Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"An Old Intuition"



I'm always looking for new ways to describe my job, a job that often feels on the verge of questionable.

The search is not just for greater clarity but for greater justifiability. The question, What is an arts pastor? attempts to answer the first part, greater clarity. But it's the second part, greater justifiability, that creates the tension: Why does a church need and hire and use the hard-earned tithe money of congregants to pay an arts pastor? Five years into full-time work I'm still looking. No answer I've given thus far has seemed to satisfy me.

Last night at Hope Chapel we had a thing called Hope 101. It's a four week introductory class to Hope's vision, its ministries, elders, staff and opportunities for participation and service. Last night was week three: introducing the staff. We start the evening with a shared meal and then transition to a meeting room to do our business. After an ice-breaker of sorts, Jack Dorman, our senior pastor, invites each of the staff to share an abbreviated bio and to introduce our respective ministries.

When it comes to my turn I revert to the usual stories: born in Guatemala, raised a missionary kid, studied at an Austrian school, moved to Chicago at thirteen (a vile time of life to move from a "third world" culture to a largely wealthy, largely Midwestern township culture on the northshore), high schooled in Arkansas ("back to the third world" -- "ha, ha, ha"), first year of college in Chicago, transfered down to UT Austin, lose my faith, refind it a couple of years later in the middle of pursuing a career in the foreign service which then gets a donkey hind-kick from the Almighty and I end up in Canada, studying theology at Regent College, all the while fighting against a calling to become the two things I dreaded: an artist and a pastor. Blah blah blah, a childhood pyromaniac story here, a climbing the 360 bridge there, an odd fact of personality that will engender empathy somewhere along the way.

And then I get to the So what does it mean to be an arts pastor and why the heck does Hope Chapel have a person like you on staff and is that ALL you do? To the latter I answer no, that's not all I do. I'm part of the preaching team, I teach adult ed-ish classes every once and a while, I head up the unofficial and slightly mystifying calendar of liturgical activities, including Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services and the rotating art exhibits that fly parallel to the church rhythms. I clean up messy storage spaces. I'll pinch hit for the overhead-projector-worship-song-slides person.

But last night as I came to describe my job as arts pastor something new--and I don't know how else to describe it, but to say that something new visited me. I saw my job differently. Usually I try to explain my job in circumstantial terms: Because of Hope Chapel's unique beginnings, out of the highly creative Jesus Movement of the '70s, and of a sense of God's calling on her as a creative church, we believe that what we're doing here is simply responding to that call by making a home for artists and by extending ourselves to the city with gracious subversive offerings of art. This idea is encapsulated in HopeArts' philosophy of ministry: "loving well, living well" to describe our communal life and "excellent and compelling" to describe our work.

But instead of starting here I said the following (with a bit of added midrash).

Why do we care so much about the arts? Is it just a personality quirk of Hope's--that because we're a creative bunch we do what we like most, artsy-fartsy stuff? Is it our way of reaching Austin? Is it a way to keep up with a media-saturated culture? It's a strange ministry to sustain, I confess, for such a small church. So why? Why do we do this?

Well all of us live with an old intuition about the way our world ought really to be. We have an old memory, a memory that gnaws at our subconscience. It's a memory of our first home, the Garden of Eden. Our forefather and mother were born into a home that none of us can accurately imagine. We can approximate it with metaphors and inventive analogies. But this side of eternity we cannot fully appreciate how absolutely beautiful it was. We can simply feel, deeply, achingly, frustratingly, the longing for that beauty.

So one of the things that we as a church can do is to release the artists among to serve us with artistic offerings that cultivate in us a habit of beauty. Such art keeps our souls alive to the Beauty of God. Such art, more to the point, brings us into an intimate knowledge of God. It simultaneously awakens hunger and nourishes us with the deep things of heaven. Such art requires no justification. For by inviting us to savor the presence of God artists perform a service which is an end in itself: the joy of Beauty and the desire for God.

By beauty of course I don't necessarily mean pretty or lovely or pleasant, although they can be this. By beauty I include things that can be disturbing and controversial. Is not the cross of Christ both beautiful and scandalous? Beautiful things can be strange, like the sounds of a sitar. Beautiful things can be terrible, like the leviathan or the Venus Flytrap. And they can also be enrapturing and too much for our small souls to absorb, like Beethoven's masterful 9th symphony.

But back to Hope. By producing works of art for the community artists can rouse within us this old memory of great beauty. And the arousing is not just of feelings, it is an arousing that builds and strengthens and releases the community to become more fully the people of God: more humble, more alive, more generous and just and fearless in the face of evil. By hanging art on the walls or by interpreting the Gospel through dance or architecture or film, we're not simply entertaining ourselves. We're not simply being "relevant." We're being what we're supposed to be apart from any secondary utility or benefit.

And it is when we are this way, beauty-filled, beauty-overflowing, that we will become most attractive! Because it is then that we will become most like our true selves--persons created in the image of a beautiful God who makes for us a beautiful home, "good for food and pleasant to the eyes," for which all human beings are looking for a way to return to, the return to paradise.

And then I went on to talk about the mission and activities of the arts ministry.

But somehow that phrase, "an old intuition," really stuck with me. Joined to the idea of home-making, it made me feel a lot more confident about my job. It made me feel that home-making and the establishing of the kingdom of God are not that far removed from each other. Artistic home-making, perhaps, is one way that artists contribute to the establishment of the kingdom. Social workers and teachers and engineers do their part too. But perhaps the artistic sense in all of us prompts us to infuse with beauty all the parts of our lives. For me the main part is the life of one church in the middle of a quiet neighborhood in north central Austin.

