Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I'm off to Constantinople

Right now I'm in Newark. Room 503. At the Days (Inn?) Hotel, where every customer is enthusiastically welcomed back to the 1970s and all your childhood memories of cigarette vending machines and faux-wood, panelled walls. Orange, yellow, brown--you name it, we've got those three colors. And you want a non-smoking room? No problem. We pretend smoking rooms are non-smoking. "You can too!"

Unaguest and I have holed up for the afternoon. The ladies are somewhere in New York City. A three hour nap, a hot shower, a steak and cheese sandwich and I'm ready for a nice transatlantic, night-time flight.

I woke this morning at 3:41 am, couldn't fall back asleep, so had to wait the dreaded minutes till the alarm did its siren duties at 4:40. Six AM flights are vile. But we got off fine in our fancy Continental metal bird, a three-hour flight to the Garden State. I watched the film United 93 this past Saturday night. I don't recommend terrorist, hijacking, plane-crashing movies before flying. It's just not that helpful.

CNN's telling me that a beautiful array of black, smoky plumes are presently ascending to heaven--out of the Istanbul airport.

"A huge fire quickly engulfed the cargo section of Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport today, destroying most of the building and forcing about 2,000 workers to flee, authorities said."

“Our biggest consolation” said Mujdat Yucel, manager of the Havas cargo and ground services company, "is there is no loss of life."

Well that's nice.

"The fire broke out around 3:30 pm local time in the cargo section of Terminal C, which is used by smaller airlines, mostly from the former Soviet bloc."

The Soviet bloc? Yes indeed. Rocky IV. Welcome back to the 1970s: Take 2.

Radical Islamic, Leftist, and Kurdish militants here we come.

Seven of us are headed out into the great unknown, what I'm calling the "Jesus, Art, Muslims!" parade. As I mentioned to the Hope community, the seven of us are:

The Unaguest, the Sultan
Ellen Johnson, the Floridian Flautist (ph.d out of FSU)
Kate Van Dyke, the Queen of the Book of Kells (professional calligrapher)
Katherine Brimberry, the Master Printer (Flatbed)
Lisa Johnson, the Cowgirl (technically, a Cow Roper)
Beverly Harstad, the Clown (literally)
David Taylor, the Wolf (my evening alter-ego)

Steve Hawthorne, the Prayer Sage, will be joining us here and there throughout our time. Together we'll be visiting galleries, museums, Turkish artists, Turkish believers, the ruins at Ephesus, and then participating in the Roberts College and Tunel International arts festivals. Our travel motto is: Hurry up and wait. Our mission: to enter into the Turks' experience of art so that we can speak the language of the spirit.

Many unpredictables (airports on fire), many unknowns (will this art thing work?), but a heart full of faith and an acute sense that life is too short not to give it a try propels us onward. As my dad says, you only go around once. So live it up. Drink it down. Say no to cartoons.

And lastly, when I was in my mid-twenties I wanted to start a band with a graduate school friend of mine, Mark Klassen, now a missionary man in India. We had this great name. We were going to be called The Cappadocian Fathers. We thought it was way cool and, besides, it was named after Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, the 4th century monastic brothers and primary architects of the 381 AD Council of Constantinople. The only problem was there were only two of us. We could never find a third band member, try as we did. So, two months into the dream, we disbanded.

We still fantasize of reconstituting the band. But as I head out to their ancient homeland, I think fondly of those days in a basement apartment in Vancouver, BC, right off of Jericho beach.

If there's any way possible, I'm climbing a bus and making a pilgrimage to the town of my band members' namesake.

Monday, May 15, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to the DVC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sin makes people think stupid things--like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love it.

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

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

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

No one is angry for no reason.

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

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

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

We play the game better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen brother man.

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

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


A. The vocation of the artist

1. General thoughts on vocation

2. Specific thoughts on the vocation of artists

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

3. Further thoughts on the vocation of artists

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

B. The artist as disciplined

1. The artist as human being

2. The artist as Christian

3. The artist as disciple

4. The artist as disciplined

C. The artist in community

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

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

3. Solitude and community

D. The artist as vicious and virtuous

1. Ten vices of the artist

2. Ten virtues of the artist

E. Conclusion

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Philosophical Basis for the Arts

I'm on page 239 of DaVinci. I remain firmly impressed. The literary prowess is kickin' awesome. At one point in the story with a veritable storm of suspense and danger swirling around them (just like that: a veritable storm), people dying, people fleeing, Langdon (Tom Hanks) attempts to explain to Sophie (Audrey Tautou) the complicated web of malevolent deeds of the early church. Malevolent like this:

"Sophie . . . the Priory's tradition of perpetuating goddess worship is based on a belief that powerful men in the early Christian church 'conned' the world by propagating lies that devalued the female and tipped the scales in favor of the masculine."

