Monday, October 23, 2006

Anti-sacramentalist Protestants and the ripe old age of a poet

My friend Michele sent me a note recently. In it was copied a brief reflection by Dwight Longenecker. In his own words: "Brought up in an American Evangelical home, I went to Bob Jones University . . . . While there I came down with a severe case of Anglophilia from reading too much C.S.Lewis and Tolkien and T.S.Eliot. . . . was ordained as an Anglican priest and stayed in England for twenty five years. After ten years wearing a dog collar I was received into the Catholic Church."

In short, he's a Bob Joneser fundi who found Rome-sweet-home by way of Cantebury.

Michele asked me what I thought of his main assertion, that Protestants can't produce good art because they lack a sacramental belief system. I don't have any energy these to pick a fight with someone like Longenecker. I have too many friends who've converted recently. My emotional tank is low. I'd rather figure out how to stay good friends. Shooting at your friends at close range is a loud and bloody business. If we can't be friends, I'd rather we walk away from each other peacefully and pray that God cross our paths at some future point, maybe in the third generation post Vatican II.

I did have a few thoughts, though, mostly to sharpen my brain. I offer them as an amicable response.

Here's Longenecker's key paragraph:

"Protestants have problems with [sacramentalism]. They're suspicious of the physical. They're semi-Manichees . . . . Protestants don't have sacraments because they don't believe God interacts through the physical like that. They also don't like the messy miraculousness that comes with sacraments. So they retreat into a safe, intellectually abstract religion of theology and the Word, and take refuge in head games. Out of this comes an art that can only ever be functional--e.g. illustrations for Bible story books, or didactic e.g. pictures with Bible verse captions."

My initial response is yes and no. Yes, this problem exists in Protestant cultures, but no, it's not a fully accurate description.

The main problem with his comment is one of over-statement. He tries to say too much in too little space. He takes the term "Protestant" and uses it to describe all Protestant behavior, here in relation to art. But it's silly. Are all Catholics the same? No. You have your liberationist Catholics, your feminist Catholics, your rad-trad Catholics, your folk Catholics, your literati Catholics. Surely these will not all manifest the same attitudes about art. But from either zeal or ignorance we box entire traditions into a single, all-encompassing statment and hope that the reader will be persuaded--and I don't excuse myself from this habit.

The second problem with his comment is one of false deduction: the conclusion does not follow categorically from the premise. The argument, if I've read it correctly, is this: that a sacramental system of belief is necessary to produce good art; "Protestants" do not believe in such a system (they believe in "safe, intellectually abstract religion"); ergo, Protestants cannot produce good art. In actual fact, Longenecker really tries to tackle too much in his pronouncement, and since they come in blog form, perhaps it's unfair of me to nitpick. But it pushes me to ask hard questions about my own tradition, so I'll take it as an exercise in mental calisthenics--which, in truth, isn't such a bad deal since the root of that word, kalos and sthenos, suggests a beauty of strength. I'm going to try to beautify my mental muscles.

So then . . . .

In every major tradition, whether Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, you have tendencies. The genetic code of the tradition makes us inclined to this or that thing. Some tendencies are healthy (the love of the Scriptures), some are not (hyper-individualism), and we all have both. As an evangelical Protestant I need to learn about my basic tradition, and whatever sub-traditions I have grown up in and alligned myself with, so that I can keep myself from sliding into unhealthy tendencies. In the case of art, I need to watch against rationalism and pragmatism.

We also have syncretistic tendencies inside of us. In these we meld the Gospel with fallen aspects of our human cultures. Whether we syncretize with the American Trinity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness/property or with the Mayan gods in the highlands of Guatemala, it's always a danger. My point is that while Protestants struggle with tendencies that make it difficult for them to make good art, they are only tendencies and not, I contend, fatal diseases.

A second thought is this. Before the 16th century we, Reformers and Romanists, were all Western Christians. Thus, the heritage of Anselm, St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Augustine, Athanasius and Origen is all ours in common. As Protestants we can claim the writings of the early church fathers and the many blessed practices of Medieval Christians as ours too. (Not all things Medieval are creepy and religiously lugubrious. You have Gregorian chant, the mystery plays, gothic architecture, Bernard of Clairvaux's Song of Solomon sermons, Franciscan canticles.)

