Wednesday, April 26, 2006

No More Books--Nyet!


I don't need any new books. I don't. I told myself three years ago that I wouldn't buy any new books until I'd read the ones I had on my shelf. None. What's the point, I thought? Ok, maybe, a new book can function as a kind of reference or SOS book, as for example. N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God. But have I read it, Nick's volume 3? Two years later no. But it looks sharp on my shelf.

And that's the problem.

There's this disease that plauges a specific social group: the smartypants. I've tried for years to get into the group--since my sophomore year in college. Growing up, I wasn't a reader; by "reader" I mean a person who read books because they wanted to, not because they had to. I only read books because my teachers assigned them. That was it. The rest of the time I was playing sports and getting into trouble with the Sanford brothers, Matt "Malox" Henry, Terry "T-Mat" McDonald and Jake Sawyer, the kid from Louisiana. I didn't start "reading" until I was 19, by which point it was too late.

I arrived at my Plan II (the liberal artsy, smartypantsy program at UT) English Lit class and realized I was screwed. The twenty other kids sitting around the seminar-styled tables were creatures from another planet. They were from planet private high school. They were from planet nerds and SAT monsters. And some were even in sororities, so they were doubly intimidating: babes and brains in one. I distinctly remember thinking that I was like a horse at the racetrack goofing around in the gate. My goofing consisted of memorizing NCAA football player stats, playing Canasta, and cultivating the hots for Susan Jacimore.

Then suddenly I woke up. I looked around. And I saw lots and lots of horses running! And they'd been running lap after lap after lap, learning all sorts of things about Rousseau and William Butler Yeats, and they understood principles about a thing called rhetoric, and they used big words like The New York Times Book Review, and I would never be able to catch up.

I determined then and there that I would devote the rest of my life to catching up. One day I was naive and happy, the next I was driven. I became a boor to people closest to me. Soon after, I abandoned my faith all together. But that's a story for another time.

The good news is this: I got a C+ for the fall semester of my Plan II English Lit class. Prior to that, I hadn't known the letter existed on report cards. Needless to say I was horrified, in a very angsty Poe-ish way. I begged and pleaded with Dr. Norman Farmer. I pleaded obsequiously with him to let me do whatever it would take to improve my grade. He listened to my pitiful pleas, but he yielded no ground. He was merciless. And again I see it as one of the best things that happened to me in college. That C+ haunted me the rest of my college career.

I learned a lesson however that I'll never forget: writing well is hard, hard work and you've gotta want it bad if you want it right.

Like getting a vaccination from a vampire, my time in Plan II implanted within me the pathetic desire to impress. And what better way to impress people--the people whose opinion mattered to you--than to have lots of impressive books on your shelf. Smartypants books. I now say, Damn the whole thing. It's such a crock. Who gives a rippin' flip what books you have on your shelf. I've met so many people with vast collections of books whose attitude was either obnoxiously full of themselves or embarrassingly insecure. Specifically intellectually insecure people rarely have space around them for anyone but themselves. What does it profit a man, we say, to have read all the "right" books and yet still feel the need to go out of his way to prove to you that he (or she) is an important person? Who cares.

I could feel myself turning into that grotesque creature all throughout my twenties. I became increasingly self-protective, ungenerous, and felt the constant temptation to wow.

Now I'm at Half-Price Books. It's the ginormous one off of Lamar and 2222. It's 8:30 at night and I'm looking for two books in particular. I find neither. So I go wandering.

I wander like a man doomed to buy books he doesn't need--right now. I buy John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath because I was never made to read it in high school or college and I want to read something very otherly from my middleurbia life. I buy a book that was twice recommended to me over the past month, the oddly affecting Life of Pie by the Canadian author Yann Martel. I wander over to the dreaded Christian section and, for no reason, grab a copy of Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water. I don't yet own a copy. I turn to the title page to see how much it costs and I find the following inscription: "To Melissa Scott--a song on the walk--Madeleine L'Engle." The price is $5.98. My last purchase is a tall book. It's a 1948 Pantheon Books hardback copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy. I've no idea if the translation is a good one, but the book comes with illustrations by Dore. How can I refuse. It costs me only $9.98.

I leave the store with my pile of un-needed books and wonder where I'll have to go to find a used paperback copy of Blue Like Jazz and The Da-Vinci Code. I really only want to have to pay 25 cents for Dan Brown. I heard Donald Miller speak over the weekend so it'd feel uncharitable of me to want his book for cheap. I can always check it out of the library.