It's in this part that I'm doing old work in new ways, and perhaps not so new afterall. It's in this part that I'm fulfilling my once dreaded calling and watching others jump in on a small and very exciting revolution of beauty by which they themselves have been changed--for the better, much for the better. And for this I am profoundly grateful.

(PHOTO: Hope Chapel's Compline service, Easter 2003)

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Mtg of Believer Artists Throughout Austin

When I first arrived at my job full-time in January 2001 there was one thing that I really really wanted to do, and that was to gather together artists from the different churches around Austin. Like a red cardinal's nature to produce red feathers, it's in my nature to assemble motley groups of people (crues). It was a great idea and not a little naive or presumptous.

It never happened. And by God's grace I'm glad it never did.

Five years later, however, it's finally happening. And I confess a weird, giddy, puzzled set of emotions about it. Tomorrow evening around sixty people representing over 40 churches and groups will gather at the home of John and Ann Cogdell, hosts of the erstwhile 31st Street Concerts . From Catholic to Pentecostal, emergent church to high Presbyterian, artists will meet in order to find out each other's names, to share their respective artistic happenings, and to brainstorm what things we could be doing together across the city.

The UCS philosopher Dallas Willard and author of The Divine Conspiracy and The Renovation of the Heart once remarked that if the churches of one city pooled together their different resources, financial and human, they would have more literal and figurative money than they would know what to do with. Like an anti-babel, there would be nothing that they couldn't do, all things considered (the will of God, the opposition of evil, practical wisdom).

His point, it seems to me, is not to swell us up with visions of theocratic grandeur but to consider how terrible it is that we, as corporate bodies, do not defer to each other's strengths or cover each other's weaknesses. So, in consequence, each of us does what seems right in our own eyes; not in any negative or selfish way but simply as an unquestioned default setting. Each church makes the best of what they have, which is a lot of a few things and not much of most of what we need to be the church, the Church.

This strikes me as demonic. I grant this may be a slip into hyperbole, but I don't think it is. What better tactic for Satan than to get each church to never think nor want nor know how to work with other corporate members of Christ's Body. It's like a software program right out of the Matrix. The program dulls our senses, fogs our eyesight, deceives us into believing that "It's too much trouble" and "They're busy, we're busy, so why bother" and "They don't believe everything that we believe, so why cooperate?"

Each of these lies can, I think, be rescued by a truth. To the first we can say, yes, it's a lot trouble and hard work to build a relationship with people you don't know. Even worse, with an entire organization. It's like getting a giraffe and a hippopotamus to run in a three-legged race. Completely frustrating. People who try it run into all kinds of stubborn emotions and methodological differences. It's often a nightmare. But does a nightmare reflect what's real or only what we fear in our waking life? Too easily Satan fools us into believing that what we dreamed at night--"it's complicated!" "it's frustrating!" "it's exhausting!" "it's distracting!" "they're stupid!" (and, yes, nightmares are full of exclamation marks)--will always be true during the day, i.e. in reality.

To such fears God responds, My grace is always all-sufficient. If Jesus prays for our unity, as he does in John 17, then unity must become one of the most worthwhile endeavors for the Christian and therefore truly worth all the trouble in the world. So yes we will suffer a thousand headaches of trouble and our work will be slow and tedious, but with the trouble will come a greater divine power, a profound sense of satisfaction, and the hope of an exponential, far-flung goodness of Christ. It will be like the difference between a backyard garden, pleasant only to my idiosyncratic self, and a vast orchard capable of feeding and delighting many of us beyond our wildest dreams.

(Ok, so this entry will post as a Friday entry, because, well, that's when I started writing it. But right now it's Saturday 4:49 pm. I got interrupted yesterday and now I've run out of time. I'd like to finish before the meeting. I don't want a Back to the Future spin on my entry. I have 11 minutes till I have to leave.)

In regards to the busyness complaint, I say busyness be damned. If Satan can't get us to commit to wickedness, he'll get us to commit to too many good things. That way we lose focus, always run ragged at the edges of our physical-emotional-mental margin, and never really feel like we've listened carefully to the voice of God. It's mostly an "Uh-huh, sure, Lord, that's right, what were you saying, right, ok, I'm sorry can you say that again." Just like a hurried busy parent.

The fact that we, as "theologically orthodox" Christians, don't all believe everything about everything should come as a comfort. Not even the best married couple ever does. It means we're each fully human, fully particularized. It's certainly not the worst thing in the world. But the short answer goes something like this. We can agree on everything that we/my church/group deems orthodox, or we can agree on the essentials (a creedal orthodoxy), or we can hold the essentials lightly, or we can reject any notion of essentials except the principle of civic religion that we tolerate each other. The first I would call any form of fundamentalism, the third is liberalism light, the fourth if liberalism heavy (in beer terms, a lager), and the second is where I'm landing. Agree on the creedal essentials: Apostles and Nicene for starters. In my hurry here I could be oversimplifying and skirting too close to heresy, but all I'll say is this. My heart is with movements like the Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Touchstone, First Things, Renovare, the now defunct The Vine, and the like.

In short, there is plenty that we could do together and the world would be the better for it. More shalom overtaking the landscape like an anti-weed.

Ok, I need to stop. I've got a fridge full of fine desserts, a pile of papers and notes, and a stinky body to take care of.

But I'm glad I finished this entry in the past tense. I'd hate to have written it after the event pretending I was before it. It never works. My emotions aren't easily faked.

