Monday, June 30, 2008

Albert Mohler + Prophetic Dancing


Albert Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary located in Louisville, KY. (Southern is where my good man Steve Halla directs the Center for Christianity and the Arts.) A Reformed Baptist, Mohler is one of the go-to guys for the news media when they want a comment from conservative evangelicals. He's also one of those rare creatures who has an informed opinion about almost everything, from stem-cell research to double predestination, and if we looked hard enough probably also the correct uses of dental floss. He thinks about everything.

At a recent New Attitudes conference (an effort begun by Joshua Harris, he of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, now continued by Eric Simmons and supported by an association of like-minded churches under the umbrella of Sovereign Grace Ministries), Mohler fielded an open Q&A about anything from Scripture.

One of the questions asked was this:

How do we as twenty-first century Christians evaluate and critique the value of the arts? What relationship do the gospel and the arts share? What role and service do the arts play in the church?

As relayed through C. J. Mahaney's blog, Mohler made the following comments:

So what we should learn from that is that ideally Christians should be involved in the arts. Absolutely! But we’ve got to learn to make art the servant of the gospel. And that is a tough challenge in every generation. . . .

And when you ask about the Scripture, well . . . . It is the sole sufficient guide for understanding all that we are and all that we hope for and all we trust in, in Christ. That had better be the substance of our art. That doesn’t mean that we only draw representations of Bible stories. It does mean that we test everything we do, not just by the cannons of art—which are truly culturally constructed and constantly negotiated and changed, an evidence of both human greatness in terms of ability and human depravity in terms of the morality and the rebellion against God that so quickly comes in and the idolatry that is our reflex.

And we use Scripture to ask, “How do we judge the good, the beautiful and the true—always to be necessary and necessarily linked? That which is good is beautiful—that which is true is good—that which is good is true. They’re all the same thing. . . .

The rest of his transcribed comments are here.

What I appreciate is Mohler's strong encouragement that we be involved in making new work, new "cultural products," and not just, as he says, only representations of Bible stories. Amen to that. I also am grateful for his reminder of the profoundly important connection between the canon of Scripture, with its vast and variegated landscape of faithful thinking, living and loving under Christ's lordship, and our life and work as artists. Too often we view these as unrelated in any significant way. But in the Scriptures we find a lively, robust and substantial, even wild Christian imagination at work. Believer artists need to be soaking their imaginations in the biblical imagination. It'll do their souls a world of good.

Yet while I recognize that Mohler's comments come off-the-cuff, and so should be given the benefit of the doubt, I am surprised and dismayed by his sloppy use of language. To state, simply, that the good, true and beautiful are "all the same thing" is not only un-careful philosophical language, it is dangerous to the listener. It does not adequately equip the listener to discern either the connection or the distinction between the three transcendentals; instead it blurrs them, robs them of their native power.

It can also too easily lead us to believe that a) making art in the light of these transcendentals is an easy matter (far from it), and b) by neglecting any comment on the actual earthy conditions of art-making and thus leaving the matter at an abstract level--"art as the servant of the gospel," "Scripture had better be the substance of our art," "in Scripture the good, the true and the beautiful are always one thing"--that making art Christianly is essentially to make art that is pretty, lovely, inoffensive, noble, pleasant, etc, or very much like Northern Renaissance art of Dutch Protestantism.

I have encountered this thinking in plenty of circles. There are too many generalized and therefore both sloppy and dangerous statements. Modernity is essentially X. The gospel is obviously Y. For the "Christian artist" to be a servant of the gospel is manifestly Z. These are not helpful statements. They do not produce clear-headed artists. Without careful explanation the believer devolves, passively, and again I say therefore dangerously, to the thinking of his or her sub-culture, which may in fact be quite anemic thinking or actually anti-gospel thinking.

If I had the chance to ask Dr. Mohler if he really meant to say that the true, good and beautiful are "always one thing" or "always the same thing," I imagine he might give me a more nuanced explanation. Fair enough. Perhaps I will have that opportunity sooner than later. But the reason I draw attention to his poorly phrased (perhaps misguided or even false) statements about art is that he is a man of great influence with an audience that believes him implicitly, as many do folks like Billy Graham or Chuck Colson. Mohler is a man of seemingly boundless energy. He has the capacity to retain an immense amount of information and so often to speak thoughtfully about it all.

But not here. Not this time. Mohler is a public champion, hardly frightened to make a stand in the public square with the best and the worst of them, and that's why he must be more careful than most; he must be held to higher standards (as per James 3:1).

