Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bad Taste, Luci Shaw, Artistic Doubt


"People always say, 'Why don't you play more sets in Texas?'" says the 33-year-old father of four, "and I say, 'Dude, why don't you come babysit?'" ~ Sam Beam, Iron & Wine, "Hill Country Patriarch"

This morning I head up to Dallas to sit on a panel at the Southwest Region Conference on Christianity & Literature. Adam Langley will ride up with me, thankfully. It'll be an up-and-back, one day, seven hours of driving. I was invited by the director to join in as a "minister" type.

Happily, sitting with me on the panel will be none other than one of my favorite theological aestheticians, Frank Burch Brown of Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste fame. I've corresponded with him over the past two years, now I get to say hello in person. Good times.

Luci Shaw sent me a link to a beautiful eulogy she wrote on behalf of Madeleine L'Engle for Christianity Today. Here's a funny, sweet excerpt.

"Then there were the Ping-Pong games at Laity Lodge in Texas. Madeleine won by intimidation, bearing down on any helpless opponent like a ship under full sail. Star-filled nights in the hill country. I wanted to title our book on friendship The Table of Friendship, celebrating Madeleine's dinner table, the Lord's table, the editorial desk, and the Pong table. Madeleine thought that sounded too much like the multiplication table, to which we were both averse. So it ended up as Friends for the Journey."
This past Sunday we held at Hope Chapel a meeting to talk about the transition year for HopeArts. Many good questions were asked, hard questions too, but it was honest and feisty and I think people got the idea that we care and we're not going to sit on our duffs in this transition to the Second Epoch of the arts ministry.

Finally, I'm including here a sweet exchange I had with Tamara Murphy. Tamara lives in upstate New York and is a the Creative Arts Director at her church, Union Center Christian Church. I asked her permission, she said yes. The exchange here reminded me of the terrible feelings of insecurity I had when I first started out (and I guess still have on occasion). Three hip-hip-hoorays for Tamara's courage to let herself be seen in all her vulnerable glory.
The letters start off with me responding to a question she asked about what guidelines we follow in writing up our art exhibit prospectuses.
September 4, 2007

Tamara, I forgot to mention a few thoughts I had about your proposal, the original reason for writing. Four thoughts about good proposals/prospectuses:

1. Keep it clear: Do people understand clearly what you're saying and what you're asking/inviting them into?
2. Keep it simple: Less really is more. People get inundated with written material, especially from the internet, and the shorter we can say things, the sweeter. I have been known to commit sins of wordiness and I'm trying to repent as quick as possible.
3. Keep it helpful: Do people understand what's involved practically? Also, is there an opportunity to educate and inform your audience by what and how you say things.
4. Inspire: Do people catch a sense of your own excitement for the project/event? Do they see the vision? Are their hearts stirred?

And that's that. It's an unscientific series of thoughts off the top of my head, but they've generally worked for us.

Bless you.

david

David,
Thanks for this epilogue!

I realized we hadn’t discussed this when I went out to the kitchen to meet my family for dinner and my husband said, “So? What’d he say?” Oh, yeah…the prospectus. : )

These are helpful guidelines that should be intrinsically understood. Should being the key word. I realized that I had really missed the mark as I watched people pick up the FOUR PAGE photocopied prospectus and after barely glancing at my precious words asking, “So when is the entry form due?” And , “What if we don’t want to make a mosaic?” Even with two proofreaders…we all missed it.

Lesson learned.

Thanks for putting the guidelines in writing for me.
You may or may not be interested in the thoughts that are keeping me awake this evening (well, it’s wee morning now), but I’ve attached it just in case. Since our discussion I’ve been interested in reading some of your older blog posts hoping to fill in what your journey as an arts pastor has looked like. After reading “Utilitarian Art in the Church: Part V” from around December 2004 I realized that my biggest struggle has been trying to decide if all of this really matters. It’s not feeding starving children in Africa, it’s not reconciling broken marriages, it’s not restoring the homosexual to his family, etc., etc. Just because I care so deeply about it doesn’t prove that it really matters. This fear has kept me from knowing what to do next. The post states in more detail what you said in answer to my final question on the phone today. “Should my church care about art?” It already does.
Thank you once more for your investment of time, energy and care.