I am nervous, I have to say. But off we go.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Vision for Cultural Renewal (via aesthetica)


I was sitting last Wednesday at the Brentwood Tavern with Dan Davis, our de facto evangelical bishop in Austin, and I got a brainfire. It seems I am driven by a restless, sleep-loss-inducing desire to find a total vision for the arts. (I grant tendencies towards the delusional, but it's worth a try.) I'm not interested simply in an artistic revival of the liturgy. I understand the missional benefits of artistic excellence. I wholeheartedly support the calling of the artist, no less, no more than that of the preacher and missionary. But I'm looking for something else, something all-encompassing. I'm looking for a way to connect all the dots: the church, the individual believer, the culture, the relativity of time and place and the universal power of the Gospel.

And I think I'm getting closer. I certainly don't pretend to be the only one looking for the blessed holy grail. There are many others, hither and yon, and we need each other more than we perhaps realize. But my search is a specific one. I search as a pastor and a social activist.

I care deeply, that is, for the well-being the body of Christ, and that body is only as healthy as its individual members are healthy, and I care deeply for the renewal of the culture, which as Frederica Mathewes-Green remarks in a recent CT article, isn't a "them over there, that thing separate from us" but an "all of us together, a mix of the good and the bad, the holy and the corrupted, the saints in the same boat as the sinners" thing. It is to these two things that I give my primary energies. I am not an academic, I am not a professional artist, I am pastor who loves his sheep and wants Austin to be a great city.

So then . . . the following struck me while eating my fried okra. It is a vision for cultural renewal by means of the artists in our communities.

Artists need four basic things in order to flourish:

1. Artistic formation. This usually happens best if begun during childhood. There's nothing like learning a new language when you don't realize you're learning a new language. It's sorta hard but it's your only reality, so you don't yet know how to complain intelligently--like a teenager. You whine, you pout, but you keep playing your scales and rehearsing new words because that's still your only reality; and there's usually a cookie on the other end of it. But I've also learned in recent years that it's never ever too late to start. Artists need training, exposure to the best in their media, the habit of disciplined work, the opportunity to present their work to others, and lots of stimulation from similarly minded artists. They also need wisdom to know how and where to proceed. This can come from "experts" or other thoughtful, discerning persons.

2. Spiritual formation. To paraphrase Jesus, what does it profit an artist if she studies at the greatest schools, under the best masters, to the acclaim of the largest audiences, accruing a fine fortune and yet along the way loses her soul? The answer: nothing. Not "a little," not "ok," but nothing nothing. Artists, like every other Christian, need to pursue the things of God with as much zeal and studied commitment as their artistic projects. This means, among other things, constant growth--indeed, daily growth--in the true knowledge of God, the practice of the spiritual disciplines, and in friendships that expand our capacity to love those unlike ourselves and that open us up both to the searching light of God and the severe love in those closest to us.

3. Business help. If an artist wishes to move beyond personal hobby to a commercial exchange, where the art is viewed, appreciated and bought by a public audience, then she will need practical help. She will need help to mass produce, advertise, market, distribute and to represent her work in as many places and on as many occasions as is deemed beneficial. She might also need legal help. This of course is the stuff that drives most artists bananas. "Will someone just let me be creative and free me from having to worry about the business!" they cry. Truly it's unfair to expect artists to have a business aptitude. Most of us don't. This is where the appropriately gifted in the body of Christ can jump in.

4. Financial support. It's one thing to have someone help you practically, and often as a vested or gracious favor, it's another to have money. Without money you can't do all that much. Yes, we've heard the cheerleaders tell us that money shouldn't stop us from making art. But honestly, eventually the constant lack of money will drive us crazy. In order to make a living you need money. The life of a professional artist is no different from that of a small business owner or Olympic athlete or research scientist: we all need money to keep going forward. Without financial support it's nearly impossible to make new work, and without making new work it's impossible to become better.

This matters not just professionally but theologically. If part of our calling as humans is to feed each other with the best fruits (with organic, nutrionally rich fruit, not plastic, insalubrious, engineered fruit), then artists need an opportunity to develop the capacity to make great art, or at least the best to their potential. With such art--emotionally satisfying, metaphorically rich, aesthetically excellent, prophetically truthful, and so on--we feed each other's souls with the energy needed to love our God and neighbor more fully.

This also is where the rest of the body of Christ jumps in.

I have two other parts to this brainfire, "Cultural renewal through strategic influence" and "How to accomplish this renewal," but I need to get to the office and do a lot of brain-grinding, piddly stuff. By faith I believe that it's a part of the exciting renewal of culture, but mostly it feels like a lot of deliciously unfun phone-calling and emailing and list-making.

(PHOTO: Amanda Leggett, Acoustic Concert at Threadgill's, 2005 HopeArts Fest.)

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Artist as Childlike


Oy, what a zany last few weeks. Too much, too much. I'm going to drop here a portion of my sermon notes because that's what I've been writing, instead of blogging. I figure it applies as much to artists as to anyone, but we'd have a particular spin on it that would make it come alive for us.

For context, I began my sermon by reading a letter C.S. Lewis had written to an American boy in 1955 and by showing, at least in one service, a clip from my first play back in 1994, "The Bracelet." I then set the question "What does it mean to be childlike?" by means of a visual metaphor. I followed this with a few brief contextual comments for the text, Mark 10:13-16, and made a handful of exegetical remarks on the four verses. This set the stage to be able to talk about four characteristics that Jesus may have had in mind when he enjoined the discipled to become like little children. The first two are what we might call objective, the second two subjective. By objective I mean a child's external or objective standing in 1st century Jewish/Greco-Roman society. These two qualities have nothing to do with any inherent quality about the child but refer instead to his or her actual, legal, social standing vis-a-vis the rest of society. By subjective I mean what we might ordinarily refer to when speak of childlike-heartedness.