This is our soil too and it is a soil rich with sacramental minerals.

Which brings me to a third thought. Catholics are not the only sacramentalists in Western Christianity. Anglicans, United Methods, and Lutherans, among others, happily claim a sacramental identity. That these identities diverge from a Catholic identity does not deny a common embrace of a sacramental spirituality as defined by Longenecker and other Catholic thinkers. To the point, the belief that "grace flows through the physical world" is not antithetical to a Protestant Christian understanding. How such a belief is interpreted and applied is where we begin to take different paths; it's what determines where we land in our religious and artistic behavior.

Thomas Aquinas described the human creature as a homo viator, as a wayfarer, a wanderer. The Catholic writer Walker Percy believed that "the Catholic view of man as pilgrim, in transit, in journey, is very compatible with the vocation of a novelist because a novelist is writing about man in transit, man as pilgrim." Flannery O'Conner, the iconic Catholic writer of the last century, said that the Catholic novel "can't be categorized by subject matter, but only by what it assumes about human and divine reality"--i.e., that we are seriously messed up creatures in need of a grace that can only come from a God who takes on human flesh, hiding his divinity in the unseen cracks of ordinary life, and makes blessed meaning out of our painful experiences. I deeply resonate with these thoughts, as with those of von Balthasar, Viladesau, Tolkien, Graham Greene, Maritain, Chesterton, all Catholics, and at the level of theological aesthetics I do not find them incompatible with my Protestant beliefs.

More to the point, I'm not simply borrowing or falsely importing these ideas, I'm recognizing them as true to my own culture. They too would grow naturally in the soil of my tradition if only given a reasonable chance. They'll manifest themselves in different ways, but only in the way that apples breed into many forms of apple-ness.

In her essay "Novelist and Believer," tucked in her wonderful book Mystery and Manners, O'Connor makes the following observation:

"What I say here would be much more in line with the spirit of our times if I could speak to you about the experience of such novelists as Hemingway and Kafka and Gide and Camus, but all my own experience has been that of the writer who believes, again in Pascal's words, in the 'God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not of the philosophers and scholars.' This is an unlimited God and one who has revealed himself specifically. . . . It is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities, one known early on as a stumbling block."

My fourth thought relates to Pascal's comment. Our art work as Protestants can experience an infusion of en-earthed grace if we do a good job of paying attention to the Old Testament. And is the OT not ours as much as any Christian's? Do we not find here what Franky Schaeffer called the "dangerous, uncivilized, abrasive, raw, complicated, aggressive, scandalous, and offensive" quality of God's people--of God's own choice in literature?

And what better voice for such earthiness than Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian. Graham Green and Francois Mauriac, as recognizably Catholic writers, have sublimely incarnated this idea in The Power and the Glory and Viper's Tangle respectively, but Buechner holds his own at the table with such works as The Son of Laughter, Brendan, and Godric, the latter of which was nominated for the Pulitzer in 1981. His stuff is so earthy it makes me squirm. But I also taste grace in all the mucus and dust off the lives of his characters.

Fifthly, there is the Incarnation. You needn't the apparatus of the Magisterium to appreciate the enfleshed grace of Christ. The liturgical and mystical enviornments of the Catholic Church can enhance your apprehension but they do not preclude the Protestant from feeling the deeply disturbing, deeply nourishing mystery of God in the flesh. TheAnglican bishop and biblical scholar N. T. Wright has performed an incalculable service of leading pastors and lay believers into a truer, and indeed multi-sensory, understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus, which has often invited us back into a renewed experience of the Hebrew culture with all its bloody and mirthful feasts.

