Thursday, August 28, 2008

Nashville Arts: Parte Uno

You know you’re in Nashville when 3 out of 4 people have long fingernails on their right hand. I met Steve Mason (pictured above), lead guitarist for Jars of Clay, over dinner and there it was: quarter inch long, guitar-picking nails on the hand that makes the alt-rock throw down. Ditto for Sarah Masen. Ditto for Julie Lee. Ditto for Ahna Phillips. Ditto for Scott Hawley. Ditto at the Frothy Monkey coffeeshop. Ditto at Church of the Redeemer (AMIA) church (home to the sassy Steve Taylor). And that’s just a small dinner party on an un-eventful night in Nashville and a handful of outings.

You also know you’re in Nashville when the window clerk at the Country Music Hall of fame says, “Would you like to visit Studio B? Amy Grant is recording there at the moment.” Yes, I had a crush on her back in the late 1980s. She was hot. That wind-swept, permed, high bangs look. Hot. Totally hot--every heartbeat hot.

Phaedra and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Nashville. What a great city; better than you might suspect at a distance. We met the loveliest people. Here are a few of the highlights.

Kirk Whalum, sweet jazz saxophonist: “in the woodshed”
I sat in Kirk Walum's breakout session at the ACT conference. Having played seven years with Whitney Houston’s band I figured he couldn’t be half bad. He was stellar. And funny. “Don’t be sending me no evangelicals with no trash,” he told us, referring to his evangelical brethren who refused to get in touch with the trash in their heart and so let their music speak honestly from that place. “I need somebody who feels it.” His own confession: he hadn't felt it in the early years, he'd “preached” it. “I would say stuff about abortion on stage—on 6th street in Austin. That’s crazy!”

But I loved what he had to say about his vocation. He called it being “in the woodshed.” The woodshed was the practice room, closet, studio. After many years of struggling to make sense of this craft, which often involved simply “fiddling around” with sounds (aka improvisation), he eventually made peace with both the instrument and God. “Being in the woodshed is not extra, it’s my ministry to God.” Rehearsing is essential, he said. "It is my way to freedom."

He also said good improvisation required you to be unafraid. You have all the notes in the galaxy to work with, but you still have to step out into the void and trust—trust all you’ve rehearsed, all you’ve listened to, all you now know in your gut about good music, all the folks around you. “We jazz saxophonists close our eyes not because we’re afraid of the audience but because we’re trying to listen.”

As he played his soprano saxophone for us at the end of the session, eyes squished shut, cheeks swelling, the music swirling, meandering, I felt lucky. The music was a little bonus at the end of a long, tiring day of conferencing. The play was gratuitous. “God’s the ultimate jazz musician,” he’d said earlier, God playing creation into being, an act of gratuitous love. Kirk Whallum--gentle, mirthful, fabulously talented, perfectly fluent in French, accompanying the likes of Barbra Streisand and Quincy Jones--plays a little made-up ditty for us. My soul was happy.

At dinner with a delightful cautionary note: Bethany Torode
In Eileen Flynn’s article about Natural Family Planning in the Statesman a few weeks ago she had quoted the cautionary observation of Sam & Bethany Torode.

"Our personal experience in the past five years has shown that we had a lot to learn about NFP, and that there is a dark side we weren't aware of."

So you can only imagine how loud I laughed when, standing in David & Sarah Dark’s kitchen, I am introduced to . . . drum roll . . . Bethany Torode (pictured right, Ahna on the left). Bethany lives on the other side of the Dark’s back yard; so it was just a small hop into the lively soire.

Like so many moments during our time in Nashville, it felt like Providence playing a good joke--for no apparent reason than the divine humor. What, really, were the odds of all of us landing at the same dinner table in a city far away?

She shared with me a little of the turbulent aftermath of their official recanting. It made me a little sad to hear. Christians can be mean and merciless. Well, I honestly don’t know if there is a great meaning in us sharing a long evening of bean soup, beer, and conversation, but I do find it curious. A name that was only a name in a newspaper article now had a face and a sound in her voice that make all the difference in what things mean.