Extra-curricular comments were made along the way but the substance follows closely to the written version. The sermon was about 40 minutes long and was accompanied by an invitation to prayer which was led by 1st through 6th grade kids. In groups of 3-5 and attended by their Sunday School teacher, I offered folks an opportunity to be prayed for by the children. Too quickly we underestimate the insight or power or incisiveness of a child's prayer. I invited folks to receive prayer for a recovery of true childlikeness and, if needed, for physical healing. It was a very sweet time, I think both for the adults and the kids.


WHAT IS CHILDLIKENESS?

NOTE WELL: childlikeness is not childishness. Childishness is the fallen condition of children as well as the immature tendencies in adults.

So then: Two objective qualities, Two subjective qualities:

1. It means you have no status, no useful skill, and therefore no power

a. The idea: In first-century Jewish/Greco-Roman culture children had no rights and therefore no power to make their life happen. They had no rights, that is, in the way that we Americans have issued rights to children. They have no political power, no social clout, no material capital. They also have no physical skills, no military skills, no rhetorical skills, no leadership skills and therefore no power to contribute to the establishment of the new Davidic kingdom. They were simply tag-alongs.

b. What is Jesus’ point? “That you, my brother disciples, must let go of any notion that you have the power of your own to bring about God’s kingdom, his unimaginably fantastically powerful kingdom. You have no power, that is, to make your life happen.” Indeed, in order to enter into God’s kingdom you must give up all your power, and when you have given it up completely, when in fact you have died to all the powers and abilities you have and even to your very life, then and only then will you be given them back, because only then, baptized in the fire of Christ, will they be of any use to you and to others. It means that when you are the weakest, when you are most humbled, when you are most desperate and broken and supple before God, at that point you will discover true power. It means, as St. Paul reminds us in 2nd Cor. 12:9, that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. It means that the kingdom of God is made up of a bunch of fools for Christ.

c. A model: St. Francis. He gives up everything he has and betrothes himself to Lady Poverty.

d. An anti-model: Donald Trump (or if you want a female, Jennifer Lopez).

d. An anti-model: The Icon of the American Self-Made Man. This icon of our common American identity encourages us to be self-sufficient and to always seek self-generated achievements which we can then use to prove to other people our importance. This man does not have your best interests in mind. This man is your flesh. He always has his act together. He is always cool. People always like him and he always has an answer or solution for every problem. He does not like being dependent upon anyone.

3. It means you are quick to trust

a. The idea: That children, when cared for by loving parents, are quick to trust. This habit is not to be confused with naïveté or gullibility. It describes instead a heart that is naturally inclined to entrust itself to his father or mother.

b. Jesus’ invitation: "To trust that your Father in heaven knows exactly what you need and most perfectly how to care for you." To trust his voice and ignore the noise of lies in your head. To trust him not just in the areas where you have a reasonable management of your issues, but to trust him in the areas where you are super sensitive or afraid or weak. Jesus invites us to trust him with a guileless, bold, free, and unafraid trust, with all our heart.

c. A model: Noah and Mary.

d. An anti-model: Me. I got burned by close friends in high school and college. Peter Parker got bit by a radioactive spider and turned into Spider-Man, so I got my trust severely broken and turned into a natural-born skeptic. I walk into a room of new people and my first instinct is not to trust. My first instinct is to observe and assess. I suspect before I believe. I am guarded rather than vulnerable. I am not Mary.

4. It means you live with an unselfconscious sense of wonder

a. The idea: That a little child has not acquired the ability to detach himself from his Self: that what you see is what you get, and what he sees is only a wonder of newness. He is not a self-preoccupied person but a person who is constantly apprehending and delighting in the wonder of the newness around him.

b. Jesus’ invitation: “To be unselfconscious. To stop worrying about what people think about us or depending upon their approval for our self worth. It is also an invitation to live our life in a constant recognition that wonder-filled things surround us.”

To paraphrase Ann Cogdell:

“It’s a capacity to take delight in the moment, in what’s at hand, to be really present to all that’s present—to be fully alive in the moment, not always bemoaning your past or fretting your future. It is to be spontaneous rather than merely contrived; to be full of curiosity to all of life instead of stressing and striving and becoming old too soon.”

c. A model: Tom Bombadil (cf. Luci Penvese, Dr. Seuss)

d. An anti-model: The Masked Pragmatist. Because he is self-conscious he wears a mask. The mask protects him from being made fun for his inadequacies; and oh how he is aware of them. The mask allows him to project an image of his ideal self, the self he thinks people would find impressive and desirable. It’s not his true self, of course, but because he doesn’t trust God with what he came out as from his mother’s womb, he has a hard time believing he is infinitely interesting and valuable. He is a masked pragmatist.

He is, as Mike Field observed, disinterested, bored, ho-hum, “been-there, done-that,” interested only in the everlasting value of what is practical. He is dismissive of “silly things” with a flick of his self-important hand. He is miserable because he realizes that he is wasting so much energy maintaining his self-image and accomplishing all these busy-bodied, self-absorbed projects where he takes himself much too seriously, when he could be using this energy on so many other life-giving things that do not rest upon the public opinion of his reputation. The Masked Pragmatist is your flesh. He is not free. He is a slave.

Why does this matter?

Because we can’t really live this Christian life unless we have a childlike disposition. We can try, but we’ll fail. Jesus warns us not to try. We can only do this Christian life the Jesus way. The Jesus life can only be lived the Jesus way, the childlike way. Is this possible? Depends on how you look at it. But if you look at Jesus, the answer is a deeply encouraging yes. As Wendy Dietrich pointed out to me in note: if Jesus asks us to live like a child, then he’s the one we have to look at to know what it means.