Warmly,
Tamara

[TAMARA’S JOURNAL ENTRY]
1:40 am –sitting in front of computer screen, small desk lamp lit in dark house, drinking a Mich lite, listening to William Ackerman on acoustic guitar

I can not sleep.
Brian asked me what it was I was feeling.
The only word I could think of –
“Daunted.”

Poor guy had almost gotten to sleep, too.

“This whole – what’s the right word? – issue seems so daunting. It’s huge. It’s way too big for me. I can’t play at this like it’s a game, but the reality we’re living in every day ministry . . . . is so opposite of the thoughts and ideas and conversations I’ve been having and reading and hearing that the tension between the two (ideal and reality) seems overwhelming. I know I have to live in reality…I can’t play at this like it’s a game, but I feel like I’m all alone. No one else seems to care nearly as much as I do about this – what’s the word? – concept.”

My back story:
*I grew up a preacher’s kid – oldest of six kids – poor. Parents spent all they had to send us to Christian school where we got a lousy education – especially in the arts. Most exposure we received there (other than the choir and Christmas program) was the annual play put on by Bob Jones University. ‘nuff said.
*I married my high school sweetheart 2 years into my college career. We planned for me to complete my degree in journalism/public relations, and did not plan for our first child to be born nine months (almost to the day) following our wedding.
*I do not have a degree; I am not even what you could call an amateur artist.
*I am a part-time employee with a $3,000 annual budget for creative arts and my major task each week is to make sure the services happen in 75 minutes or less and that the pastor and the worship team know what each other is doing during that 75 minutes
*I love the arts; I love people – especially the church; I cannot stop caring about the arts in the church (the artists in the church?)

I am realizing that so much of my energy in this – what’s the word? – arena has been motivated by a profound grief over the lack of classical training I received growing up. No great literature. Only the briefest, perfunctory explorations of the historical eras. Not even meaningful lessons in theology. The feeling that “Wait a minute! I’ve been robbed.” has driven me the past 5 years. I’m beginning to think that God wants me to be motivated in a more proactive energy now, but can’t decide what to call that. What’s the word? Calling?

Yikes.

[MY RESPONSE TO HER NOTE]
Tamara, thank you for sending me your journal entry. It was very beautiful. I want you to know, you're not alone. There are so many folks who share the exact same feelings. We're with you; I'm with you. For what it's worth I've received no formal training as an artist.

I don't want to make an unfair comparison because our life paths have been different, but I do want to encourage you to hang in there and keep learning. 80% of what I've learned about the arts and about the integration of art and Christian faith I've learned "off line," on my own, as my avocation. I have felt the same feelings of uselessness and naivete and "I don't know what I'm doing!"

But keep going. What you're doing is important. Keep your eyes on Jesus and keep reminding yourself of the vision He's given you for your life and the place of art in it.

And . . . here's a wild thought. How would you feel about letting me post your journal entry (edited if you wish, but still in its raw state) and then my response here. I say this not in a self-indulgent way but to say that I think a lot of people out there in blogland might be really encouraged, sympathetically, empathetically. Feel completely free to say no. Not a worry. It just strikes me that others might receive comfort from your brief self-disclosure.

Let me know.

blessings,

david

Again I say, Yikes.

Yes, absolutely, you are welcome to use anything you’d like. It would be important to me that it was clear this was a journal entry and represents just my plain old, tired-out feelings. I know, though, how very encouraged I am from this exchange and would be happy to multiply that encouragement.

Some of this journey feels kind of like Elijah going through the cave experience and wailing that he was all alone and then God revealing to him (through quite a variety of creative display, ironically) that he was, in fact, not alone. In the past as I’ve dug into that biblical account I have felt that God’s main agenda was to test Elijah’s true desires, asking him pointedly before and after the impressive, earth-shaking cave episode, “What is it that you want?” I imagine Elijah was duly impressed with all the natural wonders, but he did not budge one bit, “I want HELP! I don’t want to be alone!” . . .

God has been very kind to me this week. Thanks for being part of that.