Sixthly, and finally, I would reiterate what I've said previously: there are plenty of Protestant artists making good work, and there will only be more of them in years to come. I've wrestled with the question of our evangelical tradition elsewhere, so I'll not repeat myself here. (Evangelicals and the Arts: Part I, Part II, Part III. Also: Our future in 2056. And then: Can we make great art? and Part II of that.) All I'll say is that the cloud of witnesses in our tradition ought to encourage our hearts and spur us on to love and good deeds, in this case, to make the greatest art possible. Our fathers and mothers include, among writerly artists, George Herbert, T. S. Eliot, George Macdonald, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Madeleine L'Engle, Frederick Buechner, Luci Shaw, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Walter Wangerin, Stephen Lawhead, Calvin Miller, Virginia Stem Owens, Robert Cording and Kathleen Norris--and surely a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist counts as reasonably good art.

In the end, I see two important questions. One, can our Protestant theology nourish great art-making. Two, can our Protestant churches nourish great art-making? I think the answer to both is, yes, within the great ecology of Protestantism, it is possible for great art to emerge. It has happened already, it is happening today, and it will continue to happen, though not without great sacrifice and slow-going labors.

In recent decades a term has come into prominence, the "evangelical Catholic." The term is used to describe a Catholic believer (the noun) with strong evangelical tendencies (the adjective). I think, however, that it can go the other way, a "catholic Evangelical." I would think of myself in this way. I see myself as a Great Tradition Christian who seeks to identify himself with the creeds and the historic Church. As I avail myself of this larger tradition I find my roots strengthened. I find my imagination enriched. I find myself looking for all the ways in which grace sneaks through the twists and turns of my quotidian life as well as in global and cross-cultural, historical events. It's a work in progress, I know, but I am hopeful, and I feel greatly encouraged by my goodly traveling companions.

And now for a swift detour.

What is the ripe old age of 12 debut poets?

I've started receiving the publication Poets & Writers. In the latest issue they have an article titled "Finishing the First." It features a dozen poets who have had the experience of publishing their first book of poetry. Do you know what the average age is? Just guess. Look away from this blog and guess.

Ok, now I'll tell you. It's 39.

Alright, it's not scientific and the people they picked are perhaps random. But not as random as we might think. The ripening process for a poet is much longer than a rock n roll band, which I'm guessing is circa 23. (Bono was 21 when "October" came out, 23 with "War".) The thought sobers me. It takes a long time to figure words out. Ooph.

And lastly, my friends Mike Akel and Chris Mass.

Their film Chalk is showing right now at the Austin Film Festival. To their great surprise they won the big prize: Best Narrative Feature, awarded by the jury. It's highly unusual for a hometown option to win the ribbon. Here's a nice article in the Chronicle.

We've been praying for the artists at Hope Chapel for many years. Mike and Chris are the first filmmakers, after many years of boring, awful, tedious labor, to punch through the amateur ceiling into the professional ranks. They've just signed a picture deal with Universal to write and direct a little-league baseball mockumentary. We're proud of them. But perhaps mostly, we're proud of their hearts. They continue seeking ways to love and serve the other artists in our community, even as we all keep looking for good ways to serve each other with a gracious, generous love, no matter the skill or accomplishment.

No matter how famous or rich any of us become, there's no place for cool or diva here. I won't tolerate it. If you're the Great And Powerful Artist and you have a rotten heart, you're no good to anybody. From day one we have to keep cultivating a humble heart. And I think that's what Mike and Chris have done such a good job at. And I can't tell you how refreshing that is.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Babel and Community

I saw Babel last night. It's the new movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu. I loved his previous two, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, which, to our pleasant surprise, he called parts 1 and 2 of his now finished "family" trilogy. He was at the screening, at Barton Creek Cinemark. Running at a crisp 142 minutes, the film is anything but family friendly. It features violence, sexuality, death, drunkenness, drug-use, loads of anger, loads of angst, harsh language, all very biblical. Be fairly warned.

But it was profoundly truthful--in a way that makes Jeffrey and me feel set free.

It was a movie that was pro-family in the Jesusy-Flannery way. It was about love. It was about how demanding and disruptive love is, almost cruelly. It was about husbands and wives, it was about children and parents and nannies and nephews and strangers. It was about the kind of love that knocks the wind out of you. It was about the kind of love that causes you to sacrifice your personal welfare for the sake of another, even if you're only their nanny.