I know I've broken my half-hearted vow not to buy books I don't need or won't read immediately. I'm weak today. But I comfort myself with the thought that my book-buying experiences are a lot less stressful than they use to be. And thank God. Now I buy books because they make me content. I can love books for what they are, gifts. Just that, honest to God gifts.

And in the case of good books, they can become gifts for the enrichment of the soul, the instilling of virtue, the reminding of what's true and even beautiful, and most especially needful today, as the author Louis Cowan reminds me, the appreciation of the fullness and complexity of reality, which in the case of my reflections on the last ten years comes as a reminder that grace, thank the Lord, has followed me all along, grace for my many weaknesses, grace for my puny but persistent efforts to put one step in front of the other in the direction of a more contented life, and perhaps even a holy life.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Christian Writerdom: A Top Ten


In light of the my three stated goals for going to the Festival of Faith & Writing I've written a top ten to summarize my findings and impressions.

10. Percentage of Males who Read Books
One-third. I learned this in James Schaap's seminar on Saturday morning. This statistic comes from the 2004 NEA study on reading in America. They also said that there are more writers than readers among the 18-24 demographic. Funny, huh? All those bloggers blogging their lives into a fanfare for future generations, but not reading? In better news: "A 1999 study showed that the average American child lives in a household with 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players, and 1 computer."

9. New Media, New Directions
Some of the guys at Zondervan Press gave this seminar. They said the three "it" media right now are MySpace, Blogging, and Podcasting. Nothing brand new there but interesting nonetheless.

8. The Christian/Arts Powerbrokers
I met with John Witvliet and four other staffers at a board room at the Institute for Christian Worship (a tremendous outfit indeed). Among other things, I asked him who within the church in North America were the powerbrokers in the renewal of the arts. I listed for him the ones I'd identified to date:

- Regent College in Vancouver, BC
- Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA
- Calvin College/the Reformed Posse (Seerveld, Wolterstorff, ICW)
- Gordon College in Boston, MA
- St Andrews University in Scotland (the Trinitarians)
- the Emergent movement
- the Ecumenicals (Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical dialogues, including Image journal)
- ARTS (a mainline denominational, somewhat liberal publication)
- CIVA (and at a lesser level CITA)

To these he added: Notre Dame, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, Faith and Form (the journal for architecture and faith), Willow Creek Community Church, Wesley Theological Seminary, the Ethno-Doxoligists society, Martha Ann Kirk and Thomas Kane (two Catholics). I remembered also that Southern Theological Baptist Seminary in Louisville is about to add an MA and PhD program in aesthetics. Many other groups and institutions are doing artistic stuff, but these seem to be the primary landscape-shapers.

7. Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. and a fellow out of Baylor seminary led a seminar with the above title. Their basic thesis: preachers should read poetry and literature. I said amen. Their argument was that reading such things would open up vast resources of vicarious experience for the preacher. We can only know so much from our own personal experience; and such experience, no matter how much we've traveled, is still narrow. Reading novels, biographies, histories, memoirs and such can help us empathize with a great range of personalities and backgrounds. It can help us in this way becomes wiser and more compassionate because it has helped us "feel" and "see" people's lives from the inside.

Reading like this is not a substitute for actual relationships. We still need to sit and listen and walk with our brethren. But our reading can enlarge our capacities to understand and love.

6. Donald Miller
I've yet to read Blue Like Jazz and I missed him the last time he came around to Austin, April of last year. But that boy is funny. Asked which scholars have helped him read the Christian faith well, he answered J. I. Packer and Eugene Peterson. I felt strangely relieved. I asked a question myself: Any dangers in our going too far into this artsy fartsy, story-glory direction? He said: "Read your systematic theology." Instantly we became best friends.

5. The Art of the Essay
"True art subsists as an object of contemplation." That's what one fellow said on this panel on the essay as literary form. He said it does so because the art was made out of contemplation and couldn't have become worthy of public experience if the artist had cut short his practice of that contemplation. Contemplation, he said, is a discipline that has to be cultivated and protected. You can't write if you don't have time.

Each of us as artists desperately needs time to listen and wait and attend to the slow but sure movements of creative generation inside you. Like prayer, listening and waiting are the only kind of work worth doing if the artist wishes to make good art. Listening and waiting are not luxuries of the artists, they are the sine qua non: that without which you simply cannot be an artist.