Many dastardly deeds and rotten revelations later, we find the following sentence:

"Sophie nodded, her eyes riveted on him."

Well of course her eyes are riveted! Dan Brown, what else would her eyes be doing with all hell breaking loose and the greatest conspiracy in the world--that "COULD SHATTER THE VERY FOUNDATIONS OF MANKIND!"--unfolding before her very riveted eyes? Tell me something else about her eyes. Tell me they're wet with tears. Tell me they're flickering nervously. Tell me they're white and shell-shocked and staring in disbelief. But don't tell me they're riveted because you're telling me she has two pupils, two eyelashes and two irises, things I already know.

Oh well. The abominable schlockman. And the show must go on.

Brian McLaren throws out some interesting thoughts in a recent Sojourner's interview. On the one hand, I like that he's wanting to push us to ask why so many people are drawn to the story. They're not drawn for no reason, he says. Perhaps people are upset with "status quote, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up-prone" established Christianity. And that's probably true in many places. So it's good to be forced to see the issues from other people's perspectives, to be pushed to ask questions that might not immediately come to mind.

On the other hand, I find McLaren wearying in his predictable tendency to bend over backward to rebuke his version of "established Christianity." He's too quick to fire rounds at his "own" people, a people which strike me, honestly, as no longer his own but the brethren across the street, those "other" conservative, culturally retrograde Christians. Personally, I think McLaren could be far more effective if he adopted a more irenic posture, less pugnacious. Folks like N.T. Wright (presently) and Henri Nouwen (formerly) have found themselves in similarly public settings, their opinions solicited as representative of Christianity at large. But they seem to have acquired the ability to be more charming and diplomatic about it than McLaren. They strike me as less desperate. McLaren comes across more desperate to prove his point, that we should become a new kind of Christian, and so, to my mind, becomes less convincing, except to the choir.

My two pennies.

I imagine our paths will cross eventually and my feelings rearranged, and much for the better. In the meantime I remain a stranger to his itinerant ways and so concede that I may be misperceiving him and confusing apples for bananas. I do know this, though: I don't feel the tensions he feels, or perhaps, I don't feel them as strongly. C'est la vie.

Here is the outline for chapter 3.

A Philosophy of Art: What is art, anyway?

Question: What do we do when the Bible is silent about questions we have that are neither explicitly biblical nor theological but are necessary to a clear and reasonable understanding of art and its implications for the way we live?

A. Introduction and Assumptions

1. Intro comments

2. Five Assumptions

a. God has made all, therefore he seeks to redeem all.
b. A total experience of God requires the participation of the total human person.
c. Certain things cannot be known apart from an experience of them.
d. Art is as much an expression of human experience as it is an interpretation of it; it is as much illuminative as it is formative.
e. Our most difficult dialogue partners are the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

B. General Definitions

Question: What is art?

C. The nature of art

1. The problematic but not impossible task before us

2. The difficulties with the term

3. A series of definitions

4. The nature of art vs. the intent or purposes of art

Question: What does art deal with?

D. Aesthetics

1. The idea

a. The imagination
b. Sense and feeling
c. Beauty
d. The arts

2. The accoutrement

a. Bad art: kitsch, cliché, melodrama
b. Allusivity: less is truly more
c. Open spaces: the gift of silence
d. What is artistic excellence?
e. What is aesthetic excellence?

Question: In what manner is art a way of knowing the world?

E. A brief epistemological tour

The thesis: Art is a mode of apprehending reality as well as a way of articulating or constituting the real.

1. Metaphorical knowledge vs. Conceptual, Discursive knowledge

2. Experiential knowledge (participative) vs. Theoretical knowledge (detached)

3. Pleasure (homo aestheticus) vs. Productivism (homo faber)

Question: What kinds of art are out there?

F. 5 Kinds of art—for starters

1. Practical arts

2. Liberal arts

3. Propaganda arts

4. Popular arts

5. Fine arts

Question: Is there such a thing as a distinct Christian imagination?

