Thursday, April 24, 2008
Tomorrow early Phaedra and I leave for Portland, Oregon. I'll be speaking at a retreat for artists from Imago Dei Community. We're really excited to be going. It's not only getting hot in Austin and so a chance to drench our heads in cold mist air, it's a chance for us to visit the signpost of the new kingdom of used books: Powell's.
It was only this morning as I lay in bed in that liminal state between dreaming and waking that the little legos of my 3 retreat talks came together. I'll be using St. Augustine's alleged pronouncement, "Love God and do whatever you want," as base camp.
Easier said than done, of course. But for the time being I'll launch off in three directions: Loving God for His sake; Loving God for your sake; Loving God for your neighbor's sake. We love God for His sake by living as His beloved. We love God for our sake by being faithful to the calling on our life. We love God for our neighbor's sake by encouraging him or her as if they were going to give up on their calling any moment now.
Of course we love God for so many other reasons, but as with all artistic projects it's not a matter of what you could say but of what you will--and should--say. And that's what I sense the Holy Spirit guiding me with this group. I hope to stay flexible. You never know. The wind blows however it wills. But I love retreats. They're their own little creatureliness with opportunities for deeper connection with friends and acquaintances that sometimes you plum run out of time to connect in any meaningful during the normal run of your life.
We're happy to be going together. It's fun. Josh and Jan, our Imago Dei arts pastorly hosts, have been great so far. We're really looking forward to getting to know new artistic brothers and sisters in westcoastlandia.
If I have the time, I'd like to tip my hat to fellow runner Prefontaine's resting place.
(PHOTO: Part of my family jumping with zest on Easter Sunday in our backyard.)
Monday, April 21, 2008
Here is the book review I wrote for Books & Culture. It's a review of two books: Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism and the Sacred by Philip Bess and An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today by Mark Torgerson. It goes without saying that I learned a good deal about two subjects that lie beyond the range of my usual reading habits: urban design and architecture.
AN ARTICLE ABOUT THE SYMPOSIUM
Here is an article that came out in the Austin American Statesman on the Saturday after the Transforming Culture Symposium.
A STRANGE DEAL: "THE EVIL STRANGER"
I honestly don't know what to do with this, not so much critically but pastorally and relationally. See here a news bit about the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival. They've managed to raise the biggest first prize money for a film festival in the world: $101,000. I know how I'd respond theologically to the following statement by the director:
Christians who think Hollywood is softening toward their views should not be swayed by corporate attempts to “Christianize” movies, Phillips warned, citing the 2005 release of The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe and upcoming Prince Caspian – both based on books in the Chronicles of Narnia series written by C.S. Lewis.
“Prince Caspian and The Dawn Treader (the third book/movie in the series) are becoming increasingly darker, more 21st Century teen rebellion and the occult,” Phillips said, explaining that the mission and maxim of the SAICFF is that “every frame be captive to being obedient to Christ.”
But I'm not so clear what my pastoral responsibility is to my brother down the road. Do I ignore? Do I confront? Do I say, I'll see you on the other side of the veil? At what point do you let a brother do his own thing and at what point do you say, Brother, what you're doing is wrong--theologically, aesthetically, missionally, hermeneutically, pastorally? Is he my neighbor? He is. He's nearby geographically. He's nearby missionally: his "product" is art and culture. But what's my responsibility to my neighbor?
Maybe the answer is simple. Maybe I pray and if the Spirit says yea or nay, I do accordingly. Or maybe I keep from replying to everything that's out there at the risk of distracting myself and not staying focused or faithful to my calling here in Austin, and that's that.
But to keep things interesting and to not fall into cowardly brotherly love, I'll say that Doug Phillips' writing about horror movies is naive, encumbered by sloppy research, and plagued by highly emotional over-statement. Here was my attempt to make sense of horror movies. Let the neighborly parley go wherever it may.
(PHOTO: The first pic that came up on the world wide web of googledom when I typed in New Jerusalem. I poked around and found the painting described as a dispensational premillenialist vision of the future.)
Thursday, April 17, 2008
"Do you feel you've accomplished enough in life?"
