag."

But to be fair, she also said this (loosely translated): Making expensive art that lasts only a week is like making an expensive dinner for friends. What matters greatly is the process that takes place over the course of the meal. What matters more than anything is the converation that did take place because of the event, the meal, the art.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Dropping in on NYC: Parte Uno

DAY 1: CRUISING BARELY ON A JET BLUE

Adventures in movies are always better edited than real life. Always. Mine began rash and romantic but quickly has became slow, frightening and very questionable. My flight has been delayed. I sit now on the floor of Gate 19, restless and grousy tired and wondering, "Is Jet Blue SAFE?"

And why isn't it called Blue Jet? Jet Blue is weird.

5:51 pm. A grizzle-faced stereotype-of-a-New Yorker wants to talk to me. I don't. My body language is not succeeding in its attempt to communicate Closed For Business Introvert Over Here. I'm an INTJ. I've got lots of I going on right now. Ok, fine, I'll ask him a question but I'm not ready for the four spiritual laws. "Watcha doing here?" I ask.

13 minutes later. He never asked me back. No arts pastor explanation today.

8:48 pm. On the plane. This plane is SWEET! Brand spanking new, fancy light fixtures, foamy soap, it's even got that yummy toxic new carpet smell. This plane rocks.

I even get to watch Television!

Not having one at home I feel like a missionary kid again. Back when we'd visit Houston, TX, in the early '80s, the rich church would put us up in the Guest Quarters double suit, super hot, trampoline-bed, free Cokes hotel. I'm watching Dog Eat Dog right now, a reality show that features three hot buxom women and three hot muscular men playing silly games against each other for a wad of money. This is truly awesome.

9:33 pm. On the plane. I have *no* idea where I'm going to stay tonight, how I'm going to get there, how much it's all going to cost or why exactly I said yes--and the cell phone sans charger I borrowed at the last moment just went dead. My only consolation, I figure, no matter what happens, is that I'll have a good story to tell my yet-to-be-born children. First, I need to get married, then the story. This is definitely not the smartest thing I've done in a long time.

And now it's time for The Amazing Race.

Sweet.

10:14 pm/11:14 pm (EST). Arrive. I exit the terminal with no one to meet me. I have a dead cell phone. I look for the pay phones and call the Great Gatsby with my calling card. Nothing. Only his answering message. I look to my right and a wizened black airport bag handler sits hunched over his cell phone playing a shooter game. I feel like the kid in the 1950s looking through the window at the candy shelf. He's got a charger plugged in the wall. I swallow my introvertedness and pluck a pisca of courage. "Sir . . . um, well, uh, I've got a problem . . . would it be all right if I borrow your charger?" He looks up at me head-cocked, squints, grumbles yes. It doesn't fit. He goes back to playing his game. I wait a few minutes, still the kid looking through the window. This is no time for pride, no time for fear. It's What Would MacGyver Do time. I can do it. "Sir. I'm sorry to bother you again, but would it be possible to borrow your phone?" He chews his gum, mumbles yes again. The Great Gatsby answers and through breathless exuberance gives me his address: Upper West Manhattan. I exit the airport into a windswept tunel of taxis. More than you could ever hope for.

11:51 pm. Sitting in the yellow soccer mom mini-van taxi, driven by Jean Baptiste, back speakers squeaking out a tinny Bob Marley, I watch the Brooklyn lights skim by like tired fireflies. Or maybe it's my eyes that are the tired fireflies.

"How's the weather these days?" I ask Jean from Jamaica.

"Oh, fine, you know," he answers with a thick baritone accent.

"How long you been driving?"

"Oh, 12 years, you know."

"Wow," I say, "I guess you know the city pretty well, huh?" Stupid question, I know, I know.

"Oh, yes."

"How many hours do you work a day?"

"Oh, about 14 hours, you know." He gets a call from his woman and excuses himself, something about a late dinner.

"So where you from?" I ask after a silence.

"Oh . . . well, Haiti."

"Oh." Oops. I search my mental google for any Haiti anything. "So what'd you think about the recent elections?"

"Oh . . . you know, it's always the same, always the same. Everybody just wants the same things, you know, food and peace, a little happiness too, you know?" Marley croons in the backseat, "Buffalo soldiers," and we ride on in silence.