The Mexican nanny loves so much that she ends up losing the gringo kids she's mothered since they were babies. The frightened, angry Moroccan desert kid loves so much he gives himself up to the police to save his family because he knows he's guilty. The deaf Japanese high school girl loves so much she hurts, in a very naked way, at never being loved back, ever. The American tourists (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) love so little by barely holding hands, just barely.

Jeffrey Travis got free tickets for us to attend the special screening. We're both fans of Alejandro's work. But we're under no illusion that they're easy films. If we had to, we'd tuck them somewhere between 2 Samuel 13 and 2 Samuel 20. We don't know if we'd call them Christian. They don't resolve. They leave you restless, but somehow also cleansed, or maybe cleansing, like a master cleanser, if you're willing. They're very beautiful.

"I love the openness of things," he told us last night. "Life is like that: you never know how things will turn out." We're on the way.

"What's your inspiration?" one woman at the back asked.

"I've learned from life," he answered, "it's my source of inspiration, interpreting life." Making sense of things, what artists do.

"What were you trying to highlight?" another fellow asked.

"We have borders inside us," he said. "We judge easily. Our society is losing compassion . . . we all share pain . . . I wanted to get to a place of compassion."

It's something I hear a lot of contemporary artists say. But they usually use the term tolerance. He never used it once, thank God. It's not a biblical term. I don't think he's a Christian but I'm glad he didn't use the T-word. I can't stand the T-word, not since J. Budziszewski showed me the light back in college. It's so infuriatingly mushy. It's fuzzy-headed, self-protective nonsense 95% of the time. Compassion is different. It's the ability to suffer with someone else, really suffer. Jesus was compassionate. He wasn't tolerant. Not of the Pharisees. Not of his family. Not of Peter. Not of any of us. But he was compassionate. To be angry and compassionate, that was the trick.

To be angry in the right way and compassionate in the right way: that would require supernatural help.

I'm marrying a rocknroller and a social worker tomorrow afternoon. It's at the fancy Allen House downtown. We're really hoping it doesn't rain. Outdoor weddings don't do well in the rain. I haven't yet finished my homily for the service, but I'm talking about the impossibility of marital love.

Why am I telling you this, today, on your happy wedding day? Because I don't want you to be duped. Don't be foolish. Your good intentions won't help you one lick. You're about to make a covenant with each other, get out of the fog. It's a covenant, not a contract. Your wedding should not be confused with fuzzy feelings of happiness. TV love is moronic love. Magazine love, movie love, Top 40 love, it's all an elaborate and expensive crock. Run as fast as you can away from TV love. This isn't TV love we're doing here. This is supernatural, divine love, the most satisfying and most awful love you'll ever taste.


George Herbert, "Love II."

I don't always know what I'm saying at these weddings, but I keep trying to stumble in the right direction.

A friend of mine who was at Hope for two years, studying art at UT, just told me this week that she'd gotten a divorce recently. It broke my heart. I was angry at myself. "How could she have been at Hope for two years and I didn't know that her marriage was slowly crumbling? I never asked. I never dove in. I never bothered, and a bother it would have been had I looked hard and long enough. I should have bothered with it for crying out loud!"

Did anybody know what was going on inside her, inside him? Do we really know what's going on inside the people we sit next to at church? The thought drives me crazy--pastorally speaking.

I guess I've been a pastor long enough now to see quite a number of people's lives collapse, disintegrate. It's sad and heavy. It makes me very melancholy.

I preached on community this past Sunday. It was part three of a mini-series.

Christian community is the most satisfying as well as the most difficult thing any of us will ever attempt. But it is also the primary place where our transformation into the beautiful image of Christ will work itself out. It is what God is calling each of us to build.

Jesus makes time for the things that are important, but he does not fill up his time with everything that could be done.

Jesus does less than what we might want him to do but he accomplishes more because he does what he has been called to do, because he knows from the Father what he needs to do and what he does not need to do.

We are not called to be Jesus, but we are called to be like him. We are called to observe his patterns of thought and behavior, to emulate the simplicity of his life—in the face of great complexity—and the value he places upon cultivating deep, rich relationships. We are called to make time for our friends and neighbors . . . relative to our calling, to our station of life, and to the particular season in which we find ourselves.