A Roundtable of artists trying to make sense of the missional dimension of the arts
On Saturday, August 16, about thirty men and women from an array of church, para-church and academic organizations gathered for an all-day event to answer the question: How can our respective organizations think and act more missionally in regards the arts?

Some of the groups in attendance: Campus Crusade (Matt Guilford), International Arts Movement (Mako Fujimura & Leighann Dull), Intervarsity (Dick Ryan), Artists in Christian Testimony (Byron Spradlin), Operation Mobilization (Bill Drake, Frank Fortunato, Matt Carson), Stoneworks (Colin Harbinson), Summer Institute of Linguistics (Brian Schrag with International Ethnomusicology), World Evangelical Alliance (my padre), John Farkas of Fellowship Bible Church (near Nashville), Steve Guthrie who heads of the Religion & Arts program at Belmont College (and also received his Ph.D. from St. Andrews), Aaron Collier and Doug Harmon from Tulane University, Sharon Perry of StillPoint Dance Theater, and various other good people.

I'll probably need to write a separate entry on all we discussed and imagined, but suffice to say a fruitful, though endurance-testing day was had by all.

I was very encouraged to hear all that is happening around the world in regards the church and the arts.

A few good books I heard mentioned along the way for which it might be worth paying a visit to the local bookstore

- The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
- Letters to a Young Poet by Riner Maria Rilke
- The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson
- Four Cultures of the West by John O'Malley

Charlie (Peacock) and Andi Ashworth
We had the loveliest time with Charlie and Andi. Their home is a restored Methodist country church, built originally in the 1920s. They've restored it and added spaces in order to offer hospitality to artists. It's one of the most beautiful home spaces we've ever been in.

Phaedra and I have the greatest respect for Charlie and Andi. They're both humble, thoughtful, book-loving, generous, quick to listen and to ask good questions, familiar with suffering folks. Both have written books that deserve careful reading: New Way to be Human: A Provocative Look at What it Means to Follow Jesus (Charlie) and Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring (Andi).

If they'd take us, we'd adopt them as our Nashville surrogate uncle and aunt. Here are a few pics of our time together.

PS and completely un-related to anything I've written in this entry: I realize this is a little dicey for me to do on a blog primarily devoted to all things artistically and ecclesially noteworthy, but I have to say: Donald Miller is one funny guy: here. Whatever we think of his decision to pray at the DNC, you can't accuse him of not having a sense of humor. Here's an artist-writer who's not afraid to be more than just an artist-writer. Again, apart from our feelings about his decision to pray or to make his opinion known on a range of political issues, I respect him for his willingness to actually participate in the civic life of his own city.

Many of us artists are afraid, myself included, or don't know what to do, or are un-willing to get our hands dirty with the hard work of seeking the peace of the city. Donald Miller is not one of them. Nor for that matter the good people of All Souls church in Knoxville, TN. Nor actually a growing throng of younger artists. But that's a story for the next blog entry.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Disciplined (disciple) Artist: Part 1

(Phaedra standing in front of a boat-load of gold and platinum records at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN. We totally dug the museum.)

This is the first portion of the talk I gave in Nashville this past week. I began the talk with a kinetic visual. For 30 seconds I danced in front of everyone. It was a very ridiculous-looking version of modern dance (and, c'mon, that's a long time to look ridiculous). Then a professionally trained modern dancer (with Stillpoint Dance Theater) danced for 30 seconds. Hers was beautiful. I said, "Folks: exhibit A, exhibit B, this is the summary of my talk." And with this my talk officially began.
She keeps the disciplines of a dancer. In her words:

“I start with Pilates warm-up in the mornings. I take 2 ballet classes per week and 3 modern dance classes per week along with improvisation and composition. I rehearse approximately 12-15 hours a week with StillPoint. I also use the YMCA 1-2 times per week for extra cardio and weight training. I teach dance as well so I am in the studio creating classes or working on choreography many hours of the day.I have to keep an anti-inflammatory diet in order to keep inflammation down in my body due to minor injuries and the intensity of the rehearsing. This means staying away from sugar, dairy and wheat, and it means eating lots of "superfoods," such as blueberries, walnuts, and salads. I require more food and sleep whenever we are in an intense rehearsal season.”

I do none of them. She is free. I am not.