G. The Christian Imagination

1. The source material: Of what ought it to be constructed?

a. The words and actions of God in Scripture
b. The life and teachings of Jesus
c. The tradition of the Church as the receptacle of the Church’s experience, corporate and individual, of the good, the true and the beautiful
d. The “classics” in all of the arts as participants in the common grace of God and containers of distilled aesthetic excellence
e. All the material of your life as locus of divine encounter

2. The Christian story world

a. The basic Christian narrative
b. The basic Christian cosmology
c. The basic Christian authority dynamic
d. The basic Christian moral anthropology
e. The basic Christian eschatology
f. The basic Christian epistemology

Question: What then can we conclude about art?

H. In summary: 10 Statements about Art

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Theological Basis for the Arts

Here is an outline of what will become chapter 2 of the book. From the primary source, the Bible, we move to secondary reflection, the work of theology. The five widely recognized sources for theological thought are Scripture, Liturgy (how we have worshiped), Tradition, (how we have lived, our corporate history), Reason (how we think), and Experience (what we have seen, tasted, touched, heard and smelled of Christ). Karl Barth puts the task of theology in this way:

"Theology is an act of repentant humility, which is presented to humanity through his act. This act exists in the fact that in theology the Church seeks again and again to examine itself critically as it asks itself what it means and implies to be a Church among humanity."

Applied to our purposes here, theology seeks to examine the vocation of the artist in light of a Trinitarian God. The logic is simple: as with God, so with us; or more accurately, as with God in Christ, so with the artist in Christ. But again, the subject in question is not simply the artist, it is the Church. What does it mean for the Church to be the Church? If the Church is to be a reflection of the triune Godhead, then she needs to understand in what ways she is to reflect and represent the nature of God, which clearly possesses an aesthetic dimension.

If this world is made by God, then it is in someway a reflection of the way He exists within Himself, including a reflection of what we might call His imagination. If what He makes and how He makes it matters to Him, then it must also matter to the Church.

This in short becomes the iron shaft which will hold my argument together.

One final note. I appreciate all the comments that are being made about these chapter outlines and intend to reply to them in the comments section. Thus my responses to "A Biblical Basis." The objective as always is clarity of mind, clarity of speech.

A Theology of Art: In the beginning

A. Introduction

1. The importance of thinking theologically about our lives

2. The ways in which theology can help us better understand the nature and functions of art. A basic logic at work here: as with God, so with us. If God is creative, then so are we, created in His image. If God cares about the aesthetic aspect of this world, then so must we.

Topics covered: God, creation, humanity, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit.
Our method: following the basic outlines of Genesis 1.
The construct: first the idea, then the implications.

B. In the beginning God

1. The idea: God as Creator
a. Orthodox understanding
b. Contra ANE myths and Gnostic heresies

2. The implications
a. God as Poet, the Great Metaphorist
b. God as Maker of “non-utilitarian” things

C. In the beginning it was good

1. The idea: the doctrine of creation
a. Orthodox understanding
b. Contra all forms of dualism

2. The implications
a. It affirms the goodness of creation
b. It affirms the grace of creation
c. It affirms the goodness of our physical bodies
d. It affirms God’s authority over creation
e. It affirms the co-inherence of creation and salvation

D. In the beginning He created them in the image of God

1. The idea: the imago Dei biblically and historically considered
a. Orthodox understanding: the body-soul as good but fallen
b. Contra false dualism

2. The implications
a. We represent God on earth through our corporeality
b. We relate to God through our corporeality
c. We reflect God through our corporeality
d. As artists we ought to reflect both the goodness and the sinfulness of humanity

E. In the beginning, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

1. The idea: the doctrine of the Trinity
a. Orthodox understanding
b. Contra adoptionism and modalism

2. The implications
a. The collaborative God as model for the creative process of art-making
b. The community of God as model for the community of artists

F. In the beginning was the Word

1. The idea: the doctrine of the Incarnation
a. Orthodox understanding
b. Contra Arius and avatars

2. The implications
a. The final word on the goodness of the material world
b. The cross and resurrection as image of horror and beauty
c. The incarnation as rich metaphorical fodder for the artist

G. In the beginning the Spirit of God hovered

1. The idea: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit
a. Orthodox Understanding
b. Contra all depersonalizations

2. The implication
a. The Spirit as the empowerment of all creative labors
b. The Spirit as the inspiration for new ideas
c. The Spirit as the invitation to prayer

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Da Vinci, Emergents, and Robert Redford

That Dan Brown is Smart!
I'm on page 71 of The DaVinci Code. I have only one question thus far: How? How did this novel become the #1 Bestseller worldwide? Seriously. How? It's so wonderfully awful; not the content (which goes without saying) but the writing. I can't imagine a bright, young high school student writing a worse yarn of nonsense. Let me tell you all the ways. No, let's not. Let me just quote one line from page 65.