1:25 am. I fall asleep on the Great Gatsby's white couch. Everything's going to be fine now.


"Poetry is a way of remembering what would impoverish us without it." --Robert Frost

Thursday, February 23, 2006

My Tea with the Mayor of Austin

A really, really wild thing happened to me today--really wild--and I was offered by a Great Gatsby type--this very morning--and he really is like the Great Gatsby--to fly me to New York City for an arts conference (the IAM thing with Makoto Fujimura; where Ann Cogdell is at the moment). After speedy thought, rapid prayer, and swift conversation with Jack and Steve, I've decided to go.

It's feeling like an enormously un-characteristic, insanity inducing thing for me to do, but here I go.

I have 30 minutes till I leave for the airport and I haven't even packed.

I feel like a character in a novel.

And I don't know what the weather is like in NYC. Cold, but what kind of cold.

Ack! Twenty minutes to pack!

Oh--and I did have tea this morning with a former mayor of Austin. Crazy morning.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

An Artsy Mission Trip to Istanbul, Turkey


I've sent this out to the HopeArts community but thought I'd drop it here in case anybody else is interested. We're taking a team of artists to Istanbul this summer. Here are the basics.

WHAT: an arts-focused mission trip to Istanbul, Turkey

WHEN: May 26 - June 10, 2006

WHO: visual and performing artists, in particular artists who are considerably skilled in the drawing arts as well as musicians, actors, dancers, slam poets and filmmakers.

THE SCHEDULE:
May 26 - leave Austin
May 27 - arrive Istanbul
May 28 - Robert College's 24th Annual Fine Art Festival. Robert College is an American private high school in İstanbul, Turkey, the oldest American school outside the US, founded in 1863.
May 29-30 - sight-seeing and resting up
May 31 - June 4 - The International Tünel Art Festival hosts artists from all around the world--literally--and includes visual and plastic arts as well as performing arts including music, dance and theatre. About 50,000 make it out to the festival. Neither of these festivals is hosted by Christians, they are bona fide Istanbul-run festivals. Side-walk chalk-drawing and performances comprise the primary work we will do.
June 5 - 9 - meeting with Turkish believers, Christian workers and people we connected with at the festival.
June 10 - travel home

APPLICATIONS: are available in the foyer and church office (512-377-3900)

DEADLINE: to apply is March 12th.

COST: approximately $2375.00, and the bulk of this will be the plane ticket. Once we're on the ground, things are cheap. Five training sessions will be given for preparation of team-members. Note: It goes without saying that concerns about money should not prevent anyone from going. All things are possible.

INFORMATIONAL MEETING: Tuesday, March 7 at 7:00 pm at Hope.

ANY QUESTIONS: feel free to ask David Taylor or the Unaguest.

LAST THOUGHT: This will be a no-cheese, culturally resonant artistic venture. It will also be an incredible opportunity for us to be a part of the already-happening art scene in Istanbul, with the hope that relationships would form as a result of our work as artists and a winsome spirit of Jesus. If you know anyone who would be interested, please pass this on to them.

FOR EXAMPLES FROM LAST YEAR SEE:

Our Liaison in Istanbul: Ronald Lopez, gallery owner of Robert’s College and its Festival

The International Tünel Art Festival

Monday, February 20, 2006

Christian Art = Good Art


"By the words 'Christian Art' I do not mean Church art. . . . I mean Christian art in the sense of art which bears within it the character of Christianity. . . . It is the art of redeemed humanity."

--Jacques Maritain, "Christian Art," Art & Scholasticism

I fear I may be beating a dead horse--or a horse that is really more than happy to run--by returning to this subject, but something about the way Maritain put it back in 1974 has crystallized my thoughts. Perhaps that is one of the gifts of beautiful writing: that it not only makes wonderful sense of the world around us, it induces our own thoughts to become clearer, sharper, even stellar. Like a generous master, this kind of writing makes us better, let's us, the apprentice, shine.

The point is, I think he has helped me say my words better. Like this:

There are three parts to the equation that make what we might call, in the broadest sense, Christian Art:

1) the Christian imagination
2) the instruments of art
3) Christian fruit

Put simply, the Christian imagination when expressed through the instruments of art produces Christian fruit. Now this statement could just as easily have been written by a Politics pastor or an Educations pastor. The only difference is the instrument used to give expression to the Christian imagination.