4. Christian Publishing: Boundaries & Horizons
"What's new in the current state of Christian Publishing?" I asked Jon Potts, Eerdman's editor-in-chief, at the above titled seminar. Six things stood out to me in his answer which was sprinkled with additions by two fellow editors.

1) Major houses can pay more money for books like A Purpose Driven Life and so can marginalize religious publishing houses.
2) The breadth of publishing in Christian Bookseller Association is as great as it's ever been.
3) The market today is more interested than ever in religious titles, ancient texts, world religions, and the arts. And it's less interested in denominationalism.
4) There's a greater sophistication and professionalization of Christian publishing.
5) Borders and Barnes & Noble will only buy CBA books through their religious buyer, not their fiction buyer.
6) There is a Christian market that wants only a certain kind of book. They don't want it too dark or profane or whatever. They want it "uplifting" and "clean" and "clearly understandable." And what can we the publishers do about that? That's a cultural problem. That's a market problem. That's the problem of churches and the pastors and leaders and lay persons that fill them.

3. Walter Wangerin: "A Voice in the Wilderness"
Wangerin, I found out, has cancer. I don't know what kind, but several friends at the conference thought this might be his last public speaking stint. They don't know how long he has to live. They cancelled his book signing session because his immune system is so weak. But he spoke powerfully on the last night of the festival about the calling of the artist to lift up his or her voice in the wilderness.

"We as writers," he bellowed, "name the nameless things in people's lives. You name things that people knew before but did not have a name for it." Sometimes you cry out in the wilderness, he said, and what you name is the reader, the reader who recognizes him- or herself for the first time. You are Alyosha or Macbeth or Alice falling down a dark rabbit hole. You are Blanche DuBois or Mr. Darcy, and you suddenly know the way forward, the way towards transformation. Whether you follow it or not is another thing.

But our job is to cry and to let the reader find himself wherever and however he may.

2. My Meeting with the Publishing Houses
I visited every major house in that main hall--Zondervan, NavPress, Eerdmans, IVP, Josey-Bass, the Baker Publishing Group--and asked them the same questions. One, how many art and faith books do you publish? I knew the answer in advance because I'd done the research already, but I wanted to see what they said. Not many. Fine. Two, is it because you don't get many submissions of this kind? Three, is it because you get only bad submissions? Or four, is it that there isn't much of a market for these kinds of books?

Looking at the shelf in my office at church I'd concluded that there were basically three kinds of books on art/faith: academic, single-topic, and popular/inspirational. Of the first you have Frank Burch Brown's Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste. Of the second you have Bill Dyrness' Visual Faith or Robert Johnson's Reel Spirituality: Theology & Film in Dialogue. Of the third you have Madeleine L'Engle's classic Walking on Water.

I felt, as a result, that I might have a chance to fill a niche. But I really couldn't know.

I lunched with the senior acquisitions editor at Baker and started off by saying, "I'm either smoking crack or I'm sitting on a goldmine." I was here to propose a mid-level integrative work that would address the question of art and what it meant to be an artist from six perspectives: biblical, theological, philosophical, spiritual, ecclesial and missional. I envisioned it as a kind of primer: introductory and holistic. By the end of my thirty minute, uninterrupted, all-rockets-ago spiel I was burning my last bits of passion. I'd said what I needed to say. At no point did I feel I'd crossed over into BS or hyperbole. Everything I'd said, I'd felt had come out of conviction, out of ten years of slogging through a long and tedious, and in many ways unspectacular, work of reflection and experimentation; many years of frustration; many years of wanting to give up; many years of feeling bored and disoriented and foolish.

He asked me a few questions. I answered them. Then he said, "Let me cut to the chase. We're interested. Let's go forward." And that was that. We talked over a number of related matters and parted ways. I couldn't believe what I'd heard. He'd said yes. He'd send me Baker's book proposal form and argue my case before the editors back at the ranch. That was it.

Baker is a publishing group with five or six houses, ranging from popular to academic lines. What line they would publish me through would be determined by my proposal. I won't pop any champagne bottles until I've written a contract. Yet good God I can't believe it happened so swiftly. There's a lot of hard work ahead, hours and months and perhaps years before it sees the light of day. But at least I get to begin somewhere.