She has obeyed the laws of her craft, its “order,” and so earns the right to improvise in a way that reveals the beauty of the craft. I have obeyed none and so earn the right only to look like a fool.

My temptation based on my minimal experience and training is to say: “I caaan’t do it. It’s too hard. You can do it because of course you’re better than I.” In saying this I sanction both my ignorance and my unwillingness to learn about the craft.

Maybe if I simply imitate her movements, I say to myself, then perhaps I can dance like her. But without adopting the disciplines of modern dance I will not become a person for whom the movements and graces of modern dance come “naturally.” I will simply be attempting to behaviorally conform.

My contention tonight is that we need to adopt not just the specific disciplines of our craft, but a holistic range of disciplines that take into account the fact that God has made us whole persons and that He intends for us to thrive as wholes—spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional, imaginative, relational, sexual, etc. When we adopt the appropriate disciplines, we position ourselves to become the kind of artists who know a) truly and contentedly who we are, b) what we’ve been called to, c) are willing to trust and obey God through the practical, daily outworking of our calling and d) in consequence taste of the freedom that marks the children of God.

The Objective of my Talk

My practical goal this evening is to make a case for the idea of a disciplined disciple artist. I am purposefully staying away from the term “Christian artist” because it carries too many burdens these days (Is it “Christian” because I’m a Christian? Is it my subject matter? The effect of my work? Something more subtle?). I want to explore a more internal reality.

To unpack my idea let me put it in a macro perspective. Consider the following the Big Idea, the Large Vision within which my talk finds its sense.

Adam & Eve experience a life that is integrated and flourishing—with God, with oneself, with others, and the rest of creation.

In disobedience to God we rebel and so incur in our total human nature brokenness. Instead of integrated we become fragmented. Instead of hale and hearty we become sick of soul. We become disoriented creatures rendered futile by our inordinate appetites.

Not only does he show us what true humanity looks like he shows us the way back into it by redeeming and restoring us. In Jesus we find a way to re-integrate our life. He releases us to flourish once again. He breathes resilience into our bodies and souls.

To become his disciple.

A disciple by definition is one who keeps disciplines; is recognized by the disciplines he or she keeps.

Let me illuminate five important aspects of this idea of a disciplined disciple.


1) The disciplines of a disciple of Jesus entail the reconstruction of our whole self. No part is left off. Every faculty of our person has been damaged—head, heart, hand—every faculty requires the re-habituation of its appetites away from sin toward Christ’s good order.

The weakness of so much church life is that we reduce our Christian faith to a set of activities that only addresses parts of our person. For instance, we feed our sheep with great head knowledge but leave them emotionally debilitated. We teach our congregants to study and pray, but neglect to instruct them in the disciplines of feasting and silence.

The result of our compartmentalized discipleship? We end up with artists who lead worship beautifully but are insecure and defensive. I’ve watched a filmmaker from LA kept hostage by his actor wife’s shopping sprees that numb the pain of her anger against God and keep the family financially unstable.
I’ve witnessed an enormously talented poet in Vancouver fritter away his life because of the sloth that he is unwilling to confront.

It’s important for us to remember that a dysfunction in one part of our person will negatively affect the whole. What we need is a model, both comprehensive and sensible, for disciplined life that brings about the God-superintended restoration of our whole person.

2) The disciplines are God’s instruments of grace. They are our way of reverently cooperating with the initiating and sustaining work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Dallas Willard:

"No one ever says, 'If you want to be a great athlete, go vault eighteen feet, run the mile under four minutes', or 'If you want to be a great musician, play the Beethoven violin concerto'. Instead we advise the young artist or athlete to enter a certain kind of overall life, one involving deep associations with qualified people as well as rigorously scheduled time, diet, and activity for the mind and body.”

The disciplines are what strengthen our muscles so that we can become the kinds of persons who do the good “naturally.”

3) Learning a new way of being a human being is hard work. All kinds of forces, inside us and outside, fight against this renovating work. My craving for approval, for example, may lead me to avoid conflict at all costs, including the cost of truly being known. I have to choose—every day—to adopt the kind of habits that will enable me to become a different kind of person, the kind God exultantly imagined before the foundations of the world.