Ask your average male this question and, as sure as B16 (aka Pope Benedict of Rome) will say the word "sex" at least once today, you'll get a spirited no. Ask your average male in his 30s and all of Mt. Olympus will laugh its head off, roaring and cackling with the obviousness of the answer till a god accidentally falls off a nearby cliff and then capriciously punishes humans for making him suffer so; and we, unsure whether we're being punished with a worser version of spring, summer, fall or winter, will call it global warming for the time being.
That's the question I was asking myself this morning as I lugged my 1970s golf bag down the fairway of hole six. Do I feel I've accomplished enough in my life now that I've turned 36?
I was playing my birthday round of 9 at the Hancock public golf course. I had behind me a black dude that reminded me of Bagger Vance--who played like Bagger Vance--breathing down my neck. I couldn't go faster because of two, golf cart-riding dudes poking in front of me. And we were the only four people on the whole course on this wind-swishing and swirling morning.
I didn't want to stress. I hate stressing on the golf course. I wanted to relax, chill, hang. Mosey. I wanted to meditate about life, in particular mine. And now I couldn't meditate because Bagger-Tiger-Otherworldly-Old-Guy black dude was hitting the green off of every tee. (I have no idea how to write correct golf syntax?!)
Then I thought, WWETWD?
What Would Eldrick Tiger Woods Do? He would ignore everybody. He would go zen deep inside. He would play the game he always wanted to play. So I did what Tiger would do.
The Bagger-stunt-man actually dropped out after hole 5. When I saw he packed it up for real I breathed a full-lunged sigh of relief. Ahhhh. Silence. Solitude.
And now the questions of life.
So, David, you're 36 today. What have you accomplished in life?
I really hate that question. The voice in my head asks it every year; every year since I was 19, every year always the same: Have you accomplished enough? Have you accomplished enough to feel satisfied--satisfied that you're not wasting your time? Are you doing enough to feel vindicated, validated? I think it's a satanic voice. The answer is pretty much: no. "No, I'm not doing enough. It isn't enough, it's never enough. I need to have done more."
Of course I haven't accomplished enough. But by what standards? Mine. My infinitely unsatisfied standard.
I'm also an emotionally drunken bumper car these days. I oscillate between elation and disappointment with the symposium. I married only three months ago this Sunday and I'm still adjusting to this together life. I end my tenure as arts pastor in five weeks; five weeks out of 12 years. And I'm not sure it's ending how I thought or imagined it would end.
This Sunday I preach on "Putting off the old man" and I've yet to decide what illustration from my life, what vice of mine I'm going to enlist. I'm really bummed that I'm no longer going to be preaching on a regular basis. It's taken me so long to learn how to do it well there's a melancholy sadness now that its abruptly ending.
Phaedra and I go on full-time support starting June 1 and we need to raise it by then. I'm not sure what the fat I'm actually going to do about Ph.D. studies now that Jeremy has translated, to use King James Language, to Duke. Our hearts ache to live overseas. Both of us grew up as expats (Guatemala and Scotland respectively) and we feel this is a rare window of opportunity to get out for a season.
I'm tired, and I'm tired of being tired, and there comes this question again: "Do you feel you've accomplished enough?"
I decided that I would bogey hole 6. Par for this hole is four strokes, so I aimed to click it in five, one over. I needed a concrete goal. I needed one thing I could accomplish.
I drove the ball off the tee straight, not great but not bad either. With an 8-iron I hit into the wind, forty yards to the right of the green. With my third stroke I pitched it onto the green. And then I had to decide: Do I go for par or do I stick with my goal? I was close enough to attempt par. I stuck with my goal. I two-putted into the hole. A bogey.
I climbed the tee mound on hole 7. Behind me lay 38th street with its mid-morning, buzzing, up and down travail of cars. My hair was matted with sweat under my cap. I stretched my sore fingers, out and in. A swirling breeze under partly cloudy skies, temperatures lying low in the 70s, kept things cool. I was quiet now. A gentleness settled in my spirit.
I pulled out a 2-iron. Head down, still, forearm straight, knees slightly bent, torso hovering over the long bronze angle of iron, mentally envisioning the line of flight, I cocked back, then swung fluidly down, rushing through and up and over, right ankle twisting, grinding into the ground, iron now lying over my left shoulder, resting, its work done, watching, waiting, eyes squinting, my spirit quiet.