There is something internal (the imaginative worldview), there is a lens or screen (the instrument), and there is something external (the work). In the words of Maritain, how can a tree nurtured by living waters, the theological virtues, and the gifts of the Spirit, in short the life of Christ, not bear Christ-like fruit? Is not a tree known by its fruit?

Yes. But what is Christian fruit but another way of saying redeemed fruit? And how is this simply not another way of saying good fruit? Whether one eats of it while sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning, munching on hymns or sipping sermons, or while walking through a public park or a local gallery makes no difference, none of substance that is, only context. Whether you eat a good meal at your kitchen table or at a fancy restaurant, the food works its nutritional and savory magic equally the same. Does it matter that the environment of the fancy restaurant produced an exponential, all-encompassing aesthetic effect that your kitchen was unable to match? Sure.

But that's like saying that the two-hour Alvin Ailey dance performance I watched at the perfectly silent, perfectly lit concert hall was aesthetically more delicious than the five-minute liturgical dance I viewed at the non-perfectly silent, non-perfectly lit church service on Sunday. Both were done excellently, but how can an appetizer compete with a five-course meal prepared by one of the best dancerly chefs of the 20th century? It can't.

But it doesn't matter. Both were beautiful, both were good for the body--and, to bring the analogy back to itself, both were good for the soul.

Maritain writes: "The entire soul of the artist reaches and rules the work, but it must reach it and rule it only through the artistic habitus" (italics his). Whether art is made in the church or for the church, or whether it is made for the classroom or stage or public square, makes no difference theologically speaking. The only questions are two: 1) is it good? and 2) are you obeying God's calling on your life? Your calling might be to make art, so to speak, for the temple. Your calling might be to make art for life outside the temple. Our life of worship, discipleship and evangelism, "temple life," is only one part of God's economy. The rest of the divine economy includes wondrous inventions such as sport and law, industrial engineering and animal husbandry, and yes, art and entertainment, all ventures belonging to the original program of creation: tend the garden, be fruitful and multiply, love your neighbor.

Let me take a detour for the moment. Can unregenerate sinners make good fruit? Yes. Yes, because God enables them to do so. Yes, because they have not completely forgotten what goodness tastes like; they've not completely forgotten the garden. The image of God in them is not dead, it is simply sick unto death. If it were completely dead, we would have only pure evil, and there is only one kind of creature that is purely evil and that is the demonic creature. Humans, on the other hand, however dimly, still recognize goodness when they see it; they even desire it. Theologians call this common grace, i.e. a grace common to all humankind.

The non-Christian cannot accomplish in his own power the regeneration of his heart, only God can do that. But he can do good things--disburse potable water, heart surgery equipment, Fiddler on the Roof musicals--many good things indeed that remind him that it is good to be alive: that life is better than death. Granted, he often makes a miserable mess of his life because his heart is terminally ill, but oddly enough his works of art often betray his love for the Good ("Man of La Mancha"), the True ("In the Heat of the Night"), and the Beautiful ("The Nutcracker"). He can't quite seem to shake that mysterious lust for eternity lodged in his heart.

At issue here, fundamentally I think, is the recovery of a good term: Christian. Christian, among many things, is a way of being. It is also a form of belonging. I am a Christian because I belong to Christ, to God in Christ. To be a Christian is to become like Christ. And to become like Christ is to become at last a truly true human being. That is, of course, what God set about to accomplish in the rescue mission called Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection: to show and to return us back to our truest selves. And if this is true, then the Christian artist has only two worries in his life, two itty-bitty worries: 1) How can I grow into the full measure of Christ, and 2) How can I grow my artistic muscles?

If I fill my mind, my heart and my life with the richest of Christian treasures--good theology, good worship and prayer, good acts of social justice and neighborly kindness, good friendships--how will my imagination not be swimming with supersensory goodness? How will my imagination not care about the things Christ cares about: color, children, chlorophyl, human commerce? How will my imagination not begin to see the world, St. Paul and St. Dorcas, Jerusalem and Athens, the Vatican and the Met, as Christ sees it? It will!