1. Marilynne Robinson, Dame of all things Beautiful and Erudite
Speaking of the current generation of young people, she quipped: "They've been inaugurated into an era of declining expectations." She also asked, "Why do we assume so little of the our contemporary reader? Respect the reader. Assume he is smarter than you."

And finally, in reference to the mass and circus-like campaigns for literacy, she noted wrily, "Now literacy is pushed as some kind of unsavory medicine."

Alas and alas, what a strange and wonderful world we live in. Thank God for the writers who can help us make sense of things.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Reporting Live from Writerdom

"It seemed a tawdry response to a serious inquiry."

That was Salman Rushdie tonight commenting on the radical Muslim response to his Satanic Verses. And based on his explication, I'm now bound to believe him. Mostly.

Well here we are at the end of day two of the never-ending feast of words, words, words.

My first impression is that Dutch people, of the neo-Calvinist sort, are tall, blond, and rather smart. Rather. And there are a lot of them.

This isn't so much intimidating as spooky, in the non-horrific way, in the way that accidently landing into any single-culture ethnic pool would unnerve you, whether it was with the Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn or the Amish in western Pennsylvania. The last time I found myself in the middle of what used to be the norm, ethnic uniformity tied to geographic place, was when I lived in British Columbia and I would visit my friend Mark Klassen down in Abbotsford. That was Mennonite country; Mennonites with the Francis Schaeffer memorial u-shaped, funny-lookin' beard.

It's not bad, mind you, it's just so much of it, cultural oneness (sameness?); and white, not the old-school Calvinist tighty-whities, these are the friendly kind, Christian Reformed kind, but white nonetheless. Everywhere. And super cordial.

At one point prior to the introduction of Thursday evening's plenary speaker Luci Shaw, the Mistress of Ceremonies asked the crowd of approximately 1900 persons how many were in book clubs. 60% raised their hands. That's 1140 people. That's a freakin a lot. I've never been in a book club. Never. I thought, man, I'm not in Kansas any more. 1140!

It's just a different deal.

Otherwise, things have been mostly good. My schedule today began with an early seminar with Neal Plantinga, member of the Plantinga Family of Philosophers Empire, (on why preachers should read more books and poems), an interview with Lauren Winner (ever sharp, ever self-deprecatingly witty, and an INFJ like Phaedra), a session with Don Miller and his droll sense of humor, and an afternoon artsy testimony with Mako Fujimura.

Tonight we listened to a rambling discourse on religion and literature by Mister Satanic Verses himself. Two things he said that stood out. One, he likes to digress. Two, he prefers transgressive treatments of religion to reverential ones, which he finds mostly boring. He was waggish in the way that erudite Cambridge graduates can tend to be, but his digressions overcame him and we quickly lost him. I wrote in my notebook a comment and showed it to John Wilson, sitting next to me, "His digressions are becoming transgressions." So tedious.

This is the third plenary speech that I've found less than, well, what I thought they would be. Luci, as much as I love her and have heard bang-up talks by her, rambled quite a bit, and Alice McDermott spent the first thirty minutes of her 70-minute talk reading an excerpt from her latest book. She followed it with a peroration on art and suffering, which while important, and in moments stellar, didn't add, I felt, anything new to the subject. The one thing she said that I did quite like was that artists ought never to offer antidotes to suffering. Antidotes are for doctors, she said. Artists ought to help people lean into the pain, redemptively.

I hate to sound crotchety here. I'm not. I'm just finding what I guess I've found in many other places: that a great artist does not necessarily make for a great communicator. They might even be a great teacher in the classroom. But the art of speech-making (public rhetoric) is a difficult art not given to all. Many of the writers here would gladly and quickly agree with that and make no bones about it. So it's ok. There's a lot of rich stuff happening in classrooms all over the campus. Why fault a writer for doing what she does best, writing and reading.

I sign off here with immense gratitude for this conference and the excellent organization visible at every turn. Tomorrow I look forward to a session on reading and the future of literature in a visual age, a seminar which explores contemporary Catholic writers, book-buying at a book-lovers fantasy island, and many interesting conversations with interesting folk.