I had clocked ball to within 25 yards of the green. Amazing. I couldn't believe it. From there I pitched it onto the green within 3 inches of the hole. I laughed out loud. Rock n roll! I hoisted my pitching wedge up high to acknowledge all the applause, heads nodding, lips pursed, saying, "That was a good shot, Taylor, that was a very good shot." Thank you, thank you. I tipped my hat to the invisible crowd. I waved it at the passing cars. I had almost eagled hole 7.
Where were Mike Akel and Jeffrey Travis to behold such talent, to know that I had almost accomplished an eagle on hole 7? They were in Los Angeles, far, far away.
I parred hole 8 and then, with no one behind or before me, in the everlasting pleasure of my all-encompassing solitude, heart happy and full from my early morning birthday golf, I played four balls off of tea #9, each in turn, rocketing left, slicing and sailing right, screaming wildly away from me, pooching and choking chunks of earth, all the way eventually down into one little hole 264 yards away. I bogeyed and double bogeyed and wacked a line-drive with jet force into an oak tree thirty yards to the other side of the green and scraped my Top-Flite1 out of the pond and cheated by kicking my ball off a patch of rocky soil and then, before raising my hat to thank all my amazing invisible fans, I rummaged through the woods by the creek for extra balls to replace the two that I'd lost along the way. I found none.
It's my birthday today and I'm 36.
My parents gave me an 1829 edition of John Wesley's journal. My awesome gardner-artist wife, Phaedra, whom I love now more than the day I married her, gave me an illustrated book of Russian Orthodox icons (14th-17th century) and a travel-size icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov. My nephews and nieces hollered a raucous, discordant happy birthday into my voice mail. I have beautiful alstroemeria and Hawaiian pincushion flowers brightening up my reading nook. Tonight we attend a performance of Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance.
It's my birthday today and it's my first as a married man.
As I was praying on the fairway of hole 6, asking God if there was another way of thinking about the passing of the years, I sensed that the Holy Spirit was with me, listening to me, listening to my heart, wobbly as it was under the pressure of this question: "Have you accomplished enough in your life?" And I felt like He answered me, right there, on the golf course. He gave me a little gift. He offered me, not an answer, but a different question.
"Do you feel like you are leaning more fully--more fully this year than last year--into your calling?"
"That's a great question," I thought to myself, suddenly very happy.
And I felt a great levity blowing into my soul, both in the sense of lightness, countering heaviness, and laughter, countering despair. I felt relieved! I can do this. I can learn to be free from this omnipresent pressure on men in their 30s to be incontestably and publicly successful, if not already, then certainly on their way to such success. But that first question is poison. It has nothing to do with Jesus' world. Nothing. Nothing at all. It accuses and perpetually finds us guilty: No, I haven't accomplished enough to feel good about myself.
But this second question, this one I can answer joyfully: Yes. Yes, I think I am, as best as I can tell. For as much as can be reasonably expected of any 36-year old man I am leaning more fully, more weightily into my calling. I've more to go, but that's the thrill of it all! There's always more solidness ahead of me, always more life. There's always an eternally filling, expanding, weighty but not burdensome, light but not flimsy or flacky, true David-ness to be had, an "ever filling up of the always fullness of God."
I'm at home now. It's raining outside, by the sound of it pretty hard. It's 12:01 am. It's April 18, the day after my birthday. Phaedra is sitting in her favorite black chair reading Ron Hansen's Atticus. I have more life to live tomorrow morning.
(PHOTO: That's me sitting as golf lord of my back yard. My fig tree is hallowing me. And this here below is Phaedra and me, giving expression to how we felt about a rather cheesy, corny, over-the-top Michael Flatley, Irish-riverdancy, Las Vegas-meets-Branson, Missouri, LORD OF THE FLASHY PANTS DANCE.)
Monday, April 14, 2008
David talked about his passion to see artists as fully integrated persons, mature, and alive to God. To that end, he discussed six dangers of artistic activity in the church: bad art (e.g., cliché, melodrama, impersonal), super-saturation (too much of a good thing), the stubborn ossification of tradition (which he called "estancandose tercamente" -- Spanish for "getting stuck stubbornly"; also known as "the dead faith of the living"), the utilitarian subjugation of art (to worship or evangelism), art as a form of distraction (escape into feeling, entertainment), and immaturity (lack of self-control, manipulation, being ruled by fear).