"He felt a renewed confidenc that the Teacher and Silas would not fail. Money and faith were powerful motivators."

Ba-boom. There you go. Money and faith were powerful motivators. That's a sentence. You are lying! It cannot be! If I die, the truth will be lost forever! The truth! Oy vey. These, all phrases original to Dan Brown, exclamation marks included. It's like, I need to buy tomatoes! Why! To make a salad! Really! Yes! Green tomatoes! No! Roma! Really! Yes! Roma red! Argh!

It's so bad it's so good. And yet I'm forcing myself to read it to the end. It's not even a fifth entertaining as John Grisham. At least Grisham knows what captivating, thriller language looks like.

See this for interesting commentary. See this also this from beliefnet.

Speaking of which: Barbara Nicolosi the Evangelical Hothead
Barbara has a nice op-ed on Christianity Today Movies' site; nice in a barbed (ooh, no pun intended), saucy, strident way. I'm inclined to agree with her suggestion: Othercott the movie. Watch something else this weekend at the movieplex. Vote with your wallet. But like I told my young friend Adam Langley earlier today, she really does come across more like an evangelical hothead (James Dobson) than an irenic, cool-headed Catholic (Richard John Neuhaus). She has this impressive ability to be clever and ironfisted at the same time. Her sometimes hystrionic tone, I find, undermines her eminently admirable razor-sharp mind and quick-witted tongue.

For the record: she hated the entire Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

For the record Take 2: she's never read Tolkien's books, which strikes me as a stupendous achievement.

But for this I can never fault her. As my newly converted Catholic friend Michele would put it, Barbara Nicolosi is an awesome Jesusy Catholic. She loves Jesus and fights for him like a good lover would. I'm grateful she's out there, fearlessly fighting the minotaurs and harpies of Hollywood, and perhaps a few quacked-out, tertullianite Christians too.

No Statements of Faith for Me, Thank You Very Much
LeRon Shults, a friend of Emergent Village and lately departed theology lecturer from Bethel Seminary, has just written an anti-statement of faith "on behalf" of emergent people. I say it in quotes because it's impossible, by definition I guess, for anyone to speak on behalf of the emergent movement. It's a river, they say, a confluence of dynamic conversations and relationships. None can speak definitively--which strikes me as vaguely Orthodox in manner, less definitially, more self-evidentially true.

I wouldn't even know where to begin in my response to his diatribe ("archaic : a prolonged discourse"). He says for the Emergent movement to create a statement of faith would be "unnecessary, inappropriate and disastrous." I'll comment only by saying that his tendency to overstatement surprises me. For a trained theologian he uses words like a rave dancer, capering ecstatically every which way.

"The very idea of a "statement of faith" is mired in modernist assumptions and driven by modernist anxieties . . . ."

Goodness gracious, the language here, and all that follows, is so wild as to be embarrassing. I don't mean to be snarky, it's simply incredible that he's written this essay. He's deduced and assumed and concluded in the most bizarre ways: "Paul, Luke and John all talked much more about the mission to which we should commit ourselves than they did about the propositions to which we should assent . . . the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry . . . a 'statement of faith' tends to stop conversation . . . ." Plenty, and I mean plen-ty, of Christendom begs to differ and does so in ways that express a winsome and vigorous faith--not static, not stultifying.

I've no time to offer a real critique, and I really would love to sit down and ask him questions, but I can't help thinking that Deuteronomy 5 and 6:4 and Acts 8:37 and 1 Cor 8:6 and Phil 2:6-11, plus a plethora of biblical propositions, all provide sufficient grounds, and therefore precedent, for the construction of statements of faith.

And then there's the rather pre-modern Nicene Creed et al.

I don't know. My concern is that this kind of stuff gives the Emergents a bad name, bad meaning wispy, quixotic, reactionary. I wonder what Brian McClaren thinks of this. Or my old prof Stan Grenz from beyond the veil.

[NOTE: while the printed date of this entry states May 4, I am writing now on Saturday morning. A wicked thunderstorm late Thursday night knocked out the power in my neighborhood. Thank God for back-up batteries.]