I close with an apt comment by George McDonald:

"The best must be set before the learner, that he may eat and not be satisfied; for the finest products of the imagination are of the best nourishment for the beginnings of that imagination."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Briefly Noted: Salman Rushdie et al


The Festival of Faith & Writing
I'm headed out today for Grand Raggidy, Michigan, home of all things VanAndel and DeVos and other Dutch memorabilia. I'll be hanging out with artist types at Calvin College's festival of Christian writerdom. I told my hopearts friends that I had two purposes for going, but it's actually three. The first is to get an insider's perspective on the culture of "Christian writers" (or as some of them might prefer, "writers of faith"). This is what I call the zoo watching part. All God's creatures great and small will be there: peacocks, beetles, lionesses, beavers, and dogs everywhere sniffing each other out.

The second reason is to meet editors, publishing houses, and literary agents that might help me officially get started on the writing of this book. As of today I have a meeting on Saturday morning with the senior acquisitions editor for Baker Publishing, a fellow whom I actually met six years ago at Regent College, where he was trolling for new writers. Back then I was definitely not one of them; I was the positively never-ending student.

But the third reason for going is to take notes on how they've organized the conference. I'm still moving forward on this idea of a conference for pastors and artists. Larry Linenschmidt, the regional coordinator for all things Lewisian, including the upcoming C. S. Lewis conference, has agreed to help me target Fall 2007 or Spring 2008. Right now I'm collecting data. I've an appointment tomorrow morning with John Witvliet, the director of Calvin's Institute of Christian Worship and a guy I respect very much and TA'd for at Regent the summer of 2000. So hopefully some good stuff will come out of that.

About Salman Rushdie, no, I've not read the Satanic Verses, I just like saying his name. It's very Ludlumish. I'm looking forward to hearing Walter Wangerin (The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of God), Luci Shaw, Marilynne Robinson (author of the recent Pulitzer Prize, Gilead), Michael Card (my late '80s hero), Don Miller, Mister Blue Like Jazz, and our very own Susanna Childress. I emailed Lauren Winner yesterday to tell her I'd be at the festival. We met on the back row of a room full of Vine attenders in Lake Geneva, WI, in the Fall of 2000. Many years later I've got a wild idea I want to throw out in her general direction. We'll see.

In any case, I consider it a great opportunity to be going and see it as part of my continuing research of the whole Christian/art world. I'm praying for divine appointments, for grace and favor with editors, that God would show me how best to use my time, and that I could be an encouragement to others who may not be a part of any kind of community of believer artists.

Holy Week Rocks
I do love Holy Week. It's surely my favorite time of the year, ten to the ten times more than the over-commercialized Christmas season. I'm 100% in favor of the Incarnation, but I seem to have lost my appetite for gift-getting and carol-singalongathons. Holy Week is the culmination of a long pilgrimage of mortification. By the time Easter Sunday has come, if you've done your penance and your death-to-the-flesh and Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil right, you're about crazy with anticipation. It's like, Rise up already!

It would be difficult to convey the richness of our various services; or it'd just take too much time. One highlight for Maundy was the reading of the Gospel of Mark in one sitting. 35 readers shared the duty and I tell you what: that story of Jesus is rivetting, what with all the Immediatelys here and Immediatelys there and Immediatelys it's over and he's up up and away before you can say I surrender all. Good Friday I invited seven members of our congregation to reflect on the seven last words of Jesus (words spoken on the cross). They ranged this year from a college gal to a seventy year-old fellow named Cotton Hance. (How's that for a literary name.) The service is a series of seven triads. We sing a hymn, we listen to a 5-7 minute reflection, and then we take a moment of silence to ponder. I regret I don't have time to give details, but it's hands down my favorite service of the entire year: so rich, so poignant, so perfectly the body of Christ in word and image.

Easter Sunday we sang with gusto, we watched/participated in a beautiful liturgical dance, and we enjoyed Day 1 of the Easter exhibit. I also preached. My sermon was on the idea of resurrection as the announcement of our homecoming. At some point I'll copy here portions of the sermon. But what a resonant day. After all that long, tedious walking with Christ through his Lenten march, we were hop-scotching ready for endless celebration. And celebrate I did: all day long, wine-bibbing, meat-eating, dark chocolate-devouring.

I've Officially Entered the "Resurrection Years"
It was my birthday this past Monday, and with it I left the "Jesus Years" and, as my friend the filmmaker Mike Akel puts it, I entered the "Resurrection Years." I made it out of 33 without a single miracle. But neither did I die, so it's not all bad. Now I have a high-flying ascension and a tongue-rattling pentecost to look forward to.

Powerful Ghosts Aboard United 93
A nice piece by Terry Mattingly on the forthcoming 9-11 movie.