Tamara



(PHOTO: Sam Beam and David Beam)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

L'Engle, Pavarotti, Sigur Rós, King David

Rejected!
Lay up these words in your heart and in your soul. Bind them upon your hand, as a sign. Place them as frontlets upon your forehead:
"Ye shall be rejected but ye shall not be crushed."
Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" was rejected by 26 publishers before editors at Farrar, Straus & Giroux read it and enthusiastically accepted it. It proved to be her masterpiece, winning the John Newbery Medal as the best children's book of 1963 and selling, so far, eight million copies. It is now in its 69th printing.
So said the AP news report on L'Engle's death this past week.
If God has called you to be an artist, then He has also equipped and empowered you to fulfill your calling. Train yourself, hone your skill, acquire discipline (both artistic and spiritual), trust God, and be prepared to be rejected. The greats always were--Hemingway, Gauguin, L'Engle. Treat rejection as normal. One of my professors warned me kindly: "David, the road to publishing is strewn with pink slips."
We really need to get into our heads that rejection is not the end of the world, it's part of the world, our world. We'll be rejected for all sorts of reasons, some reasonable and others not, but we need to keep going. How do we "keep going" without stuffing down the bitterness into the folds of our hearts, without tucking away the anger for future use in self-protection against the "enemy"?
We go to where Jesus tells us to go: to the beginning of the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the humble. Blessed are those who mourn, who offer up their sadness and pain to a Shepherd Priest who knows our pain, takes it within himself, and frees us from its destructive toxicity.
We don't deny the pain of rejection. We allow ourselves to feel it deeply. We allow others to feel it with us, to share our burden. But we don't allow it to rule us. We allow it to shape us into something more resilient, more clear-headed and true-hearted.
Rejection is just another way of saying "No." We are told "no" all our lives, for good or for ill. To want a life of only "yes's" is to want the wrong kind of life--a life that looks like a spoiled, self-indulgent child who doesn't understand that self-control is his ticket to liberation from the tyranny of his flesh.
I'm not saying that we should go looking for rejection. If you're trying to make it as an artist it'll come soon enough. I am saying that we should keep perspective and be of good cheer. We're in a goodly company of men and women who felt that divine nudge to create and did so even in the face of repeated rejections--in L'Engle's case, 26 rejections by 26 publishers.
Keep it at my friends. To those of you who are faint-hearted I say, Onward ho.



Postscript: I have three semi-personal connections to L'Engle. First, in 1993 I wrote my first play, a medieval morality tale. I'd included the magical prayer that L'Engle had embedded within her Wrinkle trilogy (a prayer which later I discovered was simply a re-working of St. Patrick's hymn). I didn't want to perform without getting some kind of permission, so I wrote her a letter. Some weeks later I received a postcard in the mail. In silver glittery font permission was "delightfully" granted. I still have that postcard. Second, my pastor in Vancouver at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Colin Goode, had just come from All Angels Church, L'Engle's home church in NYC. And third, if you're friends with Lucy Shaw you're going to get a story or two about the other sister, her kindred spirit.


Pavarotti's Last Cry
Is it just me or have too many famous people chosen to die over the past year--Gerald Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Ingmar Bergman, Boris Yeltsin, Jerry Falwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Ruth Graham, Merv Griffin, Ed Bradley, Ann Richards, Robert Altman, so on and so on? Well I guess lots of famous people die every year. For whatever reason I'm noticing it.

Anyhoo, I came across a choice something Pavarotti once said when talking about his legacy.

"I think a life in music is a life beautifully spent, and this is what I have devoted my life to."

May it be so of us all.

The Sigeur Ros Movie Trailer.



A thing of beauty. His comment about "home" stirred my heart.



Other Bits and Bobs

This past Tuesday I attended a meeting of a new group that's started up in Austin, Austin Christians in Theater & Film. Good stuff there. One more effort to get connections happening across the city.

On Thursday Larry and I met with Colin Harbinson all afternoon. Colin, a fellow of British extract, recently held the post as Dean of the Arts at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. Belhaven is one of only twenty-four colleges and universities accredited in all four of the arts: theater, visual art, music and dance. For twenty-one years Colin worked with YWAM and was instrumental in the creation of the production Toymaker & Son as well as Dayuma.

I heard of Colin only recently when on the plane back from Calvin College in March I read the Lausanne document on the arts issued in Pattaya, Thailand, October 5, 2004. Titled "Redeeming the Arts: The Restoration of the Arts to God's Original Intention," the paper is a truly excellent summary of a Christian perspective on the arts, admittedly written from within an Evangelical context. In three "Acts" it traces the ideas of Education, Discipleship, and Transformation as they relate to the Church's role in the formation of artists and the stewardship of art. You can read here the introduction to the paper, here the entire text.