And indeed He is the most child-like of all. He relinquishes his power and becomes not just a man but the least of all kinds of men, a servant, a slave, the janitor to all (Phil 2). He doesn’t do anything on his own or for his own fame, he does only what the Father shows him to do, no matter how hard it may be. He is utterly dependent upon the Father and the Spirit (John 15:5). Jesus shows us what it looks like to trust people who might appear to be the least trustworthy: the adulterous whore lady at the well and the pilfering, conniving tax-collector Zacchaeus. And finally he is the most wonder-filled person. And now you would think when you were the person who made it all and knew it all backwards and forwards, nothing could surprise or delight you any more. But our God is not that way. Our God is always filled with wonder. Jesus never finds that same tree standing outside his house boring; it always fills him with wonder: that tree doing its tree thing--again!

How do we recover childlikeness?

1. Declare a revolution on your false self.

2. Pray that God would do whatever it takes to help you recover a childlike heart and to sustain you with great faith and grace when it becomes hard to trust his methods.

An Invitation to Prayer

(PHOTO: My nephews, Cormac and Brendan, and myself in Marfa, TX, home to Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation. This was one of the rare pictures where the three of us smiled normal.)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Preaching the Kids

I'm preaching this Sunday out of Mark's passage on the "little children" (Mk. 10:13-16). Jesus roundhouses on the disciples' uppity behavior and gives them a lesson in upside-down power. I emailed folks at Hope asking for their thoughts on childlikeness, un-childlikeness and childishness. One person responded with what looks like a well-traveled urban internet story. This was one of my favorites. Whether true or not, it's no matter. I do hope, though, that the kid said something like it, preferably in a public school classroom.


A little girl was talking to her teacher about whales. The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow ahuman because even though it was a very large mammal its throat wasvery small. The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.

Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow ahuman; it was physically impossible.

The little girl said, "When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah."

The teacher asked, "What if Jonah went to hell?"

The little girl replied, "Then you ask him."

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Richard Foster Prayers, Feminist Conversions


Had a great time this past weekend. The place is amazing. Truly, if you're anywhere within a stone's throw of the Laity Lodge do yourself a favor and go. We had possession of one of the houses (Lodestar), which slept eleven. The cost of the house per weekend night: $100. Ten of us went, that meant we paid $10 buckaroos per night. Full kitchen, fully furnished, deck chairs, endless supply of towels and bedsheets, and a golf cart to take you hither and yon. Plus the camp has two fully equipped art studios, one for 2D, one for 3D; a library; recreational areas; a creek; so on and so forth. It's an incredible gift to fellow believers. It's also a great act of courage for someone to dream it up, pay up, and work, sweat and swear the thing into existence.

Had a great time catching up with Luci Shaw and Eugene Peterson, both of whom I met at Regent College. I also had a convivial exchange with one of my favorite novelists Stephen Lawhead, who wrote a series of epic adventure fantasy books my mother read to us when we were children. His favorite of mine, I think, is Byzantium. A good chat with John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, whom I will see again at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing at the end of April. But the sweetest gift was a conversation I had with Richard Foster about the whole ecumenical thing, the good, the bad and the nasty migranes of parochialism and exclusivism.

I've felt since high school a calling to the broader body of Christ. As a senior in high school I attended a non-denominational fellowship church on Sunday, a Baptist deal Sunday night, and an Assembly of God youth group Wed night. Then my first year of college in Chicago I attended mostly a Vineyard in Evanston, but occasionally a black church here, a JPUSA there, and a North LaSalle yonder. After my two years of wandering in the far country of doubt my first two years at the University of Texas--no Jesus, no church, no Christianity--I landed at a Bible church, Westlake Bible. Then during my study abroad in Germany I attended a Lutheran church. What's funny was the way they snuck in a little charismatic spice with a once-a-month Friday night charismatic-ish service. Back in Austin I began to sneak over to Hope Chapel for their Saturday night services, while during the "high seasons" I worshiped with folks at St. Matthew's Episcopal. Then lastly in Vancouver I joined Holy Trinity Anglican church, where eventually I became confirmed in the Anglican Church of Canada. The only two denominations I wished I'd had opportunity to camp out in are Presbyterian and Methodist. I content myself with having good friends in both.

In any case I appreciated Richard's observations about his work with the many faces of Protestantism as well as Catholic and Orthodox. At the end of our time I felt a desire to ask him to pray for me. I hesitated because I hate "bothering" people like him who, in a place like the hill country of Texas, probably desperately needed a break from the masses. But I went ahead and asked. I asked because of a sense that I have that some things, spiritually speaking, can only be bestowed upon you by another, whether that's a sense of manhood or womanhood, of a priestly calling, of servanthood, of being an artist who could make work that matters. I'm headed into a meeting the following weekend that will bring together believer artist leaders from the churches and organizations in Austin and I need as much grace as I can get. My heart deeply yearns to be used as a conduit for unity in the church via the arts. Tall order there, but I'd rather fail from taking too big of a risk than from wishing I had. So he prayed for me and it was a sweet prayer.

The one thought I had about this imagination-rich group of people is I hope they figure out a way to invest and release the younger generation of "writers of faith." We need them as elder mothers and fathers in our lives; we need them badly. But they also need us to keep the vim and vigor in them alive.

Naomi Wolf the Feminist Jesus Lady
I don't know what's in the water but the feminists are turning to Jesus. Thanks to Ellen Johnson for the heads-up, I've just read of Naomi Wolf's apparent conversion. Read here for one of the reports. It's crazy, really. Reactions have begun; and again. One moment you think society is going to moral crap, a royal decrepitude, the next radical feminists are getting a come-to-Jesus burn on their soul.