Indian director hopes to cast Paris Hilton as Mother Teresa
And you thought Hollywood was weird. Try Bollywood.

Austin's Cultural Sector Draws $2.2 Billion for Austin economy
According to recent studies the artists and other non-NYSE viable industries of Austin are helpin' us out. The city's cultural sector provides $48 million in tax revenue for the city each year and represents about 44,000 jobs. Not bad.

L'Enfant (The Child): The Jesusy Movie
Jeffrey Overstreet has a nice review of the European film by brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes. Among his raves:

"It's a story about conscience, responsibility, and family. It betrays no preaching, politicizing, or prejudice, but sticks to artful observation, respecting the viewer's intelligence and ability to discern its themes. The vision of human behavior is so authentic and convincing, it often feels like a hidden-camera documentary. Nothing is heavy-handed, sentimental, or gratuitous—in each scene, everything belongs and contributes to what the film can mean. The two central characters, Bruno and Sonia, are played by supremely talented young actors—Jérémie Renier and Déborah François. But they're not recognizable celebrities for most moviegoers, which makes us concentrate on their characters without distraction. The camerawork is effortlessly agile and clever, and yet it does not draw attention to itself. It's fast-paced, intense, and wraps up with an unforgettable conclusion. Did I mention the nerve-wracking car chase?"

The trailer hadn't done anything for me, but Overstreet convinces me to go--or at least to search for the nearest, dingiest arthouse that might be showing it.

The Devil Made Him Do It
Here's another fascinating film bit. It's an interview with the director of the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

A Visit to the Austin City Council
I recently attended an Austin City Council meeting co-hosted by the Arts Alliance. It was my way of getting "involved"; citizenry in action. But boy you thought high school civics class was boring. That was "teenage boredom." This was "adult boredom," and the latter feels more painful because as a teenager you assume a third of your life must be boring. Needless to say it was not what I thought I was going to; I certainly didn't see the transvestite mayorial candidate coming. I have a write-up of my impressions which I hope to download next week. But God bless the government, because we need it.

(PHOTO: Michael Ortiz, "Matthew 28:9," Hope Chapel Easter Exhibit 2006. I'll explain the exhibit later.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Only Way Forward is Backward


Yesterday was my friend Toddy Burton's birthday. Her real name is Virginia Todd Burton. Todd is a dad's name. We only know her though as Toddy. She turned 30. She grew up in Nevada and went to school at Brown, where she studied film with a bunch of really fun feminist friends. Her films are mostly weird. They're either about cross-dressing or wildly dressed singers or about super heroes. Her latest project is called The Aviatrix. It's about a girl in her twenties who contracts cancer and the only way to claw her way out of the insanity of a degenerating body and a mind that can barely withstand the fire drugs is to escape into her alter ego, the super-powered, super sexy woman The Aviatrix.

Toddy had cancer two years ago. I visited her once, in a kind of old fashiony pastoral visit. I felt very old fashioned, like a country Presbyterian minister from the late 19th century, or maybe like John Ames in Marilynne Robison's latest novel, Gilead. I sat with her at the rickety metal dining table and we ate our split-two-ways macrobiotic to-go dinner. The first thing she told me was a list of instructions I needed to half memorize in case she fell into an epileptic seizure. I blinked, and nervously scribbled the instructions in my head.

She wasn't hungry. So she left most of her meal on the table and lay down on the couch. She said she wanted to show me some music videos. I joined her on the springy, college studentish couch and together we watched Michel Gondry video magic unfold: Björk, The White Stripes, The Chemical Brothers. She even let me relive Michael Jackson's 1983 video sensation, Thriller. But she quickly bored of this too.

She said she was ready for bed. I looked at my watch. It was around 8:20 pm. So I walked her to her bed, where she crawled in, and once under the covers asked me to read from the Bible. I read to her from Romans.

Toddy was the kind of person who walked herself into the kingdom one step in front of another. No leaping. No altar call jotted down in the margins of her Bible. No blinding light. Just a gradual movement from there to here and one day she knew that she wanted Jesus more than she wanted other stuff. Her way wasn't very Evangelical, and it was hard for an Evangelical like myself to know what to do with it. It wasn't until she dove under and thrashed around in the waters of baptism last September that she and all of us knew that Jesus was her man, no questions asked.