In any case, Colin flew himself down to Austin in order to meet us and see how his group, Stoneworks, could be involved with the Transforming Culture symposium next Spring. We had a great time!

Tuesday afternoon I had a conversation on the phone with a couple of guys in Jacksonville, Florida, who wanted to ask questions about how to start a film festival. They have money, they have a vision, they just need advice and a team of leaders, including a director. We talked a little over an hour. They're wanting to place it in Nashville, so if you know anybody interested and capable of leading/organizing/shepherding a film festival, now's your chance.

They asked how much I ran the Ragamuffin on. I said about $10,000. They chuckled. They asked how much I would have liked? I said $50,000-100,000. They chuckled again. They were impressed, I guess, with my frugality but they were also envisioning something a wee bigger. So there you go: You can always make the best of what you have but you sure as heck can make more of it if you have more.

Lastly, I had a lovely conversation with a woman living in upstate New York. She is her church's arts director and was wanting to chat through some questions and thoughts. I've asked her permission to reproduce here our email exchange. She graciously, and very courageously, said yes. I'll probably post it in the next week.

The Final Life of King David

This will make for a long, long, long post, but so be it. I only post once or bi-weekly. Here is a portion of the last thing I mentioned in my sermon preached last Sunday. It was our last sermon in our eight-month series on the life of King David.

IN THE END
Dear friends, almost 8 months ago we said that this series was going to be a tremendous adventure for us. It has been. What a rich experience. So let me end where we began, with the words of our guide and friend, Eugene Peterson.

“In the company of David we don’t feel inadequate because we know we could never do it that well. Just the opposite: in the company of David we find someone who does it as badly as, or worse than, we do, but who in the process doesn’t quit, doesn’t withdraw from God. David’s isn’t an ideal life but an actual life. . . . We read David to cultivate a sense of reality for a true life, an honest life, a God-aware and God-responsive life.”

This is the gospel according to King David, given to remind the saints that, yes, in the midst of all the earthiness of your life Jesus Christ shows up, offers you the exact kind of grace you will need, and invites you to follow Him into a holy life, fully alive, beautiful and blessed.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Things I'm Reading


Much of my time these days has been taken up with reading the two books I'm reviewing for Books & Culture, An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture For Worship and Ministry Today by Mark Torgerson and Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred by Philip Bess. It's the latter that I'm working on presently and which I've found deliciously tasty to the mind.
His basic idea is this: that the best life for individual human beings is the life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others, especially in a city, that great community of communities whose foremost purpose is the best life for its citizens. That's a mouthful, yes, but the spunk gets going soon.
Life in American post-WWII, he argues, has been abominable when it comes to urban design.
Sprawl development has killed us, he says, and I believe him. It not only makes Americans enslaved to the automobile (and fat if they're not careful), suburban utopia is culturally and environmentally unsustainable. It's also plain ugly. His point is not to say that the gospel cannot come alive in the suburbs or that reasonable people cannot make the best of it, it's rather that the form of "sprawl reality" is killing authentic community.
--that, of course, in cahoots with "America's true growth industry, the care and tending of the autonomous self."
By appealing to profit-driven forces and our appetite for individualism, sprawl development robs us of the best social and aesthetic features of historic urban life, features that belong to an Aristotelian-Thomist tradition of urban and human well-being. In its stead the author Philip Bess, along with his New Urbanist colleagues, contends for mixed-use, walkable settlements that would promote genuine human flourishing within sustainable ecosystems.
Here are a few other juicy quips, starting with a particularly spicy bit from Tocqueville on individualism in America (ca. 1840):
Individualism, he observes, is "a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. . . . [Thus] does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, [and] hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

"It appears that the new role of the would-be avant garde is not to lead, but rather to create novelties a propos of nothing."

"The limitation of possibilities is the first prerequisite of human happiness."

"Beauty is not relative but relational."

"In even the best of places, community requires both time and care."

The best of architecture (according to Aristotle) is durable, useful and beautiful.

We as artists should perhaps cultivate "a studied disregard of the zeitgeist and a more serious courting of the heiligeist."
"Good design cannot cause happiness but it can be an occasion for and manifestation of happiness."