So it makes me think of a project. I think we should form little cohorts around the country. No more than 5-6 per group. We'll call it the Saul's Who Refuse To Prophesy project. Remember that story in 1st Samuel 19, where Saul sends his men to kill David? Two special ops were sent to take him out, but as each arrived the Spirit of the Lord came upon them and they began to prophesy. Irritated at their ineptitude, Saul went himself. "Harrumph!"

"So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until came to Naioth. He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel's presence. He lay that way all that day and night" (1st Sam. 19:23-24).

So the idea is this. Pick a famous scholar or artist or politician or social activist and pray for them for one year straight. Every day, every week. Find out everything you can and pray for God's grace and compassion to overwhelm them. Ignore their refusals to love Jesus. Ignore them like the Holy Spirit ignored Saul's bad attitude. Pray, and keep praying. Pray with faith; pray recklessly. Then after the year is done stop. Or do whatever you want after that. You may or may not notice any change. That's fine. But you never know what good will have come to them because of your prayers. And perhaps, like Anne Rice and Naomi Wolf and demented metal-head rockers they will find Jesus, find him in the most unlikely places and means.

Who do I want to pick? Hm. My first pick would be Chaim Potok. But he's dead. That's a stinker.

So I'll pick Paul Thomas Anderson, maker of the movie Magnolia. We need that guy on our team.

(PHOTO: That's my hand scratching the belly of a lion cub in South Africa. I got to lie down with the cubs and felt very prophetic.)

Friday, March 10, 2006

A Revolution of Beauty (the chaotic prequel)



"Beauty . . . you came back. But I didn't notice. I was too busy defining myself." --Carter Ratcliff, 1998.


I'm having a hard time figuring out what to write for the Christianity Today article. By the end of my phone conversation with the managing editor--three months ago--it had been decided that I would write on The Aesthetic Well-Being of the Church.

Oh sure.

And then the voice of the booming bass movie trailer guy entered my head: "The Aeeeesthetic Well Beeeeeing of the CHURRRRRRRRCH! Coooooming to a theater near YOU YOU YOU!"

Hm, well, it was a great idea. But it's been like trying to write an article on science and God. Where do you start? What do you not say? It's ridiculously too much.

And nothing's grabbed me yet.

So I had a phrase pop into my head last week, A Revolution of Beauty, and I feel like maybe that's what I need to write about. But again, what the heck? Beauty? There are a thousand things that could be said about it, but what? The question is, what needs to be said? What do evangelical people need to hear about beauty? What false conceptions need to be dealt with?

So here are my latest thoughts, mostly a jumble of pieces.

1. Start with quote from Dostoyevski's The Idiot, "Beauty will save the world." Use this to create a tension. What does a Russian Orthodox novelist have to do with American evangelicals? What does he mean? Is he serious? He really thinks beauty will save the world? What does that have to do with the church? What does that have to do with artists? But does he really mean what he says?

2. Offer personal anecdote. Dazzle them with an anecdote!

3. Clarify what I don't mean by beauty:

-- Beauty is not pretty or nice. Such a notion leads us into the gooey land of sentimentalism, emotionalism, and the domestication of truth.

-- Beauty is not glamour. That's pinup lust; adoration without sympathetic connection; an ornamental charm devoid of human love.

-- Beauty is not easy. It is everything commodified Christianity wishes it weren't: demanding, disturbing and complicated.

-- Beauty is not the property of only one style of art. That is, beauty does not equal Western classical art. It doesn't. That's ethnographic classicism, as well as naive and dangerous.

-- Beauty is not the idealized image. True beauty isn't to be confused with a man's notion of the "perfect woman" (the Smart, Capable Babe) or a woman's notion of the "perfect man" (the Gentle, Romantic and Funny At Just the Right Times Knight). This is what's called the perversity of the abstract composite ideal.

4. What I do mean by beauty.

For starters, beauty is an antidote to a) alienation, b) jadedness, c) boredom, d) cynicism and e) stereotypes and presumptive judgments.

For the main course, we have seven axioms about beauty, each interspersed with lively contemporary examples:

1. Visible beauty is an image of invisible beauty. (12th c. Hugh of St. Victor)
2. Anyone who possesses beauty wishes to expand it as much as possible. (Aquinas)
3. A true experience of beauty is always in some way “ecstatic” or other centered.
4. Beauty does not force itself upon us but rather beckons us onward.
5. Sin warps and deadens our sensibility to beauty.
6. Earthly beauties can lead to Divine Beauty; conversely no earthly beauty can slake the human thirst for fulfillment, only God can.
7. Beauty satisfies in the moment but it also awakens further desire.

For dessert we have an amazing string of supersonic quotes and a personal story that no one will forget till the day they die and a last canonball explosion of friendly effusive exhortation calling all Protestant evangelicals--and I mean ALL!--to care more about beauty (the good kind) as well as the worthy expenditure of money on artists who would then create works of aesthetic excellence so stupendously great that traditional rational apologetics would stand dumbfounded at the capacity of believer artists to penetrate the steely-faced, cast-iron scepticism and stubborn pride of postmodern man.

"Gosh, how did they do that!"

Or something like that.