She'd asked me to baptize her, but I told her that I thought my father would be a better choice. So he and seven or eight or who knows how many of her best girlfriends joined her in the font at the back of the sanctuary and performed the rite. My role ended up being that of a Catechist. I catechized her in the ways of baptism, biblically, theologically, spiritually. The one thing she really liked, and for all I know solely remembered, was my suggestion to stay down under the water like a towel in the washing machine, to make sure she really got clean. It was a metaphor, to my mind, but she liked it so much she took it literally.

She instructed my father to keep her under for a good ten seconds--nothing less she said--just so she could feel all that old man dying a good soaking, rinsy death. The only way up, I'd preached the previous Sunday, was down. This was Jesus giving directions, so that we would know how to follow him.

Yesterday as I was praying for Toddy and asking God for a special word of encouragement, the phrase "The only way forward is backward" came vaguely to mind. As we sat around a chiminea in her backyard around 10:30 pm last night, I felt inside me a stirring of compassion for my artist friends. Many of them have a hard road to walk. There were six of us there besides Toddy: two filmmakers, an actor, a sculptor, a supporter of the arts, and myself.

"Toddy," I told her, "it's a lonely thing sometimes to be an artist. We don't have really many role models. There aren't many older artists out there who love Jesus with a mature faith and who also evince a mature artistry." I thought to myself that the main exception to this is possibly the visual art world. We have a lot of good elder moms and dads in CIVA; and by elder I mean 50 and 60 years old. Maybe some of the guys out of Cornerstone come close.

"But there are not many older artists who are making unconvential, difficult art. Not many mature believer artists, that is, relatively speaking, creating art that unsettles and provokes, art that forces us to look at the darker or absurd aspects of life. That's the kind of art you make, Toddy. It's not the only kind, of course, but that's where God has you for the moment."

So what do we do, I asked myself earlier in the day? Where do we go for wisdom? Where do we find artists who love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength, who are humble, who are generous, and yet who live at the margins of the proverbial social status quo? Thankfully we have a decent number of older mother and father types at Hope who sympathize with this younger generation. But how do I counself my friends?

St. Francis.

His named popped first in my mind. Then St. Benedict, then St. Augustine and St. Theresa of Avila and all the rest. The saints. That was it. That's where we needed to go to find our mentoring: to the past. The Cistercians and the Bridgettines, these could become abbots and abbesses to the artists of today. They could show us a radical way of being: radically in love with God, radically risking their reputations and all they possessed.

One of the things that's been difficult for me is to find a way to release the artists in our community who sense a calling, or if not a calling, it's just inside them, to make difficult art. I don't know how else to put it. It's not pretty or easy or standard or delightful or maybe even mature, it's just out there, gloomy and disturbing. I can't stop them, even if I tried. They're adults. If I felt it was truly immoral or self-indulgently perverse, I would say something. I would. But with most of them I trust that they're genuinely trying to find the truth about things. But be that as it may, I still want them to take the harness of Christ, to yoke themselves to Jesus in a radical obedience to his Word. In a sense, this is no different than Augustine's infamous, "Love God, then do whatever you want."

So perhaps, I told Toddy, an earnest study and submission to the saints of old will help you learn how to make your art. It won't be easy. They'll demand everything from you. And you'll still need us, your friends, and you'll need older moms and dads at Hope to help you become a mature woman, a mature Christian, a mature artist.

But those saints, they know a thing or two about difficult living. Especially the mystics, they know what it means to follow a voice into places that your fellow brethren will find simply strange and possibly dangerous. So go make crazy films, Toddy gal, but never forget your first love. Keep the saints close by, both the old and us newbies. We'll walk with you. We'll do our best. And remember, 30 is the new 20, and a wonderfully perfect age to make new beginnings.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Vision for Cultural Renewal (via aesthetica: Part II)

"Christ’s body does not need to finish its cultural task in a given generation: it only needs to be faithful with what it is entrusted." ~ Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World

This isn't a new entry so much as a relocation of an old one. I'm placing this here as an important machine piece in the vision for cultural renewal. It comes as, and becomes, a strategic measure for the local church in its specific role in relation to the arts.

If a reformation of the church in its understanding and practice of art is truly to take place, in such a way that our culture is redeemed and the lives of individuals and communities are restored by the presence of Christ, then the following, it seems to me, must take place at a very practical level, at the level of action.

In practice, then, the following must become the concrete work of pastors and lay leaders.

1. A Common Vocabulary. We need to acquire and grow a common vocabulary. This vocabulary will shape our vision and help us to cultivate a Christian mind about the arts. (Cf. Harry Blamires' The Christian Mind.)