In other matters, my mornings these days are assisted by the English vicar David Adam's fine little book, The Rhythm of Life: Celtic Daily Prayers. The prayers are arranged thematically and keep to a seven-day rhythm, Sunday through Saturday. The seven themes are: Resurrection, Creation, Incarnation, Holy Spirit, Community, The Cross, The Saints. It's been a great help for me, whether I have 10 or 50 minutes to spend in prayer. And pray I must if I'm to stay sane.
I've just finished up Eugene Peterson's Leap Over a Wall in which he explores the life of the biblical David. I'll be preaching this Sunday the last of our eight-month series on David and I've appreciated having Peterson as one of my guides.
I picked up at Half Price Books a multi-novel volume set of H.G. Wells' works and dove straight into the evolutionary lunacy of The Island of Dr. Moreau. I've just now moved on to The Time Machine.
Bored on a recent night and uninterested in watching a movie on my roommate Ed's supersized projector screen, I drove to my local Walgreens and bought a paperback Ludlum, The Bourne Ultimatum. Confused for the first two hundred pages I eventually went online and discovered, with a great sense of relief and frustration, that the book version and the movie version bear no resemblance to each other--whatsoever. The one is a Cold War story with a 50-year old man, the other is a post 9/11 tale with a rogue agent the exact same age as Matt Damon. God bless those movie producers.
In July I finished Ron Hansen's achingly beautiful Atticus. Here's a poignant excerpt.
“Are you painting?” [the 67-year old Colorado rancher Atticus asks his son Scott]

“Yes.”

“Sell anything?”

“I just am, Dad. You’ve got one son who’s a huge success that any father’d be proud of, and you’ve got one son who’s a slacker and using up your hard-earned cash on just getting by from week to week. Hell, I’m forty years old. You oughta be used to me being a failure by now.”

Were Atticus to talk honestly, he thought, he’d say he was alone all the time and this was his son whom he loved and ached for, and heaven was where he was, and Atticus hated himself, as he always did, for insisting and teaching and holding up standards and seeming to want Scott to be him, when all he wanted was for Scott to be happy and to know he was loved and loved and loved. “Shall I change the subject?” he asked.

"Work it to death if you want?”

I'm still working, slogging, pounding (and being pounded) my way through Willard's Divine Conspiracy. He, like Peterson, Buechner, Chesterton, Kathleen Norris, is dizzyingly quotable.
"One of the most telling things about contemporary human beings is that they cannot find a reason for not committing adultery. Yet intimacy is a spiritual hunger of the human soul, and we cannot escape it. This has always been true and remains true today. We now keep hammering the sex button in the hope that a little intimacy might finally dribble out. In vain. For intimacy comes only within the framework of an individualized faithfulness within the kingdom of God" (163).
And again:
"We must recognize, first of all, that the aim of the popular teacher in Jesus' time was not to impart information, but to make a significant change in the lives of the hearers. Of course that may require an information transfer, but it is a peculiarly modern notion that the aim of teaching is to bring people to know things that may have no effect at all on their lives" (112).
In my latest raid of Half Price Books I also picked up Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies, and, serendipitously, Updike's edited work of The Best American Short Stories of the Century which begins with Benjamin Rosenblatt's "Zelig" in 1915 and ends with Pam Houston's "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" in 1999. I love this statement by Updike in his introduction:

"I tried not to select stories because they illustrated a theme or portion of the national experience but because they struck me as lively, beautiful, believable, and, in the human news they brought, important."

That's such a sweet, blessed thing to hear.
Lastly but not leastly I'm capering my way through The Pocket Stylist: Behind-the-Scenes Expertise from a Fashion Pro on Creating Your Own Look by Kendall Farr. Every man should own a copy. Women too. Where else, pray tell, will you get this kind of advice?
"Style is not only the province of iconic swans like Audrey Hepburn or Jacqueline Onassis, it is learned behavior and a simple and gradual process of training your eye to lock onto your best silhouettes and proportions in any season, any year."
You see? It's good stuff! I mean, c'mon, that sounds like something even Dallas Willard would say. For Phaedra and me it's building all kinds of stylistic fun into our relationship. So man or woman: get yourself a copy and fret no more about your circle skirts, tailored pants, boat necks, pea coats, cape sleeves, bombers and empires and flares--it all comes under the lordship of a whimsical Christ. Know thyself and be free.
(PHOTO: my old small group displaying a great sense of fashion around Halloween '06.)