So I need help. If you have time to answer these two questions, I would be very grateful:

1. What kind of article about art and beauty would you enjoy or want to read in a magazine such as CT?

2. What do you think mainstream evangelical Christians need to know about art and beauty?

Again, please understand that by beauty I mean a standard description of aesthetic excellence: art that exhibits the quality of coherence, complexity and richness. Thus U2's Joshua Tree Project, thus the horrific poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, thus the absurd theater of Samuel Beckett, thus the social rabble-rousing paintings of Diego Rivera, thus the disturbingly beautiful short stories by Flannery O'Conner, thus Capoeira. Yes, capoeira! Subject matter and style are besides the point; even form. What's at issue, no less, is art that pulls us out of our comfortable appeasement with sinful, formalistic, duty-driven, spirit-lulling lifestyles and out into into something greater than ourselves and in turn inspires us to live fuller, richer, self-abandoned lives, the kind of lives that your neighbors wished they could live.

Something like that. The plea for help stands.

I leave you with a final thought by that elusive pimpernel, Oscar Wilde, circa 1889: "Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void."

(PHOTO: That's my high school soccer team. We won state finals. It was beautiful. It was a beautiful moment. It was 1989.)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Retreating with the Chrysostom Society


Sort of. Not really. I'm taking most my Arts Council on a retreat to the Laity Lodge this weekend (Milton, it's not too late to come), but it just so happens that we'll be sharing the camp grounds with the illustrious Chrysostom Society. The Society includes folks like Philip Yancey, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, Luci Shaw, Virginia Stem Owens, John Wilson, Jeanne Murray Walker, and other blahblahblah great Christian writer people; folks who've been around the block and understand a thing or two about good writing.

May they be fruitful and multiply themselves into the younger generations.

We actually shared the same weekend last year. We had a great time volleying back a few choicely placed lymerics and had opportunities for friendly conversation over meal times. We'll see. They have their business to attend to, we have ours (sleeping, eating, laughing, sleeping, hiking, sleeping, canooing, sleeping, in short doing what a retreat ought to be doing: relieving our bodies and souls of the madening weariness we carry like burdens week after week after week). Paths will cross if they're meant to.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Joining the Oscar Rant Brigade


First things first.
Let it be said here and now, officially, for the constitutional good of all Americans: Christians do not have a market on cheese. Cheese is for all. Cheese for everyone. Cheese, alongside religion and personal dignity, is a human right.

What in God's name do you call that slo-mo small-town-Baptist-church-youth-group-cheesy-missions-drama-in-Monterey-Mexico-meets-pantomime-backdrop to the "Crash" song at the Oscars? That was ghastly. I confess I've seen some things performed, moons ago, at Hope Chapel that made me cringe. They were so cringy I had to stay in the foyer behind closed doors, pacing back in forth in twitchy embarrassment, waiting for the conclusion. Truth be told, I've seen video of my own work that produced the same effect. But I can't remember the last time I watched something on television that evoked this hide-me-behind-a-wall cringe shivery thing. I literally had to step into Mike Akel's bathroom for a moment.

Worse, I thought, "Oh great, now what will they think of Americans?" First Iraq, then the Freedom Fries, now this?

That CRASH movie is Leftist Fundamentalist Melodrama
I can't believe they won. It's not like I was rooting for Brokeback Mountain, but on craftsmanship alone BMN romped all over CRASH (hm, pun not intended). As the LA Times film critic Carina Chocano put it, CRASH was a "grim, histrionic experiment in vehicular metaphor slaughter." Case in point, the following line of bad, bad, bad dialogue:

"I think we miss that sense of touch so much, we crash into each other just to feel something."

Ba-dum. That's about as good Omega Code material, maybe a teeny bit worse. Watching the movie, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was an outsider to the ideology inspiring the whole project. What seemed to writer-director Paul Haggis so perfectly justified and passionate, to me looked like a bunch of portentous ironies and contrived coincidences. See here for examples.

As I see it, there is one major problem and one curiosity. The problem is a failure of allusivity. The script, not so much the acting, neither hinted nor suggested nor gave us the possibility of genuine ambiguity. Instead it pummeled us with the believers-only message: I'm a racist, you're a racist, we're all a racist all the time and in the same darn ways. CRASH was no MAGNOLIA , no SHORT CUTS.

What is rattle-the-marbles-in-my-head curious is why. Why did the Academy choose it? The official Tinseltown paper, the LA Times, offers a weird reason. So weird.

My Mother the Saint
Did anyone notice all the "I know my mother's looking down on me right now" remarks in the acceptance speeches? Doesn't it strike you as odd? As perfectly, well, silly? Silly in the sense that it betrays the sentimental belly of American folk religion?

C'mon, who doesn't want to believe his blessed mother is looking down on him with a beatific pleased smile?! Not me. But it says two things about us, us humans: one, we love our mothers like nothing else on planet earth (and no amount of Heather has two daddies will substitute that primal need), and two, we all love heaven. Heaven is the extra credit none of us deserve but secretly wish for.

Heaven is a wonderful place.

According to the proverbial polls, 85% of Americans believe in heaven. 34% of us also believe in UFO's, so, well, there you go, but the point is, of course we want to go to heaven! Of course your mother should be in heaven (your dad's in purgatory).

But what, you get to heaven just because you . . . because what? Because you die? A: How do you know there is a heaven? You don't believe all this Christian fundi mumbo jumbo about Jesus "rising from the dead" (cue Chris Farley's air quotes farce) but you believe in "heaven"? B:What if there isn't a heaven? C: What if your mom is worm food? Have you thought about that? But it's that and "God bless America" that you can say on intergalactic television and all of us, red and blue, Out of Touch Hollywood and Presumably In Touch Middle America will smile pacifically. I mean, even the pimp guys thanked Jesus.