2. An Intentional and Intensive Community. We need to foster community at all levels: from large group to small group, from friendship to inter-ecclesial gatherings and plenty of organic relationship-making with non-believers. It is in the context of genuine community that spiritual and artistic formation will best take place, and thus also real and permanent personal growth.

3. A unified, flexible-unit Mission. We need to be bound to a common mission that also allows us freely to pursue the specific calling God has on each of us. It is a unified and multi-pronged strategy, reminding us of a fundamental question: How can I give myself fully to my calling while also giving myself fully to the calling of the corporate body? How can I love my neighbor even as I love myself?

4. The Enemies of a reformative community must be identified and ruthlessly purged: including, among other things, busyness, selfishness, the tyranny of too many choices/options/too much stuff, and a lack of inherited wisdom.

"Their chief job right now [as Christian writers] is to learn the techniques of fiction, to read as many of the great writers as possible, and to learn from them, without worrying about how often they went to church or to what denomination they belonged. The important thing to look for is whether or not they could write." ~ Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

"Traditions are not easily dismissed, for they are more than idea and appearance, they are systems that work. Tradition is a means through which certain kinds of things can happen. . . . intimacy with tradition is a matter of bringing tradition into one’s bones; it requires of us a kind of embodiment if we are to make anything of it." ~ Joel C. Sheesley, “The Beauty of Borrowing,” (B&C, Jan/Feb. 2002, 16)

5. The Values of a reformative community must be diligently inculcated in the lives of each member: the supremacy of God's glory, a lifestyle of hospitality, the commitment to healthy community, an encouragement to collaboration, personal honesty, the courage to sound the prophetic note, and a holistic view of life.

"For the evangelical Christian community to develop a living artistic tradition, a mulching ground that generates deeper-going artistry which in turn will not be defensive but have staying power, will take a long time. It will probably take more than one generation of artists, art critics, art public, art patrons, art theorists, art publicists, working together in a communal perspective, to develop the normal body for supporting the numerous second-rated artists that are needed to get the few first-rate ones. . . ."

"Perhaps some Christian body, with resources and authority, can enlarge its long-term vision to give priority to such a ministry in the arts, giving support to a gifted artistic community with a united direction and a holy spirited vision of compassion for those caught in sin and by evil." ~ Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Playing Soccer con los Carnales


I went for a night run tonight. My route took me up one block and down another through the neighborhood, and I eventually found myself on the back end of the Brentwood park. The giant, puddleglum-like flourescent lamps hanging over the adjacent tennis court cast just enough light to make the grassy field visible. There in the field a group of Mexican guys were playing soccer.

Running for me is a spiritual discipline. I run because either I need to pray or I need to emotionally equilibrate or I'm working on a play script and I need to "find my way" through the story away from my desk and notepad. Tonight I needed to pray; lots of cobwebs in my spirit. But when I saw those guys playing soccer I suddenly felt an urge to join them. I ran by them and away from them, thinking this was just a whim, but when I saw that it was a 3 on 3 and that another guy was sitting alone against a tree, I thought, "I want to play soccer; I really, really want to play." So I stopped and walked back. I asked the guy in Spanish if I might join them, make it 4 on 4. The others congregated and said yeah, sure, no problem--in Spanish. "Si, esta bien, si, vengase." They began to address me in English, but when they saw I persisted in Spanish they relented.

I played for 50 minutes, running up and down, scoring once, missing repeatedly, and wondering why the heck it's taken me two years to play soccer again. I grew up in Guatemala playing soccer every afternoon, every weekend, every moment possible. Anything round would do, leather, plastic, rubber, aluminum. Anything that remotely looked like a ball became an occasion to play out our fantasies of futbol glory: Pele, Maradona, Zico, Beckenbauer, Paolo Rossi!

As I sit here I'm ridiculously sore. But I'm happy. I'm deeply, contentedly happy. I love soccer. I love speaking Spanish. I love laughing in Spanish. I love those Mexican guys, most of them working construction, landscaping or in a kitchen, all of them young, low to the earth, gentle: Isaias, Naum, Carlos, Victor, Jose, Milton, y Graulio. The entire time I heard not a single curse word. They invited me to come back--any time, they said. Me the only gringo. They the carnales playing soccer on a Saturday night at the back end of the neighborhood park. I said I would.