Conflict can become a God-given means of growing in love for one another.

Healthy conflict forges deep, strong relationships that are marked by freedom, not fear, by a fruitfulness that changes us into something better and more richly radiant and resilient, not a plastic fruit, a pretend Christian life, that keeps us shallow, disconnected, self-protected and in a constant state of defensiveness.

Doing fun things together cleanses our bottled-up hearts with joy, rejuvenates our tired bodies, binds us together with happy memories that we savor by telling and retelling each other, and keeps us hungry for the Day in which our laughter will be unmitigated and the liberation of the children of God from sin and death finally fulfilled and the occasion for magnificent feasting.

It's all easier said than done. I know. But I'm still going to keep heading in that direction. I can't give up. It's not worth it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

An Invite to a Visual Arts Summit

Well it looks like I just got a friendly invitation to a What's Up With the Visual Arts in Christendom event. I guess you can say I'm pretty surprised and humbled. It catches me off guard, honestly. I'm down here in Austin mostly minding my own business, happily occupied with the business of pastoring, meeting with people, listening to their lives, providing them with resources to make sense of their artistic identity, walking with them through the crap, the durm und strang of daily life.

Then lo, I get invited to hang out with scholars, theologians, museum directors and practicing artists to talk about "the future of Christian involvement in the visual arts." Very fascinating.

My questions are who is the audience and what are the parameters for discussion and who gets to decide that? Is this for Protestants only, or will Catholics and Orthodox be included? The discussion will vary drastically depending on that answer. Are we talking about the visual arts in the contemporary art scene, in the public square, in the church? It's a vast trek of land if we try to tackle all three.

This strikes me, in a good way, as quintessentially evangelical behavior, to initiate activity from the bottom up. The concern is not for "official Church praxis" but for "Christian involvement." It's grassrootsy work of the people. Its authority, I guess, will be inherent: either the results and proposed activity of the summit will persuade or or they won't. They'll catch on or they won't. A lot of theological and traditional and cultural commitments, or assumptions, will make the conversation anything but boring.

It's exciting, though. As a working pastor, I'm deeply interested in the nature and function of the visual arts within the corporate life of the church. I'm interested as much in the epistemological as the devotional and missional implications of a vibrant visual faith, to use Dyrness's title. My prayer has long been for a strong Church that reflects all that God intended for us in our sacramental experience of Himself and our shared world. Veremos.

They've offered to pay all travel and lodging expenses, so I don't imagine I'll say no. God help us. Anyhoo, here's part of the note.


On behalf of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Brehm Center of Fuller Seminary (and in cooperation with the Center for the Arts and Religion of Wesley Seminary and Christians in the Visual Arts * CIVA) we would like to invite you to a Visual Arts Summit at the Prince Conference Center on the campus of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, March 18-20, 2007.

The Summit is planned to facilitate substantive conversation about the future of Christian involvement in the visual arts. The purpose can be stated in the following three propositions:

(1). The Christian presence in the visual arts has made remarkable headway during the last generation, so that one can begin to point to respected artists, exhibitions, organizations and so on reflecting deep Christian commitment.

(2) This presence moreover has been realized in a number of very different constituencies, all of them important but seldom in regular conversation with each other.

(3) We would like to bring a small number of important representatives of these constituencies together for a common conversation about the future prospect and dreams of Christian participation in the visual arts and, more importantly, ways in which these various groups can work more closely together. This third area will include asking what we have done well, what remains to be done, what obstacles exist to realizing things we dream about, and how colleagues in the other groupings can assist us in accomplishing our goals.

You are being invited as a representative of church leaders and pastors. The other four groups represented will be: scholars and researchers, theological educators, practicing artists, and directors and leaders of museums/galleries/organizations.

Hope you can join us!

BetsyElizabeth (Betsy) Steele Halsteadon behalf of the planning committee:Bill Dyrness (Fuller), Cameron Anderson (CIVA), and Catherine Kapikian (Wesley)