But my Christian piety and doctrine cannot tell me, in any specific way, how to become a better actor. Only acting can. Good actors, good teachers, good books, good directors and plays and experiences, in short the muscular apparatus of acting—only these things can help me become a better actor. If I want to become a Christ-honoring, neighbor-loving doctor, then I need to learn medicine, not divinity, I need to attend a medical school, not a seminary. So too with all the arts.

But the whole essay comes to a screeching halt if one thing is denied: that the vocation of the artist belongs to the Kingdom. It should be obvious where I stand on this, so I'll not bother with any kind of defense. I press on and say that if art is important and if the vocation of the artist matters to God, then we open up for ourselves the possibility that the Christian artist, like any other vocation, is free, as St. Augustine once put it, to love God, truly love God, and then to do whatever he likes. Or as Maritain insists, it’s "futile to try to find a technique, a style, a system of rules or a way of working which would be those of Christian art. The art which germinates and grows in Christian man can admit of an infinity of them."

So let me return to my beginning. Of the three parts of the original equation, we need worry only about the first two: the formation of the Christian imagination and the development of artistic skill. At Hope we're doing everything we can to foster a rich imagination, full of Christ. Through preaching, through small group studies, through the passing around of books and the sharing of experiences, we seek to grow the true knowledge of God in our lives. That true knowledge is not theory only, it is en-earthed through genuine, though often difficult community. And it is within this community that we seek to encourage one another to continue growing, learning and stretching the artistic muscles. We don't always get it right, but I think we're surely stumbling in a good direction.

And what about the "Christian fruit" part? Well, I'd say it comes down to this: whatever “fruit” you produce, whether it's "genius" or not, whether it's our style or not, whether we get it or whether we don't, the most important thing is that you keep making it. God has created you, artistic tree that you are, to bear fruit, so that's what you need to be doing, however much you can. Whatever it is, it will be most worthy of a tasty celebration!

"Do not say that a Christian art is impossible. Say rather that it is difficult, doubly difficult -- fourfold difficult, because it is difficult to be an artist and very difficult to be a Christian, and because the total difficulty is not simply the sum but the product of these two difficulties multiplied by one another: for it is a question of harmonizing two absolutes. Say that the difficulty becomes tremendous when the entire age lives far from Christ, for the artist is greatly dependent upon the spirit of his time. But has courage ever been lacking on earth?" —Jacques Maritain

(PICTURE: Byron Tate on harmonica, "Battle of the Bands," HopeArts Fest 2003, Momo's club.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Can Evangelicals Make Great Art? (Part II)


Pop quiz: How does one write about art when a Pakistani Muslim cleric has just issued a $1 million bounty on the head of a Danish cartoonist? Does this not seem absurd, out of tune, uncouth? How does a man sitting at his kitchen table in a little house, numbered 1002 Arcadia Ave, looking through his red-painted french doors out onto a thickly grey day in the north of Austin, Texas, some 9,600 miles away from the durm und strang, the storm and stress and angry fire, react but laugh? Be appalled? Do we stop and pray, and ask God to remind us why each of us does what he does, to re-rationalize my occupation, to re-connect my dot of a life to that other life, the comprehensible to the incomprehensible?

Yes, all the above.

I cannot keep writing pretending that nothing has changed in our world, or merely that one bad piece of news is no different than any other. A great bile of wickedness has been released into the human bloodstream. It is all very complicated, very sobering, and we Americans are not above blame, but I cannot write as if the brokenness of this world is simply "over there," irrelevant to me, here in my quiet 1955, pecan tree-shaded, lawn-trimmed house, far, far away from the flag-burnings, mad riots and death-threats. Death-threats. Either it matters that I write about art today or it doesn't matter. Either I must continue my "good works" (Eph. 2:10) or I must find a better, "more relevant" work.

I believe I must continue. Either it matters on the bad, horrible, no good days or it matters not at all. Art cannot only matter on the good, peaceable days. It cannot only matter when we have nothing else to do. Why? Because it is not a hobby, like scuba-diving or stamp-collecting, it is a calling. It is not a luxury. It is a calling. It is a holy calling that demands a seriousness that plows through all the distractions and terrors that surround us. It is a calling that demands, yes, even this: a playfulness, a terrible playfulness that fires into being light and joy despite the chaos that threatens to despoil us our faith in a God who redeems us from within the darkness, not without it, through the cross not apart from it.