"Follow those who seek God, Run from those who find him."
That's a bumper sticker. Listening to KUT 90.5 on my way downtown I heard John Aielli mention that today (that is, "today Thursday," when I wrote this sentence) was the National Day of Prayer. I thought, Wow, I can't believe he's saying that. Then he said, It's also the National Day of Reason. Oh. The two together made him think of one of his favorite bumper stickers, the above quoted. It's such a lame sentiment, though. It's a shame it's so popular. Why would you not want to find the Source of all Beauty, Peace, Goodness, Power, Happiness, Etc?

The aphorism expresses a reaction against perceived arrogance. But still, it's lame. It's lame because it purports to be wise and humble, when in fact it's just another easy-minded, fuzzy-headed philosophical end-run around costly discipleship.

Hoodwinked: the future of Christian film
Christianity Today Movies recently interviewed Cory Edwards, the writer-director of the animated feature Hoodwinked. Edwards' thoughts on being a Christian in the film world bear witness to an encouraging trend in the church: believer artists are maturing.

We're growing up and thank God for that. We have much to be hopeful over.

Speaking of film: Laura Dunn and Robert Redford
I shared a hot chocolate Wednesday with local documentary filmmaker, Laura Dunn. We sat at a small table at JP Java's near campus. There, with her one-year old Jasper keeping our conversation fun and multitasked, we talked life, church, family, movies and the peculiar aspects of Austin's art scene. Her latest project explores the complicated and often acrimonious, even violent, debates surrounding Austin's natural springs (aka Barton Springs). Terrence Malick (Badlands, Thin Red Line, The New World) commissioned Laura to create a documentary that would allow the particular, Barton Springs, to become a microcosm for the larger, more general human struggle between business and the environment, job-provision and nature-preservation, progress and community, commerce and art, the spiritual and the physical.

Laura's hope is to infuse the film, at least the last third of it, with a genuine spirituality; not froofy spiritual eco-touchy-feeliness, but a sense, or suggestion, that there is a Creator who cares deeply about all the parts of this debate.

Her sadness is that she's met so few, so terribly few, evangelicals who care as seriously about God's creation as they do about his word. I mentioned to her the Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation, which she'd not heard of. I told her that they were out there, and perhaps even amongst our generation, growing and active. I told her I'd be praying for her.

She, like many artists I know, find themselves in a lonely interstice: misunderstood and critiqued by a secular community on the one side, misunderstood and critiqued by a Christian community on the other. God bless her and grant her grace.

About Robert Redford, she'd just interviewed him for the project, and I think some of the money came from the Sundance Institute.

Again the good news: God is raising up a generation of believer artists who are committing themselves to love Jesus and their craft with equal fervor; ordinately of course, but viewing the task of artistic formation as no less important than that of spiritual formation.

To that End: the Death Penalty
Our good man Andy Davis will be participating in the internationally juried exhibit at Gallery Lombardi, which opens tonight, "Justice For All? Artists Reflect on the Death Penalty." Out of hundreds of artists, submitting over 700 pieces, from everywhere on the planet, Andy was chosen as one of the few artists from Austin to have their work exhibited. He might also be the only Christian.

And so it becomes more encouraging news for the believer artists in Austin. Slowly but surely, the salt of heaven makes its way into the most unlikely places, secretly, subversively, and, in the spirit of Tom Bombadil, joyfully.

Screwtape Letters on stage
An old friend Max McClean has just opened an off-off-Broadway show on CS Lewis' demon letter-writing exchange, The Screwtape Letters. See here for John Miller's generous commentary in the National Review online.

A good quote
"Man today is in revolt against the world in which he lives, against its dehumanizing tendencies, against slavery under the bosses of the new Galbraith elite, under a computerized bureaucracy, against alienation and the loneliness of the mass man."

--Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (1970), pg. 196

Another good quote
"Indeed, it is not the preacher or the sociologist who speak to us most clearly of the 'crisis in civilization' in which we are involved, but the artist."

--Finley Eversole, Christian Faith and the Contemporary Arts

And yet another

"As something that can engage us wholly, [art] can also enact faith and love, vivifying and in a real sense 'converting' religious concerns sensually and imaginatively, letting one taste and savor sacred delight."

--Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste (p. 121)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Biblical Basis for the Arts

I've begun work on my book proposal for Baker and I realize that one of the best things I can do at this early stage is to open myself up to the generous and honest critique of others. If my desire is to serve the church, then I must allow the church to speak into this process at all stages. I presume too much, and to my own great loss, to believe that I've understood the matter sufficiently. One never in fact understands anything sufficiently, we are always "on the way," as Mark would put it in his gospel. But my part is to always aim at clarity and cogency. My work is to make the argument coherent. But it is only with the help of others that I will be able to see what I cannot alone see--where it is fuzzy, where it is scattered and ungrounded.

To that end I'd like to drop each of my outlines here and ask for input. In this case:

What biblical questions do you feel would be most important to address in the matter of the arts?

For the record, the three centers around which I want to wind my argument are "What is art?", "What does it mean to be an artist?" and "What is the place of the arts in the church?" The six frameworks through which these questions will be passed are 1) biblical, 2) theological, 3) philosophical, 4) spiritual, 5) ecclesial, and 6) missional. The goal is that by the end of the book artists will better understand their identity and their place in the world and church leaders will understand more clearly both how to love artists and how to incorporate well the arts into the life of the church.

One final note. It will be helpful to remember that this outline is the barest skeleton of what might end up being 20-30 pages of material. Also, the chapter cannot pretend to present a comprehensive treatment of the biblical question. It must however address the fundamental issues in such a way that the reader experiences an integrating effect upon his or her internal world.

A Biblical Basis for the Arts: Jesus the Word & Icon of God

A. Introduction

1. What kind of book is the Bible?
a. It is a religious book (not an aesthetics book)
b. It is a literary book (hermeneutics)
c. It is a carefully arranged book (biblical theology)
d. It is a wondrous book (doxology)
e. It is a book of dialectical relations (paradox and mystery)

2. Two aims

B. Genesis 1 and 2: creative acts, creative words

1. Comments on Genesis 1 and 2: words and ideas, truth and meaning

2. Gen. 1-2 as foundational text for the arts

C. The Temple as Biblical motif

1. Bezalel and the tabernacle (Exod. 31:1-11; 35:30-36:7)

2. Solomon and the temple (1 Kings 5-8)

3. Ezekiel and the vision of a temple (Ezek. 40 – 43:11)

4. St. John and the new temple (Rev. 21-22)

D. The Psalter: Israel’s hymn book

1. Poetry

2. Music

3. Dance

E. Jesus the Word and Icon of God

1. The idea of the Logos

2. The person of the Logos

3. The idea of the Icon

4. The person of the Icon

5. Observations

F. Jesus the story-teller and metaphor-user

1. Jesus’ stories

2. Observations

3. Jesus’ metaphors

4. Observations

G. In the end

1. The poetic vision of St. John

2. The Christian and the imagination

3. Concluding thoughts

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Good Words, Bad Words, No Words

This is a note I sent to our artist community at Hope. If anybody has any good thoughts, I'd be most interested and grateful.

I'm speaking at the Trinity Arts Conference at the University of Dallas, June 15-18. The theme of the conference is "All Things." My own talk is titled: "All Things: In particular the Small Things (Especially Words)." My goal is to talk about the importance and virtue of encouragement. If I had to distill one or two things that I thought was most important over the last five to ten years in my position as arts pastor, I would say it is this:

"Artists are made or broken by the words of encouragement they received along the way, or barely received, or never received; that it's not just what we say to each other, it's how we say it, how often we say it, how often we forget or refrain from saying it. Saying what? Saying words of encouragement. Why do we need encouragement? Because we are constantly threatened by fear, the fears inside our hearts and the fears all around us, the fears that threaten us to stop and give up or settle for the path of least resistance. And it is only God's courage that can help us overcome our fears. And so He calls us to en-courage each other. Writes St. Paul, 'But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness' (Heb. 3:13). Without encouragement--to forestall the entropic effects of fear--there's little chance any of us will ever achieve our fullest potential."

What I'd love to get help on is the following. Can you share with me:

1. Words of encouragement you've received along the way that you remember being really important to you as an artist.
2. Words of discouragement that hurt you in your development as an artist.
3. A good movie, play, song, art piece that illustrates the power of encouraging words.

Thanks so much!

ps: At some point this week I hope to jot down my impressions of the C. S. Lewis conference this past weekend in Austin; or at least tell about my friendly altercation with Frederica Matthewes-Green.

(PHOTO: Walter Wangerin interview, Festival of Faith & Writing, April 2006. Both Wangerin and Richard Foster sport the very rad and holy grey-haired ponytails. Click to enlarge.)