In these comments about art made, reported, and published before a large and listening audience, he fails to show appropriate patience with the ideas and their implications for the believer artist. And for that I hold him accountable. So I'm holding up here a friendly red, or maybe only orange, flag that says: You could do better than that, Albert Mohler, I encourage you to do better.

On Prophetic Dancing
If dancing can be simultaneously awful and innocent and joyful, then young Matt shows us how: here. By the end of watching this video I found myself almost crying, I'm not exactly sure why. But there was something almost prophetic in his globe-trotting dance-athon. I kind of wished a Christian had thought of the idea first.
But that rarely happens, I'm afraid. We're not light-hearted enough. Here Matt's dancing is like a kind of announcement, like that of a jester, or a child, of the new Kingdom. And oh how sweet and unashamedly goofy it is.





Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

8 comments:

kelly said...

Very cool video. Our western traditions of dance have put it in such a rarified place that it's easy to forget that dancing is and should be a community art form - like singing together. Did you see him dancing in front of Stevie Ray Vaughn?

I think Mohler's comment that 'we’ve got to learn to make art the servant of the gospel' is the most problematic part of what he said, though I'm not surprised at all by this formulation. The conservative evangelical tradition simply has no fully-functioning theology of daily work so every activity gets reduced to a fairly thin version of 'serving the gospel' which primarily means witnessing. The New Testament is full of beautiful and compelling ways to understand our work in the world, from using our gifts to build up the community to building God's kingdom, but they are dangerous and unruly concepts so we tend to put them into very small boxes.

I don't think, though, that this is particular to the arts. Accountants, computer programmers, parents, and experimental performing artists all need and deserve a broader and more fully biblical vision from their leaders for how our work and our faith should relate to one another.

Taylor Martyn said...

Oh, I'm so sad about the South Korean location. It burned down a few months ago.

I don't recall him doing group things last time. I think some kids randomly got in the shot a few times.

Austin got the nod this time. Sweet! I'm going to have to invite him out to Sudan on his next trip.

I wish I could sound really cool and have something deep to saw about Mohler's thoughts, which you have expounded on, but I can't. You hit the nail on the head, nuff said. I do look forward to him following up on this. Please definitely let us know if he does.

Heather said...

Thank you for your transcriptions and thoughtful commentary on Mohler's Q&A.
Thank you even more for that video! I did cry. All I can say is, like Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, beauty makes me cry.

Ahna said...

What strikes me the most about Harding's dance montage from so many corners of the world is the idea that, for all of the joy and exhilaration that the video embodies and inspires, there are also probably hours upon countless hours of mostly un-glorious travel represented in order to create that experience: days on airplanes and in airports; long hours in Customs; on smelly buses; perhaps with lost luggage, lost sleep, lost directions; ideas lost in translation; reams of bureaucratic red tape for visas and security clearance.

Yet these invisible hours are part of the offering of the dance. The sacrifices authenticate the joy.
The Kingdom of God is at hand, and my tired heart is made glad.

w. david o. taylor said...

Quick response here. Kelly, thank you. As always, your thinking is clear-headed (big in my books) and your writing as pleasant as can be. For what it's worth, people like R. Paul Stevens are plowing huge furrows on the theology of daily life. EX: The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity; The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work and Ministry in Biblical Perspective; Seven Days of Faith. These books are excellent all.

Taylor: you should totally invite him to Sudan.

Heather, thank you.

Ahna, your comment makes me want to encourage folks to check Matt's website out, specifically his FAQ page. Very witty, surprisingly humble, wikipedia-worthy in terms of "I think I just actually learned something worth learning about, though rather odd in nature: the travails of dancing around the world for no other reason than . . . to dance silly dances with people who feel the same silly/holy feeling?"

kelly said...

dt,

That's great that there is somebody writing and thinking about daily work and communicating it at the popular level. Miroslav Volf's 'Work in the Spirit' is excellent but not exactly accessible to most. But neither of these, of course, alters the fact that we have no fully-functioning theology of work, by which I mean a framework through which most mature Christians understand their work at an intuitive level. Let's hope even more people think and write about it and it begins to catch on.

In term of dancing and community, Pixar's latest masterpiece, 'WALL-E', has some interesting things to say about the loss of dancing in a totally passive consumer culture. And it says them beautifully.

Kirstin said...

Tears in France too.
thx.

w. david o. taylor said...

Whatever the guys over at Pixar are doing right over and over--and over and over and over--again is worth pay very close attention to. They're nailing story-telling every time. And my guess is that it has a lot to do with a commitment to patience and ruthless-friendly editing. God bless them. May their tribe increase.