Either I make art because it has turned into a conviction or I make it because it is simply my opinion. It is the former. I make it out of and in the conviction that it will lead to the shalom of this world, not just for me and my friends, but for that Muslim cleric and all of his friends. I make my work, I write my aesthetics, I pastor artists mindful of that man and all those who suffer, praying that God will take my art to heaven like the prayers of the saints and release it for the good of this earth however He deems fit.

I'm keeping my laptop open.

However . . . I've spent more time on this tangent longer than I imagined and I've run out of time. I need to get back to the office. But I'd like to download my original thought, which was this:

How does a great artist become great?

The answer, it strikes me, has everything to do with cultures: one's personal culture (talent, ambition, divine endowment), family culture, religious culture, professional/guild culture, and the broader, social culture. I guess in what has become Part III I'll unpack what I mean by this, that great art does not simply happen, it is cultivated.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Alvin Ailey's Kinetic Beauty


As a part of my continuing art education, Phaedra and I attended a performance tonight of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was truly some of the most enthusiastically joyful, athletically graceful dance I've seen in a long time. It was phenomenal. About halfway through the show I thought to myself, "Well, if the show ends now, I've gotten my money's worth." I don't always think that about the shows I see at the Bass Concert Hall, Austin's largest performance auditorium.

Particularly beautiful--that is, intensely, richly beautiful, the kind that awakens desire for mad-hot heaven-bound ballroom and where you find yourself saying, thank God for bodies--were "Night Creature," which used Duke "Roaming through the jungle of 'oohs' and 'ahs,' searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitively with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats" Ellington's electrifying jazz compositions, and "Revelations," Alvin Ailey's signature masterpiece that explores African-American spirituals that encompass songs of love, struggle and deliverance--and not a little bit of bad-to-the-bone, foot-stompin', get-me-out-of-my-seat and wish-I'd-been-born-black goodness.

I'd like to say I was responsible for their encore, since I was the only white boy out of the 2 to 3000 in attendance leaning over the nose-bleed second balcony, hollaring "Ennnnn-core," and whooping and whistling like an uncivilized concert-goer, but probably not. And it didn't matter why, it just mattered that they did. And God Almighty I wished I'd been down on that stage shaking a little boo-tay myself.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

10 Marks of a Healthy, Mature Christian



I am about to begin a project with Hope Chapel that asks the question:

What are 10 marks of a healthy, mature Christian?

This isn't a discipleship question per se, but a wholistic Christian question. That is, when you look around you and see a person whom you regard as healthy and mature, what is it about them that you notice, that you admire, what is it perhaps that has helped them become that way, a mature person?

Examples would include such things as: a healthy, mature Christian always has a good mother and father over them, even if it's not their biological parents, a mentor perhaps. A healthy, mature Christian always seeks to keep a (long-standing) close group of friends who keep them rigorously accountable. A healthy, mature Christian always has a teachable heart; is down-to-earth; is winsome; is generous-hearted; reads books outside their tradition; knows how to have fun and not take themselves too seriously; has healthy conflict-resolution habits; and so on.

The goal is to turn this into a bible study guide that groups would be able to work through. I confess I get rather excited about the project. Partly it's because it answers an old, nagging question, What kind of persons ought we to become? How can we help each other practically speaking become that kind of person? What vision do we put before our brothers and sisters in Christ for them to behold and to aspire towards?

I see too many Christians circling on the merrygoround of their same issues, same bad habits, and it seems to me that something is wrong, awfully wrong--with us, with the system, with our spiritualities--if people don't experience any kind of significant growth or freedom five, ten years down the line.

So I've presented this project to the leaders of Hope Chapel in the hopes that together, over the course of the next 6-8 months, we'll be able to put together a booklet that would include a 1-2 page reflection, a set of Scriptures, a series of group discussion questions, and a few application exercises (a la Richard Foster's Devotional Classics). So we'll see.

As always, if you have any suggestions, my ears are wide open.
(PICTURE: Michael Ortiz, "Kobold in the Sun," watercolor, inspired by C. S. Lewis' novel Till We Have Faces, 2005 HopeArts Festival art exhibit. Click on pic for larger version.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

"An Evangelical Church in the Roman Catholic Tradition"


If that sounds like a misnomer or a clever sleight of words, it isn't. It's a church. It's an honest-to-God church located in Inverness, Illinois, a stone's throw from Willow Creek Community Church.