But while plenty hard at first, the way of Jesus eventually becomes easy. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” he once said, and he wasn’t speaking theoretically. He was speaking plainly.

Let me offer an illustration.

During my years as a runner in Vancouver, BC, I never thought, “What a drag. I have to run—through rain, snow, sleet, and heat, morning and midnight, when excited and when tired and apathetic, on concrete highways and through forest paths. I have to stretch. I have to watch what I eat. I have to read runner’s magazines. I have to buy shoes every so-many miles.” No, it was, “I get to.” Why? Because I knew God had created me to be a runner. I had a vision of my truest, runningest self compelling me on.

None of this happened overnight, of course. It happened over many years, with many encouraging words and friends. But I desired to adopt the disciplines because I knew they would enable me to become fit and fleet—a winged creature.

4) The consequence of living an undisciplined life, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, an “unscripted life,” is that we become governed by our inordinate appetites. They sabotage our best efforts to grow up. We find ourself using TV, internet, food, books, or busyness to medicate the pain of a deep loneliness and sense of failure.

What the disciplines do is re-orient, day by day, baby step by unexciting baby step, our appetites away from destructive habits towards the narrow way of Christ that leads to life.

5) The disciplines are best practiced in a community of friends. What kind? You only need three. You need 3 friends who are doggedly constant in their love for you; the kind who will walk with you everywhere, loving you no matter what and who are not afraid to tell you when you’re full of crap—a crappy attitude, crappy behavior, or crappy art.

My assertion in light of all of this, then, is: A disciplined disciple artist is a free and fully alive artist.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

David's Olympics

Michael Phelps is a rockstar, a poseidon among mortals. We just watched him win the 4X100 medley relay. Three former Longhorn swimmers assisted him in his quest: the elder statesman Jason Lezak, the breezy Aaron Peirsol, and the gentle Brendan Hansen. Dad, Phaedra and I watched the final from our not-so-Best (in fact quite the punk of a) Western hotel room in Nashville.

I held Phaedra's hand the whole time. By the time Jason had made his turn for the final 50 I was crushing down on her right hand. She yelped at first. Then she pleaded over the roar of the crowd in the Water Cube and my own manic shouting to let go. Not really hearing her, I squeezed even harder. Sub-consciously I was back in my high school soccer tournament days where we ran and sweated and yelled and cursed and crushed our nemesis Little Rock Catholic and then pounded each other with effusive embraces.

I had to ask Phaedra forgiveness afterwards. I'd hurt her hand.

But we rejoiced. We had a story to tell our children, we agreed. A Phelpsian pheat had been accomplished. We were there to see it live. I saw it. I was Michael.

Michael Phelps, on behalf of the APA (Arts Pastors of America), well done! Well done, good sir. As devoted lap-swimmers at the neighborhood lap pool, Phaedra and I tip our hats off to you. You are truly the man.

1. In other news. . . here is the result of our olympic sand-sculpting efforts at the beach in Galveston.

2. After a two year visit to the United States, Michelangelo's David is returning to Italy . . .

His Proud Sponsors were:

3. Here is one man's Olympic animation achievement with yellow sticky notes.

4. Here is Russia's Red Army Choir singing "Sweet Home Alabama." See here for brief set-up.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Natural Family Planning: A nice article, a cheesy picture

Taking a page from Catholic doctrine, Protestants are avoiding artificial contraception for religious reasons

Sunday, August 10, 2008

"Phaedra Taylor abstained from sex until marriage. But she began researching birth control methods before she was even engaged, and by the time she married David Taylor, she was already charting her fertility. . . ."

We didn't know the newspaper article would make front page of Sunday's Austin American Statesman. We didn't know they'd choose a very, very cheesy picture. "Ahhhh, wife, you look so lovely sitting there to my left." "No, husband, you look lovely." "No, darling, you do. And now let's just sit here and gaaaaaaze at each other while we hold for 300,000 people to see a record of how many times we've had sex in the last month." "Yes, let's gaze. I love gazing. Ahhh."

But after all these years of trying to get the Statesman to print something about the church and the arts in Austin I now have the honor of having a portion of my sex life on the front page.