David gave us three qualities of healthy artistic growth: it is relationally ordered (pastors relating to artists, older to newer generations, home culture to distant cultures), contextually relative (artistic excellence is when a work accomplishes the purpose for which it was created, as Nicholas Wolterstorff said), and organically rhythmed (seasonal, balancing "festal muchness" with "cleansing simplicity").
Finally, Jeremy was charged with predicting what the next 50 years of art in the church would look like. He treated us to an amazing tour-de-force in his typical style, a combination of lecture and performance (he's a fine concert pianist, in addition to sharing initials with J.S. Bach). Using the final movement from Prokofiev's 7th Piano Sonata, and bits of other works, Jeremy demonstrated "hopeful subversion," starting not with where we are now, but rather with a vision of God's future and working backward from there.
His main points were: 1. The Spirit unites the unlike (e.g., people hearing one another in their own tongues at Pentecost). 2. The Spirit generates excess (the same "festal muchness" David talked about; the New Creation is not merely a restoration of balance to the world but vastly exceeds the Garden of Eden). 3. The Spirit inverts (the rich become poor, and the poor rich). 4. The Spirit exposes the depths to which Christ has gone and the depths of who we are (as opposed to sentimental solipsism which avoids darkness). 5. The Spirit recreates (the Resurrection was the first day of the New Creation) 6. The Spirit improvises (the new heaven & new earth is surprisingly, endlessly new).
For many, God is dull because he seems so "ordered" -- all word/logos and no spirit. Jeremy invited us to embrace "non-order" (as distinct from disorder), which is the realm of laughter and the Spirit.
OUR CORPORATE WORSHIP
Bryan Brown and his team led us in worship that reinforced the principles being espoused in the conference. There was beauty, simplicity, and honest grappling with darkness. The unifying theme was the colors of the rainbow (a work of art by the triune Creator). Each day of the symposium, the lighting was changed to highlight two different colors from the spectrum. We sang some very Regent-ish songs, including Eugene's favorite "St. Patrick's Breastplate" (complete with all the weird rhythms and versification). Visual art, music, dance, and drama were all interwoven with excellence.
In between the keynote lectures and worship times, there were testimonies by practicing artists. There was also a cornucopia of breakout sessions covering everything from The Care of Artists, to Drama, Architecture, Cross-Cultural Mission, Forming an Arts Ministry in the Church, etc. (Recordings of all the plenary lectures and many of the breakout sessions will be available on the conference website at some point in the future.)
IN THE END
As David clarified during one of the Q&A sessions, the title of the symposium meant not that we aim to transform the culture by our art, but that God is in the business of transforming culture, and we are blessed and called to participate in that. What an awesome privilege it was to participate in what I truly believe will be looked back on in generations to come as a key moment in the growing renewal of the arts in the evangelical church that God is in the midst of accomplishing.
A tasty morsel indeed!
(Phaedra speaking in betwixt activities with Chris Mitchell, Director of the Wade Center at Wheaton College. Chris got his Ph.D. at St. Andrews and said we could be blood brothers forever if I did likewise, which, God bless me, I hope happens somehow, someway.)
(Jennifer Cumberbatch, all-around delightful, sharp-as-a-tack, who's-who woman here in Austin, and the ever-elegant co-director of the Trinity Arts Conference, Kim Alexander, taking a rest after having spoken in the "Arts & Evangelism" breakout.)
(Double trouble pastors, Gideon Tsang (Vox Veniae) and Don Vanderslice (Mosaic), shooting the fat on "Art and the non-traditional church." Guess of what Don is saying: "Ok, folks, here's the key to success. Listen very carefully: You give artists a big hug. That's it. Yep. I know, you'd think it'd be more complicated than that, but it isn't. But it needs to be a very big hug--like this." Gideon thinking to himself: "Hmmm. . . I don't know if I'd say it needs to be that big. Maybe a little smaller." These guys are great, I love them, and I'm so glad they were a part of it all.)