Pop-quiz: Is it

a) An evangelical church that has embraced Roman Catholic "traditions"?
b) An Anglo-Catholic church with a strong but curious evangelical spirit?
c) A Roman Catholic church with a strong but curious evangelical spirit?
d) Neither of the above?
e) Initially c but then a?
f) Initially a but then b and then c?

(This is totally reminding me of the GRE. Brrr.)

I first came across a description of the church in an old Catholic Digest (Aug. 2001). It began like this:

"As people flocked to the nondenominational Willow Creek Community Church in the then primarily farmland northwest of Chicago, the Catholic Church took notice, for good reason. Ex-Catholics made up 60 to 75% of its membership. Something desperately wrong had happened during Catholicism’s move from the tightly knit, often ethnic neighborhoods in the heart of Chicago to the suburbs.

In 1984, the archdiocese decided to take a hard look at Willow Creek’s obvious appeal. First came a series of meetings in Catholic homes, then services in a local public high school cafeteria. Finally, after a three-year discernment process, the archdiocese purchased 16 acres of farmland in Inverness, Illinois, and founded a new parish community, Holy Family."

Thus the answer to the pop-quiz: C. It is, then, an odd way to describe themselves--an "Evangelical Church" in the Roman Catholic "tradition" (why not the reverse?)--but perhaps not so odd in the shadow and under the influence of Bill Hybel's seeker-friendly mega-church. Holy Family, by the way, welcomes around 10,000 to its services. So strange bedfellows indeed.

Artistically, they have two interesting programs of note:

1. Art & Environment, which seeks "to inspire the religious imagination of our community for the liturgical seasons through textiles, colors and smell."
2. Living Arts, which invites "interested parishioners gather to pray with, draw out, and develop the liturgical arts, including drama, dance, story, song, and other arts."

They also, curiously, have a "charismatic prayer group" whose description sounds very Hope Chapel-ish.

Most interesting to me is how Holy Family represents the kind of massive cross-pollination that churches in North America have experienced since the 1960s: Catholics wanting to become Evangelicals and vice-versa, charismatics borrowing from the "traditions" and vice-versa, the seeker-friendly becoming weary of their seekerness and seeking instead a demanding spirituality--and vice-versa.

There's a saying in Spanish that my father throws out every now and then: "De todo hay en la vina del Senor," which roughly translated means, "There's a lot of everything in the vineyard of the Lord." This is surely true of our intra- and inter-Church relations, between Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and beyond. Yet the question is this: How much of the "everything" will we swap back and forth? Obviously we're swapping methods and practicals, but how much of our essential and secondary doctrines will we swap before we no longer recognize our former ourselves? How long will this swapping go on? How will our children's generation decide to relate to each other?

This massive swapping is really a uniquely North American habit. We do it with great ease and alacrity. I wonder though when what is easy to our generation will become hard or inappropriate or radically different to the next two or three generations, in particular as the church becomes more globally cross-pollinated.

I guess I'll see that soon enough.

(THE PICTURE: "Station IX: Jesus Falls a Third Time," by John Cobb. The painting, in gold egg-tempera, hung at Hope Chapel as a part of the Stations of the Cross exhibit in 2003. John lived most of his life as a Baptist before converting to Catholicism in his forties. He lives as a modern hermit and remains a good friend of our arts community.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Can Evangelicals Make Great Art?



Ever run across a lingering smell in your house? A weird smell. Or a lingering sound at work, a sound you can't track down or wonder whether it's in your head? Yes? No. Well, over the last few years I have kept running across a lingering suspicion that evangelicals, at the end of the day, are not capable, really, of producing great works of art. We can produce amazing spectacles (the Crystal Cathedral), we can create powerful vehicles for evangelism (the Jesus Movie), but we can't --we won't--generate a "classic" work of art. We're just too darn project-driven, word-centric, aesthetically minimalist. With all the souls that need to be won and discipled, who has time to slog through draft after draft, year after year, botched-effort after near-miss in search of great art?

Then again, we won't because we can't? We won't because we don't want to? Or we won't because we need a new nature, a new way of being evangelical--Christian?

That's the question.