Eileen Flynn did a good job, I thought. Naturally she wasn't able to say everything that could be said about NFP or any of our various experiences (see the lively comments section to view un-boring opinions). Shoot, Phaedra and I have been married only 6 months. We represent a very small part of what is a grand experiment and experience by the communion of living saints around the world, most of them Catholic, plenty of them married vastly longer than ourselves.

But Eileen's doing solid work here in Austin covering its religion beat. I respect her as a journalist. I'm glad she got ahold of Amy Laura Hall. Dr. Hall's a sharp cookie. If I end up studying at Duke Divinity I'm sure our paths would cross often. And way to go Katie Fox.

The topic of what we do with our bodies, in particular the sexual part, is volatile stuff. For your average Austinite I imagine they view it as a right--to do with it as they please, so long as they "do others no harm," however that's interpreted. For me it's straight-up theology: what it means not to have a body but to be a body, the incarnation, the resurrection, the relational dimension of our embodiedness, etc. On my end it's presently more theology than biology since the weight of the NFP physical experience lands more heavily on Phaedra. But I'm with her 100%.

And I've got plenty to learn. It's stretching my sense of what it means to be a man. On our wedding day I spoke these words: "With my body I thee worship." My body is not my own. I want my body to honor Phaedra and I want to honor hers. NFP is teaching me how truly my body is not mine to do with as I please. It's mine to steward. It's mine to give in love. And that is easier said than done, thank you very much.

As we got out of the car this afternoon after a long day of church and lunch with family, we half expected our neighbors, while pushing the lawn mower or washing the car, to wave at us, Truman Show-like: "Hey Taylors! How's your sex today?" And then give us a thumbs up.

It's a weird feeling to see the piece in today's paper. But if it encourages somebody out there to think more deeply not so much about NFP, as about sex and marriage and the mystery of both, then that's fine with us. Even better, in honor of our good friend and counsellor, Kyle Miller, if this piece inspires one spouse to pluck the courage to say to the other spouse, "Honey, can we have a conversation about our sex life at some point in the near future? I think it might be good to have a check in," then it will have achieved a very beautiful thing.

Friday, August 01, 2008

A Disciplined Disciple Artist: My Nashville Talk

"Although the goodness of God, and His rich mercies in Christ Jesus, are a sufficient assurance to us, that He will be merciful to our unavoidable weaknesses and infirmities, that is, to such failings as are the effects of ignorance or surprise; yet we have no reason to expect the same mercy towards those sins which we have lived in, through a want of intention to avoid them." --William Law, The Power of the Spirit (1761)

"I am so sorry to have wearied you with so long a letter but I did not have time to write you a short one." --Blaise Pascal to a friend

“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” --Mark Twain

A couple weeks from today Phaedra and I will be in Nashville, TN. I'll be giving one of the talks for ACT's arts conference. They asked me to send a description of my talk in advance and this is what I sent them:

“Christian Artist or Disciple Artist?: A Case for a Disciplined Disciple Artist”

Too often the term “Christian Artist” becomes entangled in culturally bound notions that leave us in narrow, perhaps even un-biblical places. It can cloud rather than clarify the relationship between our Christian and artistic identities. There is something to be said though for the fact that Jesus called us to make disciples, not Christians. What would it mean for us to envision ourselves as disciple artists? What kind of change would that produce in the church’s work of nurturing and releasing artists into their various callings?

In this talk I want to advance the idea that a disciple artist is fundamentally a disciplined artist, and such an artist is integrated and fully alive. Such an artist adopts new disciplines to retrain inordinate appetites so that they will conform to Christ’s good order. These disciplines re-habituate our minds, hearts and hands so that we will become the kind of artists who make truly great work—“good for food and pleasing to the eyes.” The two fundamental disciplines I will explore in greater depth are 1) the discipline to live a confessional life, and 2) the discipline to read outside your tradition.

The result of all this? We become disciplined artists who are healed and unafraid, on the one hand, and produce art that is deep and powerful, on the other.

And that's that. The topic comes out of my near fanatical reading of everything Dallas Willard. It's also a pastoral itch. I've been fascinated by the question: What makes for a successful artist? If I take my cue from the biblical narrative, then the answer looks something like: a successful artist is one who is integrated and flourishing.