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Perhaps it was the lure of seeing and hearing Eugene Peterson and Jeremy Begbie again, or the desire to support our fellow alum David Taylor (ThM '00) whose brainchild this conference was, or simply the need to get away from the unusually long winter of 2008 in Vancouver. Whatever the reason, 25 Regent alumni and current faculty/staff/students congregated in Austin, Texas, making up about 4% of the 600+ attending the Transforming Culture Symposium from April 1-3, 2008.
The conference -- aimed at pastors, church leaders, and artists, and led by David and his collaborator Larry Linenschmidt -- put forth a "vision of a relationship between the church and the arts that is theologically informed, biblically grounded, liturgically sensitive, artistically alive, and missionally shrewd."
It sought to address six key themes and questions: 1. THE GOSPEL: In what way is art a gift, a calling, and an obedience? 2. THE PASTOR: How is the pastor an artist and the artist, a pastor? 3. THE WORSHIP: How can our actions and spaces be artfully shaped? 4. THE ARTIST: What is an artist and how do we shepherd these strange creatures? 5. THE DANGERS: What are the dangers of artistic activity? 6. THE FUTURE: What is a vision of the evangelical Church in the year 2058?
We were treated to a tasty smorgasbord of talks on these questions by the six plenary speakers:
Andy talked about art as those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility. Art is a free response to grace; it is play. Like play, pain is also useless. They both must come together in art. Play that doesn't acknowledge pain can become escapism. Pain without play and grace can lead to sadism. Only in Christ can we make art with full awareness of the pain that exists. Andy also pointed out that art cannot be done alone; it requires community.
Eugene was quintessentially Eugene. He told us stories. Stories of three artists who had shaped his pastoral identity by teaching him the difference between a vocation and a job description. There was Willy, the painter, who made a prophetic portrait of Eugene looking gaunt and grim, as he might look in 20 years if he insisted on being a pastor; Willy said "the church will suck the soul out of you" (Eugene didn't take his advice, but kept the portrait as a cautious reminder).
There was Judith, the weaver, who felt "lucky" to hear the story of King David preached for the first time in her life (she had a "beginner's mind, a child mind" as the Buddhists say). She would weave Eugene tapestries of things she'd heard him say. She eventually became a Christian, but none of her artist friends could understand what she saw in it.
With many beautiful projected images, John introduced us to three spiritually nourishing and culturally crucial constraints on art for use in public worship assemblies. 1. It must be corporate, resisting isolation and elitism. 2. It must help people pray, resisting both sentimentality and the temptation to make the art an end in itself. 3. It must aid in perceiving the glory and beauty of the triune God, resisting idolatry.
Barbara, the only Catholic on the panel, and by all accounts the "spiciest" (she had us in stitches with her hilarious and sometimes irreverent quips), spoke first of some of the functions of beauty: its wholeness brings rest, its harmony brings joy, and its radiance brings fulfillment. The beautiful makes us feel small and humble.
We have a responsibility as the church to provide art so that people can get in touch with their creatureliness and be okay with it. Barbara told us how to recognize real artists: their artistic talent shows up early; their work has emotional power; they connect personally to the audience/viewers; their work has a freshness, a prophetic voice; and they are obsessed with details of form. She countered the common misperceptions that artists are crazy or lazy.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Saturday, April 05, 2008
This entry is harder to write than I imagined. As an organizer I see everything that went right about the symposium and everything that went wrong. How do I write about it without sounding triumphalist or self-pitying?
Many speakings. I was thrilled with the way Andy Crouch and Jeremy Begbie began and ended the plenary talks. They so surpassed my hopes for the kind of framing I wanted to take place. Eugene Peterson was quintessentially Eugene, elliptically narrating his way to the truth. John Witvliet is one of the kindest and most broadly seeing scholars I know. The stuff they do at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship is fabulous. I felt bad for Barbara who had her talked eaten up by her Mac computer. But I was so glad she was there with all her spicyness and burlesque sense of humor. She's a Catholic Christian woman who feels the sting of artistic want and ache every day.
I was also glad to see people meeting each other, yucking it up in the hallways and the courtyard and the bathroom. I wanted so badly to be the Holy Spirit. Then I could be everywhere at once and eavesdrop on everyone's conversation--without being creepy.