Is it possible for us, as Protestant evangelicals, ever to escape our genetic inclination to protest? Will we always be bound by our innate, historically formed desire to protest "excess": liturgical, practical, artistic? Is a protestor anything richly positive?

More pointedly, I think, the question is this: Do we need to become a different kind of Christian (a Roman Catholic, for example, or a new hybrid species, neither purely Protestant nor purely Catholic) in order to foster an aesthetically rich culture OR Is there inherent in evangelical Protestantism an expression of aesthetically rich Christian faith that has not yet seen the light of day, but with a little more digging would expose a soil, a vein, a deposit of "being" that would make this possible?

I don't know.

My hunch is the latter, but I could be wrong. In the meantime I have set out on a journey to find all the examples I can of excellent artistry made by evangelical Protestants. I'll allow myself to hold a parallel category called theologically orthodox Protestant. That is, I don't know how much C. S. Lewis would have happily described himself as, simply, evangelical. He, along with a few notable contemporaries, probably thought himself in broader terms.

Nonetheless, it will serve my purposes, all things considered, to keep these two categories under one roof. Under other neighborhood roofs I will put liberal Protestants (who do have a thing for great art), Roman Catholics (because of the common tradition they share, not because they all agree on everything), Eastern Orthodox (ditto), and the generally spiritually sensitive person.

My doing this is not motivated by insecurity. I don't feel insecure about the dearth of great--"great"--art in the evangelical community. It's just a fact, not an absolute fact. We're growing, we're changing. We have weaknesses, we have crap, but the same intense energy that was given to missions in the late 19th century is now being given to art, and a lot of it is intelligent, carefully crafted, culturally resonant work. For many years I have respected and loved and learned a tremendous amount from my Catholic brothers and sisters. But I'm not a Catholic wannabe. I'm not an Orthodox wannabe. For the record, I'm a charismatic, high-church Anglican evangelical who feels a humble confidence and childlike excitement about the future of evangelicalism. (At the moment I am a non-practicing high-church Anglican, but that's where my heart lies. Some day . . . some day I'll find that foursome combo.)

With that said, I begin my list with the following examples and welcome any and all additions to the list. My search is for evangelical/orthodox Protestant Christians who have made or are making excellent art. By excellent I mean art that is metaphorically textured, imaginatively rich, and thematically complex, expansive and allusive.

Here then the beginning of a list: George Macdonald, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, (Hans Rookmaacher, Francis Schaeffer, Calvin Seerveld, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jeremy Begbie: none of which produced great works of art but certainly championed them), Erica Grimm-Vance, Timothy Botts, Madeleine L'Engle, Frederick Buechner, Luci Shaw, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Walter Wangerin, Makoto Fujimura, Stephen Lawhead, Ed Knippers, Tim Hawkinson, Kathleen Norris, Lynn Aldrich, Calvin Miller, Virginia Stem Owens . . . for starters.

One more note. The list is here is predominantly 20th century and largely of the writerly type. My ignorance of the other media is obvious. I don't know any opera, symphonic or choral types. Also, for example, I'm inclined to include the filmmaker Scott Derrickson in the list, but I don't think he's made a truly excellent film yet. Yet. I would also want to include a heck of a lot of visual artists, many of them friends (e.g. Mike Hill, Ginger Geyer, Mary McCleary, Kathy Brimberry, Anita Horton, Tim High, etc, etc, etc), but perhaps I'm curious to find the most excellent and prominent figures.

Anyhoo, I'm open to hear any suggestions.

[A note on the picture. The photograph is from a "marionette" dance choreographed by Annette Christopher for the 2005 Arts Festival.]

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Blog Hopping: Welcome to the New Me



Hm. So this is weird. I feel like a sneak--on myself. I'm typing an entry on a blog that may or may not exist beyond today. What to do . . . .

I know. I'll post a picture. Ha. Never been able to do that. Nice.

Now what do I do? There it is--an image icon.

There you go. This is a photo I took in NYC two years ago; one of my favorites.

Hm. Now what?

Now I'm going to create a link to another site. How about the SevenDance company. There.

That's good.

Now I'll publish it. Oh man this feels so great.

So eeeeeeeeeasy.

Here's a large bottle of high-end Scotch to a picture-laden blog and no reprobate spam.