So what does it take to produce this kind of artist in our communities? A long time, a lot of hard focused work, 3 friends who will walk with you everywhere and love you no matter what and tell you straight up when you're full of crap, and finally, what Willard calls a theologically and psychologically sound method for transformation.

And that's precisely what many churches don't have in place. My contention of late is this: that we're treating persons as parts, not as wholes. We feed our sheep with lots of head knowledge, which on its own is very important, but neglect their emotional selves and so leave them atrophied and relationally dysfunctional. And by emotional I do not mean emotional rushes--which we have plentifully in some cases and which can actually do more harm than good--I mean basic emotional health. This would include handling conflict well; keeping good boundaries with others, i.e. saying good yes's and no's; identifying angers and griefs that left untreated will turn cancerous; living daily, securely in God's love; and so on.

Or we nourish emotional health in our people but ask nothing of them in terms of social action or evangelism. We teach our congregants to worship and pray, but neglect to instruct them in the disciplines of feasting and confession. We get our folks to serve, but then leave them no time to practice solitude.

My point is, it's Olympics time. (Hallelujah! We're fired up in the younger Taylor household.) These athletes "succeed" because they've trained their whole selves: body, mind, emotions, etc. Whether they win the gold or not is another matter. And while we shouldn't regard our Christian life as a competition, I think there's plenty we can learn from these athletes.

For them there's a dailyness. There is a rhythm to keep them from burning out. There's a plan. There's a vision that compels them to press through the pain. We need something comparable. We need to help our people, in my case artists, to identify and then learn how to practice a range of disciplines that would help them become the kind of disciples that Jesus is in the business of making. It's not about talent or personality, it's about disciplines. Willard puts it this way:

"No one ever says, 'If you want to be a great athlete, go vault eighteen feet, run the mile under four minutes', or 'If you want to be a great musician, play the Beethoven violin concerto'. Instead we advise the young artist or athlete to enter a certain kind of overall life, one involving deep associations with qualified people as well as rigorously scheduled time, diet, and activity for the mind and body."

The disciplines--spiritual, artistic, intellectual, emotional, physical, relational, imaginative, sexual, practical, financial, and so on--will together re-habituate every part of our whole self towards Christ's good order so that we can become persons who are integrated and able to flourish and for each of us uniquely, to radiate the glory that God has bestowed in us.

That's easier said than done, I realize. But I agree with Chesterton: "Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried." What I'm beginning to envision is a demanding model for discipleship. It will certainly force us to slow down and to think long term, and I don't think that's the easiest think for us Americans. It's not for me.

But what's the alternative? Artists who succeed immensely but are a wreck at home? Artists who lead worship excellently and are therefore looooved by the whole congregation, but who are unteachable, insecure and defensive? Artists who produce great work but feel ruled by depression or even, ironically, sloth? Artists who responsibly practice their craft, but whose careless management of their money sabotages great progress? I've seen it happen plenty. And I've found myself saying often, What does it profit an artist to gain the whole world (however they measure that) and yet forfeit their soul? I've had to question how I do my pastoring. Am I really pastoring artists well? I can create activities for artists--art festivals, film festivals, art exhibits, performing art laboratories. But is this primarily what they need?

Maybe they need to figure out how to love God with all their heart, mind, body and soul, and then do whatever they please. Too often our life's intention is a mile away from our way of life. Again Willard:

"Some people would genuinely like to pay their bills and be financially responsible, but they are unwilling to lead the total life that would make that possible. Others would like to have friends and an interesting social life, but they will not adapt themselves so that they become the kind of people for whom such things 'come naturally'."

I don't yet know how to do this "whole life" discipleship. I'm not sure what it will require to help artists develop a wholistic range of disciplines so that they can become the kind of persons who produce fruit that is "good for food and pleasing to the eyes," useful and beautiful, nourishing to body and soul.

The more interesting question is, What would inspire an artist to embrace such a multi-disciplined life? What would make him or her want to do this? That's the 64,000-dollar question.

I hope to make a good go of it at the art conference in Nashville.

In the meantime, here is a church marquee that only God knows what it means. What in heaven's name are they trying to say? And this one is in my neighborhood. Cracks me up.