It's easy religion. You don't have to think about it, you don't have to decide, you don't have to hold any theological or existential tensions inside your soul--you don't even have to believe in God, you just have to want it; not too hard, just a little. You don't have to wrestle with good and evil, or with the question of how all that goddamn evil entered a world that a long long long time ago was, as they say, good, or how justice will prevail without decimating human free will. None of that matters. The only thing that matters is that your mother's got a meddling hand in your winning an Oscar.

Let me be clear. I'm 100% for mothers. I'm 100% for winning an Oscar. I'm 100% for mothers in heaven approving of their Oscar-worthy sons (it usually is the sons who say such things). But I'm not down with the Readers' Digest crap religion that keeps people's brains soft and vulnerable to the predatory Wormwoods that lurk in our ears and keep us from grabbing hold, bloody-knuckled, of hard things like the cross, the mortification of soul-deadening appetites, or the love of our enemies, who for some people come in the form of their mother. God bless the sons who love their mothers, but heaven's going to be a lot more terrible--a lot more terribly beautiful--than anything our beloved Hollywood producers could ever imagine.

Gay guys are always the funniest.
They are. Andrew Sullivan is proof. But more so is Dave White. Like this:

"A cut to Charlize Theron who has apparently just come from Alabama with a banjo on her shoulder."

And like this:

"Cut to Morgan Freeman, narrator. Standing behind him is J.Lo. She's busy making people cry. Then she comes out in a stunning dress to introduce whoever it is that wrote that awful “Crash” song. And it's interpretive DANCE!! Slow motion pantomime! Cars burning! Cirque du So-Scared..."

I've been trying to figure this out for the last twenty-four hours and the best I can do is this: the more outsider you are and the greater your suffering, preferably of a corporate nature (so the Jews), the less you have to lose by making fun of yourself, your neighbor, your people and all those other peoples, and so, ergo, the more comedically powerful you are. Thus the nature of all humor.

The question is, God help us, why aren't Christians more funny?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The NYC Part II is two doors down


I started an entry on Tuesday thinking it would post today, but it posted as Tuesday. So my Top Ten is right behind the Ash Wed post.

PHOTO: me sitting with Brie Walker at the "Gatekeepers of Culture" workshop on Saturday.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Happy Ash Wednesday



I'm working on a Top Ten for my time in NYC, but for now it's Ash Wednesday and I've two services to prepare for, noon and 7 pm. Today marks the beginning of Lent. It is Day One of our journey with and through Christ's sufferings. While it catches me by surprise ("Here already?"), I feel a sense of excitment about it.

Lent is this amazing opportunity to discover new strengths, or what the Bible would call new graces, through our willing embrace of both negative and positive acts of mortification. We fast longer than we thought we were capable. We give more than we thought we had. We deny ourselves our usual pleasures and discover that instead of feeling a great loss, we feel stronger, more lucid, more capacious and vigorously free. We also discover which of our appetites are compulsive, distracting and grasping and therefore good only for a swift chucking away. So chuck away, mi amigos!

I want to copy here one of my favorite passages from Richard Foster's book on prayer, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home. This comes out of his chapter on the prayer of relinquishment.

"Do you know what a great freedom this crucifixion of the will is? It means freedom from what A. W. Tozer called 'the fine threads of self-life, the hyphenated sins of the human spirit.' It means freedom from the self-sings: self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-absorption, self-abuse, self-aggrandizement, self-castigation, self-deception, self-exaltion, self-depreciation, self-indulgence, self-hatred, and a host of others just like them. It means freedom from the everlasting burden of always having to get our own way. It means freedom to care for others, to genuinely put their needs first, to give joyfully and freely.

"Little by little we are changed by this daily crucifixion of the will. Changed, not like a tornado changes things, but like a grain of sand in an oyster changes things. New graces emerge: new ability to cast all our care upon God, new joy at the success of others, new hope in a God who is good.

"Please remember, we are dealing with the crucifixion of the will, not the obliteration of the will. Crucifixion always has resurrection tied to it. God is not destroying the will but transforming it so that over a process of time and experience we can freely will what God wills. In the crucifixion of the will we are enable to let go of our tightfisted hold on life and follow our best prayers."


Father, I pray, grant us a special grace today to embrace your chastening and cleansing work in our hearts. Strengthen us to love you with all of our body, that we may submit our will to your will, that we may always pray on every occasion and to every part of our lives--our family, our friends, our work, our art-making, our ambitions and dreams and expectations--no matter what, Thy will be done. We know it is your will that we be conformed to the image of your Son Jesus. We pray today, show us how we may walk with Him through a willing, happy participation in his suffering. We know our flesh will try to trick us into giving up and walking away from your voice, but help us to ignore our flesh. Help us to flick it away like a fly on our shoulder. Just flick it.

We also pray that you would give us a vision of our resurrected self. We need this that we may be encouraged on the days in which suffering and weakness are the last thing we want to be doing. We know, Father, that such a vision would sustain and inspire us to keep our discipline. We need this vision and we know only you can give it to us. So grant it to us today, we plead with you.

We love you, oh God, we need you, we worship you. We offer you this day the gift of a heart that says, "Yes, Lord, whatever you want from me, I give you. Whatever is not good for me now, I relinquish to you. Whatever life you wish to impart to me from your Son Jesus during this season of Lent, no matter how painful the transfusion, I receive from you. Holy Spirit, walk with me today that I may accomplish all that the Father has for me. Walk with me through this season. I need you; I need you desperately. I welcome your power to help me become more like Jesus.

And it is through his gracious name that we pray all these things. Amen."

(PHOTO: Anita Horton, "Station VIII: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem," Hope Chapel, 14 Stations exhibit, Lent 2003.)